The Pilot Schoolhouse
I’ve been quite busy this past month and a half. Lots of studying, classroom and simulator time as I completed training to finally move over to the left seat and fly as captain. All the hours spent training and studying led to numerous questions from friends and family about how one is taught to fly for an airline.
Training programs differ between each airline, as well as the different planes that the company operates. But each program requires rigorous work and full time studying. Pilots often compare the amount of information and procedures learned to drinking out of a fire hose. Each pilot must begin preparing even before class starts. Some companies provide the pilot applicants with study material that require a time period of home study with little to no time spent in the classroom. Others provide weeks of classroom education prior to the pilots even stepping into a simulator.
The instructors start with the basics: reviewing the FAR’s (Federal Aviation Regulations), weather, instrument flight procedures as well as the specific airline’s policies and procedures. After passing required tests, the pilots move onto in depth training on the specific airplane’s systems followed by more tests. Again, I can’t vouch for every airline in the world, but my experiences at a couple different regional airlines have been pretty similar.
The ground school portion is usually followed by practicing normal and emergency procedures and checklist usage in a flight procedures trainer (FPT), which is a mock up of the flight deck. These FTPs are often posters/photos of all the buttons and switches that are arranged to simulate the flight deck in order to practice flows (a systematic way of moving switches and pressing buttons for different phases of flight). We affectionately call these FPTs the “Paper Tiger.” They help create the correct muscle memory for the different flows and checklists. Some companies have a more advanced version of the “paper tiger” that use touch screens that will give indications via lights and sounds to simulate what actually occurs as you move and press different switches and buttons. The simulators that airlines use are very costly to operate. They want to make sure their pilot applicants are up to speed before throwing them into the sim. This helps avoid wasting precious time and money on someone who isn’t prepared.
The simulator flight deck is exactly the same as the real airplane. The simulator provides visuals and full motion in order to provide the most realistic experience. The sims can be hydraulically or electronically actuated, creating the sensation of flying the airplane. The motion will simulate turbulence, the thud as the gear retracts as well as the cracks in the pavement as you taxi around the airport. It’s pretty easy to geek out the first few times you sit in it.
All normal procedures are practiced in the simulator with special concentration on all sorts of different emergency situations. We practice these emergencies safely in the training environment repeatedly so that in the rare situation we have a real emergency while flying the line, we are able to react quickly and correctly.