Monday, March 23, 2015

Becoming an Airline Pilot, The Series

There are a lot of posts in this series, since there is a lot that goes into becoming an airline pilot. Here's a table of contents for you.

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 0: Before the beginning

Part 1: The pre-hire stage
Part 2: The interview
Part 3: The post-offer stage

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 1

Ground school: Basic Indoc

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 2

More ground school: Systems

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 3

Still more ground school: FMS lab and final exam

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 4

Part 1: Welcome to the simulated jungle
Part 2: Simulator training grinds on

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 5

Checkride time

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 6

IOE (Initial Operating Experience) 1

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 7: IOE 2 (Coming soon!)

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 8: IOE 3 and signoff (Coming soon!)

Being an Airline Pilot, Week 9: Sitting Reserve (Coming soon!)

Being an Airline Pilot, Week 10ish: We're all counting on you (Coming soon!)

Being an Airline Pilot, Six months later: Recurrent training (Coming soon!)

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 6: IOE (Initial Operating Experience) 1

To the 37 passengers on board, this is simply Flight 5006, a quick flight from Washington-Dulles International to Greenville-Spartanburg, SC. Sit back for 90 minutes, sip on a Coke, and everyone is back home from where ever in the world they're returning from. Probably some interesting places, since Dulles was designed to carry the East Coast's overseas traffic. Paris, London, Dublin, Berlin, Abu Dhabi, Sao Paulo, and a hundred more come through IAD, and we take them the rest of the way home.

For me, it's my first flight as an airline pilot, and there's no chance of me sitting back and sipping anything. Not even the big bottle of water next to me.

It's my very first flight and we're already pointed straight at a thunderstorm.
Many people are surprised to find that the first time a new First Officer flies in their new airliner is with a load of passengers on a normal revenue flight. I hope that the previous several entries in the Becoming an Airline Pilot Series have given you some insight into why this shouldn't be surprising after all.

There is a surprise, however. The simulator training in (mostly) realistic, multi-million-dollar equipment with extremely detailed cockpit layouts and hydraulic/servo motion allows for a relatively smooth transition into the real thing. The ability to create demanding scenarios and drill them over and over again actually makes a day as a real airline pilot in a real airliner one of the easier parts of training!

That's not to say there's nothing left to learn or that it's easy. The simulator training covered the technical skills required to fly according to the company's OpSpecs and procedures. It left practically no time for the ancillary operations involved in getting a daily airline flight off the ground, and it is entirely impossible for it to simulate each flight's flow.

This is not the same flow as the cockpit flows described earlier in the series. Instead, this flow refers to the dozens of little things that have to come into place before the start switch is selected to "2". Most of them happen simultaneously and wrap together into a small packet of paperwork that's passed out the door just before the real flight begins.

The flight attendant prepares the cabin while the captain reviews the aircraft's logbooks and the dispatch paperwork and weather reports, catering (which is our case is a fancy word for "drinks") drops their items off to put away, bags are loaded while the passengers board, the fueler loads us up with a few thousand pounds of Jet-A, the ATIS and clearance is obtained and the flight plan entered into the Flight Management System (FMS, which we spent a whole week on way back in ground school), the cargo report detailing the number of bags and where they were loaded is dropped off, the weight and balance (just like you did ever since you were a student pilot, although a bit more complicated) is calculated and its paperwork filled out, and if these things are all done properly, the Fasten Belts sign is turned on, the cockpit door shut, and the fun starts.

Except since it's my first day, it's all just a bustling jumble going on around me while I try to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing at each moment. I have a decent idea of what I'm supposed to be doing; just no clue when exactly I'm supposed to be doing it. That's because I haven't developed that sense for the outside flow going on.

"What are we supposed to be doing now?"

I hear that a lot the next few days. If I knew the answer, it would already be done. Instead, I guess.

"The Before Taxi checklist?"

"We haven't even started up yet!"

Wow, was I wrong. Duh. We're not going anywhere without the engines running.

"It's your leg, so you should be briefing me so we can do the Before Start checklist."

Wait, it's my leg? On my very first real flight, I have to fly the thing, too?!

One of the misconceptions people have about the airlines is that the Captain is always the one flying. That's not the case. Instead, the flying legs are usually split evenly by taking turns. Usually the Captain does the first leg, but in this case since I'm in training I'm going first this time. No opportunity to sit back and watch him operate the first time: instead I'm going right into the fire.

Let's do this.

Before every airline flight, the designated Pilot Flying gives a briefing of that leg's plan: the runway in use, the departure, the flight plan, what turn procedure has been assigned in case of an engine failure on takeoff, etc. I run through mine and we start the engines.

After the Before Taxi checklist is done, things proceed rather normally. Although it's my first time in the cockpit of an airliner, it's far from my first time in a cockpit, so I'm familiar with how to talk to controllers. Although Dulles, like many large airports, has a ramp controller in addition to the usual ground and tower frequencies, it's just another person to talk to.

We finally take the runway. Once we're lined up, the aircraft is mine. I push the throttles up and we start rolling. It wants right rudder, I give it right rudder. It rotates differently than a 172 because it's 84 feet long, but I treat it smoothly yet firmly and it climbs away happily.

As I noted in one of the simulator posts, being Pilot Flying is a bit of a blessing in disguise for the next hour and a half, since the Pilot Not Flying has more work to do than the Pilot Flying. For the first time ever, I actually have a time when I'm in a Dash-8 cockpit and can relax for a while! In the sim, the hours are so expensive that once one task is accomplished you are thrown right into the next one with no adjustment period or break. In the real airplane, you sit there and monitor while the plane flies steadily along until it's time for the descent and the workload starts coming back.

After dodging some typical late-summer—since ironically I started on Labor Day—thunderstorms en route, I fly an uneventful approach to a surprisingly good first landing ever. One of the most common and unfortunate misconceptions about flying (one sadly shared by many pilots, who should know better) is that a good landing means a good pilot. Actually, there are so many things that go into accomplishing a successful flight that the landing is just the cherry on the cake. You can have a good cake with a bad cherry and it's still a good cake, but a good cherry with a bad cake is still a bad cake. Unfortunately, most people don't see the rest of the cake, so they only judge it by the cherry.

On the way back to Dulles, the roles are reversed and I'm back to my "normal" First Officer duties. The pop-up thunderstorms on the way in turn out to be the leading edge of a cold front moving in, and on the way I get my best-ever picture of a distinctly visible front, which is quite a treat for a weather-lover like me. It's something I never would have gotten in the old 172, because it's not equipped to fly through a front like that. With a 22-ton airliner, onboard weather radar, and controller vectors, we just pick a heading and outmaneuver the front instead. This will be just the first of many weather treats (some delicious, some not) I'll see over the following days, weeks, and months.

Years of studying and teaching about fronts, and my first day on the job I get to look down on a textbook example of one.
That wouldn't be the last weather I'd see for my first day on the job. On the next leg, we traded off once more and I was once again Pilot Flying. Our destination, Charleston, WV (whose airport is named after Chuck Yeager, so there's a good omen) was being poured on by rain in a 400-foot overcast ceiling. That means my first instrument approach. If you're going to have to shoot an approach the first day on the job, having twice the minumums required is a good way to start, and it, like my first one of the day, went smoothly.

After my first overnight, the rain cleared up for the next morning's flight. Unfortunately, it left a heavy mist behind it, dropping the RVR (Runway Visual Range: basically, how far you can see down the runway) to 800 feet. That means that if I stood at the end of my driveway, I would barely be able to see the trees at the end of my back yard. It's never pretty when the visibility is crappy enough to be measured in RVR instead of miles. Good thing it's not my turn to fly.

Except the Captain had me fly this leg too, just for the hard experience. As soon as I rotated I was in IMC (Instrument Meterological Conditions: "the soup"), but having an ATP means having an instrument rating for a reason. We broke out just a few thousand feet up and it was a pretty day the rest of the leg, since cold fronts do often clear the air after they pass through. It's always amazing how nice it can be only a few thousand feet up while the weather for those stuck to the ground is terrible.

The rest of the trip proceeded much like this, day by day. When you're in IOE, you're not just paired with anybody: you're paired with an experienced Captain whose job it is to watch you closely and give you opportunities to learn. This one certainly did, and I certainly did learn. It was only a 3-day trip with 10 legs, but I felt amazingly better by the end, yet still daunted by how much I still had left to learn before I could get signed off.

After my first trip was over, I was actually a bit disappointed to have 3 days off. I would have kept right on flying if I could have. (One of the signs you've found a good job for you is when you don't have to drag yourself to the office.) Unlike in sim, my self-evaluation ended up being almost identical to my IOE Captain's evaluation in my training folder: "Larry flies the plane very well. Needs to focus on the details."

On my last day, I got to look down on a rainbow, which was a nice way to bookend the rainbow I saw on the way home from sim training:

Try seeing that from any other office window.
Although the first trip went well, a lot of that had to do with it being a relatively uneventful stretch of days in general. With the exception of some normal summer thunderstorms (and some delay vectors going into Dulles to let a storm that was directly over the airport pass) and that instrument approach the first night, there weren't many big challenges thrown my way. When everything is going right, that rigid structure and lack of drama is precisely why flying is safer than walking.

However, there were still plenty of hours left in IOE before I would be eligible to get signed off and be released to the line. How would I do when everything stopped going right? You'll find out in the next post.

(See the series index here.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

New landing technique video and more!

It has been 9 months since I posted the last YouTube video to the Larry the Flying Guy channel. Not coincidentally, I have been an airline pilot for 8 1/2 months now.

Although I actually have a lot more time off than I did back when I was a flight instructor, I'm away from home (and the computer I use to create videos) a lot more. I still have a long list of videos to create (and the list gets longer every week), just a lot less time available to make them, since when I am home I'm usually catching up on things from the last several days on the road. Blog posts are a bit easier to keep up on, since I can write those in a notebook at the hotel and type them in when I get here, which is how the Becoming an Airline Pilot Series has been rolling along in the meantime.

Nonetheless, I had to feed my video creating fix this time around, so I made an updated version of one of my early videos on "the spot that does not move".

The original version was meant to just introduce the concept of the aiming point. I always intended to follow it up with one that shows how to put that concept into practice, and the new one does that. Although it is an extremely important concept, this idea is, unfortunately, almost never taught during primary instruction. Instead, the poor student is left to figure it out on their own, if they ever do.

Although I teach my students that idea as part of the pre-solo work, I did not invent this concept. Wolfgang Langewiesche, in the book I've mentioned over and over again on this blog (maybe because Keyboard and Rudder is named after it), Stick and Rudder, gets into detail about it in Chapter 15. Of course, that was written long before YouTube came along, so I carried on his work for him.

Help support Keyboard and Rudder by buying it here!

In the year between the two videos, I think I've gotten much better at making them. If you agree or disagree, feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think, suggestions for new videos that might help you, or any other feedback you have.

Since I've made almost a dozen Five Minute Flight Lesson videos, I've started tagging them with the tag 5MFL to make them easier to search for, and I created a Five Minute Flight Lesson playlist, too.

The YouTube channel isn't the only thing growing around here. I've had the Twitter handle @Lairspeed for quite some time that has been unused, waiting for the project I intended it for to get rolling. That time is soon, so head on over there and follow me to be the first in on the fun that should start this summer! If you're a student pilot wanting to improve your knowledge, or a certificated pilot wanting to maintain and refresh that knowledge in a quick and easy way, you'll definitely want to for a fast, free, and fun way to do that!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 5: Checkride time

After a week and a half in the simulated jungle, the end was not near: it was now. Like Captain Willard making his way through the jungle in Apocalypse Now, eventually there would be a final confrontation to end the journey. In this case, instead of the insane Howard Kurtz, I would be up against the sim and the list of tasks in the Airline Transport Pilot Practical Test Standards.

Although I've written posts with tips on taking your FAA written and acing your oral examination, I haven't done one devoted to the flight portion of the checkride itself. I'll fix that at some point in the future, but for now let's just say that the ATP checkride is just like any other: an oral part and a flight part. Just like any other performance, how easy it is depends on how much work you put into preparation.

(True story about preparation: I had spent so much time studying the single-engine missed approach procedures the night before that when my alarm went off I woke up saying, "Condition levers max! Set power! Flaps one notch up!" before I realized that that noise was my alarm clock. I'm not making that up.)

There is a saying in sports that games are won on the practice field, and flights are no different. Although I probably wouldn't have turned down an extra practice session if one had been offered to me, I felt ready to take this ride and go home for a few days' rest. Our airline, like most, will give an extra session if the trainee really feels behind or their instructor says they need one, because after all that money spent already on their training they want to see their new First Officer succeed. After all, if they take the checkride and fail, they have to spend even more money on an additional sim session or two and another checkride, so it's cheaper and easier for all involved to spend a little more up front than a lot more afterward.

I remember years ago killing time at the FBO one day waiting for a brief rain to pass so I could get on with my lesson. As I waited, I leafed through the ATP PTS and was amazed anyone could get one with one of the tasks being a single-engine instrument approach with multiple instruments failed. That was just an insanely hard thing to imagine having to do.

Now I was going to do just that.

The checkride started, like all checkrides, by making sure all the required paperwork was in order and the application for a new certificate or rating (the "8710") filled out. After the i's were crossed and the t's dotted, we proceeded on to the oral. This went a little differently than previous oral exams, since there wasn't much general aviation knowledge covered. After all, by the ATP level you already have those kinds of things down cold. Instead, it was a much more technically-oriented exam, with the focus on the capabilities, limitations, and systems of the aircraft. After a while, the examiner opened up a software program that allowed for a virtual tour of the plane. We went through a typical preflight walkaround and talked about what system was located where, how it worked, what it was connected to, etc.

As I noted in the first Week 4 entry in this series, I was overprepared for this part because I spent too much time studying systems when I should have been also studying the operations manuals. All the time spent studying the systems at least had the benefit of making the oral part go smoothly, and after about 2.5 hours we proceeded on to the flight portion.

No one likes being evaluated. I'm on the lower end of the "fear of evaluation" scale (after all, I get up in front of people to speak about aviation and to teach my Private Pilot Ground School at LCCC, I put my thoughts and opinions out into the blogosphere regularly here, and I even face the wild rage that is the YouTube commenter by having my own YouTube channel) and I've already passed 6 checkrides, so this one is just another one on the pile, right? The reason that people hate being evaluated is everyone's big fear of being called a failure in the eyes of others.

Remember my awe at the ATP standards all those years ago? Now I was going to have to meet them myself. That meant I ended up being more nervous than I had ever been before, with the exception of my initial CFI checkride. The checkride started off with the simple stuff: stalls and steep turns. I'd been doing spectacularly on those up until now. I didn't realize just how nervous I was until I did the worst steep turn I'd done in a looong time. About halfway through I said that I thought that the sim was broken, because the controls felt way off.

Just like so many "mechanical problems" in aviation, it turns out that the problem was the nut connected to the yoke, not the yoke itself. I was so unexpectedly tense that instead of flying with my usual smooth, confident style, I was putting an enormous amount of input into the maneuver—way more than required. I still have a football player's physique, and the year before I won the college's bench press competition, so if I start muscling things around it gets sloppy.

Nonetheless, I managed to keep it pretty close to standards. Close enough to proceed to the next things on the list of tasks, at least. Not as precise as I was expecting, but at the time I chalked it up to having my checkride at 8 a.m. when I had been in the sim until 10:00 the following night. I got back into a bit of a groove as I warmed up, and we churned on through almost everything else except for two tasks: a single-engine ILS to a landing (I had already done a pretty nice single-engine missed approach during the GPS approach task) and a non-precision VOR approach with a 20-knot tailwind.

One of the disadvantages of having the checkride in the sim is that it can be as hard as the examiner wants it to be. Single-engine missed approaches are one of the most dangerous things a pilot may ever face in real life. Since you're doing the checkride in the sim, you'll get them. In the real world, you probably wouldn't risk your life and $15 million worth of airplane on doing one in a checkride situation.

No problem, since I had already passed my single-engine missed task earlier in the checkride. Just don't go missed and that's not a factor.

Except unfortunately this time I misjudged the flare in the landing and was about to pancake the plane in from a few stories up. My sim partner, who had flown the Dash for another airline, saw the red screen (what the sim does if you break it) coming and called for a missed approach. Either pilot can call for one and once a missed approach is initiated, it must be followed through on.

No problem, since I had just done one a few minutes ago and did fine.

Except this time there was a problem. The "GA" mode (Go Around) mode for the flight director never engaged. To this day, I don't know if I forgot to push it in the heat of the moment or if it just didn't work. The reason for the uncertainty is that later on, the next people to use that sim wrote the TOGA button up as intermittently inoperative.

It doesn't matter which caused it, because if I had been more experienced or been more situationally aware at the time I would have realized something wasn't right. A missed approach—and especially a single-engine missed—is a "high workload environment" in the same way that being doused in gasoline and set on fire is a "high temperature environment". With all the stuff going on at once in the transition, I didn't notice that since the GA mode wasn't engaged, the flight director was blindly trying to get me to climb back up to the glideslope, which was now way above us, and commanding a 180-degree turn back to the localizer (the needle that lines you up with the runway), which was now way behind us. I, meanwhile, was blindly following the flight director.

Remember how two posts ago I said that following the flight director was going to take some getting used to? I was now used to following it, but not used to it enough to be able to tell when it was telling me to do something stupid. Fortunately, in real life, where there are two pilots to cross-check each other, it would have been caught. Although I had the aircraft under control, I was 90 degrees off the proper heading and way below the proper single-engine climb speed.

It was over. Only two things left and I would have been the world's newest ATP, but I had stepped up to the plate ready to hit a home run, swung for the fences, and... missed. Now that new certificate—and my flight home—would have to wait two more days: one day for extra training on what I hosed (and the VOR approach we didn't get to) and one day for the second checkride. (As it turned out, the sim wasn't available until the day after my extra sim session, so I got my one and only chance to check out downtown Seattle. At least there was some upside.)

The extra session went quite well, and I was re-signed off with no problem. The second attempt also went well. With the stress of possibly failing off my shoulders, since I had already gotten that out of the way the first time, I was back to my relaxed, smooth style again and passed with no problem.

The hard part was over. The weeks of studying, the long nights in the sim, the weight of an impending checkride hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles... over. In exchange, I had a brand-new ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, and had earned the opportunity to get evaluated all over again with the next step: Initial Operating Experience (usually just called IOE, for obvious reasons).

My flight back was the red-eye the following night, so I checked out a little more of the city. I arrived at Cleveland-Hopkins the next morning during a heavy rainstorm. By the time I got home, it had trailed off, leaving this in its wake as a welcoming present:

That's a nice welcome home.

Little did I know that I would be looking down on a rainbow in just a few days.

(If you're jumping into the series here, you can see the series index here.)

Friday, February 27, 2015

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 4: Simulator training grinds on

Welcome to the jungle we take it day by day.
If you want it you're gonna bleed but it's the price to pay...
You can taste the bright lights but you won't get there for free...
Welcome to the jungle it gets worse here every day.
Ya learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play.
—Guns 'n Roses

After a rough start that wasn't as rough as I thought it was, things got actually rough. I still was unhappy with my first day, in large part because I didn't actually look at my training folder until the day of the last sim session.

That was something I would do different if I had it to do over again. After all, one of the reasons we had them was so we could see how we were doing. If I had looked at it earlier, I would have spent less time frustrated because I would have found out that I was doing as well as I should have been. Usually.

After the adjustment of Day 1, the second day was somewhat better, but still not as good as I thought it should be. Day 2 is the last "easy" day: not too many malfunctions, and the ones we did have were relatively simple. Looking back at the syllabus, it reads like baby steps now, but at the time it felt like trying to run before you even know how to walk.

Nonetheless, our instructor (and I say "our" instructor because you're working as a team with your sim partner through the entire process) rated our second day's progress as pretty darn good. Once again, I graded myself harder, but even the problems I perceived were nothing some studying couldn't fix, however.

Which didn't really happen, unfortunately.

It's not that we didn't study at all; we did. The problem was that we weren't studying the right things. We were still focusing on getting the flows correct. Naturally, that's an important part, but that left little time for improving the callouts. And then the time we should have devoted to callouts we spent on reviewing systems. Day 3 was right around the corner, and although engine failures haven't even started yet, we still hadn't done anything except a few run-throughs of the callouts in the book.

That would make for a looong Day 3. Hence the drop from almost all 1s to a single 1, a bunch of 2s, and a horrible 3!

When I was in basic training in the Army, there were 4 companies in each quad (a square arrangement of buildings with one building per side). Since basic was 8 weeks then, that meant each company started 2 weeks apart. At the end of each 2-week period (a "phase"), your company got a different colored streamer to accompany the guidon: none for the first two weeks, red for weeks 3-4, white for 5-6, and blue for the last two weeks. Getting that streamer felt like a huge accomplishment because you went through so much in just two weeks that you felt like an entirely different person (and company) than you were "way back when". When you had a red streamer, you looked down on the noobs who didn't even have one. The ones with a white streamer looked down upon you as fresh meat. The ones with the coveted blue streamer laughed at everybody else, because they were the "long-timers" now, even though they hadn't even been there for two months yet.

The sim pace felt a lot like that, but instead of bi-weekly streamers, every day was an extra stripe. Day 3 is a legendary day in the sim; one which those who had gone through shook their heads and laughed about afterward. Things start to fall apart faster and harder, and you're shooting approach after approach. You still don't have to deal with V1 cuts yet, but those are right around the corner. Even so, going from one kind of approach to another kind of approach to another kind of approach for four solid hours is more than enough.

One of the hardest things to adjust to in the sim is the lack of continuity. In a real flight, there is an easily-defined, natural flow from before start to taxi to takeoff to cruise to descent to approach, and so on. In the sim, you accomplish the objective for that particular maneuver or item and then you're snapped right on to the next. It allows for a lot of material to be covered in a short amount of time, but it's a bit disconcerting to be in one mindset and have to shift immediately into an entirely different one. It's discombobulating to try to figure out what expected of you for the next ten minutes when you barely kept up with the last ten.

But that's just the way the sim world works, and it's one of the reasons the sim is so fatiguing. There's no half-hour "How's the wife and kids blah blah blah... [Time passes] Well, I'll pick up the weather for you" conversations in the sim like there is enroute in the real thing. Instead it's "OK, you didn't screw that up too badly. Now you're on 22R at intersection Whiskey in Newark. Ready? Go."

When Day 3 was over, we needed no rebuke from the instructor to know we had screwed the pooch and were driving to the pound. Of course, we got a good butt-chewing from him anyway, but that was just icing on the cake. There is a pilot joke that, like most humor, has a dash of truth in it: "If someone asks you who the best pilot in the world is and you say, 'I don't know', it ain't you." We both knew we weren't it that night.

When you get beat up, there are two choices of how to respond:

1. Whine about life not being fair and hope everything somehow turns out all right
2. Shut up and get to work and make everything turn out all right

Just stare out the hotel window at the Dash-8 you're supposed to be here learning how to fly, or open the Blue Book and learn how to fly it?
We opted for number 2. We got up early the next day and spent hours going over our callouts, ensuring we were ready and then some for the session ahead. We went through each callout word by word. If one of us got even one single word wrong, we went back and started it all over again from the beginning. After a while, a long while, we had them down perfectly. We could literally do them with our eyes closed, because we did.

After hours of this, we took a break to catch a nap before sim time. It was make or break time, and if we couldn't do it right by then, we were never going to be able to. All that was left was to show up, shut up, and get to work.

Day 4 was a HUGE difference. We crushed it that night. It didn't matter what he threw at us: we just smashed it out of the park. Curve ball, breaking ball, fast ball, it didn't matter: we were all over it. Just as we didn't need a debrief the previous session to know how badly we had done, we didn't really need one to know how well we had done that night. In fact, we even exchanged a high-five on the way to our rooms, and the training folder was full of 1s again.

That momentum carried into Day 5. By that point in the curriculum, we're well into V1 cuts. A V1 cut is when an engine fails on takeoff right at the point where the point of no return is reached. You're going too fast to stop on the runway, so you're committed to taking off. You just keep the aircraft under control, rotate, and climb out like you're in a 180-hp Cessna instead of a 2000+ hp airliner. A Cessna that's trying really hard to flip on its back, that is.

V1 cuts are one of the harder things to deal with in general, but that's life with a multi-engine rating. However, once you've done enough, they start to become fun. (Plus your right leg muscles end up in great shape from stomping on and holding in the rudder.) Once you've done enough emergencies, they start to become fun, too. We had settled into the sim routine, and flying started to become enjoyable again. Instead of "Oh no--what are we going to have to do now?" the game became, "Hey, what are going to get to deal with tonight?"

That, really, is the whole point of the avalanche that is sim training: to make the unusual into the routine and burn a neural path into your brain in the extremely unlikely event you'll ever have to deal with an engine failure right at the most critical moment of flight, dual generator failures, landing gear that won't come down, etc. That's why the 747 in London with a landing gear problem simply had a "non-standard landing procedure" (their words) instead of a "non-standard defecation procedure".

Day 6 was more of the old routine, and we were starting to feel like the blue-streamered company. Which is just as well, since it was one of 2 checkride readiness evaluation flights. There were only 7 flights in the curriculum, so the big day was already drawing near, just as we were kind of beginning to feel less uncomfortable in the sim.

Our performance had a bit of a dip, but not a disastrous one. It was more like a batter who had been going on a month-long .500 tear and drops down to a .333 pace: not bad at all, but not as commanding as before. This is just another example of the competence curve trough, just compressed into a week.

When learning a new skill, most people do not have learning curves that are perfectly upward. Usually there will be some progress, then the progress slows yet continues to rise more slowly, then maybe there's a plateau, then some more upward movement, and so on. However, after a certain amount of time, there is usually a dip in performance: people actually start to do worse at the task with more experience. This dip is short-lived, fortunately, and after some more practice, the curve swings sharply upward again. The dip comes when a person reaches a point where they've done something enough times that they're no longer paying attention to every detail like a hawk, but they haven't yet internalized enough of the task to be able to do it without great attention.

During my time as an instructor, I saw many, many students make great progress toward solo, then have a bad lesson or two and start to get discouraged. However, after a lesson or two more, they're ready to be signed off. They hit that dip, just as so many others did before them, and as I did myself. When learning new things, I've found that same pattern happen to me time and time again.

Some aviation statistics suggest that the most dangerous time for pilots, the time when they're most likely to have a fatal accident, is not when they're brand new. New pilots generally don't push themselves into situations that require extreme tests of their tender skills. However, between 150-500 hours, the dip in performance (as shown by a rise in accidents) occurs for licensed pilots

This same thing was happening here, albeit compressed substantially. I was starting to get comfortable in the sim and getting a decent grasp on my duties, but still lacked the experience to allow me to get relaxed about it. Although I was hoping to be more polished and ready for the checkride, by the time Day 6 was over, I was confident that I'd have all the remaining bugs shaken out by the end of Day 7.

The last day, Day 7, I was declared ready for the checkride. I thought I could have done better, but even if I had 17 sessions I'd probably have said the same thing. Besides, after almost every session I felt like I could have done better. Nonetheless, there comes a time when you just have to step up to the plate and swing the bat.

Next up: stepping into the batter's box for the big checkride.

See the series index here.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 4: Welcome to the simulated jungle

Welcome to the jungle we've got fun and games.
We got everything you want...
In the jungle, welcome to the jungle.
Watch it bring you to your knnn knne knees, knees.
I want to watch you bleed!
—Guns n' Roses

Due to a backlog of captain upgrades, we got more time off than usual between ground school and sim. There weren't enough sim slots for both the Captains and FOs at FlightSafety Seattle, so we waited. A little extra time off can't hurt, because after ground school the brain needed a nice cool-down anyway.

However, there can be too much of a good thing. Although I studied my flash cards nightly before bed, and had my systems down pat because of it, the long interval allowed my flows to get rusty. As I mentioned elsewhere in this series, I'm good at absorbing facts and not so good at things like flows, since there aren't long flows to accomplish in the GA world.

This means I didn't take my own advice in my Bob Hoover post and instead practiced what I was already good at because that's what was easier. I'm not sure this would have changed the Day 1 result, but I'm sure it didn't help. Knowing now what I didn't know then, I would have spent more time on the flows and less on the memorization, even if performing the flows was just a rote memorization task back then.

But the time has finally come and now I'm settling in for a long stay in a Seattle hotel room:

That's root beer. The real beer comes in a week and a half.
We met with the instructor about 90 minutes ahead of time (which would be a common theme until we switched instructors for the last few sessions), did a rundown of what the night would involve, and received the training schedule for the 6 sim sessions to follow this one. With that briefing, we jumped on the shuttle and headed to the FlightSafety office. I was ready and eager to get started. At least I thought I was.

Welcome to the first day of what will feel like the rest of your life.
We sat in the real cockpit back in week 2 of ground school, but that was in entirely different circumstances. We didn't twiddle knobs and flip switches that day, since that was a real aircraft that was just in for a minor maintenance tuneup. Now that it's Day 1, the sim gets real.

A picture doesn't give a proper sense of scale. Keep in mind that that door in front is the same size as the doors in your house and you'll get a feel for just how large this thing actually is. It's about the size of the shed in my back yard, but costs approximately (and I'm not exaggerating) 20,000 times more, not including lawnmower.

So it means everything you thought you had down cold drops right out of your brain and leaves you out in the cold. Just as it was a much different feeling stepping on an airliner and turning left, it's much different sitting in the seat and looking at the switches you're supposed to know when to flip than it is pointing at them on a paper diagram.

Through that real-sized door is a real-sized cockpit with real-sized seats. Really.
Now there in the "real" thing, I sat there feeling like a useless lump instead of the confident pilot I was just minutes earlier. However, I've got a job to do, and that's to learn how to do my job. So I put those feelings aside, buckled in, and started doing the little I knew how to do. After all, if we already knew everything, the airline wouldn't be paying $16,000 for this block of simulator hours, would it?

It's possible that some of my less-than-stellar performance was due to being stuck with the 10 p.m. - 2 a.m. sim slot. Having travelled across 3 time zones to get to it also made it feel more like working from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. Maybe I'm making excuses for not being as good as I felt I should be.

The first sim session is a general introduction to the simulator and the procedures. We're not the first to experience sim-shock brain-lock, and we won't be the last. That's why the schedule starts with all normal procedures. Systems don't fail today, both engines work, and so on. We start right off with low IFR conditions, but that's the extent of the challenges. Don't worry: the big ones start coming fast and soon enough.

Once we got airborne, I began to get a lot more comfortable. I was now doing what I'm best at: flying. Or at least pretending to. The sim's cockpit is incredibly realistic, right down to the little chart table that folds down, and the full motion is uncanny. "Uncanny" as in uncanny valley: close but not quite close enough. When I was an instructor, I would tell my students over and over again, "Listen to what the plane is saying to you!" I hadn't realized just how much I had internalized that until I started "flying" the sim. The flight model is close, but no amount of simulator programming has yet managed to duplicate the subtleties of aerodynamic loads: the words the plane whispers in your ear.

People who aren't in an $18 million sim for training gasp in awe at the graphics. People who are in training are too busy staring at the instruments to notice that there even is a window up front. This is the last time you can look out the window and not see a solid white cloud mass for a long, long time anyway.

Oh, who am I kidding? The Dash-8 is known for "flying like a pick-up truck". The sim flies like a pick-up truck with loose tie rods. Considering that I haven't flown either before, it flies like it flies. I didn't know its language yet, which was a bit of an advantage: I actually found the sim harder to fly after 6 months in the real airplane.

We started off by getting the easy things out of the way: steep turns and stalls. I surprised myself by nailing steep turns right off the bat, and stalls were easier than I expected, too. The procedure for them took a little getting used to, since they're started with the autopilot on in a bank, as if you were flying an approach with it on and intercepting the localizer with the throttles accidentally at flight idle. No problem.

What was a problem, however, was getting used to the flight director. I've flown planes that had them before, but never bothered to use it. It's a bad habit I developed from the GA world, where "real men fly raw data". It took a lot of getting used to to just "stick it in the pink" and be a manual autopilot. I got gradually better and better at it as the sim sessions went on, but it wasn't until I was out on the line for quite some time that it became natural. (Now I'm at the point where I occasionally turn it off in the real thing in order to practice flying without it, instead of the other way around.) Keep this in mind, because this unfortunately comes into play a couple of posts from now.

The simulated motion did wreak havoc with my inner ear. I've never had motion sickness, or even been close to it, but there were a few times in the sim when my stomach was less-than-pleased with me. After four long hours in the sim, I felt like I was on a small boat in gentle seas for the rest of the day. I hoped the real airplane wasn't like this. (Fortunately, it's not. I never felt that phantom motion again until I got back into the sim for my first recurrent session after six months in the real Dash-8. It's definitely a simulator artifact.)

In the sim, you are with your sim partner (which you're assigned right at the beginning of ground school, so you know who your study buddy is right away). One of you flies for two hours, then you switch seats. You also switch who goes first from day to day, because after two hours fatigue is setting in, and the person who goes second often doesn't do as well. Even though they got a preview of what they'll be doing, flying is a mental game, and the mental fatigue outweighs the sneak preview.

I was happy to switch off after the two hours were up, only to find out that the PNF (Pilot Not Flying) actually has more work to do than the PF (Pilot Flying). The flying pilot's job is to fly. More to the point, all they have to do is keep the pointy end in front pointy and in front. The non-flying pilot has to do the radio calls, call the out and off times, get the weather, approach in use, and the landing speeds, and program the FMS. Basically, there isn't a break in the sim, no matter what seat you're in.

After the first sim session was up, I was unhappy with myself. I thought I didn't do nearly as well as I should have or could have done. I was tired, hungry, and unhappy. Nonetheless, I chalked it up to first time jitters and the pressure of an entirely new experience. I was quite surprised to find out later on that my performance was judged normal in my training folder.

Wait, what? The training folder again? Yes, indeed. That folder that started on ground school Day One that will follow me for the rest of my career is here, too:

I don't think I've ever been happy to be average before, but the column full of 2s means just that: Normal progress.
The grades run 1: Satisfactory 2: Normal progress 3: Needs improvement. There is no 4, but if there were it would probably be this:

You have to have all 1s in order to take the checkride. After my performance the first day, I thought I'd bombed everything, but as it turns out, everyone's first day in the sim is rough. My welcome to the jungle was as butt-kicking as everyone's first day on the job.

Welcome to the jungle we take it day by day.
If you want it you're gonna bleed but it's the price to pay...
You can taste the bright lights but you won't get there for free.
In the jungle, welcome to the jungle.

Next up: settling in the sim and doing the hard stuff or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Emergencies.

See the series index here.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 3: Still more ground school

The schedule has become routine, yet the end is near. Things aren't any easier this last week—in fact, the busy schedule gets even busier. In addition to the new material each day, the quizzes, the reading, and the studying, we now have to calculate and fill out weight and balance forms for the daily scenarios.

What daily scenarios? Well, that's something new this week. We're being introduced to the aircraft's FMS: the Flight Management System. That's a fancy term for the computer that helps with the navigation. We learn how to enter the flight plan, fuel load, and passenger/cargo weights.

Once all that's in "the box", the FMS uses GPS and IRS (Inertial Reference System; a GPS-like system that pre-dates GPS and isn't as accurate, but has the advantage of not relying on satellites like GPS does) to keep us on course—often with such precision that its margin of error is less than our own wingspan. We take precision like this for granted nowadays, but back in the days of Bob Buck and Ernie Gann and the DC-2/3, being within 1 mile of your course was doing pretty darn good.

The FMS also makes keeping track of fuel on board at present, how much will be left at the destination, and other important fuel statuses much easier. Although it uses fuel flow sensors to determine the burn rate and how much should still be in the tanks, the final authority on how much fuel is left is the old fuel gauges. After all, the FMS has no way of knowing if there is a fuel leak; it only knows how much has passed through the sensor. We also use the old-fashioned "look at the gauges and compare that to the pre-calculated figure you should have at that checkpoint" method of cross-check. You know, the one your very first CFI taught you way back when (or will teach you when you're working on your license).

The daily scenarios are based on real examples from actual planned and flown flights. Some of them are slightly tweaked to make sure we notice and adjust for certain items. For example, a plane may be within weight limits but the passengers are seated in a way that puts the center of gravity too far forward. This is quite a common occurrence in daily flying. When it happens (and it will), we have to figure out how many people to ask to move to the rear to shift the c.g. into the acceptable envelope. Or perhaps the baggage loaders put all the bags into the furthest aft cargo compartment instead of evenly distributing them between both compartments, or the number of bags is fine and the CG is within limits but there's 500 pounds of anvils in with the rest of the cargo, etc.

Once we've processed the paperwork as homework, we "fly" the flights virtually. This involves using a desktop computer, which each of us now has in the classroom, and a Microsoft Flight Simulator-like program. It doesn't have all the features or the pretty graphics of FSX, and there is no joystick since we're doing it all on autopilot, but it isn't intended to be a toy. It is designed to simulate mainly the FMS and autopilot we use and allow us to see how the plane would navigate based on how we program the FMS.

After a few basic flights, we are introduced to other useful features such as how to command an intercept heading after ATC takes us off an airway or gives us vectors to join one after takeoff, how to enter different kinds of approaches or program holding patterns, and something you'll end up using on almost every flight: how to have it calculate vertical speeds necessary to meet altitude crossing restrictions.  For example, if we're 55 miles south of the BUF VOR at 16,000 feet and ATC says "Cross 30 south of BUF at 7000", the FMS can calculate the rate of descent required for us. (In case you're dying to know, the answer is 1440 FPM, assuming a groundspeed of 240 knots, and I figured that out by simple math, not the box.) If you've used a Garmin 430, you can figure this thing out, and if you've used a G1000, you'll wonder why airline technology is a decade-plus behind GA.

In addition to the FMS lectures, we're still getting lectures on other topics. Most of these are wrapping up some short, miscellaneous items that didn't fit smoothly elsewhere in the syllabus. On top of that, we're reviewing, since we have the big systems final on the last day. We're still busy at work writing flashcards, locking in memory action items (what you do if an engine catches on fire or the cabin depressurizes, etc.) and cockpit flows, and adding call-outs to the routine.

The fast pace increases, but so does the anticipation. At the end of the week, we'll have jumped the first of the three hurdles on our way to becoming First Officers: ground school, the sim and checkride, and IOE.

At the end of the week, the final exam comes. As at the end of week one, not everyone passes in every month's class, but we all do. Much like when we passed the private pilot checkride years ago, we've learned just enough to be able to go out and learn all the stuff we'll actually need to know by actually doing it. We're happy to have gotten the ground school fire hose over with; a happiness that is made even more sweet by the blissful unawareness that ground school was the easy part.

We're given our epaulettes and wings. We haven't truly earned the right to wear them yet, but since we're flight crew employed by an air carrier, we get them to wear in order to make things easier on our flight to the West Coast to fix that.

Now it's on to Seattle, for some expensive simulator training at FlightSafety in simulators that cost more than the aircraft itself.

If you're jumping right into the series here, the full index is available here.