A pilot’s first trip with an airline is a combination of both stress and excitement.
The reasons for the excitement are obvious: new job, new airplane, new cities, new coworkers, even the new uniform can be a source of a thrill. The excitement is also equal parts stress, as you try to figure out or remember where to go, learn the protocols of the airline, introduce yourself to flight attendants, gate agents, captains, and other employees who seem like they’ve been around forever. And, of course, you actually have to do your job.
The first several trips, however, are a continuation of your training. The FAA does not allow green, fresh-from-training new hires to be thrown out on the line to fend for themselves. You will fly under the watchful eye and tutelage of a line check airman (LCA), who will introduce you to the day-to-day operation of the company and provide the finishing touches on your aircraft training. This is called initial operating experience (IOE), and you go through it with each new job, each new airplane, and whenever you upgrade to captain.
In some respects, the LCA has the easiest job, and in some ways the hardest, when it comes to training. The transition from the sim to the airplane can be a challenge, and it’s the first time you are truly dealing with all aspects of getting a flight off the gate: maintenance, fuel, catering, aggravated passengers and flight attendants. This is no longer an academic exercise in the schoolhouse. It’s real, and it’s real time.
And speaking of time, the LCA also has to keep the flight on schedule without compromising the instruction. As you might imagine, when it comes to dealing with chaos at the gate, there’s a lot that will generate a “we’ll talk about this in flight” comment or two. At some point, you also have to be signed off on walkarounds.
Once you get underway, you get to deal with a blizzard of radio calls that most pilots new to the airlines aren’t ready for. Ramp control and ground will not care that you’re new or in over your head. They will simply expect you to comply—correctly and quickly. Your captain will probably have to bail you out a few times, and it is nothing to be ashamed of.
Airborne, you may or may not actually fly the first leg. Some LCAs believe in a trial by fire and will let you get into it right away. When I was an LCA, I always flew the first leg with a new pilot just to give him or her a chance to observe and catch up. But eventually, you need to get your hands on the wheel, so to speak, and the best advice is to simply fly it the way you did in the sim. You will be required to log X number of legs or hours as the nonflying/monitoring pilot, but you can expect to fly the majority of the legs so that you can get comfortable with the airplane.
In the sim, you spend a lot of time either dealing with emergencies, doing air work, or practicing all manner of approaches. There is very little time to introduce you to flying as it actually is on the line, though you will take a checkride that features a flight that is representative of life on the line. Even then, you will probably get a minor system failure to deal with on the way.
Your first trip will be an opportunity to see what the airplane is really like with everything working. Further, you will be exposed to all of the little nuances of managing a flight, from energy management during climbs and descents to dealing with the flight attendants and making public address announcements to the passengers. You’ll also see how compressed the time can get as you prepare for arrivals, descents, and approaches.
As a new hire, you can expect a lot of time with the LCA on the ground and during layovers as well. There is a lot of material to review, some of which may be a new introduction to you, depending on how the airline structures the training. You’ll also spend time going over things you have done well as well as things you need to improve upon. The learning—and the teaching—never end! If you are hitting the line during the winter months, you can expect to deal with deicing and winter ops, which is challenging enough for veteran pilots that have been around, let alone for someone who has never had to deal with deicing, holdover times, et cetera.
The first trip is both exciting and exhausting. By the time it’s finished, you will begin to feel as if you are settling into a bit of a groove. By the end of the first day, you will be ready to collapse, and you should sleep well. Every time I’ve gone through OE, I’ve had some trouble sleeping the night before the first trip, and I always sleep well after the first day is in the books.
The end of the first trip is a sign that the training process is almost over, but it’s also a crucial point, as you are now being put into the pointy end of a multimillion-dollar machine and entrusted with all the lives behind you. The company wants to make sure that you are safe, competent, and ready. You want to feel … well, safe, competent, and ready. This is a final chance to ask a lot of questions and to perfect your techniques and procedures.
If the first trip goes well, the last trip (or two) will focus more on getting your required IOE time completed before you do your final line check. Once the LCA puts pen to paper and signs you off, you’re considered ready for the day-to-day grind, and your training is complete. Now you get to embrace life on reserve!—Chip Wright