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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 1: Ground school

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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!

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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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