One of the most important aspects of being an airline pilot is always being prepared for the unexpected. Routine trips can be mundane at times but proper preparation can help avert tragedy when disaster strikes. Obviously, we cannot practice things such as engine fires and failures, navigation equipment failures or really much else during the course of flying passengers. In years past, airlines would allow pilots to take out an empty aircraft, usually in the middle of the night, and practice such scenarios in real life. Pan Am and TWA even went so far as to utilize the nearly abandoned Dade Collier Training and Transition Airport (TNT) in the middle of the Florida Everglades. TNT was used almost exclusively for airline training. The airlines thought that by isolating the training in the Everglades they were reducing exposure should the unfortunate occur during a training event. Also, noise complaints were nonexistent due to the remote location.
At the time that TNT was built, simulator technology was in its infancy. The most advanced simulators were little more than basic instrument trainers with no visuals whatsoever. Some of the first simulators to provide a visual to the pilots did so by using a miniature landscape that a camera would “fly” over in direct response to the pilot’s control movements. In the late 1980’s, simulators began to use computer-generated visuals. Initially, these visuals were all night time because it was simply easier to generate the visual. Today’s simulators provide full day time visuals that can be very realistic. The rise of computer generated visuals, coupled with the advancements in hydraulic technology that allows a simulator to respond to control movements quickly and realistically, led to the demise of in-aircraft training. Not only is it safer and more cost effective to use simulators instead of actual aircraft, it allows the pilot to see and experience situations that no sane pilot would purposely duplicate in an aircraft. For example, a complete hydraulic failure is a very perilous situation, as the crew of United 232 can testify. It would be foolish to replicate this in an airplane; but in a simulator we can easily and safely train for this type of scenario without jeopardizing people or equipment. At Continental Airlines, we do nearly all of our simulator training in Houston, Texas at our own training facility. Occasionally, we will send pilots up to Seattle to use Boeing’s facilities when ours are over capacity. After our merger with United is complete, we will have two simulator facilities, one in Houston and one in Denver at the former Stapleton Airport.
To remain a current and qualified Continental pilot we must attend recurrent training once per year. Airline programs vary but Continental’s consists of two days of ground school followed by two days of simulator evaluation. Ground school is a review of the company’s policies and procedures as well as the systems of a specific airplane. Ground school is more review than anything and thus is not particularly stressful. The real work comes with the simulator evaluations. The first day in the simulator is what we call a Maneuvers Validation. A “MV” typically consists of performing rejected takeoffs, rejected landings, and different types of approaches such as non-precision, ILS CAT III Land 3, and RNP approaches. These are approaches to airports that we do not experience on a regular basis, so it is good to have a chance to perform them in the simulator. After the easy part is out of the way, we switch gears to the single engine work.
There are different regimes to a takeoff: low speed and high speed and before V1 and after V1. Bear in mind that most large airlines take off at a speed of around 160 knots. Low speed is that part of a takeoff when the aircraft is travelling at less than 100 kts (some airlines use 80kts). During the low speed regime we will reject a takeoff for almost any kind of system failure. As we pass 100kts we enter the high speed regime during which we will only reject for an engine failure or fire, or if for some other reason we do not feel that the aircraft will actually fly. When traveling at such a high speed it is considered safer to continue airborne with a minor failure than to try to stop on the remaining runway. V1 is the takeoff decision speed and is the speed at which one is going to fly, no matter what happens. One of the most challenging maneuvers that a pilot performs is called a “V1 cut.” A V1 cut simulates a complete engine failure right at the V1 speed, meaning that the pilot has to actually take an airplane that is running on only one engine, maintain directional control of it, and lift off the ground. Since this is one of the most difficult maneuvers to perform, we are required to demonstrate it every year. A take off with a single engine of course leads to flying on one engine, executing an instrument approach (no visuals) to the airport and landing safely. Because the real world often throws curve balls at us we also practice a single engine rejected landing procedure, which leads to another practice approach. Needless to say, after spending four hours in a simulator dealing with emergencies, the captain and co-pilot are more than happy to adjourn for the day.
The second day of training consists of “Line Operating Experience” or LOE. LOEs mimic an actual flight, but usually have some sort of emergency en-route. For example, this year we flew two flights, one from Newark to Cleveland and a second from Cleveland to Chicago. During our first flight our Thrust Management Computer (TMC) broke en-route.
That meant that we had to calculate the engine parameters manually and make sure that the engines did not exceed those parameters. It also meant that our auto throttle system were inoperative. While auto throttles are certainly not required, they definitely make our job easier, so not having them adds an extra bit of challenge. After dealing with our TMC issue, we executed a non-precision approach into Cleveland. Being that this was a simulator event we did not see the runway at the required height and thus had to perform a rejected landing procedure. After we leveled off, we discussed our fuel situation and decided that we had enough for one more attempt in Cleveland and would divert to Detroit if this attempt was not successful. Fortunately, the simulator weather had improved and we were able to land in Cleveland. Just as with an actual flight, we taxied to the appropriate gate and parked the ‘airplane’.
The second flight was flown by the other pilots in training. This time, it was my turn at the controls. Enroute to Chicago, we experienced a failure of the right air data computer which led to all of my instruments displaying erroneous indications. We ran the appropriate checklists and were able to restore instrumentation to my side of the cockpit. In Chicago, we executed a non-precision approach, which is more difficult than our normal approach. To add an additional challenge, the instructor managed to place a computer generated fire truck on the runway, which led to another rejected landing. This time we had plenty of fuel so it was an easy decision to attempt another approach into Chicago. On this approach, the truck had cleared the runway and we landed safely, taxied to the gate, and shut down our virtual airplane.
My simulator partner and I passed our check rides successfully and were cleared to fly for another year. While we most likely will experience very little of what happened in the simulator on actual line flights, it is necessary to always be prepared and ready for the unexpected. Certainly, Capt. Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles did not begin their work day thinking that they would end it on the Hudson River. However, their training and years of experience enabled them to safely ditch an inoperative airplane and save the lives of everyone on board. While experience can only be purchased with time, thorough and proper training enables us all to be prepared for whatever emergency might come our way.