Archive for June, 2010

A hitchiker’s guide to commuting

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

It can be a curse or a blessing, depending on your point of view, the best thing in the world or the worst. One of the benefits of working as an airline pilot—or as a pilot for large corporate operators such as NetJets—is the ability to live in almost any locale you wish while commuting to your base. For companies like NetJets, such a perk truly is a perk, because the company buys you a positive space ticket to and from work, so you travel with all of the rights and privileges of a regular passenger.

Airline pilots that commute, however, almost never get such treatment. For example, I live just outside of Cincinnati, on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. My house is but a nine-minute drive from the employee parking lot at CVG. For most of the last eight years, it was an ideal situation, as I could leave my house thirty minutes before my check-in time and walk in with time to spare. No more. I am now based in New York, at JFK to be exact. CVG is still a nine minute drive away, but work is, at best, three hours from my house if all goes well.

It never dawned on me that Delta’s second largest hub would be gutted. Further, the cost of living in the Midwest, especially compared to my hometown of Annapolis, Maryland, is very low. Moving to Cincinnati when my wife and I did so made perfect sense, especially since I had a new baby I wanted to see as much as possible. I now find myself commuting to New York, and it is a challenge for all of us.

Here’s what commuting entails. Frequently, I have to travel on a day off in order to make an early morning report time the next day. Bidding these types of trips allows me to commute home on the day the trip ends, which is my preference. I also like to work early in the day versus starting what could be a sixteen hour day some time after lunch. I usually have a pretty good idea what flights I will be using before the month even starts, but schedules can and do change, especially seasonally; summers are tough for almost everyone, and the spring break season for pilots living in or commuting to Florida can be brutal. I usually check the schedule two days ahead of time to see what the loads and flight times look like. In my case, I have the option of also flying to LaGuardia (LGA), which is a huge advantage. Once I know my flight options, I check the weather to see if I will need to two-leg it through another city or go up earlier than normal. A great website for general flight options is passrider.com.

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Let’s get crossed

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

The July technique piece in Flight Training is on crosswind landings, and we’ve had some good feedback. But the nature of that piece is that it be short and to the point. I wanted to expand on it a bit here.

From a broad viewpoint, being able to execute a crosswind landing is an incredibly important skill. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that until my instrument training. For whatever reason crosswind landings weren’t ingrained during my private pilot training. I learned to fly in Florida, and our airport had two runways, which meant that crosswinds of any significance were rare.

My ah-ha moment came while practicing an instrument approach through to a landing, which turned out ugly. As we were skidding across the runway, I distinctly remember my instrument asking, “Do you not know how to do a crosswind landing?” Sure enough, I didn’t. He taught me very quickly and very succinctly that it’s simple rudder to keep the nose straight and wing down into the wind.

Now, the technique can get more complicated than that, but it doesn’t have to. You should at some point be able to look at the windsock and determine from an outside-in perspective, which way to apply the controls. (Wind from the right, right aileron, left rudder, and so on). But in the beginning, just push the rudder until the nose is straight and turn the aileron the opposite direction. Don’t overthink it, in other words.

So that’s the landing. What about the approach? To me, this is a made-up controversy. You’ll hear people swear by one technique or another. You can either crab into the wind on final approach, or slip it all the way down. My opinion is that you should crab. It’s obvious why this would be preferable. It’s more comfortable for you and the passengers, it’s more professional, we use crabs everywhere else to maintain ground track, there’s less chance of stalling, and I think it’s easier to execute.

The hard part of the crab technique is knowing when and how to “kick out the crab” or transition to a slip. Again, to me this isn’t an issue. You’ll know roughly how much control pressure to add based on how much of a crab you had to maintain. And aligning the nose with the centerline with rudder is very quick and easy. Getting the right amount of aileron is more difficult. But most get it within a few tries. With that in mind, I often kick out the crab as I pull all the power out. You can do it a bit earlier if you like. It’s totally up to you.

Part of my frustration with crosswinds is that they aren’t hard to handle, but yet they account for a huge number of landing accidents every year. Make sure you go out with an instructor and practice. I mean really practice. If you have a crosswind runway at your airport, use it to practice at the highest crosswind component possible.

And if you’re still looking for more crosswind info, check out the video we produced with some action of the control positions.

–Ian J. Twombly

Show me the money

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Ask any airline pilot what he is getting paid, and the answer will be, “Not enough.” The degree of kidding in the answer will depend upon that particular pilot’s position, airline, and experience. But it’s a fair one, especially if you are new to the industry. And, to be honest, too many pilots simply aren’t getting paid what they should be.

Keep in mind that as a pilot you can only fly 1,000 hours in a January-to-December calendar year, or 83.3 hours a month (flight time starts when the door of the airplane closes and ends when it is opened). Depending on what airline you work for, this might be relatively easy to do, but most of the time it’s pretty difficult to achieve. Within that twelve month period, you will have vacation built in (usually at least two weeks, and while most airlines allow you to fly for extra money during your vacation, not all do); recurrent training of some sort that will usually eat up at least four days of work; and some number of canceled flights. It doesn’t take long until you only have ten or eleven months to crack that 1,000 hour threshold.

As for pay, one of the best websites for basic airline information is www.airlinepilotcentral.com, which has (rounded) hourly pay rates for nearly every US air carrier. When available, it will also tell you the monthly reserve and line holder hourly minimum that you can expect to get paid (or fly), and current projections for the critical upgrade to captain.

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A good day for a drive

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

Last weekend my wife and I were planning to fly from our home base in Frederick, MD, to Titusville, Penn., for a family get-together. With us was our young son, who with the aid of a portable DVD player and Dora the Explorer, doesn’t care what we do or when we do it.

The night before the flight the weather forecast called for a chance of thunderstorms during our departure time–not an unusual thing in our area during this time of year. The next morning, however, the thunderstorms were absent from the forecast, and I was getting excited about the possibility of flying.

As the day went on I checked the radar carefully and began to see showers pop up. That’s no big deal for an IFR flight, and I felt good. Two hours prior to departure, however, I looked and it was like all the world’s atmospheric energy had decided it was time to strike the Mid Atlantic all at once. Over an hour period I watched light rain showers build to massive thunderstorms like those time lapse videos you see illustrating the power of weather. But things were still fairly widely scattered, and I continued to think about flying.

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What routes?

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

“What routes do you fly?”

I get that question all the time, and at one time I could actually provide a pretty specific answer, but no more. The days of pilots flying a particular “line” or “route,” like the old airmail pilots and early airline pilots are pretty much over in the domestic arena.

I used to fly a lot of inter-Florida flights, especially in the winter when it was cold up north. But even those flights didn’t fit the specific definition of a route. They were just a series of flights that originated in my home domicile of Cincinnati and went south (usually for five days) for a bunch of legs in Florida before returning home.

These days, airline marketers figure out what flights are best flown by what airplanes, from the 747 on down to whatever regional aircraft fly under contract for the name brand. In my case, that’s Delta. Once the marketing folks assign a city-pair to an airplane—there are myriad factors that influence that particular decision, from runway length to the size of the cargo hold, to historic load factors, and to even the cost of fuel at a given airport—the information is forwarded on to a different department that is responsible for building the trips. In the case of the regional carriers, a computer file that contains all of the city-pairs, flight times, frequencies, and desired equipment gauge is sent to the regional partner.

The folks at that airline then input that information into their own computer system, which is programmed to take into account the specific FAR and union contractual issues (no small affair) affecting that particular operation. The program then produces one or more solutions that could allow the carrier to meet its schedule obligations.

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