Posted by: harrisonjones | May 13, 2012

Musical chairs for pilots

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.


  1. Your comments are blatantly slanted towards frightening the general public and based on my familiarity with the training process erroneous in some instances. Obviously, no human can be expected to know all the ins and outs of airplane systems. You pay no credence to modern training concepts based on need-to-know criteria and the ability of systems such as EICAS to present the pilot with warnings and cautions which warrant his attention for the current phase of flight.

  2. SandPen,

    I just completed Captain training at FedEx. Yes we have all the modern systems that are intended to make flying safer, I am sure you do as well. But at no time have I ever felt that the airplane could be trusted to get me and the boxes from point A to B without a minimal amount of input from the crew.

    You said “Obviously, no human can be expected to know all the ins and outs of airplane systems.” I wish you would have called the FAA and Standards Check Airman before my oral and Sim Check. They separately gave me a two hour stump the dummy oral. Very detailed questions including the difference between training ballast pallet and one suitable for flight. The answer is the training one is orange and the one approved for flight is yellow. I got the one approved for flight correct; the other was 1 of the 5 questions I missed. I am glad I didn’t approach my training the way that you suggested.

    You said: “You pay no credence to modern training concepts based on need-to-know criteria and the ability of systems such as EICAS to present the pilot with warnings and cautions which warrant his attention for the current phase of flight.”

    I say that pilots are not monkeys. Emergency Procedures is not; 1. Light come on. 2. Pilot push a series of buttons. 3. Light go out. 4. Pilot get a banana and return to sleep.

    The flying public expects us to know what to do when a light comes on, how to analyze and manage the situation and most importantly not crash in the process! In my humble opinion I didn’t think Harrison’s post was in anyway trying to scare the flying public but he was reassuring the public at the amount of training and expertise that sits micro-seconds in front of them.

    However, I must agree with Harrison and I will also defer to your expertise sir.

    • Thanks for commenting, Captain Akers, and congratulations on your successful journey through the mushroom factory. I do like to make stuff up and create tension and suspense among the public, however I try to limit indulging my prevarications to fiction in novels. The blog is for more credible information and discussion. I certainly do not consider myself an expert, but if I did, I would probably apply for a government position and color code pallets that have been screened for security versus ones that have not. Or maybe I could explain why cargo pilots are not required to have the same rest requirements as passenger jet pilots. I’m sure the experts will reveal this knowledge to us at some point. As for this particular blog, I based my comments on my experience in teaching air carrier pilot ground school for five years before gaining a position on the seniority list. Over the next 27 years, I passed through 8 transition classes as a student (as you just did) on my way to retiring as a MD-11 captain. I wish I had all the answers, but since I don’t, I enjoy the varying viewpoints offered in discussion and you have certainly “been there and done that.” Congratulations once again and enjoy your new position.

      By the way, if you happen to come across that missing package, containing the bicycle sprocket that Orville shipped to Wilbur, please expedite it.

  3. Captain Jones,

    Thank you for the warm welcome to the club. I appreciate your dedication over the years and your service to the aviation world. As far as the sprocket, when I touch boxes, the stock price falls quickly.

    I write weekly in the writing prompts on Writer’s Digest. I would love to see you join the prompts. It would be great to have a fellow aviator in the mix.

    I agree there is a huge difference between the daily life of an airline pilot and that of fiction. Most everyone would fall asleep about the same time we do if they knew the real adventures at FL 360. To everyone who is in the know finds fiction much more enjoyable. Either way I look forward to enjoying your musings over things both real and fiction. With your permission sir, I may drop in from time to time. Good Day, Captain!

  4. Don’t know if it helps and I am sure you already know it but the Ensign’s Toast would be appropriate for the musical chair theme.

    In the Old English Navy the only way to get promoted is if someone about you dies so they created their traditional toast before taking a drink.

    Their toast is “To death, war and famine.”

    Hope it helps and you can work it in.

    • A point well taken, Rob. When a pilot dies, is it considered improper to ask what his senority number was? Why don’t they just publish the number in the obit so everyone doesn’t have to scramble to find a senority list?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: