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.

3 comments:

Soaring Student said...

Great posting Sam, and thanks for the insight.

I'm sleeping in Vancouver WA this evening - last-minute business trip and I had no plans to be here in this corner of the Lower 48. Had my first flight on Horizon (Pasco 1-stop to Portland). Business meetings tomorrow, then flying Horizon on the weedwhacker to Reno. Alas, with the very short lead times, we won't get a chance to connect.

However, I did determine that there is only one Piper working at Horizon, and she is a sweetheart.

Good luck and hard work as you progress through NewCo.

tp lowe said...

Thanks for taking the time for that interesting post, Sam.

Mike said...

Sick of training yet? Only a few more weeks, right?

Good luck with the rest or your sims and IOE.