Sunday, 20 October 2013


                                                                          PART 1.

I thought it might be interesting for us to have a quick look at how the options which are open for pilot training have evolved over my last thirty years in aviation. For myself, I have been very fortunate to have been exposed to the most basic and the most advanced training simulators; learning something new at every turn…..and I know that I still have an awful lot to learn in the years ahead.

                                              VIRTUAL AVIATION'S BOEING 737NG SIMULATOR

Those who say that they know everything need to hang up their headset and find a job in something less technical than a garden centre. Bizarrely I did meet one Italian training captain who admitted that he knew everything, a stupid comment as he was then only one conversation away from being proved wrong……which I delighted in and I agree was not very CRM (Crew Resource Management) orientated.
It seems that the current aviation devices and methods of torture (I shall explain why torture later!) have certainly come a long way since I first started my flight training back in 1982; from what could now be almost described as a clockwork toy, to a machine which now resembles a NASA spacecraft on stilts.
There are now numerous means, with just the push of a switch by which an unscrupulous, sorry enthusiastic training captain can ruin your day! With simply a click and a smile your engine could be on fire, the pressurisation system could fail, the flight controls could malfunction or if it was a really bad day all the engines could flame out……..yes it is a training device but once the adrenalin kicks in and the sweat starts to run down your back, you soon forget this and the normal four hour session literally flies by, thank goodness!

For some pilots, being scheduled for their recurrent simulator training, literally puts the fear of God into them. I have known them to start having sleepless nights weeks before the ‘main event’ and seen pilots who were excellent aviators when flying the line, lose the plot and make the most stupid of mistakes in ‘the box’; as the full flight simulators are now commonly known.

It was whilst completing the ‘advanced’ training syllabus at Oxford Aviation College in England that I first came into contact with these so-called synthetic training devices. However, my introduction was limited to a flight simulator which appeared in design to be similar to one of those photo booths that could be found in most major supermarkets……but slightly less mobile and certainly less sophisticated!

These early training devices allowed you to practice instrument flying techniques using just the most basic of navigational information based on a computer database, one which I suppose compared to nowadays would have a smaller memory than that of a modern pocket calculator. However, it was a great way of developing situational awareness, no moving map displays or sophisticated glass screens to assist in this, often just a rudimentary map and a stopwatch.

All we had were just ADF (Automatic Direction Finding), VOR (VHF Omnidirectional Range), DME (Distance Measuring Equipment) and their associated compass cards on RMIs (Radio Magnetic Indicators). If I was to try and do that now………I’d certainly have my work cut out! Although in my previous article on my flight on-board the IL76 to Aqaba, this was basically all this crew had to orientate themselves and as I stated, they made it look very easy.
The simplistic navigational routes back then which needed to be completed as well as the holding and approach procedures were plotted on a flat, plastic coated map with a movable pen; so allowing you to check how your skills were progressing after the training session from this high tech equipment! A simple yet effective training tool added to which, that when you looked forward out of this rudimentary generic cockpit there were no 3D images or wrap around visual screens…….just an almost child-like model of a light aircraft pivoting on a small shaft which would move in relation to your control inputs, making the trickery from the late 1960’s Thunderbird’s television shows (readers under 30, you’ll need to Google this!) look almost futuristic!

As rudimentary as this simulator training was, it must have helped. Because in the summer of 1983 I passed my Instrument Rating on the fabulous Piper PA31 Navajo, a big aircraft to me at the time. In reality it was a great little aeroplane, well it had 8 seats! Little did I know that in seven years’ time I would be flying Virgin Atlantic’s G-VMIA a Boeing 747-100 series aircraft carrying five hundred people!
All too often for pilots, I was to find out that reality can be a tough mistress, as only a couple of months later I would experience first-hand that aeroplanes can bite and that there is never any time to allow complacency to creep in, a mantra which I ‘try’ to teach when instructing to this day….when politics allow, tales for another time! But proof that training is oh so important and should never be compromised on the grounds of costs, unfortunately far too often these days it is…….there is a clue below!!
I found this out the hard way on my first flight after graduating…….
On a cloudy autumn afternoon in 1983 I was to suffer a double engine failure in the same PA31 aircraft that I had trained in. This was whilst flying a small group of my family and friends back from Jersey (EGJJ) in the UK Channel Islands to Oxford’s Kidlington airport (EGTK) and scarily for me in IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) over southern England too. However, this was a situation which had a happy outcome culminating in a dead stick landing at an almost deserted Middle Wallop military airfield (EGVP.) I owe my thanks, and so do my parents for this happy outcome, to the excellent training by my fabulous Oxford Aviation instructor, Mr John Gledhill and once again a tale for another time.

                                          PA31-310 OXFORD AIRPORT WITH MY DAD
Well with this incident  and my initial training behind me, a shiny new blue UK CAA CPL (Commercial Pilots Licence) burning a hole in my flight bag, I was very fortunate to be offered employment with a great British Airline, Dan Air Services Ltd as a co-pilot on the Avro 748. An aircraft affectionately known throughout the world as the ‘Budgie’!

                                              THE HS748 AND ME IN AMSTERDAM
I was to find that my flight training for this particular type was not to be undertaken on a multi-million pound flight simulator but entirely flown on the actual aircraft itself… and safety would probably be up in arms over this concept now! Especially as……….

……..Take-offs, landings, engine failures, simulated engine fires as well as navigation exercises and approach procedures were all accomplished in real time and on a real aeroplane. This included actually shutting down and feathering the propellers when necessary, though only one at a time!

I have to admit I struggled trying to master this ‘old fashioned’ aircraft, not because it was complicated, which it obviously wasn’t. It was just that the skills I had at that time were only just, and I mean just, up to the task and to be honest at times I wondered if I was cut out to be an airline pilot. However, I was very fortunate to again be taught by very patient and very experienced training captains, to all of whom I will always be very grateful.

I would spend literally hours trying to turn my landings into something that would not scare the pants off of the most ardent of thrill seekers. Bashing the circuit in Aberdeen (EGPD), Bournemouth (EGHH), Newcastle (EGNT) and finally Inverness (EGPE), I succeeded. I had achieved a level where after my final landing and we had handed the aircraft back to the engineers, they could use it again with the minimum amount of maintenance work! Although I hate to think how many tyres I was responsible for that would have needed replacing.

                                                           INVERNESS AIRPORT
Not until three years later when I transferred onto the sublime Boeing 727, a real pilot’s aircraft in my opinion and once again whilst employed with Dan Air Services Ltd, was I first exposed to the ‘wonders’ of the full flight simulator. However, by modern standards it would have failed to excite even the most enthusiastic of aviation fans at a low grade fairground! Although this one actually moved in pitch, roll and yaw as well as being an accurate reproduction of the Boeing 727’s cock-pit……there was still no visual system, no futuristic wrap around screens depicting the outside world. It also quickly manifested that the only airport in the database was Cologne (EDDK), its navigation procedures I would eventually be able to recite by heart.
                                                          DAN AIR BOEING 727 SIMULATOR
What also made this simulator stand out from any others which I have subsequently ‘flown’ was its situation, located in the middle of a warehouse down a railway siding. This low-rent building was used by many different departments of the said airline; and its tea/coffee facilities were located right next to the base of this simulator. Meaning that as you attempted to concentrate on flying an engine-out approach often you would hear shouts like….”Frank you having sugar in yours, and are there any biscuits?”…..this tended to detract from the realism, well more accurately, added to the lack of realism!

As this simulator was not certified by the UK CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) for training pilots in the art of take-offs and landings we would have to practice these, just as we did on the ‘Budgie’…….in other words once again on the actual aircraft. So after completing all the procedural and systems requirements of the type rating it was time to finish the Boeing 727 training on what would turn out to be a fabulous weekend in Shannon Ireland (EINN).
This ‘jolly’ involved my fellow classmates and I taking off from London Gatwick’s airport (EGKK) in G-BAJW a Boeing 727-100 series three-holer as it was often known. During this short flight we had the opportunity to each see the effect of Dutch Rolls on a T-tail jet aircraft. This involved switching off the yaw damper, which corrects for this aerodynamic oscillation by imputing an opposite rudder deflection, and then slowly feeding in a rudder input of our own to demonstrate both how to recognise it and how to minimise the effects so protecting the aircraft’s tail.

Dutch roll will cause the aircraft’s passengers to feel sick, virtually a form of sea sickness and under extreme circumstances a build-up of Dutch Roll oscillations could eventually cause catastrophic structural failure. Hence the importance to recognise, understand and be able to correct this unscheduled manoeuver if necessary should the yaw damper fail.

For an example in his autobiography, legendary test pilot Tex Johnston described a Dutch Roll incident he experienced as a passenger on an early commercial 707 flight. As the aircraft’s movements did not cease and most of the passengers became ill, he suspected a misrigging of the directional autopilot (yaw damper). He went to the cockpit and found the crew unable to understand and resolve the situation. He introduced himself and relieved the ashen-faced captain who immediately left the cockpit feeling ill. Johnston disconnected the faulty autopilot and manually stabilized the plane “with two slight control movements.” So training but also as important experience is vital.

                                           VIDEO OF TEX JOHNSTON ROLLING THE BOEING 707

On arrival in Shannon we trainee pilots took it in turns to carry out take-offs, touch-and-goes and of course landings, generally using three engines but occasionally simulating that one had failed. These manoeuvers would later be replicated the following evening to practice our night flying skills.

My favourite manoeuver which we practiced that evening occurred at the end of flying an ILS (Instrument Landing System) approach down to 500 feet. Flown manually, i.e. no autopilot, levelling off and flying down the runway centreline. Followed by breaking off onto a 45 degree offset heading for about 45 seconds, before turning back towards the runway to land……..absolutely brilliant fun and a great confidence builder! Certainly worth buying my unbelievably chilled training captain Bob Andrews a beer or three when in the original 15th Century Durty Nelly’s pub later that evening. God rest him.

It would not be until four years later when I would have the opportunity to ‘fly a proper simulator’, one with a fully functioning visual system and multi-axis motion. Though nothing like the visual displays which are available today, one’s that are somehow tied into databases produced by companies such as Google Earth.

This would be after I left Dan Air to progress my career and join the newly developing Virgin Atlantic Airways as a co-pilot on the Boeing 747-200. I felt that my career was truly blessed, especially as only months later very sadly Dan Air was to fold and partially immersed into British Airways.

My initial training was to be conducted at the Pan Am Academy located near to Miami’s International Airport (KMIA), a far cry from the Dan Air warehouse in Horsham Surrey! No beaches, balmy nights or bikinis in Horsham!

The next two weeks would see myself my fellow co-pilot and flight engineer, all of us under training being religiously put through the wringer and jumping through hoops set by an ex-British Airways training captain. He used to fly the Lockheed Super Constellation for the British airline BOAC (British Overseas Aircraft Corporation) which was to become a part of British Airways. It was almost quaint that he would virtually shed a tear when a surviving example of this classic four engine propliner would overfly our hotel on its approach to Miami International Airport…….though this was normally during our debriefing in his hotel suite whilst drinking a gin and tonic!

Unfortunately this  simulator was not certified by the UK CAA for signing off take-offs and landings……..which meant heading back to Shannon for base training……once again, yippee was all I could think! Another eight circuits testing the structural integrity of an aircraft’s landing gear and tyres and I would be ready to fly the line, and I couldn’t wait!

For those who have not taken part in Base training, it is one of the most dangerous, planned for events, that as airline pilots we can undertake……whilst trying not to arrange an early meeting with an undertaker!

                                             ABOUT TO GO BASE TRAINING TO CHATEAUROUX

Flying a Boeing 747 around the circuit, practicing engine out approaches, though this time the engine is kept running, just the thrust lever is retarded to idle to simulate the yaw and the control needed to rectify it, places a huge amount of responsibility on the training captain, and I doff my hat to them all. Although I must admit it was absolutely fabulous fun and for that I thank them too. As an aside there is a video on my blog which shows my base training!
So my colleagues, whilst taking their turn flying the Boeing 747 and replicating the motions of a tumble dryer on the spin cycle, inflicting this upon the rest of us as we sat in the First Class compartment watching a movie on the in-flight entertainment system, eating our sandwiches…….I don’t know why, but at that moment I knew I had arrived. Yes I was an airline pilot already but now I was a Boeing 747 airline pilot and you needed a wide-bodied aircraft at that moment to contain the smile on my face…..yes happy days indeed. Thank you Dudley for the opportunity, you were and are a legend.

So now, as for every commercial pilot I would be faced with the prospect of having to attend my six monthly simulator checks, as I had done on the Boeing 727 and on the actual aircraft for the Avro/Hawker Siddeley/Bae 748, but now on a ‘real’ simulator. For the Boeing 747-200 this would mean either with British Airways at their Cranebank facility by London’s Heathrow Airport (EGLL), or various other training facilities located around the United Kingdom.

However, the next real test for me was when I was advised that I was to be upgraded to captain. I was 30 years old and over the moon but I had to jump through more hoops first; this would be a series of simulator sessions with Jim one of Virgin Atlantic’s fabulous training captains, yes I was nervous but also excited! I wanted that hat with the gold braid on it…..oh and the pay rise too!

On arriving at the simulator centre for my first session, Jim was there but no flight engineer, he was on his way…….from playing golf in France. He arrived in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, straight from the ferry, apologising as he hadn’t been told in advance! A more relaxed atmosphere could not have been created, especially when Jim said that he wasn’t interested in following the planned course but doing it his way. For once, ‘my way is best’ was just so on the money.

Over the next few days I learnt so much, not necessarily about the aircraft but about my own abilities and how I could actually perform. Jim’s way was a great way to introduce me to my upcoming command course…..he would, in his way assess you but without you really realising it and also give you confidence in your own abilities. The likes of Jim I was to rarely meet over the next twenty or so years, he was unique and I was extremely privileged to have been taken under his wing.

So once again, more training both in classrooms, simulators and then off to Manston airport (EGMH) for more fabulous base training.

                               BASE TRAINING VIDEO OF MYSELF LEARNING TO
                                    FLY THE VIRGIN ATLANTIC BOEING 747-200
                                                                                 PART 2.

So, for those of you not directly related to the flight operations department of an airline and unsure of what actually happens and why in one of the high-tech multi-million dollar flight simulators…let me explain.

It might be easier if I explain how an airline, 6 monthly simulator check pans out. I will assume a two day program of events, though some airlines with in-house resources will schedule possibly 3 or 4 day programs.

For our purposes we will assume that day 1 is a training and LOFT (Line Orientated Flight Training) exercise and day 2 is the regulatory check flight.

LOFT exercises are ‘normally’ non-jeopardy, in other words there is no pass or fail, it is just an exercise to involve decision making and CRM (Crew Resource Management). Followed by an interactive, facilitative I believe it is also called, debriefing, in other words the two pilots debrief each other but in a positive manner…….hopefully!

The following clip shows CRM being used.......discuss!?