Posts Tagged ‘first officer’

Lifestyles: The regionals

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Regional jetYou spend every free moment thinking about flying, or actually flying, or studying flying, or actually thinking about studying flying—maybe even while flying. Your hours slowly build, your certificates and ratings begin to pile up. First is the private, then the instrument, then your commercial, and your CFI. You live sparsely and spend the same, minimizing your expenditures while trying to maximize your income. You provide the best service and instruction you can, being fair to your customers and yourself, and in time collect your multiengine credentials. You make mistakes, scare yourself (and others), and learn more about flying while working as a CFI than you will for the rest of your career. Always focused, you can sense that your opportunity as an airline pilot or a charter pilot is within reach.

What will it be like?

The routine at the regionals is, in many ways, different than it is at the majors. Because the regionals feed to the hubs of their partners, they often provide a frequency of service to the smaller cities that the majors cannot match. Towns like Des Moines, Iowa; Richmond, Virginia; Albany, New York; and Tulsa, Oklahoma, are the bread and butter of the regionals. The majors may bring in the occasional 737 or MD-80, but the RJ (in some variant) is king here, sometimes for as few as two flights a day, and often for as many as seven.

As a regional pilot, you will spend your days bouncing in and out of one or more hubs, connecting people to larger aircraft bound elsewhere or bringing them to a meeting or home. There are some point-to-point city pairs, but not as many as there used to be. Some cities, like Raleigh, are mini-focus cities for multiple carriers. You will typically fly trips that range from one to four days (usually three days or four), though a few are five days. You may start early in the morning or sometime after lunch. Frequently you will stick with an “AM” or a “PM” schedule, but not always. On reserve, the one day, two-leg out-and-back may turn into a six-day trip. As a line holder, you will generally fly for three to four days and be off for three to four days. Usually there is a long block of seven or as many as 10 days off somewhere in the month.

On the same day you may fly from the warm beaches of Miami to the frigid winters of Green Bay, stopping to deice, or even being forced to re-deice somewhere along the way. You will learn to deal with broken airplanes, rushed passengers and gate agents, and tired flight attendants. You will learn to eat faster than a Marine in battle, and to time your walk-around so you don’t have to stand on a ramp in the rain. You will average at least four flights a day, and  at times you will do as many as eight, and you will feel exhausted when you do.

You will learn that the names of the days no longer matter. You are on Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.

You will sleep in a different hotel each night, and you will learn to pack your bags efficiently and only unpack what you must. You will need a few months to figure out how to pack for yourself: winter clothes versus summer, workout attire, your iPod, and whatever personal items you deem to be critical to making life on the road just a bit easier. You will learn to pack your suitcase so that you can fit it into an overhead compartment on any airplane.

Some nights you will go to bed late and wake up all too early. On others, you will be done flying by noon and start again the next evening. You will learn by necessity how to constantly juggle your sleep patterns. There will be some nights when you sleep like a newborn baby and others where, for no explainable reason, you will not be able to sleep a wink no matter how exhausted you are. Soon, you will know where the best hidden jewels for restaurants are, and you will try to bid your schedule accordingly. At times you will forget where you are.

You will learn to maximize your time off to get as much done as possible. Laundry, dry cleaning, and errands all need to be completed ASAP on your return home. You will pay the bills, get used to your own bed again, get used to sleeping with your spouse or partner again, and finally get the lawn mowed just as your neighbors are organizing a homeowner’s intervention. Soon, you realize you are wise to have a set of clothes ready to go at home so you can swap clean and dirty in a pinch if you don’t have the time or energy to do laundry. If you commute—and odds are good that at some point you will have to—you will check the flights to get you back to work. You may need to book your hotel room for the night before or after your trip.

It is a rhythm. It isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t always fun. But most of the time, it is. When you are home, you are home. There is no work, and your time is your own. And soon, you are watching your logbook fill up, and you are anticipating two more milestones: captain, and an offer from a major.—Chip Wright

How the captain earns the money

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

It is well-known that the captain makes the big bucks. Another joke is that when thegold coin first officer looks to the left, he sees the captain. When the captain looks to the left, he sees a window with a reflection of…himself.

So what is it that the captain does that the FO doesn’t that earns the captain those big bucks?

Airlines use seniority for everything, so the captain’s rank and pay really don’t mean anything other than that he or she was hired first. Even this isn’t absolute. Some FOs decide to stay in the right seat because of personal reasons, and they may actually be senior to their captain.

The pay differential is there because the captain is being paid for generally having more experience (the above example notwithstanding), and for having more responsibility. The captain and flight dispatcher are jointly responsible for the flight—but once the airplane leaves the ground, the captain becomes the final authority.

The captain makes his money not during normal operations, but during abnormal operations, when difficult decisions need to be made. The two examples that most stand out are in-flight emergencies or developments that might require a diversion, and in making a decision that could result in a cancellation.

Diversions usually result from weather, and where there is one diverting aircraft, there are usually several. This is not a big deal by itself. The diversions that become issues are the ones that arise from in-flight mechanical problems. Some of these are cut and dried. Others are not.

If the checklist calls for a diversion, then you shrug your shoulders and divert. It’s the ones that are done more on personal comfort or intuition that get tricky. The dispatcher or even the chief mechanic in charge may believe that the flight can continue, but a captain with thousands of hours in the airplane knows exactly how the airplane is supposed to sound, feel, smell and fly. If the captain—or an experienced FO for that matter—says that something isn’t right, then chances are something isn’t right.

I’ve been in similar situations during which the folks on the ground both supported me and also began to question what I was saying. Diversions are not taken lightly, because they are so expensive. This is less of an issue with weather-related diversions than the odd mechanical diversion in which the airplane may be grounded for days.

The captain also is tasked with other decision-making responsibilities that affect other groups and people. Getting extra passengers on or having to remove them because of weight issues is not an enjoyable experience, especially when you have to see the despair on their faces. I had a group of passengers who were trying to get to a wedding out of Islip, New York. Islip has short runways, and the winds on this day were heavily favoring the shortest of the short. We were over our max takeoff weight, and we had to remove some people. These folks were the unlucky chosen ones (the airline determines that order, not us), and there was a heated discussion between the agent and myself. All the pleading in the world couldn’t change the fact that we were over our weight limit. While it wasn’t by much, we were over, and we couldn’t go with everyone on board.

Someone ultimately has to make the hard choice. The worst possibility is a person who is wishy-washy or incapable of making a decision. Fortunately, that’s rare. Being the captain means being the one with the mindset of “the buck stops here.” As the old saying goes, it’s better to be alive to talk about than to be dead and unable to defend yourself.—Chip Wright

Can the first officer cancel the flight?

Monday, April 29th, 2013

When it comes to air travel, one of the great misconceptions is the belief that a pilot will make a conscious decision to call up his company and just cancel a flight because of something that he decides makes it unsafe to fly. It almost never happens this way.

airline dispatcher femaleAt the airlines, there are two parties who are responsible for a flight. The first is the captain (“pilot in command”), and the other is the dispatcher. The final authority is clearly left to the captain. The federal aviation regulations make that abundantly clear, and every airline does as well. However, at the airlines a dispatcher is equally responsible for the flight, as it is the dispatcher who actually puts together the flight plan, plans the route, and computes the fuel required. The dispatcher usually begins working on a flight anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes before departure. The captain may well be still asleep, or inbound on another flight, or on the way to work.

When circumstances begin to conspire against operating the flight according to the usual parameters, it becomes a team effort to figure out what the alternative is going to be. The dispatcher usually has a bigger-picture view than the captain, because he or she has access to more sources of weather (even though smartphone technology is rapidly changing that), and because the dispatcher also has at hand the planned maintenance schedule for the airplane. Further, as stated above, the dispatcher may have more information about minimum equipment list (MEL) issues than the captain does. The MEL will dictate items on the airplane that can be inoperative during regular operations, and if there is a performance penalty, it will stipulate that as well. For example, most jets are only allowed to operate at 25,000 feet if one of the air-conditioning packs is deferred. This is a fairly low altitude for jets, and it means a higher fuel burn, which could affect range and payload. It may also make it difficult to avoid certain weather.

When weather or mechanical issues can affect a flight, the captain and the dispatcher will frequently work together to come up with an acceptable Plan B. This is important because both are required to sign the flight release, and it includes a statement that the flight may be conducted safely as planned.

But what about the first officer (FO)? How much say-so does the second-in-command have? At times, it may be more than you think.

While the captain is the one who technically holds all the cards and is the only pilot required to sign the release, there are times when an FO can influence the outcome. Weather is an obvious example. If the FO feels that the weather is just too risky, he can say that he isn’t willing to take it. He may be able to speak first hand, such as if he just flew through said weather.

Mechanical issues can crop up as well. Maybe the FO has found something on the walk-around that she knows isn’t right. She can refuse to go anywhere until a mechanic has a chance to offer a second opinion. I know of a fellow who once refused to fly a flight because his seat was broken….and when I say broken, it was as though the seat’s support unit had a hole the size of a toilet seat in it. When he sat down, it was painful on his back and his legs. To his great surprise, the broken part was deferrable (the fact that it was deferrable is a testament to how rarely it broke), and the mechanics wanted to avoid the 30-minute delay that would ensue if they changed out the seat.

The mechanics left the decision to the captain, who in turn left it to the FO. After all, he was the one who had to sit on the seat for a two-hour flight. The mechanics made a vague threat to call the chief pilot, and the FO responded by handing the mechanic his phone; the mechanics backed down, and the seat was eventually changed.

It turned out that one of the issues was that cockpit seats on this airplane are well north of $10,000, so spares are not often kept. The mechanics were forced to take one out of an airplane that was an operational spare, meaning that the spare airplane was now out of service.

Had the issue been pressed, the FO would have been well within his rights to refuse the seat, and the flight likely would have cancelled.

It’s rare that a pilot directly makes the call of, “I’m cancelling the flight.” But it can happen, and it does happen. And yes, the FO can make that call, and he can do so by simply walking off the airplane. As long as it is a well-defined and safety-related reason, he should have nothing to worry about.—By Chip Wright

When to speak up

Monday, December 17th, 2012

I recently read a story in a nonflying publication about a group of people on a resort boat going scuba diving. The tale is related that at one point the captain had to leave his post at the wheel to go below to find his sunglasses. While he was doing so, the boat began to drift off-course enough that it was clear it would crash.

The employee sitting next to the captain began to display obvious knowledge of the impending situation, but did nothing to react, even though all he had to do was put his hand on the wheel to keep the boat going straight. The author explains that it was clear that such action by an employee in the past had led to a pretty severe dressing-down, if not outright embarrassment in front of a boatload of customers. Further, when the captain finally resumed his post, there was no discussion about the danger the boat had been in.

In a crewed environment of any sort—airplanes, in our case—the most important asset is trust. Each pilot must not only trust that the other knows how to fly, and that he or she knows what the job is, but the first officer especially needs to trust that the captain will welcome input that could be necessary but a bit embarrassing.

Now, there is speaking up and there is speaking up. In the simple version, the FO might point out something mundane and obvious. For example, the controller issued a descent clearance and the altitude was set, but the captain forgets to actually start the descent. The FO then pipes up, the captain realizes what he didn’t do, starts to descend, and all is well. That’s easy.

What’s harder is when a judgment call is required. Maybe the controller named Victor gave some bad vectors, and the approach is going to be steeper and faster than it should be. Or, maybe there is some questionable weather ahead. Or, maybe the captain is missing every radio call because he has something on his mind or doesn’t feel well. Calling for a go-around during an unstable approach sounds like it should be easy, but you’d be shocked at how hard it is for an FO to bring himself to call for the go-around.

A captain who is error-prone is a difficult scenario, especially if you don’t the person well. If he or she has a reputation for it, you can at least be prepared. If not, you have to determine if the captain usually operates this way or is just having a bad day.

I’ve always told my FOs that not only should they speak up, but that I need them to. The last thing I want them to do is wonder if it’s OK or if it will offend me. The truth is that it will offend me more if they don’t. After all, it always seems that certificate action follows the dumbest mistakes that are left uncorrected. I hope everyone I flew with will agree that speaking up with me was never an issue.

It’s a harder skill—and it is a skill—to develop than you think. When I first upgraded, many of my captains were my age or older, and they had less reservation about pointing something out, even if it was not a big deal. But as time passed, and my FOs became much younger than me, I noticed that I had to really emphasize that my feelings would not be hurt if they said I was being dumb, or if they wanted a go-around because they didn’t like what they saw. It always seemed to me that being able to talk about it after the fact was better than the NTSB and FAA talking to my family about instead.

But there are some pilots who are just “plane” jerks, and take on a very dictatorial attitude. In my personal experience, these are actually easier to deal with in some respects. Get them alone, and tell them flat out how they are coming across and that they are not being conducive to a safe environment, and (this is important) give them examples of negative behavior that they have displayed. Being called out often makes people realize that they have crossed a line or two, and often brings about the sort of behavior modification you need.

Don’t be the guy sitting next to an empty chair as the ship (or plane) heads for trouble. Be assertive but respectful, and fix the problem now. You can deal with the other person’s attitude later. If things are bad enough, you can always find another job.—Chip Wright

Crew transition

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

When I first began my career as an airline pilot, I really didn’t have any idea what to expect. I knew I would be flying—a lot—and I knew that I would be traveling—a lot. But beyond that, I really didn’t know what the job would be like. I knew there would be an autopilot, and I was pretty stoked about that. I knew I’d be wearing a uniform, and while many pilots can’t stand wearing the hat, it never bothered me.

But the one thing that I was relatively unprepared for was the crew concept. I’d had a bit of experience with it thanks to my previous job, which included using an airplane to photo-map the state’s farmland. We also did some atmospheric sampling work, but the “crew” on those flights were nonpilots. The photo-mapping projects, on the other hand, were a true team effort, and while it could be done with two pilots, it was really a three-person job. But, it wasn’t the same kind of crew that you’d find in an airline cockpit.

The transition to a crew environment wasn’t all that hard. What was hard was realizing how much help I really had, and how little I had to do for myself. For instance, in my previous job, the pilot flying did everything flying-related except talk on the radio. That was handled by the yahoo sitting in the other seat (usually one of my bosses, who were among the finest yahoos I ever knew, except for when they were flying together).

In the crew world, the pilot flying flies…and that’s pretty much all he or she does. The gear, flaps, radio, checklists, and almost anything else you can think of are done by what we used to call the nonflying pilot, but whom we now refer to as the “pilot monitoring.” I still call them “the yahoo sitting next to me.” After all these years, why worry now about political correctness?

It took me a while to get used to not working the gear or flaps, especially since, in the Brasilia, the gear handle was in front of my left knee, and the flap handle was right next to the same knee. I also had to learn just how much I was allowed to ask for. If I wanted the radar on, all I had to do was ask. If I wanted the power set at a certain setting, all I had to do was ask. I did have to work my own HSI, and I got to control my nav radio if I was quick enough to beat the captain to it…which wasn’t often.

There were, of course, other duties that came with the territory, such as calling the company on the radio prior to every arrival and after every departure. Talking to a dispatcher was new as well, but it was a Part 135 operation at the time, so we pilots were still more involved in flight planning, though nowhere near to the degree that I had been. I knew more about the route of my first dual cross-country than I have about any airline trip I’ve flown, and I wish it wasn’t so, but short turn times force you to rely on a dispatcher more than you ever would have thought. Besides, trying to follow a sectional from the flight levels or at high speeds would be a challenge.

But it was that transition to a total crew environment that really opened my eyes. I was the low man on the totem pole, and I had to learn how to work with (and sometimes get along with) a captain and a flight attendant. Neither was hard, but it was a period of adaptation that is now effortless, and, I now realize, much better and safer than much of what I’d done before.

There are always going to be stories of cockpit dictators, and occasionally even a story about a fist-fight or some kind of ugly confrontation between two people who simply can’t get along. But those are rare. Airlines do a great job of training crews to work together, and while you won’t walk away from every trip with a new BFF, you won’t always have a new mortal enemy either.

Unless, of course, you insist on doing everything yourself, which will not only aggravate the person next to you, but will also make you extremely busy. Plus, you will be branded as the next yahoo.—Chip Wright

When do you upgrade?

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

It’s no secret that, in aviation, the captain gets the big bucks and the first offcer gets—well, usually a whole lot less. Further, the pay discrepancy is magnified even more in smaller equipment.

By that I mean, the smaller the aircraft, the worse the FO pay is. When Beech 1900s ruled the commuter skies, top FO pay often did not go above $20-24 a flight hour; captains could top out at $40-plus at the right company. While there is still a noticeable discrepancy in pay even on the heavy iron, for the FO it isn’t nearly as significant an issue. Good luck find anyone who feels sympathy for the person who’s earning the top FO pay on a Delta ($160) or a United ($130) 747.

At the regionals, FO pay tops out in the ballpark of $45-$48 an hour, depending on whether  the RJ in question seats 50 or 70, and that top pay is usually in the eighth year of service, give or take. An equivalent captain is making $70 an hour, or close to it.

Given the financial incentive, should one upgrade as soon as possible? Well, that depends….

There are three issues that are hard to ignore: money, PIC time, and seniority unknowns.

Considering that so many pilots make such a huge investment in their careers, there is often a strong urge—if not need—to upgrade just so that the bills can be paid, or at least paid more easily (a problem made worse with student loans and/or credit card debt). You may just want to go from an apartment to a house or get a better car. Family issues factor in as well, especially if young kids are running around your house.

Pilot-in-command (PIC) time is probably as much of a motivator as anything, especially at the regional level. At the majors, most FOs have plenty of PIC time in their logbooks from previous jobs, and unless they are planning to switch carriers, the need for PIC time doesn’t usually enter the equation. Besides, PIC time is unusual in that its value doesn’t really change over time. While there is a difference between turboprop versus turbo-jet PIC, it’s not a major issue, and all another carrier wants to see is that you have exercised the responsibilities of the position without having an incident or an accident.

If you want to move on from a regional or a commuter, PIC time becomes a huge focus, because it takes so long to get it. Depending on who you want to fly for, you will need at least 1,000 hours and often 1,500 or more. Every leg you fly will help chip away at that goal.

Seniority is another issue that must be considered. It’s possible that a bid will open up that you can hold for whatever reason. Maybe guys just senior to you are finally getting the left seat, or maybe a spot will open up in the most junior, undesirable domicile. But seniority is not always hard and fast. With almost every upgrade class, you will notice that the slots don’t fill just based on seniority. You may see a few where a junior pilot unexpectedly gets the coveted captain position. Often, what happens is that pilots may have other reasons that prevent them from bidding a class. Remember, training is almost as long as new-hire training—at least three weeks, if not four or more, depending on sim and line check airman availability. Pilots may gamble and skip a class because of family commitments, weddings, vacations, et cetera. Or, they may be married such that the money isn’t an issue and they decide to wait for quality of life.

But skipping a class is a gamble for two reasons. First, if the upgrades suddenly stop, you may have to wait years for another chance. When things are slow, airlines wait longer than they should to upgrade captains because of the cost. Second, you may think you can hold a bid that is more to your liking, only to find out that some of those senior hold-outs are now taking the first available class. I’ve seen both issues really hit people, the first example being the more common.

To use my own company, for example, we had a very junior and less-than-desirable domicile at John F. Kennedy International. The main hub was a far more optimal place to be based for a number of reasons. JFK simply had way too much that was not in its favor: It’s expensive, delays were a huge issue, the commute can be difficult, the airspace is challenging, and did I mention that it’s expensive? That’s especially true if you are on reserve.

A number of our FOs who had the seniority to upgrade chose not to, opting instead for quality of life. They wanted to avoid reserve as a captain, and figured they’d wait until they could hold a regular line with a predictable schedule. Further, many did not want to commute. So…they waited.

When the economy hit the skids, so did their advancement. Yes, they were home more. Yes, they had more days off. Yes, they spent more time with their families. But, they topped out on the FO pay scale, and they did not get that coveted PIC time, and now many of them are having great difficulty moving on because they can’t differentiate themselves from other applicants. They face the risk of having to go to another regional, or overseas, in order to advance their career (these tend to be pilots who do not want to move overseas). While the most junior captains often lived a life of misery on reserve, they continued to add PIC time to their logbooks, and recruiters admire the resilience of someone who is willing to sacrifice so much to get their dream job. Believe me, at some point, upgrading is not about the money.

Deciding when to upgrade is a personal choice. You have to be emotionally mature to handle the responsibility. You need to have not only the skills, but also the confidence to use those skills along with good judgment. You need to be able to admit when you need help, as well as when you have made a mistake. If you have not had a chance to fly a lot in various weather conditions, then you need to get that experience in dealing with thunderstorms, icing, and everything in between.

In the future, you will be required to have 1,000 hours in the right seat before upgrading. In today’s environment, that’s a given, but as we begin to see the pipeline to the majors open, there was a built-in risk of seeing very junior and very inexperienced FOs begin to move into the left seat. The new rules will help minimize that.

Upgrading is not as easy as it seems. Quality of life on reserve (if you can’t hold a line) or even as a junior line-holder takes a big hit. It can be as much of an adjustment for the family as it is for the pilot. The new responsibility can be intimidating. When I upgraded, I went for being home 12-16 days a month to being home for six, and it was a jolt for my wife. I had to work holidays again, and I missed a lot of family events. We didn’t have kids, but she did get pregnant, and she had to handle most of that on her own.

But the rewards are many, and the personal growth is very rewarding. When, and if, you are ready, make the leap.—Chip Wright

The drinking pilot scenarios

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A common interview question about drinking

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have at it!–Chip Wright

Evaluation by the Administrator

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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