With US Senator Tammy Duckworth (Illinois) pronouncement, “Our Nation is Experiencing an Aviation Safety Crisis”, the senator, as Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations and Innovation, opened a subcommittee hearing titled “Addressing Close Calls to Improve Aviation Safety” earlier today, November 9. During the Capitol Hill session, senators and their staffs examined the uptick in serious close calls across the US National Airspace System and select related efforts to improve the nation’s US aviation system’s safety culture, processes and technologies.
This article will not recap the recent, cascading number of much-publicized near-misses and other operational safety lapses in the US airspace that generated this hearing. During the hearing’s early phase, there was agreement among the participating senators and witnesses that the US has the safest airspace in the world – indeed, a “gold standard,” in the opinion of some present this Thursday. More important, there was also common ground that a confluence of forces, from air traffic controller workforce shortfalls to a paucity of airport technologies to pilot mental health issues are combining to contribute to place the national airspace at increased risk.
One major subtheme from the November 9 hearing and the focus of this article, is the role of simulators in pilot training and, by extension, the 1500-hour rule for US pilot qualification (aka “the ATP rule”). While a clear divide remains among congressional stakeholders on expanding the role of simulator-based training in the US commercial aviation industry, what is important was a hint these senate committee members will continue this dialogue.
An extract of key hearing comments and exchanges follow.
What Role Simulators?
First, enter Randy Babbitt, Principal Partner, Babbitt & Associates, LLC, a hearing witness. Babbitt, a former FAA administrator and holder of other community leadership positions, guided senators and their staffs through the imperative of using simulators in flight training.
Babbit noted in one instance, modern simulation exposes pilots to situations they simply wouldn’t be placed in when flying. Beyond high-risk scenarios much too dangerous to practice in an operational aircraft, the community leader added, “Another thing we get from the simulation world is putting people in the cockpit environment. When you have 1500 hours [of training], is any of that with another pilot? Are you always the pilot-in-command? The answer: you could be. That is not what you are going to do as a commercial airline pilot – you are also going to be in a crew situation. You need to understand crew resource management. You need to know what happens when the captain is suggesting something that you don’t think is operationally correct. Have you learned to deal with that? You do in a simulator.” Babbitt further emphasized other basics for his audience, simulators lead to much better training, and they expose the aspiring pilot to many things you simply won’t be train to in an aircraft – “for example, are you going to fly your light airplane into a heavy thunderstorm and hail? No, not twice!”
One true Capitol Hill proponent of expanding simulation in US commercial pilot training is South Dakota Senator John Thune, who in one set of remarks, asserted he fully recognized the value of cockpit experience and sees the value of training in an actual aircraft as valuable to training airline pilots. Yet, the senator remains concerned “that the value of flight hours doesn’t provide trainees with adequate exposure to commercial aircraft or prepare them for the unexpected, dangerous scenarios.” In one exchange, the senior senator asked hearing witness, Jennifer Homendy, Chair, National Transportation Safety Board, whether she sees a role “for the enhanced role of new technologies, including advanced full-flight simulators to improve exposure of prospective airline pilots?” The NTSB chair noted “there is always a role for simulators as part of training, but the most realistic, scenario-based training so pilots become proficient.”
Senator Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) is another Capitol Hill proponent of increasing the use of simulator-based instruction toward the 1500-hour rule. In a pointed question to NTSB Chair Homendy, the Arizona senator asked whether the NTSB has ever made a safety recommendation to the FAA, based on a relationship between the exact number of hours flying an aircraft versus other structured training programs, including simulators. Responding, “No we have not,” the NTSB leader added in a response to a follow-on question, “there is a role for technology,” and continued, “but what does not exist is the safety data to show how much sim time and how much actual flying time is the right amount.” Another high-level challenge and opportunity for the simulation and training industry, perhaps?
FFSs continue to be viewed by some Capitol Hill advocates as key enablers of learning and rehearsing individual tasks and CRM skills -- counting toward the 1500-hour rule. Image credit: CAE
Elucidation from the Key 1500-Rule Proponent
Senator Duckworth remains a proponent of the existing 1500-hour rule. Recalling the intent of the congressional passage of the Airline Safety Act of 2010 was to prevent future “Colgan-like disasters,” the subcommittee chair emphasized, “one must recognize it has been a success, starting with the 99.8% reduction in Part 121 fatalities since when the rules went into effect.” The former military aviator continued, “that is why I strongly oppose tinkering with the 2010 law’s statutory requirements including the 1500-hour requirement.”
Next was Duckworth’s statement that may help advocates of improving the scope and quality of pilot training through changes to the 1500-hour rule find common ground with counterparts. Noting she agreed that having a 6-DOF, fully immersive simulator, “is an immense, very useful tool,” she added, “If we substitute some of the 1500-hours and simply say ‘structured simulator time’ and don’t specifically say what type of simulator, what kind of training that can be used for. You can also ‘burn holes in the sky’ in a simulator just as well as in a [Cessna] 152. We need to be very clear when we’re talking about simulators that we’re talking about full-motion, 6-DOF, fully-immersive simulator and not Microsoft flight simulator sitting in a hotel ballroom someplace.”
Teeing up the ball quite well for Capt. Jason Ambrosi, President, Air Line Pilots Association, the Illinois senator asked, in part, “When every other month seems to bring a new, chilling runway excursion or near-miss, would you agree that the most prudent and safest course of action would be to add additional experience and training requirements rather than seeking to ‘water down’ the 1500-hour rule?” The ALPA leader replied, “It’s all the above. You need that real-world experience as well as other training.”
Duckworth followed up with an interesting option of further breaking down the 1500-hour rule, to specify, “You need a certain number of IMC hours, a certain number of cross-country hours – being very specific, which is what happens in the military, which is much more structured than the average person trying to get to 1500 hours at the local flight training organization.”
The hearing may be viewed in entirety here.