The training you receive both in an airline pilot school and in the airline prep course is quite different than plain, old, run-of-the-mill flying lessons.
You want to be a commercial airline pilot, so naturally you sign up for training to get yourself a commercial pilot certificate. Throughout your training, you practice chandelles, lazy-8s and pylon-8s and wonder, “When would I do these in a 737?” Well, unless you are either crop-dusting or doing aerial photography/cartography in a 737, you won’t. Ground reference maneuvers required for the commercial certificate are there to demonstrate precision, judgment and your “feel” for the aircraft. Though such maneuvers aren’t used in airline operations, precision, judgment and “feel” certainly are, which is why they’re required.
There is no doubt that getting good advanced flight training from a solid school helps you land a job as an airline pilot. The hiring process is fairly standard. You apply, get called in, interview, maybe take a written test on general aviation knowledge and then have a simulator evaluation. My first airline sim evaluation was in an old Boeing 707 flight simulator. At that time, the biggest thing I had ever flown was a King Air. Fortunately, they aren’t looking for finesse. They ‘re only looking for basic instrument skills, judgment, and common sense. The sim evaluator invites you to use him all you want. They want to see you work your “co-pilot” (played by the sim evaluator) and they’re not looking for a solo act. He’s there, so make him work for you dialing in frequencies, looking up altitudes, adjusting power settings and so forth. Your job? Aircraft control.
There are pilot schools offering “airline pilot training.” Often these schools are “ab initio” courses (zero time to a commercial/instrument or ATP) and they generally take between 24 and 36 months. Some of them have worked out deals with smaller regional airlines offering graduates a guaranteed interview or some sort of priority in an airline’s hiring process. Check out both the airline pilot school and the airline with which they are partnered because you may find you want no part of either. Odious airlines have been known to hook up with these schools because no one wants to work for them. So they dangle a carrot in front of pilots convincing them to sign up. The airline pilot school makes money and the airline gets the employees they cannot seem to do otherwise. One such airline had such a poor reputation that it changed its name and still operates purportedly as a “gateway” to pilots, but in reality, the pilots are encumbered by suffocating training contracts and the need of food stamps.
At the same time, there exist very professional schools that have airline ties. What you’re looking for in an airline pilot school is a Part 141 certificate, a good reputation, a good track record training lots of advanced students and a partnership with respectable airlines. The big airlines prefer a college degree and training from recognized and respected schools.
Regardless of whether you graduate from an airline pilot school, it is still necessary for you to complete the airline’s own training course. You cannot side-step this because it is part of the airline’s agreement with the FAA for having their air carrier certificate.
Here’s how your training will likely unfold: Day One you show up and half a day is consumed filling out paperwork, fingerprinting and getting photos and ID badges. You’ll likely have a presentation by the HR people on benefits and flight operations management will provide an overview of your upcoming training. Also received will be your all-important seniority number. This number will define your advancement throughout your career with that airline. But wait! If you are in a class of, say, 10 people, how can one person’s seniority be different than another’s? Usually age. The oldest person in the class will have the highest seniority number and the youngest, the lowest. The seniority number will immediately begin working for you (or against you) because you and your classmates will bid on when everyone wants to start flight simulator training. The airline will train you in pairs and the simulator courses will usually run 10 to 14 days. By afternoon, the preliminaries will be done and training school commences. Training will be in 4 phases: orientation, systems ground school, simulator and initial operating experience (IOE or OE for short).
Orientation is a classroom lecture lasting usually 2 to 3 days. It includes instruction on general procedural subjects and the company’s methods for things like bidding and making operational aircraft calculations, for which the first officer is responsible.
Your next stop will be another classroom lecture environment on aircraft systems specific to the airplane you will be flying. This typically lasts two to four weeks and consists of live lectures and computer-based training. At the end of the aircraft systems course, you will have to pass a written examination. If you don’t, you will probably be given additional instruction and then re- tested. Please pass the second test!
Your class then disburses and you will pair-up with your simulator training partner. The simulator training is typically in two or three 5-day blocks. Back on your first day on the job, you may have bid and won a training block that doesn’t start until 4 or 5 weeks after ground school finished. Sure, you’ll have a month off but you don’t want to spend it loafing. You will be expected to start simulator training as if you graduated from systems ground school yesterday, so be sure to use the time off wisely and continue to review what you learned in ground school. The airline may be paying you during training whether you’re in “limbo” (between ground school and sim training) or not. Laying around the house and getting paid for it sounds pretty good but remember the airline still has its hooks in you. If one of your fellow classmates quits, they can call you and tell you to take his slot.
Simulator scheduling can be the bane of simulator training. Due to scheduling demands for the airline’s other pilots, a busy training center might run their simulators 24-hours a day. It’s not unusual to wind up with a training period that starts at 2 AM.
Your first day in the simulator will be fairly easy. It’s generally all air-work (turns, climbs, straight-and-level, slow flight, and stalls), primarily to give you a feel for the simulator. Ordinarily sessions are scheduled for 6-hour blocks, 4 hours of “flying” the simulator with an hour brief and de-brief on each end. You and your sim partner fly for 2-hours, take a soda break then switch seats and fly another 2-hours. Whoever is in the captain’s seat “plays” the captain but it’s play-acting: the person in the right seat is the one really being trained.
Your training will include all the maneuvers required for an ATP type rating check-ride and you will be expected to perform them to ATP standards whether you are being type-rated or not. This is the reason you should place a lot of emphasis on getting good, solid advanced pilot training for your commercial certificate and instrument rating. If you slosh through hit-or-miss post-private pilot training and manage, somehow, to slide through the check-rides you will find airline sim training tough.
At the conclusion of your simulator training, you will be given a check-ride by a company check-airman. If you blow it, you fail. Depending on what the check-airman observed and the assessment of your abilities by your sim instructor, you may…may…be given additional training and a second attempt at the check-ride. Usually not.
Depending on which category of simulator your airline has, you may be required to complete your qualification by doing “three bounces” in an actual airplane. Pilot management or a check-airman will provide this. It amounts to what it sounds like…starting the engines, doing 3 touch- and-goes and you’re done.
The final phase of airline pilot training is initial operating experience (IOE) sometimes called OE. You’ll dress in your uniform and be assigned a flying line schedule on passenger-carrying trips with a captain who is also a company check-airman. This phase doesn’t have a defined length of time required but usually encompasses several 2-, 3- and 4-day trips spread over several weeks. It will be the check-airman who determines if you need more time in the airplane or if you can be signed-off sooner. There’s no weirdness, no freaky maneuvers, no surprises like you experiences in the simulator. It’s straight-forward flying with paying passengers, just as you will do once you’re a qualified line pilot. The one thing that is different from line flying is that during idle time you won’t sitting and staring out the window. The IOE check-airman will use slow periods in the air and on the ground to give you instruction and tips needed to “fly the line.” Once the check-airman is satisfied that you are competent to fly as a first officer, you’ll be signed-off and bid to fly like all the other pilots.
It might seem like it’s a long and arduous road from private pilot certificate to airline pilot school and on through the airline prep course, but it’s very do-able if you keep the ancient maxim “inch by inch, life’s a cinch” in mind. If you set each component and task as a mini-goal you’ll be surprised how soon you’ll be wearing the wings of an airline pilot.