Issues of Training, Experience Dog New Breed of Airline Pilot

As US military shrinks, airlines recruit more from civilian work force. Does the shift matter?

The bastions of America's airline industry have long been veteran, military-trained pilots - Chuck Yeager types, some of whom earned their wings doing barrel rolls to evade enemy fire over Vietnam or Korea.

After getting out of the military, they traded in their well-worn flight-suits for pilots' caps and took to safely shepherding America's flying public.

But now these pilots - who've been mythologized for having all the right stuff - are retiring in droves.

And the ever-shrinking military isn't providing the well-trained pilots to replace them.

Until the early 1990s, these war-tested veterans made up more than 80 percent of all commercial airline pilots. But today, fewer than half of these pilots are military trained.

As the airline industry stays on course to double its carrying capacity in the coming decade, fewer ex-military pilots are available to meet demand.

Now the trend is toward a corps of predominately civilian pilots who've never known the challenge of combat flying, never barrel-rolled a T-37 jet trainer with G-forces pressing them into their seat, never been shot at.

That trend is sparking a debate. Are civilian pilots good enough? Do they have the right stuff?

"The airline industry is growing at such an extraordinary rate at the same time the defense establishment is downsizing. The traditional supply of military pilots is slowing to a trickle," says David Evans, managing editor of the Aviation Group at Phillips Business Information, an industry newsletter publisher.

"A military pilot's capacity for intelligent improvisation when faced with an emergency is pretty well developed," says Mr. Evans, who retired from the Marines.

Million-dollar training

That improvisation is seeded by big bucks. Industry experts say the government routinely spends as much as $1 million per pilot, providing the most sophisticated training available.

Also, the military narrows the pool of applicants, culling those who are too big or too short. Uncle Sam also requires a college degree. The standard to be a US military pilot and maintain quality controls throughout an entire career is extremely exacting.

Yet civilian pilots and some industry analysts take issue with those who suggest a predominantly civilian pool will result in fewer qualified aviators and riskier air travel.

The skills picked up in the military don't always translate in the world of commercial aviation, they argue. And the civilian pilots coming on line are every bit as good as famed test pilot Chuck Yeager to get you from here to there, if not better.

"The point is we are not flying combat missions. We are flying highly complicated machines that require a lot of management and communication," says one civilian commercial pilot. "Crew resource management is the buzzword in the industry right now." To many former military pilots this is a "foreign concept," the pilot says.

CRM is in part a training strategy designed to foster more open communication in the cockpit.

The sad irony of some airplane crashes and other mishaps is the high probability they could have been avoided if the crew and captain had communicated more clearly about impending danger.

The other key issue under debate is pilot standards - minimum requirements a pilot needs to even be considered for a first interview by major airlines.

Currently 80,677 pilots are licensed to fly commercial aircraft in the US. As airlines seek to add another 80,000 pilots over the next 10 years, they are relaxing so-called "soft" requirements including height, weight, and college degree.

Older pilots in their 50s are being offered jobs, whereas airlines used to prefer younger new hires. On average, new pilots today are 35 years old.

But "hard" requirements remain rigidly intact. These typically include 1,500 to 3,000 hours of flight time, high scores on written tests and simulator performance, and eight to 10 years in a back up role in the cockpit.

"Airlines hire the best every day, and they take them from both [military and civilian] communities," says Kip Darby, owner of Atlanta-based Air Inc., a pilot career-information service.

The idea that civilian pilots don't have the "right stuff" is disputed even by military air fighters.

"Civilian pilots are well prepared," says Ronald Fletcher, who is director of safety for SkyWest Airlines and a former jet jock who retired as a lieutenant colonel after 23 years in the Air Force.

Mr. Fletcher points out some military candidates attempting to go commercial are actually less prepared than civilian counterparts who spent their own money and time in the prohibitively expensive pursuit of their wings.

Jet jockeys too cocky?

Out of a recent batch of 30 candidates who showed up for the initial interview at SkyWest, the third-largest regional carrier, five were retiring from the Utah Air National Guard. Only two made it beyond the handshake interview. The others were too unfamiliar with civilian procedures.

Fletcher tells of one interviewee who came in and said, "If I can land a plane hundreds of times on a pitching carrier in weather and at night, I can pass your interview." But, Fletcher says, "The rest of the story is he failed the interview abysmally."

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