Bloomberg News

FAA Seeks to Make Pilot Training More Realistic to Limit Crashes

November 05, 2013

Airline pilots will get more realistic and expanded simulator training under the most significant revision to U.S. aviation-safety regulations in 25 years.

Pilots will receive more instruction on hazards such as recovering when planes go out of control, handling cross winds and working together as a team, under a rule U.S. transportation regulators adopted to attack the biggest killers in aviation, the Federal Aviation Administration said today.

“Today’s rule is a significant advancement for aviation safety and U.S. pilot training,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a release.

Congress ordered some provisions of the rule following a 2009 crash near Buffalo that killed 50 people when a pilot misunderstood a cockpit warning and began a series of violent maneuvers that sent the plane plummeting. Family members of the victims had pushed for the rule changes and Foxx praised their efforts.

The rule, which had been under development at FAA since 2004, is also a response to recommendations by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB had called for many of the training enhancements in findings it issued after accidents, including the Feb. 12, 2009, crash of the regional turboprop approaching Buffalo operated by Pinnacle Airlines Corp.’s former Colgan unit.

$689 Million Saved

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta is also summoning airline safety officials to Washington on Nov. 21 to discuss how to voluntarily make additional safety improvements.

“While the rule marks a major step toward addressing the greatest known risk areas in pilot training, I’m also calling on the commercial aviation industry to continue to move forward with voluntary initiatives to make air-carrier training programs as robust as possible,” Huerta said in a release.

The FAA estimated the rule changes would cost airlines from $274 million to $354 million, while saving $689 million by preventing accidents and deaths.

Airlines had said the proposal should be scrapped because it would be more costly than FAA predicted, according to public comments by the Washington-based trade group Airlines for America. Much of the safety benefits the FAA sought have already occurred because of other technology improvements, the group said.

The FAA studied 178 U.S. airline accidents from 1988 to 2009 linked to pilot deficiencies that killed 492 and seriously injured 196, according to its original 2011 proposal.

Stall in Flight

The rule is aimed at pilot-induced crashes such as when a functioning plane goes out of control, the largest killer in commercial aviation around the world from 2003 through 2012, according to an analysis by Boeing Co. (BA:US) Such accidents killed 1,698 people during that time, nearly twice as many as the next category and more than one-third of all 4,408 deaths.

The NTSB and France’s Office of Investigations and Analysis have found in recent accidents that pilots couldn’t recover from aerodynamic stalls, which cause a plane’s wings to lose lift and plunge, because they hadn’t been adequately trained in simulators.

Like the Colgan flight crew, a pilot on Air France (AF) Flight 447, which went down in the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009, killing 228 people, pointed the plane’s nose skyward in response to a cockpit alarm, causing it to stall and then fall into the ocean. The correct response to a stall is to push a plane’s nose down, increasing speed and airflow over the wings. Advances in mathematical models used for simulators allowed them in recent years to accurately replicate a stall, opening the door to new training, Lou Nemeth, chief safety officer at simulator manufacturer CAE Inc. (CAE) of Canada, said in an interview last year.

Teamwork Encouraged

While the FAA’s rule won’t apply to airline pilots outside the U.S., other nations often follow the agency’s lead. Other recent accidents, such as the July 6 crash of an Asiana Airlines Inc. (020560) plane attempting to land in San Francisco, also are focused on pilot actions. Three people died when the plane struck a seawall short of the runway. The NTSB hasn’t issued its findings on the accident.

Other provisions of FAA’s rule require more realistic training that puts captains and co-pilots together in a simulator. In addition to traditional pilot skills, they will be taught how to better monitor another pilot who is at the controls, according to the release.

The training is one of several efforts to improve how pilots handle stalls and a loss of control. The FAA in 2012 issued an advisory for pilots on how to recover from such events.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net


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