Boeing Cutting Pilot Training Time Due to Shortages

Boeing's Alteon is testing a program that can cut training time in half. Students will spend much more time in ground-based simulators and far less time actually flying a plane - and that has critics worried.

An Alteon briefing paper describes its current pilot-training programs like this:

"The world needs more pilots now, and our current training solutions are lengthy and inefficient. For many cadets, the journey from the street to the right seat is a two- to three-year process."

The framework for the new program, known as the Multi-Crew Pilots License, or MPL, was established last year by the International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency of the United Nations.

Alteon's Carbary said Boeing worked with regulators and customers to "enhance" what ICAO proposed. The aim is to teach students from the beginning the skills they need to fly in a multicrew jetliner. Instead of accumulating a couple of hundred or more hours flying in a small, single-engine plane, the Brisbane students will spend a lot of their training in a Boeing 737-800 simulator. They will rotate their time in the simulator as captain, first officer and as an observer.

In other words, they learn to be a crew member flying a full-motion simulator that is as realistic as the cockpit of a 737, rather than accumulating flight time in a single-engine Cessna 152.

Two airlines in China each supplied three cadets.

"They wanted to see if this is a way they can pull pilots faster into their airlines," Carbary said.

The goal is to reduce the time it takes to be trained as a first officer to as little as 12 to 18 months. And that's for someone with no previous experience flying a plane.

When their training is over, the six cadets will return to their respective airlines, China Eastern and Xiamen. Alteon will continue to monitor their progress for several years to determine if their performance is as good as, better or worse than first officers who come up through the usual pilot-training process.

Carbary described the Brisbane program as a "beta test."

"If this does not work, then we won't proceed," she said. "But I'm confident the industry is going to move in this direction."

But just how safe is this approach to pilot training, which runs counter to the long-held belief by traditionalists that experience at the controls of a plane is the best teacher?

"I worry," said John Nance of Tacoma, noted aviation writer and a former 737 pilot for Alaska Airlines. Nance is aviation safety consultant for ABC News.

Nance said similar approaches to training commercial pilots have been tried before in which the emphasis is put on simulator time.

What happened, he said, is that students did well in the simulator but were not prepared for what it was like inside the cockpit of a commercial jetliner when something went terribly wrong and the plane started bouncing around.

"They are walking a fine line here," he said of the test program.

"I'm nervous that we can take someone off the street and with mostly simulator time turn them into a competent pilot and put them in the right seat. Let something go to heck in a handbasket, and you will have a hard time justifying your faith in the ultimate safety of this type of training program."

Not FAA-approved

In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration requires 250 flight hours to attain a commercial license. Most first officers would have many more hours than that.

The MPL program established by ICAO requires students to receive 70 hours of actual flight time, 10 hours of which must be solo.

But Alteon has gone beyond what ICAO requires, according to Marsha Bell, marketing director for Alteon who was previously vice president of Alteon's first officer programs.

Alteon's cadets will spend at least 83 hours in a single-engine Diamond 40 plane. They will also spend 117 hours in simulators, first in a Diamond 40 simulator and then in the Boeing 737-800 simulator.

The Alteon cadets each will be required to complete 33 missions in the Boeing simulator as captain, 33 missions as first officer and 33 missions as the observer. Each training mission will last about two hours.

The training is not over once the cadets complete the Alteon program.

Before they can receive an MPL certificate, they must make a dozen takeoffs and landings in the same type of commercial jetliner that they will be flying for an airline as first officer.

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