From Sea Level to 737 Captain: Escape From Groundschool!


Testing, testing, one-two-three.

One was the Memory Items–all fourteen. Spit ’em out exactly, or do not pass go.

Two was the General Knowledge Exam, which was 100 randomly generated questions–although the “randomness” included about 75% of the questions being on hydraulics, pneumatics and environmental systems. And hydraulics is the Boeing spaghetti bowl: the terminology relates to actuation, not function. Confused? Me too: replacing the left hydraulic system is conveniently labeled “Alternate Flight Control System” which relates to what it does, not what it is.

Regardless, you scored a 90% overall, which is actually overkill since the requirement was 85% to pass. And in fact, you even worked hard on the last few even though based on the number of questions you missed, you could have skipped the last three or four questions altogether.

The last exam was the Flight Management Computer load, initialize, operate, course change, inbound and outbound intercepts, point-bearing-distance creation, holding, blah-blah-blah, done.

So how was the “exam experience” overall? Here are the answers, in “exam-ese:”

1. Did you think the exams were productive?

A. Sure, but they’re still a pain in the butt.

B. Actually, some of the questions had crappy answers. Like “half full” rather than “50%” as I chose.

C. Well, beats a two hour oral “stump the dummy” session with an evaluator.

D. All of the above.

The correct answer is “D.”

Of course, Bill finished his in record time and blasted off. You took too much time, reading the question thoroughly and then verifying every answer with the allowed references (Quick Response Handbook and Operating Manual Volume I) which left you just finishing up while he was probably on his second beer back at the hotel. Kids these days.

But the main thing is: you finished ground school.

Now, the focus shifts from systems theory and operation to integrated procedures and flight sequencing. Since this is an “Advanced Qualification Program” (AQP), that means the Stage-3 simulators: full motion, sound, 120 degree active visual.

In days past, that training would be in the aircraft and in fact, this phase is technically labeled “Aircraft Training.” The simulators are so advanced–again, the Flight Academy has the best of everything–that the FAA has certified them as “flight training.”

The advantage? Beyond fuel savings and the associated costs of flying an actual 737, there’s a range of experience impossible to achieve in actual flight.

For example, you can run through a maneuver and then freeze the simulator and replay the entire event critiquing as you go. Plus, as we said back in Air Force flight school, it’s only “simulated death” if you screw up.

And there are realistic simulator profiles to create wind shear and terrain closure scenarios that are challenging and realistic. Those we practice every year and they are invaluable.

And though you usually dread the sim periods for the tedium, you always leave with new knowledge, experience and confidence. That’s crucial now, because you don’t know how the 737 flight controls respond, how the jet feels, what the flight characteristics and handling feels like.

The MD-80 was like second nature. You knew every move she’d make in any flight situation. Now, like the exams, you’re taking it slow and cautious. Not because you’re a “slow and cautious” type–you’re not–but because you can project ahead by looking back and you know what it’s like to sit in the left seat in the pointy end as the flight situation starts to unravel and you are the one who has to sort everything out and make it all happen safely. That being the case, you definitely don’t want to be wondering what you missed and what you could have done better.

Still, with ground school in the rear view mirror, the fun stuff’s straight ahead. Stand by for the next report on the first phase of flight sims.

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