[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/05/28/chernoff.pilot.school.art.jpg caption="CNN's Allan Chernoff investigates the air school that trained pilots of three fatal crashes."]
By Allan Chernoff and Laura Dolan
(Ft. Lauderdale, FL) – A recent plane crash in Buffalo New York that killed some 50 people led to questions about the training of those in the cockpit. Those questions led CNN to The Gulfstream Training Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The Academy promises to train amateur pilots who aspire to fly for a commercial airline in just three months. Students pay $30,000 in tuition and in return, the Academy provides cheap, co-pilots-in-training for Gulfstream International Airlines as they work to increase their hours of flying time.
Gulfstream promotes this part of their training on its website saying, "Gulfstream Training Academy's First Officer Program offers airline-bound aviation professionals training and experience at an actual airline flying real flights for Gulfstream International Airlines."
After 12 weeks of training, students serve as First Officers, also known as co-pilots, on Continental Connection flights in Florida and the Bahamas that are operated by Gulfstream International. They get 250 hours of paid on-the-job-training, in addition to the 300 hours they need to qualify for the program.
That's a red flag for veteran pilots like Pat Moore who find the training tactic questionable. "I don't know how they can market that as training for these co-pilots while at the same time providing revenue service for paying passengers."
Most major airlines require co-pilots to have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time. That's three to five times the amount of some students entering Gulfstream's First Officer program.
"I really don't want somebody in the right seat that's just learning, that's gaining experience, said Moore. "I want an experienced crew. When I buy an airplane ticket, that's what I'm paying for." He compares it to going to a medical student for healthcare instead of a doctor.
Continental Airlines told CNN, "We expect our partners to adhere to the highest safety standards."
But, there have been other recent plane crashes involving pilots from Gulfstream Academy, including a Colgan Air crash that killed 50 people as their plane neared Buffalo, New York. In 2004, two pilots, both graduates of Gulfstream Academy, died near Jefferson City, Missouri after taking a Pinnacle Air plane on a joy ride up to 41,000 feet. They crashed after losing control of the plane. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed "the pilots' unprofessional behavior" and "poor airmanship." And in 2003, a pilot of a private airplane, who was still training at Gulfstream, crashed into another plane off the coast of Deerfield Beach, Florida, killing all five people aboard both airplanes.
"The one thing that ties them all together is poor airmanship," said Captain Jack Casey, Chief Operating Officer of Safety Operating System, an aviation consulting firm. "You cannot build sophisticated airline pilot skills on top of a soft foundation."
This "pilot factory" as some veteran pilots call the academy, is a quick ticket into the cockpit, which can be very attractive to prospective pilots who want to fly but don't want to spend years building up enough hours flying private planes.
One pilot, who did not want to be named, finds the process alarming. "The captain has to work as a captain and an instructor. It's troubling that they don't disclose it to the public."
Gulfstream Academy defends its program, telling CNN, "Gulfstream does an outstanding job training commercial pilots, and it has done so for nearly two decades and thousands of pilots in an FAA-approved program. Every U.S. commercial carrier has pilots who've received their training here." Indeed, the Academy says over 1700 pilots trained at Gulfstream found work with commercial airlines.
And, graduates of the program speak highly of it.
Still, long-time pilots warn their career path should not be rushed because they believe that could ultimately compromise safety.
"We're talking about lives here," says Pat Moore." "This is not, 'Gee, I like flying airplanes, I think it's cool.' This is – if I make a mistake and I'm not trained properly or my crew is not trained properly people can be injured or die. And I don't know if we're taking this seriously enough in this country anymore."
On Monday, June 1st, Allan Chernoff will report further on Gulfstream International Airlines. Tune in to American Morning for that story and on cnn.com/amfix for more details.