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At hearing, NTSB warned on pilot shortages

Volunteer firefighters attempt to put out the flames

Volunteer firefighters attempt to put out the flames from Continental Airlines Flight 3407 on Feb. 12, 2009 after it crashed into a home near Buffalo, N.Y. killing all 48 people on board. Photo Credit: AP /The Buffalo News

WASHINGTON - Pilots using their laptops fly beyond their destination airport by 100 miles.

An air traffic controller spends two minutes on the phone about matters unrelated to his work before a midair crash over the Hudson River.

Pilot inattentiveness to air speed is ruled partly to blame for a crash that killed 50 people outside Buffalo.

On the first of three days of hearings on professionalism in aviation, the National Transportation Safety Board heard warnings Tuesday of a looming potential pilot shortage and that the caliber of candidates trying to become pilots isn't as good as it once was. Pilot recruiting experts from flight schools and universities appeared in Washington, D.C., to address the NTSB.

"I think the most important perception out there is that there's no future in being a pilot," said Kent Lovelace, chairman of the University of North Dakota's aviation department. Students with the skills to one day become pilots are choosing engineering and medical fields instead, Lovelace said.

With widespread publicity about low starting pay and long work hours for those commuting to jobs at regional airlines - where many young pilots begin their careers - much of the information in the public about the profession "is negative," Lovelace said.

The safety board's conference will cover topics like screening and selection methods for pilots, ensuring effective pilot-controller communications and the role of the regulator in ensuring professional aviation.

The NTSB called the hearings in the wake of last year's crash in upstate New York that killed 50 people. Colgan Air Flight 3407, which crashed 5 miles short of the runway at Buffalo-Niagara International Airport in February 2009, was the impetus for the conference, NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman said.

Judy Tarver, of FltOps.com, a website that offers professional services to pilots and applicants, warned there could be a shortage of pilots at the regional airlines, which currently fly 50 percent of flights. While the major airlines are not hiring, she said, an economic turnaround could change that markedly, and it was likely the industry would have to add 42,000 additional pilots in the next 10 years.

She told the board pilot candidates would benefit from ethics training. Too often, Tarver said, she witnesses applicants who attempt to conceal parts of their history when applying for a pilot job - such as a drunken-driving arrest, a failed check flight with an instructor or padding flight logs to comply with flight-time requirements.

The Colgan crash, the Hudson midair collision in August 2009 involving Teterboro air traffic controller Carl Turner of Lake Grove, and the Northwestern Airlines pilots over-flying the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in October 2009 all occurred within seven months. They came after the Miracle on the Hudson flight, however, which highlighted the professionalism and skill of US Airways pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.

Hersman told reporters Tuesday she heard the experts saying there will be "challenges" for airlines concerning the "quantity and the quality of the applicants."

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