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How important are flight hours?


More hours flown doesn’t always mean more experience.

Pilots with an aviation bachelors degree can fly Part 121 ops with 1000 hrs. This exception to the ATP rule is a financial boon for universities but doesn’t necessarily create a better product.
By Shannon Forrest
President, Turbine Mentor
ATP/CFII. Challenger 604/605, Gulfstream IV, MU2B

How important is an hour? The most common metric used to judge pilots is the number of hours enumerated in a logbook. Whether it’s a valid correlation or not, hours and “experience” are used interchangeably in the aviation lexicon.

A pilot with more total hours is considered more experienced. The experience quotient is why corporate flight departments use a pilot’s hours as a baseline for employment.

For example, a Fortune 500 company searching for a pilot might require that the applicant have attained 3000 or more hours of total flight time in order to be considered for the job. The insurance industry takes a similar approach when it comes to the hours equals experience philosophy.

Aviation insurance providers price aircraft coverage as an inverse relationship to experience – more flight time garners a lower rate.

Pilots take great pride in using flight time to self-validate their level of experience, or to express to others how experienced they believe themselves to be. Total hours flown is almost always near the top of a pilot’s resume. When a pilot doesn’t get interviewed or hired for a flying position, total hours is usually the 1st thing that comes to mind – “But I’ve got thousands of hours! I should have gotten the job.”

Pilots trying to bolster their professional image will tout their hours as a measure of expertise. Some flight instructors with significantly more hours than others in their peer group charge higher rates for instruction. Professional aviation speakers, aircraft salespersons, and even aviation writers annotate the number of hours they’ve flown in their biographical statements.

Logged hours are important

Right or wrong, hours annotated in a logbook are always important. Regulatory agencies place emphasis on hours because they are used as a basis for certification. For instance, to test for an FAA commercial certificate, an applicant must show a total of 250 hours of flight time.

But there’s a caveat. If a pilot trains under an FAA-approved Part 141 curriculum instead of Part 61 (sometimes referred to as a “mom and pop” flight school), he is afforded a 60-hour reduction in time required and can apply for a commercial certificate with 190 hours.

The fact that FAA requires fewer hours to obtain a commercial certificate under a specific course of instruction leads one to conclude that the agency places more value on quality and specificity of training than time on task. The argument that better training equates to fewer hours to certification seems sound at first. But a pilot trained in Part 61 can obtain the same commercial certification and garner the same privileges simply by putting in a little extra flight time.

It’s as if the FAA is saying, “We’d prefer you to do this, but if you didn’t, just go fly some more and that works for us as well.” Unfortunately, the skill difference between 2 newly minted commercial pilots – one with 190 hours and the other with 250 – cannot be determined from the number of hours alone.

What happened during those hours is important. What is likely true, though, is that the training footprint will be longer, and the cost greater, for the pilot who needs more hours.

Pilots are only required to record time to prove qualifications or recency of experience. After a certain numbers of hours, many stop logging altogether.

The focus on flight time may lead to false claims

In terms of certification requirements or professional gain, the focus on flight time as a “barrier to entry” is a strong incentive for pilots to claim time not actually flown. Sometimes, obfuscation is obvious. A 45-year-old who attests to 25,000 hours would need to have flown roughly 555 hours a year beginning at birth, for the math to work.

Even if said pilot began flying at age 14, he would still need to have flown over 806 hours per year over the course of 31 straight years to validate those numbers. That’s a lot of flying and at first glance appears dubious. While major embellishments are glaringly obvious, subtle manipulations are harder to spot.

Fraudulently laying claim to a couple of hours of multi engine time or an instrument approach or 2 within a thick logbook will almost always go unnoticed.

US airline pilots have the most consistent and predictable rates of flight time accumulation, and this serves as a baseline metric for how rapidly flight time can be accrued. These pilots are limited to 1000 commercial hours per year, although few airline pilots reach that number.

A typical airline schedule is based on 70–85 hours per month of scheduled flying, and, although 80 hours per month for an entire year equals 960 hours, that doesn’t account for vacation, time off, sick calls, cancellations, and training.

It’s normal for an airline pilot to get paid for 1000 or more hours per year because of contractual provisions, but annual time spent in an aircraft on duty is more on the order of 700–800 hours for someone with a full schedule.

Intense training programs with deliberate focus on relevant skills likely to be needed in specific career tracks can produce a better pilot than gross accumulation of hours.

Airline vs corporate flying hours

Airline flying hours also vary as a function of whether a pilot is assigned or chooses to bid a reserve schedule. The reserve provision of “on call” or being used only when needed can substantially reduce the number of hours flown in a year.

For example, a pilot may get paid for 700 hours or more while flying 200 or less. Based on an average schedule, it would be reasonable for an airline pilot to lay claim to 7500–8500 hours per decade of employment.

Career pilots in business aviation tend to fly far fewer hours per year than their airline counterparts. Over a 10-year period, a corporate pilot in a medium sized department with an average activity level would fly about 30–40% of what an airline pilot would. Military pilots typically fly less than corporate pilots.

Those faced with hiring corporate pilots in the current environment claim that the dearth of suitable candidates has forced them to lower previously held standards and interview candidates with significantly fewer hours (less experience) than in the past. Even the necessity of a type rating has gone from “required” to “preferred” in recruiting ads for corporate pilots.

The underlying question – and the one that generates the most controversy – is how much experience is enough? Perhaps it’s even more stratified: good enough, good, and expert. Put another way, if the industry is so focused on a single hour or accumulation of hours as a measure of experience, what’s the magic number?

For US Part 121 airline operations, the current standard is the Airline Transport Certificate (ATP), which seems the most inappropriately named certificate in the myriad of FAA certifications. It would be natural for one to assume that a pilot with an ATP is employed by the airlines, or at least had some airline-specific training.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as the ATP is a proficiency-based certification and one held by airline, corporate, and a plethora of non-professional pilots flying themselves around in their own aircraft. Pilots can also obtain a single-engine ATP and sardonically take great pride in sporting the label while doing touch and gos from a grass runway in his Cessna 152 – no belittlement intended.

Origins of the ATP certificate

The history is somewhat murky, but the origins of the ATP certificate go all the way back to 1927. In that year, licensed pilots were classified 2 ways: private or commercial. Commercial pilots were further divided into transport or industrial.

According to the regulations at the time, a commercial transport pilot, which undoubtedly morphed into “airline transport pilot” when airline flying became the norm, may “pilot any type of licensed aircraft carrying persons or property for hire or reward.” A commercial industrial pilot may, “pilot any type of licensed aircraft not carrying persons for hire or reward.”

The primary difference between the 2 commercial pilot designations was that the one allowed a pilot to carry passengers, and the other could carry property. In order to obtain the Commercial Transport Certificate in 1927, a pilot had to show 200 hours of solo flying, 5 of which needed to be within 60 days of application.

On the other hand, a Commercial Industrial Certificate applicant only had to show 50 hours of solo flying. Such a rule would be the modern-day equivalent of saying a pilot flying freight (eg, FedEx, UPS, or Kalitta) needs 75% fewer hours of experience than their peers at the airlines. Prior to 2013, a pilot only needed 250 hours total time and a commercial certificate to operate as an airline copilot under Part 121.

The 2009 crash of Colgan Air 3407 led to a mandate in the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010, that required both the pilot and copilot in airline operations hold an ATP certificate, which requires 1500 total hours. There’s no doubt that political pressure had a lot to do with the mandatory ATP requirement.

To this day, politicians and pundits claim that the ATP requirement and the associated 1500 experiential requirements have made flying safer.

When it comes to hiring pilots, well-established corporate flight departments prefer time in type and a past history of similar flying over a large amount of total time.

Dangerous correlations

Sadly, no one has conducted a rigorous scientifically peer-reviewed study to prove this. Nor will they, as there’s really no valid way to conduct one.

Instead, it makes a great soundbite despite being more about correlation than causation. Just because 2 things are correlated does not mean one caused the other. In fact, it’s comical how many inferences about causation can be made from correlation.

In 2015, National Geographic magazine highlighted the erroneous correlation vs causation argument with a salient example: Drownings are a function of the number of movies Nicholas Cage appears in per year.

A lot more people drown when Cage appears in more movies. Therefore, if the actor appeared in fewer movies, our swimming pools would be safer.

Obviously, the Nick Cage theory is bunk. However, like the ATP rule and airline safety, it has a strong correlation that looks true without a deeper investigation. Further, if 1500 flight hours deems a pilot “experienced,” wouldn’t 2000 hours be better? Or 2500? Or 10,000?

The 10,000 hour mark

According to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, 10,000 hours seems to be the, “magic number of greatness.” Gladwell cites several examples – from Bill Gates to the Beatles to Grandmaster chess players – to prove his theory that subject matter expertise happens only after the 10,000-hour mark.

Under Gladwell’s theory, it would take a corporate pilot flying 300 hours per year for roughly 33 years to master his skill, whereas an airline pilot could complete the same achievement in just over 10. Again, what’s happening during those hours is relevant.

There’s a big difference between spending 10,000 hours actively engaged in thinking through a chess game and looking out the window on a transcon redeye while the autopilot flies 99.5% of the flight. A pilot with 10,000 hours may seem experienced, but how many of those hours are the same hour repeatedly?

Along the same lines, 1500 hours spent flying around the pattern in a piston engine airplane doesn’t necessarily translate to a hand flown category III ILS in a sweep-wing jet.

Study on current training systems and future pilots

Rod Rakic, co-founder of the company OpenAirplane, recently conducted a study at the behest of a major US aircraft manufacturer that looked at industry data regarding the future pilot pipeline and current training system.

Rakic’s methodology included significant data footprints from flight schools, flight instructors, and pilots in training. Last time a study of this magnitude was done it was conducted by AOPA in 2010. Rakic has a noteworthy history that’s relevant to standardization. He convinced the insurance industry and flight schools across the country that local checkouts were not required for pilots renting aircraft away from their home airport.

Instead, a single universal checkout in aircraft type was proof of competency anywhere within the OpenAirplane network. In other words, if a pilot learned to fly a Cessna 172 in Jacksonville FL, he could also rent a 172 while on vacation in Hawaii without having to go through the onerous (and expensive) checkout.

Rakic contends, “By every measure, hours are not a good measure of the quality of airmanship.” In lieu of a thick logbook, he believes a good pilot is a function of “knowledge, skill, and attitude,” which is context specific. Rakic also points out that the cost of training has precipitously increased but hasn’t necessarily increased the quality of the product.

Perhaps in jest, but also with a serious flair, Rakic states that the pipeline of future pilots falls into 1 of 2 tracks: generational wealth (those with parents who can front or borrow the money to fund a child through the flight training process), and those comfortable with making poor life decisions from a financial standpoint (working a low wage job but taking out tens of thousands in loans to cover training). In his mind, the 1500-hour rule has made the problem worse.

Deliberate practice remains the gold standard

Renowned psychologist Ander Ericsson believes that deliberate practice “remains the gold standard for anyone in any field who wishes to take advantage of the gift of adaptability in order to build new skills and abilities.”

In his book Peak, Ericsson espouses, “Doing the same thing over and over again in exactly the same way is not a recipe for improvement; it is a recipe for stagnation and gradual decline.” Deliberate practice involves training a very specific set of skills under controlled conditions with constant feedback.

In his book, Ericsson mentions the Navy Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) as a successful example of deliberate practice. Contrary to the “hour equals experience” theory, there’s no magic number to expertise. Proficiency is proficiency whether it’s 250 hours or 10,000 hours.

Interestingly enough, a recent industry-led panel recommended that the Trump administration roll back the 1500 hour (ATP) rule as part of an overall regulation reduction package. Even Chesley Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who landed in the Hudson River, decried, “Efforts to reduce flying hours fly in the face of evidence and logic, and put millions of lives at risk.”

Perhaps, but by whose evidence and whose logic? Favoring quality over quantity would reduce training cost and footprint, deliver a better product, and increase the pipeline of professional pilots, whether they fly for airlines or corporate flight departments.

Shannon Forrest is a current line pilot, CRM facilitator and aviation safety consultant. He has over 10,000 hours and holds a degree in behavioral psychology.