Written by Doug Taylor   

"A sea of golf shirts and Levi Dockers"

Ah, recurrent training.

Recurrent training can be thought of as a 'continuous education' for airline pilots. Even though you've been properly rated and qualified by a company check airman and the Federal Aviation Administration that you're safe to operate an aircraft carrying passengers, you are required to undergo "retraining" twice per year. Luckily, we've earned the approval at my airline to undergo "single visit" training in which we only have to undergo training once per year but at a longer duration.

At my airline, instead of using the word “recurrent training”, in spirit of former military pilots love of acronyms, we use the term “Continuing Qualification” or “CQ Training”.

Annual CQ is sort of a bittersweet event. Remember that anxiety you experienced before a test, a checkride or any type of comprehensive evaluation? Well, that's going to be an annual occurrence for the rest of your flying career. Once a year, stacks of flash cards get dusted off, system ground school notes, operating manuals and various study materials get taken from the top shelf in your closet and strewn across the living room.

The “sweet” part of CQ is that you’ll usually run into pilots that you haven’t seen for years and are able to share a pre-class breakfast with them and catch up on old times. We’ve got 10,000 pilots but I usually see a few people that I know on a daily basis.

I always find it amazing when I dust off my notes for review that I was ever able to remember such a vast amount of data, figures and systems.

Strangely, the hardest part for me is finding five days of “business casual” to wear during training.

The first part of recurrent training at my airline is "Fleet Common". Fleet Common materials cover items like our flight operations manual, meteorology, operations specifications (the rules that govern aircraft operation) and the "hot topic" of the year. The hot topic this year is security.


Our training department developed a highly interactive CD-ROM that you run on your computer at your convenience that includes multimedia presentations, study guides, and a "Fleet Common Exam". After completion, you're given a password of sorts that you enter on a sign in sheet on the first day of recurrent training to be given credit for completing the material. It sure beats an extra day of class trying to stay awake during a presentation about Category IIIb ILS autoland minimums in the classroom when you can review and be tested on the information in front of the television with a cold beverage of your choice at your own convenience.

Day One:
Since I'm based in Dallas and we operate both the MD-88 and the MD-90, our first day is an MD-90 specific ground school. Believe it or not, most of our ground instructors in Atlanta at the training center have never seen an MD-90, primarily because we use them for mountain and west coast flying thus never operating in Atlanta at all. Usually, the instructors keep the class fast, efficient and usually end up asking us questions like, "So does it really fly a lot different than the MD-88?" I think our ground instructors are some of the best in the world. You can ask them the most obscure questions about the most obscure system and they're able to clearly explain and answer your question. Quite a few of our systems instructors are former mechanics because they've got first hand operational experience on how certain systems work and that brings a wealth of knowledge to learning.

Believe it or not, most of the systems diagrams you find in aircraft manuals are a super-simplified “flow chart” of how the system works and is usually within the ballpark of the actual schematic.

Day Two:
Day two starts with another "hot topic" discussion with pilots from various fleets. It's very common to be in a large classroom with everyone from 737 first officers all the way up to 777 international captains on their very last cycle through training. This year, the discussion covered "FOQA".

FOQA (I'm not even sure what it stands for) is a system that we use that monitors various flight telemetry like airspeed, aircraft configuration and g-loading which is beamed live to a computer that "de-identifies" the data and stores it. The information is "de-identified" for everyone's protection so there's no need to worry about the negative ramifications of "Hey, this particular captain was 20 knots over final approach speed at this particular airport".

It’s almost like what you’ll see in mission control in NASA but it’s all handled by a computer, and there’s no one there actively monitoring it.

The information is stored and a computer program gathers trend information. So that way, if a certain aircraft in the fleet has a common problem of exceeding flap limit speeds, we can then look at the situations in which this is occurring and adjust our training procedures to correct this.

One thing that a lot of airlines, including my own do, is use real time situations from various airlines and incorporate them into simulator training. So if there is a common problem or occurrence within a particular aircraft model, chances are it’s going to show up as a scenario or ‘discussion topic’ during simulator training.

After the "hot topic" discussion, we join the flight attendants for an hour to work on CRM procedures. This year, once again, we were working together on passenger disturbance/security threat issues and how to take appropriate actions to counteract the event. Basically, we’re given “events” in which we discuss how we’d respond to it.

After that, we return to the pilots-only classroom and discuss various operational issues related to company and FAA procedures.

In the afternoon, we go to fleet specific ground school on the MD-88. We'll review most of the major systems of the aircraft, do the "emergency exit" door refresher and practice using fire extinguishers and such. At the end of the class, we're given a 50 question written test correctable to 100%.

Day Three:
Day three is pure simulator training. The captain and I will do about an hour of pre-simulator briefings with a simulator instructor discussing various "first look" maneuvers. This year, we were briefed about various types of windshear event escape maneuvers, spent time talking about the American Airbus accident in New York City and how to quickly and safely recover from an in-flight "upset" (temporarily out of control aircraft). We'll also do some self-guided learning working with various aircraft performance scenarios, paperwork and various line operational material. In short, scenarios in which you're issued your final paperwork and operations adds another 700 lbs of cargo to particular cargo bins and the legality of doing such. Or how to adjust your operations in areas of suspected windshear.

This year, the first day of simulator training was a demonstration of how excessive amounts of rudder during "upset" recovery is destabilizing and can lead to a situation which can lead to a structural failure. We also practiced severe windshear events on takeoff and events while stabilized on an ILS. And of course, we practiced the L1011 windshear accident profile that happened in DFW. That scenario is a severe challenge, even with the new predictive/reactive windshear guidance driving the flight director.

The captain and I went on to perform landings with flap malfunctions, electrical system failures, severe engine damage, simulated evacuation procedures and visual approaches.

My captain and I both performed NDB approaches for the first time since last year. I'm suprised (although proud) that either of us were able to pass on our first attempt!

Day Four:
Day four began with another brief and a new instructor. we do"AQP" training where we train to proficiency -- basically, if you perform a maneuver correctly the first attempt, at the instructors discretion, he's able to certify your performance as passing and you don't have to execute the maneuver again. Unfortunately, there are certain maneuvers that you still must re-demonstrate on the final day of training.

We covered V1 cuts, engine failures during climb, engine fires, Category II and III approaches, autoland procedures (way more difficult than you think), hydraulic failures, emergency evacuations and even bird strikes.

The scenario with the bird strike was that we're on takeoff in Boston and at rotation, we ran into a flock of Canadian geese at rotation. We kept the aircraft climbing and while we were running the checklist to secure the engine and work with Boston departure to get a vector for an ILS approach at 1800RVR, the flight attendant (portrayed by our instructor) calls us gasping from smoke inhalation. So now we're dealing with an engine failure, smoke in the cabin and an engine fire. My captain and I divided duties where I flew the aircraft, coordinated with the flight attendants and worked on getting the aircraft on the ground quickly. My captain worked the smoke procedure, got my engine secured and we re-briefed one another on our status before we started the approach.

The thing to remember that whenever you review procedures like smoke and fire, that you're going to have an oxygen mask on and smoke goggles. Not only is it a challenge to read checklists with smoke goggles on, it's an extreme challenge to communicate through the ICS with oxygen masks on. All in cockpit communications, flight attendant communication and COM1 comes through the overhead cockpit speakers so it can, and does, lead to communication challenges.

We landed; crash/fire/rescue including the tower stated that we had a pretty nasty fire on the left nacelle so we executed the evacuation. Time is of the essence in an evacuation so we use “STOP/CONFIGURE/SHUTDOWN/EVACUATE” but we have time to run the short evacuation checklist and get out of the aircraft.

Day Five:
This is checkride day. We go through a two-hour oral exam discussing various aircraft systems, operational procedures and aircraft limitations.

Speaking of aircraft limitations, get accustomed to memorizing them. The FAA will not give you any sympathy whatsoever and gives a strong admonition to our check airmen to respect their philosophy.

Clint Eastwood as “Dirty Harry” says it best: “A man’s got to know his limitations”

Luckily, we were able to perform satisfactorily in the simulator on Day four and were able to receive credit for all of our maneuvers. So our checkride consisted of me performing a 1600 RVR instrument takeoff and engine failure at V1, a single-engine ILS, a two-engine ILS (glideslope out) approach and a single-engine missed approach. The captain executed an engine failure before V1, a raw data VOR approach, missed approach, a single-engine approach, and a landing with a flap malfunction.

Also, we practiced “rejected landings” which are different than missed approach procedures. Primarily because you’re already past your missed approach point and you have to remain in “protected airspace”.

Whew! But we're not done yet!

Next, we're going to be tested on "LOE". "LOE" stands for "Line Operations Evaluation" where we'll literally act as if we've arrived at the aircraft at the departure gate, do all of the preflight checks, push back, start the engines and conduct ourselves exactly how we'd do on a normal line flight from point-a to point-b.

There is most likely going to be an in-flight emergency during this evaluation, but you have no idea what it’s going to be. By not briefing you on what’s coming, the simulator instructor is able to see how you’d handle a surprise emergency in reality, rather than a “canned” response to an event which you knew you could expect.

The captain and I do all of the standard everyday stuff, but in this year’s evaluation, I am the flying pilot and the captain is the non-flying pilot. We're given paperwork and check the weather. The weather at our departure airport is indicates low visibility, which requires a takeoff alternate. We contact flight control, receive an alternate with fuel burn and weather. We depart for Atlanta and while we're receiving vectors to join the SID (departure), one of our engines explodes resulting in severe damage to our right engine. My captain starts working the situation in the checklist and I handle communications with ATC (air traffic control) and try to find somewhere nearby we can land. KDAL is below Cat-1 ILS minimums as well as KAFW. On a single-engine in the MD-90, our lowest minimums are "category 1" which means we need at least 1800 RVR (1800 feet of visibility) to conduct a single-engine approach.

"Captain, we’ve got to divert to Oklahoma City, we're below minimums throughout the entire Dallas Metroplex"

"Go" was his answer, and he continued to work the checklist.

An important, but highly critical task is splitting tasks during an emergency. The non-flying pilot can’t possibly work an emergency procedure, handle communications with ATC, talk with the flight attendants and then set your “Mode Control Panel”. This stresses the importance of the preflight brief and making sure the crew knows how we’re going to handle any in-flight events.

Since I’m flying pilot, I’ll get the autopilot on when safe, work with air traffic control and work on the divert. The captain handles the checklist and works with the flight attendants this time.

In the checklist, there are certain highly important items that we both need to clearly confirm before executing. Items like pulling fire handles, fuel control levers/switches and such require that both pilots independently confirm if it’s the appropriate switch, double check and then methodically perform. If neglect that, you can easily go from an engine-out emergency, to a “dead stick” no-engine crash landing in a flash.

While my captain is working the severe damage/engine failure procedure, I started working with air traffic control to get a vector and get clearance to divert to Oklahoma City. Usually in the simulator when you do single-engine operations, you normally return to the departure airport. So I have to "clean up" the aircraft by getting the flaps up and using the FMS to give me an engine-out enroute climb speed. The captain gets the engine secured, and then I debriefed him on any changes to the aircraft configuration, including the current weather at our diversionary airport.

I keep control of the radios and he briefs the flight attendants through the interphone, let's them know what the situation is and then addresses the passengers about the situation, what we're doing and what to expect upon landing in Oklahoma City.

After that, I briefed the captain on the OKC ILS 36L approach, review that it’s going to be a flaps 28 landing, that I must disengage the autopilot before glideslope capture and about the generous amount of rudder trim.

Acronyms come in very handy when you’re working emergencies. The acronym I use is “FAST” for engine-out landings:

F Flaps 28 only. Flaps 11 on a missed approach and remind the non-flying pilot that the call is going to be “TOGA power, flaps 11” instead of “TOGA power, flaps 15” with two-engine missed approaches
A Autopilot off before glideslope capture
S Straight out missed approach. It makes doing a single-engine go around a lot easier when you’re climbing straight ahead instead of turning, joining a radial, etc.
T Trim. When I’m reducing power on the operating engine during the flare to landing, start removing my rudder trim to help maintain directional control of the aircraft.

We execute a single-engine ILS to minimums and land straight ahead on the runway. Crash/Fire/Rescue meets us on the runway, does an inspection of the aircraft and confirms that there is no external fire. I hand control of the aircraft back over to the captain and I coordinate an arrival gate with yoperations and we taxi into the gate, shut the engines down and complete a shutdown checklist.

We go back upstairs to the debriefing room and the simulator instructor certifies that we've successfully passed CQ training, debriefs us on various aspects of our performance (or lack thereof) and we're consider "safe" for another year of flying the MD-88/90.