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Friday, February 27, 2015

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

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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.

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.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

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

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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.

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.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.

Friday, February 6, 2015

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

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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.

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.

It takes hours of work to bring each Keyboard & Rudder post to you. If you've found it useful, please consider making an easy one-time or recurring donation via PayPal in any amount you choose.