Ask the pilot

The gut-churning trials and tribulations of making the grade with an airline.

Published September 5, 2008 10:25AM (EDT)

When it was finally over, at the end of Day 3, my sense of relief was exceeded only by a renewed resentment for those who believe that flying planes is easy. If I had a dollar for every time some smart-aleck flier or pundit has remarked that pilots are nothing but "glorified bus drivers," or that modern aircraft "basically fly themselves," I wouldn't need to go through this every six months.

Recurrent training, it's called -- a mandatory, biannual rite of study and stress, culminating in a multihour simulator session during which a sadistic instructor dutifully inflicts all manner of potential catastrophe. Assuming it goes OK, you're signed off and sent back to the line.

I usually start to prepare about 30 days ahead of time. This includes watching a series of company-issued DVDs covering aircraft systems and company operations. I now fly international routes almost exclusively, so I need to brush up on many regulations and procedures that a domestic pilot would not. For instance, how to program "critical terrain routes" into the flight management system; how to execute a proper emergency diversion when flying over the North Atlantic; or going over the protocols of International Civil Aviation Organization position broadcasts, used in regions of the world that do not have radar or traditional air traffic control.

When that's done, I break open my manuals and begin reviewing the systems of my aircraft. "Systems" is pilot patois for a plane's plumbing, circuitry and assorted moving parts (electrics, hydraulics, pneumatics, warning systems, autoflight, etc.). To be totally honest, I am not the most mechanically inclined, left-brained person out there, and staying sharp on the internal nuances of a wide-body jetliner requires a large amount of self-discipline and the careful compartmentalizing of information -- lots of information.

Once at the center, the gist of recurrent training is concentrated into a pair of four-hour simulator sessions. You've seen the sims on television -- those giant, apocalyptic paint shakers with their strange hydraulic legs. And don't let the word "simulator" mislead you. Everyone has heard how astoundingly true-to-life full-motion flight simulators are, and likely you take this with a grain of salt. Don't. A session of mock disaster in "the box" is something hardly believable until you've done it. The ride is an exercise in both mental and physical exertion. A single "level D" simulator takes months to construct, and costs tens of millions of dollars to acquire and maintain.

The sims are surprisingly roomy inside. The forward-most portion is a perfect replica of a cockpit. The aft section contains two or more observer stations, storage areas and computer consoles. The 3-D visuals, projected onto wraparound screens, aren't the most realistic -- the renderings of terminal buildings and landscapes, for example, wouldn't win any computer graphics contests -- but they are accurate where it counts. Runways and approach lights look exactly like the real things. Meteorological conditions, from visibility and cloud cover to winds and turbulence, can be replicated with remarkably accuracy.

A sim session might comprise a series of "snapshot" maneuvers, whereby the sim is repositioned for various drills, or it might be choreographed like an actual flight, gate to gate, complete with simulated paperwork, radio calls and so on. Captains and first officers usually train together, and are tested both individually and as a working team, challenged with a wide array of emergencies and malfunctions. Behind them sits a merciless instructor whose job it is to make them miserable.

To wit, here's a rundown of my recurrent, Day 1:

We begin with a departure from Washington Dulles. At the moment of liftoff, bang, the left engine fails and catches fire. We adjust the pitch and yaw to maintain control, then carefully follow the engine-out climb profile; retracting the flaps and slats on schedule, running the necessary checklists; then fall back into the pattern for an emergency landing. Along the way, we contact our company dispatcher; brief the flight attendants for a possible evacuation; make an announcement to the passengers. For good measure, the instructor has set the weather at bare minimums for a Category 1 ILS approach, and asks that it be hand-flown, sans autopilot. Then, a quarter mile from touchdown, he orders us to go-around. Seems a 747 has wandered errantly onto our runway. "Ah, shit," says the captain. A hand-flown, single-engine missed approach is well within the jet's capabilities, but believe me it's nobody's idea of a good time.

Next scenario: We're at 36,000 feet over the Andes, when suddenly there's a rapid decompression. We don our oxygen masks and commence an emergency descent. Over the ocean this would be fairly straightforward: reprogram for a safe altitude; set in the descent speed; deploy the speed brakes; turn clear of the tracks; and break out the checklists for the rest. (As it happened, this was the same week that Qantas 747 suffered a real-life decompression over the Pacific, an incident covered in this column.) The nearby high terrain, however, means we must also adhere to a preprogrammed escape route and carefully scripted diversion path. It gets busy.

This was followed by a pair of wind-shear encounters -- one each during takeoff and landing -- a series of complicated GPS approaches, and an engine-out departure at Quito, Ecuador, where again mountainous terrain entails unusual and tricky procedures.

And that was just the first day. Practice? Is that the right word? Doesn't every profession require its participants to keep their skills up to par? Perhaps, though I can't imagine that this is how an outfielder might feel shagging flies before game time. Somehow the tension is greater, the stakes higher.

If nothing else, at least the time passes quickly. Recurrent training lasts only two or three days. In and out. See you in six months.

Initial training, on the other hand, is the long one. When first hired, and/or when first checking out on a particular plane, a pilot undergoes a so-called initial course, often lasting a month or more. Moving from plane to plane (from an A320 to a 777, say), or seat to seat (first officer to captain, or occasionally vice versa), requires the full syllabus. One thing that often surprises the layperson is just how different various aircraft models are from one another. Certain basic concepts vary little from plane to plane; as a rule, pilots are qualified on only one aircraft type at a time, and checking out on an unfamiliar model is always a challenge. (Pilots bid their preferred aircraft, base city and seat position, and are assigned per seniority when vacancies arise.) Initial training is long and tedious, and requires large amounts of discipline and concentration.

I'm currently a first officer on a 767. Conceived in the late 1970s, the twin-engine Boeing is something of a crossover from early generation jetliners to more modern ones. It's a reasonably easy plane to learn, but that depends on your study habits. It used to be that flight crews underwent several days of initial systems training, but nowadays that portion of the syllabus is mostly self-study. You'd better have a healthy systems knowledge before you show up for training.

In addition to studying the mechanical guts of their machines, pilots learn "profiles" -- step-by-step procedures that dictate how various maneuvers are to be flown, from normal takeoffs to those single-engine missed approaches. Profiles cover numerous data points: speeds, altitudes, pitch targets, flap and slat schedules, autoflight programming, etc. Things must be done in exactly the right order at exactly the right time, and these steps can differ substantially, aircraft to aircraft.

During initial, before moving on to the full-motion simulators, crews practice in computerized cockpit mockups -- high-tech mini-sims that accurately replicate the jet's many functions but do not have visuals and do not move. There are instrument approaches galore, plus all the sundry emergencies and malfunctions. Each session lasts about four hours, not including the time spent for prep and debriefing.

Then come the simulators.

A friend of mine is a new-hire first officer at a regional airline. He'd always been a desktop sim enthusiast, but had never been in the real thing before. On the phone recently, he summed up the experience like this: "Why didn't you warn me," he wanted to know, "just how indescribably, gut-churningly awful simulator training would be?"

I knew exactly what he meant. Like many pilots, I hold more than a healthy disdain for simulators. I hate them and they hate me -- which, if you think about it, is maybe the optimum relationship. There is no shortage of would-be pilots and aerogeeks out there who would sell their families into slavery for the chance to spend an hour in one of these damn boxes. (You can, actually, rent them out, though a 60-minute block of time can run thousands of dollars.) Which is a bit ironic because there is almost nothing on earth I enjoy less. Of course, aerogeeks don't have their pride, and possibly their careers, hanging in the balance.

Although flunking out completely is rare, every pilot has botched his or her share of maneuvers. It's not at all uncommon for trainees to need an extra session or two, or for certain exercises to be repeated. As maybe you'd expect, the pilot washout rates at the major airlines are quite low -- 1 or 2 percent, maybe. (The typical new hire has on the order of 5,000 commercial flight hours under the belt before ever getting the job.) But never is success taken for granted. Fail a check-ride or written exam (there are those too), be it during initial or recurrent, and you'll be given another chance, sure. Fail it a second time, though, and things get uncomfortable.

As a rule, the major airlines have a pretty accommodating, humanistic approach to training. Some regional carriers, on the other hand, can be brutally unforgiving. Regionals aren't known for having touchy-feely work environments, and nowhere is this more evident than in training. Screw up even one simulator session, and your job might be in jeopardy. At one carrier, the washout rate for new hires in 2008 was hovering around 50 percent! Insult to injury, regional pilots in initial training aren't always paid a salary, and in some cases are footing the bill themselves. (Pay-for-training schemes are much less common than they were a decade ago but still exist at a few companies.)

Even when it all goes smoothly, pilot training never really stops. In addition to the regimens described above are random "line checks" -- informal spot checks whereby you'll fly a leg in the company of a training captain -- as well as unannounced jump-seat visits from the Federal Aviation Administration. I love my job, but I do not, even a little bit, enjoy having to fly all the way from Europe with an FAA inspector in the cockpit jump seat, peering over my shoulder for eight hours, scribbling unseen comments into a notebook. And between it all, pilots must always remain familiar with countless pages of regulatory arcana and aircraft systems knowledge, not to mention keeping abreast of the never-ending flow of operational memos, manual revisions and so forth.

To be fair, training does have occasional moments of enjoyment. A few spare minutes at the end of a sim period might allow for a little off-script fun. I can tell you what it's like to fly a Boeing beneath Brooklyn's Verrazano Bridge at 400 miles per hour, among other activities that are strictly off-limits in an actual plane.

Some maneuvers are both fun and enlightening. I remember the time a particularly bold instructor gave us a simultaneous failure of both engines. In the real world, such emergencies are so rare that there is little formal training for them. But there we were, a 100-ton glider at 33,000 feet over Long Island Sound. "What are you going to do?" mused the instructor with a cackle.

"Land," answered the captain.

And we did, albeit just barely, brushing the approach lights at the foot of runway 31R at Kennedy.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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