New-hires will spend a month or more at an airline’s training center. The first thing all of them must endure is a weeklong course known as basic indoctrination, or “basic indoc.” It’s not as scary as the name implies—nobody gets his head shaved or is forced to do push-ups—but it’s several tedious days devoted to administrative paperwork and learning company-specific rules and procedures. In addition to filling out insurance forms, you’ll spend a lot of time going over something known as operations specifications (ops-specs, we call them), which is about as exciting as it sounds. Trainees can phone home and mesmerize their spouses with all they’ve learned about takeoff visibility criteria and the required ceiling minima when selecting alternate airports.
The hands-on airplane training takes around three weeks to complete. Which plane you’re assigned to is determined by your bidding preferences, in-class seniority (determined by lottery or date of birth), and which vacancies happen to be available (more on that later in the chapter). Before you move on to the full-motion simulators, practice takes place in computerized cockpit mock-ups—high-tech minisims. These machines have fully working instruments and controls, but do not have visuals and do not physically move. You will get familiar with the plane’s various systems, rehearse different malfunctions and emergencies, and “fly” instrument approaches galore.
It used to be that flight crews underwent lengthy systems training in a classroom setting, but nowadays the emphasis is on self-study. The company will mail you a package of books and CDs, and you’re expected to have a healthy systems knowledge before showing up for training. This takes strong self-discipline and the careful compartmentalizing of information—lots of it.
Then come the simulators. You’ve seen the sims on television—those giant paint-shakers with their creepy hydraulic legs. Everyone has heard how astoundingly true-to-life these contraptions are, and maybe you take this with a grain of salt. Don’t. A session of mock disaster in “the box” is exceptionally true to life. The 3-D visuals, projected onto wraparound screens, aren’t the most realistic—the renderings of terminal buildings and landscapes, for example, wouldn’t win any CGI contests—but the airplane and its systems behave precisely as they do in the real world.
Each session lasts about four hours, not including the time spent on prep and debriefing. It might comprise a series of “snapshot” maneuvers, whereby the sim is repositioned for various drills, or it might follow the real-time pattern of an actual flight, gate to gate, complete with paperwork, radio calls, and so on. Captains and first officers training together are tested both individually and as a working team. Behind them sits a merciless instructor whose job it is to make them as miserable as possible.
That’s being facetious. The instructor is a teacher, a coach, and the point here isn’t to wash people out. Just the same, I’d rather be almost anywhere than sitting in a full-motion simulator. There are plenty of would-be pilots and aerogeeks out there who would sell their families into slavery for the chance to spend an hour in one of these damn boxes. (You can actually rent them out, though a sixty-minute block of time runs thousands of dollars.) Which is a bit ironic, because there is almost nothing on Earth I enjoy less. I hate simulators, and they hate me—which, if you think about it, is the optimum relationship.