CEO of the Cockpit #28: A Different Airline World

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AVweb's CEO of the cockpit is back in recurrent training, trying to remember everything he forgot about 767s and 757s since the last time he was here a year ago. The security training session, however, prompted him to consider ways to really cut down on security problems. His airline might not like it, though ...

The employee cafeteria in the ground-training building is a sad place, filled with the forced boisterousness of the indentured student.

Facing either a five-day stint for recurrent or the "serious time" of a five-week initial, the diners found in this plastic forked purgatory gather at round, Formica-covered tables festooned with pepper and salt shakers, the current seasonal decoration (today it is Valentine's Day gee-gaws) and the detritus of previous student-lunchers.

It's not that we have no appreciation for the effort the company has made to make sure we are full up on the latest salad bar doo-jobbies and "chicken nuggitage." It is true though that since the airline bought up all the real estate around the training building (to build even more training buildings) all the restaurants that used to be in the area are now, sadly, out of business, leaving the airline with a monopoly on the lunch business. This means the choice is either to chew and gulp at the company slop chute, or listen to your stomach complain like a frequent flier in an upgrade snit until the last class bell.

Tricks To Stop An Evildoer ...

Day one of recurrent training entails a morning of "security training." We can't discuss what we cover in this class here because if we did, more than the 60,000+ airline pilots in the country already trained would know our secrets. Since all our company ID badges are inspected upon entering the building and since the company has checked our citizenship more than once over the past few years, we are all considered loyal, evildoer-hating Americans. The review of security procedures is fairly interesting. There is nothing like the fear of being killed by a maniac to perk up your ears.

The most important part of the security briefing, in my opinion, is the "war stories" section where we all get to tell stories from the past year. Something that happened to another crew could happen to you next week so we all listened intently.

... and Minutiae to Stop a CEO

After the security briefing and a short vending machine coffee break we all sit back down for an hour and a half of "Op-Specs" (operation specifications). This is your basic coverage of all the things you forgot about approach plates, en route charts, visibility minima, icy runway considerations, and slow death by FARs.

The trick of Op-Specs is to realize from the onset that you aren't going to have a prayer of remembering all the rules that you are responsible for. Just memorizing all the rules to shoot a Category III approach would make your brain cry out in agony. They key is to know that to be successful in the world of airline IFR flight you need to look stuff up.

The next key is to know where to look up the stuff that you are ... well ... looking up. I'm so weak on this Op-Specs stuff, I could probably use a weekly review of the material, but sitting through this class is more painful than plucking out your nose hairs with slip-joint pliers so I'll just have to study more at home.

Even though the employee cafeteria has a gloomier outlook than a supermodel in an ice cream parlor, I am encouraged because the afternoon promises to be full of things I can use; specifically, a good systems review of the 767 and 757. This is something I know I'll have to pay close attention to if I want to pass my yearly check ride in a few days.

When you come out of an initial school on an airplane you probably know more facts about the thing than you'll ever use. You can recite electrical busses -- what they do and what they power and are powered by. You can trace a drop of hydraulic fluid though all the main and standby systems and you can spout every acronym and funny little training saying they crammed into your head.

Then, the day you walk out of the simulator building with your brand new type rating, you completely forget about 95% of what was in your head only moments before.

This is to be expected and is probably why there are books onboard each aircraft to lead you through almost any abnormal you might encounter. It is also true that it is the guys who think they really know the airplane who get into trouble out on the line, because they don't look things up in book when they arise.

Some of these little training aids stay with you for a lifetime. If you don't think so, just ask any 727 pilot what is on the "B" hydraulic system. He or she will immediately say, "Break in upstairs every afternoon." This little trick taught us way back in the ancient 1970s that the "B" hydraulic system on the "three-holer" had the brakes, the aft stairs, the upper rudder, the inboard spoilers and half of the other flight controls.

Then there are the other little cute sayings you learn about the airplanes you study. For example, the 727 is called a "three-holer" because of more than the number of engine intakes: Three-holer also refers to the number of toilets onboard and the number of pilots.

Deep In The Zone

As I carried my tray of salad-bar materials to my table I noticed a throwback from my own three-holer days. It was my new-hire classmate and roommate, Ken. I hadn't seen him since our 10-year class reunion 15 years ago. He looked a little grayer and slightly more wrinkled than I remembered him from before. He also had the 1000-yard stare of a person doing hard time in flight training.

He was sitting next to his chicken sandwich surrounded by books, notes, outline pens and 3x5 index cards. Clearly, he was facing an equipment oral in a few days.

Slamming my tray on his table didn't even get a response from him. He was truly "in the zone," getting ready for that oral. I confirmed this by yelling:

How can the autobrakes be disarmed?

"F-STOP!" Ken yelled back. (That'd be Fault, Spoiler handle movement, Throttle advanced, and pushing the Pedal.) Then he noticed me, realized how deeply he was embedded in the b.s. of ground school, and cracked a grin.

How many days until your 767 oral? I asked.

"It's tomorrow," said Ken. "I think I'm ready, but you never really know until you're there. This is near the end of week two of the hostage crisis and I'm about to meltdown. What are you here for?"

Just the usual yanking and banking in the box and doing my time in recurrent ground school for another year. I hope that the initial ground school I went though last year on the seven-six will be my last but you never know. I've learned one big thing in security school this morning though.

"What's that?" asked Ken.

Cut the Risk To Zero

It looks to me like the big security risks in the airline world today are passengers and cargo. If we could just avoid carrying either we'd be much safer in the air.

Not only do passengers demand things like air to breathe and a usable bathroom, but they also tend to turn out to be the hijackers when a hijacking occurs. No passengers means no potential hijackers. This, in turn, would mean we wouldn't need airport security checkpoints, which would free up federal dollars and our time.

A total lack of passengers would mean we could cut back on all sorts of costly things like passenger service agents, those awful luggage carts, those annoyingly loud electric cars that ferry the non-walking passenger around and most other passenger-oriented businesses in the terminals.

Come to think of it, if we did away with passengers, the terminals could be much, much smaller and would lower our costs quite a bit.

Cargo is almost as big a problem as passengers. Things that go "Kaboom!" can be placed in the cargo bay, and unless you are Tom Hanks doing a movie about surviving on an island, airplanes going "Kaboom!" is a very bad thing. We should avoid carrying cargo whenever we can.

Airliner Conversions "R" Us

B767 Banner Tow

My little diatribe had the desired effect. For the moment at least, Ken had forgotten about 767 systems and was focused on doing away with passengers and cargo.

"I know what you mean and I have a few ideas that would make the airline money without the need to carry passengers or cargo," Ken said.

"A 767, with its excess horsepower available and its wing-mounted engines, would make a great platform for hauling banners around football games. The old 727s we just retired could be converted into crop dusters, and I'm sure that our MD-88s could carry quite a few external stores and could serve as bombers in the war against terrorism.

"That's another thing that we in the airline world haven't addressed. We have hundreds of airliners sitting out on the desert doing nothing. Many of them will never fly again and are just falling apart out there. With their great insulation and structure they'd make excellent office buildings, restaurants, and private homes."

Back to the Books

Ken's eyes had lost that glaze of training hopelessness and I was beginning to think that my little "intervention" was working. The stress of facing an oral is something hard to explain to anybody who hasn't gone through it. In the airline world there is added stress, because flunking an oral could be a career-ending event or at least the beginning of one.

If anything, the airline makes sure you are over-prepared to go into an oral -- especially if the FAA is going to be there. It is true that you really do need to know the stuff they ask you about, and the pilot profession is all about the handling of stressful situations to a safe conclusion, so I guess the oral is here to stay.

I've done my share of orals over the past 25 years, and even though they all went well, only one was a pleasure. The Boeing 777 oral was easier than anything I've ever done in school. It is a rare airliner that has all its systems arranged the way a pilot, not an engineer, would arrange them.

Ken was getting a little antsy and -- even though he seemed to enjoy the study break -- he looked like it was time to hit the books again.

The oral exam is the biggest hurdle of the initial training process because you don't get to show off any pilot skills -- just how well you can memorize things. Ken has always been at least twice the pilot I've been over the years and I knew that he would pass though this ordeal with a gold star and a pat on the back.

Until then, there wasn't much use wasting his time. I arranged to buy him dinner in two nights and gathered up my stuff to face my own private Idaho.