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.

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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.

What do buckets have to do with being a Pilot?

Flight Training was and still is one of the most challenging things I have ever done.  I’d also really love to go back in time and do it all over again knowing what I know now. But only if I could take with me, what I know now.
You see, flying around the countryside in a light aircraft is really fun. Especially, when you know what you’re doing. The problem was, as a student, most the time I didn’t know what I was doing, or at least I wasn’t confident in what I was doing.
Obviously, this is why we are students, to transition from no idea to a safe level of competence. And as we progress, the required level of competence continues to rise, as we strive for mastery of our profession. It’s the feeling of climbing up a down going escalator, with every successful step up; a new step appears at the top, a new level of competency to meet. This is the student experience.

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It was my first solo navigation flight and I was feeling confident having finished a number of navigation flights with an instructor. I felt I was starting to get the hang of this flying thing. I had departed Mangalore Airport, successfully avoided the military airspace and tracked west for half an hour towards my first waypoint, Saint Arnaud, a small town in central Victoria.As the small town came up on the nose, I identified the aerodrome, broadcast my intentions on the radio and made a turn towards my next waypoint, Maryborough, Heading 176 degrees set. I noted the time and amount of fuel remaining. – It should take 22 minutes to get to Maryborough.  5 minutes pass by, the road out to my right looks like the one on my map. “I’m on track”, I confidently think to myself.

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World Aeronautical Chart (WAC)

Another 10 minutes pass by; I should be crossing some small roads and seeing the town in the distance any time now. But where are these damn roads that the map is showing, and why are there hills to left of me?warrior I try to identify the big features and landmarks… A sinking feeling hit my stomach, “where the hell am I?” By now 17 minutes has passed since St Arnaud. The time ticking by faster and faster, with every minute, I’m travelling almost 2 nautical miles! Unlike a car, you can’t just pull over, look at the map and ask for directions. “Ok, I’ve been trained for this” I begin to retrace my steps like someone who had lost their keys. “I’m sure that was St. Arnaud where I turned onto a heading of 176 degrees, which is south…. South”, I looked at the map again… Maryborough isn’t south of Saint Arnaud… It’s south-east! I pull out my protractor, “136 degrees!” I had written the wrong heading on my flight plan!

PlottingStraightCourse
I quickly drew a new line on the map of 176 degrees from St. Arnaud. “Ok, 19 minutes at 1.8 miles a minute, that puts me 34 miles along this line.”I identify the big terrain features around me, the hills to the left look like the ones shown on the map. Then the little features to narrow it down, unfortunately, this part of the countryside is quite dull. There aren’t many distinguishing features that stand out from three and a half thousand feet. I’m left with matching the intersections of roads and turns in powerlines that I see bellow with what is depicted on the map. Still not completely certain of my position, I bank the small aircraft and point it towards what I believe is the direction of Maryborough, but I can’t help doubting where I am. The next 10 minutes are just as nervous; Recalculating if I have enough fuel to still get home and trying to get a good position fix so I can be certain of where I actually am. A set of power lines running east, directly to the town become my yellow brick road. After 12 minutes I am over head the familiar township. With a sense of relief, I point the aircraft in the direction of Mangalore, carefully double checking my track this time, for the home leg, enough excitement for one day. A few minutes later, I hear over the radio another young pilot of a Cessna 182, I assume also a student, asking the Radar traffic controller for help determining his position since he’d become lost. “Ha, I’m glad I’m not that guy”, I thought to myself. He too found his way and I took the free lesson in witnessing his experience on the radio. A bonus lesson, in becoming unlost using air traffic control.

That was one of those experiences where I felt good about a making a “mistake” because I got to learn a lot from it and test myself. It felt so much better than one of my next “successful” experiences. My Private Pilot Licence (PPL) flight test; I fumbled my way through this flight fairly well, demonstrating my newly acquired pilot skills and knowledge to the testing officer; an extremely experienced pilot, who was also an Entrepreneur and Aviation Lawyer on the side (amongst other things). One of those exceedingly intelligent gentlemen who leave regular Joes, such as me, feeling like they’ve achieved nothing in life. The test went well enough that I passed. But the debriefing gave the bitter to the sweetness. All I remember him saying was, “I don’t think you’re natural and you’re really going to have to work hard at this if you want a successful career.” My stomach sunk like a brick, so much for celebrating.

 

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IG: @aapa_rex

A few months later, I was to meet the same officer for my Commercial Licence (CPL) flight test. Safe to say I was a bit nervous being tested by the same guy in a new aircraft type that I had only 15 hours in; a Piper Seminole, a light twin-engine aircraft, the only twin engine aircraft I had ever flown at this point. This was less flight time than a Spitfire pilot going into the battle of Britain. I didn’t have Luftwaffe shooting at me, so I guess that’s fair.
This test didn’t go well at all. We didn’t even get out of the vicinity of the aerodrome. After being requested to demonstrate a stall. (A Stall is when and aircraft goes so slowly, stops flying and begins to fall out of the sky) I did as I’d been taught, slowing the aircraft then at the first the sign of the stall, lowering my attitude and accelerating again. But he wanted to see a fully developed stall.

 

Spin. Ok, mine wasn’t this bad

Knowing I had never put this aircraft into this position, I became increasingly nervous. I failed to set the power on the engines evenly and the stall came with a massive wing drop and 180-degree spin.
Although I did recover, my recovery was not to a safe standard. All he said was, “that’ll do, take me back to Mangalore.”  It is hard to explain what it is like flying and landing an aircraft knowing you have already failed your licence test.

This was my first of many humbling experiences where I have been confronted with failing or making an error that reminds me that I’m not that good. Something all pilots have had experience with. We are trained and work in such a critical environment where we can always improve, our mistakes are highlighted and we’re held immediately accountable.  If you don’t make the effort to keep your skills polished, you are reminded often that you are slipping, as you’re only as good as your last flight. This can be stressful if you don’t figure out how to roll with the punches and enjoy the process of continual self-driven improvement. It requires a bit of discipline, but it is actually rewarding, seeing your skills develop. And as I’ve said before, it can be one of the most fulfilling parts of the job.
After my failed flight test, I had some re-training where I was taught to stall and recover the aircraft, correctly.
The next test I passed, with another reminder from the testing officer to work hard. Ten years later I understand why, and I’d probably tell myself the same thing.
Looking back, I would have loved to have the maturity and knowledge have now. But it is in these tough experiences that demand a higher level of maturity that make us grow, gaining maturity, resilience, experience and wisdom.

There’s an old saying amongst pilots; “Every pilot starts his career with two buckets. One bucket full of Luck and an empty bucket to fill with Experience. The goal is to fill your experience bucket before you empty your luck bucket”.  This is a subtle reminder of our own mortality and fallibility. For those of you beginning your aviation careers, I hope I can help you fill your experience/knowledge buckets just a little bit by sharing my stories with you.

 

Planned Route – Where am I going!

There I was; at the beginning of 2008, fresh out of High School, hardly an adult with an amazing opportunity in my hands.  And sitting in front of me was the scariest, most adult looking contract I had ever seen. I was about to sign a 7-year employment contract and bond, plunging myself into ninety-thousand dollars (AUD) of debt.
I only had seven thousand dollars to my name, for which I had been working all summer in a factory and a piece of crap car, worth no more than four thousand bucks. What’s more, I would be committed to the one airline until I was 27-years old.

What was I getting myself into? How did I know this was the best option for me?

For those who are about to start your flying career. We all know there are a number of different pathways; from Airforce/Military, Airline Cadetships, University and General Aviation, just to name a few of the common ones. And they all come with their pros and cons.
So what would I recommend?
Knowing what I know now, my first piece of advice is: There will always be people who argue that one pathway is better than another. It is important to remember, these people will often argue what is better for them! Not necessarily for you and your goals. Still, take their advice, but realise where they might be different from you. An easy way to do this is; ask them to go through the pros and cons, quietly keeping in mind that it is a pro or con in their opinion. Then make your own list of pros and cons based on your values. This way you can use their knowledge in the most effective way for you.

Secondly: Ask yourself why. “Why do I even want to be a Pilot? Why is it so appealing?” Really dig deep, once you have this “why”, write it down. Your “why”, is your motivational fuel. It will help keep you motivated with the many challenges you will face during your career. So make it easy to revisit and remember why. (It is also a common airline interview question.)
You’ll know it’s the right “why” when saying and thinking about it makes you smile to yourself and feel excited or nervous. It still does for me.sunrise I’ll be sitting there having a quiet moment to myself, watching a beautiful sunrise from 35,000 feet. And I’ll remember; I am in control of a Boeing 777! A 300million dollar, 300ton, technologically mind-blowing flying machine! Hauling across the sky and around the world at Mach 0.84(900km/h). Powerful, Free and Adventurous!
I belong to a small percentage of people in the world who will ever get to experience and explore the world from this perspective.20170519_002110 (I used to have similar moments at 15000feet in a 13ton SAAB340 or 5000ft in a PA-28)

I also enjoy the process of learning and forever developing and applying the skills of my profession. As pilots we take pride in that, we understand and appreciate that we are a part of a highly trained team. I guess it’s a professional pride thing, or just ego (kidding).  But we all understand in the back of our minds that we’re responsible for the 450 lives sitting behind us. It is our job to deliver them safely, connecting them to their friends and families, homes, dream holidays and workplaces.
If you’re only motivated by “MONEY”, trust me, there are easier and more efficient ways to get rich. Don’t waste time in aviation. Or even if it’s for business class staff travel. Okay Maybe Business Cass is a motivator; it’s just so comfortable and amazing! I’m so clearly spoiled now.
So what is your “why?” Will it fuel you and give you the endurance you need?

Your “why” should help you with the next question:  Where do you see yourself in 10years? Flying a wide body jet around the world? A narrow body domestically? Or a float plane in the Caribbean or Whitsundays?
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Where do you want your career to take you? Then work backwards. What experiences do you want to have along the way? And for that 10-year goal to happen, Where and Who do you need to be, in 5 years from now? In 2 years from now? 1year, 6 months and 1 week from now? Who do you need to be right now and what do you need to do today, to put yourself on the path to your goal? It might be studying for an upcoming test at high school, setting goals or sending off job applications.

You need to know where you are now, where you want to end up, and the path you wish to take that connects the two.
I never start a flight without a map and flight plan. Your career shouldn’t be any different. Oh, And your plan doesn’t even need to be perfect. You just need to have one.

If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail – Benjamin Franklin

Lastly:   APPLY FOR EVERYTHING!  Take every opportunity offered.  You can always turn one down if you have to and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to have two or three offers to choose from in the end.
The question that that annoys me the most is: “Which cadetship or job should I apply for?”
All of them I say! Why are you trying to choose from options you haven’t even been offered yet!?
In the same way, we never leave the ground without having an alternate route or landing airport available. My career has been no different. I’ve re-planned, re-routed, been delayed and even shortcuts that I hadn’t even expected! But I always created options by applying for everything I might want.

So how did I know the Regional Express cadet program was right for me?
Well firstly, I didn’t have many other options.
Secondly, I weighed up the pros, cons and risks. Had my friends’ lawyer Step Dad read over the contract and give me some free legal advice. Then I asked myself; where I dream of being in 5 and 10 years? Then I trusted my gut and signed the dotted line, starting the engines of my career.

You’re the Captain of your life. It is up to you to take command of your future. Navigate it in the right direction!
CAptain
I know I promised to share about my experience of surviving flight school as well, but I’ll save that for next week. I hope you found value in this post and that it gives you some tools in how to become a pilot, or even just pursuing any goals you might have in life.

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.