Visiting the cockpit

May 17th, 2016

Back in the day, it was common to visit the cockpit of an airliner while it was flying. Those grand old days are a thing of the past, but it’s still possible to visit on the ground. In fact, most of the time, pilots are more than happy to show off the business end of a jet. I get a lot of kids who want to come up, and we’re happy to accommodate them. They love to sit in the seats, hear the airplane “talk” (certain warnings), and ask questions. They also love to have their pictures taken, often with a uniform hat or a headset plunked on their heads.

Here’s a secret: We love to have adults come visit as well.

Unfortunately, not too many do. They’re either in a hurry to get where ever they are going, or they are convinced it’s not allowed. Or…they’re just embarrassed. Well, guess what? Don’t be. It’s still a cool place for us, too, and we love to share our office with interested folks. Whether you know a little or a lot about aviation, feel free to ask a pilot or the flight attendant if there is enough time on one end or the other to take a peek.

On a recent flight, a young man stuck his head up front. He’ll start college in the fall, and he will be majoring in aviation with hopes of landing a major airline job down the road. We invited him up, and he spent 20 minutes peppering us with questions and observations. He had his private pilot certificate, and his enthusiasm reminded both of us of our youthful own. It was fun to show him some of the differences between our airplane and his (which is more advanced than ours in many respects), and when I took his picture, he was grinning from ear to ear.

We also picked on him a bit, as he commented that he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to work for our airline or one of our competitors. In good fun, we told him all of the reasons he should choose us, and I think the extra time we gave him helped create a memory that he will never forget.

If you’re on the career track, and you make one of these visits, don’t hesitate to use it as a possible networking opportunity. Feel free to ask the crew if you can keep in touch with them via email to ask follow-up questions or career advice. Those contacts may one day turn out to be invaluable, and at the very least, you may get a new friend or counselor out of it.

Or maybe you just get a cool picture of yourself in the captain’s seat!—Chip Wright

Decision consequences

May 10th, 2016

It’s hard for a young person to project into the future, but it is necessary at times, especially for someone who wants to pursue a career in aviation. I know a pilot who has been flying for the regionals for nearly 20 years, and he can’t catch a break. We flew together when we were budding CFIs, building time and experience, before going our separate ways.

I recently heard from a mutual friend about this pilot, and he’s still trying to get on with a major. But he has developed a couple of strikes against him. First, he apparently turned into the Grumpy Captain whom folks try to avoid. He isn’t so bad that his first officers are calling in sick, but he has definitely lost a lot of his enthusiasm for the job. It’s quite possible that he burned a few bridges with pilots who have left his carrier, and they may have done what they can to prevent him from getting an interview—let alone a job.

The second strike is a more serious one. Apparently at one time he worked as an under-the-table security individual, and he got arrested after a physical altercation. I don’t know if he was ever charged with anything, but violence of any sort never looks good. It’s difficult if not impossible to explain away. In this case, the infraction took place well over a decade ago, but it may not matter.

Infractions involving alcohol are also not uncommon, but they can generate roadblocks that will significantly delay your career progression. Canada does not allow foreigners who have a DUI or DWI to enter the country, and the airlines don’t want to hire anyone who can’t go somewhere because of such a stupid act. In my previous job, I knew a couple of flight attendants who had to be taken off trips because of the rule, and I knew a few pilots who had to be removed from their own trips for the same reason. I don’t know if any of them ever got another job.

The simplest rule to follow when it comes to certain decisions is this one: If you have to think for a minute about whether or not something is a good idea, it probably isn’t. Put another way, if you think you might want to hide what you’re doing (or will have done), you should probably not do it. I can’t say for sure that my friend has been “blacklisted,” or has torpedoed his own chances, but aviation is a small industry, and people have long memories.

If you make a poor decision, expect to pay the consequences.—Chip Wright

A good time to enter

May 5th, 2016

As my oldest daughter begins thinking about college, my thoughts can’t help but wander toward the airlines. She has no interest in pursuing a career in aviation, but if she did, things would certainly be in her favor. We are a few years into the beginning of a major hiring boom. The last time this happened, the airlines (the regionals, anyway) were hiring 250-hour pilots, and they couldn’t find them fast enough. The trend was shut down by the increase in the FAA-mandated retirement age from 60 to 65, along with the recession. The 250 zero-to-hero benchmark was done in by the legislation that came out of the Colgan 3407 crash.

Today, the new low-end pilot has 1,500 hours, and regionals are snapping them up as quickly as possible. In fact, airlines are looking for commitments from prospective pilots before they even finish their training, assuming that they meet certain performance standards.

This is a great time to be entering the training realm or the actual job market. The majors are all trying to hire the same 6,000- or 7,000-hour pilots at the regionals whom they consider to be the most qualified. Those pilots will be gone in short order.

Further, the holes in the major airline hiring net are beginning to get a bit smaller. In the last several months, I’ve come across several pilots who were hired or offered interviews and a few years ago these pilots were considered totally undesirable. One has only a two-year college degree (hired by a legacy major). One has only a high-school diploma, but with a lot of other stuff and life experience to bring to the table. The second candidate was offered a chance to begin the interview process but did not get past the initial computerized assessment. The point is, just a year ago, neither would have been considered.

I spend a lot of time in regional jet jump seats commuting to and from work, and another trend has popped up—one that is not new. The majors are paranoid about their affiliated regionals losing pilots, so they appear to have tried to avoid taking as many from those particular regionals as they can. In other words, Delta appears to be trying not to take as many from Compass as they could, and instead chooses pilots from Envoy or PSA. It’s a zero-sum game, since the same pilots will be hired somewhere no matter what.

Another positive change is that the majors are beginning to show a renewed interest in at least interviewing—if not hiring outright—pilots who have no turbine PIC time. That’s happened on occasion in the past, but it’s been rare. Now, it’s becoming more and more common. Just today I heard of a pilot who has an offer from one major, an interview scheduled with another, and is possibly going to hear from two more regarding interviews.

Pilots coming out of the major flight schools in the next couple of years will be able to sort through their options and figure out which job is the best fit for them. There are a number of criteria to use to help make the decision easier (hint: commuting should not factor into the equation). There are already a few small flow-through programs that would allow a pilot to ensure his/her progression to the majors through a certain regional. This practice will only grow as the need for airmen reaches critical mass.

It is indeed a good time to be entering the industry.—Chip Wright

Jack Brown’s creates a pilot

April 26th, 2016
Clay Bryan on checkride day.

Clay Bryan on checkride day.

In the May 2016 issue of Flight Training, I wrote about wandering in to Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base in Winter Haven, Florida, and how much I want to add a single engine seaplane rating to my single engine land pilot certificate (“Around the Patch: Sun splashed”).

Clay Bryan wrote to tell me that he liked my column, because he could relate: He’d been to Jack Brown’s in 2014, and loved every minute of it.

Here’s the thing: Clay wasn’t a private pilot when he went to Jack Brown’s. He didn’t have any type of pilot certificate. He just loved the idea of flying on floats. Clay, who lives in Charleston, S.C., spent eight days at Jack Brown’s, and at the end of those eight days he soloed. In fact, he was Jack Brown’s first student in 30 years to have achieved that distinction, and he proudly sent me a copy of a certificate to prove it.

I wondered if the magic of Jack Brown’s had stayed with Clay, and I asked if he’d continued with any sort of flight training.

He had. In fact, he was getting ready to take his private pilot checkride the week we exchanged emails.

“Let me know how it goes,” I said. Clay promised he would.

Clay Bryan, who started out flying on floats, earned a private pilot certificate with single engine land privileges on Sunday, April 24. You’re likely to see his smiling face in an upcoming issue of the magazine, but the story was so good I wanted to share it now.—Jill W. Tallman

 

Can’t we all just get along?

April 19th, 2016

If you fly for an airline, it’s going to happen soon enough. Eventually, you’re going to have to fly with someone whom you just don’t like.

It may be a small “don’t like,” or it can be a monumental one, to the point where you simply can’t take it anymore. If it’s extreme, you can likely get someone else involved—and you probably should—who can help defuse the situation. But if the other person is someone with whom you just don’t enjoy spending time in a cockpit, then you need to figure out a way to make the best of it.

In general terms, there are three different personality conflicts you might encounter. The first one is the simplest: You just don’t have anything in common or anything to talk about. You may like sports, and he may like art. She may be very quiet, and you may like to talk about anything just to kill time. Generally speaking, the best strategy in dealing with something like this is to just look out the window and enjoy the view.

The second conflict has the potential to get out of hand, and that is the one in which you can speak to each other, but everything devolves into an argument, or at least a heated discussion. In this case, you may both like sports, but you may not root for the same team. This is the kind of person you aren’t going to see eye-to-eye with no matter what, and the risk of missing radio calls or checklists is very real. At some point, there needs to be a common ground you can each agree on, even if you share the same passion. Or perhaps you have a common enemy. If you’re a Redskins fan and he roots for Dallas, you can probably at least agree that you don’t like the Eagles. Take the victories where you can get them.

The third conflict is the one in which you simply don’t like the other person or can’t get along. The reason doesn’t matter. It may be something you can hide from the other, but it may not be. Over the years I’ve flown with a few people I just didn’t like. The term I would use that applies to just about all of them is “abrasive.” There was just something that made them unpleasant. In this circumstance, my advice is to just bury yourself in something else. Study the flight manual, the emergency checklists, or something else work-related. Find something to distract yourself, and when you get to the hotel, politely decline any invitations to eat if you can. Go “visit” a friend, if you have to. Use the down time to purge your mind and get ready for the next day.

If things get way out of hand, you may not have a choice but to enlist the help of a chief pilot or conflict resolution specialist from your union. Don’t expect much sympathy from a chief, especially if you are out of domicile. You’re expected to be able to do the job, no matter what. But, sometimes you just can’t. Legends abound about pilots on the verge of a fistfight in the cockpit. It is imperative that you not let anything degenerate into anything close to that while in flight.

Some airlines allow pilots to say who they prefer not to fly with, and others do not. A bad crew match can make a four-day trip feel like it’s lasting forever. But most of the time, that’s all it is: a four-day trip. If it’s unbearable to fly with that individual, you can make efforts to avoid him or her in the future.—Chip Wright

Pilots behaving badly

April 14th, 2016

alcoholwithoutalcholIt has happened again: pilots behaving badly. In the last few weeks, a pilot from one airline was tested for alcohol on the ramp in Detroit; he failed the test. Shortly after, a pilot from another airline was arrested and charged with allegedly running a series of brothels.

Let’s look at these two issues separately.

Flying—or trying to fly—under the influence is a serious offense, but a pilot who has a problem with drugs or alcohol has options and resources available. A treatment program that is jointly run by the unions, the FAA, and the airlines can get a pilot back on track and back to work, though it may take an extended period of time.

It gets complicated when you show up for work already inebriated. There isn’t a lot of patience from anyone—the company, the FAA, your co-workers—when you take the risk of attempting to fly while under the influence. Alcoholism is a disease, and when it’s in gear, you can’t control it. That said, folks have little mercy for a pilot who has a drinking issue, especially since nobody knows if it’s part of a problem or just a one-time event.

When you show up in uniform, many people are looking to see how you’re behaving. Transportation Security Administration agents and company personnel are especially watching you, and the TSA folks are trained to try to get you into a conversation to see if they can smell alcohol on your breath.

Generally speaking, if you fail a breathalyzer, you can expect to be terminated or at the very least suspended. If you know you have a problem, you can try to ‘fess up before the test, but you still have to submit to it.

The pilot who ran the brothels has a different problem. What he did is not something that any airline puts down as a prohibited act—there isn’t enough paper in the world to write down everything a company wants its employees not to do, and some things should just be obvious. That said, the general caveat is that you are not to engage in any act that brings disrepute, bad publicity, or embarrassment to the company, and running brothels—even just being accused of doing so—definitely qualifies.

It’s too soon to know the final outcome of either event, but it’s a safe bet that one or both pilots is done flying, at least for a living. Pilots are fairly high profile people, and we are often held to a higher standard than most other professions. We do something that is perceived as high risk, and that entails a lot of training to master a difficult skill. In turn, we are entrusted with the care of expensive machinery, not to mention the lives of our passengers, which might measure in the hundreds.

In the post-9/11 world, the list of offenses for which you can lose security clearances is longer than ever, and no airline wants to have to defend the decision to employ an individual (or to keep one employed).

Further, nobody wants to read about such embarrassing exploits in USA Today. And in this world of cameras on every corner, nobody wants to see a coworker getting arrested or tested for possibly being drunk. A mug shot is bad enough; video of you stumbling would be even worse. It would also likely be unrecoverable.—Chip Wright

Scatter plans and diversions, Part Three: On the ground at EWR

March 14th, 2016

This is Part Three of a three-part post about a single flight from Eagle, Colorado, to Newark, New Jersey, with an unscheduled stop in Albany, New York. Read Part One here. Read Part Two here.—Ed.

Finally, after an hour on the ground, we got airborne from ALB, going to EWR, for what was scheduled for a 25-minute flight on paper. We had added a few thousand pounds of extra fuel to pad our margins, and it turned out to be a good idea. The ride to EWR at 12,000 feet was awful. Everyone was getting vectored all over the sky. It was bumpy, rain was pouring, and the radar display didn’t show any  good options. Nearly every flight was refusing some of the assigned headings. To add to the fun, one of our controllers suffered a headset failure, leaving us with no communication for a few seconds while controllers switched stations, then switched back. At least we didn’t have to take a bad heading for a few seconds. That said, the turns and altitude changes that came were of the urgent variety.

At long last, we were vectored over Teterboro for the ILS 22L. Unfortunately, some of the worst weather was between us and the airport. We discussed and reviewed the wind shear escape maneuver, and we both expected to have to use it. It would probably add another 30 minutes to the flight get re-vectored for an approach while waiting for the weather to clear the final, but so be it.

In the rain, the airplane just didn’t want to descend. It felt as if we were suspended from puppet strings thanks to an updraft.

Finally, we moved forward and started down. We’d been told to expect significant airspeed fluctuations at 900 feet. But as is usually the case in aviation, any news is old news. The weather was moving toward the airport. The airspeed fluctuated 10 to 15 knots in both directions all the way down the final. The captain handled it with aplomb, and this time we were in the clear at around 700 feet. It felt like VFR after our approach to ALB.

We finally landed almost an hour after we had taken off, and as we taxied to the gate, reports of wind shear on the final began to pepper the radio. I don’t know if anyone else had to divert or go around, and by that point I didn’t care. We were on the ground at our destination. We’d earned a year’s pay on two flights. We were tired. We shut down the airplane and packed up our stuff.

I was the last one off the airplane. As I walked into the terminal, one of our passengers said with genuine appreciation, “Thanks for getting us here.” Our experience had helped us make the safest decisions. Our skill had helped us in flight. The company scatter plan had worked to minimize the disruption, big though it was. Our work had paid off. I was suddenly consumed with exhaustion, but I looked at our passenger and said, “You’re welcome.”

Our trip wasn’t in the brochure, if you will. But it’s a necessary part of the job. And we had completed it legally and safely, if not expeditiously. The entire system had worked: the airlines operation, ATC, you name it—all the pieces had come together. My flight home had cancelled, so I crashed for the night, took a shower, and left in the morning…on time.—Chip Wright

Scatter plans and diversions, Part Two: Looking for lights

March 7th, 2016

This is Part Two of a three-part post about a single flight from Eagle, Colorado, to Newark, New Jersey, with an unscheduled stop in Albany, New York. Read Part One here. Part Three will appear next week.—Ed.

Thirty minutes after diverting to Albany, New York, we turned final for the ILS 19 at ALB. The visibility had dropped to minimums for the approach, and it was raining. The altimeter was continuing to drop, but the ride on final was surprisingly smooth. The EMB-145 in front of us got in, which was good news. That said, we were primed for a go-around, which would have necessitated at Category II approach on the second try. This was my leg, so I adjusted my seat in order to give myself the best view of the approach lights as soon as possible.

The captain continued making his calls. At 1,000 feet above the airport, I asked him to set the missed approach altitude. I also reviewed the calls for the missed approach out loud for both of our benefit. The 500 foot call is basically an awareness call, and I verified it with a quick glance at my altimeter. Through 400 feet, 300 feet…the captain called “Approaching minimums.” My eyes were fixated outside. Still no ground contact. My hands were ready to disconnect the autopilot and autothrottles, and I quickly did one more mental review of the process.

Suddenly, right in front of us, just as I was turning off the autopilot, the lights came into view, as bright as a Christmas tree. That bought me another 100 feet of legal descent. The autopilot and autothrottles were both off, the runway came into view, and I made one of my better landings.

Now we were up against another clock. Newark was dealing with regular arrivals as well as diversions like ours trying to fit into the arrival flow. Two of us—one flight attendant and me—were potential pumpkins when it came to our duty times. Factoring into this is a cosmic law known as last day/last leg, which states that a trip will go absolutely smoothly until just that time. For reasons known only to the aviation gods, our ACARS (Aircraft Crew Alerting and Reporting System), the computer that communicates with all departments of the company, decided to go on a bit of hiatus. We couldn’t get all of the data we needed to leave. Actually, we couldn’t get any of it. We needed V-speeds, weights, single-engine departure procedures—we needed everything.

Several phone calls between the captain and dispatch took care of most of the issues, and we sorted through the rest on our own. The tower had negotiated an earlier release time for us, and we went to the runway to wait it out. The passengers, meanwhile, were getting antsy. We’d already lost three whose final destination was ALB, and a few more were just running out of patience. We were told to finish taxiing to the runway, but we still had one engine shut down and data to input. I was working as fast as I could.—Chip Wright

Scatter plans and diversions, part one

March 1st, 2016

This is Part One of a three-part post about a single flight from Eagle, Colorado, to Newark, New Jersey, with an unscheduled stop in Albany, New York. Parts two and three will appear in the coming weeks.—Ed.

StormI was recently working a trip that involved some bad weather at the destination. Further, because we were departing a geographically challenging airport (Eagle County Regional [EGE]), which is a high-elevation airport with a mountain at one end, we were limited in the amount of fuel we could carry so that we could maximize our payload. When the aircraft started holding for Newark, we were severely limited in the amount of time that we could spin circles in the sky.

Our scheduled alternate was Albany International (ALB), just a few minutes north of Newark Liberty International (EWR). However, our hold was on an arrival that begins closer to Cleveland. At this point on a flight, the perspective of the crew and the company often begins to diverge. When the weather is down and airlines know that diversions are likely, they need to be fairly strategic in choosing alternates. Otherwise, crews will all race for the same couple of airports. For instance, at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport (ATL) in Atlanta, the closest and often the “best” is Lovell Field (CHA) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Unfortunately, CHA quickly gets overwhelmed, and it takes far longer than it should to get the airplanes refueled and on their way. Crews like CHA because its close proximity means they can hold longer, thus improving their chances for getting into ATL on the first try.

My company has been using a “scatter plan” in which computer software tries to selectively spread out the diversions so as to avoid overwhelming one or two airports while minimizing the risk of a diversion (and minimizing the turn time when a diversion occurs). Other factors may include selecting a diversion that also happens to be the final destination for a number of connecting passengers.

Scatter plans aren’t without problems. First, the weather needs to cooperate. Second, so does the crew. In our case, ALB was a legal alternate, but the weather wasn’t very good. It was right at legal minimums. We started collecting ATIS reports for Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse. Several had either great visibility with a low ceiling, and some had a poor selection of both (in the Part 121 world, visibility is all that matters). When we contacted the company about Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), the best option, we were told that the ramp was full. Getting to ALB also meant flying through the worst of the weather.

This brings up another issue: crew legality. The company also needs to take into account which crew members may run into duty time issues. One of our flight attendants had started so early in the morning that she didn’t have a lot of time with which to work. Second, I was on my sixth day of flying, so an abnormally long delay in PIT—a very good possibility—was going to strand me as well. Further, the airplane would be stuck until they could bring in another first officer, because I would not legally be able to fly the next day.

As we began studying the weather, we pushed for a change in the alternate. The ALB weather was dropping, as was our fuel load. But there were not a lot of options. Finally, our dispatcher, who had a much bigger picture than we did, sent us to ALB. So, off we went. Could we get in, and how long would we be there?—Chip Wright

What does good CRM look like?

February 22nd, 2016

Crew resource management (CRM) was a major buzzword in the 1990s, and for good reason. Brought to light by the United Airlines 232 crash in Sioux City, Iowa, CRM is essentially the practice of using all available resources to their fullest extent and potential, both in the airplane and outside of it. While the captain still retains the overall responsibility for the flight, he or she is only fully effective when he or she welcomes the input of those around him.

Having spent more than 10 years as a captain, I’ll freely admit that I probably forgot at times what it was like to not be in that role. That said, I always tried to make my first officers realize how much I valued what they brought to the table.

Stories abound about what bad CRM looks like, or what it can lead to. Airline crashes in Portland, Oregon, and the Florida Everglades were shining examples of what could go wrong when the crew was not a cohesive unit. The KAL 747 crash in Guam and the Asiana crash in San Francisco highlight the fact that mastering CRM is a battle that will never end. If any person associated with any flight doesn’t feel like they can offer input that will be accepted, the flight is one step closer to becoming a possible accident.

But CRM can also go too far in the other direction. Familiarity, comfort and routine can be just as much of a disruption. When you fly with people more than once, you quickly learn what they do well, what they tend to mess up, what they like, and what they don’t. As a first officer once again, I’ve relearned the ability to adapt to the various personalities of my captains, and I’ve gotten very good at figuring out certain things they like or don’t. And when you get along really well with someone, it’s easy for one or the other to forget a checklist or a procedure. It’s one thing to forget to turn on the beacon, but it’s something else to forget to put the flaps to the right setting for takeoff.

But most of the time, good CRM is so natural and easy that you don’t even realize you’re watching it. The captain knows and trusts his crew to speak up when necessary, and the first officer isn’t at all shy about pointing out a possible mistake or questioning the freedom to do a certain checklist at a certain time. Even the best of us miss the occasional radio call or forget a speed or altitude restriction.

With more and more new pilots coming into the industry, CRM also is a critical component because the new pilots who have trained on state-of-the-art general aviation airplanes are going to have to learn to fly “archaic” airplanes, and it’s important to keep the lines of communication open as people continue to learn.

But the important thing to remember is that no matter how well you are doing today, you can do better tomorrow.—Chip Wright