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What It's Like - Airline Initial Qualification

It Begins

There are a few days that every pilot remembers throughout his or her flying career. Most pilots recall their first flight, first solo, or first time flying with a loved one. One of the most rewarding days of a pilot’s career is their first day of airline training. I remember mine vividly. I can recall the classroom layout, where I sat, and who sat next to me. I remember the name card in my seat, counting how many people were senior to me (there were 12), and where the coffee carafes were located. While the experience of the first few hours were overwhelming, I can detail most of that first day as if it just happened yesterday.

It became increasingly difficult to stay focused throughout the day. We were all wondering where we would be based and which aircraft we would be assigned to for the next two years. We were curious about what the work rules would be, how the commute to work would look like from our homes, and how long training would last. The overall training “footprint” would show us the length of training as well as what topics would be covered. I was very excited to begin this next phase of my journey which would last approximately six weeks.


Every pilot completes indoctrination as the first portion of training. While other industries have different terms such as “on-boarding” or “enrollment,” airline pilots refer to this phase as indoctrination, or simply “indoc.” Most of indoc consists of non-airplane specific training which usually lasts 10-14 days. Ours consisted of multiple department representatives explaining their roles in the company, how their roles related to pilots, and general questions and answers. Examples of guest visitors included crew schedulers, aircraft maintenance technicians, and representatives from our pilot union. My favorite day of indoc was learning about and practicing water evacuations. All pilots were required to jump from a mock-airplane into a pool and practice using emergency water equipment. Thankfully, we had already taken our class photographs before messing up our perfect hairstyles.

Classroom Training

After the honeymoon feeling of indoc wears off, it is down to business. By this point, I was assigned a Boeing 737 First Officer position and had already begun my aircraft systems and procedures studies. The expectation at the airline level is that pilots will already have researched and become familiar with the content being presented prior to attending class. The classroom phase also covers fleet-specific operations. For example, worldwide training for aircraft that operate internationally or training for mountainous operations in Central and South America.

During this phase, pilots will also begin practicing their everyday job duties as First Officers. This includes flight deck preflight inspections, checklist usage, emergency procedures, and crew resource management. Many airlines fly the same model of aircraft, such as the Boeing 737-800; however, the procedures that the pilots follow may vary from company to company. Again, pilots are expected to have a working knowledge of the new material prior to each lesson. The instructor’s role is to create an environment where the pilots can experience and demonstrate what they have studied. Airline training is designed to stay one step ahead of the pilot with a sequential building-block approach to learning. Just like grade school, each lesson prepares you for the next. Ground school, in this case, prepares you for flight training devices which is the next phase of training.

Flight Training Devices

The last stop before entering a full-motion flight simulator is to solidify the pilot’s knowledge in a fixed-position flight training device. These devices have limited visuals and sound responses, but provide a platform for implementing checklist procedures and simulated operations. The flight controls will move and respond with pilot and autopilot input. The flight instruments, moving maps, and electronics are fully operational. Pilots can actually complete a flight from New York to San Francisco, in real time, using the exact procedures that the airline expects.

This phase of training allowed me to really home in on perfecting procedures, especially emergency procedures, before entering the full-motion simulator. The best part? We could practice in these devices during our spare time. The device schedules were posted online, so my training partner and I would spend a few hours per week after dinner practicing maneuvers and procedures for the next day’s lesson. This was an invaluable (and fun!) resource made available by the airline. In most cases, the flight training device portion of training ends with a procedures test. This checkride consists of normal, abnormal, and emergency procedures between crewmembers.

Full-Motion Flight Simulators

One of the most enjoyable aspects of training was experiencing the full-motion flight simulator. It is hard to believe, but the simulator is incredibly accurate when compared to the real aircraft. These simulators are large...imagine a two-story living room on hydraulic stilts. The interior of these simulators are an exact mockup of the flight deck. The sounds, motion, visuals, and even the radio communication system perform exactly like the real airplane. If the pilot has a bad landing, everyone inside the simulator feels it in their seat. The flight simulator is so advanced it can be used by pilots to maintain landing currency during long periods of inactivity.

The main objective of flight simulator training was to prepare us for our final checkride. Throughout the ten-day training course, we covered scenarios that included flying in and out of the busiest airports, maintenance issues, engine malfunctions and failures, and various weather hazards. Most simulator sessions were flown in the worst weather conditions - crosswinds, minimum visibility, and minimum cloud ceilings. These factors, combined with malfunctions and planned distractions from the instructor make a four-hour training session go by in a flash. By the time the final checkride day arrives, we are well trained, and it usually goes without a hitch.

Initial Operating Experience (IOE)

My first day operating the Boeing 737 provided me with a genuine feeling of accomplishment and reward. Initial Operating Experience, or IOE, is conducted on a scheduled airline flight with actual passengers. Of course, by this time I was fully qualified on the aircraft per Federal Aviation Authority requirements, but I had yet to take my maiden voyage. IOE is the final phase of training and the first opportunity a pilot gets to operate the real aircraft. These flights are conducted exclusively with a Line Check Airman who is specifically trained to introduce new pilots to the aircraft. Another goal of IOE is for the Line Check Airman to test the new pilot’s decision making by using unusual scenarios experienced by pilots currently flying for the airline.

My first flight was from Los Angeles, CA, to Atlanta, GA. To my surprise, the Captain let me fly the leg. Usually, the Line Check Airman will take the first flight to allow the new pilot to get comfortable in the aircraft. Luckily, this was not on his agenda. I thoroughly remembered this flight and enjoyed watching him take the second leg to West Palm Beach, FL, where we spent the night.

On The Flight Line

Everything that I have learned during my airline initial qualification training has been useful to me in one way or another. Thankfully, I haven’t had to use some of those skills, such as fire emergencies and evacuations, in the real world. I am always learning new things about the industry, my airplane, and flying in general. In a way, I feel like my training has not concluded. It is important to remember to continue learning, always set yourself up against a higher standard, and enjoy the career.

Justin Patton-Rynders is a consultant and co-founder at Airline Pilot Careers as well as a First Officer at a legacy airline. Justin has filled many roles in the aviation industry including pilot mentor, ground and flight instructor, pilot recruiter and interviewer, as well as Captain Line Check Airman. He is a graduate of the University of North Dakota, class of 2009.

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