ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We wondered just what kind of training pilots usually get before they take the helm of a giant plane filled with passengers. Here's NPR's Wendy Kaufman.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Pilots move from flying one airplane model to another all the time. It's a regular part of their life as airlines add new aircraft and pilots fly new routes or get promotions to piloting bigger jets. Most of the training for those pilots both in the U.S. and abroad is done in very sophisticated simulators.

John Barton, a senior pilot for a major U.S. airline, has been an instructor on the 777. He says once you buckle the simulators shoulder harness and fasten the seat belts, it's as though you're in the actual jet.

JOHN BARTON: When you push up the throttles, you feel the movement of the plane going down the runway. You feel the wheels actually hitting any of the ruts in the runway. You can feel the movement of the ground going away from you. You look out. You'll see everything as it is for real.

KAUFMAN: And you can train pilots in simulators in ways you can't in the real thing. For example, pilots have to cope with engine fires and aborted takeoffs. A basic simulator course offered to experienced pilots might run two or three weeks. After that, James Higgins of the aviation program at the University of North Dakota says pilots are typically ready for passenger flights.

JAMES HIGGINS: And they have to have a special pilot that helps supervise them and makes sure there are no hiccups and makes sure that they make that transition smoothly and safely.

KAUFMAN: The Asiana pilot flying the jet as they approached the airport was on just such a flight. Investigators say the pilot training him had thousands of hours flying the 777, but this was his very first flight as a training pilot. The two crew members had never flown together before.

In addition to simulator training and supervised flights, pilots in the U.S. and at other major airlines are trained in something often called crew resource management. In plain English, it's teaching pilots to work together and communicate. The U.S. began emphasizing these skills in the 1980s when it became clear that inadequate communication in the cockpit was contributing to too many accidents.

Former airline executive and now industry consultant David Greenberg says pilots didn't always talk to each other about what they thought was going wrong.

DAVID GREENBERG: In an aircraft that's designed by the manufacturer to be operated by a party of two, then if one individual goes essentially solo and says to the other sit on your hands until I ask you to do something, you've lost the redundancy. You've lost the layer of safety that you have designed into the system.

KAUFMAN: The situation was so pronounced at Korean Airlines in the 1990s that bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell devoted a whole chapter to it in his book "Outliers." He titled it the "Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes," saying that in essence because the Korean culture was based on hierarchy, pilots were too deferential to their superiors and didn't challenge them when something was amiss.

David Greenberg says Gladwell had a point, albeit an overly simplified one. In the year 2000, Korean Airlines hired Greenberg to solve lots of problems at the airline, including better communication between pilots.

GREENBERG: It can be taught, including situations presented in a simulator and then actually videotaping and debriefing the results so the individual gets to see what they did and talk about what they might have done differently, and then they'll have a chance to go back and do it again.

KAUFMAN: Investigators in San Francisco are still determining exactly what was going on in the cockpit. But based on the information that's been released so far, many pilots and safety experts say they can't understand why the senior training pilot allowed the plane to get into such a serious situation without intervening. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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