Plane Answers: NTSB glosses over fatigue in the Colgan crash

As a pilot, I feel the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has failed me. They’re tasked to investigate accidents and report on them so the aviation community can hopefully avoid similar mistakes. They also submit recommendations to the FAA for changes they feel will make air travel safer.

But I have to question the impartiality of the NTSB after seeing the outcome of the Colgan 3407 investigation.

Yesterday the NTSB came out with a report on the Colgan 3407 accident in Buffalo, New York last year that puts the blame squarely on the captain.

CAPTAIN’S INAPPROPRIATE ACTIONS LED TO CRASH OF FLIGHT 3407 IN CLARENCE CENTER, NEW YORK, NTSB SAYS.

Clearly, the captain reacted to a reduction in airspeed in a way that is contrary to everything we’re taught as pilots. But what caused this?

The NTSB sought to find out just why this reasonably experienced captain would respond in such a manner. Training records were examined, toxicology reports were submitted and everything that was said by the crew during the flight was analyzed.

Glossed over in the report was the fact that both the captain and first officer had very little sleep over the previous 24 hours. The NTSB says the captain had ‘reduced sleep opportunities’ and attempted to rest in the company crew lounge. Apparently the attempts at sleeping there weren’t effective since the captain logged on to a company computer at 3:10 in the morning.

The first officer likely had a full day near her home in Seattle before commuting on an ‘all-nighter’ to her base in Newark. She also tried to get a nap in at the crew lounge in the morning as well.

But one of the investigators in the Colgan accident, Robert Sumwalt refuses to allow for the possibility that fatigue was even a contributing factor in the accident, saying “…just because the crew was fatigued, that doesn’t mean it was a factor in their performance.”

Incredible.
Numerous studies have concluded that significant sleep deprivation is equivalent to operating while under the influence of alcohol. The British Medical Journal concluded that “after 17–19 hours without sleep, performance on some tests was equivalent or worse than that at a BAC of 0.05%. Response speeds were up to 50% slower for some tests and accuracy measures were significantly poorer than at this level of alcohol. After longer periods without sleep, (up to 28 hours) performance reached levels equivalent to the maximum alcohol dose given to subjects (BAC of 0.10%).”

It’s illegal to drive a car in the U.S. with a blood alcohol content at or above 0.08 to 0.10%.

The role of fatigue was mentioned during an NTSB hearing on the Colgan accident. Board chairman Deborah Hersman argued that several issues, including the crew’s sleep deficits and the time of day the accident took place, were factors and said that fatigue was present and should be counted as a contributing factor to the crew’s performance.

But the view of board member and former USAirways pilot Robert Sumwalt prevailed. He concluded that fatigue wasn’t a factor in the accident. It didn’t stop them from detailing the role it played in Colgan 3407 (PDF LINK)

So if nicotine is found to cause some cancer, but its role in a person’s life expectancy cannot be determined, should we rule it out as a possible factor in a lung cancer death?

The British Medical Journal study concluded that fatigue does affect performance, finding that, “getting less than 6 hours a night can affect coordination, reaction time and judgment” and poses “a very serious risk” to drivers.

It was precisely this reaction time and judgment that are to blame in the Colgan accident. I’m sure if you had asked Captain Renslow about the proper response in a stall, he would have been able to recite the steps verbatim. But that night, he was operating in a fog caused by a lack of quality sleep for the past 36 hours.

And the copilot, Rebecca Shaw, after commuting across the country all night before starting her day, misinterpreted the stall for possible icing conditions that she thought was affecting the tail and so she retracted the flaps during the recovery, exacerbating an already difficult recovery.

Most pilots expected sleep deprivation to play the leading role in the Colgan 3407 accident. The industry has averaged nearly an accident a year for the past twenty years with fatigue listed as a contributing factor. Could this have been the first case where a lack of sleep was actually considered the cause of a crash?

If a lack of sleep can affect affect coordination, reaction time and judgment, how conclusive does fatigue have to be, to be considered a cause in an accident that lists improper reactions and judgement as the main factors?

This time the NTSB isn’t even attaching fatigue as a ‘contributing factor’ in the Colgan accident, even though they went on to say in the report:

All pilots, including those who commute to their home base of operations, have a personal responsibility to wisely manage their off-duty time and effectively use available rest periods so that they can arrive for work fit for duty; the accident pilots did not do so by using an inappropriate facility during their last rest period before the accident flight.

There is no doubt in my mind that, if a BAC of, say, .08% were discovered in the pilots’ blood that the NTSB would list this as the cause of the accident and close the case.

I’ve always been a proponent of the NTSB. They look at human factor trends and educate us on ways to avoid them. As a fresh 20 year-old pilot, I even defended the local NTSB office in a KOMO4 TV news report when their numbers were reduced.

The NTSB has done as much as the FAA to ensure safe flying for the masses. I don’t understand why they’ve been reluctant to properly address the role of fatigue in a number of accident reports.

Perhaps it’s because airlines are terrified at the thought of reducing the 16-hour duty day further, which could lead to the recall of a few pilots at each company. Airlines point to a policy that allows a pilot to call in ‘fatigued’ if they don’t feel rested. But we don’t allow pilots to self diagnose when they’re too drunk to fly-we simply have limits on how much time must pass before they can fly.

So the fatigue policy, while helpful, isn’t the only way to ensure pilots are well rested on their next flight. Furthermore, Colgan unilaterally put new restrictions on the use of fatigue calls by its pilots.

But the FAA was confident enough that fatigue was a causal factor in the Colgan Dash 8 accident to start acting before the final NTSB report has been issued. They are working on new limits that will reduce the duty day for pilots, which includes both flight time and the time sitting around in airports between flights.

To appease the industry, the FAA may have to agree to a slight increase in flight time limits-the number of hours a pilot is allowed to be in the air in a day-currently 8 hours for a two-pilot crew-to secure improvements to the current 16 hour duty day for pilots.

I applaud the FAA’s decision to take on this cause after their previous 1995 attempt failed. At least the FAA seems to recognize that, for most pilots, it’s not the number of hours flown in a day, but it’s the amount of time on duty, and during what time of day a pilot is on duty that affects our safety.

Because there’s no way we’ll solve the fatigue issue if we continue to deny it leads to accidents.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answer’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr

%Gallery-76818%

Plane Answers: Follow up questions to ‘So you want to be a pilot.’

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

We’ve received a lot of follow up questions to the Plane Answers post from last week, “So you want to be a pilot. Here’s how.” The following questions were chosen from those who wrote in asking about a career change:

Rick asks:

I read your article last week about pilot training and careers “So you want to be a pilot?” on Gadling. I am 55 years old. Is it too late for some one my age to consider a career in commercial aviation? I am in excellent health and train daily (running, swimming and cycling).

Hi Rick,

The mandatory retirement age is 65 for airlines, but there isn’t a retirement age for corporate flying, instructing or ‘Part 135‘ charters.

If an airline hired you at 59 or 60, you may find it impossible to recoup your investment in the years of flight training you’d have to accomplish.

But there’s usually pretty good demand for flight instructors who are willing to stay with a company, as opposed to those who are building time with their sights set on the first charter or airline job that comes along. If you really enjoy flying, and you think you might be a good teacher, that could be your best bet. And you can often continue working somewhere else while you instruct on the weekends, for example, especially since the pay for instructors is so low, you’ll likely need a second job anyway.
And who knows, you may find some charter work to do after a few years of instructing.

There was a time when major airlines wouldn’t hire anyone who wasn’t young enough to eventually make it to the left seat. At my airline, the unwritten age limit in 1998 was 47. The retirement age back then was 60. I would imagine airlines may start using 50 as a cutoff. Since most airlines aren’t hiring pilots right now, it’s hard to know for sure.

Good luck. And even if you decide not to fly commercially, give some thought to getting a private pilot license. You’ll likely enjoy the process.

And Carl asks a similar question:

In your article you stated that the mandatory retirement age was 65. Does that mean that you can’t fly commercially after 65 or just for the major airlines. I’m looking at early retirement at 55 and would like to do charters to hunting and fishing sites and small to medium groups to special destinations.

Flying charters to fishing or hunting locations often involves flying a floatplane for a guide service. There is no retirement age for those operators, but the experience requirements are steep. Insurance companies dictate the minimum flight time for these pilots, and most require experience in that particular location.

Having grown up in Alaska, I can tell you that there are thousands of high-time pilots who are thinking along the same lines as you. If you do decide to pursue this goal, you might be better off learning to fly from one of the flight schools in the area where you’re hoping to work, so your experience can be considered local. And you may end up getting to know some of the operators there as well which will help in the networking department.

You can find a list of flight schools in your area here.

Jeromy asks:

Hi Kent,



I’m approaching 30 and I’ve been considering a career change lately due to my lack of desire to sit behind a desk for the rest of my life. I was a wildland firefighter for several seasons while working my way through engineering school. I loved the job and I remember looking up at the lead plane pilots flying low guiding the heavy tankers, showing them where to drop the fire retardant. I always thought that would be a thrilling position, dangerous though it may be. Now I feel like I’m at a crossroads, and my dream of living that adventure could lie down one of those roads.



The requirements seem to be around a minimum of 1300 hrs to get your foot in the door. How would you recommend achieving this dream expediently, while trying to feed a family at the same time?

Hi Jeromy,

I agree. Flying in a firefighting support role has been a dream of mine since I first saw the movie “Always.”

Your first step is to get your Private Pilot License as I explained last week. Since you have a family and a job, I would recommend going the Part 61 route, since it’s usually easier to set your own pace, and the hourly rates are often less expensive. Hopefully you can finish up your commercial, multi-engine and instrument ratings with them (you’ll need all three) and move along to a part time instructing job to build time.

While you’re doing that, try to get in touch with some of the pilots who do the job. Networking is the best way to land any flying job, and you may discover just what requirements you’ll need. I have to think that your firefighting experience might appeal to an employer, though.

There were so many good comments from last week’s column, I’m hopeful someone who flies tankers will respond here with some more detailed advice for you.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answer’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr

Plane Answers: So you want to be a pilot? Here’s how.

Michael asks:

I am an aspiring airline pilot and I was wondering what were the steps you took to get hired with the airlines. So far I am 15 and starting my flight training with the Civil Air Patrol.

So you want to be a pilot? You’ve probably read the stories of the expensive flight training, years of instructing followed by long working hours at a regional with shockingly low pay rates. Perhaps you aspire to eventually make it to the ‘majors’ or a secure corporate jet job, where you might find some stability and decent pay if the airline doesn’t restructure in bankruptcy or the corporate flight department doesn’t shut down during a cutback.

There’s plenty of turbulence in any flying career. That fact hasn’t changed since the ’70s, to be honest. But pilots are still attracted to the job for a variety of reasons. It’s hard to beat the view or the flexibility in your schedule, and some carriers will take you to places you probably wouldn’t have flown to on your own. And for anyone who loves to fly airplanes, you’d be hard pressed to land another career where you can still afford to fly a jet and still be able to accrue enough flight time in to be competent. So even with all the possible hardships, you’ve decided to chart a course to becoming a pilot. But where do you start?

By far, this is the most frequently asked question we get for Gadling’s Plane Answers column. Since it’s been twenty years since I was acquiring my ratings and looking for a job, I’ll do my best to offer some suggestions to help you along in your career path, and I’ll save the story of my climb through the civilian process for another post.

I’d also like to see some suggestions from those who are learning to fly now, as well. So if that applies to you, leave a comment or two about your path.

This post will deal with the more common paths to an airline pilot job in the United States. I hope to tackle some of the steps needed in the U.K., which is representative of the process in Europe, in a future post.

Let me warn you, not only is the process to becoming a pilot a long one, but because of the different choices available to you, this post may be almost as protracted as your career track. But don’t get discouraged. Having a variety of options is a good thing.

So let’s begin.
In the United States, there are two categories of pilots hired at airlines, and they both involve a few different choices.

Military

If you’re young enough and you have close to perfect vision with no other disqualifying medical issues, the military route offers flight training in high performance aircraft at no monetary cost to you. It will, however, mean a commitment to fly in the Air Force, Navy, Marines or Coast Guard for a number of years after you get your wings.

You are smart to get a head start by joining your local chapter of the Civil Air Patrol. The CAP offers a taste of the military way of doing things and, most more importantly, offers you a way to get some flight time, often taking you to your first solo flight and perhaps even more. You’ll be required to put in time at meetings and even volunteer for search and rescue missions, but you will also have the opportunity to fly some of their aircraft, such as a Cessna 172 at significantly lower rates than you could through a flight school.

If the CAP isn’t in your area, go to www.beapilot.org and sign up for a $100 into flight at a local flight school. It may be all you need to get hooked on flying.

Military flying almost always requires a bachelor’s degree and you may prefer to attend a university under the ROTC program, which may pay for a portion of your schooling as well. After school, you’ll start your flight training with whatever branch you chose. If you’re qualified, you can also aim for the Air Force, Navy or Coast Guard Academy where you’ll have a good shot at a flying position upon graduation, and you’ll get an amazing education at their University.

Landing an academy position isn’t easy. You’ll need a recommendation from a member of Congress at the very least. But it’s worth a try if you have the grades.

If you already have a college degree, you can also try the National Guard in your state. Once your training is finished, your commitment to the Guard is usually limited to a weekend or two a month for a few years. But you should be prepared to find yourself activated with short notice for a much longer tour or tours should your services be required.

Guard pilots often fly F-16s and military transports such as the C-130, C-141 and the C-5. The Army Guard also has helicopter units and airlines have been known in the past to hire these pilots as well, since many of them have fixed wing (airplane) experience as well.

Regardless of your military path, active duty or reserves, make sure you’ll be able to secure a flying spot in the military before agreeing to a long term commitment. I’d also look into the odds of becoming a drone pilot, something airlines aren’t likely interested in anytime soon.

Since I went the civilian route, I’m hopeful we’ll get some comments here with even more helpful advice on the best way to land a military flying position.

Civilian

My civilian route involved going to college while flying and scrambling for ratings at a nearby airport that was not associated with the university.

Today, a college degree in just about any subject is usually required by the major airlines. Mine was in management, but l’d encourage you to major in something that you could use for an alternate career if you can’t find a flying job right away or if you are ever furloughed. Many pilots have side businesses or interests, so think about some of these options when you consider your degree.

You may want to accomplish your solo flight and your private pilot license as soon as possible. The minimum age to solo is 16, but you must be 17 for a private license (PPL in Europe), which will allow you to take passengers up in the air.

Getting from the 60 or so hours you’ll have at the end of your private to the 190 to 250 hours needed to get a Commercial license can be challenging. I borrowed some money and bought a very inexpensive ($5,500 in the ’80s) 1946 two-seat Luscombe airplane that burned less than five gallons an hour. The same airplane today would sell for around $20,000, but you’ll likely get your money out of it when you’re ready to sell it, provided it was in decent shape when you bought the plane.

Building flight time is something you can do while working at a job, preferably at the airport or in some way involved in aviation. Your CAP work is very helpful when you want to rent one of their airplanes to build time.

Now you’ll need to be focused on getting the trifecta of ratings you’ll need-the commercial, multi-engine and instrument ratings-to fly for a living.

You can start with the instrument rating after you have 50 hours of pilot-in-command cross country time.

Upon reaching about 220 hours, you can work on your training for a commercial license. By the time you finish the training at a Part 61 school (more on that later) you will have reached the 250 hours needed. The multi-engine rating can be added on at this time, as well as a Certified Flight Instructor rating.

Part 141

The FAA allows pilots to get a commercial license at 190 hours if they train at what is called a part 141 school. These schools are audited and certified by the FAA and are required to provide a structured course of training that meets certain minimum hours of ground school instruction, its instructors follow an approved syllabus and the school must follow a specific set of requirements defined by the FAA.

Part 141 schools are good at leading you through the process, but if you are training with a freelance instructor or you want to fly at your own pace, a part 61 school may be preferable. I earned my private license through a part 61 school and picked up my advanced ratings with a 141 school. Do a little shopping around when you’re ready to decide.

It might surprise you to learn that most instructors have recently secured their ratings and are instructing as a way to build flight time while being paid. They’re not getting rich, but at least they’re no longer paying $100+ an hour for flight time.

Most pilots would then find themselves flight instructing for a while, before possibly moving on to another odd flying job such as light twin-engine charter flying or even traffic duty for local T.V. and radio stations.

There have been times-as recently as last year-when regional airlines were hiring pilots with the FAA minimum requirements to get their commercial, multi-engine and instrument ratings. However, there’s a congressional push since the Colgan Air accident to require 1,000 or 1,500 hours for anyone flying passengers for a regional airline. If this were to happen, the pool of candidates would dry up quickly once the hiring begins again.

Your seat?

Universities and Academies

Many have heard of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a school with campuses in Florida and Arizona that offers a college education while also providing an immersive flight training environment.

But there are others as well, such as the University of North Dakota, Western Michigan University, Purdue, Daniel Webster College, and Parks College in St. Louis. There’s a great aviation university discussion thread from ten years ago at Airliners.net that is rather enlightening.

You may have also seen ads for the Delta Connection Academy (formerly the Comair Aviation Academy), Gulfstream International, Mesa Airlines Pilot Development and ATP. These outfits will take you from zero time all the way through your ratings and even up to an ATP in some cases. A few are affiliated with regional airlines and promise an interview at the carrier after a period of flight instructing with the company.

Be sure to do a search on these companies before jumping in. I wouldn’t, for example, recommend Gulfstream International or Mesa after doing a bit of research. The others had some positive reviews, however.

This is a really tough time to be looking for any type of job. In December of 2012 airlines will again see a number of job openings after retirements dropped to almost zero after the mandatory retirement age was raised by five years from sixty to sixty-five in 2007. I’m hopeful that we’ll start to see an uptick in the economy and movement that will make all your efforts now worthwhile.

It’s not the job for everyone, and there will certainly be speed bumps along the way, but unlike Sully Sullenberger, I would still recommend an airline pilot job to my kids or anyone who’s addicted to flying.

I stumbled across a post from Varrin Swearingen, a pilot who worked his way through the Comair Academy, flew for Comair as a co-pilot and captain on turboprops and jets and then went to work for World Airways. Varrin, like myself, knew he wanted to fly for a living. He was well aware of the challenges that goal presented, including the potential for less than stellar schedules and anemic pay rates.

If you have realistic expectations going in, you’ll be able to see the job for what it is later-a great opportunity to fly to places you wouldn’t have otherwise seen, in an airplane you enjoy flying, and with people you consider good friends. Oh, and the view exceeds that of any CEO’s corner office.

If you made it this far into the post, and you’re seriously considering a flying career, I have one last bit of advice. When you get the job, don’t get too spun up over contract negotiations or the latest rumors and rants posted to online pilot forums. Always try to remember just how much you wanted the job when you went in for your interview. And take a moment when you’re flying a visual approach at night over Boston or New York to glance out the window for just a second and think about just how amazing it is to fly.

If you’ve recently been through some of the above process, please comment below. I’d love to hear about your experiences. And if you’d like to hear about others who have ‘caught the flying bug’ and where they are now, take a listen to episode 24 of Joe d’Eon’s incredibly well produced and entertaining free podcast, “Come fly with me.” [itunes link]

So good luck Michael and let us know in the comments how your CAP experience is going.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answer’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Or follow on Twitter: @VeryJr

Plane Answers: Announcements from the captain and Denver turbulence

Rich asks:

Hi Kent, I love your blog and it has really helped me to relax when flying. When I was a kid and used to fly it seemed as though the flight deck would regularly update passengers about what was going on with the trip, the plane, etc. Now it seems as though most of the time I hardly hear anything. It would be nice to know if there is some turbulence coming up or something like that. The best flight recently was an “Express” flight where the pilot told us on the ground that we would be having turbulence the first 30 minutes and then at about the hour and a half mark. It really helped us relax.

Hi Rich,

I once sat in the back of a United plane flying from Denver to Miami when the passenger next to me grabbed my arm during what I would consider light turbulence. As her fingernails dug into my skin, she explained to me how she’d feel so much more comfortable “if the pilot would just say something!”

It left an impression on me. At my airline those announcements are entirely up to the captain, although we’re highly encouraged to keep the passengers informed without being a nuisance. As a copilot, I’m limited to a subtle reminder every now and then about a possible PA, since it would be a bit out of line for me to start talking on behalf of the captain.

We’re given a flight plan before the flight that depicts the reported turbulence at each waypoint along the route of flight, and we could easily incorporate that into our pre-departure PA. Of course, we run the risk when getting specific about the ride to be completely wrong-I’ve run across many flights that were advertised as smooth, only to find light or moderate chop many times during the flight.

Based on the number of fear of flying questions we get, I’m convinced that at least 20% of the population is afraid to fly and I would love to make them more relaxed. A quick PA detailing the forecasted ride conditions along the route is a great idea and I may just do that when I upgrade to captain. It’s already part of our standard briefing to the flight attendants.

Recently we had a nervous passenger on board who really wasn’t interested in coming up to the cockpit. So, while still on the ground, I took the flight plan back to him and showed him the turbulence reports for our flight down to Aruba from Boston. His eyes immediately fixed on our first waypoint, Nantucket.

“Nantucket?” He said. “That’s near where JFK junior went down!”

So I’m not sure if I was able to help calm him much. But the advertised smooth ride proved accurate and he seemed happy upon deplaning in Aruba.

Rich goes on to ask another question:

Second, why does every landing and approach into Denver seem very sketchy? Every time I fly into that airport we seem to make a lot of turns and it feels as though we are either getting pushed out of the sky or the turbulence is so bad that it seems as though the plane would be hard to control. Is it the altitude or the mountains? Thanks again!

Good question. Since the wind typically goes from west to east across the country, when it hits the Rocky Mountains, it will create rough air on the east side of the range. Imagine a large rock in a river. The upstream portion of the water flowing over the rock is usually smooth, while downstream the flow of the water over the rock is disrupted.

Pilots and meteorologists call this turbulence wave action, and it can extend for hundreds of miles ‘downstream’ of a mountain range. In addition, closer toward the mountains, dangerous ‘rotors’ can form that are curving curls of airflow that pack a significant punch. Denver is far enough away to miss this kind of turbulence, but it still sees a good share of rough air.

On nearly every transcontinental flight, you’ll notice this same ‘wave action’ generated turbulence even up at the higher altitudes. It’s the most challenging area to find a smooth ride.

As far as the airplane being more difficult to control, it’s similar to driving on a gusty day. The hydraulically actuated flight controls make it easy to react to some of the gusts, but it’s still going to be bumpy. Next time you fly, notice how it usually gets smoother just before touchdown.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answer’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.

Plane Answers: Civilian vs. military pilot — which one is better?

Nathanial asks:

Hi Kent,

My dad has been an airline pilot for a major carrier for over 25 years and also fly’s the 757/767, he was also a naval aviator for 10 years before that. He talks about the difference in pilots that were trained in the military vs. the civilian trained pilots. I want to know if you can tell right away who is an ex-military pilot or not? Is there a difference in flying styles? Is one better than the other?

Also, I currently attend College at Syracuse University. To get home for holidays and breaks if I want to use my non-rev passes, I have to take a 50 seat RJ to a larger airport and then connect. However, during the winter my mother has prohibited me from doing so after the accident in Buffalo last year. In the winter she makes me buy a seat on an Airbus that a low cost carrier flies out of Syracuse to JFK, where I connect with my dad’s airline.

Is it safer to fly on a larger aircraft in the winter…especially in a climate as harsh as Syracuse can get?

Thanks for the great blog… it has provided some well needed study breaks. Keep up the good work!

There has always been a debate over which background, civilian or military, turns out the better pilot for an airline. But it’s impossible to get an unbiased view from a pilot since he or she will likely claim their path to the airlines was superior. Civilian trained pilots may argue that a fighter pilot is at a disadvantage since they’ve never flown as part of a crew at an airline. And military pilots may claim that a civilian pilots training is more of an unknown to a perspective airline.
I personally come from a civilian background. If I were to do the hiring at an airline I would insist on an even mix of pilots from civilian and military ranks since both bring a different set of experiences to the company.

In the cockpit, rarely does the subject of military or civilian training come up while we are working together. We’re simply there to do the job in a professional manner with a focus on safety, passenger comfort, efficiency, and on-time performance. And we usually like to have fun doing it. But neither pilot group has a monopoly on professionalism.

I honestly can’t tell if I’m flying with a military trained pilot or civilian pilot when I go to work with someone I haven’t flown with before. Navy pilots are teased about their crosswind landing capabilities, since crosswinds aren’t generally an issue when landing on an aircraft carrier, but I haven’t seen any difference in techniques.

As in any occupation, it’s the approach a person takes to the job that’s important. I’ve seen civilian and military pilots who are professional, talented, detail-oriented, and above all, safe. And I’ve seen examples of pilots who were no longer motivated to learn, were weak in the simulator or who were selective in their procedural compliance. But these examples weren’t exclusive to military or civilian pilots.

Some of the best pilots I work with came to work for their airline without a chip on their shoulder and they were ready to learn from pilots of varying backgrounds.

In the future the vast majority of pilots will come from the civilian ranks, and airlines will become more adept at determining which flight schools and regional airlines can turn out the sharpest pilots.

I can understand your mom’s concern with smaller regional jets and turboprops. Contrary to media reports, the vast majority of regional airline pilots, even the co-pilots, now have over 3000 hours of flight time under their belts. And since the Syracuse to JFK route has either Canadair Regional Jets or Airbus A320′s icing isn’t as big of an issue with the higher flying jets. Statistically speaking, she should be far more concerned if you were ever to consider driving from Syracuse to the JFK Airport.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answer’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.