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.

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. 

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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.

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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
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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.

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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!

Trust your Instruments

Flying is easy! Keep the sky above you and the ground below, point the aircraft in the direction you want to go, look out the window occasionally to know where you are, with towns, lakes roads and so on.  Easy, Right?
During the day time with clear blue skies in small aircraft with Visual Flight Rules (VFR), it is at least. What about at night or in the clouds, fog or rain? Or in big heavy aircraft, travelling at 900km/h? How do pilots know where they are going and not crash into each other?
1stclassIf that question makes you a little anxious while you fly, don’t worry. You can keep sipping your champagne and relax, knowing that your Pilots have studied and trained hard to know where we are and where we are going, using accurate instruments and systems.

For those curious, we do this using Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). A set of rules and navigation systems using; aircraft instrumentation, ground based Navigation beacons and facilities, inertial navigation systems and more recently GPS. Combine with Radar and radio communication procedures with Air Traffic Control, to organise separate and control aircraft. Kind of like an invisible, three dimensional, multi-layer, sky highway. Learning how to fly these “highways” takes a while to master. As always, it starts in the classroom with theory, then simulator or synthetic trainer, a computer simulator where your mistakes don’t kill you. And finally the aircraft, where your mistakes can kill you.

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Synthetic Trainer (Photo IG: aapa_rex )

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Approach procedure chart – Sydney

 

This was my experience
January, the hottest, driest month of the year, and this day was no exception. The air was hot and dry, not a cloud to be seen and I was ready for my first real IFR flight: Mangalore to Shepparton for a few practice approach procedures then back to Mangalore.
I had practised these procedures countless times in the air-conditioned comfort of the Synthetic Trainer and on my computer, using Microsoft Flight Simulator, a very useful study tool,  But I was far from mastering them.
We began taxi by mid-morning, much later in the day than I’d like. The summer sun had begun heating the earth, pushing the temperature past 35 Degrees Celsius, on its way to 40. My shirt already damp from perspiration, the first few buttons open, along with the aircraft door, trying to promote any sort of fresh air flow while we taxied.

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the hood

Things didn’t get much better once we were in flight. The heated earth was sending intense thermals into the sky causing constant turbulence, bouncing our little plane around the sky, requiring constant control input. To make matters worse, I was “under the Hood”. An awkward device that you wear on your head which prevents you from looking out the window, forcing you to use only instruments to fly and navigate.

 

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Piper Warrior PA-28

With frustration and difficulty, I focused on the bouncing instruments, gripping the controls with my sweaty hands. I needed a third hand and a second brain to manage the workload. But all I had was an instructor beside me watching and critiquing, “Altitude, Heading, Tracking, Altitude”
I couldn’t wait to get back on the ground. I persevered, trying not to let the rough conditions frustrate me, taking the sortie one step at a time. The two-hour flight left me physically and mentally exhausted. And I didn’t even see a cloud.
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My first moment flying in clouds, real IMC (instrument conditions), is still very memorable. I remember it so well because it’s burnt deep into my memory, along with a good human factors lesson. Because in that moment I realised how quickly I could kill myself.
My instructor and I were heading towards Melbourne at 6000feet, on my first IFR navigation flight at night. Fortunately, as it was a cool summer night, the air was as smooth as silk.
With my attention focused carefully on the instrument panel of the ‘Autopilot-less’ aircraft, my instructor asks; “Have you flown in cloud yet?” “No, not yet” I reply. “Well, you’re about to,” he says, switching the landing lights on. I lift my eyes, fixating on the illuminated oncoming clouds. There’s something captivating about this moment, as we are swallowed by misty cloudiness for my first time.7
Seconds later I break my fixation and I re-focus on the instruments, finding the aircraft banked 30degress to the left, pitch 5 degrees down, altitude 250 feet low and quickly descending. I yank the controls correcting the attitude and my flight path. The deviation was so gentle I hadn’t even felt it; I was seconds away from a spiral dive and had no clue. I’ve read stories of pilots dying like that!
Now I had a new problem. The aggressive correction as confused my inner ear. It now feels like we are banked 30 degrees right, but my instruments are saying we are straight and level. This spatial disorientation is known as Sensory Illusion or The Leans. Our caveman vestibular system isn’t designed for flight; it can be a dangerous situation for an inexperienced pilot, with the potential of a Graveyard Spiral. This is my first real experience of this illusion. I’ve heard “Trust Your Instruments!” so many times in training that it’s ringing in my head automatically. So do, I trust my instruments and tilt my head to the left to help my ear feel more normal, a tip I had read about in an old theory book.
A long 30 seconds later, I regain my senses. The instructor quietly monitoring me gave me more confidence.  I am still not sure if he, himself a young pilot at only 21years old, was expecting that situation to occur. But it was a valuable lesson.

A week later, Victoria was hit with devastating Bushfires; Black Saturday. 50 Kilometres away, fires raged out of control for weeks, blanketing the state in smoke. When the smoke was thin enough to allow us to take off and land, we were able to fly. The smoke giving an eerie unpredictable environmental condition to fly in. The positive being, it was real instrument conditions and it was better than being under the damn hood

With my training coming to an end and a successful flight test. I took my first flight as an IFR rated pilot. I couldn’t wait to exercise my new licence and fly anywhere without being bound by cloud or rain.

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Canberra ILS procedure

It was a beautiful day heading into Canberra, I was eagerly expecting vectors onto an ILS (instrument approach). Then to my surprise and disappointment, I hear “X-ray Delta India, You’re cleared for a visual Approach runway 35.”  What the hell? I was IFR! – I hadn’t realised this obvious point since we never practised it in IFR training: You can still do a visual approach (a simple VFR procedure) when you’re IFR, as long as you’re in visual conditions (VMC).
After the “WTF?!” moment followed by the “Well Duh” moment, I looked out the window, pointed the aircraft towards the airport and landed. Easy!

 

Tip for the young aviator.
Throughout my career, I have supplemented my flight training with hours and hours of playing Microsoft flight simulator (FSX), even during my training for the 777.
Obviously, you can’t log any of it. But it is a great and affordable training tool. Especially with real flight time or full motion flight simulator time starting around $300 per hour and going into the thousands of dollars per hour. Flight Sim is free after the small purchase cost. You can practice anything from circuits and radio calls to Instrument approaches and procedures, failures, Scan-flows even rehearsing full flights. It gives you a real time learning scenario, with time pressure to force errors and highlight weaknesses and deficiencies which you can learn from.

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FSX Cessna 172. used instead of Piper PA-28

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FSX King Air similar enough to SAAB340 to practice procedures

I highly recommend it if you are studying to be a pilot. Plus, it gives you a break from the books. Just don’t get too distracted trying to get a good score flying the Redbull Air Race.

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PMDG B777 with Virtual CDU on tablet, wirelessly connected to fully program FMC

I highly recommend PMDG, Virtual Avionics and Aerosoft. I used the PMDG Boeing 777 as a training aid and have played with the Aerosoft A320. All buttons and switches function as they do in the real aircraft.
I will use their products again for any other future aircraft I get to fly. Just make sure your computer is powerful enough to run the programs.
https://www.precisionmanuals.com/
http://www.aerosoft.com