August 30, 2023

Congress Can't Erode Airplane Safety Rules That Save Lives

Source: Time


On a foggy night in February 2009, Colgan Air Flight 3407 took off from Newark Airport, heading for nearby Buffalo, New York. Fifty-nine minutes later, the aircraft crashed into a house, killing all 49 passengers and crew on board, along with one person on the ground.

Immediately, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board began an investigation into the crash, soon determining it was caused by pilot error due to lack of experience with icing conditions. As a result, Congress acted to strengthen training requirements for all passenger airline pilots, including, crucially, instituting what’s known as the 1,500 hour rule: a regulation mandating that pilots earn a minimum of 1,500 real world flight hours before being allowed to work for an airline, with an adequate portion of those hours spent flying in difficult operational conditions. 

There has not been a single passenger death caused by pilot error in commercial aviation since the rule was enacted, proving a core principle we all know to be true: that experience matters. Yet, right now, several of my colleagues are trying to gut the 1,500 hour rule, proposing legislation that would produce less experienced pilots and represent an unacceptable backsliding as well as a dangerous complacency in an industry where complacency kills. They’re supposedly doing so in an effort to address the recent pilot shortage—but this so-called solution does anything but solve the problem, and seems more akin to addressing a doctor shortage by slashing the amount of training medical school students need to earn their degree.

The thing is, existing law already allows for some exemptions—but always based on safety, not temporary labor conditions. For example, the FAA allows for an expedited pathway for military and former military pilots, and on occasion it credits time spent in certain academic training courses, but only if such courses enhance safety more than requiring a pilot to fully comply with the full 1,500 hour requirement.

To me, there has never been a worse time to weaken pilot regulations, as 2023 has already been a chilling year for our civil aviation system. We’ve witnessed a disturbing rise of near-deadly close calls—an uptick that the NTSB deemed a national safety crisis and that led the FAA to convene an unprecedented safety summit.

As both a former Army pilot and as the current Chair of the Senate’s Aviation Safety Subcommittee, I refuse to respond to these near-misses by further reducing pilot training. I refuse to be complicit in efforts to compromise my constituents’ safety. Instead, I’m doing everything in my power to convince my colleagues to proactively strengthen safety measures so that these close calls never become precursors to tragedy. 

When I was serving in Iraq, I learned all too well the value of real-world experience. After all, I am only able to write this today—I am only alive today—because of the immense skills shown by my flight crew, which were earned through countless in-the-sky flight hours.

On November 12, 2004, an RPG tore through the cockpit of the Black Hawk I was co-piloting. We were 10 feet above the trees, we’d lost all of our avionics and total hydraulic failure was likely next. There was no way, no chance, that we should’ve been able to land the aircraft. In fact, in my decade-plus of training as a military pilot, every time—every single time—that we simulated a similar scenario, we died. The understanding was that that kind of catastrophe was simply not survivable.

And yet, on that day in Iraq, we did. 

We fought to regain control of our helicopter. And led by the expertise of my pilot-in-command, we safely landed our aircraft. We survived.

This was only possible because actual, in-air flight experience prepared us to respond to the most desperate of situations with levels heads and swift action. Unlike in a simulator, there is no “pause” button in flight. So it is that training that I have to thank for being alive today—for my family, for my career, for my very breath. 

I’m not the only one pleading with my colleagues to uphold this rule. The Hero of the Hudson, Captain Sully Sullenberger, has also implored Congress not to get complacent, trying to get them to understand that the combined 40,000-plus flight hours between him and his first officer were critical in saving the 155 lives onboard his plane the day he safely landed on the Hudson River.

Do you think that prior to that afternoon there were any flight simulations of a dual engine failure from bird strike followed by a water landing? Of course not. In fact, even when that simulation was run after the Miracle on the Hudson, even with flight crews expecting the scenario, they still crashed time after time. It was only thanks to the pilots’ experience that those 155 people made it home to their families that January night.

While I truly believe that simulators are a valuable training tool, I myself have used them, and that's why is I know they are no substitute for the real thing. For example, a simulator cannot replace the experience of walking around your aircraft and seeing ice accumulating on your wing surfaces. Life-saving instincts are earned through thousands of hours of piloting a real aircraft with real lives at stake. So while I understand that the perfect storm of major carriers buying out thousands of their most-experienced pilots combined with a post-pandemic surge in air travel has created a temporary shortage of pilots and first officers, it is critical that we resist the false promise of a quick-fix that could increase lives lost in a preventable tragedy. 

The FAA seems to agree. Last year, they rejected a petition for an exemption to the flight hours requirement, stating that they had “previously concluded the argument that an exemption would serve to address a pilot shortage is overly simplistic and does not present a persuasive argument.”

So as both a professional pilot and as a mom who regularly travels with my two little girls, I am holding the line on safety. Now is not the time to go backward. Now is not the time to cut corners. Now is not the time to put corporate profits ahead of American lives. Anyone who refuses to see sense here—anyone who votes to reduce the 1,500 hour rule for pilot training—will have blood on their hands when the inevitable accident occurs thanks to an inadequately trained flight crew. 

By:  Tammy Duckworth