Are Airlines Training Pilots for the Real World?

The single-emergency-event-at-a-time philosophy has been part of airline culture for as long as I can remember. CAE

Aloud, muffled boom is heard from within the cockpit. The airplane begins to buffet. The two pilots exchange wide-eyed glances. From years of routine and training, they simultaneously turn toward the center instrument panel and begin to focus their attention on the electronic engine displays. The needle of the left engine N1 gauge is gyrating rapidly, accompanied by an EGT temperature needle that has reached the red zone. The amber master caution light on both sides of the cockpit in the eyebrow of the glareshield is flashing. The captain stabs the light with an index finger, extinguishing the distraction.

Before the pilots have time to completely evaluate the situation, a chime sounds in the cockpit. A flight attendant is calling. Instinctively, the copilot reaches for the handset. The captain shakes his head and commands, “Engine failure/severe damage checklist first.” The copilot nods and begins to tap his iPad, searching for the commanded checklist.

As the checklist items are completed, the captain replies with the appropriate responses. But before all the tasks can be accomplished, both pilots feel a noticeable and uncomfortable rush of air escaping through their ear canals. A glance at the cabin altitude gauge and the cabin rate gauge indicates that air is rushing into the atmosphere. They are about to experience an explosive depressurization.

The captain immediately abandons the engine failure/severe damage checklist and begins the memory actions required for an explosive depressurization. Both pilots don their oxygen masks and verify that intercom communication between them is operating. The autopilot is disconnected. The captain begins a rapid descent, deploying the speedbrakes. The airplane dives toward 10,000 feet.

The copilot selects the explosive depressurization checklist on his iPad, reciting the items required to be accomplished. His voice is distorted with both a nasally tone created by the cup of the oxygen mask and the hiss of air being exhaled. The cockpit is a noisy mix of chaos and control.

While the copilot verifies checklist completion, the captain declares an emergency on the center frequency. Once the airplane levels at 10,000 feet, the captain reaches for the intercom handset and calls the cabin. A flight attendant describes the destruction of the left engine cowl. Shrapnel penetrated a cabin window, the fuselage and portions of the wing leading edge. A passenger has been severely injured and feared dead. It’s not a good day.

After checklists are completed, the captain decides on a diversionary airport within 100 miles from their present position. The two pilots take a moment to assess and evaluate their status. Since the airplane initially rolled into a 40-degree bank among other untypical handling characteristics, they are concerned with the possibility that some of the flight controls, specifically the leading-edge devices, could be compromised. A decision to land with an abnormal 5-degree flap configuration, versus 30 degrees, is made. The reference speed for landing will be nearer 175 knots, as opposed to the typical 150 knots.

The higher landing speed will require an analysis of the appropriate performance chart to determine that the airplane has enough usable runway length for the diversionary airport. In addition, another checklist appropriate to the abnormal flap configuration has to be used. The copilot begins the appropriate tasks while the captain communicates via the intercom to the flight attendants regarding the situation in preparation for a potential emergency landing.

The captain also makes a PA announcement to reassure passengers that the outcome of the flight will be successful. With the assistance of the autopilot, he continues to fly the airplane and communicate with ATC.

Does the above described drama sound familiar? Most likely; this scenario was similar to the events on board Southwest Flight 1380, which suffered a catastrophic, uncontained engine failure this past April. A cracked fan blade was the culprit for the engine’s destruction. As of this writing, the National Transportation Safety Board investigation seems to be leading toward the constant exposure of the CFM56-7B engine to runway debris on takeoff and landing because of its vacuumlike sucking characteristic. The damage is colloquially called, “tooth decay” by mechanics. (Not that I would shamelessly promote a book written by a certain author that writes this column, but the scenario is also reminiscent of an event in Paper Wings.)

My purpose for providing the narrative was not to analyze the Southwest accident but rather to consider the incident in the context of airline pilot training. With present-day recurrent training, line pilots at most U.S. air carriers are exposed to one emergency event at a time. With my airline, unless a simulator malfunction or a simulator entry error occurs, multiple emergencies are not presented within one particular training “flight,” or one particular takeoff and landing cycle. If multiple emergencies are involved, the subject pilot can cry foul.

The single-emergency-event-at-a-time philosophy has been part of airline culture for as long as I can remember. The philosophy is most likely an ancestor of FAA standardization in regard to simplifying pass/fail requirements. And for the most part, this type of training has been successful.

Engine failures, engine fires, hydraulic issues, flight-control malfunctions and so on have all been included in the simulator environment. But these are all relatively controlled events that are handled by proper checklist management.

Granted, some practiced emergencies include a checklist decision tree of multiple steps that might affect other systems. But for the most part, only one malfunction is involved. As an example, a complete hydraulic fluid loss also involves flight controls, which include flaps, spoilers and ailerons.

Most actual emergency situations encountered by airline pilots are not garden variety, by-the-book occurrences. The situation is compounded with multiple problems, as with Southwest 1380. That being said, a successful outcome can involve innovative and prioritized decision-making. Such was the case for Capt. Al Haynes and crew when they landed a hydraulically crippled DC-10 in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989. The famous event was the result of a catastrophic mechanical failure that never should have disabled the airplane as it had been designed.

In my past life as a 767 check airman, part of our recurrent training included a no-harm, no-foul portion that involved multiple emergencies. It was actually a fun experience that challenged not only our flying skills but our decision-making skills.

Although time constraints and costs make it difficult to schedule within a normal recurrent training period, perhaps it’s worth consideration to practice realistic multiple emergencies without the pressure of pass/fail for such scenarios. If structured appropriately, it would add value to the training environment.

With scheduling being a consideration for airlines, an alternative would be to add a separate training period in between normal recurrent cycles for the sole purpose of practicing multiple emergencies. It would be a challenging, albeit humbling, experience worth its weight in self-evaluation.

So, are airline pilots training for the real world? Judging by the industry safety record over the past decade or more, the short answer would be yes. But with any profession, there is always room for improvement. That being said, I can hear my colleagues grumble, “Another training period? Really, Les?”

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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