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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Substandard Pilot Training

In the Airline Industry

It has become too easy to blame the pilot when an accident occurs. But the truth is, in today's world where most operations are conducted on automation, pilots are only as good as the training they receive. Unfortunately airlines are cutting training to save money. Safety Culture is lacking. Manual flight is limited. Last week I received an interesting email related to my book based on my research, Normalization of Deviance, a Threat to Aviation Safety.

Below is the email with names redacted. The reality of what is happening in the aviation industry and the feelings of a pilot emerging from training and feeling unprepared, parallels the research. 

The pilot said...

"I read your book with great interest because of much it intersected with my own training and line experience at (blank). 

I never felt fully trained or confident of my own skills, 
despite passing the systems tests 
and the ATP/type rides

Some of what you wrote applied to (blank) AQP. My class was roughly 1/3 rd cadets, millennials who had been at ATP (mostly), become instructors with 1250 hrs, several ex-Army rotorwing pilots with a smattering of ex-corporate jet pilots, and a few “bucket listers” like me, people who’d always flown but incidentally to their main career, heeding the call of the airline flight deck before it was too late. I was one of the oldest.

We had 10 days of basic classroom, mostly on airline polices (SOPs) and part 121 FARs. Then we all went home and spent about a week doing on-line systems training and testing. I believe all students received “gouges”, shared amongst the class via Airdrop. The instructors (I believe) knew this but looked the other way. We also received all the answers to the oral test document in advance and drilled those. As a result all learning was at the rote level, and we all got 100%.

Then we moved to procedures training simulators, and that’s where my personal wheels started to come off. I find rote memorization very hard, I can learn things but only if I understand the principles behind them. I was actually told by one trainer to:

“Just be a trained monkey 
and press the buttons”

I started asking for extra help, but never received it, not from the company. The upgrading captain I was paired with was little help at all – other captains spent extra time with their FO trainees, mine disappeared instantly a session was done. After every session, my training book was signed by the sim instructor with “normal progress”. Eventually I created my own unofficial sessions after the school closed for the evening with an FO friend who’d completed training 6 months before and was now flying the line.

I remember crying one day after a session because I just wasn’t getting it, but I desperately wanted to. I’d never felt like that at any stage of flying training before. I said to myself that they’d have to fire me because I wasn’t quitting until I got it.

Next was a more sophisticated non-motion sim, still with touch screens now laid out like a cockpit, but without flight controls. I was still very confused, lacking understanding or confidence. I passed the oral “Systems Validation” with no problems but failed my first “Procedures Validation” – because I took too long to program my nemesis, the FMS. I got one extra training session and passed the PV on the second attempt. The whole time I was asking for extra help, but since I only actually failed one step, I didn’t get it.

Then it was off to for sim training in a level 4 sim. Finally the upgrading captain had nothing else to do, and I got some guidance from him, but it was still mostly me alone trying to hammer the procedures into my head. I was actually told not to flare on landing – we were expected to crash land the airplane so as to hit the TD zone on every approach ending on a landing. 

That’s why the CA in your book 
was having to teach new FOs how the land
– we weren’t taught that in training. 

We had six 4-hour sim sessions. I remained unable to manage the automation and learn the SOPs (ironically, my hand flying was fine). We had one LOFT session, then the Maneuvers Validation, which I failed. The problems were the SE ILS and an automated non-precision VOR approach. After the failure, the examiner had me do the 2 approaches again, this time he instructed me on a few simple tricks-of-the-trade and I did both to standard on the second attempt. I was super frustrated that no-one had told me before the tricks he taught me – too late.

After a break I got 3 or 4 extra sessions in the sim, and retook the MV and LOE, getting the xxxx type and ATP certificate. The next Monday I started IOE, supposedly fully trained and capable of flying safely.

Was I? NO. 

I certainly never felt trained, 
confident, and capable. 

I could actually make the airplane go from point A to B and back, and after a while I could get all my FO duties performed within 20 minutes, program the damned FMS and get off the gate on time. Every time I had to do a visual approach, I was nervous and delayed turning off the AP until as late as possible. That feeling of not being really competent was part of the reason I quit after flying the line for only a few months (the other reasons were the pressure and lifestyle of a regional pilot). 

I did NOT want to be the pilot featured 
in the next keynote airline accident.

The people who did best were the ATP graduates and private jet pilots. They were already trained in airline-style procedures and jet-cockpit automation. About 2/3rd of the military helicopter pilots survived the course. I was the only one of the “bucket-list” pilots to make it to the line, all the rest dropped out in training. For us, the hand flying wasn’t the problem, it was the automation – especially the FMS and guidance panel. 

I feel I was failed by the training department 
and the AQP – 

And even though I asked for extra training and help, I didn’t get it. I even wrote to the training director but was ignored.

A few months later I started type training in the CE750 Citation X at a major training company, I suspect I was picked because the flight deck is very like the xxxx – 5 Honeywell Primus DUs with an FMS almost identical to the airliner. The main difference is lack of autothrottles. 

Systems training was in person and we were given the opportunity to puzzle through failures. The sim training went well and I passed the checkrides first time with no problems, and started contract flying the real jet towards the end of last year. I proved that I could have got through (Blanks) training with fewer problems if they’d cared to try, I didn’t have to ask for additional training from xxxx. Not being under an airline’s SOP I can make decisions on the ground or in flight based on what I think is needed, not what an SOP says. There is much less schedule pressure, I have time to do what is right for safety without being dinged for a late departure. 

"The airline SAID safety came first,
but their actions said SCHEDULE was most important"

All in all, I feel proud that I finally achieved my boyhood dream of flying for an airline, I too have now walked through the terminal knowing everyone is looking at the uniform. I’ve flown around the US and into Mexico, and landed a jet at (blank) and (blank) (International Airports). I’m sorry it wasn’t a better experience however, and I’m slightly jealous of the rest of my class (at least the ones still with a job).

I blame the training"

The above email presents an experience of a pilot. The research and pilots comments within the book Normalization of Deviance, a Threat to Aviation Safety explain the why. This pilot could not be more correct.

Blame the training not the pilot. 

But who should we blame 
for inadequate training? 

 Just as the professor asked at the end of my defense, 
"What do you think they will do?"

Get your copy today 
and let me know what you think.

Enjoy the Journey!
XO Karlene 


  1. I blame corporate governance.

    1. Yes... but they will always cut their costs if regulatory agencies look the other way. Not unlike the situation with the max at all levels!

    2. I think the whole thing had a primary design that, over time, underwent countless palliative upliftings that were more focused to cover punctual hurdles, instead of being diligently improved in a way that could allow it to progress through geopolitical (and economical, obviously) challenges without having to collapse every single time.

      We know it's an industry that has powerful impact to society within all spheres (public, private and third sectors), but shows up as unquestionably fragile in the end of the day.

      It is such a complex thing to put down as a blog comment, but to sum it up, in many countries, there are cases of success about dialogues between Public and Private sectors being proven effective without bringing up antitrust and anticartel matters and without harming interests.

      Aviation has the potential to be a powerful political tool and already is a powerful economic tool - that employs hundreds of thousands of people.

    3. Actually, I think you articulated this very well in a blog comment. This industry is very powerful in both the economic and political world and therefore is the challenge of doing the right thing for the right reasons.

  2. Not sure if I agree with this at all. Despite how much the person talks about his willingness to be able to do this I highly doubt he had any and if anything gave up too easily.
    When I started working at a regional coming out of initial training was I half the pilot I was a year or 2 down the line absolutely not. Could I handle an emergency and bring the plane on the ground without any help? Yes I could. I believe that is the purpose of those initial sims and type ratings rather than making you a proficient airline pilot right off the bat.
    Transitioning to a major a few years later do I have the same issues I did when I started at a regional coming from a Cessna or duchess with 1500 hrs? Absolutely not. A lot of things are different. Yes I could have given up easily like after the first 100 hrs by comparing myself to the Captains I would fly with a thinking I am not proficient like them but that's where the difference of experience gained through flight time comes into play.
    If getting the initial type rating was considered the ultimate form of ones airmanship this would be a totally different ball game and we would look at different hiring minimums.
    U.S pilots are known for their skill worldwide because of the way we do things here. At no point do I say there isn't room for improvement- there absolutely is and we do make those changes slowly and steadily as we evolve within the profession.

    1. Dear anonymous, I'm not sure what there is to disagree with. A pilot gave his experience. It's his truth and reality. And I conducted the research with over 7400 pilots who responded. If you would like a copy of the research, and or the book to read the research in an easier manner, email me, and I will send it to you. We can all have opinions... but I was curious and spent the time and treasure to research this while earning a PhD...and was tested to the highest level. Then a US pilot sent his experience. Sadly, it just is what it is.

      Unfortunately that evolution is going the wrong direction. Thank you so much for your comment!

  3. Most of the initial online experience pilots felt similar at the beginning. Time is short and there is a lot that must be accomplished. I was told by a senior training Captain that the type rating training was designed like that on purpose. It is more of filtering process to those who can't cope with the pace of the airline!!!!. I don't think it was a wise thing to say to me during my initial type rating training. It just added unnecessary pressure. You can't put a normal person through only 7 FFS sessions and expect them to be confident flying a sophisticated airliner. Unfortunately that's the way it is.
    Being an instructor myself, when I get a two fresh pilots for type rating, I know that the official time on documents is just the MINIMUM time required. I usually spend more time with them outside the simulator, because SOPs needs to be explained sometimes, not just monkey sees monkey does!

    1. Thanks for the comment and sorry for my delay in response. I agree... That was not a nice thing to say to you, and that instructor is wrong. I remember the old days, before AQP and modern jets. The history is the justification the more automated the less training needed.

      Then the FAA approved "Train to proficiency"... with that, training department managers said...

      "Wait? Train to proficiency... why are we overtraining so many? Let's cut the training because some will get through... and those who don't, we can give more training under the train to proficiency concept! Think of all the money we'll save!!"

      Then pilots don't ever want to be the guy who needs "more training"... so they cram and rush and do what they can to survive. They leave training and say... what just happened...?

      When I was instructing, I, too, spent so much time with my students outside the simulator. I also think teaching them what they need to know and how to learn it before they come to the simulator helps too Yes... explanations are important.
      Thanks for your comment!!

  4. There is so much to cover in the initial training. The skills I look for in an individual most are survival skills (a trait that we are born with), the less a person has this inherently the harder they are to train. Attitude, which really is the most important aspect of a trainee. With the right attitude you can achieve anything. It's very difficult some times to teach someone who sees themselves as weak or as less capable in general. And experience, the more time we have spent in full motion sims and flying the line the better prepared emotionally and mentally we become.
    It seems to me this fellow doesn't understand that with the current way the training is formulated, it will take 2 years to cover all the important aspects of the required training. We don't actually teach every single scenario in the first initial session.
    We have 2 crew and the airlines take advantage of this. A new first officer's role is to know the basics, know the SOP, have good crew co ordination, be resourceful, study the things they realize they don't know yet, and be able to work well with Captains who come in all shapes and sizes. This alone is enough to chew on for the first year.

    Be patient, be humble, be self motivated, be safe.

    The biggest issue I have seen in training at some of the places I have worked is, at least in Canada, airlines are using those 1500 hour pilots as SIM instructors and using First Officers as line training pilots. And just basically treating the training department like the person who teaches the material is less important than the content itself. If the Captains on the line could have an impact on the selection of who becomes a trainer, through a referral process, we could help the company select the right individuals. Simply taking in pilots to be trainers based on their attendance record and cost factor isn’t a good plan.

    I think the foundation of the training program is solid, however, I think companies fail to provide quality training pilots. Every eager newbie wants to move up the ladder, get an ego boost, and put on their resume they are an LTC, but not everyone has developed the ability to, or even really took the time, to study learning styles, read an Instructor Guide manual, or have the social skills to teach in such a sophisticated Environment.

    I don’t think this problem is everywhere. Where I work now has an incredible training department, they truly get it.

    If you are left feeling inadequately trained, be patient, keep studying, if you come across a question make a note of it at the time and review it later. If there is a topic you need help with ask your Assistant Chief Pilot for clarification.

    In time you will get it, and you will feel more confident.

    1. Dear Anonymous, Thank you for the great comment and I apologize for my delayed response. When I looked into the Office of the Inspector General's concerns, I did a bit more... and wanted to see how culture impacted training, and performance.

      After surveying over 7400 pilots, I plugged the data into a program and found that lack of understanding is one of the biggest problems, as a result of training, as a result of a negative safety culture. But... the FAA already attributed lack of understanding to be an issue. And the FAA knew that safety culture was a problem that needed to be addressed, and the reason for the 2018 SMS requirement.

      The problem is, that when pilots don't fully understand the complex systems, and they are only performing procedures for a given scenario, can they manage... But, if something is out of the ordinary, they don't. The brain is interesting that cognitive overload impacts people differently, but the bottom line is... an overloaded brain cannot think and do, and often dumps. Or just doesn't understand what is needed. The ultimate lack of Situation Awareness.

      For example... teaching in the sim how to do a high close in approach, the scenario is set for a given weight, wind, altitude, and distance. Then the pilot is taught procedurally what to do from that point in time and space. Works great. But will the pilot ever be in those exact conditions in the real world? Probably not. Unless they understand aerodynamically what works best in their aircraft to descend. How to manage the mass is what needs to be taught. Not how to "get down from point A in the simulator with a cookbook step."

      Unfortunately, airlines could save money and give quality training if they understood how people learn and how memory is formed, and teach pilots what to learn and how to learn. Confidence is huge too. Procedures in our modern jets are key for normal ops. A deeper level of understanding is keep when something goes wrong.

      Sadly, the comments from the participants in my research indicate that the training issues are worldwide. And, they are very real. Yes... there are some airlines that are better than others... but we have room for improvement.

      Thanks for your comment!

  5. Dear Pilot... this is an email that someone wrote that cannot get the comment posted, so here you go:

    “Karlene has been working with me for several years on a project comparing automation problems in aviation with similar problems in merchant ships. Although the comparisons might seem unrelated, you could say that except for altitude and speed our professions are quite similar. Especially with regard to stress.

    You could say that those in the harbor pilot profession learn to use eustress (good stress) to avoid distress (bad stress) and you could also say that on occasion automation becomes a source of distress. Especially for those of us who learned our profession before automation. Your comment sounds like you might be in that category.

    Having said that, all the exceptional harbor pilots in my experience had one thing in common which was a love of their profession. As stated by Mark Twain, “If I have seemed to love my subject, it is no surprising thing, for I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since, and I took a measureless pride in it. The reason is plain: a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth.

    The problem with automation is that it can undermine that “measureless pride” as mentioned by Mark Twain. Once undermined, “measureless pride” can turn into just a job.

    During my 30 years as a harbor pilot in SW Alaska, we had many flyout jobs using chartered aircraft. This afforded me numerous hours as an observer in the right-hand seat giving me a renewed appreciation for the skills of Alaska pilots. Feel free to contact me ( we might have experiences of mutual benefit.


Thank you for your comment! If your comment doesn't appear immediately, it will after I land. Enjoy the journey!