My first day of line training was once again, completely outside of my comfort zone.
Fortunately, I’d been able to observe about 30 flights from the jump seat. That extra seat in the flight deck behind the Pilots. – As trainees, this was a good way to familiarise ourselves with the job and the environment. It helped take the edge off a little on our first flight. It also gave us a reference to how a commercial flight should come together and look.
My first flight was out of Wagga Wagga, a 2-hour drive north from my base in Albury. This was due to the limited availability of Training Captains.
The sign-on time was in the late afternoon at about 4 pm. The duty was a Sydney turn, or simply, a return flight to Sydney and back.
One frustrating thing about a new flying job is learning the logistics of things. It’s like starting school on a new campus. But worse. You tend to find yourself being locked out of terminals and crew rooms waiting to be let in since you don’t have the security access card. And every airport is different. So look forward to being lost and asking for help.
A hot tip for young players, most Airlines have a route manual or company crew information pages that have most the information you need for each airport you visit. Myself, still drowning in manuals, hadn’t figured this out yet. Remember, this was the time before the iPad, so finding information was hard and a mountain of paper manuals can be overwhelming
I found my way to the crew room, an old portable building behind the maintenance hanger at Wagga Wagga airport. There, I was to meet my Training Captain for the days’ flying.
After half an hour of sitting with a ball of nerves in my belly, and not being sure what to do with myself while I wait. In strolls, a typical Aussie bloke from the countryside; casual, friendly, no drama and very confident, especially flying Saab 340 around.
We’d typically sign on 45 minutes before our departure time. In that time we’d study the weather forecasts and notices for the day, check the payloads, plan the fuel required, brief the flight attendant, do the pre-flight checks, set up the aircraft systems and board the passengers. Its usually a busy time, with just enough time to get it all done. On a good day, with minimal weather, an experienced and current crew can do it in 30 minutes.
However, I was far from experienced and was pretty much just going along for the ride. The training captain took on much of my workload as well as his own. Somehow he still started the engines on time. By this point, I didn’t even know what month it was, let alone whether we were on schedule or not. Anyway, that wasn’t for me to worry about. The first flight for a cadet is about focusing on the basic, normal SOPs; primarily Scan flows, use of checklists and some handling.
You might be wondering something by now. And yes. After the simulator, our first time flying the real aircraft is with paying passengers on board. I was surprised too. This is standard across the industry, simply because simulators are so realistic now, that we’re well prepared and safe enough. Plus there are a number of other precautions such as taking a safety pilot – a trained First Officer sitting in the jump seat, keeping an eye on things and picking up the slack, or ready to take over from the trainee if conditions get a bit hairy. So you can relax, you’re in safe hands.
I honestly don’t remember much of that flight, It was a blur. All I remember is that it was my sector as pilot flying (PF). Meaning I was to do the takeoff and landing.
I don’t clearly remember the takeoff, for all I know, my eyes could have been closed, or perhaps it’s blended in with the thousand if done since.
However, I will never forget my first time landing. I had spent the flight trying to catch my brain up to the aircraft. The Saab was fast! 270knots, that’s 500km/h! Twice as fast as the PA-44 Piper Seminole, that I’d flown 23 hours in during my training at the academy. And almost 3 times faster than the PA-28 Piper Warrior, which I did the majority of my training in (170 hours).
I was flying faster and higher than I’d ever flown before.
While my body was in the flight deck, my brain was trailing somewhere between row 11 and 10 miles behind the aircraft. Before I knew it, we were in the traffic circuit pattern of Sydney international Airport, at night. Moonless and dark with only some city lights and a lit-up pair of runways.
With significant coaching from my training Captain, I found myself on final approach of runway 34R, fully configured and stable. The postage stamp of glowing runways lights looked like the familiar simulator images which I found comforting. I took a breath, possibly my first of the 45-minute flight, and focused on what was in front of me. Miraculously I pulled the landing off quite well, with a smooth touch down on the centerline.
I’ll be humble and put that one down to beginners luck.
We continued to roll down the runway after touch down, the captain took over control, as per standard procedure, to exit the runway and taxi to the bay.
Once clear of the runway, I switch to the Ground frequency, 121.7, and check-in with the controller using my rehearsed line and big boy voice on the radio; “Sydney Ground, Rex six seventy-four, for bay foxtrot Fifteen” I say. The controller promptly responds with rapid-fire taxi instructions “Rex-Six-seventy-four taxi Tango-Lima-Bravo hold-short Bravo-eight”… my eyes glaze over like a stunned deer in headlights. I hold down the push to talk button on my radio comms panel and stutter and stumble my way through the clearance read back, “uh, taxi tango… Uh Bravo-eight..” Getting it completely wrong. The captain swoops in cool as ice and corrects my incorrect read-back. I’m as useful as a passenger, and my stress levels are through the roof.
Parking on the bay in Sydney, I have 40 minutes to turn the mush in my head back into to a brain and help “turn-around” the aircraft for the flight back to Wagga Wagga.
The return sector, I’m Pilot Not Flying which means I’m on the radios, doing paperwork and saying “checked” a lot. (This role has since been renamed pilot monitoring (PM). Since the title suggests a more active role in the multi-crew flight deck.)
Once again this flight was a blur. Half-way back to Wagga Wagga, the captain leans back in his seat casually and asks, “How ya doing mate? We haven’t left you in Sydney have we?” He and safety FO, laughing at me in my overwhelmed state. “I dunno” I reply, “I think you left me somewhere over the western suburbs after takeoff.” I couldn’t believe how relaxed these guys were, they were just chatting casually and having a laugh as we burn through the sky at 500km/h.
And like that, we were back in Wagga Wagga, a slick landing by the captain. We taxi in, shut down, disembark, bung the engines and I headed to the hotel for 6 hours sleep, before a 6 am sign-on the next morning, ready to do it all again.
Day two was slightly better, I was still in survival mode, trying to keep up with all the new information. It continued like this for a while to come…