When it comes to difficult and dangerous situations, is experience everything?
Is there only one sort of training that matters to make you truly professional?
Certainly, when it came to the so-called Miracle on the Hudson in which, after a bird strike, US Airways captain Sully Sullenberger brought a plane down safely onto water, it seemed that experience and extremely cool thinking were crucial.
What about the most recent Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX crash, in which 157 people died?
This week, Sullenberger offered some robust views about what may have happened and what needs to be done.
Not all his fellow pilots agreed.
In a Facebook post, Sullenberger said that while the cause of the crash is still unknown, there are many similarities between it and the Lion Air crash in Indonesia last year:
It has been obvious since the Lion Air crash that a redesign of the 737 MAX 8 has been urgently needed, yet has still not been done, and the announced proposed fixes do not go far enough.
The fixes proposed by Boeing — as well as all MAX planes now being grounded — so far comprise a software update, said to be introduced in the coming days.
The fact that Sullenberger doesn’t believe this is enough will surely worry those who revere his thoughts and those who simply want to be safe when they fly.
Sullenberger, though, went further in his comments:
It has been reported that the first officer on that flight had only 200 hours of flight experience, a small fraction of the minimum in the U.S., and an absurdly low amount for someone in the cockpit of a jet airliner.
It hasn’t been confirmed that the First Officer had so little experience.
To the lay ear, though, it does sound a peculiarly small amount of time — especially when compared with the 8,100 flying hours recorded by the captain of that fateful flight.
For Sullenberger, knowledge, skill, experience and judgment are all vital in such stressful conditions. These must be had by both the captain and his co-pilot, he explained:
A cockpit crew must be a team of experts, not a captain and an apprentice. In extreme emergencies, when there is not time for discussion or for the captain to direct every action of the first officer, pilots must be able to intuitively know what to do to work together.
The famous captain was scathing in his assessment of any pilot who had such a small amount of experience. For him:
Someone with that low amount of time would have only flown in a closely supervised, sterile training environment, not the challenging and often ambiguous real world of operational flying, would likely never have experienced a serious aircraft malfunction, would have seen only one cycle of the seasons of the year as a pilot, one spring with gusty crosswinds, one summer of thunderstorms.
Again, it’s not clear whether this was the case with the First Officer.
Still, I spoke to several pilots this week who suggested that one of the ways Boeing — and, indeed, Airbus — had sold their latest planes to carriers was with the alleged suggestion that they could be flown by less experienced pilots.
Indeed, as American Airlines captain Dennis Tajer, also a spokesman for the airline’s pilots’ union, told the New York Times:
We’ve seen insidious marketing of aircraft to accommodate less experienced and perhaps a lower grade of pilot.
I’ve heard from pilots this week who told me their understanding is that pilots at some overseas airlines are told to rely on the autopilot immediately after takeoff.
Still, when it comes to Sullenberger’s statements about pilot experience, not all his fellow pilots agreed.
Qatar Airways pilot Greg Kelly offered on Facebook:
I’m sick of this tired old arguement [sic]. You get your fATPL [Frozen Air Transport Pilot License] at 200-250 hours. In the States, you then muck around to get to 1500 before you can get an airline job. Lots of people instruct on a Cessna or Piper to build time. Hours on these aircraft contribute little to your ability to fly a complex jet in a commercial environment. In fact bad habits and attitudes acquired through years of general aviation flying may diminish professional capabilities of pilots. The fact remains that most parts of the world hire 200-hour cadets and have exceptional safety records because the quality of training is good and geared toward professional standards.
Hans Baldwin, a captain at Vietnam Airlines also contradicted Sullenberger:
There are people with barely more than 200 hours, flying nuclear armed military aircraft, over your country every single day. If the training is good then it’s a total non issue.
It may be some time before the precise cause of the Ethiopian Airlines crash is revealed.
It’s possible that the 737 MAX will be cleared for renewed use before then.
Some passengers will surely continue to be wary of the plane.
Is there anything that will make them feel otherwise?