Jumpseat: The High Cost of Low Experience

The year was 1979. I walked into a gray and sterile office below the gates of the relatively new Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Less than a year earlier, President Jimmy Carter had signed the Airline Deregulation Act. Before the ink was dry on the document, Braniff Airlines was already expanding its route system. Before the ink was dry on my temporary flight engineer certificate, I was taking advantage of Braniff's need for new pilots. With 1,100 hours of total time, 60 hours of multiengine experience and less than one semester to go before graduating, I was about to interview.

Encouraged by the fact that some of my college classmates with similar flight experience had been hired, I was confident of my chances. Unfortunately, I didn't interview with confidence. Instead, I interviewed like a 1,100-hour, 21-year-old kid. I wasn't hired. It was the best lesson of my career. And it may have been the best decision for the airline industry. Why?

Despite a four-year degree from a university with a highly regarded professional pilot training program, despite the fact that I possessed the appropriate certificates and ratings and despite the fact that I met Braniff's minimum requirements, a tiny voice inside my head said I really wasn't ready.

Not until more than 10 years later, when I was awarded a 727 captain position with my airline, did I understand that voice. It turned out to be the voice of experience. Although I felt competent in previous positions, it wasn't until that moment a switch in my brain activated that said I was ready to become a captain. It had taken thousands of hours in transport-category jet airplanes. From student pilot to airline pilot, everyone has the switch. Whether it's the revelation that a takeoff and landing can be accomplished solo without injury to yourself or the airplane or that you are comfortable adding the fourth stripe to your epaulets, no one has to pronounce you competent. You just know.

So what happened to the switches of the crew on Colgan Flight 3407? Chances are good that they were never activated for First Officer Rebecca Shaw. The voice recorder transcripts are direct confirmation. She readily admits her overall limited experience and her specific trepidations about operating in icing conditions. Shaw claims to have had more IFR exposure on her first day of a Colgan Airlines IOE (Initial Operating Experience) trip than during the 1,600 hours prior to her employment.

The conversation indicates that even Capt. Marvin Renslow had not crossed the confidence threshold. He began his professional pilot career later than most. He claims to have been hired with a total time of 625 hours. And he was relatively new to the Q400. In addition, documentation suggests Renslow had prior checkride failures. But checkride failures are not necessarily indicative of an incompetent pilot. This is an implication the news media enjoys.

As a student, I found the instrument rating my biggest obstacle. I received a pink slip and an almost debilitating taste of dejection on my first checkride attempt. Although my second attempt proved successful, I knew I wouldn't be comfortable -- let alone responsible -- if I tested my instrument rating abilities by flying into low ceiling and low visibility conditions. Although I had moments, I was reasonably certain that my first and only checkride bust didn't make me an incompetent pilot.

Later in my career, an employment opportunity moved me from a Twin Otter captain to a 727 first officer flying for a freight carrier. The move was not void of growing pains. The 727 was my first jet. To add fuel to the fire, flight training time was very limited. It wasn't until a less intense simulator instructor was assigned to my training that my performance began to improve. When it came time to fly the actual airplane, I feared a big smoking hole in the desert when it was my turn to make three takeoffs and landings. As it turned out, my landings were better than my classmates'. And my classmates had large-jet experience. Beginner's luck? Maybe. I certainly did some soul-searching during my initial struggle. But I eventually proved that I was capable.

The point of my personal anecdotes is that Renslow's prior performance problems do not necessarily make him incapable. Although it's rare, even experienced airline pilots have a bad day in the simulator. If a checkride failure occurs, that pilot is given the opportunity to try again. Despite the fact that the flying public holds airline pilots to a perfection standard, we are human. We make the occasional mistake. And there is no better environment for correcting a mistake than in a simulator. That's the reason we are mandated to attend regular recurrent training cycles.

In 1984, I was asked by a retired captain at Eastern Airlines during an interview to confess my sins, and I offered my instrument-rating checkride failure. He asked me why I failed. I told him I deserved it. Apparently, it was a good answer. I was asked back for a subsequent interview and then hired a few weeks later. (And yes, I turned down the offer, but it was a difficult decision at that time.) Hiding the information would have been dishonest. Unless I was involved in an incident, the documentation would probably never have been discovered. The fact that I was forthcoming reflected positively on my character, in the interviewer's eyes.

In a perfect world, airline passengers would be able to climb aboard an airplane and sit behind two pilots who have thousands of hours and many years of flying experience in all types of circumstances and conditions. The pilots would be old enough to be graying at the temples, but still young enough to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It's just not possible in the real world.

One of the main differences between other professions and the pilot profession is that failure can be fatal on a grand scale. Failure is the high cost of low experience. Public safety is why professional pilots are scrutinized and regulated.

A system that has been deemed a fair and accepted practice for decades could be one of the root causes of the Colgan Flight 3407 crash. What is the system? The seniority system. Yup, the very glue that establishes almost every aspect of an airline pilot's life could very well have led to the tragedy. How?

The FAA establishes minimum standards for licenses and ratings. It also establishes minimum standards for each airline to qualify pilots for its appropriate crew member positions. Crew members demonstrate their ability to meet performance standards by taking a checkride. In that regard, all pilots passing the checkride are created equal. No criteria of quality in airmanship are established. No merit system exists. No credits are added for experience. No bonus points are considered for smooth landings. A pilot's only way to advance is through that individual's date of hire: his or her seniority.

In that regard, Renslow transitioned to his position on the Q400 by exercising his seniority rights and passing the appropriate checkride. His prior experience was not a factor. Shaw did the same. Once these pilots were hired, their destiny was determined by the seat movement within the airline. Do you think an airline can attract experienced pilots at the $16,000 a year Shaw was reportedly paid? The only pilots interested in such a food-stamp salary are the ones who consider the job a form of internship for an eventual chance to be employed by a major airline.

A hundred years ago, when I was a grizzled 24-year-old Twin Otter captain, my salary was just under $15,000 a year. We were required to slide our name tags into the appropriate captain/first officer slot behind the cockpit bulkhead in the passenger cabin. My father chuckled one day and chided, "Why don't you put your salary in the slot instead? See how many people get on your airplane then."

At the moment, no checkride exists that demonstrates a safe level of experience. There is no substitute for the real thing. Experience can't be taught in a classroom or a simulator. Unfortunately, it takes a tragedy to know there can be a high cost for low experience.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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