How Much Experience Does a Pilot Need to Work at an Airline?
For many, one of the most startling facts to emerge from the Ethiopian Airlines crash last week of a Boeing 737 MAX was that the first officer had only 200 hours of flight time. On professional pilot forums such as Airline Pilots Central, that number was the focus of intense debate -- but pilots were careful not to fault the low-time pilot, noting that while in the US a 200-hour pilot would not be on the flight deck of a commercial airliner, that often happens overseas.
Low-time first and second officers, who do not takeoff and land aircraft, are common at many of the world's airlines, including Ethiopian -- a respected member of the Star Alliance -- but also European, Asian, Australian and South American carriers with similarly excellent safety records.
It's a different story in the US.
In the US, pilots are required to have 1,500 hours total time before they can qualify to become an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) and fly turbine-powered engine aircraft carrying passengers. That requirement came as a result of the Colgan Air 3407 crash in 2009. There, the captain had 3,379 hours (with 111 of them as captain) and the first officer had 2,244 hours (with 774 in a turbine aircraft).
Even though both pilots were experienced, the causes of the crash -- which included lack of focus on the task and improper recovery from an aerodynamic stall -- led the Federal Aviation Administration to introduce more stringent training and hours requirements for pilots. They landed on a minimum of 1,500 hours of total time to qualify for their ATP. Before the rule changes, pilots with 250 hours could be hired by a regional carrier and be trained in an aircraft type.
There are some exceptions to the rule that are beyond the scope of this article, primarily for military pilots or graduates from certain types of flying programs. Nevertheless, the regional airlines aren't hiring pilots with less than 1,500 hours.
"My opinion is that you don’t need 1,500 to be competent in the right seat, but it helps," said Troy Booker, an experienced United Airlines Boeing 787 first officer and naval aviator with a popular Instagram account. "I've seen professional pilots with far fewer hours who were ready for such a demanding responsibility. What I think the 1,500 hours does is gives more experience to those weaker pilots or those who develop slower."
How does that square with airlines around the world?
British Airways, Lufthansa and Air France each have rigorous cadet training programs. BA says its program is "a challenging course that will take you from little or no experience, to the First Officer’s seat on our short haul aircraft; currently the Airbus A320." Same for Lufthansa; pilots completing their ATP license will start in the right seat at a Lufthansa group carrier at around 200 hours. And it's not just the well-known carriers. For example, Ukraine International has open positions for pilots with 700 total hours.
In Europe, if prospective pilots don't gain entry into an airline-sponsored program, they can learn to fly at a local school, where they will get the ratings allowing them to fly multi-engine aircraft and by using only cockpit instruments, key requirements to advance.
Often, these pilots will come to the US, where there are more opportunities in so-called general aviation, and many flying schools. Eventually, they'll come out of training with a commercial pilot's license with multi-engine privileges and an instrument rating, as well as having passed 14 rigorous exams. That's called a "frozen" ATPL, which then allows the prospective pilot to apply widely, including at low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and Easyjet. The rating becomes unfrozen when they hit 1,500 hours. That does not take long, however, as most pilots fly around 80 hours per month — and always with a more experienced captain in the left seat.
In the US, Jetblue has a direct-entry program, but it is not nearly as popular as going through a local flying school, university training program or a pilot training program like ATP Flight School.
For US pilots, building those 1,500 hours takes at least 18 months in most cases. Some pilots will tow banners -- you'll see these on the shore of Long Island, New Jersey or South Beach -- advertising the latest liquor brand or nightclub. Still others will perform aerial surveys, pipeline and power line patrols over vast stretches of the US, or fly for skydiving operations.
Hitting 1,500 hours of total time is no guarantee of direct entry into the right seat of a commercial jet; far from it. "Well, it's 1500 hours, but followed by an intense training program," said one recent inductee into a regional airline's pilot training program in the US. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, as he is still in training.
Calm, cool and collected, he's the archetype of what a passenger would want their pilot to be, and has just over 1,500 hours of total time. When he graduates, he'll fly the Embraer E175 regional jet. It's been a long slog just to enter the airline's training program, but he has no regrets.
"We reviewed so many accidents and incidents to understand why and what happened. You learn so much," he said. "And if they had the ATP certification training program that the FAA requires now, many of them would have been prevented, if not all."
"The chief pilot gave us a talk recently. He's been flying 23 years. He said he learns something new all the time.The more time you spend and have the more you learn. It's also about training and quality training," the new pilot said. "There's fatigue and get-there-itis, hazardous attitudes and dangerous situations. And once you truly experience these things they stay with you forever."
No less an aviation luminary than Captain Chesley Sullenberger, of flight US1549 fame, explained the thinking behind the 1,500-hour requirement in a 2015 Congressional testimony.
"Pilots with less than the required experience may only have seen one cycle of the seasons of the year as a pilot —one season of thunderstorms, one winter of ice and snow. He or she may never have had a plane de-iced before, may never have landed with a gusty crosswind exceeding 30 knots, and may never have had to land on a rainy night when the glare off a wet surface makes it difficult to tell exactly where you are," Sullenberger said. "And if they received all their flight training in a warm dry climate, they may never even have flown in a cloud before! I would not want my family members in a plane operated by someone with as little experience as that, and I don’t think you would either. "
On Ethiopian flight 302, the first officer may have had just 200 hours, but the captain, a 29-year old career Ethiopian Airlines pilot, had a very respectable 8,000 hours under his belt. There's no indication, at this point in the investigation, that crew experience may have been a factor in the accident.
"The first officer would have been of no assistance in a time-critical emergency," said Spencer Selhi, a recently retired Royal Canadian Air Force lieutenant colonel with 2,700 hours. New first officers on the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft he commanded could have as low as 200 hours, he said, but "the military is far more selective and the training is much more rigorous."
In 2015, there was Congressional debate in the US about rolling back the 1,500-hour rule, but that never came to pass. From time to time, various stakeholders muse about lowering the requirement -- especially representatives of the regional airlines, which face an acute pilot shortage.
Nevertheless, the 1,500 hour rule is here to stay for now.
"I do believe the rule makes us safer. I don’t know what the 'magic' number is," sad United Airlines' Booker.
"You can read all the books and understand all the concepts but until you're actually up there and feel it and now you're in it...then that's where your learn for real," said the regional airline pilot-in-training.
Echoing Sullenberger, the new pilot said: "There's no substitute for experience."