Posts Tagged ‘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 Three: On the ground at EWR

Monday, March 14th, 2016

This is Part Three of a three-part post about a single flight from Eagle, Colorado, to Newark, New Jersey, with an unscheduled stop in Albany, New York. Read Part One here. Read Part Two here.—Ed.

Finally, after an hour on the ground, we got airborne from ALB, going to EWR, for what was scheduled for a 25-minute flight on paper. We had added a few thousand pounds of extra fuel to pad our margins, and it turned out to be a good idea. The ride to EWR at 12,000 feet was awful. Everyone was getting vectored all over the sky. It was bumpy, rain was pouring, and the radar display didn’t show any  good options. Nearly every flight was refusing some of the assigned headings. To add to the fun, one of our controllers suffered a headset failure, leaving us with no communication for a few seconds while controllers switched stations, then switched back. At least we didn’t have to take a bad heading for a few seconds. That said, the turns and altitude changes that came were of the urgent variety.

At long last, we were vectored over Teterboro for the ILS 22L. Unfortunately, some of the worst weather was between us and the airport. We discussed and reviewed the wind shear escape maneuver, and we both expected to have to use it. It would probably add another 30 minutes to the flight get re-vectored for an approach while waiting for the weather to clear the final, but so be it.

In the rain, the airplane just didn’t want to descend. It felt as if we were suspended from puppet strings thanks to an updraft.

Finally, we moved forward and started down. We’d been told to expect significant airspeed fluctuations at 900 feet. But as is usually the case in aviation, any news is old news. The weather was moving toward the airport. The airspeed fluctuated 10 to 15 knots in both directions all the way down the final. The captain handled it with aplomb, and this time we were in the clear at around 700 feet. It felt like VFR after our approach to ALB.

We finally landed almost an hour after we had taken off, and as we taxied to the gate, reports of wind shear on the final began to pepper the radio. I don’t know if anyone else had to divert or go around, and by that point I didn’t care. We were on the ground at our destination. We’d earned a year’s pay on two flights. We were tired. We shut down the airplane and packed up our stuff.

I was the last one off the airplane. As I walked into the terminal, one of our passengers said with genuine appreciation, “Thanks for getting us here.” Our experience had helped us make the safest decisions. Our skill had helped us in flight. The company scatter plan had worked to minimize the disruption, big though it was. Our work had paid off. I was suddenly consumed with exhaustion, but I looked at our passenger and said, “You’re welcome.”

Our trip wasn’t in the brochure, if you will. But it’s a necessary part of the job. And we had completed it legally and safely, if not expeditiously. The entire system had worked: the airlines operation, ATC, you name it—all the pieces had come together. My flight home had cancelled, so I crashed for the night, took a shower, and left in the morning…on time.—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

What does good CRM look like?

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

Crew resource management (CRM) was a major buzzword in the 1990s, and for good reason. Brought to light by the United Airlines 232 crash in Sioux City, Iowa, CRM is essentially the practice of using all available resources to their fullest extent and potential, both in the airplane and outside of it. While the captain still retains the overall responsibility for the flight, he or she is only fully effective when he or she welcomes the input of those around him.

Having spent more than 10 years as a captain, I’ll freely admit that I probably forgot at times what it was like to not be in that role. That said, I always tried to make my first officers realize how much I valued what they brought to the table.

Stories abound about what bad CRM looks like, or what it can lead to. Airline crashes in Portland, Oregon, and the Florida Everglades were shining examples of what could go wrong when the crew was not a cohesive unit. The KAL 747 crash in Guam and the Asiana crash in San Francisco highlight the fact that mastering CRM is a battle that will never end. If any person associated with any flight doesn’t feel like they can offer input that will be accepted, the flight is one step closer to becoming a possible accident.

But CRM can also go too far in the other direction. Familiarity, comfort and routine can be just as much of a disruption. When you fly with people more than once, you quickly learn what they do well, what they tend to mess up, what they like, and what they don’t. As a first officer once again, I’ve relearned the ability to adapt to the various personalities of my captains, and I’ve gotten very good at figuring out certain things they like or don’t. And when you get along really well with someone, it’s easy for one or the other to forget a checklist or a procedure. It’s one thing to forget to turn on the beacon, but it’s something else to forget to put the flaps to the right setting for takeoff.

But most of the time, good CRM is so natural and easy that you don’t even realize you’re watching it. The captain knows and trusts his crew to speak up when necessary, and the first officer isn’t at all shy about pointing out a possible mistake or questioning the freedom to do a certain checklist at a certain time. Even the best of us miss the occasional radio call or forget a speed or altitude restriction.

With more and more new pilots coming into the industry, CRM also is a critical component because the new pilots who have trained on state-of-the-art general aviation airplanes are going to have to learn to fly “archaic” airplanes, and it’s important to keep the lines of communication open as people continue to learn.

But the important thing to remember is that no matter how well you are doing today, you can do better tomorrow.—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

When the company airplane is your airplane

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

One of the perks of being a pilot is the ability to do things that others can’t do—specifically, taking an airplane to travel in a fraction of the time that it takes to do so in a car, while enjoying a unique experience that can only be had in the air.

There are myriad reasons to want to make a career out of flying: the mental and physical challenges of mastering flight, the financial rewards, the opportunity to command some of the largest machines ever made. One of them becomes more obvious as you get more involved, and that is taking advantage of the free travel while working. Talk to any pilot or flight attendant, and one thing we all do is take full advantage of layovers to schedule our trips.

I grew up in Maryland, and my parents stayed there after my sister and I left, thus breaking the law that says all seniors must move to Florida or Arizona. In my regional days, we used to have quite a few layovers in the D.C. and Baltimore areas. I would bid the trips to see my folks. Some of the overnights were fairly short and didn’t afford time for much of a visit. Others were long enough that I could go spend the night in their house. On those trips, my wife and kids would often travel out ahead of me to spend some time with the grandparents. It was beneficial for all of us.

When I was a first officer at Comair and newly married, I used to bid five-day trips with all Florida overnights. My wife, a teacher who hailed from Jacksonville, would spend the summers at her parents’ house and would come to Orlando when I was in town, which was three nights a week. Instead of going home on the days I was gone, she’d stay with friends. Our company hotel got to know her so well that she’d walk into the lobby and they would recognize her and give her the key to my room. It was a great deal for us.

For a couple of years, I was able to get long overnights that allowed me to visit my sister and her kids.

I still take advantage of this little perk, bidding trips that take me to places where I can visit friends I haven’t seen in years. It’s one thing to keep in touch on Facebook or via phone, but it’s something else entirely to spend time together in person. If it’s someone whom the expression “a little goes a long way” (and let’s face it, we all know those people), short visits are a handy excuse for getting to bed early.

Recently, I was able to use an overnight to visit a good friend who has had a major health scare. While he’s expected to make a full recovery, it was a reminder that this job is a real blessing when it comes to the ancillary benefits of what we do. Likewise for one of my flight attendants who was able to overnight in her home town and surprise her entire family with a visit on Christmas Day.

Often times, the fact that you’re paid to do this suddenly just doesn’t matter.—Chip Wright

A look back at 2015

Monday, January 11th, 2016

As 2015 settles in the rear-view mirror, it’s a good time to look back and see where we’ve been and where we’re going, in this case as a career field. For years, we’ve heard about the impending shortage of pilots facing the airlines. At long last, it’s here, and it’s a sellers’ market.

With help and backing from their major airline partners—the ones actually paying the bills—the regionals have been forced to dramatically increase pay, and nowhere has this been more important than in the slave wages that had been paid to first- and second-year first officers. For several years, regional airline managers tried to work around their collective bargaining agreements by offering some kind of signing/retention bonus, and for a while this worked. In a few cases, it backfired, because the unions argued that it was a violation of their contracts (it was), and forced the company to stop paying the bonuses and address the issue in collective bargaining, which opens up the entire contract. But that didn’t stop the race to pay, and while some of those bonuses reached $10,000, at least one airline is paying up to $80,000 spread out over four years.

In the last 18 months, regional pay has improved dramatically, with first-year pay averaging around $40,000. This is more than double what it was just a few years ago. Better still, with the majors retiring (and hiring) thousands of pilots, first officers are not looking at the decade-long wait to become captains, which means they will jump fairly soon to the $65,000-$70,000 level of pay if they so choose.

Is there a potential downside to all of this? Perhaps. Because of the severity of the cutbacks on regional flying the last several years, combined with the pay, student starts among those looking to fly professional dropped dramatically. It will take time to play catchup, especially with the new rules put into effect for new pilots to become entry level first officers after the Colgan 3407 accident.

Secondarily, the majors are trying to shed as many 50-seaters as they can, because as cheap as fuel is now, it won’t stay that way, and when it climbs, the 50-seater becomes exponentially more expensive to operate. The move now is toward far more 70- to 76-seat airframes.

For regional pilots, the downside is simple: As regional pay (costs) rise, along with the number of passengers affected, it becomes much more expensive to deal with a cancellation that might be attributed to a lack of crews. At some point, it becomes more economical to have the pilots at the main line fly those larger regional jets. American (via USAirways’ E-190), JetBlue, and Delta have already started to migrate to that model, and it may happen across the rest of industry as well. Time will tell.

Two thousand fifteen, however, was a banner year in many respects, as the airlines hired at a record pace, and 2016 promises more of the same (United alone will bring on 1,000 new pilots in 2016, a number that will likely not change much in the ensuing years). Record profits were recorded thanks to better marketing, the effects of consolidation, cheap fuel, and good winter weather (fewer de-icing events). The pilots at Delta and Southwest recently turned down significant pay raises, signifying that they think more is available, and United’s pilots will be voting on a significant raise in January (it includes language to “snap up” if Delta then tops it).

It’s been a long time coming for this sort of optimism in the airlines, especially at the regionals. Movement will occur, and new jobs will be available. If you’ve been on the fence and are at all qualified, this is a great time to give some serious thought to making the leap.—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