Cockpit Chronicles: How pilots stay proficient

Last week I accomplished something every pilot dreads. Every nine months we have to go down to Dallas for recurrent training. The FAA lays out its mandates for airline recurrent training and the specific airlines design their courses around these requirements. It seems like every year they’re adding more and more subjects that need to be covered. Whether it’s in the classroom or in the simulator, there’s a lot of information packed into the four days.

Fortunately I was scheduled to fly down the day before which makes it easier to get a good nights sleep. This extra sleep helps me stay awake during some of the required classroom training which isn’t that exhilarating. There’s just no way to jazz up a course on hazardous materials paperwork or the proper use of a halon fire extinguisher.

The hotel was very basic and included a view of the roller coasters from the Six Flags over Texas amusement park. I think they’re shut down during the winter, though. The free continental breakfast and WiFi made it easy to overlook any other shortcomings of the hotel.

The training lasts four days and includes two days of ground school and two days of simulator training.

Day 1 – International School

There were only six of us in a classroom that seats 30 people on the first day, in which we covered international flying for 4 1/2 hours. The instructor reviewed the procedural differences in flying across the Atlantic versus the Pacific and touched on some of the requirements for flying over the North Pole, even though it’s unlikely the airplane I fly will ever go in that direction. The class also covered flying in South America which we’ll hopefully see more of from our Boston base. After class it was time to go back to the hotel and study some more for the next day.
Day 2 – Ground School

The next day there were eight of us in a different classroom listening to an instructor go over some of the 757 and 767 specifics. It was a good review that included a look into the hydraulic system, electrical system, flight instruments, air conditioning and pressurization, among other topics. Our cockpits are being retrofitted with large LCD type screens that will include a number of advancements. As you can imagine, I love gadgets, so I’m looking forward to flying an airplane with these displays installed in them.

While walking back from the cabin simulators where we operated the main cabin and emergency exit doors, I saw a group of flight attendants getting ready to go down the emergency exit slides. Pilots have to go down these slides as well when they’re first hired. When our new-hire class made the leap, our instructor wasn’t as versed in the operation of this ‘slide simulator’ and we all went sailing down the chutes. It wasn’t until the last person finished that a flight attendant instructor, who happened to be walking by, told us that the slide needed to be inflated. No wonder it felt like we were falling straight to the ground!

After lunch we went to a class on security that both pilots and flight attendants attend, and then we finished the day off with human factors training. This is an interesting class where we look at some of the mistakes other pilots have made based on their safety debriefs. These reports help us find better procedures and training to avoid getting into a similar situation. The situations are often recreated and filmed in a simulator to highlight the message. The goal is to recognize the mistakes that happen and to learn how to stay out of that kind of situation in the first place. It’s a serious class and the messages aren’t soon forgotten.

Day 3 – Simulator Training

When I was 15, my dad was an instructor pilot for another airline. Thanks to him, I had the rare opportunity to fly a full motion 737 simulator two different times. Both events were the highlight of my life to that point. When there’s absolutely no pressure to perform, these things can be great fun.

A Sim-P, or simulator pilot, who’s usually a retired military or other airline pilot, conducts the simulator training. We have a number of former Braniff pilots in this position and they’re absolutely fantastic instructors. These instructors run you through some maneuvers, approaches and any new procedures in preparation for your checkride the next day.

After a two hour briefing on some of the maneuvers we’d be doing, including low visibility landings, engine failures and fires, single engine approaches and go-arounds, we finally went into the simulator.

You need to be a bit of an actor in a simulator. There are lines to memorize and actions to perform, and you need to know these seldom used litanies without fail. Combine this with a look at your aircraft systems and procedures knowledge and it’s easy to see why it’s not exactly a video game for airline pilots.

The most common maneuver we practice is called the “V1 Cut.” It’s an engine failure at the worst possible moment, just as the airplane is ready to lift off from the runway. After liftoff, the jet tends to pull toward the failed engine which requires a significant–40 pounds maybe–amount of foot pressure on the rudder toward the side of the good engine. While you’re trying to keep the airplane straight and level, the non flying pilot needs to contact ATC to declare an emergency and let them know where you want to go. The airplane climbs nicely to about 600 feet before we accelerate and bring the flaps up. The flying pilot then makes their callouts (the acting part) which are “continuous power, flight level change, set speed, let’s have the engine fire, severe damage, separation emergency checklist,” and then climbs to a safe altitude.

The non-flying pilot accomplishes the checklist which takes at least five minutes to get through. The flying pilot talks to air traffic control and works their way back to the runway. A fantastic video of a 757 in this situation was taken last year in Manchester, England.

For both the training and the simulator checkride, I was paired up with a Captain from L.A. named Mike who really knew his stuff. He was relaxed, yet professional and he was never in a hurry. This is the perfect kind of guy to fly with when everything falls apart (as often happens in a simulator). Apparently Mike and I put on a good enough show during the 4-hour training session to be signed off for our ‘checkride’ the next day.

Day 4 – The Checkride

checkride also starts out with a 2-hour briefing followed by 4 hours in the simulator. After questions about some of the limitations and immediate action items we’re required to know, we talked about some new procedures. The check-airman spent a good portion of this time discussing a new GPS based approach we’re flying into Quito, Ecuador.

After a short break we went into the simulator and got everything ready as if it were a normal flight. The sounds and feel inside are very similar to the actual airplane. We wear our seat belts, not only to get the full effect, but because the box tends to move around quite a bit in a realistic way during these maneuvers.

Mike flew first, accomplishing an automatic landing, aborted takeoff, engine failure on takeoff followed by an engine out approach. I went next with a flaps up landing, an engine failure on takeoff and one on landing, a couple of different types of approaches to landings and a ground evacuation. I’m sure I’m leaving some things out, but they all tend to blend together after a few hours.

We took turns flying a recovery from a microburst and also a very aggressive terrain avoidance maneuver. Two skills you hope to never find yourself needing. We then flew two GPS approaches–one in each direction–into Quito.

At the end of the session we usually get a few maneuvers that are as close to having fun as we’ll ever get in the simulator. Often the instructor will fail both engines (almost always, for some reason, in Salt Lake City) and expect us to make it to the runway. There are bonus points given if you can coast to the gate. Or we might get to land in a 30-knot crosswind with the runway reported as having nil braking action. Something we’d never attempt in a real airplane. It’s often a sign that things went well during the checkride when the check-airman gives you some of these scenarios.

It’s a great feeling to ride home, even in the back of an MD-80, knowing that you’re good to go for another nine months.

I’m on reserve this month, so I’m not sure when and where I’ll be flying next. Stay tuned to the Cockpit Chronicles to find out.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.