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Drifting on course: Airline boot campDrifting on course: Airline boot camp

Dishes clanked as the newbies tried to learn kitchen appliances more complex than some training aircraft. The directions posted behind the waffle irons clearly stated to pour in the batter, turn the irons over, and wait for the timers to go off.

Welcome to airline pilot boot camp. The company calls it Basic Indoctrination.

The men and women, spanning an age range of something like 40 years, sat down and the introductions began. Roosterville met Houston; Embry-Riddle met the Maple Street Trade School. Our backgrounds spanned the globe: An Air Force technician recently stationed at Guam, a ton of flight instructors, and a greasy backcountry aircraft mechanic who was a private pilot just four months ago.

I don’t mean to be insulting about the last one. He’s me.

While our prior occupations and accents varied widely, we were all united by a common love of flying, sparking conversations and springing friendships. Everyone fidgeted and stared at their oversized watches at 8:30, and within a few moments, we gathered our bags and headed out the door.

Those who had a car ended up with new friends filling their vehicles to capacity and beyond; those who left their vehicles at home clambered aboard the hotel van. We all arrived at the training center early, and our line extended out past the entry door. Nobody had ID badges yet, so we all signed in as guests.

The lady behind the desk smiled her biweekly smile. She knew we were coming and had a slew of visitor passes waiting on us. We were directed upstairs and began the search for our classroom.

Our instructor, Dale, was awaiting us. Our desks were stacked with books and paperwork. Name tags on each desk directed us to sit in alphabetical order. My name was misspelled. I laughed it off and brushed the tag aside. Introductions began. Dale was an aviator in Vietnam, shot down twice, and walked with a cane. His brand of humor was fantastic—the jokes and sayings he used helped make the whole two weeks of indoc much more tolerable than one would believe from looking at the syllabus. During breaks he showed us videos he had downloaded off the Internet and brought in on his thumb drive. Several were dandies.

The entire first day got soaked up with mundane chores. We filled out forms for the human resources department, assembled our manuals, and learned a little about what was in each manual. The OM, or operator’s manual, was our version of the pilot’s operating handbook. We also received our FOM or flight operations manual. Think of it as the company’s rulebook—it deals with our daily and non-routine operational procedures.

After years of working shifts of eight or more hours with a lunch break and two snack breaks, the concept of a 10-minute break at the top of each hour really shocked me: How on earth can one learn anything with so many interruptions? I soon realized we were drinking from the fire hose of knowledge, and if someone didn’t pry our lips off once an hour, our heads would pop. Day one ended and we all walked out to the parking lot with our flight bags considerably heavier than when we arrived.

On day two, we were bidding for our equipment. The instructors told us what a great aircraft the CRJ-700 was. Those of us who had talked to line pilots whispered to our neighbors about the quality of life on the CRJ-200, how most pilots sat reserve for just a few months before getting a regular line. Everything in this business is seniority based. All of us had the same hire date, so the seniority went by birthday. The younger half of the class got the CRJ-700.

The rest of the week flew by. We learned about the basics of operating at an FAR Part 121 carrier, and we came to understand how tightly the FAA stays involved in our operations. In fact, we had an FAA inspector sitting in for our indoc class. In the 10 years since I soloed, I’d not been so much as ramp checked. Now it makes sense—most of the feds were too busy overseeing airline operations to give a hoot about the yahoo private pilots at small airports. We also learned that if you mess up and the feds didn’t know, the company would turn you in, once they figured out what you did. Simple mistakes from the days of being a student pilot had suddenly become serious offenses.

It seemed counterintuitive at first, but looking back, it made perfect sense. Our passengers pay good money for a ticket, and they expect a safe arrival at the destination. Multiply the results of a wrongful death lawsuit by the number of seats in our airplane, and one sees why safety is such a concern. If one of our airplanes ends up hanging in the trees, it could spell the end of the entire airline.

When the class ended each day, several would ride over to the suppliers to order their new uniforms. I drove several over there and nosed around but resisted the urge. I didn’t want to jinx the whole thing because I had spent $500 on uniforms.

The more we progressed, the more we realized nobody would fail this course, but it didn’t keep us from studying our tails off. Many of us had never had a flying job before, and the thought of flunking out of such a great opportunity made us sick.

On the first weekend, I brought several of the guys out to the airstrip where I lived. We cooked hamburgers on the grill and flew some airplanes. One of my classmates looked me level in the eye at the end of the day and said to me, “I can’t believe you’re leaving this to do the regional flying.”

It’s hard to explain. There’s little glamour left in the job, but it still beats working for a living. Some of the guys in my class were clearly affected by SJS, Shiny Jet Syndrome. It’s not the jets I’m after. It darn sure ain’t the money.

I came here because of the people. I love to be around airplane people, and while there are plenty of airline pilots who take the uniform off at the end of the day and don’t think of flying until the next time they duty in, there’s worse places to go looking for other pilots than airports.

A week later, it was test day. I missed one question, which was about average for our class. The company told me to come back in a month, ready to study systems.

Boy, did I have a shock coming to me. After flying out of cow pastures in rather simple airplanes, I was about to learn the function of every single switch on a rather complex flight deck.

This is the second 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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