Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Way We Train Today

The last fifteen years or so have seen a significant change in the way that airlines train their pilots, even though in many cases the airplanes themselves have not changed (the Mad Dog being a perfect example - it's a mid-80s update to a 1960s design). The methods of instruction, means of evaluation, areas of emphasis, training footprint, and regulatory framework are all completely different than they were through most of aviation history, up until the late 1990s. There were many factors behind the seismic shift: advances in technology, greater data collection and analysis, human factors and CRM research, cultural shifts, and aggressive airline cost-cutting. Whether the new system is better is still occasionally debated by line pilots, but it's almost certainly here to stay.

I arrived at the airlines midway through the changeover, and so I got to see a glimpse of the old ways during new-hire training at Horizon, when they were just beginning to change their program. Other than that experience, most of what I know of how it used to be has been related to me by older pilots, instructors, and check airmen.

Under the old regime, there were three distinct, separate phases of training: ground training, flight training, and checking. "Ground School" typically lasted several weeks and covered all aircraft systems, limitations, and emergency procedures in great detail. Everyone - Captains,  Copilots, and Flight Engineers - was expected to learn aircraft systems at an aeronautical engineer level of understanding. Because the QRH (Quick Reference Handbook) concept was still in it's infancy and cockpit warning systems were still fairly rudimentary, it was expected that flight crews be able to diagnose malfunctions instinctively through advanced knowledge of the systems involved. This knowledge was tested through lengthy oral exams in which the questions occasionally reached a ridiculous level of detail ("How many rivets are there on the left wing?") that had little to do with the actual operation of the aircraft.

Flight training was originally conducted in the actual airplane - mostly at night when it wasn't needed for revenue operations - but moved into full-motion flight simulators as they become more advanced in the late 1970s and early 80s (later for smaller regional aircraft). The emphasis was mostly on specific maneuvers required to be tested by the FAA, and especially V1 cuts, single-engine approaches, and various other emergencies. There was little emphasis on line flying during initial training; this was reserved for line check airmen conducting Initial Operating Experience (IOE) during revenue operations. In the late 80s and 90s, as CRM became a greater emphasis item, the FAA required that airlines tack on a few LOFT (Line Oriented Flight Training) events to train & evaluate crews in their use of CRM during line operations. This was practically an afterthought at many airlines, and usually a non-jeopardy event.

The culmination of training was the "checkride," the Proficiency Check required by FAR 121.141. There was really no checking before the PC; though the instructors ultimately had to sign you off, you weren't under the microscope during training events. Woe to the pilot who failed a PC, though! At many airlines, failing a PC could be a career-ending event, especially if you were a new hire. And you could - and would - be failed for very minor deviations from ATP Practical Test Standards. Everything was geared towards passing the PC. Even at Horizon in 2004, for new hires it was a high-pressure event in which you were expected to perform flawlessly if you wished to stay employed.

Nearly all of that is gone now. First off, ground school is almost an anachronism. The vast majority of systems training is done via Computer-Based Training (CBT) - usually at home, on your own time, though most airline contracts still pay you for it. You may or may not get paper reference materials - at NewCo if you wanted them you had to print them off the PDFs at your own expense. Far better to learn to love Acrobat, and Ctrl/Cmd-F is your friend. The level of systems knowledge taught is far, far less detailed than in years past. If you're the sort of person who actually likes to know the path that an air molecule takes on its journey through an Air Cycle Machine, good luck finding that information in anything the airline provides you. They don't expect you to know it, and you will not be tested on it. The reality is that they'd just as soon have you not know it. Over the years they've come to the conclusion that crews attempting to diagnose systems malfunctions make things worse as often as they make things better. Now crews are expected to religiously use QRHs any time a system abnormality is encountered, which combined with greatly advanced indication & warning systems has greatly simplified the task of dealing with malfunctions. Meanwhile the number of aircraft limitations and emergency recall items expected to be memorized has been greatly reduced, essentially to only those time-critical safety items that aren't easily referenced in real time.

Nearly all airlines have moved to the Advanced Qualification Program (AQP) regulatory framework which replaced the old system of separate flight training and checking events. Training and checking are practically the same thing now. AQP programs typically consist of several blocks of training each consisting of a number of training modules followed by a validation. Each module has completion standards associated with it, essentially turning every event into a checking event that can be failed & required to be repeated. Meanwhile the validations are not 100% checking events; many allow for some degree of retraining and repetition of unsatisfactory maneuvers. Rather than being purely "pass-fail," most events are graded on a scale both by maneuver and by competency. For example, you may have flown a "5" V1 cut (good!) but only get a "2" in use of CRM (bad!). A mid-level passing score may involve some deviation from ATP standards, but with early recognition and correction.

Typically the earlier blocks of training now take place in "paper tigers," "systems/procedures trainers" (SPTs),  & "flight procedures trainers" (FPTs). These are all non-moving simulators of varying sophistication in which the pilot cements systems knowledge, learns flow patterns, and practices "buttonology" and basic flight procedures before moving on to the more elaborate & expensive full flight simulators. In the flight simulator, the initial emphasis is on maneuvers such as steep turns, stalls, V1 cuts, approaches, go-arounds, and landings. These lessons are followed by a Maneuvers Validation (MV) which is very similar in format to the old Proficiency Check.

LOFTs now typically make up the entire last block of training and are followed by the penultimate checkride, the Line Oriented Validation (LOE). These events help ease the transition to Initial Operating Experience, and allow the trainee to see a variety of emergencies under realistic line conditions. Where the emphasis used to be on individual performance, now crews are now expected to use all available resources in dealing with abnormal situations, exactly like they would on the line. It's entirely possible to fail a LOE by responding to a malfunction with the correct technical actions but in a "lone ranger" fashion. It's equally possible to fail the LOE for failing to speak up when your partner is doing something boneheaded.

The end result is a training footprint that is considerably shorter than in years past, and less use of the full flight simulator, which the airlines love for cost and scheduling reasons. Much of the burden of training has been shifted onto the pilot; rather than just showing up and expecting to be spoonfed, you have to do a lot of homework before training begins or you'll never keep up. That said, you're expected to remember a lot less total information than in years past. The pressure of training events has gone up, but the pressure of checking events has gone down. It's harder to flunk out, but it's also harder to sail though.

This is what the training footprint looked like on the Mad Dog (it's actually changed somewhat since, I was the last person to go through this curriculum):
  • 4 modules Systems Training. 2 SPTs, 2 FPTs. Electronic Systems Validation (eSV), an extensive computerized written test that replaces the oral exam. 
  • 4 modules Procedures Training. 4 FPTs. Procedures Validation.
  • 4 modules Maneuvers Training, all in full-flight simulator. Maneuvers Validation.
  • 4 modules Line Oriented Training, all in FFS. Line Oriented Validation. 
This is very similar to most airlines' training footprints today, including NewCo, United, USAirways, and Spirit (have had friends go through all those programs lately).

I'm happy to say that I passed each event on first try and did particularly well on the 4 validations. I studied my tail off and was assisted by a very sharp sim partner, one who had actually been a Mad Dog captain before he was displaced back to the right seat. He also happened to be an avid motorcycle rider and I had a bike in town, so we snuck in some fun rides to decompress from the grind of training. The one big hiccup was when I came down with shingles - on my face! - the day before my MV. The APD (check airman) rightly insisted that I call in sick for the MV for various reasons, not the least of which was he'd never had chicken pox and could therefore get them from me. I got on meds right away and only lost a few days, and the training department was great about rescheduling me. Unfortunately they sent my sim partner ahead without me, so I was by myself or with seat support for the remainder of training. It still went quite well. I had a very good LOE on Tuesday, sat on Mad Dog jumpseats for an observation rotation on Friday and Saturday, and start IOE tomorrow. I'm really looking forward to it. The Mad Dog is a very interesting, busy airplane, a unique combination of old and new. I'll write about that in my next post.


14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good post, accurate assessment of how things have changed. The industry has to dumb-down the program to keep hiring cheap pilots, they aren't attracting engineers and doctors anymore with fast-food wages. A few decades ago I was consistently stunned at how impressive airline pilots really were, they were truly amazing to watch and train. Now I'm seeing chubby kids with bad attitudes, poor discipline and work ethic, and minimal proficiency, obviously passed by instructors who don't really have a choice.

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Tom B. said...

Awesome, Sam! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on flying the mad dog in IOE.

Anonymous said...

Anon2: Really dude? You must be one of the trolls on APC, probably some really bitter regional hobbit who had bad luck/timing, got furloughed a few times and now browbeats your FO's and anyone who has more success than you. You probably also think that Air Tran pilots don't deserve to be at SWA, and I bet you're one of those guys who belittles the pilots on APC who fly for G7. In other words, you're the chubby kid with the bad attitude and arrogance that anonymous 1 mentioned. Stop trying to mask your insecurity and anger by making others feel small.

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Anonymous said...

Anon2: Thanks - I'm not sure I'll need luck with flow through. It actually brings me pleasure to think about people like you getting irritated by flow throughs. See you in the cockpit, friend!

Sam Weigel said...

Anonymous (2, I think?) wrote:

"Anonymous, don't forget, the guy who posted this didn't even have to interview at [major airline] before they hired him. Of course they have to dumb down the program. They aren't actively hiring the best pilots. There are many [Newco] pilots who have failed training. It is a running joke at [major airline] how bad they are."

I didn't delete your comment because you're being an asshole/troll on my blog, I deleted your comment because you used the name of my employer. If you wish to be an asshole/troll on my blog, by all means go ahead, just don't use identifying information. And feel free to not hide behind a screen of anonymity.

I know of 2 pilots from the first 3 classes that have failed out, or are at least in the TRB stage. 2 out of 60 is on par with historical averages at [anonymous major airline]. And in any case, [anonymous major airline] weeding them out seems to contradict your argument that training is being dumbed down for the flows. I've been through a few 121 programs and I found the training rigorous and thorough regardless of flow status. I also didn't find myself being treated any different as a flow, regardless of your anonymous assertions of our notoriety.

Anonymous 3 - don't disagree with you but you used the name of an airline owned by my employer. So... (sigh)...

Sam Weigel said...

Anonymous 1-- I dunno if airline pilots were really all that more impressive a few decades ago. I hear that in a lot of industries, not just aviation, and get the feeling that it's a byproduct of the human tendency for each generation to think the subsequent generation sucks & is taking the human race to hell in a handbasket. Airline pilots 30 years ago may have been impressive individuals, but they left a heck of a lot of smoking holes in the ground - often with perfectly good airplanes. I can't claim that pilots today are any smarter or better quality individuals. But I can say the overall system - including training, airborne technology, etc - certainly seems to be resulting in fewer accidents. If the aviation industry is recruiting and retaining less capable individuals - and you may be correct there, especially in certain sectors - they have thus far done a pretty good job of compensating for it, with some notorious exceptions.

Jeremy said...

On a lighter side, my favourite oddity on the MD-8x has been the position of the standby compass. You'll have to mention that in one of your blog posts :)

Anonymous said...


The compass location is a good one. Also remember seeing that some of the handles are the same as used on the DC-3. Don't know if the MD8X have them.

Sam: better place to grab dinner post training: Malone's or Spondivits?

Captain Jeff said...

Great post, Sam. Your perception/analysis of the evolution (devolution, actually) of training at the major Part 121 carriers is spot on. I must also add that this isn't something that has "just happened" in the last couple of years, somehow tied to the lower quality of new hires, the hiring/flow through process, etc, but has been happening for more than a decade.

It can be argued that the training I received more than 25 years ago (know every nut and bolt, you're a molecule of air, etc.) was a bit extreme, but the present day "you don't need to know that... just follow the QRH" is extreme as well. I sense that the pendulum has started swinging back toward the center, and that training will be a fine balance between the two.

Again, my hat is off to you for shining a light on this very important discussion.

Ron Rapp said...

I'm a 135 guy rather than an airline person, but I recognized many of the characteristics of your training experience as being similar to initial on the Gulfstream that I fly.

For example, no memory items. None! Also, I came away surprised at how much they didn't require us to learn about aircraft systems. Oh, we knew how they worked, but the emphasis was definitely on practical knowledge rather than knowing the minutia for its own sake. I'm not sure if that's a testament to the evolution of the procedures and systems on that airplane, or just part of the trend you described in your post.

I concur with Captain Jeff's comment: the pendulum swings the the decades pass. I hope we're headed toward a better balance.

As far as the skill and capability of today's pilots versus those of the past, I think some of the stick-and-rudder stuff has definitely fallen by the wayside. How could it not? We don't have fly very much anymore -- at least not in the jets. GA provides plenty of opportunities to stay fresh, though, so I'm always glad to read of your adventures in the tailwheel airplanes. :) I enjoy a good dose of that medicine myself as often as I can.

Charles said...

I know that you commented in earlier posts about commuting and how you have been able to avoid it. Is that still the case or is there a post about commuting waiting to be written.