My Beating


John walked into the simulator briefing room with an ivory grin. He was wearing a crisp tropical shirt-not quite the standard dress for your typical check airman. I smiled. A tropical shirt is my favorite attire for a south Florida evening.

"Hmm … my nine-month beating might not go so bad," I thought.

The copilot and I stood up from behind the table to shake John's hand. We were in the room to begin the briefing that preceded our recurrent training check ride. It was hard to believe that nine months had passed already since my last recurrent.

My airline operates on an FAA approved recurrent training schedule that cycles us through every nine months. Like most airlines in years past, our company originally began with a six-month cycle. The first six-month recurrent training period included the so-called "jeopardy event." In other words, you either passed or failed. The next six-month recurrent training cycle was considered more of a training period, with a grade of satisfactory or unsatisfactory. This meant that once a year all pilots were faced with an official check ride.

All recurrent training cycles consist of classroom work, which can include systems knowledge, performance knowledge, company and FAA rules, security briefings and continuing education subjects.

When the airline industry began to orient the training more toward a "crew concept," some significant changes were made. With my airline, the change began with our simulator sessions. We were now paired just like a regular cockpit crew. Captains were scheduled with copilots and vice versa. Except for rare circumstances, gone were the days of two copilots paired together having to act like pseudo-captains on one half of a simulator session, or two captains paired together having to act like pseudo-copilots on the other half of a simulator session.

The other significant change was the introduction of the Line-Oriented Flight Training (LOFT) scenario. In a simulator, the LOFT was designed to … well … simulate a flight from start to finish in real time. A problem would be introduced sometime during the flight, and the pilots, acting like a real cockpit crew, would determine the best course of action.

The FAA liked the LOFT realism, so this part of the recurrent training period became the pass/fail check ride. In prior years, the emphasis for the check ride had been on the completion of numerous abnormal and emergency procedures that were jammed into a four-hour simulator session. It was great practice, but not very realistic. The abnormal and emergency procedures are still part of the recurrent training cycle, but they are just not part of the official check ride.

Because of training costs, my airline decided to try a one-year recurrent training cycle. This meant that an official check ride only occurred every other year. After a few years of this cycle, we began to notice a decrease in proficiency. We compromised. A nine-month cycle was instituted, and it seems to be working.

The first nine-month recurrent cycle includes a two-hour LOFT period, followed by a two-hour session of demonstrating emergency and abnormal procedures. Our airline calls this session "Advanced Maneuvers" training.

We do get a practice session with a simulator instructor the day before so we're not taking a check ride cold. However, the practice session is scheduled for what the FAA calls "First Look" maneuvers. In other words, when the engine fire occurs, we are expected to respond correctly as though it had never been briefed. In addition, procedures such as Category III approaches need to be demonstrated during the practice session in order to fill all the squares for completion of the entire recurrent training period.

The second nine-month cycle is considered more of a training session. An official check ride is not part of the program guide. However, the four-hour simulator period with the check airman is graded satisfactory or unsatisfactory. The official check ride now occurs once every 18 months.

What happens if a pilot fails a check ride or is graded unsatisfactory? My airline has a policy of "training to proficiency." That doesn't mean our flight training department takes a marginally qualified pilot and keeps him or her in the simulator until they get it right. It means that for various reasons some folks need more time. Everybody has a bad day. The bad day may occur because of temporary illness, problems at home, a misunderstanding, etc.

The pilot that receives an unsatisfactory or a fail is asked to come back another day. More than likely, only the maneuver or maneuvers that were not successfully demonstrated will be repeated rather than repeating an entire check ride. And if the pilot needs or requests more training prior to the retest he or she is granted it.

Although it happens, a repeat performance is a rare occurrence. Even though we are given another opportunity, the experience can be demoralizing. We are our own worst enemy. It's understandable. We take pride in our work and our skills; not to mention that our careers are riding on our simulator performance.

With all of that in mind, I spent a few days studying before I headed off to our flight academy. Although preparation isn't a cure for the inevitable humility that occurs, it does make a difference in my comfort level. At least the beating feels less severe. Looking on the bright side, one way or another, pass or fail, I was still going home at the end of the day.

As per unwritten formality, John asked the copilot and I questions regarding our backgrounds: Where were we based? Where were we flying to lately? Military or civilian? How many years on the airplane? Cream with our coffee?

John nodded at our responses, a twinkle of warmth and sincerity in his eyes. After a chuckle or two, the getting-to-know-you period was over. John moved on to business. He turned on the computer monitor in the briefing room.

The screen displayed various photos of a 757 walk-around inspection. Although he was being tongue-in-cheek, John accused me as a captain of not doing walk-around inspections, therefore implying that I did not possess the knowledge to answer questions about the exterior of the airplane. But that didn't stop him from requiring me to respond anyhow. Go figure. Even when I gave my unsolicited answer for the required minimum pressure of a 757 nosewheel tire, I received no extra credit.

At some point during the walk-around Q & A discussion, John confirmed what he had already assumed-the copilot and I knew our way around the airplane. We moved on to a mini-systems oral. Like most experienced check airmen, John integrated recitals of red-boxed items into the oral. (Red-boxed items are the colloquial expression for required memorized emergency checklists.) When I thanked him for giving me the short ones, I was rewarded with more. (A mild vicious streak is a required character trait for a check airman.)

After a few more questions, with the copilot and me alternating answers, the oral was over. We suffered only minor bruises. After a quick break we trotted down the gangway to the simulator. For a brief moment I contemplated why the gangway bore a close resemblance to a gangplank. As we began our cockpit setup, John asked us to pick a number between one and eight. I deferred to my copilot since he had agreed to fly. The number chosen would correspond to one of eight new variations for the LOFT scenario. I narrowed my eyes and glanced at my copilot. I verbalized my strong desire for him to try and pick the scenario with the least amount of torture, lest I hold him responsible for any of my mistakes.

The LOFT flight plan had us departing Los Angeles for San Francisco. It was a short trip, but I knew that the two-hour simulator session would be jam-packed with adventure. I was thankful that I had been a frequent flier of both airports.

I was certainly not in a meditative state as the check ride began, but I wasn't exactly gripped with fear either. My copilot, however, was functioning on orange alert status. That was okay. On a couple of occasions, I've had exactly the opposite in prior recurrent training periods. Being the only truly functioning crewmember during a check ride can be a lonely and tiresome experience. That being stated, my copilot was looking for problems that didn't exist. I used my best diplomacy to balance his thoroughness and the need to complete the check ride in the allotted time period without alienating him as my most reliable ally.

The simulator was soon airborne. John was performing his best impersonations of LA ground control, tower, departure and center.

One of the hardest parts of any check ride is managing anxiety level. The idle period leading up to the moment that the shoe drops is the worst for most of us. And if the shoe hasn't dropped yet, in the back of our minds we are thinking that there must be a trap to fall into that will engulf us like the quicksand in a Tarzan movie. While the copilot and I looked for the quicksand, John nudged us along the route at simulator speed times two with a push of a button. Still, nothing happened.

And then the shoe dropped. We were beginning our arrival into San Francisco when the Engine Indicating and Crew Alerting System (EICAS) message "CTR SYS PRESS" annunciated. "You're kidding?" I thought. "This is one of my real trips."

A push of the EICAS button on the center instrument panel showed that we were losing the center system hydraulic fluid, and thus the pressure. It was no big deal on a 757. Only a few flight controls were on the center system and they were also powered by the remaining two systems. The really important stuff, like the landing gear, was on the left system. The only significant issue was that the center autopilot was rendered inoperative, which would affect our approach capabilities.

But there was one minor detail. The simulated San Francisco weather was at very low Category III minimums.

A voice from within my brain said, "We could still initiate a Category III approach using only two out of the three autopilots." Another voice told me to forget it. The safe bet with an inoperative hydraulic system was to land at nearby San Jose where the weather was almost VFR no matter what the rulebook said.

Still another voice said, "Check the rulebook, anyhow." That voice was from my copilot and I agreed. When I checked, there was no doubt that San Jose was the best choice. We needed three functioning hydraulic systems to initiate a Category III approach. We landed the simulator without incident in San Jose. The hard part was over.

After John briefed us on some minor mistakes, I knew we had passed. We took our break and returned for the advanced maneuver portion of the simulator session.

The advanced maneuver period affords us two opportunities. First, we can stop holding our breath and relax. Second, we can practice procedures and maneuvers that we thankfully don't often see flying our regular trips. The advance maneuver period also allows the flight training department to demonstrate procedures that are currently showing up as issues in daily operations. I learn something every time. You can teach an old dog new tricks.

With the advanced maneuver period completed, John herded us back to the briefing room. We discussed some items not directly addressed in the simulator, and then we were given an opportunity to ask questions. As John probably predicted, our response was to glance at our watches. We had flights to catch. I gathered my manuals and put them in my flight bag. I shook John's hand and thanked him for his expertise. The three of us walked out of the briefing room. We smiled at the next pair of victims waiting to take our places.

Until the next time, I thought. This beating wasn't so bad. And for the most part, they never really are.