Flying like a professional: Checklists

May 26th, 2015

DC10ChecklistIf you are in training with the intention of moving on to the airlines or corporate opportunities, have you thought of trying to train and fly as you would for the job you eventually want to have? Or even if you aren’t planning on flying the “heavy and fast” metal? It’s not as hard as you think.

One of the easiest things to do is to develop an almost sick obsession with checklists. Most people, including general aviation pilots, would be surprised at the level of checklist discipline that airline pilots use. It starts at the gate, usually with a checklist for “Accepting” or “Receiving” the airplane, and it doesn’t end until the airplane is shut down or handed off to either maintenance or another crew.

Some of the checklists are ridiculously long, and some are absurdly short. It doesn’t matter. They all have to be done, in full, every time. Moreover, many are required to be done verbally so that the cockpit voice recorder can be used to verify that the checklist was done in the event of an accident.

The rote process of doing checklists becomes ingrained, and it gets to the point of, quite literally, physical discomfort when one is not completed (not to be confused with what happens when one is simply forgotten).

When I was flying for a regional airline, we had a checklist on a turboprop that we had to complete when passing 18,000 feet. It consisted of changing the settings of the propellers (to reduce noise) and setting the altimeters to the standard of 29.92 inches.

Two items. That’s all. But it would create a lot of angst if someone didn’t get it done on time or was unable to complete it on time (usually because of radio chatter).

We had a couple of similar checklists on the CRJ. In addition, we had a few that were quite wordy, and they’re even worse for inducing a bit of anxiety, because they seemed to be so prone to interruption at the worst possible time—which often meant starting over.

Airline and military pilots don’t let the rush to get home or to the hotel distract them. The checklists are completed the way in which they are supposed to be completed, every single time. They have to be. As I said, the CVR records them, and if we make a mistake, our careers depend on them. I’ve been in situations in which we had very little time to get out of the gate and get to a runway before we would run the risk of not being able to complete the flight, but every checklist still had to be finished. It’s just the way it is. Sometimes the checklists get rushed a bit, but they do get done.

In your training, develop the same mindset. It doesn’t matter how “obvious” something is, or how “simple” an airplane is. Get in the habit early. Not only is it a good one, but it might save you from embarrassment later. It might be something as simple as turning on a transponder or as important as making sure the landing gear is extended. You’ll find that when you don’t complete the checklist, you’ll be squirming in your seat until you do, and when you finally complete it, you’ll suddenly relax.

And the gear will be down.—Chip Wright

Flying with someone you don’t like

May 18th, 2015

CFI DorkWhen you fly for a living—especially as a part of a crewed airplane—you will encounter all kinds of personalities. Some will strike you as weird or quirky, others as boring or fascinating or blasé. Some, unfortunately, you won’t like.

It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. At the regionals, where flying five or six legs a day is not uncommon, getting along is paramount. And most of the time, it’s easy. You already have one common interest, which is flying (even if one or both of you is not all that enamored with your carrier).

But what happens when you fly with someone whom you just can’t stand? The truth is, it can be a real problem. On a four-day trip, you might fly 20 or so legs, and you’ll be crammed into a room the size of a phone booth with only one other person. And you’ll be stuck.

If you don’t like each other—or if you just don’t like that person—there are a few things you can do. First of all, limit the conversation to flight-related duties such as checklists or approach briefings. Second, believe it or not, might just be to tell the other person that you think it’s best to limit the conversation. Often, this can lead to a discussion about what you don’t like about the other person, which can be an ice-breaker.

What you can’t do is allow your behavior or reactions to cross certain lines, and you can’t allow it to affect safety. While there are stories about pilots coming to blows in a cockpit, fortunately such events are incredibly rare. More likely will be a scenario similar to one that happened involving two pilots I knew. They spent several days flying together, and by the end of the trip they despised each other, simply because they had different personalities.

On one of the final legs, the captain had used the flight spoilers to help him in the descent. But he forgot about them, and the first officer waited until the last minute to say anything. When he did, the captain (angrily) stowed the spoilers and had to deal with an airplane that used up several thousand feet of runway trying to overcome the sudden excess power he had been using.

And that brings me to the third option for dealing with this type of issue. This crew realized at the gate that they had acted unprofessionally and with hostility toward each other for the majority of the trip. They also agreed that they should not fly together again, and they agreed that if they were paired together that one of them would call in sick. Some airlines have a mechanism in place for first officers to avoid flying with certain captains; this one did not. (It’s always the FO who gets to bail, because the captain is the authority figure.)

Another possibility is to go to the chief pilot and simply explain that you can’t work with another pilot. This is a bit of a last resort, but if you simply can’t stand to be in the airplane with someone, you may not have a choice. Chances are, you won’t get more than one of these “free passes,” so make it count.

Many airlines, especially the majors, administer a personality assessment to applicants just to avoid this situation. It’s not  fool-proof, but it does work to mitigate the problem.

Remember, there is a difference in dealing with someone with whom you have no common interests who might be difficult to talk to, and someone who is just so difficult to get along with that you can’t work together. The first thing you need to do is perform an honest assessment of yourself to make sure that you are not the problem. If you believe the problem is the other individual, then you need to start using other tools available to deal with the issue before it gets out of hand or unsafe.—Chip Wright

Just ahead in the July issue

May 13th, 2015

09wdr-004_1124The warm weather has (finally!) arrived, and the skies are waiting for you. As we put the finishing touches on the July issue, our theme this month is an invitation for you to celebrate your independence through flight. Here’s what’s on deck:

  • Seize the Sky. What kinds of adventures and opportunities are waiting for you, the brand-new pilot?
  • Mine, All Mine. Time to buy an airplane? Here’s how to make the process less complicated.
  • Technique: The Passenger Briefing. Ways to make it fun and informative for your airborne guests.

Plus: challenging yourself after getting a pilot certificate; an interview with the Breitling Jet Team’s lead pilot; and more.

The July digital edition goes live on May 26. Learn more about how you can get the magazine delivered to your tablet, computer, or mobile device here.

In-home delivery begins June 4, and if you’re not yet a subscriber, you’ll find it on newsstands as of June 16.

We welcome your letters to the editor; email flighttraining@aopa.org.—Jill W. Tallman

Are you interested in learning to fly? Sign up for a free student trial membership in the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and receive six issues of Flight Training magazine plus lots of training tools and resouces for student pilots. Click here for more information.

Asking for help

May 11th, 2015

Pilots tend to have egos. We don’t like to admit that we need help, but the truth is that we need it more often that we want to admit. This is especially true when we’re learning something fairly new, or have not spent a lot of time in an aircraft. It might be something as simple as how to program a new fix in the avionics, and it might be something as complicated as…programming a new fix in the avionics.

I’m still learning the ins and outs of the 737, which I’ve been flying now for almost two years. I spend most of my time on reserve, as I am fairly junior in my base, so I don’t fly as much as I’d like. My flight time tends to occur in spurts where I’m flying a lot, and then sitting at home a lot. The result is that I often need to brush up on a few items before I go fly a trip. It’s also not uncommon for me to just forget a few things here and there.

The need for help was driven home recently while talking to a friend of mine who has made the transition from one career to another, having left behind a field she spent 30 years in (finance) for one that is brand new to her (flight attendant). For as much time as I’ve been in the airlines, I must confess that I knew precious little about the training that the cabin crews go through. That’s changed, because my friend, who was hired by a major airline, spent five pretty intense weeks tackling an enormous amount of material, all of which was new to her.

One of the things that quickly became apparent was that she wasn’t going to make it through training on her own. I had forewarned her about that before she left, but I’m not sure that she fully appreciated it until she got into class and got hit with the full brunt of all the information she needed to master. This carried over to the airplane as well, and it was a bit of a surprise to me to hear just how much she relied on her crew mates as she got her feet wet.

It reminded me of my own experiences in the cockpit. Pilots tend to think that flying is flying, and it doesn’t matter what airplane it is. That’s true…to a point. But each airplane is different, and each one has its own challenges. Throw in learning the way a new company does things, and it’s even more complex.

I spent 16 years with my first airline, and moving to the second one involved a lot of “unlearning,” and it’s not easy. I had to ask for help, not only on the basic information about how new equipment worked, but on how to simply fit in. I’m on my third airline now, and I’m still asking for help. Sometimes, it seems like I am asking for help on something that is so simple I should be embarrassed, but I learned a long time ago—usually the hard way—that these are the times when I absolutely must ask for help. Life experience is a great teacher in that respect.

As my friend the FA has said, she asks for help for two reasons. One, she might genuinely need it. Two, it’s often just a way to reinforce what she knows or even just thinks she knows. It’s a confidence- builder. And that alone is enough.—Chip Wright

Writing letters of recommendation

May 4th, 2015

As the airlines begin to hire, many pilots will be on both ends of a common act: letters of recommendation. You will at some point need to ask for some, and at some point you will likely be asked to provide some. For many, the actual request turns out to be the easy part. We’ll assume for the sake of discussion that you have no problem writing a letter for the person asking for one.

When it comes to writing the letter, there isn’t necessarily a formula per se, but there are a few things to keep in mind. First, if the person uses a nickname, start by using the formal name, and revert to the nickname later. This lets the reader know that the applicant may go by more than one name, and also that you know the person fairly closely.

Second, letters of recommendations for pilots need to cover two distinct areas. You need to talk about the applicant as a person, and you need to discuss his or her flying skills. It doesn’t really matter which comes first, as long as you do both. I prefer to cover the flying skills first, since that’s what the company is most interested in. Discuss your subject’s basic stick-and-rudder skills, as well as instrument skills and, if appropriate, deeper knowledge of technical material and/or aircraft systems. This may only be appropriate if the person has flown some something fairly sophisticated, such as a turboprop or a jet, or if he or she has developed a reputation as an instructor or teacher in that airplane.

When discussing the person as an individual, it’s important that you think like a recruiter. If you’re writing for a pilot applying to a regional, this may even be more important. The pilot will be spending an awful of time in a small space with one other person on trips that might last as long as six days. It is imperative that he or she be able to get along with a multitude of personalities. Conflict simply isn’t acceptable. When you’re describing the person, concentrate on what makes him or her a positive influence, whether it’s a sense of humor, a way with words, or an ability to laugh at himself.

One of the most important items in a letter of recommendation is the quality of the writing. It is imperative that you use good grammar and sentence structure. Spelling and punctuation count. If you are not a strong writer, ask for help from someone who can provide it. The worst thing you can do is provide a poorly written letter to someone looking for work, because it will reflect on that person as well as you.

This is a two-way street. When you ask for a letter, you need to make sure that one written on your behalf meets the same basic guidelines. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to decide whether to keep it or politely ask the writer to redo it. Just make sure that you won’t be offending your friend!

Another common mistake involves writing letters for pilots seeking interviews or jobs with multiple companies. You need to make sure that a letter for airline X does not mention airline Y. It happens, and it leads to quite a bit of embarrassment. Put the letters in separate envelopes and label them accordingly. If you’re writing for one of the airlines that uses airlineapps.com, ask the applicant to log on and read your letters to make sure you got the right airline matched up with the right letter.

Asking for and writing letters of recommendation are important pieces of the job hunting puzzle. Being asked to write one is an honor, and you should treat it accordingly. It’s also a favor you may need the other person to return, so do it well.—Chip Wright

What kind of training does your CFI get?

April 27th, 2015

Senior StudentAs a student pilot—as a student anything, really—you may not think much of what goes into becoming a teacher of a particular…well, anything. How often as a child did you think about the training it takes to become the teacher that was standing at the front of the classroom? Chances are, not much. I’m married to a teacher, and in the last 18 years I’ve gained new respect for what a school teacher has to know and do.

Your CFI is no different. Becoming a flight instructor is a lot of work. Of all the checkrides I’ve taken over the years—including 10 or so different ratings or certificates—the CFI ride was by far the most stressful, and for many people, it’s the hardest. Aside from the private pilot checkride, it’s the one ride where you are not just responsible for everything you know about flying, but you may get asked about anything you’ve ever learned. Worse, you have to be able to explain everything with equal confidence and mastery, from the workings of a wet compass to the nuances of a lazy eight.

Like most instructors who are certified by any kind of agency, be it government or private industry, CFIs are required to go through regular recurrent training. In the case of CFIs, that training is required every 24 calendar months. In order to remain an active CFI, the FAA has several avenues that can be used, but the most common one is for the CFI to enroll in a Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic (FIRC).

Back in the day (the older I get, the more I say that), FIRCs required in-person attendance and took up a whole weekend, as the requirement is 16 hours of training. An alternative was to use home study with VHS video tapes as part of a package supplied by companies such as the former Jeppesen-Sanderson, now known as Jeppesen. Today, the FIRCs can be done online, including through the AOPA Air Safety Institute.

Actual flight time is not required in the refresher training, because the purpose is to use the time to emphasize overall training, including new material that has become prevalent (such as happened with GPS), new regulations, policies, and concepts.

In addition, there is some review on topics based on trends that the FAA sees. Some of these are areas in which the pilot population as a whole has had trouble, and others are general review. For example, several years ago, there was a realization that pilots were involved in far more runway incursions than they should have been. In this case, while general aviation pilots were the worst offenders, airlines were having issues as well. As a result, everyone—and I do mean everyone—had to go through some training to prevent runway incursions. CFIs were at the head of the pack, because of their ability to spread the message to a large number of pilots.

The post-September 11 world also brought some changes. CFIs now have to take special security training that is mandated by the Transportation Security Administration, and all pilots are more aware than ever before of temporary flight restrictions. Those on the East Coast also have to be especially knowledgeable of the Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) around Washington, D.C.

Other training emphasizes the actual act of teaching. There are various laws of learning that we are all subjected to, and the training often includes a review of those laws. With all of the new avionics that have flooded the market in the last 10 years, it’s important to emphasize that we can’t teach the way we used to, and we certainly can’t be effective—let alone safe—teachers in a cramped airplane on a hot day.

I don’t mind the biennial training that CFIs are required to get. I don’t get to fly GA as much as I would like, let alone teach it, so the review is good for me. One of the things that I like about both GA training and my refresher training that I receive as an airline pilot is that neither wastes a lot of time on stuff we do every day. It instead hits the areas we might be weak on, and it covers a broad array of things we may have forgotten or don’t use often. In my case, both training events make me a better pilot.

Don’t take what your CFI does for granted. It’s a lot of hard work to get that certificate, and it takes a certain dedication to keep the certificate active. And the learning never stops.—Chip Wright

Videos of traffic patterns? Yes, please

April 20th, 2015

Flying to a new airport is great fun, but it poses its own set of challenges. You can study the sectional chart, the airport diagram, and the Airport/Facility Directory for an hour, but when you’re up in the air 10 miles out, searching for that strip of asphalt, sometimes it’s tough to put those pieces together and pick out your destination. (Ask any student pilot in the Northeast who’s had to spy an airport in an urban area, seemingly buried in a maze of buildings and highways.)

Short final to Metropolitan Oakland International Airport.

Short final to Metropolitan Oakland International Airport.

A new website aims to help you. LandingPatterns.com was created by California pilot Tony Arbini, who says he was assigned an airport he had never flown to for his long solo cross-country. He went online to try to look up the airport and learn as much as he could about its airspace, but he didn’t find much. He created LandingPatterns.com in a quest to “find a better way to communicate” airspace and traffic patterns for a given airport, according to the website.

The airspace around OAK is depicted graphically.

The airspace around OAK is depicted graphically.

Arbini and his team visit airports and videotape the flight, but the site’s collection of videos is much more polished than what you’ll typically find on YouTube. Each video introduces the airport by showing you its location on a sectional chart, with traffic patterns, airspace, and nearby navigation aids highlighted. Static photos display pertinent landmarks to help you spy the runway before you’re directly over top of it. There’s also info on traffic pattern altitudes, noise abatement procedures, terrain obstacles, and other good-to-know stuff.

Traffic patterns at OAK are highlighted. (Landingpatterns.com)

Traffic patterns at OAK are highlighted. (Landingpatterns.com)

All of this can be found in traditional sources, of course, but I like the way LandingPatterns.com presents it in a neat and graphically attractive package. Note that the use of the website should enhance—not replace—your due diligence when digging up “all available information” about your destination.

Right now the website covers airports in California (plus one lone airport in Alaska). But that’s where you come in. The website urges you to “fly it—film it—share it.” You can upload your own footage to the site. Arbini provides tips on how best to present it, and he even includes a tutorial on how to use his preferred action cam—a Garmin Virb—to get that great footage.—Jill W. Tallman

‘It was worth it’

April 16th, 2015

Branden Blackford recently shared his solo photo from September 2013 on our Facebook page. He’s looking forward to finishing up very soon. Here’s his story.—Ed.

Branden Blackford soloed in September 2013. He's coming to the end of a six-year flight training journey.

Branden Blackford soloed in September 2013. He’s coming to the end of a six-year flight training journey.

It all started before I was even 1 year old. My family use to take me to airshows every year growing up in Indiana before I could walk or talk. My dad was a crew chief mechanic on KC-135 Stratotankers so he was the one who introduced me to aviation and taught me a lot about airplanes and their control surfaces and how they worked.

By the age of 5 I could point to almost every military airplane at an airshow and identify it. As I grew older my interest for airplanes grew, and I would read books to educate myself about airplanes and all the different types of planes while I was in school. I knew before I entered the third grade I wanted to be a pilot.

It wasn’t until the age of 10 I took my first flight with the EAA Young Eagles program. I was nervous and worried I’d get airsick since I’d never flown before, but I did it. A 20-minute flight and I was hooked! I knew I’d do whatever it takes to be a pilot from then on.

For the next seven years my dad and I were chasing Young Eagles events all over the state just so I could go flying and learn more about airplanes each time I went up. At the age of 17 I took my first flight lesson when I got my first job working at a fast food restaurant.

From 2009 to 2013 it was a struggle financially to get to my first solo as I would literally take my minimum wage check of two weeks and spend it all on one hour of flight instruction and wait about another three weeks to get enough money for another hour of flight instruction. But it was worth it to me.

In the the meantime I overcame a spontaneous collapsed lung, passed the FAA medical and on September 26, 2013, I soloed. I got a better-paying job working as an aircraft cleaner just to be around airplanes and could better afford my flight lessons.

I’ve completed my solo cross-country requirements in March 2015, got my 40 hours, and now I’m preparing for the practical and my final hours of being a student pilot. As of June 2015, it will mark exactly six years of flight training. I’m not happy it took me so long, but it’s now 2015 and this year I’m finally going to get my wings!

And this summer I plan on going to a fly-in with my father to celebrate my success. The point is never give up on your dreams no matter how long it may take to succeed. I did this mostly off of minimum wage checks but my passion and love to fly got me through the tough times. Don’t give up! And keep on flying. And remember… your hours in your logbook never expire.

Name: Branden Blackford
Age 23
Event: Solo (September 2013); private pilot certificate forthcoming
Where: Hendricks County Airport Gordon Graham Field, Danville, Indiana
Airplane: Cessna 172

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Learn the local weather, wherever you are

April 13th, 2015

weatherOne of the most important variables in the day-to-day life of a pilot—if not the most important—is weather.

It’s easy to fixate on learning weather patterns in your hometown. After all, it’s where you live, so it just makes sense. But as you expand your horizons, you will learn that weather is called a “variable” for a reason: No two places are the same.

I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, and there’s a definite annual pattern to the weather. The summers are either hazy, hot, and humid or absolutely gorgeous. There isn’t a lot of in-between, unless you count the torrential rain storms. Lines of thunderstorms can be hit or miss as well, because the Appalachians will affect the extent of continued development before they hit my front door. Falls are brisk; winters are damp and miserable; and spring is the season in which Mother Nature can’t make a decision. Fog is rare, but we had it.

Move forward to my move to Florida, both in college and at my first airline job. There are two seasons in Central Florida, and thus two weather forecasts: pop-up thunderstorms in the summer—as opposed to the fast-moving lines of fury that I’d grown up with—and morning fog in the spring and fall. This was as predictable as Charlie Brown missing the football. And the fog was often so thick you could cut it with a spoon. Carrying extra fuel for holding patterns on morning arrivals was a necessity, as the fog could burn off as quickly as it formed.

In the Midwest, I learned to deal with the same lines of summer storms I’d grown up with, only this time I had to deal with them when they were at maximum strength and fury as they would move across the flat central portion of the country with tremendous speed, unimpeded by terrain, with tops that often exceeded the service ceiling of nearly all jets. I learned firsthand what severe and extreme turbulence feels like, and I don’t need to experience either ever again.

The Midwest also gave me my first exposure to deicing operations, especially with hoar frost, which is extremely common as temperatures begin to fall, even if the precipitation doesn’t. The winters can produce pretty thick fog. This is a major issue in some mountain valleys, especially in the evenings and early mornings. Our late-night flights to Tri-Cities, Tennessee, frequently had to race time to beat the fog that would roll in. Ashville, North Carolina, had similar issues.

Nowadays, my flying takes me around the Pacific. In the winters, the weather is virtually non-existent, and what little there is lends itself to easy visual deviations. In the summers, the storms are much more extensive, but the convective energy is much less concentrated than that in the storms over land. They simply don’t have the heating source. That said, they are to be taken seriously, yet at the same time we are much quicker to pull the trigger on diverting because airports—the islands—are so far apart, and we can only carry so much extra fuel. It’s not unheard of for the weather over or near one of the islands to be just sketchy enough that a crew won’t even attempt an approach. The fuel wasted is better saved for a possible missed approach at the alternate.

Weather and its patterns are unique, and while I don’t profess to have the most intimate understanding that others do, I have stored enough information away in my memory bank that I can put together a plan in fairly short order. Understanding what to expect based on local geography and terrain is a key component to that. In my case, more learning shall occur. I will eventually transfer back to domestic flying, and I have relatively little flying experience west of the Rockies. I’ll be relying on what I’ve read to get by, but not as much as the wisdom of those I’m flying with along with my own eyes.

Wherever your experience takes you, pay attention. It’s information you’ll need later.—Chip Wright

Applying flying skills to life, and vice versa

April 6th, 2015

Learning to fly is a complicated pursuit. For many, it is the first real foray into the three-dimensional world. It requires learning a complex series of skills in a machine that never stops moving. There is no pulling over at a gas station to ask for directions or use a restroom. Every flight involves at least a rudimentary level of planning.

One of the neat things about learning to fly is that many of the skills are transferable to other endeavors. Likewise, there are skill sets from other hobbies that can be transferred to flying. Take flight planning, for example.

At its most basic, flight planning requires at least a look at the weather and the fuel gauge even if you are only planning a flight in the local area. But longer flights or flights over more challenging terrain, require more attention. There is a close correlation to two common activities here: scuba diving and traveling by car. Divers often use mnemonics or even checklists to make sure that they are prepared for diving. Pilots do the same thing. Divers have to plan their air supply so that they return to the surface with a minimum amount of air in the tank. Pilots are taught to always keep fuel in reserve. Flights, like the traditional family vacation, are often broken up into legs in order to minimize fatigue or plan fuel and/or food stops.

A good percentage of flying involves preparing for emergencies or “non-normal” situations. This is pretty intuitive, considering that we are not in our natural environment. Where pilots learn to plan for engine failures and electrical malfunctions, divers learn to cope with flooded masks or leaky regulators. Teenage drivers learn early on how to change tires and use jumper cables (or they should, anyway).

When I was an active flight instructor, I always tried to correlate what I was teaching with something from everyday life or from the students’ personal background that would help them grasp and retain the essence of what I was teaching. Many hated using the checklist because it was so foreign to them. Some of them learned to look at it as a step-by-step recipe, as if they were cooking, and a few looked at it as the only way to avoid trouble with the FAA (the lawyers). People whose career consisted of working with numbers would approach flight planning from a numerical perspective: We have X amount of gas, which we’ll burn at Y gallons an hour, so we should be able to fly for Z amount of time (math teachers and accountants).

Flight planning can be a consuming task, as I mentioned. I’ve known pilots who have traveled in general aviation aircraft around the globe. Planning such a trip can take a year or more, and it involves a tremendous effort to coordinate because of the various laws of flying over certain countries. These folks tend to carry over much of the mindset to their non-aviation lives: They carry extra oil in their car; they always seem to dress for worse weather than they expect; there are several maps or GPS units available, et cetera. As one of them told me, planning for an emergency in the middle of an emergency is no place to plan for an emergency. Everything he did followed that mantra.

Use flying to broaden your thought process for other arenas in life, and use your own personal experiences elsewhere to enhance your decision-making skills in the airplane. And, plan ahead for the emergencies!—Chip Wright