By lex, on January 14th, 2004
Say what you want about the Navy training program – there’s no small amount to criticize…
But it works. It works really, really well. I didn’t know how well until I got a taste of the “dark side.” Civil aviation.
I used to think that there was some unwritten rule in the CNET (chief of naval education and training) binder which mandated that no one was permitted to give any lecture more than once. Early in my career, I used to sigh when Petty Officer Jones (or Smith) would stand in front of the assembled crowd, tell us where we could park our cars (our cars were already parked) and then apologize up front for his lack of familiarity with the syllabus he was about to present:
“You’ll have to forgive me, but this is the first time I’ve given this lecture.”
It was the same lead-in almost every time. Eventually you don’t notice it anymore.
But if it’s not always cutting edge, it is always effective – in flight school you get ground training for six weeks (aerodynamics, weather, FAA rules, aviation physiology, etc) and then you start flying in the T-34C Turbo Mentor. You get 13 “dual” flights, the first 7-8 with the same instructor, and then you solo.
In a million dollar airplane.
“Right then, off you go! Please bring it back…”
And the students almost always do.
And by the time you get to your solo, you’re comprehensively trained, ready for almost anything. You’re confident.
Fast forward 19 years – I’m at the end of the line for Navy flying, and toying with the idea of getting an airline transport pilot rating – because you couldn’t know: An ATP could prove useful in a second career. The work’s not hard, the pay is fine, and you hardly ever seem to do it. With the union rules, you get paid for your 80 hours a month (plus per diem) which you spend in the cockpit of a big jet flying to nice places. More or less.
There is a lot of responsibility that goes with being an airline pilot, don’t get me wrong. You’ve got anywhere from 12 to 500 lives depending on your skills, and those of your copilot and cabin crew. But if you take extra special care of the life occupying your own seat – a motivating force for all of us – everyone else should be OK too.
Compared to military flying, it can be pretty basic – take off, autopilot on, autopilot off, make approach and land. Something could go wrong – just like in a military jet – but there are several levels of federally mandated redundancy, and again: you’re very highly motivated to make it work out.
You don’t fly low-levels at 200 feet and 500 knots in mountainous terrain… or at 500 feet at night – not a required skill set.
You don’t have to be able to endure 7.5 g’s, while maintaining sight of an adversary who is as motivated to shoot you, as you are to shoot him.
You don’t have to hurl yourself at the ground at a 45 degree dive angle to release high explosive ordnance, and then pull out just above the frag envelope – or 99.99% of it, anyway.
Or develop safe deliveries for multiple ordnance releases for several bombs, in case one spins up armed and early bursts, setting off the other bombs in the “stick” leading back to your airplane.
You don’t have to land on the heaving deck of an aircraft carrier at night.
You hardly ever get shot at.
Giving the devil his due, airline guys do fly approaches in weather that military guys wouldn’t even brief for. But they’ve got cockpit back up, and high tech systems to make this easier, if never quite easy. But the work never seemed all that exciting to me. Not, you know: Like staff duty.
But it’s better than not flying all, I figured, so I went after the ATP. Went to one of those mills which churn out ATP’s, specialize in military pilots. Got three rides in a Piper Seneca – a very basic twin engine prop plane. My instructor had a total of 350 hours, and he was teaching me to qualify as an airline pilot (shudder). On one VOR approach, he started harassing me about starting my descent from altitude. I politely reminded him that we had not yet joined the final approach course, the airspace we were in was not protected from obstacles or terrain, yet. I’d start down when I was ready.
“Oh right, good call!”
Took a written test, passed an oral review, the three training rides were followed by the FAA check ride, and I was qualified as an Airline Transport Pilot.
Never have I felt less prepared for a check ride than I did that day. The cockpit was an inhospitable, alien place, and the comm/nav suite archaic. My only landing worth the name came when I was single engine. I passed the check ride (not my best work, but good enough, apparently) and got my rating. But I had a much greater appreciation of the Navy training syllabus than I’d ever had before.