Posts Tagged ‘airline pilots’

Wearing your uniform in public

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

womens-pilot-shirts-MZAny pilot or flight attendant will tell you that being in uniform—especially at an airport—can be a trying experience.

Airports, especially mega-plexes, can be confusing and disorienting places, and travelers will look for anyone who remotely looks like they know—well, anything. And the pilot uniform  is a magnet for attention, some of it not so positive.

The most common question is usually along the lines of finding gates or baggage claim. Somehow, this always seems to occur whilst standing right under a sign for the wanted location, but hey, who’s checking? In larger airports with international flights, the uniform becomes a sort of universal sign of someone who might be able to help, especially if the person asking is in a bit of a panic.

Some of the questions are technical, wanting to know how or why things happen the way they do, either on the ground or in the air. These are fairly simple to answer, and often they are actually fun conversations.

But the most difficult situation to deal with is the individual (or worse, a group) who approaches and starts to berate you because of a travel experience that has not gone smoothly. If the red face and flying spit don’t give it away, the opening line of “Your company sucks” usually does.

My advice is to let the person vent for a bit, and, if necessary, ask a question or two that will help narrow down the area of complaint. At that point, you might be able to offer the appropriate words of consolation and help. In my experience, I find that when conversations start this way, it’s because of a lack of information provided to the customer (or the customer was not around when the information was disseminated). Sometimes you’re simply not going to be able to help, and the best you can do is to offer some empathy.

Another tack might be to get as much information as possible, and then walk with the customer to a gate or service counter and explain in succinct terms what the individual needs.

Oddly enough, it seems like passengers also have a hard time believing that we are not intimately familiar with everything. More than once, I’ve been asked questions about a particular airport or city, and folks are surprised to learn that it might be my first visit there as well. When it’s a hub airport, they are even more incredulous, but all I can do is politely explain the situation and try to help as best I can.

The most important thing to remember when wearing in your uniform in public is that from the minute you walk out your door to the minute you walk back in, you are a representative of your company, and, on a larger scale, your industry. This is true of any uniform, but it bears repeating, because the airlines are an industry that everyone loves to hate.

Remember, your uniform is a great way to both show off and smooth out some ruffled feathers. Use that to your advantage. Realize as well that some will make note of your name from your ID or name tag. If they are going to write the company about their exchange with you, do what you can to make it a positive communication. Whether you like it or not, you become who your uniform says you are, no matter where you are.—Chip Wright

Can you prepare for class?

Monday, November 9th, 2015

It’s one thing to hear the training is like drinking from a fire hose, but it’s another to actually live that. What can you do to make the transition easier?

Most airlines do almost nothing to provide materials that you can study in advance. At a carrier where your equipment won’t be decided until you get to class and bid on it, this carries slightly more logic (but not much more). At carriers where the equipment is a foregone conclusion, it doesn’t make much sense at all. There is certainly material that could be provided to you for study that won’t violate security-sensitive rules established in the wake of September 11, 2001.

But, since that information from your future employer won’t be coming, you are on your own. If you are indeed going to a company where the equipment is already known, you can try to get your hands on the memory items and limitations that you will be expected to memorize. If you have a friend at that carrier, great. If not, find one.

Another thing you can start learning are some of the complex weather rules. While many of these don’t change from one carrier to the next, every airline has certain rules that are specific to that carrier. Alternatively, not every carrier is able to get all of the various exemptions, so what is in effect at one won’t necessarily be at another. Unless you can get the actual information from someone currently employed there, don’t assume that anything generic will work.

Airplane systems are usually fairly consistent, but every airline teaches them differently. Airline A may put a lot of emphasis on one system that Airline B appears to gloss over. Further, there can be differences based on certain avionics and/or engine packages. Again, if it doesn’t come from the source, be careful. Most of the major systems, such as flight controls, pressurization, fire suppression, and hydraulic will be the same from one carrier to the next for a given fleet, but instead of committing a lot of information to memory, concentrate instead on a more superficial familiarity that will make it easier to absorb the details later.

Even if the systems are consistent, the operational philosophies will vary from one carrier to another. For example, I flew the CRJ for 14 years, and I sat on the jump seat of several carriers that also flew it. At Comair, walking away from the airplane with the auxiliary power unit running was to risk your job. At another carrier, this was standard practice. On the other hand, we had much more lenient restrictions on taking off with the brakes above a certain temperature than a different carrier I rode on did. None was “wrong”; we all just did it differently.

If you can get current information about your soon-to-be employer, the best way to prepare for class is to stick with memory items and limitations and weather policies, and perhaps a general understanding of FAR 117. Everything else will fall into place later. More accurately, it will come from the fire hose later.—Chip Wright

Career progression

Friday, October 9th, 2015

Career progression. It’s a huge point of discussion among pilots. But what is it, and what exactly does it mean? It depends on the carrier.

At an airline like Southwest or Alaska, which only flies one kind of airplane, career progression means something entirely different than it does at a carrier that flies multiple fleets. The same principle holds true at the regionals.

At a carrier like Delta or FedEx, career progression generally refers to movement both up the seniority list and up the pay scale. Most airlines pay the same rate for new hires, no matter what equipment they fly. But from Year 2 on, pay usually reflects the size of the airplane, given that larger airplanes produce more revenue, and hence can pay more.

Pilots generally want to maximize salary first, with schedules and quality of life following in importance. In order for that to happen, a couple of pieces need to fall into place.

First, retirement of more senior pilots has to occur in order to open up positions on larger equipment. Second, hiring needs to occur. More specifically, there can’t be any shrinkage or stagnation of the pilot group as those retirements take place. Third, overall fleet growth can significantly help. This is a key part of the equation at single-fleet airlines, because a first officer can become a captain simply by virtue of growth—even if the seniority list consists of relatively young pilots.

This is how I was able to become a captain at Comair in less than three years. In fact, over my 16 years there, I only moved up 500 total numbers because the average age was so low.

The last piece of the puzzle at a multi-fleet airline is the contractual freeze. Every airline incurs a freeze when you bid from one position to another in order to minimize training cycles and get a return on the investment of training you in a new airplane. Those freezes are generally two years, and usually there are substantial roadblocks to bidding backwards.

But not every airline works the same way with regard to pay. It’s becoming more common to have pay “bands,” in which groups of similarly sized aircraft pay the same. United pays the same on the 737, A320, and smaller 757 fleets. The 747, 777, 787, and A350 all pay the same as well. This is designed to take away the incentive to bid up based on pay, and  encourage the pilot to bid based on other factors, such as schedule or preferred domiciles. UPS is a prime example; it pays all captains and first officers the same rate no matter the equipment.

To use United as an example, the airline operates the A320, B737, 757/767, 747, 777, and 787, and will add the A350 in a couple of years. To fly all of them as a first officer while complying with the two-year freeze would take a minimum of 14 years.

But career progression is as much choice and preference as anything else. Most pilots want to fly the best schedule their seniority can hold in the domicile that best suits them—which might be because they live there or because it makes for the easiest commute. There are almost always opportunities to make extra pay that can often make up for the difference in the pay rates from one airplane to another, so pilots will bid fairly selectively. It’s not uncommon to see a first officer fly his or her first airplane for several years, then move on to a wide body for a couple years, with possibly a mid-range aircraft thrown in if the stars align. When the opportunity to fly as a captain comes up, the re-evaluation process starts over. As tempting as the money is, the schedule matters as well. Remember, seniority determines your domicile, the trips you can fly, and the weeks of vacation you can hold. Learning a new airplane is a stressful experience for any pilot, and the training process can be fairly lengthy, which affects the family life.

The same process holds at the regionals. The difference, however, is that regional pilots  tend to bid much more aggressively because of the low first officer pay and because everyone is jockeying to get their pilot-in-command time to move on. Very few pilots go the regionals with the intention of staying.

Progression is an individual definition as much as anything. Often, being able to fly the schedule you want is more important than the increase in pay you might see on a larger airplane. But eventually, assuming your seniority can hold something bigger, the increase in pay becomes too much to ignore.—Chip Wright

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