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Instructors blow whistle on safety concerns at U.S. flight schools

By Miriam Raftery

November 19, 2013 (El Cajon ) – An investigative report by an  NBC TV station in the Bay area adds fuel to concerns raised by East County residents over the safety of foreign pilot training at Gillespie Field.  The NBC investigation, titled “Foreign Airline Pilots, U.S. Flight Schools: Do they get enought raining time in cockpit?” has prompted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to announce tighter regulations of  training of foreign pilots at American flight schools.

In the U.S., pilots train for years in either the military of general aviation, or both, to gain at least 1,500 hours of flight time before being allowed into the cockpit of a commercial jetliner.  But the FAA gave out 4,820 license to foreign pilots last year alone – pilots who came here from Asia or other places to train, many with zero flight experience.

The FAA earlier this month announced new requirements for  training of foreign pilots following the crash of a Continental flight  into a house in Buffalo, New York raised serious questions. The plane was  flown by a recent graduate of the Aviation Cooperation Program; the crash killed 49 people and was attributed to pilot error.  An Asiana flight that crashed in San Francisco occurred after two new graduates of the foreign pilots program set the speed too slow for landing.  TransPac Aviation Academy in Arizona, which trains foreign pilots, has had three separate fatality accidents in recent years.  Flight schools have also had numerous non-fatality accidents, heightening safety concerns.

NBC interviewed an instructor who said he quit his job over safety lapses and that instructors were pressured by flight schools and foreign airlines to pass students who were not ready.  Within a year, the students were flying wide-body commercial airliners.  A second instructor called the process a “indecent hurry” to graduate students. 

Student training typically lasts a year or less, with 180 to 200 hours of flight time in U.S. flight schools, followed by 40 to 60 hours more flight time back in their homelands overseas.

Sue Strom heads up Advocates for Safe Airport Policies (SAFE), a citizens group in East County that has been advocating for more attention paid to safety and a halt to testing of foreign pilots at Gillespie Field.

“ASAP ahs been concerned for years that our freedom to enjoy  clear skies and livable communities has been preempted by the little known Aviation Cooperation Program (ACP) run by the FAA to train international students over our neighbors,” Strom said in an email sent to Gillespie Field neighbors. The NBC investigation “proves that we are not alone,” she said.

Scandinavian Aviation Academy in El Cajon trains foreign pilots.  The flight school has been involved in its own share of  issues.  In 2006, a Cessna owned by the academy collided with another plane and  crashed over a residential area in El Cajon and La Mesa, killing three people. More recently, neighbors have complained of low flight patterns over homes as the Academy has boosted its enrollment of Chinese student pilots, though the Academy has denied this.



The new FAA requirements aim to improve pilots’ ability to manually fly the planes including handling mid-air stalls and wind gusts.  The FAA also ordered tracking and remedial training for pilots who inadequate performances, training for better pilot monitoring,  and improved runway safety procedures.

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Flight Training

Flight training is a problem even for experienced pilots. Automation has replaced hands-on operation of commrcial aircraft to the extent that  pilots are sometimes  late to respond the changing conditions, too late in some cases.

Commercial airline pilots have become so dependent on automation that poor manual flying skills and failure to master the latest changes in cockpit technology pose the greatest hazards to passengers, an international panel of air-safety experts warns.

A soon-to-be-released study commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration determined, among other things, that "pilots sometimes rely too much on automated systems and may be reluctant to intervene" or switch them off in unusual or risky circumstances, according to a draft reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

While over the decades automation played a big part in making flying today safer than ever in the U.S. and globally, the draft highlights some downsides. The study found that some pilots "lack sufficient or in-depth knowledge and skills" to properly control their plane's trajectory, partly because "current training methods, training devices and the time allotted for training" may be inadequate to fully master advanced automated system


Air France Flight 447 decended from 35,000 feet over the Atlanitc Ocean during a flight from Rio to Paris and crashed into the sea, killing all aboard. Due to faulty information the plane was nose up, in a "stall" , and even full engine power was of no help as the plane  fell.


The Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco may have been  caused by a fault in auto controls or an incorrect setting. Some of the airports landing assist equipment was not operating at the time of the crash.