Subscribe to Amazon Kindle

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Many of us possess some sort of qualification to perform specific tasks. Probably the most common is the driver’s license: it “qualifies” an individual to operate a motor vehicle. Some qualifications can be found on the walls of doctor’s or lawyer’s offices and they attest to a level of expertise in each case. I carry my qualification in my wallet. It is an Airline Transport Pilot rating, is issued by the FAA, and qualifies me to fly in the left seat of a commercial airliner. It is the gold standard of aviation and every commercial airline captain carries such a certificate.

In recent media reports, much has been made of the Colgan Air captain involved in the Buffalo, NY crash having failed numerous checkrides. It is this point that I wish to dwell on for a few moments and hope you have the time and inclination to read further.

In my thirty nine years of aviation affiliation, I have taken countless checkrides. And a portion of my Air Force career was dedicated to administering checkrides to fellow pilots. I am proud to say that, through a combination of timing, skill, and luck, I have never failed a checkride. That is not meant to portray myself as the brightest bulb in the box. I am far from infallible and remind myself of that fact every time I strap into my aircraft.

To arbitrarily consign an aviator to mediocrity based solely on the number of failed checkrides is to oversimplify a complicated issue to the point where any meaningful conclusion is impossible. I have seen colleagues who are more than capable pilots fail a checkride for a variety of reasons. Generally, the failure is due to the misapplication or poor timing in the performance of a given procedure. A mistake, in other words. While a checkride is only a snapshot of a pilot’s ability, it affords one the opportunity to learn from such a mistake and re-attempt the task. There are many reasons behind a busted ride, but all evaluations have a common conclusion: satisfactory performance.

Did you fail your first driver’s test? How about the bar exam? Or your medical boards? Or perhaps you had more than one failed attempt. We do not look back in such a way after a car crash or an undesirable verdict or an unsuccessful surgery. Why should we after a plane crash? Granted, such failures may illuminate shortcomings in training or ability, but to take the results out of hand and render a blanket condemnation serves no useful purpose.

Should airlines be afforded the opportunity of reviewing an applicant’s complete aviation history? Of course, but such background investigation has been spotty, at best. Perhaps due to an FAA mentality of voluntary compliance, perhaps due to a supply and demand dilemma at the regional airlines who are finding it increasingly difficult to find would-be employees willing to work long hours for low pay. In either case, there is nothing wrong with a peak into the past so long as it is accompanied with an explanation of any questionable areas.

Ironically, I am currently embroiled in a debate over “qualification” with my employer (a major US legacy airline). The airline has elected to modify the instrumentation of the aircraft I fly from old, “steam driven”, round gauges to a state of the art electronic display . This new display provides me all of my basic flight information: airspeed, altimetry, rate of climb/descent, and the like. In my 24 years at this airline, I have never flown a similarly equipped aircraft. Nevertheless, last November, in my scheduled recurrent training session, I watched a short video on this new equipment and took a short quiz. At the conclusion of this quiz, the instructor told the entire class that we were now “qualified” to fly a jet with this new display. I took exception to this and immediately contacted the appropriate powers-that-be. “Don’t worry,” they said. “You’ll be down for a simulator before you’ll ever see it on the line.”

Unfortunately, that promise rang hollow. I have yet to return for my next recurrent training session and was presented with the new display just several weeks ago. Knowing full well the possible ramifications, I turned and walked off the aircraft. I advised the proper folks that I did not feel qualified to fly with such a novel and untried presentation without first seeing it in a simulated environment. “Well, you’re qualified,” they said. Yes, by virtue of a check mark in a box I was, indeed, technically qualified. On a more pragmatic scale, though, I was anything but fully prepared to conduct a safe and uneventful flight.

We each must hold ourselves accountable when operating under the “qualifications” of any permit, license, or approving authority. Drunk driving or any other careless behavior predicated upon the theory of “it’ll be alright” is a dereliction of the responsibility accompanying the qualification. While my airline (and the FAA) consider me qualified to command an aircraft with a display format I have yet to actually touch, activate, and (yes) make a mistake, I beg to differ. The unwritten contract I have with my crew and my passengers expecting only the best from me holds far more import.

No comments: