It seems that little in the modern world of commercial aviation receives more lip service and less serious attention than training. When asked, people from all industry segments opine that training is critically important. Yet, when finances tighten, training is among the earliest casualties of the budget cutting process. And, recommendations to improve training are always couched by the regulators with assurances that the time and costs required to meet the new standards will be modest, allowing all to rationalize. Training at all levels has become progressively more “form over substance” for a panoply of reasons, and is among the major factors that are negatively reshaping the air transportation industry worldwide.
When the word “training” is spoken in the context of aviation, flight crew training is what immediately comes to the minds of most. But training in the aviation industry is much broader, and the progressive degradation of training effectiveness exists not just with pilot training, but also across the range of occupations within the industry.
The scope of required training – both breadth and depth – is a function of the knowledge and experience that people bring to the employment. Across the aviation industry, a systematic reduction in entry level qualification requirements has become a cancer that has grown, metastasized, and now infects the industry from the vanilla offices of regulators, to the training department, shop floors and flight decks of the airlines. Even the executive suites are now increasingly occupied by people with little or no experience in the industry, or the businesses that they are charged to run safely and profitably. Yet, any proposal for a quantum increase in training is universally rejected in favor of tweaking curricula developed when applicants were far more experienced, and the material to be covered was far less in both volume and technical detail.
Between 1946 and 1971, pilots historically came to the world of airline transport operations with thousands of hours of experience over years – usually a decade or more – in military or commercial flying. Often, the classes for initial airline indoctrination were replete with pilots who had been airplane commanders on multi-engine bombers or transports with worldwide experience. Those from the civilian sector had spent years as flight instructors, charter pilots or corporate pilots, and likewise brought thousands of hours of experience on multiple airplane types in their portfolio of experience. It was in this era and for this type of entrant that airline training curricula were developed. Airline training managers were fond of saying in those salad days that they did not train their pilots to fly – instead they hired pilots who knew how to fly, and taught them airline procedures. Even then, selling the value of training to airline management was difficult. Managers saw all training costs as a pure expense, and assigned no value to it as an investment in safety, efficiency or reduced costs for future training events. All of that notwithstanding, management was under far less budgeting pressure before deregulation. As a result, operational managers had more input regarding training content, and training was far more comprehensive.
Things have changed. Preparatory training for even the private certificate is now all about collateral matters – the complexities of the airspace system, noise abatement, resource management, and trying to make sense of exponentially expanding regulations that are increasingly filled with minutiae, rather than broad guidance – and not about learning to fly. Instructors are stunned that their license renewal programs are about teaching everything but airmanship, and new practical test standards for licensing checks include such nonsense as oral testing only regarding spin recoveries and crosswind techniques. The result of this sea change in the training of pilots means that the airline indoctrination classes are now filled with people who know far less about how to fly than did their predecessors. Yet, neither the airlines nor the regulators have grasped the basic fact that teaching people how to fly within the airline training process is no longer just a good idea, but necessary.
How did the world of preparatory training meander so far off course? Unless they want to be arrested as security threats, young aspiring pilots can no longer hang on the airport fence, and walk through the hangars. No longer available are opportunities to work in the shop, fuel airplanes, learn airmanship by teaching student pilots to land very light airplanes in crosswinds, learn instrument flying by teaching instrument students in actual weather, and build aviation experience from the apprentice levels up while flying the bush or working in the myriad general aviation pilot employments that once existed. On the civilian side, regulators with little actual experience are so focused on risk avoidance that they forget a certain level of risk is inherent, and that a zero accident rate is only possible if all airplanes are grounded. Believing that regulations are the key to safety, they have restricted training and operations in actual weather for reasons that sound valid only to the uninformed. The result is that many pilots become licensed, but are without the skills to handle anything but the best of weather, low winds, clear skies and a fully functioning airplane. How silly it is for a pilot to get his first experience with strong crosswinds when they come up unexpectedly. Even sillier is that many instrument-rated pilots first experience actual weather, icing or turbulence only when forecasts of better conditions prove to be inaccurate.
The military likewise provides far less in airmanship training, and reliance upon the better training presumed to come with an applicant from the military is no longer a necessarily valid strategy when hiring pilots. When the wind is blowing or the weather is bad, training is often canceled at the military bases. Even in operations, the inability of many modern military airplanes to operate in icing or heavy rain means that most flying occurs only in good weather. When compared to the truly all-weather nature of military operations in the 1950s and 1960s, and the substantially reduced number of hours flown today by many military pilots, it is little wonder that a basic inability to fly well by an increasing percentage of modern military pilots has been the result.
Military managers, airline managers and civilian regulators alike have embraced the concept of training in the simulator as a pure replacement for airplane training. While the argument that simulators do not crash is certainly one valid consideration for such high-risk scenarios as the engine failure at decision-speed, the true facts are that even the best simulator with the most sophisticated visual and system replication is simply not an airplane, can only approximate the actual way in which an airplane handles, and often reacts quite differently than the airplane type it purportedly represents, especially as performance margins are approached. In even the best simulators, one has to learn how that individual simulator handles, because they are all different, and none are just like the actual airplane. In short, there is an element of “negative training” when even the best simulator is used.
Yet, sophistication of the visuals, an absence of experience by regulatory personnel in the airplane types at issue, and a principal focus of airline management on cost reduction rather than training effectiveness, have combined to promote simulators as a magic elixir to cure all training issues. While simulators have become very effective laboratories for the practice of procedures and flows, their value as a replacement for flying experience has been and continues to be greatly exaggerated. Experienced pilots get the most from training in simulators, because they find it easier to compartmentalize simulator handling, and focus on the procedural aspects. Pilots with low levels of experience have a greatly reduced ability to cross-reference from their bank of experiences, and instead tend to not just associate, but to equate the simulator with how they expect the airplane to handle. This bias is so obvious that before the end of the departure runway is reached for the first takeoff during initial operating experience, a check airman can easily identify the low-experience pilot who brings those simulator associations to the actual airplane.
Some five or so years into the experiment known as “economic deregulation”, there was a push by the airlines, and agreement by the regulators, to conduct initial airline training for even very low time pilots with “simulator only” training, eliminating the requirement to develop fundamental competence in the airplane before release to the line. In an effort to create the illusion of meaningful training without actually requiring it, regulators decided that such a program would include training in stalls at high altitude, despite that simulators were incapable of replicating actual airplane handling characteristics or performance in that situation, and provided a highly misleading training experience. I note this because, some 30 years later, the industry is again revisiting this same illusory idea in the wake of AF447.
For transition and upgrade training, regulators and airlines have agreed that competence in crosswind takeoffs and landings must only be demonstrated with a 10-knot component, despite that airplanes are dispatched in service to the limiting component values in the airplane flight manual – that is, 28 to 38 knots for most types. A circling approach must be flown on type-rating checks, despite that no simulator has a visual presentation allowing continuous contact with the landing runway throughout the maneuver. Therefore, a procedure has been developed whereby a heading is held for 15 seconds, another for 45 seconds, and then a third until the runway comes into view. In short, the regulator requires that crews be taught a procedure that violates both the applicable regulations and safe operating practices in order to pass a licensing check in the simulator.
Turbulence modes have been agreed to be an unnecessary interference with training, and landing currency can be acquired using a simulator, despite that few simulators replicate the landing experience well, especially with regard to handling qualities. Despite complaints by experienced instructors, it is required that pilots be taught to make crosswind takeoffs without aileron, so that no spoiler extension results. That there is no appreciable performance degradation from a modest spoiler extension while in ground effect is unknown to those in charge, who simply do not have the experience necessary to separate aerodynamic fact from tribal lore. At the same time, the methodology required teaches pushing forward on the control column until decision speed, and then jerking the airplane into the air as a means of avoiding the need for an actual crosswind takeoff procedure. Some carriers even established a crosswind takeoff procedure to use the nose steering tiller for directional control until 80 or 100 knots had been reached – a violation of the most basic principles of airmanship. Ignored were the forces on the nose gear, the performance degradation due to the drag of the upper wing surface, and the vulnerability of the airfoil to stall when jerked into the air, especially in gusty conditions. As a result of institutionalizing a popular myth, it was not long before tires were being replaced at accelerated intervals, and a B747 suffered a nose gear collapse during such a takeoff due to side loads.
Ten years into deregulation, when airlines were expanding at rates not justified by market forces or their balance sheets, the economic pressures and a shortage of qualified pilots created a mass reduction in hiring standards. Believing that a pilot could acquire the requisite experience to successfully upgrade by just watching from an engineer or co-pilot seat for three or four years, many airlines reduced their minimum standards for hiring, including a reduction in required flight time from an average of 2,500 to only 350 hours. For training the new group of very inexperienced pilots, most carriers continued to use the minimum standards curricula that had been developed for transition by crews already experienced on other heavy types. With the added factor of EFIS and FMS technologies, the existing curricula were a pretty big step even for crews coming from the DC8 or DC10. Absent the prerequisite experience, it was all but impossible for the neophyte group to meet standards, particularly in the minimum time allotted to keep training costs low. Indeed, many carriers added to the low-experience equation by hiring contract instructors off the street for far less than required to obtain the services of experienced training captains. That the contract instructors had no airline transport experience seemed to bother no one.
The addition of the new technologies was already creating a need to increase the training footprint by some 50% in ground training, 50% in fixed-base procedures training, and 20% in the full-flight simulator phases, even for experienced pilots. For the inexperienced pilots then being brought to the process, the corresponding footprint increases recommended by training professionals were 100%, 100% and 100%. But no airline significantly increased its training footprint, and no regulator pressed for the increases that were clearly necessary. Many carriers – with the concurrence of their regulators – made the decision that a far more economical solution was to engage the services of retired operations inspectors from the regulator, most of who had no airline transport experience, as in-house designees. Their absence of experience would be offset by the facts that they would, as alumni of the agency, be easily approved as in-house designees, and as retirees grateful for the supplement to their income, be more “flexible” in the standards applied to grade flight crew performance.
A decade later, there were literally hundreds of pilots in the position of “international relief officer”. Most had failed their transition and type-rating testing, and were by special letters of agreement between the regulator and the airlines, type-rated on condition that they would only occupy an operating seat above 10,000 feet. By what logic did regulators and airlines decide that a person who could not meet standards was nonetheless qualified to safely operate at high altitude, and should be gifted an airline transport certificate without having to meet the ICAO standards for issuance? When an autopilot kicks off in moderate turbulence east of the Kamchatka at night (or over the mid-Atlantic, as was the case in AF447), and the airplane commander is in crew rest, a fully-qualified and experienced handling pilot is not just desirable, but essential to safety.
Absent the former industry opportunities, a young person with a desire to be a professional pilot is now forced by the structure of the industry to take a course that is designed to limit experience. One goes to an aviation university where an all too sterile curriculum is covered with computer-based training, including testing only of short term memory for the material just completed. Preparation to take the examinations of the regulator is accomplished by studying a list of questions and answers from which the test will be constructed. Again, students are not learning the material, but learning the test. Upon graduation, they go to the right seat of a turboprop or jet in regional service. After a year or so, they upgrade and soon after are on their way to the right seat with a main line carrier. Their logbooks show 1,500 hours, but the reality is that they have been flying the same flight over and over, with the autoflight systems on at 400 feet after takeoff, and disconnected on short final, or after an autoland. The true facts are that they have one hour 1,500 times.
These are the principal reasons that we now see accidents where professional pilots: lose control during a crosswind takeoff; pay no attention to the airplane while holding on autopilot as ice builds and speed degrades until control is lost; allow flight management computers to select and then increase final approach speeds to the point where touchdown occurs half way down a wet runway; stall and spin; ignore flight mode annunciations during a coupled ILS approach, allowing the airplane to stall and settle into a marsh short of the runway; blast through an assigned holding fix because they cannot control flight management systems for more than the few modes upon which tested for the rating check; attempt to climb before the airplane is light enough, creating fuel emergencies and exposing the airplane to “coffin corner” issues; and crash because an autopilot is no longer engaged, and automated flight envelope protections are no longer available. This list could easily be much longer, as these are only the most egregious examples.
Knowledge, experience and training problems are equally extant in dispatch functions, where personnel take computer calculated data from a printer and send it along without review under the presumption that computer generated data is correct by definition. Equal time points are often shown as halfway regardless of wind because the required computer algorithms are simpler to construct, accepted that way by inexperienced regulators, and relied upon by flight crews without critical analysis. And to be certain that the industry can dispatch its two-engine airplanes anywhere without restriction, extended twin-engine operations criteria have been skewed to create the illusion that diversions due to cabin depressurization or engine failure are possible in many scenarios where it is simply not true. The explanation one receives from inexperienced dispatch personnel is that “the regulator approved it”. But, as with many other things in aviation, regulatory approval does not alter the “laws” of physics – if it did, we would instead refer to them as merely the “good ideas of physics”.
Another weakness that reveals similar problems is seen with maintenance and repair stations. Under deregulation, airlines have run their businesses so poorly as free enterprises that they have elected to sell airplanes and lease them back, sell maintenance facilities and equipment so as to out-source, and lay off maintenance personnel to slough off insurance and pension responsibilities. This has all been done to create liquidity sufficient to stay in business long enough to participate in the taxpayer-funded bail-out that is certain to come, unless some unlikely circumstance such as a prolonged decline in fuel prices makes it once again possible to produce a real profit in airline operation, or merger and acquisition reduces the number of airlines to the point where the survivors can conspire to fix prices and abandon the suicide pact by which fares have often been set below the costs of operation.
Contract maintenance and repair stations are therefore used to perform heavy maintenance for much of the air transportation fleet. The prevailing market price for labor created by the over-competitive environment means that inexperienced and poorly trained mechanics are the best they can afford. Station management will often be forced to quote a labor rate that is half of that charged by a local automobile garage in order to successfully garner heavy maintenance business. These stations usually set up shop at former military bases, and are allowed by the regulators to obtain certification without necessary manuals, subscriptions to manufacturers’ data and information services, specialized test equipment, or a requirement that personnel be trained on the airplane types approved.
The results of this marvel of free enterprise under the deregulation scheme are short-shrift inspections, poor quality work and workmanship, and a deteriorating fleet. Routine events include: engine damage because a “run qualified” mechanic has not been trained on how to handle the range of start malfunctions, but rather only on how to start the engine when all systems operate normally; taxiing an airplane with the center tank filled and the wing tanks all but empty, exceeding the fuel system limitations by tonnes, because the proper manual for the airplane at issue is not on premise and the staff has not been to the manufacturer’s training because of the costs; throwing parts at problems because the absence of both documentation and systems training precludes effective troubleshooting; and ultimately, releasing airplanes that are far short of repaired and inspected. These problems are hidden by paperwork that is – quite simply – falsified. As with substantially all audits in training or operations, the industry knows that modern regulatory oversight will – in almost all circumstances – be limited to a review of documentation. A check mark in every box, a date and signature on every event, and an inspector’s stamp on every release means the maintenance is almost certain to be graded “satisfactory” in a regulatory audit.
One reason that inexperience is so prevalent is that the industry now defines experience in such general terms. An employee with a certain number of years in some part of the industry is often qualified by corporate and regulatory standards to hold a position for which he has no specific experience.
That problem is often at its worst with the regulators. In seasons past, air carrier district offices were most often staffed by pilots and mechanics retired from airline employment. As a result, they brought a broad base of knowledge and years of experience to their jobs, and knew the business they were responsible to oversee. While one saw those situations where corporate and political forces affected the oversight function, the people themselves were generally quite knowledgeable and experienced.
Today, there is no distinction between district offices based on air carrier or general aviation activities as a principal focus. It is a common experience to find a principal operations inspector for a large airline transport carrier that has no experience whatsoever in the airplane types at issue – indeed, with nothing more than general aviation experience. If one has the requisite years of experience with the agency to qualify for an opening as a principal operations or airworthiness inspector, the agency will put him through a minimum standards training program, and give him the key to his new office. Cabin safety inspectors assigned to large airplane operations may be absent any experience as a flight attendant, and as with their counterparts in operations or airworthiness, without experience on the type operation over which they hold responsibilities for certification approval and regulatory oversight. Avionics inspectors may not even have a technician’s certificate, much less any practical experience. This prevalent absence of experience means that many regulatory personnel become focused on the form of things, rather than the substance they do not understand. Whether a submitted manual meets the “three hundred page” rule is often more important to the inexperienced regulator than what it contains.
The all too flexible standards for passing a type-rating or recurrency check by inexperienced flight crew are even more so in practice for regulatory personnel. From the headquarters offices of the agency to those of the air carrier, everyone wants to see the young and inexperienced operations inspector pass with no criticism or embarrassment, regardless of the actual performance level demonstrated.
When one looks at training conducted overall within regulatory agencies, two things become immediately apparent. First, there is a lot of training. Second, much of it is a ridiculous waste of time as conducted. The regulators seem to believe that sitting in a classroom is the equivalent of, and replaces the need for, operational experience. They also believe that a check mark in every box on a training record is the same as the effective transmission, reception and understanding of information. The appearance of training all to often trumps training in-fact.
These misconceptions about how learning takes place are at the root of how many within the regulatory agencies address their oversight functions. The focus on records oversight is a protective cocoon for the inexperienced inspectors, as they know their own limitations to inspect an airplane or evaluate operational performance. But, finding a blank line within a record where a date and signature should be is irrefutable proof that they have rooted out a violation, their inexperience notwithstanding.
One of more distressing ways in which this regulatory focus on form over substance is manifesting itself worldwide is the proliferation of legislation and regulations that infer and predict inferior performance based on anything less than satisfactory within training records. These “witch hunts” are usually in response to a public or legislative demand for a prophylactic method to prevent pilot error “from ever happening again”. To the public and to politicians this seems like a simple and fool-proof matter of allowing only people who have never made a mistake to pilot airplanes. The reality, of course, is much different. A bad training experience is often the catalyst for vastly improved performance thereafter. If legislators and regulators knew anything about training, they would know that human beings seldom learn along a straight line from the first lesson to program completion.
But the zeal of the uninformed to target scapegoats as a panacea for the improvement of air safety marches on. After all, it is easier and much less expensive than actually fixing the real problem with increased hiring standards and more effective training. In general, if an audit reveals a substandard grade for a training session, or a failed check ride, the pilot is permanently marked in the industry, as surely as was the adulteress in Hawthorne’s novel, identifying him to all putative employers as a pilot who could never be defended in the wake of any problem, and thus rendering him unemployable for all practicable purposes. There is seldom an effective way for a pilot to challenge these records based on circumstances. Was his wife or child in the hospital that day? Did the company schedule his check in an early period following a five-day international sequence? Is operations management trying to force him out because he refuses to play games with the logging of discrepancies? All too often a good pilot with a long career of successful checking performance is permanently affected by a record that shows substandard performance on one item or one day in training, without the practicable ability to compel corrections or even explanations to the record.
In response to such stupidly uninformed legislation and regulations thereunder, training personnel now routinely refrain from making any notations in training records about below or above average performance, for fear that regulatory personnel will over-react. Everything gets an “S” for satisfactory. Thus, a valuable tool for communication between instructors, and to track actual student progress has been lost, and training effectiveness reduced by legislation intended to have the opposite effect.
Regulatory oversight of training is now conducted by making sure that all records have check marks, dates, signatures, and a “satisfactory” grade. Oversight of operations is mostly conducted by looking at flight dispatch and release documentation to make sure the airplane commander initialed his deicing authorizations, and receipt of amended weather data. Oversight of maintenance is likewise focused on check marks, dates and signatures.
The entire oversight process has therefore become ever more sterile and remote from the operational theater. It is more like an accounting audit than one of operations, and begs the question – how long does one think it took the industry to understand that the paperwork was far more important to the regulator than how the training or maintenance had been accomplished – indeed, whether it had been accomplished at all?
The paradox is that the industry cannot continue to have it both ways. If training is acknowledged to be important, then it must be funded and conducted in ways that reflect that importance. To continue along the current path will result in a continuing increase in incidents and accidents that reflect lowered standards for both hiring and training. Reducing knowledge and experience requirements without substantially increasing and improving training may have calmed the waters of discontented feedback to the regulatory structure, and helped with recruitment as measured by filling positions, but it has also sown seeds of professional incompetence, now grown to become a foundational system weakness.
Mark H. Goodrich – Copyright © 2011
The Training Paradox was first published in the November 2011 Issue (Vol 8 No 3) of Position Report magazine.