Archive for the ‘Aviation Careers’ Category

So, what goes on up there?

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

I am frequently asked a lot of questions about life as a pilot. One of the most common is, “What do you actually do up there for most of the flight?” Most people understand that the autopilot is flying the airplane for most of the trip, and the crew is in more of a monitoring role, so the question is understandable.

The answer depends on the kind of flying. On short legs, we’re pretty busy on the radio, and we set up early for the approach, check our weights and speeds for landings, and make any special requests for the station to address (lav services, wheelchairs, et cetera). On longer legs with a lot of time spent in cruise, there is more freedom to do various things.

Back up to the first flight together as a crew. Especially at larger airlines, it isn’t uncommon for a pair of pilots to fly together only once. This means that the first time they meet for the trip may be the first time they’ve ever met, and they will spend some time getting to know one another. Pilots being pilots, it isn’t unusual to meet someone and hit it off like you’ve been BFFs since grade school. At other times one of the crew may be more reserved, but there is still a getting-to-know-you period. In no particular order, you can count on certain questions coming up: Where are you from? How long have you been here? How do you like it? Did you bid this trip? What’s your flying background? And so on.

The first leg or two usually consists of a lot of banter about company goings-on, rumors, new developments, or big announcements made or expected. There is a lot of chatter about family life, common interests, etc. Most pilots will try to avoid certain subjects, such as politics or religion, but some can’t resist the temptation. There are a lot of “Have you flown with…?” stories, and usually a few laughs get shared about someone doing something funny or dumb.

But very personal information gets shared as well. If you spend three or four days or longer in a room the size of a phone booth with someone else who has a tendency to dress like you do, it’s inevitable that you get to know—and share—more than you ever thought you would. Personal fears, secret desires, or just plain secrets get shared. I’ve heard stories of affairs, unplanned pregnancies, crazy tax schemes, you name it. The unwritten rule is that what is said behind that door stays there (except for anything criminal), and most of the time it does. There is a certain sanctity within the cockpit.

And, as you might expect, locker-room style talk and behavior takes place as well.

On longer legs or trips, it isn’t all chatter. There are certain record-keeping requirements for fuel or certain minimum equipment list (MEL) procedures. On long international legs, it isn’t unusual for pilots to read or do crossword puzzles just to keep themselves alert.

But, like the proverbial light switch, when the situation calls for professionalism, that’s what you see. Whether it is a mechanical problem that becomes apparent, or a regular checklist or a weather deviation, pilots never forget who they are and where they are, and when the situation calls for it, the shenanigans are discarded and attention is focused on the job at hand.

It isn’t always work and it isn’t always play…but most of the time, if nothing else, it’s fun!—Chip Wright

Time flies when you’re landing an Airbus on the Hudson

Friday, January 10th, 2014

Hard to believe that January 15, 2014, marks the five-year anniverary of the day that will always be known as “Miracle on the Hudson.”

As most of us recall, US Airways Flight 1549, piloted by Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, landed in the Hudson River in New York after striking a flock of Canada geese. Both engines failed on climbout from LaGuardia Airport in New York City en route to Charlotte, North Carolina. Sullenberger decided they didn’t have enough altitude to turn back or make an emergency landing at Teterboro, New Jersey. He told New York Tracon, “We’re gonna be in the Hudson,” and that was the last transmission from the airplane before it touched down in the river.

Just writing that last sentence gave me goosebumps.

Thankfully, all turned out well. All passengers and crew were evacuated safely.

Now retired from US Airways, Sullenberg remains an active and vocal figure in the aviation industry. Jeppesen created an approach plate commemorating the “Miracle” landing.

Skiles took a leave of absence from the airline and is working for the Experimental Aircraft Association. He eventually got a seaplane rating, too [insert your own joke here].

One of the passengers on that fateful flight went on to earn a private pilot certificate. I interviewed Clay Presley shortly after his solo for this Flight Training magazine article, and you can hear him tell the story of the Miracle on the Hudson from the point of view of someone who was sitting in the cabin section on this AOPA Live video.  —Jill W. Tallman

This entry was edited to correct the date to Jan. 15—Ed.

Record foul-ups

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

A friend of mine was recently terminated while in training with a regional airline. In the regional sector, it’s not unusual for an airline to terminate a new-hire without giving a specific reason. That was the case here, and the only explanation he received was that “there was something in [your] application.”

That’s vague, and he was convinced that it was bogus. One of the reasons he was so sure is that he had been employed by another airline for over a decade with no problems. He had disclosed his lone Part 121 checkride failure. But, just to be sure, he began a dialogue with the FAA. He was shocked at what he found.

To make a long story short, he had started an oral exam for a checkride, but he had been sick. The event was going well, but he had to bail out because of his illness. The next day, he finished the oral (and passed), and took the checkride (and not only passed, but got high praise from the examiner). However, that event was almost 20 years ago, and he had forgotten that he had signed a second 8710 for the oral. The first one was recorded as a failed event. Right or wrong, agree or disagree—that’s what went into his file.

Fast forward to now. The records that he had in his possession prior to starting this job did not include the 8710s and did not indicate that he had a failure of a checkride (remember, it was the oral, not the ride), and it cost him.

The lesson from this for any pilot is two-fold: Never lie on an application, because it will be found. He didn’t lie; he simply didn’t realize the full ramification of what was going on when it happened. But, the point is the same. If you try to hide something, it’s going to get uncovered. Second, when you start the process of applying to airlines, whether it’s a regional, a major, a foreign carrier, or anything in between, get in touch with the FAA in Oklahoma City, and get copies of everything that might be in your file. Ask questions.

You should keep your own detailed records with regard to ratings, certificates, et cetera. Whenever you take a checkride, make a note of the date, time, place, and examiner. If there is a mistake found later, you will know where to start. In this case, the school was long gone, and the examiner had passed away.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not impossible to get a job with checkride failures, even after the Colgan accident. The thing to remember is that you need to fully disclose your past, and you need to own up to your mistakes. If you aren’t sure of something, get it taken care of.

In a case like this, if it happens to you, your best recourse is to write a detailed description of everything that happened. As you apply to airlines, you can attach this to your application or take a copy to the interview.—Chip Wright

Marketing as a CFI

Monday, December 30th, 2013

The FAA provides CFI candidates no help in the way of marketing tips for folks looking to make a living providing flight instruction. If you are simply relying on your local flight school to do the work for you, you are making a mistake: Flight schools on the whole are some of the worst businesses that exist when it comes to properly marketing their offerings. Too many rely on walk-ins, web site hits, or word of mouth.

Further, your local flight school probably wants you to work as an independent contractor, not a full-time employee. However, even if you are an employee, the chances are you will only get paid based on billable hours. This is where you have a direct say in generating some of your own income.

Marketing can be as simple or as sophisticated as you want it to be:

  • At a minimum, have some business cards printed up, and give each new client six or seven cards to distribute to people who may be genuinely interested in learning to fly (or getting back into flying or earning a new rating).
  • Add a signature to your email that lists your credentials.
  • Utilize Facebook and Twitter to advertise not only your services, but also the accomplishments of your clientele. To minimize the risk of inappropriate material being posted, create a business page/Twitter handle that is separate from your personal one.
  • Even if you are working for a flight school, create a simple website that gets to the heart of what you do and offer. Minimize the number of links people need to hit. Advertise what you offer (more on this in a bit). Use your website to brag about what your clientele have accomplished, complete with photos or videos of recent first solo flights, checkride completions, et cetera.
  • Direct mail is old-fashioned, but it still works. You can talk to your local post office about how to target certain ZIP codes (those with higher incomes) and send out a professional-looking flyer or brochure advertising yourself and your flight school. In fact, you should confirm that the flight school is OK with this, and if it is, ask the school to share in the expense. If it won’t, use your contact number on the brochure, not the school’s.
  • Coupons. People are suckers for coupons. Work with local businesses—hotels, grocery stores, barber shops—to place and distribute coupons for intro/sight-seeing flights. Include them in your mailers and on your Facebook page and website. Make sure you include an expiration date that is 4-6 months out. This motivates the buyer/user to come in and use it, and also protects you from spikes in fuel prices.
  • Local events. During the holiday season, set up a booth in the local mall that has a running DVD about flying and has a few ground-school kits and flyers. You will have to coordinate this to keep it staffed, and it might be expensive up front, but people love to give and receive sightseeing flights for gifts. Do the same thing at local fairs, school events, et cetera. See the note above about expiration dates (for Christmas sales, extend the expiration date to Labor Day). Keep notes on the trickle-down business you create from this.
  • What do you offer? Besides being a CFI, talk up what you can add to that. Are you an instrument instructor? Multiengine? Can you offer seaplane training or a tailwheel endorsement? Come up with a package or a series to offer for your sightseeing rides. It should include a photo of some sort or a video if you can do it safely. If you can mount a camera on the strut of a Cessna, you can offer a fantastic memory to your customer. If you can get a great aerial shot of a local landmark that you fly over routinely, you can sell the same one over and over, but personalize it with each customer’s name, date, et cetera.. They may never come back to take lessons, but they may refer people to you for training or just for more rides. Remember, you want to fly to get paid, so it doesn’t matter what you are doing to produce billable hours.

What do you want to specialize in? Are you into night cross-country flights? Some instructors don’t like missing family time at night, so maybe you can become the go-to night CFI. Or do you want to do IFR training? How about IFR training on long cross-country trips? I got several vacations from my clients when I was a full-time CFI for which I actually got paid.

There is much that you can do to market what you do and what you offer. It isn’t hard, and I have not even scratched the surface of it here. Whatever you do, keep detailed records on what works and what does not so that you don’t throw good money after bad. If you do this correctly, you will probably make more money than a regional airline first officer can dream of, and maybe as much as regional captain. If you leave to pursue a flying career elsewhere, you may find that your former employers will make a strong pitch to keep you or will offer to pay you for some of your contacts, et cetera.

Heck, you might even be able to market marketing!—Chip Wright

Living and flying overseas

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s one thing to read about the number of American pilots who have embraced the expat opportunities overseas, especially in Asia, but it’s something else to hear it on the radio. I recently flew a trip to Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Saigon, and along the way, I heard a large number of pilots flying for Korean Air, Emirates, Dragonair, Cathay Pacfic, Singapore Airlines, Cebu Pacific Air (a Philippine carrier), and Vietnam Airlines that were clearly from the United States (as well as Canada, Great Britain, and Australia). Korean, Emirates, and Cathay are very popular for American pilots because of the pay and the better living conditions in Seoul, Dubai, and Hong Kong, respectively (especially the pay).

I know many pilots who have pursued these opportunities, and many are having the time of their lives.

Americans are needed here because flight training in Asia is virtually nonexistent. There is no infrastructure (almost no general aviation airports, no GA airplanes , no 100LL fuel, no instructors), and the airspace system was not designed to accommodate flight training. The military owns the airspace and is not willing to share.

Most of the Asians learn to fly in the United States (including on Guam, U.S. territory in the Pacific) and Australia, then come home. However, they enter the work force very inexperienced and with a nearly pathological fear of hand-flying a big airplane. Americans are desired because of their experience. We’ve spent years learning how to fly, and we’ve flown in the most demanding airspace in the world. Further, Americans love to turn everything off and just fly. The Asian pilots have yet to embrace that concept, and they know they need to.

This is not to say that Americans are always welcomed. Sometimes they are viewed as a necessary evil. But many pilots go on to long, happy, productive careers living as ex-pats, taking advantage of the ability to move around to different countries every couple of years while seeing parts of the world they’d never get to see otherwise. Once you have this experience, it’s also easy to parlay it into a job as an instructor teaching the locals in the simulators.

There are also those who go abroad for a few years and then come home. In years past, pilots with international experience could just about pick out the airline they wanted to come home and work for. It remains to be seen if that holds with the new round of hiring. Also remaining to be seen, for that matter, is just how many pilots will even bother to come home. Foreign compensation packages have gotten so good that many will find such a move hard to justify.

Moving overseas to fly is a huge commitment, but if you are open-minded and can get past what you think “oughta be,” it can be an extremely rewarding, fun lifestyle—even if only on a temporary basis. After all, what better way to see the world than to get someone else to pay the bill?—Chip Wright

The back side of the clock

Monday, November 11th, 2013

alarm clock.svgIn my old job, it was unusual for me to fly late at night, with “late” being defined as anything past 10 p.m. With time, I got the seniority to make sure that I didn’t fly at night, as I am a morning person and prefer to just get up, get started, and get the day done. Sometimes, I miss those days…

In my new gig, there is a lot of night flying, including all-night flying. These flights aren’t the classic red-eye, per se, but the effect is the same: You spend a lot of time on the “back side of the clock,” flying between midnight and daybreak. For most of my life, I have not been a real good napper. Getting older helps, but more importantly, I’ve learned to do it out of necessity. On days when I know I’m going to be flying at night, or if I know that there’s even a possibility of flying late, I will force myself to lie down and catch some Zs. It’s a bit easier when I already have an assignment. I will generally lie down in the early afternoon and allocate at least 90 minutes to sleep, and if I can get two hours, I’m ecstatic.

The key is to figure out what works best for you. I’ve asked a lot of people how they do it, and everyone seems have a slightly different methodology (except for those who have no methodology). For me, if I can go to bed shortly after my normal lunch time, I don’t feel “rushed” to get some sleep. Sometimes I don’t really sleep, but I can just lie there and rest, and that’s enough. Fortunately, my new home has shutters that allow me to make the room as dark as a dungeon, so it looks and feels like it does when I go to bed at night. I’ve also found that for napping, I sleep better without an alarm. Instead, I have someone in my family wake me up.

By napping early, I can still get up and be somewhat engaged in the goings-on of my household, and it also gives me a chance to come to my senses slowly, take a shower, and maybe even eat something before I go to work. In fact, I try to push lunch back until after I nap, since I know I will get a meal when I’m on the airplane.

Flying at night is against the natural programming of the body, but it can be done. But, to be safe, as the pilot you must make sure that you are properly rested before you go to work. You also need to make sure you don’t aggravate your sleep debt by not sleeping the next day. I always crash the next morning for a few hours, and because I don’t drink caffeine on a regular basis (I don’t drink coffee at all), I can fall asleep more easily than most people, and if I need a soda to keep me awake, I can count on it working.

Staying engaged during the trip also helps. Nothing is as stimulating as a good conversation with the person I am flying with, and that goes a long ways toward passing the time. Sometimes the weather becomes the “stimulant,” but most of the time I just count on having a good rapport with my fellow workers. Good communication is also key in another respect: If you are flying tired, or have not slept well prior to a night flight, you need to convey that so that your fellow pilots can keep an eye on your performance.

Night flying can be fantastic, but it comes with a new set of challenges. Make sure that you are “up” for them!—Chip Wright

Questions to ask during an airline interview

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

An airline job interview is generally a one-way conversation, with the airline asking all the questions, and you doing your best to get the job. However, you should also be ready and willing to ask certain questions that will affect your future. This short list of questions will not get you “in trouble,” and it will show that you are truly interested in the industry.

  • Q: What will be the impact of FAR 117 on your operation?

If this isn’t addressed in a briefing before your interview, it’s a good question to ask, because many airlines, including regionals, are still coming to grips with the full impact of the rules. Every regional will be required to add staffing to the pilot ranks. The real question is by how much. Ten to 15 percent seems to be a good gauge for now, but each one is different. They may need to alter the schedules in ways not anticipated. My own guess is that it will force them to go to an AM-PM model, but that’s just one option. A simple reason for you to ask is to find out how long you will be on reserve.

  • Q: What will 117 do to reserve requirements?

Reserve status for an airline is one of the least desirable schedules in the industry, so most pilots want to get off reserve and become a line-holder as quickly as possible. Is the airline you are interviewing with planning to increase reserve numbers? Do they know?

  • Q: What will happen when your contract with your major airline expires?

It’s a fair question to ask a regional when the contracts with its major partner expire, and if the expiration date is close, to ask if the contract has been renewed. If it isn’t renewed, can the regional find someplace to put the airplanes to use? If the answer is no, you may not have a job for long. Most fee-for-departure contracts are for 10 years or more, so keep that in mind as you search for work.

  • Q: What is the future of XXX domicile?

This is a question you only want to ask regarding the smallest domicile, or one that is shrinking. If it’s a base at a non-hub airport, definitely ask—these are the ones that are most likely on the chopping block. You’ll probably need to read between the lines or pay as much attention to what they don’t tell you as to what they do, but if there is any chance you are going to be based at a small domicile or are considering moving to one, ask.

  • Q: What are the long-term fleet plans?

As the 50-seat fleet ages and gets retired (driven by both age and by scope clauses in the contracts of major airline pilots), regionals need to be ready to move on to Plan B. Some will thrive with 50-seaters, but most will not. You owe it to yourself to find out what the firm plans are going forward. You should know this before you show up, but getting current information will make your own decision making process a little bit easier.

These are just a few questions you can ask. If you have friends at the company, they can give you some more questions to ask that are pertinent and appropriate. Go in armed, and know exactly what information you need or want to make your own decisions easier to make, especially if you are facing the possibility of getting multiple job offers.—Chip Wright

Should you move for a regional?

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

U haul truckThis is a tough subject. Most people would rather not have to commute to work, and commuting for pilots is different than it is for any other job. One of the advantages to being an airline pilot is the option of living just about anywhere you want to live. However, it isn’t all peaches and cream either.

Having been a commuter and a noncommuter, I’m here to tell you that if you can avoid commuting, life is much, much better. I have lived as close as 10 minutes to the airport, and being able to leave my house 30 minutes before I am scheduled to report is wonderful. I’ve also had to commute to New York, which is notorious for its traffic problems. There were times when I had to leave my house in the morning for a trip that started the next afternoon because the flights were full, which meant that I lost a day and half of my time with my family. The same has happened getting home.

It’s one thing to move for a job that should be a career. But few pilots catch on with a regional figuring that it will be their final stop. This makes the decision to move even more difficult. A low-time pilot is going to be at a regional for several years, and that might be an argument in favor of moving. However, most crew bases are in busy hubs, where housing is more expensive. If you can find the right suburb, you can get lucky, especially if you are willing to drive a bit longer to get to work.

Commuting on reserve is even more challenging, and it can be frustrating as you spend days in a crash pad waiting to go to work—days that could have been spent at home.

Further, if you are hired by a regional that serves one major, you may be hired by another major, and find yourself in a city that suddenly becomes much more difficult to get to and from because of the change in your pass benefits.

If you are facing a two-leg commute, or heaven forbid, a three-leg commute, consider moving closer to work. Even if you aren’t dealing with a multi-stop commute, you may live somewhere with sparse service or frequently full flights. In this case, an option would be to move to a city that has a lot of service to (and from) multiple hubs.

A good example is Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, which is served by just about every significant airline, and to multiple hub cities for each one. It’s in a good geographic location for commuting up and down the East Coast as well as to the Midwest.

The same could be said for Indianapolis, Indiana, or St. Louis, Missouri. While it is common for pilots to live in Florida, Florida has its own challenges, namely that so many pilots and flight attendants live there. Also, the Sunshine State goes through periods of the year where getting to and from work is extremely difficult because of Spring Break, a Super Bowl, or the Daytona 500. The more senior you are, the easier it is. As a new hire, it’s tough.

Finding a city that is a happy medium is the best bet, especially if you could be happy there if you get your dream job with the major airline of choice. If you are only renting, my advice would be to move at first, with the possibility of commuting later. If you are fixated on buying somewhere, at least wait until you know the realities of the job and the real estate markets for where you want to live.

Deciding to move is not always an easy choice, and it definitely isn’t an easy task. But move slowly and deliberately so that you can make the best decision.—Chip Wright

Calling home for weather

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

There are a handful of approved weather sources that pilots and airlines can use. Approved, that is, by the FAA. There are countless that are not approved, such as Weather Underground, the Weather Channel, and my favorite: calling home.

Airlines use dispatchers to disseminate weather info to the flight crews. The dispatchers in turn use approved sources of meteorological information to develop big weather pictures. But, as any rational person knows, the best tool for analyzing nearby weather is to look out the window. The next best tool is to call someone who can actually look out the window where you want to go.

At my previous job, the dispatchers did not have a real good view out the window because of the design characteristics of the building they used. Even during a bad storm, if I called them, I would get the computerized information, which wasn’t always as new as I wanted it to be. Quite often, I would call my wife or a few other people who lived in specific locations and could give me an immediate sense of what was going on. My father used to get mildly amused when I’d call him for updated info if I was in his neck of the woods.

Officially, I could not/cannot use this information to plan my flight, or determine a suitable alternate, or do much of anything other than to say that I talked to my family. But for getting immediate, accurate information, it works, even if it isn’t “officially” accurate. My dad was especially helpful because, as a pilot himself, he knew what I wanted to know. My wife was a great source of severe weather input because we lived so close to the airport.

Even now, living in another location in the middle of the Pacific, my wife is a good source of here-and-now information—especially with rapidly changing rain conditions. I am not a captain, so I’m not the one who ultimately makes the decision about what’s going to happen, but being able to talk to someone who is “in the know” provides a bit of comfort. It may not be a true pilot report as defined by the FAA, but it is a pirep of another sort: People In REal (close) Proximity.

Again, it isn’t official, and it can’t be used in a court of…well, anything, but talking to people who are really there can be useful. Just use such information as a supplement to the official version, to help build the best big-picture view you can get.—Chip Wright

Airline charters

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

It’s well known that the airlines fly people from A to B, be it on business trips, honeymoons, going to a funeral, or on a family vacation. What you may not realize is that the airlines also do an awful lot of charter work. The major carriers—especially the legacy carriers—do a significant amount of charter work for college and professional sports teams, and the revenue is significant. Because a team or a group is leasing the whole airplane, the cost is not cheap. The money they pay has to cover not only the cost of the flight(s) in question, but also the cost of repositioning the airplane.

For example, when I was at Comair, we flew a ton of NCAA basketball charters for both men’s and women’s teams. When I first upgraded to captain, the going rate for the airplane was roughly $10,000 an hour. On a typical charter, the crew that would actually operate the flight would either report to work in base or dead-head on the last flight out to an outstation. They would then take the airplane and ferry to the pick-up point. For the University of Maryland, that might mean riding on a flight to Buffalo, and then taking the empty airplane to Syracuse. When the team had finished the game and the press conference, they’d be brought to the airport. We’d then take them to Washington National Airport or Thurgood Marshall-Baltimore Washington International and drop them off. We’d then ferry the airplane back to Buffalo. The fees the team paid not only had to cover the cost of the ride home, but also the cost of the empty segments.

Charters add an interesting mix to the everyday flying. In the example above, the flying took place mostly at night. The same is true in season for baseball teams, the NBA, and the NHL. Football is different, since there is only one game a week, and the teams travel either one or two days ahead of schedule, depending on the time changes. During spring training, baseball teams will often travel during the day. We also did a lot of NASCAR charters, moving the support crews and mechanics around.

Football teams tend to stick with the legacy carriers because they will have access to narrow-body equipment for flights under three hours or so, and they can use a wide-body for flights more than three hours. They also have more people and equipment involved.

There are other charters that pop up as well. Before the spike in oil prices that began in 2001, we used to do a lot of gambling charters to casinos, especially in the South. In fact, I did a couple of three-day weekend trips that consisted of nothing but gambling charters. Those trips can be a lot of fun, because the leader of the trip will often use the public address system to have games and contests in flight, and will sometimes include the crew in the festivities.

There are two major downsides to the charter work: getting groups to honor the schedule, which can lead to a lot of sitting around and late departures, and the fact that most of the time you’re working on the backside of the clock. Getting teams to honor the schedule is easier when they are dealing with an airline versus a true charter company, because they understand that the airplane is due back in service the next day, and the contract calls for a pretty stiff penalty if they horse around with the schedule (overtime games are exempt).

The upside is that sports teams tend to cater a lot of food, so you can eat well for free. Also, you can meet some pretty interesting or famous people. Charters are also a nice break from the routine of line flying, and they can be a lot of fun. While some corporations will arrange for charters (we did one for several years during a major banking merger as employees shuttled between the two headquarters), those are fairly rare, but they do tend to be on RJ-sized equipment. If you head to the airlines thinking that all you will do will be based on the timetables, you will be in for a surprise…but you might also come away with a few autographs in your logbook that you weren’t expecting.—Chip Wright