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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Accidental Airline Pilot

I accidentally became an airline pilot.

Last August, the Seattle-based wireless start up I was working for laid me off.  The project I was hired to work on ended, and the new role really required someone locally in Redmond.  I wasn't interested in moving, mostly due to the insane property prices up there.

On that day, I put in an application on, just to see what would happen, not expecting anything.  Meanwhile, I started contracting for a wireless positioning company in Richardson TX, about 10 miles away.  When a locally-based airleine asked me to interview, at first I said "no".

Around Christmastime, the CEO told me he wasn't going to bring me on as a full time employee.  I was bummed, although frankly I wasn't very excited about the company or the job.  So I told the airline I would do the interview, not expecting much.  At the interview, I was surprised to be offered a job as a First Officer (FO) for one of the companies that operates as "American Eagle".  After soul searching and a long discussion with my wife over how we could live on 1/3rd of my salary, I accepted.

The regional paid for me to attend the 7 day CPT course at ATP, it was 4 days of classroom, mostly watching videos of landmark accidents and then a discussion of the causes. Colgan, Air France and a few others featured heavily. Then 3 sim sessions, 4 hrs in a CRJ/700 sim, 4 hrs in an MD80 sim, and 2 in an A320 sim. High altitude stalls, wake upsets, ILS Cat 2 and 3 and so on. Finally sat the ATP written and passed with 90%.

I started indoc at the airline in late February, 2 weeks of classroom reading from airline ops manuals, then a week on security, hazardous cargos etc. I got to put out a cabin fire, jump down the slide, and disable a would-be hijacker. Then almost a week off.

We started on systems in the morning for about 8 days, and procedures training in a "sim" each afternoon. I was teamed up with an upgrading captain, and the sim was a large screen running off a PC running Windows. We shared a mouse to "move the controls". For most of that time I was totally lost, it only started to come together right at the end.

After a weekend off, we started "Cockpit Procedures", which was slightly more sophisticated sim, in that it had multiple touch screens, laid out like a cockpit but still all driven off a PC. You could only touch one control at a time, and you couldn't actually turn a knob. We worked on profiles and call outs for 2 days, then I took systems and procedures validation tests. I passed the systems oral, failed the procedures practical.

I got one more day of training in the CPT trainer, and it seemed to all come together then and there. I retook the procedures test the next day, and passed fairly easily. One thing that helped was that I came in on my days off and stayed late to teach myself how to program the FMS (the airline did NOTHING to teach it to us, somehow we were supposed to learn it by osmosis).

Now Sim training is almost complete. I spent 2 weeks living in the Drury Inn next to STL airport, and going to 4 hr long sim sessions at FlightSafety.

The first 5 were very hard. It's not flying the airplane (which is not too difficult, apart from the speed with which things happen), it's managing the automation - specifically the guidance panel, which is like an autopilot on steroids with a bad attitude. On the 6th and final flight of the first week, I did much better and got signed off complete.

The second week started last Monday, and that went quite well. It was a simulated revenue flight BOS-JFK-BOS, I flew the 2nd leg and it went fine. It included a simulated rapid depressurization from FL390 to 10,000, which I performed, and an ILS CAT II into BOS. All Cat II approaches are flown by the FO.

After another session focused on emergency procedures, the 3rd session was maneuvers validation, part I of the ATP. I was unsat on the LOC approach (had helmet fire and couldn't remember the buttons to press on the GP until it was really late, resulting an an unstable approach), and didn't maintain V2+-10 on the V1 engine cut. Actually I didn't realize I had to be so precise - I thought it was an emergency and as long as I got a good climb going the rest didn't matter. No, you have to control the airspeed and heading to ATP standards while managing the emergency.

After telling me I'd busted the ride, the examiner started to teach me tricks the other instructors hadn't. Then with his guidance I did each maneuver to standard. If only I'd had him as my instructor!

The airline scheduled me for a remedial training sim session the very next day, but using my new tricks I just "flew through" it all with no issues. So now I'm signed off for a retake, but sitting at home waiting for a revised schedule.

My takeaways - once you're in the program, the airline wants you to succeed. However, you won't get any extra help until you start busting stage checks. I was saying I needed extra time right from the start - I just don't learn as fast as those 20 and 30 year olds, something that pains me to admit. But I didn't get it until I got incomplete on the checks.

However, if they don't think you CAN make it, they will punch eject quickly - or you will. Several have dropped out already, but I'm still here. I'm not quitting.

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