MIAMI — From the outside, the facility does not look like much. On the inside, however, the TAM Service Academy is full of surprises, unique training methods, and some downright difficult tests. TAM flew me down to Brazil to see how it’s all done.

No member of a flight crew gets on board a flight before extensive training, and this facility is where TAM puts every potential crew member to the test. Passengers often forget that the same people who serve the drinks are tasked with saving lives during an emergency. Any employee who does not pass the tests at this facility will not be hired.

Every airline has a mock aircraft cabin for flight crew training. At TAM, however, the training aircraft is no ordinary airframe. As we were sightseeing, TAM’s training manager informed us that this airframe had “killed a cow.” It turns out that the Fokker F100 airframe used for emergency training was actually involved in a real life crash, landing in a farm and killing a cow. If there is better inspiration for new recruits to learn proper emergency procedures, this is it.

At the push of a button, the F100 cabin started to fill with smoke, simulating a fire in the rear lavatory. After a few quick sprays of the mock fire extinguisher, it was time to evacuate the aircraft.

The right side of the airframe is fitted with the slides of a narrowbody Airbus A320, while the left has a larger slide from an Airbus A330. During most evacuations, the bulk of injuries occur while passengers are making their way down the slides, and its easy to see why. The slides are steep, and somewhat intimidating, even in the sterile academy environment.

I had never gone down an evacuation slide before, so I was thrilled by the opportunity. Down the slide and into a (heavily) padded landing area I went, happy with myself that I stuck the landing. However, had this been a real evacuation, flight attendants would have been rushing me to make space for the next passenger. Before evacuation is deemed complete, the crew must ensure that all passengers have successfully evacuated the aircraft.

Outside of the training academy is what appear to be an unassuming bunker. In this little brick building, TAM flight attendants are put to one hell of a serious test.

Poor Severin must be rescued from the dark, smoke filled fire evacuation simulator. (Credits: Author)
Poor Severin must be rescued from the dark, smoke filled fire evacuation simulator. (Credits: Author)

Inside this building is a confusing, reconfigurable maze and a few rows of seats containing a simulated passenger named Severin. Poor Severin (named after his missing limb), has passed out in the mock cabin due to smoke inhalation, and must be rescued under a strict time limit. Sure, that sound easy enough. It isn’t.

TAM gave a myself and a few other bloggers the chance to run the rescue test, and we failed miserably. Examiners fill up the building with simulated smoke and turn off the lights. It is pitch black inside. Flight attendants must work their way through the maze while staying together in a line, feeling their way around the building for poor Severin. It took us well over the allotted time to find our victim and get him outside. This simulation was one of the most intense things I have done in a while, and really stresses how dangerous such situations can be.

This way to the camp!. (Credits: Author)
This way to the camp!. (Credits: Author)

Once the crew has rescued all passengers from the downed aircraft, what’s next? For many airlines, the training ends here. But not at TAM. Because a vast percentage of Brazil is covered in hostile rainforest, Brazil requires flight crews to participate in extensive wilderness preparedness simulations. If a flight were to go down in the Amazon, rescue could be days away.

Thankfully, the very same flight attendants that are training inside to serve dinner are outside setting up a survival camp. The detail TAM has gone to in simulating a crash site is quite impressive. The Rockwell Collins weather radar from the nose of the plane can be repurposed into a reflector dish to signal passing aircraft. Life vests probably won’t be necessary in the Amazon, so they are set up as a large arrow pointing towards the camp. Every part of the aircraft has some sort of purpose after a crash.

Back inside the academy, TAM flight and ground crews learn everyday procedures. A classroom dedicated to teaching ground handling is set up, complete with working computers, boarding pass scanners, printers, and public address system. Anyone who has watched the boarding process at a major international airport knows that things move fast, and if the gate agent doesn’t properly know how to work their equipment, passengers can merciless. The next room over holds yet another mock cabin where in-flight crews learn how to properly serve meals.

All in all, the TAM Service Academy was an eye-opening but enjoyable experience. Check out some additional photos of the Academy below.

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