Simulator Training – Do the Homework!

“I know you’ve never done this before, but why don’t you already know how to do this?” 

I don’t know if that was ever said, but it’s what I felt. Right before I realised my, good enough study habits that got me through high school and flight school were underdeveloped and having me come up short. 

Most aircraft endorsements typically include about 10 simulator sessions of 3 to 4 hours shared between 2 trainee first officers.
Followed by a skills test with a regular line Captain supporting from the left seat.
I have left many Simulator sessions mentally and physically exhausted. They can be intense and brutal like a mental and physical workout. But they can also be super fun. 

simulator
Full motion saab340 simulator used for training.


All of the easy familiarization things had been covered in the first two simulator sessions. Mostly what we’d been able to practice on a paper tiger (a mock cockpit made of paper) at home and stuff that wasn’t too procedural; basic handling and so on. so I could just follow the instructor and wing it, learning ‘on the fly’ to get through.

777papertiger
Practicing scans on my 777 paper-tiger. Yes, that is an ironing board.

Our third session was more procedural. We were practicing rapid depressurisation and emergency descent procedures, which require a number of steps in sequence, like a choreographed dance. Needless to say, I didn’t know all the steps. To be honest, I either completely forgot, didn’t even know to or totally overlooked, studying to understand and memorize the steps before the session in the first place. Maybe I thought the instructor was going to spoon-feed us. Maybe I was just overwhelmed with a workload higher than I’d expected or ever experienced. Or I was just being dumb and ignorant. 

Fortunately, I am pretty good at “watch and repeat” and I probably do rely on it a little too much. Either way, I was sharp enough to let my buddy go first since the instructor didn’t demonstrate, so I could watch him.

Then it was my turn to copy. I managed to bullsh*t my way through 80% of it. Oxygen mask on, start the descent to 10,000feet, etc. But then; the turn 45° off track for 1minute to establish a parallel track offset. I misunderstood for; a 45° degree angle of bank turn for 1minute. So, I rolled into a steep turn maneuver and turned about 220° off track. I actually nailed it… I just nailed the completely wrong target. The trainer stopped the simulator. I don’t remember his words… but it was probably along the lines of “WTF are you doing?” It was quite obvious I didn’t study properly beforehand. It was pretty damn embarrassing.RD

Sometime after this, I was reminded of two important lessons, Just about everything you need to know is written in books somewhere. And, flight Training is always flight Testing, because you don’t start lesson 2 until you complete/pass lesson 1, and so on.

Saab 340 emergency descent SOP
The pages of the manual that I should have studied.

So here is the best piece of advice I can give to a student or pilot in training (and I’m sure its sound advice that applies to many other learning applications too):

  1. Lead your own education or training. Don’t rely on the teacher to feed you information, simply use them as a respected guide and resource.
    To quote, author and ex-Navy SEAL Commander, Jocko Willnik – “Take extreme ownership”.
  2. Find out in advance what you will be covering in each lesson. ie, always have the course plan on hand and lesson plan for each class, flight, or Sim session. 
  3. Be outcome-focused, i.e. today’s class/Sim we need to perform successfully A B C and D (found on the lesson plan) to progress to the next lesson. That way nothing is a surprise and you can just go and check the boxes off. 
  4. What information and procedures do I need, to be able to perform A B C and D successfully. Then go find the information in the manuals, preview, and rehearse if needed. 

This will allow you to turn up to your Instructor or teacher with all the knowledge and right building blocks ready to go. All he/she should do is help you put them together, help you build your own skills, and maybe contribute an occasional missing block.
Having your teacher go find and show you all your building blocks, is a waste of time! do yourself a favor, be a great student, and get the best out of your teacher.

At the end of each session’s debrief, confirm with your instructor, what you’ll be covering tomorrow, they might even tell you where to find the building blocks that you’ll need for tomorrow’s session. 

Then go home, review today’s lesson if needed. Then find tomorrow’s building blocks, preview, and rehearse, so you can hit the ground running to check the boxes again tomorrow. Oh, and get some rest.
“Prior preparation, prevents poor performance” – Almost every Training Captain I’ve met.

Personally, I didn’t do this in my Saab 340 endorsement and first officer training. I also really suffered because of it. I only figured out this strategy and structure later in my career. And hopefully, I remember next time I’m doing an endorsement or upgrade and drowning in information.
“Structure and discipline result in freedom” remember that.

In Aviation, these building blocks are our Standard operating procedures or SOPs. They are the backbone of aviation. In the simulator, we can practice these SOPs, maneuvers, and simulated emergencies in a safe controlled environment.

Click here for a short video of pilots practicing an emergency
Screenshot_20200502_165646

So when you’re not getting your butt kicked and brain saturated with new information. The Simulator is actually really enjoyable. It is always an invaluable resource that builds experience and can confidence rapidly. For example, you could practice 5 landings in 10 minutes. In the real world, that would take an hour to get the same focused practice.

And on those days that we finish our training efficiently, we sometimes get a chance to have some fun. Barrel roll? No worries! Fly UNDER the Sydney harbor bridge?  too easy.  50 foot fly by at 300knots? you bet. Can we try gliding it onto the runway, with both engines failed? You bet your ass we can try that! All the fun things you can do when your instructor doesn’t have to waste time showing you where to find building blocks.

sim ua

These fun extras we occasionally get to do in the simulator, I have found to be surprisingly beneficial when it comes to confidence and handling. Even though I’ll never practically do it in the real world. The exercise lets you see outside of the envelope of normal operation. Therefore you’re less startled and more confident if you do ever find yourself outside the envelope. Which should lead to a better reaction, decision and outcome.

 

Fortunately that day, with a bit of retraining and block finding, I got through the training session and continued on to complete my endorsement with one extra training session to improve my new skills and gain some more confidence. Far from perfect, but good enough.

Now, for the real deal. Flying the real aircraft!

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.