Published in March 2016 issue

By Alan Carter

These days, because of the high  levels of aircraft automation, it seems that most people think that we Pilots do very little.

Okay, that is a wee bit of an exaggeration. Understand, please, there is no big green button to press for start, nor a similar red one to press for stop. Well, maybe on Airbus, but not on Boeing (that’s a joke, please, Airbus aficionados!).

However, the advanced automation systems that we have onboard nowadays do have a degree of sophistication, and they need to be thoroughly understood and constantly monitored. Just to confirm my own personal views, when things do start to go wrong, I would prefer to have the Pilots manage the situation with the assistance of the automation, and not the other way around. In my opinion, we can all expect to live longer that way. In my previous article, ‘The Children of Magenta Line,’ (Airways, July 2015) I highlighted what happened when, sadly, that was not the case.

To achieve such a level of competence and, thus, safety, we Pilots have to undergo rigorous training and prepare ourselves regularly in the torture chamber of aviation: the dreaded simulator.

“Gentlemen, your licenses are on the table, it is now up to me to decide whether I give them back to you!”

This daunting sentence was uttered by a rather stern check Pilot during my six-month proficiency check in the Boeing 727 simulator, when I was working at the fabulous and now deceased Dan Air (DA) airline, at its Horsham, Sussex, training center. His grasp of the concept of Crew/Cockpit Resource Management (CRM), or of how to get the best out of people without upsetting them, was akin, I’m guessing, to his grasp of Swahili translated into Cantonese.

This was back in the days when CRM was in its embryonic stage. Dan Air was virtually pioneering a ground school course to cover it. This training culminated in our plotting our Goal/Personality (G/P) results onto a graph, which ultimately determined where we stood on a sliding scale between Mother Theresa and Charles Manson (discretion prevents me from stating where I came in.)

Therefore, back then, CRM, or its concept, were virtually non-existent, especially during our simulator sessions. Here, the examiner was God, so we just got on with it.

Our Boeing 727 simulator was located in a warehouse that sat alongside a railway siding. Inside the warehouse, it was positioned next to the tea and coffee bench; so, while battling an engine-out approach with limited hydraulics, it was not uncommon to hear, “Hey Charlie, you want milk and sugar with that?” This tended to detract from the realism but, then, there was also no visual system depicting the outside world, just a white screen ahead, portraying an eternal snowy whiteout.

This meant that base training—flying the real aircraft in all kinds of configurations around Shannon airport in Southern Ireland—was compulsory. And huge, huge fun. Sadly, what we did then is frowned upon these days, probably for being too dangerous, and this form of training is therefore now heavily diluted.

Our Boeing 727 simulator, if my faded memory is correct, had only one airport in its database: Cologne (CGN) in West Germany; this was 1984, when there was still an East Germany and a fully functional Berlin Wall.

We would find ourselves inside this clockwork torture chamber, the ‘sophisticated’ motion system of which had all the panache of a washing machine on the spin cycle, listening to simulated ATC and crew communications that were interspersed with tea and coffee orders, while at least two Crewmembers would be smoking, sometimes one puffing away on a pipe while manually flying the required procedures with such precision that it seemed as if the ‘aircraft’ were being driven along railway tracks. Such was the astonishing ability of the remaining ex-wartime Royal Air Force (RAF) Pilots, the ‘few’ to whom, according to Winston Churchill, so many owed so much.

Almost 25 years later, I had the privilege of being taught in the DC-10 simulator by an ex-maritime Lancaster Pilot who had flown for the RAF at the end of World War II, his amazing enthusiasm undiluted by his hearing aids and artificial hips. The numbers of characters like these are sadly dwindling.

But let’s get back to the present day. Now, the sophistication and realism in said simulators is truly incredible. Unfortunately, many of the previously mentioned gentlemen are no longer with us—but, if they were and you could somehow blindfold them and lead them onto the latest ‘Level D’ flight simulator, they would swear they were onboard an actual aircraft (though they would be hard pressed to find an ashtray!).

Now for the geeky stuff: A Level D, ZFT (Zero Flight Time) simulator can be partially defined as a simulator with a motion platform that must have all six degrees of freedom experienced by a body moving unfettered in space. And the visual system must have an outside-world horizontal field of view of at least 150 degrees (no rear-view mirrors on Boeings!) with a distant focus display. Phew!

Realistic cockpit sounds are also required, and not just those made by Pilots when the going gets tough. A number of special motion and visual effects are also needed—to test and torment the Pilots, enabling them to complete all their training without ever setting foot on the actual aircraft.

Now, I am not sure how passengers would welcome the news that they were being whisked away on holiday with a co-Pilot who had that day set foot onto their aircraft for the very first time. Hopefully, their yelling and screaming would be minimal. This reminds me of that old Pilot’s joke, as recited by an elderly Captain: “When I die, I want to go quietly in my sleep and not yelling and screaming like my passengers!”

Once Pilots were released from their initial training, their skills were reevaluated every six months. These simulator sessions were like the British savory spread Marmite; you either loved them or hated them. I have seen the most competent of aviators reduced to quivering wrecks once ensconced in one of these devices.

The briefings were run by the check Pilot. Normally, you would be told which maneuvers to carry out and given the weather and aircraft details to make the whole session as realistic as possible. Once, however, while I was preparing to land during one session, my examiner would not answer my questions. I turned around to find that he had fallen asleep! You would expect me to add that I woke him up, but… well, let’s just say that, for the next 20 minutes, my co-Pilot and I had fun (and yes, you can barrel roll a Boeing 747-400, but doing a loop seemed impossible, especially while trying not to wake the check Pilot).

Now, for the serious stuff. If this period of simulator training is conducted thoroughly, then it takes up at least two days, with each session in the box—as the simulator is known, not altogether affectionately—lasting four hours.

Sadly, in previous companies—not too often these days—I have witnessed Pilots getting passing grades after crashing in the simulator, repeating the maneuver, and crashing again. A few years ago, I flew in the simulator with one co-Pilot who crashed 11 times on crosswind landings. We ran out of time, and I ran out of patience—but the examiner passed him. As a result, I have flown with several Pilots who I would not leave alone in the flight deck of an actual aircraft, never mind allow them to fly my family in the back.

But, now, let’s assume that our training/checking sessions will be ‘professional and completed’ as per regulations.

Day one is usually pure training, during which various system failures, such as hydraulics and flight controls, or pressurization problems are practiced under the guise of Line Orientated Flight Training (LOFT). This phase is deemed to be non-jeopardy. In other words, there is no pass or fail; as long as they don’t crash (crashing tends to be frowned upon), it is just followed by a discussion between the Pilots on how they think they did.

CRM plays a large part in LOFT training, during which the Pilots are expected to behave as if they were in the real world. Therefore, they have to comply with Air Traffic Control procedures, managing any system failures with the Cabin Crew, and possibly with the company engineering department as well. The instructor Pilot plays the roles of these other departments. And some of them camp it up as well as any actor.

On these training days, both Captain and co-Pilot are usually given the opportunity to be in command for LOFT scenarios. Such scenarios might involve a fuel leak, which is actually a complicated scenario to identify and manage, or hydraulic problems, which lead to the failure of the flap or landing gear systems. You have to deal with a range of airfields to land at in marginal weather or with ground-based radar failures. You definitely are made to sweat, think, and plan.

But the most complicated scenario—and, speaking as a cargo Pilot, the most important—is smoke or fire onboard the aircraft. The non-flying Pilot has to carry out multiple checklists while his cockpit team mate dedicates himself to flying the aircraft to the nearest airfield. The old adage, ‘Aviate, Navigate, Communicate,’ is never more important than in this situation. In my opinion, if you have a smoke or fire scenario and you are still in the air 20 minutes after recognizing it… then you are doing something wrong. Just look back at UPS Flight 6—a Boeing 747-400F that crashed south of Dubai (DXB) in 2010— or at the case of Swissair Flight 111, an MD-11 that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1998. In both cases, the Crews ran out of time, though for different reasons, and, sadly, all onboard perished.

Off-airport landing, as it is known, or ditching is the absolute worst-case scenario that a Pilot needs to consider. Yet, considered it must be, even if only as a last course of action. A controlled landing or ditching is better than a blind, high-speed, uncontrolled crash.

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Most modern simulators have the option of making this scenario’s realism complete by pumping in synthetic smoke. This rapidly brings home to the Pilots how serious the situation can become— and why they should carry at least one condom in their wallets. You see, my fabulous Captain told me a tale when I was flying from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Aqaba in Jordan on an Ilyushin Il-76, and I believed him: If you have smoke in the cockpit, it can very quickly reduce the visibility to such an extent that you cannot read the instruments. But, if you carry a condom, you can blow it up, tie the end and place it against the instrument you wish to see. With your eyes snug on its other side, you can read your instruments. It’s simple but effective. And it’s a ‘Get Out Of Jail Free Card’ on so many levels; when your wife or girlfriend asks you why you are carrying one of these, you can answer in all honesty that it’s for flight safety reasons!

The training maneuvers that must be completed each year by all jet commercial Pilots are as follows, in no particular order, regardless of aircraft type.

The proceedings generally begin once the setting of all the switches and programming of the flight computers has been completed. I’ve known some instructors to pull circuit breakers or fail innocuous flight instruments to test just how thorough we are.

Let the fun and games begin!

Time to start our engines and—surprise, surprise!—one of them will have a technical problem that requires the Pilots and ground crew to work together while referencing checklists and operations manuals. Once the situation is correctly managed and resolved, it will be time to taxi out for takeoff. Oh, did I mention that it will also be very foggy, with visibility reduced to 410 feet (125m), just enough to see a handful of taxiway and runway lights?

With takeoff clearance obtained and the thrust levers advanced, we will start accelerating… but, BANG; an engine will fail. At low speed, our responses will need to be immediate and precise. Otherwise, we’ll quickly turn our aircraft into a tractor as we swerve off the runway and plow through the grass. You see, at low speed on, say, the Boeing 747, like on most other multi-engine jet aircraft, there is insufficient rudder to counter the yaw moment caused by asymmetric engine thrust. So, we will need to immediately disengage the auto-throttle with our thumbs while swiftly closing the thrust levers and steering with the nose wheel tiller, not forgetting to select reverse thrust and speedbrakes while simultaneously braking—this is one of those few moments in aviation when one doesn’t have time to think and weigh up the options. Our responses will need to be instantaneous and correct. Otherwise, we will lose the runway centerline lights and then we’ll be heading for a load of pain and a cross on our training file where a tick should be.

However, when we’ll have correctly controlled the aircraft, brought it to a safe stop with the necessary checklists completed, informed ATC (they can’t see us; remember, it’s foggy), briefed cabin crew and passengers… our aircraft will miraculously mend itself. We will find ourselves back at the end of the runway, waiting once again for takeoff, courtesy of our benevolent instructor who will be reprogramming the simulator while sitting behind us, watching and occasionally giggling to himself.

So off we’ll go again, trundling down the runway, passing our V1 speed—the maximum speed, calculated by the Pilots, at which the takeoff could be rejected. Otherwise, if we try to stop, we’ll probably go off the end of the runway—and, once again, we’ll change jobs and become farmers instead of employed Pilots!

However, just before we reach the speed at which we would start to raise the nose, a bell will sound, red warning lights will illuminate and my colleague will call out, “Engine fire!” Oh, well, too late to stop, so we will have to get airborne, which is invariably the safest option. These days, airline Pilots are generally go, as opposed to stop, oriented. In other words, whenever possible, let’s get the aircraft into the air, where it belongs, and sort out the problems in a timely manner.

So, my colleague will cancel the bell. With the adrenalin running through their bodies, so many Crews forget to do this. As we complete the maneuver to become airborne with an engine fire, there will generally be no thrust asymmetry because the stricken engine will still be producing power (except in the case of an extremely catastrophic failure followed by fire taking hold). Not forgetting to raise the landing gear, we will bring the aircraft under control, flying away from the ground on the correct track. Now, we’ll get some help and engage the autopilot, to buy ourselves some thinking time.

At a designated height—for the Boeing 747-400, that’s generally 400 feet above ground level—we will select the required heading. If we’re above 309 tons, we will also limit subsequent bank angles to 15 degrees until, basically, the flaps are up. I will confirm what has happened with my colleague and will ask him or her to complete the memory items needed to shut down and safely secure that engine, monitoring his or her actions while also ensuring that the aircraft is still being correctly flown.

We will reach the predetermined height at which we can start to retract the flaps and accelerate (for the Boeing 747-400, with no excessive obstacles on the flight path, that’s a minimum of 800 feet above ground level). Now it might be a good time to inform ATC that we have a problem, where we will go and to what height we’ll climb.

Well, the flaps will be up and the correct power setting will have been laid in; this will generally be Maximum Continuous Thrust, which basically is what it says on the tin. We will be flying to where we want to go and at a safe height above all obstacles and terrain. Now, it will be time to complete the non-normal and after-takeoff checklists and plan what to do next. If everything will have been conducted correctly and the weather will have been obtained for a suitable airport to land at, maybe it will now be necessary to calculate how much fuel we would need to jettison to reduce the aircraft’s weight to beneath the maximum landing weight. This will need to be coordinated with ATC, above a minimum height and in a safe area, clear of thunderstorms.

It now will probably be a good time to brief the Cabin Crew and, with our best Hollywood accent, calmly talk to the passengers and tell them the truth (but only that part of it which won’t cause embolisms or excessive dry cleaning bills!).

With all checklists complete, my colleague briefed as to what I plan to do, it will be time to try and make an approach and land. I say ‘try’ as we can pretty well guess what will happen next. Our best friend, the autopilot, will fail! You see, it’s a mandatory requirement for us to practice our manual flying skills. At this juncture, I’ve seen some maneuvers that would entice ‘oohs and aahs’ normally reserved for aerobatics displays.

With the aircraft configured for landing— flaps set and landing gear down—we will continue to follow the ground-based electronic Instrument Landing System (ILS). But—surprise, surprise!— on reaching the minimum height from which we could descend before deciding if we could safely land, we still won’t be able to see the runway. Remember, I told you it had been foggy, and the fog will have miraculously rolled back in!

So we will carry out a missed approach, advancing the thrust levers, retracting the flaps to a predetermined setting, engaging the correct autoflight guidance mode, and, oh, raising the gear—all in the space of about five seconds. And so up we will go again and carry out the necessary procedures to ensure the safety of the aircraft and of all onboard. Remember, all of this will be done while flying with one engine inoperative and a sufficient boot of rudder to stop ourselves from rolling into the ground due to the large amount of asymmetric thrust produced on go-around power.

At our safe height, we will carry out procedures similar to those we did the first time we became airborne, and prepare for another approach. This time, we will be pretty sure that we will be able to land, as the weather will have dramatically improved. And so we will!

But we will not be done. The fire bell will ring and another engine will fail. And we will now carry out more checklists and flight path management requirements to ensure a safe, two-engine inoperative landing. Well, that was a fun way to spend an hour and a half.

As I said, I thoroughly enjoy my time in the simulator, a concept that most of my colleagues find, shall we say, a little odd…

Hopefully, I am enlightening you about the fact that we Pilots are there in the flight deck primarily to ensure that you get to safely fly from A to B, regardless of what is thrown at us. This is a fact that must never be forgotten—unlike the myth of our red and green buttons!