“It’s all on autopilot, right?”

Autonomy versus automation, a perennial discussion. But the nature of human intervention in flight is much more subtle than simply the mechanics of flying. The autopilot was selected as we climbed out of Heathrow. The blue sky beckoned, the south coast almost unnaturally stark on the clearest of summer days. A heavy Airbus A321 needs a little bit of attention on a turning departure so we had planned a pause in the flap retraction sequence until the heading change was complete. It afforded us a better turn radius. A bit more margin over the lower end of the speed range. A bit more resilience should we bounce through a bit of wake. Continue reading


Back to (Airbus) school

Back in the summer it began to feel like the right time to plan a change of direction in my career. I have two careers: I am a pilot, and I am (or was) a manager. Most recently I have been responsible for setting the strategy for BA’s cabin safety activities. That is to say, any activity behind the flight deck door which has a safety component.

It was a big job and a great deal needed doing. But I had a wonderful team, a very supportive set of peers (known as the Leadership Team or ‘LT’) and I had the pleasure to work with some superbly professional cabin crew colleagues.

But all good things… I needed to plan a gentle handover, bow out gracefully, and in a way that enabled the new manager to take on a new and functioning safety system which I had constructed. All lots of fun.

On the other side of the equation the pilot bit of my job is also fairly demanding. Being a Training Captain comes with the added pressure that your trainee expects – no, hopes and is entitled to – some morsels of information to help them through the training process. Discovering these requires empathy with the trainee; their background, their journey to this point. The thrilling reward for being a trainer is to be part of achievement. I remember certain trainers from different parts of my career. I remember their words, little nudges, pearls, flecks of gold punctuating a long and sometimes frustrating road.

After two and a half years splitting my professional attention between ‘the office’ and training the time had come to focus on being a trainer. Which brings me to a strange point in my career: My fifth (yes, fifth) initial type rating course on the little Airbus (A320 series). This time I’m on an outsourced course because we are in the middle of the biggest training year we have ever seen even for the might and scale of a big flag-carrier.

Each course has been different. Mainly because time does not stand still. I am a different and developing pilot, the course is always evolving. I know of few other pilots who have done quite so many initial courses on the same type (I am sure someone will write in, maybe we can develop a mission patch for this special club – feel free to draw some designs). But the objective of the course is the same. The end point is to create a pilot who is competent and able to efficiently operate the aircraft.

Getting to that point is the trick. It is all about layers. Well, layers and attitude. The course builds logically. First on your own experience (it assumes a baseline level of knowledge, the facilitator pitches the course pace and level), and then system-by-system the aircraft begins to take shape.

Attitude is important too. For the button-pushing, lever-wiggling, thrust-lever-shoving activist the pace might be too slow (I am writing from the heart here). The content might be too theoretical. The practical destination might seem very blurry. In the early days of the course there are plenty of opportunities to get frustrated. How does this relate to that? Dark areas, shadows hiding the not-yet-known leave gaps to fill. You need a resilience, a patience to look through these first days.

I am acutely aware that in a matter of months I will be training people on this aeroplane. They might be new captains, brand new pilots, experienced pilots joining from the military or from other airlines. So my attitude is to regard the layers and pace as a gift. To understand the way in which this complicated little jet comes together in the mind.