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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Day One of Line Training – First Flight in a SAAB 340

My first day of line training was once again, completely outside of my comfort zone.
Fortunately, I’d been able to observe about 30 flights from the jump seat. That extra seat in the flight deck behind the Pilots. – As trainees, this was a good way to familiarise ourselves with the job and the environment. It helped take the edge off a little on our first flight. It also gave us a reference to how a commercial flight should come together and look.

My first flight was out of Wagga Wagga, a 2-hour drive north from my base in Albury. This was due to the limited availability of Training Captains.
The sign-on time was in the late afternoon at about 4 pm. The duty was a Sydney turn, or simply, a return flight to Sydney and back.
One frustrating thing about a new flying job is learning the logistics of things. It’s like starting school on a new campus. But worse. You tend to find yourself being locked out of terminals and crew rooms waiting to be let in since you don’t have the security access card. And every airport is different. So look forward to being lost and asking for help.
A hot tip for young players, most Airlines have a route manual or company crew information pages that have most the information you need for each airport you visit. Myself, still drowning in manuals, hadn’t figured this out yet. Remember, this was the time before the iPad, so finding information was hard and a mountain of paper manuals can be overwhelming

I found my way to the crew room, an old portable building behind the maintenance hanger at Wagga Wagga airport. There, I was to meet my Training Captain for the days’ flying.
After half an hour of sitting with a ball of nerves in my belly, and not being sure what to do with myself while I wait. In strolls, a typical Aussie bloke from the countryside; casual, friendly, no drama and very confident, especially flying Saab 340 around. 
We’d typically sign on 45 minutes before our departure time. In that time we’d study the weather forecasts and notices for the day, check the payloads, plan the fuel required, brief the flight attendant, do the pre-flight checks, set up the aircraft systems and board the passengers. Its usually a busy time, with just enough time to get it all done. On a good day, with minimal weather, an experienced and current crew can do it in 30 minutes.
However, I was far from experienced and was pretty much just going along for the ride. The training captain took on much of my workload as well as his own. Somehow he still started the engines on time. By this point, I didn’t even know what month it was, let alone whether we were on schedule or not. Anyway, that wasn’t for me to worry about. The first flight for a cadet is about focusing on the basic, normal SOPs; primarily Scan flows, use of checklists and some handling.
You might be wondering something by now. And yes. After the simulator, our first time flying the real aircraft is with paying passengers on board. I was surprised too. This is standard across the industry, simply because simulators are so realistic now, that we’re well prepared and safe enough. Plus there are a number of other precautions such as taking a safety pilot – a trained First Officer sitting in the jump seat, keeping an eye on things and picking up the slack, or ready to take over from the trainee if conditions get a bit hairy. So you can relax, you’re in safe hands.

I honestly don’t remember much of that flight, It was a blur. All I remember is that it was my sector as pilot flying (PF). Meaning I was to do the takeoff and landing.
I don’t clearly remember the takeoff, for all I know, my eyes could have been closed, or perhaps it’s blended in with the thousand if done since.
However, I will never forget my first time landing. I had spent the flight trying to catch my brain up to the aircraft. The Saab was fast! 270knots, that’s 500km/h! Twice as fast as the PA-44 Piper Seminole, that I’d flown 23 hours in during my training at the academy. And almost 3 times faster than the PA-28 Piper Warrior, which I did the majority of my training in (170 hours).
I was flying faster and higher than I’d ever flown before. 

While my body was in the flight deck, my brain was trailing somewhere between row 11 and 10 miles behind the aircraft. Before I knew it, we were in the traffic circuit pattern of Sydney international Airport, at night. Moonless and dark with only some city lights and a lit-up pair of runways. 

With significant coaching from my training Captain, I found myself on final approach of runway 34R, fully configured and stable. The postage stamp of glowing runways lights looked like the familiar simulator images which I found comforting. I took a breath, possibly my first of the 45-minute flight, and focused on what was in front of me. Miraculously I pulled the landing off quite well, with a smooth touch down on the centerline.
I’ll be humble and put that one down to beginners luck.

We continued to roll down the runway after touch down, the captain took over control, as per standard procedure, to exit the runway and taxi to the bay.
Once clear of the runway, I switch to the Ground frequency, 121.7, and check-in with the controller using my rehearsed line and big boy voice on the radio; “Sydney Ground, Rex six seventy-four, for bay foxtrot Fifteen” I say. The controller promptly responds with rapid-fire taxi instructions “Rex-Six-seventy-four taxi Tango-Lima-Bravo hold-short Bravo-eight”… my eyes glaze over like a stunned deer in headlights. I hold down the push to talk button on my radio comms panel and stutter and stumble my way through the clearance read back, “uh, taxi tango… Uh Bravo-eight..” Getting it completely wrong. The captain swoops in cool as ice and corrects my incorrect read-back. I’m as useful as a passenger, and my stress levels are through the roof.

Sydney airport map

Parking on the bay in Sydney, I have 40 minutes to turn the mush in my head back into to a brain and help “turn-around” the aircraft for the flight back to Wagga Wagga. 

Ready for departure in Sydney.

The return sector, I’m Pilot Not Flying which means I’m on the radios, doing paperwork and saying “checked” a lot. (This role has since been renamed pilot monitoring (PM). Since the title suggests a more active role in the multi-crew flight deck.)

Once again this flight was a blur. Half-way back to Wagga Wagga, the captain leans back in his seat casually and asks, “How ya doing mate? We haven’t left you in Sydney have we?” He and safety FO, laughing at me in my overwhelmed state. “I dunno” I reply, “I think you left me somewhere over the western suburbs after takeoff.” I couldn’t believe how relaxed these guys were, they were just chatting casually and having a laugh as we burn through the sky at 500km/h.

And like that, we were back in Wagga Wagga, a slick landing by the captain. We taxi in, shut down, disembark, bung the engines and I headed to the hotel for 6 hours sleep, before a 6 am sign-on the next morning, ready to do it all again. 

Day two was slightly better, I was still in survival mode, trying to keep up with all the new information. It continued like this for a while to come…