Is Flight Training Broken? The Airline Record Says No

There is a great deal of discussion of basic flight training failure, but the airline safety record says we have never done better. The GA accident picture remains little changed and not good, but for U.S. based airlines, we are in an unprecedented and, frankly, almost unbelievably good, safety peroid.

The last U.S. based major jet airline accident to kill a passenger happened in late 2001 when the vertical fin failed on an Airbus departing JFK. In the same more than decade long period the U.S. based regional airlines have had only two fatal accidents.

To show you how good and amazing that record is, consider that before 2001 the longest fatal accident free period for the major airlines in this country has barely been two years. And I’m not sure if the regionals had ever gone more than one year without a fatal crash.

The U.S. based airline accident record is so good it has left us all wringing our hands about weird accidents such as the Dash 8 turboprop at Buffalo two years ago. That was clearly a terrible piece of flying by the crew, but here we are, two years later, still yammering on about that wreck as though similar accidents occurred every year, or even every couple of years. They used to, but they don’t now.

Of course, luck as been on our side when it comes to airline safety in the U.S. If the geese had shot down Sully and Jeff Skiles at a different altitude, or a different location, the results could have been tragedy instead of a miracle ditching. The NTSB records list a fatal accident at Chicago Midway when a Southwest crew slid off the far end of a slippery runway and busted through the fence killing a person. But that person was in a car on the street, not a passenger in the B-737. And other airline crews have run off runways in the past decade, but in every incident no passenger was killed.

But luck, both good and bad, has always played at least some part in the airline safety record so it’s hard for me to believe that over more than a decade good luck has stacked up in our favor at an unusual rate. After all, hitting a flock of geese is bad luck. The good luck came after the bad when Sully and Jeff were able to reach the Hudson River and make an expert ditching exactly where ferry boats crisscross the water every few minutes.

So, if, as some say, the primary training system is so broken, why has the U.S. based airline safety record been so astonishingly good? And the essentially perfect airline safety record comes with a big majority of civilian trained pilots at the controls. The number of airline pilots who got their start in the structured and selective world of military flying has been on the decline for many years, but the safety record has zoomed to unbelievable heights.

There are many possible explanations for the airline safety record over the past decade and my favorite factors are probably at odds with the beliefs of many pilots. I think the two most important ingredients are new avionics and development and enforcement of rigid flying procedures.

By the time this terrific safety record began all major airline jets had TCAS to identify and show an escape route from a potential midair collision. All jet airliners had sophisticated wind shear detection and warning devices. And all airplanes have enhanced EGPWS to warn of an impending collision with terrain.

In the past midair collisions, wind shear and CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) contributed significantly to fatal airline accidents. We now have automated systems to prevent those accidents. And superior takeoff configuration warning systems in nearly all airplanes prevent the flaps up, or out of trim takeoff attempts that have claimed airline jets in the past.

The controllers also help with better radar, and automated systems watching the radar that in turn warn crews of being off course, or too low. Virtually all approaches are flown using radar vectors, and equipment both onboard the airplane and on the ground, tell crews and controllers exactly where the airplane is, where it’s going, and where hazardous weather lurks.

On the human side airline and other jet training has almost totally eliminated the freelance behavior of pilots. There is a procedure for every phase of flight, or every abnormal or emergency condition, and that’s what pilots learn and practice. And nearly all airlines, and a few business jet operators, have programs that monitor how closely pilots abide by the procedures. It’s big brother watching, of course, but following a carefully thought out procedure beats pulling it out of your socks.

Of course, there is the extremely rare event such as losing both engines that can’t have a specific procedure to follow and Sully and Jeff came through perfectly. But that’s the one in a billion event. Compare that to a crew who couldn’t follow the most basic procedure of adding power to maintain airspeed, and pushing forward when the stall warning activates as in the Buffalo crash.

Most of the pilots who have achieved the terrific safety record in U.S. based airlines and business jets learned to fly initially in the GA training system. Put those same pilots in GA airplanes and they have produced the same, not good, unchanged safety record GA has experienced for decades. So clearly it’s not initial training that makes the difference, but the equipment and operating procedures that the major airlines and business jets, and increasingly the regionals, fly. So if it’s not failure of initial training that is the problem for GA safety, what is?

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11 Responses to Is Flight Training Broken? The Airline Record Says No

  1. Jim says:

    Humans! Left to our own devices, humans, typically being lazy, will not keep to the rigidity demanded by the procedures used by the airlines, and GA typically doesn’t have the safeguarding technology as on the airlines. When even a well trained and current pilot lapses into this laziness, sometimes called complacency, bad things happen. When operating in the super supervised environment of an airline, these lapses are not allowed and/or are caught before disaster strikes.

  2. Jay says:

    I’m curious to know if newer GA aircraft have a better safety record than older aircraft. I ask because many of the newer ac have glass panels that provide more data to the pilot – gps, TCAS, auto pilot, etc, that may reduce workload and/or improve situational awareness.

    Perhaps the older fleet somehow can be linked to the higher GA accident rate. I know it’s a stretch but, is it a potential factor? My ac is 65 years young now so it’s something I am personally interested in.

    • Mac says:

      There is nothing in the accident data so far that shows any safety relationship to the age of the airplane. Of course, there are many factors that we have no data on. For example, it’s likely that pilots fly newer airplanes equipped with advanced avionics in worse weather. The advanced avionics certainly help, but flying in worse weather also adds risk and it’s impossible to know the balance of those risks. The great frustration for anyone considering GA safety statistics is the total absence of exposure data. The NTSB counts accidents, but we can only guess at the number of hours flown, and flown under what conditions.
      Mac Mc

  3. Gary Barnhill says:

    Agree with each of the excellent observations of both Mac and Jim.

    I spent years training and checking with a major airline. My airline was made up of 50/50 military/GA. Most of those GA had barely 200 hours of C-150 time. Another like size airline was 90% mil/10% GA. Twenty years on; both airlines seemed equally safe and professional. Both airlines had excellent training and checking programs.

    Two decisions strike me as crucial to the well being of an airline.

    The first is pilot employee selection. Think of an hourglass. Factors affecting the time measured include the amount of sand (the number of available pilot applicants), the neck width (rigorousness of the selection process), and the sand quality (quality of the candidates flight history). Think of what you put into the purchase of a house or a new car. You want the best you can afford and you expect each to perform well for many years. Hiring should be the same.

    The second is a pilot position I call: “keeper of the flame”, or “gate keeper”. That job is Check Pilot. Not matter how good or bad company policy, how good or bad company procedures, how good or bad company/employee relations, how good or bad company flight training: the final safety net to ensure each and every single pilot is adequately trained, proficient, prioritizes the constant flow of cockpit challenges, and is properly in command (captains) is the Check Pilot. He mans the final gate post before a pilot is thrust on a public that trusts that pilot to keep them safe.

    I find this an interesting question: which airline do you think is the best trained and most professional: An airline that occasionally flunks a pilot on a check ride, or an airline that hasn’t flunked a pilot for years.

    My airline didn’t flunk anyone for years. The rational for a weak captain was; the copilots will keep him out of trouble. Sooner or later a weak (or passive) captain will get paired up with a weak (or passive) copilot. One of our jets nearly landed on a row of warehouse lights one night. The tower ordered a go around. The runway was served by an ILS but was not tuned in (are required by FAR). Two passive pilots flying night VFR nearly landed on a warehouse.

    I can verify to the doubters; running a tight ship will produce a more professional performing group of pilots than running a passive loose ship. It’s so easy to get complacent. Running a tight ship will greatly help eliminate complacency. When pilots realize someone gets justifiably flunked from time to time; they tend to stay abreast of the policy and flight handbook manuals. That is an unhappy comment on the human condition but it is what I have observed works.

    Of the airline pilot failures that I am aware of; none were based on motor skills. It was never a case of not being able to fly and land the airplane. It was always attitude and/or poor cockpit management decisions. You would think someone that had been a copilot for ten to 20 years couldn’t possibly flunk upgrading to captain. But some people have 20 years in the copilot seat but less than one year of “experience” because they tuned out and quit learning.

    To be a professional pilot requires a huge amount of knowledge. Company policy, aircraft manual, FAR, etc. etc.

    The most memorable line I ever heard about flying safety, and it trumps all the manuals is: DON’T BEND THE METAL.

  4. SkyGuy says:

    Colgan…..Buffalo.

    • Mac says:

      One of only two fatal regional accidents in nearly 11 years. Not perfect, but so much better than anyone had dared to hope 15 or 20 years ago. We need to recognize success when we see it, and the airline safety record for the last decade is a winner beyond belief.
      Mac Mc

  5. The system works just fine for producing airline pilots (with some exceptions). The problem is that it’s not so great for producing pilots who will fly nothing but light GA aircraft all their flying lives. There is a distinct lack of stick and rudder skills among newer pilots.

    Even airline training has its blank spots. The pilots of the Air France flight that crashed after losing all airspeed indications just plain forgot one of the basic skills of instrument flight: instrument cross check. They should have been able to look at the panel and say “Power is constant, attitude is level, VSI is stable, airspeed is increasing. There’s something wrong with the airspeed indicator: ignore it.” They didn’t, and they crashed.

    Remember, too that todays regional pilots will be flying the majors soon. Flying a big jet the way the Colgan Air turboprop was flown will result in pretty much the same result, don’t you think? Again, a lack of basic stick & rudder skills played a big part in that accident.

  6. Michael says:

    Only thing that might be added to the list of technologies and procedural practices would be the addition of cockpit voice and data recorders to allow accident investigators to get closer to the accident chain. These same devices can be used actively to monitor systems and practices even when no accident has occurred.

    Finally I am a little surprised that we dismiss the terrorist caused losses of human souls. Passengers clearly worry about those incidents as much as pilot error or systems failure.

  7. Mac says:

    Since the U.S. based airline perfect safety record began several months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks I’m not sure what loss of human life you are referring to. What I worry at least a little about is that the overall safety record of the airlines is so excellent that terrorism is believed by many to be the biggest risk. I don’t believe that. It is a risk, for sure, but is extremely small compared to the risks of everyday flying that must be managed on every flight.
    Mac Mc

  8. Frank Giger says:

    “Put those same pilots in GA airplanes and they have produced the same, not good, unchanged safety record GA has experienced for decades. So clearly it’s not initial training that makes the difference, but the equipment and operating procedures that the major airlines and business jets, and increasingly the regionals, fly. So if it’s not failure of initial training that is the problem for GA safety, what is?”

    I think there’s the change of environment between flying a commercial aircraft and a full crew and flying by one’s self:

    No crew to back check the pilot.

    VFR versus IFR; the ATC isn’t there to walk the pilot through every step.

    Mission! Pretty rare to see a 737 going for a 100 hamburger run with some touch and goes. Commerical flying is all about A to B focus; GA flying involves actually looking out of the window and enjoying the flight as well (if one is doing it right! ;) ). Going only 100 NM in extreme VFR conditions is not an excuse for a not doing a weather check or a good pre-flight. We’ve all seen guys climb into an aircraft they landed in recently and just climb in and go without so much as a walk around.

    Equipment difference. Just because a Champ doesn’t have a populated panel and only one trim to set doesn’t mean there aren’t procedures to follow; the list and tasks are shorter, but that doesn’t proclude them being just as important.

    Similarly, conditions that would be no problem in a 737 are unspeakably hazardous in a C172. Calibrating aircraft abilities to current conditions could be a problem!

    “Off the clock” mentality, where a pilot might think that since he’s flying for himself he can relax.

    Initial training is easy to beat up after the fact, but really it always comes down to the pilot. Indeed, we like to harken back to the first 20 or 40 hours of a pilot’s experience to blame a wreck that happens when he’s accumulated 200 or 400, which is just silly when one thinks about it. I have yet to hear anyone blame a lack of concurrent or remedial training for a crash.

    Maybe I’m nuts, but I have an individual program that highlights where I’m weak that I work on when flying (working it into pre-flight, in the air, or post-flight).

  9. Jim says:

    I agree with Frank. A fair number of GA accidents involve ATP rated pilots with gizillions of hours. There are other factors at play than just training. I think that you are comparing apples and oranges when comparing GA to Airlines. GA pilots don’t fly as often or in the same environment by a long shot.

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