FAA Sees No Upgrade without Qualified Pilot Inspectors

Checking RP pilots: ‘Comedy of errors’

By Tarra Quismundo

MANILA, Philippines—An amateur driver appraising the chops of a veteran chauffeur, or perhaps a weekend rower rating the skills of a ship captain.

When the country’s fliers unwind, talk is rife about the “comedy of errors” that is the country’s pilot inspection and licensing system, one that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) found flawed along with other air safety requirements the country flunked during an American audit last year.

“Imagine, a helicopter pilot checking a (Boeing) 747 pilot?” said an aviation insider privy to pilot check practices by government flight inspectors.

“All the flying experience they have is ‘bunk’ flying. They fly in their dreams,” another sky veteran said before breaking into laughter.

Nine months since falling into Category 2 under FAA’s two-grade safety rating scale, seven of eight check pilots of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) failed the very same test they were supposed to administer, aviation sources told the Inquirer in interviews last month.

Pressed to win an FAA upgrade following a presidential directive, the CAAP sent eight longtime officials to Korea and Hong Kong in July for certification using Airbus widebody simulators, sources privy to the compliance process told the Inquirer.

The FAA had found in its audit that the government check pilots—those tasked to assess the skills of already qualified airline fliers—lacked simulation training and thus questioned their qualifications to conduct the pilot inspection.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) requires check pilots to have 5,000 flying hours as pilot-in-command of civilian or military aircraft, roughly 10 years worth of flight as captain. They must also know how to fly the type of aircraft to be used in a particular check ride and be familiar with the flight route they are inspecting.

The CAAP’s check pilots are, however, mostly rated to fly light planes and helicopters, not today’s jets of high-tech avionics, the sources said. In their view, no more than weekend pilots of single-engine propeller planes checked the skills of airline-certified pilots of wide bodies and jumbo jets.

“They are pilots of light planes or washouts of the Air Force who couldn’t make the grade in airlines,” the source said, adding that the government could not attract qualified pilots into its plantilla as it offered much lower pay than commercial service.

Odd man out

Documents obtained by the Philippine Daily Inquirer showed that one of the check pilots had zero skill in flying the Airbus A-340, a single-aisle widebody used in long-range flights.

The proficiency test report graded the check pilots’ skills in preflight procedure, takeoff and approach, in-flight skills (climbing, cruising and navigation) and emergency procedures.

“Candidate was not ready for the evaluation check. Maneuvers and procedures below standard,” said the longtime airline pilot who assessed the CAAP check pilot.

Another flunker succeeded only in the preflight steps; the simulated takeoff, climb, approach and emergency flight procedure were all problematic.

The odd one out, the check pilot who passed, was given a “standard” or passing rate during the Airbus A-320 simulation. His checker however noted, among other shortcomings, his “unstabilized approach.”

‘They got personal’

CAAP Deputy Director General Daniel Dimagiba, the official in charge of the agency at the time of the downgrade, confirmed that seven of eight check pilots indeed failed their July test rides.

“We admit that of the eight, there were seven check pilots who were not qualified. But there were some who were given a hard time by the pilots who checked them ... These airline pilots got back at them because of their experience when our check pilots assessed them,” Dimagiba said.

While the tests heavily depended on rig-proof simulators, Dimagiba said the checkers “got personal” with CAAP check pilots.

Dimagiba, however, conceded that the CAAP’s check pilots were proficient only in flying single-engines and propeller planes.

CAAP Director General Ruben Ciron had different figures. Ciron told the Inquirer that 12 check pilots underwent retraining and seven passed their tests.

“The rest (five others) are in various phases of retraining,” Ciron said.

“We have also recruited five widebody Airbus and Boeing check pilots who don’t need anymore training, just recurrency. And more of them have signified [their intention] to join us because of increased pay under a corporate entity, [that is the] CAAP.”

Retired pilots aboard

Dimagiba called this “Plan B,” the CAAP’s way of reaching the standards, for lack of qualified personnel.

He said retired airline pilots, aged 55 to 60 with around “10,000 flying hours of experience,” had come aboard the agency as check pilots “who will make the FAA type-rating.”

With the virtual lack of check pilots, airline check pilots have been deputized to do the job for the CAAP, Dimagiba said.

“For instance, the Boeing 747 pilot of this airline will check the pilot of the same airline graduating from a widebody to a jumbo jet. That is allowed until the CAAP meets the rating,” Dimagiba said in an interview in September.

But doesn’t that defeat the purpose of check and balance? Dimagiba answered: “No, because airlines have very strict policies in checking their pilots. They can’t cheat.”

The ICAO Philippine consultancy project also noted the CAAP’s below-par pilot check system in a document laying down its recommendations for the upgrade of CAAP’s Flight Standards Inspectorate Service (FSIS), the office concerned with pilot inspection and licensing.

“The current standards for ‘check pilot’ in ATO (the former Air Transportation Office, which is now the CAAP) do not comply with the minimum qualifications and experience required to be hired for a position as a flight operations inspector for small or large aircraft,” ICAO flight safety consultant James Hooker said in a document dated April 8 of this year.

Light planes to jumbos

Hooker noted that the CAAP lacked the means for its check pilots to graduate from flying light planes to jumbo jets, as required by the ICAO.

“There is no reasonable method available where a ‘general aviation inspector’ could gain the experience needed to move from ‘little aircraft’ to the large turbo jet aircraft,” Hooker said.

In an apparent reference to the CAAP’s roster of pilot inspectors, Hooker said that “a check pilot holding only a commercial pilot license cannot perform a certification function on an airline transport pilot license holder for a proficiency check.”

The document also noted the questionable aircraft type ratings—the qualification to fly particular types of planes—of the CAAP’s check pilots that FAA inspectors found during its audit.

The US auditors were given presentations showing that the then ATO’s check pilots “had ‘type ratings’ in several or many aircraft,” according to Hooker.

But he said: “These type ratings could not be supported by an examination of the records of the FAA that resulted in [its] comments concerning a lack of technically qualified personnel.”

Hooker added: “These ‘type ratings’ were based on a false belief that one only had to have computer-based instruction to become ‘type rated’. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

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