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Aiming High

United Vice President of Flight Operations Captain Howard Attarian always knew he wanted to fly. After mastering fighters and airliners, he now helps ensure all 6,200 of United Airlines’ pilots are supported and at the top of their game.

Author Rod O'Connor Photography United Airlines Creative Services

CAPTAIN HOWARD ATTARIAN, United’s vice president of Flight Operations, is seated in the power position of a Boeing 757, going through his preflight checklist before a routine departure from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. “United one-twenty-three, the winds are calm,” a voice on the radio informs him. “Runway twenty-two right, you’re clear for take-off.”

“We’re on the roll,” he responds, releasing the brake and putting his hand on the throttles. The plane starts moving. You can hear the hum of the jet engines as it speeds up to 140 knots before pulling up and into the air. As we ascend, the houses visible from the cockpit get smaller and smaller. We can spot the Chicago skyline on the far end of the horizon.

It’s a textbook take-off except for one detail: It’s not real.

We’re not in Chicago—not even at an airport—but in one of 23 simulators in an enormous building in United’s flight training center, just outside downtown Denver. Attarian, 57, typically works out of the company’s operations center in suburban Chicago. But this week, he’s spending some quality time “in the box”—to use proper parlance— during an overview of the 20-day Advanced Qualification Program required of all 6,200 United Airlines pilots every nine months.

“It gives me a good perspective, from start to finish, of what our pilots go through over the period of a training cycle,” explains Attarian, looking crisp and relaxed in a golf shirt and jacket. “But it’s not only about how we train. I’m here to talk with our folks and discuss how we all represent our airline and the high degree of professionalism that serves our customers best…and gives United a competitive advantage.”

The Advanced Qualification Program includes classroom work and EPT (emergency procedures training), but the most important learning happens in those simulators. As the man who oversees and directly supports the day-to-day reliability, safety and efficiency of United’s fleet, it’s essential that Attarian and his instructors prepare their flight crews for any and all challenges, distractions or “trigger points” they may encounter in the air. Common scenarios include poor visibility, intense storms, engine failures or a call from a flight attendant saying there’s smoke in the galley.

“It’s training to FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) standards, training to proficiency and training for the inevitabilities,” says Attarian. “Our people do not look at these things like video games—not here,” he says with pride. “When you’re in the simulator and there’s an engine failure, you’ve got sweaty palms, the slick T-shirt—the full deal.”

A retired officer and instructor pilot with the U.S. Air Force, Attarian is easygoing during conversation but displays a confidence that commands attention. The son of an Air Force veteran, he grew up around planes. The family had a single-engine Cessna 206 and a grass runway on its Fairview, Kansas, farm. As a child, Attarian told his father he wanted to be one of two things: a fighter pilot or an Indy racecar driver.

After graduating with an education degree from Kansas State University, he flew F-15 fighters and was an instructor pilot on that aircraft at military bases in Phoenix and Okinawa, Japan. From 1982 to 1985, he was a demonstration pilot with the lauded United States Air Force Thunderbirds—he still wears the ring indicating membership in this elite squadron—before entering commercial aviation at the age of 33 with Northwest Airlines, where he served as a pilot for 23 years.

“It’s every pilot’s goal to be a captain and fly the heavy metal,” he notes.

And while the basic “stick-and-rudder” skills are the same, Attarian is quick to note that operating a jumbo jet requires a mental transition on the part of a pilot weaned on single-seat fighters: Instead of making unilateral decisions, airline captains follow Crew Resource Management (or CRM) training, a set of procedures emphasizing cockpit communications, situational problem-solving and teamwork. “You need to have that spirit of cooperation,” Attarian explains, “to put together the best plan of action to operate that trip safely.”

Back in the Boeing 757 simulator, Attarian and his managing director for flight training, Robert Mackay, demonstrate the necessity of that open communication when a scenario involving an open cargo door results in a decision to return our virtual flight back to O’Hare. Once safely on terra firma, Attarian points out how important it is that the traveling public view pilots not as unapproachable figures but as normal people—highly skilled and dedicated, for certain— but individuals who are ultimately qualified to keep United’s customers apprised of what’s happening in terms of a flight’s operation. While technical skills are obviously essential, he notes, a pilot’s role as ambassador and spokesperson can also have a profound impact on a customer’s experience.

“Often, pilots don’t have time to meet and greet customers because they’re getting ready for the flight. But when they can, I think it provides a level of comfort,” Attarian notes, strolling past a group of fellow pilots taking a break from a post-simulator briefing session. “I think it makes a connection. You may be able to answer one simple question that eliminates a concern for an individual customer. And if you can do that, it’s not only good policy, it’s good business.

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