This is excessively long, I apologize but the words have been building up inside me. First the update from my side of the world, I finished my second check ride Monday morning. There is one more major check ride next Monday, followed by a few days of International Ground School and a day of differences training to complete the FAA requirements for the 757/767 type rating. I have about three weeks until life starts to balance out again. I have a couple of posts left to complete the series from R.L. Tonight, I am sitting on an airplane and I wanted to use the gift of uninterrupted time to attempt to describe a typical Airline training program. I know what you’re thinking, I wasted good study time, but I am nearing the point of being studied out.
I have heard only good things about the 757 and I am sure they are all true, but to be honest this training cycle has really been tough. Much tougher than I ever imagined. Of course I knew that the early part of any program would be filled with all day class, then a quick bite to eat and an additional four or five hours of study. Followed by a restless night of sleep only to do it over again. That is normal, expected and nothing different than any aviation training program. A month before entering training, I focused on the required online training, finishing everything about two later. I spent the next two weeks studying systems, procedures, and other required materials. I walked into class confident I was prepared with my general knowledge at about 80% of everything I needed to know.
In other training cycles, that would have been a good spot to be in. But this new training course has been shortened to the point that a student needs to walk in at the 90-95% level. I was way behind on day one and the pace of the program never allows time to catch up without a monumental effort. I have never been the smart kids, in my academic career I was always in the lower half of everything. I am comfortable in that position.
Quick side story, in the competition of Air Force flight school, every student gets a breakdown of their class rank in every graded area. Daily Flight Scores, Check Ride Flight Scores, Weekly Quizzes, Instructor Rating, aroma rating of gas expelled, and so on. When I got my rankings, I was generally pleased with everything and the Instructor read off the scores like he was reading the box score from a baseball game. When he got to academic performance, he said “442 total questions attempted with 417 answered correctly for a composite score of 94.3.” As he spoke, I felt my chest swell and my heart beat rise because I had never done that good at anything in my life. For the first time in my life I actually studied, I actually cared and I had actually achieved. I was proud of myself, then he dropped the hammer. “Your ranking is 39 out of 39.” He didn’t have to say it, but the fact is that my very best was good enough to be dead last in my class. In many ways, that is one of my proudest moments and I still chuckle over that life lesson.
Academics in the 757 are over in a flash. Three days after we walked in the door, the first check ride was given. In the 727, the systems review was handled by a human evaluator. The examiner had two hours to ask any question they wanted. It was intense and I thought in many ways cruel and unusual punishment. But in hindsight, I prefer that type of training because I had plenty of time to actually digest the systems. I knew the 727 because the training was designed to teach the systems with the ultimate goal of a two hour ground evaluation. The new program is much simpler, three days of class and a 100 question test. What I found was that they teach the test and not necessarily the systems. I passed the test with a 91, my average held and yes I was the lowest score in the class. With a passing score, I was off to the simulator phase.
The simulator sessions are intense because you only get four hours to practice the hands on skills that will be needed for the check ride. There are no wasted minutes because every minute is precious. The first of the simulator sessions is in a non-motion mock-up of a flight deck. It doesn’t move but the instruments work just as they would in the airplane. It is not to teach flight, but to train procedures. Six short sessions later, the first check ride arrives. It is sink or swim day, pass or fail. In a feeble attempt to describe the pressure, think of what it feels like to have a police officer follow you closely as you drive through your city. You try to do everything right, because you don’t want to give them a reason to pull you over. Usually, those encounters last a couple of moments. Now do that for four hours driving in rush hour traffic during a snow storm. And add a little more pressure, knowing that if you don’t pass you will be on a path that leads to losing your job. Not immediately of course, but that is still the destination of unsatisfactory performance. Not to mention that you are sitting in front of a peer and that you have all of the self-induced pressure to perform up to standards. It is the most unpleasant thing any Airline pilot has to do, it is no joke.
There is a understanding among pilots, that on any given day, anyone can fail a check ride. Anyone can have a bad day, it happens. But the other side of the coin is that on any given day any Airline pilot should be confident that they will pass. Failure can happen, but it is not expected to happen. For the first time in my flying career, I walked into the building unsure if I and my partner would pass. We knew we were 50/50 the entire six simulators. Things were not falling into place for us and we were not grasping the training at an acceptable rate. Because of the swiftness of the program, there was literally no time to catch up and the syllabus does not allow for extra simulator sessions. It is literally sink or swim and on that day we sank. There are several reasons for this but in the end our knowledge of how to program the flight management system was found to be lacking. It was a humbling experience for both he and I. We took our beating, offered no excuses, put our heads down and dove into the extra training determined to redeem ourselves. Three days later we passed the re-check and moved on.
The next phase is seven more sessions in a full motion, moving simulator. Finally with a visual, I started to feel like a pilot again. We were told after we busted the first check ride that 727 guys normally had a lot of problems with the procedures phase of training because it is nothing like we had done before. Basically it is flying an airplane by turning a knob or pushing a button. But in the maneuvers phase, the 727 guys usually do well because it is hands on the yoke, stick and rudder flying. They were right, on Monday we passed the maneuvers check. Not easily, because nothing is easy but we both did everything that was asked of us and did not have to do anything over. Like my instructor implied with he gave me my class rankings many years ago. “Rob, you may be as dumb as a box of rocks. But you can fly the airplane.”
In addition to the pressure of being in training, is the fact that most people are away from their families for an extended period of time. In my case, I made the nine hour drive home Monday after the check ride, for the fifth time in the last six weeks, I was deep in thought about life, my family and the future. I spent only 20 hours at home before walking out of the door. It is tough to be in training, but it is doubly tough on spouses and kids.
As I end this post, let me say that I am not looking for sympathy or compassion for me or my family. It is the unpleasant aspect of my chosen career path. My goal has been to give you a glimpse into the life I have been living for the past six weeks. Also, training is not over. There is at least one more landmine to dodge and hours of intense study sessions to go before I get to touch an actual jet. And no matter how difficult this phase of life has been, it does not compare to being deployed to a combat zone, surrounded by people who have dedicated their life to killing you. The men and women who are in harm’s way on this night are the real heroes, please take a moment to remember them and their families in your thoughts and prayers.
Many of you are writers, I know what you feel when you let someone read your work. I know all individuals are different but for me I have found that the pressure of being critically read pales in comparison to a check ride. When a person hears “You Suck” over and over eventually it will become background noise. All they are saying are words, and no matter what they say their words will not put me on the other side of the dirt or on the wrong side of the barbed wire. Maybe that is why I am not as concerned when I let someone read my words, or maybe I just don’t know any better.
The one thing I am taking from this training cycle is that I have a maximum of twenty-one years left until I will be forced to retire. That assumes that I can maintain my relative good health and the FAA doesn’t raise the age again. But, I have lost the passion to endure this self-induced torture to myself and my family. I have one more training cycle in me and sometime in the next twenty-one years I will do that training. Until I endure this again, I am going to make a statement. In five years, I am going to put myself in a position where I have to choose between this current life or something else. No matter what I choose, I know my passions lie in another world. Once this training is complete, I am going to dedicate myself to the craft of writing with the intent of becoming published. If you are stuck in your own personal holding pattern, I want to encourage you to join me on the quest to live our dreams. We only fail if we don’t make the attempt.
I have hinted at this several times during the life cycle of this blog but I do not think I have actually set that as the over-reaching goal. When I say published, I don’t mean a book. I mean a series of books that will provide an income significant enough to make me re-evaluate the career path of being a Captain at a major airline. I don’t want to do this alone, so I will concurrently dedicate myself to the goal of helping all of you guys and the people I don’t know to become published as well. I have an idea bouncing around in my head and when the time is right, I will introduce it to the world. Until then, I will be working towards a review from a snooty New York critic who characterizes my life work like this. “Rob may be as dumb as a box of rocks, but he can tell a great story.”
Until next time, keep on rockin!