Ab Initio Programs

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Airline managements responded in the late 1980s to a weakening of the pool of quality airline pilot candidates by fostering "farm programs," "track systems," ab initio programs, and "transition" training curricula. All such plans recognized that large numbers of pilot backgrounds were inadequate for airline flying. They started from the premise that a pilot candidate needed to be brought from some Point A to the Point B of "airline-qualified."

Ab initio is Latin for "from the beginning." The ab initio program trains the zero-time pilot aspirant, taking the individual through an intensive and comprehensive regimen that prepares him or her for airline flying. By the time an individual emerges from the program, he or she will be qualified to fly for a regional airline.

Ab initio programs did not start in the United States, but St. Louis, Mo.-based TWA was involved in one of the first, helping Saudia, the Arabian carrier, set up a pilot training program in which FlightSafety International also became involved. Several European airlines utilized ab initio programs before anyone in the United States decided to attempt similar training regimens on behalf of the U.S. airline industry. When the 1980s brought the first signs of a shortage of airline-qualified pilots, the airline community saw the need for a more reliable civilian way of producing qualified pilots than the haphazard situation then prevalent. What bothered many in airline management was that a candidate technically could have accumulated the ratings and experience necessary to fly for a turbojet airline - could even "look great on paper" - yet bomb out in the testing and interviews for an airline job. The quality line from candidate to candidate was erratic. The solution, some felt, was a learning environment that was controlled from the beginning by a major airline.

Early results of this thinking included: a joint project of Northwest Airlines and its sister company, Northwest Aerospace Training Corp. (NATCO), with the University of North Dakota "to create and operate an aviation training center to graduate airline-level pilots for future aviation requirements"; a less elaborate ab initio program involving United Airlines and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale; Eastern Airlines' Pilot Entry Program (PEP), a partnership between Eastern and colleges in Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Colorado, to provide "a defined career path to employment as a pilot with the major airlines"; and a program begun by several United Airlines captains in conjunction with AMR Training, also with the goal of producing full-blown airline pilots.

Typically, these programs predicate that the student will graduate from the university or college with approximately 300 hours of flying time, a Commercial Pilot Certificate with Instrument Pilot and Multi-Engine privileges, and the Flight Engineer (FE) written examination passed. Some of the programs go even further in providing opportunity for qualifications.

All of the surviving programs have curricula that call for the student to acquire considerable aviation technical and management knowledge as well as tested flying skills. A good example of how an ab initio program works is the United Airlines plan.

United's ab initio program in conjunction with Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIUC) involves a four-year flight program for a B.S. in aviation management. The ab initio program is incorporated into SIUC's overall flight program, admitting a small number of students into concurrent SIUC and United schooling. Per semester, the program takes not more than 15 of up to 300 SIUC flight training students, chosen as they enter their junior year.

To be accepted into the United/SIUC ab initio training, a student must apply from within SIUC's aviation management program, have a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 2.5, pass a Class I physical, and have earned an Associate Degree in Aviation Flight. The 2.5 GPA must be maintained during the course of the program. Students accepted into the program receive both a ground school on one of United's airplanes at the airline's Denver Training Center and a simulator evaluation of flight skills in that aircraft. Perhaps as many as a third of the handful of students in the ab initio program also will have the chance to earn a flight engineer rating in one of United's aircraft. The Northwest/ NATCO/University of North Dakota program is distinguished by the depth of financial commitment. A $6 million flight training center at the University of North Dakota (UND) campus, operated jointly by NATCO and CAS, is a multi-purpose facility for research on air safety and airline operations and for the training of pilots for Northwest Airlines and other flight customers. The program includes two advanced training phases: High-Performance Transition Training exposes students to turboprop and light jet operations and provides a link for pilots moving directly into regional airlines; Transport Category Aircraft Training builds on the transition phase, allowing students to qualify as flight engineers and/or first officers on heavy jet aircraft. Twenty to 30 percent of the curriculum consists of computer-based instruction, and computer literacy is required of all NATCO students. First-class FAA medical condition is a prerequisite for the program.

Ab initio programs assume that the regional/commuter airlines will continue to be the main civilian training ground for major airline pilots. This "training ground" role is being intensified, not diminished, by the various programs to increase the supply of airline qualified pilots. Ab initio and so-called "transition" training will have to send pilots first to regional airlines, then on to majors.
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