Sunday, September 12, 2010

How Young Can an Airline Pilot Be?

By Mark W. Danielson
Ever wonder about who’s flying your plane? Not to alarm you, but if you’re riding on a regional jet, your captain may be 25 years old (like the one above) and your first officer could be 21. How can this be, you say? Simple. Flying regional jets is a stepping stone to the big carriers. It’s also called paying your dues.

Now before you gasp, rest assured that these pilots are all qualified to do their jobs, are licensed by the FAA, and most fly quite well. In terms of proficiency, regional pilots generally fly more legs than big carriers for less pay because their carriers have high expenses with lower income revenue. So rather than look down on Captain Howdy Doody and First Officer Skippy as you peer into their windshield while boarding the plane, cast them a tender smile and understand the reason they’re eating peanut butter crackers for lunch.

Most regional pilots have no military pilot experience, and that’s just fine. These people have spent thousands of their own dollars learning how to fly, and then gained valuable experience by teaching others to fly. At age eighteen, they can become commercial pilots and certified flight instructors. Once they have gained experience, they can apply for a regional jet position. However, some aviators by-pass the flight instructor phase by attending flight schools that have “ins” with regional carriers. These schools train prospective airline pilots from ground zero and then slide them into the right seat of a regional carrier. While this notion might make some nervous, this type of seat progression is no different than a military pilot spending a year learning to fly jets and then be assigned to the right seat of a bomber or transport. Bear in mind that nearly every fighter pilot has approximately three hundred hours of total pilot experience when they report to their first squadron.

There was a time when every regional carrier flew propeller driven aircraft. Many of these aircraft lacked autopilots and couldn’t climb above the weather. But the introduction of the regional jets phased out most of these prop jobs. Now, the regionals share the same airspace as the big jets, and provide a safe, smooth ride. And because their avionics and navigation systems are virtually the same as on the big jets, regional pilots have minimal difficulty in transitioning to the bigger aircraft.

It’s easy to mistake age for inexperience when you read about regional carrier accidents. Whether you fly on a regional or flag carrier, flying remains the safest form of transportation, and a pilot’s age has no bearing on their ability. If you’re still bothered by this, then sit back, close your eyes, and don’t think about it. After all, worrying isn’t going to change a thing.

As an active not-so-young airline captain who happens to write mysteries, I would be happy to review any section of a story pertaining to flying for accuracy. You can drop me a line through my web site.


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Frankly, I prefer the small regional planes and fly on at least one every time I fly anywhere. We usually fly out of a small airport, take a regional plane to a large airport and go on from there. I figure the young guys have quicker reactions times than the seniors.


Terry Odell said...

How are you on helicopters? My current WIP features a helo pilot. :-)

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Mark W. Danielson said...

Marilyn, reaction times do slow for some with age, but that's an individual situation. Every airline pilot, whether it be regional carrier or mainstream carrier, must pass simulator checks twice a year and the captain must pass a line check each year, plus any additional FAA spot checks he/she might be subjected to. Pilots who cannot properly respond to emergency situations in the simulator are given additional training until their performance is satisfactory. This means that age isn't really a player here.

I remember the looks I got when I was a young F-4 pilot, and now I'm the one raising a brow. Then again, I feel the same when walking around college campuses:)

Terry, ask any fixed wing pilot and they'll tell you the same thing -- helicopters have too many moving parts. That being said, I have enough flight time in helicopters to be dangerous, but could still land one if I had to. There's a reason they call the nut on top of the blades the Jesus nut. (You get religious real fast if it comes off.) If I can't answer a question on helicopters, I have a couple of friends who can.