As COVID continues to plague the world, I spent most of October at the United Airlines Flight Training Center in Denver earning my 12th jet type rating on my Airline Transport Pilot license in the Boeing 777. It was a remarkable experience in so many ways but in one important way I had not anticipated. I expected the person I’d be paired up with for my flight training to be a fairly crusty, long-in-the-tooth airline pilot. After all, the B-777 and B-787, which share the same type rating, are the most sophisticated airliners ever produced in the US. The 777-300LR can weigh as much as 750,000 pounds, carry 300 passengers, and fly more than halfway around the world. Each of the two GE or Pratt engines can produce 120,000 pounds of thrust. But my favorite statistic, and the most staggering, is realizing the first time I taxied the aircraft out of the ramp area and onto a taxi way at JFK (in the sim of course) that the airplane covers the surface area of an acre!
Malik Sinegal is hardly what I had envisioned. Hailing from Biloxi, Mississippi, Malik looks more like a 220-pound running back for Ole Miss, and bears an uncanny resemblance to my son-in-law. He is flying as a captain for a southeastern commuter airline. I thought he was about 30. He is soft spoken, and very respectful. He is actually 23, and Malik now has the distinction of being the youngest black person in the world to have received a B-777 type rating. That’s only fitting, because most people think I’m about 60. I now have the distinction of being the oldest person in the world to have received a B-777 type rating, at 74. But neither of us knew this until after we had completed our training.
Now, imagine for a moment, two people from such vastly different backgrounds, cultures, life experiences, two generations apart, and a 51-year difference in ages, training together on the most sophisticated aircraft in the country, needing to work together for each to succeed and not a lot of time to get acquainted in the process. It takes two people with very professional attitudes to do that so quickly.
On the first day we met in a training center classroom, we were there to prep for our written exams. We each needed an 80% to pass the 100-question exam to begin simulator training. When our instructor began firing questions in the prep session, I was immediately impressed with the depth of Malik’s knowledge about the aircraft’s systems. We got into an interesting discussion about an arcane technical issue involving the B-777 electrical system. The instructor wasn’t even sure of the answer. Malik produced a diagram to support his assumption. With my background in engineering I was able to quickly confirm that he was correct, and more importantly, that my assumption was wrong. Malik was more than a little surprised at my declaration. He said he found it rare in his experience that people ever admit they’re wrong.
I asked, “Who wouldn’t be happy to gain new knowledge about something they’re passionate about?”
“Most people,” he mused.
“Huh?” I said.
In this one encounter, we began earning each other’s respect. I showed that I accepted him as a peer because he knew what he was talking about, and would listen to him. He learned I was logical, analytical, and not wedded to preconceived, unsubstantiated beliefs. That afternoon we both scored near 100% on the written exam. Clearly, we are both also more than a little competitive. We started simulator training the following day.
Training to fly jets is all done in simulators, and the simulators have become remarkable. A full motion (level D) simulator for the Boing 777 costs about $30 million! It is so realistic that after about five minutes everyone forgets that it’s not real. It really is that good. It mimics all the most important sensations of flying… what you’re feeling, hearing, and seeing. Everything works exactly like the real airplane. After completing the required simulator training, passing a lengthy oral exam, and a very lengthy check ride with an FAA designated check airman, the pilot is certified to walk out the front door into the cockpit of a B-777 aircraft, and fly it anywhere in the world. Well, yes there is a little more to it than that… Every operator has their own “Op-Spec” procedures. There’s an indoctrination process all pilots also have to go through before they go flying.
The instructors are amazing. They’re the best of the best. But, they’re not there to teach you how to fly, or even how to fly jets. You’re expected to be a competent jet pilot walking in. Their job is train you how to fly a specific type of jet to FAA “standards.” You must accept total responsibility for managing your own learning experience. You have to own it! For an aircraft like a B-777, this presupposes you know a whole lot about flying, have a lot of experience, and well-honed learning processes when you arrive. It’s all about you adapting that knowledge, experience and processes to absorb the details, techniques, lessons learned, and endless numbers you’re being fire-hosed with. Without the context gained from many years of flying different kinds of jets, the learning curve becomes ever steeper.
Before arriving in Denver, I spent about 60 hours training, primarily on a computer-based training (CBT) course the school provided. I then spent another 40 hours in ground school before taking the written exam. Malik chose to waive the ground school, feeling that the CBT course and other documents provided gave him what he needed. So, I was able to spend the first three days in one-on-one training with the former chief pilot of the United Airlines B-777 program. It was like being a pianist and getting to spend three days one-on-one with Van Cliburn. It was incredible!
The first day of simulator training was also incredible. The B-777 was pure joy to operate and fly. We rehearsed all of hundreds of things we each had to demonstrate to pass the check ride. Aviation is all about continuous improvement, and flying with other good pilots is the best way to get better. Malik was fabulous to fly with. He is incredibly well trained, for any age, and very disciplined. I also recognized almost immediately that he was better prepared than I was, and I’m fairly obsessive-compulsive about preparation. Our instructor didn’t think either of us would have any issues passing the check ride.
I periodically texted cool pictures to friends updating them on my training. One buddy texted back asking if I really did have to know how to work all of those buttons, switches, dials, knobs and displays. I thought that was a pretty funny question, even from someone who obviously isn’t a pilot. Yes, you really do. Everything in a cockpit is there for a reason. And yes, during orals we were each asked countless questions about what they do and how they work.
My training approach is to not just focus on all the things I’m good at but identify areas where I can improve, and make a commitment to getting better. That’s what the best professionals in any endeavor do. It’s why they keep getting better. Even with our instructor’s vote of confidence, it was apparent to me that I needed to focus on three important areas: data entry, flows, and checklists.
First, Malik was used to using the same Flight Management System keyboard, called a CDU or control display unit, that is common to the airlines. Because my aviation background is in business jets, the CDU is similar, but not identical. So, I was slower on the keyboard. Malik wanted to help me with this to keep things moving along. But I insisted that I needed to practice. My training approach has always been making sure I really know what I’m doing, a philosophy that has always served me well. I promised to come up to speed quickly.
Second, Malik was also quicker in his cockpit flows. This is basically how a pilot moves their hands around the cockpit in setting things up for any phase of flight, from power-up to shut down. It’s a muscle memory thing. For normal operations, a checklist is not a do list. The pilot does what’s required based on a flow and then uses the checklist to verify. I had watched several very good YouTube videos of flight crews operating B-777s. I had a good sense, but not a precise sense, of the flows. Malik knew the flows from day one. When I asked him where he had gained this knowledge, he referred to a manual he had received as part of his study package, but I had not. It was an unfortunate snafu. Again, I’d have to scramble to catch up.
Third, because this was my first commercial airliner, it was my first in depth experience with how airlines want their checklists conducted. Malik was again all over it with the correct challenge or response. The right seat, or copilot, manages the checklists. The left seat, or pilot-in-command, responds to a checklist challenge with a response. This is true in any jet. But airline standards are particularly dogmatic when it comes to the precision with which checklists are conducted. The language has to be exact… and yes, I do mean exact in both the challenge and the response. No extra words, no superfluous language, no added commentary.
The B-777 has electronic checklists for everything. For an abnormal condition, a warning or caution message will appear on the center EICAS display, with a prompt to the appropriate checklist for that situation. The right seat must verbalize that checklist precisely so the pilot-in-command clearly hears, understands, and confirms the right seat actions.
There are many good reasons for all this checklist precision. An airline pilot probably doesn’t know the person showing up to fly with them on any trip. English may even be a second language for one or both of them. Crews have to be able to communicate not just so they can be understood but rather in a way that cannot be misunderstood. By contrast, business jet crews usually know each other and fly together frequently. The bottom line was that my checklist management wasn’t nearly precise enough, and again, I needed to come up to speed quickly.
What flight management, flows, and checklists all share in common is Crew Resource Management (CRM). Neither pilot should ever take a precipitous action without communicating their intentions with the other pilot. For example, once either pilot enters information in the CDU, the other pilot should verify the entries before the first pilot pushes the “execute” key. If there’s an engine problem, the two pilots agree on which engine they’re talking about, and they visually and audibly confirm the action intended. There are very, very few actions that require an immediate precipitous action. These are called “memory items,” and are the focus of a great deal of training and practice for every aircraft.
The B-777 course syllabus is designed around six simulator sessions of about four hours each, with a 60-minute briefing before each sim session and a 60-minute debrief after each sim session. That’s about 12 hours in the left seat and 12 hours in the right seat. The check ride is another four hours, again two hours in the left seat and two hours in the right seat. Twenty-eight hours is a lot of training in a week. As the sim sessions progressed, there were more and more problems to deal with: engine failures requiring an aborted takeoff, engine failures requiring takeoff on one engine, and both in minimum weather conditions. Electrical, hydraulic, pressurization, and every problem likely to be encountered was experienced. Our response skills were expected to continuously improve.
Midway through the sim training, I asked the chief pilot for additional training to improve my proficiency in each of the three areas I needed to improve. Three extra sim periods were inserted into my schedule. This meant Malik and I would take our check rides separately, each with a line pilot in the right seat for our check rides. This turned out to be an added bonus for each of us. While I was sorry to miss being there for Malik’s check ride I knew he’d be great. My priority was meeting standards with confidence. My new instructor was wonderful to work with. I came up to speed very quickly on CDU entry, flows, and checklists and easily met standards for both my oral and check ride. You know you’re on top of your game when you’re having fun answering orals questions for two hours with the FAA check airman. And there is nothing that sounds sweeter to a pilot than a check airman saying, “OK, taxi in to the gate. Nice ride.”
I’ve thought quite a bit about Malik since our time together in Denver. He has a bright future ahead of him flying for the airlines. I’m proud of him for the extraordinary skills he’s attained at such a young age. He’s had terrific training. But, what impresses me the most is his attitude. At such a young age, he already knows that succeeding in aviation, or any endeavor for that matter, is all about doing the hard work. He’s professional, respectful, and totally committed. These are the same core values that served me through parallel aviation and business careers begun over fifty years ago. If Malik is any reflection of his generation, the young pilots coming on line now will be the best ever.