Be Prepared, Not Just Proficient

Crew in FlightSafety simulator. FlightSafety International

The master caution light started throbbing its insistent message—something was wrong with the airplane. Our pilot looked up at the annunciator panel and saw a yellow light: “Door Seal.” Did our pilot get excited, become distracted or, worse yet, panic? No. She reached down for the “Emergency/Abnormal Procedures” checklist. Calmly turning to the back cover, which pictured all the possible annunciator messages, she matched the offending light to Page Z3 of the checklist. “Better a flashing yellow caution light than a red master warning light,” she mused.

With a knowing sigh, but not much more than that, she read the following: “‘Door Seal’ indicates cabin primary-seal pressure is too low to maintain door-seal integrity. Secondary seal should maintain pressurization.” Thus reassured—and reminded of a similar scenario she experienced in the jet’s simulator just two months ago—our pilot complied with the initial instructions to descend to 31,000 feet, don her oxygen mask, and activate the passenger-advisory switch.

The airplane, which was close to its destination, descended to a safe altitude and landed minutes later.

The calm attitude and demeanor exhibited by the pilot wasn’t intuitive. A sudden warning light blinking in a jet at 41,000 feet (about 8 miles high) is not a naturally calming event. Years of training and recurrent training had produced a careful, steady pilot—one not rattled by much. She was prepared.

Being prepared is the cornerstone of training philosophy at FlightSafety International. Since Brad Thress was named President and CEO in February 2020, FSI has embarked on changes that reflect a transition from training according to regulatory standards to training for competent preparedness. Even the logo at the venerable company is transitioning from the blocky font to a sleeker look. The letters appear to lean forward, as if inviting you to come along and get prepared for your next flight. “When the marketing folks came to me and recommend these changes, I hesitated because our brand has been so iconic for 70 years” Thress says. “But then I realized we do want to signal change and make new and younger pilots feel welcomed to our training.”

Being prepared is not really a new concept. In 1907, Robert Baden-Powell, an English soldier, coined the Boy Scouts’ motto: “Be Prepared.” When asked, “Be prepared for what?” Baden Powell replied, “Well, for any old thing.” In surgical operating rooms, nurses are taught to prepare for emergencies, though they might never see one. Why won’t they ever see one? Because if you prepare for an emergency, it won’t feel like one when it happens.

Pilots during ground school at FlightSafety International FlightSafety International

Jack Tessmann has been director of training at FlightSafety’s Cessna Learning Center since 2007, yet he has still managed to accumulate 7,850 hours in the air. This real-world experience is evident in the structure of FSI training. Ground school features colorful examples of the integration of systems training with real-life scenarios. “Matrix” classrooms have three screens that the instructor references, one displaying the visual cockpit indication of a malfunction. A second screen shows a specific system schematic so the trainee can understand exactly what has happened and how the airplane is designed to deal with the problem. The third screen allows a detailed view of the panel, with the ability for the instructor to zoom in to certain regions of the cockpit.

Speaking of preparedness, simulation training in high-fidelity simulators provides experiences that could never be safely reproduced in an actual airplane. Though in-airplane training programs are available from some outfits, they all suffer from the inability to really simulate dangerous conditions. “In the simulator, we can set it up for the pilot to experience a catastrophic engine failure that results in a fire just after takeoff in blowing snow,” Tessmann says. “If you are training in an aircraft, there is a point at which you have to say, ‘That’s enough.’” Other examples include engine-start malfunctions. You don’t want to actually experience a “hot start” in your own airplane if you are responsible for the maintenance bills.

The other advantage of simulator training compared with in-aircraft training is the “freeze mode.” An instructor can stop any maneuver and point out mistakes. Then the pilot can be reset to fly the maneuver or approach again. In an actual airplane—burning actual fuel and experiencing actual noisy flight conditions—nuances fly by with such speed that no one could process and absorb the information.

I’ve had personal experience in the process of getting five jet type ratings. All were in the simulator except one. That one in-airplane type rating was a disaster. After calculating the cost of fuel, instructor time, and wear and tear on brakes, tires and engines, I concluded that the simulator training was much more efficient and safer.

It isn’t just the actual moving simulator that gives fidelity to the training experience at FSI. Often, graphical flight-deck simulators are used to orient pilots to location of switches and controls. In the past, rudimentary devices, called cockpit trainers, were used for this purpose. Not much more than a picture of a cockpit, they are nothing compared with the GFS. When a switch is moved by touch on an interactive screen representation of the cockpit in the GFS, you can see the effect of moving that switch. It is almost like being in the actual Level D simulator.

FlightSafety International Class D simulators FlightSafety International

Perhaps the most rewarding event during initial or recurrent flight training is the “debrief.” After a simulator session, pilot and instructor convene in a small room to provide a quiet and confidential space to review what the pilot did well and what could use improvement. It is here that the lessons sink in. Free from the distraction of the simulator, points can be repeated until the pilot gains clarity.

FlightSafety is known for its instructors. The qualification process for them is extensive and highly structured. It is likely that a training center has been training on a specific aircraft model since its certification. So, in many cases, the instructor has the same tenure as that certification. These folks know that airplane—and in that knowledge, they enhance your own preparation.

Tessmann says that large flight departments tend to commit more resources to safety. They tailor their training to ensure all their pilots are trained the same way to the same standards, making a safer flight deck. Callouts and checklist responses are customized. Other flight departments opt not to do this, completing the minimum regulatory requirements and sometimes using less-frequent training sessions. In these situations, “there’s a sense that one needs to just check the boxes in order to comply with regulations,” Tessmann says. “But when operators need it the most—in real situations and real challenges—it’s expert-taught, expansive training that will actually prepare them.”

When asked about owner-operators and single-pilot jets, Tessmann points out that these individuals didn’t get where they are without being motivated to high achievement. Curricula are tailored to the pilot and airplane. What are common flights anticipated by the pilot? What weather and airport challenges will they encounter? These factors are customized to achieve maximum preparation.

Our pilot in the door-seal example reported the abnormality to maintenance and just learned that a sensor switch had become cold-soaked at altitude. It will be replaced tomorrow. Meanwhile, her sense of accomplishment has added to her appreciation for her job and the company for which she works. She’s well-trained, yes, but more important, she’s prepared. As FlightSafety’s vice president for safety and regulatory compliance, D. Richard Meikle, likes to say, “Proficient is capable; prepared is unshakable.”

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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