2009 Colgan Air Crash That Killed 50 Spurred Agency To Enact New Rules

WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — The amount and type of flying experience first officers — also known as co-pilots — must have to qualify to fly for an airline will be significantly increased and expanded under new regulations announced Wednesday by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The regulations require first officers to have at least 1,500 hours of flying experience. Airline captains are already required to have at least 1,500 hours. Previously, first officers were only required to have 250 hours of flight time.

The rule also requires first officers to have an aircraft-type rating, which involves additional training and testing specific to the type of airplane they fly.

“The rule gives first officers a stronger foundation of aeronautical knowledge and experience before they fly for an air carrier,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

The FAA said it expects to publish the regulations soon.

The new regulations are required under a sweeping aviation safety law enacted in 2010 in response to the crash of a regional airliner near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50 people. The Feb. 12, 2009 crash was blamed on pilot error.

The regulations are a victory for the air crash victims’ family members who dedicated countless hours over the last four and a half years, first to lobby Congress for passage of the law and later to push the Obama administration to carry through with the regulations despite industry opposition.

The law required the FAA to implement a series of safety regulations. Changes to the first officer qualifications, which had remained unaltered for many years, are considered among the most important. Two years ago, the FAA adopted regulations also required under the safety law that set new policies governing airline pilot work schedules aimed at preventing dangerous errors made by tired or overworked pilots.

“The FAA did this kicking and screaming. The FAA didn’t want to do this. They thought there were other ways to achieve the same purposes without raising the minimum number of hours which has that impact on money,” attorney Justin Green, who represents the families of Colgan Air flight 3407, told CBS 2’s Dick Brennan. “If they can hire a pilot right out of flight school…put him in the cockpit, they don’t have to pay him that much.”

The question of pilot experience is one of the issues raised in the investigation of the crash landing of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco over the weekend. Two of the 307 people aboard the plane were killed and scores of others injured.

It’s unlikely, though, that these regulations would have made any difference.

The Asiana pilot flying the plane, Lee Gang-guk, had nearly 10,000 hours of flying experience, but was transitioning to a new type of plane. He had recently received his type rating and was about halfway through his post-rating, real-world training.

For the families of Flight 3407, the new regulations mean everything.

“They don’t want what happened to them, what happened their loved ones, to happy to any other passenger, any other family in the United States or in the world,” Green told Brennan.

The new regulations are expected to have the greatest impact on safety at smaller, regional air carriers, where entry-level pilots are typically hired with only a few hundred hours. Pilots at major airlines typically start out with more experience and are often drawn from regional carriers.

“Another key piece of the foundation of one level of aviation safety has been achieved with this pilot qualifications rule,” said Scott Maurer, whose 30-year-old daughter, Lorin, was killed in the Buffalo crash. “We want to get the best pilots possible into the cockpits, and then we want to set them up for success.”

But the regulations also have important implications for pilots at major carriers. For example, first officers now must have 1,000 hours of flying experience in the type of plane they fly before they can be promoted to captain, said Jeff Skiles, a US Airways pilot who lobbied to get the regulations. The practical result of that requirement is that first officers will probably have to spend a year to a year and a half flying a particular type of plane before they can qualify as a captain in that plane no matter how much previous experience they have flying other air craft, he said.

As written, the new rules would not apply to commercial pilots who are based in a foreign country.

The pilot qualification regulations are “certainly the single greatest thing I will do in my life,” Skiles said, adding that strongly expects the new requirements to save lives.

Skiles was the co-pilot of the “Miracle on the Hudson” US Airways plane that lost thrust in both engines after colliding with a flock of geese. The skillful flying of Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and teamwork by Skiles has been credited with a near-perfect water landing on the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey that helped save the lives of all aboard the airliner.

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