Just under two years ago this month, I met with a group of fellow cadets at CAE Oxford Aviation Academy. We'd all been given just three weeks to prepare for a journey that promised to be life-changing. Looking back, what a journey it turned out to be. And it isn't over yet.
The Training Plan:
Ground School > Core Phase > Basic Phase > Intermediate Phase > Advanced Phase > Airline
(A full timeline and a list of previous updates is available on the Progress page)
I'm writing my final blog update today to describe my transition from cadet pilot at a training academy to First Officer at a UK airline. The last few months have, as expected, been some of the busiest of my course. They've also been by far the most enjoyable. By no means is this the end of my training; the aviation industry is built around recurrent checks, crew development, and biannual simulator sessions that will last for the rest of my career. Fortunately, however, the days of spending 12 hours straight sat revising at a computer desk have come to an end. Or at least for now! Since it's been around 5 months since my last update, there's quite a lot to say. Here's a brief summary of what's happened:
- Completing the Airbus Type Rating (including License Skills Test) in Gatwick
- First Officer Ground School in Luton
- Pre-Base Training Sims in Gatwick
- Base Training in Doncaster and Liverpool
- Moving to Berlin, Germany!
- Initial observation flights as a supernumerary pilot in Berlin
- Line Training in Berlin, Luton and Manchester
- Aircraft Competency Check and Final Line Check in Milan, Italy
- Line Flying and Continuation Training
My previous update came in December, around midway though my type rating in Gatwick (the simulator training to prepare us for the aircraft). This was an intense time for all eight of us on the course, with some simulator sessions beginning at 5am and others finishing at 1am! Fortunately each of us had a good variety of these slots, with enough rest in between to recover from the last and to prepare for the next. As I mentioned in my previous update, the simulators are almost exact replications of the Airbus A320, and so the instructor is able to recreate almost any situation for us, and expect us to handle it as though we were in the real aircraft. From developing our take off and landing technique, to handling airborne emergencies such as rapid depressurisations and engine failures after take off. Fortunately these latter events are extremely rare in the aircraft, but very common in the simulator! Of the 66 hours we spent in the simulator, the vast majority were spent developing our aircraft handling skills (particularly on one engine), and also our crew resource management, communication, and team working skills. This training culminates with a License Skills Test (LST), a simulator session observed by an experienced regulatory examiner, who assesses many aspects of what we've learned. Crosswind landings, single-engine raw data ILS approaches, engine-out standard instrument departures, traffic and terrain avoidance procedures and rejected take-offs were just a few of the highlights. During the 4 hours of my LST (2 hours as pilot flying, 2 as pilot monitoring), I learned why the simulator was commonly referred to as the "sweatbox"! Low Visibility Operations (LVO) training followed the day after this, where we are taught to manage the aircraft during an autoland, a rare procedure usually only carried out when the visibility drops below Category 1 minima, and sometimes down to just 75 metres! Even with these experiences very fresh in my mind, my next simulator session has already been scheduled for early next month to allow the continued development of these skills, and to ensure the company's very high standards are being maintained.
For my flight partner, Adam, and I, there was only a weekend between successfully completing our type rating at the end of January (including the LST and LVO) before we were travelling from Gatwick to Luton for the next stage. The eight of us were out of the simulator and together again in the classroom for a week. This week included lessons (and more exams!) in delivering emergency first aid, handling safety and security on-board, crew resource management training, customer relations, door operation (harder than it sounds!), fire and emergency equipment training (fortunately this did include practising our slide disembarkation technique!) and also "wet training" which took place at the local swimming pool. The wet training was one of the highlights of the course, where the eight of us were made to swim several lengths of the swimming pool, tread water whilst donning and inflating our life jackets, and also drag one of our colleagues along whilst they pretended to be incapacitated. A fantastic week all-round really, with many lessons learned but in a more relaxed atmosphere than the previous few weeks during our intensive type rating!
The following week involved further preparation for our initial line training flights, in the form of Line Training Ground School. This two-day course covered, or at least it felt like, every single aspect of flying the Airbus you could possibly imagine. It was like being back in the deep end, but without the water this time! What didn't we cover? Fuel planning, descent management, cold weather operations (de- and anti-icing), hydraulic and pneumatic system revision and performance calculations were all covered in the first day! The second day refreshed our memory items (several emergency procedures which we must commit to memory, such as for an engine failure, stall or wind-shear recovery actions), and also introduced us to the Electronic Flight Bag or EFB. This is a tablet computer, of which there are two on every flight deck, one for the Captain and one for the First Officer. They allow us to calculate our V1, Rotate and V2 speeds dependent on the aircraft weight and the weather, and also to calculate take-off and landing distances. There's also several other applications loaded which we use daily, to view aeronautical charts, special airport information and company manuals. Unfortunately there's no Angry Birds, or at least I haven't found it yet!
A few days later and we were all back in the simulator for two days with new flying partners to refresh what we'd learned during Line Training Ground School. Stefan and I spent the first day refining our single-engine handling, including a fairly impressive departure from Nice in the South of France with high ground surrounding the airfield. We also had a thorough introduction to Performance Based Navigation (PBN), which involves GPS technology, pseudo-waypoints and extremely high accuracy position tracking to allow more efficient routes to be flown, rather than from navigational beacon to beacon as in the early days of aviation. Day two meant it was time for our Pre-Base Training simulator session. Base Training is the moment all new pilots look forward to, as it's the first time we fly the aircraft for real. The Pre-Base sim detail involved flying multiple approaches, in different wind and weather conditions, to perfect our landing technique. After 18 months of challenging training, we were ready to get airborne in the Airbus.
It was a fresh and early February morning. With two Training Captains, a Safety Pilot, eight new MPL cadets, and an empty Airbus A319 with its five tanks full of jet fuel; we flew from London Gatwick to Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster, Sheffield to begin base training. For MPL cadets this involves a minimum of 12 takeoffs and landings. We'd each take it in turns to fly 12 visual circuits around the airfield (a take off followed by four left turns to reposition the aircraft on the extended centreline for approach). Each circuit took around 6 minutes to complete, although by the time it was my turn to take up the controls from the right-hand seat, after just one approach the wind had picked up to over 20kts at Doncaster. This was above the limit for base training, and so no more approaches could be flown there. We spent a little time holding on the downwind leg at Doncaster whilst we discussed our options, and liaised with Air Traffic Control (ATC). Fortunately, after a couple of minutes ATC were able to coordinate with Liverpool Airport for us to continue our training there. Living in North Wales meant I regularly saw commercial aviation traffic flying into Liverpool, and that day I was one of them! We climbed up from around 2000 feet to 12,000 feet and headed toward Liverpool John Lennon Airport. It was fantastic to experience the airfield change from the right-hand seat, as it added an extra dimension to base training by being able to programme the Flight Management and Guidance Computer (FMGC) with our new plans. Before long I was positioned on the ILS for Runway 27, the autopilot and flight directors came off, and the approaches began. The weather was much better at Liverpool, and I have to say so was the scenery! We had some impressive views of the River Mersey and the North Wales mountains. There was also plenty of other aviation traffic in the airspace around Liverpool, such as the RAF Airbus A400M Atlas and a few single-engine Cessna aircraft similar to those I'd flown just a few months earlier. That really put the day into perspective!
You've most likely seen the fantastic website Flightradar24 being used online or in the media; it allows live real-time flight tracking of commercial flights across the world.
Here's two images from my base training day, the first one above showing the circuits of two cadets before me at Doncaster Airport over to the right of the image (or RAF Finningley as it once was, where the Vulcan OCU was based), and also the orbits I flew downwind before we made our decision to fly to Liverpool. The second image on the right shows Liverpool Airport, and how we joined the circuit from the North before taking up a left-hand pattern. The slight variations to the circuit pattern are due to other aviation traffic, as Liverpool ATC had to fit in several other aircraft around us whilst we flew my 6 minute circuits. It turned out someone else was watching this online as it happened too...
As though the day couldn't have got much better... the video above actually shows one of my landings at Liverpool Airport during Base Training; recorded by my parents! They knew which day I would be at Doncaster, but didn't know about our diversion to Liverpool. Well, after noticing an Airbus in the circuit pattern at Liverpool on Flightradar24, they drove to the threshold of Runway 27 to watch and took this pretty epic short video (make sure it's in HD). They had no idea it was me at the time, but guessed it had to be a member of my course. When this video came through from them later that day, I was amazed. I can't say I saw them at the runway threshold unfortunately though, my mind was pretty focussed at the time! I was concentrating on flying the aircraft along the localiser (or extended centreline), ensuring the airspeed remained around 125 knots/144mph, maintaining a constant rate of descent of around 700 feet per minute, and starting a smooth and progressive flare with a small back pressure on the side-stick around 20-30 feet above the runway, to reduce the rate of descent. A gentle closure of the thrust levers and the aircraft should settle smoothly on the tarmac below... in theory!
With base training completed and our freshly printed Multi Pilot Licenses collected from the Civil Aviation Authority main office in London, it was time to board a flight - with most of our lives in our suitcases - to our new home base. For myself and four others, the company required us to be based in Berlin. Although, Hamburg and Lisbon were also allocated to the three other cadets. In Berlin, we each spent the first few weeks in a hotel close to the airport, a convenient yet fairly expensive option. A friend and I have now moved into an apartment close to the centre of Berlin, which is less expensive than the hotel and certainly beats living out of a suitcase! Moving to a new country always brings challenges, but I have to say I'm enjoying Berlin more and more with everyday I live here. It's a city I'd recommend everyone visits at some point; there's a huge amount of very recent history that makes for many interesting places to see. Plus the weather has been great recently!
Our first task in Berlin was to observe some experienced crews flying routine commercial flights. These two days of supernumerary flights allowed us to observe from the jump-seat, and see how the Standard Operating Procedures that our life had revolved around for the past few weeks came together in real life airline operations. It also gave us exposure to the reality of airline flying; there seemed to be a lot more going on than when we were in the simulator! On a usual day there are several visitors to the flight deck before we can push back from stand; these include refuellers, dispatchers, crew and often passengers. None of this happened in the simulator, and so it did take a little time in the early days to learn how to best manage our time. Fortunately, this process has become more routine now, and we sometimes have time spare to welcome our customers on-board in person, after we've got the aircraft set up. Following these two supernumerary days, it was time for me to get back into the right-hand seat to fly my very first commercial flight. The first 12 flights we fly (usually flown over 3 days) are with an experienced Training Captain and also an experienced First Officer acting as Safety Pilot, who, as in Base Training, monitors the flight from the jump seat to ensure everything progresses smoothly.
The learning curve has been steep at several stages of flight training, but never more so I'd say than during these first commercial flights with passengers on board. They are flights I will never forget. It was such an exciting and interesting time. My very first landing with passengers was into Berlin during late February after a short flight from Amsterdam, and my second was at night into Copenhagen later that evening. My line training took around 6 weeks (51 flights) to complete and involved flights from Berlin, Luton, Manchester and Milan to destinations all over Europe. By the beginning of April, I was in Milan for the weekend to complete my Aircraft Competency Check and Final Line Check. Successful completion of these assessments meant I had completed my Line Training, and was released to fly with Line Captains rather than only Training Captains. Further assessments on the line include my Continuation Flight, which is an additional check on my standard of flying and also further training toward Flap 3 landings (used to reduce drag when landing thereby saving fuel).
I've now been "flying the line" around Europe for over two months as a fully qualified First Officer. This means I've flown just over 100 flights, which is just shy of 200 hours on the Airbus A319/320, or something in the region of 65,000 miles. My longest flight was to Larnaca in Cyprus, at just under 4 hours each way, and my shortest was to Copenhagen at 56 minutes from stand to stand.
As I mentioned earlier, my update today is my final entry to The Aviator Blog, and it signals the end of my initial flight training. Saying that, I'm confident that my training in this job will never actually stop. Everyday brings something new, a new challenge, a new lesson, and a new experience. This combined with the biannual simulator check, I'm sure will keep my mind focussed on the job at all times, and ensure that the company's high standards remain industry leading.
It's safe to say my journey over the past two years would have been impossible without all the support and encouragement I've received. A huge thank you has to go to my family and friends at home, my previous work colleagues, and to the new friends I've met throughout the course. This includes the entirety of AP351, the 07 course, and many other cadets at CAE Oxford Aviation Academy most of whom also have their own airline stories to tell now. Thank you also to my ground and flight instructors, and the huge team of support staff at CAE OAA. Today's update is already a long one without mentioning all the people I'd like to thank by name, but they know who they are.
I hope these seventeen snapshots into my journey over the past two years have helped clear some of the mystery around flight training, and have answered some questions for future airline cadets. I'd also like to hope you've enjoyed reading my updates as much as I've enjoyed writing them! In addition, I've recently opened an FAQ page for quick answers to popular questions I receive. For anything else, at any time, I can always be contacted through my Contact page. Comments can be left at the end of this post, and any shares via the social media links below are greatly appreciated!
So that's all from me, thank you all again once again for your incredible support throughout my journey so far.
Take it easy!
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