Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Daylight! I Think I See Daylight!
(Or perhaps it's a mushroom cloud...)
As Darth Vader ominously said in Star Wars, "Your training is now complete..."
OK, my MD-11 training isn't quite complete yet, but almost. This morning I'm sitting in the Appleton airport waiting on a commercial flight out to California to begin my first of two series of Initial Operating Experience flights (or IOE, since aviation loves acronyms), which is my last official phase of training. This phase is interesting for a couple reasons: first, it's the first time I'm at the controls in the actual airplane; and second, I get to fly out to frickin' Honolulu and back! This will be my first visit to Hawaii and my first international flight on this airplane (my international experience heretofore is confined to Canada and a couple flights down to San Juan and back). Hawaii is, of course, a US destination, but the flight involves some five hours over international waters. I finish my IOE next week with a bunch of domestic legs, and then embark on what I hope is a new phase in my aviation career of globetrotting to fabulous, exotic destinations. We'll see how this actually plays out (at the very least it should make for interesting blog fodder).
I intended to blog about my whole training circus as it was occurring, but there simply wasn't time. I'm not generally very good at being busy--I like to spend my days in leisurely fashion, and all this crush of obligation would have made me very crabby... except that the controls of the MD-11 lay at the terminus. All airline training is like trying to drink from a fire hose, with reams of information being shoved down one's gullet with little digestion time and various tests and checks at the end to see what you've managed to retain. We were told in advance that the MD-11 training was a "gentleman's course" (apparently "gentlemen" expect be spoon-fed all pertinent data), but I quickly learned there are no shortcuts for taking on this amount of information. The training has been excellent, but there's still a couple thousand dense pages of information that one needs to assimilate. The whole process proceeds in orderly fashion, from phase to phase, though the exact phases for the MD-11 are different from what I'm used to. Every other large airplane I've ever learned has begun with a couple weeks of intensive ground school to learn the airplane itself and its systems--electrical, fuel, hydraulic, pneumatic / pressurization / HVAC. This would be followed by a simulator training phase--also a couple weeks in duration--where we learn the aircraft-specific ways of doing all the things we've been trained to do in every other airplane: checklist protocols, instrument approaches, system failures, windshear avoidance, etc., etc. At the end of it all there is always a do-or-die checkride where one must demonstrate to an examiner anything and everything from one's new vocabulary. That's the usual track.
The MD-11 training was quite a variation on this theme. First, there is no classroom phase. The entire groundschool portion is accomplished on a computer (your own, or a computer in a company training room), with automated lessons about individual aircraft systems. After each computer lesson, my training partner and I go into a non-motion simulator with an instructor and interface with the buttons and switches and displays in the cockpit to learn the system hands-on (this device is similar to the full-blown simulator, except there is no motion of the device to simulate g-forces and so on. The seats and switches and displays are all from the real airplane, but there is only as much cockpit there as needed to hold the required equipment). And in the process, we get an early start on procedures and callouts and so on. This computer / non-motion-simulator phase takes a month, and by the time we reach the full-motion-simulator phase we're already fairly up to speed with our callouts and procedures. That's another difference, since the motion-simulator phase is traditionally where one learns these things. So in the MD-11, the motion-simulator phase takes us in a slightly different direction. We must still practice a buzillion instrument approaches with the appropriate callouts, and we still go through a battery of engine and systems failures with the associated memory items and checklists. But the MD-11 is much, much more automated than any airplane I've flown before, so much of our training involves getting the automation to do the right thing, and teaching us what to do when the automation fails in its tasks.
When that is done and the checkride complete--traditionally the end of our visit to the schoolhouse--we still have a few more boxes to check in the MD-11. Specifically, there is almost another week devoted to long range navigation and to what is termed Landing Awareness Training. The long-range navigation training covers all the different methods and techniques and protocols in use around the world, things which must be adhered to when one is away from home soil. And there's a lot more stuff here than one might expect. The procedures, for example, for crossing the North Atlantic are quite different from crossing the Pacific, both in navigation and radio protocols. For as much standardization as there is in aviation, there's still a wide degree of variance from place to place: the US uses inches of mercury for altimeter setting, while other parts of the world will use millibars or hectopascals; the transition altitude in the US where we move to a standard altimeter setting for high altitude cruising is 18,000 feet, a crucial figure which is different in virtually every other country (different from us and from each other); standard phraseology varies a bit from place to place, though we Americans are fortunate that our native language is chosen as the official language for aviation worldwide. However, in many places in the world the controllers know only as many English words as necessary to do their jobs, and most conversations on the radio are being conducted in (to us) a foreign tongue. So situational awareness can be seriously compromised. After spending 15 years flying in the domestic system, I have firmly-ingrained ideas for how things are done; and now I have to relearn a lot of this stuff. It's a lot of information, and there are myriad "gotchas" hidden in the cracks and crevices (my MD-11-flying crashpad roommate calls it "graduate-level flying," and I begin to see why).
The Landing Awareness Training is to help us with some of the landing challenges specific to the MD-11. The airplane is heavy and it has very high approach & landing speeds. All airplanes present their challenges, of course, but one of the key MD-11 challenges is this fairly narrow operating window we have for landing. When the MD-11 was derived from the original DC-10, the airplane was made considerably longer and heavier (among other changes), but, in the interest of efficiency, the tail was actually downsized slightly. The result is that approach and landing speeds are crucial here because there is so little margin. Specifically, getting even a little bit slow on an approach may leave us without enough authority in the tail to flare the airplane properly for landing. So it becomes crucial that one carries one's approach speed all the way to touchdown, and--here's the über-critical part--that one not attempt to salvage a landing that doesn't start off well. Better to just go around and try it again. Landing is a critical phase on every flight, and this line of prudence exists for every airplane type; but the MD-11 just has a smaller margin for safe operation than most. The tragic crash of a FedEx MD-11 in Narita a month or so ago reminds us of what a challenge this airplane can be. (I must stress that the information about what actually happened on that flight has not been released, and so we're all in the dark to a degree. The winds were howling, but not unmanageably so; the original touchdown was hard, but not terribly so, it seems. We just don't know enough to speculate.) So this training takes advantage of simulator technology to let us experience things that--hopefully--we will never see in the airplane. The training lets us practice strong crosswind landings, and also over- and under-weight landings, specifically where the actual weight of the airplane and the programmed weight do not agree (so that the computer is giving us the wrong speeds to fly). Through this training we're able to see the consequences of these things in a safe environment.
And so on to the final phase of training: IOE. The regulations stipulate the number of hours and landings required, and with these long-haul flights (so different from my last seven years on the DC-8) it takes only a few legs to accomplish the job. Much as I'm eager to see Honolulu, I'm a bit disappointed that these two legs will constitute the end of my international training. There will obviously be a great deal that I will not have seen or experienced when I'm first called upon to perform my job in the international arena. The MD-11 sees some pretty amazing places: Mumbai, Dubai, Cologne, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, Warsaw. I expect to have a pretty steep learning curve here for a while.