Frequently Asked Questions:
If the simulators are as precise as you claim, shouldn’t the public have access to success/failure records of pilots in simulated circumstances? Can we know if we are getting an "A" or "C" pilot?
I would be the first to agree that incompetent pilots exist in our ranks, although as a percentage of the total, they are fairly rare. That is why I love CRM so much. It is one of the best tools we have to head off problems with the few pilots who aren't as sharp as the norm.
In the old days, those kinds of pilots had their way regardless of how bad their willful misconduct got . But now, with first and second officers that are well-trained in CRM, the rare tyrant captain knows he will be called to account by his peers, long before he is allowed to deliberately place the flight in peril. In most cases they simply can't get away with it anymore, because the other crew aren't afraid to stand up to him, like they were in the days of the "God-Captain" that could do no wrong.
The deficiencies in pilots that still exist today are largely the result of lack of simulator training (4-27-93, Business Express, Inc., and Atlantic Coast Airlines/United Express, on 1-7-94); lack of CRM training (numerous examples, mostly foreign airlines and also some domestic--usually freighter outfits); pilot union protection (a long history of that, but CRM does much to diminish the effect); and diversity requirements of the EEOC.
As to the latter, I have flown with many minorities and females and have not observed their level of competence to be any less than what I had seen in the years preceding diversity. Thus, I have no quarrel with hiring from all the ranks of our citizenry, provided the standards aren't lowered to achieve diversity goals.
But that is the problem. I am aware of some cases where less than competent female and/or minority pilots have been hired. In other words, the standards were lowered to meet the numbers requirements imposed by consent decrees with the EEOC.
In one case, a minority female was given almost 3 times the simulator hours to pass her DC-10 S/O checkride, but couldn't do it (just about the easiest position in any airline cockpit). Yet the airline was terrified at the thought of firing her. Her boyfriend was an employee of EEOC. She was still in her first (probation) year so union protection wasn’t a factor.
So what did the airline do? They mounted an intensive investigation into her background (a tactic that could have gotten the airline into big trouble if they had done it before they hired her), and discovered she had been fired from 3 other airlines, but failed to reveal that on her employment application. That was the ammunition needed to justify her dismissal.
There are other stories, including the letter to AirlineSafety.Com, by ATC controller John Dill and other letters published in AWST, by controllers who believe diversity goals have harmed the competency level of controllers.
I see the EEOC decrees to be the biggest threat against pilot competency today, not because there aren't competent minority/female pilots out there to be hired, but because quotas are imposed and airlines sometimes have to lower their normal standards to achieve those mandated numbers. If they don't, the EEOC sues them, costing them many millions of dollars and it will result in the imposition of even harsher mandates in the future to "remedy their past discrimination."
As to the evaluating of pilot performance in the simulator, I would be opposed to that being made public for the following reasons:
1. Pilots aren't graded (A, B, C, etc.) They are required to achieve a certain level of proficiency before they can fly the line. That is determined by their ability to successfully carry out certain required maneuvers and standard operating procedures (SOP). FAA training regulations, plus even more stringent airline procedures, are applied to all pilots and they do not graduate out of the simulator until all the required maneuvers are demonstrated. Thus, their training records consists mostly of showing that they successfully demonstrated the required maneuvers and SOP.
2. Some pilots are able to demonstrate the required proficiency in less sim time than others. That doesn't necessarily speak of incompetence of the pilot that requires more time. Example:
When I transitioned to 747-400 captain, it was a piece of cake. That is because I had flown that plane for five years as a F/O and had years of experience in a variety of other "glass cockpit" airliners. I was able to skip much of the ground school because it consisted of learning procedures that I had been regularly doing for 15 years.
In contrast, my F/O in that transition, required much more time, in ground school and simulator. That is not because he was incompetent, but because all his previous experience (which was quite extensive--he was a 737-200 captain), was in non-glass airplanes. Learning glass the first time is quite a hurdle. Such pilots typically do require more time in training, but they are no less competent when the course is completed.
3. The learning process consists mostly of the correction of errors. When a pilot transitions to a new plane, particularly if it is a much different technology, he will make many errors. It is the correction of each of those errors that takes the extra time and it is what, ultimately, makes that pilot highly skilled. I have made many errors in the simulator, particularly when transitioning to new airplanes. I will never forget those errors; they are what stands out in one's memory the most. The extra training, to correct those errors, reflects not on the pilot's competency, but on the willingness of the airline to spend the extra money to ensure its pilots are the best trained in the world.
A good example is windshear training. That started some 10 to 15 years ago. Almost every pilot that tried it the first time crashed! But, as each of us learned WHAT NOT TO DO, we got better and better until a crash (in the simulator) is the exception, not the rule.
If the airline has good simulators and good training programs, then the biggest threat to competency is not in how much time various pilots get during transition courses, but in how competent they were when the airline first hired them. Very selective hiring (including detailed background investigation) is the most effective tool to heading off pilot competency problems in the future, yet that is the tool that is called into question the most in "discrimination" allegations against the airlines. And, the libel law has its effect too. Previous airlines are afraid to disclose any negative information about a discharged pilot, because lawyers make hay out of it and sue the hell out of the employer that dares give a negative reference.
Some years ago, a female pilot alleged a constant pattern of sexual harassment in the cockpit, naming numerous male pilots as defendants in a Title Seven Civil Rights lawsuit. Her attorney was a rather famous female rights specialist who makes extensive use of the media to win her cases. The female pilot was exposed in the deposition process when many contradictions were revealed. She finally confessed; she made the whole thing up. She was a "weak sister" pilot, who had competency problems and was afraid the airline might try to fire her. Someone advised her that they wouldn't dare fire her if she made a sexual harassment/civil rights claim.
Of course, once the truth was disclosed, she was fired. I have been told she now works as a pilot for another major airline. Want to bet on, whether or not the previous airline gave her a negative reference?
July, 1998Robert J. Boser
The Editor of this Web Page, now retired, was an airline pilot for 33 years and holds 6 specific Captain's type-ratings on Boeing Jet Airliners.