Going flying at Lufthansa’s Airline Training Center Arizona

As an airline customer based in the United States I’m mostly used to the way that American carriers source their pilots. Most are former military or have paid a huge sum of money to fund their own private training and then hope to make it through the long days of work at regional carriers before making it into the big birds. Lufthansa’s approach to pilot recruitment and training is quite different. They subscribe to the Ab-Initio training plan, where each pilot is brought in completely green and trained from the ground up in the Lufthansa way.

As part of StarMegaDo 2010 a group of about 30 of us were invited to visit the Airline Training Center, Arizona (ATCA) where aspiring pilots are given their initial in-flight training experiences. We got to meet with the students and the folks who run the program. Oh, and we all got to actually experience the flight training through flights in the same simulators that the pilots learn in.

IMGP6918IMGP6919We were welcomed to the facility by Matthias Kippenberg, the President and CEO of ATCA. A pilot who was trained in the same facility more than 30 years ago, who flew the 727, 737 and 747 for various private groups as well as Lufthansa, Matthias has been leading the training group in Arizona for 3 years now. Mr. Kippenberg oversees the training of approximately 240 pilots annually, helping to continue feeding the tremendous demand that the parent company has for additional pilots.

After a brief introduction outside the facility we were escorted onto the flight line (“Badges, we don’t need no stinkin’ badges”) to see one of the Bonanza aircraft that the aspiring Lufthansa pilots start their training in.

We got to climb in the plane and get a feel for what it is like inside, including the fact that they planes are not air conditioned which can be a bit warm in the summer months.

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Following the walk-through on the flight line we got to see the maintenance facilities and then, the highlight of the day, actually flying in the simulators.

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Click here to view the embedded video.

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Click here to view the embedded video.

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IMGP7013After the flying we headed over to the cafeteria for a delicious lunch and a Q&A wrap-up with the student pilots and training coordinators. Along the way we happened upon this celebratory scene walking the grounds of the facility. The pilot being carried had just completed his first solo flight and his class-mates were helping to celebrate the event. There is a tradition in the flight world that says following the first successful solo flight one cannot have their feet touch the ground until they have been in the water first. As such, the next stop of this caravan of friends was the swimming pool facility on the property. I’m sure he doesn’t mind getting wet for this one.

The food was top-notch (and we were thanked by many of the students for showing up as it meant they get the upgraded catering for the day). Here’s dessert, ice cream in chocolate. Hard to complain at all.

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It is worth noting here that the 20 folks who got to participate in the flight simulator portion of the event were chosen not by luck and not randomly. They were chosen by their generosity. All told, we raised over $5,000 in charitable contributions to Help Alliance, the Lufthansa corporate charity. Simply amazing.

Inside ZA003: Another first for StarMegaDo

When I saw the original itinerary for today’s festivities I thought that landing at Paine Field in Everett, Washington was going to be the highlight of the day. It is an airport that doesn’t see commercial airline service and flying in on a jet is quite rare unless you’re a Boeing test pilot. As we were panicking trying to find the driver of the luggage delivery company (that’s a whole ‘nother story) I was also chatting with one of the Boeing organizers and she let me in on an additional detail of the itinerary: We were going to be inside one of the 787 Dreamliner test aircraft.

Boeing has taken a few 787s on tour over the past few months but they don’t really let just anyone on board to look around. Indeed, several of our tour guides today noted that they had never been inside one either. Still, somehow we managed to convince them that it was a good idea for us to get inside. And they were incredibly gracious in allowing us to do so.

We bounded up the stairs and into the cabin and, in that moment, became part of the record books. We were the first non-industry folks to be inside the plane. With our near 200 participants touring the aircraft we also significantly increased the total number of people who have toured it in general. We didn’t have full run of the aircraft like we did on the A380 in Frankfurt, mostly because it is still a test aircraft and still mostly being used for making sure that things are really working as expected so that the planes can be delivered. It wasn’t even fully fitted with an interior.

It did have enough bits installed, however, to make our walk-through truly memorable. We got to poke our heads into the cockpit. It is all glass and huge digital screens rather than traditional instruments. Quite a change from the Bonanza I was sitting in earlier in the day during my Phoenix visit. The whole main console is LCD screens and the electronic flight deck is integrated into the cockpit rather than in huge binders. The cockpit is also rather spacious, with a couple jump-seats and standing room for another person or two.

The crew rest area – installed into the space above the passenger cabin – was surprisingly large. I suppose had they cut it to three beds from two it would have been incredibly cramped. Instead they appeared quite spacious and comfortable.

The overhead bins are apparently spec’d to hold four bags each at 12”x16”x25”. That’s HUGE. It didn’t look to me like the 25” dimension was real but I didn’t have a tape measure handy and they wouldn’t let me crawl up in one to check it out (the guy running that part actually noted that he’d been warned about me and overhead bins when I asked about that).

Perhaps most significant was that the aircraft was fitted with a few rows of economy class seating in a 3-3-3 configuration. There has been much concern in the frequent flyer community as most airlines announced their intentions to go 9-abreast on the 787 rather than the 8-abreast that Boeing originally claimed the aircraft was designed for. Sitting in the seats today I was pleasantly surprised by just how comfortable the cabin felt. I know that there’s a lot more to it than just seat width, but things might not be quite as dire as feared.

And that was it. The visit was short – only about 15-20 minutes – but incredibly fun and truly an amazing experience. And yet another first for StarMegaDo.

No photos (from us) because of corporate security policies but their folks took a few of our group that I hope to post soon.

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