Posts Tagged ‘airlines’

Acing the oral

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

pass_fail1Pilots generally tend to dislike sitting through an oral exam. It doesn’t matter if it’s for the private pilot certificate, the instrument rating, or the airline transport pilot certificate. Orals are often viewed with trepidation and fear, because it seems like everything is open season. Throw on top of that an oral that is specific to a given airplane, and it is easy to understand why it can be so overwhelming.

Here’s something that you need to remember: if you are going for a new level on your certificate, such as private to commercial or commercial to ATP, then yes, everything can be fair game. This is especially true when you are being evaluated as an ATP. The FAA rightfully views the ATP as the Ph.D. of flying. You are supposed to be a true expert, and because you can be held accountable in any accident—even if you are not technically the PIC—you are expected to know your stuff. The Aeronautical Information Manual, weather, the federal aviation regulations, your airplane…you name, you need to know it.

However, if you are going for a new rating, such as an instrument rating or multiengine rating, then you are only supposed to be evaluated on the material that pertains to the rating. This does ratchet up the pressure if you are combining the two, such as the candidate who is going from single engine private to multiengine commercial with an instrument rating.

At the airlines, the oral takes on a new dimension because you can expect to be asked about applicable company procedures, policies, and the FARs. However, you can expect to spend most of your time discussing the systems of the airplane you will be flying (especially as a new hire or as a pilot learning new equipment). So, how do you prepare?

One of the most effective ways to study is to learn to teach each system to someone else, such as a spouse or a parent. If the person is a nonpilot, it may even be better, because if forces you to break the material into chunks that they can understand. If they understand the system after you explain it, then you know that you understand the system.

Another way to really master new material is to study with your class as a group, asking each other questions and dreaming up various scenarios along the lines of, “If this breaks, then how does it affect that?” Every class usually has someone who needs a little extra help, and there will probably be a system or two that you do not understand as well as you’d like. If you can spend time with the person that needs help and get them up to par, you know you understand the system. Likewise, if you are weak on, say, pressurization, try to explain what you do comprehend to another student who is comfortable with it, and see if you can’t fill in the gaps.

When you take the oral, approach it as though you are teaching the examiner. If you can break the meat-and-potatoes down into a few sentences, then you will probably make the impression that you want to make. Be assertive, and be confidant. Answering with the tone of voice that sounds like a question will only invite more scrutiny.

An oral is often what you make it. It is difficult to properly convey just how important the oral is, and it is difficult to bring across how much preparation time is involved, especially at the airlines. But, if you the student can become the teacher, you are well on your way to a successful exam.—Chip Wright

Climb segments

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

In the airline world, there are a number of new rules, limits, and terms a pilot needs to learn. One area in which a new understanding needs to be had is in the takeoff.

Gone are the days when, as a general aviation pilot, you can just eyeball the runway, the load, the airplane, measure the wind with your thumb, and go for it. When you are flying passengers and cargo for hire, you need to be able to comply with the segmented climb. Specifically—-and this is key—-you need to be able to meet the climb requirements on a single engine (assuming you are flying a twin-engine jet) as a result of an engine failure at V1 [takeoff decision speed, but a beyond the scope of this post]. It is assumed that you will meet all the requirements if every engine is running.

The first segment is short—it ends when the airplane is airborne and the gear is retracted. Not partially retracted, but fully up-and-locked retracted. The airspeed must be up to V2, commonly known as “takeoff safety speed,” but in technical terms, the speed for best climb gradient.

The second segment requirement is often the most difficult one to meet. Segment two begins when the gear is up and locked and the speed is V2. This segment has the steepest climb gradient: 2.4 percent. This equates to a ballpark figure of around 300 feet per minute, and for a heavy airplane on a hot day with a failed engine, this can be a challenge. Often, when the airlines announce that a flight is weight-limited on hot summer days, this is the reason (the gate agent doesn’t know this kind of detail, and nor does she care; she just knows some people aren’t going).

The magic computers we use for computing performance data figure all this out, saving us the trouble of using charts and graphs. All we know is that we can either carry the planned load or we can’t.

Second segment climb ends at 400 feet, so it could take up to a minute or more to fly this segment. Think of all the obstacles that might be in the departure path in the course of 60 seconds or more.

Third segment climb begins at 400 feet, and here the rules can vary. The climb gradient is now half of what it was before: 1.2 percent. However, we are also required to accelerate to a speed called VFS (final segment climb speed). In graphs and publications, the third segment of the climb is often depicted as being a flat line for the acceleration. In many turboprops, that’s exactly the way it’s flown. The airplane is leveled off (and the pilot is using a very tired leg to overcome the increasing yaw tendency via the rudder) and accelerated before the final climb begins.

In jets, however, there is generally enough power in the remaining engine to avoid a level-off. If the airplane can continue to accelerate during the third segment, it may continue to climb, so long as it can do so without a decrease in speed or performance. In fact, during the climb it must continue to meet the climb gradient while accelerating to VFS.

Third segment climb ends upon reaching VFS.

The fourth and “final segment” begins upon reaching VFS and completing the climb configuration process. It is now permissible (and maybe necessary) to reduce thrust to a Maximum Continuous setting. The climb gradient is again 1.2 percent, and VFS must be maintained to 1,500 feet above field elevation.

V1 cuts and single-engine climbs are a staple of turboprop and jet training. It is critical that a pilot of such equipment understand what the objective is when it comes to performing the maneuver, and why the requirements are what they are. This material is taught in much greater detail in ground school than I presented here. In fact, there may be a few deviations and exceptions to the above, as this is a general introduction (there are, like many things in aviation, always caveats, so bear that in mind).

Some pilots dread V1 cuts, but the best way to approach them is to take them as a challenge and constantly push yourself to master them and excel in your performance.

Climb safely!—Chip Wright

Exemption 3585

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

If the airlines didn’t fly every time the weather was less than ideal, they’d never fly. As a result, technology and rules are in place to maximize efficiency and opportunity while minimizing risks. One example lies in getting airplanes off the gate when the weather at the destination is forecast to be below minimums.

Like everyone else, the standard IFR 1-2-3 rule applies: If the weather at the destination from one hour before to one hour after the ETA is forecast to be less than 2,000 feet and three miles, an alternate is required. This is no big deal, obviously, and many of us have left with the weather forecast to be right at the minimums for the approach.

However, sometimes the forecast calls for a possibility of weather that is going to be temporarily below the landing minimums. In FAA weather lingo, we call this “conditional phrases,” and they consist of BCMG, PROB, and TEMPO. For example, the main body of the forecast may have the visibility at one-half mile, but a TEMPO phrase may show a possible drop to on-quarter mile at the ETA.

When this happens, the airlines that have been granted approval to do so can use what is called Exemption 3585. Under the terms of the exemption, the flight will be required to have not one, but two alternates. Further, the method used to determine the alternates is changed as well.

Remember, the airlines do not use the 600-2 and 800-2 rules that GA use for determining the suitability of an alternate; the rules for determining a Part 121 alternate are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say, it’s possible that an airport could be an alternate as long as the forecast is calling for weather of at least 400 feet and one mile.

Under Exemption 3585, the forecast (again, we can use conditional phrases) at the ETA for the first alternate must call for a forecast of no worse than one-half the visibility and ceiling required for the approach. In our example of a 400 and one, the weather at the first alternate can’t be forecast to be less than 200 and one-half.

Looking ahead to the second alternate, the FAA has a pretty simple criteria: This one must be essentially a sure thing. The forecast for the second alternate can also utilize conditional phrases. However, this time, the forecast must call for weather—even with conditional phrases—that equal the ceiling and visibility that can be used for the approach. No reductions are allowed. In essence, if the conditional phrases must have such good weather, it stands to reason that the main body is going to be for nearly VFR conditions.

There is one other option: Category 2 approaches. CAT II approaches can be flown with a runway visibility range (RVR)  reading of 1,200 feet—that is, one-quarter mile of visibility. Such approaches are a pretty hair-raising experience. However, CAT II approaches are a significant investment because of the maintenance requirements for the airplanes, and if the airline does not have a great deal of diversions in a calendar year caused by low visibility, CAT II isn’t worth the cost. Exemption 3585 does the trick.

This is a fairly simple explanation, and the variety of possibilities can get complex and tricky, but Exemption 3585—sort of a poor man’s CAT II that was originally put together for People Express—is an indispensible tool, and if you should ever be hired by a regional, you will spend a lot of time in training dissecting Exemption 3585.

The sad thing is that while you while you will spend hours learning 3585, you will rarely use it. In 16 years of airline flying, I have taken full advantage of 3585 fewer than a dozen times. Category II on the other hand….—Chip Wright

Projecting a professional image

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

As you prepare for your interview, one of the first things you will undoubtedly do is get your best suit cleaned and pressed, get a haircut, and do whatever else you need to do to present your best appearance. And these are things that you should definitely do.

But have you thought about what you are going to do once you get the job? As you prepare to fly to your interview, pay attention as you walk through the airport or sit in a restaurant or the boarding area. Pay attention to the employees. Look at them as a customer, and look at them as though you were a supervisor.

The unpleasant truth is that too many airline pilots and flight attendants have taken the liberty to stretch the acceptable limits of the dress code.

An easy example is the pilot hat. There are still many airlines that require a hat. Many pilots hate the hats, and you can tell by the fact that they either don’t wear one or keep it stuffed in their suitcases. The fact is, however, that if the hat is a part of the uniform, you are supposed to wear it.

It’s one thing to forget to grab it on the way out the door, so long as that only happens once in a blue moon. It’s something else entirely to just totally ignore it. Stuffing it into the back of the suitcase and only putting it on when the chief pilot is in the terminal is pretty silly. Further, you need to wear it properly. Personally, I don’t understand why any pilot would not wear a hat that they paid $50 to $70 for…but that’s just me.

There are other image issues that you can control. Wearing a clean shirt and pants is obvious, but some pilots will wear their uniforms until they turn to threads. Most companies provide a uniform maintenance allowance as a part of the pay, and you are expected to use that for dry cleaning, replacement pieces, et cetera. Well-cared-for pants will last several years, but shirts can take a beating (the polyester ones, though, last forever). The smart move is to always carry at least one extra shirt in your suitcase, and possibly a pair of pants.

Suitcases and flight kits are another issue. There are some who feel it’s almost a point of pride to walk around with a suitcase or a brain bag that is held together with duct tape and bailing wire. I can tell you from experience that there is little that is worse than having your luggage fall apart as you walk through the airport…on the first day of a four-day trip.

Luggage is one item that you don’t want to save money on. Get good, quality gear, and take care of it. When the zippers get worn, replace them. When the flaps get torn, have them fixed. When a wheel goes bad, put on a new one. Fortunately, with the major luggage brand that pilots use, many of the repairs can be done yourself, and it’s easy to get a loaner to send yours in for repairs.

And for the record, backpacks are not a part of the uniform.

Last but not least is your jacket. More airlines are wearing leather jackets, and they’re great. They’re rugged, durable, comfortable, and they look good. The blazer is still common, especially in spring and fall. You need to maintain that as well and keep it clean. If the stripes—and this is true for the shirt epaulets as well—start to look worn or dirty, they should be replaced. I’ve always made it a point to replace my epaulets every year because the shoulder harnesses turn them black.

Getting to an airline takes an awfully big investment. You owe it to yourself and to your chosen profession to present the best image that you can. Remember, you may be in uniform looking like a slob and bump into a captain at Quizno’s who works for your dream airline—and he may be a recruiter or an interviewer.

If you don’t look like you care about your appearance, you will look like you don’t care about what job you have…or don’t have.

Oh, and keep your hair trimmed and neat.—Chip Wright

A brief explanation of the Whitlow Letter

Monday, February 4th, 2013

It is common practice to want to pick on the FAA, and often with good reason. However, there are times when the feds do something that is most definitely for the greater good. Most pilots, for example, are aware that in the wake of the Colgan crash in Buffalo, N.Y., the FAA has created new rest rules designed to make it easier for pilots to be adequately rested during their trips. This is a win-win for the companies (though, to hear them tell it, they will all go bankrupt), the pilots, and the traveling public.

But the real breakthrough for this came around 2000, when the FAA issued what is commonly called the “Whitlow Letter.” At that time, the standard practice at the airlines with regard to reserve pilots was to work under the assumption that if a pilot was on reserve, he was not technically on duty until he actually reported for an assignment. This meant that if a pilot woke up at 7 a.m. and went on reserve at noon for a reserve window of availability of 14 hours (which was, and still is, common practice), the company could call him up at the tail end of his window—2 a.m. in this case—and keep him on duty and flying until 4 p.m. the following afternoon. This pilot faced the possibility of being awake for 32 consecutive hours. No rational person would consider this to be safe.

Fortunately, one of those rational people was James Whitlow, then-chief counsel at the FAA. He was responding to a letter of inquiry from Rich Rubin, a captain at American Airlines who was requesting specific guidance on FAR duty and rest rules when he turned the industry on its ear.

Whitlow’s response was a body blow to the old practice, and it was met with fierce resistance by the Air Transport Association (ATA), the airline trade group. The ATA immediately went to court to try to get the interpretation thrown out; they lost. The new interpretation forced the airlines to consider the start of a reserve period to be the start of duty. In the example above, the pilot would start his reserve at noon and would be released from all duty at 2 a.m., even if he did not report to work until 6 in the evening. In practical terms, in many the duty day was also shortened by virtue of the fact that a pilot who is at home and gets called needs to have time to get to the airport, park, get through security, and check in. Common policy is a 90-minute report time window.

Further, Whitlow also said that in any given 24-hour period, a pilot needs to have at least eight hours of uninterrupted rest.

The airlines realized right away that the Whitlow letter would force them to hire more pilots, and schedulers and pilots both became adept at doing 24 look-backs calculated down to the minute.

While the Colgan crash was the event that forced the FAA to develop a more scientifically based rest rule that takes into account circadian rhythms and the effect of crossing time zones, it was the Whitlow letter that gave the pilot bloc the momentum to start pushing for serious change. Unfortunately, as is so often true in aviation, the rules are often written in blood–in this case Colgan Flight 3407.—Chip Wright

Flying over the holidays

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

As I write this, we are a week away from Christmas Day, with New Year’s right behind. I can’t help but think of all of the employees within the airline industry who will be working, especially the pilots and the flight attendants. For the most part, all of the other employees will be going home after their shift. Flight crews may not be.

There is much that is very cool about being an airline pilot, but there is one thing that is decidedly not, and that is working on the holidays, with Thanksgiving and Christmas being two of the worst. Most folks can get past most of the other big days on the calendar (the reality is that the Fourth of July fireworks from an airplane are pretty cool), but Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday, and since more families go out of the their way to get together for Turkey than Santa, it’s a tough one to miss. Christmas is also hard, especially if you have young kids who are still enraptured with Santa.

While the winter holidays can be celebrated pretty much any time you want them to be, being gone is hard. Even if you would not normally have done anything special, a hotel can be a pretty lonely place. Restaurants are closed or open only for limited hours; room service often is cancelled for the day; and when you turn on the TV, you are reminded even more so that you just are not where you want to be. Hotels will do what they can, but their staff will be limited as well. If there is anything worse than being stuck in a hotel for a holiday, it’s being stuck in a hotel when you and your crew are the only guests.

Working holidays is a fact of life in many occupations, and the airlines are no different in that regard. But, when you work a job where you can go home after your shift, it’s much easier to swallow, especially if you get premium pay. A little-known fact is that more airlines do not pay a premium for holiday pay than those that do, and that just adds insult to injury. Those that do often have no problem finding volunteers.

If there is a benefit to working holidays, it may be a reduced schedule. Flights are usually reduced on certain days, and that may create fewer trips. If the overall schedule is large enough, it may be possible for the company to build a lot of shorter (one -and two-day) trips, or a lot of trips with a split a.m./p.m. schedule that allow at least part of the day to be spent at home.

If you are a commuter, one of the first things you will do when looking at trips for November and December is to try to find one that overnights in your home town or the town of family. In fact, if you’re really lucky, you might score a layover that gives you a full day off at home for a holiday, for which you might be getting paid.

Fly for the airlines long enough, and you will undoubtedly meet someone who clearly has the seniority to be off for a holiday but chooses to work it. I can’t remember if I was a first officer or a captain at the time, but I had to work Thanksgiving early in my career, and one of our most senior captains (one of the top three) was working. He had no kids at home anymore, and had decided to work so that a junior captain who probably had a family could be home. There have also been folks who have bid the holiday off, and then gone into work and picked up a trip from a fellow pilot as a surprise so that they could be home with their families. It’s a favor I’d like to pass on someday myself.

As with any career, the airlines have their downsides, and working holidays can be depressing, especially when you’ve done it several years in a row. Some have pretty stringent policies in place to prevent abuse of sick time, but the reality is that at some point you will most likely have to do it, and most of the time, your fellow employees will be in a good mood that becomes contagious. The passengers may not show as much appreciation as you’d like, but rest assured that they have a tremendous amount of gratitude for your work. I’ve been on both sides of the cockpit door, and while I’d prefer being on the one taken where I want to go, it’s not always so bad to be the taker either.—Chip Wright

Crew transition

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

When I first began my career as an airline pilot, I really didn’t have any idea what to expect. I knew I would be flying—a lot—and I knew that I would be traveling—a lot. But beyond that, I really didn’t know what the job would be like. I knew there would be an autopilot, and I was pretty stoked about that. I knew I’d be wearing a uniform, and while many pilots can’t stand wearing the hat, it never bothered me.

But the one thing that I was relatively unprepared for was the crew concept. I’d had a bit of experience with it thanks to my previous job, which included using an airplane to photo-map the state’s farmland. We also did some atmospheric sampling work, but the “crew” on those flights were nonpilots. The photo-mapping projects, on the other hand, were a true team effort, and while it could be done with two pilots, it was really a three-person job. But, it wasn’t the same kind of crew that you’d find in an airline cockpit.

The transition to a crew environment wasn’t all that hard. What was hard was realizing how much help I really had, and how little I had to do for myself. For instance, in my previous job, the pilot flying did everything flying-related except talk on the radio. That was handled by the yahoo sitting in the other seat (usually one of my bosses, who were among the finest yahoos I ever knew, except for when they were flying together).

In the crew world, the pilot flying flies…and that’s pretty much all he or she does. The gear, flaps, radio, checklists, and almost anything else you can think of are done by what we used to call the nonflying pilot, but whom we now refer to as the “pilot monitoring.” I still call them “the yahoo sitting next to me.” After all these years, why worry now about political correctness?

It took me a while to get used to not working the gear or flaps, especially since, in the Brasilia, the gear handle was in front of my left knee, and the flap handle was right next to the same knee. I also had to learn just how much I was allowed to ask for. If I wanted the radar on, all I had to do was ask. If I wanted the power set at a certain setting, all I had to do was ask. I did have to work my own HSI, and I got to control my nav radio if I was quick enough to beat the captain to it…which wasn’t often.

There were, of course, other duties that came with the territory, such as calling the company on the radio prior to every arrival and after every departure. Talking to a dispatcher was new as well, but it was a Part 135 operation at the time, so we pilots were still more involved in flight planning, though nowhere near to the degree that I had been. I knew more about the route of my first dual cross-country than I have about any airline trip I’ve flown, and I wish it wasn’t so, but short turn times force you to rely on a dispatcher more than you ever would have thought. Besides, trying to follow a sectional from the flight levels or at high speeds would be a challenge.

But it was that transition to a total crew environment that really opened my eyes. I was the low man on the totem pole, and I had to learn how to work with (and sometimes get along with) a captain and a flight attendant. Neither was hard, but it was a period of adaptation that is now effortless, and, I now realize, much better and safer than much of what I’d done before.

There are always going to be stories of cockpit dictators, and occasionally even a story about a fist-fight or some kind of ugly confrontation between two people who simply can’t get along. But those are rare. Airlines do a great job of training crews to work together, and while you won’t walk away from every trip with a new BFF, you won’t always have a new mortal enemy either.

Unless, of course, you insist on doing everything yourself, which will not only aggravate the person next to you, but will also make you extremely busy. Plus, you will be branded as the next yahoo.—Chip Wright

The non-competing competitive competitors

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

The airlines are a weird industry in a lot of ways. One of them is in the area of competition. If you pay any attention to the advertising or the talking heads on TV, you would think that the airlines are hyper-competitive in every respect, such as price, frequent flyer programs, providing the worst service for the most money. And they are. Sort of.

The exception is when it comes to what they actually do: the flying, and specifically, the pilots. That isn’t to say that pilots are not a competitive bunch. We are. But when it comes to flying, safety is involved, and we don’t mess around with that. If you ever need proof, just spend a few minutes listening to air traffic control in a busy sector when the weather is bad (log on to LiveATC.net when the Northeast is getting hammered, and listen to chaos). Pilots will readily pass along pilot reports about the rides, turbulence, breaks in a line, or wind shear on final.

There are areas in which pilots will look for bragging rights, and in many cases, it’s obvious who the bragging rights belong to. Once you are in the industry, you become immersed in the details of what makes one company better or worse to work for than another, and you begin to understand some of what the public doesn’t. Airline work rules, pay, schedules, domiciles, commuting—even the vagaries of the chief pilots and what they like to enforce—take on a different meaning once you have begun the lifestyle. Figuring out who gets paid more is easy, but figuring out which work rules are better isn’t always as obvious. But in the end, it becomes pretty clear pretty soon which airlines are run well and are a joy to work for versus those that are looked down upon.

But when it comes to the two guys in the front actually doing their job during the course of a flight or a day, there isn’t really any competition. Part of that is because the airlines operate their flights in much the same manner. But more importantly, nobody is going to deliberately compromise the safety of another. When a line of thunderstorms exists that runs from Canada to Mexico, everyone tries to help each other find the best place to jump the line. There is no thought of, “Well, let’s trick these guys into going into a Level 6!” It simply doesn’t happen. Instead, the updates are a live feed of what’s a good idea and what isn’t.

The best example I can think of is bad weather over a major hub, especially at night. If holding is in effect or if delays are piling up, pilots usually want two pieces of information. First, in rain, they want to know what kind of wind shear or convective activity to expect. Second, in snow, they want to know what the braking action is. And sometimes, it just takes one flight to voice that funny gut feeling that others already have. “We’re going to divert for fuel/weather,” is one call that usually triggers a chain reaction. Once one crew makes it, everyone seems to like the idea. But with wind shear or snowy or icy runways, the pireps become a lifeline of critical information.

When it comes to safety, cooperation trumps competition…every time.—By Chip Wright

Canceling the first flight

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

I’ve touched on the topic before of cancellations in this blog, but the reality is that there are cancellations…and there are cancellations, and you as a passenger may or may not be victim of one directly…or indirectly.

As an example, I recently had to cancel the first leg of the day at an outstation. In this case, it had been raining fairly hard all night, and when we got to the airplane, it was raining in the cabin almost as much as it was outside; one of the antennas had a bad seal that was allowing water to get past. It isn’t as big of a deal as it sounds, but we could not operate a revenue flight. We needed to get the airplane to a hangar (or an airport where it wasn’t raining) so that it could be resealed, then time allowed for the seal to cure.

From the airline’s point of view, the problems were just beginning. This was a city that has several flights a day, but they all have a very high load factor. Rebooking was going to be tough. Some passengers would be forced to drive, others would have to simply cancel their trip, especially if they were on a time-sensitive schedule (meetings, certain international connections, et cetera).

And then there was the issue of the effect on the schedule. Taking the airplane out of the rotation for the day meant that the potential for the down-line schedule to be hit was high. There would be a domino effect on every flight scheduled on this particular ship. We could end up running hours late all day, as has happened to me in the past. They might be late, or they might cancel. Fortunately, our leg was a short one, so at least we as a crew would be back in position fairly easily, and the repair we needed would take less than a full day in getting the bird back on line. Finding this squawk so early in the day made it more likely that a spare airplane would be available to cover the flying scheduled for the affected ship.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Often, a broken airplane will lead to a series of cancellations, either because there is no aircraft to pick up the slack, or because the crew will be out of position or time out. At times the result is obvious to see (it was scheduled to fly all of “these” flights, so we’ll cancel them), and at other times, it isn’t so obvious as the company will then strategically cancel flights based on a number of factors: loads, connections, scheduled maintenance, crew availability or even flights the next day.

But, the first flight cancelling in the morning always has the potential to cause major headaches that carry through the day. Ironically, it makes it easier to get the crew back on schedule at some point, but if the airplanes aren’t available to cover the flying, things get ugly…fast.

Lucky for me, on the day in question we stayed on schedule, and the only flight affected was the first one…but that didn’t help the passengers who were left behind.—Chip Wright

The short list

Monday, August 20th, 2012

As much as pilots like hanging out with pilots, the fact is that in every population group, there is a small percentage that the larger percentage wish just wasn’t there. One of my favorite questions for folks I fly with is, “Who’s the worst captain you’ve ever flown with?” I ask this in part just for my own entertainment, but also because sometimes you can learn something from the stories.

As you might expect, certain names tend to be fairly common, making up what I call the short list. When I was a first officer, there were four or five, maybe 10, names that every FO wanted to avoid. That hasn’t changed much. Sometimes, a name comes up that others are surprised to hear.

When I was flying the right seat, I got stuck flying with a fellow for five days—my first five-day trip. By the end of the second day, I wanted to tar, feather, and set him on fire. We just didn’t get along. He was arrogant, cocky, and totally dismissive of any suggestions from someone who wasn’t…him. At least, that was how he presented himself to me. Others were shocked. Then again, other pilots complained about captains whom I would have been willing to fly with every day. Go figure.

But the one on my short list was also an owner of one of the out-of-nowhere airline pilot training schools that sprung up in the nineties. He quit to go to work for the school full time, and a few years later, one day after taking $80-100 thousand dollar deposits from several students, they shut the doors. It was an evil thing to do, and I hope he’s in jail for it. If he isn’t, I sure hope I never have to fly with him again…because I won’t.

But the list of those captains that people don’t like is so predictable that, as an FO begins to tell me a story, I can write the name down of who I think it is, show him the paper, and be right most of the time. The obvious question is, “What makes these guys so bad?” In a word, it is certain eccentricities. There is usually one trait that becomes overbearing to other crew members.

For instance, one was notorious for wanting certain numbers interpolated to make them as exact as possible. It was a ridiculous task; it wasn’t approved (nor required) by the FAA or the company; and it drove FOs nuts. Another would file ASAP reports over the most mundane items. The chart has a typo? ASAP report! Can’t read the mechanics’ writing? ASAP report! Another simply didn’t handle certain distractions well, would get flustered, then stutter.

A lot of times, it comes down to trust. If a captain is not a confident individual—and by that I mean if he doesn’t really trust his own ability to do his job well or his knowledge of it—he will trust the FO even less and scream and yell and carry on whenever the FO so much as sneezes. The biggest source of contention among FOs is the captain who claims to be standard and fly by the book, and then proceeds to list a series of “except for…” statements. You’re either standard, or you aren’t.

One was unpopular because all he did was break wind…the smelly kind. One would insist on eating tuna out of a can. One gave so many PA speeches it’s a wonder he had time to fly. But all were easy to fly with, and were good pilots and otherwise well liked. It’s the ones who come across as not-so-good that make you shake your heads.

I’ve been on the jumpseat of other airlines, and similar stories have come up. A name gets mentioned, and everyone on the flight deck knows who the individual is. Sometimes that notoriety is good to have, but other times…not so much.

The disappointing thing as a captain is to find out an FO you flew with has turned into one of the guys nobody likes. That makes me feel like I did not do as much as I could have to help mentor that individual. But the fact is that some guys are just destined to be on the short list, and sometimes it’s very predictable. Other times it isn’t, and when it isn’t, you try to explain how easy the guy or gal was to fly with when they were FOs, and you have to really argue your point. All you can do is sigh.

But one my favorite captains once said to me when I was a new hire, “You will learn far more about how to be a good captain from the (unmentionable name goes here) than you will from the good guys. The good guys make it appear so easy and fun because that’s what it should be. The (unmentionable name again goes here) just show you how to make life miserable.” Truer words were never spoken.—Chip Wright