The Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX crashes have brought some attention to the relatively recent concept of multi-crew pilot license (MPL) certification.
The MPL was designed as a work-around for the traditional pilot training tracks that don’t include the military. Instead of following the current private/instrument/commercial/multiengine progression that thousands of us have done in the past, the MPL works by getting some basic private pilot-like training done in a single engine airplane, with perhaps a bit of instrument training as well. But the overwhelming percentage of the training is conducted in a simulator or fixed training device specific to the aircraft that the candidate will be flying. In other words, an MPL candidate for the 737 would get the majority of his or her training in the 737, and only the 737.
On paper, this can be attractive, because a few hundred hours of dedicated time spent learning to fly and handle one aircraft can be performed in a structured, building-block methodology. Over time, more and more complex situations can be introduced and responses evaluated and repeated, if necessary.
But this also leaves a lot out. Simulators, for example, are terrible replicators of weather. Becoming weather-savvy is something that can really only be learned from experience, not from reading it in a book or watching a video. Complex air traffic control communications are also difficult-to-impossible to work into a simulator, especially if English is not your first language, or one you speak fluently.
An MPL might produce a pilot who is book-smart and a checklist-monkey when he or she gets in the airplane, but you can’t buy experience. And with such a narrow scope of knowledge from which to draw, you may not have the tricks or the know-how to handle complex events that may not have been covered in the box.
Pilots who gain experience by building time in a variety of flying opportunities are like putting together a much more valuable box of tools to draw upon when things go south. Further, they are doing so in a real-world setting that truly tests their grit, stamina, and threshold for stress. No amount of MPL simulator training is ever going to provide the same thing, no matter how diligent the efforts at realism.
If the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accident reports come down on the validity and quality of training, even if only remotely, let’s hope that the MPL concept is at least paused or reconsidered. Additional real airplane training might cost more up front, but it will be cheaper in the long run, for there is no substitute for real experience in anything.—Chip Wright