Archive for the ‘Business aviation’ Category

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.

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.