It was almost six years ago that Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed on the Hudson River, just west of Manhattan. US Airways Flight 1549 had just taken off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, that cold dreary January day, when Canada Geese flew into the intakes of both engines, incapacitating the aircraft. Lacking a viable alternative, Sully chose to land in the Hudson River–and all 155 passengers and crew members were evacuated safely, and rescued by tugboats, ferries and other craft on the river.
Prior to becoming an airline pilot, Capt. Sullenberger was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, and retired from U.S. Airways after 30 years. Frankly, he is truly the type of person that any sane person would want piloting a commercial airliner–and holding your life in their hands. He had years of experience, leadership and was a training officer.
For as long as there have been commercial planes, the airlines–at least in the U.S.–have recruited many of its new pilots from the Air Force, and a few from the Navy and Marines. Surely, they might not have had experience in the types of “equipment” that the airlines fly; however, they generally have exceptional piloting skills. But might that all be changing in the future?
For instance, in the air strikes that the U.S. and Allies are using to offset the advantage that the Islamic State has over the Kurdish fighters in Northern Syria, they are using a combination of fighter jets, drones and sea-launched guided missiles. So, I wondered recently if the number of pilots in the Air Force has diminished somewhat.
Over the weekend, I was talking with a friend who retired as an Air Force pilot after 28 years, and had been an airline pilot until the mandatory retirement age. He estimated that the number of pilots in the Air Force, when he retired, had dropped to perhaps less than 20% of what it was at the beginning of his military career.
So, if we assume that the Military has always been the “farm team” for new airline pilots, what will happen in the future–as there will be less and less pilots to make that transition from the Service to Commercial Aviation. Surely the Airline Industry will maintain its flight standards and its individual pilots must be certified by the FAA on a periodic basis. But, who do you want flying your plane: someone like Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, or someone who reminds you of one of your Grandchildren? Experience counts!