Jumpseat: Recurrent Training with a Friend

An airline pilot’s secret to passing a check ride.

Jumpseat
No one really enjoys having to demonstrate proficiency under the scrutiny of a microscope, but check rides are an accepted aspect of the job.Boeing

Something told me to check the 777 simulator clipboard for a schedule change. I glanced at the name listed as the check airman for my 0945 time slot. Yup, there had been a reassignment. I smiled. Capt. Scott Meade was now in charge. In a former life, Scott was the chief pilot at my New York crew base. We had worked together when I was a 767 check airman.

As I approached the briefing room, Scott was grinning and shaking his head. A man-hug later, we sat down and attempted to mutually update each other on our respective lives. Unfortunately, we were both aware that the allotted two-hour briefing didn’t allow much time to socialize. Socializing required a different venue and a beer — or two.

Despite the time constraint, Scott and I managed to harass each other, providing entertainment for the simulator instructor, Dave, who was subbing as my copilot. For the first time in my 26 years as a captain, I was not partnered with a regular first officer.

Dave had a few years on me (and probably a ton more experience). At times it appeared as though he was distracted during the briefing, but his subtle grin indicated that he was hearing every word. And as a simulator partner, no matter how heavily I tasked him in the heat of the battle, he got the job done.

So, a check ride with a friend. It doesn’t get much better. But honestly, I felt a little pressure. Why? Because of our previous working relationship, Scott had a positive expectation of my performance. I didn’t want to disappoint him. And I certainly didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of someone I respected. Fortunately, I felt prepared.

After more than 40 years of professional flying, check rides have been an integral part of my career. No one really enjoys having to demonstrate proficiency under the scrutiny of a microscope, but it’s an accepted aspect of the job. That being said, a bad day in the simulator can eventually have serious consequences for our careers. So how do I reduce the stress?

Rather than attempting a reduction (an effort that produces limited success), I mitigate the stress. I accept the fact that stress will always be part of the equation. It then becomes a matter of managing anxiety so that it doesn’t become debilitating. In fact, a healthy dose of tension assists in maintaining my ability to operate at a performance level that at least earns a satisfactory evaluation.

If you’re reading this column hoping for a check-ride silver bullet, I don’t have one. But I can offer the habits and techniques that have worked for me. Perhaps it will reaffirm your own practices, or maybe it will offer you new ideas. And for those of you new or unfamiliar with the world of check rides, this dissertation might provide some insight.

My personal stress-mitigation program begins with a methodical study process that averages about three days of concentration. I tend to have a higher confidence level when I’m armed with a good knowledge base. Despite the fact that I’ve been flying the 777 for seven years, data leaks out of my head, especially as I’ve gotten older. Most times, the information stored in my brain by the time I arrive at our flight academy is above and beyond what’s required for recurrent training.

I begin the study process by reaching into my flight bag and dusting off the manuals. In today’s world, that translates into ensuring the iPad battery is charged and the screen is clean. The limitations section of the operating manual is the first stop. Reacquainting myself with numbers that have become fuzzy affords me the opportunity to commit them to memory early in the study process so I can review them again later. A limitations review also provides a nice overview where additional study of airplane systems might be warranted.

Jumpseat
Les Abend with Boeing 777 check airman Capt. Scott Meade.Les Abend

Next, I scour the normal procedures sections from preflight to parking. It’s inevitable that more than one change has been added to a procedure sometime during the course of the year that has escaped my attention, whether obscure or obvious.

Although I’ll never be able to recite chapter and verse every emergency checklist, a familiarity with at least some of the major abnormal conditions and their remedies is a huge assistance in the heat of a check-ride battle or a real-life circumstance. For instance, knowing that the center hydraulic system operates the landing gear and flaps clues me in on the fact a complete failure will include the operation of Boeing’s backup procedures.

On the 777, most emergency and abnormal checklists are automatically available via our electronic display screens when a system fails, so rote memorization is unnecessary. Accomplishing items in the checklist is a matter of checking a box by use of a cursor and control pad.

Appropriately positioning a switch or control will turn that particular item’s printed display from white to green on the checklist.

Only the emergencies that are severe enough to garner immediate attention involve items that require memorization. A good example is an engine fire. The memory items are another focus for my studying. Regurgitation of these memory items is oftentimes required during the course of our briefing with the check airman, notwithstanding their use in the event of a bona fide emergency.

Although I have resigned myself to the idea that an aero engineer’s knowledge of airplane nuts and bolts will never be in my future, I do my best to at least maintain a pilot’s understanding of a very complex piece of machinery by reviewing the various aircraft systems: fuel, hydraulics, electrical, automation, etc.

And finally, I also study by using visualization. What do I mean exactly? A couple of jobs ago, before I was hired by my airline, I struggled in a 727 simulator during initial training as a first officer. My job prior had been captain on a Twin Otter, an airplane that can be shot out of the sky with a snow shovel. The 727 was my first jet, and the Mach-speed tempo was kicking my butt. Ten hours of instruction in the simulator that included the check ride didn’t offer much opportunity to smell the roses.

Knowing my anguish, a friend suggested I close the shades in my hotel room, shut my eyelids and visualize every procedure, every flip of a switch, every motion of the yoke and every movement of my hands. The technique worked. I passed the check ride and saved my career. And I still practice visualization to this day.

As for my check ride with Scott, not only did I pass but we also had a great time during the whole process. Sure, I embarrassed myself; I’ve never performed up to my own standards and probably never will.

Regardless, having a check ride professionally conducted by a friend made the experience that much more valuable.