Archive for August, 2013

Way back when…

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, things in the aviation training arena aren’t being done the way they used to be, especially at the airlines. In fact, in so many ways, this ain’t your Daddy’s airline world anymore.

Back in the day (there, I said it), training at an airline was done just like it was done in school. You would show up every day for a class that began at 8 a.m., and you would sit in a classroom while the teacher would lecture about the topics of the day. At night, you would go back to your hotel room and study your notes along with any books that you had been issued (usually an operations manual and/or a systems manual, along with a standards manual [basically, the “here’s-how-we-expect-you-to-operate-this-here-expensive-piece-of-machinery” book]).

You would study both alone and with a group. The next day, you would repeat the process, and at the end of the class(es), you would be administered some combination of written and oral exams. Simulator training would follow (prior to modern simulators, you would be trained in the actual airplane, usually in the middle of the night), and then a checkride, followed by training during line operations with passengers.

Nowadays, airlines have migrated towards more computer-based training (CBT) that is more self-directed, though with a schedule and a syllabus. JetBlue probably was the first U.S. carrier to embrace the CBT concept in full, since they did it very early on in their existence. Today, most carriers are moving toward some form of CBT for both initial and recurrent training. The bottom line, as you might imagine, is money. While there are claims that the newer training models have been scientifically tested, the process only works when it is properly implemented and used. Done wrong, I am convinced, it will do more harm than good.

There’s a lot to be said for the traditional classroom setting, especially with a good instructor that has actually flown the plane and not only knows the plane, but knows how to teach it. Personally, I liked the camaraderie that the classroom produced, and I liked having someone there who could explain things in English, especially when I felt like the only one who didn’t understand something.

But times have changed. Now, more and more airlines are going to the CBT model, in which the student is given a certain amount of time to go through all of the CBT modules. Online tests and quizzes verify a basic understanding of what has been learned (it’s very similar to modern online flight instructor refresher courses).

In a mature training program, the CBTs will mesh with what is being done in the simulators or fixed training devices. The advantage is obvious. The old 10-to-14-week training footprint can be reduced to eight or nine weeks, and for a crew that is familiar with the company but is just changing equipment, it can be pared down to six weeks. This represents a huge monetary savings for an airline, while improving the efficiency of the training program to get as many pilots through as possible. Given the huge hiring surge that is coming at the majors, they need all of the help they can get.

As a pilot, if CBT is not your forte, you can help yourself by taking advantage of the books, guides, and other resources available on just about any airplane you might fly. You don’t need to memorize the aircraft before you show up for class, but you can do yourself a huge favor by at least familiarizing yourself with some of the systems. If you aren’t sure which airplane you might fly, you might have to take a gamble or just wait until class.

No matter what, you will be dealing with the “firehose” of training, and if you aren’t prepared to work, and work hard, you will be sent home.—Chip Wright

It’s just a seat, right?

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

 Boeing_737_cockpitIt’s always funny when it happens to somebody else, but it isn’t so funny when it happens to me. And it’s especially not funny when I watch it happen to someone else and swear it won’t happen to me, only to find that it does.

Sometimes it seems like half of learning to fly a new airplane is just figuring out how to get in, get out, and plug in your headsets. Cars are built with certain standardization requirements that we can all count on: the gas pedal is on the right, the key goes on the right, and the gear shift on an automatic follows the same order of P, R, N, et cetera. The intention is that a person can easily transition from one car to another. Even when there are noticeable differences, it’s easy to navigate them.

Airplanes, on the other hand, do not always have such luxuries. I am currently going through training on my second new airliner in the past six months. In both cases, my training partners and I ran into some frustrations and difficulty with something as simple as getting the seats and rudder pedals situated. In a car, you can bet that the seat adjustment tools will either be a handle on the side or under the front of the seat. The handles are immediately recognizable, even if the seat is electric.

Worse still for pilots is the battle with muscle memory fighting not just the novelty of a new airplane, but often of a different seat, which might be left versus right, or an altogether new seat design. Years ago Bombardier introduced new cockpit seats for the CRJ series, and even with memos and photographs, pilots who had flown the aircraft for thousands of hours struggled at times to remember the location of the new handles. There we were: two pilots fumbling around, wiggling in place like we had ants in our pants, charged with flying a $20-million-plus airplane, equipped with two new seats that cost more than $15,000, with some of the best training money could buy, and we couldn’t even move the seats. We looked like idiots.

Every time I get in a new airplane, I vow that this isn’t going to be a problem. And every time, it is—at least just a little.

In my most recent adventures, the problem hasn’t been the airplane, but the training devices, one of which is a fixed-base, non-motion simulator with actual cockpit seats. The other is just a seat on rails, but each is different. Plus, we are taking turns flying left seat (normal for all of us) and right seat (not so much). Various manufacturers put the levers in different spots, and they don’t all work the same. Some have plunger handles and some don’t. Some have both. Some have lumbar supports. Some have lumbar supports that actually work. Some have switches—under the seat, of course—that adjust the flex in the front of the seat where your leg bends.

And it isn’t just the seats. I’ve run into the same problem with the headset jacks. Sometimes, if you don’t know where the jacks are, it feels like a scavenger hunt. Once you find them, their location seems obvious, but deep down you know it isn’t.

Even the rudder pedals are different. Some are electric, but most are manual. But some of the manual ones are a simple turn device. Some, like my new one, have a spring-loaded doohickey that you pull to release the turning thingy. It took me several lessons to figure that out, and it’s important information for me because I’m just barely tall enough to reach the ground.

I often think that the first lesson of any new airplane should be a 15-minute session just on getting in and out. It’s a simple task, but when you can’t do the simplest things, and you are already overwhelmed with what you need to learn, your frustrations are just compounded.

And then there are the different designs for the cockpit doors…—Chip Wright

Don’t assume

Friday, August 9th, 2013

I’ve been doing this aviation thing now for a long time. Twenty-two years, in fact. I may not always know what I don’t know, but I do know what I know. One thing I know is that I tend to take certain things for granted. In the airlines, there are certain industry standards in the way things are done, and having been part of the system now for nearly 17 years, I know that I can fly with a pilot from just about any airline, and we would be able to fly from A to B with much less stress and uncertainty than you would be inclined to think. Why? Because as a group, the airlines have adopted so many of the same procedures, policies, etc.

This was driven home to me recently while in training for my new job. Prior to the simulator events, which are four-hour sessions during which two pilots each fly for two hours, we were in fixed training devices (FTDs) for a single two-hour session per pair of pilots.

Four of us took the opportunity to watch each other in pairs. My partner and I came from different regional airlines, and although there were differences, we fell into an immediate pattern of doing things the way we always had. The similarities were stunning. The real learning was learning the new airplane and company specifics, not the generalities.

Compare that to the two pilots that we were splitting time with. Both were ex-military, and one had flown very little time in crewed aircraft (he flew a lot of fighters). Neither was at all familiar with Jeppessen charts, which may not sound like a big deal, but to a pilot who has not been exposed to them, it can be very frustrating trying to find a chart for Houston Intercontinental but not realizing that you are looking at Houston Hobby. Everything about Jepps is different from government charts.

There were other challenges as well. The checklist procedures and protocols were different, as was the compressed time schedule. While the military has schedules and can be in a frenetic pace during combat operations, the airlines run on a schedule that is often cast in stone, and minutes lost equal money lost. Profit is critical, and the effects down the line of running late are drilled into your head early in the game. Safety is never sacrificed, but in the back of your head, you know that someone is watching to see if you will be on time.

We all had to learn some new ways of doing things, but I had forgotten just how much I take for granted simply because I have lived this life for so long. I know, for example, that there are certain certification standards that drive designs, and often times the same part is used in multiple models of aircraft (ice detectors are a good example). Emergency equipment (and its location) is mostly homogenized with some exceptions for over-water flying. Radio techniques and practices are well established.

The two pilots in question both adapted quickly and well, and they will be assimilated into the ranks in short order. But it was still interesting to watch them have to pick up so much information that my partner and I just…well, had. They commented a couple of times about it, and picked our brains for little stuff. Our goal was to make them realize that there are no dumb questions, and I believe we succeeded. I’m glad that my foundation was already set, as I had enough to worry about for myself.

Some lessons in life are worth reinforcing, and in this case, it’s simple: Don’t assume that we all have the same foundation, and offer what help you can.—Chip Wright

Photo of the Day: AirCam

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

The first time you see an AirCam, you do a double-take. The small twin engines and open cockpit are eye-catching, to say the least. Every pilot I’ve known who’s flown this unusual multiengine Experimental has fallen in love with it. AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman has made a couple of ferry flights in them, and even when the temps require him to wear a flight suit, he can’t say enough about the perspective one gets from the front seat of the AirCam. Here’s a report he wrote up after ferrying one to Florida with Pilot Getaways co-founder John Kounis. and if you click this link you can watch a video of Hirschman flying the AirCam on another trek—this time from Florida to Minneapolis.—Jill W. Tallman

 Air Cam

Lessons from my most recent cross-country

Monday, August 5th, 2013

TripFor some people, flying a cross-country trip is no big deal. Check the weather, file a flight plan, and off they go. Sometimes I envy those people.

For me it’s usually a huge production involving much gathering of gear, checking and re-checking the weather, and making sure I have contingency plans in place for every aspect of the flight.

And still things don’t always go as planned, and I come away with valuable lessons learned. Here are a few, gleaned from my most recent trip in my Cherokee 140 from Maryland to Wisconsin and back:

  • iPads don’t like heat. I knew enough not to put my iPad on the glareshield, but just having it sit in the right seat in a hot cockpit was enough to make the thing crap out.
  • Flight planning programs suck up a lot of battery on an iPad. A three-hour leg used up all the juice in my fully charged iPad, putting it out of commission for the second three-hour leg of the day. (I had paper charts for back-up.)
  • Noise fatigue is a real thing. Try flying two three-hour legs with a passive noise reduction headset, then come back and tell me it’s not.
  • Crosswind landing proficiency comes in handy when you least expect it. A planned fuel stop in Ohio presented a 15-knot direct crosswind. I coached myself through it and landed, but kept an alternate airport in mind just in case the winds proved too much of a challenge.
  • Watch the weather, always. At that same ground stop in Ohio, I spent an hour on the ground, just trying to rest and recharge a bit before launching on my second leg. A bit of bad weather was off to the north, but I didn’t think it would be a problem—until it reached the vicinity of the airport before I was ready to leave.
  • There’s nothing quite as satisfying as traveling the country by GA. All of these minor glitches aside, the planning and (eventual) successful execution of my flights was a fun and fulfilling experience, something that certainly can’t be matched in Seat 34A, Aisle 12 of a Boeing 737 or riding in the relative comfort of a car.—Jill W. Tallman