The novice co-pilot steered the UPS plane through a cloudless sky towards the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, then banked left and approached the Palm Islands in the Persian Gulf.
It was the co-pilot’s first attempt at steering a Boeing 747 — but thankfully, for the handful of folks in the cockpit, he was merely manipulating the controls in a sophisticated simulator in a new training center near UPS Worldport in Louisville.
The logistics giant recently added the simulator to its sleek 28,000-square-foot training facility in Louisville to increase its capacity to prepare new pilots in response to growing package deliveries and retiring baby boomers.
“All the airlines are hiring right now,” said Capt. Patrick Sutton, a veteran pilot and UPS instructor.
UPS has more than 2,800 pilots, has hired 110 so far this year and plans to hire another 150 before the end of the year. The company needs more pilots in part because it is adding six 747 “Jumbo Jets” to its fleet this year to increase how many packages it can fly around the world. The new models have a 19% higher payload while delivering slightly better fuel economy, according to UPS.
Baby boomers also increasingly are hitting age 65, the federally mandated retirement age for pilots. And that retirement boom is worsening the pilot shortage.
About 633,000 pilots operated in the U.S. in 2018, up 4% from 2017 — but up less than 1% compared to 2010. However, the number of passengers on U.S. and foreign airlines serving the U.S. reached an all-time-high one billion last year, up 8.5 percent over two years, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Boeing has said that the global aviation industry needs another 790,000 pilots by 2037, including 206,000 in North America.
Sutton said UPS is hiring pilots in their 30s, but also some older than 50, to make sure that fewer of the company’s pilots retire at the same time, which would leave the package giant scrambling for replacements.
UPS has two full-motion simulators in Anchorage, Alaska, and nine in Louisville — different simulators for different planes — and Sutton said the expansion of the Louisville training center was sorely needed. The one in Anchorage is operating 20 hours a day, seven days a week, with four hours left daily for maintenance.
Sutton said he suspects the Louisville training center soon will see similar utilization.
Newly hired pilots receive about six weeks of training, while active UPS pilots get training twice a year, once for three days, and about six months later for another day. If a plane undergoes significant changes, pilots train for another six weeks. If the plane is a new model of an existing aircraft, it’s another three days.
Sutton said training consists of routine tasks and unexpected events. On a typical flight, pilots may deal with a challenge or two, such as unexpected weather or a last-minute runway change for a landing, which may affect how the pilots land the plane, for reasons including wind direction.
“We try to give them real situations,” Sutton said.
UPS changes the training every year to familiarize pilots with new procedures, new technology and new situations, to keep training relevant.
“Changes come fast,” Sutton said. “It’s just an ongoing battle.”
Instructors pay close attention to “crew resource management,” or CRM, referring to how well the flight staff works together. Sutton said the captain used to be the king, but airlines now want the pilot to work and communicate well with the co-pilot and the rest of the flight crew.
Pilots can fail the training for poor CRM, Sutton said.
A typical training session might require the flight crew to respond to wind sheer or a system malfunction. The sims also help UPS expose pilots to situations that the company cannot safely recreate in the air, such as being too close to an obstacle and having to climb or steer or both to avoid a collision.
And, of course, pilots have to keep an eye on the sizable instrument panel, which may convey that the four engines are running at 25.6% of max capacity or that the exhaust gas temperature is 288 degrees. Sutton said that an unusual temperature reading could indicate a problem. With four engines, it’s easy to see when one is out of sync with the rest.
Crashes don’t generally happen in the sim, but if they did, Sutton said, the screen would freeze and flash red.
Instructors can start the simulation anywhere. UPS has 20 customized airports that it uses most often, but it can order different ones. The graphics aren’t photo-realistic but resemble a high-end video game.
Despite the frequency and variation of the training, Sutton acknowledged, “We can’t train for everything.” UPS does not practice water landings, for example, because of too many variables, including wave height.
“It’s just too hard to simulate,” he said.
Sutton said some airports present challenges such as short runways or mountainous terrain. He said his favorite is Hong Kong — though that has less to do with flying and more with Sutton’s culinary predilections. For pilots, he said, it’s mostly about layovers. After a 12-hour flight, pilots typically have 24 hours before the next flight. Flight schedules may mean that pilots wake up hungry at 2 a.m. Sutton said that no matter what time it is, in Hong Kong, he can always find good food.
Weight, freight and fuel
The 747s for which Sutton trains the pilots make international long-haul trips, primarily to deliver Asia-produced merchandise to your door after you’ve ordered it on Amazon or another online retailer.
Flying from Louisville to Dubai takes 13.5 hours, though UPS keeps a fuel reserve for another 1.5 hours. Sutton said UPS also flies once or twice a year from Louisville to Hong Kong over the North Pole, which takes 16 hours.
The plane in the simulator had a maximum carrying capacity of 875,000 pounds — but that includes fuel. Longer trips require more fuel and leave less weight for packages. Many UPS flights from Asia go through Anchorage, Sutton said, because it allows the company to switch crews and add fuel. Refueling in Alaska allows the planes to carry more packages.
Sutton said UPS has a team that uses sophisticated software to determine fuel requirements and cargo capacity taking into consideration factors such as weather. Every time a plane leaves Asia, he said, it is at max weight.
Pilots don’t need to know much about the cargo, because load supervisors take care of the loading plan. Pilots just get a report about the cargo affects the plane’s center of gravity. Beyond that, Sutton said, pilots just need to know if the cargo includes hazardous material items, such as lithium-ion batteries.
Most of the cargo is stored in fire-resistant pods, but Sutton said UPS has carried some unusually large items, including aircraft engines and parts of an oil rig.
Sutton emphasized that the training UPS pilots get is the same as those for passenger airlines.
In some ways, punctuality is more critical for UPS than for passenger airlines, Sutton said. When a passenger plane arrives late, it may inconvenience 200 people, but when a UPS plane arrives late and the packages don’t get delivered on time, UPS might deal with 200,000 peeved customers.
Sutton, who flew P-3 Orion and CP-140 Aurora surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft in the Navy, said technology on planes themselves and on simulators has changed dramatically for the better in the last few decades.
In the early years of his career, Sutton said there was a “pretty high probability” that one of the engines wouldn’t start. That basically never happens anymore, he said.
And 30 years ago, pilots learned to fly the simulator — and then they learned to fly the actual plane, he said. Today, it’s one and the same. Older sims were powered with hydraulic systems, but current ones all work with electronics, which means the sims move more quickly in response to the pilot’s actions.
When Sutton began flying, planes didn’t have auto throttle, auto landing and other modern technologies, such as the collision avoidance system, or CAS, which monitors the airspace for nearby planes.
Getting CAS, he said, was an “eye-opener,” because pilots had no idea they were flying with that many planes in close proximity.
While even landings can be automated, which is helpful especially in poor visibility, Sutton said most pilots like to take control of the plane during landing, because that’s “the fun part.” Once planes touch down, almost everything is automated again, including auto braking.
Weather radar, too, has gotten much better, which is very important, Sutton said. Pilots now often know when storms are 100 miles away and can avoid them more easily.
Navigational tools, too, have advanced quite a bit, the instructor said. Accurate navigation used to be fairly challenging, but systems now are so accurate that planes will sometimes be affected by the wake of the aircraft in front them, forcing pilots to move a bit to either side.
While English is the official air traffic language, by the time you add noise, accents and static, communication can be challenging. New systems are helping here, too, providing pilots with a quasi text message communications system.
Despite all the challenges and tens of thousands of flying hours, Sutton said he’s had a close call only once, way back when he was in the Navy.
He landed on a snow-covered runway — and the plane started skidding sideways.
“That was a little exciting,” he said.
Sutton’s experience and calm demeanor help his students. A few minutes after the novice co-pilot had steered the 747 around Dubai, he safely landed the aircraft, with just a little help from the instructor.