Probation Period of Airline Pilots

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Even the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) cannot help a pilot who runs afoul of management during probation. Grievance procedures cannot be applied until the pilot survives the probationary period.

And probation is an unavoidable fact of life when you are just starting your tenure with a carrier. Whether you have had 10,000 hours of military or commercial flying, or only a few thousand hours of corporate or private flight time, probation is part of the first year with any new employer.

Probation is a trial period. It affords both the pilot and the employer an opportunity to spend time together on a day-to-day basis, to test whether they have a joint future. And because grievance procedures do not apply during this period, the employer has an opportunity to terminate the relationship without having to worry about union-negotiated contractual agreements, which often mandate lengthy grievance procedures that must be carried out before a separation can occur.

Not that airline management is so self-defeating as to be looking for a way to find fault with a pilot. Airlines hire pilots because they need them. The odds favor your being able to survive probation, even though you are being closely watched.

Following are some airline profiles sketched to highlight the probation policies and practices that a new-hire pilot can expect to encounter. Airlines profiled include a large passenger airline and an overnight package carrier.

United Airlines

For pilots at United, probation begins the first day after graduation from the airline's flight training center at Denver-Stapleton International Airport. The probationary period subjects a pilot to management scrutiny of his/her technical skills and attitudinal performance.

A paramount evaluation tool is the line check, survived only by those pilots who are able to keep their binders up to date at all times. The binder, which you must have with you when you fly, contains required FAA documentation as well as the latest revisions to your Jeppesen charts. You also must keep your company aircraft and operations manuals current.

The first line check is done shortly after you take your first trip in revenue service (i.e., your first flight carrying passengers or freight); the second is done at three months; and the third is done at six months. You can tell which trip will involve a line check by observing which dates on your schedule indicate a "freeze." The freeze locks you into the trip for which you are scheduled for a given date and assures that you will be available for a line check.

The third line check is passed by those pilots who demonstrate an ability to fly the plane well and work effectively with fellow crew members, as well as keep all paperwork up to date.

A pilot's first proficiency check comes at about nine months. The proficiency check involves a line-oriented flight training (LOFT) scenario, conducted in a simulator and representing a flight between two points on the United route system.

In this check, you will no longer be the center of attention, for you will be working with a first officer and a captain in a test of each cockpit member's performance as an integral part of a team. United Airlines subscribes to the command leadership resource management theory of flying, which stresses the team approach to the flight deck. However, you will need excellent mnemonic powers to memorize such hard data as the specific flap extensions of the B-727 at various speeds, the amount of hydraulic fluid that must be on board prior to takeoff, the aircraft's fuel capacity, and more than 100 other facts of this kind. You will have to answer questions on these matters during a 30-minute oral exam.

Your probation comes to a close with a home study course covering flight safety, aircraft performance, weather, and the use of the Jeppesen charts. You receive the course, along with a booklet and a questionnaire, after you complete initial training. You have to complete the course on your own time, and the questionnaire has to be filled out and returned to the company by the end of the ninth month of employment.

Termination of a pilot at United is rare, but when it happens, it usually involves both poor technical performance and attitudinal problems.

Airborne Express

At Airborne, all new-hire line pilots begin as first officers. Depending on the aircraft operated (Airborne's fleet consists of DC-9, DC-8 and YS-11 aircraft), the new-hire pilot at Airborne goes through a l'/2- to 2'/2-month training period consisting of ground school, cockpit procedures training, simulator training, and initial operating experience.

If you are an Airborne new-hire, the initial operations exposure, which includes about 25 hours of flight time, takes you to various points on the system in revenue service. During that time, you are supervised carefully by the check airman with whom you are flying.

After the first six months, you will get an evaluation ride from a flight standards pilot. The purpose of the ride is to see how well you support the captain in the first officer role; to determine your proficiency in carrying out pre-flight duties (including weight and balance calculations); and to note how efficiently you communicate routine checklist information to the captain. The evaluation also examines the pilot's performance throughout the flight regimen.

At the end of your first year, you must pass a proficiency check, which includes an oral exam and a simulator ride. An actual flight is used in place of the simulator for YS-11 first officers because there are no simulators for that aircraft. Successful completion of the year-end check ride is required in order to complete the probation year.

Airborne has no objection to Reserve or Air National Guard flying, but will not permit its pilots to work for other commercial carriers. Training center positions, which are restricted to flight management personnel, are not open to probation pilots, since the company insists on more experienced pilots for that kind of work.

Fischer summed up Airborne's attitude about probation. "We expect people to ask questions, to seek counsel from the captains with whom they fly. We expect our pilots to learn a great deal simply by observing how the other pilots operate. Enthusiasm and attitude are probably the most important things necessary to be successful at Airborne."

Other Carriers

The authors discussed probation with several carriers, including Piedmont, United, Airborne and CCAIR. All of the carriers pointed out that they value the experience that each new pilot brings into the company. While none of the carriers wants to see that experience cast aside, each said it is essential that, as a new-hire pilot, you adhere to your new employer's standard operating procedures.

Another important point about getting through probation, brought out by all of the airlines contacted, pertains to those pilots who held captain's positions at their last carrier.

In most cases, moving to a new employer means starting in a non-command situation in your new job. During probation, it is especially important to realize you are no longer in command. This has caused some former airline captains to fail probation because they have demonstrated that they can no longer work in a subordinate position on the flight deck.

What must be kept in mind about probation is that it is as much a test of attitude as of flying skills. The pilot who cooperates with his co-workers, asks questions, and shows the company he is willing to learn and to grow will not only get through probation but probably will have a long and prosperous career at the airline with which he has chosen to fly.

Note: This article is based on a Piloting Careers article by Paul Seidenman and David Spanovich, freelance writers living in San Francisco.
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