Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Training Days

Airline travel in the US has become amazingly safe. After American 587 crashed in November 2001, it was almost five years before there was another major fatal accident (Comair 5191 in August 2006). In the "golden age" of the 1960s there were single years with numerous major accidents. Even in a fairly recent five year period from 1986 to 1990, there were 14 major crashes involving US carriers which killed over 700 people. Since 2000, though, the fatality rate for scheduled Part 121 operations has held steady around .015 per 100,000 flight hours. To put that number in perspective: A kid born today could spend every second of their life on board US airliners in flight and still have only a one in ten chance of being killed in a plane crash by the time they reach age 75.

The same has not held true of general aviation. Although exact statistics are hard to come by because nobody knows exactly how much the GA fleet flies, the NTSB estimates a fatal accident rate of 1.32 per 100,000 flight hours. In other words, for every hour spent flying in General Aviation, you are 88 times more likely to die than on a Part 121 airliner. It's even worse if you look at fatalities per miles flown.

There are quite a few factors you could attribute the gap to: aircraft capability, reliability and redundancy, maintenance, dual pilot vs. single pilot, and greater experience levels in airliner cockpits. One undeniably huge advantage that airline pilots get is the quantity and quality of training they receive. In my opinion, the GA training industry does a poor job of preparing GA pilots for the real-world challenges they face, while the airlines do a mostly exceptional job of preparing their pilots for safe line operations.

Unlike GA pilots who typically receive little recurrent training after certification, airline pilots spend a significant portion of their professional lives being trained and checked. They have training programs to complete when first hired at the airline, when transitioning into new equipment, and when upgrading; they undergo recurrent training every year; and they are checked in both the simulator and on the line at least once a year. Part 121 is quite specific about the training and checking crews must be given, and this is one area in which the FAA exercises considerable oversight.

The traditional airline training program is set forth within FAR 121 Subpart N, but in recent years many airlines have come to use an alternative method for qualifying their crewmembers contained in Special FAR 58 known as "Advanced Qualification Program," or AQP. Whichever program an airline chooses to use, there are four main categories of training for crewmembers: initial, transition, upgrade, and recurrent. This post will focus on initial training, and Part II will cover the others.

When first hired at an airline, you go through initial training. This usually starts with several weeks of ground school. The first portion is typically spent reviewing general subjects such as meteorology, aviation weather, aerodynamics, regulations, and instrument charts and procedures. Then the material becomes more company specific: the Operations Specifications and FOM (Flight Operations Manual) are studied at length. These provide guidance on a wide variety of non-aircraft specific subjects and constitute the official company policies that all pilots are expected to know and follow. This can range from the more asinine aspects of uniform policy to CRM philosophy to stabilized approach requirements to deicing procedures. Finally, the ground school becomes aircraft specific, and the candidates will study systems, limitations, and procedures. There are usually several thick manuals to work through: a systems description manual which contains in-depth information on aircraft systems, and a flight standards manual that sets forth standard operating procedures for that aircraft at that airline. Throughout ground school, there are usually written tests, and sometimes a final exam.

Most airlines used to send candidates directly from ground school to flight training, but as simulator and/or aircraft time has become more expensive many have introduced an intermediate step: the procedures trainer, known by various acronyms such as "CPT" or "SPT" or "IPT" but commonly called the "paper tiger." This is a full-sized mock-up of the cockpit that can vary in quality from little more than a three-dimensional cockpit poster to a near-simulator lacking only motion and visuals. However it is constructed, the idea is that here the crewmember can learn their flows and procedures thoroughly before having to use them in real time in the simulator.

After ground school and usually after the CPT sessions if they are used, the candidate will undergo an oral exam with a check airman. These typically last between two and eight hours and are comprehensive: they include general knowledge, company policies and regulations, aircraft systems and limitations, and flight procedures. After the oral exam, the student is ready for flight training.

Not too many years ago, it was commonplace to do at least some of your training in the actual airplane. Now, the FAA allows all training and checking to be done in level D flight simulators, which have full motion and advanced visual capabilities; as Level D sims become common, it's pretty rare to touch the real airplane until after your checkride. Some of the bigger airlines have their own simulators; most regionals and some majors lease time in simulators owned by companies like FlightSafety, SimuFlight, PanAm Flight Training, and CAE. The flight training is most often provided by the airline's own instructors, but in some cases the training center's instructors may be used as well.

Candidates are usually paired with each other for the duration of training. Sometimes if there is an upgrade class going through at the same time as an initial class, new hires will be paired with upgrade candidates. This is an efficient way to train because each student is always being trained for their own seat, and the upgrading student's prior experience is usually helpful to the new hire, especially if the upgrading student flew the same airplane as an FO. It doesn't always work out this way, though. At Horizon I was paired with a fellow new hire; when one of us was training in the right seat, the other would "play captain" from the left seat, using flows we hadn't been taught and weren't expected to know. I'm afraid we weren't always horribly helpful to each other. Fortunately we got a fully qualified captain to sit in the left seat during our checkrides. At NewCo I'm also paired with a new hire; we're both being qualified as Captains but also have to learn First Officer duties, so our time in the right seat won't be wasted.

The first simulator session is typically spent just getting to know the airplane, usually flying a normal flight with nothing inoperative. That's about the last time you'll fly with everything working until you get to the line! Subsequent sessions are chock-full of engine failures, fires, electrical emergencies, rapid depressurizations, landing gear malfunctions, and more than a few simple glitches to serve as potential distractions. In modern aircraft there is a large emphasis placed on proper management of automation, including the autoflight and flight management systems. You can be the sharpest stick since Chuck Yeager and still fail out of flight training if you don't know exactly how to make the "black boxes" do what you want them to.

In a traditional training program, you would have five to ten simulator sessions of several hours each before your Proficiency Check. This is basically an ATP checkride; in fact, if the type rating requires an ATP certificate and the candidate has only their Commercial certificate, the Pro Check will be given by an Air Crew Pilot Designee (APD) and considered the equivalent of an ATP checkride. Although the Pro Check of course carries an inherent amount of stress with it, in reality it's more laid back than the previous training sessions, because you know exactly what maneuvers need to be completed and you'll usually have but two engine failures: one high-speed abort and one failure just after V1 followed by a single-engine approach. Once the Pro Check is complete, you are issued your brand new type rating and are ready to go fly the real airplane.

AQP programs differ from traditional initial training programs in that there is no single climactic checkride but rather a series of "validations" throughout the training. At NewCo we have our Systems & Procedures Validation (SPV, ie the oral) after the four IPT sessions; my SPV is scheduled for next Monday. After that we do five simulator sessions and then a Flight Maneuvers Validation (FMV), which is similar to a Pro Check but may be conducted by an instructor rather than a check airman or APD. Then we run several LOFT (Line Oriented Flight Training) scenarios in the IPTs and one in the sim before our final checkride, the LOE (Line Oriented Evaluation). The LOFT and LOE sessions are basically normal line flights that never have anything major go wrong, just little things that have a way of building on each other and forcing the crew to exercise their decision making and CRM skills. This is considered the type ride and is conducted by a check airman or ADP. The use of LOFT is not exclusive to AQP programs (Horizon had one LOFT session between the Pro Check and IOE) but the emphasis on making flight training more geared towards the challenges of real life line flying is an AQP hallmark.

After your Proficiency Check or LOE is complete, the last step to becoming a fully line-qualified pilot is Initial Operating Experience, or IOE. At long last, you finally get to fly the real airplane for the first time - with paying passengers on board, no less! No matter how thorough your simulator training was, IOE can be a pretty stressful experience. It's pretty funny, because you're finally flying around with both engines operating and nothing on fire, yet you'll get freaked out by something as simple as being cleared for a visual approach. Who practices visual approaches in a sim!? You're with a check airman, though, and they're good at getting you squared away on normal line operations in short order. Once the check airman is confident that you know what you're doing, they or another check airman will conduct a line check over one leg. Assuming you don't screw something up badly, that will be your final signoff from training and you're free to start getting used and abused by crew scheduling.

Next post: Training Days Part II: Transition, Upgrade, & Recurrent Training.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Catchup Time

Yikes. This is my second post of the month and it's the 21st. I've been slacking. I had thought that with all the exciting life/career changes I'd have lots to blog about, but it turns out I've been fairly preoccupied with said life/career changes.

And the short trip I mentioned in my last post. My buddy and I did make it to Frankfurt on the flight we were trying for (90+ open seats!) and had a good time spending a few days around Bacharach. The weather was pretty typical for Europe in the fall - overcast, a little chilly, some rain, some fog, some sun - but it rained in Portland the whole time so I figure I came out ahead. Besides - gloomy, misty weather is better for exploring ruined castles, at least from an atmospheric standpoint.

We had some excitement getting home. Because NewCo is so new, we don't have many reciprocal jumpseat agreements yet. My buddy had lots of options - United, Delta, USAir, Continental - that I didn't have. For me, it had to be RedCo or Air Canada, and RedCo only has one flight a day from Frankfurt - which was full on the day we were coming home. Air Canada has several flights, including one to Toronto that was wide open, so I decided to try for that.

International jumpseating always involves the risk of running into gate agents who don't know the procedures, and in this case the fact that Air Canada's reciprocal jumpseat program is fairly new made it virtually certain that we'd run into problems. Sure enough, the gate agent had no clue about jumpseating and told us in no uncertain terms that we could not sit in the cabin without a paper ticket of some sort (nonrev pass). We tried to explain the procedures relayed to us by Air Canada's jumpseat coordinator, but she was adamant that we were wrong and told us to get lost while she closed the flight. I stepped back from the gate, intending to speak to her after the flight left in hopes of clearing things up so I could catch the next Air Canada flight. She tapped away on her computer for a while and then abruptly said, "OK, I'm putting you on. Do not come back here without a paper ticket, ever." My buddy and I couldn't believe our ears. We grabbed the boarding passes, thanking the gate agent profusely, and raced down the jetway. We didn't breathe again until the 777 pushed back from the gate.

The same day I got back from Germany, the HR department at NewCo called me and asked if they could move my week of classroom training up one week, to 15 Oct. At that point I was already three quarters of the way through the CBT training, so I readily agreed - especially since that meant I'd be getting paid full-time a week sooner!

I didn't have any luck selling the house. There are no two ways about it: the housing market sucks for sellers right now, and the early onset of poor weather in the Pacific Northwest didn't help matters at all. We got a few nibbles but nobody is in much of a hurry to buy...the few buyers out there are just laying back, waiting for the perfect house at the perfect price to come along. They'll get it, too - there's a ton of inventory and prices are starting to come down. We listed with a real estate agent shortly before I left Portland. Trying to sell by owner was basically a waste of six weeks time. Live and learn, I guess.

The Computer Based Training was all pretty easy. I feel like I still have a lot to learn on the JungleBus, especially concerning the FMS and autoflight systems, but I understand they cover it pretty thoroughly in Montreal, and there's a lot of down time to study on your own. The JungleBus is a very different airplane from the Q400, and the systems should provide some good fodder for future blog posts.

I just finished the week of training in Minneapolis. It was a combination of CBT review, subjects that the FAA requires extra emphasis in (CFIT, runway incursion avoidance, HAZMAT), sensitive material they don't want floating around (security), and hands-on training that can't be accomplished via distance learning (emergency equipment). There were five other guys in my class; because I was moved up, I hadn't met any of them before. All have significant flying experience. In fact, I'm the only person without turbine PIC time. Four of us have flown for another regional airline, and five of us are former freight dogs. The other one flew F-15s for the Air Force for 12 years. It's good to hear NewCo is attracting experienced pilots, because we're not going to have much time to get up to speed with the airplane before we're upgraded to Captain.

We bid for IPT/sim schedules in Montreal based on seniority. Because I was moved up a week, I was junior except for the Air Force guy, who was moved up two weeks. The four senior people bid together, so there was one line left over for the Air Force guy and I, making us sim partners. He has actually been away from flying for several years but seems like a very sharp guy. He told me he'd be picking my brain on FMS/autoflight stuff, which is fine by me - he's now my go-to guy on high altitude/high speed aerodynamics! Interestingly, he already "knew" me - he and his wife read this blog, and he also recognized me from an aviation message board. Small world indeed.

I'll be heading to Montreal tomorrow. If the schedule is correct, I'll be there until just after Thanksgiving. I found out that my first flights in the airplane (IOE) will be in the left seat, acting as Captain. That should happen sometime in early December.

I'll be studying plenty in Montreal but I should have enough down time to explore the city. I've never been there but I hear it's beautiful - and a good time, too. I'll hopefully find some time to blog, too. My next post will be about airline training in general, since I've been using a lot of terms and acronyms that may not be familiar to the general aviation pilot.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Get Schooled

Wow, it's not even been two weeks since my last flight at QX and it already feels long ago. I've been in ground school at NewCo while I've been not blogging, and all those JungleBus numbers are quickly crowding every bit of knowledge I have on the Q400 out of my head.

OK, I haven't exactly been in ground school at NewCo. They do things kinda different. My first day of class was the Friday after my last flight. Basically, I showed up, filled out a lot of paperwork, listened to the company President dispense some kool-aid, and picked up two training CD-ROMs. Then they said "OK, go home. See you in a month." Yep, the basic indoc is all Computer Based Training (CBT) via distance learning. Many airlines are going to CBT for their ground training, but this is the first one I've heard of that sends you home to do it.

It makes sense - there's no reason you need to be at a training center to use a program that works exactly the same way on your own computer. I like the flexibility it affords: I'm pretty intimately familiar with FAR 121 so I didn't spend much extra time on that, but having never flown a jet I made sure to bone up on high-altitude aerodynamics. Falling asleep to the FAA's ILS-PRM video was much nicer in my own home than in class. And although I doubt they meant it to be humorous, every once in a while there'd be shockwave animation that'd make me laugh out loud. Having an extra month at home is good from the standpoint of trying to sell this darn house, too.

Mind you, the company doesn't do it this way to be nice - they do it to save money. Between not paying for hotel rooms, paying less training pay, and not having to maintain their own CBT facilities, I'm sure this is a ton cheaper. I'm curious to see whether they'll continue to do it, though. All the guys in my class were very experienced; that's not going to last throughout this hiring cycle and I can see people who've never sat through an airline basic indoc before struggling with the CBT.

I soldiered through the General Subjects first, since that's the most boring material, and then plowed through Company Ops. Now I'm well into the JungleJet systems, the stuff I find most interesting. This is a pretty amazing airplane. It's a flying computer - the technology in this makes the Q400 look like a Navajo. Mind you, they have essentially the same mission capabilities - it's just that all the various parts are much more integrated on the JungleBus than on the Q400.

Here's a good example. On the Q400, you could turn the FMS off and pretty much all you'd lose is GPS capability. In the JungleBus, you use the FMS to tune radios, set airspeed bugs, and even command thrust ratings - all separate boxes on the Q400. Things that would've been very simple to integrate on the Q400 - like having the FMS supply landing field elevation to the cabin pressure controller - were not because the airplane wasn't designed around any one FMS unit. Another major factor was that Bombardier tried to maintain commonality with the older Dash 8s so they could all stay on the same type certificate. And finally, avionics weren't quite as advanced during Q400 development; the JungleBus' Primus Epic system wasn't flying until 2001.

The one area in which NewCo's Junglebusses aren't as advanced as Horizon's Q400s is Cat II/III approach capability. The airplane is capable of Cat II but the company is not certified for it yet; they've said that down the road they may look at getting the same Heads-Up Guidance System (HGS) that Horizon uses for Cat III capability. I'd frankly be surprised; the only reason Horizon could afford the expense of Cat III was because Alaska was buying the same HGS for their airplanes. RedCo does not seem similarly inclined to spend money on their regionals. The funny thing is that the PFD (Primary Flight Display) on the JungleBus incorporates some of the same symbology as the HGS on the Q400.

At the rate I've been going, I'd be through the CD-ROMs by the end of this week, so I've decided to take a few days break. A buddy of mine (who flies for another RedCo regional) has never been to Europe and wants me to go with him for his first time and show him the ropes for international jumpseating. I won't make you guess where I'm going this time, because it'd be too easy - I'm going the same place I went last October (Bacharach, Germany). Well, that's if I make my connecting flight this morning. It's pretty oversold. If I don't make it we should still be able to go to Amsterdam. Either one should be seasonably chilly and damp!