Let me ask a question I hope will stir up some debate. “Is a pilot with 10,000 hours in the cockpit ‘experienced?’
Put it another way does the fact that a person sat in a cockpit for a long period of time ‘operating’ the airplane have a life of experience where they would be considered an ‘old timer’; somebody who knows the ins and outs of flying and every situation they might face. I get frustrated with the news media (that’s a flash!) when they say a pilot is ‘experienced when they have XX hours.
Before we go too far let me defend myself. I started flying out of a sand pit when I was 15 years old. I flew C-130’s to 27 countries around the world and I instructed Air Force pilots for 5 years. After that I worked as an aerospace engineer and I got my Air Transport Pilot License (Qualified to fly airliners) and I got a type rating in 727’s (one of the old airliners). I’ve seen just about everything in the air and survived it.
Sitting in a cockpit doesn’t in itself increase the experience of a pilot. Flying takes many skills, of course operating the systems is a big part, but they are not the entire skill set needed. When I was instructing in the Air Force, command was going through a phase where every in-flight emergency had to be coordinated with ‘experts’ on the ground. The pilot ‘operated’ the airplane but anything else needed input from the ground. It took a while but the Air Force realized they were creating ‘airplane operators’ not ‘command pilots’. I was fortunate and during my time as a flight instructor we focused on teaching pilots how to think not just fly.
When I hear about an airline crash and the pilot is ‘experienced’ I wonder about the breath of that term. There have been a couple of crashes lately including Asiana 214 where the pilots had thousands of hours of experience but they didn’t ‘feel’ the airplane. Feeling the airplane is where a pilot senses what it is doing, why it is doing it, and how it is doing it. It’s more than just looking at the instruments. When a pilot just reads the gauges, they might miss one of them and they don’t know what is going on. If a pilot feels the airplane they know what gauges tell them important information and which ones don’t.
One of my mantra’s while instructing was the question ‘what is the first thing you do in an emergency?’. The answer is not jump in checklist, the correct answer is ‘wind the clock’. Take a minute make sure you know what is happening and take the appropriate steps when you understand the emergency. Pilots who read the instruments tend to jump into the check list and start flipping switches without fully understanding the problem. This can happen with 10,000 hours of time and it can happen with 5 hours of time. The difference is a state of mind.
Of course I don’t know what has happened with AirAsia 8501. I’m not implying they weren’t the best possible pilots. I am pointing out that sitting in a simulator and flying a plane for thousands of hours is more complex than building ‘seat time’. I suspect airlines fight with this problem, because teaching a pilot to ‘think’ is expensive. Its much easier to run them through the 200 scenarios in the sim and anoint them qualified.
I hope there is a bunch of ‘old timers’ out there that understand what I’m saying.
Just the musings of an ‘old instructor pilot
Ray Jay Perreault