Another four days of simulator duty. It's worth noting that a premium is paid to any sucker (like me) who is assigned simulator support (that is, occupying one's regular flying seat in support of someone else's training) for two consecutive days. Because it's not fun. And it's even less fun four days in a row.
I have long felt that operating an airplane in a crisis situation plays at the limit of at least some human capacities. If the job were any more difficult at these moments it would be simply beyond the abilities of most people to do. It's arguably already so for a great majority of people, due not so much to capacity as to a want of years of training and immersion in a complex subject matter. And while it is exhilarating to know what's out there at the ragged edge, it's a tiring--exhausting, even--place to have to spend much time. We spend a fair amount of each simulator session fighting against a gut feeling that we're about to get sucked under water. We move from one crisis to another to another, and before we can triumph over a crisis we must first and above all hold on. Failure--the inability to rise to meet the challenge before you--looms large always, as it naturally would at the edge. And when it's your career that hangs in the balance, or at the very least a hell of a lot of hassle and scrutiny and stress, then what might be considered a fun little personal experiment becomes an ugly monster in mid-swat. The only thing making extra simulator duty tolerable is that I'm not usually the guy who is being closely watched (though we can be damn sure that any significant fuck-up on my part would be duly noted). Well, that and the premium pay.
Today I supported the regular, yearly recurrent training of a couple of veterans. The captain was a few years older than me, a guy who has been on the airplane for near to 20 years. And the engineer was what we call a "retread," a guy who has passed the age of 60, the age at which by regulation you can no longer occupy a pilot's seat. But there is no age limit on being an engineer, so many of these guys, instead of just retiring (as they would have to do at most airlines), move from the captain's seat back to the engineer's seat for a few more years. (It's ironic that the most junior and the most senior people at the company occupy this seat.) And in the DC-8, the engineer works his or her ass off in emergency situations.
All these impressions of simulator service are a recurring theme for me (and for the blog, I know). But in my defense there's a lot of the experience that's really extraordinary and even profound in a certain way. It goes back to that probing of human limitations, I suppose. What I thought about during today's duty, though, was the slightly sad shift these retreads go thru after their 60th birthday. The engineer today had been a captain in the DC-8 for a long time, and had been in the back seat now for a year or two. They take a significant pay cut, and find themselves, after finishing a long stint of commanding a crew and many millions of dollars of machinery and cargo, now having to follow the lead of someone perhaps half their age and experience. Maybe we should all be happy that they aren't forced to retire if they're not ready to do so; there are very few airlines left flying three-seat airplanes, so in that sense they're really lucky. But I can see the difficulty of being a hale and hearty 60 years of age and being told that you've suddenly passed an arbitrary point and are no longer able to do something. And where this guy had until recently been in a situation in life where, like a senior doctor or lawyer, he was earning his best salary while having his easiest schedule, where everyone he meets in the industry accords him a certain deference, now he is the chore-monkey of the airplane, finding himself at the end of his career sorely abused and overworked for his reduced salary.
I felt for the guy. He didn't seem to be enjoying himself--I couldn't blame him there--and he seemed to have an attitude where he might be one emergency scenario away from unstrapping himself from the seat and declaring himself gone. Today was for practice. Tomorrow I get to assist in their actual checkouts. Ah well, he's seen a lot more checkrides in his 62 years than I have in my 43. I'm sure he'll do fine.