Archive for May, 2011

Diverting in the real world

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

A week or so ago, I recorded a video that goes along with a feature coming your way in the July issue of Flight Training. The topic is diverting. That is to say, the topic is about diverting to a different airport. If you get the digital edition, you’ll see me describe a long-ago diversion I made when I couldn’t find the airport. (True story.)

So we all know how art imitates life, or is it vice versa? Last week I pointed my Cherokee 140 west, intending to land in Arkansas. I was headed to Gaston’s fly-in resort (3M0) to research this beautiful fishing destination for another article, which you’ll read in the September issue. I wound up diverting more than once because of weather–thunderstorms, the bane of summertime flying.

I tend to plan routes so that I cross over airports. Sometimes it adds time to my flight–a half-hour at most. But it pays dividends in terms of peace of mind. Airports make good, easy-to-find checkpoints. They also serve as reminders to switch fuel tanks on the Cherokee (which I try to do when overflying an airport). This strategy proved particularly helpful on the way west, because I simply diverted to an airport already on my route. (Hello, Clark Regional in southern Indiana!)

Headed back to Maryland a few days later, I had such a great tailwind that I chose a more direct route, hoping to make some good time. And it worked–for a while. Then a line of storms marched toward me. (Hello, Morgantown Municipal in West Virginia!)

If I’d flown the airport-to-airport route, I’d have spared myself some sweaty palms trying to pick out a suitable place to hang out for a bit. So the next time I plan a long, long cross-country, I’m sticking to what works.  Have you diverted? Tell us about it.

–Jill Tallman

Surviving interview day

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

Airline interviews can be incredibly stressful. Having been through four of them, I speak from experience. But, just as there are ways to perform poorly, there are also ways to mitigate the anxiety. In this day and age, start with the Internet.

Generally speaking, it’s easy to lump certain companies together: regionals, majors, fractional, and so on. There are a host of websites available that offer all kinds of gouge on the interview experience at various companies: aviationinterviews.com, willfly4food.com, airlinepilotcentral.com, pprune.com, and others have so much information it will make your head spin. There are two ways to use such sites. First, just read the experiences of the interviews proper, and get as much information as you can on the types of questions that will be asked. Will they be technical? Scenario based? Will you need to brief an approach? Do you need to know the various forms of runway approach lights? What about an international requirements? How exactly is the interview conducted? Is it one on one or you against the world? Check too the dates of the posts. Companies that have not hired in a while may very well have put together an entirely new process, so be prepared for a curveball. Second, try and determine if this is a company that you really want to work for. It may be hard to get an objective answer, but do the best you can. Combine this info with whatever you can pick up from the company’s “About Us” link on its website.

When I was looking for my first job, the main source was the Future Airline Pilots Association (FAPA). When they went bankrupt, Kit Darby bought the remains and reorganized the company into AIR, Inc. In time, he had centralized a wealth of information, most of it very useful. But in the pre-Internet age, his team at AIR, Inc. quickly put together a substantial database of interview information that included everything from the minute you walked in the door to the minute you walked away, including every question in between. In some cases, airlines even began to profile his clients based on the way they dressed and the answers they gave, and some were rejected. But the fact remained that AIR, Inc. was the go to place for information. In time, he became a victim of his own success. The same information was eventually online (though not nearly as well organized), and it was free. AIR, Inc. was,to put it mildly, not cheap. The downturn after September 11 eventually took its toll, and AIR, Inc. closed its doors.

Besides information, though, AIR, Inc. offered two services that were sought after and often worth the price. The first was resume review and prep, which is critical for the first-time applicant. The second was interview prep.

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Nap time

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Everyone needs a nap every now and then. That’s partly why I’m not upset about the many air traffic controllers who seem to have succumbed to their circadian rhythms and taken a snooze lately. Or maybe we’re just hearing about it lately. Either way, people are sleeping. Some of them so soundly that even attempts to reach them over a loudspeaker system in the tower cab didn’t work.

There are many approaches the FAA could take to fix the situation. The quickest, and no doubt most expensive, is to add staff, which is immediately what the agency did. Again, I would need someone to slap me around at 2 a.m. if I were working, so I don’t mind this.

What really matters to me as a pilot is what to do in such a situation. At Reagan National in Washington, D.C., two flights elected to land. In Reno, the medical transport pilot elected to circle and wait, and then ultimately land without clearance. And in Tennessee, well, that controller made a bed for his naps, and his shut-eye apparently left seven aircraft without radio contact.

Although you may think as a student pilot that this is something simply not covered in the book, the fact is that the general scenario is quite common. In essence, this is no-radio situation. Rules for instrument flying are long, complex, and very well defined on this subject. But what about for visual flight rules. Would you have landed in Reno?

If you answered yes, you are correct. At least by some people’s interpretations. If you answered no, you took the safe, and probably the smart choice.

If a control tower exists, we are most likely talking about Class D, Class C, or Class B airspace at the airport. FAR Part 91 says that for Class D, Class C, and Class B airports, radio communication must be established and maintained, and ATC instructions must be followed. In fact, Part 91.129 says a pilot may land if radio communication has been lost, assuming a clearance to land has been received. Sounds confusing, right? How could one receive clearance to land without radio communication? The answer is of course light gun signals. But I think it’s safe to say controllers aren’t using the light gun while snoozing.

So, technically, it seems there is no way to legally land at an airport with a napping controller. In the recent cases, I’d bet the pilots got off without a violation, simply because the FAA is focusing on the controllers’ behavior. But it’s a good lesson for all of us. Unless you absolutely, positively, must land without a clearance, take the safe route and fly to another airport. Look on the bright side, you’ll get practice implementing a real-world diversion.

Would you have landed? What would you have done?

–Ian Twombly

Parts per airplane

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Any business that uses aircraft tends to deal in some sort of ratio, either consciously or unconsciously. For example, one statistic that often gets lost in the shuffle is the number of employees per airplane. When the airlines were living high on the hog prior to September 11, it was not unusual to see ratios of more than one hundred employees per airplane. That included pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, dispatchers, accountants, ticket agents, marketing people, etc., all the way down to the office cleaning staff. Some of those jobs are indirectly related to the size of the fleet (such as that office cleaning staff), while others are directly related.

In the last decade, the number of employees per airframe has dropped dramatically thanks to increases in efficiencies, contracting out some jobs, and eliminating others. Ticketing kiosks and at home check-in capabilities have almost eliminated the need for ticket agents, and reservationists have been reduced to a skeleton staff by the increasing use of websites to sell and book tickets. Airlines have also, for better or worse, outsourced much of their maintenance. Southwest, long the model for efficiency, has fewer than 70 per airplane, which is still substantially better than the competition.

Jobs on or handling the aircraft are driven entirely by the number of airplanes on the property. Most airlines, for example, staff airplanes with somewhere between nine and 10 pilots per “narrow body” airframe. This takes into account the typical schedule at the company, vacations, the average number of sick days used, training, reserve staffing complement, and whatever in-house fudge factor is thrown in for good measure. If the airframe is a “wide body,” such as a Boeing 767, Airbus A340, or Boeing 747 that flies long-haul or international flights, then the number of pilot jobs created climbs to an average of 14 per ship. A few airlines claim to staff based on projected block hours to be flown, but in the end, the people-to-airplane ratio is pretty accurate.

Similar ratios exist for other employee groups, such as flight attendants, dispatchers and crew schedulers. Corporate operators often use a similar concept, though it may not be as readily apparent until there are several aircraft on the property. However, the numbers may change depending on whether or not the pilot(s) operate more than one type of equipment. Likewise, pilots that also work as mechanics will reduce the ranks of employees. Flight schools too tend to have a rough correlation between employees and airplanes.

As the airlines begin to realign themselves to the changing economy, which includes new deliveries and retirements (both people and airplanes), it bears watching the fleet counts to see what their needs will be in the coming months and years. Because, remember, in the end, the numbers don’t lie.

–Chip Wright