Was a lack of experience a factor in the Ethiopian 737 Max crash?
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.