CEO of the Cockpit #15:
School House Blues

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It's always a challenge to learn to fly a new aircraft, and AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit is not adverse to that, especially because it may be his last upgrade while at the airline. But talk of a looming war makes for good procrastination material when you're tired of studying.

CEO of the Cockpit

This month, once again, I find myself firmly ensconced in a seat at the back of a Holiday Inn bar. Unfortunately, drinking more than one or two beers tonight isn't an option. Since I am facing my equipment oral in two short days, I have to limit myself to only a few frothy brews.

Others are with me this evening. Three to be exact. They are going to be my braintrust for the night -- my tutors, my inquisitors, and my tormentors. They are my "study buddies" -- other guys going through the 767/757 initial rating school with me. We have met this rainy night in an attempt to review the material in enough depth to pass our oral exams.

We plan to go over every system, every switch, dial, gauge, electronic flight instrument, computer, DC bus and performance problem.

"Shouldn't your ground school instructors be doing the reviewing?" you ask. My answer is: Of course they should. They should be reviewing the living bejezzus out of us. Unfortunately, they aren't.

This isn't because of a lack of knowledge or dedication on their part. Our ground school instructors are the finest kind. They know their subjects and work very hard to cram six weeks of aircraft systems knowledge into our muddled brains in the eight days of allowed ground instruction. If we asked them, I'm sure they'd be here right now, away from their families, working unpaid overtime. They work hard enough. We're on our own tonight.

There are huge holes in the training program caused by a combination of cost-cutting intent and legal advice from non-pilots. Our aircraft manuals, which used to be more than adequate to get the job done, have been literally taken over by non-flying lawyers, more intent on tort defense than imparting system knowledge. This "dumbing down" of our books from their previous large-format, schematic-filled, English-speaking glory was to make the manuals, in the shysters' words, more "third-world friendly." Meaning they had to get the books down to a level so that an illiterate son of a Royal, who got his captain's job through politics and not skill, could understand how to operate the 767.

This leaves us with the "official" operating manuals from the aircraft's manufacturer. I won't mention their company's name because of the aforementioned lawyers, but remember I'm talking about the 767 here.

That leaves us students with no schematics, no large-format books written in English and no coherent study guide. The ground school instructors, in a valiant attempt to help us, have produced a 10-page handout, which has proved very helpful. They too are under the thrall of the legal eagles and aren't allowed to break out the good stuff that we used during the past 20 or so years. What they have given us is totally "unofficial" and we are grateful to get this much.

So, we have the 10-page handout, aircraft manuals written for emerging nations, and each other. That is why Frank, Henry, Ron and I are huddled around a table in a smoke-filled bar trying to save our careers.

An FAA type-rating oral is a career-enhancing and potentially career-ending event. Here's how it works.

A Nightmare of an Oral Exam

At the end of your eight days of ground school, you enter a little room with a little man from the FAA. In this room are panel pictures (life size!) of the aircraft you are trying to get rated on. You start off the process by trying to look friendly to each other while ignoring the obvious.

The obvious, in this case, is that the guy across the table from you in this little room, while pretending to be your friend, is actually your enemy. You must dupe him into thinking you know all about this airplane so you can move on to the simulator phase and your type rating.

Of course, with only eight days of ground school you know exactly nothing about the airplane. Anything you do know today will mostly be gone by tomorrow. You really don't get to know any airplane until you get the chance to fly it for a while, and if you don't get past this guy you never will.

The advantage we have in this quick learning curve is our previous years of flying. Nobody has to explain to us what a DC bus is or what standby power traditionally does. It is also a tremendous help to us that we like airplanes and are looking forward to getting to fly the seven-six.

Your examiner for the oral starts off by asking you to recite the aircraft limitations, then the checklist memory items, and finally (for some unknown reason) the autoland sequence.

Once you are past that, you get questioned on every single switch, gauge, rumor and innuendo on the aircraft. If it goes well, it lasts about two hours. If it doesn't, it can last longer.

Most pilots would rather eat a bucket of horse genitalia than undergo an equipment oral. Anybody who says they like being asked questions about something they don't know, from somebody they don't like, in a place they'd rather not be, is lying to you.

Military Planning Interlude

Airline aircraft used for military airlift.

"So, how many planes and crews are they going to send?" asked Ron, who was munching on a pretzel while he shuffled our 3-by-5 homemade study cards.

"Send where?" Frank said.

To the "big show"; the war; the Iraq thing. Under Civil Reserve Fleet, the military can take over a lot of our international aircraft to support the effort, and we have a butt-load of international aircraft, especially the 767ER.

Ron had already been to Iraq during the last brouhaha, flying an F-16. As a matter of fact, of the four people studying at our bar table, I am the only non-military pilot. The other three guys had flown the F-16, the F-18 and, of course, the P3 Orion.

"The center hydraulic reserve fluid on the 757 is used for what?" asked Henry, who for the moment was bringing us back to reality.

"It powers the RAT, which provides center hydraulic control to the center flight controls," said Ron. "What are they going to use us for if they start up CRAF?"

"Medivac and supplies," chimed in Henry. "Its good duty if nobody dies or gets hurt. If the war goes bad it can be pretty messy. Not to mention the fact that getting shot down is a definite possibility, if only a remote one."

"Of course," Ron said, "we're not exactly immune to ground fire, bombs and crazies with sharp implements in this country anyway. I did some military charters when I was an MD11 co-pilot during the last war. One trip, it was pretty funny because the flight attendants were very upset that these Marines were coming onboard with their weapons. One flight attendant threw a snit fit and demanded that all the weapons be put in the baggage bin under the airplane. Our captain, who had already done three crossings in a row and was pretty tired, explained to her that the last thing you wanted to tell a Marine was that he was supposed to give up his weapon, and that there was no safer aircraft in the world than one carrying 200 armed, motivated Marines.

"I've done some domestic military charters," said Henry. "You'll never have a nicer, better-behaved group of passengers. Sometimes I wish that our regular passengers had the same discipline, or that I could make an obnoxious one do push-ups as punishment for doing something like smoking in the lav or giving our girls some lip."

"What do the Utility Busses power?" asked Frank, wielding another homemade study card.

Food, fans, and fun. The galleys, the recirc fans and the entertainment systems.

Civil Reserve Air Fleet

Interior of aircraft temporarily outfitted for CRAF.

The CRAF system has been a part of our pilots' working agreement ever since I can remember. Back in the early 1980s we saw it as something that would only be used if the Soviets decided to start a war in Europe -- something that would be so big that the only airline flying going on at all would be war-related. I don't think anybody thought we'd ever use it. It was used a little during the last gulf war. A retired Pan Am friend of mine was involved in it and was based out of Rome. He even got an air medal for flying in and out of a combat area. He did more than fly into a combat area last time. He was on the ground during a few Scud attacks.

Luckily, last time, they didn't need his services to fly wounded back to the States. This time it could be quite different.

The way I understand it, when you are CRAF'd, you are totally separated from the normal operation of your airline, although you are still paid the same and your work rules are supposed to be the same. I'm not sure how the days off work out or any of the other specifics, but I'm sure when they get ready to activate CRAF, they'll send us some sort of handout to explain what's going on.

We've already lost a lot of pilots to the Reserves. Some fly tanker trips to and from the Mideast and then try to fly their schedule on the airline. Since military flying doesn't count on FAA flight-time limitations, that means they are doing a whole lot of flying. We've got a couple of Reserve Generals on our seniority list, and I imagine they are working for the military full-time right now.

Going to war is a big step and a big risk, and most Americans seem concerned. They should be; it can get very messy, and this Iraq thing probably won't be the last time we have to go to strange and exotic countries, get to know the local people and then kill them.

I'm glad there is a debate in this country about going to war in Iraq. Blind obedience to any government is a dangerous thing. I just hope people don't forget what got us to this point. The terrorists attacked us and killed our families, friends and children. When it comes to terrorists, breathing should be illegal and enforced by our military.

"Max fuel temperature?" asked Ron.

"49 degrees C," answered Henry, who was leaning back in his chair, cradling what was left of his beer. "It's getting late and I've got a 6 a.m. class tomorrow -- the pre-oral. Anybody else want to call it quits for tonight?"

The pre-oral is kind of like the recommendation ride a CFI gives a student before signing him or her off for the checkride. The ground school instructors grill us on every possible question before releasing us to the Fuzz for the real thing.

I'm ready to hit the rack too. The next few days will be intense, but if I pass the oral, I'll be able to look forward to a whole day off before the easier simulator rides begin.

At this closing point in our evening, I thought maybe I'd crack a joke to lighten things up a little, but with the combination of an impending oral exam and an impending uncertain war, I couldn't think of anything funny to say.