The FAA being the FAA, everyone has to train. If you want to fly continuously, you are subjected to a flight review every two years. This was once known as the biennial flight review, and many people still refer to it as a BFR. In the general aviation world, the flight review is a chance to for you to review any area in which you are weak, need to practice, or that the instructor wants to emphasize. There is also a requirement for an hour of review on the ground. In the air, you will be required to demonstrate proficiency based on the level of certificate that you hold. In other words, a private pilot will get more wiggle room than an airline transport pilot (ATP), who is expected to be able to fly with hair-splitting precision.
In the world of larger airplanes such as jets and turboprops, it isn’t unusual to be required to undergo some form of more formal training using a simulator or fixed training device. The reason for this is twofold: safety and cost. Larger airplanes are capable of doing V1 cuts, a procedure in which an engine fails at the worst possible time during the takeoff roll, and the pilot(s) continue(s) to fly the airplane, with the intention of dealing with the issue once airborne (this obviously only works on aircraft with two or more engines). Doing the training in the airplane is risky and expensive.
These recurrent training programs are fairly structured, and the process and expectations are the dictate of the FAA, the insurance companies, the manufacturer, and the training agency.
At the airlines, the process is very similar, and if anything, it is more tightly controlled and regimented. While there are variations from one airline to the next, or even between the various fleets of an airline, the intent and purpose are the same.
In the old days—which was less than 20 years ago—a pilot would show up for his recurrent, and be given an oral that could cover just about anything under the sun….and sometimes did. Assuming he passed, he would then get into the sim and, without much of a chance to warm up, would be asked to demonstrate myriad maneuvers and procedures, some of which were sadistic and hopelessly unrealistic. Think of doing a single engine NDB approach in a gale-force crosswind while spinning a basketball on your finger, Globetrotter-style.
Today, the process is much more humane, and therefore productive. Generally speaking, there is some kind of a thorough briefing that, while not really an oral exam, isn’t really not one either. Thanks to the internet, enough training can be done online throughout the year that the need for a comprehensive oral is mitigated. Instead, the instructors use the time to review procedures that the crew doesn’t see in the airplane very often. They also discuss trends that have been tracked through various tracking and safety monitoring programs: airports with a higher-than-normal rate of unstabilized approaches, for example, or airports with known challenges created by short runways, construction, et cetera. It’s a good back-and-forth, as the students can often bring up-to-date information to the table while learning what problems other pilots have in training.
Most airlines conducty two days of sim training. The first day is a chance to practice certain maneuvers (often called “first look,” since they are scored on the first try), while knocking the rust off of the rarely used skills. The second day is typically a flight that is representative of life on the line, but with a few twists thrown in. There is usually a minor mechanical malfunction to deal with, and in order to keep things interesting, the training department will choose a challenging SID, STAR, or approach to fly, or they will make it interesting with bad weather, tailwinds, et cetera. Typically, there are two of these flights, so each pilot can fly— but not always.
The training typically covers whatever is being emphasized through the online training, so if the company is doing training on the fuel system, generally, the fuel system will have a malfunction in the sim.
Fortunately, airline pilots who fly for fun can substitute the Part 135 or 121 training for the flight review, though many will get the occasional BFR anyway, just to stay sharp in the small airplanes as well.
Training in general has come a long way, and will continue to evolve. Like most pilots, I used to have a bit of a sense of dread. Having been through so many training events now, I still prepare accordingly, but I look forward to the chance to review and refresh, not to mention just learning something new.
But as always, when it’s over, I walk away with a sense of relief, knowing that I am done with it for another year!—Chip Wright