Archive for the ‘Aviation Careers’ Category

Climb segments

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

In the airline world, there are a number of new rules, limits, and terms a pilot needs to learn. One area in which a new understanding needs to be had is in the takeoff.

Gone are the days when, as a general aviation pilot, you can just eyeball the runway, the load, the airplane, measure the wind with your thumb, and go for it. When you are flying passengers and cargo for hire, you need to be able to comply with the segmented climb. Specifically—-and this is key—-you need to be able to meet the climb requirements on a single engine (assuming you are flying a twin-engine jet) as a result of an engine failure at V1 [takeoff decision speed, but a beyond the scope of this post]. It is assumed that you will meet all the requirements if every engine is running.

The first segment is short—it ends when the airplane is airborne and the gear is retracted. Not partially retracted, but fully up-and-locked retracted. The airspeed must be up to V2, commonly known as “takeoff safety speed,” but in technical terms, the speed for best climb gradient.

The second segment requirement is often the most difficult one to meet. Segment two begins when the gear is up and locked and the speed is V2. This segment has the steepest climb gradient: 2.4 percent. This equates to a ballpark figure of around 300 feet per minute, and for a heavy airplane on a hot day with a failed engine, this can be a challenge. Often, when the airlines announce that a flight is weight-limited on hot summer days, this is the reason (the gate agent doesn’t know this kind of detail, and nor does she care; she just knows some people aren’t going).

The magic computers we use for computing performance data figure all this out, saving us the trouble of using charts and graphs. All we know is that we can either carry the planned load or we can’t.

Second segment climb ends at 400 feet, so it could take up to a minute or more to fly this segment. Think of all the obstacles that might be in the departure path in the course of 60 seconds or more.

Third segment climb begins at 400 feet, and here the rules can vary. The climb gradient is now half of what it was before: 1.2 percent. However, we are also required to accelerate to a speed called VFS (final segment climb speed). In graphs and publications, the third segment of the climb is often depicted as being a flat line for the acceleration. In many turboprops, that’s exactly the way it’s flown. The airplane is leveled off (and the pilot is using a very tired leg to overcome the increasing yaw tendency via the rudder) and accelerated before the final climb begins.

In jets, however, there is generally enough power in the remaining engine to avoid a level-off. If the airplane can continue to accelerate during the third segment, it may continue to climb, so long as it can do so without a decrease in speed or performance. In fact, during the climb it must continue to meet the climb gradient while accelerating to VFS.

Third segment climb ends upon reaching VFS.

The fourth and “final segment” begins upon reaching VFS and completing the climb configuration process. It is now permissible (and maybe necessary) to reduce thrust to a Maximum Continuous setting. The climb gradient is again 1.2 percent, and VFS must be maintained to 1,500 feet above field elevation.

V1 cuts and single-engine climbs are a staple of turboprop and jet training. It is critical that a pilot of such equipment understand what the objective is when it comes to performing the maneuver, and why the requirements are what they are. This material is taught in much greater detail in ground school than I presented here. In fact, there may be a few deviations and exceptions to the above, as this is a general introduction (there are, like many things in aviation, always caveats, so bear that in mind).

Some pilots dread V1 cuts, but the best way to approach them is to take them as a challenge and constantly push yourself to master them and excel in your performance.

Climb safely!—Chip Wright

Exemption 3585

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

If the airlines didn’t fly every time the weather was less than ideal, they’d never fly. As a result, technology and rules are in place to maximize efficiency and opportunity while minimizing risks. One example lies in getting airplanes off the gate when the weather at the destination is forecast to be below minimums.

Like everyone else, the standard IFR 1-2-3 rule applies: If the weather at the destination from one hour before to one hour after the ETA is forecast to be less than 2,000 feet and three miles, an alternate is required. This is no big deal, obviously, and many of us have left with the weather forecast to be right at the minimums for the approach.

However, sometimes the forecast calls for a possibility of weather that is going to be temporarily below the landing minimums. In FAA weather lingo, we call this “conditional phrases,” and they consist of BCMG, PROB, and TEMPO. For example, the main body of the forecast may have the visibility at one-half mile, but a TEMPO phrase may show a possible drop to on-quarter mile at the ETA.

When this happens, the airlines that have been granted approval to do so can use what is called Exemption 3585. Under the terms of the exemption, the flight will be required to have not one, but two alternates. Further, the method used to determine the alternates is changed as well.

Remember, the airlines do not use the 600-2 and 800-2 rules that GA use for determining the suitability of an alternate; the rules for determining a Part 121 alternate are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say, it’s possible that an airport could be an alternate as long as the forecast is calling for weather of at least 400 feet and one mile.

Under Exemption 3585, the forecast (again, we can use conditional phrases) at the ETA for the first alternate must call for a forecast of no worse than one-half the visibility and ceiling required for the approach. In our example of a 400 and one, the weather at the first alternate can’t be forecast to be less than 200 and one-half.

Looking ahead to the second alternate, the FAA has a pretty simple criteria: This one must be essentially a sure thing. The forecast for the second alternate can also utilize conditional phrases. However, this time, the forecast must call for weather—even with conditional phrases—that equal the ceiling and visibility that can be used for the approach. No reductions are allowed. In essence, if the conditional phrases must have such good weather, it stands to reason that the main body is going to be for nearly VFR conditions.

There is one other option: Category 2 approaches. CAT II approaches can be flown with a runway visibility range (RVR)  reading of 1,200 feet—that is, one-quarter mile of visibility. Such approaches are a pretty hair-raising experience. However, CAT II approaches are a significant investment because of the maintenance requirements for the airplanes, and if the airline does not have a great deal of diversions in a calendar year caused by low visibility, CAT II isn’t worth the cost. Exemption 3585 does the trick.

This is a fairly simple explanation, and the variety of possibilities can get complex and tricky, but Exemption 3585—sort of a poor man’s CAT II that was originally put together for People Express—is an indispensible tool, and if you should ever be hired by a regional, you will spend a lot of time in training dissecting Exemption 3585.

The sad thing is that while you while you will spend hours learning 3585, you will rarely use it. In 16 years of airline flying, I have taken full advantage of 3585 fewer than a dozen times. Category II on the other hand….—Chip Wright

Projecting a professional image

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

As you prepare for your interview, one of the first things you will undoubtedly do is get your best suit cleaned and pressed, get a haircut, and do whatever else you need to do to present your best appearance. And these are things that you should definitely do.

But have you thought about what you are going to do once you get the job? As you prepare to fly to your interview, pay attention as you walk through the airport or sit in a restaurant or the boarding area. Pay attention to the employees. Look at them as a customer, and look at them as though you were a supervisor.

The unpleasant truth is that too many airline pilots and flight attendants have taken the liberty to stretch the acceptable limits of the dress code.

An easy example is the pilot hat. There are still many airlines that require a hat. Many pilots hate the hats, and you can tell by the fact that they either don’t wear one or keep it stuffed in their suitcases. The fact is, however, that if the hat is a part of the uniform, you are supposed to wear it.

It’s one thing to forget to grab it on the way out the door, so long as that only happens once in a blue moon. It’s something else entirely to just totally ignore it. Stuffing it into the back of the suitcase and only putting it on when the chief pilot is in the terminal is pretty silly. Further, you need to wear it properly. Personally, I don’t understand why any pilot would not wear a hat that they paid $50 to $70 for…but that’s just me.

There are other image issues that you can control. Wearing a clean shirt and pants is obvious, but some pilots will wear their uniforms until they turn to threads. Most companies provide a uniform maintenance allowance as a part of the pay, and you are expected to use that for dry cleaning, replacement pieces, et cetera. Well-cared-for pants will last several years, but shirts can take a beating (the polyester ones, though, last forever). The smart move is to always carry at least one extra shirt in your suitcase, and possibly a pair of pants.

Suitcases and flight kits are another issue. There are some who feel it’s almost a point of pride to walk around with a suitcase or a brain bag that is held together with duct tape and bailing wire. I can tell you from experience that there is little that is worse than having your luggage fall apart as you walk through the airport…on the first day of a four-day trip.

Luggage is one item that you don’t want to save money on. Get good, quality gear, and take care of it. When the zippers get worn, replace them. When the flaps get torn, have them fixed. When a wheel goes bad, put on a new one. Fortunately, with the major luggage brand that pilots use, many of the repairs can be done yourself, and it’s easy to get a loaner to send yours in for repairs.

And for the record, backpacks are not a part of the uniform.

Last but not least is your jacket. More airlines are wearing leather jackets, and they’re great. They’re rugged, durable, comfortable, and they look good. The blazer is still common, especially in spring and fall. You need to maintain that as well and keep it clean. If the stripes—and this is true for the shirt epaulets as well—start to look worn or dirty, they should be replaced. I’ve always made it a point to replace my epaulets every year because the shoulder harnesses turn them black.

Getting to an airline takes an awfully big investment. You owe it to yourself and to your chosen profession to present the best image that you can. Remember, you may be in uniform looking like a slob and bump into a captain at Quizno’s who works for your dream airline—and he may be a recruiter or an interviewer.

If you don’t look like you care about your appearance, you will look like you don’t care about what job you have…or don’t have.

Oh, and keep your hair trimmed and neat.—Chip Wright

A brief explanation of the Whitlow Letter

Monday, February 4th, 2013

It is common practice to want to pick on the FAA, and often with good reason. However, there are times when the feds do something that is most definitely for the greater good. Most pilots, for example, are aware that in the wake of the Colgan crash in Buffalo, N.Y., the FAA has created new rest rules designed to make it easier for pilots to be adequately rested during their trips. This is a win-win for the companies (though, to hear them tell it, they will all go bankrupt), the pilots, and the traveling public.

But the real breakthrough for this came around 2000, when the FAA issued what is commonly called the “Whitlow Letter.” At that time, the standard practice at the airlines with regard to reserve pilots was to work under the assumption that if a pilot was on reserve, he was not technically on duty until he actually reported for an assignment. This meant that if a pilot woke up at 7 a.m. and went on reserve at noon for a reserve window of availability of 14 hours (which was, and still is, common practice), the company could call him up at the tail end of his window—2 a.m. in this case—and keep him on duty and flying until 4 p.m. the following afternoon. This pilot faced the possibility of being awake for 32 consecutive hours. No rational person would consider this to be safe.

Fortunately, one of those rational people was James Whitlow, then-chief counsel at the FAA. He was responding to a letter of inquiry from Rich Rubin, a captain at American Airlines who was requesting specific guidance on FAR duty and rest rules when he turned the industry on its ear.

Whitlow’s response was a body blow to the old practice, and it was met with fierce resistance by the Air Transport Association (ATA), the airline trade group. The ATA immediately went to court to try to get the interpretation thrown out; they lost. The new interpretation forced the airlines to consider the start of a reserve period to be the start of duty. In the example above, the pilot would start his reserve at noon and would be released from all duty at 2 a.m., even if he did not report to work until 6 in the evening. In practical terms, in many the duty day was also shortened by virtue of the fact that a pilot who is at home and gets called needs to have time to get to the airport, park, get through security, and check in. Common policy is a 90-minute report time window.

Further, Whitlow also said that in any given 24-hour period, a pilot needs to have at least eight hours of uninterrupted rest.

The airlines realized right away that the Whitlow letter would force them to hire more pilots, and schedulers and pilots both became adept at doing 24 look-backs calculated down to the minute.

While the Colgan crash was the event that forced the FAA to develop a more scientifically based rest rule that takes into account circadian rhythms and the effect of crossing time zones, it was the Whitlow letter that gave the pilot bloc the momentum to start pushing for serious change. Unfortunately, as is so often true in aviation, the rules are often written in blood–in this case Colgan Flight 3407.—Chip Wright

Flying over the holidays

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

As I write this, we are a week away from Christmas Day, with New Year’s right behind. I can’t help but think of all of the employees within the airline industry who will be working, especially the pilots and the flight attendants. For the most part, all of the other employees will be going home after their shift. Flight crews may not be.

There is much that is very cool about being an airline pilot, but there is one thing that is decidedly not, and that is working on the holidays, with Thanksgiving and Christmas being two of the worst. Most folks can get past most of the other big days on the calendar (the reality is that the Fourth of July fireworks from an airplane are pretty cool), but Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday, and since more families go out of the their way to get together for Turkey than Santa, it’s a tough one to miss. Christmas is also hard, especially if you have young kids who are still enraptured with Santa.

While the winter holidays can be celebrated pretty much any time you want them to be, being gone is hard. Even if you would not normally have done anything special, a hotel can be a pretty lonely place. Restaurants are closed or open only for limited hours; room service often is cancelled for the day; and when you turn on the TV, you are reminded even more so that you just are not where you want to be. Hotels will do what they can, but their staff will be limited as well. If there is anything worse than being stuck in a hotel for a holiday, it’s being stuck in a hotel when you and your crew are the only guests.

Working holidays is a fact of life in many occupations, and the airlines are no different in that regard. But, when you work a job where you can go home after your shift, it’s much easier to swallow, especially if you get premium pay. A little-known fact is that more airlines do not pay a premium for holiday pay than those that do, and that just adds insult to injury. Those that do often have no problem finding volunteers.

If there is a benefit to working holidays, it may be a reduced schedule. Flights are usually reduced on certain days, and that may create fewer trips. If the overall schedule is large enough, it may be possible for the company to build a lot of shorter (one -and two-day) trips, or a lot of trips with a split a.m./p.m. schedule that allow at least part of the day to be spent at home.

If you are a commuter, one of the first things you will do when looking at trips for November and December is to try to find one that overnights in your home town or the town of family. In fact, if you’re really lucky, you might score a layover that gives you a full day off at home for a holiday, for which you might be getting paid.

Fly for the airlines long enough, and you will undoubtedly meet someone who clearly has the seniority to be off for a holiday but chooses to work it. I can’t remember if I was a first officer or a captain at the time, but I had to work Thanksgiving early in my career, and one of our most senior captains (one of the top three) was working. He had no kids at home anymore, and had decided to work so that a junior captain who probably had a family could be home. There have also been folks who have bid the holiday off, and then gone into work and picked up a trip from a fellow pilot as a surprise so that they could be home with their families. It’s a favor I’d like to pass on someday myself.

As with any career, the airlines have their downsides, and working holidays can be depressing, especially when you’ve done it several years in a row. Some have pretty stringent policies in place to prevent abuse of sick time, but the reality is that at some point you will most likely have to do it, and most of the time, your fellow employees will be in a good mood that becomes contagious. The passengers may not show as much appreciation as you’d like, but rest assured that they have a tremendous amount of gratitude for your work. I’ve been on both sides of the cockpit door, and while I’d prefer being on the one taken where I want to go, it’s not always so bad to be the taker either.—Chip Wright

When to speak up

Monday, December 17th, 2012

I recently read a story in a nonflying publication about a group of people on a resort boat going scuba diving. The tale is related that at one point the captain had to leave his post at the wheel to go below to find his sunglasses. While he was doing so, the boat began to drift off-course enough that it was clear it would crash.

The employee sitting next to the captain began to display obvious knowledge of the impending situation, but did nothing to react, even though all he had to do was put his hand on the wheel to keep the boat going straight. The author explains that it was clear that such action by an employee in the past had led to a pretty severe dressing-down, if not outright embarrassment in front of a boatload of customers. Further, when the captain finally resumed his post, there was no discussion about the danger the boat had been in.

In a crewed environment of any sort—airplanes, in our case—the most important asset is trust. Each pilot must not only trust that the other knows how to fly, and that he or she knows what the job is, but the first officer especially needs to trust that the captain will welcome input that could be necessary but a bit embarrassing.

Now, there is speaking up and there is speaking up. In the simple version, the FO might point out something mundane and obvious. For example, the controller issued a descent clearance and the altitude was set, but the captain forgets to actually start the descent. The FO then pipes up, the captain realizes what he didn’t do, starts to descend, and all is well. That’s easy.

What’s harder is when a judgment call is required. Maybe the controller named Victor gave some bad vectors, and the approach is going to be steeper and faster than it should be. Or, maybe there is some questionable weather ahead. Or, maybe the captain is missing every radio call because he has something on his mind or doesn’t feel well. Calling for a go-around during an unstable approach sounds like it should be easy, but you’d be shocked at how hard it is for an FO to bring himself to call for the go-around.

A captain who is error-prone is a difficult scenario, especially if you don’t the person well. If he or she has a reputation for it, you can at least be prepared. If not, you have to determine if the captain usually operates this way or is just having a bad day.

I’ve always told my FOs that not only should they speak up, but that I need them to. The last thing I want them to do is wonder if it’s OK or if it will offend me. The truth is that it will offend me more if they don’t. After all, it always seems that certificate action follows the dumbest mistakes that are left uncorrected. I hope everyone I flew with will agree that speaking up with me was never an issue.

It’s a harder skill—and it is a skill—to develop than you think. When I first upgraded, many of my captains were my age or older, and they had less reservation about pointing something out, even if it was not a big deal. But as time passed, and my FOs became much younger than me, I noticed that I had to really emphasize that my feelings would not be hurt if they said I was being dumb, or if they wanted a go-around because they didn’t like what they saw. It always seemed to me that being able to talk about it after the fact was better than the NTSB and FAA talking to my family about instead.

But there are some pilots who are just “plane” jerks, and take on a very dictatorial attitude. In my personal experience, these are actually easier to deal with in some respects. Get them alone, and tell them flat out how they are coming across and that they are not being conducive to a safe environment, and (this is important) give them examples of negative behavior that they have displayed. Being called out often makes people realize that they have crossed a line or two, and often brings about the sort of behavior modification you need.

Don’t be the guy sitting next to an empty chair as the ship (or plane) heads for trouble. Be assertive but respectful, and fix the problem now. You can deal with the other person’s attitude later. If things are bad enough, you can always find another job.—Chip Wright

Crew transition

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

When I first began my career as an airline pilot, I really didn’t have any idea what to expect. I knew I would be flying—a lot—and I knew that I would be traveling—a lot. But beyond that, I really didn’t know what the job would be like. I knew there would be an autopilot, and I was pretty stoked about that. I knew I’d be wearing a uniform, and while many pilots can’t stand wearing the hat, it never bothered me.

But the one thing that I was relatively unprepared for was the crew concept. I’d had a bit of experience with it thanks to my previous job, which included using an airplane to photo-map the state’s farmland. We also did some atmospheric sampling work, but the “crew” on those flights were nonpilots. The photo-mapping projects, on the other hand, were a true team effort, and while it could be done with two pilots, it was really a three-person job. But, it wasn’t the same kind of crew that you’d find in an airline cockpit.

The transition to a crew environment wasn’t all that hard. What was hard was realizing how much help I really had, and how little I had to do for myself. For instance, in my previous job, the pilot flying did everything flying-related except talk on the radio. That was handled by the yahoo sitting in the other seat (usually one of my bosses, who were among the finest yahoos I ever knew, except for when they were flying together).

In the crew world, the pilot flying flies…and that’s pretty much all he or she does. The gear, flaps, radio, checklists, and almost anything else you can think of are done by what we used to call the nonflying pilot, but whom we now refer to as the “pilot monitoring.” I still call them “the yahoo sitting next to me.” After all these years, why worry now about political correctness?

It took me a while to get used to not working the gear or flaps, especially since, in the Brasilia, the gear handle was in front of my left knee, and the flap handle was right next to the same knee. I also had to learn just how much I was allowed to ask for. If I wanted the radar on, all I had to do was ask. If I wanted the power set at a certain setting, all I had to do was ask. I did have to work my own HSI, and I got to control my nav radio if I was quick enough to beat the captain to it…which wasn’t often.

There were, of course, other duties that came with the territory, such as calling the company on the radio prior to every arrival and after every departure. Talking to a dispatcher was new as well, but it was a Part 135 operation at the time, so we pilots were still more involved in flight planning, though nowhere near to the degree that I had been. I knew more about the route of my first dual cross-country than I have about any airline trip I’ve flown, and I wish it wasn’t so, but short turn times force you to rely on a dispatcher more than you ever would have thought. Besides, trying to follow a sectional from the flight levels or at high speeds would be a challenge.

But it was that transition to a total crew environment that really opened my eyes. I was the low man on the totem pole, and I had to learn how to work with (and sometimes get along with) a captain and a flight attendant. Neither was hard, but it was a period of adaptation that is now effortless, and, I now realize, much better and safer than much of what I’d done before.

There are always going to be stories of cockpit dictators, and occasionally even a story about a fist-fight or some kind of ugly confrontation between two people who simply can’t get along. But those are rare. Airlines do a great job of training crews to work together, and while you won’t walk away from every trip with a new BFF, you won’t always have a new mortal enemy either.

Unless, of course, you insist on doing everything yourself, which will not only aggravate the person next to you, but will also make you extremely busy. Plus, you will be branded as the next yahoo.—Chip Wright

Holding

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

When I was working on my instrument rating, one of the first skills I learned was how to enter and fly a holding pattern. I sometimes had a devil of a time figuring out the proper entry—and at that time, there really was a requirement to get the proper entry and enter the hold properly—and sometimes I had bit of (or a lot of) trouble figuring out the best time or wind correction angle for the outbound leg. It didn’t take long to master, but I do remember thinking that I would so rarely hold that the whole thing was kind of a stupid exercise.

Little did I know.

Airline flying, especially in the Northeast, consists of more holds than one would imagine. Most of them are for weather—either weather moving through in the way of a summer thunderstorm, or as a result of weather totally muddying up the works earlier in the day. Snow plows created holding as well. Low vis will produce holds because airplanes are slow to clear the runway, and if the airport doesn’t have ground-based radar, everything takes twice as long.

Airport volume drives holding more than weather, though, and it is that kind of holding that is more unpredictable. Clear skies, low winds and…expect further clearance (EFC) times that are an hour or more away will drive you batty. They will also force a lot of diversions unless the dispatcher was able to load you up with a lot of extra fuel.

But some holds just crack you up or are “plane” unusual. More than once I had to hold (both on the ground and in flight) so that Air Force One (or One-and-a-Half [First or Second Lady] or Two) could take off or land. I once had to hold so that the Air Force Thunderbirds (or Blue Angels, I can’t remember which [and for the record, the Blue Angels are a far better show]) could finish their performance. On my last trip with Comair, I was trying to get into Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and we held for 30 minutes because the airport had to clean up some dead birds.

Apparently, there were a lot of them, small ones, that had been hit by a previous arrival and departure. I’ve also held so that airplanes dealing with an emergency could land in front of me. Perfectly understandable.

Back in the day, flying a hold could be a bit of work, and when I was learning to do it, my instructor would occasionally make me do the entry and the hold on a single radio just to keep me on my toes. When I was flying the Brasilia, we had an autopilot, but we still had to fly the turns with the heading bug. The CRJ had a flight management system, and we had an entire module of training that focused on holds. The point of that was to get the crews proficient enough to get a hold built and executed in the shortest time possible.

Once the hold was “in the box” and the pictured verified on the multifunction displays, the flight plan could be executed and the aurplane would do its magic; it would even figure out the entry, which was ironic, because nowadays the entry doesn’t really matter so long as you get established quickly. If for whatever reason the crew doesn’t like the entry, it can be over-ridden by flying the entry in a heading mode, and then joining the hold. I did that once or twice just to stick it to the aviation deities. It’s the small battles…

The flip side to getting into a hold is talking your way out of one, or better yet, out of even starting one. When I was based in New York, I became quite adept at avoiding holds altogether. Thanks to high gas prices, tankering extra fuel was frowned upon if it wasn’t deemed absolutely essential.

Diversions create work and headaches for ATC, so I learned how to be perfectly honest about our situation and tell them we simply couldn’t hold. Most of the time, they could find a way to fit us in. Sometimes they couldn’t, and we did indeed divert.

Once that happened, my dispatcher would invariably want to talk. I always smiled, and told them they would have to stand by and hold…—Chip Wright

The pilot shortage is gaining attention

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story this week about the impending lack of qualified pilots. The story cited three major causes:  the Age 65 mandatory retirement age, which goes into full effect this year; the change in rest requirements that will require pilots to get more rest on overnights, and will thus lead to a need for more pilots to staff the airline; and the new certification requirements that will require pilots to have 1,500 hours before getting an airline job.

Let’s be clear about one thing. This shortage was going to happen anyway because of the Age 65 rule. It used to be age 60, but five years ago, a deal was made to allow the older pilots to continue flying as a concession for terminating their pension plans (there was no provision that allowed pilots to collect full Social Security at age 60).

Make no mistake that the airlines knew that this shortage of pilots was coming had the retirement age not been raised. The retirement age was not raised  because people suddenly had an epiphany about the overall health of the pilot population being good enough to allow pilots to fly to 60. It was a quid pro quo that simultaneously brought the United States in line with what other nations do and kicked a staffing problem down the road.

Jump ahead to where we are today, which, like the fiscal cliff, is “down the road.” There are fewer students aspiring to be professional pilots in the pipeline thanks to the staggering cost of acquiring all of the ratings and requirements to become an airline pilot. The military is no longer the source of pilots it was, and as the story pointed out, many Americans have gone overseas to fly. The salaries that can be earned overseas are phenomenal, and considering the tax advantages combined with some companies providing globally accepted health insurance, it’s a tempting move for many. More overseas jobs are not requiring pilots to move, and those that do often provide subsidized housing and education for children.

The shortage we have here is indeed aggravated by the changes in the rest rules and the experience requirements for airline new hires, but as I said, it would have happened anyway. Hiring is picking up for more than just attrition. The regionals have always been able to plan on attrition to the majors, but now they must beef up staffing for the rest rules. The good news in this is that the airlines that have historically overworked their employees will no longer be able to get away with such practices. Quality of life will dramatically improve.

For those who are planning to fly professionally, going from 250 hours to 1,500 will take about two years of full-time flight instructing, give or take. As happened in the last major wave of continuous hiring that ended about four years ago, those pilots ready to take the next step will find that their timing will probably never be better. Folks who are considering flying as a career still need to do their own risk-benefit analysis based on their age and where they are in their flight training, but for pilots who are under 25, single, with no criminal record, and (especially) a college degree the sky may literally be the limit.

Some may disagree with me, but I also believe that pay and benefits will get better out of necessity at the regional level. Even with the shrinking RJ fleet, airlines still need pilots. A comment in the Journal story said that it would take six months to develop a solution to the problem, but four years to execute it. Part of that solution will have to be making ALL flying financially attractive. The question for potential pilots is this: Where in that solution do you fit?—By Chip Wright

Practice your crashes

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

I was recently watching a Discovery Channel special about a group of scientists and pilots who decided to crash a Boeing 727 in the Mexican desert in order to better understand what affects survivability versus fatalities in a real-world crash. (Click here for video clips from “Curiosity: Inside a Plane Crash.”—Ed.)

If you get an opportunity to see the show, you should. It made me think of a couple things. First, you can get a 727 for a relatively paltry sum (they paid $425,000 for theirs). Second, it makes me wonder how many people are familiar with the crash landing procedures in their airplanes–specifically jets.

During the experiment, cameras were installed in the cockpit in order to film the crash from that point of view. During the last part of the descent, a female voice can be heard saying, “Falling….falling.” It’s clearly a voice that is tied into either a radar altimeter or a ground proximity warning system (GPWS, pronounced “JIP-WIZ”), and it is this voice that got me pondering thought number two.

Modern aircraft have all kinds of bells and whistles that start making noises under specific circumstances. In this case, it was because the 727 was forced, via remote control, into a descent that was nearly three times the norm, like what might happen if a crew fell asleep. On the CRJ that I flew for Comair, there were a number of warnings that came on at low altitude if certain conditions were not met. They included general terrain or obstacle warnings, gear problems, flap settings, descent rate warnings, and wind-shear warnings.

All of these could be cancelled if the crew—especially the first officer (FO)—knew how. The overrides were primarily intended to help a crew cancel a nuisance message that shouldn’t otherwise be on. The volume level of the warnings is not adjustable. They have one setting: rock-concert-loud. (You know, that whole sleeping-pilot thing.) Unfortunately, any other communication is virtually impossible, so there are switch-lights that can be pushed to cancel the audible warnings. Unfortunately again, the switch is nuclear: It kills everything.

But in an impending crash, that’s good. Most airlines don’t practice full-blown crashes in the sim. However, because I have a morbid sense of humor and a never-ending curiosity, I did it several times. Scenarios that might drive the use of such a checklist could include a total failure of the gear system, loss of fuel, loss of engine power and/or total electric power (think: lightning strike), even an inflight collision with another plane or some of the geese that Sullenburger missed. The crash-landing checklist is several pages long, and I wanted to be familiar enough with it that I could get to the nuts-and-bolts of it quickly if I needed it.

Getting rid of extraneous noise is a major part of minimizing workload when trying to crash-land with a minimal rate of damage and a maximum chance of survival.
If you ever get a chance to do a total crash scenario in a sim, you should, especially with the gear up and in various flap configurations. The airplane does not fly the same, and the speed and control response will vary from what you are used to. Besides, in a worse-case scenario, you want to at least be able to say, “I’ve done this before.” In a safe environment, of course!—Chip Wright