Ab Initio Pilot Training in America

JetBlue has requested authorization to launch an ab initio pilot training program in the United States. I’ve written about ab initio training before (see here, here and here.) The main difference between this proposal and the European practice is that JetBlue will send their candidates out to fly at a smaller airline until they get the required hours (1,500.) That matches the minimum time requirement for pilots at U.S. carriers; most applicants exceed that number. The candidates in this program might gain a leg up on their competition by securing an job at the minimum level.

The company attempted to justify the request by citing a pilot shortage (see here.) If you don’t click through, here’s the summary: airlines have thousands of applicants for pilot jobs if the jobs pay well. If not, as in the case of regional airlines, pilot shortage. JetBlue starting pay for pilots is about $44,000/year. Starting pay at a typical regional airline (e.g., Mesa) is about $20,000/year.

A McDonald’s cashier makes about $17,500/year.

So why? Under the plan, pilots could get hired onto the JetBlue seniority list at a younger age than otherwise. They would enjoy a permanent lifestyle benefit at the expense of their peers; and thus the creation of a cadre of grateful pilots. That difference would be an exploitable wedge between union members, potentially useful during contract negotiations. In fairness, unions also create wedges between members over time.

Lufthansa Ab Initio Training Part III

Please see here for Part I and here for Part II of this series. Today’s post is the last.

When I viewed Slide 8 of Lufthansa’s presentation to the NTSB, my curiosity was piqued by the length of the various stages in their ab initio pilot training program leading to a Multi-Crew Pilot License (MPL.) The different stages are interesting in comparison to what I remember from my Navy days.

Lufthansa MPL Training Program

Lufthansa’s Become an Airline Pilot Quickly Program

Stage 1, Theoretical Training (Ground School) lasts almost a year. In the Navy, Aviation Indoctrination (today it’s called Aviation Preflight Indoctrination) lasted about 6 weeks.

Stage 2, Flight Training, lasts four months. This is the stage with the most in common with the Primary Flight Training Stage in Navy flight school. The Navy version lasted about 6-9 months but had a lesser scope (if I recall correctly – the mists of time and all that.) We spent more time on “upset training” (stalls) in this stage. First we learned how to recover from power off stalls (stall in a glide) and approach turn stalls (stall in a turn with the landing gear and flaps down). Then we practiced these maneuvers ad nauseum for the rest of flight school. It worked: one night during the intermediate phase in the T-2C, I got near an approach stall in the landing pattern over Pensacola Bay at night, 500 ft. above the water. The rudder pedal shaker (a stall warning feature) came on unexpectedly. I reacted immediately- adding power, lowering the nose, and accelerating the T-2C out of the stall; I lost only 10-20 ft of altitude. My instructor said nothing. I’d been trained to extreme proficiency in that maneuver by the Navy. I don’t know how often students are drilled in stall recovery in Lufthansa’s program, but if the 2:50 hrs of upset recovery training represent one flight, that’s not enough. Stall recovery training has to be practiced again and again throughout the syllabus.

Stages 3 and 4 add 123 hours during 6.5 months of training. All in all, this program lasts 22 months and students fly about 237 hours, much of that in the simulator. At the end of flight school in the Navy, I had taken 24 months and flown more than 260 aircraft hours (I don’t remember the amount of simulator time.) Navy flight students of my day left flight school with more flight hours than Lufthansa’s ab intio MPL graduates do.

But nobody in the U.S. would ever assign a recently winged Naval Aviator to the cockpit of an airliner for want of experience. 260 hours – let alone fewer – would be a laughably low number for such a position.

Lufthansa Ab Initio Training Part II

In this blog post I discussed the amazingly low attrition rate of Lufthansa’s ab initio (from the beginning) pilot training program.

Today, something a little different: the change that has ensued in the actual flying portion of pilot training. In 2006, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) created a new qualification, the Multi-Crew Pilot License (MPL). This license was designed to qualify a pilot to act as a flying crewmember in the cockpit of an airliner. I could have written that it was designed to qualify a pilot to act as a First Officer; however, a First Officer is really a pilot who can act as a Captain in case the latter becomes incapacitated. The First Officer is even expected to take the airplane controls from the Captain in extremis.

Lufthansa ATP to MPL

It wasn’t evolutionary: how Lufthansa replaced the Airline Transport Pilot syllabus with the Multi-Crew Pilot License syllabus

In other words, at U.S.-based airlines, a First Officer is a Captain who is waiting to upgrade (this is another reason why the media’s habit of referring to the Captain as “the pilot” and to the First Officer as “the co-pilot” is so aggravating to actual pilots.)

Lufthansa’s presentation to the NTSB (at left) graphically shows how things have changed with the introduction of the MPL license: you can see how the basic flying skills phase of the syllabus (the part done in an actual aircraft) has been de-emphasized.

The MPL program is almost a wholesale change to the way airline pilots are trained. Here is a good discussion of the pluses and minuses of the program from the point of view of Europeans seven years after the introduction of the MPL. Summary:

    • Drastic reduction of real aircraft flight time and landings
    • Reduction of real solo flight hours
    • Some currently approved MPL syllabi do not include real Instrument Flight Rules flight or upset recovery training
    • Little to no consolidation time (i.e. time to allow for reinforcing the just acquired skills)
    • Limited sample of MPL graduates flying the line today
    • No proof of capability for a MPL license holder to upgrade to captaincy (no MPL trainee has graduated to Captain yet, and no requirement for Pilot in Command task analysis)

To this pilot, the worst aspects of the MPL program are that its graduates are not taught to think like Captains, and the risibly low amount of aircraft flight time, landings (as low as six) and upset recovery training (to Lufthansa’s credit, they actually incorporate upset recovery training, but many do not.) The bottom line: there are no MPL graduates flying as Captains anywhere. What will happen if/when an MPL grad, lacking the seasoning of a military- or civilian-bred ATP license holder, bids a Captain’s seat at his airline, goes through 6 weeks of (simulator only) Captain training, and then flies with another MPL co-pilot at the controls of an airliner? You will then have an actual innovation in airline staffing: no Captain in the cockpit.

Lufthansa Ab Initio Training, Part I

Here’s a presentation by Lufthansa to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on their ab initio (from the beginning) pilot training syllabus. Some thoughts on this:

Lufthansa Selection Process

The Lufthansa Pilot Section Process – slide 6

Slide 6 depicts the Lufthansa pilot selection process. What is striking about this graphic is the 95-98% success rate in step 3, “pilot school,” (aka flight school.) This is a dramatically high number.

Compare this with the attrition rate in Navy flight school during the period 1989-1992 (see page 20 – I graduated Navy flight school in 1989, so this data concerns the flight training I remember.) The difference is striking: leaving out ground school (“AOCS” and “API”) and pipeline training, the “success rate”

Navy Pilot Attrition 1989-1992

Navy Pilot Training Attrition 1989-1992

was 88.8%, even though Navy primary flight training had a smaller scope than the Lufthansa training (designed to prepare a pilot to fly as second-in-command of an airliner.)

I am not saying that Lufthansa training is bad. Lufthansa is an excellent airline. This is only to say that, assuming the Lufthansa training is a typical modern ab initio flight training program, especially as used by European airlines, it displays a key difference in method between the European and American systems.

The “weeding out” process in the European system (I’ll repeat the assumption: Lufthansa’s method typifies the whole European system) happens during Basic Qualification and Company Qualification (between 25-35% successful). In other words, unreliable pilots are removed from their pipeline primarily during a non-flying portion of their syllabus.

In the American system, unreliable (or, indeed, unlucky) pilots are more often weeded out while flying. I realize this sounds less civilized (i.e. a pilot removing himself via mishap.) Nobody thinks that weeding out by mishap is a good thing. But it’s not the only way pilots fail to complete their training.

Maybe the European system is better for that reason; recent events might only be highlighting the fact that, given a much smaller pool of general aviation or military pilots, the Europeans are doing a bang-up job screening out unreliable pilots.

But in America we have yet to see anything like Germanwings.

Germanwings Successfully Down the Memory Hole?

The Germanwings mishap/murder investigation has gone very quiet lately. Major media focused on aircraft design, interviews of past girlfriends, speculation into mental illness, pilot training, and self-disclosure protocols for pilot medical qualifications. Nobody addressed the real issue: pilot trustworthiness.

In what we in the U.S. call “general aviation” (GA), pilot suicides are rare, but not unknown. In most cases of a GA pilot suicide, the only person who dies is the pilot. It’s true we wouldn’t want a lot of untrustworthy pilots to populate GA, but when one of them decides to end it all in the airplane, the damage is limited. What has captured the imagination of most people is the possibility of an airline pilot doing it and taking everyone along for the ride.

I’ve written about the road that civilian and military pilots must take to earn a pilot job at a major U.S. airline. It’s a long road; there are pitfalls along the way. In my experience (Navy fighter pilot), I can remember two fellow student Naval aviators Read more

More Pilot Stories

A common question between pilots in an airliner, especially on day 1 of a trip with someone new, is “Where did you start?” We all want to know the past experiences of the pilot next to us. If his (see note below) background is civilian, usually he followed this path: desire to fly/leave current job; learn to fly/earn pilot ratings (e.g. private pilot, instrument pilot, etc.); earn instructor ratings; build flight time as a flight instructor; fly small cargo planes, fly for a regional airline, or fly for a corporate airline (e.g. NetJets or XOjet); build flight time as a captain; get hired by a major airline. There’s more detail here.

Military pilots also have an arduous path, but as you might guess it’s different. The most noticeable difference is Read more

Pilot Stories

I’ll start with the conclusion: the civilian path to flying an airliner is analogous to the path to practicing medicine as a doctor: years of expensive schools followed by years of low pay and very hard work. At the end of each process, you have a professional with mad career buy-in. He’s earned it.

Let’s say you’ve decided you want to be an airline pilot for a major international airline (aka “major”). Read more

Sucking Up a Seat Cushion

This is gross, but pilots have a saying: “sucking up a seat cushion.” It means that things have gotten tense in the cockpit because of some emergency, enemy action or the lack of some aviation essential (runway, altitude, airspeed or fuel). You can imagine a pilot tensing up – all over – under such circumstances, and, well, just keep using your imagination.

Flying for the Navy we had to wear helmets. If a situation got bad and we couldn’t think our way out of it, for some reason the helmet would feel warmer. This was called a “helmet fire.” If the challenge was more physical, like a tough tanker rendezvous, a bad approach to the carrier at night, or just dropping your pen, this was called “killing snakes.” Just imagine having a bunch of snakes in a small cockpit. You get the idea.

The point to reminiscing about these epigrams is that if a pilot goes through enough of them, he eventually becomes seasoned. Or, to use another epigram, “There are old pilots, and bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.” On my last Persian Gulf deployment, Read more

PBS Aviation Spot Delivers

Judy Woodruff interviews two men for this spot: Warren Silberman, MD, a former Manager of Aerospace Medical Certification for the FAA now in private practice, and William Hurt Sledge, MD, professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, who has screened pilots for the US Air Force and airlines for years. It is worth noting that these men are very well informed and remain active in their careers. Also, they’re old – they’ve been around. It is much better to listen to men like this and not the Read more

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