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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 8: IOE 3--the World's Newest Airline Pilot

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This is it. The last time I'll be evaluated. Well, at least until the next time I'm evaluated, since airline pilots do recurrent training every six months. But at least this is the last time before I get signed off and released to the line.

It's also the difference between being an airline pilot and being an unemployed pilot.

A good way to start the last trip.

This trip, much like the last, is simply another series of days like those I'll expect once I become a full-fledged member of the pilot group. However, since this time I'm specifically doing a trip that goes back and forth into Newark, I'm introduced to one of the more unpleasant aspects of flying into one of the NYC 3 airports: the GDP.

To everyone who's not an airline pilot, and to me up until this trip, GDP stood for Gross Domestic Product. Not anymore. Going into Newark, it stands for Ground Delay Procedure, a name which sounds more official and less unpleasant than "Hurry up and wait."

It had been an unseasonably hot September thus far. Temperatures had steadily been in the upper 80s to low 90s, which is not pleasant in an aircraft that doesn't have air conditioning if the engines aren't running. Today was a very pleasant change: beautiful blue skies, a gentle breeze, and about 70°. That last part was important, because upon getting the clearance we found out that we were going to be ground stopped for at least an hour and 45 minutes. We weren't going anywhere, but at least we'd be comfortable while we waited.

At least it gave me time to lock down my flows more and review some of the Blue Book. I was starting to get settled in, but still had a long way to go before I felt polished. But that is, after all, the point of IOE: to get experience under supervision in order to be polished enough to be set loose on the line. You won't be polished to the point of bright and shiny, but you'll be good enough to go out and get that way.

But if you get through IOE and you're still learning (and, like all things in aviation, you will always be learning), what happens if you get paired with a Captain who is brand new?

Don't worry: the FAA has already done the worrying for you. They won't allow a crew to be paired with one another unless at least one of them has 75 hours in their position. In other words, a brand new First Officer (like me) can't be paired with a brand new Captain. Somebody needs to know what they're doing up there, after all.

Seventy-five may seem like a strange number, but it actually has some merit. Once I had about 60-70 hours, I started feeling like I was actually contributing to the smooth flow of the flight instead of being a drag on it. By 75 hours in, I felt like I wouldn't be uncomfortable or unsafe flying with a newly-upgraded Captain—which was a good thing, because once I had barely squeaked over 100 hours, I ended up being paired with one who had a total of 3 Captain hours. That flight went quite smoothly.

Having all that downtime while sitting on the ground gave me a chance to talk to my IOE Captain about what I was doing well and what I needed to do to ensure I'd be ready to be signed off in a couple short days. As before, my flying skills were quite good, but my flows lagged behind. They were getting better and faster and I got more locked in, but still needed a bit more before being sign-off quality.

The difference in our personalities came into play in a quite beneficial way. In this case, we were polar opposites: I am a big-picture, intuitive kind of person, and he is an extremely detail-oriented, methodical person. That was exactly the kind of person I needed to learn from. As we talked things over during our delay, we figured out why my flows still had work to do.

It turned out my relatively large number of hours as a general aviation pilot before moving to the airlines was a negative in this case. I had picked up some habits that work fine in a 172, but not in a Dash-8. I was trying to do everything at once, and since there are so many things to do, I would often overlook something. In a small plane, it is possible to do almost everything at once, since all there is to do is a basic GUMPS (gas, undercarriage, mixture, props/pumps, and switches). In an aircraft like this, it isn't possible to just get everything done without a methodical process for doing so. That methodical process is the heart of a flow.

After that, I concentrated on not skipping ahead to something until I had completed what was supposed to be next. I broke the big flow into a series of smaller units, no more than 2-4 things in a chunk, and worked those chunks until each one was automatic, then strung those chunks together to make up the entire flow. By slowing down and concentrating only on what chunk I was on and what I was supposed to be doing in only that chunk, my performance during the second-to-last-day improved dramatically. I probably would never have figured that out unless I had someone as methodical as he was to make me see it.

The last day had come. The night before, we had deadheaded (flown as passengers instead of crewmembers) down to Dulles after the first three days at Newark. Those three days—despite a few more GDPs—went much smoother than the first and only time I had been here before. The controllers were still up to their old tricks, but I was ready for them this time. They had caught me by surprise the first time, but I wasn't about to let that happen again. As the saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." As part of the action, I even ended up shooting the Stadium Visual to 29 one day, which was the first time I'd ever done a charted visual approach. No problem. Bring it on.

The last day was here. As long as things went as well today as they did the day before, I'd be done. It was a short but fast-paced day, with one turn (going from one airport to another, dropping off the planeload of passengers, and then going back to the original airport with a new load of people) to one of our shorter routes, and then finishing with the shortest flight in our entire route structure: Dulles to Charlottesville, VA.

I ended up making the flight back in only 17 minutes. Although it was just a normal, uneventful flight to the passengers in the back of Flight 3601, that flight was the end of a long journey for me. It felt like it took months to reach this point—because it did! After 41.92 hours of IOE, I was officially signed off and deemed competent enough to be the world's newest real airline pilot. (For a few minutes, at least.)

I wouldn't be going home triumphantly, however. I, unfortunately, was immediately going to be starting two days on reserve before heading home. It certainly was better than going home for good, and I celebrated by going back to the hotel, turning on the television, and watching more TV that day than I'd watched in months, blissfully unaware of what being on reserve would end up being like.

And just like that, I was no longer becoming an airline pilot. I was now being an airline pilot.

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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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