Safety Publications/Articles


Non-stop flight

Seven ratings in 90 days

The twin-engine Piper Seminole was taking a beating.

Bad weather over the Smoky Mountains had brought solid overcasts containing ice around 8,000 feet and a mix of rain and snow below. Beneath us, the mountains redirected the howling winds, creating fierce turbulence and unsettling bolts of lightning.

My flight partner and I had been in the dark clouds for close to two hours. While he worked the radios, trying to get a weather update, I fought the airplane, painfully aware of the peaks lurking around us somewhere in this unwelcoming murk.

The ink on both of our instrument ratings was still wet, and while I had my doubts about the scheduling of this flight to begin with, I was regretting the fact that I had allowed our dispatcher to talk me into the almost four-hour journey from the Washington, D.C., area to Knoxville, Tennessee.

"Never again," I pledged to my friend in the right seat, angry mostly at myself for such a lapse in judgment. He nodded uncomfortably.

Again and again, turbulence thrashed the aircraft in this interminable sea of angry clouds. Very occasionally, we broke out for only a few seconds, long enough to catch alarming glimpses of the imposing terrain around us.

"Just fly the airplane," I thought to myself, remembering the cardinal rule of aviation.

I worked hard to keep the blue side up on the attitude indicator. Then we punched out of the worst of it and pushed on safely to our destination.

A year earlier, I sat at my desk amid the hum of telephones and printers, enjoying a procession of Saabs, Boeings, and regional jets landing and taking off from Boston's Logan airport, a stone's throw from my oversized office window. Airliners had always fascinated me, and I often fantasized about what it might be like to fly the powerful jets from the seat of what is undoubtedly the coolest office in the world.

Life, however, had taken me into a different line of work: journalism. My job, once exciting, grew dull. And with a new private pilot certificate I could hardly think of anything other than flying. Whenever possible, I'd cut out of work early and head for the airport to commune with the evening skies in a relaxing ritual. But the bug was just too strong to fend off, and evening or weekend excursions were no longer enough to quench my thirst for flying.

So, with encouragement from my wife I embarked on the long and arduous journey to the airlines, to that sheepskin-covered seat behind the many tantalizing switches, lights, and screens. I began shopping around for the appropriate flight program.

Price, equipment, quality of the experience--as well as duration of the course--topped the list of factors that would influence my decision. The number of options out there was impressive, from yearlong curricula to fast-paced, marathon courses, all in various locations and in different types of airplanes.

I picked a three-month program, which had the added benefit of offering copious amounts of highly prized multiengine time. The school also offered the course at a location close enough to Boston that an hour-long hop on a jet would whisk me home.

The task of earning seven ratings in a short 90 days, however, was daunting, and criticism in some quarters about what some considered the school's uneven quality of instruction had not fallen on deaf ears. After further probing, and discussions with a friend who had graduated from the program, I realized that the only caveat of the course was that nobody would hold my hand. It was up to me to be disciplined, study, and make the best out of the experience.

On a cold January morning in 2006, I parked at the Manassas, Virginia, airport and hurried in to escape the frigid wind. An instructor named Ron greeted me with a pleasant and friendly demeanor, made all the more surprising by a noticeable New York accent, and promptly declared dislike for my hometown's baseball team. For the next few weeks, he'd be my instructor through the private multiengine and instrument training.

The first week proved to be very challenging. After time in the simulator and the Seminole, the transition from single-engine to multiengine pilot itself proved reasonably painless. The airplane was easy to fly, and the maneuvers, except for a few, were essentially the same that I'd learned during primary training.

The approach to flying, however, was different. I'd quickly have to change my mindset from that of the fairly systems-ignorant weekend private pilot I was to that of the airline pilot I wanted to become. And that meant garnering an almost engineer-like knowledge of the Seminole and its operation.

For hours, I pored through the aircraft's pilot operating handbook, delving deep into all systems from electrical to hydraulics as well as the inner workings of the propeller governor. There were also checklists, flows, procedures, critical engine fundamentals, and principles of VMC to be learned in six days before the first checkride. With help from Ron and Eric, another instructor, the mountain of information slowly began to make sense and I soon became a multiengine private pilot. Unceremoniously, Ron ushered me into the next phase of training: IFR flying.

Thankfully, I had completed about 20 hours of instrument training prior to starting the course, so this part of the program was for the most part painless. The training stressed a very structured approach to flying instruments through disciplined use of checklists, memory items, and flows. Since it is one of the most crucial flying skills, I was intent on getting this right, and the program didn't let me down. I studied a lot, and Ron flew me hard. I earned the rating and launched into what I believe is the course's best attribute: the cross-country phase.

As part of training, all pilots at this particular school ship out for 75 hours of cross-country flying, taking skills learned in the contained sphere of training and applying them in the more fluid and unpredictable realm of real-world IFR flying.

This phase of the course was a huge selling point, promising both adventure and travel to destinations that I would otherwise never visit as well as real-life crew resource management (CRM) experience. With long days and changing weather, the cross-country phase also offered a valuable insight into dealing with fatigue, unpleasant skies, and mechanical issues.

Early in the morning of Day One, I met Petr, the first of three flight partners with whom I would share the cockpit during this phase of the training. Dispatch assigned us an easy flight to Raleigh, North Carolina, and back to Manassas. With the weather checked and the airplane preflighted, I lifted off while Petr operated the radios, carefully navigating us out of the Washington ADIZ.

Within minutes, we were in the clouds. I was excited--and a little unnerved since this was my first encounter with IMC in a long time and my experience with it amounted only to four hours. I relaxed my grip on the yoke and flew the needles all the way to the busy airport in North Carolina, where approach assigned us the ILS behind a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737.

The next day, dispatch sent us to Wilmington, North Carolina, which again brought time in the clouds and marked our very first, albeit mild, encounter with ice. Petr flew the leg as I diligently checked for ice on the wings. After picking up about a quarter of an inch, we asked air traffic control for a lower altitude, which put us into warmer air and safely out of the ice.

Because the weather had closed in behind us, we were stuck in Wilmington that day, waiting six hours at the airport for our dispatcher's release. Eager to leave, we hopped in the Seminole for what would be my leg back to Manassas, but I called off the flight when we discovered a dead magneto on the right engine during the runup.

Days were long, and trips took me to Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and New Jersey through incredibly clear skies as well as the murkiest of them. In the short two weeks, I picked up ice several times, battled fatigue in the cockpit, and experienced a cracked exhaust manifold and a landing gear failure at night. But blossoming CRM helped me and my flight partners to make every one of those flights a tremendous learning experience.

A much more confident pilot, I passed the multi- and single-engine commercial checkrides in short order and shipped off to Atlanta for a week-long CFI school, where I'd be groomed for the hardest checkride of them all: the flight instructor initial.

Tales about CFI school abounded, and it was every bit as exhausting and challenging as I'd expected. We ran through the Seminole's systems in great detail the first day as well as advanced aerodynamics that positively confused me. That evening I stared at drag and lift graphs with bloodshot eyes in a somewhat discouraged attempt to understand the finer points of flying.

But as the week unfolded, I fell into that by now familiar, hectic groove and grasped the technical elements that had hitherto stumped me. We never stopped, from dawn to the wee hours of the morning, from the classroom where we dissected the federal aviation regulations to the apartment where every night I tried to chip away at the monumental mass of knowledge I'd have to absorb before the checkride.

The only respite from the books came with the much anticipated spin training, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Before I knew it, I was flying myself down to Fort Lauderdale for a 6 a.m. meeting with the examiner the next morning. Although prepared, I spent the evening buried in books, trying to squeeze as much knowledge as I could into a very tired brain.

Nervous, I made my way to the checkride very early in the morning. Of course, the examiner's first question stumped me. But I knew just where to find the answer, and his friendly demeanor quickly helped me to relax. A few hours later, I elatedly announced to my wife that she was now married to a flight instructor.

The remainder of the training was uneventful--except for a thoroughly exhilarating chance to fly a Cessna Citation across Florida for a few hours--and within days I added instrument and single-engine ratings to my instructor certificate, thereby completing the program.

Nobody had told me the course would be easy, nor had I thought it would be. Some had warned me that accelerated programs might skimp on some areas of training, but I found my instruction to be first class. I prepared myself before starting the course, studied long hours, and followed my CFIs' guidance, and just as the school had promised, I completed the program in three months and paid not a cent more than what was quoted to me the day I enrolled.

Accelerated programs are not for everyone, I came to realize, but while discouragement and fatigue are an integral part of such courses, I witnessed students of all ages and walks of life overcome obstacles and grow into professional pilots.

And what a preamble it was to airline initial training.

After nine months as a flight instructor, Mark Wilkinson is now a first officer on the Embraer 145 jet for a regional airline. He began flying in 2004 and lives with his family in Boston.

By Mark Wilkinson

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