Posts Tagged ‘professional pilots’

Follow your gut

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Check Out ChecklistOne of the common problems in aviation is that of routine and repetition. It’s easy to assume that because we do certain tasks every time we fly, with no change, that perhaps those tasks don’t need to be completed every time we fly. Two examples come to mind: the preflight check and the flight control check.

When you rent an airplane from a flight school, it’s tempting to avoid the preflight or walk-around, because you know the airplane flies every day (or close to it). It’s even more tempting to skip it when you watch the airplane land (or even do a few touch and goes) and then taxi to the tie-down spot. I mean really, it just landed! What could you possibly miss?

A lot, actually. The other pilot might have missed cord showing on the tire because that cord may have not been showing when the flight started, or it was on the bottom of the tire, out of sight, when he conducted his own walk-around.

It’s also possible that there might be damage to the airplane from an unseen bird strike, such as a missing antenna, which the previous pilot might not have noticed if he wasn’t using that particular radio. Fluid leaks also are possible.

Flight control checks are another area in which it’s easy to get complacent. As a student, you’re told that you are checking for flight control functionality and proper rigging (making sure the controls deflect in the proper direction). This is especially true if the airplane has been in maintenance. But there is also something else to test for, which is a general feel for the controls. If you fly the same airplane enough, you will know when it just doesn’t “feel” right, and you should learn to trust that little devil on your shoulder.

I’ve experienced two examples of this. The first was about five years ago on the CRJ. The flight controls were the first officer’s responsibility. One day, my FO immediately said something as he was checking the elevator. What happened next is a long story, but the gist of is that the airplane was broken. It stayed in Richmond for four days, and the tail was basically rebuilt. It took the mechanics 10 pages in the logbook to record all of the work.

Recently, an airplane I was flying had a funny feel to the rudder pedals when the captain checked them. The mechanics were never able to quite duplicate the sensation, but they kept digging and eventually found a failure of a part in the back of the airplane. The flight was cancelled and the airplane was sent to the hangar for repairs.

We do walk-arounds and control checks so frequently that either can become a mindless task. It’s important not to let that happen. Take each of these tasks seriously, and something just doesn’t feel right, remember: It may not be.—Chip Wright

The first officer, the teacher

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

 

A recent trip reminded me of something I had not seen in a long time. When I was a first officer for Comair (back when I was a young warthog), we had a lot of pilots bouncing among fleets. We had jet first officers upgrading to captains on the EMB-120 Brasilia (a turboprop), and Brasilia captains moving over to the jet. Some of these guys had never flown their new fleet type; others hadn’t flown it in years. In time, we became an all-jet company and it didn’t matter.

In my current job, I’m a junior FO who occasionally flies with people who are new to the fleet type. Some of these pilots flew the “newer” model of the 737, and some flew the “classics,” but did so years if not decades ago.

I find history repeating itself: I am often helping, in many ways, to train these folks. Let me explain.

When I was in the right seat of the RJ, I’d often fly with captains whom I knew were low-time (airlines are required to track pilots with fewer than 75 hours in both seat and type). I quickly learned to ask them if they were new to the airplane, or just new to the seat.

The ones who had flown the airplane didn’t need much help, other than asking me to go slow while they learned their new routine. The ones who were new to the airplane, however, asked a lot of questions, and expected—and needed—a lot more help. Some were better than others, and in the case of movement from a turboprop to a jet, the speed difference at times was overwhelming.

The fellow I was recently flying with had gone through several transitions in the previous few years. This one, he hoped, would be the last one. To compound the issue, he was also new to the Pacific region, and there are stark differences between trans-oceanic flying and anything else. What’s more, there are some cultural differences between our base and the “domestic” way of doing things.

I found myself offering all kinds of advice and help, and the captain was constantly asking for more, soaking up what I had to offer—which had me offering even more. At one point, he made the comment after I pointed out something that didn’t quite work the way the book said it should: “That’s what I need. Tell me what’s reality and what isn’t.”

It’s healthy to ask for help when needed. I’m relatively new myself to the company and the airplane, but I’ve accumulated a bit of know-how in a short time, and my captain was smart enough to ask questions for areas where he knew he needed help. It was a good reminder that FOs too can be effective teachers, and we really do work best when we work together.—Chip Wright

The hardest parts of the job

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

My dad was an attorney, and I distinctly remember periods of time when he did a lot of traveling, and times when he worked a lot of weekends. Because he litigated cases, he spent a lot of time in court, and those weekend work sessions were often spent preparing for a trial that was either upcoming or ongoing.

As I got older, I asked him a lot of questions, and one of them was, “What’s the hardest part of your job?” His answer generally was getting ready for certain trials.

When I got established in my career, I was often confronted with the same question. As I suspect my dad also experienced, one answer didn’t always do the question justice. Here are three main challenges, any of which might stand on its own.

  • Training. This refers to either initial training or training on new equipment. My first training event was definitely my worst. I had no idea what I was in for, let alone what I was doing. It was overwhelming and hard. However, future events were made easier by the knowledge of how to handle it. But some pilots have never learned to relax in or enjoy training, and they get extremely stressed. Some pilots become physically ill before returning to the simulator for recurrent training. Good study habits are the best tonic for making it through training unscathed.
  • The schedules. Pilots get a lot of time off, but we’re also gone a lot. We’re away from home for two or more weeks a month. We never know our schedules more than six weeks in advance, and if your seniority is bad, you’ll be working every weekend and holiday. I prefer working weekends because it’s easier to get errands done during the week, but with kids, weekends are the best times to be off.
  • The other problem with the schedules is the constant adventure of living out of a suitcase. You can either love it or tolerate it and be OK, but if you hate it, your career as a pilot will be short. It isn’t unusual to wake up in a hotel and have no idea where you are. In fact, I’ve woken up in my own bed and found myself momentarily confused.
  • Time away from family. If I had to pick one thing, this would be it. You miss a lot as a pilot, especially when your kids are younger. Some pilots have never been home for Christmas, and that’s hard. It’s no fun missing your kids’ activities or games or big school events, but it is part of the deal, unfortunately. Spouses need to be on board with it or resentment becomes an issue. Sometimes, you just want to be home to soothe hurt feelings or to fix a broken toy.

The job has a lot of benefits, and it’s a lot of fun. But it has its challenges and pitfalls. You’re gone a lot, but you’re home a lot. The time away from your family is only equaled by the fact that when you’re home, you’re home, and not working (unlike my dad). In the end, it’s what you decide to make it.—Chip Wright

The basics of ETOPS

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Aviation is about many things, and one of those things is the pursuit of reliability. Starting with the earliest engines and airframes, the pioneers of the industry have been in constant pursuit of making everything as dependable as possible. In the modern era of flying, this has produced two things: mounds of red tape and bureaucracy, and very dependable processes, airplanes—and engines.

If you’ve ever conducted any international travel, you’ll notice that more and more international flying is done in airplanes with only two engines. After the 747, the next generation of wide-body aircraft to enter service all had either two or three engines: the DC-10, the L-1011, the 757/767, and in the last few decades the 777 and 787. The cost advantages are obvious, but what about safety concerns? After all, if two engines are good, then three or four must be better, right?

The FAA and its foreign counterparts have adapted to the world of long-range flying by creating a program called Extended (Twin) Operations, or ETOPS. ETOPS programs can be established for airplanes with any number of engines, but we’ll stick with the twin-engine derivative here. With an ETOPS program, airlines are able to establish that they can operate twin-engine aircraft for long distances over water with the equivalent safety margins as for a four engine jet.

There are rules that must be followed. One of the most important is that of maintenance. With an ETOPS program, the FARs require that certain procedures be followed if maintenance is being conducted on matching parts. For instance, if a mechanic changes the oil on the left engine, he is not allowed to perform the same task on the right engine. The theory is that if that mechanic makes a mistake or is sloppy in his work, it is best to isolate the possibility of the same negative consequence occurring twice on the same plane. This rule applies to a number of tasks in the routine maintenance of the airplane. It applies to work on the tires and landing gear, engines, and several other systems with duplication.

There are other requirements for ETOPS as well. Because participants must be able to travel great distances over water, communication needs change. There are multiple options to establish and maintain adequate communications. The most common is the high-frequency (HF) radio, which works by bouncing the signal off of the atmosphere, and as a result depends on the weather for a good signal. Another option is the satellite phone, which can also suffer from occasional signal reliability and is expensive to operate. ACARS (Aircraft Communication and Reporting System) is also common, and acts essentially as an onboard email, text, and fax system.

The most obvious need on long ETOPS flights is for extra fuel, and there are a number of FARs and exemptions that can be used to set forth a particular airline’s fuel requirements. But, when comparing the alternate fuel requirements for flight of similar distances over land and water, the water route will carry more fuel and thus will cost more.

ETOPS is generally required for twinjet airplanes when the airplane will be more than 60 minutes from an adequate airport, where the word “adequate” generally means just a runway. It doesn’t need to be new or fancy or even have a ground-based approach. It just needs to be a concrete or asphalt strip long enough to safely land an airplane in the most dire circumstances. A flight operating under an ETOPS flight plan can be dispatched for varying lengths of time. An ETOPS 120 flight is one that will be 120 minutes, or two hours, from an airport at some point in its journey.

It is not uncommon to see 737s with ETOPS approval for flights across the Gulf of Mexico or from the northeast to the Caribbean. The longest stretch of pure open-water flying in the world is between Hawaii and California, and the 737 is a common airplane for the route.

ETOPS adds several layers of safety and protection for passengers and crew, and while it’s a cumbersome process, it pays dividends. Just in the last few weeks, a Delta 757 diverted to Iwo Jima in the Pacific en route to Guam. Iwo Jima is a common alternate for Pacific flights. In this case, the system proved once again that it works as intended—red tape and all.—Chip Wright

When does the interview end?

Monday, December 29th, 2014

Several friends of mine recently interviewed at a legacy carrier. Three of them interviewed on the same day, back to back to back. I spoke to two of them afterwards, and each was lamenting the fate of the third: In their minds, it was pre-ordained what was going to happen.

In the brief period of time that all three were together in the lobby, one of them was not-so-quietly disparaging his own performance. Now, bear in mind that he wasn’t saying anything negative about the company or the process they used for the interview. Far from it.

The interview was a two-part process. The first part was the actual interview between the candidate and the interviewers, in this case a captain and a representative from human resources. There’s a break between them as people trade places. The fellow in question completed his interview first out of the three, and he was chatting with the other two before leaving to go back to the hotel.

While talking, he was second-guessing his answers to the questions he was asked and openly talking about how poorly he had flown the simulator. Here’s the catch: He really had no idea how his performance compared to anybody else’s. It’s quite possible that he was average or above. The problem with airline sim rides is that they are almost always performed on equipment that you have never flown, so the evaluation is made with that in mind. It’s almost like grading on a curve.

As for the interview itself, chances are that he went in with a lack of confidence to begin with, as though he was expecting to do poorly. While he was in the lobby, he didn’t take into account that the process was still going on, though in a more passive way. The secretary heard him, and at least one of the other folks participating in the hiring process heard him.

In the end, he didn’t get the job. The other two pilots did, and each relayed to me their belief that this individual had done himself some damage by being so self-critical, which also came across as a lack of confidence.

Years ago, at another legacy carrier, a pilot had been provided the standard round-trip transportation to the interview and had received a complimentary first class upgrade on the way to the interview. The interview itself went extremely well, to the point that the interviewer relates that this pilot was one of the few who would have made a lasting impression even without this story. His job offer was ready to go in the mail (this was pre-email) the next day.

At the airport, he was under the impression that he was entitled—entitled!—to a first class seat for the return trip simply because a gate agent in his home town was kind enough to extend one to him as a courtesy on the first flight. He apparently launched into a tirade and caused such a scene that he was denied boarding until a later flight. His reservation stipulated that he was a pilot applicant, and the agent, who was furious, couldn’t call the recruiters soon enough. His offer was rescinded, and a multi-million-dollar career was lost.

Interviews for any airline—major, regional, passenger, or cargo—do not end until you are either hired or are “regretfully informed.” Even while you are waiting for your answer, you should consider it an open process, because if anybody knows about your interview, they can always make a phone call or send an email. Be confident, be nice, and assume that “Big Brother” is watching. He (or she) just might be.—Chip Wright

Caution: Think before you type

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Facebook-logo-thumbs-upWe live in a very connected world, and it’s a vastly different one than the one we had just a few years ago. As our electronics have continued to evolve, so have our communications, and the modern age has given birth to social media. Facebook, Twitter, and the apparently unlimited billboard space of the internet have made it possible to express and postulate online in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago.

Every day, it seems, a story comes out about someone getting caught doing something because of social media. People post things that they don’t give a second thought to, and they often should. I have a Facebook page, but I don’t tweet, and aside from this blog, I do very little posting on websites or online bulletin boards.

But I read what others type. Often it’s embarrassing just to see what people write. Never mind the bad grammar and spelling; the language is enough to make a sailor blush. It’s much worse on sites where a person can hide behind a screen name or an avatar.

I bring this up because many folks who might be reading this may be interested in pursuing a career as professional pilot. It’s important to realize that large corporations now have personnel whose sole job is to monitor social media for mention of the company name. This allows them to respond quickly to negative news, to address rumors or incorrect stories—and to see what current and potential employees are saying.

I see stuff online that makes me cringe, and I often wonder how quickly these people would be to use the same words in a face-to-face meeting with those they are criticizing. Criticism is fine—in fact it’s healthy—but there’s a line between being constructive and being mean, slanderous, or worse.

On a local sports radio show recently, the host was having an exchange with a fan of the Bengals after a game that they would have won had the kicker not missed a field goal. The fan’s tweets were vulgar and, one could argue, borderline criminal. The fan—who was brave enough to call in and give his name—found himself in a very embarrassing situation as he tried to defend his actions and words. In short, he couldn’t, and he gave up trying.

I’ve spoken to a number of folks in large companies, including airlines, who have some hard-to-believe stories about applicants, including pilots, who have submitted posts to websites that they probably thought were cute, funny, or clever. Unfortunately, these are folks who have been denied employment because the company simply could not take a chance on whether they would embarrass the airline as employees. Several have fired employees for violating company policy regarding social media. This includes not just words, but also photos.

A person placed under arrest is read the Miranda rights, including the phrase “anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law.” Well, when you put something online, it’s quite possible that you will never have the opportunity to defend yourself in a court of anything. Further, you want to make sure that if you did need to defend yourself, you wouldn’t be embarrassed by your own actions.

Think twice, or even three times, before you post. It may haunt you, even years down the road.—Chip Wright

Does it matter how you get your time?

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

10 Ways to ImproveAs airlines begin to spool up their hiring and training, and new commercial pilots are signed off by flight schools, an age-old question has popped up: Do airlines care how you get your time? Specifically, do regional airlines care? Does it matter if you log most of your post-commercial time as a CFI? If so, does it matter what kind of flight school you work in?

The answer is no. The regionals don’t care how you earn that first 1,000 to 1,200 hours. What they do care about is that you have it and that you can document it. Obviously, multiengine time is the most desired time to have, but the days of plentiful FAR Part 135 jobs in piston twins appear to have come and gone. But there are other options for getting time.

Flight instructing is obviously the most common and most time-honored method. Being a CFI will do more for your understanding of the art and craft of flying than you can imagine. Further, your understanding and depth of knowledge about the federal aviation regulations and the Aeronautical Information Manual will never be as good as when you are quoting them verbatim every day.

Depending on where you live (or choose to live), you can also pursue your flight time requirements towing banners. This is generally more common near beach communities, but not always. It’s also got an element of danger in it during the pickup. Many a pilot has earned his basic time flying barefoot in a Cub along a beach. The work can be boring, but in the summer, you can easily log six to eight hours a day, and that time adds up.

Sightseeing flights in popular tourist areas (the Grand Canyon, the Florida Keys, the Rockies) is another avenue for making time, and making time count. A few areas still use pipeline patrols, but these are getting less and less common, and the days of flying a traffic patrol are also coming to an end as more and more cities install cameras on highways. Further, more of these jobs are transitioning to helicopters because of their flexibility and ability to land at the scene of an accident for that “Live at Five” shot.

With regard to flight schools, it doesn’t matter if you work as a CFI in a Part 141 or a Part 61 school. While it’s true that Part 141 schools tend to mimic the airlines with dispatch desks, more rigid scheduling and operational rules, and even flight following, the CFI’s basic tasks don’t change. This is even more true as regional airlines scramble frantically for pilots.

The majors are obviously interested in hiring candidates who have previous Part 121 experience. It used to be that “EFIS and glass” were the big points, but now that every RJ has a glass cockpit, along with many turboprops, the emphasis is on overall 121 experience, with heavy emphasis placed on jet and turbojet pilot-in-command (TPIC) time. Getting hired at the majors from Part 91 and/or 135 corporate positions is harder than it used to be, but it can still be done.

If you’re just starting your career, don’t worry too much about how you get that first 1,200 hours. Just concentrate on getting it, and on getting any multiengine time anywhere you can. Once a regional hires you, the rest will fall into place.—Chip Wright

The interview sim ride

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Tom in simIf you’re looking to fly for an airline or a charter company, one of the hurdles that must be overcome is the interview. Some airlines simply conduct an interview, perhaps one on one or with a panel of people taking turns asking a single candidate questions, or even some combination of the two. Others also assess the candidate’s flying skills using a simulator or a desktop training device, such as a Frasca.

Frequently, it’s the flying session that rattles applicants’ nerves, because you know that the company for whom you want to work is evaluating the actual skills that you will use every day . Worse, you are usually flying an airplane you’ve never flown, or you’re flying a Frasca or a computer programmed for an airplane unlike anything you’ve ever been in before—it’s usually faster, more powerful, and with unfamiliar control inputs.

So, what to do?

If it’s possible to get some prep work in before the interview, by all means do it. If your evaluation will be in a Frasca or something similar, find a facility that offers training in a similar machine. Get a few hours of time in it, and if you have some gouge on what the profile will be, utilize that to tailor your training.

If you can’t find a sim anywhere that is close to what you’ll be flying, do the best you can. Also, ask the airline if it’s possible to come in a day early and do some practice flying on its sim. You can expect to pay a pretty penny for that, but the instructors will usually give you the lowdown on the best techniques for success, and that can be priceless.

As you’re actually flying the profile, remember that the airline isn’t looking for Chuck Yeager. They know that you are (most likely) at a disadvantage, so they are primarily looking at basic flying skills, along with your ability to continually correct any deviations. Further, they want to see the deviations get smaller and smaller as the flight progresses. In other words, they want to see that you are getting a feel for the plane.

If you know that you are struggling, or if you just feel like you’re struggling, start talking. Talk about what is wrong and what you are doing to correct it. This technique will also frequently benefit you by forcing you to expand your scan, and it helps slow things down. You are, essentially, becoming your own CFI for a few minutes. Even if you still can’t get the situation to smooth out as much as you’d like, using this technique will often help sway an evaluator or an interviewer by demonstrating that you know what is happening (or isn’t), and you know where your own weaknesses are. It also helps to convey another important message: You are trainable.

The sim ride is often the worst part of an interview, because it is so subjective, and you are so busy flying that you can’t get any feedback from the evaluator. You can’t read their faces or their body language, and you have no idea how other candidates have performed or will perform. So, in order to maximize your opportunity, do your homework, get some practice, try to relax, and coach yourself—out loud.—Chip Wright

The probationary year

Monday, September 15th, 2014

For new airline pilots, the first year is one with a very steep learning curve. There are myriad new rules, policies, procedures and regulations to learn. On top of all that, you must learn the systems of your new airplane and how to safely fly it. Once you get out on the line, you get to learn the the day-to-day grind of being a pilot, with all of the benefits and pitfalls included therein.

One of the concepts that you are introduced to right away is that of your “probationary year.” In essence, it works like this: Because nearly every airline is unionized, the collective bargaining agreements (contracts) include a grievance process for the pilots to contest certain decisions, including terminations. It usually involves some sort of arbitration process that varies from company to company, but the principle is the same in that the union can fight back if it believes that a pilot was improperly disciplined.

There is one exception, and that is the probationary pilot. Every airline puts new-hire pilots on probation for a period of time, usually 12 months, but a few use six months. When you are on probation, you can be terminated at any time, for any reason, with no recourse.

The intention of the probationary process is for the company to see how the pilot fits in with new co-workers and the work environment. This isn’t to suggest that someone is following you everywhere you go or measuring the length of your pant cuffs above your shoes. Far from it. All that the airline asks is that you keep your nose clean. It’s often said that the best relationship a pilot can have with the chief pilot is no relationship at all. In other words, if the CP doesn’t know who you are, it means you haven’t been in trouble, and that’s good.

Most of the time, there are only three ways you’re going to get in trouble. The first is via another work group, such as the gate agents or flight attendants. The second is through your fellow pilots, i.e., the captains with whom you fly. The third possibility for an early ticket out the door is poor performance in training—in this case, recurrent training. A number of airlines will deliberately schedule new hire pilots for their first recurrent checkride at least a month before their probationary period is up. That way, if the pilot isn’t up to snuff, he or she can be terminated “without cause.”

It’s important to understand, though, that the company will offer retraining or help in nearly every case (even seasoned veterans make mistakes). To get yourself terminated means you showed up totally unprepared or acted inappropriately during training. In my 18 years of airline flying, I’ve never known a pilot who was terminated during the first recurrent training event…but we all worry about it!

While companies will not hesitate to rid themselves of a “problem child” who is on probation, termination is not the first choice. They’ve already made in an investment in you, and they want to see it pay off. However, if the behavior in question is severe enough, or if there is ample reason to question the maturity or judgment of the pilot involved, you can count on turning in your badge.

A few examples of pilots getting terminated early include drinking; theft (one pilot at a previous carrier took the window shades out of the plane and used them in his car—and they had the company name silk-screened on them. The CP wrote down the license plate, and the rest is history); excessive sick calls and/or no-shows; and sexual harassment. All of these are extreme behaviors, and no company would tolerate them.

Probation is a rite of passage for all of us. Fortunately, 99 percent of pilots have no problem at any time during their careers, including in the first year. Those who do generally don’t belong in the front of an airplane in the first place.—Chip Wright

Training contracts

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Embraer 190 AzulAfter spending thousands of dollars on your training, and getting paid an unpredictable income as a flight instructor, you’ve just gotten a call from a regional airline offering you a job. You’ll be flying a new, state-of-the-art regional jet, complete with autothrottles. There is just one minor detail to be discussed: the airline wants you to sign a training contract. It states that if you leave before a specified date, you will be required to repay some or all of the cost of your training—a figure that might exceed $20,000.

What do you do?

Many pilots have just shrugged their shoulders, grabbed a pen—probably with the company logo on it—and signed on the dotted line.

At least two airlines in the United States are using these training contracts today, both of them on the Embraer 170/190 series of jets. The rationale is that cost of training is so high, and the availability of simulator time so low, that they do not have a choice. It is a means of hedging their investment and preventing a pilot from going through training, getting a type rating, and leaving as soon as possible for greener pastures. Those greener pastures are often overseas, where American pilots on the 170/190 step into starting pay that is well north of $100,000 a year, and often includes subsidized housing or a positive space ticket back home once a month. U.S. airlines’ concern abou pilots leaving is not unfounded.

The problem with these contracts is many pilots assume that they aren’t enforceable, especially since they are not a part of any union collective bargaining agreement. However, the airlines are beginning to pursue legal actions against pilots who try to leave early. “Early” is usually defined as two years.
If all goes well, the contract isn’t a problem. With the new rules in effect, a pilot can’t upgrade to captain of a U.S. airline until he or she has at least 1,000 hours as a first officer. Taking into account the time spent in initial training, the typical pilot will hit that 1,000 hours about the time the two-year commitment is up, give or take a few months.

As for the amount to be repaid, it behooves you to pay attention to the details. The contract may allow for prorating the amount owed based on the amount of time serve—but it may not. You may be on the hook for the entire amount if you leave just one day early.

Other details to be studied include your obligations if the company goes out of business or if you are furloughed. Likewise, if you lose your medical, is there any relief available?

Training contracts are not new (“pay-for-training” used to be very common), and they are commonly employed overseas. However, they are not the norm in the United States. I doubt that they will become the norm either, but if you find yourself entertaining—or needing—a job from a company that utilizes such a tool, it is worth discussing the language and commitments with an attorney. As for enforceability, it could cost you a ton of money just to get that question answered. If you’re going to sign one, assume you will have no choice but to honor it.—Chip Wright