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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.

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