Military to Airline Pilot 101… What to Expect in Your First Year

PART 1: AIRLINE TRAINING

When I think back to my first duty assignment in the military, as an Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) student at Reese AFB, in Lubbock, TX, I remember being overwhelmed. Everything was brand new. Not only did I have to learn to fly a multi-engine, high-performance military jet, I also had to learn a ton of information about the military lifestyle in general. There were acronyms for everything and I had to figure it all out in a very short amount of time. 

Your first year as an airline pilot will be very similar to your UPT experience. It’s a fire hose for sure! You’ll be learning to fly all over again, training on a large, multi-engine, jet aircraft that may be very different from anything else you’ve ever flown. All the while, you’ll be trying to decipher a maze of new acronyms. Additionally, there are a whole new set of procedures, and rules to learn. There will be an entirely foreign system of compensation and benefits to navigate. You’ll have to choose an aircraft type and domicile that will have a huge impact on your seniority (another unfamiliar concept) and quality of life (something you often sacrificed in the military but hopefully, you’re about to learn how great it can be). 

Just when you finally start to feel comfortable with the airline-training world, they will kick you out of the nest and onto “the line.” The line is a fast-paced, hectic world that introduces a whole new set of virgin experiences like commuting, bidding, reserves, probation, contracts, non-revenue (non-rev for short) flying, crashpads, and adjusting to life on the road (good news, no sleeping in tents or wearing gas masks this time!).

This will be the first in a series of articles designed to help you survive your first year at the airlines. The term “survive” may seem a bit drastic to describe a possible outcome of your first year at the airlines, however, I’ll tell you why I think it’s not over stated. Remember in your military flight-training program how you were under constant threat of being washed out of the program (or as my instructor pilot put it, “Himelhoch, don’t ever forget, you’re always three rides away from being a street sweeper”)? Well, your first year at an airline is much the same. 

It’s called your probation year. Essentially, your being scrutinized your entire first year with the airline. To make it even more fun, you have about zero job security during your probation period at an airline. You can be fired without cause while on probation. You’re not union protected until you’re off probation. Think of it as a yearlong evaluation of your performance, inside and outside the cockpit. This article will focus on just a small fraction of the challenges you will face in your first year at the airlines and the first “threat” you will face as an airline pilot…the initial aircraft qualification training. In future articles we will cover a myriad of topics that are foreign to the military pilot including bidding, commuting, non-rev travel and more.

Know Before You Go

As your training class date approaches, it’s time to get serious. The first phase of training is called indoctrination and it’s not aircraft specific. Indoctrination is basically just in-processing to the company. The airline may send you some pre-study materials before you show up for indoctrination that cover some basic company policies and possibly some general flight rules and flight operations policies. You should study this information (if provided) ahead of time because some airlines do give you a test during indoctrination, but it’s usually pretty low-threat.

During indoctrination, your airline will issue you an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB). Your EFB is an iPadÔ, or other brand of tablet, with all your manuals and applications needed for training and line operations. Your airline will show you how to set up and use your EFB, although some airlines are better at this than others. During indoctrination you will also find out what kind of aircraft you will be assigned to and your initial domicile assignment. After indoctrination you may get a short break (about one to four weeks) before the aircraft qualification phase begins. It may sound like a nice paid vacation, but it’s not quite that. They will also assign you a ton of aircraft systems study to learn while you’re on your break and you will be tested on the material early in the aircraft qualification phase. 

The aircraft systems test is called the Electronic Systems Validation (ESV), and you have to pass it in order to continue on with the training. This is your first “high threat” event in training. You definitely don’t want to highlight yourself by failing the ESV. The ESV replaced what used to be called the “oral” quiz of the cockpit lights and switches and basic systems knowledge. The test mimics the oral quiz in that it responds to questions you get wrong by continuing to ask more questions on any subject matter you show a deficiency in understanding. Basically, you need to show up to aircraft qualification phase ready to pass the ESV. You may get one day of systems review class prior to taking the test, but you need to know your stuff ahead of time. Your EFB and study material will include practice tests. If you can pass the practice tests, you should be able to pass the ESV no problem.

Full disclosure, the ESV is new since I went through initial training, so I’ve never taken it. However, knowing that it replaced the oral, it should focus on roughly the same material. Therefore, it should consist of questions focused on lights and switches on the overhead panel, the mode control panel (collocated with the glare shield), and a handful of questions regarding other lights and switches in the cockpit with emphasis on emergency lights and switches such as fire extinguishing systems, alternate gear extension, auto-brakes, and alternate braking. In other words, the ESV should focus on things you can control from the cockpit. 

You also need to memorize the immediate action items and checked limitations. Immediate action items are emergency procedures that must be recalled from memory, just like the boldface or critical action procedures (CAPS) in the military. Checked limitations are systems related aircraft limits that must be memorized, similar to the “Ops Limits” we knew in military aviation terminology.

Knowing your systems knowledge, checked limitations, and immediate action items before you show up for training will free your mind during training to focus on more difficult concepts and absorb the material being delivered in a more comprehensive, effective manner. It will also allow you to get ahead on studying cockpit flows and callouts for the simulator phase. Staying ahead of the power curve should greatly reduce your stress level during training.

 

Civilian Pilots Are Your New Best Friends

Airline training is difficult and you do have a lot to learn in a short amount of time, but it’s not rocket surgery. The training you endured and mastered to get your wings in the military along with all the follow-on training to become fully qualified in your weapon system, were far more difficult than the airline training you’re about to attend. That being said, you still need to treat it with due respect.

Aircraft qualification is a formal FAA training program that will result in an FAA “pink slip” in your training records if you fail any jeopardy events associated. Worse yet, you could lose this awesome new career you worked so hard to obtain, a career worth literally millions of dollars in earning potential. Hopefully that’s enough incentive for you not to screw this up!

Aircraft qualification phase will start with a few days of ground school academics followed by the ESV. After your ESV, you’ll begin simulator training, ultimately leading to your aircraft type rating Progress Check (PC) and Line Oriented Evaluation (LOE) check rides; both are jeopardy events. 

One of things that was readily apparent to me during airline training was that they had no time to get us military flyers caught up on everything our civilian regional, corporate, and cargo background pilot brethren already knew about the airline pilot world. Classes were essentially taught as though we all came from a Part 121 background. The instructor would tell us to know how to use the QRH before our first simulator. All the civilian background pilots would nod confidently while all us military pilots just looked at each other quizzically as if to say, “WTF is a QRH?” 

There wasn’t much time to help us military pilots get caught up on Part 121 operations and jargon. Airlines don’t make money when the aircraft are sitting on the ground, therefore, it’s in the company’s best interest to cram all the necessary training (and nothing more) into the shortest amount of time to make you a safe, competent-airline pilot so you can get on the line and start flying jets as soon as possible. They correctly assume you’ll figure the rest out on your own.

Most airlines will assign simulator partners with no input from you, however, if given a choice you would be wise to choose a sim partner who has a regional airline flying background. The regional pilots had a huge advantage during training because so much of what is covered was already second nature to them. As a military pilot, frankly, you don’t know much about Part 121 airline flying. Partnering with a regional pilot will help you fill in the blanks about what is expected and how to adapt to airline procedures. The civilian pilots in your training class are a tremendous asset; don’t be afraid to ask them for their help.

 

Simulator Phase

Once you pass your ESV, you can get into the fun stuff. The simulator phase can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a lot of work. The keys to success are to start out ahead of the power curve and study with your sim partner. The best way to get ahead of the power curve is to show up prepared. Knowing your flows (a logical sequence of making your way around the cockpit switches and avionics setup for various phases of flight) and callouts (challenge and response items used to ensure standardization and effective CRM) on the first day of simulator phase will put you ahead of the power curve and allow you to focus on the tidal wave of information and techniques that are about to be thrown at you. 

The flows and callouts are detailed in the Aircraft Operating Manual (AOM), and your airline may also provide training videos and other resources to help reinforce the proper flows and callouts. If not, ask around from pilots in classes that started ahead of you and you’ll likely find some great gouge out there on the street.

When you consider that it costs roughly $1000/hr. (or more depending on the aircraft type) to operate a full motion airline simulator, and you only get so many hours in the simulator before your PC to complete your type rating, you can start to gain an appreciation for why your IP may quickly lose patience with you if you show up unprepared for your simulator sessions. Knowing your flows and callouts will allow you to quickly accomplish your ground operations and get the simulator into the simulated air, where it belongs, to maximize the efficiency of your training. 

Practicing the flows and callouts with your sim partner is the most effective way to study during the simulator phase. Don’t try to go it alone. You need to shift your mindset to the Part 121 crew concept. Studying together and practicing flows, callouts, and avionics setup for various types of approaches will help you to learn from each other and catch each other’s mistakes. 

If you can practice in a cockpit trainer in your company training facility, that will provide the most bang for your study buck. However, time in a cockpit trainer is hard to come by because you usually have multiple classes competing for time in a limited number of trainers. In the absence of cockpit trainer availability, a cockpit poster on the wall will suffice. Time each other on ground ops flows until you can both meet the standard your IPs expect. Just like military pilot training, mental mission rehearsal, aka chair-flying, will pay huge dividends in the simulator phase of training. Chair-fly (with your sim partner) each phase of flight and each maneuver listed on the syllabus prior to each simulator ride. 

 

Take Charge of Your Own Training

“Take charge of your own training,” it’s a phrase we used to preach to our students in air force pilot training, and it still applies as an airline pilot in training. During simulator phase you may notice that the profiles are very busy. That’s because the airline will inevitably try to stuff ten pounds of feces into a five-pound sack…by that I mean they have a ridiculously high number of training events you are required to perform in a small number of simulator sessions. There will be a lot of pressure to call each lesson complete so you and your sim partner can move on to the next simulator lesson. If you start to feel like you’re getting behind or there is a particular maneuver you’re struggling with, speak up early and ask for help. 

We had a pilot in my training class who had a single-engine fighter background. He struggled with the single-engine V1 cut (engine failure at decision speed), and the subsequent single-engine takeoff, pattern, and ILS approach during B-737 qualification training. The large amount of asymmetric thrust and control inputs required in an airline transport category aircraft were unlike anything he had trained for previously in his aviation career. 

He confided in me that he knew he was not gaining the required proficiency standard after struggling with the single-engine maneuvers during several simulator sessions in a row, yet his IP kept progressing him to the next lesson with fewer and fewer simulator lessons remaining before the type rating PC. He told me his IP gave very thorough debriefings and answered all his questions, yet he didn’t offer many techniques for correcting his asymmetric thrust controllability issues. Ultimately, his sim partner (who had previous B-737 experience) worked with him after class to help him determine that lack of proper-rudder trim and thrust setting techniques were the root source of his issues. With this help, he was able to pull it all together just in time to pass the PC.

The lesson learned here for you is that he should have been more assertive and taken charge of his own training. He knew he wasn’t meeting the standard and should have requested an additional simulator session dedicated solely to practicing single-engine maneuvers. It’s hard to admit you’re struggling in a fast-paced, high-demand training syllabus where much is expected of you. It’s also easy to get complacent and convince yourself that you’re doing “good enough” and they wouldn’t pass you on to the next lesson if you weren’t ready. Let me be clear here, if you start having these thoughts…YOU ARE NOT READY. 

Don’t be afraid to speak up, and take charge of your own training. The airline wants you to get the best training possible but they are also under a lot of pressure to produce the number of pilots they need to “graduate” each month. Talk to your IP first, and if you still don’t feel like you’re getting what you need, talk to the training manager. Maybe you need a new IP who can offer some different techniques?

 

The PC and LOE

The capstone of simulator phase is the PC and the LOE. The PC is the FAA’s blessing that you are qualified to fly every maneuver required to be officially type rated in that aircraft. The LOE is your airline’s blessing that you are ready to be a line pilot first officer at XYZ Airlines. Both the PC and the LOE are jeopardy events that will result in an FAA pink slip if you fail them.

The PC is not designed to replicate a typical flight, but rather a bunch of maneuvers performed in a pseudo-random fashion designed to squeeze all the FAA requirements into a two-hour block with a little bit of slop time left over to repeat any maneuver(s) that didn’t go well on the first attempt. There is a lot of putting the simulator on freeze between events and repositioning for the next maneuver. In the air force we called this type of training, partial-task training, in that it is not designed to reflect a real operational flight but instead focuses on practicing or (in this case) demonstrating proficiency in certain skill sets. The check airman will quickly help you get the cockpit set up, as it would be for that phase of flight in the real world. He or she will give you and your partner a minute or two to brief the approach and then ask if you’re ready to come off freeze. 

Everything happens very quickly and it can be very disorienting with all the freeze, reposition, “ready? Go!” The key to a successful PC (beyond knowing your procedures to perfection) is to slow down and don’t let them rush you. If you’re not 100% oriented and ready to fly the maneuver, tell the check airman you need another minute to cage your brain. It’s your butts on the line here, not theirs. The other key to success is communication and teamwork with your simulator partner. You are being evaluated not just in the Pilot Flying (PF) role, but also in the Pilot Monitoring (PM) role. For example, don’t be afraid to direct a go-around if that’s what the situation calls for. You are expected to do so as a good PM. If you see flight parameters out of limits, make the callout. Don’t try to hide it because you think the check airman may not have noticed…trust me, they see everything!

After you pass your PC, you are officially type rated in the aircraft and you get to add that type rating to the backside of your ATP certificate. However, don’t celebrate too much just yet, you still have to pass the LOE. The LOE is designed to replicate a typical line flight. Unlike the PC, there is no freezing the simulator during the LOE. Everything is treated as real starting from the moment you arrive at the simulator until you arrive at the gate at your destination and finish the Parking Checklist. If something occurs during the LOE, you have to react as you would on the line using your crewmembers and other internal and external resources.

They will probably throw you a simple emergency or two during the LOE to see how you handle running the checklists, but more than likely you won’t have to deal with any major, complex emergency scenarios. The LOE is more oriented toward seeing how you handle (as a crew) task loading, additive conditions (weather, degraded systems, etc.), and distractions while continuing to accomplish all normal procedures. 

There are a few keys to success on the LOE. First, don’t let the scenario rush you into making mistakes. The check airmen, acting as various other ground and flight crew members including flight attendants, operations agent, ground crew, and maintenance personnel, will try to create a sense of urgency to get the jet off the gate on time. Don’t fall for it! Handle each distraction as it happens but don’t push back until you are ready and all flows, briefings, checklists, and paperwork are complete. If that means you push back late, so be it! 

The second key to success is learning to balance cockpit task management by either reducing the number of tasks that need to be accomplished and/or creating more time. So how do you do that? Use your resources just like you did as a military pilot! If you are the PF, focus on flying the aircraft as your number one priority. Hand off tasks to others as appropriate for the scenario, “Hey Jim, contact dispatch and have them get us weather for a divert to Birmingham along with fuel required.” The captain will ultimately be responsible for ensuring the plan that dispatch provides makes sense, but at least you’ve bought some time to think by offloading the number of tasks required of the pilots for the moment.

What about creating more time, how can you do that? There are several ways to create time including flying a slower airspeed, asking for holding, requesting extended vectors, and if you’re just not ready to land or the approach is screwed up…go around!

As long as you work well as a crew to safely get the aircraft back on the ground and don’t violate any flight rules or company procedures, you can get away with a lot going wrong on the LOE and still pass. I think our check airman used the LOE as a wake-up call to us that line flying can be very demanding and we better be ready for anything that gets thrown at us. There is no freeze button in the real world. The company is counting on you, as one of their pilots, to do the right thing and speak up when you see something wrong.

 

Summary

Airline training is intense, but it’s only six to eight weeks long. I could stand on my head in a pile of horse-poop for that long if I had to. I may not like it, but I could probably do it. As a military trained aviator, you’ve been through a yearlong training program that was every bit as intense, if not more so, than airline training. You should be able to handle this without much problem. 

Hopefully this article has given you a deeper insight into what you will face in a Part 121 airline-training program. It is intensive training, but certainly not insurmountable. Once you get into a groove, it can even be quite enjoyable, but the way to reach that Zen-training state of mind is to show up prepared and get ahead of the game. In follow-on articles we’ll discuss some of the challenges that await you after training once you get out on the line. Until then, happy landings and blue skies my friends.

Marc Himelhoch