I picked up the phone before the answering machine cut in.
“Hello Scott, this is [the Chief of Standards and Checking at my airline]. I’m calling to advise you that your Initial Ride to become a check pilot, with a Transport Canada Inspector, is scheduled here in Toronto in two days, at 0700 hours. So that will be a crew briefing at 0600 and a meet-and-greet with the Inspector around 0530.”
“But, but, I’ve only had a couple of over-the-shoulders! What about the rest of the sessions as laid out in the Checking Manual Training Program?”
“Those won’t be necessary. This is the only opportunity all month when all the pieces fall into place and we need you checked out ASAP.”
“You’ll be fine. I’ll see you after the ride.”
And that was that; the die was cast. “Over the shoulder” described the process whereby a newbie check pilot would begin training by monitoring a check pilot conducting the pre- and post-flight briefings, the actual operation of the simulator for four hours as well as the paperwork that all combined to make a checking event for the crew.
As the training progressed, the newbie would assume more and more of the tasks until the roles were completely reversed, with the check pilot now silently monitoring and taking notes. And it was a high workload. Not only did one have to keep the check on the rails by staying ahead of the flight which involved programming the weather, runways, fuel weights and the various malfunctions or events, they also had to stay on the ball when acting as ATC, issuing vectors, altitudes, clearances and frequency changes. Somewhere in there, one also had to find time to scribble assessments and make notes for the debriefing. In short: myriad opportunities to stub one’s toes.
I was nowhere near ready. Had I been of a more-pessimistic bent, I might have thought that they had decided after a couple of sessions that I wasn’t check pilot material and this was their way of throwing me under the bus and sending me back to The Line.
Like all pilots based in Vancouver, I was loath to leave and therefore travelled to Toronto on the last-possible flight, arriving mid-evening the night before. I would have taken the even-later red eye but it arrived a half-hour too late on the morning of the ride. This was not a good tactical decision on my part.
I checked in, hung up my suit for tomorrow, set the alarm for 0430, crawled under the covers and turned out the lights. It was about eight PM body time and sleep would not come. Thinking of things that I must not forget to do in a few hours was not relaxing. When the alarm went off at 0130 body time, I was wound up in the sheets like a mummy and they were damp with perspiration.
I entered the simulator building on Airport Road at 0515, squinting in the very-bright sunlight of a clear, early-June morning which was already too humid by far to a West Coaster. I was the only one there, as expected. I stood in the hallway outside the schedulers’ office, idly glancing at the calendar printouts posted on the wall. Airbus 330. Here it is. Today’s date, 07-1100 hours. Two Cruise Relief Pilots for a Recurrent Check. Hmm; the couple of rides I had monitored had been a Captain/First Officer combo. I wonder if the ride is the same? I’m going to look a right idiot if it’s different. I only have the profile script for the Captain and F/O. Where can I find the profiles at this time of the day? Maybe they’re in the Schedulers’ office. I tried the door. Locked.
Was it just me or was the humidity rapidly rising inside this building?
Then I remembered discovering years ago that there was a back door down a dark hallway that led into the office. I tried it: it opened! I found the 330 scheduler’s desk and began pulling open drawers in her desk and filing cabinets. I noticed the pictures of family and pets on the desk and really felt like I was violating someone’s private space. One of the binders that I pulled off a shelf had the profiles and there was indeed a specific one for the Cruise Relief Pilots.
I opened the rings, carefully removed the relevant pages, walked quickly out of the office, down the hallways, into the sim bays and down to the end where the copier was. Slam the lid down on the first page and press the copy button. Nothing happened. Try again. Nothing. Read the display: warming up. Warming up? Look at my watch: 0535 and I had already heard footsteps leading down the stairs into the coffee room, one set of footsteps, it could only be the Inspector.
The copier wasn’t the only thing warming up.
Copies made, now run back to office, reinsert originals in binder, put everything back and tidy up to cover my tracks, race out the back door and dash downstairs two at a time to meet the Inspector. This was feeling like an episode of Fawlty Towers and I wouldn’t be surprised if I too was soon lying on my side on the ground, going around in circles. He recoiled slightly at the dampness of my handshake or maybe it was my flushed appearance, rapid breathing or the rapidly-enlarging damp stains on my shirt.
Scratch, scratch; he used a pencil to fill in the necessary spaces on his check form from my license and medical paperwork as we had a little chat. Not curt but not overly friendly either, just about right for our respective positions.
Then we went to the 330 briefing room and he sat in a corner while I did my thing with the two candidates; checking their documents, briefing what to expect. More scratching in the background. Maybe he’s writing good things…
Into the sim, up on the motion jacks, lights down and we are underway. The profile was completely different from what I had used previously so I was very carefully following it with my finger, as carefully as a checklist. I had no time to read ahead, this one was going to run in real time for me too.
We departed in IMC from Quebec City, climbing northeast for an Atlantic Crossing.
The profile’s next step read: “After acceleration above 10,000 feet, slew the aircraft to FL300: A/C POSITION-VERTICAL REPOSITIONS-300-INSERT-EXECUTE.”
My finger had barely kissed the screen’s EXECUTE icon when the simulator gave a loud BANG followed by the most violent heaving, pitching, rolling, yawing and slewing I had ever witnessed. I could hear the motion system wheezing beneath us as the simulator cab shook and vibrated.
My profile copies and notepad and pen disappeared into the darkness as did my headset. It was even worse up front. The two hapless pilots were being tossed about like rag dolls and I could hear their inertia-reel shoulder harnesses repeatedly snapping between locked and unlocked. Every conceivable warning light was lit and every audible warning was sounding at the same time, and some that weren’t conceivable, too.
I didn’t know what I had done or what to do next. Probably stop this thing from moving around like a washing machine: motion off. Stop the noise: TOTAL FREEZE. Find out where everything went: lights on.
That’s better. Where are we? Airspeed zero, engines quit, altitude about a thousand feet, radio altitude…zero? Damn! This was looking more and more like finger trouble on my part.
The candidates were still at the “What happened?” and “I don’t know” stage so I bravely ‘fessed up that I had just tried to rapid climb the sim but must have done something wrong so just relax and I’ll sort it out back here.
Reposition back to the runway; good, it took that. Restart the engines; nope, doesn’t like that. Hmm. There sure are a lot of screen pages, so many icons. Oh; here’s one: CRASH RESET. That’s better, now the engines start. Total freeze release; still getting a landing gear warning. I ask them to put the gear down; it won’t extend. We are resting on our belly on the runway with the engines running.
I had not witnessed a crash recovery during my limited exposure to the instructor’s panel; it was strictly “poke and pray” time now. Keep frantically scrolling through never-before-seen screen pages. Why is the air conditioning so poor in here? I’m sweating so badly my reading glasses are beginning to fog up.
A/C ON JACKS? Wonder what that icon is for. What the heck, I’ve nothing to lose at this point. Up we go a few feet, three green lights, press the icon again and we settle back onto the runway and blessed silence returns. Not total silence; from the inspector seated behind me comes the dreaded “Scratch, scratch” and my spirits sank lower the more scratching I heard.
The rest of the ride was comparatively uneventful.
During the debriefing, I assessed them as passed and apologized for the stress I had inadvertently put them under, explaining that I had followed the unfamiliar script so carefully that I had attempted to put the poor Airbus at 300 ASL northeast of the airport where the terrain is higher than that.
After they packed up their flight bags and departed, the inspector had me close the door for my own debriefing. I was fully expecting the worst as I had surely gone out of my way to earn it. While I did deserve and get a barely-acceptable grade on my simulator handling, I was surprised to get the highest grade on other skills. He kindly stated that I had immediately gone out of my way to calm and reassure the candidates, indicating that my concern for them was paramount and he was pleased to see that. He rated my communication skills as excellent (I can only assume that he could not hear my whispered cursing as I tried to restore everything). He assessed me as a pass as well.
And so that is how I began a six-year stretch in my new position, by being (unless someone else hasn’t come out yet) the only check pilot in my company to crash the “airplane” from the instructor’s station while having a government inspector looking over my shoulder.
Decades later, I still dislike the memories evoked by the sound of a pencil scratching on paper…