Saturday, 22 December 2012

Happy Christmas Everyone

A blocking high pressure system from Scandinavia last week gave several days of calm
sub-zero temperatures causing a build-up of very pretty hoar frost in our 'back garden'
Happy Christmas everyone! Sorry it has been a while since I wrote anything here. Life has fallen in to a demanding routine of continuous study and revision as we crawl inexorably towards the end of our phase one text books and our first batch of 'real' exams. I find it difficult to sleep properly during the week and — as it says in our Human Performance lessons — the fatigue is cumulative. The holiday break is extremely welcome.

Also extremely welcome are the new batch of cadets that have just arrived at the school, including another group of British Airways Future Pilots. It's hard to believe that we have been studying for only two months, seeing the keen fresh faces makes it feel more like two years. The first group of British Airways cadets is now in Arizona having started their fair-weather flying training and the second group will be following very soon. In May, it will be us — and so the wheels keep turning.

Burning oil

A few weeks ago I attended a careers fair at BA's Waterside headquarters, helping to man the school's exhibition stand. Despite the current doldrums in airline recruitment, it was really inspiring to see several hundred motivated and well-informed young people all hoping to find careers in aviation. I talked to lots of hopeful applicants to the second round of the Future Pilot Program and guys, if you are reading this, best of luck and I really hope I see you again.

In what I thought was a fairly brave move, a presentation and debate on climate change was included. Aviation is often seen as the enemy of planet in terms of global warming, and it's not hard to see why. Passenger aircraft consume massive quantities of tax-free fossil fuels daily and deposit the waste products including 700 million tonnes of CO2 per year, unprocessed, directly into the upper atmosphere. This much I knew.

What I didn't realise was the extent of the industry's commitment to cleaning up their act, whose targets go much further than any other industry or indeed government to reducing unsustainable consumption. Through a combination of more larger, more efficient aeroplanes, sustainable fuel technologies and carbon trading, the aim is to halt growth in emissions by 2020 and half it by 2050, despite expected growth in traffic.

Only time will tell if this is feasible, but there is real commitment. Witness British Airway's recent investment in a new biofuel plant. This plant will use space-age technology to process about 500,000 tonnes per year of organic waste into bio-kerosene  for use in their aircraft at Heathrow, and as a by-product 20MW of electricity. Granted, this is only a few percent of their needs but it is a step in the right direction.

That's all for now, I am off on a much-needed holiday with my wonderful wife. When my brain is rested I will put together a properly written piece on.... automation. Can planes fly themselves? Are computers better than people? Do we really need pilots at all? Tune in next time to find out.

PS Thanks to all my loyal readers, this blog has now been read over 2000 times. Makes it all worthwhile!

Monday, 10 December 2012

Ice and snow

Double whammy!

Our excellent results in the school exams is all very well, but the real victory came last Thursday when we finally won the local pub quiz. In fact there were so many of us from the class that we had to split into three teams, and dominated the event with a first, second and third place.

Unfortunately, for us, the only way is down.

Back to work...

Our studies have shifted up another gear, with new material coming at us thick and fast. There is a great deal still to cover before the end of phase one in five teaching weeks, and we will need to continue accelerate to fit it all in. At the same time, the studying has settled into a habitual pattern and the only worry really is whether the information is actually sticking in our heads.

I have noticed that as we progress, the subjects are starting to come together and re-enforce each other. For example, last week we looked at the details of flying controls in both principles of flight and in aircraft systems, and the different perspectives really help to understand the subjects.

The pilot of this aircraft looks to have been fortunate -
it's still in one piece.
Another area that has recently come up in no less than four classes – aircraft systems, meteorology, engines and principles of flight – is icing.

This rather innocuous-sounding problem of super-cooled water droplets freezing onto your plane is described academically as 'increasing drag, reducing lift and increasing weight,' but that rather conceals the true magnitude of the problem. Remember Col Kurtz uttering "The horror. The horror."? That's more like it.

You could equally well describe icing as like having half the wing sawn off, an anvil hung off the bottom and a parachute streaming out the back, all at once. Added to that your instruments may well stop working and in extremis engines can be damaged and may fail and flight controls can freeze solid.

I'm not necessarily talking about lots of ice here, just the sort of stuff you scrape off the windscreen of your car in the morning could be enough to turn a routine take-off into an accident.

With significant airframe icing you might not exactly plummet earth, but maintaining height could become impossible. The aircraft will stall at a higher – but unknown – speed so landing with ice on the wing becomes a fast and risky manoeuvre.

So as you would expect, aircraft designers go to enormous lengths to provide systems to prevent and remove ice. Airlines spend a fortune on de-icing and anti-icing planes on the ground and the weather people do their best to help pilots avoid icing conditions.

All of which adds up to another couple of hundred facts for us to store away in our crowded brains. Facts totally useless for the pub quiz; facts very handy for a few extra marks in the exams; and facts that might, just possibly, prevent an accident one day. A sobering thought as we scrape away at our frozen car windscreens at 7.30am each morning.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Exams over!

Pilots get tested relentlessly throughout their career for obvious safety reasons. We trainees are examined significantly more often, and today we completed the first round of school exams — a total of six and a half hours of pencil-chewing split over two days.

We are barely half way through the first phase of study and so cannot be subjected to the 'real' exams yet. These tests are really just to check on the overall progress of the cadets' studies and apparently to keep an eye on the instructors too. Even so, they are drawn from the same question banks as the finals and made as realistic as possible.

The exams are multiple-guess format and are marked by a computer, so we get the provisional results straight away. The class as a whole seems to have done well, with an above average score, but the cadets on the British Airways programme have really proved themselves with some outstanding results.

Personally I was delighted to beat my target and scored an overall 98% average (I am not the only one) with a outrageous 100% in principles of flight, which is our most 'geeky' and academic subject. I knew that theoretical physics degree would come in useful eventually.

Now, if we can round off the week with a victory at the local pub quiz it will be job done!

Monday, 19 November 2012

High pressure slowly building

We are now one month into ground school, veritable old hacks, and staring the first set of tests in the face. Different groups above us are sitting their school final exams, both for the first and second phase of teaching, and their is a noticeable sense of tension in the corridors and lounges of the academy.

Back at the student digs, you can find clutches of cadets furiously revising in the common room at any time of day or night, quizzing each other on some of the more obscure and esoteric information we are expected to remember. "Before 1 April 2008, did all aircraft with a gross weight more than 5700kg require a 2 hour cockpit voice recorder, or was it 30 minutes... it depends if it is a turbine aircraft..." You get the picture.

Remarkably, all written exams in aviation are multiple choice. On the face of it, this would seem to make it laughably easy to pass them, but of course the European Aviation Safety Agency know this and employ techniques to make it more difficult.

Their favourite is wording the question as badly as possible, and an close second is deliberately trying to set verbal traps for the unwary. Understanding the question is generally more difficult than working out the answer, to the extent that some questions seem to make no sense at all. Perhaps this is to level the playing field for non-native English speakers, or perhaps they just don't want smart-arses getting 100%. Who knows?

The school's own question bank aims to be as realistic as possible and hence subscribes to the same philosophy. So even though I am confident of the material I am still a little apprehensive about next week's tests.

The subjects we are being tested on are:
  • Principles of Flight is mostly physics, which I studied at university back in nineteen-ninety-something. There is not much memory work and I'm not expecting any problems here.
  • Airframe Systems an interesting but huge subject and very fact-heavy. Much of it is functional information which is easy recall, but there is quite a lot of detail and numerical data to digest as well. I think that piston engines and DC electrics will be lumped in as well as it is a long exam.
  • Meteorology I have studied this several times before; at A-level, for the gliding bronze badge, for my private pilot exams and just out of interest. Our syllabus extends this only slightly.
  • Instruments again for me this is mostly existing knowledge, but there are plenty of calculations which can be quite error-prone.
  • Human Performance Here may be dragons. A lot of the subject is a combination of simple physiology and common sense, but there are plenty of rather arbitrary numbers and lists they can quiz you on. If you forget them, you can't figure them out. It could go either way.
I can be a bit of a perfectionist but aiming for 100% given this verbal ambiguity would seem over-ambitions. I might regret writing this, but I would like to see an average of at least 95% across the subjects.

New digs and other good tidings

Some of my colleagues and I have been moved to some rather superb accommodation a few miles from the school. The pictures (taken by my gorgeous wife) give you the idea — it is certainly a grand place. Admittedly, we are in a modern block around the back of the main house, but it's in good nick and we get to use the hotel facilities including the pool and gym, so there is no excuse for not staying in shape.

We have also received welcome news about the 'fair-weather' flight training section of our course which is held in Phoenix, Arizona. The school is moving to a different (less busy) airport on the other side of town, called Falcon Field.

The place is steeped in aviation history, and is home to the Arizona wing of the Commemorative Air Force who preserve and fly historic aircraft. It was originally named Thunderbird Field III. This is clearly a far better name, but the RAF decided it wasn't English enough and changed it when they started training pilots there in the second world war.

Again there is some fantastic accommodation lined up for us. I have heard that new training aircraft are expected before we start — probably the — and that there will be investment in new safety equipment and procedures. So Mum, Dad, you have even less to worry about.

It seems like we were at the right place at the right time with our training. I certainly hope this streak of good luck lasts... preferably to the end of our tests on Wednesday!

Back to work...

Monday, 12 November 2012

Why are these things so complicated?

I was pondering today, as we wade through books and books of fine detail about the systems on a modern jet aircraft and how they interact, how simple ideas rapidly end up so damn complicated.

An aircraft is fundamentally different from any kind of ground transport in that it really has to work, and keep working in absolutely all foreseeable situations. It cannot ever be allowed to stop in mid-air, or for any important pieces to break or fall off. The consequences of a failure in flight are so grave that the thing just has to be reliable, as reliable as we can possibly make it. It is, in fact, reliable by law. The chances of a catastrophic failure in a transport aircraft have to be less than 1 in 1000000000 per hour. How they test that one is anyone's guess.

The sensible approach to making something reliable is to make it as simple as possible, something I'm sure aircraft engineers would agree with. Yet modern aircraft are amazingly complex, positively dripping with computers, electronics, hydraulics, pneumatics, sensors and other devious mechanisms, mostly in duplicate or even triplicate in case of failures. How did this happen?

Back to basics

Yes, I realise this is not a glider. Please ignore
the item labelled 'propeller'.
An aircraft in its most basic form is a glider — is an amazingly simple machine that really needs only three moving parts, which relate to the three dimensions of space we live in. Easy.

It needs an elevator, which is usually a large hinged flap mounted horizontally somewhere on the tail. This enables you to move the nose of the aircraft up or down, known as pitch. Or if you are relating it to the horizon, attitude. Attitude in turn controls your speed through the air. It does not, despite the name control whether you go up or down.

The elevator has just demonstrated three of my golden rules of flying:
  • Rule one: The plane is almost never going the way it is pointing
    More of which later
  • Rule two: Common sense, when it comes to flying, is wrong
    Flying slowly not too far from the ground is safer than bombing along at 5000 feet, surely. The exact opposite. The stick makes it go up and down and the throttle makes it go faster and slower, right? Err... no. If the ground is rushing up to meet you, common sense would tempt you to avoid it by yanking back on the controls. And it would be very, very wrong. You get the idea.
  • Rule three: Everything in aviation has at least two names
You would probably like to be able to change the direction of the aircraft, right? Given the lack of any solid object to yank on can only be done by tipping it over and letting some of the lift from the wings pull you around the corner. This is known as banking or rolling and is generally accomplished by ailerons  — a pair of largish hinged flaps, one attached to the back edge of each wing, usually towards the ends.

When you move the stick, one aileron will move down, increasing lift on that wing while the other moves up, reducing lift on the other. The plane will quite rapidly bank, and if you don't release the pressure on the stick it will keep right on banking until it is upside down, it doesn't know or care but you probably do.

If you are paying attention you have probably realised that I have already described three moving parts and I don't have any left for the third dimension. Well, fair enough, you got me.

But I can wriggle out of this one, as strictly speaking you don't absolutely need a rudder, whose job is to swing the nose left or right, known as yaw. A rudder, surprise surprise, is a large hinged flap only this time it is vertical and usually attached to the upright part of the tail (the fin).

You can actually fly an aircraft without a functioning rudder, albeit in a slightly 'drunken' manner that lacks style. I know of a glider that was successfully launched, flown and landed with the rudder cables reversed and survived to tell the tale. In fact (after it was sorted out) I bought it. But that is another story.

On a boat, the purpose of a rudder is to steer. In you try this in an aeroplane, both rule one and rule two will gang up on you; firstly you will not change direction at all, and secondly you will be flying along sideways which is not usually what you want.

So what is the point of the rudder? It does two useful jobs — firstly it allows you to steer the aeroplane on the ground. Secondly in the air it makes turns neater and more efficient by combating something called adverse yaw, which is where the ailerons tend to swing the nose the wrong way when you bank the wings. Using exactly the right amount of rudder will result in a balanced or coordinated turn (see rule three) — one that passengers will not even notice unless they look out of the window.

Using too little rudder is scruffy flying, but too much rudder is far worse as it can get you into a spin. This is very nasty and explains why training aircraft tend to have small rudders. Granted it will also help you get out of a spin, assuming you've not hit the ground already, but that argument is a bit like saying a fast car is safer because you can accelerate out of trouble.

Still with me?

I have tried to describe what the three basic flying controls are for as simply as I can and I am already running up against multiple ifs and buts. I have not even mentioned how or why the control surfaces work. I have quietly ignored the fact that the practical glider will also need air brakes, at least one wheel preferably with its own brake, possibly flaps, definitely instruments, a launch system and more. Each of these items could be the subject of a complete post.

A simplified schematic of just the hydraulic
system of a Boeing 737.
This, however, is nothing compared to the systems needed on a modern jet. Wherever you start, you immediately run into complexity.

For example a jet transport aircraft will obviously need engines. Even if we consider the engines to be a 'black box', we can see they will need fuel, which will require carefully designed tanks, with pumps and heaters to get the fuel to the right place at the right temperature and pressure.

The fuel going into engines will be carefully controlled and monitored to give the correct amount of power and run at the correct speed and temperatures by complex computers called FADECs, that will of course be duplicated. The FADECs require a plethora of sensors to do their job properly, and so must communicate both ways with the flight deck computers (in fact they often communicate their parameters to the manufacturer in real time as well). The details of the fuel and engine control systems can, and do, take up whole books.

But the engines don't just provide thrust, they also generate electricity to power the many electrical systems, hot 'bleed' air for the air conditioning and anti-ice systems and hydraulic pressure for the flying controls, undercarriage, steering and brakes. Each of these sub systems will be duplicated at least once on each engine, so there can be at least four, possibly eight. They will be crammed with safety devices such as filters, pressure release valves, temperature sensors, fuses and so on. The systems and their associated safety devices will all require careful monitoring, meaning a plethora of sensors and associated wiring, which takes a computer (duplicated of course) to make sense of it and give meaningful information to the pilot.

The modern airliner is a genuine feat of engineering, it stretches the limits of technology in so many disciplines — aerodynamics, structures, electronics, communications, metallurgy, materials. It is the most complicated machine mankind has ever produced.

The fact that a transport aeroplane that can do the things we want it to do — fly large distances quickly, economically and in reasonable comfort — just cannot be achieved in a simple way. It's pretty amazing that we can do it at all; to do it with outstanding reliability and safety really is incredible.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Could the tide be turning?

I was delighted to hear today that British Airways will be re-opening their Future Pilot Programme on 19 November for a second phase of applications. It's great news for us as it demonstrates the company's commitment to the scheme and confidence in their need for us as pilots; and of course it's great news for all the aspiring airline pilots out there who now have a chance for a place probably the best airline-backed training programs around.

To those applying, I am not going to give away any specifics, but I would say firstly read the entire programme website fully and carefully several times, there is no point in applying if you don't meet the requirements, nor should you jump in feet first until you have understood the huge financial and practical commitments required.

Why not visit at least one of the training schools, they will all be happy to show you around. Talk to any working pilots you can find. And take your time with the on-line application. You can bet there will be thousands received so yours needs to be outstanding and highly polished. My recent post on competency-based questions and preparing for the assessment may be of some help.

Which brings me on to...

The last two years have been a terrible time for newly-qualified or redundant pilots. Recruitment rates are low. Pay and terms offered to new graduates particularly by the low cost operators vary from bad to awful as cost-cutting has propelled a 'race to the bottom.'

In America, only a handful of new pilots were recruited last year and thousand of experienced flight crew remain 'furloughed' — forced by their employers to take unpaid leave. Here in the UK there is no shortage of experienced pilots in the 'hold pool' looking for work.

Yet last summer, in the midst of this rather grim picture, British Airways surprised many by launching a major recruitment drive in the form of their Future Pilot Programme (clearly I'm glad they did!)

But why, when qualified pilots are virtually hanging around on street corners desperate for work? They are not only replacing retiring flight crew, it is more than that. Someone in the higher echelons of management believes in a need for more pilots over the next five years due to significant expansion.

It's starting to look like they are not only correct, but well ahead of the game.

Expecting to shift planes... A lot of planes...

Boeing have just published their annual forecast of future demand, which they call the Current Market Outlook. Now, they have been in this game longer than anyone else and they know what they are about. Historically their predictions have generally proved pretty accurate, barring unforeseeable events like the attack on the World Trade Centre.

Over the next 20 years, Boeing expect airlines will buy some 34,000 new planes, doubling the current world fleet. They will cost something in the region of $4.5 trillion. Yes, trillion. What is more the other major manufacturer, Airbus, broadly agree with them. Their forecasts are based on an average growth in passenger numbers of 4% which is far from outlandish (last year the industry actually managed closer to 5%.)

And who is going to fly these shiny new aircraft? If correct, these figures imply that 460,000 more pilots will be needed by 2031. Admittedly, much of this expansion will be in China and the Pacific regions, but they still expect to require another 110,000 in Europe — or 5500 per year.

That is a lot of pilots. In fact, it is probably more than the existing flight schools can supply, particularly as quite a few have gone to the wall in recent months.

As bad as things might be in the employment game right now, for cadets just starting their training the future could be a lot brighter.

Normal service will be resumed...

Sorry I realise that was not the most rivetting post I have written, I will try harder next time.

Meanwhile, here is a rather nice time-lapse video of some of British Airway's Boeing 777ER aircraft being assembled. Engineering geeks in particular — Enjoy!

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Some thoughts about hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy heading to the coast of the
USA on 28 October (NASA / NOAA)
We are studying meteorology quite intensely in our lessons at present, so I thought I would take a look at a rather impressive meteorological phenomenon that's happening right now — hurricane Sandy.

There is nothing unusual about tropical hurricanes forming over the Gulf of Mexico at this time of year, nor sadly is there anything unusual about the level of destruction and loss of life they cause. The worst damage is usually done to the islands of the Caribbean, Bahamas and Cuba where it tends to be woefully under-reported. Of course hurricanes often reach the south coast of the USA, such as Katrina that caused catastrophic flooding in New Orleans in 2005 — in which case we certainly get to hear about it.

Sandy was causing devastation and misery in Haiti, which is already struggling with a Cholera epidemic as far back as 24 October and 52 people are reported killed, with another 11 in Cuba. This is currently far higher than the death toll in North America — and I hope it stays that way — but was barely mentioned in the media. Nimby-ism perhaps? Last time I checked, Haiti was closer than most of the USA.

But I digress. This post is supposed to focus on the meteorology, not press double-standards.

How hurricanes form

Hurricanes (or tropical cyclones) get their immense energy from the warm sea waters in tropical areas towards the end of summer, particularly in sheltered basins like the Gulf of Mexico and can only form in specific conditions.

The sea must be warm — at least 27C for the top 50m. The wind should be low to allow time for the storm to develop and avoid breaking up the structure. There must be plenty of moisture in the air, and the air must cool quickly with height (known as unstable air). Finally, there has to be a trigger to start the process, and a weak feature called an atmospheric wave is often the culprit.

Now, think about a layer of air sitting over the warm sea. It will soon become warm and moist itself, making it less dense and so — given an appropriate kick to start it off — it rises. As it climbs, it finds the air around it getting cooler and cooler, and so it becomes even more buoyant and rises faster. Soon, the air will reach dew point, where it cannot hold on to all of its water vapour. Cloud forms, and this releases a huge amount of latent energy, warming the air still further and causing it to rise even faster.

You can see where this is going... soon enough the air is positively rocketing upwards. This causes the pressure low down to plummet, and pull in more air from the surrounding area continuing the cycle.

Cross section through a hurricane

Meanwhile the whole thing starts to rotate. The is caused by the Coriolis Force. Now, the Coriolis Force is not in fact a force at all; nor it is very easy to explain. The outcome is simple though, it causes any wind in the northern hemisphere to turn right.

As long as there is warm moist air to feed it the storm will gather momentum, with wind speeds averaging at least 70mph — often much more. A central cloud-free 'eye' often forms. It has become a hurricane.

Enough theory, back to Sandy...

The power of an average tropical hurricane is so huge it is difficult to comprehend. Estimates come in around 1 petawatt — this is around 200 times more than the entire electricity generating capacity of the world or, to put it more violently, the energy released by fifty Hiroshima-type bombs per day.

But Sandy is far from average, it is huge. Just before it made landfall and magically changed from a hurricane to a 'post tropical cyclone' it measured around 1000 miles across — the largest on record.

It is also moving in an unusual way. Instead of slowly dissipating and meandering off across the Atlantic to eventually cause horrible weather here in the UK, it is continuing to track north-north-west across land and looks likely to pass into Canada and the Arctic. It seems it has been interacting with an existing low-pressure system that has caused it to develop into a huge 'hybrid' of a powerful frontal depression with a thermal cyclone at the core.

Despite the enormous size, the wind speeds are relatively low, classifying it as 'only' a class 1 hurricane, and indeed for a short time on 27 October it weakened into a mere tropical storm before building up strength again.

The damge has come not from the wind speed, but from flooding. The very low pressures in the system 'suck' on the surface of the sea, raising the sea level while at the same time the on-shore winds in the north half of the system push massive amounts of water towards the coast and drive large waves. The centre of the hurricane made landfall over New Jersey, meaning that New York has seen the biggest storm surge with sea levels 4m above normal.

To see the consequences, open any newspaper.

 A final thought...

As most people know, to aid identification hurricanes are named alphabetically from a list held by the World Meteorological Association. Generally names will be used again and again, but if a hurricane is particularly destructive the name will be removed from the list.

There are practical reasons for this — the name can be kept permanently as an identifier for historically significant storms. But it seems to me this is the right thing to do out of respect as well. Not out of respect for the hurricane particularly, but for the souls who have lost their property, houses, loved ones and even their lives. Wherever they are.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Head full of flying facts

British Airways Future Pilot Program group BA04 (CAE Oxford Aviation Academy division)
Those who don't know me will have to guess which one I am!
I'm back home with my lovely wife after my first week at flight school, catching up with much-needed sleep and waiting for my head to stop spinning — it is so full of flying facts I'm even starting to dream about them.

The school day goes something like this; up at 7am, smart uniform on, breakfast at 7.30, bus to school at 8 and time for coffee and chat before classes at 8.30.

There are typically four or five taught lessons per day and one or two computer based training sessions, all which last an hour. With breaks we are finished around 4.30pm. Head back to the digs, uniform off, and time for exercise, snooze or study until dinner at 6pm. There are a couple of hours in the evening for more study or a perhaps a quiet pint before hitting the sack and then up to do it all over again.

Getting in enough sleep is not easy (especially for those missing their 'other halves') and by Friday lunchtime the eyelids were certainly drooping.

There are 26 in our class, and we even sit in the same places; very school-like. But we are not kids and there is no need for the instructors to maintain perfect political correctness. There are plenty of laughs and lots of strong characters which makes the work more fun and more memorable. How does a flight data computer work? Pure Magic. Make sense? Yes, we are lovin it, lovin it a lot.

The content of the lessons is (so far) only moderately complex, but the volume is relentless. For me, it's great, I can hoover this stuff up all day. Admittedly I have a big advantage that I have seen a lot of it before and I am extending existing knowledge; without this keeping up with the material would be a huge challenge.

We are studying seven subjects in parallel which can sometimes be confusing, for example it is very difficult to understand how pressure instruments work before you understand the theory of flight. But soon the overlaps between the subjects becomes clear and they start to re-enforce each other giving a deeper understanding.

The expected standard is high; it has been made clear that we are to achieve at least 85% average in our final exams, with a first time pass in all subjects. Sounds daunting, but the groups ahead of us have been consistently scoring in the high 90s and I see no reason why we can't beat that!

Working and living together means getting to know each other quickly and becoming fast friends — sharing lifts, helping each other out with study questions and so on. Already it feels like we've been doing this for weeks. My classmates already trust me enough to let me lead them blind over pitch dark muddy fields with only the promise of a decent pub at the other end!

That's all for now, I have some important chilling out to do before it all starts again at 7am on Monday...

Monday, 22 October 2012

First day at school

While the plumbers and builders repair the flood damage at the halls of residence, most of our class has been put up in a pleasant hotel down the road, with meals included. The longer we can hang on here the better...

We are a class of 26 cadets of which eight are on the British Airways programme. Ages range from 18 to 38 but there are no women in the class, which I find a bit sad, I can only assume that very few applied for the course. Already a good rapport and sense of humour is building as we get to know each other.

Our first day at school was set aside for admin and initiation, and for meeting some of the key staff at the flight school. I can summarise them in three words; helpful, humorous and slightly eccentric. All right smary-pants, five words. The Chief Ground Instructor for example, claims anyone who genuinely enjoys ground school is a pervert.

The message we are receiving is consistent something like "work hard, enjoy the course, help each other out, did I mention working hard?"

We were issued with our uniforms and course materials — just take a look at this little haul:

The tools of the trade are from top to bottom: flight case, Jeppeson airway manual (student version), hi-vis tabard, huge kneeboard, 14 chunky textbooks, calculator, CRP-5 flight computer, dividers, fuel tester, protractor and scale rule. There is more to come for the flying lessons including headsets and charts.

Now 'all' we have to do is understand and remember the contents of those 14 textbooks and the exams should be a piece of cake.

The CRP-5 flight computer is a state-of-the art machine that requires no batteries, can withstand large shocks or vibrations and will even work underwater. It has a 1-byte non-volatile memory and can perform approximately 0.03 floating point operations per second. OK, it is basically a glorified slide rule.

One side is used to solve ratio problems. You can multiply and divide, convert between units, do speed/distance/time and rate calculations and so on. Extra markings allow aviation-specific maths such as converting indicated to true airspeed or finding density altitude. The other side together with the large rectangular slide is used to solve vector triangles. Typically when planning a flight you know the wind speed and direction, you know the airspeed of your plane and you know the bearing to your destination. The computer tells you the missing information — what heading to steer to allow for the wind, and how long it should take (ground speed). Oh dear, I think I may be one of those ground school peverts.

Oh go on...

Alright then, you've all been so patient, here is the promised cheesy uniform picture.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Oh dear...

Just one day before around thirty new cadets are due to arrive, there has been a major plumbing disaster at the halls of residence.

I am told half the building is now unserviceable. My sympathies go out to the staff at the flight school who have to sort out this nightmare. They have been great so far, calling us all individually to explain and booking us into a nearby hotel for (at least) a week until things are sorted out.

Training will now commence next week, which is only a small delay but a bit of an anticlimax after anticipating the 'big day' for the last six months.

All the many friends and family who have (slightly worryingly) requested pictures of me in uniform, you will have to wait just a little longer.

On a brighter note, our liaison pilots have been in touch. These are active British Airways pilots who have volunteered to mentor us through the training process and help us with any questions or problems that arise.

They sound like a very friendly bunch, and have been in the job long enough to have the experience and clout to help us, but not so long they can't remember the trials and tribulations of their own training.

They have made it clear that we can consult them in total confidence about any subject so they will be a really useful resource and — as that sounds rather impersonal — I hope they will be come good friends as well. 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Into the lion's den

The British Airways Future Pilot Programme will almost certainly open for applications again, although I have no idea when... watch their website! As I'm sitting surrounded by bags, boxes and suitcases at a bit of a loose end, I thought I would make a few observations about the selection process that I went through.

We were requested not to reveal the details of the selection process, so I won't. What I can offer are suggestions of ways to prepare for the selection that I found helpful.

Preparation 1: Learn to fly

It seems a significant minority of successful applicants to the scheme do not have any flying experience. Indeed, none is required as they train cadets from scratch.

But I find it very strange that anyone would put so much at stake without knowing if they actually enjoy flying an aircraft and if they have any talent for it. What if you suffer from chronic air sickness? What if you find the experience totally unnerving? Or boring? Or you don't have the ability to multi-task or decent hand-eye coordination?

Personally I think you'd be mad to jump through all the selection hoops without being certain that flying was what you wanted to spend your life doing. Fortunately, I already knew this through a lot of gliding (thanks again to my lovely wife for the trial voucher!) and a bit of time on light aircraft.

FSX has a remarkable level of detail
The most economic way to get started is with a flight simulator "game" on your home computer such as FSX or if you like gliding, Condor. You will need a reasonable PC, a decent size screen or a projector, a joystick and — importantly — a set of rudder pedals.

Then simply work through the in-game tutorials. I only have experience of FSX, but I have to say these are remarkably accurate and detailed, reflecting what happens in real flying lessons closely. Enjoy the program but take it seriously too — try to do everything correctly and accurately and no crashing just for fun, that's not something you want to practice.

Flight sims will rapidly teach you how the controls work, how to coordinate turns, the procedures and mechanics of flying and so on, and they will give you a great head start in flying for real. But it is not the same thing, and there is no substitute for getting your hands on a real aeroplane.

Any flight school would be delighted to take you up for a trial lesson in a light aircraft and I think at least one trip would count as essential research. It won't be cheap, around £150-£200 per hour, but can you really afford not to try?

Also consider learning to fly a glider. Gliders, contrary to popular belief, are 'real' aircraft that fly in exactly the same way and with the same controls and aerodynamics as any other sub-sonic aircraft. True, they lack the complication of engine management but they add much greater pressure on good judgement of circuits and landings, situational awareness and general handling skills. Do not write them off, they give valuable flying experience — and are also a lot cheaper.

Preparation 2: Talk to pilots

The single most useful preparation I did was to spend time talking to active pilots  — the more the better.

This will give you a real sense of what the day-to-day job is actually like without any of the hype or misconceptions that go with the image of a pilot. Find out how they deal with family pressures, how they cope with shift patters, what went wrong for them, what they love and hate about their jobs and so on. Really quiz them — everyone I spoke to was only too pleased to help.

I was even able to speak to pilots from British Airways. I found out about the latest staff and marketing campaigns, the current safety concerns and what is being done, how the fleet and crew are changing and all sorts of other relevant information. None of it secret, but equally not easy to get by reading websites.

The fact that you have done this should definitely be mentioned in the interview — it shows initiative, good judgement and that you are realistic about the job. They asked me why I wanted to be a pilot. I responded that I already knew I loved flying but more importantly all the airline pilots I had spent time talking to said they loved their jobs. This went down very well.

If you don't know any airline pilots, the place to start looking is your local gliding or flying club. What do airline pilots do in their spare time? Fly planes of course!

The interview... tell stories!

By "tell stories," I do not mean "lie."  Let me explain...

The trend these days is for competency-based interviews. This means you will be put on the spot, asked to give an example of something from you past, and how you dealt with it and learnt from it. It can be almost anything, but some typical examples might be:
  • When did you take a calculated risk and why?
  • When did you disagree with your superiors and how did you resolve it?
  • Have you experience racism and how did you deal with it?
  • When did you provide outstanding customer service?
  • Have you ever made a serious mistake at work? (Hint: do not say no!)
  • Give me an example of something you have done you are proud of (easy)
  • Give me an example of something you failed at (harder)
This type of questioning is the stuff of many people's nightmares — how can you prepare for this? Actually it's not that hard. I spent some time coming up with perhaps half a dozen interesting events in my life (not just professional life) and thinking of how they might be moulded to various questions. This worked surprisingly well, I effectively had answers ready to about half the questions.

Take your time to think before you answer, don't just babble away. Don't shy away from negative experiences or failures, provided you can show how you dealt with it positively and learned from the experience.

So where do the stories come in? The real trick here is not just to state your example baldly. What you need to do is involve your interviewers. Spin a yarn. Be enthusiastic. Draw them into your story. If possible, make them laugh.

There is good psychological basis for this approach. You are not just answering the question, you are establishing a relationship with your interviewers. By engrossing them in your story you are making them part of your life, you are in fact forging a friendship. You will stand out and be remembered, especially if you speak with honesty and emotion.

I can testify that it works. Thanks to my brother, a qualified psychologist no less, for giving me this tip.

Finally don't forget to bone up on the more traditional material. Find out about the company's fleet, finances, routes, people in charge and so on. Make sure you understand the training process in detail. Learn the basics of aerodynamics and how engines work (here is a good site). Find out about the state of the aviation industry. Read current aviation literature, including trade and business magazines.

If they ask a factual question and you don't know the answer, at least say how you would go about finding out.

Computer based assessments — stay calm!

There isn't a great deal you can do to prepare for these, but here are some observations that may help:

Some of the tests will overload you — they are designed to gradually increase your workload until you are saturated and beyond. You are not expected to complete them perfectly, the aim is to keep going and not get flustered. Pilots are not super-human, but they can remain calm and decisive in stressful situations. so if the test seems impossible, do not panic and do not give up.

Others will be very boring and go on forever, but require constant concentration. The key here is maintaining a kind of relaxed awareness, as concentrating avidly for long periods is not possible and will cause you to make errors when you do get tired. Again this is a key skill for the modern pilot.

Where a test is repeated several times, they are looking for a good rate of improvement. So don't worry if you make a hash of the first attempt, the important thing is to demonstrate you can quickly learn from your mistakes.

At both testing facilities we were told that flying experience was not necessary for the tests — but I have no doubt it helps. At least one test will require you to perform different tasks simultaneously with your hands and feet. Learning to fly (see 1 above) even on a simulator game will really help here.

Don't get despondent if you mess up a test, you won't be the only one and it is only a small part of the overall assessment.

The dreaded group exercises

These tasks certainly split opinion, some people hate them with a passion while others see them as an ideal chance to show off.

As a group you will be given a complex problem to solve, such as desert survival situation. The situation will keep changing. There will be a time pressure.

Firstly, realise the problem is artificial and whether your group completes the task or not is unimportant. You are really being assessed individually on qualities important to good leadership teamwork such as:
  • Ability to communicate your arguments quickly and clearly
  • Being assertive but not bullying or dominating
  • Seeing the 'big picture' (situational awareness)
  • Pointing out errors or problems but without blame
  • Seeking consensus (eg. suggest a vote to resolve disagreements)
  • Be organised — make notes, keep track of time etc.
  • Remaining friendly and positive (don't let anyone visibly annoy you — they could even be a 'ringer')
  • Be honest and realistic — say what you think
  • Remaining focussed on the goal
Finally we were given some current subjects to discuss from aviation and general news. This tests your knowledge of current affairs, but more importantly your ability to express your opinions and debate constructively with the rest of the group.

Good luck!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

So how did I get here?

"Toothbrush, iron, smart shoes, highlighter pens, class 1 medical..." begins my list of items a nervous new cadet might need to pack for his first week at flight school. Nearly a year after first applying to the British Airways Future Pilot Programme, I am finally starting my new life as an airline pilot (trainee) this week.

I am excited and a little apprehensive although I think I have done as much preparation as reasonably possible. This will change my life completely. Two years of study, testing and hard work lie ahead. There will be long periods away from my beautiful wife. There will be tough times and failures to be overcome. My life savings — and large loans — ride on the outcome. But beyond that the promise of the dream job and the lifestyle that goes with it.

The story of how I got here and what happens next is one I would like to share. If you too find the world of aviation fascinating and strange, if you have wondered how those smart and well spoken pilots are made, if you have ever wished your office was way up above the clouds then perhaps my simple tale will interest you. Perhaps it will be helpful other hopeful pilots, or even change their minds. In either case, it will be worthwhile.

So again, how did I get here?

BA's new offices at Waterside were especially
designed to impress and intimidate trainee pilots

The airline industry is cut-throat. Margins are small, risks are high. Competition is relentless, and where money does not absolutely need to be spent, it is saved.

Consequently aspirant pilots face a very tough deal. There are virtually no sponsored training schemes around, leaving the trainees to foot bills approaching £100,000 with no guarantee of success or a job at the end. If you do qualify and find work, you may have to shell out up to £30,000 for type training only to be offered a poorly-paid temporary contract that won't cover your loan repayments. If you don't, you have to somehow find the money to keep your licence and ratings current. It's remarkable that anyone would take this gamble, but hundreds do every year and the competition for jobs for newly-qualified pilots is fierce.

So when British Airways launched the Future Pilot Programme in August 2011, it almost seemed to good to be true. Admittedly, cadets are still expected to contribute a large sum towards their training, but this includes the type rating, line training and the all-important light of a secure job at the end of the tunnel. Guaranteed loans were made available and for the first time in years it became possible for someone with little flying experience or money to become an airline pilot for a major player. Someone, in fact, like me.

I admit it; I only found out about the scheme because my Dad saw it in the Sunday paper. Recognising what an great opportunity this was I immediately applied.

The all-conquering A320 will, fingers crossed,
be my new office from sometime deep into 2014...
To my surprise, my online application form was accepted. Ahead lay interviews, computer testing, medicals, references, psychometric tests, more interviews, more medicals, more computer testing — the process was long and daunting. But then something strange started to happen; I kept passing each stage of assessment and it kept getting more real. Finally, in December, the magic letter arrived — still proudly displayed on the fridge — I was in.

It would be wrong to claim any real expertise, but I do have a few theories about what helped me through the application process which I am happy to share; but that's for another day.

Fast forward through ten months of paperwork and planning and I am poised to start. I probably wouldn't be here without the support of my wonderful wife, family and friends and — be warned wife, family and friends — I will probably need a lot more support to get through. A huge thank you to them and thank you too for reading — I hope you will stay along for the ride.