NetJets’ fractional-share operation has become the first Part 91K and 135 business aviation operation to receive FAA support to launch an advanced qualification program (AQP) for pilot training. The company has been working on AQP since 2018, but the steps that led to this process began 10 years earlier when NetJets transitioned to training to Part 121 standards.
The first NetJets fleets to transition to the AQP are the Citation Sovereigns and Latitudes, with the Citation XLS fleet next on the schedule. This will be followed by the Global, Phenom 300, and Challenger 350 fleets toward the end of this year. Next year will see the Challenger 650 and Citation Longitude added to AQP, with the last the Gulfstream fleet, which needs to be done at the FlightSafety learning center in Savannah, Georgia. The other fleets’ training is all done at the FlightSafety center next door to NetJets’ headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.
NetJets had already implemented a higher standard of training, under a program where the FAA recommends that charter operators train pilots to Part 121 standards, during the period from 2008-2018. This included implementing an Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) and flight operations quality assurance (FOQA) program. NetJets also more recently added an air carrier designated examiner program where FAA inspectors oversee all training and checking and are dedicated to the NetJets operation. All of these efforts got NetJets nearly all the way to meeting AQP requirements, and the FAA encouraged the company to work with the agency to achieve full AQP status.
AQP steps up pilot training to a much higher level compared to traditional business aviation processes. “What we have found is AQP allows NetJets to develop a training program that’s appropriate for us and our pilots,” said Sean Kennedy, NetJets director of operations and v-p of operations. “They can focus on where they need to improve and be better prepared for our flight operations.” A key part of AQP is adding real-world scenarios to flight training, based on FOQA information from the NetJets fleet.
“NetJets prides itself in our unwavering commitment to safety,” said NetJets COO Alan Bobo. “We are thrilled to be the first private aviation company to receive support from the FAA under this new program. The standards for safety have always been the top priority for NetJets, and we look forward to continuing to evolve our service, safety, and success with AQP.”
Beginnings of AQP
The process that led to NetJets adopting the AQP training began in 2007 when the company stepped up its pilot training efforts, starting with adding more human factors elements. The problem that NetJets was trying to solve, Kennedy explained, was that pilot training was too regimented and predictable. “It’s more of a skills-based event than decision-making,” he explained.
NetJets was an early adopter of the FAA’s ASAP, which requires gathering information about flight operations to inform safety decisions. But it wasn’t clear how to use that information to modify recurrent simulator training.
Adding to the challenge was that at the time, NetJets was flying 23 different aircraft types. “The training was dependent on the simulator instructor meeting a standard set of requirements [stipulated by] the regulations,” he said. “We’re limited in what we can do in the simulator, and there is only so much simulator time available. How many knots I can fly an approach at is not telling on the decisions I would make as captain. There are a lot of incidents and accidents [where we] see pilot error. We felt the regulations were getting a little outdated.”
To make training more consistent and pertinent, NetJets developed its own lesson plans that still met Part 135 requirements while allowing parts of the checkride to take place during the training. This opened up more time to conduct realistic scenario-based training based on lessons learned from the ASAP.
Although the regulations weren’t keeping pace with modern training requirements, NetJets nevertheless followed a regulatory path toward AQP, starting with moving into training to Part 121 standards. The FAA encourages charter operators to do this in Part 135.3(c), which says operators “may comply with the applicable sections of subparts N and O of Part 121.” The benefit of subparts N and O, Kennedy explained, “is that it allows you to put more human factors, decision-making, and line-oriented flight training into your program.”
NetJets did roll this out to all 23 fleet types in its fractional-share operation. “The best way to describe the change,” he said, “is that we are the operator and we determine how to do training and how to train instructors.” This was helpful because, with so many different aircraft types and training centers, many of the instructors weren’t familiar with NetJets’ standard operating procedures and checklists. Many operators rely solely on manufacturer flight manuals and checklists, but a big part of AQP is a standardized system of manuals and checklists.
The NetJets team started writing the standardized documents in 2008 and finished in 2018, at which time all pilot training was up to Part 121 N and O standards. This included training the FlightSafety instructors who teach NetJets pilots to the new standards. “This is no less than two full eight-hour days in a large classroom talking about the objectives of our training cycle,” he said, “then taking them to [a learning center] and evaluating the instructors and making sure they can teach our pilots.”
After presenting these achievements to the FAA in 2018, which were based on the NetJets FOQA, ASAP, and compliance-monitoring program, the FAA countered with an intriguing offer, Kennedy explained. “[The FAA manager], who a lot of inspectors report to, looked at me and Chris [Eastman, NetJets director of training] and said, ‘You are 85 percent of the way there, I want to help you become first to achieve AQP.”
There were other challenges, however, including that Part 121 regulations are written for operations that fly aircraft equipped with permanent jumpseats and on scheduled routes, so it’s easier for FAA inspectors to fly along and observe. In a business jet with an ever-changing schedule, he said, “The FAA can’t just show up for an oversight flight. We had to work through that. Chris and his team were very successful at doing that. It took many meetings. Now we’re officially through Phase 4 of AQP and we’re the first 91K and 135 carrier to achieve this.”
AQP and Pilots
For pilots, AQP means that instead of the traditional recurrent training every six months, Kennedy said, “We allow our pilots to improve themselves, their decision-making, and how they fly, not come in every six months and just prove they can meet the [FAA standards]. We want them to improve and do better.”
The business aviation industry has long complained about the repetitive nature of recurrent training and how it becomes a box-checking exercise instead of a real training opportunity. “AQP is a whole different ballgame,” said Kennedy. “It’s a custom program for NetJets, and the FAA looks at the data and decides what you need to do to meet the next cycle. The requirements change every year. Pilots can’t anticipate them, and the training is relevant to what’s happening in the industry.”
What that means for the actual training is taking lessons learned from accidents and applying the human factors lessons to the upcoming training. It also resulted in improving the NetJets checklists based on many studies of checklist human factors. Long checklists that cover every eventuality are counterproductive, and using flows backed up by shorter checklists is proving to be much safer and more efficient.
Although AQP originated with airlines, it isn’t rigid and it allows for customization to fit the operation. “If there are certain areas that we find a particular crewmember could use more experience on, we could make that the focus for [that pilot],” he said. And there is also a remediation process for pilots who need help in a specific area, where they are placed on a special tracking path and reevaluated. “Maybe we have them come back in three months and repeat those elements,” he said, “and make sure he is performing to the standard he should be.”
The benefits of AQP are evident in the NetJets training, which allows pilots, if all goes well, to complete the recurrent training checkride on the second simulator flight. During subsequent simulator flights, the pilot is free from “checkride-itis” stress so they can focus on learning something important or new.
“Now let’s learn advanced decision making, let them experience the pitots all freezing and the airspeed keeps climbing, then get into a stall, and try to recover,” he said. “We get a tremendous amount of feedback to learn more about the aircraft and how the system works in a startle environment. AQP has empowered pilots to learn what decisions they’re making and how the aircraft reacts. For example, if this component fails, what else isn’t working?”
This benefits the trainee pilots in other ways too, because those who take the time to prepare for the training session ahead of time will have a much more comprehensive experience. “We reward them for coming in prepared,” Kennedy said. “Then they have a minimum of two hours to experience other events to improve [their skills]. If they are struggling, they do have to meet the minimum requirements. We have the best pilots in the world and one of the most supportive pilot unions in the world. A lot [of these improvements] are because of their feedback.”
Pilots come into the new training asking for new experiences and learning opportunities. “It makes training really exciting and fun here at NetJets.”
NetJets is excited about AQP but so is the FAA, according to Kennedy. “They’re going to learn a lot from our data. We’re agreeing to share this data with the FAA and attend various safety seminars with airlines. We’re excited about that, and we want to help improve safety for the public who flies [on business aircraft].”
NetJets is sharing what it has learned with Executive Jet Management, the charter/management arm, which like NetJets is also owned by Berkshire Hathaway. “The first step is Part 121 N and O,” he said. “There are more complexities to it, but we have a roadmap to get there.”
AQP is embedded in NetJets, and new-hire pilots are introduced to the program right away. “It’s usually eye-opening for them,” Kennedy said, “but they see a strong commitment to safety and human factors. They say they wish they would have done that where they worked before. I could not imagine not doing it. I highly recommend it.”