August 6, 2010

Recurrent Training


I woke up this morning with an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach…a familiar uneasiness that originates in my gut, creeps its way up to my head and back down to the tip of my toes. Ah yes, recurrent training starts later today. I have often said that training, especially in the simulator, would be a lot more fun if my certificate wasn’t on the line every time I stepped foot on the “school house” grounds. As for me and all the other pilots at my airline, the trek to the school house occurs every 9 months, at which time we are poked, prodded, tested and trained to handle any and every situation, normal and otherwise.

Depending on the airline, recurrent training typically occurs at 6, 9 or 12 month intervals. I’ve done all three at two different companies and must admit that I’m partial to the 12 month program only because it provides the most amount of time between the stress of evaluation, ruined layovers spent at cramped hotel room desks and countless nights trying to study at home with young children in the house. I flew for a regional airline that utilized a 6 month program…the worst of the three options in my opinion, and not for the reason you might think. We would spend one day in the classroom and then move on to the simulator on day two where we got absolutely no warm-up or practice time before being evaluated. Simulators have come a long way in the last 50 years, but they still don’t fly exactly like the real thing, and a little time to acclimate is time well spent. The 12 month program was in favor at my current airline when I was hired, but later switched to a 9 month cycle. We either get one or two days of ground school followed by two days in the sim…one day for practice and one day to evaluate our skills.

Utilizing the 9 month cycle, a pilot receives an “R9” followed 9 months later by an “R18.” The R9 is a “jeopardy” event. The R18 is not. Keep reading, I’ll explain. If a pilot is unsuccessful at completing any aspect of the simulator training during an R9, then he fails the event and must complete further training and re-evaluation, usually at a later date. A pilot who fails an R9 is removed from flight status until re-training takes place. A record of this is kept in the pilot’s employment records and, surprise, surprise, no-one wants such a thing in their records and the mere threat of such a thing is enough to induce the stomach issues I mentioned earlier.

The R18 on the other hand is a “train to proficiency” event. If a pilot makes a mistake during the R18, he will be re-trained on the spot and given another chance to perform the same maneuver. The only problem is that there are only 4 hours to complete an R18 for two pilots and if you spend too much time on re-training then you can’t get everything finished and must come back at a later date. This rarely happens, but when it does…for the R18…there is no record of the event and no blemish in your file.

A pilot attends two days of classroom instruction during an R9 and the course is shortened for the R18 and only takes one day. During ground school, pilots review systems, performance, FAA regulations, security, flight manuals and what we call “Human Factors” where, for the most part, we learn from other’s mistakes. A highly useful class if you ask me. We also get some time in cabin trainers where we practice opening and closing emergency exits, the use of emergency equipment and putting out fires, something we all do every time we pass through the school house.

Day one in the simulator is usually the same, regardless of whether you are taking the R9 or the R18. Two pilots, a Captain and a First Officer meet for two hours with an instructor for a pre-flight briefing before spending four hours in the simulator, generally splitting the time evenly between the two pilots. Of course, everything we do is done as a crew, so both pilots get a thorough workout for the entire four hours.

The world inside a full motion simulator is an interesting place. Again, it would be lots of fun if there wasn’t so much on the line. You walk into a huge, hangar-like room filled with simulators, which, depending on their age, may have cost as much as the real aircraft it simulates. The sims look like something out of “War of the Worlds”…huge boxes on top of hydraulic legs with retractable draw bridges to allow crews access to their torture chambers.

Once inside, the business end looks just like a real jet. Everything looks, feels and sounds real. Once you are sitting down, strapped in with the overhead lights turned down, visual displays turned up with the sound and motion activated…your body and mind are easily fooled into believing that you’re sitting in the real thing. The back half of the room is all computers and screens from which the instructor can simulate just about anything. One minute you’re in Denver, taking off toward the mountains on a hundred degree day with thunderstorms and wind sheer reports. Two minutes later you could be on final to Santa Anna, landing on a wet 5701 ft. wet runway in poor visibility followed shortly by the mountains around Mexico City, climbing out with an engine on fire. If the instructor doesn’t like the outcome of any scenario, he can restart the event at the push of a button. “Hey guys, lets do that again…here we go.”

The simulator is truly an amazing tool. As expensive as they are, they save incredible amounts of money and provide unparalleled levels of training and the ability to train for every imaginable event. Tomorrow…it’s an R18 for me…I’ll crawl into the sim for my chance to be poked, prodded and tested. Should be fun, but I’ll be glad when it’s over and I can read magazines and watch TV on my layovers again.

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