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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 0: The post-offer stage

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In my last post, I went over what a typical airline interview is like. If you're lucky, your company will tell you right away if you're hired. Mine did, and as a welcome aboard present gave me a packet of material to study before showing up for my class date three weeks from then.

Airlines differ in philosophy when it comes to preparing for ground school. Some of them do not want you to study anything before coming in because they don't want you to be studying the "wrong" things or the right things in the "wrong" way (meaning not the way they do it there). Others expect you to have already studied quite a bit so they can spend your ground school time on cramming in a huge amount of material in a short time.

My airline is one of those who expect you to come in with a lot of material already memorized. Fortunately, knowing what it is you need to know beforehand is easy: they give you 21 pages of material and three cockpit diagrams to spend a lot of quality time with. If it's in there, they want you to know it. If it's not, then you don't need to yet. The study packet's introduction makes this clear in a more verbose way:

(From the study packet)

At this stage of training, basic rote memorization of these items is sufficient and expected. You may be tempted to increase your knowledge of the aircraft, or even other... policies and procedures besides what is included in this guide. Resist that temptation! [Emphasis theirs.] Expend your energies and efforts learning what is included within these pages. During ground school, you will undergo three weeks of intensive training in all aspects of our company policies, aircraft systems, and flight crew procedures. Our ground instructors are skilled at directing your learning, ensuring it is focused on the proper areas of study during this time. However, this process only works if you show up on Day 1 with a thorough understanding of this Pre-Training Study Guide.

Although I'm not usually big on quoting things verbatim, this is good advice straight from the horse's mouth. They wrote the packet, they wrote the ground school curriculum, and they know what they want.

Unlike college, where 21 pages of mere reading might have constituted an assignment, you'll be expected to not just read those pages but also memorize them. Depending on when your interview was in relation to your class date, you'll probably have from 2-4 weeks to work on getting that accomplished, and you'll need it. In that time, you'll have enough to learn to keep you busy without adding to it by doing additional research. You'll probably end up with questions as you study or things that don't make sense or you'll be curious about why you do x in such a way. Your questions will be cleared up once class day comes, so just keep on plugging away.

The packet included three main categories of things to have down cold before class starts:

Memory Action Items, which are defined as "the procedures necessary for the safe handling of certain emergency situations. It is expected that when presented with an emergency situation... you should be able to list the appropriate crew response from memory." The introduction goes on to warn you that "there will be daily spot-quizzes during the first two weeks of ground school to test your recall of these memory action items." (And, yes, that wasn't an idle threat. We did have daily quizzes beginning on Day 2.)

These aren't actually all that different that what you may have done when preparing for your private or commercial checkride. When preparing for your oral and flight test, you probably (or at least should have) memorized a few critical items to check in the event of an engine failure or a fire. Things like switching fuel tanks, putting the mixture to full rich, etc. The biggest difference here is that there are 21 different procedures to memorize instead of just a couple.

Limitations, which like the previous section isn't all that different than the things you studied when doing checkrides before. As above, there are many, many more of them to memorize. I counted 21 (which by total coincidence is the third time this number has appeared) different sections of limitations, each of which ranges from 1 item to as many as 12 different items. Some of them you've seen before (like the max crosswind component, max takeoff weight, flap extension speeds) in your Cessna or Piper. Others you probably haven't, like Max Zero Fuel Weight, which in many cases is more of an issue than Max Takeoff Weight.

Flows, which will probably seem new to you but actually aren't. If you were taught GUMPS (of which there are almost as many variations as there are instructors, and which I taught as gas, undercarriage, mixture, props/pumps, and switches), you've done a flow. I also taught my students to use a flow pattern when checking instruments and gauges at runup. For example, I taught them to check the flight instruments in a "backward C" flow: airspeed 0, attitude indicator level and erect, altimeter set and within 75 feet, VSI 0, DG set to compass, and turn coordinator level. After checking these, then use the checklist to make sure they were all completed. This is the same way the company will expect you to do it, as in their own words, "flows are used for flight deck configuration without reference to a checklist, although a checklist will usually be called for at flow completion to verify critical items have been completed."

As before, the biggest difference is in the number and size of the flows you'll be expected to know. There are 8 of them, and one of them has 25 different items—and some of those items in it have more than one substep. Remember: at this point you're just rotely memorizing. Follow the flow along on your cockpit diagrams (it's why they gave them to you, after all) and practice, practice, practice. You'll be evaluated on them at the end of each week of ground school, and you have to pass the last evaluation of the course to get signed off to move on.

What a flow looks like. (I happened to be studying the Before Taxi Flow at the time.) The page is highlighted in blue and what it looks like when done are the numbered steps in red. You'll be expected to do that (plus many more) from memory.

Wow, that's a lot of memorization, isn't it? Well, there's a good reason for it: there are other things you'll have to memorize once ground school comes (like systems and their components, flight profiles, and so on), and if you didn't start getting some of it out of the way ahead of time, you'd never get it all done in the month or so of ground school ahead.

Now that you know what to learn, how do you actually go about learning it? The intent of this post was to show you what to expect between the time you're hired and the time you start class, so that's beyond this post's scope.

However, just so you don't think I'm blowing you off, I'll give you a simple answer: learn them the way that has always worked best for you. By the time you're ready for an airline, you've already gone through high school and college. You've had plenty of experience figuring out whether you learn well via flashcards, making up acronyms or little songs, talking through lists with your eyes closed, or whatever crazy thing works for you. As with anything, the most important study habit you can have is to have one!

The reward that you get for all this work before the real work starts is that ground school lets you learn a lot of neat new stuff every day. You'll learn about systems that are way more complex than the Cessna or small twin you're probably used to, how the pros fly approaches, and many more things that will expand your knowledge and capabilities as a pilot. However, you won't get to the end unless you start before it begins!

If you haven't bought The Turbine Pilot's Flight Manual the first several times I've mentioned it, do it now. It isn't specific enough to interfere with your future airline's ground school, and it's broad enough that it covers a lot of the things you might be learning about for the first time. I didn't find out about this book until after I had already been on the line for several months, and it would have made my life a lot easier had I known about it before I started.

Next stop: Week 1 of ground school!

See the series index here.

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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