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.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 2: More ground school

As I've mentioned before, I teach the private pilot ground school at Lorain County Community College. Naturally, a chunk of that class is devoted to introducing the parts of an airplane and its systems and how they work together to create the miracle of flight. Everything from the tip to tail is covered over the first three weeks of class.

Three weeks may sound like a lot of time, but keep in mind that this is a class that meets twice a week for just over an hour and a half each session. That means that three weeks of college classes is about 10 hours of contact time. Airline ground school is a 9-5 job, so we cover that much material in about a day, and there's a full week or more of it.

For further comparison, the systems manual alone (which is an entirely different book from the Blue Book of last week's classes) for the Dash-8 is bigger than the entire private pilot textbook my college class uses. The number of slides on just the hydraulic system alone is almost as big as all of the introductory material on airplane systems.

When studying the electrical electrical schematic in the Cessna/Piper/etc. POH you're familiar with, unless you're an engineer you probably looked at it and said, "I'm glad I don't have to have that memorized." When doing the oral part of your private pilot checkride, the questions on the electrical system likely boiled down to "Yep, it has one," with some details like it being a 24-volt system with a 60-amp alternator and a few more basics like what will happen if your one alternator goes offline. You won't be so lucky this time, because not only will you need to have that schematic memorized, you'll have multiple alternators, both DC and AC now, with TRUs thrown in just to make the manufacturer's double-Es feel like they did something to earn that salary. You'll need to know how many of which kind of thing can fail before the system starts load shedding (which small airplanes don't do—their electrical stuff just dies) and what systems get tossed when that shedding starts. And so on. For example, here's one of many possible failure combinations:

In case you thought I was exaggerating, notice how at the bottom left it says "64 of 103".
Systems training in general will be vastly different from airline to airline in how things are covered, yet quite similar in what things are covered. I know of one airline that gives you the manuals and computerized study materials and after you are done with basic indoc, you get over a month off to study it and do the assignments on your own time at your own pace. Other airlines spend much more time on systems and get into much more detail. Ours doesn't get bogged down in details but wants you to have a good grasp of the big picture view so you can understand how the systems relate to one another. There's no One Right Way to approach systems, so if your airline does it differently, don't be surprised.

Obviously the planes are different, but they all have the same pieces: spoilers, ailerons, rudder, landing gear, hydraulics, etc. A while back, I picked up a Gulfstream manual from Half-Price Books for $5. During my time off after ground school I leafed through it and it wasn't really all that different from our Dash-8 manual.

Again, here our training department really shined. One of the instructors for systems week is one of the company's more experienced FOs, and he has an incredible knowledge of the DHC-8's innards and a knack for finding ways to help remember and understand concepts.

I noted last time that memorizing flows and rote memorization in general is something I've never been good at. Systems week gets me back into my strengths. I'm great at absorbing large amounts of facts and concepts and sifting through the pile for ideas. That's not to say there isn't more rote memorization, but fortunately those who have come before me have created acronyms to help remember limitations and which systems are connected to which engines, etc.

There's more going on than just slide after slide of diagrams. We got out of the classroom a couple of times. The first time was for the fire department visit where we practiced our fire extinguisher skills against a training device that's basically a propane grill with sensors, while wearing a PBE (Portable Breathing Equipment—a smoke hood with its own oxygen generator):

Pull, aim, squeeze, and sweep. If you don't sweep, it doesn't go out.
The second time we were let out into the wild was a trip to the maintenance hangar to walk through a pre-flight and pop open the emergency doors. While this isn't anyone's first time on an airliner, it is my first time stepping aboard a Dash-8. I've been on turboprops before, but those were either Saab 340s or ATR 42/72s. Although one airliner is very like another, somehow it's a much different experience stepping aboard something you're there to learn to operate instead of stepping aboard something someone else is going to operate while you snooze back in 20A. The simple act of going up the stairs and turning left for your seat instead of right makes a world of difference.

Other than the fact that this has 46 more seats, weighs 37,000 more pounds, is turbine powered, and is boarded standing up, it's no different than the Beech Baron I'm used to. Assuming the Baron suddenly became 2 1/2 stories tall, that is.
Week 2 had some even longer days than Week 1, but it seemed to go faster, probably because it was more fun. To break up the deluge of information, we also watched the excellent Denzel Washington/Gene Hackman movie Crimson Tide as part of CRM (Crew Resource Management) training. It may seem silly, but its message is a break from the old way of doing things back in the pre-CRM days. It's about an XO (which is similar to what our role as an FO will be in some ways) standing up for what he knows is right. In the past couple of decades, airlines have shifted away (in theory at least) from the old-style, military-inspired, sit-down-and-shut-up cockpit environment and toward one that encourages input and ideas, even if the captain makes the final call. It's a different way of operating than the Bad Old Days:

You can actually buy this (and several others) from Sporty's pilot shop by going to their Placards/Decals section under Aircraft Supplies.
The quizzes and flow checks continue, but there is no big exam to end the week. That's next week, after we start playing with learning to befuddle program the FMS (Flight Management System) and review. I celebrate making it to a second weekend by taking a couple of my classmates up for an hour in my 172 to show them Cleveland from the air, then spend the rest of the weekend getting ready for the final week!

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

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Logbooks, e-logbooks, and Safelog

Pilots track their lives by the number of hours in the air, as if any other kind of time isn't worth noting.
Michael Parfit, "The Corn was Two Feet Below the Wheels", Smithsonian Magazine (May 2000)

A logbook is the most important thing in a pilot's life. Not only does it contain the required information in "a manner acceptable to the Administrator" to prove that you're eligible for your pilot's certificate, it also contains a treasure trove of memories.

...First solo...
...That first time taking up a passenger after the big checkride...
...That trip around Tampa Bay and up the beaches on the Gulf on the honeymoon...
...The ferry flight to Florida the day after Thanksgiving where the 182 picked up more unforecast ice than I have yet seen on the Dash-8 in months of Northeast winter flying...
...That sunset on a day so clear and perfectly calm where the sun happened to align perfectly, silhouetting the buildings of downtown Toledo a hundred miles to the west...
...That foggy approach into Galveston where ATC's vectors misled you and the pilot you were with into confusing the FAF for the IAF so you saw the lights of the airport slide underneath you through a break in the fog several miles ahead of where you expected them to be, leading to your first real missed approach in actual IMC....

There is an old, anonymous aviation adage that goes, "You start with a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck." Your logbook is that transaction ledger. The triumphs, the stressful moments, the sublime, the scary: every time you take a withdrawal out of the bag of luck and convert it into a deposit into the bag of experience is summed up in a short line in a logbook.

If you're here because you've decided that now is the time to start preserving those precious hours electronically and are just looking for advice on which one to choose, you can skip the next few paragraphs and scroll down to just below the second picture.

When you first start learning to fly, your logbook is as simple as it will ever be. You have one kind of airplane, you're puttering around the practice area, and you're recording the hours of training required to meet the requirements necessary to take your checkride. If you are learning to fly just for the pleasure or the challenge of it, a paper logbook might suit your needs for the rest of your life. (Even so, backing it up with a spreadsheet version in Excel, Google Drive, or something quick and easy like that is a very good idea.)

However, if you're planning on flying for a living, an electronic logbook is too handy to not have one. It will prove worth the price once you take the first step into the professional aviation world: the time-consuming, detailed AirlineApps application. This website is used by many of the companies you'd be likely to apply at for your first airline job, so chances are you'll find yourself filling this out at some point or another.

The general application itself isn't particularly daunting; it's basically the same material you'd fill out for any job anywhere. That is, until you get to the experience grid, and that's where an e-logbook will save you (and I'm not exaggerating) a day or two of your life. Even if your chosen company doesn't use AirlineApps, whatever company you do apply at will have a similar experience grid to fill out.

I know the pain of losing two days to this "tiny" little hurdle, as I didn't keep an electronic form of my logbook until after I filled the application out, and my application took two days to complete: an hour for the general items, and the rest going through my logbooks trying to sort out what times I had in what aircraft. After a little bit of trying to add up 172 time vs. Diamond time (what should I do about DA20 time vs. DA40 time since they're both fixed, non-complex, non-high-performance?) vs. Cirrus time (the SR20 isn't high-performance but the SR22 is... @#$%!), and several different ways of sorting aircraft into lumps, I decided that single-engine Diamond time is not different in any substantial way from 172, Saratoga, SR22, and the other 27 (yes, I had 30 different single-engine aircraft types in my logbook—although I only know that because I used my e-logbook to tell me as I wrote this) kinds of single-engine time I had. So I decided to sort them into two buckets: fixed-gear single and retractable-gear single. Each multi-engine aircraft, however, got its own entry, which meant I now had a few more totals to break out and add up separately.

The items along the left are standard application fare until you get to the dreaded experience grid. It's easily tamed if you have an electronic logbook to add it all up for you, however. That alone makes one worth the money.

Problem solved after only a few hours, right? Not quite. AirlineApps asks you to separate your "normal" PIC time from your instructor PIC time. On seeing that new monkey in the wrench, I threw up my hands and went to bed. I spent almost the entire next day working on that little wrinkle.

However, with my e-logbook, just for fun I went and totalled all that up right now. Instead of the entire day, it took me less than 60 seconds. Not only that, I got a more precise answer than I got when I was filling out the original application. (As it turns out, I actually had over 30 more hours than I put on the application, which means I probably accidentally skipped a page while going through the 120+ pages of logbook entries to add up.)

While I was on AirlineApps to grab that screenshot, I decided to add my Dash-8 time for no other reason than because it is there. Since the 200 weighs 36,300 pounds and the 300 is 43,000 pounds, they need to be broken out separately because they straddle the 12,500-41,000 pound line. No problem this time—the electronic logbook keeps track of such details automatically! No reason to break out the calculator to find out that as of this very second I have 152.68 hours in the 200 and 82.40 in the 300. I don't even need to add up the two to figure out how much total Dash time I have: all I do is click the box next to them and it tells me I have 235.08 hours.

This will get even more useful in the next couple of years once I upgrade, because then not only will I have times to sort out between the 200 and 300, I'll have to break out how much of each of those times are PIC time vs. SIC time. Right now, as a First Officer I'm logging SIC time, but once I move into the left seat it changes to the all-important turbine PIC time. But when that time comes, it will be a matter of a couple of minutes to figure out instead of hours.

If I've sold you on the idea that if you're looking at an aviation career getting an electronic logbook is a necessity and not a luxury, here are the factors I considered when picking out the one I went with.

Safety: Does it come with an online backup service or am I hosed if the iPad or phone breaks or my computer crashes?

Convenience: I have an iPad, an Android phone, and a Linux PC. Which of these can I use it on?

Company's reputation: I plan to be flying for several more decades. Will the company still be around then?

Price: Again, I plan to be flying for several more decades. Do I have to pay for this thing every month/year for the rest of my life?

Features: This is actually the last on the list because all of the logbooks I looked at do basically the same slicing and dicing. The only "must-have" feature is the ability to export my logbook to a file just in case the vendor went out of business.

I played with and evaluated three of the electronic logbooks that are most popular today: LogTen Pro, Logbook Pro, and Safelog. As you can see from the screenshot above, I went with Safelog. I don't have any connection with Dauntless Software (in fact, a long time ago I sent in an application to be a partner for them in order to make a small commission on all of the Private Pilot study software I was selling for them and I never received any reply from them at all, so I should actually be a little less likely to recommend them), and your needs/desires may differ from mine, but here are my reasons for selecting them for a big decision like this:

Safety: Safelog is basically a cloud-based server system whose app is just a front-end to interface to that cloud. In other words, not only is it included in the price, there's not really a way to not have it backed up.

Convenience: This is huge. I have an Android phone and LogTen Pro doesn't run on anything except Apple. Logbook Pro is tied to the desktop, although it has apps to interface with it. With Safelog I log the day's flights while I'm in the van on the way to the hotel and they're backed up immediately. Safelog also has a web interface, which was immensely convenient while converting the old paper logbook to e-format.

Company's reputation: I've used their GroundSchool written prep software for all my writtens from the Commercial level on (and I would have used them for the Private and Instrument too had I known about them back then) and found it easy to use, always up to date, and quite reasonably priced. They've been around for even longer than I've been flying, and will probably still be around once I'm forcibly retired in 25 years.

Price: LogTen Pro has no lifetime subscription option unless you're using a Mac, so if they want to jack up the price from $49.99/year to $99.99/year, you either pay it or go through the pain of converting to a different company. Logbook Pro was rejected outright at this stage (in other words, I didn't even bother to install it after looking at their price sheet) because their add-on pricing for things that should be included is insanely overpriced and practically incomprehensible (I mean, what is this APDL thing? Do I need it? Is it something I want? How would I know if you don't even explain it on your order form?! For all I know it just makes my iPad say "PC Load Letter". And you want HOW MUCH extra for cloud backup, schedule importing, a mobile version, that mysterious APDL doohickey, and other features that everyone else just includes? Is there a checked-bag fee thrown in there, too?) I've read aircraft performance charts that were easier to understand than their order form. Next. Safelog has a subscription model but also has a lifetime option of a flat $299 and you never get a bill from them again. After 6 years of LogTen Pro, I've broken even at that price, which means 19 more years of professional flight logging for free.

Features: Safelog exports everything you've put in it in a format that is easily converted to a spreadsheet. It does pretty much everything the other apps do, too, and even creates a map in Google Earth or Google Maps of where you've flown if you ask it to:

No matter which electronic logbook you decide fits your needs best, the sooner you start using one the better. I had approximately 1200 entries to convert, and it took a month to do. Fortunately there's not much else to do in hotel rooms during the winter, but it still wasn't a fun month or one I'd like to repeat any time soon. Or ever. Logbook Pro will do that work for you at the bargain price of only $200 for 500 entries, meaning that it would have cost me only $500 to have someone else do the boring work. (Which may seem like a lot, but considering that it takes approximately a minute per entry, that works out to $24/hour, which isn't actually all that high a price.) Incidentally, while converting to e-format I was able to polish up and correct some minor errors along the way (things like accidentally putting night hours in the cross-country column next to it, forgetting to include cross-country hours for a flight or having a night landing but nothing in the night hours column, etc.) which a paid transcriber wouldn't notice or be able to correct. You can save yourself a lot of time and money by getting started with one before you accumulate all those hours in the first place!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: The Year in Review

Thanks to you, readers, it's been another successful year at Keyboard & Rudder and the Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel. Although the number of posts slowed down in the latter part of the year, that was because I was busy becoming an airline pilot, not because I'd run out of ideas. There are plenty of posts left in the Becoming an Airline Pilot series, and still plenty of interesting topics to post on besides that in 2015.

I have a lot of fun writing this blog, even though it is a lot of work and eats up a considerable amount of my limited free time. But what is even more fun is seeing that people have so many questions and they come here to get answers. Some of them are more serious questions, like what is an AGI good for anyway, while others are more out of curiosity, like why airport symbols change at 8069 feet instead of some nice, round number.

One of the most fun things about writing this is that I get to cover some old topics in a new way, or just some plain odd topics (like something that looks like an airport for aliens and is covered with protected airspace). Flying is one of the most enjoyable things anyone can do, and reading about it should be just as enjoyable. Here is a rundown of the 5 posts you've enjoyed the most this year based on views:

A cross-country trip with a student where everything that could go wrong did. One of those hours in the logbook worth 100.


Learning to fly is fun overall, but it's not fun the whole time. Here's what to expect, so you don't feel discouraged when you reach an inevitable plateau during your lessons.


Despite the clickbait title, the condensation on a small can of beer and the formation of an enormous thunderstorm do share a fundamental physical principle.


This is the introduction to the Becoming an Airline Pilot series. Although it is rapidly becoming the most popular, it is currently #4 because of how late in the year it was finally posted.


With several years of instructing behind me after getting my multi-engine rating, a simple sentence from the old instructor I had for it had much more meaning for me now than it did then.

If you have suggestions for something you'd like to see covered in the upcoming year, drop me a line or leave me a comment. Writing this takes several hours each month, and if you've found it useful and would like to show your support with a tip, you can do so easily via PayPal.

Happy New Year and may the next year hold nothing but blue skies and tailwinds for you!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 1: Ground school

It's 0900 on Monday morning. First day. The process begins—as does the training folder that will follow each of us for the rest of our career.

A notebook, highlighter, operations manual, Jepps, chocolate, and coffee. Let's get this party started.

There are ten seats reserved. Surprisingly, although I got hired the day after my 40th birthday, I'm actually #3 in seniority. (Most airlines assign seniority in classes by birthdate, starting with the oldest and working downward.) Of those ten, nine are here, which is actually a pretty good show percentage. Many pilots apply and interview at several places at once, so in the month or so in between they may end up taking a position at a different airline, so 90% attendance is pretty good. The one that didn't show was ahead of me, so I've already moved up a seniority number and I've only been here 15 minutes!

All airlines do the same basic things in similar ways. Most of the differences have to do with routes, authorizations, the capabilities and limitations of the equipment that airline flies, etc. This means that Week 1, "Basic Indoc", is going to be 90% the same no matter where you go because most of this week covers the FAA regulations and how to apply them to that particular airline's operations, and other things the FAA requires every airline to include in their training curriculum.

Today is the first day of the next three weeks of your life.
The modules are numbered in a logical sequence, starting from your duties and responsibilities as a soon-to-be airline pilot, working through 14 CFR 121, what the company is authorized to do (the types of navigation and approaches, airports it can fly into, and so on), how the company's dispatch and flight supervision procedures work, and end by reviewing basic aviation subjects you already know about from the studying you've done for all the writtens you've taken and the experience you've gained to make it to an airline class in the first place. Many of the review modules harken all the way back to the old instrument rating days (weather, the 1-2-3 rule, alternate planning, ATC procedures, how the FAA constructs instrument approaches, etc.).

One of the big changes in this class are a module dedicated to the new Part 117 rest requirements, which are a lot more complicated than the old-school regs. Like most laws, they have some pros and cons. They actually take some common sense into account: for example, if you have to get up at 4:00 a.m. to start a day, you're not going to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed by the afternoon, so your duty period will be shorter. The downside is that you often end up with a couple fewer days off per month because you can't cram as much flying into each day. They're complicated enough to spend an entire module on to make sure you understand them, but fortunately the company's scheduling software keeps track of the Table B requirements for them and for you, so you know at a glance exactly when you'll "time out".

We get assigned our all-important "Blue Books", which we'll carry in our flight bags for as long as we're with the company. The two parts of the Blue Book (which is about things that are identified and actually fly, not the old Air Force UFO project) are the AOM and GOM: the Aircraft Operations Manual and the General Operations Manual. This week we're covering the GOM half, since what we're covering are the general operating procedures we're expected to follow and understand. The following two weeks will go into the AOM half in detail.

Since we now have our AOM/GOM, we're assigned reading from it from here on out. (And, yes, you will be quizzed on the reading.) By the end of the first week, the reading will cover the entire GOM—334 pages in total. Now you can see why in my previous post I emphasized studying the flows, limitations, and memory items before coming to class: the pace is very fast. During my interview, one of the HR questions I was asked was if I had ever had to learn a large amount of material in a short time. I was in the Army as a cryptanalyst, and our AIT consisted of covering almost an entire Bachelor's degree worth of material in only 17 weeks, so I was able to answer with a confident "yes". The foreshadowing of that question becomes clear now, especially since we'll cover both the aircraft's systems manual and the AOM in weeks 2 and 3, which is another 862 pages worth of material.

While we were at lunch on the first day, the company left us some nice, cheap swag on our desks: a lunch bag (with notepad, note cards, Post-Its, and even Cup-O-Noodle and microwave popcorn for the long study sessions to come) and a United Express pen with a mini-flashlight on the end. (Which unfortunately comes in handy when doing a pre-flight inspection so early the sun hasn't even risen yet and your brain hasn't engaged enough to remember to take your flashlight out of the flight bag.) They also stocked a chest full of vending machine goodies for those days you end up too busy studying to take a lunch break. Sure, it doesn't cost them much, and maybe I'm morale-bribed pretty easily, but they didn't have to do any of that, so it's a nice gesture. After it's all over, I estimate that it probably cost the company around $20,000-30,000 to get each one of us through training and on the line, so what's another $100 or so?

In the middle of the week, we were introduced to the CPT: the cockpit procedures trainer (AKA the "paper tiger"). This is like the cockpit posters I've been using to study from, but instead of them being spread out on the dining room table, they're rigged up roughly how the cockpit is laid out itself:

These are used for flow checks (which go into your training folder) and so you can practice on your own after class to build some muscle memory for how they'll actually go. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses in any subject or occupation, and the flow checks that begin this week start to show my weakness from the GA world, where flows are short. Although I've had no problems keeping up with the reading and absorbing the large amounts of material thrown at me, the flows themselves are the only thing giving me a spot of difficulty. My brain just abhors memorizing sequences without understanding what they mean, so I tend to miss a switch here or a knob there this week. This is why you want to come in as prepared as possible: you'll find your own weakness in something at some point, and you can use the time saved on things you've already become good at to devote to whatever ends up being your personal sticking point.

Toward the end of the week, ALPA (the airline pilot's union that represents our pilot group) took us out to dinner. Although as probationary members for the first year, we don't pay dues (and therefore don't get to vote), they still covered a night at a restaurant by the office to welcome us into the fold.

To round out the free goodies, the company also started providing $500 worth of uniform gear this year in order to attract more First Officers in the current highly-competitive market, so we got measured for that, too. After a busy week in the classroom with two more weeks of it to go, it's a nice reminder of what you're there for. With day after day with the head down in the books, looking up and seeing the uniform was a good way to take a short break.

The reward for making it through the first five days is the big Week 1 test: the first opportunity to get weeded out and/or get an ugly mark in your new training folder companion. It is a computer-based assessment with 50 questions and a 70% minimum. I ended up with over 90% and felt well-prepared—our training department did an excellent job! Not everyone passes every class, but everyone in our class did. A weekend off and on to Week 2: Systems!

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