Our Union: First Flight Experience

By Capt. Tim Canoll, ALPA President

When engineer and mathematician Otto Lilienthal, known as the flying man, took to the sky in a glider in 1891, it would change the human experience. He was able to exert some control of flight while covering distances of up to 800 feet. His history of flying gliders over a number of years helped him gain tremendous experience understanding the mechanics of flight. Lilienthal’s experiences and success in gliding inspired the world—including Orville and Wilbur Wright—to believe that, with an aircraft of the right design, humans could master flight.

Even in these first days of aviation, the importance of experience was clear. “One can get a proper insight into the practice of flying only by actual flying experiments,” observed Lilienthal. “The manner in which we have to meet the irregularities of the wind, when soaring in the air, can only be learnt by being in the air itself.”

In the airline piloting profession, no substitute exists for experience. A pilot learns and gathers information about both the weather and the aircraft with his or her senses. It’s sometimes referred to as “flying by the seat of your pants,” and it means learning how to use the physical experience of being at the controls to help ensure safe and secure operations. It’s learned over time, and there are no shortcuts.

The invaluable nature of experience is why ALPA is fighting hard to defend against the attempts of profit-minded special-interest groups to roll back the training and experience requirements for what it takes to become an airline pilot. The proven safety advancements in first officer qualification, training, and experience requirements have created a quantum leap in safety for passengers, crews, and cargo.

The decision by Congress in 2010 to set limits and direct the establishment of the new rules was significant and unprecedented legislative action—nothing like it had occurred in more than two decades. The regulations that were developed dealt with minimum training and qualifications in a number of areas, such as flight in adverse weather and icing, stall recognition and avoidance, aircraft handling, crewmember mentoring, and an overhaul of the basic ATP requirements and type ratings. In sum, it was the most comprehensive, significant, and impactful regulatory advancement since the one level of safety initiative in the mid-1990s.

It’s clear that the action of Congress in 2010, and the resulting FAA actions in 2013, have contributed enormously to our current level of safety. The proof of its success is in the numbers. While more than 1,100 people lost their lives in passenger airline aircraft accidents in Part 121 operations in the two decades before Congress passed the current pilot qualification requirements, not one person has died in a U.S. Part 121 passenger airline accident since.

Despite these facts, special interests are attempting an end run around the safety regulations to lower workforce costs and line their own pockets. ALPA won’t stand for it. Airline passengers want and deserve safe air transportation across the United States, including in rural and smaller communities.

ALPA’s “Keep Our Skies Safe” campaign is in full force across Capitol Hill and appearing on social media across the nation. In just a few weeks, nearly 20,000 pilots as well as passengers and cargo shippers have taken a stand for safety by joining ALPA’s Call to Action.

At this year’s Air Safety Forum, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) joined us to underscore their support of the rules. Their appearance at the forum came on the heels of their joining a news conference held by ALPA and the Colgan Flight 3407 families to focus attention on the high-risk threat.

The zero U.S. passenger airline accident-fatality record since the law was passed speaks for itself. ALPA will not relent in our drive to block any effort to erode the law or the associated rules that have led to the safest time in history for U.S. airline passengers and cargo shippers.

For many of us, our first flight experience is still vivid in our memory. Lilienthal’s first flight inspired a new way to travel that also changed how humans move goods and ideas. Experience makes the difference.