Although flunking out completely is rare, every pilot will botch his or her share of maneuvers. It’s not at all uncommon to need an extra sim period or two, and for certain exercises to be repeated. Washout rates at the major airlines are quite low—1 or 2 percent maybe—but never is success taken for granted. Fail a check-ride, and you’ll be given another chance, sure. Fail it a second time, though, and things start to get uncomfortable. The majors tend to have an accommodating, gentlemanly approach to training. Regional carriers aren’t always as patient and aren’t known for their touchy-feely training environments.
After a final sim check, a pilot graduates to the actual aircraft for what we call IOE, or “initial operating experience.” This is a series of revenue flights completed under the guidance and tutelage of a training captain. There are no warm-ups; your very first takeoff will be with a load of paying passengers seated behind you.
Those assigned to international routes also receive a brief course in long-range navigation. Additionally, there’s “theater training” specific to airports or regions that are especially challenging. Parts of South America, for example, or Africa. For first officers, this is usually self-study, though for captains it entails flying there in the company of a training pilot before being allowed to do so on their own.
And finally it’s over. Except that it’s not, because pilot training never really stops. Once or twice each year (the frequency varies, depending on your seat and which programs your carrier is approved for) it’s back to the training center for a refresher. Recurrent training, it’s called—a mandatory rite of study and stress culminating in a multihour sim session. Assuming it goes okay, you’re signed off and sent back to the line.
To give you an idea, here’s a breakdown of one of my latest recurrent sim sessions:
We begin with a departure from Washington-Dulles. At the moment of liftoff, bang, the left engine fails and catches fire. For good measure, the instructor has set the weather at bare minimums for a Category 1 ILS approach, and asks that it be hand-flown, sans autopilot. Then, a quarter mile from touchdown, we’re forced to go around when a 747 wanders errantly onto our runway. Next scenario: We’re at 36,000 feet over the Andes, when suddenly there’s a rapid decompression. This would be fairly straightforward over the ocean, but in this case, the high terrain means we have to adhere to a preprogrammed escape route and a carefully scripted diversion path. It gets busy. This was followed by a pair of wind-shear encounters—one each during takeoff and landing, a series of complicated GPS approaches, and an engine-out departure at Quito, Ecuador, where again mountainous terrain entails unusual and tricky procedures.
And that was just the first day. Practice? Is that the right word? Perhaps, though I can’t imagine that this is how an outfielder might feel shagging flies before game-time. If nothing else, at least the time passes quickly. And when it was over, my sense of relief was exceeded only by a renewed resentment for those who believe that flying planes is easy and that modern aircraft basically fly themselves
Wait, we’re still not finished. You’ve also got random “line checks”—periodic spot checks whereby you’ll work a trip in the company of a training captain—as well as unannounced jumpseat visits from the FAA. I love my job, but I do not, even a little bit, enjoy having to fly all the way from Europe with an FAA inspector peering over my shoulder for eight hours, scribbling unseen comments into a notebook.
And lastly, pilots must keep up to date with a never-ending flow of paperwork—an administrative blizzard of operational memos, bulletins, and revisions to our books. Seldom a day goes by without something changing.