A study by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has found no evidence to suggest that cadets or low-hour pilots are less competent than their direct entry and high-hour peers.
The ATSB says it chose to explore the issue because there is "significant debate" within the aviation industry regarding the issues of pilot training and experience, particularly with regards to the introduction of the multi-crew pilot licence (MPL).
"The main concern being presented by sectors of the industry that are not in favour of the MPL concept is the possibility that low-hour pilots are not as competent as their high-hour peers," says ATSB.
The US enacted legislation to increase the minimum flight hours first officers need to enter an airline to 1,500h following the fatal crash of a Colgan Air Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 on approach to Buffalo, New York in 2009. The Australia senate has since held an inquiry into pilot training to explore the need for similar legislation in Australia.
There is a focus on the hours a pilot has accumulated because of an "inherent assumption" that these hours ensure a level of individual skill, and also an assumption that competency is a result of flight hour accumulation, says ATSB.
In its report, the safety regulator gathered data from three unnamed Australian airlines to explore the issue of pilot performance as a function of both flight hour experience and how they entered the industry - either as cadet pilots or direct entry.
Cadets are pilots who have limited or no prior flight training before starting their cadetship and are trained specifically for an airline. Direct entry pilots, meanwhile, enter an airline having already been licensed and having accumulated a number of flight hours, typically from hours in general aviation or other airlines.
The data was collected from simulator checks covering non-normal scenarios and line checks covering normal day-to-day flight operations.
Simulator proficiency manoeuvres looked at include instrument landing system missed approach, engine failure during take-off and non-precision approach, while line check areas include communication, terrain awareness and teamwork.
ATSB found that the overall performance of cadets and low-hour pilots matched that of their direct entry and high-hour peers, as all were marked proficient, the only differences between the groups being how many exceeded the standard requirements.
"Given that the cadets met the standard and are therefore proficient, the evidence is demonstrating that the cadet pathway for low-hour pilots is a valid option for airlines," says ATSB.
"Contrary to the expressed concerns of some sectors of the industry, there was no evidence indicating that cadets or low-hour pilots within these airlines were any less competent or proficient that their direct entry and high-hour peers."