We were bumping through the clouds at Flight Level 300, unable to escape the clutches of a low, winter jet stream thanks to 167 burly souls on board and 26,000 pounds of jet-A sloshing in the tanks. Under such conditions this McDonnell Douglas finds itself just a little short of wing, and the prudent pilot won’t climb too high lest the indicated airspeed slip to the backside of the power curve — a very bad place popularly known as “coffin corner.” Jacksonville Center had just called out opposite direction traffic at FL 310, and I was straining to spy a telltale wisp of contrail through ragged breaks in the clouds when a faint metallic snap barely punctured my consciousness. That sounded kind of like a circuit breaker, I thought, and I started scanning the expansive breaker panels behind the captain’s seat and on the overhead panel. None were popped. I turned ahead and was surprised to see that our route had disappeared from both map displays and we had reverted to heading hold mode. “Boss, we lost everything!” I said, motioning toward the newly reset flight management system. I’d seen this before; there must have been a momentary power interruption. I started quickly re-entering our route as the captain read the waypoints from the flight plan.
I still don’t know what stopped me short. Perhaps it was the slightly quieter wind noise, the almost imperceptibly steeper deck angle, or the ghosts of flight instructors past whispering in my ear: “Fly the airplane!” For whatever reason, I knew something wasn’t right. I abruptly looked up and saw that our airspeed had decayed below clean maneuvering speed and was approaching the dreaded backside of the power curve; even after I shoved the throttles to maximum climb power, it took a while to get back to cruise speed. The snap I had heard was the autothrottles disconnecting when the performance data dropped out of the FMS, likely while the throttles were back due to a momentary gust. Much slower, and we would have been forced to make a hasty descent to avoid a stall warning. Diverted attention, a rare glitch at an inopportune moment, and automation fixation had combined to put us in a potentially bad place — but human intuition honed by experience kept it from getting considerably worse.
The captain and I talked quite a bit about our near-incident. It grabbed our attention because, only a month prior, another flight had had a low-speed event that didn’t end so well. AirAsia 8501, an Airbus A320, was en route from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore when the first officer apparently maneuvered aggressively to avoid weather and stalled the airplane, a classic coffin corner upset. For reasons that aren’t yet clear, the crew never recovered and rode the stall all the way from 38,000 feet until crashing into the Java Sea. This is only the latest in what has become a long list of recent loss-of-control accidents. The most well-known is Air France 447, but there have been several other major crashes involving high-altitude, low-speed upsets: Swiftair 5017 last year and West Caribbean 708 in 2005. And then there’s an infamous trio of low-altitude stall accidents: Colgan 3407, Turkish 1951 and Asiana 214. These seven crews were led into peril by different combinations of inattention, distraction, equipment failure and automation dependency, but in each case simply reverting to basic piloting skills would have saved the airplane. Such skills were sadly nowhere in evidence.
There was one other stall-related accident that preceded all these, a canary in the coal mine that went mostly unheeded at the time. Pinnacle 3701 was a repositioning flight in a CRJ200; it was completely empty except for the two pilots, who decided to “have a little fun” whilst free of the restraints of adult supervision. This included switching seats, pulling enough G’s to set off the stick pusher a mere five seconds after takeoff, and climbing well above the maximum altitude for the existing conditions at a very slow airspeed. They were far behind the power curve when they reached FL 410, and spent the next several minutes laughing and pointing while speed further decayed. The stick shaker activated, and then the pusher; the pilots overrode it. Finally the airplane deep-stalled, both engines flamed out, and the engine cores locked due to the abrupt change in temperature. The hapless crew still might have glided to an airport, but they didn’t confess the severity of their situation to ATC until it was too late.
The crew was rightly criticized for the extreme lack of professionalism and airmanship that ultimately cost them their lives — not to mention their apparent ignorance of the knowledge gathered over 60 years of flying swept-wing jets — but few bothered to ask exactly how two such pilots ended up flying a 50-seat airliner in the first place. Because no passengers died, nothing changed until a blustery winter’s eve five years later in Buffalo, New York. This time 50 souls were lost, the public took notice, and Congress responded by passing some of the most sweeping changes to U.S. aviation regulations since the Federal Aviation Act of 1958.
One such revision was the so-called “1,500-hour rule,” which requires all airline pilots — not just captains — to hold an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. The rule has proven unpopular with many in aviation: newer pilots for whom it increases the time and expense to get hired by an airline, flight schools whose potential students it dissuades from making a sizable investment in training, regional carriers for whom it exacerbates an acute pilot shortage (see Taking Wing, March 2014), and the major airlines who are finding their regional feeders unable to meet contractual obligations.
Critics of the rule often point out that both of the pilots of Colgan 3407 were well above ATP minimums at the time of the crash. Indeed, every single pilot in the eight accidents mentioned above had more than 1,500 hours, except for the first officer on Pinnacle 3701. What’s not often mentioned is the respective pilots’ experience level before flying for the airlines. The crew members who were designated as “pilot flying” on Colgan 3407, Pinnacle 3701, Air France 447, Asiana 214 and AirAsia 8501 had each been hired at their first airline with minimal flight experience of around 250 hours (the captain of Colgan 3407 and both pilots aboard Pinnacle 3701 actually paid for their first gigs flying for the former Gulfstream Airlines, the better to avoid menial time building). Each pilot had flown thousands of airline hours since, but this means little in terms of the skills that were tried and found wanting in their final flight. Normal airline flying is highly scripted, takes place at the very center of the envelope, and makes extensive use of automation — many foreign carriers actually mandate its full use at all times. Those of us who enjoy hand-flying generally do so under benign conditions. Most serious emergencies are encountered within the sterile confines of fully briefed simulator sessions. In short, modern airline flying does not build basic flying skills — it atrophies them. The time for a pilot to build these skills is before flying for an airline, because afterward they will only get weaker, even as the pilot grows increasingly proficient in normal line operations.
I believe that many 250-hour pilots are perfectly capable of flying a regional airliner or corporate jet under normal conditions. Unfortunately, that’s simply not enough time to thoroughly cement the basic airmanship needed to sustain a pilot through a lifetime of line flying. Light aircraft are very well suited to building stick-and-rudder skills, exposing pilots to a myriad of challenging situations, and affording the occasional glimpse at the edge of the envelope. First jobs like flight instructing, banner towing and skydiver driving are excellent learning opportunities if treated as such. Before 2006, the regional airlines seldom hired pilots with fewer than 800 hours — and major airlines, charter, fractional and corporate operators have almost always insisted on considerably more. It was only when certain regional airlines had difficulty finding experienced pilots willing to work for low pay that they, and they alone, decided that flight time wasn’t so important after all. Yes, Congress probably overreacted by requiring 1,500 hours (the 1,000-hour exemption granted to collegiate program graduates is more reasonable), but the industry frankly brought it upon itself.
The 1,500-hour rule does not apply outside the United States, and one only need look beyond our borders to see how U.S. airlines would be solving their pilot shortage in its absence. The International Air Transport Association has successfully gained International Civil Aviation Organization approval for its new Multi-Crew Pilot License (MPL) scheme, which qualifies ab initio students to fly airliners with as little as 60 hours of actual flight time, the remainder of their training taking place in jet simulators. More than 1,000 MPL certificate holders — who by definition are unqualified to act as PIC of so much as a Cessna 150 — are already occupying the right seats of airliners worldwide. They’ll learn the ropes from their captains and lean heavily on automation, and in time they’ll get perfectly adept at everyday line flying. It may be some years before that proverbial dark and stormy night on which they find themselves on the edge of the envelope and their stick-and-rudder skills are tested for the first time. I’d just rather not be riding in the back when it happens.
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