Posts Tagged ‘career pilot’


Monday, November 30th, 2015

A common question among airline new-hires concerns the probationary year. What exactly is probation, and how does it work?

Because the airlines are heavily unionized, terminating pilots—even for cause—is not always easy. The union will appeal the termination, and more often than not it is able to get the pilot reinstated.

But when it comes to new hires, the rules are a bit different. Airlines make a significant financial investment in recruiting and training a new-hire pilot. The up-front cost to get a person line-qualified can easily approach $100,000. It’s fair for the company to have an opportunity to evaluate whether that pilot is a good fit.

Probation usually covers the first 12 months of employment, assuming no disruptions such as a furlough or family emergency that require time off. A pilot on probation has no recourse if the company invokes termination. But probation is really not as big a deal as people make it sound.

Because the industry is seniority-based, and because employee numbers tend to be chronologically assigned, it’s pretty easy to figure out when you’re dealing with a newbie on probation.

The easiest way to survive that probation is to simply make sure that nobody knows who you are. If you show up on time every time, don’t call in sick, and follow company procedures, you have nothing to worry about. Being on probation is sort of like checking in with ATC and saying that you are a student pilot.

By that I mean is that most captains and fellow first officers will want to do whatever they can to help you. They will gladly answer any questions, show you some tricks of the trade, and help make your life just a bit easier. In fact, you will usually suffer from information overload, and that’s a good thing.

The same holds for your chief pilot. It’s a common joke that the best way to conduct your airline career is to do it in such a fashion that the CP has no idea you were ever there, and that’s true to an extent. Even so, the CP also wants—needs—to see you succeed, because his or her job is to help keep the operation running. If you have any questions or concerns or something you don’t understand, introducing yourself and saying, “I’m a probationary pilot” will immediately let the CP know that you might need “progressive taxi.”

Pilots do get let go on probation, but it’s never malicious. It’s always related to some aspect of job performance or dependability. I know of a first officer who was fired for stealing window shades. Several were terminated because they could not make the transition to the airplane. One was let go because he called in sick, then used his pass privileges to go on vacation. As long as you don’t do anything dumb, and as long as you apply yourself, probation will be a non-event—followed by a nice pay raise!—Chip Wright

Flying like a professional: Checklists

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

DC10ChecklistIf you are in training with the intention of moving on to the airlines or corporate opportunities, have you thought of trying to train and fly as you would for the job you eventually want to have? Or even if you aren’t planning on flying the “heavy and fast” metal? It’s not as hard as you think.

One of the easiest things to do is to develop an almost sick obsession with checklists. Most people, including general aviation pilots, would be surprised at the level of checklist discipline that airline pilots use. It starts at the gate, usually with a checklist for “Accepting” or “Receiving” the airplane, and it doesn’t end until the airplane is shut down or handed off to either maintenance or another crew.

Some of the checklists are ridiculously long, and some are absurdly short. It doesn’t matter. They all have to be done, in full, every time. Moreover, many are required to be done verbally so that the cockpit voice recorder can be used to verify that the checklist was done in the event of an accident.

The rote process of doing checklists becomes ingrained, and it gets to the point of, quite literally, physical discomfort when one is not completed (not to be confused with what happens when one is simply forgotten).

When I was flying for a regional airline, we had a checklist on a turboprop that we had to complete when passing 18,000 feet. It consisted of changing the settings of the propellers (to reduce noise) and setting the altimeters to the standard of 29.92 inches.

Two items. That’s all. But it would create a lot of angst if someone didn’t get it done on time or was unable to complete it on time (usually because of radio chatter).

We had a couple of similar checklists on the CRJ. In addition, we had a few that were quite wordy, and they’re even worse for inducing a bit of anxiety, because they seemed to be so prone to interruption at the worst possible time—which often meant starting over.

Airline and military pilots don’t let the rush to get home or to the hotel distract them. The checklists are completed the way in which they are supposed to be completed, every single time. They have to be. As I said, the CVR records them, and if we make a mistake, our careers depend on them. I’ve been in situations in which we had very little time to get out of the gate and get to a runway before we would run the risk of not being able to complete the flight, but every checklist still had to be finished. It’s just the way it is. Sometimes the checklists get rushed a bit, but they do get done.

In your training, develop the same mindset. It doesn’t matter how “obvious” something is, or how “simple” an airplane is. Get in the habit early. Not only is it a good one, but it might save you from embarrassment later. It might be something as simple as turning on a transponder or as important as making sure the landing gear is extended. You’ll find that when you don’t complete the checklist, you’ll be squirming in your seat until you do, and when you finally complete it, you’ll suddenly relax.

And the gear will be down.—Chip Wright

Follow your gut

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Check Out ChecklistOne of the common problems in aviation is that of routine and repetition. It’s easy to assume that because we do certain tasks every time we fly, with no change, that perhaps those tasks don’t need to be completed every time we fly. Two examples come to mind: the preflight check and the flight control check.

When you rent an airplane from a flight school, it’s tempting to avoid the preflight or walk-around, because you know the airplane flies every day (or close to it). It’s even more tempting to skip it when you watch the airplane land (or even do a few touch and goes) and then taxi to the tie-down spot. I mean really, it just landed! What could you possibly miss?

A lot, actually. The other pilot might have missed cord showing on the tire because that cord may have not been showing when the flight started, or it was on the bottom of the tire, out of sight, when he conducted his own walk-around.

It’s also possible that there might be damage to the airplane from an unseen bird strike, such as a missing antenna, which the previous pilot might not have noticed if he wasn’t using that particular radio. Fluid leaks also are possible.

Flight control checks are another area in which it’s easy to get complacent. As a student, you’re told that you are checking for flight control functionality and proper rigging (making sure the controls deflect in the proper direction). This is especially true if the airplane has been in maintenance. But there is also something else to test for, which is a general feel for the controls. If you fly the same airplane enough, you will know when it just doesn’t “feel” right, and you should learn to trust that little devil on your shoulder.

I’ve experienced two examples of this. The first was about five years ago on the CRJ. The flight controls were the first officer’s responsibility. One day, my FO immediately said something as he was checking the elevator. What happened next is a long story, but the gist of is that the airplane was broken. It stayed in Richmond for four days, and the tail was basically rebuilt. It took the mechanics 10 pages in the logbook to record all of the work.

Recently, an airplane I was flying had a funny feel to the rudder pedals when the captain checked them. The mechanics were never able to quite duplicate the sensation, but they kept digging and eventually found a failure of a part in the back of the airplane. The flight was cancelled and the airplane was sent to the hangar for repairs.

We do walk-arounds and control checks so frequently that either can become a mindless task. It’s important not to let that happen. Take each of these tasks seriously, and something just doesn’t feel right, remember: It may not be.—Chip Wright

Follow the evidence

Friday, March 13th, 2015

It’s happened again. There’s been another accident, this one involving Air Asia. The airplane was en route from Indonesia to Singapore on Dec. 28, 2014, when it crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board.

And, as usual, speculation about the potential cause(s) was immediate and rampant. Some of it was the picture of basic ignorance about aviation. One newscaster was audacious enough to ask if the use of the metric system (for setting the altimeter) might have played a role in the accident. Where do they find these people?

In this case, the immediate culprit of suspicion was the weather, because people could access the satellite images that were taken at the time of the airplane’s disappearance.

The crew in this accident was very experienced, especially the captain. If this was indeed a weather- related accident, it makes you wonder right away how the crew could have allowed themselves to get into that situation. This is a great reminder of what we try to drive home to student and private pilots, not to mention instrument students and pilots, every day: You’re only as good as your last good decision. Penetrating bad weather of any form is a bad idea. Thunderstorms are violent, and they can destroy the best airplanes with surprising efficiency. Flying in precip in freezing temperatures can easily overwhelm a plane with ice, which can not only destroy lift, but add a crippling amount of weight.

It’s important in this accident, as in all others, to allow the experts the latitude to do their jobs and go wherever the evidence leads them. That’s especially true if or when the evidence starts to paint a picture that sullies the reputation of the crew of the plane or the engines or whatever component is involved. When it comes to safety, facts and information are far more important than reputation.
That isn’t to say that anybody should just pile on to the pilots and blame them. Far from it. But all other evidence needs to be excluded.

I have my own theories about what might have happened, but I’m keeping them to myself. One of the difficult facts to reconcile is that I can think of a number of scenarios that might have developed, but they are all very remote, with highly improbable odds. But that’s the case in any accident: Invariably, something happens that shouldn’t have, or the accident would not have occurred in the first place.

My only wish is that the NTSB were involved. They are the best in the world at what they do, and they do a very good job at maintaining impartiality until they have a true bead on the cause. Politics will likely rear its ugly head, and various entities will do whatever they can to shift the blame. To think otherwise would be naïve.

But until the final report is release, remember: none of us “knows what happened.” The ones who do…are dead.—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

Simple terminology

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

When I changed jobs from my previous carrier to my current one, I needed to learn some new lingo. What was frustrating was having to learn new terminology for fairly mundane things.

At my old carrier, a printout of my four-day trip would be called a “DSL,” for daily schedule log. DSL referred to the actual printout, which we carried around to keep track of what we were doing. When talking about the actual flying that we were doing, it was referred to as a trip. Perfectly logical.

My current company, however, commonly refers to trips as “pairings,” because pilots are “paired” with one another…except when they aren’t. We used the word “pairing” at Comair as well, but only in the process of producing the trips, because the tool in the computer program was called a “pairing generator,” which worked with the “trip optimizer.”

Other carriers often refer to trips or pairings as “rotations,” which I assume comes from the original military use of rotating in and out of duty cycles. NetJets often refers to its seven-day excursions as “tours,” which is an interesting way to put it, and is probably the best choice of words for them. At least nobody calls them “sorties.” Yet.

Even something as simple as checklists can be called by various names. I’ve used the “acceptance check” and the “receiving check,” which are essentially the same thing: a checklist to make sure that the airplane is properly configured and set up prior to doing anything else. The “before start” and the “preflight” checklists are also similar, as are “parking” and “terminating,” except when some companies use both for different things.

For pilots on reserve, there is one assignment that is dreaded above all else, and that is the one that has you going to the airport and sitting for a period of hours in case your services are suddenly needed. At Comair, we called in “ready reserve,” but some companies call it “hot standby” (DHL), some call it “airport available,” and my current company uses the term “field standby.” No matter what you call it, it isn’t a lot of fun.

There are different terms for passengers too. At my current carrier, we refer to children as “half-weights.” At Comair, traveling on your day off was considered “non-reving,” because you were flying for free (producing no revenue), but I’ve since learned that it’s OK to say “SA,” for space available travel. Hey, whatever, just get me where I want to go! Pilots can be either “dead-heading” or “repositioning.” Either way, you are riding in the back from one airport to another as a part of your assignment.

Historically, I’ve always referred to a flight that takes off, then needs to return for some reason, as a “diversion” or a “mechanical.” The new term, I’ve come to learn, is “air return,” which strikes me as silly. After all, where else could the airplane be but in the air when it is determined that it needs to return?

The stack of paperwork we got for each flight at Comair was called the “dispatch release,” or just the “release.” It was a bit of a misnomer because the actual release was a couple of pages. The other 30 feet of printout was weather, performance info, et cetera. At my current carrier, this is all referred to as the “flight papers,” which doesn’t sound very professional in my opinion, but it is a much more accurate description of the whole mess.

This just scratches the surface, but it gives you an idea of how an industry that strives for harmonization manages to do all that it can to avoid it. Either way, you need to learn the language and the various ways to refer to the same thing…or to things different.—Chip Wright

Letters of recommendation

Monday, July 21st, 2014

One of the tasks involved in getting a flying job—and many other jobs as well—is that of getting a reference or a letter of recommendation (LOR). Airlines are big on the LOR, because it’s one of the few avenues that they have to find out a little bit about you and whether or not you will fit in. If they choose, they can contact the writer and have a fairly candid conversation about you.

When it comes to asking for a letter, there are some points to consider. Keep a running list of people who know you personally as well as professionally. Some of those who know you professionally may not necessarily be people who have seen you fly. They could be your old boss, a secretary, a mechanic, et cetera.

Then there are those who have flown with you. Throughout your career, you should keep tabs on pilots with whom you have flown, because these pilots can vouch for your skills. The more you have flown with them, the better. If you were in an emergency situation with them, definitely keep in touch with them, as they might be willing to talk about how you handled a real-life pressure situation.

The best folks to have in your corner are those in positions of authority or responsibility: chief Pilots, check airman, sim evaluators/instructors, et cetera. As you move up the chain—especially at the regionals—these relationships become key, and you need to cultivate them. That means you need to make an honest effort to keep in touch. But, they need to be able to attest to your overall flying and decision-making skills.

When the time comes, asking politely is the proper form. Do not just say, “I need a letter…” The chances are that if you think enough of someone to ask them, others do as well. Check airmen and chief pilots are constantly being asked to write letters, and each one takes time.

Ask politely, by saying, “If you don’t mind, I am applying for a position with XXX, and a letter of recommendation from you would sure mean a lot to me.” Once that nicety is over, ask if the writer would mind taking a few minutes to recopy the letter into a generic one. That way, you won’t need to go back and ask for one for every job you are applying to. When I am asked to write LORs, I always provide several generic, non-specific signed copies for the individual to use at multiple organizations.

Recognize as well that the content of the letter is only part of the battle. The quality counts just as much. If you have a letter that simply says, “Billy is a good pilot and a nice guy,” it’s not the same as one that goes into some depth about specific flying examples, your character, your personality, and your work ethic. The deeper the letter, the more effective—and rest assured that HR departments everywhere know how to read between the lines.

It’s perfectly OK to ask someone if he or she would mind being a reference in the future, especially if you are still working toward making yourself competitive for the job you want. Being asked to write an LOR is flattering, so most folks are happy to do it. Just make sure that you allow that person ample time to do the job for you.

LORs can have a huge impact on your ability to get a job. Start early, get many, pick the best, and pay it forward.—Chip Wright

Pilot taxes

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

I got my annual CD from Turbotax the other day, and it got me thinking about, well, taxes. When you are pilot who flies for hire, there are a number of things to consider. If you are flying as an independent contractor, it’s up to you to make estimated payments. If you are an employee, your employer will deduct your taxes from your paycheck.

As a pilot, you are entitled to deduct certain expenses from your income taxes. While this is not intended to be a tax-advice article, it can point you in the general direction.

The most important point is to document everything. If you have any reason at all to believe that a purchase you are making—be it an item or a service—might be deductible, you should keep your receipt and document what you have bought, when, and where. The IRS provides a fair amount of latitude, and some if it is common sense. As an instructor, the obvious items are things like new headsets, a new kneeboard, and similar items of the sort. The more complicated items are those that also can be used for personal reasons, such as cell phones. For the best advice, talk to a CPA or the local IRS office.

As with many jobs, you will learn that doing your taxes is not going to change much from year to year as far as business expenses and deductions are concerned. If you do your own taxes, you can save some money. In my opinion, it only pays to hire an expert if you are dealing with some complicated items; if you are married to someone who has a fairly high income; or if you have other income that needs to be addressed and accounted for, such as a rental property. It might also pay to have someone talk you through dealing with depreciation if you decide to purchase an aircraft for teaching.

As a general rule, if the item you buy is required for your work, you can likely deduct it. Certain professional organization memberships or periodicals might also apply. If it isn’t required for work, think twice. Again, ask a professional for expert guidance.

Taxes are a hassle we must all deal with, but there are provisions in the tax code that professional pilots can take advantage of. Whether you are self-employed or work for Big Flying School Inc., you can reduce your tax bill legally and smartly, but it all starts with proper documentation and a paper trail….sort of like dealing with the FAA. Be diligent, be smart, and be thorough….just like dealing with the FAA!—Chip Wright

Questions to ask during an airline interview

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

An airline job interview is generally a one-way conversation, with the airline asking all the questions, and you doing your best to get the job. However, you should also be ready and willing to ask certain questions that will affect your future. This short list of questions will not get you “in trouble,” and it will show that you are truly interested in the industry.

  • Q: What will be the impact of FAR 117 on your operation?

If this isn’t addressed in a briefing before your interview, it’s a good question to ask, because many airlines, including regionals, are still coming to grips with the full impact of the rules. Every regional will be required to add staffing to the pilot ranks. The real question is by how much. Ten to 15 percent seems to be a good gauge for now, but each one is different. They may need to alter the schedules in ways not anticipated. My own guess is that it will force them to go to an AM-PM model, but that’s just one option. A simple reason for you to ask is to find out how long you will be on reserve.

  • Q: What will 117 do to reserve requirements?

Reserve status for an airline is one of the least desirable schedules in the industry, so most pilots want to get off reserve and become a line-holder as quickly as possible. Is the airline you are interviewing with planning to increase reserve numbers? Do they know?

  • Q: What will happen when your contract with your major airline expires?

It’s a fair question to ask a regional when the contracts with its major partner expire, and if the expiration date is close, to ask if the contract has been renewed. If it isn’t renewed, can the regional find someplace to put the airplanes to use? If the answer is no, you may not have a job for long. Most fee-for-departure contracts are for 10 years or more, so keep that in mind as you search for work.

  • Q: What is the future of XXX domicile?

This is a question you only want to ask regarding the smallest domicile, or one that is shrinking. If it’s a base at a non-hub airport, definitely ask—these are the ones that are most likely on the chopping block. You’ll probably need to read between the lines or pay as much attention to what they don’t tell you as to what they do, but if there is any chance you are going to be based at a small domicile or are considering moving to one, ask.

  • Q: What are the long-term fleet plans?

As the 50-seat fleet ages and gets retired (driven by both age and by scope clauses in the contracts of major airline pilots), regionals need to be ready to move on to Plan B. Some will thrive with 50-seaters, but most will not. You owe it to yourself to find out what the firm plans are going forward. You should know this before you show up, but getting current information will make your own decision making process a little bit easier.

These are just a few questions you can ask. If you have friends at the company, they can give you some more questions to ask that are pertinent and appropriate. Go in armed, and know exactly what information you need or want to make your own decisions easier to make, especially if you are facing the possibility of getting multiple job offers.—Chip Wright

Calling home for weather

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

There are a handful of approved weather sources that pilots and airlines can use. Approved, that is, by the FAA. There are countless that are not approved, such as Weather Underground, the Weather Channel, and my favorite: calling home.

Airlines use dispatchers to disseminate weather info to the flight crews. The dispatchers in turn use approved sources of meteorological information to develop big weather pictures. But, as any rational person knows, the best tool for analyzing nearby weather is to look out the window. The next best tool is to call someone who can actually look out the window where you want to go.

At my previous job, the dispatchers did not have a real good view out the window because of the design characteristics of the building they used. Even during a bad storm, if I called them, I would get the computerized information, which wasn’t always as new as I wanted it to be. Quite often, I would call my wife or a few other people who lived in specific locations and could give me an immediate sense of what was going on. My father used to get mildly amused when I’d call him for updated info if I was in his neck of the woods.

Officially, I could not/cannot use this information to plan my flight, or determine a suitable alternate, or do much of anything other than to say that I talked to my family. But for getting immediate, accurate information, it works, even if it isn’t “officially” accurate. My dad was especially helpful because, as a pilot himself, he knew what I wanted to know. My wife was a great source of severe weather input because we lived so close to the airport.

Even now, living in another location in the middle of the Pacific, my wife is a good source of here-and-now information—especially with rapidly changing rain conditions. I am not a captain, so I’m not the one who ultimately makes the decision about what’s going to happen, but being able to talk to someone who is “in the know” provides a bit of comfort. It may not be a true pilot report as defined by the FAA, but it is a pirep of another sort: People In REal (close) Proximity.

Again, it isn’t official, and it can’t be used in a court of…well, anything, but talking to people who are really there can be useful. Just use such information as a supplement to the official version, to help build the best big-picture view you can get.—Chip Wright