Generalist or Specialist Pilots for Commercial Service?

Should pilots be trained as generalists, with a broad set of base skills, and then made into specialists for specific conditions and operational environments? Or should we be training pilots to specialize in a specific role and not worry about building generalist skills into them that may not be needed in the jobs they are going to end up doing?

It’s an interesting philosophical question when it comes to the strategy of training pilots.

The U.S. aviation training system is one that has been based on mentorship and one-on-one relationships between instructors with their students for many decades. We trust that a more senior CFI will work with a new or lessor experienced student to pass along knowledge, skills, and risk management mindsets that will develop them into capable pilots. It’s a stepping stone process that builds basic pilotage and then enhances that knowledge base by adding skills and knowledge as they proceed from being a pilot capable of flying themselves to being one that might be tasked, and trusted, with flying hundreds of passengers in the back of their aircraft for hire.

We still train pilots in “little airplanes” to fly basic VFR around our national airspace system and to fly in instrument conditions under the instrument procedures rules. This is all done in the general aviation flight realm. But once we have done this, and after these pilots have gained some experience, they are unlikely to fly in this operational environment again in most cases for modern professional pilots. They leave this realm and transition to regional and major airlines and cargo carriers and fly in the commercial operations realm. While general aviation and commercial operations share the same airspace sometimes, how they get flights done is very different. In most larger commercial operations, the pilots have a great operational infrastructure that ranges from ramp help to dispatchers that feed them information, to cabin crew, and an overall operational specifications process that enhances and ensures safety. A general aviation pilot has none of this. And, in fact, training someone as a general aviation pilot from the outset may, in the opinion of some, actually detract from the development of working within this larger framework that is a commercial operation. A general aviation pilot is many times more of a lone wolf; responsible for all the decisions and planning for a flight themselves.

There is an argument to be made that building this individualistic skill set is something that a pilot needs to have so they can have that skill if ever needed later in their career. But, is that argument still accurate?

Our training system in the United States historically has approached training pilots in this way in part because it’s how we did it for war efforts, especially in WWII training efforts. We kept doing this and did so as there was a vibrant and active general aviation pilot community. 

I have no doubt that it is faster to “build pilots” by just training them in the specific skills they need for day-to-day operations in a commercial service provider. For example, we could train pilots on some basics, throw them into simulators specifically designed for the equipment we intend them to fly and the operational environment in which they are going to operate. To simplify this, we could just put them in a 737 simulator and train them for the specific flights and airports they would then conduct when flying professionally. No, this wouldn’t make them a well-rounded pilot capable of flying, anywhere, anytime, in most airplanes that they might jump into. It wouldn’t make a 737 captain a good Cessna 172 pilot who would then go out and fly on the weekend on their own. But do they anyway? Should that even be something we care about?

Do pilots of these types of aircraft, such as Boeing 737s and Airbus A319s really need all this extra general aviation-based training that they really don’t use in their daily flight operations anyway? It’s a tough question. But it’s one I think we need to wrestle with more as an industry.

As our need for pilots pushes the demand to train them faster, there is a desire to train them faster and with less extraneous training that adds costs, takes time, and delays the ability to put into service new crops of pilots. The question of what is extraneous and unneeded is what is hard to determine.

I can’t help but think that there is a great opportunity to cut out training curriculum items, as long as everything is going correctly on future flights. But that isn’t all we train a pilot to manage. The “outside the norm” conditions and, worse, emergencies, is when pilots must call upon those base pilotage skills to handle concerns. This is where the generalist pilot training comes back into play I have to think.

I don’t have the answer here. I do have lots of questions, and I think it’s time our industry start grappling with them more than we have over the past couple of decades. We might find that our training sectors specialize and pivot even more than we are doing right now to training that is focused on the career-based future airline or corporate-bound pilots, and a separate path for those that are going to be flying in the pleasure and business realm of aviation. These two different paths for pilots have a great deal of overlap in knowledge, skill, and risk management needs, but there are also differences. Avoiding requiring each separate path to know things they don’t actually use might expedite some training while at the same point not sacrificing any safety concerns.

The possibility exists that we see our training systems specialize and not make every pilot a generalist capable, or even certificated to fly in light aircraft in the general aviation system. Is there any reason that a Boeing 777 captain needs to also be certificated to fly a Piper Archer on the weekend from any local airport? Probably not. In fact, if they haven’t done it in 20 years, they probably shouldn’t for a lot of reasons! We don’t let a pilot who was trained in an SR20 just jump into a CRJ900 on the weekend and go flying personally, wouldn’t that same logic hold true the other way?

It’s just my humble opinion, but for the sake of pilot training efficiency in the career-focused track, it might be time to look at how we are building our pilots. I know there will be some that think this post is just a pitch for ab-initio training as is done in some places around the world, but it isn’t that. That isn’t to say that there aren’t aspects of ab-initio that have value and could be leveraged. It also isn’t me saying that we can get rid of all the generalist pilot training we currently focus on during the initial training phases. There is a middle ground somewhere here. But just keeping going “how we have always done it” isn’t an answer to our current need to produce more professional pilots who will meet, and exceed, safety standards for our future commercial aviation needs.

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About Jason Blair

Jason Blair is an active single and multiengine instructor and an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner with over 6,000 hours total time, over 3,000 hours of instruction given, and more than 3000 hours in aircraft as a DPE. In his role as Examiner, over 2,000 pilot certificates have been issued. He has worked for and continues to work with multiple aviation associations with the work focusing on pilot training and testing. His experience as a pilot and instructor spans nearly 20 years and includes over 100 makes and models of aircraft flown. Jason Blair has published works in many aviation publications with a focus on training and safety.

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