“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Greetings all! Things have been moving pretty fast around here for the last six weeks or so. My medical roller coaster ride seems to have finally ended. The mind-numbing, excruciatingly slow exercise (in dealing with idiots) to get all of the paperwork to the appropriate FAA (and airline) authorities, finally ended, and with that I was O.K. to return to work. But…and there’s usally a rather large “but”…before I could actually fly again, I would have to take a spin through my airlines Boeing simulator to prove to the world (and myself) that I still had enough of “it” to fly the big jet.
With that said, here’s Part 1 of that three day adventure.
(Or How to Go From Village Idiot to Ace of the Base in “XXX” Easy Lessons…)
So you work in one of the most highly technical, regulated, observed, (and sometimes) intense jobs on the planet, and you suddenly find yourself sitting at home for six months nursing a medical anomaly. The question then becomes…when the “gods of the FAA Medical Certificate” smile down on you and all is well, how do you go from standing still to Mach 1, thus getting back up to speed enough to go back to work? You simply have to be equal (or better) to a set of very lofty standards, before they will throw you the keys to the jet, let you load up 200 plus unsuspecting souls, and launch you into low Earth orbit? Its called being “Requal-ed”, and the airlines do it constantly.
In the normal scheme of things, to simply to keep the job, we are required to show up at “Star Fleet Command”, and dazzle the army of the un-dead (the simulator instructor pilots/check airmen) with our immense aviating skills once every year (every 9 months to be exact). Add to that fun, the semi-annual stroll in front of your friendly F.A.A. AME (Aviation Medical Examiner) for a “full Monty” look under your proverbial medical hood, and the everyday normal stress of drunk passengers, bad weather, and ATC delays seems like nothing to your average airline pilot.
But this time it’s different. You’ve been AWOL for many months, and like rust, the world of aviation never sleeps (nor does the associated “technology creep” of your world in the cockpit remain static). What has changed you might ask? Rules, regulations, procedures, destinations, aircraft tech, and yes Virginia, even the way we read our maps. In the mere 180+ days that I was off flying status, my airline morphed from the old fashion way of opening a book, pulling out a map (or approach chart, etc.), and simply reading such, to the “new age way” of powering up your Surface Tablet, “syncing” it to the rest of humanity, and doing the “tap, pinch, slide” dance to see what we need to be seeing. And this means EVERYTHING we might be looking for. For example, to simply read our Company Bulletins, not to mention our maps/charts/etc., we have to bow to the God of the computer tablet, speak its native tongue, and hopefully be rewarded with the information of which we seek! Lovely, right?. Good thing I’m a bit of a computer geek, or I might be feeling like a hemophiliac in a razor blade factory.
Thank God for the company minions that kept me supplied with the requisite bulletins, update emails, training docs, and other assorted paraphernalia during my time spent away. As the notion dawned on me that I might indeed be going back to work, I began the attempt at getting back into “pilot mode”, and it started by gathering all the things I would need to get back in the saddle. But where does one start in this journey of regaining all of the needed knowledge? In a fairly short period of time, I would be tasked with going from a dim-witted, slack-jawed yokel, (that’s been sitting for the last 6 months, on a bean bag chair in my underwear, eating Cheetos and watching re-runs of “Bay Watch”), to a by-God, senior (read know it all) wide body “four striper”, working at one of the world’s premier international airlines. I attempted to channel my inner “Yoda”…but he didn’t answer (must be in the Bahamas on vacation).
The journey actually began over 40 years ago. That first check-ride in the little blue/white Cessna 150, on that scorching hot, July day, with the examiner (80+ yr. old Mr. Robinson), bouncing over the North Texas countryside. The oral exam consisted of me belching forward all the accumulated facts/figures from the paper thin Cessna owner’s manual, and strangely enough, all the worry and anxiety would vanish once my skinny, teenage butt was strapped into the cramped two-place cockpit. Pilots have this funny ability to relax and turn on their “pilot brain” once firmly seated in front of all those funny (yet oddly comfortable) clocks. I’ve gotten to the point in my flying career where I don’t mind the Boeing simulator at all, in fact, it feels quite comfortable. I have no problem relaxing, joking a bit, and each and every time, I seem to learn something new (my wonderful Dad once told me that the day I stop learning in aviation is the day I should quit flying…amazingly smart man). I wondered if I’d have that feeling on this little “spin/dry adventure” through the machine…
So the template for studying all things airplane was forged in the crucible of my Private Pilot training more than a four decades ago. Two things about airplanes that will never change. 1: you gotta move an airfoil through an air mass rather quickly to get it to do it’s magic, and 2: you WILL have to know certain hard facts about your machine, (and perform certain maneuvers) or you will not pass an airline simulator check ride. We call these facts, the “Limitations” (as in FAA/Boeing/Airbus limits), the “Memory Items” (as in emergency checklist steps), and finally the hundreds of items you check on the jet during every outside walk around before flight. I’ve used my lovely bride to quiz me on these things so many times during my career, that I’m fairly sure that she could pass the oral part of the Boeing 757/767 check-ride. Maybe someday I’ll send her in my place…lol.
(It’s a gorgeous machine, but you better have your shite together or it’ll eat your lunch.)
The first step was to visit the company website, and download the syllabus for the 3 joy-filled days in the simulator. Day 1 would technically be a “no jeopardy” day. Reason being the fact that you’ve been on forced vacation for many months, and they’re simply giving you a chance to get your sea legs back. We call it a “warm up”, and it’s just that. Mess things up, look like a boob, and no one really cares (well, except you). Nary a pilot has lived, that doesn’t get upset if they dork something up in the simulator. I’ve done it, we’ve all done it, and even on a “warm up”, it eats away at that most fragile of things…your pilot ego.
Day 2 is an (almost) repeat of the Day 1 maneuvers, but now they count. In the old days, if you messed things up, you would get a “down” for that checkride, be off payroll status, be given a second “proficiency check” (fancy name for a check-ride), and if you didn’t get MUCHO better, then you would be handed your walking papers. “Canned, “fini”, “thank you for playing”, “we have a nice parting gift for you behind door #2”… I’ve seen it happen when I was a 727 instructor, and it’s not a pretty sight (remind me to tell of the time I flunked a guy on a check-ride, and later that day HIS WIFE called me crying on the phone…sometimes being the I.P. sucks too…lol). Nowadays, the industry is much more “warm and fuzzy”, but you still have to do things right, or you’re put under a VERY hot spot light, re-tested and watched like a hawk.
Day 3 would be the culmination of this journey with what we call an “L.O.E.”, or Line Oriented Evaluation. The day would start with that dreaded oral exam (to include looking at .jpgs of the exterior of the jet …757 or 767, the I.P.’s choice), then the ride in the box would resemble an actual day on the line. You’re given a flight plan, some MEL items (broken things on the jet that you’re allowed to dispatch with…like galley ovens, APUs, etc. MEL stands for Minimum Equipment List, or the Bible for all things broken), some weather/NOTAMS info, and away you go. Needless to say, lots of things get pear-shaped on this little mission, and it’s up to you and your F/O (and the Check Airman acting as ATC, Dispatch, Mechanic, Flight Attendant, etc) to act like a well-oiled team, solve these issues, and safely get the jet from point A to point B. Sounds like fun…right?
My Day 1.
After meeting “Mike” (not his real name… my F/O for this little adventure) in the elevator of the hotel, we decided to have dinner and plot our strategy. He had been off line for about eight months due to a shoulder injury, but was back in fighting form and ready to rock. He’s based at our big southern domicile, but like 99% of all pilots, we quickly hit it off, and it looked like we’d work well as a team.
We showed up early at the huge training facility (they almost all look like big-assed hospitals, with a bit of a sterile feeling ….no matter how many cool pictures of big jets they have hanging on the walls), mostly ready for the day. After following Mike through the maze of hallways and staircases (thank God he’s been coming to this monstrosity for years, seems like every time I come down here, I get lost), we found our assigned “Briefing Room” and awaited our I.P. Within minutes, in walked “Larry” (not his real name); our tour guide for today’s little adventure. He proceeded to put us at ease by asking about our reasons for the “Special Re-Qual”, and like any good instructor, gave us a good little “war story” about something similar that he experienced during his career (many of the Instructor/Check Airmen are retired from the airline, and work part time at the Training Center for whatever reason: extra money, bored, wife wants them gone like the last 30 years…lots of reasons.)
(doesn’t this look like a place where LOTS of fun things happen?)
The day’s work began when Larry asked us how comfortable we felt with our Surface Tablets, for we would be tasked with using them in the simulator for the next 3 days. This was met with two “doe in the headlights” looks coming from the two morons sitting across the table from him…and the sounds of crickets chirping. We had both watched the “training disc” sent to our respective homes, but as far as feeling good about using the device…”well, I know how to…ummm….push the O-N button…and that’s about it.” Larry laughed this off, for he felt our pain, and proceeded to spend the next hour getting us up to speed on this little grey box from hell. (side note: after using it for the last six weeks…to include a 12 day trip to Asia…I actually like it. It has some “quirks”, but for the most part is pretty cool)
At the termination of our “remedial tablet” training, Larry’s face lost a little of its jovial-ness, and we got down to brass tacks. He launched into the briefing on what we would be doing that day, and here’s the laundry list of what our next four hours would look like:
– Before Start Operations
– Pushback/ Start Operations
– Taxi/Before Takeoff Operations
– Instrument Takeoff Operations
– Engine Failure After V1 Operations
– Rejected Takeoff Operations
– Visual Approach Operations
– Non-Precision Approach Operations (one each pilot)
– CAT II ILS Precision Approach – Missed Approach Operations (each pilot one from below)
o Engine Out Go-Around
o Manual Go-Around
o Rejected Landing
– Landing Operations
– Landing With Engine-out Operations
– Landing with Slat/Flap Malfunction Operations (one each pilot)
– Inadvertent Windshear Encounter Operations (one each pilot)
o Windshear After Liftoff
o Windshear encounter during Approach Procedures
End of Briefing.
Piece of cake…right? 🙂