Friday, December 4, 2009

Day 84

This was my 84th day on the ground, so let's focus on the future.

I am on our airport's General Aviation Improvement Committee, and it is so gratifying to see people working with the support of the powers that be to promote aviation. We are planning an Open House/Fly-In for late June, which is coming together nicely. We'll have a few warbirds on static display, and my club will have its planes cleaned up and ready ("YOU can fly this airplane!"). The local EAA Chapter will run a Young Eagles rally, giving airplane rides to kids [and, I should have a medical certificate by then, so I'll do some of the flying!]. Someone is working on military fly-bys, and someone else is working on a static display of a fire bomber, and someone else is working on the local regional carrier putting an RJ on display. People are getting fired up about flying.

I wish I had some nice slick LSA trainer to put on display. There's a big unfilled demand for Light Sport training in the area.

But that raises the question: where is flight instruction going? The November 30, 2009 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology outlines the debate about training of professional pilots. Some feel, especially after last winter's Colgan Air icing accident, that regional pilots need more experience, and have proposed that new-hire first officers have an ATP certificate.

But Tim Brady, dean at Embry-Riddle's Daytona Beach campus, claims that this will force aspiring professional pilots to build time by instructing for 1,000 hours, "and repeating the same hour 1,000 times."

Brady was an Air Force pilot, so presumably never had the pleasure of 1,000 hours of instruction in singles and light twins (One might question whether lack of instructor experience qualifies one to head a campus devoted to flight training, but 40 years hanging around universities has taught me that there is no relationship between teaching experience or ability and administrative responsibilities.}

I have well over 1,000 hours of dual given, in everything from gliders to King Airs. Every hour is different. Those of you who are flight instructors (not just holders of instructor certificates) know what I mean. Here are a few of my every-one-is-different hours. Students have turned a routine stall demonstration into a spin. Instrument students have lost control in IMC. Students have keyed the mic to say something that should not have been said. They have lowered the landing gear early in icing conditions, and flown the ILS at cruise speed, trying to lower the gear while flying 30 knots faster than the maximum gear speed. They have achieved faster-than-gravity descent rates trying to catch the glideslope from above. Glider students have forgotten to turn right at tow release, leading to an up-close look at the towplane. That's a lot of recoveries and preventions.

Brady claims that ERAU students learn airline-style procedures from day one. This means SOPs, things like "At Skyburst Airlines, after an engine failure we climb to 400AGL without touching anything," or "At Aluminum Air we use QFE," or, most important of all, "Payday is Friday and we contribute 1% to your 401K." New-hires have successfully learned this stuff in three week ground school courses since the time of E. K. Gann.

What airline pilots are not learning is what to do when all of the screens go black. There have been more and more incidents like this lately. In 2008, two separate QANTAS A330s had dangerous uncommanded pitch changes after air data system anomalies. Air France 447 crashed into the Atlantic last summer, sending ACARS reports of airspeed problems. The captain of Colgan 3407 pulled back when there were stall indications. Nor are these accidents a new trend. Birgen Air lost a 757 in 1996 when the static ports were taped over; the crew couldn't handle the spurious airspeed indications. Northwest lost a 727 in 1974 due to pitot icing. These accidents led to hundreds - hundreds! - of passenger deaths.

Thinking about these accidents convinces me: when the screens go dark while I'm in back, I want the folks up front to have spent 1,000 hours in an underpowered aircraft with an airspeed indicator too far away to read and an unpredictable student at the controls. I'd like my crew to have crossed the Donner Pass in a 65hp Taylorcraft (Horrors! VFR!?!) or something like that. Four years in a simulator reading checklists isn't reading 1,000 checklists, it's reading the same checklist 1,000 times.

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At December 6, 2009 at 11:57 AM , Blogger John Ewing said...

A great topic!

A few years ago as I boarded an RJ for a short flight from PHX to TUS, I glanced forward and noticed a fresh-faced FO, furiously shuffling papers and flipping switches. The first thought was that he must still in the throes of initial operating experience.

We departed Phoenix at sunset in VFR conditions and as soon as we leveled off, I predicted we'd shortly begin a descent. And we did, in dramatic fashion - the power spooled back and the nose went over aggressively. A minute or so later, the aircraft leveled off in similar, abrupt fashion. My thoughts at the time were that the fresh-faced FO must be flying and if he was going to do what might be his first night landing outside of a simulator, I sure hoped the captain had plenty of flight instructing experience.

Whether it is preparing pilots for professional careers in the airlines, keeping a busy professional current in their own aircraft, or helping someone prepare for their first solo, flight instructors do important work every day. Often unappreciated and underpaid, the good instructors continue not out of their own self-interest but because they care about others and about aviation, in general.

I'm a professional instructor because I love teaching and I find helping people succeed to be one of the most rewarding activities in which I've even been involved. At the end of my career, whenever that may be, I'll take great comfort in remembering all the faces and all the friendships, not in how many stripes I carried on my shoulders or the money I did or could have made.

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