I’m yet to fly with normal Captains – by that I mean one that is not a line training captain. I almost feel like I’ve been in a training cocoon and I’m now I’m being sent off into the wild to fend for myself with the skills I have been taught! That’s because I’m not sure what to expect from all the different Captains out there – I’ve been flying with one of five training Captains, and most often with one of them, so I got to know them and got used to them.
I think I’ve seen and been exposed to a wide scope of things during my line training, though I’m sure it’s just a taste of things to come. After talking to friends of mine also in line training, I realised that I’ve been lucky to have experienced those situations, as they haven’t had the chance yet. I still remember my first day clearly – I was nervous and excited, and I was glad that I had taken extra jumpseat sessions on, as they gave me a confidence boose, got me used to the environment and a better idea of how to prepare for the flight. I was kindly helped by the safety pilot – who was senior first officer in the airline, with the paperwork and he took me through it. Of course it all was a bit of a blur at first, but it would sink in as I flew more and more, and then be doing it effortlessly! I had a bit of a “baptism of fire” as the safety pilot put it, on the first day. This was due to the last minute changes in clearance & runway which I had on 3 out of 4 sectors and having to land on a runway 34 in Dublin. This is a runway that’s not normally in use – it is shorter than RW28, 61m wide (which is more than the standard width of 45m) and has no centreline lighting. This was going to be my first landing on line, with passengers in the back, and it was a really short sector with just under 30 minutes of time airborne – so not much time to prepare the approach, everything had to be slick and efficient. The wider runway gave the illusion of being lower than the 3 degree approach path, and the lack of centreline lighting made tracking the centreline more challenging. The Captain and safety pilot gave me plenty of assistance though – all the paperwork was taken care of by the safety pilot, and when required the radio too, and the Captain helped me set up for the approach and guided me through the briefing. So I was in good hands! In addition, we were going to land with flap 40 – which I tend to find more difficult than flap 30 landings. So it wasn’t an easy first day! Nonetheless, it was full of experiences and really great fun. It was all a blur at first – certainly the first day! I found it amazing how everything came alive on line – with passengers, dispatchers, fuelers, ATC – it really was a lot to take in, coming from the safety of a simulated environment, where we could pause at any point. There’s no pause button on line! The learning curve is steep, however I found myself improving with every sector.
The first few sectors were all about getting used to the environment, getting used to the pace of things and improving my landings – especially for safety pilot release. I found the night landings a challenge at first and it did knock my confidence slightly but as they improved, so did my confidence and vice versa. I found that having confidence in myself was the major factor in my performance. If I had low self-confidence, my performance wasn’t good, and as it improved, so did my performance. Then there was also getting over the fear, of the responsibility of safely transporting up to 189 passengers at any one time safely to their destination on a real aircraft. We didn’t have any passengers to worry about in the simulator, so this was a new realism to deal with. This I got used to surprisingly quickly though – I remember looking behind me into the cabin, for my first ever sector and thinking “wow look at all those passengers, I have to get them from A to B”. As the sectors piled up, I quickly got used to the idea of over a 100 passengers in the cabin and the fact that I was now operating on a real aircraft.
The other issue was the cockpit gradient – where you have an experienced line training captain and me – a new first officer with very little hours and experience in comparison, and so it did feel steep at first. Before line training, I was used to working with my simulator partner – who was in terms of experience, on the same level as me, and a similar age also, so the gradient was shallow (we ensured it was positive since we took our roles seriously, to make it a more accurate simulation). So, this was more so because of my own perceptions of the line training captains and secondly my lack of experience at first. As I gained more experience and with positive training and encouragement from the Captains, and as I got to know the them, the gradient became shallower and more comfortable – which happened quickly for me.
I did have an odd day here and there, or even a week sometimes where I would just not be able to get something – such as my briefings, RT (radio) or landings. This frustrated me, however I tried put in time at home to polish these areas off, even if it meant reading the whole CAP (CAA Publication of RT)! I found demonstrations by the training Captains on things such as briefings and landings really helpful – it’s much better to see it done than read up on it – after all it is a practical matter. I found that some simple as my seating position helped my landings – I’d say it was crucial. I did plenty of chair flying to get the muscle memory in. Muscle memory gives you far more capacity as it is embedded. For example, as I my left hand reaches for the mic to tell the cabin crew to take their seats for departure, my right hand automatically goes to clear the scratchpad – something I used to forget to do many times before departure. Another example would be the landing – I used to have moments where I would delay reducing the thrust or taking out the reverse thrust, and after a bit of chair flying, I was doing this much faster and without much thought since my muscle memory was in. I have also found that my short-term memory has improved – when I first started, I could not even remember the frequency passed to me, even if it was the only item passed – I had to note it down somewhere as it was passed. The wind passed to me also used to go in one ear and out of the other! Again this frustrated me, but I’m now finding that ATC can throw many things at me and my memory will hold it – the holes have been plugged!
I really enjoyed my line training. I had a fantastic set of Captains – all relaxed and friendly, positive and willing to give you a push when you need it! It is a steep learning curve, but there’s plenty of support.