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Check to Line – My Last Chance

“This was the craziest flying I’d experienced yet. And I was loving it!”

A week-long vacation exploring the stunning beaches of southern New South Wales with my beautiful girlfriend, who had just finished her university exams, really gave me the chance to rest and recover. The much-needed quality time let my sympathetic nervous system switch off for the first time since May.
Even though I had had some time off from work, I hadn’t taken the time or given myself permission to fully switch off, disconnect and let myself unwind from the tension of being “on” and under pressure for the last few months. There was always something to study.


With a relaxed body and a calm mind, I felt recharged and ready to get back to work. I had committed the second of my two-week break to studying the flight manuals full time. As it turns out, I retain information far more easily with healthy stress levels. Also compared to six weeks earlier, I had gained some real commercial flight experience to which I could now anchor the theory.
I had actually seen the pages of the books I was studying, happen in real life.

At the beginning of this second week, I was blessed with a perfect roster for December. For the first half of the month, I had eleven days scheduled with one Training Captain. All flown out of Sydney to a variety of destinations in the network. Those thirty-two flights would lead straight into a line check on the 18th of the December.
This is more than I could have hoped for and exactly what I needed to consolidate my new skills and habits. And most importantly; build my confidence.

A problem I had faced with constantly flying with different training Training Captains; is I would end up being taught the same procedure or skill with different, often conflicting techniques and opinions. This lack of consistency created uncertainty and confusion. Also, since I kept getting lessons on the same topics, I missed or skimmed lightly over the topics that trainers found less interesting or more difficult to cover.
I learned from this experience and was able to avoid and mitigate this challenge during my training to upgrade to captain, which I’ll discuss in a later post.
I was excited to go flying again, I’d heard good things about this particular Training Captain, Hof as he was nicknamed.
I spent the week reading, studying and preparing for my upcoming flights.

With all my flights based out of Sydney, I would spend four days at a time living out of my small suitcase between a Sydney airport hotel and different regional town hotels. Then back to Albury for a day or two off.
With little free time at home, this conveniently gave me a distraction-free life, that was able to fully immerse me into my training.
Flying with the one training captain I became more confident; cultivating and consolidating my own habits and professional behaviours.

This was also the most intense flying I had ever done by this point. I remember walking through the Sydney domestic terminal at the end of four solid days of flying, barely able to keep my eyes open. I was exhausted, a good exhausted, the kind you feel when you’ve worked hard and you’re happy with what you have achieved.
The night before we had experienced the worst weather I had ever encountered. In early December, it is common for strong cold fronts and storms to pass through Victoria and Southern New South Wales.
That evening, while on our way to Parkes, a Town 300km west of Sydney, we found ourselves stuck flying at 8,000 feet dodging storms, much lower than the normal 16,000 feet. Even though flying low burns more fuel, it kept us below the freezing level and the cloud base, which was our best chance to avoid the worst of the turbulence and icing conditions. Unlike a jet that can out climb and fly over most weather, sometimes going low is the best or only option for a turbo-prop, especially in the summertime when the clouds are a typically a few thousand feet higher than during wintertime.
The Hof and I were working well as a team, we were on our third day in a row together.
While avoiding the frequent storm cells, I still remember the dark blue, grey and orange sky, as we flew west towards the setting sun which illuminated the clouds, making them look as though they were on fire.


A few moments later, we flew into the invisible wind-shear of a dry micro-burst, a down-draft of air from a nearby storm cell, that pushed the aircraft down several hundred feet. The autopilot pitched the nose of the aircraft up to a nose-high attitude, unsuccessfully trying to hold our cruise altitude. I pushed the power up from 60% to 80% of full power, cautious not to exceed the engine temperature limitation. I scanned the instruments to see our pitch attitude above 15 degrees up, the altimeter 750 feet low and still descending as well as the airspeed rapidly reducing below our already reduced speed (that was set at turbulence penetration speed) towards the stall speed. My thumb hovered over the red autopilot disconnect button on the control yoke, ready to manually correct the attitude and recover speed before we stalled. Then Hof, with a few swift pushes and flicks on the Mode Select Panel, reconfigured the autopilot mode, putting the aircraft into a descent which recovered our attitude and airspeed, moments before needing to perform a more drastic upset recovery manoeuvre.
Although potentially scary, this experience gave me even more confidence in operating the aircraft.

We continued on, avoiding storm cells all the way to Parkes. Parkes just happened to have its main runway (the only runway equipped with runway lights and runway aligned instrument approach) closed for maintenance. So we were forced to circle and land onto the shorter secondary runway, with only dim, purple, portable runway lights for guidance. This was the craziest flying I’d experienced yet. And I was loving it.

Battery powered portable lights, for temporary lighting

Hof made the challenging approach and landed safely, before parking us on the bay. I skipped down the stairs with the buzz of adrenaline that had sharpened my sensors. The passengers disembarked, a little pale-faced, thanking me and expressing their delight to be safely back on ground after the bumpy ride.
I was finally feeling like I was getting competent at my job, this was a welcome feeling, and I had a big smile to show for it.
Hof and I continued to fly together, preparing me for my third attempt at my check-to-line, consolidating my skills and knowledge to a point where I felt that I owned my skills, not just borrowing or mimicking what I had seen or been taught.

A check-to-line is usually a single day, four sector duty for First Officers. For my third chance, I’d been scheduled a two day, seven-sector, “overnight” duty at the end of my third and last trip, operating out of Sydney.

Nervous as usual, I signed on in the Sydney crew room before meeting my Check Captain for the day. James, A very friendly guy with a big smile, he didn’t look much older than 26 and had a very relaxed demeanour, which helped my nerves.
Our duty took us up the north coast of New South Wales to Ballina and back, then out to Parkes to stay for the night.
Things were going smoothly, despite the nerves of knowing I was on my third chance, this time I could trust and rely on my new pilot habits that were recently well practised and consolidated.

That night in the Parkes hotel I could barely sleep. How could I? I was in the middle of the most important flight test of my career!
The next day was another long day, four sectors that I couldn’t wait to be over. I felt like I was going well. It seemed to be going smoothly, but I also was getting little to no feedback and I was beginning to feel the fatigue of minimal sleep.
On the last sector back to Sydney, James began to ask different questions that I didn’t expect or know the answers to from all my studying.
“Suppose you are flying with a Captain, and during engine start, you see him flick the igniter switch on with his left knuckle while holding the starter, which is, of course, non-standard, instead of switching it with his right hand as per the procedure. How would you handle this? Would you say something?”
I had to think about it, it was a weird question. “Well, It’s not SOP, but it’s also not unsafe,” I said, trying to avoid a definitive yes or no answer that could be deemed wrong.
James then went on to discuss a few more examples. Making the learning point that; flying with regular captains on the line, I might see some different things. “So first ask yourself, is it unsafe? If it seems unsafe or likely to be an unintentional mistake or slip, speak up! And speak up early. If it’s perfectly safe, but perhaps not really by the book, be diplomatic, it’s not your job as an FO to police the captain. Just make sure it’s safe. If you don’t understand or know how or why they do something, feel free to ask an open question about it in a time of lower workload.”
“However, do yourself a favour and stick to SOPs, try not to pick up second-hand bad habits that you see. Consult the manual if you’re unsure and try to understand why you’re doing things a certain way.”
This was good advice (and still is).
So if he’s talking about Flying with line captains, I thought to myself, maybe that means I’ve passed! I got a little excited, but only a little. This chicken hadn’t quite hatched yet, we still have to land in Sydney.

To my delight, the post-flight debrief was short and ended with “Congratulations” and a handshake. I was so happy and extremely relieved. The weight of my world had lifted off my shoulders. I was finally a regional airline pilot, just in time for Christmas.
I couldn’t wait to get out there and go flying again!

Thank-you for reading.
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Line Training – Mind the Gaps

I continued to struggle through the challenge of my Line Training as it continued. Several issues began to become clear, especially looking back with hindsight and the experience I have now.

Firstly, it had been almost 6 months between my last flight in the Seminole at the academy and my first flight in the Saab340. As they say, use it or lose it. My skills and confidence which I’d spent only 9 months appropriating and consolidating, had rusted and eroded during the significant breaks in training that I had experienced. The delays were due to the bottle-neck of new pilots being squeezed through the limited resources of the training department. – This is a common occurrence in airlines and it certainly has been in my experience.
Due to my very thin foundation of experience at this point, I found I was having to re-learn the basics of flying all over again, I’m talking “attitude, power, performance” kind of basic stuff, that had rusted over the last 6 months.

Secondly, I wasn’t yet a good pilot to being with. Even though I was above the minimum standard to graduate from the academy 6 months earlier. I had only just started my career-long education as an aviator. And the academy, being so new, had teething problems of its own. Since I was apart of the second-ever intake or “Batch” I was certainly not a polished professional product. I had holes in my skill set and knowledge, with only a thin foundation of experience to base it on. This all became very obvious under the pressure of line training on the Saab.
It only makes me feel better to know, that the struggles my cadet colleagues and I went through during our line training, led to feedback and changes that helped to improve the quality of the training delivered at the pilot academy, raising the standard of future cadets, preparing them more appropriately for the transition to First Officer.

Thirdly, due to the small number of training Captains who were based in Albury. I was only flying 3 days a week and only flying to the same 3 destinations. Sydney, Melbourne and Bathurst.
Nowadays, I’d happily only work 3 days a week. But when you are training, you need to fly as regularly as possible to sharpen your tools on that grindstone.

Another challenge I faced in being the first cadet in the small base of Albury. I was going through the experience alone. Fortunately, I found a room to rent in a house with Captain and Flight Attendant who had both moved from Melbourne and Sydney respectively. They were newly based in Albury too and great support and company. But I still felt I was breaking new ground without another cadet study-buddy to share with, the experiences and lessons either of us had learned. It is a great advantage when you can learn from others mistakes or even just someone to reflect on your own experiences and mistakes with.

After about six weeks of inconsistent training and inconsistent improvement, my Check to Line was scheduled. – A “Check to Line” is essentially a flight test. Usually, a normal day duty, flying normal routes with an Examiner/Check Captain. On passing, the pilot is no longer under training and released to fly the line with regular Captains.
I was not ready for my check, and I knew it. Long story short, the duty started in Sydney and went to challenging destinations, other than the very few I’d been to. I wasn’t prepared, I was overwhelmed and I failed. I knew it, but I was hoping I’d get lucky. And in the wisdom of hindsight. I’m lucky I failed. I needed more valuable training.

A few days later I received a phone call from the crew scheduling department, which went along the lines of, “We’ll do some more training with you, another 10 days of flying, then schedule another check.”

I then spent the next 3weeks being shunted around the network squeezing me in to fly with any available training captain. And still no consistency.
I was short-changed a little bit, getting only 8 days that then reduced to 7 after the aircraft became un-serviceable while I was in Lismore.


So after 3 weeks, I found myself in another Check to Line, with only 7 more days of inconsistent flying under my belt.
This check was with a notoriously hard check captain who, as highly intelligent as he is and despite the respect that I later gained for him. Had a reputation for breaking the confidence of first officers.
I survived with my life intact. However, it was a horrible flight that I wasn’t ready for again. Another failed check, and my already low confidence destroyed. This was a problem, Because there was something of a “3 strikes and you’re out” policy, I’m still not sure of official policy, or how flexible it was. Either way, the pressure was on.

A few days later I received a phone call inviting me to the head office in Sydney to have a meeting with the chief pilot. “Tea and biscuits” as we say between pilots and crew. “Tea and biscuits” is usually not a good thing and Ironically, neither tea nor biscuits are ever served in those meetings.

I found myself in front of the chief pilot, the same chief pilot who interviewed me 20 months earlier and another gentleman.
They asked me some technical questions and some questions about my training. And then asked something that shook me.
“Do you want to be here?”
This immediately made being fired seem like a real possibility.
Fear washed over me, I hadn’t expected this question. In my state of stress, I struggled to get the words out to express how much I wanted the job. I don’t remember what I said. I must have got something out which was good enough.

The two gentlemen acknowledged the gaps and inconsistencies in my training. We then discussed a strategy for my future training and I found the clarity to ask for what I needed. Consistent training and consolidation.

A few days later, I got another call from the crew scheduling, “You have annual leave over the next two weeks, with your permission I’ll squeeze some training in there instead. ” This sounded uncomfortably familiar and created a defining moment for me in my career. I paused and with another moment of clarity, I suggested. “How about I take my leave, I’ll go relax and recover for the first week, then study for the second week, which will bring us to the end of the month. Then the Rostering department can plan my training properly with one Training Captain out of Sydney, on next months roster which isn’t yet published.” to my delight he said, “yep, great idea! I’ll make it happen.”

At that moment, I took control of my career, and I knew what I had to do.

Day One of Line Training – First Flight in a SAAB 340

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.

Sydney airport map


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. 

Ready for departure in Sydney.

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…