Archive for August, 2010

The beauty of brevity

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Too often in flight training we’re taught only the fundamentals with no reference whatsoever to the skills and tools it takes to be a professional and proper pilot in command. Yes, you know about PIC authority, but being PIC also means being responsible for the comfort and safety of your passengers.

One of the ways in which we fulfill this duty (or rather should fulfill it) is through the passenger briefing. Admit it: You don’t give a passenger briefing, do you? And instructors, you don’t teach your student how to give said briefing, do you? I would say 95 percent of the pilots I fly with don’t give a briefing. Granted, many of them know I’m a CFI and probably feel I can fend for myself, but it’s a lost opportunity. And I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that I don’t often give briefings either (other than how to buckle the seat belt). I should, and here’s why.


I’m soooo tired

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

One of the common buzzwords in aviation, especially lately, is fatigue. We all know that fatigue can be debilitating, and that it can kill you. Fatigue hits all of us at some point in our lives, and not just when we are flying. It can come on when driving, reading, exercising or just watching TV. But in an airplane, it can be lethal.

The Colgan accident in Buffalo added some measure of urgency to the issue, even though it was drowned out by the noise made over the conduct of the crew in what should have been a sterile cockpit environment. What makes fatigue so difficult to pin down are two things: it can not be measured by a blood test (yet), and it is difficult at times to determine the cause of fatigue in a given instance.

For airline or busy charter pilots—that is, people who fly for a living, and not after their regular work day—fatigue has been a major point of contention in conversations with the FAA as the feds work to rewrite decades old flight time/duty time (FTDT) rules. One of the underlying issues is a simple question: What causes fatigue in pilots? It is not a simple question to answer. In no particular order, here is a brief list of what causes pilots to fly tired.



Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

What, exactly, is “dead-heading?”

Dead-heading is simple: It is a pilot who is traveling as a part of an assignment to get where he needs to be. Sometimes dead-heads (DHs) are built into trips, but more often it is a last minute development. For pilots who are not on reserve, DHs frequently result from a trip being modified due to a mechanical problem with one or more airplanes, or from bad weather that has triggered some cancellations, or from a crewmember calling in sick somewhere in the system. The most frequent cause of non-reserve DHs is probably the weather.

Airlines over the years have gotten extremely good at proactively cancelling a large number of flights based on the projected impact of various weather events (especially hurricanes and snow storms). They then draft a plan to have aircraft in place to recover on the backside of a storm. Because this can often mean repositioning a large number of planes as a result of a hurricane or a snow-storm, crews will be DH’d into or out of the cities where the equipment is stored. Once the aircraft are in position and the new schedule is determined, it is up to the Crew Schedulers to find and relocate the crews. The order and fashion in which they do this is dictated by a combination of the various union contracts and the FARs, and it is far more complicated than it sounds.

Reserve pilots that are DHing are doing so for the same reasons as those not on reserve, the difference being that reserves will DH a lot more. Reserves can cover flying in more than one base, so they can—and often do—spend a lot of time DHing from one base to another to complete their assignments. The frustrating part of DHing on reserve is trying to figure out the rationale or reason to some of the assignments. However, trying to do so often produces no more than a headache.

When you see a pilot walk up to a gate-house full of people at the last minute and walk on to the plane while the agents are trying to determine who will get bumped,  it is almost always a pilot on a DH assignment. While it can be frustrating to watch, even if you do get your seat, just remember that your next flight might only get out because that pilot is where he needs to be.

Don’t confuse DHing with operating a ferry flight. The pilot on a DH is simply a non-paying passenger. The pilot on a ferry flight is actually flying an empty airplane from one city to another. The only passengers are usually the flight attendant(s) and perhaps a mechanic or other company personnel. Operating a ferry flight affects daily and weekly flight time limits while DHing only comes into play when calculating duty time limits.

–Chip Wright

Airline flight planning

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Believe it or not, there really was a time when airline pilots would use an E6-B flight computer, aka the Whiz Wheel, to compute their airspeed, times, and fuel burn (in his book, North Star Over My Shoulder, Robert Buck waxes philosophic about the challenges of completing his calculations in a timely manner on the ground, and during ‘dark and stormy nights’ aloft). They would also take the time to pore over hand-drawn weather charts, and they had an intimate knowledge of the terrain along their route system, not because they wanted to, but because they had to.

Back in the day, so to speak, pilots were much more involved in the planning of their flights. Radio communication with the company HQ was rare to non-existent after takeoff. Instead, communication took place between the flight and various stations along the route, as well as with other flights. Further, there was no onboard weather radar, let alone ground-based radar systems like we have today.


The challenge of a profit

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

The old saying is that if you want to make a million bucks in aviation, start with ten million. Or, along the same lines, I can tell you that there is a lot of money in aviation because I put it there. Why, in other words, is it so hard for the airlines to make a profit?

The airlines are probably one of the most regulated industries in the world. There are rules for everything from when pilots can eat to what kind of screw must be used to assemble the sink in the lav. Even the font on the checklist is regulated. The pilot seats on the Canadair regional jet are north of $27,000. Twenty-seven grand! For a chair! And it isn’t even a Lazy Boy! The cost of the parts reflects the design, development and certification costs incurred by all parties involved, so I sit in a chair that costs more than a new car, and look through a window that costs almost as much as my house.


Low cost versus legacy

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Delta or AirTran? Southwest or American? Anybody in New York versus jetBlue? What is it that separates the legacy network carriers from the low-fare carriers?

First, let’s clear up some myths. These days, there is no such thing as a “low cost” airline. Southwest has the highest labor costs in the industry among all of their employees, and instead of fretting about it, they are proud of it. JetBlue is by no means a slouch in their pay rates either, and once the AirTran pilots finish their contract negotiations, it is reasonable to expect that their pay, benefits, and work rules will be within shouting distance of their compatriots at other major airlines.

For years, the biggest difference between the then-start ups and the majors from a pilot perspective wasn’t just the pay, it was the generous pension benefits at the majors. Now, by and large, those are gone.

So what makes the difference between the success of new airlines versus more established, and why have the legacy carriers paid such a price for not taking their competition more seriously?


Steven Slater is no hero

Friday, August 20th, 2010

When the news of Steven Slater jumping down the slide to get off of his jetBlue plane hit the airwaves, he immediately got accolades for taking a stand for the “we’re fed up and we aren’t gonna take it anymore” crowd, along with the people that have had it with unruly passengers. Within hours he was a folk hero.

I was stunned.

I understand the frustration with unruly and inconsiderate passengers. Let’s ignore for the moment the accounts that Slater himself may well have been the problem, and let’s further assume for the sake of argument that Slater behaved appropriately for the flight to JFK, but had to deal with a rude passenger that bumped his head with a bag.

Steven Slater (personal photo)

I can understand chastising another person for rudeness or poor manners. It happens all the time, and usually the person being corrected is quickly made to realize their wrong. My experience is that they usually apologize, everyone kisses and makes up, and we all get warm cookies and cold milk before we go to bed. Occasionally, someone does not respond to chastisement, either because they are dense, or because they just don’t care.  A little public embarrassment—in this case, having this misdeed announced on an airlines public address system—just might do the trick. This is not to say that I condone such actions, or that it is always a smart thing to do, but I’ve seen it used effectively, and let’s face it, some people can just make it work. Others can’t. Since Slater didn’t stick around to see if the passenger would respond, we don’t really know if could make it work.


Practical knowledge

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

A few weeks ago I discussed Jack Roush’s accident and how it pertains to a student pilot today. The idea was that basics matter. They might not seem it, but they do.

Let’s look it from the other direction. Last week I had to fly a short trip from our home airport in Frederick, Maryland, to Fairfield, Pennsylvania. The Mid-Atlantic Soaring Association’s airport is privately owned, public-use. It has a short runway, around 2,700 feet depending on which way you’re going, it’s narrow, there’s a slope, and there’s extensive glider operations. Oh, and it was 95 degrees outside. This is where the pieces of your training come together to ensure a safe flight.

Taken in pieces, each of these elements would have been fairly easy to overcome. Short runways, for example, can be mastered with knowing how to perform a short-field landing. Learning how operate on a runway with a significant slope takes a little more applied learning, but it’s easy enough to track down local information to know how to treat the runway and traffic pattern. Other than that it’s as simple as judging the runway surface as you land.

But our flight went beyond all that. Landing wasn’t an issue. It almost never is. It’s taking off again that you have to worry about. So I started by considering our load and looking at the performance charts. I flew the same airplane the day before and I knew I was going to be making this flight, so I purposely didn’t refuel. The book said I would be able to make the takeoff easily, but that was assuming short-field techniques.

When it came time to take off, I had to wait for landing traffic without radios. Before getting in the airplane a soaring instructor said not to depart if a glider was on downwind. So that problem was solved because I knew their operations. But after completing the runup, I noticed that another glider was staging on the end of the runway. They motioned for me to go ahead.

Decision time. Not only did the glider’s position mean I didn’t have use of the full length, I couldn’t communicate with them, and I certainly didn’t want to hold the brakes and run up to full power right in front of it. So that meant waiting or taking off somewhat normally. Oh, and I couldn’t wait where I was because the tow planes needed to go through that area to get to the glider to be able to take off, thereby clearing the runway and allowing me full length.

So, it’s easy to see that flying often involves many challenges that we simply either don’t teach in initial training, or we only teach individual elements. Having to put all that training together–in this case short-field operations, density altitude, local information, right-of-way rules, regulations–is a key concept after obtaining a private pilot certificate. It’s reaching the cognitive level of learning, which is what CFIs try to get their students to strive for.

So what did I do? Here’s a better question: What would you have done?

–Ian J. Twombly

Airline pilots and hours

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

After the crash of Colgan flight 3407, much was made of the relative lack of experience of the crew, both in sum and in the aircraft that they were flying. Both had minimal experience in icing conditions, and even though ice did not play a role in the accident, it easily could have. Both were clearly uncomfortable in an environment that, by airline standards, was routine.

Subsequently, Congress passed legislation that dictates the requirements for future airline new-hire pilots. The law mandates 1,500 hours and an ATP certificate. There has been much discussion about the merits of the law, with most arguments against it centering on the statement that a minimum number of hours does not guarantee a competent pilot. I agree, except that we now have minimum number of hours required—250—and we also have no guarantee of a competent pilot. another argument against a 1500-hour requirement is that the training industry will suffer tremendously. I disagree.

In the last decade, when the regionals were doing their most recent round of hiring, pilots were routinely getting hired with as few as 300 hours. Many of those pilots did not pursue a CFI certificate because they knew that they would not need it. Raising the time requirement will essentially force more pilots to become instructors, and the fact is, being an instructor does wonders for your abilities. Not only do your stick-and-rudder skills become better, but you are forced to engage in difficult aeronautical decision making processes, and you are forced—often for the first time—to test your mettle as a pilot in command. With the rigid structure at large flight schools, students do not often make a decision entirely on their own, especially when it comes to mechanical irregularities and weather cancellations. And there is nothing quite like have to decide whether or not a student is ready to solo or take a checkride.


The basics matter

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

Last week at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Nascar team owner Jack Roush crashed him Beechcraft Premier business jet. Roush and his passenger survived. She was released from the hospital, while he apparently underwent facial surgery as a result of his injuries. The airplane appears totaled.

AP photo

What happened is still anyone’s guess, although a few key scenarios remain likely. The accident happened over the runway while Roush was on approach. There’s speculation he tried to go around, got slow, and stalled into the runway. There’s also talk of the fact that there was a slow airplane on the runway ahead of him and he was trying to keep the jet slow to maintain spacing.

Landing at Oshkosh during the show is unlike landing anywhere else. Traditional spacing rules are thrown out the window in favor of multiple airplanes landing on different spots on the same runway almost at the same time. So you can image the stress of trying to slow down for an airplane on the runway with thousands of other airplanes and spectators around you, while the controller is telling you to land on a specific spot.

It’s important to note that Roush’s Premier is an incredibly fast single-pilot, swept-wing jet that is completely different than a training aircraft. But to me, that’s part of the point of the back story.