I knew almost nothing about the Dash 8-Q400, so I was in the perfect place. The FlightSafety International Toronto Learning Centre in Downsview, Ont., specializes in turning pilots into Q400 pilots. My assignment for Canadian Skies was to be a student-for-a-day on the Q400 pilot initial course, to experience firsthand how technology has changed aviation training.
Now, I have attended a few groundschools over the years. The image of an instructor lecturing in front of a chalkboard came to mind, and the prospect frankly didn’t excite me. It didn’t take long, however, for FlightSafety’s staff to make it clear that training on high-tech airplanes is a similarly high-tech business.
The Toronto Learning Centre is FlightSafety’s lead centre for worldwide training on Bombardier Q Series (Dash 8 & Q400) aircraft. With over 1,100 Dash 8s delivered, the type has become a stalwart member of the world’s regional airline fleets, and the Dash 8-Q400 is the latest and most capable variant of the type. Introduced into service in 2000, the Q400 incorporates all of the latest gee whiz technology. For all of its sophistication, Q400 trainee pilots are often just entering the aviation workforce, and their first step into the right seat of this regional airliner may prove a giant leap.
To meet this training challenge, FlightSafety Toronto has about 55 full-time and 17 part-time pilot instructors. Upon arrival, I toured the facilities with Suren Meras, the Centre’s director of training, and asked him about the background of FlightSafety’s Q400 instructors. He introduced me to Thomas Green. On staff with FlightSafety for the last 15 months, Green spent 14 years as a Boeing 747 captain, and then two years flying the Q400 with Porter Airlines. He admits to having about 25,000 hours in his logbook, “before I stopped counting.” Green brings impressive experience to the table, to be sure.
Not all of FlightSafety’s instructors have previous Q400 flight experience, but the company ensures they have taken the Q400 initial course, been schooled in instructional techniques, and taught the course under supervision before they begin training students. It typically takes four to six months to qualify new hires as instructors.
Having met the staff, it was time for class. Meras asked if I had done my homework, reminding me that trainees have access to all of their study materials 30 days prior to arrival through the “My FlightSafety Pre-Study Portal.”
Meet the Teacher
In time-honoured tradition, students start their training in the classroom. Upon arrival, each student will find at his desk a bit of light reading, consisting of two pilot training manuals, each about the size of the Ottawa telephone book; one describing the Q400’s systems, and the other detailing normal and emergency operating procedures and limitations. Each student receives the manuals in paper and electronic formats.
They also receive a quick reference handbook (QRH), a document that used to be called a checklist before it grew into a hefty tabbed volume of colour-coded procedures. FlightSafety has improved upon these documents, which are typically organized and presented in an operational layout, rather than the manufacturer’s flight test procedures layout. During their scheduled 72 hours of groundschool, students will become intimately familiar with the QRH, as they learn the myriad details of the Q400’s systems.
I had the opportunity to drop in on a Q400 recurrent training class being taught by FlightSafety instructor Albert Isaacs. His engaging and informal instructional style was enhanced by two large computer projections. One displayed detailed graphical lecture slides, while the other showed the cockpit displays and controls with animated schematics of the various Q400 systems. With these tools, Isaacs brought the cockpit controls to life, allowing students to see how the various systems worked. I was pleased to also see a whiteboard on the wall, perhaps the last vestiges of old fashioned chalk-and-talk instructional technique in an otherwise high-tech facility.
Bridge to the Simulator
Students who successfully negotiate the 72 hours of scheduled groundschool will emerge from the classroom with an extensive knowledge of the Q400’s systems and limitations…and would be quite unprepared to fly the airplane. This comment is not intended to discredit FlightSafety’s excellent classroom instruction; but rather to acknowledge the reality that aviation training requires two complementary types of knowledge. Mastering a new airplane requires a pilot to know “how the airplane works” as well as “how to work the airplane.”
Groundschool confers a largely cognitive skill set of facts and figures, whereas the simulator is intended to develop behavioural skills; teaching the pilot to apply classroom knowledge using the appropriate drills and procedures.
Experience has shown that the jump from classroom to simulator can be a daunting leap for the student. To facilitate that transition, FlightSafety offers the graphical flight simulator (GFS) – a device which John Lorimer, Q400 program manager, described as “a bridge to the simulator.” The GFS is an unassuming collection of large touch-screen computer displays, upon which is projected the interior of the Q400 cockpit. The device runs the same software as the full flight simulator, and although it lacks a yoke and consequently cannot be “flown,” the GFS does allow the trainee to interact with all of the systems on the Q400 as if they were actually flying it. The syllabus schedules four hours in the GFS, learning to apply the checklist procedures as a crew, and providing some hands-on time with the Q400’s systems.
In my opinion, for some tasks the GFS is actually a better learning environment than the simulator. In lieu of an external visual display, the GFS has the capability to project animated schematics of the various systems. If, for example, the pilot actuates the fuel transfer switch, he can watch the animated schematic as the auxiliary boost pump is energized, and the appropriate valves open to direct fuel to the opposite tank. Simultaneously, he will also see the appropriate lights and annunciations on the instrument panel. Seeing the animated schematics come to life in response to one’s own switch selections powerfully reinforces learning.
Students can spend as much after-hours time in the GFS as they feel they need, but eventually everyone must confront “the box.”
In “the Box”
I suspect that by now every professional pilot has trained in a flight simulator. Often simply called “the box,” these devices are capable of conducting every conceivable diabolical scenario you hope never happens in flight. FlightSafety has two Q400 simulators in Toronto, both certified to the highest Level D standard. The great utility of simulators for pilot training is highlighted by the fact that both Q400 simulators are busy day and night, delivering an impressive 4,000 to 5,000 hours of training per year. Each student will typically have nine simulator sessions, including their final check ride. Clients include many of the major Q400 operators, including Porter, Jazz, SpiceJet, QantasLink, Flybe, Horizon, and most recently, WestJet.
Owing to a tight schedule, my time in the simulator was limited. My instructor was Rusmir Mujic, FlightSafety’s director of standards. Meras sat in the co-pilot’s seat. I can attest that the Level D certification standard ensures that the Q400 simulator cockpit is physically and functionally identical to the real thing. Furthermore, to ensure fidelity with each operator’s specific equipment, FlightSafety offers specific “aircraft configuration software modules.”
Meras talked me through the engine start procedures and we taxied for takeoff from a very realistic rendition of Runway 33 at Terrace, B.C. As a warm-up, I fumbled through a visual circuit to a touch-and-go landing. As every pilot knows, simulated engines are notoriously unreliable, and just after lift-off the right engine quit. Knowing I’m in a “box” never helps; the combination of high resolution graphics, control loading cues and motion always make me feel like I’m playing for keeps. My single-engine approach was serviceable, if a bit fast and shallow. This gave Mujic an opportunity to demonstrate one of the ways that simulators are preferable to airplanes for training.
“Hang on,” he said, “and I’ll rewind you to the beginning of that approach.” We shot the approach again, this time on the numbers. Real airplanes rarely afford you a second chance, and such digital magic doesn’t end when the simulator session concludes. FlightSafety has equipped many debriefing rooms with their patented SimVu software, affording the instructor the ability to replay any phase of the flight from virtually any perspective. SimVu can present video of the cockpit, a representation of the instruments, the position of the controls, and a 3D animation of the location and attitude of the aircraft at any moment in flight; an impressive capability that should quickly settle arguments in the debriefing room.
Diverse Backgrounds. One Standard.
During our debriefing, Meras related that most students struggle with the avionics, in particular the flight management and flight guidance systems. After all, he reasoned, some students have never used such systems before.
FlightSafety sees quite a range of experience among its Q400 students. The aviation industry has changed in recent years, with fewer pilots entering the training pipeline and a consequently lower entry level of experience for airline pilots. Nevertheless, I was astonished to learn that some students arrive for Q400 training with as little as 200 hours total time. I recall having 200 hours, and I didn’t know anything! At that stage in my career I could barely find the rudder pedals, and certainly didn’t feel qualified to confront a 65,000 lb, twin turbine engine, pressurized, glass cockpit airliner. It surely says something about the quality of the training process that FlightSafety can accommodate such inexperienced students, although some additional steps are admittedly taken to ensure their success.
The normal eligibility standard for the Q400 course is 1,000 hours total flying time with multi-engine and instrument ratings. Students with less experience are accepted, but FlightSafety requires a waiver to be issued. In those cases, additional “stage checks” are conducted to closely monitor the student’s progress; and, anticipating that some students will have their work cut out for them, FlightSafety makes additional resources available. This can include face-to-face time with instructors, use of computer-based training facilities, spare time access to the graphical flight simulator, and if required, further simulator time. In FlightSafety’s jargon, students “train to proficiency,” meaning that no matter what level of experience they have upon arrival, to graduate they must meet a single proficiency standard.
One Product. Many Masters.
Recalling the extensive instructional literature and software, I offered comment to Meras that course preparation must be a lot of work. His answer surprised me. Meras summarized their challenge by venturing that, “Ninety per cent of the work is done before the customer walks into the building,” estimating that a course requires 50 to 60 man-years of labour before the first day of training.
The regulatory overhead alone is daunting. The simulator requires testing and certification to meet Level D requirements. The course syllabus and facilities must be reviewed and approved. Then, the individual instructors must be qualified for the specific training tasks; and last but not least, each course syllabus is tailored to the requirements of the individual operator. To complicate the task, each national regulatory agency (Transport Canada, FAA, EASA, etc.) often has slightly different requirements. The result is a staggering level of specialization and flexibility in what constitutes a “Q400 training course.” In practice, no two FlightSafety customers receive exactly the same product.
Clearly, the days of chalk-and-talk groundschool are over. The Dash 8 has become considerably more complex since it was introduced in 1984, while operators are under increasing pressure to reduce training costs. As my visit to the Toronto Learning Centre amply demonstrated, as airplanes have become more sophisticated, so too have the facilities and techniques used to train pilots. FlightSafety International’s training facilities for the Q400 exemplify the state-of-the-art in modern aviation training.
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, Rob Erdos is an experimental test pilot licenced for fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. In addition to being an engineering graduate from the Royal Military College, and holding a masters degree in aviation systems research, Rob is a former Canadian Air Force SAR pilot. An avid airplane builder, and a passionate flyer of historical aircraft for Vintage Wings of Canada, Rob flies such iconic planes as the Spitfire and Hurricane.