Posts Tagged ‘airlines’

Wet is dry

Friday, September 6th, 2013

wet runwayAs you move into bigger and faster airplanes—especially jets—you need to become aware of things that didn’t necessarily matter as much before. There are new definitions that you need to learn. Besides the various V speeds—V1, V2, V-REF, et cetera—there are terms that probably didn’t really catch your attention before.

Take the runway, for instance. In the United States, most every airport that provides airline service has runways that are grooved. The grooves run perpendicular to the runway direction (that is, across the runway) and are evenly spaced from one end to the other. Further, whenever possible, there is a bit of a crown to the runway. The purpose of the grooves is to provide drainage and runoff for rain, snow, and deicing fluid that flows off aircraft upon takeoff.

This is need-to-know information for pilots, because performance data takes into account whether or not a runway is wet or dry, or if it has standing water. To add to the confusion as well as to the paychecks of the engineers, the standing water (and snow) categories are broken down into various depths, each succeeding level of which will further degrade the performance (read: payload) of the airplane.

What initially might catch you off guard is the seriousness with which these terms are defined. For instance, a runway that is grooved but has water on it is not necessarily wet. Depending on the airline and the aircraft manufacturer definitions, a wet runway may be defined as dry if it is grooved, and a runway that is physically dry is dry (you can’t make this stuff up). Generally speaking, if a grooved runway has water on it, it is considered wet only if the surface is reflective or if a certain percentage of the surface has standing water. Otherwise, it is considered damp or dry because the grooves carry away the water that might induce hydroplaning.

When it is raining hard enough that there is clearly standing water, performance numbers begin to suffer. There are three major concerns. The first is rejecting a takeoff without skidding or hydroplaning. The second is continuing a takeoff after an engine failure on a slick runway that is not only slick, but produces drag thanks to the puddles. The third is the use of reduced thrust. It is common for jet aircraft to take off at well less than full power, but in certain circumstances, full power is required. Contaminated surfaces are one of those circumstances.

As I mentioned, in the United States, this is rarely a problem. However, if you go to Canada or Mexico, most runways will not be grooved. This is also a common problem overseas. Don’t be lulled into a trap. Pay attention to the wet versus dry issue, and know when—and when not—to apply the various penalties.

It may not be the dictionary definition of the words as you know them, but you will learn that the industry and the FAA can be very specific in how words are used or defined.

In fact, I think they have a specific definition of “used…”—Chip Wright

Way back when…

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, things in the aviation training arena aren’t being done the way they used to be, especially at the airlines. In fact, in so many ways, this ain’t your Daddy’s airline world anymore.

Back in the day (there, I said it), training at an airline was done just like it was done in school. You would show up every day for a class that began at 8 a.m., and you would sit in a classroom while the teacher would lecture about the topics of the day. At night, you would go back to your hotel room and study your notes along with any books that you had been issued (usually an operations manual and/or a systems manual, along with a standards manual [basically, the “here’s-how-we-expect-you-to-operate-this-here-expensive-piece-of-machinery” book]).

You would study both alone and with a group. The next day, you would repeat the process, and at the end of the class(es), you would be administered some combination of written and oral exams. Simulator training would follow (prior to modern simulators, you would be trained in the actual airplane, usually in the middle of the night), and then a checkride, followed by training during line operations with passengers.

Nowadays, airlines have migrated towards more computer-based training (CBT) that is more self-directed, though with a schedule and a syllabus. JetBlue probably was the first U.S. carrier to embrace the CBT concept in full, since they did it very early on in their existence. Today, most carriers are moving toward some form of CBT for both initial and recurrent training. The bottom line, as you might imagine, is money. While there are claims that the newer training models have been scientifically tested, the process only works when it is properly implemented and used. Done wrong, I am convinced, it will do more harm than good.

There’s a lot to be said for the traditional classroom setting, especially with a good instructor that has actually flown the plane and not only knows the plane, but knows how to teach it. Personally, I liked the camaraderie that the classroom produced, and I liked having someone there who could explain things in English, especially when I felt like the only one who didn’t understand something.

But times have changed. Now, more and more airlines are going to the CBT model, in which the student is given a certain amount of time to go through all of the CBT modules. Online tests and quizzes verify a basic understanding of what has been learned (it’s very similar to modern online flight instructor refresher courses).

In a mature training program, the CBTs will mesh with what is being done in the simulators or fixed training devices. The advantage is obvious. The old 10-to-14-week training footprint can be reduced to eight or nine weeks, and for a crew that is familiar with the company but is just changing equipment, it can be pared down to six weeks. This represents a huge monetary savings for an airline, while improving the efficiency of the training program to get as many pilots through as possible. Given the huge hiring surge that is coming at the majors, they need all of the help they can get.

As a pilot, if CBT is not your forte, you can help yourself by taking advantage of the books, guides, and other resources available on just about any airplane you might fly. You don’t need to memorize the aircraft before you show up for class, but you can do yourself a huge favor by at least familiarizing yourself with some of the systems. If you aren’t sure which airplane you might fly, you might have to take a gamble or just wait until class.

No matter what, you will be dealing with the “firehose” of training, and if you aren’t prepared to work, and work hard, you will be sent home.—Chip Wright

It’s just a seat, right?

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

 Boeing_737_cockpitIt’s always funny when it happens to somebody else, but it isn’t so funny when it happens to me. And it’s especially not funny when I watch it happen to someone else and swear it won’t happen to me, only to find that it does.

Sometimes it seems like half of learning to fly a new airplane is just figuring out how to get in, get out, and plug in your headsets. Cars are built with certain standardization requirements that we can all count on: the gas pedal is on the right, the key goes on the right, and the gear shift on an automatic follows the same order of P, R, N, et cetera. The intention is that a person can easily transition from one car to another. Even when there are noticeable differences, it’s easy to navigate them.

Airplanes, on the other hand, do not always have such luxuries. I am currently going through training on my second new airliner in the past six months. In both cases, my training partners and I ran into some frustrations and difficulty with something as simple as getting the seats and rudder pedals situated. In a car, you can bet that the seat adjustment tools will either be a handle on the side or under the front of the seat. The handles are immediately recognizable, even if the seat is electric.

Worse still for pilots is the battle with muscle memory fighting not just the novelty of a new airplane, but often of a different seat, which might be left versus right, or an altogether new seat design. Years ago Bombardier introduced new cockpit seats for the CRJ series, and even with memos and photographs, pilots who had flown the aircraft for thousands of hours struggled at times to remember the location of the new handles. There we were: two pilots fumbling around, wiggling in place like we had ants in our pants, charged with flying a $20-million-plus airplane, equipped with two new seats that cost more than $15,000, with some of the best training money could buy, and we couldn’t even move the seats. We looked like idiots.

Every time I get in a new airplane, I vow that this isn’t going to be a problem. And every time, it is—at least just a little.

In my most recent adventures, the problem hasn’t been the airplane, but the training devices, one of which is a fixed-base, non-motion simulator with actual cockpit seats. The other is just a seat on rails, but each is different. Plus, we are taking turns flying left seat (normal for all of us) and right seat (not so much). Various manufacturers put the levers in different spots, and they don’t all work the same. Some have plunger handles and some don’t. Some have both. Some have lumbar supports. Some have lumbar supports that actually work. Some have switches—under the seat, of course—that adjust the flex in the front of the seat where your leg bends.

And it isn’t just the seats. I’ve run into the same problem with the headset jacks. Sometimes, if you don’t know where the jacks are, it feels like a scavenger hunt. Once you find them, their location seems obvious, but deep down you know it isn’t.

Even the rudder pedals are different. Some are electric, but most are manual. But some of the manual ones are a simple turn device. Some, like my new one, have a spring-loaded doohickey that you pull to release the turning thingy. It took me several lessons to figure that out, and it’s important information for me because I’m just barely tall enough to reach the ground.

I often think that the first lesson of any new airplane should be a 15-minute session just on getting in and out. It’s a simple task, but when you can’t do the simplest things, and you are already overwhelmed with what you need to learn, your frustrations are just compounded.

And then there are the different designs for the cockpit doors…—Chip Wright

Don’t assume

Friday, August 9th, 2013

I’ve been doing this aviation thing now for a long time. Twenty-two years, in fact. I may not always know what I don’t know, but I do know what I know. One thing I know is that I tend to take certain things for granted. In the airlines, there are certain industry standards in the way things are done, and having been part of the system now for nearly 17 years, I know that I can fly with a pilot from just about any airline, and we would be able to fly from A to B with much less stress and uncertainty than you would be inclined to think. Why? Because as a group, the airlines have adopted so many of the same procedures, policies, etc.

This was driven home to me recently while in training for my new job. Prior to the simulator events, which are four-hour sessions during which two pilots each fly for two hours, we were in fixed training devices (FTDs) for a single two-hour session per pair of pilots.

Four of us took the opportunity to watch each other in pairs. My partner and I came from different regional airlines, and although there were differences, we fell into an immediate pattern of doing things the way we always had. The similarities were stunning. The real learning was learning the new airplane and company specifics, not the generalities.

Compare that to the two pilots that we were splitting time with. Both were ex-military, and one had flown very little time in crewed aircraft (he flew a lot of fighters). Neither was at all familiar with Jeppessen charts, which may not sound like a big deal, but to a pilot who has not been exposed to them, it can be very frustrating trying to find a chart for Houston Intercontinental but not realizing that you are looking at Houston Hobby. Everything about Jepps is different from government charts.

There were other challenges as well. The checklist procedures and protocols were different, as was the compressed time schedule. While the military has schedules and can be in a frenetic pace during combat operations, the airlines run on a schedule that is often cast in stone, and minutes lost equal money lost. Profit is critical, and the effects down the line of running late are drilled into your head early in the game. Safety is never sacrificed, but in the back of your head, you know that someone is watching to see if you will be on time.

We all had to learn some new ways of doing things, but I had forgotten just how much I take for granted simply because I have lived this life for so long. I know, for example, that there are certain certification standards that drive designs, and often times the same part is used in multiple models of aircraft (ice detectors are a good example). Emergency equipment (and its location) is mostly homogenized with some exceptions for over-water flying. Radio techniques and practices are well established.

The two pilots in question both adapted quickly and well, and they will be assimilated into the ranks in short order. But it was still interesting to watch them have to pick up so much information that my partner and I just…well, had. They commented a couple of times about it, and picked our brains for little stuff. Our goal was to make them realize that there are no dumb questions, and I believe we succeeded. I’m glad that my foundation was already set, as I had enough to worry about for myself.

Some lessons in life are worth reinforcing, and in this case, it’s simple: Don’t assume that we all have the same foundation, and offer what help you can.—Chip Wright

Testing positive

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

Just a couple of days ago, my wife and I watched Flight, the Denzel Washington movie about a pilot who performs a heroic feat to save a planeload of passengers only to lose his career to his drug and alcohol addictions. Without getting into the issue of whether or not a crew could have pulled off the scene of upside-down flying to save the day, I’ll address the addiction issue. Specifically, is it possible that someone could get away with this problem for as long as Whip Whitaker did? And happens if they are caught?

Flight_film_posterLet me start with the premise of drug testing. Every employee of an airline that might have any contact with security situations is subject to drug testing as a new hire. It’s unavoidable. The FAA requires that companies thereafter randomly sample 25 percent of the qualifying employees on an annual basis, and it has to be done throughout the system. In other words, Delta cannot just target its Atlanta employees, and JetBlue cannot just target its JFK employees to save on travel expenses for the testers. The drugs that are tested are of the illegal street variety, as well as alcohol.

In a large company, it’s possible to go years without getting tested. When I was with Comair, I got tested once in my first 12 years, and that was for my new-hire screening. Then, one day, I pulled into the gate in Cincinnati at the end of a trip, and a young lady with a clipboard was waiting for us. Having seen this scene before, I knew one of us was getting a “wizz quiz.” As I shut down the airplane,  she looked at me, smiled, and pointed at me. Fortunately, I was already set to “produce,” or as Forrest Gump would say, “I gotta pee!”

It’s important to understand that refusal is not an option. In fact, it’s viewed as an admission of guilt.

As the company shrank over the next several years, I was selected by the computer for two more tests (that I remember). Simply put, the fewer employees, the greater the chance you will be tagged for a test.

What the movie Flight doesn’t address is how Whitaker didn’t get tested or caught before the accident. Further, there is a scene in which he is shown sneaking vodka bottles and pouring them into his orange juice. On an airplane with first class passengers, this is easier to get away with because the flight attendants can just record the drinks as having been “comped” to a first class frequent flyer. In a single class operation such as we had at Comair, getting away with this would have been much harder. Not impossible, but harder.

The next question is, what if an employee knows he or she is about to get caught? I can’t speak for every company or all of the various employee groups, but generally speaking for pilots, there is a chance to come clean before the test. If you are on any prescription drugs that might cause an issue, disclosure is the best option. If you have used illicit drugs or alcohol, you should openly acknowledge that as well, and follow whatever union protocols are in place. You will still get in trouble—possibly severe—but you will also be more likely to have a chance to enter a rehabilitation program.

The Human Intervention Monitoring System (HIMS) program is a nationally recognized substance and alcohol abuse program that allows pilots with addictions to seek the help they need. I’ve known several pilots who successfully recovered from their drinking problems to return to the cockpit (a process than can take several years). I’ve also known of more than a few pilots at several airlines who showed up under the influence of something, denied it, and got caught. They were let go immediately, and their careers were over. And don’t forget, those drug tests follow you to any number of jobs you might want.

As a point of how much compassion a company can show toward its employees, we had a few pilots who were in rehab during the strike in 2001. While the company had discontinued insurance for the pilots, the ones in rehab were still covered. As one of our senior managers said at the time, “We’re talking about lives here.” The rest of us understood.

Whitaker’s character at some point would have been tested. He would have had the option to come clean. If he hadn’t, he would have tested positive, and his airline would likely have terminated him. In his case, the FAA still would have likely suspended or revoked his certificates, and he may still have been prosecuted and imprisoned for reckless endangerment, flying drunk, and general stupidity. As an aside, the movie never addresses why the first officer, who later acknowledged that Whitaker “reeked,” didn’t face repercussions either. In reality, he probably would have.

The moral of this post is this: If you need help, get it; if you know someone who needs help, find out how to help them get it; and if you are on an airplane with a pilot who clearly is not well, deal with it immediately.—By Chip Wright

Diaries of an interviewee

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

People ask me all the time how to get ready for an interview with an airline, and how to do well in an interview. There are two pieces of advice that I frequently offer, and in many cases the advice applies to non-aviation interviews as well.

diary250First, keep a diary. If you are interested in an airline job, do a search online for common questions. Most of them fall into the category of “Tell me about a time…” Also called TMAAT, these questions are just that: relaying a time that you had to deal with a given situation. For those going into their first airline job, you can substitute the opener with “What would you do if…./How would you handle….” You may be surprised at how many other experiences relate to this besides flying.

The best way to avoid coming up empty-handed is to keep a diary. Download the list of questions and start answering them on paper as best you can. If you don’t have a story, then wait. At some point, you probably will. There are only a few questions that you don’t want to have an answer for. For example, if an interviewer asks if your integrity has ever been questioned, the best answer to have is a solid “No.” That isn’t to say that you’ll never have disagreements (you will), but you don’t want your motives or character questioned.

Another reason to keep the diary is to make sure that you have stories that span a long period of time. You don’t want be stuck with a bunch of stories that took place in a six-month window, and it isn’t worth risking a lie to make it sound better. As events happen, write them down with dates, places, and names. You can with-hold the names in the interview (and you should, or refer to everyone as John Doe). Also, know where to find the entries in your logbook that correspond to the stories.

The second piece of advice that gets mentioned by me and ignored by others is to pay for professional interview preparation. Most people don’t realize that they make certain mistakes when they speak, whether grammatical, speaking too softly, or using “um,” “ah,” or the dreaded “like” too, like, often like. A professional will help you polish up your answers, put them in a coherent order, and tell you how to emphasize your accomplishments without sounding like a braggart or an arrogant jerk.

Other common mistakes consist of answering questions that weren’t asked or giving too much information that may create doubt, or worse, a whole new series of questions that you had not anticipated.

A good, professional interview prep will cost a few hundred dollars, so prepare for it just as you would for an actual interview. Better still is if you can get it video recorded so that you can review your performance.

There is a lot of hiring going on now, and those that are best prepared will get the best jobs first. Who knows? Maybe the work you put into the interview will be a good story in your diary for the next job that you really covet.—Chip Wright

What do you bring to the table?

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Every airline pilot can fly—or at least it’s assumed that they can. When you are pursuing a job, the basic assumption is that you can aviate with a certain degree of competency, and that you are trainable. The real question for many interviewers is simple: What else do you bring to the table? What skills do you have? What problems can you help us solve?

Pilots are an amazing bunch of people. The wealth of talent and knowledge in other fields that I have seen in this industry never fails to amaze me. One young lady at Comair was not only going through the stress of new-hire training, but she also took the bar exam during training. I can’t imagine such a divergent set of demands on her time. I’ve known pilots who have been lawyers, pharmacists, insurance agents, and members of all kinds of music bands. Many are mechanics, and a lot own their own businesses outside of flying.

When you are interviewing for any flying job, be it for an airline or a corporation or a sky-diving job, don’t hesitate to mention your other skills and attributes. Often, that kind of flexibility will pay off, and it may be just what the employer is looking for. In fact, the smaller the company, the more important it is for you to be a jack-of-all-trades. A great example is AOPA. Not all of the employees are pilots, but all of the pilots can do more than fly.

If you get hired by a regional but aspire to a major, one of the best things you can do is to get involved in other “stuff.” There are usually all kinds of arenas you can dive into. You might help in the training department with rewriting or doing initial writing of material; safety departments need all kinds of inputs; ASAP and FOQA programs need people to do data analysis, interviews, and interfacing with other airlines. The list goes on. You should fly as much as you can, because if you want to get to a major, you’ll need to average at least 200 to 300 hours a year, but you can still make a meaningful contribution outside of the cockpit.

Another area where you can volunteer is with the pilots’ union. Much of what the union does mirrors the company structure, especially in safety and training, and airlines and the unions often work hand in hand on major initiatives. Depending on the position you volunteer for, the union may pay for advanced training in such areas as accident investigation or aeromedical services. All of these will round you out as an individual and make your resume shine. Further, you will be marketable as more than a pilot. I know of two that were union safety volunteers that went on to work for the NTSB. Another got a prestigious job with Boeing, and yet another went to the MITRE Corporation. And, of course, many realized their dreams and went on to fly at the majors.

Ask yourself what you bring to the table that someone else doesn’t. If the answer is not as fulfilling as you’d like it to be, start working on changing that. You can focus on aviation or non-aviation pursuits and interests, but the big thing is to just get started. To borrow from the old Army ad campaign, you need to be all you can be, and that does not just mean as a pilot.—Chip Wright

Diversions and aeronautical decision making

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Aeronautical decision making (ADM) first began to appear in the training lexicon in a heavy fashion in the mid-1990s. It was always “there,” but it wasn’t necessarily a separate subject. Instructors were expected to simply incorporate the decision-making process into each lesson whenever and wherever possible. This sounds great on paper, and at times it even seems logical, but the reality is that the old adage that says that the airplane is a terrible classroom exists for a reason.

Dealing with diversions is a subject in the decision-making process for which a formal classroom session has always made sense. Diversions can take two broad forms in flight. The first is a change in the route but with no change in the destination. The second is a change in the final destination. The first is far more common, but the second is usually more significant. After all, if you are flying to Baltimore and have to divert to Frederick  because of weather, you have new set of problems on your hands. Just as with any other aspect of your life, the impact of such a significant change in plans can make you more resistant to executing the change in the first place.

At the airlines, the decision is often a bit easier, because the rules are so cut and dried. But that doesn’t change the fact that pilots generally are can-do people, and when other people are counting on you, you don’t want to disappoint them.
But one area in which diversions at the airlines are so different is the level of communication. I bring all of this up because more airlines are using ADM scenarios as part of the interview process. You are placed in a hypothetical but fairly realistic scenario in which something goes wrong, and you have to make a decision. Sometimes, the basic diversion decision is easy (“the airport is closed, so you will be diverting”) and sometimes it isn’t (“something smells bad in the cabin, but I don’t if it’s burned food or worse”).

The pressure is ratcheted up in some other fashion that will force you to make a decision quickly. Southwest and United airlines both give you a seven-minute window in which to assess the problem, evaluate the options, and come up with a solution. In some of the scenarios, you are short on fuel. In some, weather is a major factor. In others, it’s the ambiguity of the problem. But in all of them, the goal is to see you make a decision and stick with it.

At the airlines, you need to communicate with multiple entities, and this is where the two-person crew comes in handy. Someone needs to talk to air traffic control, while someone else handles everything else. In the real world, the first officer usually handles ATC and the captain does what he gets paid to do. If you are in an interview, make yourself familiar with what airports that airline serves. You don’t need to commit them to memory, but have a general idea, because in the ADM scenario you will likely be using them.

So, who needs your attention? Assuming that you are not given a major catastrophe like a fire or a flight control failure, you need to talk the flight attendant(s) first, if for no other reason to tell them that there has been a change in plans and that you will get back to them shortly. That phone call should take less than 15 seconds.

Next you need to talk to the dispatcher, who is jointly responsible for your airplane and flight. The dispatcher can give you up-to-the-minute weather at your possible alternates as well as any notices to airmen you may need. He or she can also save you a radio call by contacting the two stations involved and letting them know your change in plans (hint: If the person playing the role of the dispatcher doesn’t offer this service, ask for it). If the dispatcher can’t (or won’t) call the station to which you are diverting, then you need to call (this may be thrown at you in one of the timed sequences). Cover your bases as well by telling the dispatcher that you will call once on the ground to clean up any loose ends.
If maintenance needs to be consulted, do it via dispatch, since the dispatcher needs to know of any issues that may affect performance.

Next, you need to advise ATC what you are doing. If critical fuel is going to play a part in the scenario, it will usually be included in the briefing. If it is, you need to remember to declare either minimum fuel or an emergency as the case may be.

Once ATC is in the loop, somebody needs to brief the flight attendants and the passengers. If the diversion point is extremely close, say Miami to Fort Lauderdale, then you may want to ask the flight attendant to notify the passengers, and to tell them you will provide more information on the ground.

Once you have operated in the airlines, and especially as a captain, you realize that the scenarios are really the same thing you do every day. As someone new to the industry, you need to show that you have some idea of how the system works—and it’s very similar from one company to the next.

ADM is a critical part of any pilot’s aviating career, and for those looking to go to the airlines or advance up the ladder, it becomes a bigger and bigger part each step of the way. Start mastering it early, and remember, conservative is always better.—Chip Wright

Can the first officer cancel the flight?

Monday, April 29th, 2013

When it comes to air travel, one of the great misconceptions is the belief that a pilot will make a conscious decision to call up his company and just cancel a flight because of something that he decides makes it unsafe to fly. It almost never happens this way.

airline dispatcher femaleAt the airlines, there are two parties who are responsible for a flight. The first is the captain (“pilot in command”), and the other is the dispatcher. The final authority is clearly left to the captain. The federal aviation regulations make that abundantly clear, and every airline does as well. However, at the airlines a dispatcher is equally responsible for the flight, as it is the dispatcher who actually puts together the flight plan, plans the route, and computes the fuel required. The dispatcher usually begins working on a flight anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes before departure. The captain may well be still asleep, or inbound on another flight, or on the way to work.

When circumstances begin to conspire against operating the flight according to the usual parameters, it becomes a team effort to figure out what the alternative is going to be. The dispatcher usually has a bigger-picture view than the captain, because he or she has access to more sources of weather (even though smartphone technology is rapidly changing that), and because the dispatcher also has at hand the planned maintenance schedule for the airplane. Further, as stated above, the dispatcher may have more information about minimum equipment list (MEL) issues than the captain does. The MEL will dictate items on the airplane that can be inoperative during regular operations, and if there is a performance penalty, it will stipulate that as well. For example, most jets are only allowed to operate at 25,000 feet if one of the air-conditioning packs is deferred. This is a fairly low altitude for jets, and it means a higher fuel burn, which could affect range and payload. It may also make it difficult to avoid certain weather.

When weather or mechanical issues can affect a flight, the captain and the dispatcher will frequently work together to come up with an acceptable Plan B. This is important because both are required to sign the flight release, and it includes a statement that the flight may be conducted safely as planned.

But what about the first officer (FO)? How much say-so does the second-in-command have? At times, it may be more than you think.

While the captain is the one who technically holds all the cards and is the only pilot required to sign the release, there are times when an FO can influence the outcome. Weather is an obvious example. If the FO feels that the weather is just too risky, he can say that he isn’t willing to take it. He may be able to speak first hand, such as if he just flew through said weather.

Mechanical issues can crop up as well. Maybe the FO has found something on the walk-around that she knows isn’t right. She can refuse to go anywhere until a mechanic has a chance to offer a second opinion. I know of a fellow who once refused to fly a flight because his seat was broken….and when I say broken, it was as though the seat’s support unit had a hole the size of a toilet seat in it. When he sat down, it was painful on his back and his legs. To his great surprise, the broken part was deferrable (the fact that it was deferrable is a testament to how rarely it broke), and the mechanics wanted to avoid the 30-minute delay that would ensue if they changed out the seat.

The mechanics left the decision to the captain, who in turn left it to the FO. After all, he was the one who had to sit on the seat for a two-hour flight. The mechanics made a vague threat to call the chief pilot, and the FO responded by handing the mechanic his phone; the mechanics backed down, and the seat was eventually changed.

It turned out that one of the issues was that cockpit seats on this airplane are well north of $10,000, so spares are not often kept. The mechanics were forced to take one out of an airplane that was an operational spare, meaning that the spare airplane was now out of service.

Had the issue been pressed, the FO would have been well within his rights to refuse the seat, and the flight likely would have cancelled.

It’s rare that a pilot directly makes the call of, “I’m cancelling the flight.” But it can happen, and it does happen. And yes, the FO can make that call, and he can do so by simply walking off the airplane. As long as it is a well-defined and safety-related reason, he should have nothing to worry about.—By Chip Wright

A collective personality

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Airlines, like many other organizations, consist of groups and subgroups. While seniority is the rule—marking forever your place within the corporate structure—there are other markers of your place in the pecking order. One of them is your new-hire class. Among pilots and flight attendants, initial training is something that, even years later, remains crystal clear in so many ways.

The typical class has anywhere from 10 to 30 pilots (it’s almost always an even number so that the time in the simulator is more easily scheduled). Over the six- to 10-week period that a class is together, a certain bonding takes place. After all, most of you will be staying the same hotel, and you will be cooped up in the same classroom for eight to 10 hours a day, after which you will study in pairs or in small groups or even in full classes for a nother four to five hours a night. You will spend your weekends together both at work and at leisure, and in very short order you will get to know much about each other. The natural leaders will emerge, and the ones who need extra help will get it. More than a few have married classmates.

Much of how a class developes its collective personality is determined by the instructor. A good one will crack the whip early on and take control, then relax a bit once he knows everyone is on board. Most ground school instructors are easy to get along with and are well-liked. More importantly, they like what they are doing, which makes your experience easier to endure. The instructor then becomes a part of the group. Unfortunately, on occasion the instructor can be reviled and hated, thus bonding the group in another way.

I’ve flown with pilots who have been with a company for decades, and they still recall their new-hire class in great detail and with great memories. In fact, more than one has told me that they stayed on because a close friend from their class was still with the company. Most pilots and flight attendants keep close tabs on who has left versus who is left, and those who have left often become the contact point to get the next job. That’s just how the industry works.

comair_largeIn my new-hire class at Comair in 1996, we started with 14, and when the airline shut down in 2012, only three of us were left from that class. even our instructor had moved on. Interestingly enough, I was able to fly with one of them, as he delayed his upgrade while I took one early on. That’s unusual, but it does happen. Today, I consider him an important friend whose advice and counsel I often seek. He’s the kind of guy I hope one of my daughters will eventually marry.

In another odd coincidence, the three remaining from my class all became check airmen—two of us in the airplane and another in the sim. That, too, is unusual, and for me, it’s a source of pride.

At my new job, one of my classmates was another former Comair pilot whom I used to fly with regularly. SHe’s one of the best pure pilots I’ve ever known, and she too is a dear friend. We were sim partners, and one reason we chose each other was that not only are we comfortable together and with taking criticism from each other, but it was also more than likely the last time we will ever fly together.

But our class was a good one, and while we had some rough patches, we had a definite cohesion, and many of us will be in touch with each other for years to come—not out of necessity, but out of friendship. Likewise with our ground school instructor, who became the butt of many of our jokes, and was just as good at dishing it out.

New-hire classes are fraternities in a way. They represent great potential and opportunity for both the members and the airline. It is up to you to realize that potential.—Chip Wright