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!