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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.

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