Life as a Line Pilot

After my three week training adventure in Sydney, I felt like I had, after leaving a cadet, returned to Albury a pilot, like a young warrior filled with new confidence from his first victory, returning home a man.
I was finally over the hurdle (or perhaps ten foot wall) of training. I was free to move forward, do my job and earn my worth.
My first line flight was Christmas eve. Coincidentally the captain was my housemate Tony, who took me under his wing, a bit like an older brother would take care of his younger brother.
I immediately noticed a more relaxed atmosphere. There were no lessons, questions or testing from a training captain. We’d just go flying, enjoy it and help each other to get the job done professionally. This was the first time since flying solo in a piper warrior, almost a year ago, that I wasn’t under direct training. It was also the first time since then that I could just take it all in and enjoy the view and the job with time to chat about life and have a laugh. And we’d often find a lot to laugh about. – One time our flight attendant, Nell, who was also my housemate, generously offered to hang my jacket in the cabin coat rack, rather than hanging it myself behind my seat in the flight deck, as I usually would…

What I didn’t know, was while we were in flight, Nell took out a small sewing kit and stitched up the cuffs of my jacket sleeves. So after landing in chilly Melbourne, I stepped out of the flight deck, took my jacket from Nell, trotted down the stairs, secured the propeller and threw my jacket on. Only to find my hands stuck in my sleeves. With a confused “wtf” face, I turned around to see Nell and the first row of passengers peering out of the door giggling at me in my struggle. After an awkward moment, I shook my head and laughed, then hung my jacket from the propeller (not a professional look I know) and stood in the cold, while our 25 passengers disembarked, all having a sympathetic laugh at me.

After Christmas day, we began a reduced summer schedule. Since we were slightly short of first officers in Albury, I was still flying five or six days a week, but often only 2 flights a day. Some days we’d do a “Cheeky morning or afternoon Melbourne,” a flight to Melbourne and back, a total of three hours work for the day. I would start work at 6 am and be done by 9 am, home in time for breakfast.

Saabs parked in the summer heat, waiting for the evening sectors

Even though the summer pace was very leisurely. I was still very focused, I wasn’t ready or mentally able to let my guard down. I had only 400 hours in my logbook and a lot more confidence to gain. When you’re that inexperienced, you know there’s still a lot you don’t know or haven’t seen yet. Your performance tends to be inconsistent, more affected by fatigue and high workload since your new skills and habits are still being conditioned. So you tend to make mistakes slips and errors more often.
On top of that, each day that I went to work, I was worried that I would fly with the local Check Captain. Who had a bit of a “hard-ass” reputation, and could make my life difficult. To be fair, I’d copped a bit of heat from him during my training and I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of that again. So, before each flight on the drive to work, I’d recite emergency briefings and memory items, just in case I flew with him. I wanted to start on the right foot and look sharp early, so he’d be less critical of any other mistakes I might make to his high standard during the day.
Between this and the extra training I had received before being released to the Line. It was a real blessing for me, compared to only scraping through at the minimum standard. My base level was higher than the minimum standard it needed to be for my experience level. So even with the natural regression that we all have after a period of training, I still maintained a proficient and compliant standard.

Thankfully, because every 3 months we’re either being tested in the simulator or the aircraft for a re-currency or Line check. And if you’re below the standard on the given day, you’ll fail and then go back to the stress of retraining, worrying about your future.
Unfortunately, we don’t get much positive feedback or praise in this job, there’s always something we can improve. And we get overwhelming negative feedback if we screw up. You never see the thousands of successful flights on the front page of the newspaper, only the rare unsuccessful ones. So it is up to yourself as a professional to monitor your standards keep improving and avoid the trap of complacency.

Only after a few months on the line. I received some rare praise that is still memorable to this day. All-be-it from a second-hand source. – My housemate Nell came home after a flight with the mentioned “Hardass Check captain”, who she got along with fantastically I should add. She told me who about her day and reported to me, “He mentioned that you’re a good operator and you’re doing well.” This comment was a welcome surprise and hedged my confidence. It was nice to hear those words about myself as a pilot. In this industry, our reputation precedes us, and in small circles, we’re often the last to hear about our reputation.
I was happy to receive that indirect feedback. Especially since there were quite a few pilots in the company who had an opinion that cadets didn’t deserve to be there. We had “jumped the queue”, had it easier than they had, were inexperienced and would be unsafe to fly with and they didn’t want us there. Even if they liked us in person, it still bothered them in the beginning that we were there. This only lasted for a year or two before it faded away. And by the time I left Rex, half of the pilots in the company had started flying as cadets, they were also some of the best pilots that I flew with.
Coincidentally or not, after hearing the positive feedback about myself, “hard-ass check captain” became enjoyable to fly with and not so intimidating.

By February I was doing twenty flights per week and thoroughly enjoying myself. I remember waking up before 5 am thinking; I can’t imagine another job that I’d be as happy to wake up at this time in the morning for. It was a major contrast to only a few years earlier; dragging myself out of bed at 8:20 am to get to High School (still half asleep) at 8:48 am, two minutes before homeroom finished just so I could have my attendance marked off without a “late”.
Some days I almost had to pinch myself that at the age of only twenty-two, I had the career that I had.
As I gained experience, I was growing more confident. Thankfully, it’s never too long before your confidence gets tested.
Cleared for takeoff in Sydney one afternoon, Tony pushed the power levers forward, calling “set power”. I moved the CTOT switch forward, setting the takeoff power then scanned the engine gauges and instruments. Before I could even look outside, the aircraft jerked with yaw to the right. “STOPPING!” Tony said quickly as he stepped on the breaks and brought the aircraft to a stop. I was completely lost between setting power and finding ourselves unexpectedly stopped. I didn’t even realise that I had just experienced my first rejected takeoff. I’d only ever practised rejecting in the Simulator from high speed. This was a very low speed reject, barely even 20knots, so combined with the startle effect, I didn’t identify what had happened and I didn’t know what procedures to apply. Thanks to Tony leading, I finally caught up to what was going on; The right engine had lost power early into the take-off roll. An “Inadvertent auto-coursen” I later learned from an engineer. But the most important things I learned from this experience was; how much I still had to learn and how much I still wasn’t ready for. So the learning never stops. Luckily for me, I had many years flying as a first officer ahead of me, flying with skilled captains who I could learn from.

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.