Archive for November, 2011

Not without risk

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Aviation is not without risk. That’s probably obvious to you at this point. But having risk doesn’t mean aviation is unsafe. Far from it. And the best part of the equation is that the pilot has a disproportionate ability to control the risk.

Unlike driving a car, where our fellow citizens can easily ruin our day with one wrong move, the safety of flying is often directly related to the pilot. There are times when we experience mechanical problems, but these make up approximately 17 percent of total noncommercial fixed-wing accidents and only 10 percent of noncommercial fatal fixed-wing accidents. That leaves more than 80 percent of accidents that were either unknown or directly related to pilot error. And many of those can be avoided.

Obviously a large portion of our pilot training is directed toward learning how to avoid accidents. Practice emergency procedures, stall practice, go-arounds, and even takeoffs and landings are all drilled into us over and over again in the hopes that we will avoid problems with these phases of flight after we get a certificate. Clearly we’re not terribly successful.

These are statistics, and you are an individual. Just because most accidents are directly attributed to the pilot doesn’t mean you’ll have an accident or hurt yourself. Our accident rate is somewhere between 4 and 5 per 100,000 flight hours. Those are pretty good odds. But you’re trying not to become one of the four or five. There are just a few things that even low-time pilots can do to avoid their accident exposure.

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Interview prep

Monday, November 28th, 2011

As airlines begin to finally catch up with hiring, pilots need to start thinking of what they can do to get ready for the interview. The internet is loaded with information about what airlines do for interviews. While some airlines have not hired in a while, a few haven’t really stopped. But even those that did not interview for a while will likely stick to a preferred process.

There are five major areas to consider as you get ready: written tests/assessments; sim rides; your application packet (to include your logbooks); your appearance; and the actual interview itself. Written tests usually consist of a series of questions from one of the various pilot certificates, with the ATP and instrument being the most common. Some entry-level carriers may include some questions from the commercial test bank as well. These you can study for. You can’t study for psychiatric evaluations or personality tests. You are either normal or crazy, and the test will figure it out. (It might even tip you from normal to crazy.) A few airlines will test for mechanical aptitude or math skills. Again, research both on the internet and from actually talking to people in the know will help. But—and this is key—be prepared for a surprise or a curve ball, if not a total change in philosophy.

Sim rides are getting rare, due to the cost. But, a few carriers still have them. They are more common with foreign airlines. The airline will likely provide you with at least some information on the profile to expect. It usually consists of a takeoff, basic air work, VOR tracking, an ILS to a missed approach and a hold (or at least demonstration of the correct entry). It will all be hand-flown and raw data. You may or may not have a non-flying pilot available. The key to doing well on the sim is to bite the bullet and pay for some time in the same type of sim you will be using. If you will be flying a 737 sim, get some time in one. It won’t be cheap, but if you make the most of it and have the instructor really push you, it will more than pay for itself. The second point to remember is that if you are paired with a non-flying pilot, use him!

You should arrive to the interview totally familiar with everything in your application packet. You should have reviewed it enough times to ensure that there are no mistakes or typos. To do otherwise is inexcusable. Expect questions about your basic background, and especially if there are any gaps in employment or schooling. This is the first step in your background check, and it also allows the airline to ensure that you simply didn’t disappear for a period of time by spending that time in jail. A long gap could be caused by a family medical emergency, or in recovery from a car accident. Be honest. They will find out anyway, and openness and candor on your part go a long way. Likewise, know where all the major landmarks are in your logbook; some carriers ask you to mark certain pages. Be prepared to discuss checkride failures, training hiccups, et cetera. Again, own up to any mistakes, and be candid.

It should go without saying that your appearance needs to be impeccable, but it never fails to amaze me when recruiters or interviewers tell me about pilot applicants who show up with little thought given to their appearance. Don’t have a suit? Buy one, and make sure it fits. If your shoes are scuffed, get new ones or get them polished. Wear an undershirt. Knot your tie properly. Get your hair cut. This should be the easiest part of the process, but somehow people manage to mess this up routinely.

Last, the interview itself. Much will depend on what kind of carrier you are applying to. You should always know as much as possible about the history of the company and its current management leadership, fleet, bases, et cetera. Entry-level jobs focus more on assessing your knowledge and making as accurate a determination as possible about what kind of crew member you might be. Does the chief pilot who is interviewing you envision spending four days with you in a room smaller than a phone booth? Do you sound confident without sounding cocky? Are you mature? As you move up the chain of airlines, you will get a lot more “tell me about a time…” questions. The challenge here is not to sound like the answer is canned or far-fetched. One of the best investments you can make, especially if you are not a confident public speaker, is to attend an interview prep session with someone who specializes in airline interviews. You will not only get real questions, but the “interviewer” will try to rattle you. When you are finished, you will watch a video of your performance, and you will get tips on improvements.

As airlines begin to hire, it will be a free-for-all for the best jobs. After such a long wait, you owe it to yourself to use every opportunity to get the job you want. It may cost you some money, but not getting the job will cost you so much more.–Chip Wright

Line checks

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

If you read any number of aviation periodicals, you will probably note that some of the stories are written by pilots who designated as “check airman,” or “line check airman.” It may be tempting to think that this position is the same as a designated examiner or a position on a football officiating crew. Both assumptions are wrong.

In the piloting ranks, there are a variety of “checkers” or evaluators. Examiners are generally pilots that conduct checkrides in the airplane or simulator. For example, when you took (or take, as the case may be) your private pilot checkride, you do so with an examiner. While it is possible to undergo that evaluation with an FAA employee, it is far more likely that you will do so with an examiner “designated by the Administrator.” This examiner isn’t just some guy with connections. He or she has to work up the experience chain as an instructor, meeting a number of other criteria along the way before applying to the FAA for the position. Further, the number of examiners capable of giving various checkrides is limited to the actual need for such examiners within a geographic region based on known levels of flying. That is why there are far more examiners in Florida than, say, Maine. The hope is that the examiner pool is sufficient to keep all examiners steadily examining, while preventing pilots from being able to shop around for the easiest checkride. It should be noted that the training process to become an examiner is pretty rigorous, the selection process is not easy, and the standards are high.

Examiners also exist in the simulator training world, with some significant differences. An examiner for a particular jet, like the Citation X, may be able to give evaluations in the Citation X and nothing else. Likewise, at an airline, the examiners are likely to be pilots employed by the airline. A letter of authorization from the FAA will allow them to administer checkrides and evaluations on say, a 737, to their own pilots as representatives of the FAA. But they will not be allowed to use that letter to provide training or checkrides to any Joe who walks in off the street. It is still a 737, and the examiner’s expertise does not change. But the scope of his authority is limited to what his letter allows. Now, this does not mean that he cannot apply to the FAA for a separate letter to conduct Part 91 checkrides, and it does not mean he cannot apply for an examiner’s letter to conduct general aviation checkrides on his days off. In fact, many airline guys do exactly that.

Line check airmen, on the other hand, are a different breed altogether. Commercial airliners have a third seat in the cockpit called the jumpseat, which is there as a requirement for the FAA to be able to observe flight crews, conduct flight tests, or engage in any other business as a part of their jobs. It is also used by line check airmen. Again, like other examiner positions, the line check airmen (the title can vary from company to company) usually come from the ranks of the airline’s pilots. They are put through a training process that covers not only the ins and outs of the job, but also qualifies them to fly the airplane from both seats.

During line checks, the check airman’s role is to sit in the jumpseat and watch a crew do their job. Often, it is technically the captain who is being checked, but in reality both pilots are being observed. (Sometimes it really is only just the FO, but that isn’t as common.) As you may surmise, the nature of the job is such that the check airman must be extremely knowledgeable about the company and aircraft flight manuals, the FARs, and the how’s and why’s of the jobs of both pilots. While the crew is conducting a revenue flight, the check airman scrutinizes every aspect of their performance from checklist usage (including proper terminology) to approach briefings to weather analysis to their communication skills. It is, in fact, a checkride, but instead of being conducted in a simulator with a blizzard of emergencies, it is done in real time, in the airplane. This actually gives the crew a big advantage, as they are being examined doing what they do every day.

The purpose of the line check is to ensure that the standards as defined by the company and the FAA are being followed both in spirit and letter. Crews are expected to use their best judgment when unusual circumstances arise, and like any checkride, an intervention by the check airman or creation of doubt about the crew’s ability to safely do their jobs means the event will be a failure (sometimes called “an unsat”).

I’ve been a check airman for almost four years now, and it is a job I am proud to have. It comes with a certain amount of prestige, and it generates a certain level of respect among my peers. It also means—and this is something I take very seriously—that my company and the FAA trust in my evaluation and judgment skills. They trust that I am willing to remove pilots from duty if necessary, no matter how it may mess up the flight schedule. It means I may have to make a decision that ends another pilot’s career. But most important, it means that I will do whatever I can to ensure the safe operation of our fleet and our pilots.

I enjoy doing line checks, as it gives me a chance to learn from other pilots as well as get their feedback about what is working and what isn’t. I then turn that feedback over to my bosses, who decide how to incorporate it or how to ignore it. Line checks also reinforce what I already know: The guys and gals flying the line are among the best pilots and people in this industry, and placing the lives of my family in their hands is something I readily do. They take criticism with an eye to being a better pilot themselves, and they always ask if they can do something better. That, in my mind, is the hallmark of a professional.–Chip Wright

Fear of a lost logbook

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

I don’t often use this space to plug other blogs (the boss likes us to write our own, for some reason), but this one is too good not to share with the training and wannabe-professional audience. Adam Fast takes a really good look at something we all know is possible but fervently hope will never happen to us: losing a logbook.

Using a friend’s mishap as a cautionary tale, Fast explains that the worst part of losing a logbook (or a medical certificate) is the fact that without that documentation, the evidence of all those hard-earned and expensive flight hours evaporates. And he points out that not only do you have to worry about misplacing these documents, you also have to worry about theft or fire or other natural disaster that could render your documents null and void.

Being a self-professed geek, Adam carefully examines options you can take to back up your records. Think you’re good because you use an online logbook? Think again, and take Adam’s advice because hey, he does this stuff for a living. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have some photocopying to do.

How do you protect your logbook? Please tell us in the Comments section.–Jill W. Tallman

Performance limitations on takeoff

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

In earlier posts on this blog, I have talked about how airlines plan their flights and how our fuel loads will often limit what we can carry. In this post I want to discuss how performance will affect departure payloads.

The airlines do not plan for a payload capacity just based on what the airplane will carry. That would be too easy. Instead, the most important parameter that must be eliminated first is performance. Two parts factor into this. The first, and simplest, is the requirement to abort the takeoff at V1 minus one knot and still be able to stop on the remaining runway. That’s pretty simple to understand.

The second is an engine failure on takeoff, commonly called a V1 cut or V1 failure. In short, this means that an engine fails at or above the V1 speed, which means that even though the airplane is still on the ground, it will—it must—continue the takeoff. Performance calculations work backwards. Each takeoff consists of a four-segment climb that ends at 1,500 feet agl (there are some slight variations based on certain certification criteria for each aircraft, some of which may be chosen by the manufacturer, and some of which are federally imposed). Each aircraft will have different climb performance capabilities, and will thus reach that 1,500 feet, less one engine, at a different point in time for a given takeoff weight.

Performance calculations, given to the pilots in a useable format by the engineers who did the figuring, essentially work backwards. First, given the weather conditions, especially (but not limited to) temperature, we know, for each airport and each runway, at what point we must reach 1,500 feet following an engine failure. If we are too heavy, we won’t reach 1,500 feet in time, so we must start at a lower weight. As the temperature goes up, the performance goes down, so the maximum takeoff weight goes down. At John F. Kennedy International with a 14,000-foot runway at sea level, it is rarely a problem. At La Guardia, in the same city, with a pair of 7,000-foot runways and a number of potential obstacles not far from the runways, heat becomes a major problem in the summer.

Once we know the maximum takeoff weight based on calculated performance requirements, we can calculate maximum payload. Fuel is the first concern—you aren’t going anywhere without it. Once that is determined, you can determine the passenger and bag count. It gets worse if an alternate is required.

At airports with short runways or at high elevations, I’ve seen days where the CRJ can only carry 30 or 40 passengers. Sometimes the performance penalties are based on the surrounding terrain, and the potential requirement that we be able to fly a single-engine departure in mountainous terrain. Helena, Montana; Roanoke, Virginia; Key West, Florida; Chicago Midway; White Plains, New York; and New Haven, Connecticut, all come to mind as places where I have had to leave a lot of passengers or bags behind–not because of the ability to use two engines to get airborne, but because I need to know that the same airplane will fly safely with one engine shut down.

Winter operations can be problematic as well, because using engine bleed air for deicing operations can degrade performance. So can contaminated runways. Construction projects often wreak havoc as well.
This is a greatly simplified explanation of what goes into performance considerations, but it touches on the highlights. It’s something to keep in mind if you are told by the gate agent or crew that “performance” or “weight and balance” is going to require that you (or your bags) take a later flight.

As inconvenient as it may be, take some consolation that safety is not going to be compromised for the potential of a few bucks for the airline. They’d rather lose your money than your life or their equipment.–Chip Wright