Boeing 737 Max crash: Did pilots have enough flight training to fly commercial jets?
Former airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who safely landed a crippled jetliner on the Hudson River ten years ago, told a House aviation panel that the two recent air disasters of the Boeing 737 Max “should never have happened.” (June 19)
In the final, harrowing seconds of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, the pilots tried desperately to keep their Boeing 737 Max aloft.
Nothing worked. Not pulling back on the yoke to try to get the nose up. Not attempting to adjust the trim, the preliminary report on the crash would show. Making matters worse, multiple alarms, clackers and other audible warnings distracted the pair. The jet crashed in March outside Addis Ababa, killing 157.
The crash laid bare Boeing’s shortcomings in having designed an automated flight system that overrode the actions of the flight crew. But it also raised questions about pilot experience — whether mistakes were made in the cockpit and whether foreign airlines require pilots to have enough training. Those questions will be at the fore Monday, when a committee of the United Nations-backed body that sets international standards for air travel is scheduled to take a fresh look at pilot requirements.
In the U.S., copilots must have a minimum of 1,500 flight hours, the same as pilots, before they can take the right seat in a commercial airliner. Internationally, it’s only 240 hours and can include a mix of time in simulators.
While the preliminary accident report in the Ethiopian crash showed the 29-year-old pilot had an impressive 8,122 hours of flight time, the 25-year-old first officer had only 361 total hours, having received his commercial airline license three months earlier.
The crash followed another about five months earlier involving another 737 Max flown by Lion Air. That plane plummeted into the Java Sea, killing 189. In both crashes, probes revealed an automated system repeatedly pointed the planes’ noses down as pilots tried to pull up. Boeing had installed the system to compensate for larger engines positioned farther forward on the wing.
After the Lion Air crash, Boeing had insisted the 737 Max is safe because pilots can follow a procedure to switch off the system, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg hinted about six weeks after the Ethiopian crash that pilots did not “completely” follow procedures.
The crash report illuminates what he may have meant. In particular, the report shows pilots never cut back the plane’s power after takeoff, which would have made it harder to manually control the horizontal stabilizer.
Would a more experienced or better-trained crew have made a difference?
Still, leaders of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Aviation Subcommittee, two Republicans and two Democrats, have requested the Transportation Department’s Inspector General look into pilot training standards for commercial pilots operating outside the U.S., including for those who fly the Boeing 737 Max.
“If these pilots, hard as they tried to save their passengers, did not receive adequate training in the first place, then that is another factor that demands action. That is true no matter where they are flying or where they were trained,” wrote one of them, Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., in a commentary for Fox Business last month.
On Monday, a committee of the International Civil Aviation Organization, a unit of the United Nations known commonly as ICAO, is scheduled to review flight-hour requirements for pilots. The meeting was scheduled before the 737 Max crashes and won’t be limited to requirements for commercial pilots, said Miguel Marin, chief of the operational safety section of ICAO’s Air Navigation Bureau.
But rather than moving closer to the U.S. standard, ICAO appears to be headed toward another approach. It is more concerned with pilots’ skills and demonstrated competency rather than just flight hours, perhaps ready to question whether a minimum-hour requirement is still needed. A recommendation to reduce flight hours, if one comes, would reflect a long-standing difference of philosophy.
“The U.S. went one way. the rest of the world went the other way,” said Michael Wiggins, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
In the U.S., there’s little appetite to banish the 1,500-hour rule for copilots.
“Industry pundits argue over the effectiveness of the 1,500-hour rule, but it certainly reduced the number of regional airline captains flying their entire month with 250-hour interns,” said Louis Smith, president of FAPA.aero, a pilot job advisory service.
Larry Rooney, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, said “experience equals safety” and deadpans: “If you’re going to fly in winter weather, you need to see it a couple of times.”
The flight-hours has become a major issue for commuter airlines in the U.S. They have seen a worsening pilot shortage since the minimum flight-hour requirement for copilots was raised in 2013 from 250 hours. The change resulted from an investigation into the 2009 crash of a Colgan Air commuter plane outside Buffalo, New York.
The Regional Airline Association, representing commuter carriers, asserts higher flight-hour standards have raised the typical costs of becoming a copilot to $200,000. That makes it hard to afford the career with starting salaries for copilots averaging $61,602.
Some pilots say there’s a lot more to flight safety than a sheer number of flight hours.
Former airline pilot and aviation expert John Cox said he supports the 1,500-hour rule but believes there should be offsets that reflect higher levels of training.
The U.S. Air Force, he said, prepares young officers to fighters in combat with as little as 300 hours of flight time. By contrast, private pilots concerned wholly about trying to meet the 1,500-hour requirement can rack up hours by flying banner-towing planes in good weather — hardly the same level of stress and high-caliber experience as in the military.
“What matters is not the quantity of hours but the quality of training,” said Cox.
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