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Is a 600-hour pilot too green to be safe?

The crash of Germanwings flight 9525 offers yet another example of how the layers of safety in aviation have been peeled away since deregulation 35 years ago. Here are some of the issues that need to be addressed:

INEXPERIENCE: Pilots who have logged only 600 hours of flight are, relatively speaking, infant aviators…so green that they don’t even know what they don’t know. (By the way, I would not be surprised if this wasn’t the first opportunity ever for the first officer to be in the A320 cockpit alone given his rookie status. Perhaps the chance that he had hoped for came sooner than he might have expected at a short-haul airline like Germanwings.)

In the United States, a first officer sitting in that seat would have at least twice as much experience. The bar used to be lower, but the rule was changed to require airline pilots have 1,500 hours of experience and hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate (tantamount to a PhD of piloting), following the crash of Colgan Air 3407 in Buffalo in early 2009. Naturally, the airlines are doing their best to undo this regulation, because they are grappling with a pilot shortage and they don’t want to pay starting pilots a reasonable wage.

Of course there are obvious safety reasons, aside from thoughts of terrorism or suicide, that this is not a good idea. With only 100 hours on the Airbus, the first officer should never have been left unsupervised at the controls. Bad things can happen quickly in aviation — an unforgiving endeavor.

Airlines have always relied on pilots to be aware of the signs of mental illness and report it.

But more to the point here: when the bar is set as low as it is at airlines like Germanwings, learning to fly with a sinister ulterior motive in mind becomes much more achievable.

And in the case of someone who may not be stable enough to be entrusted with the lives of others, such a short time from hire date to flying the line does not afford very much time for a pilot to be vetted by his or her peers. Airlines have always relied on pilots to be aware of the signs of mental illness and report it. In the old days, most of them came from the military, where the training and vetting is extremely rigorous. These days, a new pilot is much more of an unknown quantity at an airline.

SCREENING: Pilots are psychologically screened during initial interviews with an airline, but there is no psychological component of the twice-annual FAA First-Class Medical Certificate examination. Pilots who are are grappling with mental health issues are loathe to self-report, because it might mean the end of their career. Airlines need to work to change the stigma.

DOOR DESIGN: The reinforced cockpit door design does have a provision to allow someone from the outside to get in when a crew is incapacitated. No one in the wake of 9/11 thought it would be necessary to design a security system to protect passengers from airline pilots. Perhaps now it is time to consider a means to do that.

STREAMING AND CAMERAS: Having a camera in the cockpit and streaming data from an airplane in distress might not have changed the outcome of this event, but it would have provided clear answers sooner and would have alleviated the need for searchers to risk their lives in the Alps looking for some solid-state memory cards. If you added up the cost of all the searching for black boxes that has occurred in the course of just this year, I’m certain it would far exceed the the price-tag for equipping airliners with the simple ability to log on to a satellite network when something is awry.

When the bar is set as low as it is at airlines like Germanwings, learning to fly with a sinister ulterior motive in mind becomes much more achievable.

And maybe if streaming data was ever embraced by the airline industry, there could be a way to open a locked cockpit door from the ground … OnStar style.

PROCEDURE: It is common sense, and the regulatory standard, in the United States to require that two members of the flight crew be on the flight deck at all times. Every airline everywhere should adopt this simple rule.

THE BOTTOM LINE: is the bottom line. Airlines are growing rapidly and cutting costs wherever they can. Passengers insist on cheap fares and assume regulators are taking care of safety — even though they are not. The airlines refuse to pay starting pilots a reasonable wage. Couple all this with the significant reduction in military trained pilots available for hire, and you’re left with a significant pilot shortage.

The airlines answer to this problem: insist on a reduction in the standards for their pilots. They suggest airliners these days are so technologically advanced that the human being does not need the kind of training that Sully Sullenberger had. But as we’ve seen so many times this year, we may be putting too much faith in the aviation hardware to save the day and not paying enough attention to the software…that is, the carbon-based sentient software strapped into the front seats.

Watch Miles O’Brien’s analysis on Germanwings flight 9525 on Thursday’s PBS NewsHour:

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