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How pilots use flight simulators to prepare for any and all eventualities

July 11, 2022
13 min read
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Every day around the world, millions of people step aboard an aircraft without thinking twice about it. They settle into their seats, still focused on the latest Netflix show they’re watching on their phones with little thought to what’s happening around them.

Many of them won’t notice the safety demonstration provided by the flight attendants and will only glance up as the sound of the engines increasing to takeoff power drowns out their viewing.

Turning the volume up slightly, they’ll zone out for the next few hours, maybe only looking up again as they feel the thud of the wheels touching down on the runway at the destination.

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As they get up from their seats, their mind is focused on getting off the plane, possibly the queues at immigration and if their luggage has reached their final destination.

They may give a nod of acknowledgment to the flight attendants as they exit the aircraft but beyond that, they will have given very little thought to how exactly they have arrived at their final stop.

Most passengers think very little about what’s going on at the front of the plane. (Photo courtesy of Air France)

They probably didn’t realize that the metal tube that carried them sat atop several tons of aviation fuel. That they accelerated to 180 mph before being taken 6 to 7 miles above the ground and hurtling through the air at 550 mph. As they neared the destination, the engines were then brought back to idle power and they glided down to the runway before the many tons of metal, bags and humans were safely reunited with terra firma.

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Aviation safety has become so good that events like this are considered completely normal. These days, people board an aircraft as if it were a bus. Their safety over the next few hours is taken for granted and, to be honest, as part of your crew, that makes us happy.

While a thank-you is always nice (but please, don’t clap on landing), your pilots and flight attendants are proud that (most) passengers are able to fly in such a relaxed manner.

But this high level of safety does not come without effort.

Locked away behind a bulletproof door are two professionals upon whose shoulders sits the responsibility for several hundred lives and millions of dollars of machinery. Not only must they ensure that everything they do keeps the aircraft safe, but they are also the last line of defense against errors made further up the company chain, all the way up to the CEO.

The timeline of an aviation accident is like the holes of Swiss cheese. An accident never happens for just one reason but only when all the holes of errors line up. The pilots are the final piece of that cheese.

As a result, each time we arrive for work, we must bring our A-game. We cannot afford to have "off" days. However, the fact that most flights are so uneventful can actually have a negative effect on flight safety. When non-normal events happen so rarely, how do we ensure that we are able to deal with them should they ever occur?

The answer is the biannual simulator check.

License Proficiency Test and Operators Proficiency Test

To fly an airliner legally, pilots must keep their license up to date. To do this, they must complete both the License Proficiency Test, or LPC, and the Operators Proficiency Test, or OPC.

As a result, every six months all airline pilots are required to undertake two days of training and testing in a flight simulator to ensure that their normal and non-normal operation capabilities are up to standard.

The LPC

The contents of the LPC are outlined by the regulator who issues the license. For the most part, they will ensure that the pilot has proven their ability to fly the aircraft not only in normal everyday situations but also in non-normal situations, such as an engine failure or fire.

In the U.S., this list comprises:

Normal events

  • The correct use of checklists.
  • Departure, including loading of critical computer data and engine start.
  • Approach and landing.

Non-normal events

  • Rejected takeoff.
  • Engine failure on takeoff.
  • One-engine inoperative precision approach.
  • One-engine inoperative go-around.
  • One-engine inoperative landing.
  • Non-precision approach.
  • Other non-normal events.

The regulator defines the parameters to which these maneuvers must be flown and the test is conducted by a "training" pilot, either a captain or first officer. Training pilots hold a licensing rating that allows them to verify that the pilot has achieved the required standard and to sign their license to confirm this.

A 787-type rating on a pilot's license (Photo by Charlie Page/The Points Guy)

The OPC

Meeting the regulator’s standard is fine, but the best airlines aren’t happy with their pilots just meeting the minimum required standard. So, not only do their pilots have to pass the LPC to satisfy the regulator, but they also have to pass the OPC to satisfy their own airline’s higher standards.

The content of the OPC is created by the airline’s training department. As a result, airlines can include whatever other element of training and testing they want their pilots to satisfy. For example, during the engine failure after takeoff, the LPC allows pilots to add extra engine power if required (rarely do we take off at full power). However, some airlines mandate that to pass the OPC, the pilots are not allowed to add extra power, making the maneuver more difficult.

How it plays out

In days gone by, the LPC/OPC was simply a series of exercises to demonstrate the pilot’s ability to complete a task. The pilots would begin at the end of the runway and then proceed to demonstrate each skill one takeoff at a time.

When they had proved their ability to handle an engine failure on takeoff, the aircraft would be repositioned to the start of the runway where they’d then demonstrate a rejected takeoff. It would then be moved to the air so they could demonstrate an engine inoperative landing. And so it continued.

The problem with this is that while it demonstrates the pilot’s ability to handle the emergency situation, it’s not particularly realistic for a real-life flight. Ultimately crews would become worn down and disorientated as it’s not natural to have your aircraft suddenly move around the sky.

Testing vs. training

As much as the LPC/OPC is about testing the pilot, more and more these days the focus is shifting toward training. This is a good thing. The whole point of the simulator check is to ensure that if that fateful day comes, the pilots are capable of dealing with it. So why not use that simulator time constructively and allow the crew to practice those events to ensure they are capable?

As a result, there’s a fine balance between testing and training. Yes, pilots have to be tested to ensure they can do what they need to do, but why not use that opportunity to practice so that they improve and can then meet the required standard?

This is particularly true of elements that don’t fall under the LPC, such as other scenarios that may occur like landing gear not extending, fuel leaks and pressurization problems.

Dealing with winter conditions is a likely real-world scenario. (Photo by Getty Images)

As a result, simulator sessions are moving toward a more realistic scenario where "events" will happen along the way.

For example, the crew may be at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in snowy conditions planning to fly a normal flight to London. The aircraft is set up with the fuel they’d expect for this flight length and there may be a technical defect, which is allowed under the minimum equipment list (or MEL). All a very plausible scenario in the depths of the Eastern Seaboard winter.

Then shortly after takeoff, a problem will emerge. It could be an engine failure, a fire or landing gear that won’t retract. Whatever failures the training pilot programs the simulator to create, the crew must deal with them as if it were a real flight.

They must carry out any drills, run the checklists, consider their situation and make a safe plan — which, as in real life, may not always be to return to land.

How they perform during this exercise will determine whether they pass the check or not.

What is the training pilot looking for?

While it’s the job of the training pilot to ensure that the elements of the LPC have been ticked off, a large part is to assess the nontechnical skills of the pilots. Manual flying skills are only a very small part of what it takes to be a good pilot. Most of the other skills are about how pilots conduct themselves and interact with the other pilots and those around them.

Flying an aircraft is very much a team exercise. At least two pilots are always at the controls and they have to be able to work well together, particularly when the workload increases in high-stress situations. They also have to be able to work well with the flight attendants, air traffic control, passengers and any other stakeholders who might be part of the operation. As a result, the trainer is looking for evidence of good communication and teamwork skills.

The crew also has to demonstrate its knowledge of the airline’s procedures. With thousands of pilots in a large airline, rarely do we know the person we’re flying with until we turn up for a flight. As a result, there has to be some kind of standardization of how we fly the aircraft so that we always know what the other person will be doing in any scenario. These are known as standard operating procedures, or SOPs.

How the pilots work together is a key part of the simulator session. (Photo by Getty Images)

SOPs are so detailed that they literally define the exact words that should be used in certain situations. This ensures there cannot be any ambiguity when the workload is high, reducing the chance of making mistakes.

The crew also has to demonstrate its situational awareness and ability to solve problems. Flying an aircraft is like a game of 3D chess. The aircraft is always moving and there are mountains to consider and passengers to think about. How we manage this while dealing with a technical problem and creating a plan to get the aircraft back on the ground safely is a major part of the OPC.

The one other element present in all the above is workload management. The key skill of being a good airline pilot is being able to manage your workload effectively. It’s about prioritizing tasks, dealing with the most critical elements first and having the ability to completely rethink a plan should the situation suddenly change.

How it feels

Understandably, the simulator check can be a source of anxiety for some pilots. I can’t think of many jobs where your employment is on the line every six months, so simulator nerves are a very real thing. That said, we all have our own ways of dealing with these pressures.

Personally, I quite enjoy the simulator sessions. Maybe I’m a bit weird. However, I see it as a challenge, a chance to show what I’m capable of and also to push myself to find any weaknesses that I may not have known existed.

By studying beforehand and treating it all as a learning experience, I am able to control my own nerves and channel them in a positive way to a good simulator performance.

What happens if a pilot doesn’t meet the required standard?

The LPC and, even more so, the OPC are designed to push pilots and test their abilities. After all, the whole reason for their existence is to ensure that should those events happen in the real aircraft, the pilot is able to deal with them and land the aircraft safely. As a result, every so often pilots do fail to meet the required standard.

If by the end of the session the pilot hasn’t achieved the required standard, remedial training will be required. Each airline will have its own way of dealing with these situations and what steps are taken next. Well-trained and competent pilots don’t just suddenly forget how to fly an aircraft. Stresses in our personal lives can affect our working lives, and this is no different for pilots.

Quite often, below-standard performance can be attributed to something going on at home. The training team will discuss all this with the individual and decide on a plan of action to help get them through the situation. This may mean having some time off work before coming back and doing the simulator check again. If, however, the below-par performance is based on a lack of professionalism or waning ability, a program will be designed to get the individual back up to standard.

This may mean more simulator sessions and flights with a training captain before the pilot can resume normal flying. However, If that standard still cannot be achieved, a pilot may have to be terminated.

Bottom line

Airline safety is no accident and a large part of that can be attributed to the constant training and checking that pilots undergo. Practicing critical actions and maneuvers in a flight simulator every six months ensures that should a non-normal event happen for real, we have the confidence to know not only how the scenario should pan out, but also that we are capable of dealing with it.

Most flights are routine, with the pilots doing the same as they did the day before and the day before that. However, we never know when that one day in our career may occur — our "Sully moment." So, should you be a passenger on the day that happens, rest assured that your pilots will not be panicking and will simply be putting into action what they practiced in the simulator just a few months previously.

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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