Guest Commentary: A Way of Life

By Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)

Throughout my time in the military, I never questioned that flying Black Hawks was what I was supposed to do with my life.

Of course, that changed when a rocket-propelled grenade tore through the aircraft I was piloting over Iraq in 2004. Days later, I woke up in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center without either of my legs, heartbroken at the thought that I would never be able to fly helicopters for the U.S. military again.

But as ALPA members know, “Trained for Life” is more than a slogan; it’s a way of life for every pilot—and today, I still fly planes whenever I can, proud to continue calling myself a pilot and to use my new role as a U.S. senator to better the lives of all those who’ve also found a home in the cockpit.

This year in Washington, I’ve been focusing on the FAA reauthorization bill, working to counter the misguided efforts to roll back the first officer training and qualification rules. Since these regulations were put in place in 2010, there have been zero pilot training–related deaths in the United States. That’s a tremendous record.

But we must maintain these standards if we want to maintain this record. We can’t go back to the days of CD-ROMs and hotel pamphlets being considered as flight school. We need a high level of training to meet the extraordinary level of safety necessary for air transportation.

Some of my colleagues claim that this safety rollback is needed because of a pilot shortage—that without these changes, some of the cities in their home states might lose air service, harming their constituents.

This is just not true. There’s no pilot shortage. In fact, there are two pilots with airline transport pilot certificates for every single job opening in commercial aviation right now.

For the airlines and organizations claiming a shortage, I have a suggestion: Offer your pilots proper wages. Offer them an acceptable work-life balance. Offer them clearly visible career paths. Airlines that already do these things don’t seem to have any trouble finding pilots—so you should be just fine, too.

American lives are on the line, and we owe it to everyone to keep these critical safety rules in place. Just like we owe it to all Americans to ensure the safe transport of hazardous materials and to block single-pilot operations for cargo aircraft—all in an effort to make the skies safer, reinforce the public’s trust, and prevent needless tragedies.

Even after everything that’s happened to me—even after losing both my legs because of my job—I don’t regret my time in the cockpit. Being a pilot changed for the better who I am and who I want to be, giving me the skills to serve my country—both as part of the military and the Senate.

I’m going to keep working to make the path for others to join our ranks as accessible as possible and to keep striving to make time in the sky as safe as possible for passengers, crew, and, of course, every ALPA pilot.


Meet Sen. Tammy Duckworth

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth is an Iraq War veteran, Purple Heart recipient, and former assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. She was among the first women in the Army to fly combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Duckworth served in the Reserve forces for 23 years before retiring from military service in 2014 as a lieutenant colonel. She was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016 after representing Illinois’s eighth congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives for two terms.

During her time in Congress, Duckworth’s been a tireless champion for ALPA’s priorities. She’s passionately advocated for air safety in ALPA’s fight to ensure that the current first officer qualification standards remain firmly in place. She’s also a leader for the Promoting Women in the Aviation Workforce Act and has supported the Association’s work to protect commercial aviation against undeclared hazardous materials.

This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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