Would you be comfortable having surgery performed by a first-year medical student? Probably not. How about getting on an airplane with a first officer whose experience level is only one step above that of a student pilot? That was the situation on the recent Ethiopian 737 Max crash.
Now it may turn out that the accident was the result of a problem with the plane and the first officer’s lack of experience did not play a role, but I doubt it. When things started to go wrong on that plane, I can almost guarantee you that the first officer was not in the loop.
In aviation speak, it’s called getting ahead of the plane. I remember the first time I flew a lear jet. The plane moved through the sky so fast that I could barely keep up with my duties. The same is true with any pilot transitioning to a new aircraft. No matter your level of experience, it takes a number of cycles of takeoffs and landings before you gain a level of confidence. Airlines mitigate the risk by not pairing a new captain with a new first officer. They also place restrictions on new captains. If an emergency does occur, it’s the pilot’s overall experience that can make all the difference. But if there is a lack of experience to begin with, there is no chance for a favorable outcome. The inexperienced pilot gets tunnel vision. They are unable to process what’s going on. They don’t have a database of past experiences to draw upon.
Much has been written about the over-reliance of automation in new technology aircraft. The fact is that automation makes planes safer. Automation relieves the pilot of motor-skill tasks and allows for much greater situational awareness. The safety record over the past ten years confirms this. That doesn’t mean that it’s okay to fly with less experienced pilots. Automation fails. Flying skills matter.
I read the captain had 9000+ hours but how much time did he have in the MAX ? Perhaps very little time and pairing with a 200 hour F/O sounds like a dangerous combo even if everything had gone right!
When I heard of the problems with the new 737, I thought of our wonderful fortune in having had a great pilot like Hoot Gibson. I imagine that in most cases a seasoned pilot could make all the difference.
However, another element that reminded me of flight 841 was the role played by
Boeing. Once again (as in the “investigation” of the flight 841 incident) the plane’s manufacturer was involved. In the process of approving the new 737, the FAA yielded substantial technical clearance to Boeing. This seems to have contributed to the fatal glitch. Apparently the overload of additional new technology to a 60’s model aircraft created unanticipated problems. One wonders whether adequate testing had been performed. As for the pilots, at the very least, they would have required a great deal of additional training with the newly renovated aircraft.
I wonder how Boeing will get off the hook this time.