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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.

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