Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ghost Planes

February 12, 2009: Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashes in Clarence, NY. Reason: the pilots were extremely fatigued and overworked to a point that safety was compromised. They were too tired to see that the plane was losing airspeed and about to go into a stall. When the stall warning went off, the captain pulled the nose up, inducing an actual stall and spin til it crashed into a home in Clarence. The pilot should have pushed the nose down to gain sufficient airspeed until it was safe enough to level out. But both pilots were so tired that they failed to correctly adjust for such an elementary problem. All aboard died in the firery crash.
Since then, families of the victims stepped up asking Congress to impose stricter standards for regional airlines. By federal law, regional airlines now have to allow flight crews a minimum of 8 hours in between shifts to catch up on rest. Both pilots had to commute across the country just to operate a 53- minute flight from Newark, NJ to Buffalo, NY. The co-pilot/first officer got no real sleep at all because she took an overnight cargo flight from Seattle to Newark just to operate Colgan Air 3407. She was seen in the crew lounge at Newark, falling asleep. The captain was commuting from Tampa, FL. Both could not afford or were not being reimbursed by the airline to stay in a hotel to get a good amount of sleep. There only option was the crew lounge at Newark Airport, where it was against the law for them to sleep. A human behaviors investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) noted that the captain had logged into his work account around 3 AM to check his upcoming flight schedule when it would have been to his benefit to be sleeping. But once again, he was not allowed to sleep in the crew lounge and the airline would not pay for him, nor could he afford to be in a hotel room for that night, going into the morning before the crash. Another factor duly noted from the cockpit voice recorder was that both pilots were having non-work discussions in the cockpit that they had delayed their pre-landing checks. They failed to properly go by effective cockpit resource management (crm) and started the checklist too late. They were not keeping a sterile cockpit or keeping their conversation limited to only what they needed to perform a safe and effective landing.
Training standards have also had to be checked out. Prior to Colgan Air Flight 3407, a lot of pilots who had their commercial certificates were just used to only towing banners up and down the coast or just taking a plane up long enough to log time to get hired by the regionals. In the case of Colgan Air 3407, both pilots had more than the minimums. But they were simply too fatigued to be effective. It could have been Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger himself flying the plane. If he was too fatigued, the same thing would have happened to him also.
While the families of victims and members of Congress pushed the bill to allow for stricter demands and safety standards both at the FAA and at the airlines, one item that is standing out is the fact that starting in August of 2013, to even be able to act just as a first officer or co-pilot on a regional jet for such airlines like American Eagle or United Express, the minimum hours logged to earn the atp (airline transport pilot) certificate will sit at 1,500 hours. Within that total is the break down of what the airlines require, such as 500 hours of night time cross country, and 500 hours of instrument cross country time, so many hours of multi-engine and instructor time as well. I praise the families of the victims and those in Congress who made the standards more strict and safe for both the flight crews and the flying public. 1,500 hours is what I certainly would expect for the captain and probably at least 3 to 5,000 hrs minimum to move on to the major airlines flying larger equipment by Boeing and Airbus. But, I do not see why the first officer has to be held to that same standard. Prior to August 2013, a lot of pilots can be grandfathered into the system with less than 1,500 hours provided they have enough time by the deadline.
I'm saying that requiring first officers to have an atp is too tough because it's a lot of money and time to invest without getting them into the seat of a corporate or regional jet. Regionals are not paying first officers more than $30,000 annually. And a lot of students are coming out of school or walking away with more than $50,000 to sometimes over $100,000 in debt. I believe this will really hurt the airline industry as a whole because a bunch of talented folks earned their ratings and thought just when they had enough time to get hired and into the airline game, then BANG! The requirement jumped sky high and they see no way of making it with the amount of time required and all the debt they got to pay back for an industry that will not begin paying them well until they're at least a captain for a regional airline and can move up to a first officer position at one of the majors. That could take years depending on availability and each individual's career progression. So sadly, they turn around and walk away from what they knew once as their dream.
Therefore, what I think should happen is that the requirements of an atp should be for the captain of a regional jet, no doubt. But once a student pilot had earned his commercial and maybe his instructor certificates, he should then be eligible to at least apply to fly right seat on a regional jet to build up his time faster in the jet and meet the atp/1,500 hour requirement more quickly. A factor that doesn't make sense is that while so much time is required for the coveted atp certificate among those desiring to be airline pilots is that very little time is required for a student to earn a commercial certificate where he can be paid to fly. It only takes 250 hours to earn a commercial certificate. But besides banner towing, there's no other real hiring privileges really known or available other than to instruct to build up time towards the atp. That leads to another issue.
A lot of fresh first officers who get their atp and a lot of current instructors spend majority of their time flying at altitudes lower than 10,000 ft and in small trainer aircraft like Cessnas and Pipers. They don't even get to see their high altitude endorsements until they start testing for their atp and get type-rated on their specific choice of jet aircraft. A columnist who writes in the career section for AOPA Flight Training Magazine noted that if the public, the FAA, and the airlines are now so gung-ho about safety, than those instructors working towards their atp certs should be getting the opportunity to get a feel for flying Canadair and Embraer jets that make up the fleets of all regional airlines now. It makes a whole lot more sense and would be more safe versus a new atp cert holder coming off the street and all he's ever flown were Cessna and Piper trainers.
The Folks who are really tied up in a sling are the ones who have invested so much time and thousands of dollars into their training only to take them up to a commercial or instructor rating and they get paid crap in return and have so much debt to pay back in student loans. Times have changed unfortunately. Used to be that a lot of airline pilots used to be taken from the military. During the Golden Age of Aviation when it was prestigious to wear the silver or gold wings, everyone wanted to fly because they knew what to expect- great service and hospitality, a full meal even on domestic flights, no charge for anything. I remember hearing the story of my friend's dad, a captain at American Airlines. Not coming from a military background, he learned to fly when it was very inexpensive and was flying Lear Jets by the age of 19. Though he possesses no college degree, which is a requirement now a days by the major airlines, he was brought on with American because of his experience in corporate aviation flying King Airs. He got rated on the MD-80, the DC-10, and is currently rated for international routes on the 75 and 767. When I asked my friend how his dad did it, he told me that it was those days when he had the advantage and he was extremely lucky.
In conclusion, the two pilots of Colgan Air Flt 3407 were very experienced. They had more than the minimums with the captain having over 3,000 hours alone. All it came down to is they were too tired and fatigued to command the plane safely. Yet the FAA is still making the prospective first officer hold at least an atp when the issue is not about the experience, but that there is an understanding that if the candidate gets the first officer position, he must be made aware and enact the action of getting the required amount of sleep to be more than alert to fly safely. And the airline will provide the information to the candidate and the airline will allow him or her that time to sleep enough for their upcoming schedule of flights.

If the FAA goes through with the 1,500 hour rule for pilots to get hired as first officers at a regional airline, there could be a dramatic shortage of pilots over the next several decades. The solution as stated: require the atp for regional airline captains. Allow new commercial pilots and instructors to fly right seat with the captain and start building up time on jets. They want safety, so do I. This is how. We want to make a strong demand for pilots and allow them the opportunity to get their foot in the door to their careers, this is how. But as for now until the rule takes effect, we will have to wait and see. Only time can tell.



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