Is the age of the ageing Captain over ? I sincerely hope not for the greater good of our Industry.

I wrote and originally published this areticle over a year ago.

Just over ten years ago on the 15th of January 2009, Captain Chesley B Sullenberger pictured above* safely landed his airplane (US 1549) on the bitterly cold 2ºC, Hudson river in New York. Every single person (155) survived the incident. There were 5 quite serious injuries but the rest of the passengers and crew were mostly unscathed apart from the odd bump or bruise.

*I apologies to the photographer / owner of the image for pinching it form the web without knowing who you are to even credit you for the image. I did research it an believe it is CC 2.0, so free to share. 

208 seconds after the bird strike, the US Airways Airbus A 320 was on the Hudson river. It did not “Crash” but was a truly successful Controlled Ditching. Sully and his First Officer Jeff Skiles who was actually flying the plane until Sully took over post bird strike, (equally worthy of credit for his part in the event), were following procedures for a dual engine failure that were written to deal with this specific failure at full cruising altitude rather than the very low altitude of 859m that US 1594 had reached before it lost power to both engines. This therefore gave the pilot and his FO very little time to figure out what to do.

Sully will probably go down in history as the man that executed the most perfect example of recovering from what would otherwise have resulted in a catastrophic accident with total loss of life.

An extraordinary feat for any pilot to have performed. A true modern day legend . 

His cool handling of a dire situation was truly amazing. You can hear the CVR regarding of the incident using the link below:

Just as Sully did, (as a matter of necessity for him on that day), lets now move from those in the air towards the water.

Throughout my career I have pondered the probability of age becoming a hurdle as I got older.

Until very recently I had never worried that it was ever going to become an issue that I ought to be worried about. Maritime Captains have generally speaking, always enjoyed a high level of respect as they have matured throughout their careers right up to their bowing out at retirement. 

A feeling that this belief may no longer be correct is gathering momentum within my own mind and those of others that I have discussed the matter with. I believe unequivocally that there is absolutely no substitute for experience, and experience comes with age. Sully had 42 years of flying experience when he lost power to both engines at an altitude of only 2,818 feet over New York City.

Parallels are often drawn between the roles of commercial airline pilots and maritime Captains. 

As well as the globally recognized actions of Sully on that day I will recount another less notable flight that I was onboard.

I was flying to Palma in the winter and there are no direct flights from Glasgow where I live at that time of year so I had to transit via Alicante. In short the wind sheer was by far the worst I have ever experienced. On initial approach I could see the runway out my starboard side window. This was very worrying.

The pilot powered on and we did a go around. He had clearly used this to get a better assessment of the situation and then despite these extreme conditions went on to perform what I can only describe as one of the smoothest landings I had ever experienced regardless of weather conditions. It was absolutely flawless and given the force of the wind and the severity of the sheer, it was truly amazing.

During disembarkation the Captain came out of his flight deck and stood there to bid farewell to his passengers. I usually get quite irritated when it takes people an undue amount of time to disembark, especially when I've been seated at the rear of the plane and I had a very tight connection, which I did on this day. 

Not a single passenger left the aircraft without speaking to and shaking the hand of the pilot. 

It will probably come as no surprise to most of you that the Captain was a man about the same age as Sully. Not far off retirement.

The likelihood of a pilots with much less experience as Sully on flight US 1549, having executed such a text book recovery and positive outcome form such a potential disaster is very slim.

There seems to be a general, and to my mind worrying trend towards the older and more experienced Captains within the maritime industry and especially within yachting. 

I have hardly ever in my career openly criticized any other Captain for any specific event as its very easy to do so, but not so easy to understand if you are not standing in their shoes. However I frequently pass comment in a much more general way about the widespread lack of overall experience that I witness or hear about from other crew which is in many cases extremely worrying.

Frequently younger Captains within yachting are woefully ill-equipped to deal with the wide range of tasks they should be able to deal with. Business / Admin. skills and managing crew are two that immediately come to mind. I will be writing a separate article dedicated to this subject soon.

Research and discussions have pointed towards some owners wishing to take on younger and less experienced Captains as they are more likely to be “compliant”. 

Sadly and even more worryingly to my mind, it has been suggested that managers, (who should always have the best interest of their clients in the forefront of their minds in terms of ensuring they have the most competent and experienced of Captains and crew onboard), may also be favouring younger and less experienced Captains. They are generally much more malleable and can more easily be moulded to be more in line with the manager or management companies own agenda.

By that I mean that the manager may simply want a Captain that is less likely to rock the boat, even if the boat “needs to be rocked” in terms of safety issues for example. 

There also seems to be a demographical difference on the matter of more mature and experienced Captains in terms of old vs new money. Additionally by geographical origin of owners as well, much of which echos the old vs new money attitude.

I appreciate that age does not always equate to the right kind of experience and one notable example would be that of Captain Francesco Schettino. (Costa Concordia). However, it was not the man's age per se, that was the problem in that case

The long term consequences of having a less experienced Captain onboard and the negative impact that will have on the overall efficient and safe running of a vessel and it’s crew should be obvious to all, this includes financial benefits for owners as well.

Crew will all have better careers ahead of them if they are properly led by highly experienced and dedicated Captains that nurture them through their own careers as I always take the time to do.

I hope this trend corrects itself in due course so as to avert many of the inevitable consequences of much less experienced people being in command ahead of their time.

I find it sad that so much great potential that lies within these older Captains with their vast experience, that have nothing to prove and have so much to offer is going to go completely to waste if this worrying trend continues.

Interestingly enough, airline pilots do not suffer anywhere near as much as maritime Captains from this issue. I think some of my comments above throw enough light on why that might be by comparison.

I am not going to go into a deeper discussion of the matter just now, but rather just throw it out there for people to consider and comment on.

In conclusion, If I ever find myself in the unfortunate situation that an aircraft I am flying in suffers a major technical failure, I hope that the person sitting in the left hand seat on the flight deck is a pilot of at least equal experience and as cool and level headed as Sully was on that day, if any other such person even exists !!!

There is to my mind simply no substitute for experience, especially a broad base of experience which takes decades to accrue.


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