I’m starting to write this entry on the way home from France, on a quick trip home for four days off before I actually start flying again. It’s just under two weeks since I moved over to live on the French/Swiss/German border and to be honest I’m ready for a few days break. [Edit – it’s now over a week later and I’m only just finishing it…!]
It’s been a busy 24 hours, because as I start to write this (29 January), this time yesterday I was in the FSC Flight Simulator Centre in Amsterdam, undergoing by 6-monthly recurrent check which all airline transport pilots have to do. To the vast majority of pilots it’s a non-event, it’s just something you have to do every six months and you just get on with it. Without getting too technical, it’s basically to check that if anything goes wrong during flight we know what to do, in the safe confines of the simulator! It’s actually good fun because you get to practice things and come across new scenarios that you shouldn’t – and virtually never – come across in the aircraft, and there are numerous aspects that the trainers have to check us on; for example, do we understand the aircraft’s systems correctly? The A320 is a pretty complex piece of machinery, and it takes masses of experience to know every little detail in intricate detail. Also, are our CRM (crew resource management) skills up to scratch – i.e. can we work together well as a crew? Do we share the workload properly? And, in the unlikely (but possible) event of something like an engine exploding on takeoff, are our manual handling skills up to scratch? Then there are specific scenarios we have to train for; for example, flying into specific airports that are known to be complicated and require specific training – Mykonos and Ajaccio, in this case – and do we know exactly what to do if our Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) starts shouting at us and we have to perform an evasive manouever? It’s not something you can really practice for in the aircraft, for obvious reasons, so we need to know what to do, instantly, from memory.
I was a little apprehensive beforehand because I’ve never done simulator training with an experienced captain before, only trainees of similar experience to me, so I was expecting the CRM aspect to be a little different. The captain doing his check with me was one of the most experienced in the company and an examiner himself, so it was pretty much the other end of the scale to what I’m used to, but the whole point of the training we undergo is so that we can work well as a crew whatever the experience levels, and it does work. I’m pretty glad that I’ve got 6 months to wait until my next one, but overall it was good fun and a good learning experience. From here, I start flying again on Monday (a nice short Basel-Amsterdam and return) and then have to go to Geneva for a few days of line training flights before being released to the line again!
Anyway, as it’s been so long since I wrote anything proper on here, there is a big gap which needs filling for much of what I’ve written above to make sense. After I finished the AQC course which I wrote about some time early last year – the part of my training programme which taught us the basics of moving up to a passenger jet from a light aircraft, before moving on to the aircraft-specific type rating – I then had about 7 weeks off before actually starting on the type rating course. For this, after going to the company induction day at Luton, it meant another trip down to Southampton for another few weeks at CTC, where the course would be conducted. Familiar territory! (Apart from the accommodation, which, due to the company’s normal residence being full, meant being put up in a posh country hotel for a few days.)
Those of us on the type rating course (10 or 12 in total, I can’t quite remember) had received the welcome pack in the post a few weeks earlier and I’d been completely unable to fathom what on earth it was on about. A full-motion flight simulator session on day 2? Before we’d even learned anything about the aircraft?! And two more on consecutive days afterwards?! Surely not! But it turned out a few of us had been assigned to a new-style type rating course the CAA were trialling, the so-called FORCE (Flight Operations Research Centre of Excellence, or something) course. Rather than take the traditional approach of two weeks’ classroom study of the aircraft followed by 12 or so simulator sessions, the new approach was to throw us into the simulator on day 1 and then do the ground school half way through the course. The intention, I believe, was to introduce the automation in a different way to normal. The Airbus is a very clever aeroplane and the automatics can do all sorts of wonderful things to make your life easier that older aircraft can’t do, but if you don’t understand them then you’ll find yourself digging yourself very quickly into a big hole. So the idea I believe was to build us up gradually from fully manual operation (including manual thrust, which I’m ashamed to say I didn’t use in an entire six months on the line in summer) towards an intermediate level of automation to build up our understanding before finally letting us get the aircraft to look after certain things itself. It was hard work and those of us who’d done the AQC course on the A320 a couple of months earlier definitely felt like we had a bit of a head start over those (including some reasonably experienced guys) who’d never set foot in an Airbus before. It’s not really up to me to say whether I thought it was the right way to go about it, but suffice to say that the company only ran a few courses that way before dropping it a few months later and reverting to the traditional type!
The course I did consisted of six 4-hour flight simulator sessions, followed by 2 weeks’ ground school, followed a further six 4-hour sim sessions – these at Burgess Hill, just north of Brighton – of which two were devoted to the LST – Licence Skills Test, the bit you have to pass to have the A320 qualification printed in your licence. It’s pretty intense to get everything you have to do actually done in the time you have available; the course requires an intense amount of study to ensure that where there is a procedure for something, you have to know it off by heart and then be able to do it more or less first time in the simulator, before moving straight on to something else. There is a form about 4 pages long with all the different scenarios and exercises that must be covered before being put forward for the test and each one has to be signed off by an instructor to say it’s been covered. In the test itself, the examiner then has some specific things which must be tested and has a plethora of options to choose at random to throw at us. At this stage of the course you don’t want to have to be repeating stuff – it’s not like the early stages of basic training where if you messed up a few circuits you could just get back in a Cessna the next day and go and do them again; at this stage, you really need to be able to do everything first time (with training and guidance, obviously, otherwise there would be no point in actually training!) Fortunately I did pass everything first time, despite messing up quite a bit in the final session before the test and a few “errrrrrr…” moments during the test itself, but by the end of it I was pretty shattered! It was about six weeks long in total and I finished the test on 2nd May 2008. Despite finishing the test session at around midnight and not getting to bed until gone 1:30am, we’d been told to go back in the next morning (a Saturday) for another unrelated training session. By the time I got back from Burgess Hill on Saturday evening I was absolutely shattered, and just to temper the feeling of euphoria at passing a difficult test on something I first set out to do 18 months earlier, City went and lost 8-1 at Middlesbrough…!
It wasn’t over, however, because to actually fully qualify, six take-offs and landings are required in the real thing, so a day is spent on what’s called base training – where the airline will take an aircraft out of service and fly it round and round an airport all day training us newbies and check we know how to land properly; and before that, we had to spend two days back at Luton doing the airline’s safety and security courses. This is basically a much shortened, abridged version of the full cabin crew course which teaches us just what we as pilots need to know. One of the first things we did was the ‘wet drills’ where we learn how to use the lifejackets. Naturally, as this involves getting in a swimming pool with lots of lovely young trainee cabin crew, it’s a part that many of us looked forward to quite a lot! We also had got to practice jumping down the emergency slides (in a nice, calm, slow, health-and-safety conscious manner which doesn’t really reflect what having to use them for real would be like), put out fires using BCF extinguishers (well, replica ones containing water at the behest of the health and safety people), find people in a smoke-filled cabin, learn to operate the aircraft doors – all sorts of stuff really. Unfortunately the attempts of Skeelsy and myself to get chatting to some of the aforementioned cabin crew in the hotel bar were scuppered slightly by the fact they all had exams coming up, but it wasn’t for want of trying!
After that course I then had a week or so off before base training day. The day itself, when it arrived, involved a lot of travelling around as the departure point was Stansted. Annoyingly, at the time I was still officially based at Stansted so despite me not actually having started with the company, I wasn’t put up in a hotel so had to make do with a cheap-and-cheerful Travelodge type place while my colleagues were all enjoying the delights of the rather more flash Radisson SAS at Stansted. Anyway, I arrived late the evening before, having been stuck stationary on the M11 for an hour and a half and eventually resorting to putting my seat back and playing Champ Manager, while waiting for the remnants of someone’s crashed caravan (absolutely hate the damn things) to be removed from the road. I didn’t sleep too well but made it into the airport nice and early the next morning. As a new first officer, base training is the first time you get to wear your uniform and you do feel quite a sense of pride in doing so in public! After I’d met the other boys fresh from their posh Radisson full English breakfast with smoked salmon – a little more substantial than my apple and a cup of tea – we headed to the Stansted crew room and met the training captain running the day. We would be doing the circuits at East Midlands and I was to go in the second session, once we’d picked up a second training captain at East Midlands. There were six of us and we each had to do six take-offs and landings, so we were in for a long old day and were pleased to see the caterers had loaded us up with plenty of food! Most importantly we were shown how to work the brew-maker, probably the most used piece of equipment on the aeroplane all day.
I was number 4 out of the 6 to go, so the first in the ‘afternoon’ session. Sitting in the right hand seat of the real thing for the first time was a little bit daunting but the training captains were great – they took a lot of the pressure off. Once we’d started up and called for clearance we headed out for runway 09, and the first thing I noticed was that taxiing the aeroplane is a bit easier than doing it in the simulator! The sim is too responsive and sensitive to ground movements, and in trying to replicate cornering/braking forces and bumps can sometimes end up making you feel a bit sick if you have too long a taxi. The real thing is much smoother as long as you’re gentle with the nosewheel tiller! Anyway once we’d completed the before take-off procedures and checks, we were told to line up and cleared for take-off.
The circuits themselves passed fairly quickly, which was a shame as it was great fun! As it’s probably the only time in a pilot’s career that they get to do touch-and-goes in a jet aircraft, it’s really something you have to savour. It’s a little difficult to describe it fully without going into lots of technical detail but the A319 is a joy to fly and in the end, with a helpful and experienced instructor, it didn’t feel particularly difficult! Of course now, 9 months later on, any take-off feels just like any other really, but those first few were quite special – getting to fly a passenger jet, hands on, is what the entire course which I started 21 months earlier was training us for, so actually getting to do it for the first time really gets the adrenaline going. Likewise, any landing now is totally routine, but on that first day, as a newly-qualified novice, it was a good feeling getting off the aircraft later on, looking back up at the Airbus and thinking “wow, I just landed that!”
The next day we had to make our way back to Burgess Hill again, not for a simulator session this time but for a couple of days’ Line Training Ground School, i.e. classroom sessions on flying the aircraft ‘on the line’, in normal passenger service rather than in the set scenarios we’d become accustomed to in the simulator. During this time we were also supposed to get the Airbus rating added to our licences by the CAA but due to a series of admin balls-ups it wasn’t possible to do it that day, which meant spending an extra night down south and heading to the CAA building first thing the next morning. Fortunately my good friends living in Finsbury Park were more than accommodating but it still took about 2 hours to there from Gatwick (and an hour and half the following morning) and the drive across London, just like every time I visit, merely reinforced my opinion about how much I can’t stand the place and how I’m infinitely glad I’ve made my way into a career which doesn’t involve having to live there to go to work. By this point I’d already had confirmation that my transfer to East Midlands would be going ahead before I started my line training programme, so fortunately I could go back up north!
That’s probably quite enough for one entry, because it’s going to take forever to finish. I know all this probably doesn’t quite explain how I’ve ended up living in France and working abroad; that’ll come in a separate entry which I’ll start writing soon! There’s a lot to catch up on yet with all the flying I did out of East Midlands between June and November so what’s above is only really half of the story, but at least it’s a start having not written anything for so long.