A Canadian Multi-Crew Licence?

document.write(" serif">Canada's Flight Training Reputation

Trying to keep Canadian flight training competitive is a laudable goal. We have a well-deserved reputation for competence, earned the hard way by flying in our terrible weather around our huge unpopulated country with plenty of pressure to get there (sooner or later) because it's often the only way to get there.

Much training business has come to our shores because of this reputation. The way to keep it coming is to maintain and bolster our good reputation in these trying times.

Loss of Control Accidents

In the last decade the character of airline tragedies has changed completely. Modern aircraft are so reliable that engine and system failures are rare. Aircraft and crew are designed and trained to deal with these failures if they occur. What we are seeing instead are crew failures.

These have come to be called loss of control accidents. The well-known examples are AF447, Colgan Air at Buffalo, and now Asiana 214 at San Francisco. There are many more, including, most recently, Southwest at LaGuardia. These accidents were all caused by crew action (or inaction).

(That includes, by the way, AF447 and Colgan, in which icing played a peripheral role. Flying into known icing is something for which the crew is responsible.)

These accidents all have something in common: pilot incompetence.

I know that sounds harsh, but it must be said. It is an accurate statement. The pilots in these cases may have known their airplane fairly well. They may have memorized their company's operating manual and their Standard Operating Procedures. But in all cases they did not understand some of the basics of flying an airplane. Colgan and AF447 fell into the ground or sea with the wing stalled, not flying, because the pilots pulled back on the control column and held the back pressure despite warnings and stick shakers. The Asiana crew pulled back to stretch their glide, even though they were far gone on the back side of the drag curve, within a few knots of the stall.

What is missing in these cases is basic flying training. The causes are legion and still being debated, but the fix is simple. In order to get a license, especially a license to fly a large airplane with many paying passengers aboard, a pilot must demonstrate the ability to take off, fly, and land an airplane while keeping it within its safe envelope. He must, in other words, demonstrate competence.

Commercial Reasoning

Canada's proposed Multi-Crew Licence has this as its rationale: Canadian flight training operators providing commercial training to foreign candidates are unable to compete with foreign operators and risk losing a segment of their industry (my emphasis).

Under various names, the Multi-Crew Licence has had a role in most loss of control accidents.

On the face of it this license seems reasonable. There is always a Captain who has a real license to supervise the others with lesser licenses. But on closer inspection what we are really saying is that a pilot who cannot legally take a friend for a ride can occupy a cockpit seat while the captain is back in First Class (AF447, and the Korean Air flight shot down over the Kamchatka Peninsula). We speak of Crew Concept and Crew Resource Management, but if the only pilot who understands the basics is not on the flight deck, these concepts are moot.

Commercial pressures have brought us, step by innocent-seeming step, to where we are today. Each step seems reasonable, at least at the time. We now routinely fly two-engine airplanes on twelve hour overwater legs. Back in the 1970's that was unthinkable and illegal. In those days airplanes didn't land themselves. Now they can, under the right conditions, and some operations manuals even specify autolands as the normal procedure. Pilots who comply are soon incompetent, unable to land the airplane by hand. But in San Francisco last month the glidepath transmitters were shut down on both runway 28's. Indeed, they had been off since June 1. Manual landings were the only way at KSFO.

The Multi-Crew Licence seems like a logical next step in response to today's commercial pressures. In reality, it is the next step toward complete incompetence on all flight decks.

Public Assumptions

Airlines have done an excellent job marketing a service that whisks you to another continent at half the speed the sun moves. Even with today's oil prices, ticket prices are (in today's dollars) a fraction of what they were in the 1960's. This is the new normal. Flights are uneventful. Pilots are bus drivers. Airplanes land themselves, don't they?

An airplane crashes at San Francisco. There must have been something wrong with the engines. Or perhaps the autothrust? A nosegear collapses on landing at LaGuardia? Obviously a mechanical malfunction.

Marketing has succeeded in making aviation seem safe. But even though airplanes have changed since the 1930's, flying is still a dangerous adventure. The safe arrival of even today's incredible airplanes still depends on the good judgment of pilots.

We don't want to think about that, because pilots are people and can make mistakes. But we'll have to start thinking about it, and acknowledging it, or the crashes will continue.

Feeders, Discount Airlines, and the Elimination of Apprenticeship

Flying is an apprenticeship trade. Like any job worth doing, it takes dedication and a lifetime of learning. I have 45 years and 19,000 hours of experience and I am just beginning to understand how little I know. But I have survived so far and I am very serious about continuing to survive. Dying by your own hand at the controls of an airplane is an absolute no-no for a pilot.

I was lucky. I have had (and still have) many fine teachers. When I was a young airline pilot most captains still took their teaching responsibilities seriously. Today's young pilot is not assured of the same. Pressure on unions and pilot salaries is being applied by business methods: spawning and dividing feeders and discount airlines foremost among them. The goal is to lower costs, but the (perhaps unintentional) byproduct is the interruption of the contact between old and young pilots and the teaching and learning that allows. (I believe that lowering wages also directly reduces respect for the job and the job satisfaction of the worker, but that is an argument for another time.) The FAA's response to the Colgan Air crash was to raise the experience requirement for First Officers to 1500 hours, even though it was the captain who was flying and who stalled the airplane and even though the airline had given insufficient training to both pilots on icing and how their aircraft handles ice. I have always understood that pilots are paid to be responsible. I am bemused by today's response to accidents, where band-aids are liberally applied to wounds which obviously require surgery.


Introducing a Multi-Crew Licence in Canada would be just another band-aid papering over the serious issues facing aviation today. Don't do it!