The main atrium looks like something out of Starfleet Command.
Let's be honest: What aviator wouldn't jump at the opportunity for a free ATP rating and a free type rating from one of the premier advanced training flight schools in the world—if that was an option? It is.
CAE's (formally known as SimuFlite) Right-Seat Program is technically called the "Supporting Crewmember Program." Simply put, the majority of CAE courses are designed to teach an even number of students from start to finish. If accepted as a "Right-Seater," you basically hang out in Dallas or any of their other locations (on your own dime) and wait for an odd number of students. Then, when called upon, you jump into the right seat of whatever aircraft CAE has you checked out in to handle all the right-seat duties, so that the paying student can receive the full benefits of his/her lesson. This is called a "session."
Depending on the aircraft you'd like, after 80 sessions or more, you're graduated to student status in what's called an "educational grant," at which point CAE will send you through their entire program from intro to type rating free of charge. Again, this is all aircraft specific.
If your goal is to be typed in a Cessna Citation, that will require 80 sessions. If you'd like a mid-sized cabin type rating, you're looking at 200 sessions, though you don't have to perform those in the aircraft you're choosing. For example, you could perform all 200 of your sessions in one of the King Air simulators and still request a Gulfstream IV type rating.
In any case, the program is a win-win situation for both the participating pilots and the school. If there isn't a Right-Seater available, one of the school's Instructors will have to fill in the right seats. The Instructors are very grateful not to have to pull double duties. CAE initial courses start at around $18,500. With that as a base number, one manner of looking at it is CAE is rewarding the Right-Seaters $231.25 per session in non-taxable income.
The basic minimum qualifications are a Multi-Engine Commercial Instrument rating and 300 hours of total time. If you're shooting for the ATP, you'll need to pass the ATP written exam before you arrive.
When I was invited to Dallas, I had a Multi-Instrument Commercial rating and Multi-Engine Instructor plus Advance Ground Instructor ratings and 2,300 hours total time. I'm advancing in aviation later in life; although I've been flying recreationally since I was 14 years old, I've only been pursuing this path professionally for the last few years. I also recently turned 50. There aren't as many companies willing to invest the money into training me to the point of an ATP rating as there would be for someone who's, say, 25. For me, all of this was a perfect opportunity.
The Citation II simulator for analog-gauge training
I was introduced to the program by CAE Instructor Darnell Jones, and after a pretty specific phone interview with Training Manager Kevin Eisan, I was invited to Dallas.
Walking into CAE for the first time was much more daunting than I had expected. The building is enormous, and employs hundreds and hundreds of people. It presently houses 35 Full-Motion Type "C" and "D" simulators. They're big computer boxes, about the size of two cargo vans side by side, suspended some 10 feet in the air on six pneumatic pedestals. The sims are so capable of duplicating real-world scenarios that it's completely legal and actually better to go straight from a Type C or D simulator to flying a jet in the real world with passengers in the back rather than training in an actual aircraft.
First, you pass through a level of security that's similar to boarding an airliner sans the metal detectors. You have to verify who you are and that you have all the qualifications your paperwork says you do.
Inside the main entrance is an antique Link trainer, the great granddaddy of all modern simulators. The aviation adage is that pilots in World War II would volunteer for combat missions to get out of flying their simulator sessions because being inside a Link wasn't all that enjoyable.
Right-Seaters will go through a five-day introduction class specific to the aircraft they've been assigned to. And it's hard! The phrase "trying to drink from a fire hose" is very applicable. This is real-world professional aviation. There's no easy way through it. You study all day long. When you get back to your hotel room, you study all night. You have to know the information. That's the job you agreed to.
The primary responsibility of a Right-Seater is to know all the speeds that the aircraft has to hit, and be able to whip through the checklist books and flip every switch in the cockpit like the wind. The Left-Seater makes the majority of the aeronautical decisions. I had all the pages of each of my different checklist books all tabbed up, so that depending on the emergency, I could flip straight to that emergency without having to look that situation up in the index.
When you're ready, they bring you to the simulators with one of the Instructors in the left seat.
The first time you walk across the drawbridge to the simulator, everything seems like it will be so much fun. This is the biggest video game in the world! The atrium housing the Bravo simulator literally looks like something out of Starfleet Command. There's a uniquely pleasant smell that all the simulators share, which can only be described as what a hum smells like. As big as the outside of the box is, they're all surprisingly small on the inside—actually, cockpit sized. The engineers have done everything possible to duplicate the real-world experiences of flying each type of aircraft. The graphics are beyond description. Everything looks real. Everything sounds real. Every control reacts real. Our first flights were all out of JFK. At one point, an amazingly realistic 747 taxied out in front of me in part of a situation to make sure that I was paying attention to both what was going on inside the cockpit and outside. That moment was so jarring that I covered my face with my arms because I thought we were about to crash into the Boeing.
CAE simulators can duplicate any cockpit, from the most modern glass panels to "steam gauges," depending on the student's needs.
The first simulator session was flat-out thrilling. For all intents and purposes, I was flying a jet—in the safest environment possible.
I was assigned to jump back and forth between a Citation Bravo, a Citation Ultra and a Citation II. The frustration was that the II is designed specifically to be an analog cockpit with actual steam gauges and no GPS moving maps. This was set up to duplicate the best technology the 1970s had to offer. I had to adapt.
From that point on, I was a Right-Seater waiting for the phone to ring (actually, for the emails to be sent). Normally, the schedules are made up on Thursdays, and you find out your times on Fridays. But, I learned quickly to always be ready with your cell phone on you. You never know when the Schedulers are going to call. The program members who are available to solve the Scheduler's needs at a moment's notice stand out and advance more quickly.
You don't get a whole lot of sessions in the beginning. Right-Seaters with seniority and who have proven themselves are requested first. What you do learn is that the Instructors don't have as much pull in this situation as the Schedulers do. The first priority is to make friends with the Schedulers. And then, you wait.
I grew a little better with each flight. Soon, the paying students started to request me as their Right-Seater. Then, the Instructors were requesting me. One of the correct choices I made was I asked for every session that went after midnight because each of those count as two sessions. The Schedulers are very aware of who's willing to be there from 6:00 a.m., all the way around the horn until 2:00 a.m. the following morning, with a smile on their face.
What I hadn't counted on was that the level of tension brought on by being in those extremely realistic simulators as you react to being set on fire—sometimes three or four times per session, which could sometimes be as many as 10 to 16 times a day—or various other emergencies, doesn't leave when you go home at night. Toward the end of my CAE experience, I was waking up each night having intense nightmares of being in crashing aircraft.
The fastest I've heard of anyone getting through their 80 sessions was two months. I really committed and took every session I could get. I completed my sessions in three months.
When I heard rumors that the Schedulers were working out the numbers to see if I could fit into one of the next initial classes, I started watching the tables in the Bravo Initial room. One day, there was a placard with my name on it. I had graduated to student status.
The nicest part of this phase was when my fellow students asked about how I was getting all this for free, the Instructors were the first to come to my defense and point out that I was being given nothing for free—I had earned every bit of the education I was now receiving. (Even if I never saw it that way, I felt and still do feel that I was given a whole lot.) Each of our Ground Instructors told our class on multiple occasions how often they saw me stepping out of the simulators at 2:00 a.m., and that no matter how many times I had been flown that day, I'd always go to the next session with a positive attitude.
Speaking of the Instructors, it's time to point out my Ground School Instructors Darnell Jones and Cevin Beall. I can easily say that they were two of the three finest aeronautical instructors I've ever had the pleasure to be taught by. Both were more than committed to the advancement of their students, and showed up every day with their "A" game in both knowledge and patience.
As I advanced in the flying portion of training, my instructor was Craig Cook. Again, another fantastic instructor, who made me incredibly comfortable in the aircraft regardless of how many mistakes I made. He had all the patience required to work with me until I simply didn't make any more mistakes. As far as my experiences as a Left-Seater, all I can say is none of it's easy. They're preparing you for the highest level of professional aviation. You have to have the knowledge in your head and be able to react calmly and professionally in every possible emergency and mechanical failure that's thrown at you. And, they'll all be thrown at you.
I simply can't say enough good things about the professionalism and practical knowledge of CAE Instructors.
One unique bit of karma came into play here. About my third week into the program, I was assigned to a fellow Right-Seater, an Italian national named Marco Ferraro, as his Right-Seater for his ATP ride and first type rating ride. I more than went the extra mile for Marco's check-ride. He never forgot that. As I moved to the Left Seat, through luck of the draw, I pulled Marco as he was working toward his second type rating. He worked so hard with me that I do have to give a portion of my success in completing the program to Marco.
Then came the day of my checkride. As fate would have it, about five minutes before it was all supposed to start, I was informed that the FAA had decided that one of their Examiners would be sitting in to observe my Designated Examiner. An added bit of pressure that I just didn't need.
All I can say is that I was so well prepared by the CAE Instructors, and Marco and I had become such a team by that point that I passed the ride like it was nothing. Just breezed through it.
I left Dallas as an Airline Transport Rated Pilot with a CE-500 Type Rating and a CAE card in my pocket. All it cost me was three months in a bottom-dollar hotel and the food I ate.
I really enjoyed this program. I honestly feel that I received far better training for the CE-500s by going through the Supporting Crewmember Program than I would have received by coming in as a regular paying student. I went through every possible emergency hundreds of times, rather than the dozens of times a regular student would have. I now know that checklist book backwards and forwards. I can find any emergency procedure in my sleep. (And actually did on a couple of nights.)
I think even if there were a company electing to pay for me to go to CAE, knowing what I know now, I'd still rather go through the Supporting Crewmember Program. If you have the time to commit to it, you receive a better education and vastly more experience with time logged as a Right-Seater who's assisting a Left-Seater as he/she learns for 80 sessions than what Left-Seaters receive in their program.
For more information on the program, visit www.cae.com.