There’s been lots of controversy lately about the proposed FAA regs requiring 1500 hours and an Airline Transport Pilot certificate to qualify for the right seat of an airliner, versus the current effective 300-hour minimum. Much of the discussion has centered around where those additional flight hours will come from, and whether earning them in light airplanes as a flight instructor, freight, or pleasure pilot qualifies aspiring airline pilots any better than the current 300 hours would with improved training.
Sure, time in type is a big plus, but in my personal opinion the biggest benefit of added flight experience is not the hours themselves, nor the nature of the flying, but rather the value of accumulating command and decision-making experience. Today’s 300-hour airline pilots got there via Part 141 training programs that include literally not a single hour of non-programmed flight. So the typical pleasure pilot with 50 hours under his or her belt following a Private Pilot checkride actually has more true command experience (and the judgment that comes with it) than many straight-out-of-flight-school airline pilots.
Whether it’s through instructing, flying freight, or whatever, I suspect most experienced pilots would agree that dealing with weather, mechanical issues, passengers, etc. makes you a heck of a lot more confident and decisive pilot than someone who has never been in charge. Taking responsibility teaches even relatively inexperienced pilots to assume command and deal with emergencies. Conversely, only pilots who feel in-charge can be expected to take serious initiative to master the challenges and knowledge associated with safety of flight. IMHO, that sense of responsibility comes more from true command experience rather than airplane size.
As for the training part, along with the importance of better mastering relevant safety topics like airframe icing and weather flying, I feel we need to reincorporate autonomy and thereby the development of judgment and confidence back into flight training. I’ve felt that way since writing the following column way back in 1998. Read Rite of Passage: Open Those Cages! here.