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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 2: More ground school

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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!

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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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