Flying Without Wings

The United Airlines training center relies heavily on simulators. Full-motion simulators can replicate turbulence, takeoff sounds and weather effects.
The United Airlines training center relies heavily on simulators. Full-motion simulators can replicate turbulence, takeoff sounds and weather effects. (Del Wilber - Twp)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Before stepping into the cockpit of a commercial jetliner for the first time, pilots have racked up hundreds of hours in the air, usually at the controls of small planes.

In coming years, they may get most of their flight experience without ever leaving the ground.

The international organization that sets the world's aviation regulations has adopted a new standard that could alter the nature of pilot training. In essence, prospective co-pilots will be able to earn most of their experience in ground-based simulators.

The move is designed to allow foreign airlines, especially those in Asia and the Middle East that face shortages of pilots, to more quickly train and hire flight crews. The United States isn't expected to adopt the new rules anytime soon, but international pilots trained under the new standards will be allowed to fly into and out of the country.

The change is generating some controversy. Safety experts and pilot groups question whether simulators -- which have long been hailed as an important training tool -- are good enough to replace critical early flight experience.

"In a simulator, you have pride at stake," said Dennis Dolan, president of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations, which has raised questions about the new standard. "In a real airplane, you have your life at stake."

Officials at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is setting the new standards for pilot licensing, said the role of simulators has grown substantially in most airline training programs. Airlines often train co-pilots for new aircraft only in simulators, without flying; such a co-pilot's first flight on the new plane is with paying passengers on board.

The new rules apply only to co-pilots of commercial planes. Captains, who are in charge of those aircraft, must have hundreds more hours of flight experience. The new standards will allow people to become a co-pilot on a jetliner with about 70 hours of flight time and 170 hours in simulators. Other licenses require about 200 hours of flight experience. Co-pilots perform many of the same duties as captains.

In the United States, a co-pilot of a commercial plane must have at least 250 hours of experience, some of which can be earned in simulators, federal regulators said.

Each country sets its own licensing requirements, which can be tougher than the ICAO standards. The Federal Aviation Administration is not expected to adopt the new license in this country. But experts say that if the number of people learning to fly in the United States continues to drop, the FAA could be forced to adopt the rules.

The new standards allow airlines to more properly train and supervise young pilots before they develop bad habits at flight school or flying alone, industry officials said, adding that the devices better prepare pilots for today's sophisticated cockpits.

"Those hours flying solo in a single-engine piston airplane, they do us no good at the airlines, and we can't monitor the pilots," said Christian Schroeder, an official with the International Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents airlines. "We are training a better-qualified and safer pilot this way."

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