April 13, 2013

Preparing for an Airline Ground School

Getting ready to sip from the proverbial fire hose...

If you've been reading along, then you know that I've been an MD80 First Officer for a very long time...much longer than intended on a plane I didn't actually intend to fly.  Someone I know and love dearly told me not to stay on the 80 too long or I might decide I liked it.  Well...it's far too late for that, because I've decided I like the old girl a lot.  She may be old, but she is reliable and I am exceedingly comfortable in her cockpit.  However, for reasons discussed in previous posts, I recently decided the timing was right for a change.  Boeing 737-800 First Officer training started earlier this week.

School never came easy for me.  That's not to say I didn't make good grades, but it always seemed to take twice the effort to produce the same grades as my peers.  During Junior High and High School, my next door neighbor and I were in the same grade.  It quickly became apparent that I was rarely halfway through with my schoolwork by the time my buddy was out playing ball and enjoying what was left of the day.  Once in college, I did not pursue an aviation degree because I wanted something in another field to fall back on.  So far I haven't needed my fallback position and I hope I never will, but studying subject matter in college that didn't really interest me made for a long four year educational experience.  With all this in mind, one might think I would choose a career field that didn't require quite so much continued education, but once bitten by the aviation bug, there was no turning back.

Airline ground school would not prove to be easier than any of my previous educational endeavors, but for the first time ever, I was studying something I actually liked and cared about...that was a small distinction that made a huge difference.  Even so, finding a way to retain such an enormous amount of information in such a short amount of time was daunting to say the least.

If you aren't an auto mechanic, this might put it into perspective.  Walk out to the garage and lift the hood to your car.  What is all that stuff? Crawl around on the ground and look at all the mechanics under the car.  Lots of stuff under there too!  An auto mechanic knows what all that stuff is...I don't.  A mechanic knows what every component is and how it works.  He could take it all apart and put it back together again.  He knows what happens if one component stops working properly and how it interacts with all the other stuff under the hood.  Most importantly, he's able to diagnose a problem when the car it isn't working properly and fix it.  I'm that guy who lifts the hood on a broken-down car and stares at the engine like I know what I'm looking at.  I never do, but when it comes to the airplane I fly, I have to know what all that "stuff" is and how it works.

I've been through a number of airline ground schools over the years, EMB-120 First Officer, ATR-72 First Officer, EMB-120 Captain, Boeing 737 Captain, Boeing 727 Flight Engineer, MD80 First Officer and now Boeing 737 First Officer.  You probably noticed Boeing 737 Captain on the list and might think training as a First Officer now would be no big deal, but I initially trained on a 737-200 almost 20 years ago.  Not only have I long since flushed everything I knew about that jet, but the 737-800 I'm training on now is a significantly different animal.  I'll be starting from scratch.

I've come up with a process that works for me, and the name of the game is preparation.  I see guys showing up for ground school with their class materials still in the shrink rap they came in, putting their books together and perusing a thing or two before the first day of class...completely unprepared.  That isn't me.  In a perfect world, I could sit down on that first day and pass an oral exam.  Many would claim that's overkill, but it's what works for me and it turns a potentially stressful month long course into a much more enjoyable and productive experience.

Unfortunately, there have been a few schools over the years that caught me by surprise or for one reason or another and did not present an opportunity for preparation.  My first airline ground school was EMB-120 Brasilia First Officer training at Atlantic Southeast Airlines.  Not only was this my first, but with only two weeks notice of new hire training and no way to obtain a copy of the manuals, I was one of those guys unwrapping his books on the first day.  To make matters worse, the Brasilia was a complicated airplane, far more complex than anything I'd ever flown before...training was a challenge.

While in Brasilia school, I spent a few days studying with my father, who was a Boeing 767 Captain at the time.  I vividly remember his comments after spending an afternoon reviewing the electrical system.  "If you can learn this airplane, you'll never have trouble with another ground school."  I spent every waking moment with my nose in the books and my lack of preparation resulted in a generally unpleasant experience.

This time was different.  I thought long and hard before bidding the 737 and started preparation before I had officially been awarded the position.  One thing that made that possible was online Computer Based Training (CBT).  Through a website only accessible by pilots working for my airline, I was able to access all the books and training materials I would need to complete the course.  The CBT included 9 days of online lessons that covered every system on the plane and I was able to supplement that information with online manuals.  The company has since provided me with the shrink wrapped books of past schools, but I wasn't allowed to have them until I actually had a class date...by then I didn't really need them, but they look good on the shelves in my office and as a relative "old guy" I still prefer paper manuals to those available on my company issued iPad.

Class started on Wednesday and showing up prepared has already reduced my stress level.  During my Brasilia training at ASA, I often felt like my head might explode.  I constantly felt as if I couldn't possibly put one more morsel of information in my head without doing irreparable harm.  Mental melt down was a constant possibility and the old term "drinking from a fire hose" took on new meaning.

Stay tuned...the blog will probably look a little different in the coming weeks.  School will be my first priority, but I'll try to make regular...if not shorter...posts about my progress.  I should be out on the line by mid-May, posting comments and pictures from another cockpit.


  1. I understand you very well in wanting to be prepared. I also feel that being somewhat familiar beforehand helps me to get more out of the actual class. I'm only at the beginning of my 2-year studies towards ATPL, right now studying for the PPL exams, but aircraft general knowledge definitely made me at first feel like my head's gonna explode! It's hard to grasp new information when every other word you hear is new. I'll be flying a Bonanza and an Embraer Phenom 100 later in my training, can't wait to get to those systems. :) Good luck with you studies, looking forward to reading about the 737! /Niina

  2. I'm guessing that the 737-800 will be the most sophisticated airplane of your career. I'm looking forward to reading about your thoughts on this popular jet.

  3. Can't wait to see where the skies will take you in your new 737!

    It was refreshing for me to read that you have the same issues mechanically as I do. Some people are really great at comprehending all that's going on in a car engine. I am NOT one of those people. I love flying, and know that the mechanical aspect will be a challenge. Seeing that even though it wasn't your strong point, and that you still made it through, makes me feel a lot better for the future.

    Hope your training has been treating you well, just imagine flying that newer, faster, bigger bird!
    -Swayne Martin

    Martins Aviation / From Private to Professional Pilot

  4. Enjoy your blog very much. Feel free to concentrate on school instead of your blog. (probably does not need to be stated)

  5. You will do great on this plane. All that Boeing knowledge will come back to you with ease. So... I too am like you. I read the entire manual before school started.

    Now, we don't have school anymore. This is how we learn...on our own at home. Show up day one and take a test. It's a new world. Enjoy your class!

  6. I am on recall and plan to go back in April 2016. I have no seat lock and will be pursuing the 737.
    How do I get my hands of material to prepare?

    1. You should send me an email at airlinepilotchatter@gmail.com. I'd be happy to help you with any questions you may have. Most of the training and manuals are available online. Do you have access to the pilot website yet? Everything you need is on that site. Most of the manuals are electronic. They will automatically to your company issued iPad once you get one. Let me know how I can help.