Driving is the one activity where we allow the greatest level of incompetence. All that is required is the basic operation of the pedals and the ability to recognise around half the road signs in general use. Watching the average South African driver negotiate a corner proves that even operating the steering wheel is not a prerequisite for obtaining a license. Fortunately, this is not the case with pilots and particularly not airline pilots.
I had a conversation with someone who claimed that pilots were overpaid and sat drinking coffee while the autopilot did all the work. Without hesitation, we put her in a simulator and told her that she could use any of the autopilot modes and asked her to fly a short hop from Johannesburg to Durban. Needless to say, her opinion of pilots changed that day, she crashed 48 seconds after take-off .
Unlike many professions though, pilots do not just go to a training institute for a few years and then start work. Pilots are being trained continuously throughout their career. In common with private and commercial pilots, Airline Transport Pilots have regular renewals, just more frequently.
There is an old saying, "The aeroplane is an expensive classroom", even more so nowadays with the exorbitant cost of fuel. Aircraft manufactures have come up with a solution to the problem though and for many years there have been full motion simulators. These devices, whilst not cheap by any stretch of the imagination do eliminate the cost of fuel. The simulator is a replica of the aircraft cockpit and is specific to an aircraft type. The Simulator is mounted on hydraulic legs, which move in the same way as the aircraft would in flight, giving pilots a more realistic experience. Modern simulators also have much improved graphics compared to the examples from a few years ago.
Recurrent training is carried out in the simulator or as it is known by some, the "box". All pilots spend 2 days in the simulator every six months. The first session of the year is where pilots must renew their instrument flying rating. Instrument flying is taxing to say the least and pilots need to be at the top of their game to be able to fly the aircraft with no visual reference outside. It is critical that they can understand what the instruments are telling them and then take the correct action. Modern aircraft are flown on autopilot for most of the flight so pilots might loose the ability to take over and hand fly the aircraft on instruments should the need arise were it not for frequent renewals.
The second simulator session of the year is a proficiency check. This is to ensure that they have not become complacent, forgotten some things they learned during their initial training or developed bad habits.
Pilots are scheduled for simulator training as part of their usual duty roster. They are not simply put in the simulator without preparation. The session typically starts in the classroom. The training captain briefs the pilots by going through some of the scenarios with which they will be expected to cope.
During the session, the pilots will face a number of different emergency situations. They may have electrical faults, decompression, fuel leaks and fires or any combination of failures. The training ensures that pilots react to an emergency by following standard procedure in a calm and logical process. In the unlikely event of an emergency on the aircraft, the crew will simply go through the process in exactly the same way that it had been practiced in the simulator. The simulator experience is so realistic that pilots often break into a sweat and their heart rate increases.
Training captains do not spend all their time in the classroom and the box. They are working pilots. Typically, their time will be split 50/50 between training and flying. This ensures that they themselves are always current. They couldn't be expected to train on something they don't do themselves. Completely different to most industries where the head of training wears a wooly jumper and keeps saying, "well in my dayÖ", while teaching procedures that are 20 years out of date.
Training is not limited to simulators and classrooms. Training captains do fly with and evaluate even the most senior captains. The training captains themselves do have to go through all the same rigors of simulator training, instrument rating renewals and proficiency checks.
The life of a pilot may be a glamorous one but it certainly isn't an easy one. The training starts the first time you step into an aeroplane and ends just after your retirement party. It's no wonder that aviation is the safest form of transport in the world. I once overheard a technician grumbling saying that it was they that were responsible for keeping the aircraft in the air and the pilots get all the glory, and the higher wages to boot. A pilot nearby said, "Yes you're responsible for keeping them in the air, we're responsible for bringing them safely back to the ground!"