The news of many Indian air carriers placing orders for more airplanes has created a lot of excitement among the travelling public and the pilot community.
One problem the growing carriers are going to face is to find qualified manpower to man their cockpits. Aviation in India goes through a cycle periodically, and as a result there is a either a surplus or a terrible shortage of qualified pilots. Finally airlines will have to resort to the expensive route of recruiting expatriate pilots. While it is true that there are thousands of newly minted pilots armed with Commercial Pilot Licenses, which is the most basic professional license, the harsh reality is that many of them may not be exactly suited for the jobs on offer.
When the previous boom in aviation started, thousands who dreamt of a piloting career jumped into the fray. Flying schools also mushroomed in all corners of the nation offering accelerated courses. Apart from that, aspirants could also undergo their training in flying schools located outside the country. The DGCA also made a concession in that the flying experience requirement for a Commercial Pilot’s License was reduced from the then prevailing 250 hours to 200 hours. As a result there are thousands of youngsters armed with Commercial Pilot’s Licenses and even a conservative estimate would put their numbers above 10,000. While a few of them might find jobs, the rest of them are eventually going to land up in non flying jobs. Many of them have taken personal loans at huge interest rates and sold or mortgaged their houses to finance their training. And since most had commenced their training right after schooling, they are also finding it difficult to find alternate employment.
It is high time that the concerned parties; the airlines, DGCA and the HRD Ministry, sit together and evolve a plan to produce a steady supply of well trained pilots who will be able to fill a finite number of vacancies which should be realistically projected. While it is a fact that one is free to choose what one wants to do with one’s money and one option is to spend it learning to fly or obtain a flying license, the harsh reality is that almost all have seen it only as an investment in one’s career and not merely as a recreation. And it is precisely this which should be a cause for concern for the policy makers.
One reason why airlines are finding it difficult to recruit suitable candidates is the terrible mismatch between the expectation of the training departments of the airlines and the product available in the job market. In most developed countries pilots who obtain their Commercial Licenses, start their professional careers flying light planes initially, working as instructors in flight schools, charter operations or if they are lucky enough, flying for corporate flight departments of business houses who have their own fleet of aircraft for their personal and business travel. Pilots after acquiring enough experience in these type of jobs then move on to regional carriers operating smaller aircraft and only after gaining enough experience in these, do they move on to the heavy jets. In India we have a rather unique situation in that, pilots fresh out of flight schools occupy the co-pilot’s seat on heavy jet aircraft after an endorsement course to meet the bare minimum legal requirement to qualify.
When this is the case, a fresh look ought to be taken at the methodology adopted for training pilots. As is commonly said, airline flying consists of hours of boredom punctuated at times by moments of sheer terror. Emergencies and demanding situations arise without any prior warning and only proper training can prepare a pilot to handle tough situations and avert a disaster.
Worldwide there is a debate about the level of experience required of a newly hired airline pilot. Subsequent to the crash of Colgan Air Flight in Buffalo, New York in 2009, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the regulatory authority for civil aviation in the US has proposed to substantially raise the qualification requirements for co-pilots who fly for U.S. passenger and cargo airlines. Consistent with a mandate in the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, the proposed rule would require first officers – also known as co-pilots – to hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, requiring 1,500 hours of flight time. Due to the low level of general aviation activity in India, it will not be practical to implement this in our country. The only solution rests in modifying the training to produce a more competent pilot.
Even though modern airliners posses a very high degree of automation, debate still exists as to whether it takes aviators or systems managers to fly these planes. The right answer is a mixture of both. Investigation into the crash of the Air France Airbus 330 in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 killing all 228 on board and the Colgan Air crash mentioned previously have pointed to the erosion of basic stick and rudder flying skills among modern airline pilots. Taking a cue from these findings, many airlines abroad have started sending their pilots periodically for upset recovery training at aerobatic schools so that they retain their basic flying skills. Pilots also have to be trained to depart from linear thinking and think ‘outside the box’ if the situation demands. The rapidly evolving aviation environment demands the airlines to continuously revamp and adapt their training methodology to remain relevant.
We also need to take a look at more training than checking, as training is proven to make a pilot more proficient than checking. The role of the instructor become very crucial here. Instructors involved in training student pilots who are aiming for airline careers should posses the expertise to train a student to attain his or her career goals. Sadly most flying schools in India are staffed by instructors who themselves have failed to make the grade to any airline and have absolutely no idea about the complexities involved in modern airline operations.
They also lack exposure to modern teaching methodologies and still rely on the knowledge passed on to them by their seniors in the profession. As a result even some terminologies commonly used today in aviation remain Greek and Latin to them. It makes more sense for airline managements to start their own training schools so that they get the right kind of candidate who can then be provided the right kind of training. Airlines should consider this as a good investment in human resources which will definitely pay good returns in the long run.
(Capt. S.Sabu is an airline pilot. The views expressed herein are purely the author’s)