NEW YORK – The crashes of two Boeing Co. 737 MAX planes within five months are prompting regulators and pilots to reassess the bare minimum amount of training crews are required to complete before flying the new model.
They are also reigniting broader debate across the aviation industry about whether overall experience levels among some crews are adequate when flights encounter trouble.
The discussion is being sparked by possible malfunctions of the new 737 MAX model’s stall-prevention system. The system has come under scrutiny after the two crashes. Boeing is developing a software fix, expected in the coming weeks, while regulators and the plane maker are debating the additional training needed.
When an Ethiopian Airlines MAX plane plunged last week from the sky within six minutes of taking off, killing all 157 aboard, the senior pilot was Yared Getachew, who had more than 8,000 flight hours, including 1,500 as captain. Ahmed Nur Mohammed, the first officer on the flight, was relatively junior, with 350 hours of flight experience.
Newly hired US airline pilots must have at least 1,500 hours of flying experience unless they are former military pilots or graduates of colleges and universities with professional aviation programs. That means both pilots in the cockpit are experienced and able to back each other up when things go awry.
The rule was put in place after the 2009 Colgan Air crash that killed 50 people near Buffalo, New York, and investigators blamed on a tired crew who didn’t properly react to stall warnings. Carriers have at times sought, unsuccessfully, to reduce the 1,500-hour minimum to head off pilot shortages.
Since 2006, some pilots outside the US – including in the fast-growing Asian market, as well as Europe – have been licensed under a rule that fast-tracks students into the co-pilot seat in as little as 18 months, with as little as 240 hours including simulator time. The policy was developed, in part, to help fill cockpits at a time of rapid growth for the airline industry.
Ethiopian Airlines said it pairs less-experienced first officers with more experienced captains as a safety measure.
Some studies have shown that pilots with fewer than 1,500 hours fly safely. But several aviation experts said the licensing system can change the dynamics in the cockpit, putting the two crew members on unequal footing.
James Higgins, chairman of the aviation department at the University of North Dakota, said a few hundred hours might not be enough experience when pilots are grappling with an emergency situation when the control system isn’t operating normally.
The cause of the Ethiopian crash is still unknown, but the Ethiopian transport minister said on Sunday an initial analysis of the plane’s black boxes, which store key flight data, showed “clear similarities” with another MAX flight, operated by Lion Air of Indonesia, that crashed in October, killing all 189 aboard.
The Lion Air crew battled the airplane for the 11 minutes after takeoff before the plane plunged into the Java Sea. The system, based on erroneous sensor inputs, thought the crew was about to stall the plane and repeatedly pushed its nose down. The pilot, who tried to recover the plane but eventually lost control, had about 6,000 hours of experience and the co-pilot 5,000 hours.
Investigators in the Ethiopian Air crash are expected to focus on whether the more junior Ethiopian crew encountered similar conditions, according to safety experts. The pilot, who airline Chief Executive Tewolde Gebremariam said had “an excellent flying record,” reported flight-control issues before all contact was lost. Both pilots trained at Ethiopian Airlines’ aviation academy.
A senior US 737 MAX pilot said that very junior co-pilots might not be able to help the senior captain manage the number of alerts and actions needed to recover from a system malfunction, especially those they haven’t encountered in a simulator, such as the fault in the stall-prevention system known as MCAS.
Indications that both sets of crew were battling their 737 MAX jetliners have reinforced growing concerns across the airline industry that pilots have become too dependent on cockpit automation that plane makers introduce to make flying safer, but can become a trap when the equipment malfunctions.
“You have the people who have grown up with so much technology... we have to make sure they know how to hand fly the airplane, too,” said Capt. Jon Weaks, president of Southwest Airlines Co.’s pilot union.
Keeping costly new training to a minimum was a selling point for the MAX. Pilots that fly a common 737 model needed only a couple of hours of extra education that could be performed on a computer to become familiar with variances between the aircraft rather than spending time in a flight simulator.
Pilots were never specifically trained, for instance, on MCAS. There is disagreement among pilots and airline officials about whether such additional training was necessary, because a procedure exists that allows a pilot to disable the stall-prevention system while flying the airplane.
The US Federal Aviation Administration’s decision that extra flight-simulator training on the automated system wouldn’t be required for pilots transitioning from older models is an area the US Department of Transportation’s inspector general is looking at, asking that documents related to it be retained, The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday.
Boeing said the training and materials for the 737 MAX adhere to international standards and “followed a process that was absolutely consistent with introducing previous new airplanes and derivatives. The process for the flight crews is to ensure they have all the information to safely operate the airplane.”