Posts Tagged ‘professional pilots’

How the captain earns the money

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many different airplanes have you flown?

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Jean Moule last wrote about flying in the Cascades for the Flight Training blog. She is an emerita faculty member of Oregon State University, and a published writer and artist. Visit her website.—Ed.

CA Into cockpitAs we walked down the aisle to our seats on our last of eight commercial flights in three weeks, I did a little gig when I saw our exit door seat row with four feet of space for a 3,000-mile trip. These weeks in New York City, Massachusetts, and the Cayman Islands had given me time with family, ski patrollers, professional connections, and lots of gawking in NYC. And on flights, I kept my eyes open for flight attendants or pilots who could continue to open my eyes and mind to the behind-the-scenes culture of flying that I have entered in the last year.

While I have not kept track, I know I have flown, as a passenger, in most types of large jets during my hundreds of commercial flights over the years. But I know a new small airplane when I meet it. And a deHavilland Twin Otter flight from Cayman Brac to Grand Cayman gave me another small aircraft experience. The most incredible part of that flight for me was the open cockpit door that allowed me to watch the instruments from my seat in the third row. Instruments also watched by a male pilot of African descent and a female co-pilot. During our 40-minute island hop I was entranced and delighted to know I knew something about some of those gauges!

 CaymanEven before that long flight with the excellent legroom from NYC to Portland took off, I was just plain bored. Too tired to work or write, nothing good to read. No movies I wanted to watch. I noticed a pilot in transit heading to the restroom. He graciously answered a question, and I soon was delighted to know that we knew some of the same people and he lives a mere 20 air miles from me. Very quickly, he and his iPad were sitting next to me, and he opened a world I did not know existed.

He began to fly as a 3-year-old on his mother’s lap, as his mother ran a flight school with 40 airplanes. My head became full of stories of his flying and images of the airplanes he flew from the gallery on his iPad. While a commercial pilot, he also test flies everything from new designs to ancient planes a museum or collector wants to check out for its ability to take to the air. He seems to have a connection to each.

“How many types of planes have you flown?”

“Over 300,” he says.

“And which is your favorite?” I ask.

“Whichever one I am in.”—Jean Moule

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Where are they now?

Friday, January 24th, 2014

I used to fly for Comair, the Delta Connection carrier that was headquartered in Cincinnati. Delta shut Comair down in 2012, and the pilots, like the other employees, scattered about like a colony of ants looking for work. Some had seen the writing on the wall and began their search in earnest months before it happened.

I’ve written on this blog before about the importance of networking, and keeping in touch with your network. Watching some of the pilots I used to work with is proof of the validity of that concept. Watching others is proof that some of them didn’t, and should have.

A friend of mine had been a captain for a while, but only logged about 600 hours of PIC time. He knew he wasn’t going to get where he really wanted to go without logging an additional 400 or so. So, before Comair closed down, he began reaching out to folks he had met throughout the course of his career, and began doing some part-time flying on the side. His travels took him to some fascinating places—he flew into North Korea and spent three days there—and gave him a wealth of experience he would never have gotten otherwise. One thing led to another, and he was doing a lot of contract CRJ flying in Europe and Asia. Back stateside, he’s flown Bon Jovi and Beyonce on their recent tours and been privileged to meet some Fortune 500 executives. Talk about a network!

A few other folks I knew reached out to some foreign airlines via friends they had, and got some enviable positions. One is a 787 captain overseas—he was hired as a captain “off the street,” and has been privileged to participate in new aircraft deliveries. Others are flying heavies—Boeing 777s, Airbus A-340s—for foreign carriers, and they are in a position to virtually pick which carrier they will fly for back in the United States when their contracts are up.

A few have caught on with contract cargo carriers like Kalitta and Atlas and have fallen in love with the idea of circumnavigating the globe twice in a 14-day stretch of work followed by a two-week period at home. Further, they can live anywhere they want because they are flown positive space to work. The cargo they carry varies—food, Christmas packages, animals, and human remains—as much as the destinations.

Others have become simulator instructors for FlightSafety International, jetBlue, or SimCom, while others have landed at the majors in the United States. The one thing we’ve all had in common is that we had contacts and a network to tap into, and we weren’t afraid to use them.

But I know too many pilots who allowed themselves to get complacent, and they thought that a logbook full of hours would be enough to get them the job they want. They’ve been surprised to find out that such is not the case. Knowing people; having a varied resume; bringing other skills to the table; and showing ambition and desire are all key to finding work. Some have decided to leave the industry altogether for their own reasons.

Having been there, I am convinced that a pilot who is unemployed for any period of time has only him- or herself to blame. The work—good work—is available. But it isn’t going to land on your doorstep unless you go get it. And you never know where it will take you.—Chip Wright

So, what goes on up there?

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

I am frequently asked a lot of questions about life as a pilot. One of the most common is, “What do you actually do up there for most of the flight?” Most people understand that the autopilot is flying the airplane for most of the trip, and the crew is in more of a monitoring role, so the question is understandable.

The answer depends on the kind of flying. On short legs, we’re pretty busy on the radio, and we set up early for the approach, check our weights and speeds for landings, and make any special requests for the station to address (lav services, wheelchairs, et cetera). On longer legs with a lot of time spent in cruise, there is more freedom to do various things.

Back up to the first flight together as a crew. Especially at larger airlines, it isn’t uncommon for a pair of pilots to fly together only once. This means that the first time they meet for the trip may be the first time they’ve ever met, and they will spend some time getting to know one another. Pilots being pilots, it isn’t unusual to meet someone and hit it off like you’ve been BFFs since grade school. At other times one of the crew may be more reserved, but there is still a getting-to-know-you period. In no particular order, you can count on certain questions coming up: Where are you from? How long have you been here? How do you like it? Did you bid this trip? What’s your flying background? And so on.

The first leg or two usually consists of a lot of banter about company goings-on, rumors, new developments, or big announcements made or expected. There is a lot of chatter about family life, common interests, etc. Most pilots will try to avoid certain subjects, such as politics or religion, but some can’t resist the temptation. There are a lot of “Have you flown with…?” stories, and usually a few laughs get shared about someone doing something funny or dumb.

But very personal information gets shared as well. If you spend three or four days or longer in a room the size of a phone booth with someone else who has a tendency to dress like you do, it’s inevitable that you get to know—and share—more than you ever thought you would. Personal fears, secret desires, or just plain secrets get shared. I’ve heard stories of affairs, unplanned pregnancies, crazy tax schemes, you name it. The unwritten rule is that what is said behind that door stays there (except for anything criminal), and most of the time it does. There is a certain sanctity within the cockpit.

And, as you might expect, locker-room style talk and behavior takes place as well.

On longer legs or trips, it isn’t all chatter. There are certain record-keeping requirements for fuel or certain minimum equipment list (MEL) procedures. On long international legs, it isn’t unusual for pilots to read or do crossword puzzles just to keep themselves alert.

But, like the proverbial light switch, when the situation calls for professionalism, that’s what you see. Whether it is a mechanical problem that becomes apparent, or a regular checklist or a weather deviation, pilots never forget who they are and where they are, and when the situation calls for it, the shenanigans are discarded and attention is focused on the job at hand.

It isn’t always work and it isn’t always play…but most of the time, if nothing else, it’s fun!—Chip Wright

I get by with a little help from my (aviation) friends

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

I’ m delighted to be the newest blogger for Flight Training. I’m Benét Wilson, and I’m the editor of the ePilot Flight Training eNewsletter and social media editor for AOPA. I’ve been an aviation journalist for more than 20 years, and—most imporantly—I am a student pilot.

Having been in the business for as long as I have, I’ve met some great people along the way, many of them pilots.  And as I continue to slog away at earning my certificate, I’ve used social media to ask my pilot friends for their tips and tricks of getting through the process. Their advice has been great, so I thought I’d share some of their pearls of wisdom with you.

Rob Mark is based in Evanston, Ill., and is an ATP, CFI-A, CFII and CFIM. He loves to talk about the time he flew an Airbus A380 in the captain’s seat (making us all jealous of him). He is publisher of the Jetwhine blog, co-host of the Airplane Geeks podcast, and a longtime friend. The one piece of advice he shares with everyone he meest who begins flight training is to suggest that they treat flight training like any other high-level classroom experience.

“The best way to receive the most value—as well as to feel like you really know how to handle the airplane—for your training dollar is to schedule training as often as possible. I expect students to commit to two lessons each week, knowing full well that most can’t make every lesson, of course,” he said. “But if students truly commit to arriving at the airport on time and prepared for the lesson—and that includes the homework I assign—I guarantee them they’ll see real progress in just the first month alone. That progression usually keeps them coming back.”

Mike Miller and I went to the same university, worked on the school newspaper together, and had many mutual friends. But we never actually met until 1997, when we were working at the same aviation publication. His approach to earning his ticket was that he saw it as an extra degree.  “So, if this was easy, everyone would do it.  I was paying for it, and it gave me new job skills I never had. And it was a marketable skill. But it wasn’t easy,” he recalled.

One instructor told him that pilot skills erode the instant you don’t use them.  “So if you don’t fly for a while, your landings will be rough, your checks will be slower, your training won’t be as sharp. That was true,” he said. “So I tried to fly every week, and in the end (before the checkride), I flew twice a week when the instructor told me I should. I had two main instructors, and both told me to keep asking questions and keep asking where I needed extra work. I leaned on them.”

One aspect of learning to fly that became important to Miller was being ultra-safe. “So my best advice: Be 100 percent safe, and never cut a corner ever. Never say `it’s good enough.’ Say ‘Did I do everything I possibly could to check this situation?’” he asked. “And be inquisitive at each step and don’t complain when you’re told you have to work on stalls or slow flight, because they’re telling you for a reason.”

Finally, said Miller, just go up once in a while to fly. “Not to practice. Just say, I’m going to Luray Caverns to see the Caverns. And fly there,” he said. “Even when you’re training, you should find a way to enjoy just being in the air.”

I have traveled the world with Gideon Ewers, an aviation consultant based in the United Kingdom, when we both covered the regional aviation industry. He kept his advice short and sweet.  “The best advice is relax and enjoy the journey from your postings in specific,” he said. “Accept that not every landing will be perfect. Strive to make it so, but be accepting when it is not quite as perfect as you’d like.”

Understand that this is a journey without end, which is probably the greatest of flight’s gifts, said Ewers. “I have been around flying for way more years than I care to think about and if I’m honest, my most recent lesson was the last time I flew and the next lesson will be the next time,” he stated.—Benét Wilson

Should you move for a regional?

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

U haul truckThis is a tough subject. Most people would rather not have to commute to work, and commuting for pilots is different than it is for any other job. One of the advantages to being an airline pilot is the option of living just about anywhere you want to live. However, it isn’t all peaches and cream either.

Having been a commuter and a noncommuter, I’m here to tell you that if you can avoid commuting, life is much, much better. I have lived as close as 10 minutes to the airport, and being able to leave my house 30 minutes before I am scheduled to report is wonderful. I’ve also had to commute to New York, which is notorious for its traffic problems. There were times when I had to leave my house in the morning for a trip that started the next afternoon because the flights were full, which meant that I lost a day and half of my time with my family. The same has happened getting home.

It’s one thing to move for a job that should be a career. But few pilots catch on with a regional figuring that it will be their final stop. This makes the decision to move even more difficult. A low-time pilot is going to be at a regional for several years, and that might be an argument in favor of moving. However, most crew bases are in busy hubs, where housing is more expensive. If you can find the right suburb, you can get lucky, especially if you are willing to drive a bit longer to get to work.

Commuting on reserve is even more challenging, and it can be frustrating as you spend days in a crash pad waiting to go to work—days that could have been spent at home.

Further, if you are hired by a regional that serves one major, you may be hired by another major, and find yourself in a city that suddenly becomes much more difficult to get to and from because of the change in your pass benefits.

If you are facing a two-leg commute, or heaven forbid, a three-leg commute, consider moving closer to work. Even if you aren’t dealing with a multi-stop commute, you may live somewhere with sparse service or frequently full flights. In this case, an option would be to move to a city that has a lot of service to (and from) multiple hubs.

A good example is Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, which is served by just about every significant airline, and to multiple hub cities for each one. It’s in a good geographic location for commuting up and down the East Coast as well as to the Midwest.

The same could be said for Indianapolis, Indiana, or St. Louis, Missouri. While it is common for pilots to live in Florida, Florida has its own challenges, namely that so many pilots and flight attendants live there. Also, the Sunshine State goes through periods of the year where getting to and from work is extremely difficult because of Spring Break, a Super Bowl, or the Daytona 500. The more senior you are, the easier it is. As a new hire, it’s tough.

Finding a city that is a happy medium is the best bet, especially if you could be happy there if you get your dream job with the major airline of choice. If you are only renting, my advice would be to move at first, with the possibility of commuting later. If you are fixated on buying somewhere, at least wait until you know the realities of the job and the real estate markets for where you want to live.

Deciding to move is not always an easy choice, and it definitely isn’t an easy task. But move slowly and deliberately so that you can make the best decision.—Chip Wright

Airline charters

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

It’s well known that the airlines fly people from A to B, be it on business trips, honeymoons, going to a funeral, or on a family vacation. What you may not realize is that the airlines also do an awful lot of charter work. The major carriers—especially the legacy carriers—do a significant amount of charter work for college and professional sports teams, and the revenue is significant. Because a team or a group is leasing the whole airplane, the cost is not cheap. The money they pay has to cover not only the cost of the flight(s) in question, but also the cost of repositioning the airplane.

For example, when I was at Comair, we flew a ton of NCAA basketball charters for both men’s and women’s teams. When I first upgraded to captain, the going rate for the airplane was roughly $10,000 an hour. On a typical charter, the crew that would actually operate the flight would either report to work in base or dead-head on the last flight out to an outstation. They would then take the airplane and ferry to the pick-up point. For the University of Maryland, that might mean riding on a flight to Buffalo, and then taking the empty airplane to Syracuse. When the team had finished the game and the press conference, they’d be brought to the airport. We’d then take them to Washington National Airport or Thurgood Marshall-Baltimore Washington International and drop them off. We’d then ferry the airplane back to Buffalo. The fees the team paid not only had to cover the cost of the ride home, but also the cost of the empty segments.

Charters add an interesting mix to the everyday flying. In the example above, the flying took place mostly at night. The same is true in season for baseball teams, the NBA, and the NHL. Football is different, since there is only one game a week, and the teams travel either one or two days ahead of schedule, depending on the time changes. During spring training, baseball teams will often travel during the day. We also did a lot of NASCAR charters, moving the support crews and mechanics around.

Football teams tend to stick with the legacy carriers because they will have access to narrow-body equipment for flights under three hours or so, and they can use a wide-body for flights more than three hours. They also have more people and equipment involved.

There are other charters that pop up as well. Before the spike in oil prices that began in 2001, we used to do a lot of gambling charters to casinos, especially in the South. In fact, I did a couple of three-day weekend trips that consisted of nothing but gambling charters. Those trips can be a lot of fun, because the leader of the trip will often use the public address system to have games and contests in flight, and will sometimes include the crew in the festivities.

There are two major downsides to the charter work: getting groups to honor the schedule, which can lead to a lot of sitting around and late departures, and the fact that most of the time you’re working on the backside of the clock. Getting teams to honor the schedule is easier when they are dealing with an airline versus a true charter company, because they understand that the airplane is due back in service the next day, and the contract calls for a pretty stiff penalty if they horse around with the schedule (overtime games are exempt).

The upside is that sports teams tend to cater a lot of food, so you can eat well for free. Also, you can meet some pretty interesting or famous people. Charters are also a nice break from the routine of line flying, and they can be a lot of fun. While some corporations will arrange for charters (we did one for several years during a major banking merger as employees shuttled between the two headquarters), those are fairly rare, but they do tend to be on RJ-sized equipment. If you head to the airlines thinking that all you will do will be based on the timetables, you will be in for a surprise…but you might also come away with a few autographs in your logbook that you weren’t expecting.—Chip Wright

Wet is dry

Friday, September 6th, 2013

wet runwayAs you move into bigger and faster airplanes—especially jets—you need to become aware of things that didn’t necessarily matter as much before. There are new definitions that you need to learn. Besides the various V speeds—V1, V2, V-REF, et cetera—there are terms that probably didn’t really catch your attention before.

Take the runway, for instance. In the United States, most every airport that provides airline service has runways that are grooved. The grooves run perpendicular to the runway direction (that is, across the runway) and are evenly spaced from one end to the other. Further, whenever possible, there is a bit of a crown to the runway. The purpose of the grooves is to provide drainage and runoff for rain, snow, and deicing fluid that flows off aircraft upon takeoff.

This is need-to-know information for pilots, because performance data takes into account whether or not a runway is wet or dry, or if it has standing water. To add to the confusion as well as to the paychecks of the engineers, the standing water (and snow) categories are broken down into various depths, each succeeding level of which will further degrade the performance (read: payload) of the airplane.

What initially might catch you off guard is the seriousness with which these terms are defined. For instance, a runway that is grooved but has water on it is not necessarily wet. Depending on the airline and the aircraft manufacturer definitions, a wet runway may be defined as dry if it is grooved, and a runway that is physically dry is dry (you can’t make this stuff up). Generally speaking, if a grooved runway has water on it, it is considered wet only if the surface is reflective or if a certain percentage of the surface has standing water. Otherwise, it is considered damp or dry because the grooves carry away the water that might induce hydroplaning.

When it is raining hard enough that there is clearly standing water, performance numbers begin to suffer. There are three major concerns. The first is rejecting a takeoff without skidding or hydroplaning. The second is continuing a takeoff after an engine failure on a slick runway that is not only slick, but produces drag thanks to the puddles. The third is the use of reduced thrust. It is common for jet aircraft to take off at well less than full power, but in certain circumstances, full power is required. Contaminated surfaces are one of those circumstances.

As I mentioned, in the United States, this is rarely a problem. However, if you go to Canada or Mexico, most runways will not be grooved. This is also a common problem overseas. Don’t be lulled into a trap. Pay attention to the wet versus dry issue, and know when—and when not—to apply the various penalties.

It may not be the dictionary definition of the words as you know them, but you will learn that the industry and the FAA can be very specific in how words are used or defined.

In fact, I think they have a specific definition of “used…”—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

A collective personality

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Airlines, like many other organizations, consist of groups and subgroups. While seniority is the rule—marking forever your place within the corporate structure—there are other markers of your place in the pecking order. One of them is your new-hire class. Among pilots and flight attendants, initial training is something that, even years later, remains crystal clear in so many ways.

The typical class has anywhere from 10 to 30 pilots (it’s almost always an even number so that the time in the simulator is more easily scheduled). Over the six- to 10-week period that a class is together, a certain bonding takes place. After all, most of you will be staying the same hotel, and you will be cooped up in the same classroom for eight to 10 hours a day, after which you will study in pairs or in small groups or even in full classes for a nother four to five hours a night. You will spend your weekends together both at work and at leisure, and in very short order you will get to know much about each other. The natural leaders will emerge, and the ones who need extra help will get it. More than a few have married classmates.

Much of how a class developes its collective personality is determined by the instructor. A good one will crack the whip early on and take control, then relax a bit once he knows everyone is on board. Most ground school instructors are easy to get along with and are well-liked. More importantly, they like what they are doing, which makes your experience easier to endure. The instructor then becomes a part of the group. Unfortunately, on occasion the instructor can be reviled and hated, thus bonding the group in another way.

I’ve flown with pilots who have been with a company for decades, and they still recall their new-hire class in great detail and with great memories. In fact, more than one has told me that they stayed on because a close friend from their class was still with the company. Most pilots and flight attendants keep close tabs on who has left versus who is left, and those who have left often become the contact point to get the next job. That’s just how the industry works.

comair_largeIn my new-hire class at Comair in 1996, we started with 14, and when the airline shut down in 2012, only three of us were left from that class. even our instructor had moved on. Interestingly enough, I was able to fly with one of them, as he delayed his upgrade while I took one early on. That’s unusual, but it does happen. Today, I consider him an important friend whose advice and counsel I often seek. He’s the kind of guy I hope one of my daughters will eventually marry.

In another odd coincidence, the three remaining from my class all became check airmen—two of us in the airplane and another in the sim. That, too, is unusual, and for me, it’s a source of pride.

At my new job, one of my classmates was another former Comair pilot whom I used to fly with regularly. SHe’s one of the best pure pilots I’ve ever known, and she too is a dear friend. We were sim partners, and one reason we chose each other was that not only are we comfortable together and with taking criticism from each other, but it was also more than likely the last time we will ever fly together.

But our class was a good one, and while we had some rough patches, we had a definite cohesion, and many of us will be in touch with each other for years to come—not out of necessity, but out of friendship. Likewise with our ground school instructor, who became the butt of many of our jokes, and was just as good at dishing it out.

New-hire classes are fraternities in a way. They represent great potential and opportunity for both the members and the airline. It is up to you to realize that potential.—Chip Wright