Jumpseat: Flight Training for Clients

** The FlightSafety training center at the
corner of Orlando International Airport is
conveniently located across the street from Cessna’s maintenance and sales facility.**

A few months back I wrote about flying a Citation Mustang, comparing its attributes to those of the 777. After the initial flight, thanks to my friend and Mustang owner Tom Torti, I became more familiar with the airplane, via a smattering of other trips. On those trips, informal instruction and a few doses of good-natured harassment were included at no extra charge.

When I was given the opportunity to attend a formal Citation Mustang course, through the magazine and FlightSafety, I couldn’t refuse. Two weeks of intensive study in Orlando? Absolutely. After almost 29 years with the airline, why wouldn’t I want to subject myself to the rigors of another flight-training facility for recreational purposes? My experience would allow a comparison between my airline and one of the world’s most respected flight-training organizations.

If I’ve learned anything over the years as a professional pilot, it’s to have a systematic method of studying the particulars of a new airplane. First, I build a foundation by becoming familiar with the dimensions of the machine. The dimensions provide a basic overview. Next, I (attempt to) commit to memory the pertinent limitations: max gross weight, speeds, altitudes, etc. While studying the systems of the airplane, I begin to memorize — you guessed it — the memory items of the emergency checklists. An understanding of the reasons for performing the tasks of an emergency checklist assists in more intimate systems knowledge. In that regard, familiarity with the Mustang CAS (crew alerting system) messages was invaluable.

Utilizing the above study strategy, the classroom serves as reinforcement and/or clarification of material already reviewed — in theory, of course. But I discovered a flaw in my plans. I hadn’t included familiarity with the Garmin G1000 system. My ground school instructor and designated examiner, Steve Watkins, profoundly stated, “The Garmin is not your friend.” It’s true, especially if you have limited skills operating the system. Prior to my arrival, I took the FlightSafety online course. The online course and an hour with the GPU plugged into Tom’s airplane was my saving grace. Even with that foundation, I still fumbled with the big-knob-little-knob operation.

With my head armed and dangerous, I arrived at the doorstep of FlightSafety with a smile and an iPad crammed full of Mustang reference materials. It was the first Monday of the month — start-up day. Approximately 140 pilots begin their initial training. If recurrent training is included, about 3,500 pilots cycle through for the year, or about 100 per week. Orlando has 120 full-time employees, with around 90 instructors. The instructors teach both ground school and simulator, a contrast with my airline, where the tasks are separated. Another difference is the diversity of the students. Approximately 20 to 25 percent are from other countries. Language, culture and foreign experience all have to be accommodated.

Eleven simulators are in the building, with the Citation XLS+ being a new addition. FlightSafety designs and builds its own simulators, giving the company a vested interest in their quality. All in all, the Mustang simulator was a great learning tool, but I could have done without the oversensitive rudder control. My first takeoff involved heart-stopping pilot-induced oscillations that steered us toward an almost certain off-runway excursion.

The service area throbbed with activity. Andy Johnson, the Orlando facility manager, greeted me with a warm grin and a handshake. After the initial paperwork and introductions were complete, Andy gave me a personal tour of the building. Andy is a 27-year Navy veteran with P-3 experience and a six-year career with FlightSafety. Almost every morning without fail, he greeted people at the door by their first name. It was then I realized the first major difference from my airline training. I wasn’t a student. I was a client. Way cool.

FlightSafety’s philosophy is to create a learning environment rather than an evaluation environment. This philosophy was reflected in the spotless classrooms with the appropriate cockpit pictorials and video technology, impeccably maintained restrooms (mouthwash and other sundries included), bottomless coffee always available in the break room, and the ability to have the friendly office staff order lunch for delivery. Steve Watkins offered to replace any reference material or study tool, right down to the dictionary-size training manual.

Smiles from employees were numerous. A relaxed atmosphere prevailed. As part of the daily routine, Andy conducted informal “preflight” briefings with most of the staff in the lobby area just outside his office. The briefing included a status report and current issues. In addition, recognition was given to any employee exhibiting outstanding performance. Sure, it’s a pep talk, but the briefing is a reflection of company culture. Unfortunately, I’ve never witnessed any such presentation at my airline.

Seven clients, including me, were part of the Mustang ground school. I parked myself in the front row next to a young Brazilian pilot employed by a private owner based south of São Paulo, Brazil. Three pilots with corporate experience were scattered in other rows. A young woman from Cessna’s sales department monitored the class.

And finally, Brad Yeager Smith (yes, he was named for exactly who you think) was my 26-year-old sim partner. Brad had accumulated fewer than 500 hours of total time and had flown as a copilot for about 25 hours on a Mustang utilized in a Part 135 operation. By day Brad was an engineer. The Mustang was owned by his employer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Because of his experience level, Brad was in training for a crew type rating, as opposed to the single-pilot C510S that the rest of us hoped to attain. He was enthusiastically naive, intelligent, had great judgment skills, and flew an incredible airplane. The backpack he carried made a quiet statement about our age difference and the new generation of professional pilots. I wanted to hate him.

That being said, Brad and I complemented each other. He had limited exposure to cockpit resource management. And I had limited exposure to single-pilot operations. Brad helped with Mustang nuances. I helped with copilot duties. Brad found it difficult to sit on his hands while I made mistakes. I found it difficult not to assist in the decision-making process.

Dave Larson, our simulator instructor, immediately recognized the synergy of our relationship. Sharing the same age, Dave and I wasted no time in targeting Brad with a program of abuse. Toward the end of our training, in conjunction with Prince Harry’s U.S. visit, I bestowed upon Brad the title of Sir Royal Awesomeness. He cringed.

Single-pilot operation being unfamiliar territory, I resorted to a familiar tool: checklists. Whether the procedure was normal or an emergency, I read both the challenge and the response. I was both the captain and the copilot, talking to myself as if I were in need of therapy. The autopilot was my friend. And if all else failed, I prioritized the tasks and flew the airplane.

Part 135 companies, corporate flight departments and owner/operators in command of their own businesses brought a level of challenge to the training that was unique to the Mustang. As discussed with program manager Robert Aliaga, the Mustang required a higher grasp of people skills from its instructors.

Armed with the background of quality training and overstuffed with preparation, my solo check ride was a nonevent — as my instructors had promised. Even with almost 23,000 hours in my logbook, it was still gratifying to be presented with a temporary certificate and a shiny, new type rating.

FlightSafety versus airline training? My experience found virtually no professional difference. My airline colleagues in the training department strive for a great learning environment, but FlightSafety seems to have set a new standard. Perhaps when I see a fruit bowl and pastries instead of the vending machines that have been anchored to our submarine-like break room for almost 40 years, I’ll feel like a client. But I’m thinking it just might take more than that.

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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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