Tuesday, 15 April 2014

I'm there!

I've done it! We completed our line evaluation check ride on the 737 simulator yesterday, passed, filled in a heap of paper work and that is it, I am a qualified airline pilot at last!

Admittedly, there is one slight snag as I'm not yet qualified to fly any particular aeroplane, that is the next stage of my training. Known as a type rating, it consists of six weeks of ground school and simulator work to learn every detail about, in my case, the Airbus A320 family.

The check ride was a short trip from Heathrow to Manchester and back. I was pilot flying for the first leg, while my buddy flew the return trip. On both trip there were three 'events', ranging from minor technical breakdowns to smoke obscuring the runway to the airport's instrument landing system failing.

Heathrow to Manchester in a 737 is a very short trip, in fact as soon as you have finished climbing it is time to descend again. When we first tried it a few weeks ago, the instructor had to freeze our position as we bumbled through the required checklists and briefings. This time we were able to complete all the necessary tasks and deal with the 'events' in real time without rushing — it is amazing how quickly we have improved.

We were far from perfect of course — this is why when we start the job we will be flying with very experienced captains not other cadets. But I was very happy with our trips and delighted to have finished the course at Oxford.

Land grab

In the UK, nobody really owns beaches. There are there for everyone to enjoy. Sometimes, for safety reasons they are divided up into sections, perhaps one part for the swimmers, one for the surfers and so on. Some areas will have life guards watching over them and others you take your chances.

Airspace is very similar. Nobody owns the airspace above our heads and it is there for anyone to use. Clearly it is not a complete free-for-all, and for safety reasons some if it is controlled airspace with restrictions on it usage. In some of it, pilots can receive a radar service, much like a life guard watching over you and preventing accidents.

The details of controlled airspace vary, but the basic idea is to protect aircraft on busy commercial routes from coming into conflict with any other aircraft. As I see it, it is purely a safety issue.

To fly in controlled airspace, a pilot generally needs prior permission, current ATC clearance, constant two-way radio communication, usually a radar transponder system and often specialised instrument-flying equipment and training. This means that most light aircraft are generally unable or unwilling to enter controlled airspace, while gliders, balloons, microlights etc are excluded.

The tricky job of balancing the needs of commercial aviation for controlled airspace and everyone else for somewhere to fly falls to the Civil Aviation Authority. Although often seen as stuffy and bureaucratic, they genuinely do try to do their best to satisfy everyone.

TAG's attempted airspace grab
So why do I mention all this? Because there is a massive attempted land grab (or should I say air grab) going on right now. The new owners of Farnborough airfield, TAG, have applied for a truly massive amount of controlled airspace. Just have a look at the picture.

TAG are not a commercial airline that provides a service to the general population, they specialise in transporting wealthy executives and VIPs in private jets. They have perhaps two or three paying passengers per day, yet they are asking for their own controlled airspace that rivals Heathrow in size and exceeds it in complexity.

Should this application be approved, it would be a disaster for general aviation. There are several airfields below or actually inside the proposed airspace that would likely go out of business. There are several more gliding clubs that would shut down.

The large area of insanely complex airspace is frankly frightening to the ordinary pilot (airspace busts are taken very seriously). No one will want to fly anywhere near it, with the result that all the light traffic will be concentrated into corridors around the edge, significantly endangering their safety. Meanwhile the large volume of controlled airspace will lie unused almost all of the time, some of it permanently empty.

Even more worryingly, it could set a precedent. Smaller commercial airports such as Cambridge, Coventry and Oxford have been operating happily for years without controlled airspace protecting their instrument approaches. If TAG get their way, then airports like this will soon be making similar bids. Uncontrolled airspace will become squeezed more and more. 

Imagine if a private company tried to lay claim to all the beaches between Southampton and Brighton that they didn't even own and close them to everyone but a handful of super-wealthy people. There would be public outcry.

This is no different. There is no benefit to anyone but TAG. There is no safety argument. It will cripple non-commercial aviation in the area. It is completely disproportionate and unfair.

Please help to prevent this crazy plan going ahead. All you need to do is spend a few minutes contributing to the consultation document (parts B to E) before it closes on 6 May.  For more information, the British Gliding Association has written a guide to the proposed changes.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

He's got my back

We are well into the final phase of training at Oxford now, learning to fly the Boeing 737 using full-motion simulators and operating as a two-pilot crew. It is demanding but very satisfying and I am really enjoying it.

No longer are we a single pilot operation, with all the stress and pitfalls that entails. Instead we are a team, we can split the workload, help each other out, catch errors and so on. Each session is two hours and we take turns as either pilot flying or pilot monitoring. Both jobs keep you busy and involved, and in fact the pilot monitoring ends up flying a substantial chunk of each sector.

The early lessons were fully manual exercises to get used to handling the aircraft. At around 50 tonnes and with powerful jet engines it's very different to the light twins we are used to.

"What happens if I press this?"
The large mass and high speed means you must really think ahead of the aircraft. Low drag and turbine engines mean the power settings and speed control need to be very accurate and adjustments must be made quickly. High power means giddy climb rates on take-off — you better be ready. A yaw damper system means that the rudder takes care of itself in normal circumstances, so we have to flight our instincts to coordinate turns and keep our feet still.

But ultimately an aeroplane is an aeroplane and they all work pretty much the same way. It takes surprisingly little time to get used to the handling and fly it manually reasonably well.

This course is not about accurate manual flying however, it is about training for the job — part of a crew flying a passenger jet. Great care has been taken to make it as realistic as possible. We are instructed by experienced airline pilots and work to company procedures using company check lists and reference material, routes and paperwork. Communications with ATC, ground crew, cabin crew and passengers are all part of the simulation.

We are even expected to make passenger announcements and get a kick out of saying things like "cabin crew doors to manual and cross check." Asking the purser for a cup of tea might be taking it bit far though.

A real 737 from the outside. Our simulators look more like a cross
between an portacabin and a giant spider.
Importantly, we are getting a grounding in automatic flight, learning how the auto-throttle and autopilot can help and equally when they can be a liability.

To some extent it is true that the plane can "fly itself", but only if it is set up correctly in the first place, if all systems are working correctly and if plans do not change. Getting the automatics to do the basic flying and navigating frees up the pilots for other important tasks, but never reduces the requirement to monitor exactly what the aircraft is doing now and next.

So far, our scenarios have been realistic but smooth sectors, for example today we flew from Heathrow to Manchester and back (a short and busy route) but the weather was fine and nothing went wrong with the aircraft of the ground based equipment. Next we will be learning how to deal with situations such as poor weather, delays, diversions and of course emergencies.

Ultimately we will be assessed while flying a complete sector with a full complement of imaginary passengers and cabin crew, without any instructor input. During the flight two or three 'situations' or full emergencies will arise and must be dealt with.

And we will be doing this... next Friday!