Archive for the ‘Business aviation’ Category

Upset Recovery Training vs. Aerobatics

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

Upset recovery training has been all the rage over the past couple of years. A Google search of that exact phrase returns more than 24,000 results. There’s a professional association dedicated to such training. ICAO even declared aircraft upsets to be the cause of “more fatalities in scheduled commercial operations than any other category of accidents over the last ten years.”

Nevertheless, I get the impression that some folks wonder if it isn’t more of a safety fad than an intrinsic imperative. It’s hard to blame them. You can hardly open a magazine or aviation newsletter these days without seeing slick advertisements for this stuff. When I was at recurrent training a couple of months ago, CAE was offering upset recovery training to corporate jet pilots there in Dallas. “If I wanted to fly aerobatics, I’d fly aerobatics!” one aviator groused.

He didn’t ask my opinion, but if he had, I’d remind him that 99% of pilots spend 99% of their time in straight and level flight — especially when the aircraft in question is a business jet. I’m not exaggerating much when I say that even your typical Skyhawk pilot is a virtual aerobat compared to the kind of flying we do on charter and corporate trips. For one thing, passengers pay the bills and they want the smoothest, most uneventful flight possible.

In addition, these jets fly at very high altitudes – typically in the mid-40s and even as high as 51,000 feet. Bank and pitch attitudes tend to stay within a narrow band. Yaw? There shouldn’t be any. The ball stays centered, period. We aim for a level of smoothness that exceeds even that of the airlines. Passengers and catering may move about the cabin frequently during a flight, but it shouldn’t be because of anything we’re doing up front.

Fly like that for a decade or two, logging thousands and thousands of uneventful, straight-and-level hours and the thought of all-attitude flying can become – to put it mildly – uncomfortable. I’ve even seen former fighter pilots become squeamish at the thought of high bank or pitch angles after twenty years of bizjet flying.

Unfortunately, there are a wide variety of things that can land a pilot in a thoroughly dangerous attitude: wind shear, wake turbulence, autopilot failure, mechanical malfunction (hydraulic hard-overs, asymmetric spoiler or flap deployment, etc.), inattention, and last but not least, plain old pilot error. Look at recent high-profile accidents and you’ll see some surprisingly basic flying blunders from the crew. Air France 447, Colgan 3407, and Asiana 214 are just three such examples. It may not happen often, but when it does it can bite hard.

So yes, I think there is a strong need for more manual flying exposure in general, and upset recovery training in particular. This isn’t specific to jet aircraft, because some light aircraft have surpassed their turbine-powered cousins in the avionics department. I only wish the 1980′s era FMS computer in my Gulfstream was as speedy as a modern G1000 installation.

Defining the Problem

To the best of my knowledge, neither the NTSB or FAA provide a standard definition for “upset”, but much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we pretty much know it when we see it. The term has generally come to be defined as a flight path or aircraft attitude deviating significantly from that which was intended by the pilot. Upsets have led to loss of control, aircraft damage or destruction, and more than a few fatalities.

As automation proliferates, pilots receive less hands-on experience and a gradual but significant reduction in stick-and-rudder skill begins to occur. The change is a subtle one, and that’s part of what makes it so hazardous. A recent report by the FAA PARC rulemaking workgroup cites poor stick and rudder skills as the number two risk factor facing pilots today. The simple fact is that windshear, wake turbulence, and automation failures happen.

The purpose of upset recovery training is to give pilots the tools and experience necessary to recognize and prevent impending loss of control situations. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that’s why teaching recovery strategies from the most common upset scenarios is actually a secondary (though important) goal.

What about simulators? They’ve proven to be an excellent tool in pilot training, but even the most high fidelity Level D sims fall short when it comes to deep stalls and loss of control scenarios. For one thing, stall recovery is typically initiated at the first indication of stall, so the techniques taught in the simulator may not apply to a full aerodynamic stall. Due to the incredibly complex and unpredictable nature of post-stall aerodynamics, simulators aren’t usually programmed to accurately emulate an aircraft in a deeply stalled condition. Thus the need for in-aircraft experience to supplement simulator training.

Upset Recovery vs. Aerobatics

It’s important to note that upset recovery training may involve aerobatic maneuvering, but it does not exist to teach aerobatics. Periodically over the years, discussions on the merits of this training will cause a co-worker to broach the subject of flying an aerobatic maneuver in an airplane which is not designed and built for that purpose. This happened just the other day. Typically they’ll ask me if, as an aerobatic pilot, I would ever consider performing a barrel or aileron roll in the aircraft.

I used to just give them the short answer: “no”. But over time I’ve started explaining why I think it’s such a bad idea, even for those of us who are trained to fly such maneuvers. I won’t touch on the regulations, because I think we are all familiar with those. I’m just talking about practical considerations.

Normal planes tend to have non-symmetrical airfoils which were not designed to fly aerobatics. They feature slower roll rates, lower structural integrity under high G loads, and considerably less control authority. You might have noticed that the control surfaces on aerobatic airplanes are pretty large — they are designed that way because they’re needed to get safely into and out of aerobatic maneuvers.

That’s not to say an airplane with small control surfaces like a business jet or light GA single cannot perform aerobatics without disaster striking. Clay Lacy flies an airshow sequence in his Learjet. Duane Cole flew a Bonanza. Bob Hoover used a Shrike Commander. Sean Tucker flew an acro sequence in a Columbia (now known as the Cessna TTx). However, the margins are lower, the aerobatics are far more difficult, and pilots not experienced and prepared enough for those things are much more likely to end up hurt or dead.

Sean Tucker will tell you that the Columbia may not recover from spins of more than one or two turns. Duane Cole said the Bonanza (in which he did inverted ribbon cuts) had barely enough elevator authority for the maneuver, and it required incredible strength to hold the nose up far enough for inverted level flight. Bob Hoover tailored his performance to maneuvers the Shrike could do — he’ll tell you he avoided some aerobatic maneuvers because of the airplane’s limitations.

Knowing those limitations and how to deal with them — that’s where being an experienced professional aerobatic pilot makes the difference. And I’m sure none of those guys took flying those GA airplanes upside down lightly. A lot of planning, consideration, training and practice went into their performances.

Now, consider the aircraft condition. Any negative Gs and stuff will be flying around the cabin. Dirt from the carpet. Manuals. Items from the cargo area. Floor mats. Passengers. EFBs. Drinks. Anything in the armrest or sidewall pockets. That could be a little distracting. Items could get lodged behind the rudder pedals, hit you in the head, or worse.

If the belts aren’t tight enough, your posterior will quickly separate from the seat it’s normally attached to. And I assure you, your belts are not tight enough. Getting them that way involves cinching the lap belt down until it literally hurts. How many people fly a standard or transport category aircraft that way?

Now consider that the engine is not set up for fuel and oil flow under negative Gs. Even in airplanes specifically designed for acro, the G loads move the entire engine on the engine mount. In the Decathlon you can always see the spinner move up an inch or two when pushing a few negative Gs. Who knows what that would do with the tighter clearances between the fan and engine cowl on an airplane like the Gulfstream?

Next, let’s consider trim. The jet flies around with an electric trim system which doesn’t move all that quickly. The aircraft are typically trimmed for upright flight. That trim setting works heavily against you when inverted, and might easily reach the point where even full control deflection wouldn’t be sufficient.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that the more I learn about aerobatics, the less I would want to do them in a non-aerobatic aircraft – and certainly not a swept wing jet! Sure, if performed perfectly, you might be just fine. But any unusual attitude is going to be far more difficult — if not outright impossible — to recover from.

Dang it, Tex!

Every time someone references Tex Johnson’s famous barrel roll in the Boeing 707 prototype, I can’t help but wish he hadn’t done that. Yes, it helped sell an airplane the company had staked it’s entire future on, but aerobatic instructors have been paying the price ever since.

Aerobatic and upset recovery training: good. Experimenting with normal category airplanes: bad. Very bad.

Time is Money

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

One of the first things people discover about flying is that it requires an abundance of two resources: time and money. The money part is pretty obvious. Anyone who inquires about flight instruction at a local school will figure that one out before they even take their first lesson. The importance of time is a bit more nebulous.

When I began working as an instructor, I noticed that even in affluent coastal Orange County, at least one of those two assets always seemed to be in short supply. Those who had plenty of money rarely had much free time; they were financially successful because they worked such long hours. Younger pilots typically had fewer demands on their schedule, but funds were limited at best. It reminds me of Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence formula, E=mc2. But instead of matter and energy being interchangeable, it’s time and money. Benjamin Franklin took it a step further in a 1748 letter, concluding that “time is money”.

time_is_money2

I learned to fly during a period when both of those elements were readily available. It was a luxury I didn’t appreciate — or even recognize — at the time. It’s probably for the best, since I would have been sorely tempted to spend even more on my addiction.

After flying Part 135 for the past three years, it’s interesting to note how those same limits apply to charter customers despite being much higher up on the proverbial food chain. These restrictions are the very reason Part 91/135 business aviation exists at all.

Case in point: I recently flew a dozen employees of a large retailer around the U.S. to finalize locations for new stores. They were able to visit ten cities in four days, spending several hours working at each destination. Out of curiosity, I ran our itinerary through booking sites like Kayak, Orbitz, and Travelocity to see how a group of twelve might fare on the airlines. Would you be surprised to learn that the answer is “not well”?

Our first leg, three hours in length, would have taken twelve hours and two extra stops on the airlines and actually cost more, assuming business class seats. Some of the subsequent legs wouldn’t have been possible at all on the airlines because they simply don’t serve those destinations. Overall, chartering the Gulfstream IV-SP cost less than trying to do the same trip on an airline. As far as time saved, on an airline, each of those ten legs would have required passengers to be at the airport 90 minutes in advance of their scheduled departure time. That alone would have wasted fifteen hours — the equivalent of two business days.

A chartered aircraft waits for passengers if they’re running late. If they need to change a destination, we can accommodate them. Travelers spend more time working and less time idle, literally turning back the clock and making everything they do more productive. And once we’re airborne, they can continue to do business, preparing for their next meeting and using the cabin as a mobile office. They can conference, spread out papers, and speak freely without worrying about strangers overhearing sensitive information.

This time/money exchange is present on every trip. Since I’m based in Los Angeles, our passengers are often in the entertainment industry. Imagine an artist or band who had a concert in Chicago on Monday, Miami on Tuesday, Denver on Wednesday, and Seattle on Thursday. They need to be in town early for rehearsals, interviews, and appearances. These tours sometimes last weeks or even months. Keeping a schedule like that would be nearly impossible without chartering. Imagine the cast of big budget film needing to be at film festivals, premieres, media interviews, awards shows, and such. Or the leaders of a private company about to go public or meeting with investors around the country prior to a product launch. Franklin was right: time is money.

When I fly on an scheduled airline, the inefficiency and discomfort remind me of why charter, fractional, and corporate aviation will only continue to grow. The price point of private flying doesn’t make sense for everyone, but for those who need it, it’s more than a convenience. It’s what makes doing business possible at all.

Why does what happens at Santa Monica Airport matter?

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

Santa Monica airport has been in the news lately. Most recently supporters of closing Santa Monica Airport lost a round in court. A Los Angeles judge dismissed a lawsuit that challenged a November ballot measure to protect the facility from closure. More information on the ballot initiative can be found here. Since this blog is supposed to address issues of national concern I decided to ask a few of my aviation friends from New York to Oregon a pretty simple question. “Why does what happens at Santa Monica airport matter?” I think you will enjoy their answers.

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Cub in Dandelions

While even the thought of closing Santa Monica airport strikes to the heart of someone who is a pilot, it also strikes to the soul of many of us non-pilots. Why would that be, if we are only connected to aviation indirectly? The short answer is because it is really about more than just the freedom of flight…it is about plain, old freedom. It’s about the freedom to have a voice, to have a vote. To not be outmaneuvered by outside interest groups and lawyers looking for loopholes and technicalities. Even the consideration of closing down an airport, let alone one with such a fabled history, fills my mind with the classic battles of good and evil. So is this where I raise the flag, bring out the apple pie and march to support the underdog? In my simplistic, creative mind…maybe. Because keeping Santa Monica airport open is symbolic to keeping airports open all around the country. And symbolic for letting us all know that we all should have a voice in our freedoms.

Jim Koepnick, Aviation Photographer, Oshkosh Wisconsin

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The future of Santa Monica Airport is significant for a number of reasons. One is the very important issue of community security. Anyone who lives in Southern California or visits there frequently knows the entire, heavily populated area is just one car wreck away from gridlock. If, God forbid, some major catastrophe hits the area, the airport could instantly become worth its entire landmass in gold when you consider it could be the only way to quickly get emergency crews and supplies, and medical transports, into and out of the community. Ask anyone impacted by Hurricane Katrina about how valuable community airports became in getting even the basic supplies into the area.

In the aviation safety world, much is emphasized on human factors. One such factor that should be considered is the fact we have a tendency not to appreciate or understand the importance of something until it is already gone. Too often, we are easily sold ideas based on misguided information. This seems to be the case in Santa Monica and other areas threatened with airport closures. People build a home close to the airport and then complain about the noise. Then, developers see gold on the property and jump into the fray to convince community leaders that the property is a gold mine of tax revenue just waiting for them. The fact is airports are already a gold mine that contribute much more than is ever effectively recorded in economic impact. Most important is the airport’s contribution to the community’s peace of mind in the event air transportation of people or supplies is needed in an emergency. How can you put a price tag on that?

Mark Grady, Aviation writer, speaker and filmmaker

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Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

If you keep up with any aviation news from any of the alphabet groups, you know that there has been controversy surrounding the Santa Monica airport for the past several years.

The issue is not unique to Santa Monica. At any given time, dozens of airports in the country are being pressured to shut down and the empty space turned into tax generating commercial, industrial or residential use. This shortsighted view is a dangerous one. Airports serving general aviation as well as airports serving air-carriers are part of this country’s transportation infrastructure. The argument that general aviation airports exist only to serve the “fat cats” and their private jets is a hollow one. I’ll counter it by asking why an airliner full of inebriated tourists traveling from Honolulu to LAX on their way home from a cruise is more important than an business jet with the CEO of a multibillion dollar international corporation traveling from Honolulu to Santa Monica to close an important deal that will benefit the local economy? It isn’t!

The billions of dollars lost by US airlines in the past decade are testament to the failed business model that the majority of them operate under. At least corporate and business aviation pays their bills. Let the airlines continue to run themselves into the ground at the major airports. Corporate and business aviation needs the “Santa Monicas” of this country to continue building the economic health of this country after the beating it has taken in the past decade.

Jonathan “JJ” Greenway flies corporate jets internationally for a Hong Kong based company, is a CFII and active aircraft owner who lives in Frederick Maryland.

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Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Heavenly Ovation

To explain why an airport somewhere far away from me matters, requires one to understand that aviation matters to me, deeply, profoundly. Aviation requires a network of infrastructure from fuel service to air traffic control to landing surfaces. Without that infrastructure, my life as I know it cannot exist. There is no way to unwind the two. Our government and forward thinking people always understood that if you could just shorten the travel time of the trade and commerce routes the world could and would change. Today, global aviation is the driving force in a massive international economic globalization. Our national aviation infrastructure, as well as federal, state and municipal budgeting to be part of that infrastructure, makes air transport possible. Rural airports provide essential services, emergency and medical transport and mail service. Community airports provide the places where pilots can train to enter the professional field, stop-overs for corporate businesses maximizing efficiencies, fuel stops for pilots ferrying passengers, cargo, mail, as well as for personal travel, and the all-important time building of pilots who might eventually join the professional ranks. Larger, municipal airports provide economic generators, protect airspace, link commerce hubs and provide jobs. International airports bring the people and goods around the world that drives our global economy.

There is an old, well-told and famous tale of a small town pilot, flying circuits in his small single engine fabric plane, looking across the ramp at the flight instructor, imagining that someday, she or he too will have that kind of time and experience. The flight instructor meanwhile is looking at the light twin taking off on a run to deliver packages and goods wishing for the day when he or she can land that dream job of flying a twin. The twin pilot is looking skyward at the regional jet launching for a mid-sized city. The regional jet pilot looks longingly at the the major airline departing ahead of him, just about to take off for an international destination. The heavy jet levels at FL 380 and watches the International Space Station [ISS] cross the sky ahead of him in the darkness, thinking how cool it would be to fly the space shuttle. Meanwhile the shuttle pilot completes a re-entry, passing a light plane pilot flying circuits over a grass field, thinking that guy has it made. This story has been told and re-told, but today the point is that every aspect of aviation relies on every other aspect of aviation. There is no flight without the infrastructure. If we want to fly to India tomorrow, we must have a rural field in Indiana, a municipal airport in Santa Monica, an internationl airport at LAX. We need fuel service, maintenance technicians, hangar space, landing surfaces, air traffic controllers, rural grass strips, cheap old airplanes laden with history and the latest technology to avoid thunderstorms and all the technicians, unskilled ramp workers, dispatchers, airport design architects, airspace managers, aeronautical engineers, military applications, flight instructors and aviation enthusiasts to make that happen and keep it alive. The alternative is to shrink the world to the size of a highway, and to slow the pace of economics to 60mph.

Rebecca Fisher, Pilot for major airline, airplane owner (C180), float plane instructor and back country air taxi pilot living in Talkeetna, Alaska

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What happens at Santa Monica matters because it’s such a high profile case. The message needs to be that GA is less of a risk than the boulevard running past your front door and the noise it introduces to your neighborhood is substantially less in every regard than that delivery truck or leaf blower that folks accommodate without even thinking. As with so many other airport “controversies,” the Santa Monica Airport battle is about pilots trying to fend off a land grab from cynical commercial and government concerns trying to exploit residents’ fears to accomplish their questionable development goals.

Robert Goyer, Editor in Chief, Flying Magazine, Austin Texas

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Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

When municipalities are faced with budget pressures and look to airport closure as a means to save money, budget planners look at the cost of operating an airport vs. the cost of revenue the airport generates at the airport. That’s an entirely shortsighted metric. The economic impact an airport has on a community or region can’t be measured solely by the revenue generated at the airport, yet that’s often the basis of a decision to close an airport.

Our local airport, Williamson-Sodus, has an annual operating budget of roughly $145,000, which is covered by airport revenues with little to spare. A recent New York State Economic Development study estimates the impact the airport has on the local region is $2.7 million annually. That means $2.55 million of local economic impact is due to the existence of the airport. That would never be seen by the bean counters looking only at the airport ledger.

The challenges municipalities face that force them to close or consider closing an airport are not a reflection of the airport. When I see an airport close, no matter where it is, I see a community whose leaders lack vision. Unfortunately, it’s the community that suffers the loss.

Joe Ebert, Board Member, Past President Williamson-Sodus Airport, New York

 

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Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

My ad agency specializes in two sectors, aviation and tourism. I believe these two sectors fit nicely together as general aviation airports are an under utilized asset for the cities they serve, and are a gateway to bring valuable tourism business into their areas. I have worked for years to recommend to my tourism clients that they need to promote the benefits of their region to pilots seeking new destinations, because pilots generally have discretionary income and are always looking for new places to fly their airplanes.

The financial contributions that airports bring to a city can be found in many areas, from jobs to secondary spending and yes, tourism purchases. Transient pilots flying into an airport like Santa Monica Municipal Airport (KSMO) need rental cars, meals, hotel rooms and fuel, and many continue their spending in the region by visiting local attractions or conducting business. Each airport – whether it’s a large field like KSMO or a small strip at the edge of a rural town – represents a money machine for the area, and they need to be identified as such. To close any airport means a guarantee of often substantial losses to the region, and because of this, each and every airport needs to be preserved.

Dan Pimentel, founder of the Airplanista blog and President/Art Director of Celeste/Daniels Advertising, Eugene, Oregon.

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The answer to the question depends largely on who you are, where you live, and what sort of life you hope to live in the future. If you’re an aircraft owner who bases his or her airplane at Santa Monica the answer is obvious. For the sake of convenience and comfort, that individual would prefer Santa Monica to remain open. That aircraft owner would prefer to keep their friends, their connections, their hangar, and their normal routine in place.

But what about the kid living nearby? What good does an airport do for a teenager living on South Bundy Drive? That kid grows up with airplanes zipping over his or her house day after day. Piston driven propellers drilling holes through space as turbines turn heat to thrust and propel business owners, movie stars, and trophy wives off to Las Vegas, Chicago, and New York. What good does that do?

It’s a fair question. The answer is simple. It provides opportunity that can’t be delivered by any other means.

Perhaps that kid can pull down a part-time job at the local Circle K, or the garage across the street. But what if he or she could wrangle an entry-level position at a flight school, or one of several maintenance shops on the field, or the FBO, instead. That entry level job might lead to a career in the aviation or aerospace industry, taking that teenager farther economically, socially, and geographically than they ever dreamed. It’s happened before. In fact it’s happened tens of thousands of times.

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

 

There are no guarantees in life, of course. Not for Santa Monica and not for any other airport, industry, or individual. But where there is opportunity, there is hope. Where there is hope, people persevere and thrive even under the most challenging circumstances. With Santa Monica Municipal up and running there is industry, entertainment, a pervasive incentive to pursue education as a lifelong goal – and there is hope. Without it, there might be a slightly larger park, or a cluster of high-rise condos, or an office park. None of which can inspire the dreams, the innovation, or the historically significant production Santa Monica Municipal Airport has given the world.

Santa Monica Municipal Airport matters for the same reason the United States of America mattered to my immigrant great-grandfather. It matters because it is the only destination of its kind in the world. And if it is allowed to perish, there will never be another to replace it. Never. And that would be a shameful thing.  Jamie Beckett, Writer, Winter Haven Florida

 

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Many thanks to my friends who answered this important question.  And thanks to those of you who read this piece and perhaps came up with some answers of your own.  I would encourage you to find out more about the charter amendment and further to contribute to funding this worthy battle. http://www.smvotersdecide.com/

We Don’t Train For That

Monday, July 7th, 2014

The tragic Gulfstream IV accident in Boston has been on my mind lately, partly because I fly that aircraft, but also because the facts of the case are disquieting.

While I’m not interested in speculating about the cause, I don’t mind discussing factual information that the NTSB has already released to the public. And one of the initial details they provided was that the airplane reached takeoff speed but the pilot flying was not able to raise the nose (or “rotate,” in jet parlance).

My first thought after hearing this? “We don’t train for that.” Every scenario covered during initial and recurrent training—whether in the simulator or the classroom—is based on one of two sequences: a malfunction prior to V1, in which case we stop, or a malfunction after V1, in which case we continue the takeoff and deal with the problem in the air. As far as I know, every multi-engine jet is operated the same way.

But nowhere is there any discussion or training on what to do if you reach the takeoff decision speed (V1), elect to continue, reach Vr, and are then unable to make the airplane fly. You’re forced into doing something that years of training has taught you to never do: blow past V1, Vr, V2, and then attempt an abort.

In this case, the airplane reached 165 knots—about 45 knots beyond the takeoff/abort decision speed. To call that uncharted territory would be generous. Meanwhile, thirty tons of metal and fuel is hurtling down the runway at nearly a football field per second.

We just don’t train for it. But maybe we should. Perhaps instead of focusing on simple engine failures we ought to look at the things that are causing accidents and add them to a database of training scenarios which can be enacted in the simulator without prior notice. Of course, this would have to be a no-jeopardy situation for the pilots. This wouldn’t be a test, it would be a learning experience based on real-world situations encountered by pilots flying actual airplanes. In some cases there’s no good solution, but even then I believe there are valuable things to be learned.

In the case of the Gulfstream IV, there have been four fatal accidents since the aircraft went into service more than a quarter of a century ago. As many news publications have noted, that’s not a bad record. But all four have something in common: each occurred on the ground.

  • October 30, 1996: a Gulfstream IV crashed during takeoff after the pilots lose control during a gusting crosswind.
  • February 12, 2012: a Gulfstream IV overran the 2,000 meter long runway at Bukavu-Kamenbe
  • July 13, 2012: a G-IV on a repositioning flight in southern France departs the runway during landing and broke apart after hitting a stand of trees.
  • May 31, 2014: the Gulfstream accident in Boston

In the few years that I’ve been flying this outstanding aircraft, I’ve seen a variety of odd things happen, from preflight brake system anomalies to flaps that wouldn’t deploy when the airplane was cold-soaked to a “main entry door” annunciation at 45,000 feet (believe me, that gets your attention!).

This isn’t to say the G-IV is an unsafe airplane. Far from it. But like most aircraft, it’s a highly complex piece of machinery with tens of thousands of individual parts. All sorts of tribal knowledge comes from instructors and line pilots during recurrent training. With each anomaly related to us in class, I always end up thinking to myself “we should run that scenario in the simulator.”

Cases like United 232, Apollo 13, Air France 447, and US Air 1549 prove time and time again that not every failure is covered by training or checklists. Corporate/charter aviation is already pretty safe… but perhaps we can do even better.

Why Returning To The “Golden Age of Aviation” Is A Terrible Future

Monday, June 16th, 2014

pilot

Here’s a Private Pilot, circa 1930. (photo credit: James Crookall)

I’m not a big fan of nostalgia. Here’s why:

The Golden Age of Aviation” was a time when the only people who flew themselves in an airplane were titans of industry, movie stars, or crazy people.

The aviation industry is on course to revert back to the 1930′s. This is bad, bad, news, because if you look at what aviation was like back between the world wars, it was a terrible time.

Folks in our community complain about how private aviation is circling the drain, that it’s a lost cause. I refuse to believe that. We just have too many things going for us. I believe the future of private aviation is viable, as long as we stop trying to relive the past.

The first few chapters of the book, “Free Flight,” by James Fallows, pretty much lit my brain on fire. It remains one of the best, most objective, primers on the state of aviation in America. The rest of the book focuses on the trajectory of both Cirrus and Eclipse and their attempts to disrupt and reinvent air travel in the last decade.

Fallows nails it when he explains that there are two kinds of people. There are “the Enthusiasts,” (You, me, and most anyone reading this.) and “the Civilians.” (everyone else.)

On Enthusiasts
“…The typical gathering of pilots is like a RV or hot rod–enthusiasts’s club. People have grease under their fingernails. The aircraft business is littered with stories of start-up companies that failed. One important reason is that, as with wineries or small country inns or literary magazines, people have tried to start businesses because they loved the activity, not because they necessarily had a good business plan.”

On Civilians
“Civilians–mean most of the rest of us– view airplanes not as fascinating objects but as transportation. Planes are better than cars, buses, or trains to the extent that they are faster. Over the last generation, most civilians have learned to assume that large airliners nearly always take off and land safely. …From the civilian perspective, the bigger the plane, the better. Most civilians view people who fly small planes the way I view people who bungee-jump or climb Mount Everest; they are nuts.”

James Fallows, “Free Flight, Inventing the future of Travel

Fallows calmly explains how travel for most of us has gotten worse, not better in the last 30 years. He stresses that the hub and spoke system adopted by the airlines post deregulation has contributed to the misery. He cites former NASA administrator Daniel Golden, who noted in 1998 that the average speed door to door traveling on commercial airlines had sunk to only around fifty or sixty miles an hour.

The book concisely charts how we got into this fine mess. He compares how air travel works today to that of the world before automobiles. In the last generation, the airlines have benefited the most from investment in development and infrastructure. Today we pack most people onto what may as well be very fast train lines that go from major metro to major metro. Cornelius Vanderbilt would be so proud.

The other side of the coin is what General Aviation has evolved to for the folks who have the means to fly private jets. The industry has done a fabulous job of responding to the needs of the very small percentage of us who can afford to operate or charter turbine aircraft. This equipment flies higher and faster than most airliners, and can get people to small airports much closer to almost any destination. Fallows shows how this is analogous to travel by limousine. Remember, when cars first appeared on the road, they were considered too complicated and too dangerous for mere mortals to operate. Anyone who could afford one, hired a professional driver. I’m sure Andrew Carnegie was chauffeured from point to point too.

So for the most part, we have trains and limousines. It’s like some bizarre alternate history world where Henry Ford never brought us the automobile.

I refuse to believe that we’re simply on the wrong side of history here.

It’s actually a pretty great time to be a pilot. The equipment has never been more reliable, the tools keep making it easier, and the value proposition keeps getting more compelling compared to other modes of travel when you note that moving about the country on the airlines or the highways keeps slowing down due to congestion. For the first time in history, for most of us the country is no longer growing smaller. It’s getting bigger.

A few examples of what excites me about the future of aviation, and what I hope can prove to be disrupters looking forward…

  • ICON A5 – A 2 seat jet ski with wings that you can tow behind your pickup.
  • Cirrus Vision SF50 – 5 Seats, single jet engine, it’s going to define a completely new category for very light jets. I imagine it to be like a Tesla and an iPad mashed together in one 300 knot machine.
  • Whatever it is that Elon Musk builds next – please, please, please, let it be a flying car.

The future is bright, as long as we don’t go backwards.

Trust Us — We’re Professionals

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

I’ve seen some ill-conceived policies emanate from the FAA over the course of my professional flying career. Some diktats are just busy work, while others fail to achieve an otherwise admirable end. But the worst are those that create the very hazard they are supposed to prevent.

Case in point: the recent adoption of 14 CFR 121.542(d), which prohibits the use of any personal electronic devices in flight. According to the FAA, this rule is “intended to ensure that non-essential activities do not affect flight deck task management or cause a loss of situational awareness during aircraft operation.”

Sounds great on the surface, doesn’t it? I mean, who could possibly oppose a rule which the Feds ostensibly see as the aeronautical equivalent of a ban on texting while driving? Keeping distractions at bay and pilots focused on flying has got to be a wonderful enhancement for safety.

But it’s not. The flight profiles of airlines, cargo haulers, charter companies, fractionals, corporate flight departments, and even private GA operators often dictate long stretches of straight-and-level flight with the autopilot on. Surely the FAA is aware of this. Now add in circadian rhythm issues associated with overnight flights, a dark cockpit with minimal radio traffic, and a flight crew pairing who have run out of things to talk about. There’s nothing to do but stare off into the inky darkness for hour upon hour. It’s a recipe for falling asleep.

Say what you will about distractions on the flight deck, but I’d much rather see a pilot peruse an issue of AOPA Pilot while in cruise than to have that individual zoned out or inadvertently napping. For one thing, the process of waking up takes time, whereas an alert human need only change focus. We already do that dozens of times on every flight anyway. Check in on the engine instruments, then answer a question from a passenger, then look out the window, then consult a chart. We do this all day long.

Is there much difference between reading a magazine and delving into the minutia of some random page of the Jeppesen manual when they’re both a form of busy work to keep the mind engaged during slow periods in cruise? I sincerely doubt a roundtable of experts in automation and human factors would have come up with a PED ban.

I can understand prohibiting them below, say, 10,000′ when the sterile cockpit rule is in effect. That’s a busy time for pilots, and non-essential items are naturally stowed at that point anyway. But electronic devices in and of themselves can be helpful in staving off the ultimate distraction. “Flight to Safety” author and Airbus pilot Karlene Petitt said it best:

Numerous studies have shown that one of the tips to help fall to sleep is to NOT watch television or work on your computer at a minimum of an hour before bedtime. The light suppresses melatonin production and stimulates brain activity. I’m not sure about you, but I want my pilots alert with stimulated brains. Give them something to do to keep them awake.

As many of you have probably noted, this rule is located in Part 121 and therefore only applies to scheduled airlines. From maintenance requirements to medical certification, their regs are the strictest around, so perhaps this seems much ado about nothing for a general aviation audience. But the FAA is of the opinion that this limitation should reach a lot further than United and Delta:

Recommended Actions: This prohibition on personal use of electronic devices on the flight deck in the final rule is applicable only to operations under part 121. However, Directors of Safety and training managers for all operators under parts 135 and 125, as well as part 91K, are encouraged to include operating procedures in their manuals and crewmember training programs prohibiting flightcrew members from using such devices for personal use during aircraft operation.

Will this eventually reach down to Part 91? Who knows. Even if it doesn’t, the real problem is that the FAA is spoon-feeding each and every individual action and prohibition to us without making allowances for the differences inherent in each type of operation. One-size-fits-all is wonderful for tube socks and scarves, but when it comes to flight safety, it’s just bad policy.

The smart way to go about this would be to leave it to the individual company, flight department and/or individual to determine what PED policy best serves the cause of safety. If you’re Southwest Airlines or a charter operator company flying VLJs, you probably aren’t flying long-haul trips and might be fine with reasonable PED limitations. Certainly using them below 10,000′ could be prohibited. But if you’re flying international cargo in a jumbo jet or hopping continents in a Global 5000 on legs of twelve or thirteen hours? That personal electronic device could be incredibly helpful in maintaining alertness.

Whether it’s a vocation or an avocation, pilots are a professional lot who can be trusted to make their own decisions about portable electronic devices.

Ghosts, GA and Other Oddities Affected by an Airline Pilot Shortage

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Last week I was privileged to attend an aviation conference I’d never been to before: the Regional Airline Association (RAA) Convention, held in St. Louis, Missouri. That’s where I learned that I am a ghost pilot. My ghostly status, and what I plan to do about it, has direct bearing on several phenomena currently effecting smaller airports around the U.S. and the general aviation pilots flying from them. Read on. You may discover you are a ghost, too!

The strange revelation was unveiled during an open discussion between Bryan Bedford, CEO of Republic Airways Holdings, one of the largest regional conglomerates in the U.S.;

Dan Akins, Andrew Von Ah and Bryan Bedford discuss pilot shortages

Dan Akins, Andrew Von Ah and Bryan Bedford discuss pilot shortages during the 2014 RAA Convention

Andrew Von Ah, of the Government Accountability Office; and Dan Akins, a transportation economist with more than 20 years of industry experience.

Let me add some context to the conversation to help set the scene. Eleven of 12 regional airlines can’t find qualified pilots. New rules require airline pilots to have an ATP before they can carry passengers. An ATP requires 1,500 hours total time and special training (there are few exceptions). That has raised the cost and the duration of training for would-be regional pilots by as much as $100,000 over what it used to cost to go through a four-year university program, flight instruct, acquire about 500 hours experience, and finally qualify for an interview at a regional.

Data from the University of North Dakota show that airline track students are dropping out at the rate of 50% by senior year. Interviews by Dr. Kent Lovelace are telling: these kids have done the math and realize that they won’t be on earnings par with their peers (graduating as nurses, software engineers, accountants) for years. And how, exactly, does one service upwards of $100,000 in student loan debt when only bringing home $25,000 each year? Cape Air starting pay, for example, is a cool $15 per duty hour. I made $15 per hour as a flight instructor and charter pilot in 1986.

To cap the immediacy of the problem for the regionals the feds have issued new pilot duty and rest rules that have forced airlines to pad their pilot ranks by about five percent. Bedford can’t find qualified pilots to make that happen, and has, to date, parked 27 airplanes, he stated.

Von Ah cited the recently released study by the GAO that said there was no airline pilot shortage developing (much contested study, I might add). He acknowledged that regionals might be challenged filling pilot slots, but pointed to government calculations that used FAA pilot statistics to determine that there were adequate “pools” of U.S. commercial and airline transport (ATP) rated pilots ready to be tapped by regional airlines for hiring. He suggested these pilots weren’t adequately incentivized.

Bedford scoffed, positing back, “Last year we looked at 2000 and offered jobs to 450 pilots. This year we vetted 1000 and only got 90 we could offer jobs to. It is a quickly diminishing pool.” He went on to point out that he was trying to negotiate a new contract with his airlines’ pilots; one that includes pay raises.

That’s where Akins chimed in, “The idea that we will have a big rush of ghost pilots wanting to be hired by regional carriers? These pilots are doctors and congressmen. They are not getting in line for those jobs!” he sighed, exasperated.

So true! I’m an ATP-rated pilot with thousands of hours in my logbook, including the requisite turbine experience and I’m not the least bit interested in flying right seat for Silver Airways, our new United feeder. My days of flying for $15 per hour are long past.

The discussion, however, was a fascinating window into why airlines have been pulling out of our area this past year, leaving routes under 500 miles for general aviation, including Part 135 charter, to cover. The phenomenon even caused some local companies to ramp up their Part 91 flight departments again. Now I understood the issues that caused American Eagle and Cape Air to bail on my town, and quite a few others.

And my local flight schools? The ones that can handle foreign students are thriving. But they aren’t teaching a lot of younger locals, the guys who used to work their way up to airline flying by flight instructing and flying charters or night freight. The new ATP rule has been like a shot to the ribs for those guys, and they are rethinking career aspirations, just at the moment when airlines are about to need them the most. How ironic.

At the crux of the problem is who will pay for this new, expensive training. It is clear that the young pilots aren’t interested in carrying the student loan debt forward into the first or second decade of their working lives. Who would be?

The idea of paying pilots more for the experience was broached once more, but ultimately the panel concluded that adversity and much lobbying will force Congress to pressure FAA to create more exceptions to the new ATP rules.  I’m skeptical—how about you?

The Hacked Airplane

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

For better or worse, the relentless march of technology means we’re more connected than ever, in more places than ever. For the most part that’s good. We benefit from improving communication, situational awareness, and reduced pilot workload in the cockpit. But there’s a dark side to digital connectivity, and I predict it’s only a matter of time before we start to see it in our airborne lives.

Consider the recent Heartbleed security bug, which exposed countless user’s private data to the open internet. It wasn’t the first bug and it won’t be the last. Since a good pilot is always mindful the potential exigencies of flying, it’s high time we considered how this connectivity might affect our aircraft.

Even if you’re flying an ancient VFR-only steam gauge panel, odds are good you’ve got an Android or iOS device in the cockpit. And that GPS you rely upon? Whether it’s a portable non-TSO’d unit or the latest integrated avionics suite bestowed from on high by the Gods of Glass, your database updates are undoubtedly retrieved from across the internet. Oh, the database itself can be validated through checksums and secured through encryption, but who knows what other payloads might be living on that little SD card when you insert it into the panel.

“Gee, never thought about that”, you say? You’re not alone. Even multi-billion dollar corporations felt well protected right up to the moment that they were caught flat-footed. As British journalist Misha Glenny sagely noted, there are only two types of companies: those that know they’ve been hacked, and those that don’t.

Hackers are notoriously creative, and even if your computer is secure, that doesn’t mean your refrigerator, toilet, car, or toaster is. From the New York Times:

They came in through the Chinese takeout menu.

Unable to breach the computer network at a big oil company, hackers infected with malware the online menu of a Chinese restaurant that was popular with employees. When the workers browsed the menu, they inadvertently downloaded code that gave the attackers a foothold in the business’s vast computer network.

Remember the Target hacking scandal? Hackers obtained more than 40 million credit and debit card numbers from what the company believed to be tightly secured computers. The Times article details how the attackers gained access through Target’s heating and cooling system, and notes that connectivity has transformed everything from thermostats to printers into an open door through which cyber criminals can walk with relative ease.

Popular Mechanics details more than 10 billion devices connected to the internet in an effort to make our lives easier and more efficient, but also warns us that once everything is connected, everything will be open to hacking.

During a two-week long stretch at the end of December and the beginning of January, hackers tapped into smart TVs, at least one refrigerator, and routers to send out spam. That two-week long attack is considered one of the first Internet of Things hacks, and it’s a sign of things to come.

The smart home, for instance, now includes connected thermostats, light bulbs, refrigerators, toasters, and even deadbolt locks. While it’s exciting to be able to unlock your front door remotely to let a friend in, it’s also dangerous: If the lock is connected to the same router your refrigerator uses, and if your refrigerator has lax security, hackers can enter through that weak point and get to everything else on the network—including the lock.

"There's an app for that!".  The Gulfstream interior can be controlled via an iOS device.

“There’s an app for that!”. The Gulfstream interior can be controlled via an iOS device.

We can laugh at the folly of connecting a bidet or deadbolt to the internet, but let’s not imagine we aren’t equally vulnerable. Especially in the corporate/charter world, today’s airplanes often communicate with a variety of satellite and ground sources, providing diagnostic information, flight times, location data, and more. Gulfstream’s Elite cabin allows users to control window shades, temperature, lighting, and more via a wireless connection to iOS devices. In the cockpit, iPads are now standard for aeronautical charts, quick reference handbooks, aircraft and company manuals, and just about everything else that used to be printed on paper. Before certification, the FAA expressed concern about the Gulfstream G280′s susceptibility to digital attack.

But the biggest security hole for the corporate/charter types is probably the on-board wi-fi systems used by passengers in flight. Internet access used to be limited below 10,000 feet, but the FAA’s recent change on that score means it’s only a matter of time before internet access is available at all times in the cabin. And these systems are often comprised of off-the-shelf hardware, with all the attendant flaws and limitations.

Even if it’s not connected to any of the aircraft’s other systems, corporate and charter aircraft typically carry high net-worth individuals, often businessmen who work while enroute. It’s conceivable that a malicious individual could sit in their car on the public side of the airport fence and hack their way into an aircraft’s on-board wi-fi, accessing the sensitive data passengers have on their laptops without detection.

What are the trade secrets and business plans of, say, a Fortune 100 company worth? And what kind of liability would the loss of such information create for the hapless charter company who found themselves on the receiving end of such an attack? I often think about that when I’m sitting at Van Nuys or Teterboro, surrounded by billions of dollars in jet hardware.

Aspen's Connected Panel

Aspen’s Connected Panel

Internet connectivity is rapidly becoming available to even the smallest general aviation aircraft. Even if you’re not flying behind the latest technology from Gulfstream or Dassault, light GA airplanes still sport some cutting-edge stuff. From the Diamond TwinStar‘s Engine Control Units to the electronic ignition systems common in many Experimental aircraft to Aspen’s Connected Panel, a malicious hacker with an aviation background and sufficient talent could conceivably wreak serious havoc.

Mitigating these risks requires the same strategies we apply to every other piece of hardware in our airplanes: forethought, awareness, and a good “Plan B”. If an engine quits, for example, every pilot know how to handle it. Procedures are committed to memory and we back it up with periodic recurrent training. If primary flight instruments are lost in IMC, a smart pilot will be prepared for that eventuality.

As computers become an ever more critical and intertwined part of our flying, we must apply that same logic to our connected devices. Otherwise we risk being caught with our pants down once the gear comes up.

From Cheetos® to Gyros: one man’s attempt to engage high school students in aviation business

Friday, May 2nd, 2014
Bob Velker is the Business Liaison & Community Outreach Manager at Chino Airport, CA [KCNO].  As such is he is really an ambassador for the airport and the business park within its boundaries.  He has developed a program for high school students to spend a day learning about industry and career opportunities at the airport.  During my recent tour, he kept repeating that Chino Airport was really a light industrial park, with runways. After my visit, I could see why.

The local high schools receive the benefit of a full-day program for their upper division students including lunch at famous Flo’s Restaurant. The kids get the day away from campus, education about the career vocations offered by an airport, plus a super cool two-week internship possibility.

The syllabus for the day at the airport lists a sampling of the career vocations offered at Chino Airport [as well as many mid-to large airports around the country]

Crew
    • Commercial pilot/co-pilot
    • Operations
    • Instructions
Where opportunity takes flight

Chino Airport…where opportunity takes flight

Maintenance

  • Airframe
  • Engines
  • Detailer
  • Director of Maintenance
  • Logistics

Refurbishment

  • Exterior Paint and Body work
  • Interior Design, Fabric, woodworking, metal working, installation

Air Traffic Control

Computer & Information Technology

Police and Fire Fighting

Ground [Field] Operations

  • Fuel
  • Taxi
  • Support Vehicles
  • Field Markings
  • Taxi/Runway
  • Baggage Handling
  • Food Service
  • Management

Administration

  • Marketing
  • Business
  • Management
  • Finance
  • Customer Service
  • Dispatch

Non-Profits

  • Museums
  • Restoration
  • Historians

During the morning session the students spend time with AeroTrader which has 50 employees in aircraft restoration, repairs, engine re-building, fabrication and machine shop.  They also tour Threshold an FBO that has 60 employees working in charter operations, aircraft maintenance and aircraft management.  Both of these businesses need a mix of vocational and skilled employees.

After lunch at Flo’s the groups go to SCE, a public utilities company with 40 employees. Then on to Mach One Air Charters [8 employees] , DuBois Aviation [20 employees] and ending with the Planes of Fame Air Museum, a non-profit with 35 employees.  Along the way the kids see the tower and ATC system, learn about Young Eagles, and other businesses on field including avionics repair.

At the end of the day, if a student identifies a strong interest in working for one of the employers highlighted in a session they are given the opportunity to participate in a two-week internship.  All of the businesses at Chino, or any airport for that matter, need workers trained through vocational programs or skilled technical programs. Most high schools now offer various tracks to their students to meet those needs.

I think that Bob Velker has struck gold with this idea.  Not only does it get people to the airport other than pilots, it helps to highlight that our airports offer tremendous economic value and are an economic engine for our communities.  The students might be able to “see” themselves in an aviation career other than that of a pilot. Opportunities like this day-long event open young minds to the career possibilities in aviation. As a parent of a teenager myself, I welcome an opportunity for a child to be able to get their head out of the phone, video game, or chip bag, and into the possibilities of a career in aviation.

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.