Airline Pilot Recurrent Training: Your Annual Beating.
It’s a love-hate thing. You know you need to get back into the classroom for the latest technical information on a complex jet, plus the thorough review of systems, aircraft performance, navigation; all the myriad details, plus technical and procedural changes since your last beating nine months ago. And you want to know the standard is high fleet-wide, that everyone you fly with has also been challenged, evaluated and made the grade.
But it’s also known in the official FAA description of the process as a “jeopardy event:” your license is on the line as part of the process. Because the final “event” is the actual six hour beating on the final day: a two hour “stump the dummy” (YOU) session with an evaluator, covering the memory items, of plus all aircraft limitations (max altitude for bleed and electrical on the APU?), the operating limitations (crosswind limit on a wet runway with visibility less than 3/4 mile?), and systems knowledge (power source for emergency DC?).
Complete that satisfactorily, then begin the four hour “pinball simulator” (you know, lights, bells and buzzers coming on constantly) which is also pass-fail. That is, here come the malfunctions, fires, failures, technical problems, wind shear, instrument approaches, single engine landings–and if you don’t handle everything perfectly, your license qualification is suspended and you’re grounded.
Never has happened to me, and keeping things that way is the headache of recurrent training. And last time doesn’t matter–it’s the one ahead that determines your career.
So of course you start studying in flight as the dreaded training approaches. Above is the “Memory Item” card, a menu-like roster of the 14 memory procedures, each with multiple steps, that you must be able to accomplish and recite from memory. In the training “good, bad and ugly,” this is definitely the latter: some of the critical action litanies are clearly written for and by attorneys for their use–likely against you–after an incident requiring the procedure.
For example, the first step in “Emergency Descent” checklist: “The pilot will notify the flight attendants on the PA of the impending rapid descent; the first officer will notify ATC and get the local altimeter setting.”
Seems fine? Actually, it’s not written in any way useful to a pilot, like some of the other critical action items. For example, “Engine Fire, Failure or Severe damage:” “Autothrottles, disconnect; Throttle, failed engine (confirm), closed . . .” Those are action items with first person narrative step-by-step follow-through, very helpful in an emergency.
By contrast, re-read the “Emergency Descent” memory step one: it’s third person narrative–very distracting in a first person, real-life emergency, to be recited not to help a pilot accomplish critical steps in a difficult situation, but rather, to be recited in court, to be browbeaten there by attorneys suing the pilots and the airline for whatever might have happened in an emergency. What were you instructed to do?
The dividing line seems to be vulnerability to passenger lawsuits, because the engine failure procedures are written in actionable, useful form (passengers aren’t likely to sue over engine malfunctions) as are other purely technical procedures like asymmetric flaps, electrical failures, hydraulic leaks, or any of the gazillion things that can go wrong with a hi-tech jet. The “lawyer creep” has permeated not only the memory items, but also the inch thick Quick Response Handbook.
And that’s the “ugly” that’s now woven into the fabric of pilot recurrent training: you must fly like a pilot, but think like an attorney.
Now, the “bad.” Unfortunately, many of the recurrent training required items are almost irrelevant from the cockpit, but if the FAA mandates that flight crews get 1.5 hours of “HAZMAT” (hazardous materials) training, by God there will be a training block on the schedule. Why irrelevant? Because pilots neither handle the hazardous material or package, stow, and record the contents. The upside of such training blocks are this: study hall. Everyone’s studying the actually important stuff, like the Stump The Dummy barrage above that you know is coming.
Ditto the “Flight Manual Briefing,” which features a non-pilot ground school instructor droning on about approach minimums, legalities, operating restrictions–basically everything we already deal with successfully every flight. More study hall.
Finally, on to “the good” stuff. The best part, and by far the longest, is what we call “The Pump Up,” or Systems Review. This is four hours of schematics, discussion, review and instruction pertaining to the jet, its systems and their operation, conducted by a ground school specialist. This is the pay dirt of recurrent, particularly for someone like me with barely 1,500 hours on the jet.
And last but not least, before the simulator phase, we have Human Factors, which is an interesting, important look at the human factors behind errors or problems in flight. Any pilot with half a brain sitting in on this three hour session listens carefully with a “How Do I Not Screw Up Like They Did” focus. My usual take-away is that flying airplanes is simply too dangerous. And, better get comfortable flying like an attorney.
The first 6 hour simulator period is a dress rehearsal for the next day’s 6 hour evaluation. This period is vital, and it’s conducted by a non-pilot simulator instructor. These folks know everything there is to know about instrument and aircraft procedures and in fact, when I was a pilot evaluator myself, I always asked them to do the instructional briefings: they’re the best. This is the time to get your questions answered, gray areas cleared up, and essentially, get your head screwed on straight for the checkride.
Then four hours in “The Box:”
Full motion, 180 degree digitalized visual displaying the detail of Google Earth. You can do all the things you’d like to experience in the aircraft, but which can only be safely and very realistically done in the simulator: fires, failures, structural damage, windshear, midair avoidance. It’s a busy four hours, with a break in the middle.
This is, from the pilot viewpoint, the heart of the Flight Academy: the Iron Kitchen. In the hallway connecting the north and south simulator buildings, this non-descript hallway is where pilots all gather between sim sessions, try to unwind, try to pysch up for the second half, and for the evaluation.
The next day is for real, with an evaluator, your pilot qualification at stake. The “oral” Stump-The-Dummy session mixes information about the fleet from the pilot evaluator with questions regarding Memory Items, limitations, procedures, and policies.
Then, if you pass, it’s into The Box where the visual is so detailed and realistic that it almost gives you vertigo. Then it’s a series of emergencies, correct analysis (you hope) and proper corrective action (you’d better). Low visibility approaches, single engine approaches, systems malfunctions and diagnoses, over and over. Do it safely, do it right. Seems like it’ll never end.
But eventually, it does. “Good for another ten thousand miles,” I tell my copilot as we leave the Flight Academy. A love-hate thing: you hate the pressure, the high stakes, but you’re glad it’s there. You want to know everyone else you fly with has made the cut as well, because they’re all you have in the air to make a team that can successfully handle whatever challenge–including the wayward lawyers–that awaits you in the real jet every work day.
And the best part is, at least nine months ahead before you have to do it all over to prove yourself yet again.
What’s it like to fly the B-2 Stealth bomber?
We go one-on-one with a man who’s flown it for years.