Safety Pilot


May 1, 2012


Bruce LandsbergEver wonder why the career piloting hierarchy is structured the way it is? The most experienced pilots fly the best equipment, often in the most benign environment. Has it always been so or is this a more recent phenomenon? Does it have an effect on safety? It’s tough to say, but after the Colgan accident in February 2009 a lot of energy was directed at the training process (see “Safety Pilot: A Personal and Systemic Failure,” May 2010 AOPA Pilot).

Back in the day, airmail pilots apparently were considered some of the best at flying in an extremely tough environment. According to the website airmail, “Statistics tell the story. In 1921, Post Office officials recorded 1,764 forced landings, about half due to mechanical failures and half due to weather. In that same year, 12 pilots were killed. In all, 32 pilots lost their lives in the nine years of service, approximately one out of every six employed.”

They were capable fliers, as were early airline pilots, but the equipment was not as good as what light GA has today. A lot of mail didn’t make it—despite the postal service’s unofficial creed, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Today it’s a safe bet that the hardware is going to be turbine-powered, approved for flight into known icing, and completely IFR capable—likely with a flight director and autopilot. The top pilots were reserved for the toughest flying jobs.

Likewise, from the 1930s through the 1960s, instructing was considered important and paid reasonably well. In those days CFIs usually had a lot of experience and, if not in the airline world, flew charters or corporate, or ran an FBO. Some military pilots moonlighted because they enjoyed teaching. Almost all of my early instructors had several thousand hours or more of flight time, and understood the aeronautical world from a firsthand basis. They didn’t start out instructing; instead, they were mentored by senior pilots in the realm of transportation.

Over the past quarter-century, if one wasn’t trained by the military, becoming a CFI was—and largely remains—almost the only way to get enough hours to be considered for an entry-level career flying job. There are exceptions, but they often involve taking on a lot of debt or leaving the country with no assurance that there’s a living wage at the end of the rainbow. Many who’d like to become professional pilots are forced into teaching when that isn’t their career objective, and they aren’t very good at it. Many professional pilots would probably agree as to who has the toughest flying job—the instructor. I don’t buy the pejorative adage that those who can, do and those who can’t, teach. I’m also not convinced that one needs thousands of hours to be a good instructor—motivation is the key, along with good oversight and mentoring.

As a young instructor I was in awe in the presence of corporate and airline types—until discovering the goodies in bigger aircraft, such as the horizontal situation indicator (HSI), the flight director, and distance measuring equipment (DME). Then came the shock of seeing how easy it was to fly with that instrumentation. The all-important scan and the ability to watch five things at once were greatly simplified. Two- and three-axis autopilots made flights much easier and when radar, datalink, and full deice were added, weather flying was not the traumatic and mental exercise one experiences in basic aircraft. Imagine my amazement upon being introduced to mid- and high-altitude aircraft that flew over the weather—not through it.

In the airline and the corporate worlds, the “pay your dues” process applies. (Other professions extract their pound of flesh from newbies as well, but the career path is generally more assured.) Long-haul flights, aside from being psychologically and physiologically numbing, will make one takeoff and landing every, say, eight to 14 hours. The CFI, flying the humble trainer, might face six to eight landings hourly. An instructor might make more landings with a semi-competent or incompetent student in the left seat than a typical jet pilot makes in months. The big aircraft is at altitude, on autopilot, all the way—and flown by the most senior crews.

Now step into the world of the regional airline pilot, who often never gets above 20,000 feet; is dealing with ice and thunderstorms constantly, often in very high density airspace; and is flying six legs a day in more basic aircraft. Ditto the freight pilot flying Cessna Caravans, old Cessna 402s, Beech King Airs, and Piper Navajos. Guess who’s usually less experienced, paid much less, and has the much tougher job?

What would happen if we turned the aviation world completely upside down? New pilots who aspired to become corporate or airline professionals would fly as first officers, visiting all the exotic places in high-flying, long-range turbine equipment. They’d see the world, building experience on the technically easier flights—most of the time. A promotion would graduate the midlevel into the highly paid world of short-haul, low-altitude flights. Those who still enjoyed the job, were enthusiastic, and qualified, would become flight instructors—the best paid, most knowledgeable, and most respected. “Wow, you fly a [pick your trainer here] and with students? That’s amazing!”

Instructors are often told that they’re the most important people in the business, but the industry obviously doesn’t believe it. Impending pilot shortage and lots of retirements coming? What do you think?