Posts Tagged ‘professional pilots’

Visiting the cockpit

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decision consequences

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

A good time to enter

Thursday, May 5th, 2016

As my oldest daughter begins thinking about college, my thoughts can’t help but wander toward the airlines. She has no interest in pursuing a career in aviation, but if she did, things would certainly be in her favor. We are a few years into the beginning of a major hiring boom. The last time this happened, the airlines (the regionals, anyway) were hiring 250-hour pilots, and they couldn’t find them fast enough. The trend was shut down by the increase in the FAA-mandated retirement age from 60 to 65, along with the recession. The 250 zero-to-hero benchmark was done in by the legislation that came out of the Colgan 3407 crash.

Today, the new low-end pilot has 1,500 hours, and regionals are snapping them up as quickly as possible. In fact, airlines are looking for commitments from prospective pilots before they even finish their training, assuming that they meet certain performance standards.

This is a great time to be entering the training realm or the actual job market. The majors are all trying to hire the same 6,000- or 7,000-hour pilots at the regionals whom they consider to be the most qualified. Those pilots will be gone in short order.

Further, the holes in the major airline hiring net are beginning to get a bit smaller. In the last several months, I’ve come across several pilots who were hired or offered interviews and a few years ago these pilots were considered totally undesirable. One has only a two-year college degree (hired by a legacy major). One has only a high-school diploma, but with a lot of other stuff and life experience to bring to the table. The second candidate was offered a chance to begin the interview process but did not get past the initial computerized assessment. The point is, just a year ago, neither would have been considered.

I spend a lot of time in regional jet jump seats commuting to and from work, and another trend has popped up—one that is not new. The majors are paranoid about their affiliated regionals losing pilots, so they appear to have tried to avoid taking as many from those particular regionals as they can. In other words, Delta appears to be trying not to take as many from Compass as they could, and instead chooses pilots from Envoy or PSA. It’s a zero-sum game, since the same pilots will be hired somewhere no matter what.

Another positive change is that the majors are beginning to show a renewed interest in at least interviewing—if not hiring outright—pilots who have no turbine PIC time. That’s happened on occasion in the past, but it’s been rare. Now, it’s becoming more and more common. Just today I heard of a pilot who has an offer from one major, an interview scheduled with another, and is possibly going to hear from two more regarding interviews.

Pilots coming out of the major flight schools in the next couple of years will be able to sort through their options and figure out which job is the best fit for them. There are a number of criteria to use to help make the decision easier (hint: commuting should not factor into the equation). There are already a few small flow-through programs that would allow a pilot to ensure his/her progression to the majors through a certain regional. This practice will only grow as the need for airmen reaches critical mass.

It is indeed a good time to be entering the industry.—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

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

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

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

Holiday commuting

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

As I write this, I just finished my commute to work after the Thanksgiving holiday. Normally, when I commute, I go to the airport and try to get on a flight by using my jump-seating privileges, and most of the time this works out well. I usually end up getting into my domicile earlier than I’d like, but I’ve also had the misfortune of not making it at all, which means I don’t get paid for lost flights.

This year, when I got my schedule for November, I was surprised to see that I received the Wednesday through Friday of Thanksgiving week off. I’m still relatively junior, though I am in the middle of the pack on my equipment in my base. That said, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is generally the busiest air travel day of the year, so I did something I would normally not do and bought a ticket home. In order to get back, I cashed in some old frequent flier miles (on another carrier). The peace of mind of having a real seat while getting home for such an important holiday was worth the money spent.

My plan worked a little too well. My trip before Thanksgiving was supposed to end early Wednesday morning (following a red-eye). However, my trip got changed on Monday, and I wound up going home a full 24 hours early on Tuesday. My ticket was non-refundable, and so it appears that the money was spent for naught. C’est la vie. Murphy’s Law says that if I hadn’t bought the ticket, I would have spent the holiday stuck in my domicile.

Getting back to work looked like it could have been a bit of a waste as well. However, there were no direct flights on Friday, so I was looking at a connection no matter what. I decided to cash in the miles and go through Detroit. The flight to DTW was open enough that I could have (likely) gotten on without any problems. However, the connection was tight, and we wound up holding because of weather. I made it, but I had very little time to spare. When I’d booked my flight, there were only five seats left, and when I got to the gate, there were only two, and I suspect those were filled before we left the gate.

So, was it worth it? Yes. I had the peace of mind of being a real passenger, and on the flight out of DTW, the airline would have re-accommodated if I’d missed the connection. I didn’t have to wear my uniform, and I was able—and this is important—to leave my house later in the day than I otherwise would have, as I would likely have been forced to start early to maximize my chances on a two-leg holiday commute.

Commuting has its pros and cons, and it’s rare to hear of a pilot buying a ticket, but it does happen. In my case, I’m hoping to reuse the purchased ticket later, but if I can’t, then so be it. I still got an extra day at home, and I didn’t waste any extra time coming back to work.—Chip Wright