Posts Tagged ‘career pilots’

Visiting the cockpit

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

Back in the day, it was common to visit the cockpit of an airliner while it was flying. Those grand old days are a thing of the past, but it’s still possible to visit on the ground. In fact, most of the time, pilots are more than happy to show off the business end of a jet. I get a lot of kids who want to come up, and we’re happy to accommodate them. They love to sit in the seats, hear the airplane “talk” (certain warnings), and ask questions. They also love to have their pictures taken, often with a uniform hat or a headset plunked on their heads.

Here’s a secret: We love to have adults come visit as well.

Unfortunately, not too many do. They’re either in a hurry to get where ever they are going, or they are convinced it’s not allowed. Or…they’re just embarrassed. Well, guess what? Don’t be. It’s still a cool place for us, too, and we love to share our office with interested folks. Whether you know a little or a lot about aviation, feel free to ask a pilot or the flight attendant if there is enough time on one end or the other to take a peek.

On a recent flight, a young man stuck his head up front. He’ll start college in the fall, and he will be majoring in aviation with hopes of landing a major airline job down the road. We invited him up, and he spent 20 minutes peppering us with questions and observations. He had his private pilot certificate, and his enthusiasm reminded both of us of our youthful own. It was fun to show him some of the differences between our airplane and his (which is more advanced than ours in many respects), and when I took his picture, he was grinning from ear to ear.

We also picked on him a bit, as he commented that he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to work for our airline or one of our competitors. In good fun, we told him all of the reasons he should choose us, and I think the extra time we gave him helped create a memory that he will never forget.

If you’re on the career track, and you make one of these visits, don’t hesitate to use it as a possible networking opportunity. Feel free to ask the crew if you can keep in touch with them via email to ask follow-up questions or career advice. Those contacts may one day turn out to be invaluable, and at the very least, you may get a new friend or counselor out of it.

Or maybe you just get a cool picture of yourself in the captain’s seat!—Chip Wright

Decision consequences

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

It’s hard for a young person to project into the future, but it is necessary at times, especially for someone who wants to pursue a career in aviation. I know a pilot who has been flying for the regionals for nearly 20 years, and he can’t catch a break. We flew together when we were budding CFIs, building time and experience, before going our separate ways.

I recently heard from a mutual friend about this pilot, and he’s still trying to get on with a major. But he has developed a couple of strikes against him. First, he apparently turned into the Grumpy Captain whom folks try to avoid. He isn’t so bad that his first officers are calling in sick, but he has definitely lost a lot of his enthusiasm for the job. It’s quite possible that he burned a few bridges with pilots who have left his carrier, and they may have done what they can to prevent him from getting an interview—let alone a job.

The second strike is a more serious one. Apparently at one time he worked as an under-the-table security individual, and he got arrested after a physical altercation. I don’t know if he was ever charged with anything, but violence of any sort never looks good. It’s difficult if not impossible to explain away. In this case, the infraction took place well over a decade ago, but it may not matter.

Infractions involving alcohol are also not uncommon, but they can generate roadblocks that will significantly delay your career progression. Canada does not allow foreigners who have a DUI or DWI to enter the country, and the airlines don’t want to hire anyone who can’t go somewhere because of such a stupid act. In my previous job, I knew a couple of flight attendants who had to be taken off trips because of the rule, and I knew a few pilots who had to be removed from their own trips for the same reason. I don’t know if any of them ever got another job.

The simplest rule to follow when it comes to certain decisions is this one: If you have to think for a minute about whether or not something is a good idea, it probably isn’t. Put another way, if you think you might want to hide what you’re doing (or will have done), you should probably not do it. I can’t say for sure that my friend has been “blacklisted,” or has torpedoed his own chances, but aviation is a small industry, and people have long memories.

If you make a poor decision, expect to pay the consequences.—Chip Wright

Can’t we all just get along?

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

If you fly for an airline, it’s going to happen soon enough. Eventually, you’re going to have to fly with someone whom you just don’t like.

It may be a small “don’t like,” or it can be a monumental one, to the point where you simply can’t take it anymore. If it’s extreme, you can likely get someone else involved—and you probably should—who can help defuse the situation. But if the other person is someone with whom you just don’t enjoy spending time in a cockpit, then you need to figure out a way to make the best of it.

In general terms, there are three different personality conflicts you might encounter. The first one is the simplest: You just don’t have anything in common or anything to talk about. You may like sports, and he may like art. She may be very quiet, and you may like to talk about anything just to kill time. Generally speaking, the best strategy in dealing with something like this is to just look out the window and enjoy the view.

The second conflict has the potential to get out of hand, and that is the one in which you can speak to each other, but everything devolves into an argument, or at least a heated discussion. In this case, you may both like sports, but you may not root for the same team. This is the kind of person you aren’t going to see eye-to-eye with no matter what, and the risk of missing radio calls or checklists is very real. At some point, there needs to be a common ground you can each agree on, even if you share the same passion. Or perhaps you have a common enemy. If you’re a Redskins fan and he roots for Dallas, you can probably at least agree that you don’t like the Eagles. Take the victories where you can get them.

The third conflict is the one in which you simply don’t like the other person or can’t get along. The reason doesn’t matter. It may be something you can hide from the other, but it may not be. Over the years I’ve flown with a few people I just didn’t like. The term I would use that applies to just about all of them is “abrasive.” There was just something that made them unpleasant. In this circumstance, my advice is to just bury yourself in something else. Study the flight manual, the emergency checklists, or something else work-related. Find something to distract yourself, and when you get to the hotel, politely decline any invitations to eat if you can. Go “visit” a friend, if you have to. Use the down time to purge your mind and get ready for the next day.

If things get way out of hand, you may not have a choice but to enlist the help of a chief pilot or conflict resolution specialist from your union. Don’t expect much sympathy from a chief, especially if you are out of domicile. You’re expected to be able to do the job, no matter what. But, sometimes you just can’t. Legends abound about pilots on the verge of a fistfight in the cockpit. It is imperative that you not let anything degenerate into anything close to that while in flight.

Some airlines allow pilots to say who they prefer not to fly with, and others do not. A bad crew match can make a four-day trip feel like it’s lasting forever. But most of the time, that’s all it is: a four-day trip. If it’s unbearable to fly with that individual, you can make efforts to avoid him or her in the future.—Chip Wright

Pilots behaving badly

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

alcoholwithoutalcholIt has happened again: pilots behaving badly. In the last few weeks, a pilot from one airline was tested for alcohol on the ramp in Detroit; he failed the test. Shortly after, a pilot from another airline was arrested and charged with allegedly running a series of brothels.

Let’s look at these two issues separately.

Flying—or trying to fly—under the influence is a serious offense, but a pilot who has a problem with drugs or alcohol has options and resources available. A treatment program that is jointly run by the unions, the FAA, and the airlines can get a pilot back on track and back to work, though it may take an extended period of time.

It gets complicated when you show up for work already inebriated. There isn’t a lot of patience from anyone—the company, the FAA, your co-workers—when you take the risk of attempting to fly while under the influence. Alcoholism is a disease, and when it’s in gear, you can’t control it. That said, folks have little mercy for a pilot who has a drinking issue, especially since nobody knows if it’s part of a problem or just a one-time event.

When you show up in uniform, many people are looking to see how you’re behaving. Transportation Security Administration agents and company personnel are especially watching you, and the TSA folks are trained to try to get you into a conversation to see if they can smell alcohol on your breath.

Generally speaking, if you fail a breathalyzer, you can expect to be terminated or at the very least suspended. If you know you have a problem, you can try to ‘fess up before the test, but you still have to submit to it.

The pilot who ran the brothels has a different problem. What he did is not something that any airline puts down as a prohibited act—there isn’t enough paper in the world to write down everything a company wants its employees not to do, and some things should just be obvious. That said, the general caveat is that you are not to engage in any act that brings disrepute, bad publicity, or embarrassment to the company, and running brothels—even just being accused of doing so—definitely qualifies.

It’s too soon to know the final outcome of either event, but it’s a safe bet that one or both pilots is done flying, at least for a living. Pilots are fairly high profile people, and we are often held to a higher standard than most other professions. We do something that is perceived as high risk, and that entails a lot of training to master a difficult skill. In turn, we are entrusted with the care of expensive machinery, not to mention the lives of our passengers, which might measure in the hundreds.

In the post-9/11 world, the list of offenses for which you can lose security clearances is longer than ever, and no airline wants to have to defend the decision to employ an individual (or to keep one employed).

Further, nobody wants to read about such embarrassing exploits in USA Today. And in this world of cameras on every corner, nobody wants to see a coworker getting arrested or tested for possibly being drunk. A mug shot is bad enough; video of you stumbling would be even worse. It would also likely be unrecoverable.—Chip Wright

Scatter plans and diversions, part one

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

This is Part One of a three-part post about a single flight from Eagle, Colorado, to Newark, New Jersey, with an unscheduled stop in Albany, New York. Parts two and three will appear in the coming weeks.—Ed.

StormI was recently working a trip that involved some bad weather at the destination. Further, because we were departing a geographically challenging airport (Eagle County Regional [EGE]), which is a high-elevation airport with a mountain at one end, we were limited in the amount of fuel we could carry so that we could maximize our payload. When the aircraft started holding for Newark, we were severely limited in the amount of time that we could spin circles in the sky.

Our scheduled alternate was Albany International (ALB), just a few minutes north of Newark Liberty International (EWR). However, our hold was on an arrival that begins closer to Cleveland. At this point on a flight, the perspective of the crew and the company often begins to diverge. When the weather is down and airlines know that diversions are likely, they need to be fairly strategic in choosing alternates. Otherwise, crews will all race for the same couple of airports. For instance, at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport (ATL) in Atlanta, the closest and often the “best” is Lovell Field (CHA) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Unfortunately, CHA quickly gets overwhelmed, and it takes far longer than it should to get the airplanes refueled and on their way. Crews like CHA because its close proximity means they can hold longer, thus improving their chances for getting into ATL on the first try.

My company has been using a “scatter plan” in which computer software tries to selectively spread out the diversions so as to avoid overwhelming one or two airports while minimizing the risk of a diversion (and minimizing the turn time when a diversion occurs). Other factors may include selecting a diversion that also happens to be the final destination for a number of connecting passengers.

Scatter plans aren’t without problems. First, the weather needs to cooperate. Second, so does the crew. In our case, ALB was a legal alternate, but the weather wasn’t very good. It was right at legal minimums. We started collecting ATIS reports for Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse. Several had either great visibility with a low ceiling, and some had a poor selection of both (in the Part 121 world, visibility is all that matters). When we contacted the company about Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), the best option, we were told that the ramp was full. Getting to ALB also meant flying through the worst of the weather.

This brings up another issue: crew legality. The company also needs to take into account which crew members may run into duty time issues. One of our flight attendants had started so early in the morning that she didn’t have a lot of time with which to work. Second, I was on my sixth day of flying, so an abnormally long delay in PIT—a very good possibility—was going to strand me as well. Further, the airplane would be stuck until they could bring in another first officer, because I would not legally be able to fly the next day.

As we began studying the weather, we pushed for a change in the alternate. The ALB weather was dropping, as was our fuel load. But there were not a lot of options. Finally, our dispatcher, who had a much bigger picture than we did, sent us to ALB. So, off we went. Could we get in, and how long would we be there?—Chip Wright

The challenges of too much information

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

I sometimes miss the old days of preflight planning. In the not-so-distant past, my airline preflight planning was amazingly simple. I’d turn on the Weather Channel, see what was going on, and then head to the airport.

Once I was there, I’d get my dispatch release and look at the radar and satellite images. If I had any other questions or concerns, I’d talk them over with the dispatcher. The whole process took amazingly little time on most days.

At my current airline, much more has been put back into the hands of the pilots. With the proliferation of electronic flight bags (EFBs) on iPads and tablets, preflight planning has gone to a new level, but the convenience is also exacerbated by the time required to look at all of the available information. It seems that it takes me longer than ever to get all of the “necessary” stuff done.

After I download the release and the flight plan, I start looking at the weather, and at times it’s information overload. There is the regular weather from the WSI app that we use, which has so many tools that I’m still learning about them after years of use. Then there is the abundance of information from the Jeppesen FlightDeck Pro app, which can be a nice complement to WSI, but it sometimes provides contradictory information.

Once I have the weather, it’s a matter of getting the information from it that I need. This time of year, icing information is critical, especially on the arrival and departure. Turbulence is another critical area. Not only is it critical to find the most comfortable ride for our passengers, but we also need to be in the smoothest air possible for our flight attendants. When they are out of their seats—especially when they are conducting their service—they are very prone to injury. Even when they’re given a heads up, they need time to stow the carts and buckle in. Turbulence-related injuries have been a major area of concern in the airlines for several years, and it’s often the first point of discussion when the crew comes together before the flight.

Storms are always a matter of concern, because every deviation we make affects our fuel planning. Most of the time, this is addressed by the dispatcher, but sometimes the captain wants more fuel. It’s a balancing act with extra fuel, because fuel costs money, and the more fuel you have, the heavier the airplane is, so the more fuel (and the more money) you burn.

The more information I have, the more I seem to want. However, at some point I have to accept what I have and move on to actually operating the flight. I know I’ve done my due diligence, and everything either works out or it doesn’t.

And if anybody wants to question my decision making, I can just show them the massive amount of intel I’ve collected on my iPad.–Chip Wright

How NOT to network

Friday, February 5th, 2016

networkingI’ve written several blog posts about networking, and what is involved in creating a good network. This time, I want to emphasize what is not networking.

In review, a good network is a group of friends or colleagues who can provide you with tips and information in your pursuit of a job. In the ideal case, they can walk into the office of a direct supervisor or the human resources folks, hand them your resume, and make a strong case for hiring you. And in the ideal case, that’s exactly what will happen.

Creating that network requires effort. You need to keep in touch with people when it isn’t always convenient, and you need to make sure that you keep those people apprised of changes in your status or qualifications.

So what is the “improper” way to network?

In the airlines, a lot of folks meet other pilots via the jump seat (the extra seat in the cockpit that pilots sometimes need to use while coming and going to work) or spending time in the airport. If you have another pilot sitting in your jump seat as he commutes on your flight, that does not constitute “flying with you.” It’s inappropriate to ask him to use that flight as a means to say that he’s flown with you so that he can write you a letter of recommendation. I’ve been asked to do that before, and the answer is always no, especially when we don’t work for the same airline. I’m not suggesting that such arrangements haven’t been used before, but that doesn’t make it right.

Spending five minutes eating lunch with another pilot in an airport deli is not a network either. If the pilot volunteers to help you, that’s one thing. But to blatantly ask with no real relationship established is sure to backfire far more often than it succeeds.

Losing track of someone and asking them months or years down the road, out of the blue, hardly counts as well. Likewise, asking for help from someone who is not in your desired line of work is also risky. They don’t know nearly enough about the ins and outs of being a pilot to be able to speak honestly about you or the job, and it puts them in a bad spot of things don’t work out. It’s one thing to ask for a character reference from a nonpilot, but that’s as far as it should go.

I recently rode home on the jump seat of another carrier. The crew did some bellyaching that was borderline unprofessional, but not unusual. We spent some time talking in cruise, as they were peppering me with questions about the company, rumors, et cetera. At one point, one of them came right out and asked for my help with a letter. It didn’t sit well with me, and I politely declined, saying that it was my personal policy not to write letters unless I had actually flown and worked with an individual. That said, I offered to provide my contact info if he wanted to keep in touch; he declined. I think he realized that he had crossed the line as far as I was concerned.

Networking is such a critical skill, but it’s really one of common sense. Be polite, be genuine, and keep in touch. It’s really that simple. Anything else is pandering, and it often fails miserably.—Chip Wright

JetBlue’s new ab initio program

Monday, December 7th, 2015

JetBlue has recently announced that it would begin an ab inito pilot training program, which it hopes to kick off in 2016. The company said that the program was not founded because of any impending pilot shortage, but that claim that is dubious at best. While the details are sparse, the apparent structure of the program will be similar to the multi-crew pilot certificate that certain European carriers use.

JetBlueThe multi-pilot license (MPL) works by training candidates with no flight time whatsoever ab initio (“from the beginning”), using simulators for the majority of training. The intent is to immerse students into the crewed cockpit concept as early as possible. Once the basics are mastered, candidates spend large chunks of time flying “flights” that are similar to line operations, but with all manner of problems and issues introduced. Everything from medical emergencies to cabin fires is fair game, and students are required to respond accordingly.

Under a traditional MPL program, pilots will only be qualified to fly certain airline equipment. Depending on how the program is structured, it’s quite possible that a pilot will be fully qualified in the Embraer E-190 (which is the only plane that JetBlue is proposing right now), but would not be able to rent a Cessna 172 at the local FBO.

As noted, the details are scant, and the FAA has to weigh in on JetBlue’s proposal. The early word is that pilots would still get some traditional certificates (probably private, commercial, and instrument), and would then transition to the airline training environment, which would result in an ATP. JetBlue has said that pilots would work with “partners” to get the requisite experience, but it’s unclear if that means sending pilots to work at another flight school, or if they would be sponsored to work for a regional for a while.

So, is this program worth considering for the airline pilot wanna be? That’s a good question, and it’s worth studying when the details are available. While JetBlue has claimed that it will make the monetary investment, nothing is free. It’s a safe bet that there will be some kind of contract required to make sure that pilots don’t get the training and then bolt. Such contracts can be a pair of golden handcuffs.

An alternative possibility is that JetBlue is going to propose a program to the FAA in which the successful candidates will not be eligible to fly for anyone else, thus rendering moot the fear that a pilot will jump ship to a better employment opportunity at another airline (i.e., a non-compete clause). That said, I still suspect a contract will be required in case the candidate decides that instead of flying airplanes, he or she would rather pursue a different line of work.

At present, there are plenty of regional airline pilots that JetBlue can choose from, and the pilots at JetBlue recently voted to join ALPA; negotiations for their first collective bargaining unit are under way, and it’s safe to assume that there will be across-the-board improvements, which will further enhance the appeal of the airline as a place to work. This program is clearly—despite the company denials—a strategy for getting ahead of the pilot shortage while controlling the training of future pilots.

But will it work? Will it last? My early guess is that it will have mixed results at best. Training is expensive, and in this case, there will not only have to be training costs covered, but likely some basic living expenses as well. The core business is still to run an airline, and it will take an awful lot of ticket sales to train a pilot.

While candidates will be exposed to a lot of JetBlue Kool Aid, at some point they will begin to learn to decipher the difference between what the company says and reality, and let’s face it: No matter how great any company is, no company is perfect. Further, smart individuals are only going to be willing to sign contracts with certain limits and restrictions on their ability to move on, and there will always be a few who manage to walk away unscathed.

This presents an interesting situation for airlines. From a competitive standpoint, if nobody else follows suit, JetBlue may have to give this up just because of the cost. Shareholders want to see a return on their investment, and they may not like this idea.

Time will tell if this will be a success. If it is, JetBlue management will look like geniuses. If not, it’s an expensive failure to absorb.—Chip Wright

Can you prepare for class?

Monday, November 9th, 2015

It’s one thing to hear the training is like drinking from a fire hose, but it’s another to actually live that. What can you do to make the transition easier?

Most airlines do almost nothing to provide materials that you can study in advance. At a carrier where your equipment won’t be decided until you get to class and bid on it, this carries slightly more logic (but not much more). At carriers where the equipment is a foregone conclusion, it doesn’t make much sense at all. There is certainly material that could be provided to you for study that won’t violate security-sensitive rules established in the wake of September 11, 2001.

But, since that information from your future employer won’t be coming, you are on your own. If you are indeed going to a company where the equipment is already known, you can try to get your hands on the memory items and limitations that you will be expected to memorize. If you have a friend at that carrier, great. If not, find one.

Another thing you can start learning are some of the complex weather rules. While many of these don’t change from one carrier to the next, every airline has certain rules that are specific to that carrier. Alternatively, not every carrier is able to get all of the various exemptions, so what is in effect at one won’t necessarily be at another. Unless you can get the actual information from someone currently employed there, don’t assume that anything generic will work.

Airplane systems are usually fairly consistent, but every airline teaches them differently. Airline A may put a lot of emphasis on one system that Airline B appears to gloss over. Further, there can be differences based on certain avionics and/or engine packages. Again, if it doesn’t come from the source, be careful. Most of the major systems, such as flight controls, pressurization, fire suppression, and hydraulic will be the same from one carrier to the next for a given fleet, but instead of committing a lot of information to memory, concentrate instead on a more superficial familiarity that will make it easier to absorb the details later.

Even if the systems are consistent, the operational philosophies will vary from one carrier to another. For example, I flew the CRJ for 14 years, and I sat on the jump seat of several carriers that also flew it. At Comair, walking away from the airplane with the auxiliary power unit running was to risk your job. At another carrier, this was standard practice. On the other hand, we had much more lenient restrictions on taking off with the brakes above a certain temperature than a different carrier I rode on did. None was “wrong”; we all just did it differently.

If you can get current information about your soon-to-be employer, the best way to prepare for class is to stick with memory items and limitations and weather policies, and perhaps a general understanding of FAR 117. Everything else will fall into place later. More accurately, it will come from the fire hose later.—Chip Wright

Disability insurance

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

When you’re in your 20s and 30s, it’s hard to imagine that your health will ever be seriously affected by anything. It’s bad enough to imagine getting cancer or a sleep disorder, but what about something less serious, such as a broken bone (or two or three)?

Pilots are unique in that our health affects both our direct and our legal ability to report for work. Something as simple as back pain can keep us at home. We are bound by the terms of our medical certificate to be of sound mind and body. If you work in an office and break your leg or your arm, you can still come to work. You may even be just as productive and as efficient with the injury as you are without it.

Not so with flying. If you break a leg skiing or an arm playing softball, you’re grounded until it heals. Further, if your medical expires during your injury, you will likely need a flight physical to return to work. If you don’t have sufficient sick time in your leave bank, you could face a financial strain. Most airlines only allow a sick time accrual rate of a few hours a month.

I don’t want to sound like a salesman, but I’ll take the risk. If you get hired by an airline, opt into whatever short- and long-term disability insurance the company and/or the union offers. Rates are based on age, so it’s cheaper when you’re younger, which is also when you’re not so well paid. It’s an investment that is worth making in yourself.

Over my career I’ve seen young and old pilots be out of work for extended periods of time through no fault of their own. One, in his late 20s, was out over a year because of a severe automobile accident. One was out for two months with a broken leg that was slow to heal. Another was out for nearly two years with a form of liver cancer. A number have been incapacitated by mental health issues and/or alcoholism. In the last couple of years, the FAA has attempted to crack down on overweight pilots. If they ever succeed in doing this, a large percentage of us will be looking at long periods of time off while we try to shed the extra weight.

As a professional pilot, take nothing for granted—especially your health. Get the STD/LTD coverage early, and keep it. With any luck, you’ll never need to thank me for it. But if you do, at least you won’t have to worry about coming up with the money for a stamp.–Chip Wright