Self-improvement for pilots

Most airline pilots approach their annual recurrent training simulator time in a rather apprehensive mood. After all, it’s more about testing than training, isn’t it?

That’s the image simulator training still has with line pilots.

But imagine if, at no cost to themselves, pilots could book a fully capable flight simulation training device (FSTD) for the type they fly on the line, and practice the skills they know they need to improve, with just a colleague in the other seat, but no instructor, and no Big Brother oversight.

The question is: would pilots choose, in reality, to book “private” simulator time, even if it were free of charge? Perhaps they would be tempted when a bi-annual recurrent training session was looming, or if they were preparing for command training.

Ryanair is offering a scheme like this to its pilots, and early trials show it’s popular with the crews who’ve tried it. More of that later.

Increasingly, feedback from crew reporting systems and operational flight data monitoring (OFDM) is identifying areas where additional training is needed, but most of these needs are not met by the recurrent training syllabus required by national aviation authorities (NAA), which is based on flying the way it used to be in the pre-digital era.

Despite the fact that good airlines increasingly conduct training based on an Advanced Qualification Programme (AQP), which allows the airline some flexibility to react to evident training needs, there tends to be insufficient time in recurrent training sessions for actual training once all the statutory exercises have been performed to meet the regulator’s requirement for testing.

A normal recurrent training session is not so much a case of being trained and then being tested on the skills learned, but of undergoing a test, then calling it training if you pass it.

The psychological circumstances of a test – or even a training exercise perceived as a test – are not conducive to learning.

As the concept of “evidence-based” – rather than syllabus-based – training becomes the recommended philosophy for recurrent training, the airlines are still jammed between the rock of the mandatory recurrent syllabus, and a hard place – namely the mounting cost of additional evidence-based training that goes well beyond the legal minimums.

Good airlines already go beyond the training minimums, but most just do what the law requires and stop there.

Ryanair already beats the minima, but is now extending that advantage by bringing on-stream a planned nine additional advanced fixed-base – but sophisticated – FSTDs beyond those needed to cope with growth.

These will be used for a combination of type-rating, remedial and voluntary additional training, effectively adding a full day to the annual total of recurrent training simulator time available to all pilots. Ryanair already has three of these devices – made by Utrecht-based Multi-Pilot Simulations – in operation:  one at its Dublin HQ and two at its East Midlands, UK training base.

Ryanair’s head of training Capt Andy O’Shea has long wanted to give pilots the opportunity to develop their skills in their own time if they choose to.

Learmount (L) and Capt Andy O'Shea in front of Ryanair's Dublin training centre, the new Controlled Training simulator visible through the glass
Learmount (L) and Capt Andy O’Shea in front of Ryanair’s Dublin training centre, the new Controlled Training simulator visible through the glass

At the same time the Ryanair investment in the sophisticated equipment has to be justified, and O’Shea was concerned that some pilots might use the kit for experiment, and end up with what he calls a “negative training” experience from a session.

So how do you give pilots the freedom to learn – and to consolidate their learning-  in the areas they want to work on, but discourage them from barrel-rolling a 737-800 for fun, and at the same time convince them that Big Brother is not watching them?

O’Shea’s solution is a compromise.  The hint is in the programme’s name: Ryanair Controlled Training.

Sure, the pilots who voluntarily book the simulator time are alone and unwatched in the device. It has a normal instructor operating station (IOS), but it doesn’t have to be manned.  When they book the session, the pilots can choose from a menu of “lesson plans” entailing an origin, destination, and flight plan, and they upload it to the simulator when they start the session.

Before the pilots start the session they are provided with the instruction they need to operate the simulator, and then with payload and weather data to derive performance figures for the “flight”, and enter these into the FMS as they normally would.

Then they go through the normal checks, and “take off” using the standard instrument departure in the flight plan.

They just don’t know what else will happen en-route. But things will.

If they have trouble with a scenario they are presented with, they can freeze the simulator and discuss it, or try again, but there is a time limit for the sortie, so they have to get on with it.

Sessions are recorded, but O’Shea explains his philosophy: “We have no desire or intention to review each session for video or OFDM events. Our hope is that crews come to the FTD, practice their skills, improve their knowledge and leave feeling good about themselves.

So if OFDM exceedences will not trigger the curiosity of the Ryanair training department, what does? Straying outside the Boeing 737 flight envelope freezes the simulator, which then has to be re-set. Of course why that occurs would matter. For example upset prevention training (UPT) is programmed into some lesson plans, but recovery from extreme attitudes is not.

O’Shea says the new system provides an whole array of possibilities for voluntary pilot bookings, including: maintaining handling skills, UPT, left-hand seat practice for prospective captains, RHS practice for prospective instructors, and recurrent simulator training core competencies improvement.

But O’Shea says the kit also provides Ryanair with additional flexibility to test corporate safety strategies, carry out new airfield evaluation, assess FMC database updates, and familiarise pilots with new flight crew operating manual procedures.

It can also carry out follow-ups for real OFDM events on the line, because the simulator can replay them for crew to experience.

At present Ryanair Controlled Training is new, and there are only five lesson plans on the menu.

But there will be many more, promises Capt O’Shea.


One thought on “Self-improvement for pilots

  1. Dear Mr Learmount, I am enclosing an extract from my book that might relevant for this topic. It is all in good fun but, “Many a true word was spoken in jest.”

    Bridges attract pilots like moths to a flame. London, New York, Paris, Sydney, Cologne, San Francisco might sound like the outlets of a fashion house, but all these cities have attracted pilot moths to their bridges. In the case of Paris, pilots have flown through the Eiffel Tower as well as the Arc De Triomphe.
    The famous Mad Major flew an Auster aircraft under FIFTEEN of London’s eighteen bridges in one go! He left out three bridges because, “the currents were rising and he did not want to take any risks.” It was lunch time. People were amazed. Girls screamed. Tugboat crew looked on in astonishment. One London bus driver stopped his bus on the Westminster bridge to let himself and his passengers see this once in a lifetime spectacle.
    The Mad Major’s real name was Christopher Draper. He was a World War One ace with 15 victories in the air and had commanded a renowned squadron. After the Second World War, Draper was upset at the British government’s treatment of war heroes and decided to stir up things. In 1953 he rented an Auster airplane from a flying club. Starting with the Waterloo bridge, the Mad Major then flew under 15 of London’s 18 bridges.
    The normally unflappable London police were left wondering whether the penalty for flying under fifteen bridges would be the same as for flying under one bridge. They tried to figure out how many summons to issue. They were somewhat in awe of the 61 year old, silver haired Mad Major, who stood 6 feet 2 inches tall and wore a Royal Aero Club blazer. It is a little uncomfortable, even for a London policeman, to prosecute someone who was already a war hero, when the policeman was a kid, for doing something so true to character. Finally only one summons was issued, for flying under the Waterloo bridge, thereby endangering people and property. The magistrate fined the Mad Major 10 pounds but said that he had taken into account Major Draper’s character and record and warned that similar offences by other people would be severely punished.

    What compels a father of 4 children to risk his life and fly a 6 engine jet bomber beneath the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan?

    What is it that draws normally sober pilots to stunt and fly under bridges? Many pilots join flying for the thrill. They soon learn that thrill seeking tendencies have no place in modern aviation. Some of them learn to seek thrills in other ways like chasing blondes, downing straight whiskey or betting on slow horses. The remaining former thrill seekers mature into repressed individuals and argumentative pilots. They are the ones who accusingly show their spouses new scratches on the car. They are the ones who use strong language with the crew rostering. Indeed, they are the only people today, who do not hesitate to argue with trigger happy, airport security staff. All their frustration comes out, because in reality they are repressed under the bridge fliers.
    Modern times have no place for under the bridge fliers. After 9/11 any stray aircraft is quickly targeted by the military, anywhere in the world. Does this mean that there is no hope for these repressed individuals? Problems can be solved if only we earnestly seek solutions.
    The solution to all these problems is so simple that it stares us in the face. Modern flight simulators used for training aircrew are so realistic that it is amazing. Virtually any airport and any weather can be duplicated in these simulators. If you fly low over a city in a simulator, you can clearly see the doner kebab sellers, the hot dog stands and the Irish pubs that have sprouted in all cities. If you fly lower still, you can even make out if the streets have been cleaned since your last flight. Trust me flight simulators are that realistic and have I ever lied to you before!
    Usually, when aircrew complete their check rides in simulators, a few minutes of simulator time is left over. These few minutes should be used to fly under all the bridges of the world. Not only will this result in happier pilots, it will also solve a very real new problem in airline training. It is this. Modern computers fly airliners so well that basic flying skills get rusty and pilots hesitate to override computers quickly. This can easily be solved by encouraging pilots to take over from the computers and go for the bridges like the Mad Major, in simulators at least.


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