February 2, 2006

FedEx Trains Pilots With High-Tech Simulators

By Jane Roberts, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.

Feb. 1--The mountains that cradle the Subic Bay airport are completely invisible on a cloudy day.

Capt. Mike Padron, a calm, affable guy you'd swear played high school baseball with your brother, seems not to notice. Or if he does, the rocky underpinning beneath the cockpit window that shows up as neon bands on the instrument panel seems to comfort him, as if offering bearing.

In starched shirt and tie, Padron, head of flight training at FedEx Express -- also the guy who flew the pandas to the National Zoo in 2000 -- touches the MD-11 down in a well-oiled choreography of verve and nerve, gliding the FedEx workhorse to a stop like a toboggan on powder.

A misty fog rises off the runway. From the back of the cockpit, an Asian-accented voice, sounding oddly like Mark Klair, check airman, welcomes FedEx Flight 76 to the Philippines.

This is flight simulation, the science that microprocessors have elevated from wooden World War II-era buggies with no visual systems -- and only rudimentary motion -- to the nearly $20 million modules that line "sim hall" in the FedEx training module at 3855 Airways.

"The old flight simulators did not fly like actual airplanes, though they were pretty good at teaching some flying under instruments," Padron said.

As recently as the 1960s and 1970s, the first time pilots actually flew on the job, they were in a plane loaded with passengers or cargo.

"We had flight training in the airplane, including simulating some emergencies," Padron said.

Now, all checks -- including emergencies too drastic to fake -- are done in the simulator, in "a controlled, safe, academic environment" that allows FedEx to train for the reliability it advertises.

The simulator's 60-hertz computer provides a startlingly accurate depiction of the real world -- with daytime, nighttime and inclement weather options, plus the "motion bases that provide great G cues," Padron said.

FedEx puts each of its 4,600 pilots through two training courses a year, scheduling each a minimum of 12 hours in the simulator.

These days, FedEx Express is hiring and training so many pilots, it nearly takes an efficiency expert to run the simulator schedule.

In 2006, it will conduct 60,000 pilot "training events," everything from upgrades on technology to the two- or three-month immersions it takes to learn the MD-11 or any new plane.

That includes all the time it takes to train 350 new pilots -- a hiring pace the company expects for the foreseeable future -- as it prepares to fly the A380 and replaces up to 170 retiring pilots -- the first significant wave of pilot retirees in company history.

"We're training 16 MD-11 crews a month," Padron says, "and ramping up to 24 a month."

FedEx owns two flight training centers in Memphis and one in Anchorage. To keep up with the push, it's leasing simulator time in Miami, Orlando, Minneapolis and Singapore and planning to lease capacity in Long Beach, Calif., Atlanta, Bangkok and Taipei.

"Every problem I have is the kind of problem every director of of flight training wishes he had," Padron says. "We have a lot of planes coming in and a lot of pilots to train."

Companywide, FedEx owns 20 simulators, lunar-landing-like modules that rock gently on their moorings 20 hours a day, seven days a week, putting pilots through the paces in a 3-D world that looks so much like the real one, you can see the Pyramid, FedExForum and a lively looking Beale Street on takeoff.

No matter how cool the technology, waiting outside the simulator for a check ride is among a pilot's most anxious moments.

"No other profession requires this kind of testing," said Klair, an MD-11 captain and one of 500 FedEx check airmen who ride with pilots in the simulator, testing their ability to think through stress.

"A lawyer takes the bar once. Ever heard of a doctor who has to perform a procedure again because a nurse said he didn't do it right."

Once a year, he puts FedEx pilots through a skill check so scary, many don't sleep the night before.

"We take them on a four-hour trip, hitting them with every thing that could possibly go wrong to see how they manage," Klair said.

Over oceans or on runways in distant places, he pulls all the triggers, dropping an engine on takeoff, sending snow at the cockpit in a chrysanthemum-like blur, then quickly changing wind direction and adding "ground swirl."

Engines systematically catch fire. Mountains loom so close the uninitiated cover their eyes. And then there are the cargo fires.

"You have 30 or 40 minutes to get the fire out before the plane is irreparably damaged," says a confident Padron minutes after he maneuvered out of a nosedive so serious it's the simulator test for surviving missile fire.

"Every time you go in the simulator, you're basically putting your job at risk," said Gordon Bryan, Airbus captain with 23 years at FedEx. "Something's always going to happen in there that you weren't expecting. Let's just put it this way: It's the most intense time you ever spend in airplane."

Anxiety, Padron says, is part of the profession.

"There are all kinds of challenges. How you deal with the stress is an integral part of being a pilot."

The test to be a flight instructor at FedEx is based on the Navy Top Gun exam.

Officially, the "qualification events" are called peer review exams. Insiders call them the "murder boards," a reference to the test at the Navy's Top Gun school.

Padron takes pride in the test's reputation. He created it.


--The company owns 20 simulators, costing between $15 million and $20 million apiece.

--It is in final negotiations on two A380 simulators needed to train pilots on the 10 freighters expected to begin arriving in 2009.

--All 4,600 FedEx pilots spend a minimum of 12 hours in a simulator a year, including a four-hour check ride designed to test their defenses and teamwork skills.

--FedEx will hire and train 350 new pilots this year.


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