Learning from Airline Pilots’ Mistakes

The FAA's major overhaul of training rules for airline pilots, formally adopted with a new final rule on Tuesday, came as a long-overdue reaction to the deadly Colgan Air Dash-8 Q400 crash in Buffalo, New York, almost five years ago. Earlier changes, also prompted by the Colgan disaster, have altered flight and duty time regulations for airline pilots and increased the minimum number of flight hours to become an airline first officer.

The question GA pilots should be asking is, what can we learn from the FAA and airline industry’s efforts to improve safety? It turns out, quite a lot.

The new training rules are a great place to start. The FAA is now requiring all U.S. airline pilots to receive extra training in stall and upset recovery, along with additional instruction in handling crosswind landings and wind gusts. These are areas GA pilots should be emphasizing every time we fly with our instructors.

As for the revamped flight and duty time rules, the lesson here is clear: GA pilots should adopt personal rest requirements that ensure we aren’t flying when we are overtired, stressed or feeling under the weather. It sounds like simple stuff, but too often GA pilots ignore the warning signs that perhaps they should delay or cancel a flight for reasons having nothing to do with weather or the mechanical condition of their airplanes.

The final safety-related change was a requirement that airline first officers hold at least an ATP license rather than a commercial pilot certificate. This aspect of the reg changes is a little harder to apply to GA flying, especially since the Colgan Air pilots had many thousands of hours between them and certainly didn’t suffer from a lack of flying time.

But what was the quality of that time in the cockpit? The captain of the Colgan Air crash raised red flags during training, and it seems he wasn’t afforded the chance to correct them in the airplane by virtue of airline SOPs that require the autpopilot be switched on most of the time. Of the thousands of hours the Colgan Air crew had in the air, how much of that was as the sole manipulators of the flight controls?

The FAA has sought to address this issue as well by recommending that airline pilots spend more time hand flying. That’s excellent advice for GA pilots as well, who can suffer from similar atrophy of basic airmanship skills by relying too heavily on the automation in our increasingly sophisticated airplanes.

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