Safety Publications/Articles

From the beginning

Ab initio training

Editor's Note: Mesa Pilot Development terminated its relationship with San Juan College in May 2010.

If you want to fly for an airline, you'll need to do more than simply earn the required ratings. Although the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires a minimum of 250 hours to qualify for a commercial pilot certificate, the reality is that to be competitive for an airline job you will need to have somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 hours of total flight time, including 200 to 500 hours of multiengine time.

The FAA calls the difference between what is legally required and what is actually expected of professional pilots "the gap."

For pilots aiming for a career with the airlines, the traditional means of crossing the infamous gap follows a route that is challenging, time consuming, and sometimes frustrating.

First, the aspiring pilot must invest significant sums of money at a flight school or aviation college to earn single-engine and multiengine commercial certificates and become a certificated flight instructor, perhaps with instrument and multiengine ratings as well. This pilot also needs a four-year college degree. Then he or she will probably spend a year or two working as a CFI to shore up the logbook and boost the number of coveted multiengine hours.

Once acquiring about 1,200 hours of total time and 200 hours of multiengine experience, that airline-bound pilot will flood the regional airlines with applications. Once our flight instructor gets a job at a regional, he or she won't waste any time before sending application packets to every major jet carrier in the country. Then, our pilot will wait and hope for an invitation from a major airline to interview within the next two to five years.

It doesn't have to be that way. Our pilot friend might just enroll in an ab initio program and reasonably expect to begin flying as an airline's first officer upon course completion with 350 hours of total time.

Imagine being trained "from the beginning" (the literal translation of the Latin term, ab initio) for a professional career at an airline. Every hour - from the first walk-around inspection of that two-seat single-engine trainer to the final commercial/multiengine practical test - is focused on a single objective - placing the pilot in the front seat of an airliner.

One essential philosophical underpinning of ab initio training is the belief that a competent, proficient air carrier pilot can be trained to airline standards with as little as 350 hours of flight time provided that he or she is immersed in the ways of airline flight from the outset. Indeed, airlines throughout the world have demonstrated the truth of this notion for decades.

What exactly is a "real" ab initio program? Candidly, the concept has been dramatically modified in the United States since its inception at foreign airlines during the 1960s. In some instances, the words ab initio placed strategically in promotional brochures may be more of an advertising hook than a training course leading directly to the cockpit of an airline. That's why some background information is in order.

With more than 600,000 certificated pilots in the United States, and more joining those ranks during the present period of growth and prosperity, the airline industry has a large pool of potential candidates for its cockpits. That simply isn't so in much of the rest of the world where general aviation is virtually non-existent. The question then becomes: How do airlines such as Air China or Germany's Lufthansa develop flight crews? The answer: ab initio training.

Lufthansa, one of the pioneers of the ab initio concept, is actively recruiting candidates for its ab initio training program through the German media. The basic requirements for consideration by Lufthansa are:

  • No previous flight time required.
  • Between 19 and 29 years of age.
  • German bachelor's degree.
  • Military service completed.
  • Comply with physical and eyesight minimums.
  • Permanent German work status.
  • Speak both German and English fluently.

The ab initio applicant is subjected to four days of psychological, coordination, scholarly aptitude, and technical evaluation in Germany. If successful, the candidate will enter a two-year training program covering all aspects of basic flight and advanced airline flying, including meteorology, flight procedures, European licensing, systems, aerodynamics, and so on. If an aspiring pilot fails evaluation testing the first time, there is no re-test -ever!

Primary flight training is conducted at Lufthansa's Arizona facility near Phoenix. There, the new pilot learns the elements of aviating in airplanes ranging from Beechcraft Bonanzas to Barons. Advanced flight and ground training takes place in Germany where the student will be exposed to European airspace, weather, and regulations in Piper Cheyennes. Cockpit resource management and crew coordination are emphasized throughout.

At the end of the two-year training routine, the new Lufthansa pilot will be assigned to a Boeing or Airbus with all of about 200 hours of actual flight time and several hundred hours of simulator experience.

This, then, marks a real ab initio program. The aspiring cockpit professional is groomed from the beginning for a specific airline. The airline sponsors the candidate by absorbing the training costs! In the case of Lufthansa, the airline foots the bill in the amount of slightly more than $100,000. Once hired, the pilot is expected to reimburse the company about 15 percent of the total tab over time. It should be noted that there is no absolute guarantee that the trainee will be picked up by Lufthansa once he has completed the course. If the ab initio graduate is left standing in the unemployment line, then Lufthansa receives no reimbursement for the training costs.

With the current hiring boom at the major U.S. airlines, an expanding list of aviation colleges, academies, and flight schools have been promoting their own ab initio training curricula. There are, however, several important differences.

In the States, all training costs are paid by the trainee. Although ab initio flight training providers may offer airline-type coursework, no programs exist today wherein an ab initio-trained pilot will find flight crew employment at an all-jet carrier directly upon course completion with as little as 350 hours of flight experience. And there's no reason to believe that will change anytime soon. One spokesperson at a major airline summed up the reason. "With more than 10,000 pilot applications from qualified individuals in our database, why would we want to consider the European method of sponsoring pilots or considering applicants with less flight time than our standard minimums?"

In the United States, ab initio training is geared to preparing pilots for a regional airline career first. At schools that offer an ab initio program, the philosophy is this: Get into the cockpit of a commuter airliner more quickly (with, perhaps, as little flight time as 350 total hours); build up quality time as a crewmember flying turboprops or regional jets sooner; and become more attractive to the major airlines faster.

Remember, according to national statistics, those pilots being hired into the major airlines have accumulated, on average, 4,000 to 5,000 flight hours. Slipping into a commuter cockpit every day is the best way to acquire that kind of flight time before Social Security payments kick in. Of course, with today's impressive regional jet equipment and healthier pay scales - into the $70,000 range and higher - a permanent career as a regional pilot should not be discounted.

Ab initio training can be found in several settings: large, small, academic, and non-academic. The exact content and ultimate goal of the programs vary from institution to institution. As one example, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has entered into an agreement with Atlantic Coast Airlines designed to provide opportunities for the school's aeronautical science-degree graduates. The agreement establishes selection criteria, specific course requirements, and preferred hiring status for qualified graduates. The curriculum not only includes traditional flight training but ultimately the ACA Jetstream First Officer Training Program.

The net result is that selected students who successfully complete the program will have the chance to gain employment with ACA immediately following graduation.

As a point of comparison, the approach at the University of North Dakota is somewhat different. According to UND's Ken Polovitz, whose responsibilities include developing industry partnerships and assisting students in the job search, "Whether the student pursues the commercial aviation track or the air transport path, training and education as a 'total flightdeck professional' is ingrained in our coursework. Advanced study in aircraft systems such as the de Havilland Dash-8, meteorology, human factors, and aerodynamics are all part of the normal fabric of our curriculum. Thus, when a UND student leaves us with degree in hand, he or she has the essential skills, training, and quality that any number of regional airlines are looking for."

At the University of Nebraska-Omaha, a new pilot hiring program was announced with Great Lakes Airlines and ATA Connection in 1998. Becky Lutte is the coordinator of the program. "All of our flight students, whether oriented to employment with one of our regional airline affiliates or not, take basically the same courses in advanced systems, meteorology, aerodynamics, operations, and human factors. We have worked directly with the airlines in developing many of these courses," she says.

"Students can express their interest in the program as early as the sophomore year," she adds. "From that point on, we monitor the progress of those students very closely. Upon graduation, those individuals who have received outstanding evaluations on their checkrides from FAA pilot examiners, who achieve a high GPA, have the "right" personality, and who are active on the flight team have shown us that they are the cream of the crop. We invite those students to become CFIs for the UNO flight program. Once they have earned approximately 400 hours of flight experience, we guarantee an interview with either Great Lakes or ATA Connection. This is important: Each airline has contracted for a minimum number of new hires annually from the UNO program."

One of the oldest and most successful ab initio flight schools was started in 1989 when the Mesa Air Group and San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico, came together to launch the Mesa Pilot Development Program. The Aviation Degree Program was established for the sole purpose of grooming first officers for Mesa Airlines and its various subsidiaries.

A spokesperson for San Juan College says, "In this way, the company can train pilots to its standards. The airline knows who the pilots are and the quality of training they have received." The curriculum at SJC will lead to a two-year associate's degree and includes training in Beech Bonanzas, Barons, and Beech 1900s. The bottom line: 98 percent of the program's graduates are accepted into the Mesa Air Group with an average time of just 300 hours.

Perhaps the most well-known flight academy offering ab-initio training is owned outright by an airline - Comair Academy in Sanford, Florida.

Ed Comiskey, Comair Academy's director of training, says that the new trainee will spend seven to nine months going from student pilot to CFI-instrument/multiengine. Graduates of this phase one training build between 200 and 225 hours on average.

"Phase two," says Comiskey, "can lead to a position as a flight instructor for the academy. Approximately 84 percent of academy trainees are invited to apply for a CFI slot. After a year as an academy instructor and once the CFI has acquired at least 1,000 hours of total flight time and between 100 and 150 hours of multiengine instruction, a pilot interview with Comair (the airline) is guaranteed. More than 95 percent of the school's CFIs find employment with either Comair, one of the airlines for which Comair Academy screens applicants, or an outside airline."

There are three things that all of these and other ab initio training programs in the United States have in common. They are expensive, competitive, and offer no guarantees. Plan on spending from $50,000 to $100,000 or more to complete ab initio training.

Just because ab initio students spend dearly to gain the education and credentials doesn't mean they automatically get hired. The competition for jobs is fierce. Unless a trainee is truly exceptional in many ways, that $100,000 price tag might lead only to a wallet full of pilot certificates and a nice plaque for the wall.

Nonetheless, any investment is a calculated risk. For pilots launching their flying careers, an examination of flight training entities offering ab initio programs might be worth a good look. Make certain that, before the check is cashed or the credit cards are maxed, there definitely is a link to an airline interview with a strong potential for employment. Ask questions. Demand success stories and information on the percentage that didn't make it. Consult with graduates who have been hired into an air carrier.

And be wary of schools and companies that promote ab initio training leading to the cockpit of an airliner for a limited number of hours upon course completion. For instance: "Fly 100 hours as a genuine airline crewmember after graduation." In reality, the student pays for that experience in some manner, shape, or form. The flier is hardly a long-term employee. Once the 100 hours are exhausted, the pilot can be left pounding the pavement for work. In some cases, the airline is simply a scheduled tour operator flying small piston twins. This is not to imply that such schemes are necessarily shady, but such operators tend to exploit the term ab initio to new and creative dimensions.

Remember: If all else fails, there is probably a job as a flight instructor waiting at your local municipal airport. There are countless aviators in Boeing 777 or Airbus 320 cockpits who crossed the gap just that way! For more information about professional flight training programs, AOPA members can contact the Aviation Services Department at 800/USA-AOPA to request a copy of AOPA's Guide to Flying Careers by Wayne Phillips.

By Wayne Phillips

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