Preparing for Your First Part 121 Ground School—An Instructor’s Perspective

Congratulations! You have been hired on as a Trans States Airlines pilot! This means that your airline career will begin with a six-week training program in St. Louis, Missouri.  There, you will learn everything that you need to know to succeed in the Trans States flight deck. Obtaining this knowledge will come through hard work and diligent, constant studying. While this may seem like a daunting task, it is achievable with the right level of focus and preparation. Trans States Airlines Flight Instruction Manager Paul Epperson shares his tips and advice for what to expect and how to prepare for the adjustment into 121 ground school.

Trans States Airlines Training Manager Paul Epperson

Look Ahead at the Training Footprint

Many new hires have only recently met the requirements for obtaining an ATP and are coming from a flight school or college training environment. Many others come from the ranks of the military or a corporate training environment. Most of these programs are built on a stage check, or stairstep approach to training. Since this is the only training many pilots know, they tend to apply the rules of their previous experiences to the airline world. Most of these programs use what I refer to as a “compartmentalized approach.”  In essence, the pilot focuses on what’s directly in front of him to succeed. If you apply these same principals to the 121 world, you may find yourself behind the power curve by the time you near your scheduled simulator sessions. This is not where you want to be. To avoid this, you have to plan ahead by looking at your training footprint.

What to Talk About Before You Leave Home

Oftentimes, ground school is compared to “drinking from a fire hose” or taking a couple of college courses that were designed to last a semester in just six weeks. At last count, our company manuals comprise more than 1,600 pages.  This is why it’s extremely important to sit down with your loved ones and explain that you will be completely immersed in the training environment for the next three months. Explain to them that this is likely to be the most intense three months you have ever had.  Try to impress upon them that if they are demanding of your attention during this time, that you very likely may fail.  In short, get your house in order before you leave for class.

“But what about weekends? You’re free weekends aren’t you?”  You’re going to hear this phrase or something similar to it. I encourage students to go home a couple of times during training to reconnect with their lives. I also tell them that unless they have an IQ of 180, they will likely struggle if they go home every weekend. Weekends should be used to catch up on material that you’re behind on and to solidify the information that you have been attempting to digest.  Make every attempt to gain the understanding of your loved ones before you leave home. 

An Investment in Your Future

Your first 121 ground school, your first check ride and your first recurrent training event are going to dictate how you feel about returning to the training center for the rest of your career. Thirty-five to forty years is a long time to fear the training center—you don’t want to get a sick feeling in your gut every time you hear the words “oral”, “recurrent” or “check ride.” I explain to students that if they do what I ask of them (and I ask a lot), they will form a foundation on which to build the rest of their careers. And, if they go all in now, everything for the rest of their careers will be easier. By completely committing themselves, they will leave ground school with a comprehensive understanding of the airline environment, as well as the principles of complex aircraft systems. What this means is the next time they go to class—wherever it may be—it will simply be a variation of the same things that I taught them.   And I want to be very clear about what I believe “all in” entails:

  • Get up at 6:30 AM to be in class by 8:00 AM. Stay focused for nine hours with a break for lunch. We finish at 5:00 PM.
  • Go back to the hotel and take a run (or whatever you need to do to clear your mind), get something to eat, call whomever you need to, and meet with your study group.
  • Spend 30 minutes to two hours with your study group each evening, depending on the material. Leave the group and study individually until you go to bed.
  • Repeat this every day for three months until you get to the line.
  • Approximately two months after completion of Initial Training, begin preparing for your first recurrent training.

Work Ethic and the Team

One important aspect that often is not reinforced properly is the need to work as a team. If you isolate yourself from your classmates, you will end up like the lone gazelle and soon will perish. I find hat the earlier a class bonds as a team, the more successful they are as a whole. You are going to have to trust and rely on one another to succeed. I tell students, “They don’t know what they don’t know,” hence the importance of getting together and quizzing one another. You will also need to find one individual who shares your work ethic to pair up with as a simulator partner. You are going to spend A LOT of time together, and you are going to be under considerable stress, so it’s important to choose wisely.

What to Expect Once You Arrive

The timeline for Trans States Airlines’ initial ground training is about seven weeks. This includes days off. (All subsequent references to time in this article refer to work days.)

I mentioned that most new hires don’t know what to expect. It’s difficult to prepare for something when you don’t know what is coming and I don’t want the class being reactive, so I take the time to lay out the entire training footprint on day one. I am going to do the same for you now.

Most 121 ground schools consist of several parts. Typically, the first part is administrative in nature and consists of a day or two of fingerprints, drug tests, photos for IDs, travel and insurance benefits, tax forms, etc.

Company Indoctrination

The second part is Company Indoctrination (referred to as “Indoc”). The time frame in our case is six to seven days. There are two open book tests and a one hundred question final. Once Indoc starts, the training can begin in earnest. Indoc is the most boring thing in the airline business! It doesn’t matter what airline you’re with, Indoc is brutal. It consists of things like the rules and regulations of the airline, hazardous materials and security, etc. Boring as it is, you have to know the rules.

It’s important to note that during training you will be taking on over 1,600 pages of material. The fact is, most people aren’t going to be able to study 1,600 pages of material in the time frame of a normal ground school. I explain to students that they “need to know a little bit about a whole lot and a whole lot about a little bit.” The key is knowing where to focus your studies. The instructor can make a world of difference here. I’m not implying that airline pilots are ignorant of the majority of the material—what I am saying is that you must know enough about certain things to reference them. That’s why we carry manuals (usually electronic in today’s aircraft environment).   For example, there’s a company policy on delays. I have pilots memorize key points of this program since, in our case, violating it can result in a half million dollar fine. I also explain that there is no need to memorize all the elements of the policy: You’re delayed. Since you’re delayed, you have plenty of time to look up the particulars of the policy.

Crew Resource Management

One full day is devoted to Crew Resource Management (CRM), with elements of it mixed throughout all of your training. Initially developed in the late 1970s, CRM is becoming a larger part of every airline’s training plan. Its objective is to identify and overcome obstacles to good crew communication and promote teamwork in all aspects of the operation.

General Operating Systems

Following CRM is General Operating Subjects (GOS), which lasts six days. GOS includes a more comprehensive look at some of the aspects of Indoc, but the primary focus is aircraft specific. This is where things get more interesting! You will be covering aspects of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the aircraft you were hired to fly, as well as winter operations, performance, weight and balance, and much more. GOS will also cover flows, call-outs and aircraft specific procedures. Flows are designed to place the switches in the proper place without using a checklist by following a series of patterns. The checklist is then read after each flow to confirm that everything ended up in its proper place. In effect, it allows you to double check your work while being backed up by another pilot. Gaining a solid foothold on the flows is critical to your success in the simulator.

Aircraft Systems

The timeline for Systems is 12 days. Typically, this is the most enjoyable part of the training process, but it’s also the most intense. Your understanding of the aircraft you fly has the potential to make a significant difference in the outcome of abnormal and emergency situations. The pilot of an airliner owes his passengers the highest degree of care. They are paying for your services, and they deserve a pilot who knows his craft. This includes, among many things, knowing your airplane like the back of your hand. Modern airliners have many complex systems that integrate with one another. It is incumbent upon you to learn as much as you can about these systems so that you may operate the machine as safely and efficiently as possible.

Systems integration training (SIT)

SIT consists of two half-day ground school sessions and three days of graphic flight simulation (GFS). The purpose of this time is to teach you how the various systems interact and how to do things like start the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), start the aircraft engines, bring the air conditioning (AC PACKS) online and many other critical functions. The GFS sessions (essentially Microsoft Flight Simulator in full-scale with touch point screens) are an invaluable training tool.

The Oral Exam

The oral can be the longest two hours of your life if you’re not properly prepared. On the other hand, if you went “all in,”  this is where you will reap the rewards of your efforts. When you show up for your oral exam, the examiner will ask you things about your aircraft, as well as company policy and procedures that will be very difficult(unless you’ve been through a 121 program before.) Their expectation of knowledge is very high—one day you may be flying their loved ones! Once on the line, you will be taking hundreds of lives into your hands each and every day. This is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

SIT for the Simulator

This version of SIT consists of two half day sessions. Its purpose is to make sure you’re ready to transition to the simulator portion of your training.

It is essential that you know your flows, call outs and profiles before you go to the simulator. Do you remember the first time your instrument instructor asked you to fly an approach and talk to ATC?  Now imagine it in an aircraft that is far more complex, moving three times as fast and that’s after you slow it down to approach speed. The simulator sessions (eight periods, followed by a check ride) are usually compressed, with four sessions, a day off, four more sessions, and finally a check ride (if you’re ready).One of the biggest issues with simulator training is that if you get behind, there is little to no time to catch up, so being prepared is crucial. A typical simulator session usually consists of a two-hour briefing and four hours “in the box.” To be successful in the simulator, you and your partner need to be meeting before each of your sessions for at least two hours (preferably in the trainers) to go over your flows, call outs and procedures.

In Closing

To successfully complete a 121 training program, you must define what you believe it means to be a professional aviator (if you haven’t already) and hold yourself to that standard. This encompasses everything from how you wear your uniform to your knowledge of company policy and procedures. How you study and address your peers is also part of being a professional pilot.  Hold yourself to the highest possible standards! Even if no one is watching.