Archive for the ‘Business aviation’ Category

Contracting: A Great Career Option for the Professional Pilot

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

As much as one may love flying, it can be a tough career choice. Many pilots struggle through the food chain only to end up discouraged, if not downright hating their job. We’re all aware of the reasons: low pay, long days, little respect, too much time away from home, difficult working conditions, commuting, regulatory hassles, bankruptcies, furloughs, and ruinously expensive training.

Quite a list, isn’t it?

Ours is a small community; word gets around, and it begs the question, how many have bypassed a flying career altogether because of it? I once read a survey suggesting that most pilots would not recommend the field to their children. Of course, many vocations are in this rickety boat. Even formerly high-flying professions like physician and attorney have lost their luster. The message: “it ain’t what it used to be”.

On the other hand, life is often what we make of it. From bush flying to firefighting, there are many different gigs out there for those willing to take Frost’s road-less-traveled. For the past three years, for example, I’ve been flying as a “contract pilot” and truly enjoy it.

The Contractor

Ready to Ride

It’s kind of a generic term, since anyone who flies as an independent contractor rather than a traditional, W-2 employee fits the definition, but I’ll focus on Part 91 and 135 corporate/charter flying because that’s what I know best.

Contract pilots function as a kind of overflow labor. Operators might need temporary help in the cockpit for a variety of reasons: a full-timer is sick, on vacation, leaves the company, times out due to regulatory limitations, or is unavailable for some other reason. God forbid, maybe they ran into trouble with a checkride or medical exam. Perhaps a trip requires multiple pilots due to length or logistics.

Some companies find it advantageous to run tight on full-time labor and supplement with contract pilots since there are no annual costs for training or benefits. They only have to pay contractors when they’re actually used, so as the flight schedule ebbs and flows, they can gracefully scale their workforce up or down without the inefficiency of, say, leaving full-time, salaried pilots sitting at home for an extended period.

For the pilot, there are both pros and cons to life as a contractor.

The Pros

  • You’ve got some control over your schedule and can decline trips. I really hate doing that, because a) I don’t want the company to stop calling me, and b) you never know when things will slow down, so it’s smart to sock away some acorns for the winter. But if you’ve got a big vacation planned or your best friend is getting married? You’re ultimately in control.
  • We can work for multiple operators, which can provide a bit of protection if the flying slows down at one company.
  • You aren’t tied to a seniority system. If you’re an experienced captain at company A, you needn’t start over as the lowest-paid right seater at company B.
  • Contractors earn far more per day than full-time employees, and therefore needn’t work as many days to reach a given income level. That means better quality of life, especially if you’re married and/or have kids.
  • Contract pilots are typically paid by the day. I might have a five day trip consisting of a flight to Hawaii followed by three days on the island before flying home. That’s five days “on the clock”. It can be a more lucrative system than one where you are compensated based on flight hours. Operators are essentially purchasing your time.
  • You’ll travel the country, if not the world. Instead of a few major airports, on larger aircraft like the Gulfstream, you’ll see places you’d never dream of. Though I haven’t been there — yet — North Korea and the South Pole have both been on the table. (Random note: Jeppesen does publish charts and procedures for Pyonyang!)
  • I always get an honest sense of gratitude from the operators for whom I fly, because by definition I’m helping them out when they really need a pilot. For example, I recently got a call from a Part 91 Gulfstream operator whose pilot broke his arm in the middle of a trip. I airlined out the same day and flew that evening’s leg to Las Vegas, keeping the aircraft on schedule.

The Cons

You knew there had to be a few, right?

  • Contractors inherit all the hassles of being your own boss. Does anyone work harder? From providing your own benefits (don’t get me started about healthcare) to paying self-employment taxes, it’s not always the carefree work-and-go-home experience of a full-time employee.
  • You pay for your own training. On a jet, the annual recurrent training costs run in the thousands. I currently allot $15,000/year for recurrent training and associated costs (airfare, hotels, food, incidentals) on my airplane. The expenses are deductible, which helps a bit, but I figure my first month’s work each year is spent digging my way back to financial “zero”.
  • You can’t control when the phone rings. That can mean short-notice trips and/or weird hours.
  • It can be hard to plan your life out when you never know what days you’ll be working. I average about 10 days a month away, so my philosophy has been to just plan my social life as usual, and make sure people know I sometimes have to reschedule or cancel.
  • Work can conflict with itself. I’ve had three operators call me for a trip on the same day. I can only be in one place at at time, so I “missed out” on two of them.
  • No guarantee of work. But then, history has shown that there are no guarantees in life or aviation for anyone, are there?
  • It can be tough getting started. As with many careers, the best entrée is knowing someone who can get you in the door. Initial start-up costs of obtaining a type rating can be a major barrier.

Throttles

I like contracting because when a trip is offered I know it’s because the operator wants to use me rather than has to use me. Contracting represents some of the best that flying has to offer: adventure, interesting destinations and passengers, phenomenal aircraft, and decent pay for the work I do.

So why don’t more people jump into contracting? Awareness, for starters. Not everyone knows about this little niche. Also, it can be tough to break in to the business. You don’t have to know someone on the inside, but it certainly helps.

The initial expense is probably the largest impediment. The best compensation is found on the larger aircraft, and that means an expensive type rating funded solely by the contractor. Some pilots speculate on their ability to get work by obtaining the type before they have a job to use it on. Unless you’re well-heeled, that’s a big financial risk, but it works out for some people.

There is a rather circuitous way around the type rating burden: start off as a salaried employee and switch to contracting after a couple of years. That way the operator pays for your training and in exchange you accumulate a significant body of experience on the airplane.

FAA to the Rescue! Not.

I should note that contracting in the Part 135 world is a bit harder than it used to be. In the old days, if you were typed and current on an aircraft, you could fly for any charter company that operated that kind of plane. It wasn’t uncommon for a contract pilot to fly for several operators. A few years ago — for reasons no one has been able to adequately explain — the FAA essentially did away with that capability.

Today, a five-figure recurrent only entitles you to work for the certificate holder under whom you trained. It doesn’t matter if you’re a veteran of ten years and 10,000 hours in a Gulfstream IV; if you went to recurrent on Company A’s OpSpec, as far as the FAA is concerned, when you move to Company B you are completely unqualified to operate a G-IV on any Part 135 flight until you’ve been through another recurrent… at your own expense, of course.

At first, this seemed like a potential deal-breaker for contract pilots, but it can help as much as it hurts. Just as the change make it harder for a contractor to work for multiple operators, it also makes it more challenging for that operator to replace a contract pilot since a successor wouldn’t be legal to fly until they went back for recurrent training.

Walking the Aviation Tightrope

Contracting does have something in common with scheduled airlines: it’s not right for everyone. If you’re the type that wants a fixed schedule or has to know exactly how much your bi-weekly paycheck is going to be, this ain’t the place. In addition to all the attributes of a good corporate or charter pilot, contracting requires the ability to run a business and cope with uneven income. Some months will be fantastic. Others, not so much. Even when business is slow, though, I get something valuable: more time at home with friends and family. Like I said at the top, life is what you make of it.

But the ability to earn a six figure income right off the bat while working a relatively small number of days? For me at least, it’s more than worth it. What I want in my flying carer is sustainability, the capacity to survive on this aviation tightrope, and ironically that’s what contracting provides. I want to fly without hating it, and that means avoiding the soul-crushing schedule and monotony of many professional flying jobs.

A True Story: Landing at the Wrong Airport

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

I wrote a bit about wrong-airport landings last month after the Dreamlifter made an unscheduled detour to a small civilian airport in Wichita.

They say things happen in threes, so it wasn’t surprising that the faux pas keeps recurring. Next was a Southwest Airlines flight — which really could have ended badly as they put their 737 down on a far shorter runway (3,738 feet) than any I’ve seen a Boeing airliner utilize.

Speaking of landing distance, for most Part 91 pilots, as long as you can stop on the available runway without bending anything, you are good to go from a legal standpoint. Airlines and charter operators, on the other hand, are required to have a significant safety margin on their landing runways. 14 CFR 121.195(b) dictates that a full stop landing be possible within 60 percent of the effective length of the runway. To put that into perspective, John Wayne Airport’s runway 19R is considered to be one of the shortest used by major airlines on a regular basis. That runway is 5,700 feet long, so landing on a 3,700 foot strip — at night, no less — must have been exciting for all concerned.

The third (and hopefully last one) for a while was a Boeing 787 which narrowly managed to avert landing at the wrong field, but only with the help of an alert air traffic controller.

I related the story of my own Wichita experience in order to explain how easily one airport can be mistaken for another. But I can take it a step further: I once witnessed a very memorable wrong-airport landing.

Intruder Alert

It was 2008, and I was in Arizona for an aerobatic contest being held at the Marana Regional Airport (which also happens to be where all those Starships are awaiting their final fate). Ironically, a number of FAA inspectors had been on-site just 24 hours earlier, ramp checking every pilot and aircraft as they arrived for the competition. Too bad they didn’t show up the next day, because they missed quite a show.

At Marana, the aerobatic box is located two miles southeast of the field, and at the time the incident occurred the contest was in full swing. These events require a large contingent of volunteers to operate, so traditionally competitors will help with contest duties when their category is not flying. I was sitting just outside the aerobatic box, judging a combined group of Advanced power and glider pilots when I overheard someone at the chief judge’s table calling out a traffic threat. Despite waivers, NOTAMs, ATIS broadcasts, and other information about the contest’s presence, it’s not unheard of for a non-participating aircraft to wander through the aerobatic box.

The chief judge had just cleared a new competitor into the box, so he immediately called back and told him to return to the holding area and keep an eye out for the encroaching airplane. I scanned the sky and visually acquired a minuscule speck in the air south of the box. I figured it was a small general aviation aircraft of some sort, but as time passed and the tiny dot grew in size, it became apparent that this was no Bonanza or Skyhawk. We all watched in amazement as a Boeing 757 materialized in all its splendor. The landing gear extended and it flew a beautiful descending left turn right through the aerobatic box and dipped below our horizon.

Imagine seeing this thing bearing down on you at your local general aviation airport!

Imagine seeing this thing bearing down on you at your local general aviation airport!

“Well that was weird”, I thought. But hey, this was my first time at Marana. Perhaps there was some sort of charter flight coming in, or the airplane needed to divert for a medical emergency or mechanical problem.

The judging line maintains radio contact with the airport’s traffic frequency as well as the contest volunteers at the airport via a separate set of walkie-talkies, so we heard the sound of silence over the CTAF as this happened. I was later told that the Air Force Academy cadets, who had come out from Colorado Springs to compete in various glider categories, were on the runway getting a TG-10C glider (a military version of the Blanik L-13AC) hooked up to a tow plane when it became clear that the 757 planned on using that same piece of pavement. The cadets scrambled, clearing the runway in record time just as the Boeing touched down smoothly on runway 30, oblivious to everything going on around it.

Thanks to the radios, we were able to follow the action from the judging line even though we couldn’t see the airport from our location. It must have been shortly after they turned off onto a taxiway that the flight crew realized something wasn’t right, because the 757 stopped on the taxiway and just sat there. Marana’s airport manager tried to raise them on the airport’s frequency, 123.0 MHz, but had no luck. For what seemed like an eternity, there’s was nothing to hear but the sound of the Boeing’s two engines idling. Were their radios out, we wondered?

Mystery Solved

Then someone suggested trying 123.05, the frequency for nearby Pinal Airpark. It was at that moment everyone realized exactly what had happened. Wikipedia describes Pinal best:

Its main purpose is to act as a “boneyard” for civilian commercial aircraft. Old airplanes are stored there with the hope that the dry desert climate will mitigate any form of corrosion in case the aircraft is pressed into service in the future. It is the largest commercial aircraft storage and heavy maintenance facility in the world. Even so, many aircraft which are brought there wind up being scrapped.

Note the similarity between Pinal and Marana in terms of location, runway orientation, and relative size.

Note the similarity between Pinal and Marana in terms of location, runway orientation, and relative size.

Pinal and Marana are eight miles apart and share the same 12/30 runway orientation. The 757 was devoid of passengers and cargo; it was being ferried to Pinal for long-term storage after the Mexican airline which operated it declared bankruptcy. Since Pinal has no instrument approach procedures, the pilots had to make a visual approach into the airfield and simply fixated on Marana once they saw it.

Once the airport manager established radio contact with the crew, he didn’t want to let them move since he was concerned about the weight bearing capacity of the taxiways. However, the pilots gave him their current weight and were allowed to proceed. So they taxied back to runway 30 and just took off, presumably landing at Pinal a couple of minutes later.

That was the last I ever heard about that incident, but I’ve often wondered what happened to the pilots. Was the FAA notified? Was there an investigation? Did the airline know? And because they were in the process of liquidation, would it have mattered anyway? I suppose it’s all water under the bridge now.

Analysis

What makes this incident a little different from the others I discussed above is that it took place in broad daylight instead of at night. You’d think the pilots would have noticed the lack of a boneyard at Marana, but if it was their first time going into Pinal, perhaps it wouldn’t have been missed. When multiple airports exist in the same geographic area, they tend to have similar runway orientations because the prevailing winds are more-or-less the same.

As I was writing this, AVweb posted a story about an Associated Press report on this very subject.

Using NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, along with news accounts and reports sent to other federal agencies, the AP tallied 35 landings and 115 approaches or aborted landing attempts at wrong airports by commercial passenger and cargo planes over more than two decades.

The tally doesn’t include every event. Many aren’t disclosed to the media, and reports to the NASA database are voluntary. The Federal Aviation Administration investigates wrong airport landings and many near-landings, but those reports aren’t publicly available.

The Marana 757 incident is probably one of those which does not appear in the ASRS database. At the very least, it doesn’t appear under the AVQ identifier for Marana Regional Airport. But if the press had found out about it (which they would have in this age of smartphones if there were passengers on board), I’m sure it would have created the same stir we’ve seen with the other incidents.

It might seem that wrong-airport landings are becoming more common, but the statistics show that to be a coincidence. “There are nearly 29,000 commercial aircraft flights daily in the U.S., but only eight wrong airport landings by U.S. carriers in the last decade, according to AP’s tally. None has resulted in death or injury.”

As a charter pilot, the thing I’m wondering about is whether “commercial aircraft” includes Part 135 flights. Based on the 29,000 figure, I’d assume it does not. Unlike scheduled airlines, charters can and do go to any airport at any time. On larger aircraft, the opspec can literally be global. You’d think this would make a wrong-airport scenario more common, but after several years of flying to little corners of the globe, I think this kind of worldwide operation might lower the odds of wrong-airport landing since the destination is frequently unfamiliar and therefore the crew is already on guard.

Theoretically we should always fly that way. Unfortunately, human nature can make it tough to sustain that healthy sense of skepticism when a long day concludes at an accustomed airfield. Perhaps recognizing that fact is half the battle.

Aviators All

Friday, February 7th, 2014

Juliet said to Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Perhaps those who embrace the vast arena of aviation should follow the advice that William Shakespeare ascribed to the heroine of his tragic tale of two lovers from warring clans. What things are matters, not what we call them.

The aviation community spends far too much effort labeling the various segments of flight: Business Aviation, Military Aviation, Airline Aviation, Private Aviation, Recreational Aviation, Whatever Aviation. All such words relate to the pursuit of flight, regardless of what name we give to the endeavor.

Richard L. Collins, possibly the world’s the most prolific aviation journalist, questioned whether the community focused too heavily on Business Aviation. He encouraged his multitude of readers to grasp the many dimensions of flight and embrace aviation’s benefits. Being an aviator opened a new world of inspiring sights and significant personal accomplishment. Aviation provided unique emotional pleasure as well as effective transportation. He seemed to be saying that flying was worthwhile simply because it was flying.

I believe that Collin’s perception that love of flight is the basis for being a pilot is valid. Very few, if any, individuals become professional pilots because their parents forced them into some form of Business or Airline Aviation. Becoming a military aviator requires more than a decade of training and typically results in the individual remaining in the service for 20 or more years. Who would embark on such a path other than those who found flying fulfilling? A career as an airline pilot requires a similar long-term commitment, often marked by many years of relatively low pay and challenging working conditions as the cost of obtaining seniority. Experienced aviators who fly for a living say that an early passion for flight motivated them to build time and strive for stature within aviation.

Obviously the high cost of aviation drives the focus on Business Aviation. Gaining experience without being engaged in some form of commercial aviation is far too expensive for even the affluent to purchase. Thus the would-be professional aviator often turns to flight instruction or possibly utility aviation, perhaps followed by charter flying—all aspects of flight that fall within the general category of business. If truly fortunate, the aspiring professional might find employment with a corporate flight department with a mentoring program, although most corporations demand considerable experience before adding personnel to their flight staff.

For many aviators, however, Business Aviation is a means to an end, not the sole reason for engaging in flight. Consider the pilots you know. In our area, at least three highly successful physicians fly aircraft typically identified with Business Aviation—two each operate Beechcraft King Air C90s and one flies a Cessna CJ 1. The Citation operator covers his responsibilities at a network of clinics, flying single-pilot. One of the King Air operators retired from his medical practice and captains his Beechcraft in charter services. The other King Air pilot flies for personal business and holds an ATP certificate. Each of these highly accomplished professionals embraced what we think of a Business Aviation while engaged in non-aviation careers.

The challenge and joy of aviation link all aviators, regardless of what we name their activities. Also, gravity does not differentiate among those who venture aloft. All who fly are aviators. Let all who fly join each other in advocating the benefits of aviation as an enabling technology for economic development and enhanced quality of life.

Why I Don’t Talk About “General Aviation” Anymore

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Back in the 1950′s, Cessna Aircraft produced this gem… “Wings for Doubting Thomas

This little documentary clearly spelled out the value proposition for Private Aviation 2 generations ago.

I rarely talk about “General Aviation.”

Like most people who read this blog, I’m much more interested in, “Private Aviation.”

You might think quickly that it’s the same, thing, but it’s not. General aviation is broadly defined as as all aviation except for military and airlines. That’s great, but I’m not a, “General Aviation enthusiast.” Frankly I don’t care much about, “General Aviation.” I don’t fly biz jets, cargo, fly much for hire, (Though I have the certificate for, it’s just not a big part of my life these days.) spray crops, perform in air shows, whatever…

While I may aspire to sit in the back of a something with turbines, drinking Cristal… It does not inspire me. I’d rather be up front flying the jet.

Private aviation is the part of civil aviation that does not include flying for hire.”

“In most countries, private flights are always general aviation flights, but the opposite is not true: many general aviation flights (such as banner towing, charter, crop dusting, and others) are commercial in that the pilot is hired and paid. Many private pilots fly for their own enjoyment, or to share the joys and convenience of general aviation with friends and family.”

– Wikipedia

You see “General Aviation,” is doing just fine. Ask anyone running a jet charter business these days. Business is up, folks who choose to afford it are buying jet cards and getting to where they want to go in style, and plenty of people are making a good living helping them get there. I’m fine with all that. “General Aviation,” is not dying. It’s growing.

But “Private Aviation” is the community that inspires me. It’s Private Aviation that’s what we’re really talking about when we fry bacon at Camp Scholler, or eat pancakes at the fly in. The ability to climb into a plane and fly myself and my friends or family someplace is like a magic power.

It’s Private Aviation that we built OpenAirplane to serve.

So you see, I don’t talk much about General Aviation. When I speak to the press about OpenAirplane. I explain that it is a marketplace for Private Aviation. I get asked all the time if OpenAirplane will let them hail a jet like they can hail a cab, or if we can help them charter a flight. My answer is always, “Not yet.” It’s just not the business we’re in right now. There are plenty of smart people working to offer charter for businesses and pleasure. That part of General Aviation is well served. I explain that we are focused on Private Aviation, because that’s where the opportunity lies today to unlock more value than anywhere else right now. General Aviation is a competitive, well served market with a healthy ecosystem. But Private Aviation hasn’t seen much innovation since Cessna commissioned that film. This is strange to me, because GPS, iPads, and composites sure have made it a lot easier. Private Aviation can create entirely new use cases for the over 5,000 airports, thousands of aircraft, and hundreds of thousands of certificates in the wallets of  pilots across the country.

Private Aviation has been in decline since the airlines we’re deregulated in 1978. The value proposition of Private Aviation has been evolving ever since. The industry and the community need to both step up to communicate the value proposition for Private Aviation to a new generation of “doubting Thomases,” updating what you see in the old documentary film above to speak to the value proposition we can offer today.

For most of us, the conversation isn’t about General Aviation, it’s about Private Aviation. Let’s call it what it is. I have no time sit back and complain. I believe we can make it better than ever.

Time for a Shakeup

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Last November the Federal Air Surgeon, Fred Tilton, unilaterally declared that mandatory screening for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in pilots would begin “shortly.”

The initial BMI threshold would be 40, with an ominous vow that “once we have appropriately dealt with every airman examinee who has a BMI of 40 or greater, we will gradually expand the testing pool by going to lower BMI measurements until we have identified and assured treatment for every airman with OSA.”

Tilton noted that “up to 30% of individuals with a BMI less than 30 have OSA”. Between the fact that people with normal-range BMIs have been diagnosed with sleep apnea and his apparent zest for uncovering “every” airman with OSA, logic dictates that the eventual threshold would be in the mid-20s, if not lower.

The aviation community was up in arms pretty quickly, and for good reason. For one thing, the mid-20s are the upper end of the normal BMI range. It’s also worth noting that even the World Health Organization acknowledges that the BMI scale was never designed for application to individual people, but rather for statistical modeling of entire populations. BMI is based solely on weight and height, so it does not account for differing body types. Nor does it obey the law of scaling, which dictates that mass increases to the 3rd power of height.

In plain English, a bigger person will always have a higher BMI even if they are not any fatter. This penalizes tall individuals, as well as bodybuilders and athletes who are in prime physical shape by assigning them absurdly high BMI numbers. Likewise, short people are misled into thinking that they are thinner than they are.

Nevertheless, Tilton declared his intention to press on anyway, without any industry input or following established rulemaking procedures despite the fact that this scavenger hunt would break invasive new ground in aeromedical certification.

Then, even the Aviation Medical Examiners objected to the new policy, noting that “no scientific body of evidence has demonstrated that undiagnosed obesity or OSA has compromised aviation safety” and that providing long term prognoses is not part of the FAA’s job. The medical certification exists soley to “determine the likelihood of pilot incapacitation for the duration of the medical certificate.”

Without the support of the civil aviation medicine community, Tilton was literally standing alone. At that point, Congress jumped into the fray on the pilot community’s behalf and eventually forced the Air Surgeon to back down… for now.

While the battle may have been won, the war is far from over. Mark my words, this is not the last you’ll hear about this bogeyman. Tilton may be forced to consult with the aviation community or follow a rulemaking procedure of some sort, but his zeal for the topic means OSA screening will be back in one form or another.

To effectively combat such overreach, we’ve got to attack the problem from its true source. In this case, the Air Surgeon’s ammunition came from National Transportation Safety Board recommendations issued in the wake of a 2008 regional airline flight which overflew its destination by 26 miles when both pilots fell asleep.

… the National Transportation Safety Board recommends that the Federal Aviation Administration:

Modify the Application for Airman Medical Certificate to elicit specific information about any previous diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea and about the presence of specific risk factors for that disorder. (A-09-61)

Implement a program to identify pilots at high risk for obstructive sleep apnea and require that those pilots provide evidence through the medical certification process of having been appropriately evaluated and, if treatment is needed, effectively treated for that disorder before being granted unrestricted medical certification. (A-09-62)

The NTSB serves a useful purpose in assisting transportation disaster victims and investigating accidents, but when it comes to safety recommendations, the agency operates in a kind of vacuum, divorced from some of the most pressing realities of the modern general aviation world. The reason is simple: their mission statement. It calls for the Board to “independently advance transportation safety” by “determining the probable cause of the accidents and issuing safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents.”

While there’s nothing objectionable about their mission, note how there’s no mention of the cost these recommendations impose on those of us trying to make a go of it in the flying industry. Since it’s not part of their mission statement, it is not a factor the Board takes into account. It doesn’t even appear on their radar. The Board’s federal funding and their lack of rulemaking authority negates any such considerations. So a sleep apnea study costs thousands of dollars — so what? If it prevents one pilot from falling asleep in the cockpit in next half century, it’s well worth the decimation to an already down-and-out sector of the economy.

That’s been the logic for the NTSB since it was conceived by the Air Commerce Act in 1926. It worked well when aerospace safety was at its nadir — but that was nearly ninety years ago. As air transportation evolved during the 20th century, attempts at increasing safety have reached the point of diminishing returns and exponentially increasing cost. At some point the incessant press toward a perfect safety record will make aviating such a sclerotic activity that it will, in effect, cease.

It’s a problem for any industry, and it’s especially so for one that’s teetering on the edge of oblivion the way ours is. The good news is that this can be fixed. It’s time to shake things up at the NTSB by revising their mission statement to make cost analysis a major part of the Board’s function. They should work with stakeholders to carefully study the long-term effect each recommendation would have on the health and size of the aviation industry before they make it.

For what it’s worth, the FAA needs this mission statement adjustment just as much as the NTSB. More, in fact, because the NTSB can recommend anything it wishes, but the regulatory power to act upon those suggestions is outside their purview and rests with the Federal Aviation Administration. From medical approval to burdensome aircraft certification rules, the FAA is the hammer. We have to start somewhere, though, and the NTSB is in many ways the top of the heap, the place where these ideas get their start. It would be nice to see the industry’s lobbyists in Washington, D.C. suggest such a bill to members of Congress.

One final thought: if government’s power really does derive from the “consent of the governed”, this should be an idea even the NTSB (and FAA) can get behind. Otherwise, they may convene one day and find that there’s not much of an industry left for them to prescribe things to.

Flying Careers: Choose Wisely!

Monday, December 30th, 2013

One of the things I love most about aviation is the incredible diversity of jobs and experiences available to those of us who venture into this exciting world. There are so many disparate flying gigs out there that referring to them with the generic “pilot” moniker is almost deceptive.

I’ve got friends who are professional aerobatic coaches, bush country explorers, test pilots, flight instructors, fire fighters, sightseeing tour specialists, military aviators, ISR (Intel/Surveillence/Recon) pilots in Afghanistan, banner towing experts, ferry pilots, VLJ mentors, formation sky typing team members, and more.

I even know a few who fly for airlines.

Float planes are just one option for those seeking a career in the air (and/or on the water!)

Float planes are just one option for those seeking a career in the air (and/or on the water!)

There are countless nooks and crannies in the flying world! An example from my own life: I spent several years working for Dynamic Aviation on a sterile insect technique contract here in Los Angeles. If you’ve never heard the term, you’re not alone. The shortest description I can think of would be “cropdusting in a dense urban environment”. What made the job unique is that we were dropping live sterilized fruit flies instead of chemicals, and the aircraft we used were restricted category, ex-military King Airs.

But we had many of the other elements you’d find in any other cropdusting operation: light bars, AgNavs, low-altitude flying, and certification as an aerial applicator. I wrote a “day in the life” of the operation a few years ago if you’re interested in reading more about it.

Every flying job requires a different combination of talents and abilities. The iPad-specific P1 Aviation Magazine recently completed an interesting three-part series on the unique skills required by pilots in corporate flying. This happens to be my current niche, and it echoed an early realization that not everyone is cut out for this line of work.

You might think “hey, flying is flying — they’re all airplanes!”, but there’s so much more to it than just manipulating the flight controls. At a Part 121 airline like United or JetBlue, someone else prepares a weather package, computes weight & balance, files the flight plan, handles security, greets the passengers, loads the bags, organizes the catering, restocks the galley, and cleans the cabin.

In charter and corporate flying, the pilots are responsible for all those tasks — and much more. The actual flying is almost an afterthought. That’s not to say the aviating is not important — obviously it’s our primary job! But corporate aviation is less of a transportation business than it is a service industry. It requires a specific mindset, and the fact is, there are plenty of outstanding aviators who just don’t fit into that mold. It’s simply not in their DNA to futz with those things, to spend hours waiting for passengers, and to roll with the punches when the schedule invariably changes. Somehow I’ve developed a knack for it.

On the other hand, I’d be a poor fit at an airline. While the monthly schedule would be attractive, the limited route network, large terminals, long lines, compensation issues, mergers and bankruptcies, unions, and seniority system are not for me.

So when someone tells me they’re interesting in flying professionally and want to know what it’s like… well, that’s a tough question to answer. A day in the life of a Alaskan fish spotter bears no resemblance whatsoever to that of a cruise pilot on an Airbus A380. The guy in the Gulfstream at Mach .80 isn’t in the same league as the one flying the blimp at 40 miles per hour.

I think the key to happiness as a professional pilot is to “know thyself”. Forget Hollywood films and dreams of financial riches. Those things are fleeting no matter what your career choice. Instead, explore the market to see what’s out there, and then pick something that fits your personality and natural talents. As my father once said, “Life is too short to do something you hate every day.”

So… where do you belong?

Expectation Bias

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

I don’t know who first described flying as “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror”, but it wouldn’t be shocking to discover the genesis was related to flying a long-haul jet. I was cogitating on that during a recent overnight flight to Brazil. While it was enjoyable, this red-eye brought to mind the complacency which can accompany endless hours of straight-and-level flying – especially when an autopilot is involved.

This post was halfway written when my inbox lit up with stories of a Boeing Dreamlifter – that’s a 747 modified to carry 787 fuselages — landing at the wrong airport in Wichita, Kansas. The filed destination was McConnell AFB, but the crew mistakenly landed at the smaller Jabara Airport about nine miles north. The radio exchanges between the Dreamlifter crew and the tower controller at McConnell show how disoriented the pilots were. Even five minutes after they had landed, the crew still thought they were at Cessna Aircraft Field (CEA) instead of Jabara.

McConnell AFB, the flight's destination, is the Class D airport at the bottom of the chart, about nine miles south of the non-towered Jabara Airport.

McConnell AFB, the flight’s destination, is the Class D airport at the bottom of the chart, about nine miles south of the non-towered Jabara Airport.

As a pilot, by definition I live in a glass house and will therefore refrain from throwing stones. But the incident provides a good opportunity to review the perils of what’s known as “expectation bias”, the idea that we often see and hear what we expect to rather than what is actually happening.

Obviously this can be bad for any number of reasons. Expecting the gear to come down, a landing clearance to be issued, or that controller to clear you across a runway because that’s the way you’ve experience it a thousand times before can lead to aircraft damage, landing without a clearance, a runway incursion, or worse.

I’d imagine this is particularly challenging for airline pilots, as they fly to a more limited number of airports than those of us who work for charter companies whose OpSpecs allow for worldwide operation. Flying the Gulfstream means my next destination could be literally anywhere: a tiny Midwestern airfield, an island in the middle of the Pacific, an ice runway in the Antarctic, or even someplace you’d really never expect to go. Pyongyang, anyone?

But that’s atypical for most general aviation, airline, and corporate pilots. Usually there are a familiar set of destinations for a company airplane and an established route network for Part 121 operators. Though private GA pilots can go pretty much anywhere, we tend to have our “regular” destinations, too: a favored spot for golfing, the proverbial $100 hamburger, a vacation, or that holiday visit with the family. It can take on a comfortable, been-there-done-that quality which sets us up for expectation bias. Familiarity may lead to contempt for ordinary mortals, but the consequences can be far worse for aviators.

One could make the case that the worse accident in aviation history – the Tenerife disaster – was caused, at least in part, by expectation bias. The captain of a KLM 747 expected a Pan Am jumbo jet would be clear of the runway even though he couldn’t see it due to fog. Unfortunately, the Clipper 747 had missed their turnoff. Result? Nearly six hundred dead.

"Put an airliner inside an airliner?  Yeah, we can do that."  Boeing built four of these Dreamlifters to bring 787 fuselages to Seattle for final assembly.  As you can imagine, this thing landing at a small airplane would turn some heads.

“Put an airliner inside an airliner? Yeah, we can do that.” Boeing built four of these Dreamlifters to bring 787 fuselages to Seattle for final assembly. As you can imagine, this thing landing at a small airplane would turn some heads.

The Dreamlifter incident brought to mind an eerily similar trip I made to Wichita a couple of years ago. It was a diminutive thirty-five mile hop from Hutchinson Municipal (HUT) to Jabara Airport (AAO) in the Gulfstream IV. We were unhurried, well-rested, and flying on a calm, cloudless day with just a bit of haze. The expectation was that we were in for a quick, easy flight.

We were cleared for the visual approach and told to change to the advisory frequency. Winds favored a left-hand pattern for runway 36. Looking out the left-hand window of the airplane revealed multiple airports, each with a single north-south runway. I knew they were there, but reviewing a chart didn’t prepare me for how easily Cessna, Beech, and Jabara airports could be mistaken for one another.

We did not land at the wrong airport, but the hair on the back of my neck went up. It was instantly clear that, like Indiana Jones, we were being presented a golden opportunity to “choose poorly”. We reverted back to basic VFR pilotage skills and carefully verified via multiple landmarks and the aircraft’s navigation display that this was, indeed, the correct airfield.

That sounds easy to do, but there’s pressure inducted by the fact that this left downwind puts the airplane on a direct collision course with McConnell Air Force Base’s class Delta airspace and also crosses the patterns of several other fields. In addition, Mid-Continent’s Class C airspace is nearby and vigilance is required in that direction as well. Wichita might not sound like the kind of place where a lovely VMC day would require you to bring your “A” game, but it is.

Pilots in the Southern California area have been known to mistake the former home of Top Gun, MCAS Miramar, for the smaller Montgomery Airport at the bottom of the map.

Pilots in the Southern California area have been known to mistake the former home of Top Gun, MCAS Miramar, for the smaller Montgomery Airport at the bottom of the map.

Expectation bias can be found almost anywhere. I’d bet a fair number of readers have experienced this phenomenon first-hand. In my neck of the woods, MCAS Miramar (NKX) is often mistaken for the nearby Montgomery Field (MYF). Both airports have two parallel runways and a single diagonal runway. Miramar is larger and therefore often visually acquired before Montgomery, and since it’s in the general vicinity of where an airfield of very similar configuration is expected, the pilot who trusts, but – in the words of President Reagan – does not verify, can find themselves on the receiving end of a free military escort upon arrival.

Landing safely at the wrong airport presents greater hazard to one’s certificate than to life-and-limb, but don’t let that fool you; expectation bias is always lurking and can bite hard if you let it. Stay alert, assume nothing, expect the unexpected. As the saying goes, you’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you!

Winning the Common Battle

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Aviators have many things in common. We all deal with the unrelenting force of gravity, no matter what we fly or why we engage in the technology of flight. When we enter the airspace, the elements of wind, moisture and density treat us the same. Whether motivated to go aloft by pleasure or profit, we all need the proficiency to win our battle over the forces of nature.

Business Aviation garners much attention these days as the scheduled airlines engage in a practice they call capacity discipline, which is designed to increase airline load-factors and profitability on available flights. Anyone who has booked a trip on scheduled air carriers recognizes that there are fewer choices now compared with several years ago. In the last five to six years, even as the economy has improved, departures from major hub cities have been reduced by nearly nine percent. Secondary and smaller airports with scheduled service have been hit more dramatically, with departures reduced by over 21 percent. Finding seats on flights is difficult without ample lead time, and airliners often are full (if not overbooked). Furthermore, scheduled airlines service can be found only to about one out of every 10 airports in the entire USA. More important to business travelers, convenient schedules are available to approximately 50 hub cities.

Thus it is understandable that Business Aviation—the use of a General Aviation aircraft for business transportation—is starting to grow once again. The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) just admitted its 10,000 member company, TCB Air, LLC, which serves two manufacturers that jointly own a Beechcraft King Air C90A for the transport of sales, engineering and other Staff to customer sites thought out the country.

Unlike AOPA, NBAA focuses on company membership rather than offering membership status to individuals. It is significant, however, that many of the companies that belong to NBAA have one or more aviation personnel who also belong to AOPA. Fortunately for the entire General Aviation community, AOPA and NBAA have an honorable and successful tradition of working together to assure access to airports and airspace and to guard against unwarranted user fees.

The two associations also have active programs to promote safety. AOPA’s Air Safety Institute provides a wealth of educational materials that are applicable to all aviators, regardless of hours flown or type ratings earned. Embracing the ASI’s pamphlets and seminars is an excellent way to learn and stay current. NBAA’s leadership role in promoting the International Standard-Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO) offers a process-management approach to safety that provides insightful direction to everyone who flies. The pleasure pilot can benefit greatly from developing his or her own personal operations manual along the lines promoted by IS-BAO for sophisticated flight departments.

In our quest to fly safely, efficiently and successfully in all aviation endeavors—be the purpose business or pleasure—we are wise to understand the resources of our aviation associations such as AOPA and NBAA. These organizations are our best means of maintaining a friendly relationship with the forces of nature.

Fly it Forward! The Williamson Flying Club inspires the love of flight & educates their business community.

Friday, October 25th, 2013

It is not every day that we hear about dedicated volunteers who think outside the box to inspire the love of aviation and to educate members of the business community. However that is just what the Williamson Flying Club has done in western New York. I dare you not to be inspired after reading about this engaged group of volunteers at KSDC Williamson-Sodus airport. Take their lead and find ways at your local ‘drome to get into the spotlight.

The Williamson Flying Club

Founded in nearly sixty years ago by five local pilots, the Williamson Flying Club [WFC] purchased land in the nearby town of Sodus to establish an airport in 1957.  Beginning as a small grass strip, the airport now is the 7th largest General Aviation airport in New York State, with approximately 70 based aircraft, 50 hangars, a 3800′ runway with GPS RNAV approaches, AWOS and a fuel farm. Managed by the Board of Directors of the Williamson Flying Club, the airport is a public-use reliever airport and is the only hard-surfaced runway in the county.  It boasts over 25,000 operations per year.  On field business include the club-managed FBO, and two maintenance facilities.  According to New York State economic development reports, the airport contributes $2.3 Million to the local economy and $115,000 in school, property and state and local taxes.  All of this comes at no cost to the local towns, county or county taxpayers.

In 2013 the Williamson Flying Club created the Williamson Flying Club Aviation & Aviation Sciences Scholarship awarded to a graduating high school student who chooses post-secondary study in an aviation-related field at a college, university or trade school.  The scholarship is $1,000, payable in $250 amounts each year over four years, or $500 each year for two-year programs.

Williamson Flying Club

Pictured, left to right, Jake DeGroote (Founding Member), Stephen Murray (Secretary), Sheila Sperr, John Sperr, Paul Sperr (Scholarship Winner), Joe Ebert (President) and Bob Herloski (Treasurer).

Scholarship winner Paul Sperr received a certificate and will be receiving $1000 over the course of his four years of study at the University of Buffalo. Paul is a 2013 graduate of the Williamson High School.

Paul was valedictorian and he will be majoring in Aerospace Engineering.  In addition to the scholarship funds, Paul also received a membership in the Williamson Flying Club, and they have invited him to use his membership to learn more about aviation, meet pilots and mechanics and maybe some day, start taking flying lessons.

 

 

The WFC shows the value of an airport to the business community

Photo Credit: Joe Ebert

Attendees received a promotional bag, pen and wine with custom label.

Williamson-Sodus Airport [KSDC] was invited by the Wayne County, New York, Economic Development/Industrial Development Agency to present an overview of the airport’s economic impact to the region to a group of about sixty decision-makers which included local town and government leaders, state and federal representatives, county tourism, planning and economic development officials.  Local business leaders,bankers and real estate developers also attended.

The day-long event began at the airport, with County Supervisor Jim Hoffman welcoming the attendees.  The airport presentation followed, which discussed the size, scope and capabilities of the airport, the airport land that is available for compatible non-aviation development, as well as the obligations the airport has to remain an airport “in perpetuity”, due to grant assurance obligations.  As club President Joe Ebert remarked, “from an economic development standpoint, it’s important that potential investors who make decisions based on the presence of an airport have confidence that the airport will be there in 5, 10, 20 or 30 years or more!”

Each attendee boarded the bus that took the group on a tour of the region to learn more about the region’s economy and opportunities for economic development.  Attendees were given a canvas airport logo’d bag to carry all the items they would gather that day, a copy of the presentation and a nifty airport logo’d pen.

Custom wine labels featuring airport

Custom wine labels featuring airport. Photo Credits: Joe Ebert

When the group returned to the airport, having just completed a wine tasting at Young Sommer winery just a few miles down the road,  each participant was surprised with a split of an award-winning fruit-blended wine from the winery, custom labeled for the airport.

The “Fab Five” who created the Williamson-Sodus airport had vision, passion and perseverance.  It seems to me that nearly sixty years since its inception, the flame has not flickered.  The scholarship entices the youth, the wine might entice the long in the tooth, but the educational and economic value to the community is boundless.  Airports such as KSDC prove that they are good neighbors and an asset to the surrounding communities.

Now it is time for you to think out of the box.  As I am fond of saying, there are three kinds of people: those who watch their lives happen, those who make their lives happen, and those who wonder how life happens.  The Williamson Flying Club made it happen.  You can too.

 

News Flash: Stick & Rudder Skills Are Important

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

AVweb’s Glenn Pew interviewed Embry-Riddle professor and former Northwest captain Jack Panosian in a podcast entitled “Avionics — Good Pilots Not Required?”.  It’s an inflammatory title, no doubt to encourage people to dive for that “play” button.  Obviously it worked, because I listened to the whole thing.

Panosian has an impressive resume:  20 years at Northwest, 5 years at ERAU, and he’s got a Juris Doctorate as well.  Nevertheless, while I agreed with some of what he said, certain portions of his thesis seem way off base.

I’ll summarize his points:

    • automation used to monitor human pilots, but today it’s the other way around: we are monitoring the computers these days, and we’re not very good at it
    • computers are good monitors, they do it the same way every time, with the same level of diligence
    • stick & rudder skills are less important than avionics management skill and we need to teach with that in mind

The first two points may be correct (I’ll get to the third one later), but computers don’t “monitor”, they simply execute programming.  There’s a big difference there. It’s true that when people monitor the same thing over and over again, we cannot maintain the same vigilance ad nauseum. But when humans monitor something, they’re capable of doing so with thoughtful and reasoned analysis.  Humans can think outside the box.  They can adapt and prioritize based on what’s actually happening rather than being limited by their programming.

Computers are not capable of that. Remember, system failures are not always covered by the aircraft operating procedures or training, and that’s why safe flight still requires human input and oversight. We are also capable of putting more focus on our monitoring during critical phases of flight. For example, I watch airspeed and flight path with much greater attention during approach than I typically will during cruise.

It’s also worth considering that, despite all the automation, humans still manually perform the takeoff, landing, taxi phases, as well as fly the airplane when the computers get confused or take the day off.   These are the areas where most accidents happen.  Air France 447 stalled up in the flight levels and remained in that state until reaching the ocean.  Colgan 3407 was another stall accident.  Asiana 214 was a visual approach gone wrong. Better manual flying skill might very well have made the difference in at least some of these accidents.

Glenn Pew asked, “How much of flying the airplane is flying the avionics?”, and Panosian replied that “the greatest innovation was the moving map”, giving an example of synthetic vision showing terrain at night.  In my experience, a moving map is no guarantee of situational awareness.  I’ve trained many pilots to fly VFR and IFR in glass panel Cirruses, DiamondStars, experimentals, and so on.  I can’t tell you how many of them had no idea where they were, even with a 10″ full color moving map directly in front of them. When asked the simple question, “Where are we right now?”, you’d be surprised how many have a tough time coming up with an answer.

Does that seem odd to you? It shouldn’t. Situational awareness is not about the map in front of your eyes, it’s about the moving map inside your head.  If you want evidence of that, look at the 2007 CFIT crash of a CAP Flight 2793, a C-182T Skylane which ran into high terrain near Las Vegas.  That flight was piloted by two highly experienced pilots who were familiar with the area, had a G1000 panel in front of them, and still managed to fly into Mt. Potosi.

Panosian made the point that the Airbus was designed to be flown on autopilot “all the time — it was not designed to be flown by hand.  It was designed so that it’s a hassle to be flown by hand”.  Some business jets have similar characteristics. Who would want to hand fly the airplane straight and level for hours on end anyway? The light GA arena has an equivalent as well, the Cirrus SR20 and SR22. I enjoy hand flying them, actually, but the airplane has a somewhat artificial feel due to the springs in the flight control system. It was purposefully designed to fly long distances on autopilot. It’s very good at that mission. It’s well equipped, and has plenty of safety equipment aboard. TAWS, traffic, CAPS, a solid autopilot, good avionics… and yet the Cirrus’s accident rate is not better than average.

I don’t believe the answer is to make the pilot a better manager of automation. This will not stop CFIT, stall/spin, weather, and takeoff or landing accidents.

“The Good news is that we have a generation of pilots that have grown up with this technology, these tablets, etc. and they grab hold of these things better than the older pilot who was trained on the round dials.  That’s a good thing because now you’re just molding them into the aviation world and this is how you’ll operate the aircraft.”

I’m a big proponent of glass panels, tablets, and technology. They’re great. But they do not make one a good pilot. If you want a better pilot, start primary students off in a tailwheel airplane and ensure they know how to fly before doing anything else. Everything should flow out of that. I wouldn’t expect this to be a revolutionary idea, but perhaps it is.

“You are not going to be hired because of your stick and rudder skills.  You will be hired because of your management skills.”

A good aviator needs both sets of skills.  Management ability is important, but no more so than stick-and-rudder capability.  If you can’t physically fly the airplane during any or all phases of flight, you don’t belong in the cockpit because any equipment issues during those phases can leave the aircraft without someone capable of safely operating it.  Pilots who can’t proficiently hand-fly are passengers.  Console operators.  Button pushers.  System monitors (dog not included). But they’re not pilots.

“In other words, can you manage all these systems, can you manages the information you’re getting and make sure that the airplane is doing what it’s supposed to do?  The fact of the matter is that we’ve see this in other industries.  It’s hardly unique to the airline industry.  A robot can do a better job of welding than a human.  An autopilot has many more sensors than a human hand does.  They can be done better and safer than a human being, but they must be monitored properly. That’s where the training comes in.  We have to change from the stick & rudder skills to the manager skills.  That’s what we’re trying to do.”

The problem with his comparison is that flying an airplane is not like welding.  Welding does not require you to manage the energy state of a large chunk of metal hurling through the air while maintaining situational awareness, staying ahead of the aircraft mentally, and adjusting for countless variables ranging from weather to traffic to equipment failures to controllers, often all at the same time and at the end of a long work day. Doing all those things does constitute “management”, but I don’t think it’s the kind Mr. Panosian is referring to.

And as far as the autopilot is concerned, it’s extraordinarily simplistic to compare a full autopilot system to a single human hand.  What about the rest of the body? What about the vestibular labyrinthine system and resultant equilibrioception?  There’s proprioception, thermoception, etc. (Look ‘em up — I had to!). And that’s to say nothing of our sense of sight, hearing, touch, and smell.  We use those when we fly, even without direct knowledge of what our body is doing.  How many times have you noticed a subtle vibration from a prop or engine, the sound of a leaking seal around a door, the sense of something just not being quite right?

Autopilots do some things better than a human. Automation is helpful and absolutely has it’s place. But it is no substitute for a flesh-and-blood pilot who knows how to fly the machine.

What say you, readers?