“I know that I am prepared, but still, as soon as I get in that box, it all falls apart”
From the very start of their careers, pilots are amongst the most regulated and scrutinised professionals in the world. Read how different people approach their Sim and line checks. Common to most people, it’s the fear of criticism and potential failure that is the real cause of anxiety.
No one enjoys exams. Even from school days I can remember having studied hard for months yet still feeling a sense of nausea sweep over me despite knowing I am fully prepared and could not have studied any harder. Going into flight training was even harder, PPL skills test and the CPL / IR test, it is hard to fly accurately with sweaty palms and shaky legs, while trying to put any mistakes out of your mind in order to concentrate on the rest of the exam. I always thought it would get easier, but actually the opposite has happened.
I have found that going through sim training for the type rating, and the six monthly recurrent sims / line checks that follow is even harder. Now there is the added pressure of potentially losing the dream job that you have worked so hard to achieve for years. Before every sim check, I have studied, know what to expect, push myself to do some manual flying on the line to remove any rust from my hand flying, I know that I am prepared, but still, as soon as I get in that box, it all falls apart. Ironically, flying on the line I feel confident and competent, yet I will always leave a sim check with the same comments and scoring below company standard on my 'lack of assertiveness and confidence', amongst other mistakes.
I recently finished reading Chris Haddfield's book 'An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth'. During which I had a real 'Eureka!' moment and thought I had worked out the answer to all my sim problems. He talks about how when technical problems have arisen in space, for example even a fire on board, nothing is a big deal. They have trained so extensively for every scenario in the sim for years and years, that it is all handled very matter of fact-like and no big deal. I started to think about my own sim experiences and realised that through all the mistakes I have made, every single sim session I have come away having learnt something new, something that may actually save my life one day, and no doubt a better pilot for it. Each new nugget of information or piece of feedback from the instructor, no matter how small, is actually all adding to my overall growth of experience and skills. I realised that for that reason, the sim is a good thing, and not to be feared. The fear was emanating from the inevitable criticism of performance, combined with a deep seated fear that perhaps my performance will not be good enough.
With this new outlook, I went into my most recent sim session, feeling refreshed and confident, only to very quickly revert back to previous ways. Inevitably I left the sim session feeling deflated, not good enough for my job and annoyed at myself for not being able to keep the nerves at bay and stay focussed. It took a few introspective days afterwards to dissect the good parts, the learning points and to feel confident at work again.
Talking to Captains and other First Officers on line, the attitude towards sim and line checks is interestingly varied and, from my opinion, bears no correlation to experience level or personality type. I see very experienced and competent Captains still dreading the sim check and worrying and studying for weeks before. Likewise I see relatively inexperienced and new First Officers approaching the sim with incredible confidence, little preparation, and sailing through unscathed. There are the extremes of both ends, and likewise the middle ground.
Some people claim it gets easier with experience, others feel that it never does. Perhaps there is an element of luck involved, a tame TRE, being paired with someone who compliments your own style, being sufficiently rested and free of any external factors which may zap energy and focus. There is the common advice of 'Playing the game' ie. operating a certain way in the sim that you may not in real day to day flying.
What works for some will certainly not work for others, and therefore it will be important to find my own way of dealing with and preparing for the dreaded sim or line check. For me moving forward, I have spoken to my Base Manager and he is helping me to develop my non-technical skills through various channels, I am continuing to study and do some manual flying whenever possible. I have also been looking at my own behaviour and am becoming aware of various things such as a habit of nervous laughter, something which I know impacts on a first impression. After all, the sim or line check is just a snapshot of your operation, and I know that all my nervous habits and the way that I say things will contribute to this snapshot.
Sim and line checks... I have another 30 years to work it out.. to be continued....
Pilot experience - SIMS and Line checks