Archive for September, 2011

A tale of two captains

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

When you see that airline pilot striding through the airport, decked out in full uniform, sometimes it’s hard to believe that he or she started out a student pilot…just like you.

I was reminded of this recently when I received two emails in the same week. Both were in response to “Renter No More,” an article I wrote for the October 2011 issue of AOPA Pilot, Flight Training’s sister publication. In “Renter No More” I described the process by which I came to purchase 7301J, a 1964 Piper Cherokee 140.

I got a lot of lovely feedback from that article, mostly well wishes from other owners and questions from prospective buyers. But two messages were more appropriate for my Flight Training readers.

Christian Moersch wrote to tell me that he took flying lessons two through five in 7301J, back in the 1960s. He flew her at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, Penn., where she was part of a flight school fleet. “My association with 01J launched a career that continues today,” he wrote. Christian is a Boeing 737 captain for Continental Airlines.

In yesterday’s email came this message from Ed Lavis. He soloed in 7301J on Sept. 2, 1969, also at Latrobe. (He had 9.5 hours under his belt.) He recalls telling himself, “Kid, I hope you know what you are getting into.”

Today, Ed is a 34-year pilot with USAirways. For the last four years, he has been a Boeing 767 captain on international flights, and has flown more than 25,000 hours.

As you progress through your training, take a moment now and then to let it sink in. Christian and Ed are living many a pilot’s dream, and yet they both look back fondly on their days piloting a 140-hp trainer through blue Pennsylvania skies. As for me, I have no airline aspirations. But I’m proud to know that Miss J played a part in helping Christian and Ed become the pilots that they are today.–Jill W. Tallman

Takeoff Considerations

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

You pull on to the runway, straighten up the nose wheel, add power, and accelerate down the runway toward another fun-filled day or night in the sky. I have no doubt you were watching the centerline to stay on track. You probably took a glance at the airspeed indicator a time or two before rotation. As you rotated, you fall into a natural pitch attitude that is by now second-nature.

Are you missing something?

Perhaps you are. Consider that between the ground and, say, 500 feet is the worst possible place to have a major engine problem. Or even a minor one. If you aren’t already in the habit, start paying attention to how much runway is left as you rotate, or if it works better for you, how much you have used. Are you 100 percent confident you will be able to stop on the remaining runway if necessary? On a long runway, the answer is most likely yes. But, what if the runway is fewer than 4,000 feet? Or fewer than 3,000 feet? Sometimes you have to acknowledge that you may not be able to stop once you reach a certain point. Then what do you do?

As you rotate, you should immediately know where you will go if you have a total power loss between the runway and 500 feet AGL, and again between 500 and 1000 feet AGL. Back on the runway, you should also be mentally prepared for the possibility of wildlife running out on the runway. There really isn’t a lot of guidance on how to handle this, as it isn’t something manufacturers test for. Obviously, if you can safely get airborne, you should. If you realize that you can’t, close the throttle immediately, and do whatever you need to keep control of the aircraft. It’s important to realize that this is not your car; damage will likely be far more extensive even at lower speeds. But hitting a deer is always more preferable to stalling because you weren’t ready to get airborne.

Taking off is more than just getting airborne. It requires consideration for a host of possibilities that you need to be prepared for. Some of the planning and information can come from the POH; the rest of it must come from common sense and the ability to think outside the box.

What are some of your takeoff considerations? Do you brief? How does the briefing go?

–Chip Wright

The Significance of the AMR-Eagle Pilot Announcement

Monday, September 12th, 2011

In July, an announcement was made by American Airlines (AMR), American Eagle, and their respective pilot groups that could have major ramifications for pilots entering the industry. As a result of a grievance filed (and won) by ALPA, on behalf of the Eagle pilots over the failure of AMR and the Allied Pilots Association (APA, the American pilots’ in-house union), to honor a previous flow-through arrangement, a new agreement was reached regarding career progression for Eagle pilots.

Simply put, it goes like this: every pilot on the Eagle seniority list as of October 11, 2011, will be guaranteed employment at AMR in the future. I do not know all of the particulars of exactly how it will work, but it stands to reason that it will be based on seniority. Once AMR begins to hire, no less than 35 percent of each new class will be Eagle pilots moving up, with the balance coming from the street.

This is a huge deal, for a number of reasons.

First, the long-awaited pilot shortage is here. It will not directly affect the majors for some time, as there are qualified RJ captains galore for them to hire. But regional airlines are already having problems staffing classes, and flights are cancelling for lack of pilots. Needless to say, there will be a huge rush to try and secure an interview with Eagle in the hopes of getting hired by October.

Second, there has long been a caste/class system between the majors and the regionals. The system has been perpetuated by both the management side and the labor side. Neither has been able to bring themselves to see the obvious benefits of having a pilot start off in the right seat of whatever the regional partner flies and then working his way up into the mainline equipment. An RJ pilot at Eagle or ExpressJet is fully versed in the way his respective major airline system works, which streamlines training. The major airline—and its paying customers—also get an experienced, known entity at the front end of the airplane. The class system that has been so long promoted by the airlines and the major-airline unions has led to fractured relationships all the way around that benefit no one, and do far more harm to the piloting profession than union leaders have ever been willing to admit. Unfortunately, regional pilots accept the system so that they can “stay out of trouble,” “pay their dues,” and move up. Maybe.

Third, by taking this step, Eagle management will, for several years, enjoy a steady but predictable rate of attrition with relatively lower labor costs without sacrificing qualified leadership in the captain seats. Once they commence hiring, AMR will benefit by only having to recruit two-thirds as many pilots, which is a substantial cost savings.

The next obvious question is, “What are the time lines for movement?” I don’t know. AMR still has more than 900 pilots on furlough, but they expect to finish recalls early in 2012. Further, AMR has several thousand B-scale pilots hired in the early 1980s who will be leading a mass exodus of retirements. Depending on when they start to hire, it’s possible that a new-hire at Eagle will be at mainline within as few as four years, or as long as eight–but in all honesty, I have no idea what a realistic time frame is.

My guess is that in the future, similar arrangements to this one will be necessary among regionals and majors, simply because the new rest rules (originally scheduled for release Aug. 1, but now delayed), the new experience requirements that will be in place for new FAR 121 FOs, and the low entry pay/high training costs for pilot wanna-be’s will force someone to come up with a new carrot-and-stick approach. Deals like this one, while not perfect, are the closest thing to perfection that we are likely to get, at least for a while. Otherwise, the RJs that provide more than 50 percent of U.S. domestic flights will be canceling ever more flights not because they can’t put passengers in the back, but because there is nobody to sit up front.

–Chip Wright

A sunny September morning

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was a student pilot hoping to take my checkride within a few weeks. I got up early that morning because I had booked an airplane for solo work. Looking out the window, I could see the clear blue sky and felt a sense of deep satisfaction. The weather was not going to get in the way of my flying.

I turned on the news as I got ready to leave, only to see one of the jets plunge into the twin towers. Shocked, my husband and I stood in front of the television set and watched the horror unfold.

Much of that day is now a blur. I drove to the airport, not realizing that the FAA had shut down the entire National Airspace System when the attacks began. When it became apparent that no flying was taking place, I headed to AOPA headquarters. My colleagues were clustered around the television in the conference room; or they were sprinting down the hallways calling out updates; or they were on the telephones with our members, giving out the latest and most accurate information they had.

In the days and weeks that followed, our nation grieved, raged, and slowly began to heal. I had to look at my logbook to be sure, because my memory is that I stayed on the ground for a very long time following Sept. 11 because the FAA opened back up the airspace in phases–commercial first, private last. But apparently it was just a short two weeks before I had another dual lesson, and by Oct. 2 I was flying solo again. I took my checkride on Nov. 8, 2001.

Did Sept. 11 change everything? For pilots in my neighborhood, it did. The FAA created a huge air defense identification zone around the Baltimore-Washington airports that effectively did away with business as usual. For VFR pilots, getting a clearance into the Class B became almost impossible. The ADIZ was added to sectional and terminal charts in 2004. In 2007, it was altered in size and shape, going from a bulbous Mickey-Mouse-shaped expanse to a 30-nautical-mile circle centered on the DCA VOR-DME. That helped things, but only just a bit. The “temporary” flight restriction became permanent in 2008, and gained a new name: The Baltimore-Washington Special Flight Rules Area, or SFRA. (At least you could spit out “Ay-Diz” and make it sound like a bad word; “Es-Ef-Ar-A” just sounds stilted.)

You can get around the SFRA as a VFR pilot, so long as you file a special flight plan, enter and exit through a series of “gates,” remain in contact with ATC, squawk a special transponder code, and for God’s sake don’t stray off your magenta line. And you must remain clear of Class B. For practical purposes, that means you fly below 2,500 feet msl on some stretches.

It could be worse–much worse. We might not be flying at all.

I think back to Sept. 11 often. I didn’t know anybody who died in the collapse of the twin towers or any of the rescue personnel who died to save them. I didn’t know anybody aboard the aircraft that crashed into the Pentagon, the towers, or the field in Shanksville, Penn. In that sense, I was relatively unscathed.

But a little bit of the joy of flying was taken away on that day, and I’m still working to get it back. I want to not to feel my palms perspire as I navigate through the SFRA and worry that I might stray too far off my magenta line. I want to stop feeling sick to my stomach when I hear fighter jets rumbling around the skies when P-40 is expanded. I want to erase the memory of my then-6-year-old daughter asking if Frederick was going to be attacked by the terrorists because we have a U.S. Army facility (Fort Detrick).

I just want things to be the way they were.

–Jill W. Tallman

On September 11

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in uniform, walking out the door of my hotel room in Oklahoma City, Okla., when my wife called. She told me that an airplane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. Since I had just been watching the Weather Channel, I had missed the news. Still I found it hard to believe, as the entire U.S. was in for a gorgeous day. When I switched to the news, with my wife still on the phone, I told her that there was no way that this was anything but a deliberate act. Neither of us realized that the second tower had been struck.

Ten years later, the industry has been changed in gut-wrenching ways. Cockpit doors are now fortified, and the cabin crew cannot casually pay a visit to the flight deck as they could in days past. Pilots can now carry guns, and for the record, I do not support in any way the Federal Flight Deck Officer program as it is currently structured. I also think it is unnecessary. Passengers have since taken matters into their own hands when someone raises a ruckus in the cabin, a la United 93. The TSA was created, and security screening is an ever-evolving process fraught with aggravations and problems, but it is more consistent than it ever was before. Unticketed persons can no longer go to the gate to wait for flights, which I thought would have changed by now (and it should).

The price of fuel soared in the middle of the decade, and the airplane that may well have saved the airlines—the CRJ and ERJ fleets—suddenly became too expensive. Bankruptcies and failures rocked the industry. Remember Midway Air, of Raleigh? They closed their doors on Sept. 12. General aviation had to fight for its survival, and to this day the training industry has yet to recover.

It’s been a long decade, one that at times seemed to crawl and at other times seemed to pass me by. But the industry is in many ways better off. The last of the old guard managers has left, and new disciplines have been introduced. Flights that lost money are no longer operated for the sake of maintaining market share. Flights are more quickly “right-sized” than before. International operations are a much more important part of the profit plan for legacy carriers. Low fare airlines are not always so low anymore, but they tend to be better products, and passengers continue to flock to Southwest, which has shown that less expensive tickets do not mean a cheap operation. Northwest and America West no longer exist, and once-major-hub airports are now a fraction of their once-dominant size (CVG, PIT, STL). Expensive and inefficient labor contracts have been redone–though, in some cases, to an extreme that will come back to bite the airlines.

There has not been a pilot strike in a decade.

The biggest threat facing the industry now is the lack of pilots on the horizon, combined with a lack of CFIs and appropriate institutions to teach them. General aviation is still way too costly for most to consider pursuing an airline career. But on the whole, improvements have been made; airlines are now ordering airplanes in large numbers. Looking back, it is amazing just how much waste there was that was easy to see and yet was still missed. Capacity control is much tighter, so revenues have climbed. And as much as I hate the new fees, they have reaped huge profits for the carriers.

Sept. 11, 2001, forever changed a lot of things. I went to Ground Zero days after those events, and the smell of burning wire, wood, metal, and human flesh, and the taste of dust and debris in the air are things I will never forget. Nor will I forget all the airline wings put on the ground in front of the engine house that lost so many. The city skyline just doesn’t look right without the towers, and it never will.

But our collective spirit has survived the bumps and bruises, and will continue to do so. Lady Liberty still greets us in the harbor, holding her torch high and proud. And every airplane that takes off and lands, be it a jet or a Cub, is proof that in the end, we as an industry will prevail. We must. We owe it to those who died that day.

–Chip Wright