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Home > Flying the Plane > How familiar are pilots with different aircraft?
How familiar are pilots with different aircraft?
Flying - Flying the Plane
Sunday, 27 August 2006 08:56

Dear Captain Lim,

I was watching an episode of Air Crash Investigation where one British Midland B737 (Flight 92) crashed just a few hundred meters short of the runway when the pilot mistakenly shutdown the wrong engine when one of them failed (in 1989). One of the reasons given for the crash was because; both the pilot and co-pilot were not very familiar with the new aircraft. (It was a brand new model of the B737-400 at that time).

This sets me thinking, would it be safer if an airline flew a fleet of same aircraft rather than a mixture of different aircraft? For example, since you mentioned in your previous FAQ "
a pilot is certified to fly only one type of aircraft at any one time". I know you fly the B777 and say, later you are also trained to fly "Dreamliner", B787 and then Airbus A350. Would you be a little confused when making the switch from B777 to B787, then to A350?

Would it be safer, say, your airline only has B777 in the entire fleet, so that the pilot will be extremely familiar with the aircraft and will not be confused?

I would love to hear your thought on this.

Thank you so much for your time.

Best regards.

Jeffrey Lee

Hi Jeffrey,

Yes, I did mention that a pilot is normally rated and kept current on only one type of plane. The thing about airline flying is that, a pilot may be rated (meaning that he is certified and qualified) on a few planes but it may be impractical to maintain currency on all the types. When a captain*s currency lapses - that is, he fails to do a minimum number of landings or take off in a 28-days period, he cannot legally command an airplane. Another current pilot must check him out again. This is to ensure that he still remembers all his checks - something not mandatory if you are driving a car!

So an airline policy is to train a pilot on only one type unless the differences in the type is merely one of size - e.g. the Airbus A319, A320 or A321. Even so, there may be differences in technique on handling the planes. Remember, although these three planes share the same cockpit, the A321 is stretched and has a longer body. A pilot flying an A319 (shorter body) one day must remember how to perform a take off on an A321 (longer body) on another day because of the possibility of a tail strike if he pulls up (rotate) too much. Hence maintaining currency on a plane is so vital in airlines to ensure safety.

Ah, you mentioned about the British Midland Boeing 737-400 crash in the episode of Air Crash Investigation - citing that the captain and copilot not being familiar with the new aircraft at that time (1989). One of the causes was attributed to training. At that time, no electronic indicating system (EIS) equipped flight simulator was available for the training and the first few pilots were supervised under normal line checking procedures. As such, the first time that a pilot was likely to see abnormalities on the EIS was in-flight after an engine has failed. That had partly caused the pilots to misinterpret the indication - shutting down the good engine!

A quick recall of the accident: On January 8, 1989, a brand new Boeing 737-400 climbing out of Heathrow for Belfast, had a rupture of the fan blades on the left engine. The crew misidentified the engine that had failed and shut down the functioning right engine. The pilot*s limited experience and lack of training on the two-month old plane had contributed to them shutting down the working right engine instead of the malfunctioning left engine.

(Forty-seven of the 118 passengers died. All eight of the flight crew survived the accident. Of the 79 survivors, 5 had minor injuries and 74 were seriously injured.)

So training is very important in enhancing safety. As I have said, the pilot profession is a job where the pilot is under constant check every six months - not many other professions follow this rigorous program. Yes, it has to be as it involves peoples* lives!

(The captain and co-pilot who were seriously injured were later dismissed following the criticisms of their actions in the of the British Midland Boeing 737-400 crash investigation report)

Would I be a little confused when making the switch from the B777 to B787, then to A350?

A pilot, when making a switch to another plane (Boeing to Airbus) has to go through a thorough training program (we call it a conversion course) that takes between two to three months to ensure that the pilots do not get *confused*. It is not like driving a Toyota one day and hopping onto a Mercedes Benz the next! All the emergencies of the new plane must be mastered before a pilot is certified on it. However, a switch from a Boeing 777 to 787 is easier and faster.

It does make economic sense for an airline to say, operate only the Boeing 777 as it saves cost in training and technical spare parts. Remember, the Boeing 777 is a long-range plane, not suitable for short-range operations. Hence some airlines tend to maintain a few types. But that does not really affect the safety of flying, as I have mentioned above, airline pilots are trained on only one type of aircraft at any one time. So there is no question of the pilots getting confused!

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