Foreign Airline Pilots, US Flight Schools: Do They Get Enough Training Time in the Cockpit?

The Investigative Unit travels to international flight schools in the Bay Area and across the country. Former instructors question whether the in- flight training is enough for young pilots before they get into the cockpit of wide-body commercial jets.

Several former flight instructors who trained students to fly for different airlines based in Asia say there is a rush to get inexperienced pilots into cockpits of large, wide-body jets to fly long-haul transoceanic flights. These instructors say that rush could be putting the public at risk.

Many of these airlines deny there is a rush or a problem with safety for these pilots. But the airlines admit that there is a growing demand for pilots as commercial airline traffic continues to grow in the Pacific region.

Meanwhile, in the United States, this demand for more and more commercial pilots has created a little known foreign exchange program where young students travel from Asia to flight schools in the U.S. to learn to fly large, commercial jets.

According to the FAA, 23,719 foreign pilots have received a U.S. commercial or air transport license over the last four years. The FAA gave out 4,820 licenses to foreign pilots last year alone. A large portion of those licenses go to pilots from Pacific Rim countries.

Flight schools across California and the rest of the western U.S. often are contracted by foreign airlines to train newly hired pilots how to fly. The Investigative Unit discovered that, for many of these student pilots, their flight from home to the U.S. is their first time in an airplane, much less a cockpit.

Some insiders and former instructors question whether that training is sufficient to fly a large, commercial plane.

NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit spoke to more than two dozen flight instructors, commercial pilots, flight school managers and students to learn about how the current system works. The Investigative Unit either visited or closely researched a half dozen different flight schools that specifically train foreign pilots to get a sense of how this system might differ from what a pilot in the U.S. system must go through.

Unlike the U.S. system, where young pilots either train in the military or for years in general aviation (or both), NBC Bay Area found in internationally-focused pilot training programs the duration of hands-on experience typically lasts between 10 to 12 months. During that time, students get between 180 and 200 hours of flight time in the cockpit. A typical training regime then involves that student going back to his or her home country, where they gain an additional 40 to 60 hours flight time, becoming type trained on certain aircraft. In other words, they become certified to fly specific airplanes; for example, the 747, 777 or 737.

One former flight instructor said the pressure was high to pass pilots who weren’t ready to fly large, commercial jets.

“Students I didn’t feel were ready for check rides, we’ll just send them anyways, we’ll see how they do,” said one former flight instructor who taught Chinese student pilots for four years. The instructor asked not to be identified because he fears it could harm his career in aviation.

But the instructor, who worked for a large flight school on the West Coast where 90 percent of the students came from Asia, said he wants to expose a system where the rush to get pilots in the cockpits could potentially put passenger safety at risk.

“Even though I didn’t feel that I should sign them off (to fly),” the instructor said, the flight school and foreign airlines put pressure on the instructor to pass the pilot, especially if the pilot was nearing the end of the time the airline had paid to have him in the U.S.

“If they [the student pilots] went over on those hours, that would fall on the flight school (to pay),” said the instructor. “So they [the school] would tell you, ‘You have to get them done in those hours…You cannot go over,’” said the instructor. “So you do what you have to to get them ready.”

Typically that means that these pilots often become first officers of large, jumbo jets with only about 250 hours total flight time in a cockpit.

Compare that to almost every pilot in a U.S.-based airline, where the pilots have 1,500 flying hours or more before they are even considered as a first officer in similarly large jets for long-haul flights.

“Being a commercial pilot is a special job,” 23-year-old Anthony Yan from China told NBC Bay Area.

Since Yan was 10 years old and spotted a man in the sharp-looking pilot uniform in an airport, he has wanted to fly planes. However, in China, general aviation is essentially non-existent. So, to get in the cockpit of plane, he had to come to the U.S.

“America is one of the best countries in aviation,” Yan said.

For the last 11 months, Yan has been learning to fly at IASCO flight training center in Redding. He is one of 140 students there, hired by a domestic Chinese airline as a pilot and learning to fly for the first time. The airline contracts with IASCO and pays for Yan’s training.
Before coming to the U.S., Yan had never flown a plane. Even though Yan studied aviation for three years at a college in China, that was all book training. His first time in the cockpit was Jan. 1, 2013.

Yan has racked up over 100 hours flying time so far.

“I have to make the most of the one year I have here,” Yan said.

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit followed Yan for a day as he prepped for a flight and took a Cessna 172 up in the air with his instructor.

“The goal of all these students is to become commercial pilots,” IASCO lead instructor Matt Lazenby said

Lazenby, a retired US Marine, has been teaching foreign students for nearly a decade. He says the basic training students get at IASCO is the foundation for their flight careers.

“I’m always telling students, you’re going to carry thousands of people in your career, thousands of people that you don’t know are going to trust you to get them to their destination safely,” Lazenby said.

The focus of the training: manual flying. Students at IASCO take courses in three areas of flying: private, instrument and commercial. Lazenby said the training is very procedure-oriented. He said that means the students can apply their knowledge to all different types of planes.

Students also take 170 hours of English courses at IASCO.

“English is the international language of aviation,” Lazenby said. “They can speak English for the job they are doing.”

When international flights go into an out of countries around the world, English is the language used that bridges communication.

Lazenby said it’s also one challenge in training foreign pilots.

“Somebody may know how to teach. But how to teach someone whose English is not their native language is another thing entirely,” he said.

Another challenge facing both instructors and these students is a lack of general aviation in their home countries.

“General aviation is virtually nonexistent in China,” Lazenby said. “Most of them have never even driven a car before so they don’t have the mechanical aptitude just naturally in them when they get in the aircraft.”

“One thing that has to be taught to them just might come naturally to a domestic student,” said the veteran flight instructor.

Students aren’t just traveling from Asia to get trained in the United States. They come from Africa and South America, too.

Mohammad Chaabene, 27, grew up in Tunisia.

Like Yan, Chaabene took three years of book study before coming to America to actually fly.

Chaabene currently is working on obtaining his instrument-rated pilot’s license at California Airways Flight School in Hayward. He, like Yan, yearns to be a commercial pilot, flying large jumbo jets such as a 747.

“I want a big airplane,” Chaabene told NBC Bay Area. “I trust the American system.”

Chaabene already has his private pilot’s license. He’s paying his own way for his continued training. He doesn’t have a job lined up with a major airline yet, but coming to the U.S. was the only way to get the necessary practice flying take-offs and landings.

“I like the practice here, flying here,” he said.

However, some critics, citing safety concerns, say it may not be enough practice.

In the U.S, similarly trained pilots don’t set foot in the cockpit of big commercial jets until they have at least 1,500 hours of flying time.

“They definitely need more practice,” said the former flight instructor who wished to remain anonymous.

This instructor said he finally quit his job in frustration over safety lapses at the school.

“Their decision-making ability was lacking,” he said about his foreign students. “They didn’t want to make decisions on their own. They always wanted someone to tell them what to do.”

NBC Bay Area reached out to the flight school where the instructor worked. A manager there denied that pilots were rushed to graduate and given commercial licenses before they were ready.

This instructor said the pilots he trained would then go back home and within a year be flying as co-pilot of big jets such as the 737, 777 and 747.

“I had students write me all the time, who, two years after they left me…were already in wide-bodied aircraft in the right seat (as first officer co-pilots),” he said.

“We need to give them more training,” veteran flight instructor David Baker also told NBC Bay Area. “There seems to be, I think, an almost indecent hurry to get young, cadet co-pilots, into the cockpit.”

Baker was a flight instructor at Cathay Pacific before retiring to fly corporate jets.

Baker agrees that many foreign airlines are in a hurry to fill a rising demand for pilots.

“It does worry me,” Baker said when asked if this poised a safety risk. “It should worry any responsible pilot that co-pilots are getting into cockpits these days and quite simply they’re unprepared. They’re unprepared for the task for which they’re being paid.”

In response, Cathay Pacific issued this statement:

Cathay Pacific Airways has some of the most rigorous pilot training standards in the world. Our pilot training is stringent and ongoing and meets – and in most cases, exceeds – those of many industry governing bodies. In particular, Cathay Pacific Airways provides its pilots with dedicated manual flight training and practice that is additional to regulatory and industry standards.

All the flight schools NBC Bay Area visited said they train to full FAA standards and that they don’t cut corners. But every flight school and every flight instructor who spoke to NBC Bay Area admitted that they have no control over what happens after these pilots go back home. They also admit many of the pilots they train for a year or less soon end up in the cockpit of large, wide-body passenger jets within a year’s time of returning to their home country.

The Investigative Unit reached out to several foreign airlines for an interview, but all declined the request.

As for students like Yan, they are just enjoying the time they have to fly. “My favorite part?” Yan repeats the question, “Is flying,” he says with a smile. “I get to fly the planes.”

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