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Southport, Manitoba, Canada
Steve Pomroy is a professional flight instructor and aviation writer. He has been teaching since 1995 and holds an Airline Transport Pilot License, Class 1 Instructor and Aerobatic Instructor Ratings, military QFI, and an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering. He's written and published three flight training books through his company, SkyWriters Publishing, and has several other books under development. Steve currently teaches RCAF pilot candidates on their Primary Flight Training course.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Piloting as a Profession: Part 4, Training Standards

... Continuing from the previous post (Part 3, Self Regulation) and considering the question, “Is the training/education provided to pilots adequate?”:

Transport Canada and the Transportation Safety Board have recognized that a statistical up-tick in accident rates occurs at around 500 hours of total flight experience. It is believed (but not actually known for sure) by many that this up-tick is a result of confidence exceeding ability. Of course, even if this is accurate, it’s surely an over-simplification, but it’ll do for our present discussion. 500 hours puts a full-time new-hire pilot about 3 to 6 months out of school. Having an accident rate problem at this point is a clear symptom of weaknesses in training.

Some other symptoms of weak training include:
  1. Fail rate (~25%!) on a flight test that some in the industry consider inadequate to begin with.
  2. Fail rate (~32%!) on a "written exam" that many (most?) in the industry consider inadequate to begin with.
  3. Insurance requirements tied to raw experience with no reference to education.
  4. Employability requirements tied to raw experience with little or no reference to education.
This last one is especially important. When people within the industry don’t value or recognize the education received by pilots, that presents us with a big red flag.

Do some pilots work hard and learn lots and excel at what they do? Yes. Absolutely. Do some others do the minimum required of them and scrape by on a fairly low standard? Yes. Definitely. But how many wash out due to lack of effort or aptitude? I don’t have any numbers, but from my own experiences and observations, I feel confident saying "not very many".

One of the problems we run into is that companies have no way to distinguish between the "high quality" and "low quality" pilot groups—they all get the same license in the end. As a result, there is no incentive to hire, promote, or pay extra for the higher quality candidates. The absence of quality incentives discourages high quality candidates, and even pushes some of them out of the industry altogether. This creates a vicious circle caused ultimately by what economists term "information asymmetry"—resulting in the long-term degradation of the average quality of pilot candidates. How many potential high-quality candidates chose to pursue business, medicine, or engineering instead of aviation after hearing about the widely publicized pay rates and working conditions of the Colgan 3407 pilots. (That’s a rhetorical question, I don’t actually have any stats, but there’s no doubt that there were many).

This gradual degradation of the quality of pilot candidates is a long-term industry risk that is hard to recognize, in part because it has no corresponding short-term risk. Further, the risk is amplified by the rarity of high-quality training.

I mentioned previously that the training philosophy in aviation hasn’t changed appreciably since World War II. This isn’t all bad. The fact is, the framework that we conduct training within is pretty effective. But there is room for major improvements, and some changes are long overdue—especially in the training of professional pilots (in truth, the training of private and recreational pilots is pretty good, and probably doesn’t need any direct changes).

So, bearing all of this in mind, what changes should be made? This question opens a huge can of worms. The list could be very extensive and subject to all kinds of debate. Changes suggested could range from fundamental changes to minor fine-tunings, with everything in between. So, for the sake of brevity, I’ll take a more focused approach to the question.

Instructors are taught very early on to look for the "root cause" of student errors. A single root cause often results in a series of errors. So rather than trying to fix each error independently, we should try to address the one error (i.e. – the root cause) that will fix the most subsequent problems. With this philosophy in mind, what single change could be made that would result in the most improvement in the flight training industry? (Note that even this approach will give us a debatable answer to the question, but at least the debate can be a little more focused).


Happy Flying!

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