Pie in the sky

The pilot shortage is a crisis of quality not quantity, and the resolution won’t be found in the flying schools.

Despite more varied routes than ever into the cockpit, fundamental training methods have changed little over the years, while the design and operation of commercial aircraft is now a world away from those that began the air transport revolution.

Status: It’s complicated

This has left the aviation industry in dire need of highly skilled pilots, being fed by a training system focussed on compliance, bound by a regulatory framework which hasn’t kept pace with industry’s requirement. While this isn’t necessarily the cause of the pilot shortage, it has done nothing to resolve it.

With safety the focus, recruiting a consistent standard of pilot has become the priority. But as supply dries up, the aviation industry is finding that the pilot shortage has as much more to do with a scarcity of people with the right skills as it does a lack of applicants, yet as those with newly minted commercial licenses will attest, a job after training is far from guaranteed. How can this be, if we have a pilot shortage?

There are thousands of Commercial and Airline Transport Pilot Licenses in Europe alone that have been issued but not used; not because their holders have retired, suffered an illness or quit flying, but because they are unable to find employment. This is in part due to the fact that their training hasn’t necessarily equipped them with the skills required in the job.

I spoke to several senior aviation industry recruiters and instructors recently to better understand the problem. Among them were a training captain from a major low-cost carrier, a helicopter industry base manager, a flying instructor for a commercial organisation and a helicopter base chief pilot. They were complementary about the calibre of young people they were employing, having found them on the whole to be enthusiastic and professional, with strong safety and questioning cultures.

Making an approach under pressure, the skills you need are more likely to involve the human than the machine.

However, they also cited a trend of fundamental skills lacking in newly trained professional pilots, that in some cases had resulted in their rejection from a job. In all cases these individuals had the qualifications and experience required for the jobs that the companies were desperately trying to fill, but for which they nevertheless found to be unsuitable.

The reasons ranged from weak soft skills to poor flying, with several cases even highlighting serious errors in fundamental techniques that should be familiar to the average PPL holder. Of those that had been successful, a limited understanding of business fundamentals and even poor teamwork were highlighted as concerning trends. Yet all of these people had successfully passed all of the commercial professional tests required for the issue of a license. To see why this might be, we need to look at how their training matched up against the reality of their chosen profession.

Flying an aircraft used for air transport purposes has become more and more complex over the last few decades. I’m sure there are plenty of former 707 pilots who will argue the toss here but bear this in mind; in the U.S. alone, airline flight time in has increased over three decades from 12m to 19m hours per year. Coincidentally, the number of fatalities in that market has reduced from 0.321/100k hours, to only 0.00052. If flying was as safe now as it was in 1990, there would be more than one fatal accident per week in the U.S. alone, and we’d be talking about a shortage of aviators for a much more macabre reason (Thanks to Paul Bertorelli at AvWeb for that comparison).

This safety record is made possible by not only an increase in the complexity of technical systems, but also the processes by which they are operated. The aim isn’t to make the pilots’ jobs easier but to make it possible for them to do more, more safely.

Consider the role of a professional pilot. They are a:

  • Technical expert – They understand and control a complex machine alongside a team, monitoring its automated systems in order to detect, diagnose, and rectify failures when they occur inside extremely tight timescales and under vital threat.
  • Risk manager – They rapidly and accurately assess and mitigate exposure to 1st, 2nd and 3rd party risks in a high-reliability environment with limited systemic safety factors.
  • Team leader – They are accountable for the ethos of a team they may have never met previously, without any means of referring problems or emergencies to a senior.
  • Company representative – They undertake customer interaction in a highly competitive market in which the potential for corporate reputational damage is high.
  • Pilot – They use a set of pedals and two levers at the same time, in order to maintain visual and instrumented cues within parameters.

I am being deliberately glib. Despite GPS, autopilots and all manner of other assistance, pilots are still required to be able to hand-fly aircraft that were designed to be flown by a computer. Meanwhile, the computer doesn’t need to worry about talking to air traffic, the passengers, or making decisions about the weather, because that’s the pilot’s job, as is taking over at a moment’s notice if the computer suddenly decides to take some time off.

Modern electronics are reliable, but they’re complex and far from infallible.

But becoming a pilot is about more than ‘simply’ learning to fly a temperamental talking abacus, and becoming a captain is about more still. The majority of the vacancies that the pilot shortage will generate are in the left seat, so employers need to know that their early-20-year-old First Officer recruits have the potential to take these commands.

While the design and operation of aircraft has changed immeasurably in the last half century, in many ways flying training has remained the same.

Take a look again at my (non-exhaustive) list of pilot roles and think about how many are examined on the Commercial Pilot License skill test, or for that matter are explicitly examined as theory. The industry needs pilots that are ready to operate in all of these areas as soon as they hit the line, yet the applicant’s license tells them nothing about how suited that person is to the role. The skills test is undoubtedly a critical part in ensuing that airline pilots are competent, but aircraft handling is no longer the most important skill that a pilot possesses. Back in the day, if you had to wrestle your misbehaving mechanical steed back to terra firma, it took physical strength and a good ‘feel’ for the aircraft. Nowadays any ‘feel’ that an airliner has is designed in, and the most important things to understand is how the logic works, both in the electronic and human sense.

Yet aircraft handling (often in prescribed scenarios) remains the benchmark by which entry into the profession is granted, and given that flying training organisations are commercial enterprises, that’s the bar that they train to.

The truth is that working as a professional pilot demands far more than accurate flying or the knowledge that at one point in time you actually knew how to use a whizz-wheel. Theoretical knowledge and a good pair of hands can only take you so far in an industry that demands the sort of repeatably high performance that keeps the airline accident rate effectively at zero.

This kind of reliability only comes from a secure knowledge of the fundamentals, and relies more on understanding the inner workings of the human beings on board than the aircraft itself. This kind of professional understanding is usually forged from years of experience; ask airline pilots when they started really learning about how to be a professional aviator and most will likely tell you it was after they had finished their theoretical study, for many probably not until they joined an airline. But there is a way to develop this experience faster; a technique that has been employed in high-performance sports for years, because in such a physical domain retirement comes around a lot earlier. Start younger.

Early experience is vital to a strong foundation.

An earlier identification of candidates interested in a career in aviation could be mutually beneficial for the industry, the education system and the country as a whole. Research for this article uncovered a greater degree of crossover between the Airline Transport Pilot License theoretical syllabus and the national curriculum science and mathematics syllabi than I had anticipated; most of which was no more advanced than GCSE level. In turn, aviation provides practical, engaging and broad subject matter with which teachers could engage young minds with interactive and exciting activities. It also provides a multitude of pathways to highly rewarding careers, both in financial terms and personal fulfilment.

Of course, not all young people desire a career in aviation, but exposing more of them to the fundamentals early enough would spark the imagination of a broader, more diverse audience than the industry is currently reaching. It would also allow that audience to see ‘behind the veil’ and demonstrate that there is no reason that a career in aviation shouldn’t be theirs. This early access would also provide an opportunity for the industry to identify those with the passion and the potential to go the furthest, and at whom to target the more advanced and expensive development opportunities. The end result could be a cohort of young people with a secure knowledge of the fundamentals of aviation, as well as a broad and deep understanding of the industry and the human beings within it. A diverse cadre of young people with the sort of knowledge, skills, attitudes and experience that the airlines can only currently dream about.

It is tempting to see the pilot recruiting issues faced by the industry as being the result of some sort of deficiency in the modern generation. The truth is that it is the result of changes in the job, for which neither the education system nor practical flying training is wholly adequate to prepare new candidates.

Close cooperation between the aviation industry and education would be necessary to make all this happen, but it is not unachievable. In fact, it is necessary. In its Aviation Strategy, the UK government has committed to making aviation a core part of Britain’s future. There can be no more important factor in achieving this ambition, than preparing the people who will deliver it, with skills that will make them among the best in the world.

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