Commercial pilots need to improve their flying skills, especially during unexpected "upsets" that can turn flights into disasters, and airlines should make sure their hiring and training practices produce the best pilots possible.
Those are the conclusions of a panel of industry experts charged by Congress with reviewing pilot training in the wake of the February 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Clarence, which claimed 50 lives.
"The U.S. air carrier industry faces significant near-term challenges," said the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Carrier Safety and Pilot Training Aviation Rulemaking Committee. "As it addresses these challenges, the industry must ensure continued progress in enhancing flight safety and pilot training."
The report, dated July 31 and obtained by The Buffalo News even though it has not been officially released, outlines a series of 24 pilot-training "best practices" that should be adopted industrywide.
Some of those best practices, such as requiring simulator training on sudden emergency "upsets," would be required under revised pilot-training rules suggested by the FAA in May.
The report also echoes many of the conclusions of "Who's Flying Your Airplane," a 2009 Buffalo News series about pilot-training deficiencies.
For example, the report stresses the need for pilots to have strong manual flying skills, even though commercial planes mostly fly on autopilot.
"In the case of automation not being available or utilized, the successful outcome of the flight depends on the proficiency of the pilot manually manipulating the flight controls," the report said.
It's especially important that pilots know how to use the controls when things go wrong on a flight, the authors added.
On Flight 3407, federal investigators found that the pilots responded incorrectly when the plane slowed into an aerodynamic stall, thereby losing control and crashing the plane.
Recent plane crashes have proved that more simulator training is necessary to prepare pilots for the worst things that can happen during flight, from bad weather to mechanical problems, the report concluded.
"The pilot should not experience the full dynamics of a deflated tire on landing for the first time with passengers onboard," the report said. "Pilots should perfect these tasks under conditions as realistically simulated as possible while under the effect of the stress that will accompany them."
While pilots are trained now under uniform but outdated FAA rules, industry experts have long said there is wide variation in training at different airlines. Many longtime pilots suspect there is a gap between the comprehensive continuing training at major airlines and that at regional airlines such as Colgan Air, which operated Flight 3407 for Continental.
To address that concern, the authors of the report -- many of them experienced pilots -- stressed that airlines need to adopt best practices such as:
* Ensuring that their air crews are trained in "crew resource management" -- working together in the most efficient way -- as well as threat and error management.
* Implementing leadership and command training.
* Developing uniform standards for flight instructors and safety and training directors.
* Putting new pilots in the cockpit first as observers in the spare seat before they are allowed behind the controls.
Meanwhile, airlines can improve their hiring practices, the panel said.
"Several U.S. air carriers have excellent structured hiring practices that have been improved over time and have demonstrated their value by consistently identifying the best candidates," the report said, suggesting that other airlines do the same.
Hiring appeared to be an issue at Colgan. Capt. Marvin Renslow, the pilot of Flight 3407, failed several test flights but was hired anyway.
The report comes as the FAA works toward finalizing its new pilot-training rules, which some in the aviation industry have resisted, fearing the additional costs associated with more simulator training and other new requirements.
But Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said the panel's findings should carry a lot of weight at the FAA.
"The FAA must take these recommendations to heart and use them to implement tough safety standards that will truly raise the bar for aviation safety and create a uniform standard throughout the airline industry," said Schumer.