A new Transportation Department demonstration project will spend $2.5 million over three years to set about 40 veterans on a path to becoming commercial pilots who can ease a pilot shortage, Secretary Elaine Chao announced Nov. 16.
The agency hopes the “Forces to Flyers” program will create a model to fill a pilot shortage that affects rural air service in particular, Chao said. The first participants will enroll in flight programs by mid-2018, the agency estimates.
“We do have a pilot shortage, a very big shortage,” Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), the head of the general aviation caucus and a certified commercial pilot, said at the announcement.
Graves and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) both offered amendments to their chambers’ respective Federal Aviation Authorization bills to create flexibility in how pilots earn training hours.
“In Congress, we are going to be very interested in seeing the results of this [initiative] and how it turns out and being able to apply it to pilot training standards and any changes that may need to be made to them moving forward,” Graves said.
Thune told Bloomberg Government that the new program could help build momentum and provide data on pilot training standards to inform the debate in Congress.
DOT’s Volpe Center is still finalizing program details, but will take allocated research funds to put toward a study and training.
The first phase of the program will assess the interest among veterans, and then help those who weren’t already military pilots to receive the training they need to become commercial pilots. The small program will support several dozen veterans from across service branches, not just the Air Force.
The program will partner with flight training schools, identified through normal solicitation procedures. Then DOT will work with the flight schools to help identify veteran participants.
The Volpe Center funding will pay for training until the veterans are able to qualify as flight instructors. Paid flight instruction positions will allow the veterans to accrue the flight hours needed to be certified as a commercial airline pilot.
“It’s very demanding, it’s very challenging, it’s expensive—that’s what makes it tough,” Graves told reporters after the event about becoming a pilot.
The “Forces to Flyers” program doesn’t make any regulatory changes to the mandated 1,500 flight hours required for commercial airline co-pilots. Military pilots are already able to qualify as commercial co-pilots under an exception with 750 hours total time as a pilot.
The 1,500-hour rule resulted from the deadly 2009 Colgan Air crash in New York.
The language of both the Graves and Thune amendments would allow the Federal Aviation Administraton to loosen the federally mandated 1,500 flight hours required for commercial airline co-pilots to allow other forms of non-flight training.
Graves withdrew his amendment during committee markup of the House FAA Bill (H.R. 2997). The FAA reauthorization measure ( S. 1405) that the Senate panel approved includes Thune’s amendment, adopted on a party-line vote. While proponents believe the provision will help reduce a pilot shortage, opponents worry about safety.
Graves called the 1,500-hour rule “arbitrary,” but acknowledged that the debate in Congress has been “emotional.”
“I think it’s creating problems; I think we need to get those pilots in the cockpit sooner, again with a competent captain that they’re learning from, but that’s something for another time,” he said.
Graves said the amendments offered with the FAA bills won’t change the hours, arbitrary or not, but rather look to count the hours differently.
DOT, for its part, hopes the program will make a small contribution to the larger issue of a pilot shortage.
“Hopefully the lessons learned from this pilot program may provide a foundation for a larger effort,” Chao said.
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