What Price Experience?
CAT Guest Commentary
Editor’s Note: From time to time, The Journal of Civil Aviation Training (CAT) magazine presents Guest Commentary on important issues facing the community. The opinions expressed are the author’s own.
This commentary is offered by Chris Long, a well-regarded contributor to CAT for two decades. As a graduate of the Royal Air Force College Cranwell (then the UK Air Force Academy), Capt Long became a four-jet captain after 1400 hours and a single- and twin-jet instructor with two other air forces. He was responsible for student and instructor training and upgrades both as a standards instructor and as a squadron commander of a jet training squadron. After gaining a UK ATPL and FAA ATP/CFI, he trained ab initio pilots for the commercial world. His Halldale role also provided considerable exposure to pilot training systems around the world.
Despite the current pandemic-driven airline slump, there is recognition by many in the industry of the need to plan for an eventual build up in numbers of pilots. With the expected dilution of experience of previously planned retirements and other veterans deciding to exit the cockpit, the “new captain” effect – the training and mentoring of low-time captains – will very likely come to the fore. While climbing back on to its feet, aviation will need to look at a new paradigm.
What Price Experience?
Ever since the early days of flying there has been a search for the best way of transferring the experience gained by aviators to the next aspirants. As knowledge of the “what” and “how to” was built up, the concept of passing that awareness on to others moved to a more formal training process in order to assure the safe transfer of skills to the new arrivals in the industry.
Since then we have made huge strides in understanding what needs to be learnt, and the various platforms and techniques have evolved to make that transfer ever more effective and efficient. Still advancing at an accelerated rate, the pilot training industry has adopted the latest technology and has brought increasing and astonishing levels of near-reality to training programmes. The days of ceaseless PowerPoint presentations delivered to bored students/cadets who are arranged in rows of desks in sterile classrooms have, happily, started to disappear. Now there are engaging and stimulating online apps and programmes which are delivered on tablets in a student-friendly way which talks to the latest generation in a language with which they are both familiar and comfortable. The effectiveness of those processes is unprecedented, and with the advent of blended learning, CBTA, EBT, new pedagogical understanding and teaching techniques and emphasis on the soft skills, there is no doubt that in many circumstances new pilots are far better prepared to take their place as a First Officer in a commercial airline than ever before. Furthermore, their long-term career is enhanced through the principle of lifetime learning.
However, the basic task of operating commercial aircraft has never been so complex and demanding. Not only do pilots need to have the same 4-dimensional real-world situational awareness as before, but there are now additional skills which are essential to safe and efficient operation. The complex interaction of the multitude of onboard systems, and their relationship with distant sensors and inputs, means that there is also a need for an extra situational awareness – that of those unseen and interconnected worlds. The job has got harder.
So What is Experience?
The pressure of the global thirst for air travel and the consequent ever-expanding number of aircraft led to an unprecedented and rapid build-up of pilot numbers. Whilst the training of new First Officers has vastly improved in recent years, the short time to command raises some important questions. The historic progression from a long apprenticeship as a First Officer, with the expected exposure to a large range of flying situations, has become curtailed, with much shorter time to command becoming a pattern, particularly in the areas of the world where younger airlines expanded at an exponential rate. That is both inevitable and irreversible.
A further consideration is that there is a largely unrecognized, supplementary responsibility of a Captain not only to be a role model, but to act as mentor. Even if he/she holds no formal instructional qualification, a First Officer will naturally assimilate behaviours and techniques simply by observing how the Captain goes about the working day. If that Captain has a limited amount of experience it is possible that the knowledge transfer is not as effective as before.
The real and critical question is how we can compensate for that change. Just how important is experience? There is an argument that merely flying the same (limited number) of familiar routes does not, of itself, expose pilots to a breadth of experience which can enrich their knowledge and expand their skills. That may have been true of an earlier generation, but many new airlines in the global mix are characterised by a continuing expansion in their route structure and, inevitably, exposure to a much wider range of climatic and airfield challenges. That range of situations will, of course, be experienced by the FOs during their time in the right-hand seat, but a new Captain can be called upon to operate into an unfamiliar airport, and possibly when challenging conditions may complicate things. That in itself is not impossible, but the kind of resilience to carry that out with a solid degree of confidence and competence puts significant demands on the individual.
The question is how to best prepare new Captains for such scenarios. This is not something that can be ignored – we are presently at the point when this situation needs to be addressed and resolved. Realistically we are not going to have the luxury of extended time for First Officers to build up a wide range of experience. Mere hours are not themselves a credible measure of lessons learnt and competence built up – relying on exposure to unfamiliar events during routine operations is not a consistent or guaranteed way of building that necessary resilience.
What gives particular concern is that in theory one of these new Captains could have a recently graduated First Officer alongside on the flight deck. Then consider the possibly minimal total time that those two individuals have between them. That figure would almost certainly be hugely lower than which would historically have been the case. To be fair, they will no doubt have satisfied the regulatory requirements to take those positions, and it is entirely possible that they could both be more competent than the average. The reality is, however, that if they are average pilots and only amass a low total of aeronautical experience between them, then there is not likely to be a large margin for any error or delay in handling an unusual situation.
One of the constraints which the airline industry has to work with is the regulatory frameworks. These – established over decades – have been formulated on the basis of the structure and operating practices which were established decades ago and define minimum benchmarks. The industry is barely recognisable from the time when these regulations were framed, and it is beyond time for a major revision. It can no longer be assumed that the classic experience-driven route is relevant – there needs to be a new system. A major issue is that the regulators themselves have constraints as to how rapidly and effectively they can evolve, and they are, still, the backstop on safety issues. There are plenty amongst their ranks who see the need for change and are willing to move – but, as revealed by the Colgan accident, political pressure can also complicate the issue through hasty and questionable regulatory change.
So, how can we compensate for that lack of experience? If we define experience as being exposed to new situations, there is a possible solution. The power of new simulation and training technology is such that an infinite range of scenarios can be presented to the low-time pilots in addition to the regulatory imperatives. These should be delivered in a no-jeopardy training context rather than in a testing environment. Yes, it would entail the expense of additional training time, but by using relatively inexpensive training aids in an imaginative way whenever possible, the costs can be controlled to a manageable level. Serious consideration should be given to building a robust programme of non-regulatory training sessions to help to reinforce the essential competence and resilience.
It is difficult to assess resilience, but the principles of CBTA should hold good if a sufficiently credible definition of resilience can be defined and training scenarios constructed to develop it. Without being prescriptive, it should be possible to deliver a training process which can foster the skills and depth of resilience and so bring it to a commonly accepted level of competency. Helping to build that resilience and, importantly, confidence, is essential. Because there is no longer the time to do that simply by accumulating thousands of hours, it is crucial to find innovative solutions to ensure that the new Captain, teamed with a minimum-time First Officer, has the full suite of skills to safely manage any situation that the operational task throws at them.
If the regulators are unable to insist on that, then the airlines must take the responsibility to provide significant extra exposure and learn to live with the cost that will inevitably entail.
Releasing flight deck crew to normal operations with relatively little direct operational experience when compared to an earlier generation must be thought through. They must be supported with significant extra training – the consequences otherwise are simply not acceptable. Addressing the problem is not easy, but there has to be a united and industry-wide effort to seek out and initiate robust solutions – and we need to do that rapidly.
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