There’s an entry I’ve been meaning to write for months now. I try and delete and try again and delete again—one of these days the words will come. Meanwhile, I’ve been working intensely on a project I’m not ready to discuss and, of course, been taking a closer look at various states. All that was on my mind this morning when a story on CNN this morning got my attention, “Florida’s Pilot Factory”.
And it fit so neatly into this whole rider ed/motorcycle safety thing—and, hell, life itself these days—that I looked into it a little more and I thought I’d share it with you all:
On February 12, 2009, pilot Captain Marvin Renslow, and co-pilot Rebecca Shaw, were flirting and chatting as they approached Buffalo, NY in deteriorating weather conditions. Minutes from the airport, they noticed how much ice was on the wings of the Bombardier Q400. Shaw confessed her total inexperience with icing and deicing and her nervousness, “I don’t want to have to experience that and make those kinds of calls. You know I’dve freaked out. I’dve have like seen this much ice and thought, `Oh my gosh, we were going to crash.’ “
Renslow responded, “I would’ve been fine. I would have survived it. There wasn’t, we never had to make decisions that I wouldn’t have been able to make but … now I’m more comfortable.”
As it turned out, Shaw was wrong about the reason but right about the effect and Renslow was wrong all around:
Moments later the turboprop stalled out on approach to Buffalo NY and the plane dropped straight down on a house. Renslow’s last words were, “Gear up. Oh (expletive).
All 49 on board and someone in the house were killed.
The National Transportation Safety Board found several problems when it investigated but they could be summed up as pilot error or “poor airmanship.” And poor airmanship, experts believe, is often the result of poor training.
In fact, Renslow did exactly the opposite of what pilots are trained to do in those circumstances: he yanked the nose of the plane up and slowed down the plane even more.
In all regional airline crashes, “The one thing that ties them all together is poor airmanship,” said Captain Jack Casey, Chief Operating Officer of Safety Operating System, an aviation consulting firm. “You cannot build sophisticated airline pilot skills on top of a soft foundation.”
Training itself and allowing poor students to proceed to licensure may have played a very large role in the crash of Flight 3407. Pilots go through far more extensive training than motorcyclists do:
They are first learn to fly a small plane, then go to flight school to learn to fly commercial planes and then are trained by the airline that hires them. Unlike motorcycles, those in aviation don’t think all airplanes are basically alike—pilots have to be trained on each kind of plane they fly. They also have to pass written tests and FAA “check flights” which are basic proficiency tests.
Renslow, it turned out, had flunked five of them though he was able to pass each one when he retook it—iow, he failed then passed then failed then passed then failed then passed then failed then passed then failed then passed over the span of his training and career—yet Colgan Air said his skills were “adequate” and claim they didn’t know about two of three of the failures that occurred prior to his employment. However, two of the failed check flights happened while he was employed by Colgan Air—the last occurring 16 months before the deadly flight to Buffalo. In the weeks following the crash, at least two of its senior management pilots—those responsible for those flight checks—are not longer employed in that capacity.
It’s almost as if Colgan Air had told its instructors that they shouldn’t consider themselves to be gatekeepers to the business of flying… And it makes me wonder about that policy of not counseling out often and early. And it makes me really wonder—given the rise in passing rates and the drop in fail rates in two of the three states we’ve examined so far and the subsequent rise in fatalities if there isn’t a connection after all.
Does it matter if Renslow failed so many times if he passed ultimately? Does training matter?
So let’s walk back through Renslow the five-time failure’s training:
Colgan Air’s FAQ on Flight 3407 strenuously defended it’s training program:
Its training is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and crew training programs “meet or exceed all regulatory requirements for all major airlines” requiring “double the amount of flight training time prior to flying this type of aircraft” than the FAA demands and has the pilot observe crews operating that kind of aircraft. And they use simulators and have a quality control program and their program “thoroughly address emergency situations” and their crews are prepared to handle them.
Colgan also said that Renslow had 3,379 total flight experience though only 109 on that particular plane as captain. He had a 172 hours of formal training including classroom and flight simulator) for a total of 261 hours. Ironically, five minutes before the plane fell out of the sky, Renslow himself told Shaw that he had only flown for 625 hours total before he was hired by Colgan—and referred, as we’ll see, to how many of those hours were flown in commercial flight school.
In contrast, Shaw also spoke of her experience totally unaware she would be dead in a less than six minutes. She had far more experience with the Q400 than Renslow–772 hours total—and she had 1,600 hours flight experience when she was hired and 2,220 total flight experience at that point.
At the hearing, Colgan rushed to blame Renslow and Shaw who, they claimed, had been well-trained and just hadn’t done what they were supposed to do. It wasn’t Colgan’s fault. It wasn’t the training’s fault.
And doesn’t that remind me of rider instructors and MSF! It’s not their fault—it’s the rider’s fault. Whatever happens to them once they left the range—it’s on them.
However, a Chicago Tribune article stated, “The board also released documents showing that safety investigators were told by one training instructor that Renslow “was slow learning” the Dash 8 at the start but his abilities “picked up at the end.” The training instructor said Renslow struggled to learn the Dash 8′s flight management system, a critical computer, and–had difficulty learning switch positions which were opposite from the throws he had been used to on another aircraft. This instructor described the captain’s decision-making abilities as very good.”
Renslow’s dead wrong reaction when the plane stalled out may have happened, the NTSB hearing discovered, because Colgan Air showed its pilots a video of an unusual kind of icing and how to deal with it by pulling up the nose and slowing the plane—even though the particular plane wasn’t susceptible to that kind of problem.
And in a parallel with many aspects of MSF’s training including the failure to adequately address ABS brakes and how to properly use them:
Both Fox News and USA Today reported that Colgan does not train pilots on an important safety device known as a “stick pusher” which would’ve pointed the nose down so the plane would speed up and disaster have been averted.
But the parallel doesn’t end there: When it activated by itself Renslow overrode it and kept the nose of the plane up. So much for that good judgment that Renslow’s instructor at Colgan—and Renslow himself—claimed he had.
One of the ways the BRC has been dumbed down according to many rider educators is that much of the material on hazards and street strategies has been removed or weakened including the switch from SIPDE (Scan, Interpret, Predict, Decide, Execute) to SEE (Search, Evaluate, Execute). Students, many rider educators—and more and more motorcyclists—believe are less likely to exhibit good judgment as a result.
I have to wonder if MSF curriculum was subjected to as an intensive investigation as Calgon by the NTSB if what so many expert instructors have been saying for years that the public wouldn’t be as appalled as they have been over the revelations about regional airlines.
Renslaw had worked for another regional airline, Gulfstream International, that also flew regional flights in Florida and the Bahamas for Continental Connections as did Calgon Air. Gulfstream International is legally related to Gulfstream Academy, a flight school in Florida.
And that’s where Renslow had been trained to fly commercial planes. He graduated in 2005 and went to work for Colgan Air. There’s been at least four crashes involving pilots trained at Gulfstream Academy and/or who flew for Gulfstream International.
In a parallel with the inter-relationships between the motorcycle industry and motorcycle training—and the deaths in training—at least one of those other crashes involved a plane owned by Pinnacle Airlines, Corp. In that crash, two pilots who both had gained experience at Gulfstream and gone on to work for Pinnacle took a jet for a joyride, flew it too high and ended up in the same ultimate problem Flight 3407—an aerodynamic stall. Colgan Air, Renslow’s employer is a subsidiary of Pinnacle. Colgan Air was quick to deny there was anything similar between the two crashes in its FAQ—the circumstances were “vastly different” and that “any speculation” would suggest that the NTSB and Colgan knew what caused the crash and they couldn’t comment further because the investigation was ongoing.
Of course, we’ve already learned vastly more about what happened on that icy night in Buffalo, NY three months ago than we have about even the first deadly crash in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania back in 1998. In fact, it sounds like Colgan Air’s FAQ was written by the same folks who write MSF’s responses to the NTSB.
In the Gulfstream Academy First Officer program, amateur pilots who have 300 hours of flying time act can pay 30,000 and put in 12 weeks of school and then they’re paid as co-pilots for Gulfstream International flying Beech 1900 aircraft. Gulfstream International is the carrier for Continental Connections flights in Florida and the Bahamas. Incidentally, the Wall Street Journal reported that Renslow had failed the flight check on the Beech 1900 after coming to work for Colgan Air.
And then they can go off as a full-fledged commercial pilot for an airline—usually regional airlines like Colgan Air or Pinnacle.
According to another article in the WSJ,
“Mr. Hackett [chief executive of the airline's parent company, Gulfstream International Group Inc.] said Capt. Renslow’s record at Gulfstream was uneventful and he passed all his simulator proficiency tests and check rides.” Except he had failed three before he was hired by Colgan Air.
Iow, Renslow had to have 300 hours flight experience prior to entering Gulfstream Training Academy, then 250 at the academy—and Renslow says he had a total of 625 when he was hired by Colgan Air. You do the math.
In contrast, CNN reports, “Most major airlines require co-pilots to have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time. That’s three to five times the amount of some students entering Gulfstream’s First Officer program.” A quick check of other flight schools that train commercial domestic pilots show that training alone is from 12-24 months. Many programs require their students to act as flight instructors as way of really learning by teaching.
Many pilots have little respect for private flight schools like Gulfstream Academy—they say it’s “buying [flight] time” and essentially buying the right hand seat in the cockpit without getting any real training or life experience. Paying a lot of money to get through faster doesn’t make you better—in fact, it’s the opposite. Gulfstream—and other schools like it—appear to be, as the CNN article says, a pilot factory.
But it’s not really any different from rider training as the United States knows it. Every version of MSF’s basic training has gotten shorter and shorter and less and less skills are taught. From two full weekends, it’s become a one-day course in at T3RG. And if MSF has it’s way, the classroom will shrink down to a couple hours on-line.
The second WSJ article afforded another parallel to rider training: It concludes with a note about liability: “In filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company indicates that other airlines employ pilots trained by its training affiliate, called Gulfstream Training Academy. “In the event of an accident caused by an academy graduate, it is possible the academy could be named as a defendant in any lawsuit,” according to one recent filing. “There are no assurances our insurance policy will adequately cover potential losses from such claims.”
And what does that remind us of given MSF changing its RERP contract to remove itself from liability—even for its own negligence?
It took one crash and 50 deaths for the sub-par training for commercial pilots to come out in a NTSB hearing. We’re up to 7 confirmed deaths, several critical injuries in training and God and MSF only knows how many we don’t know about—and who knows how many deaths of sub-par trained riders on the road….how many will it take before the link between training and road crashes is officially investigated?