Washington National Airport, Va. — Standing at the end of the runway with departing airplanes screaming overhead, you can almost see the infamous gate. A couple of weeks ago, a Delta Air Lines jet sidled up to the gate and knocked over an empty van - one more in a string of mishaps to plague Delta in the last three weeks.
The incidents - two of them involving equipment problems, five of them involving pilot error - are being dismissed as a series of unfortunate coincidences.
But if Delta, considered possibly the best run airline in the country, is grappling with pilot errors, what does that say about the industry as a whole? It's an unsettling question, and one that will likely become more critical in the future because of pilot shortages, industry experts say.
Since Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981, air safety experts have focused most of their attention on ``operational errors'' made by the people in the control towers. And with good reason: The number of operational errors jumped 50 percent in June 1987 over the previous June.
But ``much of the criticism of the air traffic safety control system does not really reflect an adequate understanding or appreciation of the pilot's role in the system,'' says John Leyden at the Federal Aviation Administration. ``It is a cooperative system, and any efforts to take the pilot out of the loop [would] end up putting all the airplanes on the ground.''
Statistics suggest that pilot error is cause for concern. The number of ``pilot deviations'' jumped 47 percent in the first half of 1987 compared with the same period last year. A pilot deviation occurs when a pilot fails to do what the controller tells him, as when a Delta pilot landed on the wrong runway in Boston on July 12.
In another incident, a Delta jet almost collided with another plane at Logan Airport last Thursday, but whether the controller or the pilot was at fault is a matter of dispute.
In 1984, the last year for which figures are available, the pilot was the cause or a factor in nine out of 16 accidents, or 56 percent of the time, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. In the five years before that, pilot error was a cause or factor 37 percent of the time. (The 1984 figures do not necessarily reflect an increase in pilot culpability, says an NTSB statistician, but a smaller number of total accidents in that year, which could skew the results.)
It's more difficult to monitor, and thus crack down on, pilot error than other kinds of errors, such as air traffic controller mistakes. ``We can tell the FAA to strengthen their controller performance,'' says an aide on the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation, ``but we can't go to the carriers and tell them to strengthen their pilot training programs.''
The FAA will be exerting indirect pressure on the carriers. The FAA this month launched a special investigation of Delta's navigation procedures, crew coordination, and pilot training. That may spur other airlines to take a second look at their own programs.
Pilots are generally diligent about reporting errors - usually the other pilot's error, says Richard Livingston at the International Airline Passengers Association. ``If the pilot himself doesn't report it, the chances are 9 to 1 that he's going to be under radar surveillance anyway, so the FAA will take care of that report.''
But the honor code doesn't always work. When a Delta plane flying over the Atlantic came within 100 feet of a Continental flight July 8, the Delta pilot reportedly suggested they not report the incident.
Pilot error may garner more attention in coming years as the demand for pilots outstrips supply. Deregulation and the subsequent proliferation of airlines and flights created an insatiable appetite for more pilots. At the same time, says James Luck at the Future Aviation Professionals of America, the number of pilots available from the traditional source - the military - is shrinking.
For one thing, the pilots trained during the Vietnam war are reaching retirement age. Moreover, ``since Vietnam, there's been a dramatic cutback in [pilot] training by the military, and the military is trying to retain the ones they train,'' Mr. Luck says. Consequently, airlines have had to look elsewhere for their pilots. Three years ago, he says, 70 percent of the commercial pilots came from the military; today, about 35 percent do.
``We're right at the tip of a pilot shortage,'' says Henry Gasque at the Air Line Pilots Association. Now that the major airlines get most of their pilots from the commuter airlines instead of the military, ``airlines have had to lower their standards considerably'' in terms of the number of hours of flying experience they have. The major airlines, however, still hire pilots and copilots with far more hours than mandated by the FAA.
In response to the shortage, some airlines are starting their own flight schools, where they take private pilots with low flying time and train them. For example, United Airlines announced this month that it will be working with Southern Illinois University to lure future pilots to United.
Passengers need not worry about their safety for now, says Mr. Livingston. Even though today's pilots ``have fewer hours pushing the plane around the sky,'' he says, they still have to adhere to FAA rules, including minimum flying experience and refresher courses every six months.
``The FAA has a set of standards for everybody that flies,'' he says, ``and those standards have not been changed or compromised.''