Ground School – Drinking from a Fire Hose

First day of my career

It’s been quite a while since my last post as I have been focusing on other areas of my life. However, the current global pandemic and crisis have grounded airlines around the world. So I find myself with a bit more downtime than usual, especially since I’ve been self quarantined for 14 days after my last flight. I’m healthy, still employed (with a temporary salary reduction) and looking forward to getting back in the air soon.

I was just remembering that my career started in the middle of the 2008/2009 financial crisis. And thinking back on the years before that, Black Monday in 1987 and 9/11 also shook Aviation and changed the world forever.

sandp
The S&P 500 Index; showing economic growth over time

The important thing to remember now is, this too shall pass, like winter, this is an economic season of life and great opportunity is often borne from times such as this.
giphyYes, some airlines may collapse, pilots and crew will lose work and revenue and salaries will be lost. My heart goes out to everyone affected. Always remember; spring will return and we will rebuild.  We will then probably see another 8 or 10 years of growth, before winter returns (another crisis) that will no doubt affect aviation once again.

For now, I hope you stay positive, stay healthy and support your immune system while staying home. And let’s rewind to 2009, back to my first day of ground school.

 

Having graduated from the Academy with a brand new Commercial Pilot License (CPL), and Multi-Engine Command Instrument Rating (MECIR) in my wallet. I had a month or two back home with my parents to try not to forget what I’d learned in the last 10 months. Either way, basic flight training was over. I was ready, or at least due to start the first day of my new career as a Regional Airline Pilot.
Graduation

I arrived on a Sunday in Albury, which was my first base, the day before I was scheduled to take the 6:30am flight to Sydney for ground school.
I was a nervous fish out of water. 21 years old at this point, and once again no idea what I was doing and feeling more than a little shy.

Sat in the terminal with my new F-COM (flight crew operating manual) in hand, trying to stick these Memory Items into my brain, with no understanding or context of what it all means. I had never been good at rote learning or memorisation. My strength is in understanding concepts, problem-solving and how things work. So in the short term, I suffer, but long term I tend to manage by developing a deeper understanding.

Sitting there at 6am on only 5hours of sleep, trying to memorise the unfamiliar sentences and figures from the book, trying to calm the nerves in my stomach.

“Power Lever: reduce to 20-30%”
” Condition lever: Torque motor lockout… ” wait, what the hell is a torque motor and how do I lock it out?… I’m so lost.”

The boarding announcement calls us to board, so I wander outside onto the tarmac behind the other passengers, where the  Saab 340 is waiting. It is only the third time I’ve seen one in person, I quietly find my seat towards the back of the plane. It was a cold late autumn morning. Being the first flight of the day, my seat was freezing. I button up my jacket and pop the collar of my cheap suit trying to keep warm.Albury-Airport

The last passenger to board the aircraft was sat across the aisle from me. A chirpy gentleman who spent the flight working on his laptop and seemed to know the flight attendant well. I got the impression that he might also work for the airline, or maybe just a regular passenger. Still feeling a little shy, like a kid on the first day of school, I decide not to introduce myself for the fear of looking stupid when he realised their newest pilot didn’t know a thing, and besides, he seemed busy. So I kept quiet and tried to catch up on some sleep during the hour flight instead. 

Landing in Sydney I had to find my way to Regional Express Head Office, or “Baxter Road” as it was more commonly called. Still having No Idea about anything, and taxis refusing the short fare. I made my way there by walking the kilometer and a half wheeling my baggage behind me. 

Finally, I am greeted with the familiar faces of my course mates from the pilot academy as I enter the classroom, as well as the face of the chirpy gentleman from the flight I’d just taken. Turns out, ‘Bugo’ as everyone calls him, is one of the nicest guys I’ve met, and he’s running our first few days of induction at ground school.
baxterrd

Now I was feeling stupid for not introducing myself and not getting some help to arrive at Baxter road.

I’ll try to summarise ground school best I can. It’s usually 5weeks or so of Induction, information sessions, technical lectures, studying and rote learning facts, figures, limitations, memory Items, scan flows, computer-based learning modules, exams, box-ticking and developing a caffeine addiction if you don’t already have one, since the tea and coffee station is the only relief from the monotony of a day under fluorescent tube lighting, and the awaited highlight of the day was the arrival of the famous coffee truck at about 11am. This brief experience has brought me some gratitude for dodging the 9 to 5 office job.
This was also my first time living out of a hotel room for an extended period of time, something I’d get used to.

As our ground instructor Simon would say… “The next few months will be like drinking from a fire hose”. He was right, the information never stopped flowing at high pressure. Things had stepped up a notch. Everything was faster, more intense and more professional with much higher expectations from what we saw at the academy. I didn’t have time to take a breath.

Rex at that point also didn’t have much experience in training pilots with such little experience. They typically hired Pilots with General Aviation experience and about 1000 hours.
To make things worse, my course was only the second group of cadets trained through the academy. So our standard after graduating from the academy was not consistently high yet or consolidated. We were left a little underprepared for the training to come and in need of a lot of extra polish. It was a steep learning curve for everyone. And I, as a somewhat naive twenty-one-year-old, had a lot of catching up to do.

However, I must say, in the following years, I saw a consistently high standard of cadets coming from the academy, and the transition became a lot smoother. Many pilots I had the pleasure of flying with and have seen them go on to make great careers as well.

A pretty good rule of thumb that I learned; is for a new job, don’t expect to have much of a life for at least six months after starting until you get competent. So much of your mental capacity will be used up, trying to settle into the new job and learn the ropes.

From the completion of ground school, we were headed for the Simulator. This is usually where training delays begin. Simulators are a finite resource, and they are notorious for breaking down.
For me, this was a welcome delay. The fire hose had been turned off momentarily. I was now left swimming in the overflow of information, and trying to drink a pool can be overwhelming. Especially when you don’t know, what you don’t know, and there is no guide or mentor to show you the way.  Unlike high school, where you often have Teachers to hold your hand through the learning. I needed to learn how to study independently. It was to be a long road ahead.

First Flight – Going Solo

The first day of flight school is a little bit like the first day of high school. I remember sitting in a new classroom with 20 other new cadets who I’d be spending the next year with, all wearing new uniforms that still didn’t quite fit or feel right. The main difference, I was excited to finally be learning and studying something I was really interested in, that was also directly related to my future goals.

Cadets
I also couldn’t wait to start flying!
For 2 months, waiting is exactly what we did!
The flight school was still waiting to receive its AOC (Air Operators Certificate.) Which meant the flight school, wasn’t yet a flight school, legally.  There were students, planes, instructors and classrooms, but no legal piece of paper. This gave me my first lesson in aviation. “Aircraft don’t fly without the right paper.”

There are always teething problems when entering into a new venture. This delay was one of them.
We were REX002, the second ever Regional Express Cadet course, REX001 had started 3 months earlier. Even they were still sitting around waiting for their first flights.
For me, it wasn’t a big problem sitting on my butt playing Microsoft Flight Simulator for 2 months. It wasn’t costing me anything. But for a few of the older guys, they were starting to feel the pressure. They had given up well-paying careers in other industries to pursue their dream career in aviation. They knew they’d have to support their families for another 2 or 3 months longer than expected without a paycheck. I’m not sure how they did it, but they managed.

After two months of poorly utilised time on my behalf, we finally had an AOC. New training aircraft were also arriving every few weeks.198940_1007746234126_9424_n
The first few flying lessons flew by, before I knew it, with no more than 8 hours in my logbook, I was ready to go solo!

Having completed a lesson of circuits (Take-off and landing practice) I taxi the small, single engine aircraft into the apron area with my instructor sitting beside me. Before pulling onto the parking position, he instructs me to, “Just stop the aircraft here.” I set the parking brake. “Do exactly what you just did then to a full stop landing,” he says while unbuckling his seatbelt. He climbs out of the cockpit, closes the door and waves me off with ‘a thumbs up’.

It is a crisp June morning in Mangalore, Victoria. Clear blue winter skies and still air; a perfect day for flying. And I am about to fly solo for the first time!
I take a calming breath in and out to re-focus. I reach down and release the parking brake of the small 4 seater aircraft. “Mangalore Traffic, Piper Warrior, xray delta echo, taxing for circuits, Runway Three-Six” I broadcast over the radio. The aircraft creeps forward under the pull of the Idling propeller. One hand on the throttle, the other on the yoke, my feet placed on the rudder and brake pedals controlling direction and speed. I start my pre-take-off safety checks as I have rehearsed many times before. I am back in the zone.
Lining up on the runway, I take another deep breath to settle my nerves and focus.

I push the throttle all the way forward; the engine roars with full power. Without the 70 kilogramme instructor beside me weighing the aircraft down, it accelerates faster than I’m used to. “Airspeed alive”, at 60 knots I rotate. The aircraft leaps into the air, I set the attitude and before I know it I’m on the downwind leg of the circuit at 1000feet Untitledabove the ground. I glance to my right to see an empty seat. I smile to myself, I’m flying solo!  –  I still have to land this thing and that’s the hard part! So I get back to work. I perform me before landing checks like a well-programmed robot, I manoeuvre onto base then final, rolling out on the centre line and selecting the last stage of flaps. The picture looks good. I just need to keep it on the runway centreline and stable.

I close the throttle over the fence gliding the little plane onto the runway. I can’t remember whether it was with a smooth touchdown with a gentle squeak of the tyres or a rough thud. Probably a thud, but I didn’t care I had landed safely! And as they say, “any landing you walk away from is a good landing.”

I pull the aircraft off the runway on to the first taxiway, perform my after landing checks and bring the aircraft to a stop on its parking position in front of the Instructor and shut down the engine.
I fling the door open and climb out; I feel like Tom Cruise in that scene from Top Gun, where Maverick climbs out of his F-14 Tomcat for the last time! giphy

That famous electric guitar riff is playing in my head. Disappointingly the Instructor doesn’t say that I can be his “Wingman any time.” But he congratulates me and shakes solomy hand. I guess that’ll do.

Every pilot’s first solo flight is a very memorable milestone. That night we made a tradition of swimming a lap of the freezing pool in uniform. That tradition lasted a whole month until the pool was drained for maintenance over winter.

218061_1023765114588_2470_n
As 2008 wore on, we experienced many more disruptions as the school struggled its way through infancy.
The Australian aviation industry was beginning to watch us like Guinee pigs. Qantas had just abandoned their cadet program. While our flying academy was going through organisation and ownership changes; transitioning from Civil Aviation Training Academy (CATA) to Australian Airline Pilot Academy (AAPA). This included new managers and chief pilot.
There was quite a lot of doubt and controversy; everyone seemed to have their opinion. It was a hot topic on PPRUNE (Professional Pilot Rumour Network). We didn’t know what lay ahead or what to expect. But this was all part of being amongst the first to try something new. So I just stuck with it; we were making progress at least. And that was the main thing.
AAPA eventually established a new home in Wagga Wagga in 2009 where it has matured into a top quality flight academy.

I progressed from my first solo flight to navigation flights and completing theory exams. Then also onto failing a flight test and getting myself lost somewhere in the countryside, it happens to the best of us. I’ll tell you about it next time.

Pre-flight – The Beginning

 As a child, flying captivated my imagination; it seemed powerful, free and adventurous. It also seemed out of my reach as a career.
Fast forward to 18 years old, still captivated by flight, I received the heartbreaking letter, informing me that I was; “unfit for pilot selection in the Royal Australian Air Force.” I have been Asthmatic since I was a child, and I still am. This crushed my dreams.
After finishing my final year of High School, I was accepted into University for Mechanical Engineering; I was due to start in February. But my flying dreams were still lingering. By this stage, I had already taken a couple of casual flying lessons at my local flying school. When my instructor suggested, “Why don’t you just do a commercial pilot course?” for some reason, I thought the Airforce was the only way to get into the Airlines.
I came home to tell my Mother. She being just as ignorant on the topic, replied, “Okay, do some research and then tell me about it.” I’ve been lucky enough to have parents, who support me, but they also had me to do things for myself, rather than being spoon fed.
So I got to work researching, or more accurately Google Searching “How to become a pilot” and “Commercial pilot courses.” I also managed to organise an interview with a Qantas pilot who my instructor knew, for some advice. This is where I learned about Pilot Cadet Programs. Sadly, for that year, I had missed out on applying for the Qantas program by only 2 months. (This actually turned out to be a blessing, because 8 months later; the Qantas cadet program was abandoned!)
Then sometime around late December 2007 I Google searched: Pilot Cadetships Australia.  That’s when I first heard of REX (Regional Express.) They had just started a cadet program; I put together an application and sent it off. I also applied to Cathay Pacific who was also starting a cadet program.

By mid-January, I had made my mind up. I was going to spend 2008 learning to fly, one way or another. I Deferred university for the year and began calling each day the recruitment office for Cathay and Rex. Turns out everyone is on summer holidays that time of year. Then finally, on Thursday the 24rd of January 2008, REX returned my call. My persistence had paid off! That call had me jump in front of the 1200 other applicants ahead of me. I was offered an interview for the following Tuesday!

With such short notice, fortunately, I had spent the last 3 weeks researching (more Google searching) “Regional Express” “Saab340” “Turboprop” “how turboprops work” ”WOMBAT test.” So I felt prepared. In hindsight, I think what got me through was my enthusiasm and honesty, more than my knowledge.

2 weeks later I was off to Adelaide to interview for the Cathay Program. The interview went terribly! I totally blew it. Luckily, I could write this off as a learning experience; the day before this interview, Rex offered me a position! I was due to start on the 7th of April!

This is where my career started. I took the opportunity Rex gave me with both hands and went for it.

In my next post, I will discuss how to become a pilot. I’ll also share my experience in a cadet program and Flight School; where I spent the next year of my life studying and flying light aircraft to gain my CPL and MECIR.

In future posts, I will continue my story from simulator and line training, my career with Rex, maturing as a person and a professional, becoming a Captain, Interviewing for a major airline, moving city and country. I’ll share my successes and failures, lessons learned hints and tips. I’ll also discuss relevant news in aviation and what my life is like as a pilot, Jet setting around the world in a Boeing 777.

 

Image: boeing.com

 

Send me questions and feedback so I can give you better information.