* Photo taken on the ground in Liverpool *
It's been about two months since my last flying related blog post and today I'm incredibly happy to say I return with some great news. On Sunday 12th May I passed my Aircraft Competency Check and just one day later - at the incredibly early time of 03.30am after the late night Palma de Majorca flight - I received the news I passed my Final Line Check. A pass in both of these checks mean I have been released from under the wing of the airlines' training department and am now considered a line-flying First Officer. It's an incredible feeling and turning up to an airport, stepping on board a jet and flying it around Europe still has me pinching myself.
Through this blog post I aim to explain a more about my first few weeks in the job as I've been asked about it by so many.
I've broken this post up into sections. Click/tap on a heading to read more.
* Photo taken on the ground in Nice *
Having completed all of your training at your chosen flying school, secured that first time job, passed the type rating for the aircraft you’re destined to fly and even gone on to pilot said aircraft during the best day of your life - base training - you may well be wondering what comes next? Allow me to explain.
At this early point in your career you now posses the credentials on paper. You’re a fully licenced A320 pilot - or whichever type you may well fly - and are as technically able to fly the aircraft as the colleagues you’ll sit next do. However, there is one major and rather key differentiator between you and your peers and that is, quite simply, your experience level. You may well be able to fly the 186-seat aircraft through the skies to the legally required standard, but any experience to date has all been simulator focused and as a cadet entrant you’ve somewhat limited exposure to the operational side of things. What do I mean by that? Well... you’ve yet to interact with ground crews, cabin crews or air traffic control services outside of your native country or training environments. You’ve yet to handle things like weather avoidance at 36,000ft, any en-route delays, holding and pretty much everything else that comes with the operation, inclusive of your first attempt at a PA to the passengers. This is where line training comes in.
* Flight deck ready for a crew change after a busy 4 sector day. *
The line training process is generally designed to last a minimum length of 50 sectors but this will vary from airline to airline depending on their own experience inducting new pilots. If you’re reading this wondering what a sector is, it’s simply a single flight. For example, a single days work may see a short haul pilot fly from Liverpool to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Liverpool and Liverpool to Belfast before finishing off with the final return leg back to Liverpool. That duty day would therefore be four sectors. Having now completed my line training I can say that 50 sectors is just the right amount to start feeling comfortable in your role. I no longer have a rabbit in headlights feeling when going to work, as I did during the first few flights, and have confidence in my own ability to operate safely alongside a regular line Captain. While I’m no longer in official training as such, each new day is a learning day especially when flying to new destinations and handling the various quirks of each airfields’ individual approaches - but I digress.
The remainder of this blog post is an explanation of my own experience of line training. I suppose it is therefore rather operationally focussed at one particular airlines training process for new pilots and if you find yourself securing a job at a different airline then your own experience may well vary.
* A320 Neo on the ground in Faro *
It’s your first full day on the job and on the outside you may well look the part in your fresh new uniform but on the inside you’re full of a whole host of emotions and thoughts as, after all, this is the day you have always dreamt of. Your first passenger flight aboard a ~60 tonne jet. Exhilaration and Fear are two I recall. Fear of messing up to be precise.
As you want to make a good impression you rock up to the crew room early and meet with a training Captain whose job it is to take you on your first operational flight. Training Captains are typically among the airlines most experienced crew members and are involved in all aspects of crew training, as instructors, be they in the simulators or in the air. Along for the ride will be a safety pilot. Safety pilots are the training Captains extra set of eyes and ears. Unlike a normal flight where the Captain and First Officer are both focussed at the task at hand, on initial line training the Captain will be focussing on training you up to company standard as well as being the commander of the aircraft and could therefore miss a couple of things. The safety pilot is crucial here as he/she can prompt both pilots if required, for example I recall missing a couple of radio calls when I first set out on the job which the safety pilot then heard and prompted us to. Furthermore, if for whatever reason the cadet was unable to continue or the Captain was to fall ill then the safety pilot could take up the controls. Typically a safety pilot will only be assigned to a new cadets’ flights up to about sector 12 whereby, with the cadets satisfactory progression, the requirement is removed.
* Taken on the ground in Zakynthos (Zante) *
The first couple of sectors are essentially giving you the opportunity to get used to operating the aircraft and consequently there isn’t a huge expectation on you as a result; in the sense you’re asked to do what you can. I recall being incredibly excited on my first few fights but equally a little bit like a rabbit in headlights. I’ll be clear here and say that’s this is not me saying I was unsafe, I'm merely stating there was so much more stimuli than the simulators that you feel your capacity beginning to stretch. My first ever day was a Madrid and Paris 4-sector day and it is certainly safe to say I slept well that night. In fact, I remember crashing on my sofa as soon as I got home from work every single day that week, as airline pilots can work long hours, at odd hours, and it can take some getting used to initially!
As each sector passes more and more feedback is provided on your weaker areas and you are able to then work towards improving them on subsequent sectors. Improvements could be anything from standard calls - the set wording we as pilots use to communicate to one another in the operational sense - to the refinement of the landing technique etc. Both examples were applicable in my case but things gradually came together as time went on.
* Spotted coming into land from Nice *
Sectors 13 to 50 are basically a case of Eat-Sleep-Fly-Repeat. Each new day brings with it a different area to work on. There are compulsory sign off items and discussion points from the training Captains perspective such as talking about weather radar use and considerations with emergency descents, all the way through to being taught about single engine taxiing on both arrivals and departures, with the latter items having not been discussed until now.
You tend to find that as you get closer and closer to sector 50 that the tolerance for any mistakes reduces. By mistakes I’m not talking about anything that could hinder a safe flight. Remember that the type rating we complete earlier in the process signs you off as safe to operate. Furthermore, if I or any other cadet was deemed unsafe at this point then something would have to be done about it, i.e. with more training or the safety pilots release being delayed. Therefore, what I meant by mistakes is the procedural things such as the order you press buttons or move switches etc. As crew we call the major of the procedural stuff “OMB”, which is an abbreviation of “Operations Manual B”. The vast majority of our day is written in it and it’s our bible if you like.
* Amsterdam Terminal Window Selfie *
My main weakness going into the final few flights was saying things slightly incorrectly. I’ve a rather outgoing / bubbly personality and you really do need to reign that in at certain points in flight and stick to the standard wording I mentioned earlier. Doing so ensures a safe flight when you’re flying with someone who may not have English as their first language. For example we say “Flaps One” instead of any niceties like “I’ll have flaps one now please” because it removes any ambiguity and becomes a command to your fellow pilot.
I also had a hiccup or two with the final 200 feet of approaches. The initial approach was fine, the landing itself fine, it was just items like centre line maintenance and the aircraft drifting above or below the correct descent profile. This required me to make larger adjustments closer to the ground but once again everything improved with time. I’m still refining things even to this day as each one brings with it differing weather conditions, different aircraft and different aircraft weights etc.
Your line training concludes with four check sectors. Two of these assess your competencies and the latter two look at how you interact with a regular line Captain. I’ll explain a little bit about each of those checks below.
* Preparing for the first flights of the day *
With your 50 sectors out of the way it’s time to have a competency check. Many longer term readers may be familiar with pilot competencies as I have mentioned them from time to time towards the latter end of my time at CTC / L3 and they now feature rather heavily in the modern European Aviation industry. EASA the main governing body for European aviation created a list of competencies it considers the ideal for the modern day commercial pilot and several if not all airlines around the continent have implemented these in one way or another. The competencies form a framework for assessing an individual pilot in his / her role but they do not stop with the hands on elements of flying and extend into the non-personal aspects too. Here’s an example of a few:
...and so on and so forth. Each of those competencies are further broken down into grades which form the basis of any training an airline may carry out. In my case the Aircraft Competency Check, or ACC as it’s known for short, is the airlines way to mark you in these key areas while you carry out the job role to which they have employed you. These competencies are also used in all recurrent training in the simulators.
* Preparing to depart for sunshine from a very rainy Liverpool *
The ACC forms two sectors. In one of these you will fulfil the role of pilot flying and the other you’ll be pilot monitoring. You need to complete at least one landing during the ACC so if the weather on both approaches turns out to be outside of the set limits of a First Officer then the flights will just count as further training and the ACC would be rearranged. The check is flown with a training Captain who will assess each of the airlines competencies.
My check was a return flight from Liverpool to Amsterdam. I’m pleased to say it went well with a few minor debrief pointers. The weather into Amsterdam was perfect too! Could not have asked for better. Once you have passed your ACC you are then put forward for a final line check.
* Lovely sunshine in Nice during base training a few months back *
Up to this point the airline will be satisfied with your progression towards being a competent First Officer and you will have been seen to be more than capable. Taking a step back and looking at just how confident you now feel versus that rabbit in headlights you were during your first few sectors is amazing. You really do learn quickly in this role as you can be doing up to 4 sectors a day.
As mentioned above, the line check is a flight with a non-training Captain, albeit still experienced, that isn’t so well versed in training new cadets. A line trainer will be sitting in the jump seat for the two sectors comprising the line check. Just like the ACC you will be PF one way and PM the other. Unlike the ACC however, your manual handling skills do not have to be checked so should the landing need to be completed by the Captain on both occasions due to weather it isn’t a deal breaker so long as everything else is to standard.
For my line check I was rostered the late night Palma (Majorca) flight. I turned up to the airport at the normal report time to then discover our flight was delayed by two hours. The delay was caused by our aircraft being taken out of service for some maintenance in Nice. A replacement aircraft was sent from Italy to pick up the delayed homeward bound Nice passengers prior to us then taking it to Palma. I’d not yet experienced a late aircraft on reporting for work but in any case things were fairly normal. We briefed at the normal time and met the cabin crew for their briefing too before then waiting for the aircraft to get back. The Captain and I went for a Subway with another First Officer on airport standby. The delay gave us a good chance to discuss Palma and the typical shortcuts etc they often give which helped me self-brief myself ahead of the flight there - given I would be the pilot flying.
Once the aircraft arrived we walked out to it as normal, took it off the hands of the inbound crew and got about setting it up for the evenings work. I’m actually very happy with how the two line check flights went. I found them a lot more relaxing than the ACC flight, oddly. The line Captain made me feel at ease the whole way down and helped out with workload where he could- as you’d expect of a typical crew. I had doubts about the standard of my landing but both the training Captain and line Captain had compliments on my manual handling skills which was a real boost to my confidence given I’d had issues with it in the past.
On reaching Palma we we turned the plane around to head back the other way and I was the monitoring pilot this time. I’m pleased to say both Captains were also happy with my pilot monitoring ability. All of the mistakes i’d previously made seemed to have vanished. Perhaps it was as my concentration levels were on overdrive given I was being tested, or perhaps it was as I felt a lot more relaxed knowing I was to standard the day previous. Whatever it was, I was relieved.
Having landed back in Liverpool at the delightful time of 03.30am, offloaded all of the passengers and shut the aircraft down, the training Captain provided me some further feedback points based on what he called “trivial” things he had noticed, and then shook my hand to tell me I had passed. “Enjoy Summer, and 900 hours a year” he said, indicating the fact the summer season had well and truly begun.
I left the airport beaming, although very sleepy. It was a relief to think that from that point onwards I’m a day-to-day line flying First Officer and that my training was complete. Equally though I just could not wait to get to sleep. My head eventually hit the pillow at about 04.30am as the sun was rising and the birds were starting to sing!
* Aircraft window selfie. Enjoying the warm sunshine during the turnaround in Nice. *
Years of flying passengers from A to B is what's next for me. I’ve just received my June roster and it’s certainly a busy one. I’ll be in the air for about 97 hours next month and already have close to 100 hours on the Airbus already - they sure do add up rather quickly. I truly do love this job there is nothing else that compares (in my view).
I’ve also had some good news recently in that I’ve been approved for a base transfer to Bristol from August. I can’t wait to return South to the city I graduated University in and to both my local airport and previous place of work. Bring it on!
I’ll aim to keep this blog going where I can with topics on the day to day pilot lifestyle as well as perhaps how the functions of Airbus A320 work, but we shall see. If you have any questions on commercial flying let me know in the comments and it’ll give me some inspiration for future posts.
The timer for my next simulator assessment has also started counting down. It’s expected to be some time in August which based on my peers comments will come around before I know it. I’ll continue to be assessed every six months for the rest of my career thus ensuring I can still safely operate the aircraft in non-normal situations, such as engine failures etc. I’m not wishing the summer away though and I’ll be enjoying the rewards of my hard work for many months to come. I’m also looking forward to flying into new destinations! So far I’ve flown to:
…with many more to come.
I hope you found this blog post insightful. Until next time,