Heading to the Big Game?

Getting an airline job is the easy part

September 1, 2002

For most first-time airline pilot applicants, being offered a job with a well-respected regional or national airline brings a huge sigh of relief. For months you toiled over your résumé and produced professional cover letters to sell yourself to various airlines. At the time, getting hired was the light at the end of the tunnel. But if you thought getting hired was hard, the training process will make you think the hiring process was a joke.

Atlantic Coast Airlines (ACA), a national airline that operates under the United Express and Delta Connection banners, hired me in April 2000. ACA flies three types of airplanes: the 29-seat British Aerospace Jetstream 41, the 32-passenger Fairchild-Dornier 328 Jet, and the 50-seat Canadair Regional Jet. The company has pilot bases in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati, and New York.

Hiring at ACA has resumed after a six-month hiatus following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At the time I was hired, the company was herding in 50 pilots a month and I was immediately inserted into the next training class that began a scant 16 days after my interview. Including various breaks of a week or longer, training lasted nearly four months. Perhaps the toughest part was swallowing the fact that I would only be earning $200 per week while in training. Thankfully, my wife stepped up to support me both financially and mentally during those months.


Like any new job, the first few days are spent filling out a mountain of paperwork so that the company can perform various background checks through the FBI, your previous employers, and the department of motor vehicles to verify that you are who you said you were at the interview. At airlines that operate different fleets of aircraft you may not know what airplane you will end up flying until soon after you start. Based on your age or some random selection method, you could end up in an aging turboprop or a fancy new regional jet. You also are handed the airline's operations manual during the first few days. Don't wait to begin looking at it because you have only a few weeks to become intimate with its contents and layout.

ACA training falls under the Advanced Qualification Program (AQP) as prescribed in Part 121 of the federal aviation regulations. Basically, the AQP is an alternative method for airlines to train, qualify, and check crewmembers based on demonstration of proficiency rather than a fixed number of training hours. Other airlines train pilots differently so, as the fine print at the bottom of the TV infomercial says, "your results may vary."

Based on luck of the draw, I received the airplane and base that I requested, the Jetstream 41 based out of Washington Dulles International Airport. The J41 is well equipped with electronic flight instrumentation and a very capable autopilot and flight director. It was a good choice for me. Based on my strictly general aviation background, friends who were already employed at the airline had suggested that I not try to leap the chasm from the light piston singles and twins that I was flying to the company's Regional Jet. The RJ is not necessarily harder to fly, it just has many more systems to learn than the J41. In addition, the myriad new airline-specific rules and regulations that need to be learned make the learning curve steeper for new-hire RJ pilots. Not surprisingly, new hires are more likely to flunk out of RJ training than turboprop training. In addition, as a turboprop pilot I could look forward to upgrading to captain far sooner than an RJ first officer.

General operating subjects

Once you've been assigned to an airplane, you head into general operating subjects (GOS) where you immerse yourself in the company's operations manual. At this time you're also given the flight manual for the airplane that you'll be flying so that you can get familiar with it prior to the next step, systems ground school. Again, it's best to get to know that manual as soon as possible to ease the process.

The operations manual is a thick book that basically tailors Part 121 regulations for a particular airline. In other words, you can forget many of the regulations you ever memorized. ACA, for example, has its own formula for determining alternate airports for takeoff and landing. Those listed under Part 121 mean nothing to ACA pilots.

On the other end of the spectrum, the book delves deeply into the minutia of every aspect of airline policy and procedure right down to the proper shoes to wear as part of your uniform. It's dry material but vitally important. Not only will you be tested on it, you will need to comply with the rules from the moment you start flying the line.

The all-day classroom sessions only scratch the surface of what you're required to know; therefore individual and group study is critical. It's like trying to drink from a fire hose. My classmates and I simply wrote down as much as we could so that we could later attempt to lap up what we missed. Many nights were spent piecing together the notes and dog-eared book pages from the classroom session earlier in the day.

This experience can be tough for many new hires as they are moving from out of state to a new location while simultaneously studying harder in a few months than many college students do in a year. After passing the GOS test, you feel that you've climbed a mountain and can relax and look forward to learning your new airplane. Unfortunately, it's just the beginning of an ever-increasing amount of work.


Five other J41 first officers and I were placed into the systems class with 14 more-senior pilots upgrading to captain in the airplane. Over the next two weeks we dissected every one of the airplane's systems and began the arduous process of creating hundreds of flashcards to memorize the airplane's limitations, warning light indications, and other details. Like the GOS class, the classroom study of the systems manual only scratches the surface of what is to be learned. Intense individual or group study is vital for the successful completion of the systems test, which occurs at the end of the two-week course.

After a few days of the systems class, I realized that the prior week's GOS course was comparatively easy. The flashcards were in hand at every free minute in the day. During this period, I often found myself jealous of everyone else's job. For example, not only did the guy at the convenience store not have to worry about passing a multitude of FAA exams, but also he made three times more money than I did. Perhaps it was my perseverance, stubbornness, ego, or the driving urge to succeed that kept me plodding along. My recently named head-of-household wife was also there to kindly remind me that it was only a few months out of my life and I should get over it.

Thanks to a good amount of camaraderie and studying, we all passed our systems exam. Perhaps the best news on exam day was that there was a backup in the training department that would give the majority of us at least one week off before resuming training. Free time at last!


Following a two-week cooling-off period came the cockpit procedures trainer (CPT). I was paired up with a captain upgrade from the aforementioned systems class, and we were planted in front of a life-size cockpit mockup going through the motions of a flight from entering the cockpit to securing the airplane. It sounds simplistic, but it's in the CPT where new hires learn what cockpit flows and required call-outs are all about. Airlines employ a technique called parroting, reading back and confirming clearances assigned by ATC. Since my previous 2,000 hours were mostly spent as the sole pilot, the crew environment took a little getting used to. Having to read back a clearance to ATC, then confirm it with the captain, who in turn reads it back again, was a little tedious, I thought. But this is one reason that airplanes flown by a crew have such a low occurrence of mishaps.

In the airline business timeliness is next in importance to safety, and the philosophy of using cockpit flows assures expeditious departures and arrivals. It also means that each pilot knows what the other is doing at critical times. Airlines design these flows so that they follow a logical pattern in the cockpit for maximum speed and efficiency. Cockpit flows can be likened to a dance, the steps of which you must memorize. And like a dance, flows eventually become second nature. New hires are expected to observe veteran crews on actual flights as often as possible throughout training in order to witness the flow dance. Since we're all human and tend to occasionally make mistakes, checklists are read to back up the more critical flow items.

The oral

One of the more dreaded portions of airline training is the knowledge test with an FAA-designated examiner. For me, this was a one-and-a-half-hour face-to-face encounter that required me to recall much of what I had learned over the last few months. It is a challenging and sometimes nerve-racking affair. In fact, we lost one of our fellow classmates at this stage of training. Family problems and the overall mountain of information to learn in a short period of time combined to overwhelm him, and he dropped out. It was a wakeup call to the rest of us. I didn't ace the oral, but I learned a few things and that's the way it should be.

After passing the oral, I was faced with another two-week break thanks to a scheduling backup with the simulator. The breaks between training segments were good for the mind, but the bank account was suffering with that $200-per-week paycheck. Getting through training fast would speed up the cash flow but possibly lead to a mind meltdown.


After all the books it was nice to jump into a simulator, move real switches, and actually "fly." For many new hires, the first flight in the simulator marks the first time they've handled a yoke and pedals in months. Add to that the fact that it is likely the first time they've flown a full-motion simulator and the first time they've flown this particular type of airplane. Naturally, the first "trip" can get a little ugly.

After a few minutes of familiarization it's down to business. Our first flight explored stalls in different configurations and drilled the required call-outs in the event that a crew should get itself into such an untoward situation. For me, much of the time was spent getting used to "flying glass" as this was the first glass-cockpit airplane I had flown. After years of scanning six or more instruments to discern the situation, it was unusual to have to look at only one screen. Another issue for me was getting used to the autopilot and flight director. Not surprisingly, after the first sim session I was having serious doubts about completing the training in only six more sessions, the last two of which were checkrides. To bring myself up to speed I sat in on other pilots' sim sessions and sat in the jump seat in the real airplane — a tremendous help.

My sim partner and I usually met a few hours before our 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. sim time to go over flows and possible scenarios in the CPT prior to entering the box. His mentoring helped tremendously.

The first of two checkrides is called the maneuvers validation, in which you are evaluated on the precision handling of the airplane in various emergency situations. Under the AQP plan, an applicant can retake this portion of the checkride in the event of a failure. An additional sim session can be built into the schedule to bring that applicant up to speed.

Once that hurdle is crossed, you progress to the second checkride known as the LOE, or line-oriented evaluation. Here you plan and execute an actual flight like you would when flying the line. Of course there are several curves thrown at you that make the LOE quite challenging. Expect there to be preflight paperwork problems, weather and alternate issues, and several system and operational problems from mundane cautions to more serious emergencies such as an engine fire and subsequent evacuation. The instructor's goal is to see that the crew continues to fly the airplane regardless of the problem. They don't want to see crewmembers get so wrapped up in a situation that they forget to do their flows and checklist items. The ability to multitask is a key ingredient of every good airline pilot.

Since the J41 simulator achieves only Level-C realism (a simulator approved to Level-C standards is not realistic enough to simulate landings in that type of aircraft), applicants must take the remaining 15 percent of the checkride in the real airplane. This equates to shooting a few instrument approaches to a landing as the flying pilot. It's an easy checkride compared to what you went through to get to this point. It's also your first opportunity to fly the real McCoy.


After successful completion of the three checkrides you advance to initial operating experience or in the abbreviation-happy airline biz, IOE. The equivalent of on-the-job training, IOE pairs new first officers with instructor captains for their first 20 hours of flight time on the line. During IOE, first officers hone their newly acquired skills in the daily grind of airline flying. At ACA, captains and first officers trade legs as the pilot flying and the pilot not flying. There is, however, only one PIC, the captain.

In a way IOE is more relaxing than the simulator since there are rarely any emergencies encountered. However, you quickly get sucked into the reality that you now have an airplane full of passengers counting on you to get them to the destination in a safe and timely manner.

By the end of the 20 hours, you've learned still more and no longer feel so far behind the airplane that you're barely hanging onto the tailcone. If your instructor feels that you're ready, you will be signed off as completing your IOE. You're now an airline pilot and once you're released into line-pilot duties, you can begin to draw a normal, yet meager, salary.

So can a typical GA pilot survive airline training? If you can hang your ego in the closet and swallow being inundated with tons of new rules and regulations then, yes, you should be able to get through it.

Pilots who wash out are usually the type who thought it would be easy and didn't hit the books hard enough. Pilots with stellar résumés, type ratings, and thousands of hours have been dismissed because of various problems encountered during training. Meanwhile, those with only 600 hours have made it through without a hitch. Those with the right attitude, work ethic, and good piloting skills are rewarded with the jobs.

Peter A. Bedell, AOPA 1136339, is now a J41 captain with ACA. He is a former technical editor of AOPA Pilot.