Posts Tagged ‘airlines’

Jumpseating

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

I’ve written on this blog about the general issue of nonrevenue travel and commuting as an airline pilot, but I’ve not touched a great deal on the specific issue of jumpseat travel.

The jumpseat is the term for the third seat in the cockpit. Every two-person airliner, with the exception of some smaller turboprops, has a cockpit jumpseat. Some jets, such as the Airbus family and some Boeings, have more than one. Many also have a flight attendant jumpseat in the cabin. Beyond the first jumpseat in the cockpit, the installation of additional jumpseats is a decision usually made by the airline that took delivery of the airplane from the factory.

The intent of the jumpseat is for the FAA or company check airmen to observe or evaluate operations in the cockpit. This means that the overwhelming majority of the time the jumpseat is empty.

When it is not in use for another purpose, the jumpseat is usually available for pilots of any reciprocating airline to use as a seat to get to or from work if the cabin is full. As the airlines have reduced capacity, it has become more and more common for commuting pilots to have to use the jumpseat not just as a term, but in the literal sense as well.

The protocol is pretty simple. Access to the cockpit jumpseat is based on a mutual agreement between airlines and/or pilot groups to accept each others’ pilots. That is still in place, but in the post-9/11 world, it is no longer that simple. There are certain security requirements that must be met, so I won’t disclose them here. But the general rule is that the person looking for a ride must ask the captain of the flight for permission to “ride your jumpseat”; you do not say, “I am taking your jumpseat!”

Assuming no weight and balance issues exist and the jumpseat is not deferred for any reason, the answer is almost always yes. If a seat opens up in the cabin, the jumpseater is almost always offered that seat instead—that third seat in the cockpit is almost universally uncomfortable.

The rule of thumb is that pilots of the airline operating the flight get first dibs, usually in seniority order, but in a few cases it is first come, first served. After that, there is often a pecking order that is followed, but for the most part it is first come, first served. Even if you can bump a pilot from another carrier that has higher rights than you, it is considered poor form and only done in dire situations. Universally, you must be at the gate by a designated time, and you must treat the gate agents with a great deal of respect. Some resent the extra work created by jumpseaters, and others just resent that only pilots can ride in the cockpit. Most, however, are more than happy to help.

Rules vary from company to company. Some airlines will only allow as many jumpseaters as they have actual jumpseats installed. Others will allow as many jumpseaters as there are empty seats. This is definitely the best rule, and the goodwill it generates is tremendous. There are also certain dress rules. Back in the day, it was expected that you would either be in uniform or a suit. Now, the uniform still always works, and the dress code for the most part is business casual; shorts and sneakers need not apply. Once in the seat, you are expected to act as a third crew member, which means honoring sterile cockpit procedures, looking for traffic, and if possible, listening to ATC and (gently) pointing out a potential error by the crew.

Most airlines prohibit the use of jumpseating for anything other than leisure travel or getting to or from work. Using them in the pursuit of business interests is risky, but it has been done. If you work for one airline, and are going to an interview with another, then riding their jumpseat is a great way to learn about the company.

On occasion, stories crop up of a pilot getting in trouble for misusing or abusing the privilege, and it is just that—a privilege. Likewise, there have been “jumpseat wars” in which pilots try to use the jumpseat as a political weapon by denying it to pilots of another carrier during a dispute. This is almost always a bad decision made by a pilot who doesn’t commute. Commuting is hard, and pilots who don’t commute don’t appreciate the challenges that it presents. To try and make a point by denying jumpseaters not only makes you look bad, but it stands to punish and ostracize your fellow co-workers who may totally disagree with your particular point of view.

Jumpseating is a great perk of the job, and at some point as an airline pilot, you will probably need it. I’ve been coming home from vacation with my family, and I had to use it in order for all of us to get on. I routinely use it to get to and from work. It’s fun to see other airplanes I don’t fly, or to see how other companies operate the airplane that I do fly.

If you ever have the opportunity to fly for an airline, embrace the jumpseat and use it as intended. And take some Advil before a long flight in one. Your back and legs will thank you.—Chip Wright

Editor’s note: The accompanying photo of a Boeing 767 cockpit and jumpseat was taken by Kent Wien and appeared in the April 13, 2009, Gadling blog Plane Answers.

The Valley of Blue

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

I’ve written before about the fact that I am a warm weather guy—my wife and I very nearly moved our family to the Virgin Islands several years ago—but I prefer to deal with many of the inconveniences of winter flying versus one minute of dealing with a thunderstorm.

That conviction was reinforced in spades in July, when I was scheduled to fly a CVG-GSO turn. This happened during the stretch of 90- to 100-degree days when a front decided to assume a stationary stance along the I-70 corridor.

Our normal route of flight on this city pair takes about 50 to 55 minutes, and essentially is a direct line from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International to Piedmont/Triad International Airport in Greensboro, N.C. I’ve done it enough times that I could do it with my eyes closed.

On this day, however, little was going right. We were running late because the airplane was late getting to us for our first leg in DTW. We had some passenger connection issues as well as some other run-of-the-mill airline stuff go wrong that put us about 15 minutes behind all day. Had we been on time, we just might have made it out of the CVG area in time to punch the line and fly the normal route to GSO.
Instead, we were forced to take a journeyman’s route, flying from CVG due east until we were past Pittsburgh, and then finding a spot to turn south and race the weather. I held off on the controller’s request to start south until we were well clear of the eastern band of weather that was on our route, and as a result, we got a nice smooth ride into GSO.

The return flight, however, was not going to be any easier. Our dispatcher loaded us down with a truckload of extra Jet A and wished us luck. He confirmed to me on the phone that the weather would not be a factor in CVG, though the forecast would require an alternate. In reality, the worst of it was west and south of the field. The radar on my phone seemed to confirm that.

Getting home required almost a reversal of our route down, but with one major constraint: We were filed for FL300, but we could not get past FL220 because of traffic saturation. We could see it on our TCAS, and when we checked in with Washington Center, we could hear it on the radio. More than once, the congestion was so bad that our initial transmission was a press of the Ident button on the transponder—we simply could not get a word in edgewise.

We, along with (it seemed) every airplane on the East Coast, were stuck in a “Valley of Blue.” The sky above us was clear, and it wasn’t too bad going north either. East didn’t look great, but even if it had, it didn’t do us any good, and we could not find a clear hole to the west—not one that both of us could agree to try. When I liked one, the first officer didn’t, and vice versa. We kept going onward, again sneaking in the Pennsylvania area. The controller occasionally would ask us when we planned to turn. We never had a good answer. We tried to get a higher altitude, because in several places, it looked as though even a few thousand feet would get us over the weather. No dice. It was one of the few times that I heard a controller announce, “[a]ll aircraft cleared to deviate as necessary.”

Wow.

Finally, when I began to think that we might need to announce to the RCMP that we were coming to Canada, eh, we found a hole to our left and floored it. Three or four minutes later, we were firmly established on a heading that again paralleled the weather, going west. We had to argue with several more controllers as we worked around a sizeable cell, and we had to contact the dispatcher about the 8,000-foot difference in our altitude and the effect on our fuel burn, but the farther west we went, the better the ride got. A normal flight of an hour took 90 minutes. Two hours later, we were on the ground in Baltimore for the overnight.

I hate thunderstorms…but I so want to move to a tropical island and fly VFR for the rest of my days.—Chip Wright

Remember when?

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

Flying as an industry has undergone some dramatic changes in the last two decades, and it can be a bit mind-boggling to look back and consider the impact of some of those changes.

When I first got hired, direct deposit had just been introduced. Knowing what I know now, I can’t imagine the challenges of this job when you faced the possibility of not being able to access your pay check for up to two weeks because you wouldn’t be home to cash it. Married guys could make special arrangements, but the single guys…not so much.

Most of the pilots I talked to while this transition was going on told me that over time they had been forced to build a reserve in their checking accounts so that they could pay their bills. Plan B was to get a line of credit from the bank, but that wasn’t always easy, especially for bottom-feeder first officers. Bear in mind too that getting your check deposited was only part of the battle. Back then, you still had to write checks for everything. I can easily remember when a roomful of pilots would bring their bills and their checkbooks with them to work, and would spend a break or an overnight in the hotel getting their bills in the mail. Online bill pay was a pipe dream.

Speaking of the Internet, nothing else has had such a dramatic effect on the way airlines run. It has put travel agents in museums, and people can check in at home the day before a flight. For the flight crews, it is now possible to fly a career and only talk to a chief pilot or flight attendant overseer on the day you interview and the day you retire. Email communications take care of most issues, and even changes in our schedules can be acknowledged on a cell phone screen. Pilots dread talking to
schedulers, and online acknowledgement makes that totally unnecessary now.

The cell phone has revolutionized our lives, and while it isn’t always for the better, it often is. For pilots, checking weather radar is right at the fingertips, as is tracking the location of your next ship, calling MX Control without having to go back to the gate, or putting in a bid at the last minute because you forgot to do it on vacation.

Speaking of which, back in the day, a pilot on vacation had to call a trusted friend–with a calling card, from a pay phone–and ask that person to submit his or her monthly bids. Those bids were often blind, because with no internet, you couldn’t see the bid packets and the trips that were available. The joke was to always call someone senior to you who wouldn’t have a motivation to manipulate your bid, or call the secretary in the office. Our Mother Hen was the best, and she would not only put in your bid, she also would tell you how to improve it. Now, even if you are on the other side of the globe, you can put in an accurate bid on time…if you remember.

Some things never change, and even those that supposedly will may not pan out well (I personally think the whole NextGen project will just be huge quantities of money wasted). But many of the changes are such that the people that preceded me or you in this industry wouldn’t even recognize it. Not being able to check the weather on my phone? I shudder at the thought.—Chip Wright

The June “Since You Asked” poll: How many instructors?

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

June’s “Since You Asked” digital poll dealt with a subject that’s been of particular interest to those of us who monitor the flight training industry. We asked, “How many flight instructors have you had/did you have in primary training?”

For years we’ve heard horror stories of people dealing with multiple instructors. I wrote about how to cope when you have to change CFIs in the September 2008 Flight Training article, “Same Dance, Different Partner.” When the airlines are hiring, flight instructors leave flight schools—sometimes very abruptly—because they’ve racked up enough time to become attractive hires. Sometimes people wind up with multiple flight instructors because of personality issues. Sometimes it’s a run of bad luck—nobody’s fault, really. But the end result can be disruptive to your training progress. Just ask Brook Heyel, who told me that it took her a whopping 23 flight instructors to finish her private pilot certificate. (Her story is its own sidebar in “Same Dance, Different Partner.” She shocked the normally unflappable Rod Machado at an aviation event when she told him the number.)

Accelerated flight schools like Tailwheels Etc. in Florida see a lot of frustrated students who can’t handle yet another change in instructors and they just want to push ahead and cross the finish line without having to start all over. American Flyers (which has several locations in the United States) has a private pilot “finish-up” program.

I was gratified–and a little surprised–that our small and unscientific sample turned out as well as it did. Forty-two percent of those who responded said they had just one flight instructor. Just over half–53 percent–said they’d had two to five CFIs. And just 5 percent reported learning to fly with more than five flight instructors. (Those respondents deserve a medal, in my book.) If I’m drawing conclusions, I’d say that the relatively stagnant state of airline hiring had something to do with this. Flight instructors tend to stay put when the airlines aren’t hiring; hence you’re more likely to start and finish with the same person. That could change, given that we’re starting to see hiring ramp up again.

I was lucky to have just two flight instructors over the course of 18 months (this was back in 2000-2001, to give you an idea). My first CFI left for the airlines, but she was thoughtful enough to hand me off to an instructor she believed would be a good match for me. Turns out, she was right. And even though he also left full-time instructing at the flight school to go to another aviation job, he stayed on as an independent instructor so that he could see me to the checkride. For that, I’m eternally grateful to John Sherman.

How many flight instructors did you have? Please let us know in the Comments section.—Jill W. Tallman

Since You Asked” polls appear monthly in the digital edition of Flight Training. If you’d like to switch your magazine from paper to digital at no additional charge, go here or call Member Services 800-USA-AOPA weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern.

People per plane

Monday, July 9th, 2012

I will be the first to admit that pilots can be pretty myopic and focus only on their own issues and causes, especially when it comes to pay and/or job advancement or security. While a few of these grumblings may be misplaced, most aren’t. A few, sometimes, just aren’t understood or realized.

I’ll give you an example. It’s a common refrain that airlines plan on X number of pilots and flight attendants—often lumped together as crews—per airframe on the property. On the low end it might be eight to nine pilots, and on the high end it might be an average of 11; the most common is 10 pilots/5 crews, and wide-body international birds might need as many as 14. But that isn’t the end of it by any stretch.

Each airplane must support the livelihoods of others whose livelihood is to support the airplane. For instance, the airline must carry a certain number of mechanics, dispatchers, fuelers, cleaners, accountants, advertising folks, et cetera, to get the job done. The more airplanes in the fleet, the more people who are needed. At the height of the bloated payrolls in the early 2000s, many airlines averaged more than 100 employees per ship. Now, that number is much lower.

Some of this is a result of contracting out certain services (which could be the topic of a number of books, let alone this blog), and some of it is a result of more efficiency, especially with regard to computing power. The most obvious example of this is the severe reductions in the number of ticket agents, thanks to the ability to check in at home or at an airport kiosk. The days of standing in a long line every time you go to the airport are over.

When I got hired at Comair, I went on a tour of the company offices. One thing that stood out as a shock to me was the bags and bags of torn ticket stubs that had to be reconciled by hand. Same with the monthly pilot payroll summary sheets. No more. Those items are totally automated, and many of those jobs were eliminated.

Likewise, we and every other airline had a staff of people whose job was to sift through lost bags and find the owners. Today, that is much easier and faster, and it requires fewer people because of the new industrywide tear-proof bag tags that are bar-coded. A scan gun can save tons of time and money when a bag is lost. If the bag tag does get separated, then it becomes much more work-intensive. Thank goodness, that’s rare.

But some things never change. Pilots still fly the airplanes, and the FARs do much to dictate the staffing of crews. Likewise with dispatchers, who are also required, and whose work days are legally limited. One dispatcher can handle a fair number of flights, so adding one airplane may or may not lead to new jobs in that department. But at some point, you will need to spread the workload. Crew schedulers, fuelers, and gate agents—actual, at-the-gate agents, not the ticket counter—are still needed as well, and are only added when the number of airplanes added to the fleet (or flights are added to the schedule) forces the workforce to be grown. Some of those skilled employees are more expensive than the non-skilled workers: mechanics, pilots, avionics techs, even the mechanics for the airport ground equipment.

The new industry average for employees per plane is now closer to 85-90. A friend at Southwest tells me that theirs is 62. Keep all this in mind when you see your ticket price. It covers a lot: employees beyond the crew; spare parts; fuel; lease payments. If you see 10 people at the airport who directly affect your flight, there are dozens more you don’t see whom you can’t travel without, just like you don’t see the new tires and fuel pumps that were put on the airplane late at night, or the facilities to store all of those parts.

I’m not always a fan of workforce efficiency improvements and the lost jobs that come with them, but it is the basis of capitalism, and all of us have a certain level of price sensitivity. After all, even I buy tickets on occasion, and I will be the first to admit that price is the most important factor. And yes, I will check in at home whenever I can.—By Chip Wright

You cancelled for WHAT?!

Monday, June 18th, 2012

In 15 plus years and well more than 11,000 thousand hours of airline flying, I have seen my share of cancelled flights. It hasn’t been many, and most of them have been for mechanical issues. A few have been for weather, and even those are usually based on the forecast, since that is what our flight planning is based on.

I can probably count on one hand the number of flights that were outright cancelled because of you-don’t-want-to-fly-through-that-on-the-way-to-your-desination-weather. Even when weather enroute is severe, the first choice is to fly around it, within reason. In fact, while flights have been cancelled because of weather forecasts, I’ve probably had just as many weather cancellations because my ship did not arrive thanks to weather-related diversions.

If I had to guess a percentage of my flights that have cancelled, it’s probably well under 2 percent. Still, for someone that has flown more than 10,000 flights, that’s 200 potential cancellations. Most of those are predictable. The company—and make no mistake, they make the ultimate decision, though the pilot in command can drive the decision—has cancelled for items such as broken fuel valves, malfunctioning starters, flat tires, cracked windshields, or landing gear that won’t retract. For most items, the airplane can be ferried under a ferry permit to a point of repair. I’m here to tell you that flying a jet with the gear down and locked sounds like you’re riding a freight train.

But there have been a few that sound so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe the problem isn’t made up. The most unusual one is a broken cargo door, specifically one that won’t open. This rarely happens, and fortunately, when it does, it’s usually when the bin is already empty. On the CRJ, it is possible to access the bin by disassembling a portion of the aft bulkhead, but it is a time-consuming process and one that is not entered into (sorry about the pun) lightly. But even that may not make the door work. All it does is allow someone to (finally) empty the bags that are back there.

There is not necessarily a safety issue with this, but no airline—not even Spirit—is going to try operate by not taking bags. Passengers would rightfully go out of their minds, and by the end of the day, Congress would be writing a Don’t Forget Our Bags Bill. It would be a customer service and logistical nightmare. Further, on some aircraft, like the CRJ, flying with an empty bin does pose some weight and balance issues. We would not be able to fly full, because the aircraft tends to be nose heavy. You need something in the back. With no bags, we’d be limited in the number of passengers we could carry based on the amount of fuel on board.

Other weird cancellations I’ve had or seen: broken windshield wipers (both the wiper itself, as well as the motor); flooding toilets (a sanitation issue); missing placards (seriously); missing or expired first aid kits; low oxygen pressure for the crew’s emergency oxygen system (this is a real pain, as it cannot be serviced with passengers on board because of the explosive properties of pressurized oxygen, especially during transfer); and airports that have run out of fuel or deicing fluid.

Non-mechanical situations crop up as well. Pilots and flight attendants have had to come off of a trip unexpectedly for illness or family emergencies. Both have happened to me. Crew members occasionally time-out for their work day, sometimes per a collective bargaining agreement, and sometimes per the federal aviation regulations. In both instances, you have a tired person you don’t want flying your flight. Most of these are for unexpected weather events that lead to delays that lead to cancellations. The Passenger Bill of Rights law also causes a lot of preemptive cancellations. There have been stories in the news of airlines having to cancel flights because of intoxicated pilots or flight attendants (or both). Fortunately, none of those has involved my company.

But even humans can be part of the you-cancelled-for-WHAT equation: Crews have been in accidents in hotel vans with injuries; I know of one that was mugged; one pilot had his company credentials and part of his uniform stolen from his hotel room; ground personnel have been known to use the emergency lights to light the cabin during overnight servicing–and left the lights on and burned out the batteries, thus cancelling the morning flight they tried so hard to ensure would be ready to go on time.

One of our crews, years ago, had to call in sick as a group from severe food poisoning received from a local restaurant. They had eaten different entrees, but all had the salad, and all paid the price. A first officer who came to us from another regional had a story of a captain who quit on the spot at an outstation, walking off the airplane and out to the front of the airport, where his wife was waiting for him. On the yoke was a note he left while the FO was doing the walk-around: I QUIT.

But at least he’s alive to talk about it. Other crew members have died on overnights or on the flight deck. For some things, there is simply no back-up plan, certainly not one that is cost justifiable. Some of these stories are wild, but I’ll spare you the details out of respect for their families.

But having to explain that you can’t open a door…or that a sticker is missing…or that you can’t go to Canada because the passport of one of the pilots was stolen…or because the airport printer doesn’t work…sometimes you’re just better off making up something that sounds believable.—Chip Wright

The drinking pilot scenarios

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Last month Chip Wright posed a hypothetical situation involving a possibly intoxicated airline pilot and solicited your comments on how you would handle the situation. Here’s his response to your answers.–Ed.

There are two ways to approach answers to this question: the new-to-the-airlines pilot, and the regional pilot interviewing for the majors. Further, there are two very broad ways to actually answer the question: Throw the offender to the wolves and let him or her deal with the consequences, or help the offender gracefully bow out.

I checked the responses on both the blog and on Flight Training’s Facebook page. A couple of readers answered as though the scenario was designed with the eight-hour rule in mind. I had intended it to be under a typical airline’s 12-hour rule, and Steve’s response on Facebook was that as long as the eight-hour rule was observed, then no harm, no foul, and that it depended on how strong the drinks are and how well the pilot holds his liquor. That answer, I can assure you, will get you a one-way ticket home.

Every airline has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to having alcohol in your system when you report for work. The FAA has always backed up the zero-tolerance policy when airlines implement it. Zero means just that: When you take a Breathalyzer or blood test, you need to be totally clear of alcohol.

EJ, Dave, Corey, and Mark work toward the answer of addressing the captain and giving him the option to call in sick. This is a common answer, and it is not necessarily wrong. But the logical follow-up to you, the applicant, is this: Will that stop this from happening again? And what if the next FO isn’t so willing to stand up to a pilot who may be tipsy, or even belligerent?

What I really like are the answers in which folks asked for more information. In an interview, you may or may not get more information. But asking is good, as you don’t want to jump to conclusions. One question that was missed is an obvious one, and will allow you to possibly choose how you answer: Does this pilot have a known drinking problem that might be full-blown alcoholism? Again, the interviewer may not tell you, but I will address this angle later.

Taking a photo of the pilot drinking, as Mark suggested, isn’t a bad idea. The company can also ask for copies of the pilot’s receipt if he paid with a credit or debit card (after an accident, so will every government agency), and they will ask the hotel to use the pilot’s key to determine when he went to his room. There are loads of potential legal and ethical problems with these two tracks, but the pilot may still be forced to answer some uncomfortable questions.

There is that reality–and several of you touched on this–that your ticket and your career are both on the line as well. The cold, hard truth is that as soon as that pilot made the decision to either drink inside the allowable 12-hour rule, and/or decided to put on his uniform and step into the hallway while sick, he or she has made a decision to sacrifice both of you. The effect on you is of no concern to this individual. Your career’s gone? Because of me? Sorry, dude. Let me buy you a drink while we commiserate!

Does that person deserve you helping him or her avoid trouble?

There are two choices here. Choice A is to get the pilot to make a phone call, and this is where the issue of interviewing as a new airline pilot versus one as a regional pilot going to a major matters. As a new-to-the-industry pilot, it is perfectly fair and acceptable that you might get the pilot to call in sick. Give the individual a chance to make the right decision. If he won’t, you will have to make a call to the chief pilot and explain the situation. They will then make the decision on how to handle it. A seasoned regional pilot, however, is aware of resources within the union that can help. Every union has a committee or group that specializes in dealing with unprofessional behavior, and in this case, they can contact the pilot and explain the severity of the situation. The company is still going to get involved, and the flight will in all probability cancel (assuming another person in the hotel is not available), but the pilot—if he cooperates, which is the key—will be offered the opportunity to seek medical help. It may cost him a year or more away from the job as he sobers up, but he will be given the opportunity to redeem himself. Called the HIMS program, it has been wildly successful in getting sick pilots back to work. It has saved careers, and more importantly, it has saved lives.

Choice B is more harsh, and personally, it’s the one that I tend to lean toward. As I said, the pilot has already made the decision to risk life and limb and your own future as well as his. You could go ahead and skip the niceties and call the chief and, in no uncertain terms, explain you have a co-worker who needs a Breathalyzer test. Don’t offer an analysis of how drunk or sober you may think the person is. Just request the test. The rest will take care of itself. I come to this from personal experience: A family friend was killed in a rather grotesque fashion in a car accident involving a drunk driver. The effect it had on my parents is something I have never forgotten.

What you cannot allow to happen is for the pilot to leave the hotel for the airport. If that means you stay behind, so be it. Going to the airport opens up all kinds of questions about your intent to prevent him from getting in the cockpit. Just recall the America West crew in Miami that was actually taxiing the airplane when they were called back to the gate. A few minutes later, and they would have been airborne. Just letting that individual go the airport could get you fired if he is found to be drunk. At the very least, your judgment will be severely questioned.

It’s a tough situation, and if you don’t personally deal with it, you will eventually know or hear of someone who has. It’s also an interview question that you should count on in some form. The scenario here is just one possibility. It may be posed such that you first meet the pilot at the airplane within minutes of departure time.

Things aren’t always black and white; sometimes there is a gray area. The important thing in a case like this is to develop a reasonable answer and stick to your guns. Be able to defend it, and be able to sleep at night. Do that, and you will indeed live to fly another day.–Chip Wright

Losing an engine in cruise

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Recently, a Delta flight made minor headlines when an engine failed during cruise, and the flight was forced to divert to Phoenix. The mainstream media and much of the flying public seem to think that such an event is met with a rising crescendo of music and heroes saving the day, followed by a commercial break.

In the real world, this is rarely the case, especially in a jet.

The reality is that losing an engine in cruise is just not that big of a deal in an airliner, be it a turboprop or a jet. The design criteria are such that, on takeoff, the airplane has a reserve of 100 percent power; that is, it can lose an engine during the takeoff roll and still safely continue the takeoff while clearing all obstacles in the departure path. It will then be able to return and land. It stands to reason that shutting down an engine in cruise is less of a problem.

A spontaneous engine failure with a turbine engine in cruise is truly rare. More common is a need to shut down an engine as a precaution. The crew might get a message saying that a bleed air system has developed a leak, or vibration is exceeding allowable tolerances, or oil pressure is declining. In a jet, the crew will work the shutdown through the checklist, and it is possible that nobody on board would even know about it–though they may feel a bit of a yaw. On a turboprop, it will be unmistakable, as the airplane will not only yaw, but the passengers on the affected side will see the propeller stop propelling; that’s pretty hard to hide.

I’ve only had to shut down an engine once in my career, and because it was a turboprop, the captain decided we should brief the flight attendant and make an announcement to the passengers first. That became my job. Afterward, we shut the engine down and continued to our destination, which was also the closest, most suitable airport. I’ve also been on one airplane as a passenger when the crew had to shut the engine down. In the cabin, we never knew it as it was so smooth, until the captain came on the public address system and told us what had happened.

The obvious question is what about altitude? It is clearly no big deal when over flat terrain. In the mountains, it is a different story. The crew will have available the information needed to determine the single-engine ceiling for the day based on weight, temperature, and altitude. If terrain is an issue, the flight planning process should have already taken that into account by choosing a route that allows the crew to descend to its new maximum altitude while turning away from the terrain or joining a safer airway before leveling off. Each airframe manufacturer and each airline may do things slightly differently, but the goal is the same: put the crew in the safest possible position to make a safe emergency single-engine landing.

Cue the music…—By Chip Wright

A common interview question about drinking

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

I’ve mentioned the issue of the occasional pilot getting into trouble for drinking on this blog before. But this time, I’d like to get a bit of feedback from our readers, many of whom are presumably considering a career as a professional pilot.

Here is the scenario: The FAA requires that a pilot not have alcohol for eight hours prior to flying (“8 hours, bottle to throttle”). Most airlines have a more restrictive rule, usually requiring at least 12 hours. Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that you are a first officer with an airline, on an overnight. You have a morning report of 6 a.m. in the hotel lobby for the ride to the airport; the flight departs at 7 a.m. You’ve been in XYZ city since noon the day before, and you and your captain each go do your own thing for the day.

Situation A: You come back to the hotel at 8 p.m. and see your captain in the bar having what is clearly not his first drink.

Situation B: Here is a twist, one to muddy the waters a bit. Again, you and the captain head off in different directions after arriving at the hotel. You return that evening and go to bed, not having seen hide nor hair of anyone else from your crew. The next morning, you watch the captain come out of the elevator, and it is clear that not only has he been drinking, but he is also either suffering a pretty good hangover or may even still be a bit tipsy. Now what do you do?

Pick your scenario, and give us all a chance to see how you would react. If the feedback is plentiful, I will do another post in a week or so, and I will also throw in my own opinions on how to handle both of these situations.

These are two very common interview questions, and while the circumstances are rare to see in real life, they have been known to happen. Airlines want to know how you would handle a similar incident should you find yourself in either predicament.

Have at it!–Chip Wright

Evaluation by the Administrator

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

I was recently in the simulator helping out with some training, and I had an epiphany of sorts. You may have noticed when you read the FARs that in all too many instances is the phrase (or something similar) “will be evaluated by the Administrator, or his designee.”

In short, this means that the head cheese of the FAA is supposed to personally evaluate or test just about everything in the aviation universe. To do so would be a monumental and impossible task, even if the Administrator did nothing else. So, by law, the Administrator can have designees do the work. That way, the Administrator can spend his or her time Administrating.

I’ve explained in previous posts how some of this works with regard to check airmen/-women/-persons at the airlines. I have the honor, privilege, and responsibility of fulfilling this role as a line check airman at my company.

What struck me this week was the level of respect and integrity that this process really does engender. On my first day in the sim, I was flying as a captain for a first officer who was undergoing some training in the right seat. The sim instructor was a friend of mine who is quite a bit junior to both of us. The session went well, and when necessary, Joe asked to see the FO re-fly a maneuver that could have been done better the first time. He did, and when the session was over we all went our separate ways.

The next day, Joe was working with two very senior (and in this case, much older) captains who were being brought back to the training department after having flown the line for awhile. One of them was also being qualified for the first time in our 700/900 variant, and he was wrapping up his training by being officially qualified in the right seat. He won’t fly the line in that capacity—he won’t fly the line in the left seat of the 700/900 either—but he needed to be qualified nonetheless.

I happened to be in the break room with all of them, shooting the breeze and talking shop while waiting for my own session to start. What struck me was the way the tone of the conversation changed when one of the “students” asked a question about the lesson plan for the day. All three of them immediately fell into a very professional mode and demeanor, and Joe was accorded the same respect and decorum that the Administrator himself would have garnered.

Here were two fellows who had at least 10 years of seniority—one had close to 20—on Joe’s time at the company. They were older. Out on the line—heck, it had happened just a few minutes before—Joe would have been the subject of some good-natured kidding and ribbing as an FO or as the baby chick in the henhouse. But at the drop of a hat, when the talk turned serious, he was recognized as the man in charge. He had the ability and the authority to stop the training process in its tracks if necessary or if warranted by poor performance. In my own sim session the day before, he could have grounded me, even though the event had nothing to do with me.

I’ve seen this kind of thing a thousand times in the past, but I never really appreciated it as I was watching it happen. For some reason, it caught my attention this time. I left the room before they had finished their discussion, but I didn’t need to be there to see how it would end. And I knew that once in the box, all three would be professional, cordial, and respectful of one another.

This sort of interaction goes on every day, and it is a testament to the success of the system that allows—forces—the FAA to place a great deal of authority and autonomy in the hands of its field representatives.

Pilots, mechanics, dispatchers, doctors, and dozens of others treat their burdens and responsibilities with great care, and exercise the extreme limits of their duties with restraint and when circumstances require. They don’t do it because they have an axe to grind or a seniority number to gain or vendetta to exact. In fact, in cases where two people simply can’t get along, they will often agree to seek another evaluator to avoid allegations of a conflict of interest.

This system works, and we should all be grateful that it does.—By Chip Wright