Posts Tagged ‘professional pilots’

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

 

Exemption 3585

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

If the airlines didn’t fly every time the weather was less than ideal, they’d never fly. As a result, technology and rules are in place to maximize efficiency and opportunity while minimizing risks. One example lies in getting airplanes off the gate when the weather at the destination is forecast to be below minimums.

Like everyone else, the standard IFR 1-2-3 rule applies: If the weather at the destination from one hour before to one hour after the ETA is forecast to be less than 2,000 feet and three miles, an alternate is required. This is no big deal, obviously, and many of us have left with the weather forecast to be right at the minimums for the approach.

However, sometimes the forecast calls for a possibility of weather that is going to be temporarily below the landing minimums. In FAA weather lingo, we call this “conditional phrases,” and they consist of BCMG, PROB, and TEMPO. For example, the main body of the forecast may have the visibility at one-half mile, but a TEMPO phrase may show a possible drop to on-quarter mile at the ETA.

When this happens, the airlines that have been granted approval to do so can use what is called Exemption 3585. Under the terms of the exemption, the flight will be required to have not one, but two alternates. Further, the method used to determine the alternates is changed as well.

Remember, the airlines do not use the 600-2 and 800-2 rules that GA use for determining the suitability of an alternate; the rules for determining a Part 121 alternate are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say, it’s possible that an airport could be an alternate as long as the forecast is calling for weather of at least 400 feet and one mile.

Under Exemption 3585, the forecast (again, we can use conditional phrases) at the ETA for the first alternate must call for a forecast of no worse than one-half the visibility and ceiling required for the approach. In our example of a 400 and one, the weather at the first alternate can’t be forecast to be less than 200 and one-half.

Looking ahead to the second alternate, the FAA has a pretty simple criteria: This one must be essentially a sure thing. The forecast for the second alternate can also utilize conditional phrases. However, this time, the forecast must call for weather—even with conditional phrases—that equal the ceiling and visibility that can be used for the approach. No reductions are allowed. In essence, if the conditional phrases must have such good weather, it stands to reason that the main body is going to be for nearly VFR conditions.

There is one other option: Category 2 approaches. CAT II approaches can be flown with a runway visibility range (RVR)  reading of 1,200 feet—that is, one-quarter mile of visibility. Such approaches are a pretty hair-raising experience. However, CAT II approaches are a significant investment because of the maintenance requirements for the airplanes, and if the airline does not have a great deal of diversions in a calendar year caused by low visibility, CAT II isn’t worth the cost. Exemption 3585 does the trick.

This is a fairly simple explanation, and the variety of possibilities can get complex and tricky, but Exemption 3585—sort of a poor man’s CAT II that was originally put together for People Express—is an indispensible tool, and if you should ever be hired by a regional, you will spend a lot of time in training dissecting Exemption 3585.

The sad thing is that while you while you will spend hours learning 3585, you will rarely use it. In 16 years of airline flying, I have taken full advantage of 3585 fewer than a dozen times. Category II on the other hand….—Chip Wright

Projecting a professional image

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

As you prepare for your interview, one of the first things you will undoubtedly do is get your best suit cleaned and pressed, get a haircut, and do whatever else you need to do to present your best appearance. And these are things that you should definitely do.

But have you thought about what you are going to do once you get the job? As you prepare to fly to your interview, pay attention as you walk through the airport or sit in a restaurant or the boarding area. Pay attention to the employees. Look at them as a customer, and look at them as though you were a supervisor.

The unpleasant truth is that too many airline pilots and flight attendants have taken the liberty to stretch the acceptable limits of the dress code.

An easy example is the pilot hat. There are still many airlines that require a hat. Many pilots hate the hats, and you can tell by the fact that they either don’t wear one or keep it stuffed in their suitcases. The fact is, however, that if the hat is a part of the uniform, you are supposed to wear it.

It’s one thing to forget to grab it on the way out the door, so long as that only happens once in a blue moon. It’s something else entirely to just totally ignore it. Stuffing it into the back of the suitcase and only putting it on when the chief pilot is in the terminal is pretty silly. Further, you need to wear it properly. Personally, I don’t understand why any pilot would not wear a hat that they paid $50 to $70 for…but that’s just me.

There are other image issues that you can control. Wearing a clean shirt and pants is obvious, but some pilots will wear their uniforms until they turn to threads. Most companies provide a uniform maintenance allowance as a part of the pay, and you are expected to use that for dry cleaning, replacement pieces, et cetera. Well-cared-for pants will last several years, but shirts can take a beating (the polyester ones, though, last forever). The smart move is to always carry at least one extra shirt in your suitcase, and possibly a pair of pants.

Suitcases and flight kits are another issue. There are some who feel it’s almost a point of pride to walk around with a suitcase or a brain bag that is held together with duct tape and bailing wire. I can tell you from experience that there is little that is worse than having your luggage fall apart as you walk through the airport…on the first day of a four-day trip.

Luggage is one item that you don’t want to save money on. Get good, quality gear, and take care of it. When the zippers get worn, replace them. When the flaps get torn, have them fixed. When a wheel goes bad, put on a new one. Fortunately, with the major luggage brand that pilots use, many of the repairs can be done yourself, and it’s easy to get a loaner to send yours in for repairs.

And for the record, backpacks are not a part of the uniform.

Last but not least is your jacket. More airlines are wearing leather jackets, and they’re great. They’re rugged, durable, comfortable, and they look good. The blazer is still common, especially in spring and fall. You need to maintain that as well and keep it clean. If the stripes—and this is true for the shirt epaulets as well—start to look worn or dirty, they should be replaced. I’ve always made it a point to replace my epaulets every year because the shoulder harnesses turn them black.

Getting to an airline takes an awfully big investment. You owe it to yourself and to your chosen profession to present the best image that you can. Remember, you may be in uniform looking like a slob and bump into a captain at Quizno’s who works for your dream airline—and he may be a recruiter or an interviewer.

If you don’t look like you care about your appearance, you will look like you don’t care about what job you have…or don’t have.

Oh, and keep your hair trimmed and neat.—Chip Wright

A brief explanation of the Whitlow Letter

Monday, February 4th, 2013

It is common practice to want to pick on the FAA, and often with good reason. However, there are times when the feds do something that is most definitely for the greater good. Most pilots, for example, are aware that in the wake of the Colgan crash in Buffalo, N.Y., the FAA has created new rest rules designed to make it easier for pilots to be adequately rested during their trips. This is a win-win for the companies (though, to hear them tell it, they will all go bankrupt), the pilots, and the traveling public.

But the real breakthrough for this came around 2000, when the FAA issued what is commonly called the “Whitlow Letter.” At that time, the standard practice at the airlines with regard to reserve pilots was to work under the assumption that if a pilot was on reserve, he was not technically on duty until he actually reported for an assignment. This meant that if a pilot woke up at 7 a.m. and went on reserve at noon for a reserve window of availability of 14 hours (which was, and still is, common practice), the company could call him up at the tail end of his window—2 a.m. in this case—and keep him on duty and flying until 4 p.m. the following afternoon. This pilot faced the possibility of being awake for 32 consecutive hours. No rational person would consider this to be safe.

Fortunately, one of those rational people was James Whitlow, then-chief counsel at the FAA. He was responding to a letter of inquiry from Rich Rubin, a captain at American Airlines who was requesting specific guidance on FAR duty and rest rules when he turned the industry on its ear.

Whitlow’s response was a body blow to the old practice, and it was met with fierce resistance by the Air Transport Association (ATA), the airline trade group. The ATA immediately went to court to try to get the interpretation thrown out; they lost. The new interpretation forced the airlines to consider the start of a reserve period to be the start of duty. In the example above, the pilot would start his reserve at noon and would be released from all duty at 2 a.m., even if he did not report to work until 6 in the evening. In practical terms, in many the duty day was also shortened by virtue of the fact that a pilot who is at home and gets called needs to have time to get to the airport, park, get through security, and check in. Common policy is a 90-minute report time window.

Further, Whitlow also said that in any given 24-hour period, a pilot needs to have at least eight hours of uninterrupted rest.

The airlines realized right away that the Whitlow letter would force them to hire more pilots, and schedulers and pilots both became adept at doing 24 look-backs calculated down to the minute.

While the Colgan crash was the event that forced the FAA to develop a more scientifically based rest rule that takes into account circadian rhythms and the effect of crossing time zones, it was the Whitlow letter that gave the pilot bloc the momentum to start pushing for serious change. Unfortunately, as is so often true in aviation, the rules are often written in blood–in this case Colgan Flight 3407.—Chip Wright

Flying over the holidays

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

As I write this, we are a week away from Christmas Day, with New Year’s right behind. I can’t help but think of all of the employees within the airline industry who will be working, especially the pilots and the flight attendants. For the most part, all of the other employees will be going home after their shift. Flight crews may not be.

There is much that is very cool about being an airline pilot, but there is one thing that is decidedly not, and that is working on the holidays, with Thanksgiving and Christmas being two of the worst. Most folks can get past most of the other big days on the calendar (the reality is that the Fourth of July fireworks from an airplane are pretty cool), but Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday, and since more families go out of the their way to get together for Turkey than Santa, it’s a tough one to miss. Christmas is also hard, especially if you have young kids who are still enraptured with Santa.

While the winter holidays can be celebrated pretty much any time you want them to be, being gone is hard. Even if you would not normally have done anything special, a hotel can be a pretty lonely place. Restaurants are closed or open only for limited hours; room service often is cancelled for the day; and when you turn on the TV, you are reminded even more so that you just are not where you want to be. Hotels will do what they can, but their staff will be limited as well. If there is anything worse than being stuck in a hotel for a holiday, it’s being stuck in a hotel when you and your crew are the only guests.

Working holidays is a fact of life in many occupations, and the airlines are no different in that regard. But, when you work a job where you can go home after your shift, it’s much easier to swallow, especially if you get premium pay. A little-known fact is that more airlines do not pay a premium for holiday pay than those that do, and that just adds insult to injury. Those that do often have no problem finding volunteers.

If there is a benefit to working holidays, it may be a reduced schedule. Flights are usually reduced on certain days, and that may create fewer trips. If the overall schedule is large enough, it may be possible for the company to build a lot of shorter (one -and two-day) trips, or a lot of trips with a split a.m./p.m. schedule that allow at least part of the day to be spent at home.

If you are a commuter, one of the first things you will do when looking at trips for November and December is to try to find one that overnights in your home town or the town of family. In fact, if you’re really lucky, you might score a layover that gives you a full day off at home for a holiday, for which you might be getting paid.

Fly for the airlines long enough, and you will undoubtedly meet someone who clearly has the seniority to be off for a holiday but chooses to work it. I can’t remember if I was a first officer or a captain at the time, but I had to work Thanksgiving early in my career, and one of our most senior captains (one of the top three) was working. He had no kids at home anymore, and had decided to work so that a junior captain who probably had a family could be home. There have also been folks who have bid the holiday off, and then gone into work and picked up a trip from a fellow pilot as a surprise so that they could be home with their families. It’s a favor I’d like to pass on someday myself.

As with any career, the airlines have their downsides, and working holidays can be depressing, especially when you’ve done it several years in a row. Some have pretty stringent policies in place to prevent abuse of sick time, but the reality is that at some point you will most likely have to do it, and most of the time, your fellow employees will be in a good mood that becomes contagious. The passengers may not show as much appreciation as you’d like, but rest assured that they have a tremendous amount of gratitude for your work. I’ve been on both sides of the cockpit door, and while I’d prefer being on the one taken where I want to go, it’s not always so bad to be the taker either.—Chip Wright