Posts Tagged ‘professional pilot’

The cover letter

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letters of recommendation

Monday, July 21st, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BFR, airline style

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

The FAA being the FAA, everyone has to train. If you want to fly continuously, you are subjected to a flight review every two years. This was once known as the biennial flight review, and many people still refer to it as a BFR. In the general aviation world, the flight review is a chance to for you to review any area in which you are weak, need to practice, or that the instructor wants to emphasize. There is also a requirement for an hour of review on the ground. In the air, you will be required to demonstrate proficiency based on the level of certificate that you hold. In other words, a private pilot will get more wiggle room than an airline transport pilot (ATP), who is expected to be able to fly with hair-splitting precision.

In the world of larger airplanes such as jets and turboprops, it isn’t unusual to be required to undergo some form of more formal training using a simulator or fixed training device. The reason for this is twofold: safety and cost. Larger airplanes are capable of doing V1 cuts, a procedure in which an engine fails at the worst possible time during the takeoff roll, and the pilot(s) continue(s) to fly the airplane, with the intention of dealing with the issue once airborne (this obviously only works on aircraft with two or more engines). Doing the training in the airplane is risky and expensive.

These recurrent training programs are fairly structured, and the process and expectations are the dictate of the FAA, the insurance companies, the manufacturer, and the training agency.

At the airlines, the process is very similar, and if anything, it is more tightly controlled and regimented. While there are variations from one airline to the next, or even between the various fleets of an airline, the intent and purpose are the same.

In the old days—which was less than 20 years ago—a pilot would show up for his recurrent, and be given an oral that could cover just about anything under the sun….and sometimes did. Assuming he passed, he would then get into the sim and, without much of a chance to warm up, would be asked to demonstrate myriad maneuvers and procedures, some of which were sadistic and hopelessly unrealistic. Think of doing a single engine NDB approach in a gale-force crosswind while spinning a basketball on your finger, Globetrotter-style.

Today, the process is much more humane, and therefore productive. Generally speaking, there is some kind of a thorough briefing that, while not really an oral exam, isn’t really not one either. Thanks to the internet, enough training can be done online throughout the year that the need for a comprehensive oral is mitigated. Instead, the instructors use the time to review procedures that the crew doesn’t see in the airplane very often. They also discuss trends that have been tracked through various tracking and safety monitoring programs: airports with a higher-than-normal rate of unstabilized approaches, for example, or airports with known challenges created by short runways, construction, et cetera. It’s a good back-and-forth, as the students can often bring up-to-date information to the table while learning what problems other pilots have in training.

Most airlines conducty two days of sim training. The first day is a chance to practice certain maneuvers (often called “first look,” since they are scored on the first try), while knocking the rust off of the rarely used skills. The second day is typically a flight that is representative of life on the line, but with a few twists thrown in. There is usually a minor mechanical malfunction to deal with, and in order to keep things interesting, the training department will choose a challenging SID, STAR, or approach to fly, or they will make it interesting with bad weather, tailwinds, et cetera. Typically, there are two of these flights, so each pilot can fly— but not always.

The training typically covers whatever is being emphasized through the online training, so if the company is doing training on the fuel system, generally, the fuel system will have a malfunction in the sim.

Fortunately, airline pilots who fly for fun can substitute the Part 135 or 121 training for the flight review, though many will get the occasional BFR anyway, just to stay sharp in the small airplanes as well.

Training in general has come a long way, and will continue to evolve. Like most pilots, I used to have a bit of a sense of dread. Having been through so many training events now, I still prepare accordingly, but I look forward to the chance to review and refresh, not to mention just learning something new.
But as always, when it’s over, I walk away with a sense of relief, knowing that I am done with it for another year!—Chip Wright

Pilot taxes

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Record foul-ups

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

A friend of mine was recently terminated while in training with a regional airline. In the regional sector, it’s not unusual for an airline to terminate a new-hire without giving a specific reason. That was the case here, and the only explanation he received was that “there was something in [your] application.”

That’s vague, and he was convinced that it was bogus. One of the reasons he was so sure is that he had been employed by another airline for over a decade with no problems. He had disclosed his lone Part 121 checkride failure. But, just to be sure, he began a dialogue with the FAA. He was shocked at what he found.

To make a long story short, he had started an oral exam for a checkride, but he had been sick. The event was going well, but he had to bail out because of his illness. The next day, he finished the oral (and passed), and took the checkride (and not only passed, but got high praise from the examiner). However, that event was almost 20 years ago, and he had forgotten that he had signed a second 8710 for the oral. The first one was recorded as a failed event. Right or wrong, agree or disagree—that’s what went into his file.

Fast forward to now. The records that he had in his possession prior to starting this job did not include the 8710s and did not indicate that he had a failure of a checkride (remember, it was the oral, not the ride), and it cost him.

The lesson from this for any pilot is two-fold: Never lie on an application, because it will be found. He didn’t lie; he simply didn’t realize the full ramification of what was going on when it happened. But, the point is the same. If you try to hide something, it’s going to get uncovered. Second, when you start the process of applying to airlines, whether it’s a regional, a major, a foreign carrier, or anything in between, get in touch with the FAA in Oklahoma City, and get copies of everything that might be in your file. Ask questions.

You should keep your own detailed records with regard to ratings, certificates, et cetera. Whenever you take a checkride, make a note of the date, time, place, and examiner. If there is a mistake found later, you will know where to start. In this case, the school was long gone, and the examiner had passed away.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not impossible to get a job with checkride failures, even after the Colgan accident. The thing to remember is that you need to fully disclose your past, and you need to own up to your mistakes. If you aren’t sure of something, get it taken care of.

In a case like this, if it happens to you, your best recourse is to write a detailed description of everything that happened. As you apply to airlines, you can attach this to your application or take a copy to the interview.—Chip Wright

The back side of the clock

Monday, November 11th, 2013

alarm clock.svgIn my old job, it was unusual for me to fly late at night, with “late” being defined as anything past 10 p.m. With time, I got the seniority to make sure that I didn’t fly at night, as I am a morning person and prefer to just get up, get started, and get the day done. Sometimes, I miss those days…

In my new gig, there is a lot of night flying, including all-night flying. These flights aren’t the classic red-eye, per se, but the effect is the same: You spend a lot of time on the “back side of the clock,” flying between midnight and daybreak. For most of my life, I have not been a real good napper. Getting older helps, but more importantly, I’ve learned to do it out of necessity. On days when I know I’m going to be flying at night, or if I know that there’s even a possibility of flying late, I will force myself to lie down and catch some Zs. It’s a bit easier when I already have an assignment. I will generally lie down in the early afternoon and allocate at least 90 minutes to sleep, and if I can get two hours, I’m ecstatic.

The key is to figure out what works best for you. I’ve asked a lot of people how they do it, and everyone seems have a slightly different methodology (except for those who have no methodology). For me, if I can go to bed shortly after my normal lunch time, I don’t feel “rushed” to get some sleep. Sometimes I don’t really sleep, but I can just lie there and rest, and that’s enough. Fortunately, my new home has shutters that allow me to make the room as dark as a dungeon, so it looks and feels like it does when I go to bed at night. I’ve also found that for napping, I sleep better without an alarm. Instead, I have someone in my family wake me up.

By napping early, I can still get up and be somewhat engaged in the goings-on of my household, and it also gives me a chance to come to my senses slowly, take a shower, and maybe even eat something before I go to work. In fact, I try to push lunch back until after I nap, since I know I will get a meal when I’m on the airplane.

Flying at night is against the natural programming of the body, but it can be done. But, to be safe, as the pilot you must make sure that you are properly rested before you go to work. You also need to make sure you don’t aggravate your sleep debt by not sleeping the next day. I always crash the next morning for a few hours, and because I don’t drink caffeine on a regular basis (I don’t drink coffee at all), I can fall asleep more easily than most people, and if I need a soda to keep me awake, I can count on it working.

Staying engaged during the trip also helps. Nothing is as stimulating as a good conversation with the person I am flying with, and that goes a long ways toward passing the time. Sometimes the weather becomes the “stimulant,” but most of the time I just count on having a good rapport with my fellow workers. Good communication is also key in another respect: If you are flying tired, or have not slept well prior to a night flight, you need to convey that so that your fellow pilots can keep an eye on your performance.

Night flying can be fantastic, but it comes with a new set of challenges. Make sure that you are “up” for them!—Chip Wright

Questions to ask during an airline interview

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

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

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

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

  • Q: What will 117 do to reserve requirements?

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

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

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

  • Q: What is the future of XXX domicile?

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

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

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

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

It’s just a seat, right?

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

 Boeing_737_cockpitIt’s always funny when it happens to somebody else, but it isn’t so funny when it happens to me. And it’s especially not funny when I watch it happen to someone else and swear it won’t happen to me, only to find that it does.

Sometimes it seems like half of learning to fly a new airplane is just figuring out how to get in, get out, and plug in your headsets. Cars are built with certain standardization requirements that we can all count on: the gas pedal is on the right, the key goes on the right, and the gear shift on an automatic follows the same order of P, R, N, et cetera. The intention is that a person can easily transition from one car to another. Even when there are noticeable differences, it’s easy to navigate them.

Airplanes, on the other hand, do not always have such luxuries. I am currently going through training on my second new airliner in the past six months. In both cases, my training partners and I ran into some frustrations and difficulty with something as simple as getting the seats and rudder pedals situated. In a car, you can bet that the seat adjustment tools will either be a handle on the side or under the front of the seat. The handles are immediately recognizable, even if the seat is electric.

Worse still for pilots is the battle with muscle memory fighting not just the novelty of a new airplane, but often of a different seat, which might be left versus right, or an altogether new seat design. Years ago Bombardier introduced new cockpit seats for the CRJ series, and even with memos and photographs, pilots who had flown the aircraft for thousands of hours struggled at times to remember the location of the new handles. There we were: two pilots fumbling around, wiggling in place like we had ants in our pants, charged with flying a $20-million-plus airplane, equipped with two new seats that cost more than $15,000, with some of the best training money could buy, and we couldn’t even move the seats. We looked like idiots.

Every time I get in a new airplane, I vow that this isn’t going to be a problem. And every time, it is—at least just a little.

In my most recent adventures, the problem hasn’t been the airplane, but the training devices, one of which is a fixed-base, non-motion simulator with actual cockpit seats. The other is just a seat on rails, but each is different. Plus, we are taking turns flying left seat (normal for all of us) and right seat (not so much). Various manufacturers put the levers in different spots, and they don’t all work the same. Some have plunger handles and some don’t. Some have both. Some have lumbar supports. Some have lumbar supports that actually work. Some have switches—under the seat, of course—that adjust the flex in the front of the seat where your leg bends.

And it isn’t just the seats. I’ve run into the same problem with the headset jacks. Sometimes, if you don’t know where the jacks are, it feels like a scavenger hunt. Once you find them, their location seems obvious, but deep down you know it isn’t.

Even the rudder pedals are different. Some are electric, but most are manual. But some of the manual ones are a simple turn device. Some, like my new one, have a spring-loaded doohickey that you pull to release the turning thingy. It took me several lessons to figure that out, and it’s important information for me because I’m just barely tall enough to reach the ground.

I often think that the first lesson of any new airplane should be a 15-minute session just on getting in and out. It’s a simple task, but when you can’t do the simplest things, and you are already overwhelmed with what you need to learn, your frustrations are just compounded.

And then there are the different designs for the cockpit doors…—Chip Wright

Testing positive

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

Just a couple of days ago, my wife and I watched Flight, the Denzel Washington movie about a pilot who performs a heroic feat to save a planeload of passengers only to lose his career to his drug and alcohol addictions. Without getting into the issue of whether or not a crew could have pulled off the scene of upside-down flying to save the day, I’ll address the addiction issue. Specifically, is it possible that someone could get away with this problem for as long as Whip Whitaker did? And happens if they are caught?

Flight_film_posterLet me start with the premise of drug testing. Every employee of an airline that might have any contact with security situations is subject to drug testing as a new hire. It’s unavoidable. The FAA requires that companies thereafter randomly sample 25 percent of the qualifying employees on an annual basis, and it has to be done throughout the system. In other words, Delta cannot just target its Atlanta employees, and JetBlue cannot just target its JFK employees to save on travel expenses for the testers. The drugs that are tested are of the illegal street variety, as well as alcohol.

In a large company, it’s possible to go years without getting tested. When I was with Comair, I got tested once in my first 12 years, and that was for my new-hire screening. Then, one day, I pulled into the gate in Cincinnati at the end of a trip, and a young lady with a clipboard was waiting for us. Having seen this scene before, I knew one of us was getting a “wizz quiz.” As I shut down the airplane,  she looked at me, smiled, and pointed at me. Fortunately, I was already set to “produce,” or as Forrest Gump would say, “I gotta pee!”

It’s important to understand that refusal is not an option. In fact, it’s viewed as an admission of guilt.

As the company shrank over the next several years, I was selected by the computer for two more tests (that I remember). Simply put, the fewer employees, the greater the chance you will be tagged for a test.

What the movie Flight doesn’t address is how Whitaker didn’t get tested or caught before the accident. Further, there is a scene in which he is shown sneaking vodka bottles and pouring them into his orange juice. On an airplane with first class passengers, this is easier to get away with because the flight attendants can just record the drinks as having been “comped” to a first class frequent flyer. In a single class operation such as we had at Comair, getting away with this would have been much harder. Not impossible, but harder.

The next question is, what if an employee knows he or she is about to get caught? I can’t speak for every company or all of the various employee groups, but generally speaking for pilots, there is a chance to come clean before the test. If you are on any prescription drugs that might cause an issue, disclosure is the best option. If you have used illicit drugs or alcohol, you should openly acknowledge that as well, and follow whatever union protocols are in place. You will still get in trouble—possibly severe—but you will also be more likely to have a chance to enter a rehabilitation program.

The Human Intervention Monitoring System (HIMS) program is a nationally recognized substance and alcohol abuse program that allows pilots with addictions to seek the help they need. I’ve known several pilots who successfully recovered from their drinking problems to return to the cockpit (a process than can take several years). I’ve also known of more than a few pilots at several airlines who showed up under the influence of something, denied it, and got caught. They were let go immediately, and their careers were over. And don’t forget, those drug tests follow you to any number of jobs you might want.

As a point of how much compassion a company can show toward its employees, we had a few pilots who were in rehab during the strike in 2001. While the company had discontinued insurance for the pilots, the ones in rehab were still covered. As one of our senior managers said at the time, “We’re talking about lives here.” The rest of us understood.

Whitaker’s character at some point would have been tested. He would have had the option to come clean. If he hadn’t, he would have tested positive, and his airline would likely have terminated him. In his case, the FAA still would have likely suspended or revoked his certificates, and he may still have been prosecuted and imprisoned for reckless endangerment, flying drunk, and general stupidity. As an aside, the movie never addresses why the first officer, who later acknowledged that Whitaker “reeked,” didn’t face repercussions either. In reality, he probably would have.

The moral of this post is this: If you need help, get it; if you know someone who needs help, find out how to help them get it; and if you are on an airplane with a pilot who clearly is not well, deal with it immediately.—By Chip Wright