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Monday, March 23, 2015

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 6: IOE (Initial Operating Experience) 1

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To the 37 passengers on board, this is simply Flight 5006, a quick flight from Washington-Dulles International to Greenville-Spartanburg, SC. Sit back for 90 minutes, sip on a Coke, and everyone is back home from where ever in the world they're returning from. Probably some interesting places, since Dulles was designed to carry the East Coast's overseas traffic. Paris, London, Dublin, Berlin, Abu Dhabi, Sao Paulo, and a hundred more come through IAD, and we take them the rest of the way home.

For me, it's my first flight as an airline pilot, and there's no chance of me sitting back and sipping anything. Not even the big bottle of water next to me.

It's my very first flight and we're already pointed straight at a thunderstorm.
Many people are surprised to find that the first time a new First Officer flies in their new airliner is with a load of passengers on a normal revenue flight. I hope that the previous several entries in the Becoming an Airline Pilot Series have given you some insight into why this shouldn't be surprising after all.

There is a surprise, however. The simulator training in (mostly) realistic, multi-million-dollar equipment with extremely detailed cockpit layouts and hydraulic/servo motion allows for a relatively smooth transition into the real thing. The ability to create demanding scenarios and drill them over and over again actually makes a day as a real airline pilot in a real airliner one of the easier parts of training!

That's not to say there's nothing left to learn or that it's easy. The simulator training covered the technical skills required to fly according to the company's OpSpecs and procedures. It left practically no time for the ancillary operations involved in getting a daily airline flight off the ground, and it is entirely impossible for it to simulate each flight's flow.

This is not the same flow as the cockpit flows described earlier in the series. Instead, this flow refers to the dozens of little things that have to come into place before the start switch is selected to "2". Most of them happen simultaneously and wrap together into a small packet of paperwork that's passed out the door just before the real flight begins.

The flight attendant prepares the cabin while the captain reviews the aircraft's logbooks and the dispatch paperwork and weather reports, catering (which is our case is a fancy word for "drinks") drops their items off to put away, bags are loaded while the passengers board, the fueler loads us up with a few thousand pounds of Jet-A, the ATIS and clearance is obtained and the flight plan entered into the Flight Management System (FMS, which we spent a whole week on way back in ground school), the cargo report detailing the number of bags and where they were loaded is dropped off, the weight and balance (just like you did ever since you were a student pilot, although a bit more complicated) is calculated and its paperwork filled out, and if these things are all done properly, the Fasten Belts sign is turned on, the cockpit door shut, and the fun starts.

Except since it's my first day, it's all just a bustling jumble going on around me while I try to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing at each moment. I have a decent idea of what I'm supposed to be doing; just no clue when exactly I'm supposed to be doing it. That's because I haven't developed that sense for the outside flow going on.

"What are we supposed to be doing now?"

I hear that a lot the next few days. If I knew the answer, it would already be done. Instead, I guess.

"The Before Taxi checklist?"

"We haven't even started up yet!"

Wow, was I wrong. Duh. We're not going anywhere without the engines running.

"It's your leg, so you should be briefing me so we can do the Before Start checklist."

Wait, it's my leg? On my very first real flight, I have to fly the thing, too?!

One of the misconceptions people have about the airlines is that the Captain is always the one flying. That's not the case. Instead, the flying legs are usually split evenly by taking turns. Usually the Captain does the first leg, but in this case since I'm in training I'm going first this time. No opportunity to sit back and watch him operate the first time: instead I'm going right into the fire.

Let's do this.

Before every airline flight, the designated Pilot Flying gives a briefing of that leg's plan: the runway in use, the departure, the flight plan, what turn procedure has been assigned in case of an engine failure on takeoff, etc. I run through mine and we start the engines.

After the Before Taxi checklist is done, things proceed rather normally. Although it's my first time in the cockpit of an airliner, it's far from my first time in a cockpit, so I'm familiar with how to talk to controllers. Although Dulles, like many large airports, has a ramp controller in addition to the usual ground and tower frequencies, it's just another person to talk to.

We finally take the runway. Once we're lined up, the aircraft is mine. I push the throttles up and we start rolling. It wants right rudder, I give it right rudder. It rotates differently than a 172 because it's 84 feet long, but I treat it smoothly yet firmly and it climbs away happily.

As I noted in one of the simulator posts, being Pilot Flying is a bit of a blessing in disguise for the next hour and a half, since the Pilot Not Flying has more work to do than the Pilot Flying. For the first time ever, I actually have a time when I'm in a Dash-8 cockpit and can relax for a while! In the sim, the hours are so expensive that once one task is accomplished you are thrown right into the next one with no adjustment period or break. In the real airplane, you sit there and monitor while the plane flies steadily along until it's time for the descent and the workload starts coming back.

After dodging some typical late-summer—since ironically I started on Labor Day—thunderstorms en route, I fly an uneventful approach to a surprisingly good first landing ever. One of the most common and unfortunate misconceptions about flying (one sadly shared by many pilots, who should know better) is that a good landing means a good pilot. Actually, there are so many things that go into accomplishing a successful flight that the landing is just the cherry on the cake. You can have a good cake with a bad cherry and it's still a good cake, but a good cherry with a bad cake is still a bad cake. Unfortunately, most people don't see the rest of the cake, so they only judge it by the cherry.

On the way back to Dulles, the roles are reversed and I'm back to my "normal" First Officer duties. The pop-up thunderstorms on the way in turn out to be the leading edge of a cold front moving in, and on the way I get my best-ever picture of a distinctly visible front, which is quite a treat for a weather-lover like me. It's something I never would have gotten in the old 172, because it's not equipped to fly through a front like that. With a 22-ton airliner, onboard weather radar, and controller vectors, we just pick a heading and outmaneuver the front instead. This will be just the first of many weather treats (some delicious, some not) I'll see over the following days, weeks, and months.

Years of studying and teaching about fronts, and my first day on the job I get to look down on a textbook example of one.
That wouldn't be the last weather I'd see for my first day on the job. On the next leg, we traded off once more and I was once again Pilot Flying. Our destination, Charleston, WV (whose airport is named after Chuck Yeager, so there's a good omen) was being poured on by rain in a 400-foot overcast ceiling. That means my first instrument approach. If you're going to have to shoot an approach the first day on the job, having twice the minumums required is a good way to start, and it, like my first one of the day, went smoothly.

After my first overnight, the rain cleared up for the next morning's flight. Unfortunately, it left a heavy mist behind it, dropping the RVR (Runway Visual Range: basically, how far you can see down the runway) to 800 feet. That means that if I stood at the end of my driveway, I would barely be able to see the trees at the end of my back yard. It's never pretty when the visibility is crappy enough to be measured in RVR instead of miles. Good thing it's not my turn to fly.

Except the Captain had me fly this leg too, just for the hard experience. As soon as I rotated I was in IMC (Instrument Meterological Conditions: "the soup"), but having an ATP means having an instrument rating for a reason. We broke out just a few thousand feet up and it was a pretty day the rest of the leg, since cold fronts do often clear the air after they pass through. It's always amazing how nice it can be only a few thousand feet up while the weather for those stuck to the ground is terrible.

The rest of the trip proceeded much like this, day by day. When you're in IOE, you're not just paired with anybody: you're paired with an experienced Captain whose job it is to watch you closely and give you opportunities to learn. This one certainly did, and I certainly did learn. It was only a 3-day trip with 10 legs, but I felt amazingly better by the end, yet still daunted by how much I still had left to learn before I could get signed off.

After my first trip was over, I was actually a bit disappointed to have 3 days off. I would have kept right on flying if I could have. (One of the signs you've found a good job for you is when you don't have to drag yourself to the office.) Unlike in sim, my self-evaluation ended up being almost identical to my IOE Captain's evaluation in my training folder: "Larry flies the plane very well. Needs to focus on the details."

On my last day, I got to look down on a rainbow, which was a nice way to bookend the rainbow I saw on the way home from sim training:

Try seeing that from any other office window.
Although the first trip went well, a lot of that had to do with it being a relatively uneventful stretch of days in general. With the exception of some normal summer thunderstorms (and some delay vectors going into Dulles to let a storm that was directly over the airport pass) and that instrument approach the first night, there weren't many big challenges thrown my way. When everything is going right, that rigid structure and lack of drama is precisely why flying is safer than walking.

However, there were still plenty of hours left in IOE before I would be eligible to get signed off and be released to the line. How would I do when everything stopped going right? You'll find out in the next post.

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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