One of the sub-plots in my new novel will be about a new-hire pilot as he begins his career with an airline. A typical airline pilot will occupy many different cockpit seats during his career and is motivated to do so in order to increase his pay. A new hire pilot will begin his career in the lowest paying seat on the airline and then advance as his or her seniority allows. If the airline operates older aircraft that require a three man crew (DC-8, L-1011, B-727, and older B-747) the new guy will be trained as a second officer and perform the duties of flight engineer. He may not actually touch the flight controls for several years.
As older pilots die or retire, the new guy will be able to move up to larger, higher paying aircraft and eventually be eligible to advance to first officer and perform as a co-pilot. The ultimate goal, of course, is to become a captain. This is why younger pilots on the seniority list have been known to encourage captains to buy motorcycles and take up sky-diving. Each time a pilot changes seats, a visit to the training department is required in order to qualify for the new position. A typical transition course involves two weeks of ground school, followed by a week in the simulator. My purpose here is to offer insight into that process.
The majority of the time in ground school is used to teach the details of aircraft systems. Sounds simple, but it’s not. The aircraft manual is thick and every page is covered. The chapters include; Aircraft General, Air Conditioning and Pressurization, Auto flight, Auxiliary Power Unit, Communications and Radar, Electrical, Emergency Equipment, Fire Protection, Flight Controls, Fuel, Flight Instruments, Hydraulics, Ice and Rain Protection, Landing Gear, Oxygen, Pneumatics, Engines, and Warning Systems.
I just listed 18 systems and the ground school instructor has 9 days to teach with the tenth day reserved for testing. You begin to sense some amount of urgency and airlines abhor training costs, though they would adamantly deny that. The student is not only expected to know the components of each system and how they operate, along with each control and indicator, but also the normal, abnormal, and emergency procedures. Some procedures must be memorized and performed without referring to a checklist. System limitations must also be committed to memory and regurgitated verbally during testing.
In addition to systems, the transition class is also taught the company’s Op Specs (Operation Specifications) for the aircraft. These are special rules that the FAA approves to allow (among many other things) the carrier to operate below standard minima for approach and landing. For instance, basic jet minimums for approach are a ceiling of 200 feet and visibility of ¾ mile. Airlines with Op Specs allowing Category IIIA approaches are permitted to land with zero-zero conditions. Let’s move on, I’m getting a headache. The class will also be taught ditching and evacuation procedures and attend a security class.
At the end of the two weeks, the class takes a comprehensive written exam and then will be introduced to a representative of the Friendly Aviation Administration in order to take an oral exam. This usually takes about two hours and the inspector will expect a recitation of all the required memory items of the emergency checklist along with the regurgitation of the chapter on aircraft limitations. After jumping that hurdle, he will proceed to ask questions about every switch and light in the cockpit followed by, “What would you do if…?”
After successfully completing the ground school, a deep breath is allowed before moving on to a week in the simulator where the real fun begins. That’s a blog for another day. I’ll conclude with a fact that the traveling public is not aware of. Major airlines no longer conduct training flights for pilots. The rating ride is taken in the simulator and the first time your butt sits in the new seat you have trained for (maybe the first time you’ve ever entered this particular type of aircraft), there will be paying passengers sitting behind you enjoying the thrill along with you. There’s no extra charge for the exciting debut performance. I hasten to add that your first few landings will be with a line check captain in the other seat to see that your transition is smooth.
This is just a broad view of how pilots move through the ranks as seniority and experience increases. Training is an ongoing process throughout the career and a never ending challenge. You just hope that if the music stops, you have a seat to occupy.