Air France logo being retrieved from AF447 crash site

An ATSB research report has found that there was no evidence to indicate that cadets or low-hour pilots recruited by Australian airlines were any less competent or proficient than their direct entry and high-hour peers.

The research and subsequent analysis was carried out to address the controversy over pilot experience and training outcomes following the US move to require high minimum hours of actual flight experience for junior pilots employed by its airlines in the aftermath of the 2010 Continental (Colgan) disaster.

The ATSB collected data on various metrics from simulator check flights, which covered non-normal operations, and line checks, which covered normal day-to-day flight operations.

In summary it found that:

The overall performance of cadets and low-hour pilots matched that of their direct entry and high-hour peers. All pilots were marked as proficient at the completion of the check flights, with the only differences between the groups being a function of how many exceeded the required standard.

The differences between the low and high-hour pilots in ‘meeting’ and ‘exceeding’ the standard across all metrics were variable within airlines and inconsistent across all three airlines. This suggests that the differences between the groups were not of a systemic nature that would highlight an area of concern for industry. While the metric normal landing showed a difference across two of the three airlines, none of the other required regulatory manoeuvres or technical metrics were significantly different in more than one airline. For non-technical metrics, both leadership and situation awareness were significantly different in all three airlines. Although this is understandable given the low experience of cadet and low-hour pilots, focused exposure to those metrics during initial airline training may reduce this difference as was seen in the data for cadets collected at the 5-year mark in one airline.

Three Australian airlines were studied. While not identified it is thought that one was Qantas, or a unit of its Qantaslink operation, that another was Virgin Australia, and the third, in which only a single type of airliner was referenced may have been Regional Express or REX, or Skywest prior to its takeover by Virgin.

Despite the intriguing variations found when it come to the performance of low hour inductees between carriers and in abnormal flight situations (download and study the report in a some spare hours) the report finds that “the cadet pathway for low-hour pilots is a valid option for airlines.”

It would be astonishing if it hadn’t reached this conclusion, however the detailed report supports an important observation in common about the Air France AF447 disaster involved a crew with high hours, and the Colgan crash, involving a less experienced set of pilots.

Which is, to summarise, that what happened in each case was ultimately a function of the flight safety culture and recurrent training standards of each airline.

This is what the detailed report says about the context of its research:

Significant debate has occurred within the aviation industry regarding the issues of pilot training and experience, particularly with regard to the introduction of the Multi-crew Pilot Licence (MPL) by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). The main concern being presented by sectors of the industry that are not in favour of the MPL concept is the possibility that low-hour pilots are not as competent as their high-hour peers.

As part of this debate, two main issues are currently attracting  attention and discussion. The first is a focus on the hours a pilot has accumulated,  generally with an inherent assumption that these hours ensure a level of individual skill. The second is a focus on competency, both as an assumed result of flight hour accumulation and because competency-based training is quoted as the cornerstone of aviation training, in particular with regard to MPL. These issues and assumptions have received considerable attention following two high profile international aviation accidents in 2009, one involving a Bombardier DHC-8 at Buffalo, New York, and the other an Airbus A330, operating as Air France flight 447 (AF447), en-route from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Paris, France.

The AF447 accident highlighted the issue of competency and, in particular, the relevance of current simulator and non-normal operations training for pilots, as well as raising issues around automation use and systems knowledge, both of which are subsets of pilot competency. Of interest is the fact that the flight crew of AF447 had a high number of flight hours, which appears at odds with the assumption that high flight hours will ensure adequate performance in a non-normal event.

In response to the DHC-8 accident, which was viewed in part as being the result of an hours/skill issue, the United States Congress enacted legislation to increase the amount of flying experience that first officers would need, in order to enter an airline, to 1,500 hours.

Readers are urged to make their own minds up on the study, but it seems fair to say that it drives the view that how a new pilot acquires the legal skills to perform and maintain the role of a first or second officer matters less than the safety culture and recurrent training standards of an airline which are the responsibility of its management.

Colgan Airlines is no longer in business. Air France has yet to be brought to justice.

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