The Unintended Consequences of the “1500 Hour Rule”

I was a newly minted EMB-120 Brasilia captain in 1998 when the regional airline I worked for signed a training agreement of sorts with two large aviation universities. Students who signed up for the program were trained to fly the Brasilia using my company’s procedures, operating specifications and even received flight training in a full motion Brasilia simulator. After graduation, employment was all but a given…I am not personally familiar with any of these graduates who were not offered a job.

At the time, there were no legally imposed minimum flight time requirements to be hired by an FAR Part 135 (commuter and/or on-demand charter) or Part 121 (scheduled air carrier) airline beyond the standard requirements to obtain a Commercial Pilot License-the minimum was a mere 250 hours. Not all of our new hire pilots were products of this program, but those who were typically had fewer than 500 hours experience on the day they were hired. I actually flew with one who had just under 300 hours.

Quality over quantity

The author in command of an EMB-120 Brasilia in 1998.

The author in command of an EMB-120 Brasilia in 1998.

In my experience, while these pilots would not meet the new Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) mandated hiring minimums requiring at least 1,500 hours, they were well trained, capable aviators, deserving of all three stripes proudly displayed on their shoulders. The training they received was value packed, with an emphasis on quality over quantity. There was very little straight and level time in their logbooks as virtually every minute was put to use for training purposes, and to top it all off, they possessed a strong foundation of aeronautical knowledge obtained through years of college level classes.

The one down side I frequently noticed was that they simply did not have the breadth of experience that a pilot only gains with time. They had very little, if any, experience flying in poor weather conditions. Most had never experienced any type of in-flight abnormality or emergency. The entirety of their training took place in a relatively small geographic area and they rarely had any real experience at all above about 5,000 feet.

When flying into large airports where charted arrivals, Air Traffic Control (ATC) assigned headings, altitudes and vectors to precision approaches were the norm, inexperience was rarely apparent and their skills seemed on par with far more seasoned pilots. This was the environment where they received much of their training and they were very good at it. But if we flew into an area with a small airport where getting down, slowing down and finding the airport was the responsibility of the flight crew, it quickly became clear that these pilots were well behind the airplane. I am convinced that without my intervention, many would pass the airport at 10,000 feet before deciding they were little high.

I remember one first officer in particular, fresh out of new hire training, boasting to me that he had just over 500 hours total flight time. It was his leg and we were tracking inbound on an arrival to the Dallas, Ft. Worth International Airport. With clear blue skies, light winds and smooth air, the bright spring morning was the perfect day to fly, with the exception of one small thunderstorm just north of the arrival. No worries though, I had the radar turned on and could clearly see that the arrival would take us just south of the storm.

But as we continued, my wet behind the ears first officer started to drift off course to the north-toward the storm. As a flight instructor and an airline captain, it was always my preference to allow a pilot time to catch his own mistakes, but instead of correcting his error, he turned farther to the right. It seemed so obvious to me that we would fly through the storm on that heading and we were about to get far enough off course that I would be forced to speak up. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and asked him if he was planning to deviate around the thunderstorm. He turned to me with an unexpected level of excitement in his eyes and said, “I’ve never flown through a cloud. Can’t we fly though it?”

The Captain is a Flight Instructor, preparing his First Officer to be an effective captain, but he should not be an instructor in the sense that he is continually required to teach basic airmanship. In the case of a well-trained, aviation university pilot, I do not think that was the case. I would much rather have a 500 hour Embry-Riddle grad in the right seat than a guy who technically met the new standards but lacked the ability to proficiently perform his duties. The new 1500 hour rule may help to make people feel better about who we hire to fly commercial planes in this country, but placing quantity over quality won’t save lives.

FARs written in blood

It is often said that many, if not most Federal Aviation Regulations are “written in blood,” as a great many of the constraints they placeBradTate2 on pilots grew out of tragedy and the loss of life. The so called “1500 hour rule” is no different. It’s no secret that the impetus for increased flight time requirements for airline pilots was the 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo, New York. A tragic accident that needlessly claimed the lives of 50 people (49 on board the plane and 1 on the ground). But the real tragedy is that the new rule would not have prevented the Colgan accident and I think it will do little to increase safety in the future.

The Colgan accident was caused by a pilot who stalled the airplane, then failed to perform an escape maneuver that he most likely mastered in the first 10 hours he spent in an airplane. Personally, I do not believe this pilot did not know how to recover from a stall. Every pilot knows how to recover from a stall. Lower the angle of attack and if possible, increase thrust. Most airplanes will recover from a stall simply by letting go of the flight controls. The airplane is designed to fly and will do just that on its own. But instead of lowering the nose, he raised it, then failed to command full power. It was poor airmanship, possibly compounded by a lack of rest and illness-both pilots had far more than 1500 hours. It boggles my mind that even the accident that spawned the new rule would not have been prevented by it.

Regional airlines taking it on the chin

Regional airlines will be the first to take it on the chin-actually they already are. The major airlines aren’t having trouble filling classes and still have thousands of qualified applicants to choose from. Delta Air Lines currently has around 12,000 applications on file and is having no trouble finding “top tier” applicants to meet their requirements. But even with signing bonuses and the promise of automatic mainline interviews and or flow through agreements, the regional airlines can’t seem to fill their classes. This will only get worse as the majors spool up hiring and start siphoning the best pilots they can get from the regionals.

In the two years I spent as a regional airline captain, I flew with just over 50 first officers, some were aviation university graduates, a few were former military pilots and the rest got their ratings from small schools or FBOs. The military guys were great to fly with and their training was a “known quantity” that the airlines will always prefer. The aviation university grads were great as well. They were competent aviators whose intensive ground and flight training generally made up for any gaps in experience. Neither of the aforementioned groups ever produced a pilot with whom I had major issues.

In those two years as a captain, I was forced to take control of the airplane away from the first officer on three occasions. All three times with a pilot who had enough time and experience to be hired under today’s standards, but who received his or her training from an unknown source.

Is the 1500 hour rule going to make the skies safer?

The Federal Aviation Administration contends that stricter qualification requirements for pilots will save lives. But I believe the real answer is to ensure a strong foundation of aeronautical knowledge combined with high quality flight instruction, checks and balances and a structured learning environment. The new rule only ensures that new pilots have done the time…but leaves it to the airlines to ensure applicants are truly competent and qualified to be called airline pilots.

Brad Tate is a Boeing 737 first officer for a major US airline. You can find him online at AirlinePilotChatter.com where he shares “stories and images from the trenches of commercial aviation.” You can also follow his daily travels on twitter @AAFO4Ever.

About the Author

Brad Tate



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  • JP

    Up Yours Brad Tate, your blatant contempt for pilots who didn’t go to the holy ordained aviation universities is disgusting. I’ve flown with several Embry Riddle “super pilots” who couldn’t fly themselves out of a paper bag, get over yourself

  • Michael Proulx

    I agree with the previous comment. Send your Riddle grads to my airline. They won’t last a week. Getting it done in the real work has nothing to do with the degree on your wall. Your college course on physics of flight won’t help you when you’re trying to operate a transport category aircraft into 1,800′ gravel strips with a blistering crosswind. There’s no substitute for solid stick and rudder skills, and I have news for you: the big name aviation schools don’t teach them. They teach you how to land a Skyhawk with a three page checklist. It’s comical, and so is your pompous attitude.

    • Fantazzim .

      So you’re slamming major universities and flight schools for teaching basic competency skills while leaving the Slim Pickens type flying to you the pilot you aquire later. I think its you that has the pompous attitude.

  • mike

    A Commercial Airline offering travel to Joe Q Public should cover their rears and that of their insurance underwriters by hiring only pilots with aptitude, verifiable training, and an unblemished record of performance.

    Someone who fails check rides, did not graduate from a structured program of any kind, and has very little flight experience should not be hired……. But they are by the small regional airlines looking for a pilot that is willing to work for 20k or less per year…..

  • Karen Iacopi

    You are an IDIOT. I have seen more unqualified pilots in my many years experience and can say BEYOND a doubt that pilots who are ONLY given aircraft specific training aren’t getting the necessary real life experience necessary to be able to UNDERSTAND flight conditions in general. Those pilots will ONLY know THAT aircraft and maybe ONLY a little bit enough to pass a checkride. I believe that hours are how you gain REAL knowledge, NOT SIMULATORS and aircraft / company specific training. I speak from REAL experience of flying a MULTITUDE of aircraft and for many different companies in Part 91, Part 135 AND Part 121 International. Nothing is more valuable than knowing the FUNDAMENTALS of flying and aircraft, NOT just how to push the buttons in a Brasilia and monitor the AUTO PILOT.

  • Walter Zirbes III

    From the accidents in the past year, (SFO short landing) it might seem that the 1500 rule is not working very well. As a U S Navy Chief with over 28 yrs active and time in Stinson BlackWidows,PT-19;s,C-47’s,C-54’s,C-118’s,P2V-5 &-7’s,C-45’s,Cessna 120,172,195, not pilot, but got stick time, also P3 Orions, I know to watch Airspeed, altitude, attitude(AOA) and even as a pax, I trusted Navy Pilots (most anyway and didn’t fly a second time with those I didn’t. You are absolutely correct, flight time alone doesn’t mean you are competent. Even I learned to recover from stalls.