A commercial-pilot shortage that’s expected to continue to grow this year could mean a promising job market for up-and-coming aviators.
But many industry observers wonder just how prepared those pilots will be for the responsibilities and hazards they will encounter.
“Pilots are now being mass produced essentially to operate flying computer games for the airlines and for corporate aircraft,” says Rick Eriksen, an experienced aviator and one of the founders of Aviation Consulting 360, a firm that specializes in assisting businesses with their aviation needs.
“Today’s pilots aren’t required to have the number of flying hours that pilots needed when I started out in the 1960s.”
A major factor contributing to the expectation that there will be thousands of job openings over the next few years is that more veteran pilots will reach the mandatory retirement age of 65. Another factor is that pilot wages aren’t what they once were.
Those commercial jets still need to get off the ground, though, which leaves Eriksen uneasy about what will be done to fast-track young pilots into the cockpit.
“But this isn’t a problem that’s just now happening,” he says. “We’ve been headed in this direction for awhile.”
He offers a few observations on why today’s pilots aren’t getting the instruction and know-how they need.
Much of today’s training happens in flight schools in Florida, which in some ways is a great location because weather rarely interferes, Eriksen says. But that’s also a downside. Pilots need to be prepared for all kinds of inclement weather - including ice and snow – yet many of today’s pilots can’t function under those circumstances, Eriksen says.
The solution corporate airlines came up with is to avoid flying when the weather turns too nasty, he says. “Of course, if you were depending on one of those flights to be somewhere, then it is still a disastrous mess for you,” Eriksen says.
Decades ago, “wanna-be” pilots obtained their commercial ratings by flying 200 hours of training, one hour at a time, Eriksen says. That qualified a pilot to work as a flight instructor for three or four years. “Ideally, that was in some location where the pilot had to deal with actual nasty weather,” Eriksen says. “In my case it was Cleveland, Ohio.”
After those three or four years passed, the pilot could move up to a small twin-engine airplane and fly for a local construction company or air-freight outfit. From there it was on to bigger twin engines, pressurized twins and a turbo prop. “It was several years and at least 5,000 hours as a pilot before you might move into a jet,” Eriksen says.
These days, instead of paying their dues and gaining more valuable experience in such jobs as hauling freight, pilots go straight to working for airlines as a co-pilot.
Too much pilot training – and actual piloting – involves automation. Instead of racking up flying time the way pilots of old did, student pilots put in a lot of hours on automatic pilot from right after takeoff until it’s time to land. “The student may be involved in hand flying the aircraft for just three or four minutes for every hour he is in the air,” Eriksen says. “Yet the whole time gets counted as hours of flight time.” It’s all under ideal conditions, too, so when pilots graduate from flight school no one really knows what they are capable of or how they might react when a real emergency inevitably arises.
Eriksen says the FAA did improve matters somewhat in 2013 with a rule requiring all airline co-pilots to hold an Airline Transport Pilot certificate that requires 1,500 hours total time as a pilot.
Previously, those co-pilots were required to have only a commercial pilot certificate, which requires 250 hours of flight time.
“That was a great step,” Eriksen says. “The question is: will it be enough?”
Rick Eriksen is one of the founders of Aviation Consulting 360, a firm that specializes in assisting businesses with their aviation needs. He is a career aviator, entrepreneur and industry professional. Among his achievements, Eriksen created and founded Midwest Air Charter, the first single-flag carrier for the United States Federal Reserve Bank. At Midwest, he directed flight operations for 55 aircraft flying 72,000 miles daily without a single incident or accident and with a 99.75 percent on-time record. Eriksen also previously managed Northern Hemisphere flight operations for Mercedes Benz, North America and was the creator and one of the founding members of Jet Support Services Inc., known today as JSSI.