Conventional to have a 200-hour copilot on a Boeing?

Friends have been asking about the recent (second) Boeing 737 MAX crash (Wikipedia). I wrote some stuff about the first crash, e.g., in

(Summary: A single sensor going bad can cause a “runaway trim” situation from the pilot’s point of view. In theory, pilots can handle runaway trim. In practice, quite a few crashes have resulted from runaway trim.)

The latest crash has friends asking a new question: Was it normal to have a low-time pilot in the right seat? (see “Ethiopian Airlines said the pilot of Flight 302 had 8,000 hours of flying time but the co-pilot had just 200.” (nytimes))

I wrote about this question back in 2009 in “Foreign Airline Safety versus U.S. Major Airlines”:

Buttonhole any pilot in a U.S. commercial airport and you’ll learn that the major airlines hire only those pilots who have previously been captains of regional airliners or military planes. And the regional airlines, which supply most of the nation’s major airline pilots, mostly hire from among those who have been flight instructors for 750-1500 hours.

What’s changed since 2009? Following a regional turboprop crash in Buffalo, in which both pilots had more than 1,500 hours, Congress decided that they would prevent future crashes by requiring that all airline pilots have at least 1,500 hours (the possibility of the $30 million plane having 1/100th of the intelligence of a consumer drone was not considered).

Another change is that Corporate America’s passion for “diversity” enables members of official victim groups, e.g., pilots identifying as “women”, to be hired by a major airline without first flying for a regional (see https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2018/05/12/the-purported-airline-pilot-shortage/).

Back to my 2009 article:

A foreign major airline, by contrast, does not have a large pool of regional airline pilots, ex-military folks, and flight instructors from which to draw. Most foreign countries do not have an infrastructure of airports, flight schools, and private pilots. There would be no work for a flight instructor in such a country. Unless the country is very large, there won’t be any regional airlines. Due to the shortage of qualified nationals, the foreign airline may screen young people and send the most promising to flight schools in the U.S. until they are trained to the minimum legal standards. For example, Japan Airlines runs a training center in Napa, California. Lufthansa trains its pilots in Arizona. A 23-year-old who can barely speak English and barely knows how to fly can go directly to the right seat of an Airbus.

So the crew experience situation on the accident aircraft was unusual by U.S. standards, but not by the standards of European or Asian airlines.

Friends have been asking whether they should fly the B737 MAX. With about 350 delivered so far and all during the last two years, the plane is developing a worse safety record (per year, if not per flight hour) than the four/five-seat Cirrus SR22. My advice: take the Airbus, if one is available. The Airbus fly-by-wire computer-in-the-middle philosophy is to protect the aircraft and passengers from pilots who aren’t at their best, for whatever reason. (Example: Captain Sully had the yoke full back during his famous approach into the Hudson River; a B737 would have stalled and spun given that control input, but the Airbus software kept everyone safe.)

9 thoughts on “Conventional to have a 200-hour copilot on a Boeing?

  1. Phil, What’s the difference between the 737 8 Max and the other models? Also, I read that the Ethiopian flight had smoke coming from the tail and was making a rumbling noise. Any thoughts?

    • I’m not an expert on the different models. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_737_MAX shows a narrow range of maximum gross weights for the variants.

      Smoke and noise? If something had gone seriously wrong with one engine you would expect to see the airplane trending mostly down (though of course, at least in theory, a jet can still climb safely away from terrain on one engine). The data published so far show the airplane oscillating with climbs and descents. That’s more consistent with a flight control problem.

  2. Basically, they needed a bigger engine with the same ground clearance of the 737. To have a bigger engine, they moved the engines forward, which causes it to pitch up. They counteracted the pitching force with the disastrous MCAS system. The MCAS system is another fiddly thing with emergency cutoff switches to keep track of.

  3. It’s been amazing to watch the development of this story today in the absence of any hard facts regarding the cause of the crash.

  4. > Captain Sully had the yoke full back

    A friend who drives an A320 once told me Airbuses don’t have “yokes”, they have “suggestion sticks” that pilots use to make suggestions to a trio of computers who then decide what they will do with the airplane.

  5. The Airbus is not immune to pilot mistakes as Air France 447 proves, but you are correct about Airbus, the fact that Sully’s airplane remained intact after a ditching is testimony to great construction and engineering.

    My guess is that this was an operator error (pilot) issue crash or an anomaly followed by operator issue that made it fatal. Sometimes it’s better to let go of the controls for a few seconds and assess what is happening, if things aren’t going well, IMO. It will be interesting see the results of the black boxes.

  6. “My advice: take the Airbus, if one is available. ”

    Yes, please, especially if you are in first class on a flight I am hoping to get an upgrade on.

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