Taking Wing: Training Days

Taking Wing: Training Days Sam Weigel

“Let’s go. It’s time.” With this self-admonition, I stood up, glanced in the mirror, straightened my tie and left the hotel room. It was only a quarter to 7, but there was no way I was going to risk being late today. To my surprise, the lobby was already filled with 22 men and women whom I surmised were my new classmates, given their virtually identical “aviation interview” attire. Nobody was chancing it this morning. We rode the shuttle van to the training center in pensive silence, those of us who knew each other exchanging muted pleasantries. You would have thought we were going to a funeral, not the first day of class at one of the world’s largest airlines. It was a big day, and everyone was clearly on edge.

The van pulled up to a large red brick building on the edge of an austere campus. We filed inside and stood quizzically around the facility map. Where in the world was Room 3016? A sympathetic passerby noted the new-hire suits and shepherded us up to the third floor, down a long hall, and across a covered walkway to an entirely different building. There, on a plain white table in a starkly lit classroom, sat a little plaque with my name and new aircraft on it. I blinked and sat down as reality struck; it was really happening, everything I had worked and strived for. And in a curious stroke of fortuity, it was April 7, 2014 — 10 years to the day since I started class at Horizon Air in Portland, Oregon.

Back then, I was a fresh-faced 22-year-old freight dog, equal parts nervous and excited to begin my career as an airline pilot. I didn’t know it would take a decade to get to the majors, or that I would have to start over at another regional airline in a few years’ time. I just knew that Horizon trusted me to fly a 65,000-pound, 70-seat turboprop, and I was determined to work my ass off in training and prove worthy of that trust. Soon after class started we went around the room and introduced ourselves, and I was humbled to learn that I was the youngest pilot there — and, with 2,200 hours of flight time, the least experienced as well.

Now, 10 years later, in my third airline “indoc,” I was still the youngest and the third least experienced. Most of my classmates had been flying for the regional airlines since before 9/11. The ex-military pilots in the classes before and after ours, meanwhile, had been at war for the last decade.

Nerves aside, this was a familiar drill by now because all new-hire classes are essentially the same. Introductions complete, you file down to H.R. and fill out the requisite paperwork for insurance and travel benefits. You sit through presentations on workplace safety and sexual harassment. (Lifting with your legs, good! Slapping the stew’s tush, bad!) A steady stream of department heads stop by to introduce themselves, welcome you aboard and exclaim what a great time it is to be hired. The chief pilot serves up the “Kool-Aid,” giving the supposed inside scoop on all the wondrous growth opportunities the company is pursuing. 
 By day two or three you’re deep into the academics. A rotating cast of ground school instructors lectures on subjects like the flight operations manual, operating specifications (OpSpecs), flight planning and dispatch, maintenance procedures, long-range navigation and so forth. You watch the same grainy, dated FAA videos that you viewed in your last indoc. You demonstrate the use of emergency equipment, play with the door trainers, and jump in the pool.

This goes on for one or two weeks, broken up by visits from union reps, fleet captains and new-hire coordinators. At night you get together with your classmates to study for the upcoming general subjects exam over beers. Every day you gain insight into your new employer’s corporate culture, and the differences from what you’re used to can be jarring. During the second week, the company flew in our spouses and significant others for a lavish new-hire dinner, at which the vice president of flight operations presented us with our new wings. It was a nice touch and a surprisingly poignant moment.

Everyone passed the general subjects test, and then we were sent home for a week or two of self-study before returning for aircraft training. I was assigned a gloriously cantankerous McDonnell-Douglas, veteran workhorse of the fleet and pretty much the diametrical opposite of the sleekly automated Embraer jets I'd been flying. The Mad Dog is a busy airplane, especially in the right seat, but I actually found it a welcome change of pace from technology-induced monotony. Of course, as a new hire, you're also learning a different operation and training system. I was lucky to be paired with a sharp captain-upgrade candidate, Kevin Heine ("The Great Blue Beyond," December 2015); he had been both a first officer and captain on this fleet before.

Under my instructors’ tutelage and with Kevin’s help, I gradually learned the finer points of Mad Dog wrangling. Kevin and I often stayed late at the training center, going over flow patterns and callouts in the procedure trainers; I also studied alone for a few hours before each simulator session. Over the next month we progressed through the systems, procedures, maneuvers and line-oriented training blocks, each capped off by an evaluation with a senior instructor. These weren’t horribly stressful — I’m a good test taker and usually fly my best on check rides — but I was mindful that, as a new hire, you really want to stay ahead of the game because any struggles whatsoever will turn unwanted attention your way. My smooth progress through the training program hit a major speed bump when I came down with a painful case of shingles, which delayed me for a few days until the antibiotics kicked in. Kevin went on to finish the final block without me, and it was a quiet anticlimax when I passed my own line-oriented evaluation (and DC-9 type ride) a few days later.

An old aviation aphorism holds that a good landing in the simulator is as exciting as kissing your sister. It’s true. Simulators are excellent for cementing procedures and practicing emergency maneuvers, and the newest models do a decent job of mimicking the airplane, but you’re still never fooled into thinking you’re actually flying. The control forces and motion always feel just a bit off, and the pacing is all wrong, a mad rush of maneuvers and systems failures and approaches that replace the natural ebb and flow of line flying. Absent are the myriad interactions with gate agents, flight attendants, passengers, rampers, mechanics and ATC that make up a large part of our jobs. The FAA knows this, so there is one more hurdle to clear after simulator training: initial operating experience or IOE. This consists of 25 to 50 hours or more of line flying under the supervision of a check airman.

My first IOE on the Dash 8-Q400 at Horizon Air was a thrilling and intimidating experience. The largest airplane I’d flown until then was the Piper Chieftain. My parents flew out to Portland so they could ride along on that first Spokane turn. Landing the Q400 for the first time was almost surreal, and I was acutely aware of the 70 folks in the back. In contrast, IOE on the Mad Dog was much less stressful; it was, by now, just another airliner. On my line check I got slam-dunked onto a nonprecision approach into a mountain airport at 2 a.m. after a long and delayed day, and it wasn’t a big deal because it was exactly the sort of thing I’d been doing on a routine basis for the last 10 years.

Getting released from IOE is a big milestone, but you’re still very much a new hire. Most airlines put their new pilots on probation, usually for a year, during which time the pilot can be terminated for most any cause without benefit of union representation. Probation is a time to mind your p’s and q’s and fly under the radar. Standard newbie advice is to commute conservatively (especially if based out of delay-prone New York, as I was), never sign in late, minimize sick leave, keep opinions to yourself, and be unfailingly polite no matter how you’re treated. My company gives new hires an extra line check after a few months and requires quarterly performance reviews, but ends the scrutiny at 400 hours of flight time. I was flying so much, I was off probation in only five months.

While on probation at my airline, each captain you fly with is required to fill out a new-hire report rating your flying skills, knowledge level, crew resource management and so on. Any bad reports and you’re likely to hear about it. The last step before getting off probation was to go over these reports with the base chief pilot, but due to schedule conflicts we ended up doing it over the phone. “All the reports are good, but a bunch of them have the same comment,” noted my boss. “They all say you really like to hand fly!” It’s true. Ten years at the airlines, and I still enjoy finessing a jet around the sky almost as much as my Pacer or Cub. I hope that stays true long after my FNG status wears off.

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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