Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the pilot who skilfully landed US Airways 1549 on the Hudson River in 2009, has harsh words for both Boeing and Ethiopian Airlines.
The “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot is an Aviation and Safety Expert for CBS News but weighed in on the recent Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737-8 MAX crash on his personal Facebook page.
Here are his comments in full. I’ve broken them up into paragraphs and bolded what I deem particularly noteworthy.
We do not yet know what caused the tragic crash of Ethiopian 302 that sadly claimed the lives of all passengers and crew, though there are many similarities between this flight and Lion Air 610, in which the design of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 is a factor. It has been obvious since the Lion Air crash that a redesign of the 737 MAX 8 has been urgently needed, yet has still not been done, and the announced proposed fixes do not go far enough.
I feel sure that the Ethiopian crew would have tried to do everything they were able to do to avoid the accident. It has been reported that the first officer on that flight had only 200 hours of flight experience, a small fraction of the minimum in the U.S., and an absurdly low amount for someone in the cockpit of a jet airliner. We do not yet know what challenges the pilots faced or what they were able to do, but everyone who is entrusted with the lives of passengers and crew by being in a pilot seat of an airliner must be armed with the knowledge, skill, experience, and judgment to be able to handle the unexpected and be the absolute master of the aircraft and all its systems, and of the situation.
A cockpit crew must be a team of experts, not a captain and an apprentice. In extreme emergencies, when there is not time for discussion or for the captain to direct every action of the first officer, pilots must be able to intuitively know what to do to work together. They must be able to collaborate wordlessly. Someone with only 200 hours would not know how to do that or even to do that. Someone with that low amount of time would have only flown in a closely supervised, sterile training environment, not the challenging and often ambiguous real world of operational flying, would likely never have experienced a serious aircraft malfunction, would have seen only one cycle of the seasons of the year as a pilot, one spring with gusty crosswinds, one summer of thunderstorms. If they had learned to fly in a fair-weather clime, they might not even have flown in a cloud.
Airlines have a corporate obligation not to put pilots in that position of great responsibility before they are able to be fully ready. While we don’t know what role, if any, pilot experience played in this most recent tragedy, it should always remain a top priority at every airline. Everyone who flies depends upon it.
I’m not a pilot and I am not here to affirm or dismiss Sully’s contentions about both Boeing and the state of pilot training. He’s certainly correct that a “cockpit crew must be a team of experts” but I’m not sure that 200 hours is necessarily too little. We don’t know exactly what happened in the Ethiopian flight deck prior to the crash of ET302 and to blame the junior pilot would not be responsible at this point.
Sullenberger commands instant credibility based upon his own crash landing. His words should be taken seriously. But until we know more, he is merely speculating like the rest of us.
image: Chesley Sullenberger / Facebook