When the U.S. Congress recently passed a law requiring pilots to possess an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate before flying as second-in-command (SIC) for an airline operating under Federal Aviation Regulations Part 121, it gave the industry the ability to improve on what initially was a meat-ax approach to setting pilot qualification standards (ASW, 9/10, p.12). While the ATP specification would require a candidate pilot to have at least 1,500 hours of flight time, the law also allows the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to substitute academic training for part of that total.
An aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) of regulators and user groups was convened to study this opportunity. That report, we understand, would allow academics, combined with specific types of actual flight experience and qualifications, to bring down the total required flight time to 500 hours to qualify for a new class of license, ATP–SIC, adding the requirement that the SIC possess a type rating in the aircraft being used. The training and the flight experience required would be detailed and extensive, including new requirements for experience in multi-engine, multi-pilot, turbine-powered aircraft.
This decision was reached through the study of records from the industry’s training and hiring of pilots for the nation’s regional airlines, where most pilots enter the world of Part 121 flying. We are not talking about little mom and pop operations with a few airplanes; we’re talking about a sophisticated industry where individual carriers fly hundreds of jet-powered aircraft over wide-ranging route networks.
These professional organizations of business necessity have thorough procedures for selecting and completing the training of pilots, and they keep detailed records on what previous training these pilots had so that they can correlate how the nature of the training affected the outcome.
Using this information and other available facts, the ARC produced a program firmly anchored in empirical data that would substantially strengthen the quality of pilots entering Part 121 service.
We understand there were numerous dissenting opinions within the ARC, including some that argued for raising the barrier to the right seat even higher than the original law, using as justification essentially the same idea that drove the legislation in the first place: Four of the last five fatal airline accidents have involved regional carriers, which in many cases hire less-experienced pilots.
Other dissenters noted that no safety studies have correlated SIC experience with recent regional airline accidents, and that in the most recent 14 regional accidents, five were flown by the captain and, in the remainder, the SICs flying had either an ATP, more than 2,000 hours or both. It must also be mentioned that military pilots are launched into the air with far fewer hours of flight experience, buttressed by an extensive and proven academic foundation.
It is exasperating to see the pilot qualification process turned on its ear based on emotional and, in the case of pilot unions, financial arguments that ignore science and data-based air safety investigations.
However, if the product of the ARC can be sustained, the result of this process will be a truly enhanced and clearly detailed path from the start of flying to the right seat of a Part 121 airliner. It also will preserve the role of the important system of aeronautical universities and advanced training schools that underpin the higher levels of aviation professionalism, that, if left to the unaltered legislation, would be severely threatened.