Archive for December, 2011

My best flight

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

The waning days of December are a great time to reflect on the events of the past year. Jill Tallman blogged about her best and worst aviation events of 2011 last week, but I like to think about personal trips and adventures throughout the year. Maybe it’s just because I was recently updating my logbook, but this time of year has me thinking about my favorite flight of 2011.

“Climbs, turns, intro to FMS nav, Collins Proline Vnav intro, a/c systems.” That’s the endorsement from an entry in April, simple words that mark an extraordinary experience. It was also a dual flight, which makes the instructor in me happy. Since I started flying more than 10 years ago my time in the air, like most pilots, has come at the hands of piston-powered airplanes. In April I was given the opportunity to fly right seat in a Cessna CJ3. It was a wonderful 1.5 hours, mainly because I felt like a student pilot again. From takeoff to leveling off in cruise, I was completely overwhlemed at everything that was happening. And that’s a good thing. It made it fresh, fun, and exciting.

The flight was to bring a load of AOPA employees back from the Sun ‘n Fun Fly-in in Lakeland, Florida. I was lucky enough to draw the front seat on departure. Sitting there helping the pilot run through checklists, the thought went through my mind that takeoff would likely happen faster than in even the most powerful pistons I’ve flown. What an understatement. The CJ’s thrust slammed us back in the seat and the runway lights went by so fast I felt completely out of control. Thankfully I was sitting with my hands in my lap at this point as nothing more than a passenger. But at a few thousand feet, he handed it over to me and I flew it up into the flight levels, eventually switching the autopilot on so it could take us beyond 40,000 feet.

To say the view that high is special is like saying that shooting a hole in one in golf is a good shot. You’re up above the airline traffic, looking down on clouds that in most airplanes I fly would be harbingers of bumps. The colors are different, the perspective unusual, and the horizon beautiful. You can understand why jet pilots brag about their office being so high. It’s better than any corner office in the world.

Too soon it was time to head in the back so someone else could enjoy the view. I sat in my seat thinking silly poetic things about the awesomeness that is flight. For excitment, new adventure, and bringing back the feeling of being a student, the flight was a winner hands down. It makes me wonder what 2012 will bring.

What about your best flight?

Happy New Year.

–Ian J. Twombly

The best and worst of 2011

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Welcome to the second annual Best and Worst of [Insert Year Here] for the flight training industry. The 2010 blog, which you can read here, pointed to flight training dropout rates and the erroneous detention of John and Martha King as lowlights, but we saw some bright spots, too. (Hello, Young Eagles! Looks like you’re getting a shoutout this year as well.)

What did 2011 bring? Well, we didn’t see any beloved flight training figures erroneously detained, but we did see the FAA administrator abruptly leave his job following a drunk-driving arrest in early December. However, I’m not including him in the to Best of/Worst of list. You can tell me in the Comments if you think that was an error of omission.

So here we go, in no particular order.


1. The ongoing fracas at Santa Monica airport. Short version: The city council would like to close the six flight schools in operation there, citing “potential safety hazards” to the local neighborhoods, in spite of an impressive safety record. I guess the city of Santa Monica thinks pilots are hatched out of eggs or found in the cabbage patch. And hey, Santa Monica–your airport was good enough to train Greg Brady to fly. How many other airports can make that claim?

2. Another university aviation program gets the the ax. The University of Illinois’s Institute of Aviation had been turning out pilots since 1946.

3. A California flight school owner is arrested and charged with helping foreign nationals fraudulently apply for student visas to attend flight schools. Innocent until proven guilty, but are we looking at a troubling trend here? See number 4.

4. Meanwhile, the TSA is being dinged for not enforcing the Alien Flight Student Program for several months back in 2010. (The temptation here to remark that the TSA is probably busy with other matters, such as protecting the nation’s skies against grandmothers, is overwhelming. But all jokes aside, TSA, thanks for easing up on the whole patting-down-children thing.)

4. Isn’t flight training hard enough without some moron shining a laser in your eyes? (Thankfully the student in this incident had a CFI on board who was not affected.)


1. Remember that California education-reform law we cited last year that would have required flight schools to pay $5,000 in initial fees? Flight schools are now exempt.

2. Redbird Flight Simulations opens arguably the most state-of-the-art flight school ever envisioned in Texas. Data will be collected from the students who learn to fly there, and that’ll be used to create more effective training strategies.

3. With the number of female certificated pilots languishing at 6 percent of the total, women in the United States and Canada decided to do something about it. “Get women to the airport” events were held worldwide in 2010, and their organizers say they’re going to keep going for 2012. AOPA honored Mireille Goyer, creator of the international Women of Aviation Worldwide Week initiative, for her efforts.

4. The FAA publishes a change to the regulations enabling student pilots to apply for the private certificate and instrument rating concurrently, and count dual cross-country instruction flight time toward eligibility requirements for the concurrent training. This sounds like a no-brainer, and a good way to save some money in the process. It’s not for everybody–I couldn’t have pulled it off–but if you’re up to the challenge, why not?

5. EAA’s Young Eagles program makes the list for the second year in a row, this time because EAA announced at AirVenture that it would be targeting its program to get more people to continue their flight training, and possibly opening it up to older individuals (the Young Eagles cutoff is 17).

Now it’s your turn. What’d I miss, and what would you nominate?–Jill W. Tallman

What’s the oddest thing you’ve found in a preflight?

Monday, December 19th, 2011

The February 2012 issue, coming to your mailbox on or about Jan. 5,  has an excellent article by Jamie Beckett about the perils of not doing a thorough preflight.

Before you put your hand up and yell, “Not another preflight article!,” let me finish. Yes, anybody who’s had more than an hour of flight instruction knows that a preflight is your very last chance to check out your airplane before you launch into the sky. But those of us with a few hundred hours or a few years in our logbooks might one day find ourselves “sleepwalking” through the process, as Jamie notes. It’s not on purpose. Anything that is repetitious can become automatic, given enough time. Ever find yourself driving home from work and suddenly realize you don’t remember how you got there? Scary.

We asked our digital subscribers to tell us the oddest thing they’ve ever found in a preflight, and we want to hear from you as well. Snakes? Missing controls? Something not so obvious and much more insidious?–Jill Tallman

Seniority and “juniority”

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

When I got the call that I had been hired by Comair (actually, I had to call them, but that’s a different story), I was originally asked if I could be in class in less than a week. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll be there tomorrow if I have to be.” Then about an hour later, I got a call from the same gal to tell me that my class date had been moved back. Over the next several days, more calls, and more changes, to the point where I was finally being placed in class about a month later than planned. I just shrugged my shoulders and figured that the extra time at home would be nice, not to mention the ability to help all of my students either finish up or transition seamlessly to a new instructor.

But one of my students, who was a flight attendant for USAir (as the company was still then known), told me I had really screwed up–that I was an idiot. This young lady, normally as sweet as her southern accent indicated, glared at me in a way that was decidedly uncomfortable. “Seniority,” she informed me, “is everything.” Little did I know.

My first lesson in just what that meant came during the first week of class, when pilots were jockeying for position in the airplane (the Brasilia [more senior] versus the Saab) or domicile of their choice (Cincinnati versus Orlando [more senior]). Most airlines, mine included, assign seniority within a class based on age, though some get creative and use the last two digits of your social security number or some other less obvious methodology. I was right in the middle, and I was initially assigned the Brasilia in Cincinnati. I was able to trade that slot for one in Orlando with another pilot who was from Cincinnati and wanted to stay near home. When I got hired, I was number 856, and for two weeks, I was the most junior pilot on the list (our hire dates were not assigned until we finished training, and the Saab drivers were two weeks behind us because of to a lack of simulator time).

As time went by, I began to realize that seniority really and truly “is everything.” I got hired on the front end of a huge wave of pilots in the regional ranks as the majors were experiencing a lot of attrition and growth. For the first time in history, the majority of major airline pilot hires were civilians, and they came from regional carriers; Comair lost a huge percentage of its pilots because we had the largest fleet of RJs, which made our pilots a hot commodity.

My seniority began to improve. I started on reserve, and worked Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Super Bowl Sunday my first year. Soon, though, I got off reserve, got better trips, held the days off I wanted, and was able to get whatever week of vacation I wanted. I was able to hold the holidays off.

My next exposure to the importance of seniority came two years after I was hired. The company was phasing out the Brasilia, but still needed captains. It was forced to “junior man,” which means that the company had to force pilots—starting with the junior-most eligible and qualified first officer—to be captains. I missed getting the JM–by…one…number.

 Two and a half short years after getting hired, I bid over to the left seat of the jet as captain. As a junior captain, I was back on reserve, and back to having my schedule and my life determined by the whims and fancies of those senior to me. I worked holidays again while my wife visited family. The phone rang at all hours of the night. I did maintenance and ferry flights. But within a year, I was line-holder again, off reserve…until we went on strike. When we came back, I was back on reserve for several more months as the airline restored service not just once, but twice, as we were shut down again by 9/11.

By mid-2002, I was truly living the dream. I worked Tuesday through Thursday, with the occasional Monday or Friday thrown in for good measure. I have not worked a major holiday in more than 10 years. I got paid well, and thoroughly enjoyed my job. Several times I was able to fly into a new city the first week we served it. Life was grand.

The last five years, though, have been a challenge. At first, growth stagnated. Then, because of bankruptcy at our corporate parent, rising fuel prices, and old airplanes (see my earlier posts “The Challenge of a Profit” and “50 Seat Economics”) the airline began to get smaller, and we have had to furlough pilots. Orlando closed—and re-opened and closed again—and JFK opened. It too has since closed, and Detroit is now open. By the end of 2012, we will be down to 44 planes, having shrunk by 75 percent from our peak. I currently hold seniority number 322. By the end of 2012, my number will be in the 270-280 range, maybe 300, and our Cincinnati hub is in jeopardy of closing.

“Seniority is everything.”

Those words have a whole new meaning for me. Had I put up a fight in 1996 and pushed to get into that initial class to which I was assigned, I would have moved up roughly 100 numbers (20 pilots in class a week over five weeks). Why is that so important? Because when the shuffling is done, after 15 years of service, I will be demoted to first officer. Being an FO again is something I can handle. What won’t be so easy is this: I will lose sixty-plus percent of my pay, and there will be no raises, as the FO pay scale tops out after eight years of service. In order for me to hold on to my current position, even on reserve, at least 20 captains senior to me will have to quit. I’m not sure it will happen. If the company shrinks even more—if it gets rid of the balance of the 50-seat RJs that are currently scheduled to stay—I will be furloughed.

Seniority, my friends, is everything. So, for that matter, is juniority.–Chip Wright

The aviation degree

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

It is pretty much accepted and realized now that a college degree is required if you want to make it in aviation. But should you get an aviation degree? Specifically, should you spend a lot of money to go to an aviation-centric school such as Embry-Riddle?

I come at this from a different angle than most, but I believe my advice to be sound nevertheless. I grew up wearing hearing aids, and in high school, I had corrective surgery on both of my kidneys. I have also had a number of other normal kid maladies that give me a medical file a football player would be proud of. Because of the hearing aids, my success in aviation was very much in doubt, and even though I was fascinated by all things aviation, I had to hedge my bets. I started off pre-med, and when I realized that wasn’t going to pan out, I became an economics major. I did all of my flight training at the local FBO, paying as I went.

In hindsight, I’m glad I did this. The problems with pursuing such a tailored degree as aviation are threefold. First, it may not do much good outside of aviation, especially if the degree is essentially the acquisition of pilot certificates or in something as narrow as air traffic control. Getting an A&P is different, as there are some options for other types of maintenance work that is applicable (cars, boats, et cetera). Flying airplanes is flying airplanes. You can’t use that training to go into, say, advertising.

The second problem is the issue of not liking your job. Flying airplanes is not for everyone. I love it, and I don’t regret it. I may never fly for a major airline, but I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. But the truth is there are those who come to realize that they don’t like living out of a suitcase; or they don’t like the low pay that may dog them for years; or they may not like having to start over in terms of seniority or pay to change jobs; or they don’t like the crazy hours; or they may not like being away from their kids for days at a time; or they don’t like waking and not knowing where they are.

For women (and a few men), a decision may need to be made to give up flying for the opportunity to have a family. Such stress is even worse when a pregnancy is unplanned, and too often one love must be given up for another. There are any number of reasons why people choose to opt out of aviation, and having a degree that is so specific can severely limit your options for entering other fields. It doesn’t mean it will, but it can. There is little worse than feeling trapped and slowly coming to hate your job.

The third reason–and perhaps the most important to consider when it comes to choosing an education track–is the possibility that you may lose your medical or that you may have a condition that makes companies gun-shy about hiring you. That was the reality that I was facing, and so my degree was intended to be a fallback. In my 15 years of airline flying, I have known two pilots who lost their careers to diabetes, at least two to heart attacks (including one in flight), one to HIV, and several to injuries suffered in car accidents. Several more have been grounded for long periods of time because of illnesses or medical treatment plans that the FAA has strict guidelines on, or even something as simple as broken bones or knee injuries that require extensive rehab. Back and shoulder injuries are also very common because of the weight of our flight bags and the confines of the cockpits. While the smart pilots have insurance policies (usually available through the airline and/or their union) to help them through lean times, not all do, and even the insurance can leave you struggling to make ends meet. Many need to work, and some do so to stave off boredom while they recover.

I have nothing against an aviation-specific degree, but for my money, the smart way to go is to get a degree in something that you enjoy and that has some career potential while flying on the side–either as a minor, or at the local FBO, as I did. You will have more options, better marketability, and a sound fallback if your flying career does not meet your expectations.–By Chip Wright