Aircraft Accidents and Unaccredited Schooling

Getting old is … interesting.  For the last thirty-five years the battleground has been who parks in the garage or turning off the lights; now, it’s who gets the bathroom first.  I can now boast that I have an increasing collection of different glasses in assorted frames, while ordering off the senior citizen menu at IHOP.  And then there’s the cardboard delicacy – Bran; no amount of margarine can make that – or margarine, for that matter – taste good.

However, one advantage with age is that it comes with experience.  Learning from life is a one-way journey; one that I would not retake, yet I’m glad for the opportunity.  For instance, during all those years of government work, I spent six ‘deep-inna-heart’ of Washington, DC: Federal Government Central.

Being a DC worker bee had a few perks (very few).  I think the one benefit was seeing first-hand, the eye-opening reality of politics and the deceptive turning-of-phrases.  I’m not speaking to the ‘toe-may-toe’ versus ‘toe-mah-toe’ type of mistaken inflection, conjugation or declension.  Instead I’m referring to the way politicians phrase regulation to do and say … absolutely nothing, yet look like they are leading the good fight.  The senior politicians do this while singing their own praises, convincing others that they are looking out for the Peoples’ best interests.  And they do it so convincingly; Hint: It’s the suits; party base-types dig the suits.

Incidentally, the media has no compunction on promoting such charades, all the while completely misunderstanding anything that is meant or the consequences they bring about.  It is sad that main stream media groups have become so misinformed and careless.  There was, however, a terrific article in a non-main stream media publication, Flying Magazine this week:

http://www.flyingmag.com/thune-amendment-generates-emotional-not-factual-responses

Other publications and news providers spoke to the same proposal of Senator John Thune of South Dakota to ease up on laws that are choking opportunities for future pilots to qualify for commercial service.  These main stream media outlets reported that Senator Thune wants to ‘loosen the Flight 3407 Safety Laws’ (the media’s choice of words, not mine) by proposing “to alter the rule that requires both pilots and copilots to have 1500 hours of flight experience before flying a commercial airliner.”  This is followed by the usual politician nonsense of pointing fingers while saying words like: “underhanded attempts”, “chip away at pilot training” and “an insult to the families …”.  The families of the victims of flight 3407 become innocent victims themselves by getting caught up in the media circus, which evolves into the most heinous of displays: using the families as a photo-op to push a politician’s and/or a political appointee’s agenda.

Colgan 3407 was a tragic accident – I will never debate the ramifications and mistakes made that led up to the disaster.  But reading through that accident report and other reports – as I do every month in my Lessons Unlearned series – one starts to see what political appointees do to deflect away from the problem with a quick fix that solves very little, if nothing.  They offer solutions in search of a problem.

I don’t say this lightly or make irresponsible chatter.  I’ve met many victims’ families in my career investigating accidents.  I take their pain very seriously and do my best, along with the other NTSB technical experts, to get it right.  It was a matter of professional pride bringing closure to the families’ losses, while pushing for important safety improvements, some of which, by the way, fell on deaf political ears.  One key point is that, although the Flight 3407 victims’ families challenge the changing of the law, the 1500-hour requirement was never an issue in the accident; both of the pilots exceeded 1500 hours of flight time experience.  The important issues that should have been raised had nothing to do with their experience; it had to do with their rest times, duty times and training.

How Senator Thune attempts to change the law is by changing the rule’s wording to include Unaccredited Flight Schooling, that it be included in the original 1500 flight-hour requirements.  Senators and Representatives fighting Senator Thune’s changes simply don’t understand the issue, much as less understand what the changes do or don’t do.  All they know is, there’s a photo op; and that’s not cynicism.

The one point of working with the NTSB for those years is that changes to rules are not without consequences.  If one were to recommend a rule that prevents the carrying of Plutonium-239 in an overhead baggage bin, there’s really no way to corrupt that language – just don’t carry radioactive materials in an overhead bin, period.  But when the NTSB recommends changing rules that cripple a specific workgroup or industry, the consequences can be devastating to everyone; and I mean, Everyone.

What is worse is when the recommendations are made blindly, without understanding of the problem.  When changes are made to ‘improve safety’, do they?  And if so, how does one substantiate that safety has been improved?   Moreover, when a politician doesn’t understand the problem, how does this politician validate data that doesn’t exist or is impossible to collect?  The solution becomes more of a problem and impossible to correct.

For decades, pilots have become professional pilots without ever having stepped inside a flying university.  This begs the question: what is meant by an accredited flight school and what is meant by an unaccredited flight school?  The reason I ask is because the media seems to be incensed about including unaccredited flight training (UFT) in their articles, as if it mattered.

The Dictionary defines Accredit as: to certify (a school, college, or the like) as meeting all formal official requirements of academic excellence, curriculum, facilities, etc.  Therefore, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) accredited flight school is one where the curriculum (class subject matter) is approved by the FAA to be taught at that school.  It stands to reason that UFT does not meet the academic requirements expected of an accredited flight school.

And this is where the deception comes in.

UFT schools would not meet the academic requirements because they are not academic schools.  They don’t need to be.  Flight hours are not accumulated in a classroom reading Shakespeare; one doesn’t gain better engine-out training by taking electives or a gym class; the Associates, Bachelors or Masters degrees they earn don’t guarantee a survivable gear-up landing.  Flight hours are the hours spent punching holes in the sky and upping ones aircraft handling experience level; learning to fly instruments or multi-engine.  Designated Pilot Examiners are FAA-certified examiners; they test the UFT student and credit their flight hours to the appropriate ratings they seek.  Whether you are raised on Long Island or the Louisiana bayou, flight training is available most everywhere; a UFT school provides this type of training.

Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) certification is similar; an aircraft mechanic can get his/her A&P certificates at an accredited A&P school, through the military or by being an apprentice to an A&P certificated mechanic, aka unaccredited maintenance training.  This qualified mechanic, for a number of months, shows the apprentice how to work on aircraft by conducting on the job training.  He/she takes the required tests with a Designated Maintenance Examiner; he/she then demonstrates qualification by practical testing.

Politicians and political appointees intentionally misleading their constituents by emotionally agitating them to fight against, what amounts to be, a deception, is the true problem.  If we are suffering a pilot shortage in the near future, then more pilots-to-be must be given credit for the legitimate flight training they receive.  If we as a travelling public do not recognize that quarter must be given to genuine pilots with authentic experience, we will be looking at a drastic change in the way we travel.  In a few years, there will be limited business opportunities, a whole lot less places accessible by plane, less trips to Grandmas, and far less get-aways.  If that happens, it will take years, even decades, to fix what is a non-problem-turned-problem.  Airlines will go under, packages won’t be delivered and vacation spots will dry up.  And I think that would get old, real quick!

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