Airline training for any airline job is handled very seriously not only because the feds are breathing down their necks but because the stakes are so high.
Two words you should hear when telling someone you finished airline pilot training are, “well done!” This achievement is challenging and every new-hire deserves rightfully to feel proud.
Today concern exists about a pilot shortage. Airlines, especially the ones with limited appeal, are having difficulty filling cockpit seats so they’ve reduced their hiring minimums. This seemingly good fortune for an inexperienced pilot can be a two-edged sword. I once interviewed for a regional airline training manager’s job and asked my interviewers what they perceived to be their biggest challenge? Unanimously, they answered new-hire training failures. Even though they were flying complex state-of-the-art aircraft, they expected inexperienced pilots to “cut it” just like experienced pilots. They revealed that they were using the same training methods they used when their hiring minimums targeted applicants with considerably more experience. Interview diplomacy, being what it is, precludes being able to ask salient questions. But the answer to an applicant asking what the failure rate is in new-hire training could be a warning. If it’s high, the company is calling in everybody they can, experienced or not, although they know training might be tough for less experienced pilots. Sadly I was also told, “we’re looking for warm bodies.” If this was their unfortunate attitude, their training programs needed a redesign. Their dispassionate attitude placed the onus of trying to keep up on frustrated new-hires unfairly.
It is vitally important to be as well-trained as possible before ever getting to an airline training center. You don’t want to blow the chance because of training problems. Even with minimal pilot experience, a new-hire with sound, solid training stands a much better chance of success. Here we’re not talking FBO flying schools with clumsy curricula, tenderfoot instructors, and infrequent advanced students. Large pilot training schools with seasoned flight instructors, and an FAA Part 141 program that does a lot of advanced flight training will better prepare you for the training that will gush out of an airline’s “training fire hose.”
You are not the only one under pressure to successfully finish training. Your instructors are also under a magnifying glass by the airline and the FAA. Ground, flight and simulator instructors not only undergo the FAA’s own qualification process to teach for that airline but are repeatedly re-checked. FAA inspectors periodically “ride along” to watch, not the student but instead, the instructor. If the inspector doesn’t like what he sees or the feds record an inordinate number of training failures, they may recall the instructor’s qualification to teach for that airline. In fact, in the 1990s, a very good airline lost their certificate to operate because of training problems.1 So it’s not like most other on-the-job training situations; this one is treated as seriously important because mistakes and omissions can be unforgiving and fatal.
The training format is similar at most airlines. Only the length of time for each phase is adjusted for operational needs, personnel and complexity of the aircraft. Generally, you start out in a classroom with systems lectures. Now more airlines are integrating “CBT” (computer-based training) into their programs so you may alternate between classroom lectures and staring at a computer screen. It is common during this first phase to provide you with “gouges” and “laundry lists” for the airplane you are learning. These lists “cut to the chase” and tell you what you had better know by the end of the course. They include an understanding of vital systems, emergency procedures, and limitations. Commit these to memory. Study groups with your classmates help a lot. Get a packet of 3×5 note cards and make flash cards for the aircraft limitations and emergency memory items. and (no kidding!) carry them with you all the time. While waiting in line at McDonald’s, whip out your packet of note cards and drill through a few. The flash cards are more to prepare you for the flight simulator training but you are strongly encouraged to start memorizing these things as early as possible. As far as ground school, yes, there’s a written exam on systems.
Your next phase may come in the form of a cockpit procedures trainer (CPT).2 During this portion you’ll practice and drill all of the checklists. In airline operations, pilots handle checklists somewhat differently than the manner in which you may be accustomed. Airlines use “flows” in which various segments and panels of the flight deck are set up and checked without referring to any checklist but, instead from a pattern (i.e. left-to-right, top-to-bottom). When both pilots are seated, the checklists are verbalized in a “challenge-and-response” manner. After you have done this a few hundred times you will be able to recite the checklist precisely. For purposes of the cockpit voice recorder, you must read from the checklist verbatim for the captain’s verbatim responses to verify exactitude.3 Some of the CPT work may be worked into the computer based training, however, staring at a computer screen is a compromised substitute for the tactile and 3-dimensional physical reinforcement of actually moving your hands and head around, locating and touching each switch. If computer training is being used for this procedures training, if possible, spend some time in the airline’s real simulator (when it’s not being used, of course) to practice checklist flows and procedures.
Next comes simulator training. Depending on the complexity of the aircraft this might consist of two or three 5 day sessions. You and your simulator partner split up each training session; one of you sitting in the captain’s seat while the other is in the first officer’s seat. You’ll probably take a break after two hours and then switch seats.4 Usually, a one-hour briefing precedes and follows the simulator session. Although it is too often omitted officially from the simulator training, good simulator instructors often meet with their students (on their own time) each day for a couple hours to go over preparation for the oral examination. This is helpful and keeps your focus on the items that you will be expected to know on your oral. You and your sim partner should plan to get together outside of training to drill systems questions, limitations and emergency “memory items.”
On the last simulator session, you will “fly” a simulated check ride with your instructor. If you perform to the instructor’s satisfaction, you’ll be signed off to take the check ride. If not, the instructor may recommend more training and then it will be up to the airline’s director of training (or chief pilot) if the airline will accommodate additional training. This is a dicey “case by case” situation and when someone is not ready for a check ride at the conclusion of training, many considerations are factored into the airline’s willingness to spend more money on simulator training. This is where a positive attitude, earnestness, and diligence can really help if one’s performance is poor. If the director of training is told you have a lousy attitude, they may not decide to continue. But if the training manager is told that the instructor believes you try hard, work at it, are receptive to instruction and believes you only need another session or two, you may win a second chance.
On the day of your check ride, one of the airline’s company check airmen will meet with you, probably in one of the simulator center’s briefing rooms with which you are familiar. The check airman will probably have you work out some performance problems such as power settings and weight-and-balance calculations. Expect to be quizzed on systems and limitations. Don’t embellish and don’t try to expand beyond that which is necessary to answer the specific question. Showing off can dig yourself into a hole, derailing an oral examination (that might be satisfactory up until now) and causing it to take a turn for the worse.
When the check airman closes his notebook and starts putting things into his briefcase he’ll say something like,”OK, let’s go fly.” Phew! Oral over. One more big hurdle is behind you!
“Who wants to go first?” While it is nice to get it over with, first remember that whoever goes second has the benefit of seeing most of what will occur on the check ride. In addition, the second person can watch the mistakes made by your partner and allow you to make mental notes to avoid those mistakes when it’s your turn. The session will be shorter than you were accustomed to during training but, even so, it’s still an ATP check ride whether you have an ATP or not.
No music is as sweet as the sound of the simulator’s walkway warning bell being lowered to enable your exit from the simulator. It’s over. You’re drenched in sweat and your knees are wobbling. The check airman will tell you to take a break and return to the briefing room to review what was good and what might not have been so good. If it was bad, he’ll probably ask to see you privately.
Unfortunately in the aftermath of a few pilots doing irresponsible things, aviation regulations have been legislated to watch all pilots more closely throughout their careers. This results in being forever “marked” when failing airline training. Just like an incident, accident or violation, a training failure goes on your FAA record. Although this doesn’t prevent you from getting a job elsewhere, airlines always check the FAA records of applicants and such a disclosure can make it a lot harder. It is important for you to take the airline training phase seriously and give it your best.
Sources and Footnotes:
1 – The airline was already experiencing financial difficulties but training problems was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” and they folded.
2 – Colloquially the CPT is also known as “the paper trainer” and is just a mock-up of a cockpit.
3 – FAR 14 CFR 91.609 – Flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders: Although it varies from airplane to airplane, the cockpit voice recorder usually starts recording when the aircraft’s emergency electrical bus is powered so it will store the pilots’ verbalizing all checklists before the flight to the final one at the flight’s conclusion. It might seem trivial but, when “running the checklists”, challenges and responses must be verbatim. For instance, if the first officer’s checklist challenge is “GEAR PINS AND COVERS” and captain’s expected checklist response is “ON BOARD/CHECKED,” those are the only words to be used. Varying the FAA-approved checklist challenge instead to “Pins and covers” isn’t appropriate. Neither would a captain’s response of, “ON BOARD AND CHECKED” be correct because the word “and” was added, and is considered superfluous and was not approved by the FAA’s operations
4 – Smart tip to make life easier: Leave your cell phone, iPod et cetera back at your hotel room. It’s important to remain focused without distractions generated from these devices that might subconsciously follow you back into the simulator. And of course, if you have one with you, make sure it’s OFF.