How Pilot Training Keeps Crews Sharp
Autopilot’s widespread use means pilots need simulator training to keep their edge.
I’ve been around pilots all my life and feel pretty comfortable with this observation: Pilots are generally confident individuals. We’re confident because we have to be. The profession demands it. We gain this self-assurance through successfully performing at very high levels of competence. When pilots fly a lot, our confidence builds because our skills improve. We’re comfortable when we stay sharp. When we’re away from flying, we can become rusty and lose that sharp edge that took so long to hone. No pilot I know likes the feeling of being “behind” the aircraft. Not only is it professionally embarrassing, it can be dangerous too. Most pilots I know are humble enough to tell their copilot if they have been away from flying for a while. In other words, they are saying, “Keep an eye on me while I get myself back up to speed.” It’s the professional thing to do.
Flying is a perishable skill that requires constant practice to maintain. Most of today’s airline flying is done connected to an autopilot, so hand-flying skills evaporate quickly. You might wonder why we don’t hand-fly the plane more to keep our skills sharp. The short answer is that it’s safer to keep autopilot on: Autopilot prevents human error and fatigue.
During takeoffs and landings in particular, pilots are engaged in many tasks that must be done simultaneously. Autopilot can manage some tasks and free up the pilots for others. For example, after takeoff, autopilot can assure we’ll level off at each altitude we’re cleared for, allowing us to attend to traffic, an unexpected event or radio chatter.
In good weather, most pilots like to hand-fly the airplane to 18,000 feet. Bad weather is a different story: Hand-flying the airplane can be very fatiguing, and I always feel better when pilots I’m flying with keep fresh through autopilot assistance. However, all this use of autopilot means that we run the risk of getting rusty.
Pilots like me who fly long-haul routes have particular challenges in staying sharp. Because these flights are so long (for example, 15 hours between Los Angeles and Sydney, a route I’ve routinely flown), I may make only three trips in a month. And the aircraft has more pilots than takeoff/landing seats. Long-haul flying usually requires one captain and three first officers because of flight duty limitations. A senior first officer will usually occupy the copilot seat during takeoffs and landings, thus maintaining his or her landing skills, so junior pilots rarely get the chance to log the critical phases of flight needed to maintain their skills.
This particular situation happens for me and many of the 747-400 and 777 pilots at my airline with lower seniority. We’re required to make three landings every 90 days, and if we’re unable to do that, we have to travel to our training facility and complete landings in a full motion simulator. If we still have not logged a “real” landing in the airplane after 180 days, we become nonqualified and must be recertified by an FAA-designated check airman. I’m happy to say, too, that emergencies occur only very, very rarely. Pilots can fly for their whole careers without encountering an emergency, yet we still need the knowledge and skills to handle them competently should they occur.
Simulators to the Rescue
Aircraft simulators temporarily fill the gap during prolonged absences from flying and allow pilots to maintain a base level of proficiency. The only substitute for logging actual flight time in an airplane is to occasionally train in realistic full motion simulators. Not all simulators are equal in their value in keeping pilots’ skills sharp, however. Most airlines use three types of simulators.
The simplest is the paper mock-up of the cockpit and is used to orient pilots to the layout of systems and instruments. A chair at the kitchen table can be a substitute for the cockpit seat as checklists can be mentally sequenced to engrain the flow of procedures to be followed. At this stage of training, repetition is crucial for building proficiency.
Another, more technical and computerized simulator, called a fixed base simulator, is significantly more sophisticated and expensive to operate. Fixed base simulators are connected to computers but don’t move, and therefore don’t need expensive hydraulics and complex electronics to provide motion. Fixed base simulators do have value as a training tool, but lack the realism that full motion simulators provide. Some airlines are looking into using fixed base simulators for essential recurrent pilot training tasks. While they may be effective in reducing costs, fixed base simulators will never adequately replace the invaluable training that full motion simulators provide.
A full motion simulator looks like an alien spacecraft jacked up on six to 10 hydraulic stilts and provides pilots with uncommonly realistic flight motions, sensations and sounds. When you experience a catastrophic engine failure at full takeoff power in a full motion simulator, you immediately feel the rapid yawing motion as it physically forces you to one side of the cockpit. Having the physical experience helps you feel more comfortable in a real emergency because you’re less surprised when it really happens.
Having flown all types of simulators, I can say there is no substitute for the quality of training a pilot can receive from full motion simulators. Consider a desktop home computer with flight simulation software being used to train pilots, and decide which pilots you would rather have flying your aircraft. The answer is a simple one for me.
All good pilots have developed an air sense, commonly known as “flying by the seat of their pants.” This sense can be achieved only through practice, repetition and solid training in real aircraft. One cannot achieve a “seat of the pants” feeling in a fixed base simulator or in any simulator, for that matter, but it’s better than not flying at all.
I’m grateful my airline uses the most sophisticated full motion simulators when it comes to training our pilots. After all, we’re carrying extremely important cargo: you!
Did You Know?
Before computerized flight simulation, airlines would replicate emergencies in real aircraft. This practice continues even today with some smaller, regional airlines.
On Your Mind
Readers pose their questions on air travel.
Q: Are aging aircraft as reliable as brand-new aircraft? —Ron Needham, Orono, Maine
A: Aviation demands strict policy when it comes to maintaining the airframes and systems of aircraft. When a breakdown occurs in the sky, there’s no option of pulling to the side of the road to wait for a tow truck. As such, a properly maintained aircraft can last for decades. Current rules, mandated by the FAA, require aircraft every five to six years to be stripped down to their skins and every component thoroughly inspected for cracks and corrosion. If any part is found to be defective, it must be
As long as an airline adheres to FAA guidelines, I wouldn’t be apprehensive about riding in or flying older airplanes. A better indicator of whether an older aircraft is safe would be to look at a company’s maintenance violation history. If it has been a constant violator, I would look to fly with someone else.
Chris Cooke has been a pilot with a major domestic carrier for 20 years and currently flies long-haul routes on the 777. He began his career with the U.S. Marine Corps, received Navy flight training and was a Top Gun graduate. This year he will log more than 300,000 miles, all in a window seat. Have a question you’d like Chris to answer in a future issue? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.