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Caution: Student Driver

By LT COL WALTER BORJA, HQ AMC Flight Safety

There is a lot to be said for experience as it relates to flying that can be summed up when answering one simple question: Who do you want flying you and your family around? I am sure no one answered that they wanted a 24-year-old who just finished college two years ago, got their first thousand hours instructing in Cessna 172s, and just started with the commuter airline whose jet you are sitting in. And by the way, the aircraft commander is just two years older with only a few hundred more hours and experience. I can tell you these two would not be high on my list.

My choices would include fliers like United Flight 232’s Captain Alfred Haynes, First Officer William Records, Second Officer Dudley Dvorak, and off-duty Training Check Airman Dennis Fitch. If you ask Mr. Google you will find that these four guys, led by Captain Haynes, did what most would call impossible. They saved the lives of 184 people when they maneuvered and crash landed a severely crippled DC-10 that had lost all flight controls after a #2 catastrophic engine failure at FL 370 had ripped through all of the aircraft’s hydraulic systems. In this July 1989 accident, only the knowledge and experience gained over these four individuals’ combined 70,000 flight hours could have achieved this amazing result through the use of differential thrust and phenomenal Crew Resource Management (CRM).

During another flight in January of 2009, the U.S. Airways Flight 1549’s A320 crew showed exemplary CRM and decision-making abilities when faced with the daunting complete loss of thrust caused by bird ingestion at low altitude over heavily populated New York City. We all know that Captain “Sully” Sullenberger and his crew made the right choice by ditching in the frigid waters of the Hudson River instead of turning back to LaGuardia or diverting into Teterboro. Sully’s calm, cool, no-panic demeanor and the pilots’ combined 35,000 flight hours no doubt had a huge part to play in saving the lives of all aboard. Sully actually put this day into perspective when he said, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years I have been making small, regular deposits into this bank of experience, education, and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

The Air Force is facing the possibility that it may not have pilots with this kind of experience or flying hours. The June 2018 issue of Air Force Magazine states, “The Air Force is short roughly 2,000 pilots, and the service is working 66 different initiatives it hopes will bring on larger numbers of new pilots and retain more of the pilots it does have. Changes include financial incentives, quality of life improvements, and more flying time, Chief of Staff Gen David L. Goldfein told House appropriators in March.”

It is no secret that a large portion of active duty pilots are going to the airlines where the pay may be better, there are no OPRs to worry about, and the CBTs are held to a minimum. Other perceived advantages of civilian life include less time away from home, stability, choice in where to live, and a primary job of actually flying instead of managing parts of an enterprise. In short, many pilots believe the airlines offer a better overall quality of life than the military, and the monetary incentives do not bridge the gap.

So the active duty Air Force has a problem, but what about the Guard and Reserve? The December 2017, Air Force Times mentions how Gen Joseph Lengyel, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, is concerned about how the Guard is “a couple hundred pilots short when it comes to full-time positions.” Many full-time, seasoned National Guard and Reserve pilots have also gone the civilian airline route. Although still flying for the military, their participation is not going to be that of a full-time influential instructor. Hence, Lengyel goes on to state, “From our standpoint, what the Air Force lacks is enough experienced pilots to grow the young pilots.”

Overall, we have many veteran aviators going on to greener pastures, and they are taking their years and years of flying knowledge and competence with them. Unfortunately, there is no complete, all-encompassing fix in sight. Essentially we are losing the experience, wisdom, and mentorship the crusty old dogs would ideally have been passing on to all the new pilots beginning their careers in the Air Force.

The status of the new pilots coming into the Air Force is our dilemma because those coming out of pilot training reach their MDS-specific training with a whopping 220 or so hours. And some MDS training has now become so simulator-centric that folks are lucky to come out with 30 or more hours from there. The fast-paced, hair-on-fire training that goes on for these young aviators during this time is not ideal for building the air sense, skill, and wisdom necessary to achieve the kind of positive outcomes that Flights 232 and 1549 had.

Going back to Sully’s insightful words, we have to ask ourselves what those remaining in the Air Force can do to improve this situation. We can not speed experience up as it is a function of time, but we do have control over education and training. It is time to double-down and make every flying and flying-related event count. Make sure that lessons are being gleaned from even the most mundane of sorties. Hangar fly and learn from the ASAPs submitted by others. Mentorship will have to be at the forefront of every aviator’s mind. In essence, what is going to keep the Air Force moving and safe in this pickle is if each of us remaining instructors and evaluators ensure the deposits we put into the bank of experience, education, and training of our young Air Force aviators are large and frequent so that when it is time to make a withdrawal, the balance is substantial enough to handle the unexpected.