Aviation Expert: Pilots Become More Like 'Programmers' Lacking Flight Experience

© REUTERS / Abhirup RoyThe cockpit of Jet Airways Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircarft
The cockpit of Jet Airways Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircarft - Sputnik International
Russia has joined other countries in imposing a temporary ban on Boeing 737 Max 8 flights. The European Union, Australia, the United States, China and other states have suspended operations of the seemingly troubled model. Earlier, Boeing announced that it would ground its entire fleet of 737 Max aircraft.

Sputnik has discussed the halting of Boeing 737 Max 8 flights with Keith Mackey, an aviation safety consultant and former airline captain.

Sputnik: What can you say about the status of Boeing as a company in North America? How much influence does it actually have over the FAA?

Keith Mackey: Boeing really doesn’t influence the FAA. The FAA checks the work that Boeing does effectively. The FAA was the organisation that certified the airplane, that certified Boeing’s design of the aircraft; that’s how the airplane got into service.

Sputnik: Some are slightly critical of the fact that both Boeing and the FAA didn’t ground the planes immediately. What is your take on that? Do you think that they acted in good time, or do you think that they should have, perhaps, immediately done so even after the first Lion Air incident?

Keith Mackey: The problem is that we have nothing known wrong with the airplane.

The Lion Air crash is relatively easily explained because the aircraft was not maintained properly; there was a defective component, an angle of attack indicator, that had been bad for the last four flights. The previous crews had all been able to follow the proper procedures and land the airplane safely, this crew was not. Had the angle of attack indicator been properly replaced, [it is] likely we would not be having this conversation today.

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Sputnik: And wasn’t that a really new plane? I mean that was a new plane and why was the problem?

Keith Mackey: It’s new, it has been around since 2017; and even in the United States it has been operating without any difficulty at all, there are about 350 of them in service now that were flying daily until they were all grounded.

Sputnik: Donald Trump says that you have to be like an MIT scientist to understand how to fly a plane these days. I don’t know how much it has changed since the early days of civil aviation, but can you comment on, perhaps, is there a need for more training because of the complexity of the software and the issue that you’ve just mentioned that previous crews were able to handle this and this crew was not. You know, sometimes accidents happen because crews are not familiar with the equipment. Is there enough regulation to make sure that any crew that is introduced to a new plane has sufficient hours of flight experience with that equipment?

Keith Mackey: You are exactly correct. And here is the problem – as the aviation industry grows throughout the world, it’s primarily growing in areas that didn’t have economic ability to afford airlines in the past, particularly East Asia and developing countries now are doing much better.

People want to travel, they can afford to travel, so companies like Lion Air spring up and grow rapidly. The problem is that these countries don’t have pilot resources, they don’t have an air force that trains people; they don’t have civilian aviation, general aviation as we call it, so there is no reserve of pilots. This is a worldwide problem and it’s only going to get worse as more experienced people get older and retire. And the solution seems to be to select people, right and good people, and train them.

But the problem is that you can’t really give these people a lot of experience quickly; and the result is that both Boeing and Airbus are depending on automates, they are making the airplane more and more automated.

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So rather than actually flying it very much with that stick and rudder controls that are the basic controls of the airplane, you become more like a computer programmer, knowing which button to push, how to set everything up and then the airplane flies itself.

This is fine until those systems go bad, such as in our case here. If the pilots are not able to recognise the problem that occurs because of lack of experience or lack of training, we may have the same situation that we do now. So this is something, I’m sure, that needs to be looked at; and I think these accidents bring this problem to the forefront. It’s a worldwide problem and we’ll need to find a way to address it.

Sputnik: Is there enough emphasis really put on the old stich and rudder control? Is it something that you are still required to really have a good grasp of before you are allowed to fly, or is it much easier now to get your license since it’s all automatic anyway, until there is an accident or a malfunction of the automation systems?

Keith Mackey: The answer is yes, there needs to be more emphasis on this. The pilot in the most recent crash, the co-pilot, had only 200 hours of flying time according to what the Ethiopian Airlines released. That’s unbelievable. In the US you would need at least 15 hundred hours to even be hired as an airline pilot.

With 200 hour you’d still be at flight school, really. So, that’s a big problem and I think if we’re focusing on that situation, we’ll find out that no, he really didn’t have that much experience actually flying the airplane because he didn’t have that much experience [period].

Sputnik: What can be done about this? As you said, pilots who are older, who have the experience with the old manual controls and so forth, are retiring, how do you get people with experience and how do you really address the situation? I mean, I seems like it’s almost […] like it is a Catch-22 or something, there is no way to really find […] You can’t create experience without a nice period of time, a certain period of time; you need time.

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Keith Mackey: You do a great job of asking questions because that is exactly correct. Here in the US what happens is when a young man decides he wants to become a pilot, he will go through flight school that he generally has to pay for himself.

When he completes the flight school, now he has this mountain to climb – to get 15 hundred hours so an airline will hire him; and he will work as a flight instructor, perhaps a corporate pilot or observer pilot and he’ll build his hours up that way.

In developing nations, there are no flight schools or very few flight schools, the people may not have the economic resources to be able to afford to go to flight schools; and once they graduate there are very few jobs for them to build this experience.

So the result is that airlines have to select very bright people with a lot of other skills and then pay for them to learn to fly. But then once they’ve done this, they have still got minimal experience and if you just put them in an airliner, eventually they’ll learn to operate it using the automation.

But most airlines depend on the automation and have pilots use it completely rather than using basic flying skills for part of the time. It’s very difficult to maintain proficiency as basic pilot manipulating the airplane and as an operator of these advances pieces of equipment that we have on board.

Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Keith Mackey and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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