Randy Babbitt: Let’s Train Better and Safer

Former FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt discusses pilot training with RAA Communications Director Aaron Karp

Randy Babbitt likes to tell stories. A pilot for Eastern Air Lines for 25 years, a former president of ALPA and a former FAA administrator, Babbitt has personally lived much of the story of aviation in America. Now serving as an advisor to RAA on training and safety, Babbitt is laser focused on changing the arc of a story he fears is going in the wrong direction. He believes pilot training needs to be modernized.

“Aviation has been evolving since 1903, when the Wright brothers made the first flight, and we constantly adapt and adopt new technology,” Babbitt says. In 2018, Babbitt participated in the FAA’s Aviation Workforce Symposium in Washington, D.C. and RAA’s Annual Convention in Long Beach, California, moderating panels at both events on pilot training.

“I was exposed to a lot of this new technology at both these events,” Babbitt says. “I listened to people talking about what the Air Force is doing today. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said at the symposium that the Air Force is embracing this new technology. All of that was really an eye opener for me.”

Babbitt is steadfast in promoting the highest levels of safety and believes the way credit is given for the hours needed to gain an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) license—and thus become a first officer for a regional airline—needs to be reevaluated. 

“We’re not talking about reducing safety. We’re actually talking about improving it,” Babbitt says. “If someone had 1,500 hours flying around in a small airplane, they may not have been exposed to much in those 1,500 hours. We already credit 500 hours if you went through a 4-year university degree program, because we realize that kind of training is worth the equivalent of 500 hours of flying around. What I’m suggesting is that if we program 50 hours of line-oriented flight training in a high-fidelity simulator, a prospective airline pilot ought to get credit for that. I’m not suggesting that the 1,500-hour rule should be changed. I’m suggesting that we expand what we give credit for. You currently get 750 hours of credit for having been trained in the military. So, we do respect quality of training. Why shouldn’t we incorporate what the Air Force is doing in civilian training?” 

Babbitt continues: “The Air Force, by the way, is adopting a lot of new technology and they’re streamlining training. The result, according to Secretary Wilson, is they’re getting better trained pilots. So, less time in the pipeline and more time in the mission.”

“I don’t want to just maintain the status quo. I want to improve the overall safety. By giving credit for advanced training, accepting more simulation, we can improve safety and bring more pilots into the pipeline. In this country, we cap the amount of simulator time that can count toward your ATP at 25 hours. ICAO currently accepts 100 hours of simulator time and has a proposal to raise the cap to 200 hours.”

Babbitt continues: “All the data points very clearly to we need to make a change. Take a student from Embry Riddle, Northwestern, Purdue, with 300 hours and test them. They perform very well. And then go fly another 1,200 unsupervised hours. Then go back and give them the same test again, and almost without exception, they perform worse. I think it’s time that we acknowledge there’s a better way.”

High Tech

Technology, Babbitt believes, is the key. In this, he is in alignment with Secretary Wilson, who has noted in public remarks that while technology has changed significantly, the flight training syllabus is largely unchanged from 20 years ago. 

“Well, we certainly have the technology today to 100% replicate all the facets of flight,” Babbitt says. “That’s a good thing on a number of levels. It’s far safer. You can do maneuvers in a simulator that you would never actually do in an airplane because it’s too risky. We’ve had a long history of training accidents in the United States. You go back to the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, there was only one measure of a pilot—how much flying time do you have. But with new simulation, we can expose you to far more real-life events in training.”

Babbitt emphasizes that flight time will always be a critical component of flight training. “For both skill improvement and overall roundness of training, you absolutely have to have time in the aircraft,” Babbitt says. But this time in the aircraft should be as structured and as relevant as possible and augmented by simulator training.

“There’s a school of thought that says, well, there’s just no substitute for flying. The problem is, flying an airplane doing what? What are you doing? Just flying around? That doesn’t tell me much,” Babbitt says. “Today we have new technology and we should be embracing that. It was almost universal on both panels I moderated that simulator time needs to count for more. There was a real willingness to embrace the new technology. Let’s train better and safer.”

Those who disparage simulator training are not thinking through to the logical conclusion of their argument, Babbitt says. “Let’s practice what we preach,” he says. “You take an airline pilot today who flies for any major airline. Without exception, that pilot, if he bids a new airplane, is going to go through his entire training in a simulator. The Air Force does the same thing. We rely 100% on simulators for transition-type training. You go from flying a Boeing to an Airbus, you do it all on simulators.”

Babbitt, again, does not discount the importance of flight time. But particularly as data showing pilots with highly structured backgrounds have better airline initial training outcomes, he wants others to understand the benefits of modern simulator time. Those who have played a central role in aviation’s story have always looked toward the horizon and embraced new ways of doing things.  

Read more