Pilot Experience Equals Airplane Safety
Why the experience level of pilots directly impacts the safety of your flight.
The A380 is arguably the world’s most sophisticated commercial aircraft—and it has to be, in order for just two pilots to operate it safely. It is truly a digital marvel, as are most of the new aircraft rolling off modern assembly lines. Today’s pilots gather loads of information at a glance from digital avionics and sophisticated systems-monitoring displays. But what happens if these systems fail? Does the newer generation of pilots have the air sense to handle an aircraft with multiple systems failures? The answer is uncertain and can only be answered with time. That said: In my opinion, an experienced pilot is the most important safety factor when problems arise.
As a pilot becomes more experienced, he thinks less about the “stick and throttle” part of the job and becomes more of a tactical or critical problem solver. The ability to handle both the technical and strategic aspects of the job comes from years and years of experience. The technical term for this type of thinking is “metacognition,” which can be defined as the process of knowing about knowing. Recent studies have revealed that it takes 20 to 25 years of experience to develop this type of mental processing. Aviators are continually challenged to make strategic decisions during our annual check flights.
The majority of pilots at the major airlines are in their 40s or older, with the average age around 48. Most of them earned their licenses flying aircraft with steam gauge technology, also known as round dial instrumentation (analog). As with any advance in technology, aircraft instrumentation has become simpler (digital) and can provide a pilot with an incredible amount of easily interpreted data. Even so, experience with flying older aircraft is invaluable because a pilot develops an air sense—flying by the seat of the pants—that comes only through repetitive flying. In essence, an analog pilot has the experience to fly a digital aircraft because the airplanes he used to fly were degraded in comparison with modern planes. If an airplane loses most of its digital displays, it is still an airplane and must be hand-flown to a safe landing.
A recent incident shows why experience and air sense are so important. On November 4, 2010, Qantas Flight 32 departed Singapore’s Changi Airport, bound for Sydney. As it was climbing through 7,000 feet, its number two engine suffered a catastrophic explosion commonly known as an uncontained engine failure. As the engine disintegrated, the second-stage turbine rotor threw blades and other metallic components against its protective cowling, rupturing part of it and puncturing portions of the wing and the fuselage. Engine shrapnel severed many of the delicate system components lying beneath the surface of the wing, crippling the superjumbo A380.
The aircraft’s cockpit displays showed no fewer than 43 error messages less than 60 seconds after the initial engine failure warning. The captain focused on prioritizing the error messages and assigning duties to the four other pilots as they wrestled the million-pound beast.
“Serendipitous” is an insufficient word to describe the fact that there were five highly experienced pilots in the cockpit on that memorable day: In addition to the captain, the copilot and the second officer, two additional pilots were onboard in a checking capacity. Together, they had over 140 years of flying experience (71,000 combined flying hours). They saved hundreds of lives onboard the aircraft and possibly thousands more on the ground because of their experience, air sense and systems knowledge.
On your mind
Readers pose their questions on air travel.
Q. Have you ever doubted the skills of the pilot you’re flying with? Do other pilots’ reputations precede them?
—Anita Broward, Salt Lake City
A. The quick answer to both questions is yes—rarely for the former, always for the latter. Twice in my career, I’ve had to give flight instruction while flying the line as a first officer with captains who were new to the equipment (757-767), even though I do not hold an instructor’s certificate from the FAA or the company. (However, I was an instructor in the Navy/Marine FA-18 Fleet Replacement Squadron.) I had been warned by a very competent colleague of mine to stay on alert. He had flown with one of the captains previously and had expressed his concern about the other man’s abilities. I told my colleague that I would keep an eye on the captain over the three days of our trip.
On the evening of his first day, I was rendered speechless during an approach and landing into Chicago O’Hare. Instead of initiating his flare (reducing power, increasing pitch) at 20 feet, he started this procedure at 75 feet. Surprised, I called for him to “keep the nose down” so as not to stall the airplane. Lucky for us, the wind was down the runway, and we fell on the main landing gear and didn’t strike the tail as I thought we might.
The captain had applied his landing technique from the 747-400, on which he served as first officer, to the 757. The two aircraft are very different. For example, the 747-400’s cockpit is higher than the 757’s, so the sight picture is completely different. Also, some pilots flying the 747-400 may have more limited landing experience because they fly fewer flights—so as a first officer, this pilot may have made less than two takeoffs or landings a month.
I had never been taken aback like that before and discussed landing technique and crosswind corrections with the captain as we walked to the hotel. Flying into Denver the next day, he did the same thing, only worse, because of heavy crosswinds. Frustrated, I informed him that I wanted to fly the next leg to demonstrate the proper technique. He agreed, so I brought us to Newark, talking about technique for a good portion of the flight. The captain flew the last leg back to Los Angeles the next day and made the same mistakes again. Clearly, he needed to go back to training for more instruction. As we parked at the gate and shut down the engines, I told him that I would give him a day or so to request more training from the company, and if he didn’t, I would make a formal complaint. I had a professional responsibility to speak my mind, and I’m glad I did. He accepted responsibility for his deficiencies and was back in training five days later. He eventually learned the ropes, and we flew together a couple of months later without incident.
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