X-Treme Training

Wedged into a middle seat of coach, I attempted to concentrate. A 767 operating manual sat on my lap. It was as good a time as any to review again. I was deadheading to DFW for my nine-month recurrent training. It would be the first recurrent training I would attend as a check airman. And I wasn't sure what to expect.

Although I had followed my normal preparation habit, my study focus hadn't felt as intense. It was almost as if I was missing a crucial element that would be the key to a successful training experience. I suspected why.

My check airman position required me to remain more intimate with the details of our operating procedures. I was conveying a good portion of these details to pilots new on the airplane as a normal part of my routine. In that regard, my studying had become a review of material that I was already familiar with. However, I still had a pang of guilt for not applying myself as intensely.

When we arrived in DFW I trotted off the jet bridge and walked to the flight academy shuttle bus pick-up area. I was greeted by the usual glum nods of other pilots that had just deadheaded in for training. I've seen the same enthusiastic expressions on husbands forced to endure a shopping trip to the mall with their wives when it's a good boating day. As was typical, the tone of conversation was more suited for prisoners on their way to the next detention center than for airline pilots on their way to training.

"Whatcha in for?"

"Uh ... an R-9. That's the one with the LOFT, the check ride."

"Yeah, me too. Guess I'll see ya 'round the yard."

The shuttle bus rolled to a stop at the curb of the flight academy. In silence we picked up our bags, grunting as we stepped onto the sidewalk. Although I have always tried to approach my recurrent training as an opportunity to learn something new, it was often hard not to feel a sense of drudgery. But this time was different. The intimidating challenges of a check ride no longer seemed as daunting. In a way, the mystery had disappeared. In a way, I was now part of that mystery.

I glanced at the entrance steps and shook my head. After almost 24 years with the airline, the bag-drag up the steps had become a rite of passage. Why hadn't a ramp been constructed so we could roll our stuff up? Perhaps the bag-drag exercise was a symbol of overcoming adversity. Perhaps sadists enjoyed observing an aging pilot population pop a disc. Perhaps I was just getting old and cranky.

Once inside the building, I dashed to the nearest computer terminal. A quick check of the schedule indicated that my training classes had not changed. Yup ... still five days at the flight academy. For the most part, ground school was as it had always been. The airplane system review class, recurrent international class, security class and human factors class were all listed; nothing new in that department. The only difference was 10 hours of simulator time versus the standard eight hours. Two of the simulator classes were specifically for check airman. And that's where the X-treme training began. But I had two days before I would face that fun.

After a half-day of ground school, I boarded the van from the flight academy to the hotel. As is often the case, most of us find friends and familiar faces. Although I usually take refuge in my room for additional study, and then break for dinner and a beverage, this visit was an exception. It seemed that I found friends in every corner. I elected to put the books aside for another day and socialized with people I had not had the opportunity to catch up with for quite some time. Besides, someone had rented a car. Certainly the diversion would not cause me to flunk out of school.

On the second-half of the third day I walked into our assigned 767 briefing room and shook hands with my simulator partner, Larry. Larry lived in the DFW area and was an X-type check airman. For those not familiar from my previous column (August 2008), an X-type is responsible for both simulator training and regular line training. I am an L-type check airman, which means I conduct no simulator training.

As with any distinction in a given profession, a friendly rivalry exists. Whereas we L-types are initially trained a little less formally, consuming a lot less time, the X-types have an intense training program, consuming much more time (about two months more). I have a lot of respect for those pilots chosen to do that job. It requires a lot of dedication. And for me, way too much time at the flight academy. But then again, the X-type schedule is sometimes more predictable than mine.

Regardless, it is still necessary to harass the X-types simply ... well ... just because they know more than I do. In addition the X-types sometimes accuse us of passing along bad habits. When we return for recurrent training, our proficiency is not at their level because we're not flying the airplane nearly as much. Besides, the X-types already know all the right simulator buttons to push, notwithstanding the secret handshake.

In actuality, X's and L's play well together. It's important that we do. Our responsibility is to deliver a safe product to the flying public in the form of a well-trained pilot. When I receive a product from the flight academy that could use improvement, feedback is important. Rather than just find fault with an individual pilot, the flight training department's function is to consider flaws in the program.

Larry and I bantered a moment or two. I discovered that he had only been on the job a short while and that this was also his first recurrent session as a check airman. He wasn't sure what to expect either. I chided him that he should know all the secret codes and hand signals anyhow.

Greg, our X-treme check airman, walked into the briefing room. He introduced himself with a handshake and a smile, and then sat down on the customary seat in front of the table opposite Larry and me. As is also customary, we discussed our bases and backgrounds. Soon we moved on to current events at the airline and our personal plans. As is untypical but not unwelcome, the discussion consumed a fair portion of our briefing. Greg had a relaxed demeanor. I felt reasonably certain that I would not be hearing the sound of a whip being cracked.

The first session of our simulator training is scheduled for two hours and is conducted with each of us flying from the right seat. The objective is to perform standard and some nonstandard maneuvers that are part of a normal line pilot check ride. It can be a challenge and a great learning experience. Not only do I gain a greater appreciation for copilot duties, but I develop a greater comfort level with my own abilities.

Larry and I acquiesced to each other, which meant neither one of us would make a decision on who went first. I reached into my pants pocket and pulled out a quarter. I flipped the coin into the air with my thumb. Larry made the call. He won. Lucky him. Well ... maybe.

We had handicaps to overcome. First, the simulator was the oldest and creakiest 767 at the flight academy. Most of us groan if we are assigned to it. Personally, I have never been bothered by its idiosyncrasies. I consider it a challenge. And I can rationalize my mistakes (at least in my own mind).

Our second handicap was worse. Not only were Larry and I both captains, but we were both check airmen. We would either help each other too much or we would not help each other enough, or a little of both.

In addition, I was a visitor in Larry and Greg's regular work environment. They both knew the operation of the simulator. That particular fact had the potential to be another handicap. Larry might anticipate a scenario before it happened. Anticipating a scenario might be worse than just being surprised.

And in fact, the surprise came right away. But the surprise of the surprise was that it was actually for me.

Greg selected a visibility of 500 RVR for the takeoff runway. (No sense in making life easy.) As usual, one of the three transmissometers was considered inoperative. Larry and I thumbed through our manuals, including the appropriate Jepp page. As suspected, it was determined that our takeoff wasn't legal without the risk of an FAA hearing. Greg solved the problem and magically reinstated the errant transmissometer.

With Larry at the controls in the right seat, we began the takeoff. Relaxed but not comatose, I sat back, waiting for the fun to begin for my partner. At 120 knots, about 10 knots below V1, a nasty noise in the form of an electronic bell began to sound in my head. From the far corner of my eye, I could see that a very red light was illuminated. An engine had caught fire. And Larry was not moving. I grinned and shook my head. Larry had probably been told to sit on his hands. "Abort!" I announced.

My right hand slammed the power levers rearward. I moved my hand forward and rotated the reverse levers up with a snap of my wrist. I checked for the spoiler handle to automatically position itself aft. It did. I slid the balls of my feet up on the rudder pedals and onto the toe brakes. I heard the click of the automatic brakes' switch moving to the disarm position. The simulator rolled to a lurching stop.

"Engine Fire, Severe Damage checklist, please," I called to Larry.

As I reached for the interphone to make a simulated PA regarding our abrupt stop, Greg halted the action. He was satisfied with the performance. It was time to move on to the next emergency. The simulator was reset to the original takeoff position. Larry was at the controls again. I decided to remain at attention this time.

It didn't take long for problems to occur. An engine failed at V1. When we were normal line pilots, it was customary for the X-type check airman to give us a few moments to become reacquainted with the simulator before the proverbial stuff hit the fan. It wasn't going to happen this time. Besides, our first session was limited to one hour apiece. We had to accomplish more in a short period.

As Larry maneuvered through the initial stages of the engine failure, I reached for the emergency handbook in anticipation of his next request. He was struggling to make the performance pretty, but he was doing well enough to maintain safe parameters. When the airplane was stabilized with the autopilot connected, we worked together on the checklist procedures.

Greg vectored us for an ILS approach. The weather, of course, was set to the minimums of a 200-foot ceiling and half-mile visibility. But as predicted, we never saw the runway. Larry executed a single-engine go-around. A single-engine go-around is not the easiest to perform, especially from the unaccustomed vantage point of the right seat. Larry kept it together. Greg concluded the emergency.

A flap problem and a VOR approach later, Larry's day was over. We took a quick break and than it was my turn. For the most part, with a few minor variations, Greg afforded me the same abuse. My performance wasn't an Academy Award winner either, but both of us proved that we could get the job done and keep our passengers safe when flying from the right seat.

The following day was a four-hour simulator session, with Larry and I each allotted two hours. On this occasion, we flew our periods from the left seat. And on this occasion, the fun really began. It was my turn to go first.

Once again, the visibility was 500 RVR. And once again an engine failed ... well, actually an engine fire at V1. It didn't matter. We follow the same basic procedure regardless. Larry and I worked through the checklist. I attempted an ILS approach, but to no avail. The weather prevented a look at the runway. I performed a single-engine go-around. Greg terminated the problem and we were positioned back on the runway.

Another takeoff later, I was given an engine failure at 400 feet. It wasn't the standard scenario, so it took me a moment to ensure that Greg's instruction to turn to a heading after departure was really necessary to comply with. Four hundred feet is our normal turn altitude. With terrain not an issue, I elected to continue straight ahead.

As I lumbered the simulator up to the engine-out obstacle clearance altitude, I reached over to the overhead panel and rotated the APU start switch. Although starting the APU is one of the items sequenced on the engine failure checklist, I find it helpful to have it available ASAP as long as the momentary distraction doesn't detract from flying the airplane. An extra power source is always helpful.

My forethought was rewarded by Greg selecting the simulator button that initiates an APU fire. The electronic bell activated and the APU fire handle glowed red. Greg offered a mischievous chuckle as Larry and I recited the red box memory item. Larry pulled the fire handle and rotated, sending the simulated extinguishing agent into the APU. Nobody said it was going to be easy ...

Once our checklist items were complete for a single-engine landing, I requested a return to the airport. With Greg role-playing as ATC, we were given an initial heading for vectors. Once again, our airplane experienced a major issue. Both of the FMCs failed. Predicting that it would be a futile act, I asked Larry to search for errant circuit breakers. Greg called off the search before it began, a smile in his voice.

Apparently ATC had their own issues. Both their radar and the glideslope for all runways had been rendered inoperative by an alien attack ... or maybe it was some other reason. A localizer approach was the only choice. Raw data only. Ughh. Larry and I prepared. The approach, of course, terminated in a single-engine go-around.

The remainder of the session progressed in much the same manner. The events were numerous enough that I lost track of the exact sequence. It didn't matter. The objective was to sample a little of everything.

We experienced a cargo fire while holding. Our trailing edge flaps ceased to operate past two degrees because of an asymmetry problem. On a Category III approach with a 50-foot decision height, one of the engines failed. And the final misfortune was a wheel well fire that resulted in a collapsed gear situation. For the gear collapse, the simulator visual did an admirable job of making our 767 operate like a merry-go-round. When the spinning stopped, the airplane came to rest across the width of the runway. The scenario forced me to initiate an evacuation procedure. The evacuation procedure signaled the traditional end of the session.

If the session had been a normal line pilot-type check ride, we could have called foul. Multiple emergencies are not part of the training program. But we were check airmen, so anything was fair game. Quite frankly, it was kinda fun. Perhaps next time I will look forward to more X-treme training. Or ... perhaps not.

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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