Drifting on course: High-stakes computer games

April 9, 2008

Two months and a day after starting basic indoctrination, I finally sat in front of an instrument panel and started doing “pilot stuff.” It was the first day of cockpit procedures training.

In CPT, two students generally are paired with an instructor for training on how to run checklists and manage the airplane. One of the other instructors was ill, and our instructor picked up the orphaned students. Instead of two students slogging through the checklists, we had four. The upside: We only spent half the time under the gun. The downside: We only spent half the time under the gun.

We spent the first CPT mostly in the paper tiger, a mock-up of the cockpit with images of the instrument panels laminated onto panels roughly simulating our CRJ cockpit. We got into a simulator later that evening and got to flip some switches, and it became obvious that while we knew how to work through the flows in our head, we darn sure lacked confidence in the simulator.

In our minds, the switches were always in the position we wanted them to be, but in the simulator, it became difficult to understand how things worked until we ran the procedure a couple of times. For instance, the bleed air switches don’t immediately light as you switch them. They indicate the valve position, not the commanded position. I learned this after I franticly pushed a button three or four times before I gave up, stared it down for a few moments, and the light finally came on.

Our instructor chuckled quietly in the back, knowing that until I saw this firsthand I wouldn’t understand how it worked. In this airplane, things don’t happen immediately when you command them. The computers debate over your decision and decide if your suggestion is worth following.

By the third CPT, the instructor shortage solved itself. Dean, my sim partner, and I found ourselves under the instructor’s eye for our entire training session, which ran from midnight until four in the morning. After four CPTs, we graduated to simulator training, still on the backside of the clock. After a lifetime of getting up early in the morning, staying up until nearly sunrise took its toll. I adapted my sleep patterns, but try as I might, sleep wouldn’t come in the early afternoon hours. Dean adapted better than I; and as I fumbled my way through the fourth simulator session, I knew something was not right.

I called in sick the next day and went home to my doctor. He looked in my ear and knew immediately what had happened. A sinus infection had set in and spread to my ears. He said one eardrum was bulging severely under pressure. My ears were telling my body different messages than the eyes were seeing—and what I passed off as a difficulty in adapting to a new sleep schedule was a real illness. Lesson learned: When your body tells you something, listen.

When I came back in, my sim partner had moved on and the training schedulers paired me with Mike, an upgrading captain. We flew well together, and things looked great after the seventh session in the simulator. Sim eight was supposed to be a mock checkride, a non-event.

According to several pilots, everyone has a bad session in the simulator. Most people have it around session five. Mine came on eight. We took off and I climbed up as I prepared for steep turns. I rolled into the turn and things got fuzzy. My scan went out the window as I focused to read any part of my primary flight display. The altitude flew by and I busted the maneuver.

Way back at the interview, I admitted to being my own worst enemy. It came out clearly that night in the simulator. I kicked myself for blowing the turns, and basically stayed behind the airplane the rest of the night. Every move I made, I second-guessed. Finally, my two hours was up, and we climbed out for a stretch and some coffee.

“I still need you to stay in this, I really need to get Mike signed off for his checkride,” my instructor said.

I stuck with it and focused hard to keep things in line for Mike. He got signed off for the checkride. I didn’t.

Two simulator sessions later, my confidence was back, and a signature on my paperwork confirmed I was checkride-ready.

This is the fourth of a six-part series on Jeremy King’s adventures in going from a grass strip to an airline cockpit. He lives in Whitesburg, Ga.