Playing the GAME

Your guide to successfully completing airline simulator training. Why do we do this to ourselves?

Air Line Pilot, July/August 2002, p. 30
By Capt. Kurt R. Selbert (Atlantic Coast)
Cartoons by Capt. Mike Ray (United, Ret.)

What could possibly possess someone to willfully enter the world of the training department? Why do we put our jobs, our reputations, and our self-esteem at risk? For status? Money? Personal growth?

"After my last training experience, I came away with the usual upgrade hangover!"

The answer is probably different for each individual. We want a bigger paycheck or a change in scenery or a change in job description. We put our lives on hold for 2 to 3 months and spend 12Ė16 hours a day immersed in books, manuals, checklists, procedures trainers, and simulators. Usually we come out ahead, having mastered the new airplane, and emerge looking forward to a few years of peaceful line flying, interrupted only by the requisite recurrent trip back to "the box."

Every once in a while, however, even the best of us stumble. The result is the dreaded Pink Slip. Was it your fault? Maybe, and then again, maybe not. Regardless, the personnel in the airlineís training department are rarely compassionate or understanding about your reasoning and excuses. After all, they have their type rating! If only somewhere along the line youíd been given a few tools with which to prepare yourself for a training event. Well, here are some for you.

After spending the last 13 years flying for the same airline, having spent years in the training department as an instructor and check airman, and after having successfully added five type ratings to my ticket, I finally get the strong feeling that I "get it."

Weíre involved in a game, pure and simple, a matching of wits, a battle of human over machine.

Iíve seen many pilots go through training. Most emerge successfully, but more than a few bright, sharp, skilled, talented pilots do not. While some pilots out there really should have picked a different profession, far too many training event failures are the result of a few simple, fixable problems. Allow me to share with you my observations about what we call A Training Event.


Having the proper attitude is probably one of the most important factors in succeeding in a training event. Of course a positive attitude is better than a negative one, but more than that is involved here. Approach the new airplane with your hat in your hands and a humble look on your face. In other words, check your ego at the door. I know thatís hard for pilots because we have chosen a profession that not everyone can succeed in and that takes a certain type of person with certain skills to master. But swallow your pride and remember that no one was born an expert.

What airplane youíve flown previously, what company you were with, or what type of aviation you were previously involved with does not matter. In learning a new airplane, we all start at the beginning. Your background and skills will help you, but they do not mean youíll be able to breeze through training on a new piece of equipment.

Attitude is everything. Listen to the instructors who teach you and ask them questions. Remember, they already know how to fly the airplane; and young or old, junior or senior, current or uncurrent, they are the ones who will be teaching you and were chosen for that job because they know what theyíre doing. If you become a thorn in their side because of a bad attitude, donít expect their undivided attention when you need help. It just might not be there for you.

Ground school

You have to attend ground school. You need to be told how the company operates, how to figure alternates, when to turn off the "fasten seatbelt" sign, and how many passengers you can take in 95-degree weather. Thatís the easy part. But you also have to know all the airplaneís numbers and systemsówingspan, max takeoff weight, number of generators, how to run the pressurization, how to program the FMS, and so on.

"I sworeóhonestóI would never subject myself to another trip to that torture chamber."

This may be your first airline training event. Maybe you donít know what youíre in store for. Or you may be the grizzled old veteran who has been there and done that many, many times. Either way, chances are that youíre a bit apprehensive.

The best thing you can do for yourself is to study in advance. Assuming you donít get thrown to the wolves, er, I mean sent to training with no notice, you probably will have several weeks or even more with which to spend countless hours pawing through the books. Important things to read are the Operations Manual, the Flight Standards Manual, the federal aviation regulations, the Airmanís Information Manual, the aircraftís systems books, and last but not least, the Jeppesen charts, over which all of us could use a little review, Iím sure.

If management wonít give you the systems book or the airplaneís FSM, pressure them, borrow a copy from another pilotódo whatever it takes. But get the books. Study. Prepare. Learn.

Show up for the first day of class knowing at least the followingólimitations, memory items, and profiles.

About memory items, if you are lucky enough to be training for an airplane that uses something called a QRC (quick reference checklist), then you will have few or no memory items to learn. Relying on your memory in an emergency situation, while quick, lacks accuracy. When all the emergency checklists are printed out on one page and placed in the airplane within easy reach of the pilots, checklist accuracy increases dramatically. The only thing that is affected is the speed at which the checklist is performed. That is not necessarily a bad thing. More on checklist speed later.

To study memory items, most people use a stack of 3 x 5 cards, writing down the name of the checklist on one side and each operation of the checklist on the other. They spend hours holding a card against their chest, looking at the ceiling, and saying, "affected fire switch, push; affected thrust lever, idle and confirm; affected thrust lever, confirm and shut off," etc. This is the way itís done. It seems tedious, which it is, and overwhelming, which itís not. Youíll be surprised how little time you need to place all the memory items in your head well enough so that you can regurgitate them on command. However, hereís a little advice:

Practice the memory items while doing something else.

Because the time a memory item will be used is a time of emergency, urgency, and excitement, what normally happens is that we find ourselves so caught up in the fact that the red engine fire light on the glare shield in front of us is ON that we forget what weíre supposed to do about it. Practice reciting the memory items while watching TV or walking through the park (not out loud in public; people will stare). If you can recite a long complex memory item with lightning speed while watching "Baywatch" reruns, then you should be able to handle doing so in the simulator.

Before you get to ground school, you should know all sections of the Operations Manual and pertinent FARs. Because much of the ground school will be spent on these subjects, knowing as much as possible beforehand will be to your benefit. Think you already know these subjects? Been tested on them for years? Study anyway. Youíll be surprised how much you donít remember.

As you spend your time in class, make sure you fully understand everything that is being covered. Nothing is worse than showing up at the oral and not knowing some vital aspect of, say, the airplaneís weight and balance procedures. If you donít understand something, ask. Instructors are there to teach you whether they believe that to be the case or not. Most of them do; some of them donít. Some ground instructors only go through the motions, while some actually put their heart into the class and want you not only to learn, but also to enjoy it in the process. If you get one of the latter, youíre in luck. If you get the former, well, I hope you like reading on your own.

Regardless of what kind of instructor happens to be teaching your class, you are responsible for ensuring that you know the material.

If you have questions, ask the instructor, or another instructor, or pilots who fly the airplane, or other members of the class. Remember, the only stupid questions are those that arenít asked.

Remember that the result of ground school must be successful completion of the oral exam. Over-prepare yourself for this and donít simply hope that the examiner wonít ask a question in an area you are weak on. Be prepared!

As you get closer and closer to the oral, wondering what will be asked is natural. Do your homework. Talk to others who have been through training to see what they were asked.

All orals have some common subject areasómemory items, limitations, performance, weight and balance, FAR Part 121 regulations, and of course, aircraft systems.

Search around for that list or lists of oral questions that floats around every airline. Some enterprising individual before you has put together a list of hundreds of previously asked questions, and that list is undoubtedly available if you look for it. Donít assume that those are the only questions that will be asked, but they will give you a good idea of the scope and depth of the material you need to learn.

Along with the oral question lists, youíll undoubtedly find a plethora of "cheat sheets" that people have put together to help themselves in the learning process. Thanks to the advent of the personal computer, every pilot seems to have become a publishing wizard, eager to provide question cards, cheat sheets, and other study aids to fellow pilots. I suppose Iím no exception because Iím writing this for the same purpose.

Regardless, take all cheat sheets with a grain of salt. The only truly accurate information (supposedly, anyway) comes from the official documents of the airline and the FAA. Whatever you do, donít (for example) ignore the Limitations section of the Flight Standards Manual and study only some strangerís cheat sheet. The numbers you learn may be not only outdated and incomplete but flat out wrong, as well.

With any luck, your airlineís training department has realistic expectations of you and doesnít turn the oral into a cruel aviation version of Trivial Pursuit with each pilot. Hopefully, the days of asking, "What is the nosewheel tire pressure?" or "How many watts is the taxi light?" are over. Remember, each airline has material thatís need to know, nice to know, and trivia. Hopefully, you will be asked little trivia.

When the time comes to take the oral, donít fall into one of two dangerous traps:

ē Donít nominate yourself for the "Golden Shovel Award"ódonít keep babbling on and on when answering a question. You may say something incorrect that will cause the examiner to ask questions that probe deeper. Answer a question with a short but complete answer. Donít offer opinions, or speculate on the intent of a policy, or say what youíd "really" do. Just say the right thing and stop.

ē Donít answer every question with a short, one-word answer. An examiner who has to ask four questions just to find the answer to the first one will likely get irritated and start finding harder and harder questions to ask.

No oral would be complete without a few questions for which you just donít know the answer. You are playing a game with the examiner, who has to prove to you somehow that he or she is the authority. Expect a few questions that you canít answer. Some examiners will keep asking you questions until they find something you donít know, because they want to feel like theyíve taught you something. Let them. Donít argue with an examiner!

When you do come to a question that you donít know the answer to, donít try to BS your way through it. Most examiners will allow you to look up answers in the books and references that youíd normally have with you on the line. If told that this is acceptable, donít hesitate to look things up. No one, unless that person possesses a photographic memory, can remember everything.

If you do plan on looking up an answer, make sure you know where to find it! Few things are more irritating when giving an oral than having the student take 20 minutes trying to find the answer to a question. If you donít know the answer and donít know where to find it, say so. Examiners would much rather hear "I donít know" than have their time and yours wasted by fruitless searching through your manuals.

On the flip side of that, donít look up the answer to every question. The examiner has to see that you know something!

"And it didn't take very long for me to fall in love with my Fabulous Little Sweetheart. I got really comfortable."

Training partners

If you are lucky enough to fly for an airline that allows you to choose your training partner, you must at some point look around your cadre of classmates and start lining up suitable candidates. The selection of training partners, however, is rarely done like this. Usually, the seniority system makes the choice for you. Regardless of how it is done, this is one of the most important factors in your training. A good partner can make a tough airplane seem like a breeze while a weak partner can turn a simple airplane into a single-pilot nightmare.

Regardless of whom you get as a partner, you will find that you have just entered into a relationship with this person that will last 1 or 2 months. You will find out about the partnerís childhood, home life, eating and sleeping habits, and many, many other items, some of which youíd probably rather not know.

TipóYour only goal during training is to get your training partner through successfully.

You probably re-read the above tip twice to make sure you read that right. Yes, Iím correct. You are not the most important person in your crew. Your training partner is. Remember, though, that he or she should be reading this, too, so youíre safe!

While a strong partner can help you sail through training, a weak one can sink you. If you find yourself with a strong partner, youíll rejoice in the way checklists get completed quickly and accurately. Youíll find joy in shooting 10 approaches in a 2-hour sim session. Youíll come out of each sim session with ever-increasing knowledge and confidence. If this is the case, thank your lucky stars.

If you find yourself with a weak partner, however, or one who just learns at a different pace than you do, your training will be a bit more difficult.

Everyone learns at a different pace. Some of us donít need to be told over and over to arm the approach mode before intercepting the ILS. Others, however, need constant handholding and reminding about what to do and how to do it. Some might take to the airplane in five sim sessions while others might need eight to achieve the same level of competence. Unfortunately, you have a limited number of sim sessions with which to achieve the required level of competence.

If you find yourself with a partner who is slow and who seems to need extra help, you have no choice but to spend time with that partner. Remember the tip. However, all is not lost. Itís just going to require more effort on your part. While going through sim training, we trainers highly recommend that for every hour you spend in the sim, you spend another hour with your partner, chair flying. Sitting in chairs side by side going over calls and profiles and checklists needs to be done over and over. Better yet, if you have access to a cockpit procedures trainer (CPT) during your simulator training, by all means, use it. Work with your partner over and over and over. Work over any problem areas until you make sure that both of you can perform any maneuver or approach in the book. Perfectly, without fail. With each required call. In the proper order. If you mess up, go back to the beginning and start again.

If you arenít willing to spend this extra time with your partner during simulator training, you may as well just stop the training and go home. You obviously arenít taking the whole event as seriously as you need to.

More than a few checkrides have been failed because the person who was not getting the checkride, but was merely riding in the other seat, screwed up.

Remember, the key to passing your checkride is to have a good PNF (pilot not flying). If your training partner canít program the FMS or is always hitting the wrong button on the autopilot panel, you might suddenly find yourself in the middle of a type ride, off course, off altitude, or worse, completely and utterly messed up beyond all recognition. Too bad youíre the one being checked at the moment and not your partner. Your training partner canít fail your checkride.

If your partner canít pass the check ride, chances are you wonít be able to either.


Somewhere in your training, after the ground school and before the simulator, you will probably find yourself in the CPTósometimes known as the "paper tiger." The CPT is used for learning and practicing flows, checklists, calls, and procedures, as well as where every switch, gauge, and panel in the cockpit is located.

While some pilots approach this phase of their training with boredom and disgust, others find it useful, apply themselves, take it seriously, and canít seem to get enough. Guess which attitude points at a greater chance of successfully completing the training event?

"It was an intoxicating mixtureóI gained lotsa seniority while basking in the sun at the top of the aviation food chain."

Your time in the CPT is your chance to practice procedures over and over until you get them right and to learn which procedures you will be expected to use.

Even something that sounds as easy as a normal takeoff can be a problem in a complex airplane that has both pilots very busy. In the simulator, because things are happening in real time, at first youíll find yourself feeling like youíre just along for the ride, playing catch-up to an airplane you are not yet familiar with. In the CPT, however, you can practice the profiles and calls and procedures of a normal takeoff and hone them at your own speed. Make a wrong call? Go back and start at the beginning and do it againóover and over until each maneuver flows forth from your brain with smooth efficiency.

As you spend time in the CPT, donít sit there with a pained look on your face, slouching in your chair, haphazardly holding the checklist, giving all the impression that youíd rather be anywhere else. That may be the case, but making the most of this time is to your benefit. Not only is CPT time cheap and plentiful, but you will find that once you advance to the simulator you may return to the CPT to work through any problem areas.


One of the most important things you can do at this stage of the game is to fly the jumpseat in the airplane youíre about to start learning how to fly. I cannot stress this enough. Do as much of this as you possibly can, time permitting. Jumpseating will allow you to watch the procedures you just learned in the CPT be put into action in the hands of pilots who fly the airplane day in and day out. Watch them, see how they budget their time, learn how they put those procedures to use. Ask questions. One of the best ways to learn something is to see it demonstrated before you attempt it yourself, and jumpseating accomplishes this.

Simulator training

Probably the most critical part of this game youíve chosen to play is the simulator training itself. The simulator is one big video game with several players involvedóyou, your partner, the instructor(s), and the examiner.

Hopefully, you will be lucky enough to have as instructors people from your own companyís training department. These people have your best interests in mind as well as their own. No one knows your airplane and how the company wants it flown better than your own instructors. Your chances of passing are much higher if you have a company instructor versus one from an outside source, such as the aircraftís manufacturer or an outside training company. And, contrary to what some may believe, the training department is not out to fail everybody. If it did fail everybody, the airline would become understaffed, flights would get cancelled, and the airline would lose revenue as a result. No one would be happy with that. The training department is out to ensure that you meet the standards your airline and the FAA require.

With an outside training source, your chances of receiving quality instruction diminish somewhat. Some very good outside instructors do a very fine job, but the reverse is all too often true. You might find a low-time pilot with no practical experience as your instructor. You might find a bitter instructor who maybe got turned down for a pilot job by your very company. Either way, the outside training source is paid to train you. Notice I didnít say to train you successfully. They go through the motions, collect their checks, and sign you off for checkrides whether you can pass them or not. This opinion was finely honed over the past 10 years during two training events of my ownóone with a dedicated simulator training company and the other with the training department of the aircraft manufacturer. Neither was what one could remotely call a satisfactory experience.

When you first meet your simulator instructor, you will be able to easily tell if this person has your best interests in mind. A good instructor will ask your background and will take it into consideration while explaining maneuvers and teaching them. An instructor should approach the training like you three are a team. Remember, itís a game. Your opponent, however, is not the instructor, but the examiner. This is not you against the instructor and then you again against the examiner. The instructorís job is to teach you, not simply to evaluate you. An instructor who canít do this has no business doing what he or she is doing.

Every simulator session should start out with a thorough pre-brief. All maneuvers should be covered in great detail. Saying that steep turns are to be made at 250 knots and 45 degrees of bank is not enough. The instructor should tell you exactly how to make the maneuver successful. Such as: 68 to 70 percent thrust, 2.5 to 3 degrees nose upóuse the IVSI as a trend indicator for your altitude, put the armrests down, put your elbows against them, and use just your fingers to control the yoke pressure. Details are important. The instructor knows, or should know, what parameters the sim requires to make the maneuver work. If the instructor doesnít tell you, ask!

All too often, however, we are left to the wolves. The briefing is short, and once in the sim, the instructor just evaluates: "Do this." "No, thatís not right, do it again." "No thatís still not rightóI donít know if youíre going to be able to pass this."

Be a pessimist

Do you know the difference between a pessimist and an optimist? An optimist always hopes for the best and is disappointed when things donít turn out. A pessimist always expects the worst and is pleasantly surprised when things turn out O.K.

"However, as time wears on, bad memories of upgrade school fade. I dreamed about a new face. I put in a bid for upgrade."

As you go through the simulator, be a pessimist. Expect the worst. Every low-visibility takeoff has an abort. If you successfully get through the takeoff roll to V1, youíll get a V1 cut. Every V1 cut has a failure of the most critical engine. Every approach is to a missed. Every two-engine approach ends in a single-engine missed, with a fire, with a turn at 500 feet, with the most critical engine failed, and so on. Never should you be caught off guard. Always expect the worst, and if it doesnít happen, youíll be pleasantly surprised.

Simulators do not fly like the real airplane, no matter how hard anyone tries to make you believe that they do. Usually the pitch is overly sensitive, and quite often they react totally unlike the airplane when flaps are selected. I recall a simulator a few years back that if left alone, would gain more than 1,000 feet and slow to the stickpusher in a steep nose-up attitude, just from extending the flaps to 8 degrees at proper flap extension speed. This required a strong arm on the yolk to overcome or, as another technique, about 5 secondsí worth of down elevator trim starting about 3 seconds before calling for the flap extension! And they called this realistic?

As you go through sim training, you may experience times of frustration with yourself, the simulator, your partner, and yes, even your wonderful instructor! Whatever you do, do not take your frustrations out on the simulator. Yanking and stomping and rowing a boat with the thrust levers will only get you in trouble.

You and your training partner should make every effort to help each other as much as possible. Let an instructor who thinks youíre helping too much tell you. Otherwise, go for broke and help out. If a checklist needs to be called for but hasnít been done, donít sit there as PNF and stare straight ahead in silence while your partner bungles the checkride. Get out the checklist and hold it on your leg closest to your partner. Drop the checklist and say loudly something like, "Sorry, I dropped the CHECKLIST." Remember, this whole thing is a game. If the person is really engrossed in what he or she is doing and doesnít pick up on your signals, just come right out and ask, "Do you want me to read the checklist?" While the instructor, and later on, the examiner, needs to see the pilot flying (PF) perform duties and tasks, itís still a two-pilot airplane. Donít let any instructor tell you that as PNF you have to just sit there, doing something only when asked. Thatís BS.

Every training department has a syllabus on what and how and when a student is taught a particular task or maneuver. Often this syllabus is very good and gives the instructor the exact technique to teach or method for you to use to complete the maneuver to company satisfaction. Get a copy of it! You need to know what is going to be taught and how. Study the following dayís lesson, read the profiles, read any malfunctions in the QRH, and go over these items with your training partner before you set foot in the simulator.

Hopefully, your instructor teaches from that syllabus so that no surprises are in order for you down the road. This not only ensures that you perform a maneuver the way the training department wants it performed, but also should ensure that, come the checkride, you are well prepared and have been trained in each required task to be evaluated.

On the other hand, good simulator training requires an instructor who can think outside the box, so to speak. At times, reaching a student requires creativity. If you are one of these students who has been shown the "right" way to perform a task but still canít get it, youíll be far better off if your instructor is able to show you a different means to the same end. In other words, you can do just about everything in more than one way. The instructorís job is to get you ready for the checkride and if that means teaching you a different technique, one that you DO understand, then the instructor is doing the job properly and should be commended for it.

The checkride

When the time comes for the checkride, make sure you get a good nightís sleep, make sure you have all required items with you before you leave for the simulator, and above all, relax. Think of this as just another flight in the sim, this time with someone else watching. Inhale, breathe, and do whatís required and what youíve been trained to do. Donít become a mental basket case, and donít succumb to "checkride-itis."

"And when I saw MY name on MY new bid,...I was elated. The circle was complete. I start upgrade school next week!"

I know this is easier said than done. Youíre putting your license, your job, and maybe your career on the line each time you step up to the plate for a checkride. See what power the check airman has over you? See what power youíre giving that person? Just relax.

Often, a quick talk with your training partner before a checkride is beneficial. Maybe itís just a pep talk or maybe itís a stern plea to the PNF not to push that wrong button just this once! Regardless, if you think itís required, by all means, do it.

Again remember that your training partner cannot fail your checkride.

Another word of advice: At my airline, we have callouts for the PNF to make if the PF is deviating from where that airplane is supposed to be. For deviations on the LOC or GS, or altitude, speed, heading, etc., the PNF is supposed to call out the item and the PF is to respond with "correcting." This is a good policy, but if youíre the PF, donít call out "correcting" if the PNF hasnít said anything. The examiner might be sitting behind you writing on a form or programming the simulator and not paying total attention to you. If he hears you say "correcting" without the PNF having said anything, all youíre doing is calling needless attention to the fact that youíre doing something youíre not supposed to be doing.

When you first meet the person giving you the checkride, be it a company check airman or someone from the FAA, you can usually tell right away what kind of day youíre in for.

The classic story is one in which the examiner walked in, sat down, and made two nice little piles of paper on the table, right in front of two would-be captains, and said, "Now, the FAA gave me four packs of pink slips and only one stack of white slips. What do you think theyíre trying to tell me?"

I donít know what they were trying to tell him, but what that should be telling you is that you suddenly got sick and will need to reschedule your ride at another time, with a less pompous jerk!

Seriously, the above was actually said to two hopeful captains. Many hours and two pink slips later, two pilots learned that not all checkrides are fair.

Unfortunately, fair or not, your fault or not, if the outcome of your checkride is less than successful, usually no one really wants to hear about it from you. They will assume that youíre complaining simply because you failed. This is a fact of life, and you canít change it. If youíre really worried about getting a fair ride, get a union representative (if you have one) to observe. Otherwise, Iím afraid youíre at the mercy of the examiner, and fair or not, the examinerís word stands. Ainít life grand?

Most checkrides, however, do go successfully. Most examiners are truly interested in seeing you pass, and good ones even make the ride almost pleasant! Theyíll ask to see maneuvers and tasks youíve been trained on and will not get creative or sadistic or cruel. Of all the examiners Iíve seen, only a very few have been anything less than professional.

In closing

I sincerely hope that this article helps you get through your next training event with less anxiety. During my tenure in the training department, I saw many more successes than failures. The successful pilots all demonstrated their ability to follow the items Iíve discussed, and in fact, many of the ideas Iíve written about have come from students and fellow pilots as they talked about their training events. Likewise, the failures I saw mostly resulted from a lack of proper attitude or dedication while in the training environment.

Because training, both initial and recurrent, is a part of this career weíve chosen, making these events as painless as possible makes sense.

Good luck.