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'Normal operations': On-the-job training common for commercial pilots, experts say

The revelation Monday that the pilot of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 hadn’t finished training on the Boeing 777 when it crash-landed in San Francisco is likely to unnerve travelers across the country.But aviation experts and flight safety specialists say thousands of commercial pilots successfully transition to new types of aircraft in the middle of their careers.

The revelation Monday that the pilot of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 hadn’t finished training on the Boeing 777 when it crash-landed in San Francisco is likely to unnerve travelers across the country.

But aviation experts and flight safety specialists say thousands of commercial pilots successfully transition to new types of aircraft in the middle of their careers.

While investigators have noted that pilot Lee Kang-kuk, 46, was relatively green behind the wheel of a 777, he was no novice – and the length of time he had clocked inside the twin-engine jetliner is entirely typical, said Patrick Smith, a pilot and author of the book “Cockpit Confidential.”

“It’s not uncommon for a pilot to have a small number of hours in whichever plane he or she has most recently qualified in,” Smith said, adding that Lee has a lengthy resume and likely received a wide range of training.

Many specialists struck a similar chord, saying that no commercial captain flies blind.

“The pilot in question likely received ground and similar training on the aircraft,” said a spokeswoman for the Flight Safety Foundation, who was careful to note that much of the information that has been released "still needs to be clarified and confirmed by the NTSB."

Barry Schiff, a pilot and author who has written extensively about aviation safety, said the majority of major commercial airlines have rigorous training programs and several layers of oversight in place to steer unpracticed pilots in the right direction.

For example, major airlines “impose certain limitations” on new or “transitional” pilots — including rules barring unpracticed aviators from flying in poor conditions, such as low visibility and rough crosswinds, according to Schiff.

What’s more, inexperienced pilots are usually paired with what’s known in aviation circles as a “check airman” – a specialist who keeps tabs on the captain and makes sure everything goes off without a hitch.

“The guy in the right seat is there to instruct the captain if he goes astray,” Schiff said.

Evidently, however, procedural checks and balances weren’t enough to save Flight 214 from a horrific crash-landing.

Asiana Airlines said Monday that Lee had logged just 43 of the 60 hours required to man the 777. And yet he had a long, otherwise untarnished career, including nearly 9,700 hours clocked flying the Airbus A230 and the Boeing 737 and 747.

The airline also said that Lee was paired with a senior colleague with experience landing 777s on the flight from Seoul, South Korea to San Francisco — although Schiff said it’s unclear if that cockpit partner was a check airman in the strict sense of the term.

Lee’s 777 track record may ramp up already-heightened air travel anxieties. But generally, Schiff said, passengers should sit back and relax – especially since there’s no way they’ll know if the pilot at the helm of their flight is a rookie or an ace. Even flight attendants wouldn’t know if the pilot is wet behind the ears, Schiff said.

“But it’s all part of normal operations and it’s quite safe,” he added. “A new pilot has to take his first flight so he can take his second and his third.”

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