Airline pilots spend several days a year in training to brush up on the skills and knowledge needed to fly transport aircraft. Friends are often surprised when I tell them about recurrent training. What kind of training do airline pilots receive? Read on!
Airline training programs are copyrighted and regulated. Programs contain certain information that can’t be shared for security and safety reasons. The following information is a generic representation of a Continuing Qualification recurrent course.
Every airline training program is different. The common goal for airlines and regulators is to assure pilots are trained so they can handle the challenges associated with air transportation.
When do pilots attend training?
Air transport pilots attend recurrent training to maintain their skills and qualification. Six, nine, and twelve month training intervals are common. The training interval depends on the airline, type of aircraft, and regulating authority (FAA, Transport Canada, etc).
Some airlines have the same training schedule for captains and first officers, while others require captains to attend recurrent more frequently.
I attend Boeing 757 & 767 recurrent training for three days every 12 months. Pilots at my airline bid by seniority for specific training dates and simulator times.
Months Before School:
Each year, airline training departments and their governing authority agree on a set of topics to be covered in the next year’s curriculum. There are standard topics that are covered every year as well as emphasis items often inspired by company or industry safety concerns.
My airline publishes a study guide that lists topics we will see in training. This gives us the opportunity to prepare well in advance. The program uses internet-based training, classroom instruction, and simulator training.
Internet-based training at my carrier usually includes hazardous materials, long-range navigation, aircraft systems, and general subjects like dispatch requirements, regulations, and safety. The modules include video presentations, reading, and quizzes.
Official Names for Recurrent Training (and a few fun ones)
There are different names for recurrent training. The name depends on the type of approved training program an airline uses. My airline uses the FAA’s Advanced Qualification Program (AQP). Our recurrent training is called Continuing Qualification (CQ).
One major US carrier uses the term R9 and R18 for the 9 month and 18 month recurrent training events.
European training programs include Evidence-Based Training (EBT), and Alternative Training and Qualification Programme (ATQP) in the UK.
The acronyms all mean about the same thing. Flight crews train at regular intervals to maintain their qualifications.
Here are a few popular nicknames pilots use for recurrent training:
- Airline Jeopardy (poor performance can result in job loss)
- You Bet Your Mortgage (parody of the Groucho Marx game show: You Bet Your Life!)
- You Bet Your License
- Career Week
- Charm School (learn to get along with Capt Cranky)
- Conformity Training (standardization is emphasized)
- The Annual Humiliation (we learn from our errors)
Recurrent really isn’t that bad. Training at most airlines is a positive learning experience that makes pilots better pilots. The key is to arrive prepared and ready to learn.
Every pilot has their own study routine. Some wait until 3 days before school (the procrastinators), and some study year-round. I usually get serious a month before training. I review the aircraft systems that will be covered, brush up on required memory items, and review non-normal procedures and checklists.
By the time Day One rolls around, I’m ready.
Do pilots get nervous before training?
Many do; I certainly do – even after 30 years (ask my wife).
There’s a lot at stake. When a pilot fails to meet Airline Transport Pilot standards, they receive more training. Continued substandard performance can end the career.
I’ve never had a problem in training. When I’m preparing for recurrent, I don’t worry about losing my livelihood. I worry about doing a good job. Many pilots set high standards for themselves.
I have a colleague who’s a British Airways captain. Every 6 months, his family jokes about his recurring PST: Pre-Simulator Tension. Symptoms of PST include over-studying, being a bit withdrawn, and unable to make big family decisions. Projects around the house are put on hold until training is finished.
A little stress gives me the motivation I need to hit the books. When I get into the sim, nerves and stress disappear. It’s time to get down to business.
Recurrent Training – Day One
By 8:00 a.m., everyone has taken their seats. Large posters of 757 and 767 cockpit panels adorn the classroom walls. “CQ Day 1” is written on the dry-erase board; it’s nice to know we didn’t stumble into the new-hire class!
The day begins with General Subjects. There’s a lot of stuff to review in 4 hours before lunch. New company procedures, regulations, safety videos, meteorology, and emergency equipment are covered. The instructor uses a PowerPoint presentation and moves at a fast pace to cover the required material. Many of us take notes – there will be a test at the end of the day.
Before lunch, we visit the hands-on emergency equipment lab. The room is filled with every piece of safety gear carried on company aircraft: Life rafts, escape ropes, fire fighting equipment, portable breathing equipment, life vests, first aid kits and more. The instructor reviews how all the equipment is used, including signal mirrors (you’re having a really bad day if you need a signal mirror).
Students are required to demonstrate the use of several pieces of equipment before being dismissed for lunch.
Lunch Time (one hour)
Pack a lunch or carpool to nearby restaurants. Dunkin’ Donuts coffee helps with the post-lunch food coma.
Time for aircraft systems. Like the morning session, the next 4 hours leaves little time to breathe. Different systems are emphasized each training cycle. A typical syllabus might include landing gear, hydraulics, flight controls, oxygen, and anti-ice systems. Studying the systems before class makes the review easy.
At the end of the day, there is a 50 question test that covers everything discussed, including memorized aircraft limitations and emergency memory items. Score 80% or better and move on to Day Two. Less than 80% earns extra training (and unwanted scrutiny).
The Training Center
The training center has classrooms, training devices, and multi-million dollar flight simulators. Many large carriers have their own training centers. Smaller airlines often use an airline training subcontractor. It doesn’t matter who owns the training center; training standards are the same.
Of course, pilots have nicknames for school:
- Puzzle Palace
- The Schoolhouse
- Little Brown Schoolhouse (UPS Airlines)
- Nightmare on 36th Street (there are several training facilities on Miami’s 36th Street)
Recurrent Training – Day Two
Simulator And Workshop
Day One was easy, now the real fun starts. There are two sessions in the full motion simulator. The 757 and 767 have a common type rating so I can be scheduled in either simulator. Last year my training was in the 767. This year, I trained in a 757 simulator.
Each session is two hours. Flights are sometimes simulated in the region where the crew usually operates (U.S., South America, Asia, Europe).
Level D Simulators
They are the ultimate video games. Level D simulators are used for “Zero Flight Time” training. After pilots complete an approved training program that includes Level D simulation, they are qualified to fly revenue service without ever stepping foot in the real thing. Level D sims are that good.
Read more about simulators: Simulators – Ultimate Video Games!
8:00 AM – Simulator Session One
The crew begins the first session with no pre-brief. The syllabus provides a general idea of what events will take place and has all the necessary paperwork (flight plan, weight and balance numbers, performance data, and weather). The instructor brings the simulator to life as the crew buckles in.
Instructors not only operate the simulator, they play the role of air traffic controller, dispatcher, load supervisor, lead flight attendant, pushback tug operator, and maintenance technician. Instructors are often busier than the pilots during a complex scenario!
The first simulated flight is from Tokyo to Osaka. The session starts with engines running and preflight checks complete. The aircraft is holding short of the runway at Tokyo-Narita. Once buckled in, the crew will run through the After Start and Before Takeoff checklists. The flying pilot (chosen by the instructor) will brief the takeoff and departure route. When ready, the instructor will take on the role of Narita Tower and clear the pilots for takeoff.
Immediately after takeoff, thunderstorms appear on the route of flight. The crew also loses radio contact with Tokyo Control. After successfully navigating around the storm and reestablishing communications, they continue the climb.
The next challenge is a change to the route of flight. Tokyo Control issues a new route that the crew must enter into the flight management computer. Both captain and first officer will demonstrate programming proficiency.
The previously encountered thunderstorms caused ice buildup on the aircraft’s pitot-static system leading to the next module: unreliable airspeed indication and high altitude stall recovery. With the instructor’s guidance, the crew allows the aircraft to slow to an unsafe speed in order to practice recovery. Each crew member flies a slightly different scenario to demonstrate the insidious nature of this problem.
Continuing toward the destination, the TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) alerts the crew of a converging aircraft at the same altitude. The system issues a Resolution Advisory. The flying pilot disconnects the autopilot to fly the guidance provided by the TCAS. Both captain and first officer practice the maneuver.
With the magic of simulation, the instructor repositions the aircraft a few miles from Osaka. It’s time to practice an RNAV GNSS (GPS) approach. The airline recently received FAA approval to fly these approaches. Crews need to fly new approach types in the simulator before flying them out in the wild. The airport visibility is low – right at the minimums for the approach. The instructor “freezes” the simulator and turns on the cockpit lights. The crew and instructor discuss the approach in detail, highlighting parts of the procedure that are unusual or challenging.
When everyone is ready, the lights are dimmed and the sim is placed back into motion. The aircraft emerges from the low cloud layer perfectly aligned with the runway. A Boeing 747 sitting in the touchdown zone necessitates an immediate go-around. As the aircraft begins to climb, the instructor takes over: “OK guys, I got it. I’m going to reposition you to the initial approach fix so the captain can fly one.” After a few seconds, the jet is back in the clouds at the beginning of the procedure. The crew repeats the approach with the captain flying and the first officer monitoring.
Compressing Time in the Simulator
A lot of training items are packed into a simulator session. A real-time event that includes engine starts, taxiing, and flying a full route would take several hours. Instructors must “compress” time in order to squeeze the required items into a two hour session.
Repositioning allows the simulator to quickly reset to a specific point in space and time. When practicing landings, the instructor can reposition the aircraft on final approach moments after each landing. Pilots can practice several landings in the time it would take to takeoff and fly around the airport in real time.
Repositioning is an interesting experience in a full motion simulator. When the instructor begins the reposition, the view out the windshield goes black and all the instruments spin or move as they reset. The simulator moves out of sync with the instruments. This can cause disorientation, or even dizziness. Some instructors will advise students to close their eyes during a reposition to reduce disorientation.
Another trick used to compress time is to increase the aircraft’s speed across the ground during a long flight. It’s common for an instructor to double or triple aircraft speed to save time. Speeding up the sim does not affect the crew; all the instruments have normal indications.
After completing two RNAV approaches, the instructor again repositions the aircraft. This time, the runway is three miles ahead on a beautiful, clear night. There is enough time for each pilot to perform a landing with a 25 knot gusty crosswind.
The crew brings the aircraft to a stop on the runway after the second landing. They run the shutdown and secure checklist so all the buttons and switches are ready for the next victims. Two hours of intense training has come to an end.
Simulator Session One – Debrief
After a quick restroom break, the students and instructor reconvene in a small briefing room to review and critique the session. The instructor can even replay video from the simulation (there’s nothing worse than watching yourself screw up on video). The debrief takes between 30 minutes to an hour.
The next stop is a classroom with other crews who just finished their first sim session in other simulators.
A ground instructor presents special training topics. There’s also a briefing of aircraft systems and non-normal checklists that we might see in the afternoon sim. After an hour of PowerPoint and healthy group discussion, it’s finally time for lunch.
Engine Failure Training
Pilots train for the worst-case engine problem: Failure during a maximum weight takeoff.
Before every flight, pilots obtain a computed decision speed called V1 (pronounced “vee-one”). The speed is based on aircraft performance, runway, and weather.
If the aircraft experiences an engine problem on takeoff before reaching V1, the aircraft can (and should) be stopped safely on the remaining runway.
If an engine problem occurs above V1, the takeoff will be continued. V1 assures that adequate runway distance remains for the aircraft to accelerate with a failed engine, and safely climb above obstacles.
During practice, the instructor will fail an engine during takeoff above V1 (pilots call this a “V1 cut”). The crew will continue the takeoff, run the appropriate checklist to secure the misbehaving engine, then navigate back to the airport to land.
2:00 PM – Simulator Session Two
Like the first simulator session, the crew has all the paperwork necessary for a real flight. This session is filled with more non-normal challenges related to systems discussed in ground school and the workshop. There could be a rejected takeoff, electrical problem, medical emergency, landing gear problem… the list of possible challenges is long. The crew will also rehearse wind shear and terrain avoidance maneuvers.
The students spend the final few minutes of the session practicing engine failures on takeoff.
There is usually enough time for each student to have one or two practice V1 cuts. If both pilots nail it on the first try, they can escape the simulator a few minutes early.
After another debrief with the instructor, it’s time to go home (or to the hotel) for dinner, study, and sleep.
Oh, how we love the sim. It’s a multi-million dollar training device that can replicate most any malfunction with incredible realism. Here are a few of the nicknames crews have given the sim:
- Star Tours (references the Disney ride)
- The Box
- The Sweat Box
- The Stimulator
- Torture Box (or Chamber)
- Mandatory video games
- The Crash Factory
- Dial-A-Death (too morbid for me!)
- Crazy Maker Box
- Leg Day (reference to working out legs at the gym. Engine failures often require a lot of rudder work)
Recurrent Training – Day Three
8:00 AM – The Maneuvers Validation
Today begins with the Maneuvers Validation. As the name implies, the instructor must validate that the crew can competently fly the aircraft. The validation occurs in real-time. Pilots can not receive help from the instructor.
The maneuvers validation is consistent each year: Takeoff, engine fire or failure after V1, run the non-normal checklists, coordinate with air traffic control, maneuver the aircraft back to the airport and safely land. The pilots must fly the aircraft to Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL) standards. The validation takes about 20 minutes and occurs twice. Each student will operate as pilot-flying.
When the maneuvers validation is complete, the crew can relax as they transition back into non-jeopardy training mode. The instructor reviews procedures for low visibility (Category 2 and 3) approaches using the autopilot/autoland system. The pilots perform several demos to practice equipment failure recognition and go-arounds, followed by a successful approach and landing.
With 15 minutes remaining, there is time for a final training item. Examples might be a circle-to-land approach, bounced landing recovery, emergency descent, new approach procedures… there are a lot of possibilities.
Two more hours has zoomed by. The third debrief goes smoothly for our experienced crew.
Today’s workshop follows the same format as the previous day. The instructor reviews more aircraft systems and related non-normal checklists. Chances are good the flight crews will encounter one of these checklists during the final simulator flight.
It’s lunch time.
2:00 PM – The LOE
The final event for recurrent training is the Line Operational Evaluation. The LOE is our checkride. The event is a real-time flight conducted from start to finish. Our instructor for the LOE is an FAA-authorized check airman. He or she will run the simulator and provide any assistance we can normally obtain in the real world via radio or satcom.
During the LOE we are evaluated on teamwork, communication, standard operating procedures, decision making, airmanship, and threat & error management. Errors are actually okay (we all make mistakes). The check airman wants to see if the crew can trap and correct the errors safely.
The scheduled flight is about an hour in duration. That gives enough time for the crew to handle challenges during the two-hour simulation. Sometimes an aircraft has known defects. The APU might be out of service, or perhaps the autobrake system has been deferred. The crew must consider how a known issue will impact the flight. I’ve actually pulled out my cell phone before pushback on an LOE and “called” the dispatcher to discuss options. Anything a pilot can do in the real world is fair game on the LOE; the check airman will play along.
Occasionally, a piece of equipment will fail in flight. Back in the dark ages, instructors would torture students with multiple, unrealistic emergencies. Thankfully, the days of engine fire followed by a broken trim motor, topped off with an electrical failure are over. Task saturated students do not learn. During the LOE flight, the crew will encounter realistic challenges commonly seen by pilots. A simple change in destination weather can really complicate a short flight.
The LOE ends when the crew arrives at the destination (or diversion airport), taxis to the gate, and shuts down the aircraft. It’s the most intense two hours of recurrent training, but it goes by quickly.
The check airman facilitates the final debrief. I’ve had debriefs last five minutes and others an hour. It depends on crew performance and how much information the check airman wants to share.
Recurrent training is complete. It’s always nice to get back into a real airplane after recurrent!