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From Private Pilot to Airline Pilot - Part 3

Know Thine Limitations

After the indoctrination class, we shifted gears to learn the systems on our aircraft. About halfway through the first day, the amount of information inundated us newbies—this was the most in-depth schooling most of us ever encountered while learning a new aircraft.

From eight in the morning until quitting time, we were scheduled to be in the classroom, absorbing knowledge. Half the time we had in-class lectures on the systems and lessons on running the FMS. Our instructor, Rollie, could be working nights in a comedy club near you.

The other half of the session was considerably less exciting. Our eyes watered and lost focus on the screen as we listened to and clicked through hours and hours of computer-based training or CBT.

When you fly foreign planes, to some extent, you get used to things getting lost in translation. I’ve flown Russian, Polish, and German aircraft, but the CRJ-200 is my first Canadian aircraft. With an airplane whose books and placards are roughly translated from Cyrillic languages, at least there is an excuse—but the guy doing voiceovers on our CBT finally got to me after four days of prattling on and on. He had just enough accent that I focused as much on understanding his dialect as I did on what he actually said.

Each student in our class developed his own way of dealing with the system. Some ditched their headphones altogether. Some clicked furiously through the material, took the test, noted what they missed, and went back to study the weak spots.

I gave “Jaques” his pink slip on day five. I unplugged my headset from the computer, plugged it into my iPod, and listened to some quiet classical music while reading the same information Jaques would have presented to me. My unit tests climbed a few points.

We learned if you’re going to be a jet pilot, you’d better get used to acronyms. Anything ending in a -CU is generally a control unit, so the DCU, FCU, and GCU handle the data, fuel, and generators, respectively. The APU, a small jet engine in the tail, generates power and bleed air to get the “Tundra Jet” started.

But when the instructor started talking about the DECU, it took a moment to remember that was the credit union down the street.

We learned about priority logic. The electrical system can receive power from five sources—either engine generator, the APU, ground power, or the emergency air-driven generator. With so many input sources, the airplane has to set priorities for where to accept the power from. Same story with the trim system: Trim can be commanded by the pilot or co-pilot’s trim buttons, the autopilot, or Mach trim. The devil is in the details, and the details are what can help a pilot troubleshoot problems while flying. We’re not expected to know how to build our aircraft from a blueprint, but a basic understanding of the systems goes a long way toward a successful outcome in an emergency scenario.

Meanwhile, outside of class, we polished up on limitations and memory items.

In small airplanes, I remembered some of the important limitations: crosswind limits, gross weight, useful load—things like that. When you start sipping from the fire hose of knowledge in an airline’s training program, the flow doesn’t stop. Among other limits, we’re expected to remember the maximum runway slope, starter cranking and cooling limits, max crosswind components on a contaminated runway, and that if the plane is stationary more than 10 minutes, turn the taxi lights off. So much for Tom Bodett’s “we’ll leave the light on for you” mentality. I guess the motel’s lights were just a little cooler than our taxi lights. A tall stack of limitation flashcards decorated my desk for the two weeks in systems class.

There are only nine or so memory items on our aircraft—the logic is that there are few things requiring a reaction quicker than simply picking up the laminated “Immediate Action Items” checklist and reading the steps off. Smoke in the cockpit requires some quick action as does an aileron runaway. Engine fire? No. It’s mounted on a pylon; if it burns off before you can get to it, then at least the jet will be considerably lighter for the landing. Seriously, the reaction time when reading the items off the card isn’t much slower, and it greatly reduces the chances of a serious mistake—such as hitting the wrong button and cutting off your good engine.

I don’t think the hotel maid was amused when I started writing memory items on the bathroom mirror every morning.

Finally, test day rolled around. We walked in and they handed us a sheet of paper with all the memory items blanked out. We filled them in. Then we got a sheet full of limitations (front and back, small type) with blanks where the important information should go. We filled those in. Then, we tackled the systems test. Everything was fair game: autopilot, fire protection and detection, anti-ice, environmental, landing gear, flight controls. You name it, it was on the test.

I handed my test in and walked out the door. I made one last trip up to the seventh-floor break room and guzzled what must have been my hundredth cup of coffee over the duration of class and stared out the window. For a few minutes I watched airliners of all sizes and shapes land, and then headed back to the classroom. My test was already marked up with a 92 percent score. I breathed a sigh of relief as the instructor reviewed the missed questions.

This is the third 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.

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