Archive for February, 2011

The family challenge

Monday, February 28th, 2011

“If the military had wanted you to have a wife, you would have been issued one in boot camp.” A common expression around military bases, this statement could describe most airline jobs as well.

Single pilots taking an entry level job have a much easier transition to the airline world than married pilots. One of the biggest advantages is that the people they date immediately get immersed in the lifestyle as their new friend spends days away at work followed by several days at home. The lingo becomes a second language, and there is a certain excitement for a while as the one at home tracks their flights on FlightAware.

Families, on the other hand, don’t have it so easy. Whether it is Mom or Dad chasing the dream, it is a sudden and stark lifestyle change. Too often, it includes a significant pay cut as well. Spouses and kids suddenly have to deal with one parent being gone frequently, and the spouse at home has to juggle a number of schedules and keep up with routine chores. The frustration can turn to anger and resentment as the spouse on the road is enjoying the job and ‘living the dream.’

But it isn’t always easy on the one flying either. At-home issues that wouldn’t normally be problems suddenly become problems, and often require a lot of faith in your partner. It might be a major car problem, a problem with an appliance (my wife had to deal with a $700 plus air conditioning issue without being able to get in touch with me), a job-school conflict (if you saw the schedule of my wife and kids, you’d shake your head in disbelief), or even just a missed birthday (I’ve missed at least three, and I always have my kids choose whether they want me home for the birthday itself or for the party before I bid for their birthday months). And while you may be living your dream job, you do get homesick at times. Going home early just to go home is rarely an option.

One of the best ways to prepare for bringing a family into the industry is to talk to as many people as you can about the job (better yet, the specific company), and have your spouse do the same. In fact, have the spouse talk to an airline or corporate pilot’s spouse to ask questions and find out what it’s really going to be like. Go over everything, from the days away, the possibility of moving, to the impact of commuting on the whole family (this is especially true if the commute will cross time zones) and what you plan to do on your days off. Don’t forget—the number of days off is one of the perks of the job, but you also spend some of that time just playing catch-up and getting ready to leave again. Read online bulletin boards (take them all with a grain of salt, but recognize that there is some truth to them). Talk to pilots and flight attendants. If you are moving for your new job, get into a network of others from the company as quickly as possible. Like the military, only other families that share your situation can truly understand it.

Much is easier in this day and age as well. Cell phones mean you can still call whenever you want. Skype or other video messaging systems are light years ahead of the old days. I can see my kids every day, even if I can’t kiss them good night. A few years ago, that was just a dream. Today, I can even use it to check their homework or listen to them practice their piano. Very cool stuff indeed.

Flying is a great career, but it takes patience and understanding from everyone involved. And for all the challenges, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

–Chip Wright

Chasing the dream

Friday, February 18th, 2011

If you spend time perusing message boards on the web that cater to pilots, you will find there are all kinds of jobs you never would have thought existed at one time. For instance, in cargo operations, the two heavy hitters are UPS and FedEx. However, there are a lot of what are called ACMI companies, short for Aircraft, Crew, Maintenance, and Insurance. In other words, they are charter outfits of the cargo world, and they fly everything from single engine Cessna Caravans to Boeing 747s. In simple terms, they usually operate on an on-call status to provide lift for UPS, FedEx, DHL/Airborne Express, or for companies around the world that need an airplane and a crew.

To be sure, these are usually second-tier jobs, and the pay and benefits are nowhere near as good as you’ll find at the major cargo carriers. But, for pilots who are looking for adventure, or who are just looking for work or a unique experience, they might be an option.

Overseas jobs are also an option, especially for pilots looking to get some valuable PIC time. These jobs are not always easy to get, and they can be a challenge for families. Some are very stable and offer the potential for a career; others are contract operations through crew leasing companies for a defined period of time. Some require a move, and others don’t. A number pay very well, especially for captains, but don’t be fooled by the money alone. It takes a hearty soul to commit to flying in Africa or Asia for a set period of time. Further, unlike the U.S., it isn’t as simple as just walking to the airport and boarding a flight home if you decide you don’t like the job. You will have to be able to prove you were employed when you apply for a job stateside, so burning bridges isn’t wise.

But whether you are flying 747s around the globe in the middle of the night for 17 days in a row, or dodging thunderstorms in a Caravan, or landing on dirt strips in Africa or Alaska, some jobs are not only too good to pass up for the experience (if not the pay), but they may be the key to getting you where you want to go. Pilots that go overseas and get a lot of international flying not only come home with a passport to be envied, but they have tremendous experience the major airlines covet. This is especially true if you can finagle your way into a position flying internationally on a heavy. Granted, some of these jobs require a fair amount of turbine experience to be competitive, but not always.

I’ve talked to a number of pilots over the years who have impressed airline recruiters not with a logbook of jet time, but with the spirit of adventure it takes to fly in very challenging environments. A pilot with a demonstrable love of flying might be willing to go anywhere for a job, and that kind of ambition only helps. Often times, what lands the pilot his dream job is showing just what he will do in the pursuit of that dream.

–Chip Wright

Let’s play “Decode That TAF”

Monday, February 7th, 2011

On Feb. 1, when the winds were howling and the rest of the country was buckling their seatbelts for a bumpy winter ride, AOPA’s Chief Flight Instructor JJ Greenway sent this challenge to several staff pilots: Decode the following metar/TAF without resorting to the Internet, the FAR/AIM, or anything else. He sweetened the challenge by offering a prize to the first pilot who correctly responded.

KDFW 011242Z 35022G28KT 1 1/2SM R17C/5500VP6000FT -SN BR SCT009 BKN017 OVC027 M06/M07 A2988 RMK AO2 PK WND 33040/1202 SFC VIS 1 3/4 PLE16 PRESFR

KORD FM020400 02029G44KT 1/4SM +SN BLSN VV001

It was a fun way to exercise our weather-decoding skills and keep us thinking about this important aspect of piloting during a crummy time of year.

Full disclosure: I wasn’t the winner. Here’s the answer:

Dallas Ft. Worth International Airport, First day of the month at 1242Z (6:42 a.m. Central Standard Time) Wind 350 degrees (true) at 22 knots gusting to 28 knots, visibility one and one half statute miles. Runway One Seven Center RVR (Runway Visual Range) five thousand five hundred feet variable to (plus) (more than) six thousand feet. Light Snow, Mist. Scattered clouds at nine hundred feet above ground level, broken clouds at 1,700′ AGL, overcast clouds at 2,700′ AGL temperature minus six, dew point minus 7, altimeter setting 29.88. Remarks: something to do with the automated type of precipitation indicator, peak wind 330 degrees (true) at 40 knots at 1202 Zulu. Surface visibility 1 3/4 miles, pellets ended at :16 past the hour, pressure falling rapidly.
Chicago O’Hare, from the second day of the month at 0400 Zulu (10:00 p.m. tonight) wind 020 degrees at 29 knots gusting 44 knots, visibility 1/4 statute mile in heavy snow and blowing snow. Vertical visibility one hundred feet.


How did you do?

More people, more fuel

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Here is something you don’t hear every day: “Hey, we need to add some gas to get the last passenger on.” It’s a rare statement indeed, and in the typical general aviation world, you won’t hear it at all. The cause is something called Zero Fuel Weight (ZFW). On the Canadair Regional Jet the ZFW is 44,000 pounds, and the max landing weight is 47,000 pounds, and both can play a role in determining the maximum takeoff weight. What’s the difference? An example might make this easier, but remember this: Anything added above the ZFW limit must be fuel.

Assume that on a short flight (35 minutes or so), the fuel burn will be 1,500 pounds. That means the maximum takeoff weight would be 48,500 pounds, since your 1,500-pound burn would get you down to the structural max landing weight of 47,000 just when you touch down. But what if the planned fuel load for the flight is 4,000 pounds (which would be typical for such a flight)? Well, then you would be limited to 44,000+4000=48,000 pounds, or in payload terms, three fewer passengers (or an equivalent weight in bags). But, because everything added above 44,000 pounds must be fuel, you can add fuel, and thus add passengers. In this case, we can add up to 500 pounds of Jet-A, and our ZFW limiting weight and our structural landing weight plus fuel burn would be the same (47,000+1500=48,500 and 44,000+4500=48,500). And if the fueler inadvertently brought the fuel up to 4,700 pounds, we would then use the lower of the ZFW and the fuel burn plus landing weight. In other words, we’d still be limited to 48,500 pounds, and assuming that the three extra passengers combined with the extra fuel didn’t put us over that limit, we could still take them.

This is a rare occurrence, and as you can surmise, on the CRJ it only happens on short flights with light fuel loads in VFR conditions (a typical flight carries at least 6000 pounds, and 8000 is not unusual). An easy way to understand ZFW is to think of an airplane with a center tank between the wings, under the fuselage. The walls of the tanks are only designed to support a certain amount of weight, and at a certain point, the only weight that can be added is fuel. Think of it as an empty box you try to stand on.  If it’s empty, it might collapse. But if you start to fill it with dirt, and give it some rigidity, it will gain strength, and you can stand on it with no worries. But if your buddy wants to stand on it with you, you may need to put some more dirt in it. Add a third person, and with luck, it holds. But if it collapses, then you have exceeded the maximum structural weight.  The same holds for an airplane.

Adding fuel to add passengers…it should always be so easy.

–Chip Wright

Return to service

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Maintenance is an area that’s totally foreign to most pilots, even those who own aircraft. Technicians have to deal with the same types of responsibility and regulations pilots do, however, so it’s good to know exactly what it is they do. Among those responsibilities is the authority to return an aircraft back to serviceable condition. It’s important to learn now what that means and what it doesn’t.

Part 43 of the federal aviation regulations specifies issues surrounding aircraft maintenance. Section 43.5 details returning an aircraft to service, and the first thing you’ll notice when you read it is that it says nothing about a qualified airframe and powerplant technician having to approve an aircraft for return to service. The reason is because aircraft owners and operators can do certain maintenance tasks on their own aircraft and make the necessary endorsements. Those tasks can be found in FAR 43 Appendix A. Section 43.5 is very basic. It boils down to three points–that the person returning to service must make a logbook entry, that the repair be made in accordance with a manner prescribed by the FAA, and that any change resulting in a performance or limitation change be noted appropriately in the flight manual.

Although simple in nature, the implications of the regulation are huge. Endorsements are the FAA’s equivalent of signing your name in blood. Flight instructors know this well. To put an endorsement in a logbook is to put your certificate on the line. It’s the same for flight instructors and mechanics. What that means for pilots is that in most cases, properly qualified maintenance technicians can be trusted to do their best to make the airplane safe and not return it to service before it’s ready. That’s evident in accident statistics where fewer than 20 percent of which are maintenance-related (that includes airborne failures of components that haven’t been previously worked on).

With that being said, mistakes do happen. There have been documented cases of accidents that occurred as a result of a maintenance flub. As a pilot, you can do some simple things to avoid such a situation.