Where will pilots get the education they need to fly safely?
As an 18-year-old planning for my future in 1968, I was asked, “When you go to Vietnam, do you want to walk to the war or do you want to fly there?” I chose the latter, and in that moment my life changed. After I learned to march in basic training, I joined my class in flight school.
The first month of flight school was called preflight. As the name implies, we spent the entire time in the classroom learning the fundamentals of aerodynamics, helicopters, airspace, maneuvers, emergency procedures, and safety. Eight hours a day, five days a week for a month adds up to 160 hours of classroom training before we made it to our first day on the flight line.
For the next eight months, we spent half of each working day on the flight line and the other half in the classroom. The flight line was the fun part, but the classroom education continued to round out our knowledge of flight procedures and decision-making skills (as well as combat maneuvers). Four hours a day, five days a week for eight months adds up to around 640 hours of additional education before we were called pilots.
To be fair, I’ll deduct the 320 hours I estimate were dedicated to tactics and say that my army flight training required me to take 320 hours of follow-on classroom instruction, in addition to my 160 hours of ground school. Now, let’s compare my 480 hours of pilot education with the typical classroom education of a commercial pilot today: 150 hours of ground school.
And yet we wonder, why are we crashing helicopters?
Look, I’m not saying that everything was great back then. The aircraft were less capable and engine failures more common. Our industry lacked a strong safety culture, and we had the accident rate to prove it. While my flight school buddies and I did study hard, we were motivated by more than the usual competition among pilots: the next stop for washouts was the infantry.
But there’s no getting around the data. In a recent list of causal factors for helicopter accidents prepared by the US Helicopter Safety Team, 41% of fatal accidents happened because the pilot lost control of the aircraft. The causal factors identified include bad performance management, exceeding the operating limits of the aircraft, improperly responding to an onboard emergency, and improperly performing ground duties such as performance calculations, fuel calculations, flight risk assessment tools, and preflighting of the aircraft.
Aviation is a demanding profession. As pilot in command, you have to be able to assess dynamic situations, remember your aerodynamic theory, apply aeronautical decision-making, translate it into actionable inputs, and employ your senses and motor skills to “listen” to what your aircraft is telling you. And when you get it wrong, one mistake can effectively cancel out thousands of hours of accident- and incident-free flight.
A pilot’s only protection is to treat every day, every flight, as another chance to improve. The opportunities to do just that by pursuing continuing education are endless, many of them free or low cost. And we know it works: pilots who consistently seek out continuing education have safety records that are better by a factor of 10 than pilots who don’t.
The FAA already mandates 40 hours of continuing education annually for Part 135 pilots; Part 91 pilots need to pass the oral portion of their biennial flight review. Professional pilots see these requirements for what they are—the minimum amount of continuing education—and seek instead to become lifelong learners. Professional pilots actively seek to sharpen their skills and master their craft so they can stay out of the accident database.
So what kind of pilot are you?