Posts Tagged ‘aviation careers’

Familiarity versus unfamiliarity

Monday, August 24th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing letters of recommendation

Monday, May 4th, 2015

As the airlines begin to hire, many pilots will be on both ends of a common act: letters of recommendation. You will at some point need to ask for some, and at some point you will likely be asked to provide some. For many, the actual request turns out to be the easy part. We’ll assume for the sake of discussion that you have no problem writing a letter for the person asking for one.

When it comes to writing the letter, there isn’t necessarily a formula per se, but there are a few things to keep in mind. First, if the person uses a nickname, start by using the formal name, and revert to the nickname later. This lets the reader know that the applicant may go by more than one name, and also that you know the person fairly closely.

Second, letters of recommendations for pilots need to cover two distinct areas. You need to talk about the applicant as a person, and you need to discuss his or her flying skills. It doesn’t really matter which comes first, as long as you do both. I prefer to cover the flying skills first, since that’s what the company is most interested in. Discuss your subject’s basic stick-and-rudder skills, as well as instrument skills and, if appropriate, deeper knowledge of technical material and/or aircraft systems. This may only be appropriate if the person has flown some something fairly sophisticated, such as a turboprop or a jet, or if he or she has developed a reputation as an instructor or teacher in that airplane.

When discussing the person as an individual, it’s important that you think like a recruiter. If you’re writing for a pilot applying to a regional, this may even be more important. The pilot will be spending an awful of time in a small space with one other person on trips that might last as long as six days. It is imperative that he or she be able to get along with a multitude of personalities. Conflict simply isn’t acceptable. When you’re describing the person, concentrate on what makes him or her a positive influence, whether it’s a sense of humor, a way with words, or an ability to laugh at himself.

One of the most important items in a letter of recommendation is the quality of the writing. It is imperative that you use good grammar and sentence structure. Spelling and punctuation count. If you are not a strong writer, ask for help from someone who can provide it. The worst thing you can do is provide a poorly written letter to someone looking for work, because it will reflect on that person as well as you.

This is a two-way street. When you ask for a letter, you need to make sure that one written on your behalf meets the same basic guidelines. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to decide whether to keep it or politely ask the writer to redo it. Just make sure that you won’t be offending your friend!

Another common mistake involves writing letters for pilots seeking interviews or jobs with multiple companies. You need to make sure that a letter for airline X does not mention airline Y. It happens, and it leads to quite a bit of embarrassment. Put the letters in separate envelopes and label them accordingly. If you’re writing for one of the airlines that uses airlineapps.com, ask the applicant to log on and read your letters to make sure you got the right airline matched up with the right letter.

Asking for and writing letters of recommendation are important pieces of the job hunting puzzle. Being asked to write one is an honor, and you should treat it accordingly. It’s also a favor you may need the other person to return, so do it well.—Chip Wright

Red eyes

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

 

Being an airline pilot is great. The job is fun; no two days are the same; the benefits are terrific. You get good health insurance—you’re a pilot, after all, and your health is your career—along with the travel benefits—which aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be—but the discounted tickets alone can make it worth it, even if you can’t fly for free on a given trip. On top of that, you get to travel for a living, and when you get where you’re going, you’re done, while your passengers are just getting to work.

But there are downsides to the schedule. Airlines have become 24/7/365 operations. Red-eye flights now run in both directions. West to east always made sense, because as a passenger you could take off late, sleep en route (in theory), land in the morning, and still make a full day (again, in theory). However, east to west is relatively new, and it is harder for me to wrap my mind around. North-south trips are frequently run at night as well, because the passengers can (again, theoretically) work a normal day, then get some sleep on an all-nighter from New York to Rio.

Working a schedule where you are on nights one day and days the next night is hard, even with the protections of the new FAR 117 rest rules in effect. But, in an industry in which the most expensive commodity (the airplane) only produces money when it’s airborne, this has forced the airlines to find ways to maximize productivity and utilization. My company added almost 60 red eyes across the system just for Thanksgiving. I couldn’t help but wonder how many people fell asleep while eating their turkey thanks to the combination of jet lag and tryptophan.

Some people are afternoon/evening types, and some are morning types. Airline scheduling computers seem to have figured out how to put each of those groups on the opposite schedule just to see what happens. Morning reports can mean wake-up calls as early as 3 a.m., if not worse.

The advantage of these schedules is that you’re done early, but that’s often little consolation to the person who doesn’t begin to function before noon. On the other hand, I tend to like the early reports and dislike the afternoon reports. This was especially true when I was flying RJs under the old work rules when you could work 16 hours no matter what time you finished the day before and no matter what time you started. Knowing that I might start at 2 p.m. but might not finish before 6 a.m.the following morning never did sit well with me. That didn’t happen often, but it did happen—and when it did, it was brutal.

If there is one advantage that working for the regionals offers with regard to the schedules, it’s the opportunity for more one-day trips for those that want them. The shorter range of the planes makes it possible to do a pair 2 or 3 hour legs and be home for dinner. At the majors, however, the planes have greater range, and it’s cheaper to fly longer distances, so one-day trips tend to be less common.

There ups and downs to every job, including this one. However, I find that the ups far outweigh the downs, even on those rare days that turn out to be anything other than what the brochure might have promised.—Chip Wright

What is a good…?

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hardest parts of the job

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

My dad was an attorney, and I distinctly remember periods of time when he did a lot of traveling, and times when he worked a lot of weekends. Because he litigated cases, he spent a lot of time in court, and those weekend work sessions were often spent preparing for a trial that was either upcoming or ongoing.

As I got older, I asked him a lot of questions, and one of them was, “What’s the hardest part of your job?” His answer generally was getting ready for certain trials.

When I got established in my career, I was often confronted with the same question. As I suspect my dad also experienced, one answer didn’t always do the question justice. Here are three main challenges, any of which might stand on its own.

  • Training. This refers to either initial training or training on new equipment. My first training event was definitely my worst. I had no idea what I was in for, let alone what I was doing. It was overwhelming and hard. However, future events were made easier by the knowledge of how to handle it. But some pilots have never learned to relax in or enjoy training, and they get extremely stressed. Some pilots become physically ill before returning to the simulator for recurrent training. Good study habits are the best tonic for making it through training unscathed.
  • The schedules. Pilots get a lot of time off, but we’re also gone a lot. We’re away from home for two or more weeks a month. We never know our schedules more than six weeks in advance, and if your seniority is bad, you’ll be working every weekend and holiday. I prefer working weekends because it’s easier to get errands done during the week, but with kids, weekends are the best times to be off.
  • The other problem with the schedules is the constant adventure of living out of a suitcase. You can either love it or tolerate it and be OK, but if you hate it, your career as a pilot will be short. It isn’t unusual to wake up in a hotel and have no idea where you are. In fact, I’ve woken up in my own bed and found myself momentarily confused.
  • Time away from family. If I had to pick one thing, this would be it. You miss a lot as a pilot, especially when your kids are younger. Some pilots have never been home for Christmas, and that’s hard. It’s no fun missing your kids’ activities or games or big school events, but it is part of the deal, unfortunately. Spouses need to be on board with it or resentment becomes an issue. Sometimes, you just want to be home to soothe hurt feelings or to fix a broken toy.

The job has a lot of benefits, and it’s a lot of fun. But it has its challenges and pitfalls. You’re gone a lot, but you’re home a lot. The time away from your family is only equaled by the fact that when you’re home, you’re home, and not working (unlike my dad). In the end, it’s what you decide to make it.—Chip Wright

When does the interview end?

Monday, December 29th, 2014

Several friends of mine recently interviewed at a legacy carrier. Three of them interviewed on the same day, back to back to back. I spoke to two of them afterwards, and each was lamenting the fate of the third: In their minds, it was pre-ordained what was going to happen.

In the brief period of time that all three were together in the lobby, one of them was not-so-quietly disparaging his own performance. Now, bear in mind that he wasn’t saying anything negative about the company or the process they used for the interview. Far from it.

The interview was a two-part process. The first part was the actual interview between the candidate and the interviewers, in this case a captain and a representative from human resources. There’s a break between them as people trade places. The fellow in question completed his interview first out of the three, and he was chatting with the other two before leaving to go back to the hotel.

While talking, he was second-guessing his answers to the questions he was asked and openly talking about how poorly he had flown the simulator. Here’s the catch: He really had no idea how his performance compared to anybody else’s. It’s quite possible that he was average or above. The problem with airline sim rides is that they are almost always performed on equipment that you have never flown, so the evaluation is made with that in mind. It’s almost like grading on a curve.

As for the interview itself, chances are that he went in with a lack of confidence to begin with, as though he was expecting to do poorly. While he was in the lobby, he didn’t take into account that the process was still going on, though in a more passive way. The secretary heard him, and at least one of the other folks participating in the hiring process heard him.

In the end, he didn’t get the job. The other two pilots did, and each relayed to me their belief that this individual had done himself some damage by being so self-critical, which also came across as a lack of confidence.

Years ago, at another legacy carrier, a pilot had been provided the standard round-trip transportation to the interview and had received a complimentary first class upgrade on the way to the interview. The interview itself went extremely well, to the point that the interviewer relates that this pilot was one of the few who would have made a lasting impression even without this story. His job offer was ready to go in the mail (this was pre-email) the next day.

At the airport, he was under the impression that he was entitled—entitled!—to a first class seat for the return trip simply because a gate agent in his home town was kind enough to extend one to him as a courtesy on the first flight. He apparently launched into a tirade and caused such a scene that he was denied boarding until a later flight. His reservation stipulated that he was a pilot applicant, and the agent, who was furious, couldn’t call the recruiters soon enough. His offer was rescinded, and a multi-million-dollar career was lost.

Interviews for any airline—major, regional, passenger, or cargo—do not end until you are either hired or are “regretfully informed.” Even while you are waiting for your answer, you should consider it an open process, because if anybody knows about your interview, they can always make a phone call or send an email. Be confident, be nice, and assume that “Big Brother” is watching. He (or she) just might be.—Chip Wright

Training contracts

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Embraer 190 AzulAfter spending thousands of dollars on your training, and getting paid an unpredictable income as a flight instructor, you’ve just gotten a call from a regional airline offering you a job. You’ll be flying a new, state-of-the-art regional jet, complete with autothrottles. There is just one minor detail to be discussed: the airline wants you to sign a training contract. It states that if you leave before a specified date, you will be required to repay some or all of the cost of your training—a figure that might exceed $20,000.

What do you do?

Many pilots have just shrugged their shoulders, grabbed a pen—probably with the company logo on it—and signed on the dotted line.

At least two airlines in the United States are using these training contracts today, both of them on the Embraer 170/190 series of jets. The rationale is that cost of training is so high, and the availability of simulator time so low, that they do not have a choice. It is a means of hedging their investment and preventing a pilot from going through training, getting a type rating, and leaving as soon as possible for greener pastures. Those greener pastures are often overseas, where American pilots on the 170/190 step into starting pay that is well north of $100,000 a year, and often includes subsidized housing or a positive space ticket back home once a month. U.S. airlines’ concern abou pilots leaving is not unfounded.

The problem with these contracts is many pilots assume that they aren’t enforceable, especially since they are not a part of any union collective bargaining agreement. However, the airlines are beginning to pursue legal actions against pilots who try to leave early. “Early” is usually defined as two years.
If all goes well, the contract isn’t a problem. With the new rules in effect, a pilot can’t upgrade to captain of a U.S. airline until he or she has at least 1,000 hours as a first officer. Taking into account the time spent in initial training, the typical pilot will hit that 1,000 hours about the time the two-year commitment is up, give or take a few months.

As for the amount to be repaid, it behooves you to pay attention to the details. The contract may allow for prorating the amount owed based on the amount of time serve—but it may not. You may be on the hook for the entire amount if you leave just one day early.

Other details to be studied include your obligations if the company goes out of business or if you are furloughed. Likewise, if you lose your medical, is there any relief available?

Training contracts are not new (“pay-for-training” used to be very common), and they are commonly employed overseas. However, they are not the norm in the United States. I doubt that they will become the norm either, but if you find yourself entertaining—or needing—a job from a company that utilizes such a tool, it is worth discussing the language and commitments with an attorney. As for enforceability, it could cost you a ton of money just to get that question answered. If you’re going to sign one, assume you will have no choice but to honor it.—Chip Wright

The cover letter

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

As you start looking for your first job—or even if it isn’t your first one—you might be working on your resume and cover letter. What goes on a resume is pretty straightforward: It’s a quantitative and qualitative summary of your experience and the skills you bring to the job.

What about the cover letter? What do you put in the cover letter? What do you not put in the cover letter?

Some of the greatest advice I got about cover letters came from someone who makes a living reading them: A cover letter should not just be a regurgitation of your resume. If that’s all it is, then it is a waste of your time and the time of the person reading it.

Instead, your cover letter should be used to talk about what is not in your resume. Use it as a chance to talk about other experiences or skill sets you offer that may not necessarily be a part of the job, but will help contribute to your performance. For instance, if you coach a sports team or volunteer in a local school, you are demonstrating leadership. In fact, any kind of volunteer work should be highlighted, because companies—not just airlines or flight departments—like to see candidates who do something to give back to the community. It might be that you volunteer in a church, at an animal shelter, or a zoo; it doesn’t matter. You are demonstrating a desire to make a difference and a willingness to give your own time.

Mention other achievements or skills that you might be able to offer within the work place. If you are a certified trainer in something (besides flying), it demonstrates a desire to continue learning and pass on what you know. That, too, is impressive and important.

A cover letter is also a great place to briefly (as in two to three sentences) describe why you want to work for that particular company. That’s hard to do on a resume. Maybe you want to work there because your parents did, or because you grew up in the shadow of its headquarters (or, in the case of an airline, in the shadow of one of its hubs). This is your chance to show your loyalty to a company before you ever set foot in the door. It won’t always work, but you have nothing to lose by trying.

If you are still shy of the minimums for a particular company, use the cover letter to explain what you are doing to close the gap, and give an estimate of how long it will take you to get there. Sometimes, just the enthusiasm and work ethic that you demonstrate can be enough to get your foot in the door.

The cover letter is a bit of a lost art, so if you do it well, it will help you stand above the rest. Use it to your advantage, and keep it to a page or less. And whatever you do, don’t just repeat what is on your resume!—Chip Wright

Check your work

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the zeal to get a job, it’s easy to get a bit ahead of yourself. Or to just do something dumb. An urban myth has made the rounds for years about a pilot who really wanted to work for UPS, and when he sent in his application, he did it via FedEx. Or vice versa.

The point is, you don’t drink Coke in a Pepsi plant, and you don’t use the biggest rival of the company you want to work for to advertise your desires.

A friend recently asked someone to help him get a job by carrying his resume directly to the head of pilot recruiting. The “someone” didn’t think it was his responsibility to proofread the resume, and just handed it in. Under the heading of Career Objective, the pilot had put that he wanted to work for another carrier. The “someone,” whom I also know, got a phone call from the recruiters explaining what happened, and felt extremely embarrassed. The applicant had burned a bridge that he couldn’t afford to lose. He too felt ashamed.

In this age of point-and-click, it’s ever more important to proofread everything you send, because once it’s on the internet, the damage is done. A number of regionals use airlineapps.com as their portal. For the most part, it’s an easy website to use, but as you start targeting airlines and soliciting references, you need to be extremely careful that you don’t target Airline B by telling them you want to work for Airline A. When you ask people for references, make sure you request both a generic letter of reference as well as one that is specific to a given company.

Application websites can be long and tedious. But you have to jump through the hoops, and it is critical that you follow your old math teachers’ advice and check your work. Print out the application before you send it. Have someone else proofread it for you. Once you are finished, set it aside for a day or so, and then read it with fresh eyes. Make sure that all of your flight times are accurate, dates are correct, and anything with an expiration date is up to snuff.

You need to do the same thing with your resumes. If you go to a job fair and you are targeting a specific airline, make sure you hand them the correct resume! If you need to use a generic one, that’s fine. Better safe than sorry!

In fact, you should keep a generic resume handy that you continuously update, and use that as a basis for printing copies for specific airlines. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to use an accordion file to store all of your information for each airline—printed applications, resumes, contacts, information from their websites, et cetera.

As you work your way up the chain of companies, recognize that people know each other, and they talk to each other. If you are sloppy at one company, don’t be surprised if the HR person has discussed you with a cohort elsewhere. Also, pilots who work in recruiting at a regional will often move into similar work when they go to a major. You want to leave the most positive impression that you can.

And the opposite is true, as the story above proves. Eventually, someone is going to ask you for a hand in finding work. Make sure that anything that passes through your hands is not going to make you look bad—whether it’s as simple as putting down the wrong company or something more complex, like an obvious lie. Use your discretion, and remember, just because someone asks for your help doesn’t mean you have to say yes. If you don’t want the confrontation of saying, “No,” you can be vague and say something like, “I don’t have a lot of sway around here,” or “If you’re competitive, you’ll get the call.”

Think of each interaction, whether in person or via the ‘net, as a one-shot opportunity to make the impression you want to make. You may not get a second chance.—Chip Wright

So, what goes on up there?

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

I am frequently asked a lot of questions about life as a pilot. One of the most common is, “What do you actually do up there for most of the flight?” Most people understand that the autopilot is flying the airplane for most of the trip, and the crew is in more of a monitoring role, so the question is understandable.

The answer depends on the kind of flying. On short legs, we’re pretty busy on the radio, and we set up early for the approach, check our weights and speeds for landings, and make any special requests for the station to address (lav services, wheelchairs, et cetera). On longer legs with a lot of time spent in cruise, there is more freedom to do various things.

Back up to the first flight together as a crew. Especially at larger airlines, it isn’t uncommon for a pair of pilots to fly together only once. This means that the first time they meet for the trip may be the first time they’ve ever met, and they will spend some time getting to know one another. Pilots being pilots, it isn’t unusual to meet someone and hit it off like you’ve been BFFs since grade school. At other times one of the crew may be more reserved, but there is still a getting-to-know-you period. In no particular order, you can count on certain questions coming up: Where are you from? How long have you been here? How do you like it? Did you bid this trip? What’s your flying background? And so on.

The first leg or two usually consists of a lot of banter about company goings-on, rumors, new developments, or big announcements made or expected. There is a lot of chatter about family life, common interests, etc. Most pilots will try to avoid certain subjects, such as politics or religion, but some can’t resist the temptation. There are a lot of “Have you flown with…?” stories, and usually a few laughs get shared about someone doing something funny or dumb.

But very personal information gets shared as well. If you spend three or four days or longer in a room the size of a phone booth with someone else who has a tendency to dress like you do, it’s inevitable that you get to know—and share—more than you ever thought you would. Personal fears, secret desires, or just plain secrets get shared. I’ve heard stories of affairs, unplanned pregnancies, crazy tax schemes, you name it. The unwritten rule is that what is said behind that door stays there (except for anything criminal), and most of the time it does. There is a certain sanctity within the cockpit.

And, as you might expect, locker-room style talk and behavior takes place as well.

On longer legs or trips, it isn’t all chatter. There are certain record-keeping requirements for fuel or certain minimum equipment list (MEL) procedures. On long international legs, it isn’t unusual for pilots to read or do crossword puzzles just to keep themselves alert.

But, like the proverbial light switch, when the situation calls for professionalism, that’s what you see. Whether it is a mechanical problem that becomes apparent, or a regular checklist or a weather deviation, pilots never forget who they are and where they are, and when the situation calls for it, the shenanigans are discarded and attention is focused on the job at hand.

It isn’t always work and it isn’t always play…but most of the time, if nothing else, it’s fun!—Chip Wright