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.
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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.

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