Pilot Shortages – myth or reality?

According to statistics, more than 800,000 new airline pilots will be needed in the next 20 years, but major global events can alter such predictions at a moment’s notice, as Dave Unwin discovers.

At last year’s International Paris Air Show, Boeing’s then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg said he believed that the growing shortage of pilots represents “one of the biggest challenges” facing the airline industry.

While the principles of flight remain the same, flight deck architecture has changed massively over the past half-century.
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At last year’s International Paris Air Show, Boeing’s then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg said he believed that the growing shortage of pilots represents “one of the biggest challenges” facing the airline industry. The reasons for the shortage of pilots are myriad. The increase globally, especially in China, of the ‘middle class’ proportion of society means more people want to fly to every year. Furthermore, the introduction into service of very large aircraft, such as the Airbus A380, was not as successful as many industry analysts predicted. It turned out that what airlines really needed was more, smaller airliners that could land at small airports, rather than behemoths like the A380 and Boeing 747 which need equally large runways. Indeed, the demand for air travel has grown so quickly that, according to Boeing’s latest forecast, 800,000 new pilots will be needed over the next 20 years, and no one is quite sure where so many will come from. One fact is irrefutable: the number of pilots being trained cannot keep up with demand.

Podded turbojets fitted to early jet airliners, such as the Douglas DC-8, made handling very diff erent to their propliner predecessors. Not only was there no induced lift, but turbojets also took much longer to accelerate from idle to full power.

Although some of the major European flag carriers, such as British Airways, operated flight training colleges, for decades the airline industry traditionally looked to the military to provide a steady stream of well trained and experienced pilots. Nowadays, shrinking military budgets have not only led to the armed forces training fewer pilots, but also actively seeking to retain them. In addition, once the Berlin Wall came down and communism in Eastern Europe started to collapse, the end of the Cold War was inevitable and the so-called ‘Peace Dividend’ saw a rapid reduction in most Western armed forces. Pilot shortages are often influenced by the military, with the last big shortage (in the West at least) being around 1988. It is no coincidence that this was 35 years after the Korean War ceasefire (both US and British pilots had been trained for the 1953 conflict). However, the airline industry is notoriously cyclical and, being a global business, is also easily influenced by world events, such as wars, economic depressions or the price of oil. In 1988, some lucky pilots with a Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL), an instrument rating (IR) and just 700 hours’ total flight time were starting out as first off icers on Boeing 737s, yet barely four years later a combination of Gulf War One, interest rates at 14% and Britain leaving the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, produced such a downturn in the economy that it meant experienced captains with tens of thousands of hours and multiple type ratings were unable to find work.

Throughout its existence, the airline industry has been notorious for being a ‘boom or bust’ business, partly because of its tendency to be reactive, rather than proactive. In its defence, it is indisputable that economic forecasting is extraordinarily diff icult, because even a tiny change in just a few variables, such as economic, geographical or political events, can make predictions incredibly complex.

What is undeniable is that the growth in air travel, allied with a shrinking military, seems almost certain to produce a significant shortfall in the number of qualified pilots. According to Boeing, the world’s commercial aviation market could climb to $8. trillion, up from $8. trillion, over the next ten years, while Muilenburg estimates the number of new commercial aircraft would rise to 44,000, up from 43,000, over the next two decades.

It appears there has never been a better time to start training if you want to be an airline pilot.

Pan American Airways received a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser simulator in 1948. While no motion or visual systems were installed, it replicated the appearance and behaviour of a real cockpit in every other way.

Route to the Cockpit

Alongside the challenge of pilot recruitment keeping pace with industry demand has been radical change in training over the last 20 years. Although the military provided many pilots, with some from the airlines’ own training systems, many aspiring flyers worked their way up via the ‘selfimprover’ route. This typically involved gliding-towing, parachute-dropping or instructing to build some hours, followed by air-taxi work in a light piston-powered twin, then a small turboprop and finally a jet.

However, the rise of the Joint Aviation Authority (now EASA) has seen the emphasis placed more on technical knowledge than pure flying skills, and the modern graduate of an ‘airline academy’ may only have 250hrs of flight time and a frozen airline transport pilot licence (ATPL) before seeking their first job. A pilot who holds a ‘frozen ATPL’ has a CPL/IR and has passed all the written exams, but lacks the necessary flight experience of 1500 hours total time (TT).

Shrinking military budgets result in smaller air forces.

Synthetic Flight

Along with the emphasis on theoretical knowledge has been an exponential increase in the use of simulators.

Perhaps surprisingly, the flight simulator has been around for a lot longer than most may think. As long ago as 1910 several synthetic flight training devices, such as the Sanders Teacher, were being marketed. This was an aircraft mounted on a universal joint and located in an exposed position on the airfield. Facing into the prevailing wind, the student pilot could control it around all three axes by applying control inputs from the ailerons, elevators and rudder. Clearly, such a device depended greatly on the strength and reliability of the wind, and this was to prove its undoing – it was not a success.

As with so many facets of aviation, World War One added considerable impetus to the development of synthetic flight trainers. By 1917, several machines existed which used mechanical or electrical actuators linked to the trainer controls.

Perhaps the most famous synthetic flight training device of the 1930s and 1940s was the Link Trainer. The Link Piano and Organ Company of New York was primarily involved, as its name suggests, in the manufacture of organs and pianos, and Edwin Link used his considerable knowledge of pneumatic mechanisms in designing the prototype. It consisted of a small dummy fuselage mounted on a universal joint, with pitch, roll and yaw movement provided by pneumatic bellows. As the student moved the stick and rudder, an electrically driven suction pump mounted in the base supplied air to the various control valves and this rolled, pitch and yawed the device. However, as the simulated effects of the ailerons, elevators and rudder were independent of each other (essentially, there were no secondary effects of controls), the Link Trainer did not produce an accurate reproduction of an aircraft in flight. This was probably the main reason why synthetic flight training continued to be viewed as no substitute for real flight.

The training captain of a large piston-powered multi-engine aircraft, such as a Lockheed Constellation, had many advantages. For example, the engines usually accelerated promptly and the propwash over the wings produced a phenomenon known as ‘induced lift’ This meant that a big handful of power could often salvage a low, slow approach.

Not until the introduction of gyroscopic flight instruments did it become apparent that synthetic flight training devices would be vital for teaching the skills of ‘blind’ or instrument flying. Link Trainers were soon capable of rotating through 360° (which allowed a magnetic compass to be installed) and were fitted with ‘blind flying’ instruments as standard equipment. These instruments were operated either mechanically or pneumatically, and the Link Trainer proved to be a great teaching aid. Its undoubted usefulness was enhanced by the attachment of a course plotter, enabling the course of the simulated flight to be traced on a chart by means of an inked wheel. Air forces and airlines soon began to appreciate the inherent advantages of synthetic flight training devices, and many thousands of Link Trainers were sold.

As aircraft continued to increase, both in size and complexity, it became ever more apparent that simulators could also be used to teach cockpit drills. The introduction of aircraft with complicated systems, such as retractable undercarriages and variable pitch propellers, made following the checklist essential, and the non-moving mock-up cockpit was introduced. More accurately called a ‘procedures trainer’ such a device was a great help in introducing student pilots to more complex aircraft.

Simulators continued to be developed after World War Two – for example, Pan American Airways took delivery of a sim for the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser in 1948. While this device had no motion or visual systems installed, it replicated the appearance and behaviour of a real Stratocruiser cockpit in every other way and was still a great training aid. Not only could Pan Am routes be flown using the same synthetic navigational aids, but the instructor could introduce a variety of instrument malfunctions and emergency conditions.

Many aspiring flyers worked their way up to the airlines via the ‘self-improver’ route. This often involved gliding-towing work.
Dave Unwin

Learning from Mistakes

Although the Stratocruiser simulator was clearly a very useful training aid, as it was a fixed base simulation it felt unnatural, and some pilots expressed reservations about the lack of motion. That all changed with the introduction of jet aircraft which made the development of the full motion simulator imperative.

The training captains of first- generation jet transports really earned their money. Any flying instructor, whether in a Cessna 152 or a 747, knows it is imperative to allow the student to make mistakes – how else will they learn? For all instructors, the real trick is to not to let the student put you in a situation you can’t retrieve. The training captain of a large pistonpowered multi-engine aircraft, such as a Lockheed Constellation or Douglas DC-6, had many advantages. Not only did the engines usually accelerate promptly, but the propwash over the wings produced a phenomenon known as ‘induced lift’ It meant that although the aircraft could be flying dangerously slowly, the wing was still producing lift when the engines were at full power. Consequently (and especially as training flights were generally flown at relatively light weights) the captain could allow some situations, such as a low, slow approach, to become marginal, if not downright dangerous Then, when all appeared lost, a big handful of power could salvage the situation. However, jets such as the Douglas DC-8 and Boeing 707 possessed none of these advantages. The pod-mounted turbojet engines meant that not only was there no induced lift, but they also took a long time (up to eight seconds) to accelerate from idle to full power. And, of course, even after the engines had ‘spooled up’ the aircraft still had to accelerate. From deciding to go around and adding full power, to the point where the aircraft would finally stop sinking and begin to climb, could take as long as ten seconds.

The modern simulator is an impressive machine. The visuals are stunning, and as the simulator enjoys six degrees of freedom, the result is a standard of simulation that can be frighteningly realistic.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, jet transport flight training (and asymmetric training in particular) was causing more accidents than true emergencies and simulator development advanced at an exponential rate, eventually producing the highly sophisticated incredibly realistic machines of today. These devices accurately replicate practically every situation, emergency or abnormality, while the fidelity of extremely realistic weather dynamics enable an instructor to create essentially any sort of weather in the day, night or even twilight.

So, for most areas of flight training these days the emphasis is on the simulator, and not just for learning how to fly the aircraft, but also how to operate as part of a crew. Most airlines expect prospective pilots to possess cockpit resource management (CRM) skills, with many favouring candidates who have completed a structured Jet Orientation Course (JOC) and Multi Crew Cooperation (MCC) course. The JOC bridges the gap between flying slower single-pilot piston aircraft and a full type rating course for a multi-pilot turbine-powered aircraft. It typically involves four hours in the classroom and four in the simulator. A full EASAapproved MCC course is considerably more comprehensive, often requiring three days in the classroom and up to 20 hours in a simulator. Training in the latter is typically five four-hour sessions, often alongside a fellow student and with the emphasis on following the standard operating procedures (SOPs) of a typical airline. The student is introduced to the correct use of performance manuals, multi-crew checklists, the quick reference handbook (QRH) and flight plans. The simulator used may not necessarily be ‘type specific’ or have motion, but will have generic cockpit architecture and high-quality graphics. The emphasis on the MCC course is not on learning how to operate a specific aircraft but teaching students how to function as a crew.

One of the biggest challenges facing the airline industry is the growing shortage of pilots. Via L3 Harris

Record Cadet Placement

Air International spoke to several training providers, and all were universally upbeat about the job market over the next decade, while acknowledging the industry faces numerous challenges to be become both ‘greener’ and quieter.

According to Des Wynne, sales director for Simtech Aviation: “Global air traffic reached 8. billion passengers in 2018, up 6. 4% on 2017, and we expect this trend to continue to grow as the world gets smaller in terms of business/e-Commerce and also the desire of consumers to explore the world.

He continued: “We saw a record cadet placement rate in 2018 into the first half of 2019, and expect pilot demand to continue.

Similarly, Jo Hjalmas, UK airline academy director – commercial aviation for technology company L3Harris forecasts that “over the next five years almost 10,500 new aircraft will be joining the global fleet, which amounts to approximately 2,100 per year. This growing fleet will, therefore, require 30,000 new pilots every year for the next five years.

As civil aviation enters the third decade of the 21st century it faces great challenges, such as the looming pilot shortage, but also tremendous opportunities. Alongside growing passenger demand for both business and pleasure air travel, newer and more efficient aircraft, different powerplants and fuels are all under commercial consideration. Added to this dynamic mix are better avionics and supersonic or even hypersonic sub-orbital spaceplanes, which are all on the drawing board.