Posts Tagged ‘airline pilots’

Disability insurance

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

When you’re in your 20s and 30s, it’s hard to imagine that your health will ever be seriously affected by anything. It’s bad enough to imagine getting cancer or a sleep disorder, but what about something less serious, such as a broken bone (or two or three)?

Pilots are unique in that our health affects both our direct and our legal ability to report for work. Something as simple as back pain can keep us at home. We are bound by the terms of our medical certificate to be of sound mind and body. If you work in an office and break your leg or your arm, you can still come to work. You may even be just as productive and as efficient with the injury as you are without it.

Not so with flying. If you break a leg skiing or an arm playing softball, you’re grounded until it heals. Further, if your medical expires during your injury, you will likely need a flight physical to return to work. If you don’t have sufficient sick time in your leave bank, you could face a financial strain. Most airlines only allow a sick time accrual rate of a few hours a month.

I don’t want to sound like a salesman, but I’ll take the risk. If you get hired by an airline, opt into whatever short- and long-term disability insurance the company and/or the union offers. Rates are based on age, so it’s cheaper when you’re younger, which is also when you’re not so well paid. It’s an investment that is worth making in yourself.

Over my career I’ve seen young and old pilots be out of work for extended periods of time through no fault of their own. One, in his late 20s, was out over a year because of a severe automobile accident. One was out for two months with a broken leg that was slow to heal. Another was out for nearly two years with a form of liver cancer. A number have been incapacitated by mental health issues and/or alcoholism. In the last couple of years, the FAA has attempted to crack down on overweight pilots. If they ever succeed in doing this, a large percentage of us will be looking at long periods of time off while we try to shed the extra weight.

As a professional pilot, take nothing for granted—especially your health. Get the STD/LTD coverage early, and keep it. With any luck, you’ll never need to thank me for it. But if you do, at least you won’t have to worry about coming up with the money for a stamp.–Chip Wright

Mining the message boards

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

Forums.jpgThe internet has become a repository for just about any sort of information you care to find. Some of it is even true. A great example is the glut of information forums, aka “the web boards.” If you’re interested in aviation, there is no shortage of such sites to choose from. One of the most famous in the airline world is Airline Pilot Central. PPrune (short for Professional Pilots Rumour Network) is another, and there are way too many others to list.

How much credibility should you give these sites? That depends. While many are fairly organized, they all contain a tremendous amount of negativity. Further, if you’re new to them, you will find yourself spending hours scrolling through old posts looking for good information. Once you are up to speed, you can navigate them quickly and easily for the intel you need.

There are a couple of downsides to these sites. First, as noted, people hide behind a screen name, and many show a decided lack of maturity in their postings. This leads to a lot of bickering. Second, the overwhelming majority of these posts are written by a very small number of people, which means that the opinion of a few may be presented as the opinion of the majority, even if such is not the case. The actual sample size is fairly small. Third, much of the “information” is speculative only, as it is based on rumor and heresy, if not flat-out lies.

However, if you spend enough time filtering the boards that you are most interested in, you can get good information. You can also figure out which of the posters are level-headed, honest, and objective. When you notice these people, write down their names, especially if what they are posting pertains to the arena of flying you are interested in; it’s even better if they are working (or have recently worked) for a company that you are pursuing.

Once you’ve made note of a few of these folks, initiate personal (“private”) conversations with them. See if they are willing to spend some time on the phone with you. Ask your questions; write down their answers; and ask follow-up questions. Do this with several pilots in each category or forum. You may get conflicting information, but that isn’t necessarily bad. You can assume that many people have different experiences to draw from, and that in and of itself can be good.

One of the problems with being new to these discussions is that you sometimes don’t realize what you don’t know, which can only add to your confusion. The lingo can be new and overwhelming. It’s hard at times to understand how pilots—who clearly love to fly—can find themselves unhappy in their jobs. Some of this is self-inflicted, and some is caused by circumstances they didn’t predict. Your job is to find out which is which, and then try to understand what it is that you would personally have difficulty with, and find a way to avoid a similar fate. Not always easy, but it can be done.

The internet forums can yield significant good information, but you need to know how to find it, and you need to know how to source it. APC is a wealth of great info about the airlines. But it’s only a part of that information. Actually talking—by phone and in person—to pilots who are living the lifestyle you are interested in is another major part of that information.—Chip Wright

Familiarity versus unfamiliarity

Monday, August 24th, 2015

There’s a saying that familiarity breeds contempt. Unfamiliarity can do the same thing. In aviation, we see the familiarity side of things when we throw caution to the wind (or worse). We ignore checklists. We rush. We do…dumb things. Most of us have been guilty of this. Examples abound: forgetting to turn off the master switch in the FBO’s Cessna, only to get a phone call later; forgetting to untie (or tie) the tiedowns; forgetting to lower the landing gear.

It’s natural to let your guard down when you’re in a comfortable environment. The good news is that you are comfortable in a place where you don’t really belong. The bad news is that you are prone to making mistakes because “it could never happen to me.” That’s probably what you said the last time you locked your keys in your car. In fact, such a dumb, easy mistake has forced the automobile manufacturers to idiot-proof cars as much as possible to try to avoid this, but people still find a way to validate human idiocy.

When you are overly familiar with something, either it’s time to force yourself to re-adapt the good habits, or it’s time to change your habits. Take the car keys. Once you’ve made this mistake, you quickly learn to check that the keys are in your pocket/bag/purse/suitcase/whatever before you close the door. You’re still looking to make sure that they aren’t in the car, but instead of looking to see if they aren’t where you don’t want them, you’re looking to see if they are where you do want them. The goal is the same, but the process is different.

With the master switch, an easy way to fix the problem is to always leave the anti-collision light on. That way, if you walk away from the airplane and see the beacon on, you’ll know that the master switch is on.

Unfamiliarity also can create problems, especially when the change from one piece of equipment to another is fairly drastic. For example, at my old airline there was a famous story—true—of a captain who transferred out of the turboprop and into the jet. Without getting bogged down in details, he was forced to leave an engine running after pulling into the gate. That by itself is no big deal; it happens all the time. Generally speaking, within a few minutes, he would be able to shut it down. Well, a few steps in the chain weren’t completed, and he was new to the airplane, so he was out of his comfort zone. Further, in the turboprop, a running engine could be easily seen (the spinning propeller) and heard (it was right next to the cockpit window). With a tail-mounted jet, you don’t see anything, and you don’t hear much more than anything.

He found out that he had left the engine running when he got a call from the station after he had arrived at the hotel. He had to talk the ground folks through the shutdown over the phone. In the end, nobody was hurt, but the lesson was learned: Try to know what you don’t know.

Familiarity and unfamiliarity can both be dangerous, but for different reasons. If you find your normal routine is not working, change it to one that does.—Chip Wright


Monday, August 10th, 2015

It’s early on in your academic training these days when a teacher refers to the GIGO principle. Simply stated, if you are using a computer, it doesn’t matter how great the machine or the program is if you input bad data. If you put in garbage, it will give you garbage results. Garbage in, garbage out: GIGO.

In flying this is a very real concern, particularly when it comes to programming a GPS. It’s one thing if you inadvertently put in a wrong fix that’s close to the right one, but that’s rare. What’s more likely to happen is that you put in the wrong fix or the wrong piece of performance information, only to suddenly find yourself asking what is going on. When the airplane makes a turn you aren’t expecting, you’ll be scrambling to figure out where the mistake is. It’s great if it happens on the next fix. That usually becomes readily apparent. It’s not so great if you programmed in the wrong fix several legs down the road.

This is an easy mistake to make on a GPS that is programmed with a knob, and it’s an easy mistake to make in a crew environment. I’ll give you an example: I was in a simulator event, and I had the airplane doing exactly what I wanted it to do. Trying to stay ahead of things, I decided to program the climb performance, not registering that the performance I was asking for was for the cruise climb. Asking the airplane to change its profile would cause all kinds of problems on the departure procedure. Following our prescribed procedure, I asked the captain to verify what I was getting ready to do. He did. I hit the button and executed the new plan. To my horror, the airplane began to accelerate and climb like it had a date with Mars.

I quickly turned off the autopilot and autothrottles, and I asked the captain to reprogram “the box” while I hand-flew and kept us out of further trouble. In my peripheral vision, I saw the instructor smile and write furiously. In the debrief, we got kudos for catching the problem immediately and fixing it, but we also got a reminder that GIGO can happen at any time, at any place. It was a great lesson, and it happened in the sim, where nobody could get hurt.

I’ve flown now for more than 20 years, and I have a litany of such GIGO examples—some mundane, some not so much. What I can say is that I don’t tend to make the same mistake twice, but I’ve learned that I am never going to be immune to this kind of error, which is good, as it keeps me on my toes.

But if you want to see how catastrophic GIGO can be, just look at the report for American Airlines Flight 965, which crashed into a mountain in Colombia in 1995 because of a flight management system programming error. It’s a stark reminder of how quickly things can go wrong, even for an experienced crew.—Chip Wright

Flying like a professional: Checklists

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

DC10ChecklistIf you are in training with the intention of moving on to the airlines or corporate opportunities, have you thought of trying to train and fly as you would for the job you eventually want to have? Or even if you aren’t planning on flying the “heavy and fast” metal? It’s not as hard as you think.

One of the easiest things to do is to develop an almost sick obsession with checklists. Most people, including general aviation pilots, would be surprised at the level of checklist discipline that airline pilots use. It starts at the gate, usually with a checklist for “Accepting” or “Receiving” the airplane, and it doesn’t end until the airplane is shut down or handed off to either maintenance or another crew.

Some of the checklists are ridiculously long, and some are absurdly short. It doesn’t matter. They all have to be done, in full, every time. Moreover, many are required to be done verbally so that the cockpit voice recorder can be used to verify that the checklist was done in the event of an accident.

The rote process of doing checklists becomes ingrained, and it gets to the point of, quite literally, physical discomfort when one is not completed (not to be confused with what happens when one is simply forgotten).

When I was flying for a regional airline, we had a checklist on a turboprop that we had to complete when passing 18,000 feet. It consisted of changing the settings of the propellers (to reduce noise) and setting the altimeters to the standard of 29.92 inches.

Two items. That’s all. But it would create a lot of angst if someone didn’t get it done on time or was unable to complete it on time (usually because of radio chatter).

We had a couple of similar checklists on the CRJ. In addition, we had a few that were quite wordy, and they’re even worse for inducing a bit of anxiety, because they seemed to be so prone to interruption at the worst possible time—which often meant starting over.

Airline and military pilots don’t let the rush to get home or to the hotel distract them. The checklists are completed the way in which they are supposed to be completed, every single time. They have to be. As I said, the CVR records them, and if we make a mistake, our careers depend on them. I’ve been in situations in which we had very little time to get out of the gate and get to a runway before we would run the risk of not being able to complete the flight, but every checklist still had to be finished. It’s just the way it is. Sometimes the checklists get rushed a bit, but they do get done.

In your training, develop the same mindset. It doesn’t matter how “obvious” something is, or how “simple” an airplane is. Get in the habit early. Not only is it a good one, but it might save you from embarrassment later. It might be something as simple as turning on a transponder or as important as making sure the landing gear is extended. You’ll find that when you don’t complete the checklist, you’ll be squirming in your seat until you do, and when you finally complete it, you’ll suddenly relax.

And the gear will be down.—Chip Wright

Flying with someone you don’t like

Monday, May 18th, 2015

CFI DorkWhen you fly for a living—especially as a part of a crewed airplane—you will encounter all kinds of personalities. Some will strike you as weird or quirky, others as boring or fascinating or blasé. Some, unfortunately, you won’t like.

It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. At the regionals, where flying five or six legs a day is not uncommon, getting along is paramount. And most of the time, it’s easy. You already have one common interest, which is flying (even if one or both of you is not all that enamored with your carrier).

But what happens when you fly with someone whom you just can’t stand? The truth is, it can be a real problem. On a four-day trip, you might fly 20 or so legs, and you’ll be crammed into a room the size of a phone booth with only one other person. And you’ll be stuck.

If you don’t like each other—or if you just don’t like that person—there are a few things you can do. First of all, limit the conversation to flight-related duties such as checklists or approach briefings. Second, believe it or not, might just be to tell the other person that you think it’s best to limit the conversation. Often, this can lead to a discussion about what you don’t like about the other person, which can be an ice-breaker.

What you can’t do is allow your behavior or reactions to cross certain lines, and you can’t allow it to affect safety. While there are stories about pilots coming to blows in a cockpit, fortunately such events are incredibly rare. More likely will be a scenario similar to one that happened involving two pilots I knew. They spent several days flying together, and by the end of the trip they despised each other, simply because they had different personalities.

On one of the final legs, the captain had used the flight spoilers to help him in the descent. But he forgot about them, and the first officer waited until the last minute to say anything. When he did, the captain (angrily) stowed the spoilers and had to deal with an airplane that used up several thousand feet of runway trying to overcome the sudden excess power he had been using.

And that brings me to the third option for dealing with this type of issue. This crew realized at the gate that they had acted unprofessionally and with hostility toward each other for the majority of the trip. They also agreed that they should not fly together again, and they agreed that if they were paired together that one of them would call in sick. Some airlines have a mechanism in place for first officers to avoid flying with certain captains; this one did not. (It’s always the FO who gets to bail, because the captain is the authority figure.)

Another possibility is to go to the chief pilot and simply explain that you can’t work with another pilot. This is a bit of a last resort, but if you simply can’t stand to be in the airplane with someone, you may not have a choice. Chances are, you won’t get more than one of these “free passes,” so make it count.

Many airlines, especially the majors, administer a personality assessment to applicants just to avoid this situation. It’s not  fool-proof, but it does work to mitigate the problem.

Remember, there is a difference in dealing with someone with whom you have no common interests who might be difficult to talk to, and someone who is just so difficult to get along with that you can’t work together. The first thing you need to do is perform an honest assessment of yourself to make sure that you are not the problem. If you believe the problem is the other individual, then you need to start using other tools available to deal with the issue before it gets out of hand or unsafe.—Chip Wright

Asking for help

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Pilots tend to have egos. We don’t like to admit that we need help, but the truth is that we need it more often that we want to admit. This is especially true when we’re learning something fairly new, or have not spent a lot of time in an aircraft. It might be something as simple as how to program a new fix in the avionics, and it might be something as complicated as…programming a new fix in the avionics.

I’m still learning the ins and outs of the 737, which I’ve been flying now for almost two years. I spend most of my time on reserve, as I am fairly junior in my base, so I don’t fly as much as I’d like. My flight time tends to occur in spurts where I’m flying a lot, and then sitting at home a lot. The result is that I often need to brush up on a few items before I go fly a trip. It’s also not uncommon for me to just forget a few things here and there.

The need for help was driven home recently while talking to a friend of mine who has made the transition from one career to another, having left behind a field she spent 30 years in (finance) for one that is brand new to her (flight attendant). For as much time as I’ve been in the airlines, I must confess that I knew precious little about the training that the cabin crews go through. That’s changed, because my friend, who was hired by a major airline, spent five pretty intense weeks tackling an enormous amount of material, all of which was new to her.

One of the things that quickly became apparent was that she wasn’t going to make it through training on her own. I had forewarned her about that before she left, but I’m not sure that she fully appreciated it until she got into class and got hit with the full brunt of all the information she needed to master. This carried over to the airplane as well, and it was a bit of a surprise to me to hear just how much she relied on her crew mates as she got her feet wet.

It reminded me of my own experiences in the cockpit. Pilots tend to think that flying is flying, and it doesn’t matter what airplane it is. That’s true…to a point. But each airplane is different, and each one has its own challenges. Throw in learning the way a new company does things, and it’s even more complex.

I spent 16 years with my first airline, and moving to the second one involved a lot of “unlearning,” and it’s not easy. I had to ask for help, not only on the basic information about how new equipment worked, but on how to simply fit in. I’m on my third airline now, and I’m still asking for help. Sometimes, it seems like I am asking for help on something that is so simple I should be embarrassed, but I learned a long time ago—usually the hard way—that these are the times when I absolutely must ask for help. Life experience is a great teacher in that respect.

As my friend the FA has said, she asks for help for two reasons. One, she might genuinely need it. Two, it’s often just a way to reinforce what she knows or even just thinks she knows. It’s a confidence- builder. And that alone is enough.—Chip Wright

Applying flying skills to life, and vice versa

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Learning to fly is a complicated pursuit. For many, it is the first real foray into the three-dimensional world. It requires learning a complex series of skills in a machine that never stops moving. There is no pulling over at a gas station to ask for directions or use a restroom. Every flight involves at least a rudimentary level of planning.

One of the neat things about learning to fly is that many of the skills are transferable to other endeavors. Likewise, there are skill sets from other hobbies that can be transferred to flying. Take flight planning, for example.

At its most basic, flight planning requires at least a look at the weather and the fuel gauge even if you are only planning a flight in the local area. But longer flights or flights over more challenging terrain, require more attention. There is a close correlation to two common activities here: scuba diving and traveling by car. Divers often use mnemonics or even checklists to make sure that they are prepared for diving. Pilots do the same thing. Divers have to plan their air supply so that they return to the surface with a minimum amount of air in the tank. Pilots are taught to always keep fuel in reserve. Flights, like the traditional family vacation, are often broken up into legs in order to minimize fatigue or plan fuel and/or food stops.

A good percentage of flying involves preparing for emergencies or “non-normal” situations. This is pretty intuitive, considering that we are not in our natural environment. Where pilots learn to plan for engine failures and electrical malfunctions, divers learn to cope with flooded masks or leaky regulators. Teenage drivers learn early on how to change tires and use jumper cables (or they should, anyway).

When I was an active flight instructor, I always tried to correlate what I was teaching with something from everyday life or from the students’ personal background that would help them grasp and retain the essence of what I was teaching. Many hated using the checklist because it was so foreign to them. Some of them learned to look at it as a step-by-step recipe, as if they were cooking, and a few looked at it as the only way to avoid trouble with the FAA (the lawyers). People whose career consisted of working with numbers would approach flight planning from a numerical perspective: We have X amount of gas, which we’ll burn at Y gallons an hour, so we should be able to fly for Z amount of time (math teachers and accountants).

Flight planning can be a consuming task, as I mentioned. I’ve known pilots who have traveled in general aviation aircraft around the globe. Planning such a trip can take a year or more, and it involves a tremendous effort to coordinate because of the various laws of flying over certain countries. These folks tend to carry over much of the mindset to their non-aviation lives: They carry extra oil in their car; they always seem to dress for worse weather than they expect; there are several maps or GPS units available, et cetera. As one of them told me, planning for an emergency in the middle of an emergency is no place to plan for an emergency. Everything he did followed that mantra.

Use flying to broaden your thought process for other arenas in life, and use your own personal experiences elsewhere to enhance your decision-making skills in the airplane. And, plan ahead for the emergencies!—Chip Wright

The first officer, the teacher

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015


A recent trip reminded me of something I had not seen in a long time. When I was a first officer for Comair (back when I was a young warthog), we had a lot of pilots bouncing among fleets. We had jet first officers upgrading to captains on the EMB-120 Brasilia (a turboprop), and Brasilia captains moving over to the jet. Some of these guys had never flown their new fleet type; others hadn’t flown it in years. In time, we became an all-jet company and it didn’t matter.

In my current job, I’m a junior FO who occasionally flies with people who are new to the fleet type. Some of these pilots flew the “newer” model of the 737, and some flew the “classics,” but did so years if not decades ago.

I find history repeating itself: I am often helping, in many ways, to train these folks. Let me explain.

When I was in the right seat of the RJ, I’d often fly with captains whom I knew were low-time (airlines are required to track pilots with fewer than 75 hours in both seat and type). I quickly learned to ask them if they were new to the airplane, or just new to the seat.

The ones who had flown the airplane didn’t need much help, other than asking me to go slow while they learned their new routine. The ones who were new to the airplane, however, asked a lot of questions, and expected—and needed—a lot more help. Some were better than others, and in the case of movement from a turboprop to a jet, the speed difference at times was overwhelming.

The fellow I was recently flying with had gone through several transitions in the previous few years. This one, he hoped, would be the last one. To compound the issue, he was also new to the Pacific region, and there are stark differences between trans-oceanic flying and anything else. What’s more, there are some cultural differences between our base and the “domestic” way of doing things.

I found myself offering all kinds of advice and help, and the captain was constantly asking for more, soaking up what I had to offer—which had me offering even more. At one point, he made the comment after I pointed out something that didn’t quite work the way the book said it should: “That’s what I need. Tell me what’s reality and what isn’t.”

It’s healthy to ask for help when needed. I’m relatively new myself to the company and the airplane, but I’ve accumulated a bit of know-how in a short time, and my captain was smart enough to ask questions for areas where he knew he needed help. It was a good reminder that FOs too can be effective teachers, and we really do work best when we work together.—Chip Wright

What is a good…?

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015


I often get asked about various aspects of my job, from what makes one company better than another to what makes a given day better than others. These are some general answers to the question, “What makes a good….”

Schedule: Generally speaking, pilots on reserve will get 11 or 12 days off each month. Line-holders will get 14 to 16, or even 17, and a rare few will get 20. Some regionals require that reserves get at least one block of three or four days off in a row each month. If you’re a commuter, a good schedule is one that allows you to commute in on the first day of the trip and commute out on the last day, so you don’t have to spend time or money on crashpads, hotels, or apartments.

Paycheck: A regional first officer will make from $19,000 to $22,000 the first year. The FO can expect to max out at around $40,000 as a base salary and might earn near $50,000 in some cases with aggressive bidding, trip trades, et cetera. A captain will usually start at around $50,000, and after 15 years or so, he or she can make $100,000. In the future, these individuals will be rare, as most pilots will be moving on well before 15 years of service. However, a $70,000 to $80,000 income is not unrealistic.

Trip: Everyone has an opinion on this, but a large number of the trips are three or four days, with as few as one leg per day, and as many as five. Before FAR 117 went into effect, seven-leg days were not uncommon. Layovers will average 12 to 14 hours, with some much longer and a few shorter. Again, FAR 117 has done much to improve this, requiring crews to have an opportunity to get at least eight hours of sleep, versus the old days in which pilots might have eight hours “free from duty,” which could mean only four to five hours of sleep.

Commute: No commute is good, but some commutes are better than others. If you feel like you just can’t live in base, the best commutes are one-leg commutes. Two- or three-leg commutes are much more time-consuming, very stressful, and no fun. A good commute has a number of options for flights, not just one or two a day. Ideally, there will be some very early flights and some very late flights, both going to work and coming home. One thing I discovered is that a commute that is short enough to leave driving as an option is both good and bad, because you know you can drive if you need to, but you find yourself doing it more than you’d like.

Work rule: The airlines are a union-heavy industry, and all but a few have union contracts. Those contracts spell out the various rules by which the company can utilize the personnel without abusing the personnel, while also giving the company the freedom it needs to move metal. From a pilot perspective, a good work rule is one that ensures you’re getting paid to be at the airport. Believe it or not, there are times when pilots are at the airport not getting paid; in fact, most of the airport time is unpaid. The more you’re paid when at the airport, the more time off you have.

There are a lot of issues that a pilot needs to consider when looking for a job, be it a first job at a regional or a move up the ladder to a major or a cargo carrier. These are but a drop in the bucket of things to consider, and as your knowledge base expands, you’ll learn to understand and ask about far more complicated subjects. This, however, is a place to start.—Chip Wright