How Concerned Should You be About Pilot Inexperience?

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a preliminary investigative report this week on an April 12 crash in Florida that left all five people aboard a Piper Cheyenne airplane dead. The report indicated that the plane’s 51-year-old pilot, John Patrick Van Ommeren, had only completed one initial training course to fly the Piper Cheyenne just a week prior to the crash.

Of course, the NTSB’s investigation is still in the very early stages, and it would be more than presumptuous at this point to hang this tragedy solely on the pilot. After all, Ommeren was an experienced pilot, having logged over 1,200 hours of flight time in other aircraft. But he had spent such a small amount of time acclimating himself to the Cheyenne before he decided to take it out for spin-with members of his family aboard no less.

This tragic crash begs the question-how much experience does a typical airline pilot have?

Many have pointed out that the life of a commercial pilot can be a difficult one, with low wages and difficult hours at the beginning of one’s career. This is especially so at regional airlines, where a surprising amount of pilots working their first airline job qualify for food stamps. Even when upgraded to captain, pilots still have to accumulate years of seniority before their wages are commensurate with their training and responsibility.

More and more pilots leave regional airlines in search of higher-paying jobs. When airlines lose a captain, a first officer has to be upgraded to fill the post, and more new pilots have to be trained and hired. The learning curve going from the first officer to captain can be a steep one, and it creates a serious risk for themselves and their passengers.

Take the Colgan Air crash of 2009 as an example: the captain hadn’t gained much experience in the plane he was scheduled to fly and reportedly had a history of failing check rides. The first officer (making a paltry $16,254 a year) was more experienced with that particular plane but had accrued much less overall flight time and experience than the captain. The crash killed 49 people.

Since 2009, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has increased the minimum service hours requirement for first officers, but the wage problem, especially at regional airlines, has largely stayed the same…maybe it’s time to do something about that?


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