Lufthansa pilots regularly practice in flight simulators, refreshing their skills at the training center so that they are prepared for any situation.
A smooth flight in a modern jet is something that we take for granted, often forgetting the skill and constant training that the experts in the cockpit need. To find out how pilots stay ahead of the curve, we went to Frankfurt or, to be precise, to the Lufthansa Aviation Training Center right next to the airport. This is where, in flight simulators, Lufthansa pilots practice in meticulous detail all the many things that have to function smoothly on board a real aircraft. And they keep on practicing – even if they’ve been flying for nearly 30 years, like Captain Wayne Joachim Lehmann, who is waiting for us in the lobby. Lehmann estimates that he has more than 15 000 hours of flying under his belt. Today, he’s here to train for the Airbus A380, the world’s biggest passenger aircraft. “Hi, I’m Jo,” says the 53-year-old with the bright Richard Gere smile, “we’re all on first-name terms here.”
Captain Lehmann completes four sessions in the simulators per year. Two are required by the Federal Aviation Authority for the twice-yearly renewal of his pilot license. The other two are so-called refreshers, which Lufthansa requires all pilots to complete. “The main focus is on training for out-of-the-ordinary situations to ensure that we’re fully prepared for events that will probably never occur,” says Lehmann. The sessions are also important to allow pilots to practice manual flying, “because the autopilot takes over long distances in the air.” Also, because there are usually three crew members in the cockpit on long-haul services, not every pilot gets to take off and land on each flight.
Lehmann heads to the hall with the flight simulators, which are metal cube-shaped cabins on hydraulic legs that can rise, drop and move in three dimensions – and which look decidedly bizarre from the outside. Two colleagues are waiting for Lehmann: Michael Bock, who will act as copilot, and Mark Bremmer, the training captain. After a theory test, the three enter the simulator, all carrying pilots’ cases as if setting off on a long-haul flight. They take their places between all the knobs, switches and screens: “The cockpit is a replica of the A380 cockpit, right down to the single-hand operation oxygen mask,” explains Bremmer.
We ensure that we’re fully prepared for events that will probably never occur
The instructor sits down behind the pilot and starts the test scenario on his laptop. The computer whirrs briefly and whisks us off to Munich Airport: Runway 26R, outside temperature 15 degrees and air pressure 1021 hectopascals. Thick fog limits visibility to 200 meters. Lehmann enters the flight route to New York. Then he goes through the checklist with Bock, switches on the engines, makes sure that all flaps are operational. They pick up the next checklist: Oil levels okay? Kerosene level okay? All doors closed? Finally, we start rolling, pick up speed and then Lehmann pulls back the side stick and the aircraft, well, lifts off. For the men in the simulator, this feels as authentic as sitting in a real A380 with a takeoff weight of 560 tons.
In fact, there’s only one thing that’s unrealistic in the flight simulator: the sheer number of difficult situations that the supervisor conjures up digitally. For example, the approach flight. Visibility is just as bad in New York, the runways are blocked, and Lehmann has to land with three instead of four engines. And to top it all, the on-board systems start squawking because in the distance – but too close for comfort – there’s another aircraft approaching us. “Traffic! Traffic!” warns a computer voice. If this were really happening, the two aircraft would communicate with each other and decide which of them will descend and which one will rise. “Descend, descend!“ commands the voice. Lehmann presses the side stick forward, pushing the nose of the Airbus into the downward position.
As fraught as the situation seems, Lehmann and Bock remain cool, even in the face of a veritable chain of unfortunate events. In unexpected situations they utter codes and keywords at each other. “Pilots need to coordinate their thoughts and actions at all times, and always be on the same level,” explains Bremmer. In aviation, there seems to be a precisely documented solution to any problem which the pilots have to follow point by point. You just have to know what it is. Or where to look it up – hence the pilots’ cases. These are stuffed with solutions and responses, set out in detail in thick manuals and documentations saved on the pilots’ laptops.
Finally, Bremmer has his student perform a “bounce recovery,” a super-hard landing where the other pilot has to take over. Copilot Bock descends over Bavarian fields and villages, receives permission to land but – purposely – touches down too firmly, making the Airbus bounce back up and threaten to roll. This maneuver demonstrates the full power of the six-ton simulator. Lehmann immediately presses the red button on his side stick to take back control of the aircraft, stabilizes the attitude and initiates a go-around. “If a landing causes problems, the pilot in control may be momentarily shocked and the other pilot must be able to intervene instantly,” he says.
We roll to a stop. It’s now for some personal talk. After so many years at the helm, does a veteran pilot like Lehmann still have goals? He considers the question for a moment: “In the past, all I wanted to do was fly. Now, my main hope is that everything continues to run as smoothly as it always has.” As one of Lufthansa’s fleet captains, Lehmann is responsible for other pilots. He has also seen many retire: “I’ve noticed that the thing that was most important to them was to be able to look back on a career without accidents,” he says before joining Bremmer for debriefing. Today’s exercise has definitely taken Lehmann a step closer to achieving this goal. Supervisor Bremmer is satisfied with his examinee, who steps out into the Frankfurt night prepared for any eventuality.
The way into the cockpit
Interested in becoming a pilot? The European Flight Academy (EFA), the Lufthansa Group ’s flight school, trains the pilots of tomorrow for all of the Group’s airlines. To find out more, visit one of EFA’s regular information events or take a look at the website