Cross-Country Experience and Line Pilot Success

Courtney Dennis is a First Officer flying for ExpressJet Airlines, but she began her flying career at ATP where she did all of her flight training. Once she had earned the ratings necessary for her to start flying professionally, she became an instructor for ATP. After instructing for a year in ATP’s Airline Career Pilot Program, Courtney completed jet transition training in ATP’s Regional Jet Program and went to work for ExpressJet. She wrote to us recently about a big problem facing the airlines today, and I want to share it with you:

No matter how severe you think the impending pilot shortage might be, there’s one thing for sure right now – the airlines are hiring like mad. Regional airlines that were furloughing three years ago now project just over a one-year upgrade for new hires. The Major airlines are pulling so many pilots from the Regional airlines that they can hardly keep up.

Several years ago this would have resulted in Regionals hiring newly minted commercial pilots with as little as 250 hours flight time. With the new regulations, however, airlines are forced to wait until pilots achieve 1500 hours of flight time – in some cases these requirements are marginally reduced, but only for a handful of applicants with very specific backgrounds.

But 1500 hours isn’t an end-all number. I recently met a newly minted airline pilot that had 2000 hours when he got hired, but lacked the required 500 hours cross-country flight time to meet ATP minimums. Why? He’d been flying skydivers for the past 1500 hours. Not an ounce of it was under instrument flight rules (IFR), and not an ounce of it could be logged as cross-country time.

He got his required flight time and finished his training – but this wasn’t the end of his trouble. When it came time for his initial operating experience – the first flights in the airplane with passengers conducted under the supervision of an Instructor Captain (check airman) – he was completely overwhelmed.

Why? This pilot had no significant cross-country line-type flying experience. He learned how to operate his airline’s aircraft effectively, but when it came to the mindset necessary to operate a flight from point A to point B with specific tasks to accomplish along the way – he just had nothing he could draw on to correlate with the new experience.

This really points to some important factors you need to consider when looking at your flight training and your post-training job choices. Cross-country flying is important not just for that precious logbook time, but also because it prepares you for the real world of airline operations. You don’t do pattern work at the airlines! You don’t go to a practice area or drop area and maneuver around before returning to your home base! You depart and have to accomplish a slew of important tasks before arriving at your destination airport. Time management is key. Situational awareness is key. A routine is key.

Whenever I fly with a check airman, I always ask about the quality of the new pilots coming on line. Consistently I hear about the challenges that pilots with mostly VFR and local-only experience present. The best new airline pilots? The ones who have flown quite a bit of time on IFR flight plans in cross-country environments. This sort of operation is what most imitates your day-to-day life as an airline pilot.

The new flight experience rules have leveled the playing field for all first-time airline applicants. So the airlines are looking for better ways to determine who the best candidates are. Cross-country, line-oriented flight experience is one of the ways that Regional airlines will judge you, and if you have it – highlight it.

Don’t let this undermine the importance of maneuver and emergency training. These critical components of training prepare you to deal with the worst situations that could arise. But in order to get through your initial operating experience at the airlines, the more familiarity you have with cross-country procedures, the easier you’ll find it to adapt to flying the line.