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Author: Chip Wright (page 1 of 32)

Flying in other countries

Aviation is supposed to be a world with a common language, but it doesn’t always work as well in practice as it does in theory. English is the agreed-upon language, but the fact is, not everyone speaks it as a primary language, and many struggle with it.

I do quite a bit of flying in Mexico and Central America, and most of the controllers speak English fairly well, while others clearly struggle to speak with a minimal accent. When I used to fly over certain parts of Japan, China, and Russia, the problem could be compounded. Russians, for instance, use meters versus feet.

Add to this the unusual (for us) names of some of the navaids and fixes that we use in foreign countries, and the risk of misunderstanding is fairly high. The obvious solutions are easy: Speak clearly, speak slowly, and make sure that you eliminate any potential distractions when you are listening to a transmission intended for you.

Fortunately, most controllers are patient and will gladly work with you to make sure that you understand what they need you to do or where they need you to go. And once you have some experience in a particular country, you will get better at predicting what will come next—and for that matter, what won’t. Many places, for instance, insist that you fly a full approach, so getting a shortcut for a visual is usually a non-starter. Other locations with spotty radar or challenging terrain will essentially force you to fly a full arrival or departure procedure.

One of the best ways to prepare for some of these challenges is to spend some time studying whatever material your company provides for operations in various geographic areas. When you get the flight plan, make sure that you can decipher the SIDS and STARS. In Mexico and other Central American countries, there might be a large number of arrivals depicted on one page, with various transitions to choose from. You’ll likely have to study the approach page(s) as well to determine how to load the route. The other possibility is that the flight plan won’t have a STAR on it, and you will be assigned one as you get near. That isn’t the time to try to decipher odd-sounding words that could confuse you. Try to have some passing familiarity with the sounds and phonetics so that you can be sure you have the right procedure.

There are some countries and/or airports that multiple airlines treat with an even greater degree of caution because of a confluence of risk factors, such as language, terrain, weather, et cetera. Bogota, Colombia, falls into this category. Most require pilots to go in for the first time with someone who has been there, and captains often have to go in for the first time with a check airman and be specifically signed off before they can be assigned BOG routinely.

Flying to new countries is a challenge, but it’s also fun, and when you get comfortable with the procedures, it is satisfying to know that you can work the system as intended. But preparation is key, and it can’t be overlooked. Likewise, you can’t allow complacency to rear its ugly head either. Stay focused, stay ahead of the airplane, and stay safe.—Chip Wright 

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Regional pilot bonuses

If there was ever any doubt about the need for pilots, or the need to try and retain pilots, those doubts have been squarely put to rest.

In August, Piedmont, PSA, and Envoy, all of whom fly under the American Airlines banner, announced significant retention bonuses. All captains are to receive $30,000 immediately, first officers will receive $30,000 when they upgrade, all pilots who stick around for the flow to American will receive $70,000, and there will also be $50,000 biannual bonuses available, with the details to be announced.

This is a blatant admission that the pipeline of pilots is drying up. It might also be an admission of sorts by American Airlines that pilots are not sticking around to get the promised flow to the American mainline. While I don’t have the details about how this program will work, or what the catches are, this indicates that the adage that “money talks” is going to be put to a test.

For example, how long will an upgrading FO have to stay to receive and keep the $30,000 bonus? What if that FO decides to bid back to the right seat for personal reasons? What is the structure of the biannual bonus? And, perhaps most important to so many of the pilots at the three airlines: how long do they have to realistically wait to get a shot at American? If the wait is too long, the problem is not going to be solved, as those pilots who are experienced and marketable will apply to Delta, United, Southwest, et al. If I am in management at American Airlines Group, I would be trying to figure out what to say to get them to stay.

It remains to be seen whether Delta and/or United will feel compelled to do something similar. Make no mistake that while the pilots in question are flying RJs, these bonuses are approved and maybe even initiated by management, since they pay the bills. It is clear that they see a shortage on the horizon.

I recently had a pilot from American on one of my flights, and while this wasn’t yet public knowledge, the overall need for pilots is, and we were discussing the state of the industry going forward. Every major airline will tell you that they all have the same 4,000 to 5,000 who are viable candidates in their pool of applicants. What makes this such a challenge is that, for the first time ever, multiple carriers are trying to hire at least 1,000 pilots a year. Delta, United, Southwest all would love to train more than that, and JetBlue is not far behind. UPS, FedEx and the Amazon contractors (Southern and Atlas) all need experienced pilots. While the pay at Southern and Atlas is still below where it should be, there is reason for optimism that the pilots are on the verge of a new contract that will dramatically increase compensation.

It doesn’t take much to see that four airlines hiring 1,000 pilots each will quickly deplete the current pool of available talent. It’s important to realize that these aren’t just pie-in-the-sky numbers either. While the pandemic is not over, travel demand has rebounded, and people are ready to move. Airlines responded to the downturn by offering early retirement packages that helped avoid furloughs. Retirements are not going to slow down, and every carrier is ordering airplanes that will result in a net growth of their fleets. They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t have confidence that the business would be there. In fact, in 2022, United will be taking a new airplane every three days. It’s been decades since the majors have seen that kind of movement.

This is going to create an incredible series of opportunities, but it will also put great strains on each company’s training centers. There will be positions open as instructors, evaluators, course content creators, and more. Recruiters will also be in demand. New and more airplanes will also open up opportunities for mechanics, which is another area of great staffing concern. But for us as pilots, this represents an opportunity to try as many different types of flying as you might care to experience. Ultra long haul, cargo, wide body, narrow body, charters, Boeing versus Airbus…it is all on the table. Some pilots will bid aggressively and fly every plane in the fleet, and others will find a niche and settle in for the long haul in one seat or one fleet. You certainly won’t starve.

I am curious to see the gotchas of the American Airlines Group deal with its subsidiaries, but I do think it is indicative of the state of an industry that needs to work hard to make learning to fly more accessible, more affordable, and more attractive. Let’s hope that this is just the beginning!—Chip Wright

Can you have too much CRM?

Pilots spend a lot of time learning about and mastering the art of crew resource management (CRM) and threat and error management (TEM). With time and practice, it becomes pretty easy to put these tools to use and maximize safety while minimizing risks. Used properly, communication is enhanced, it is more effective, more inclusive, and less intimidating, especially for new or young members of a crew.

But, can CRM ever be too easy? Can it become so easy that it ends up being harder again? I thought of this on a recent trip because I was flying with another pilot who is a good friend of mine, and we have flown together more times than we can count. We know each other well, and we always look forward to flying together, which for a while, was averaging at least once a month.

When we do our pre-flight brief, we are expected to address any possible threats, and I once jokingly said, “You and I are flying together.” That was an epiphany for both of us, and now we mention that every time. As the first officer, I know what he expects and wants to make his job easier, and as the captain, he knows that he can trust me to take care of a lot of little details that others may skip. When something comes up, it is often as though we are reading each other’s minds. This can be great, because it makes everything effortless.

But can it go too far? Can it require a new level of TEM?

It hasn’t, but it could. It’s possible that the comfort level can be so well established that short cuts get taken, that inuendo or assumptions take the place of spoken words. When this happens, something can easily get missed. A few times we have forced ourselves to slow down and be more methodical. But what if we didn’t catch that? What if we let something slide? We could. It would be so easy and, worse, so…unintentional. It’s fair to say we each take some pride and balancing the scale between being professionals with a clear sense of the chain of command while also maintaining a genuine friendship.

If you think about it, that is actually the essence of good CRM: striking the balance. CRM came about because of the once-dictatorial environments that captains would create, which would stifle input and help. To think that it might have swung to far the other way is to realize the full gamut of human relationships. There is a time for the easy banter and jokes that pass the time, but there is also a time to quietly and comfortably assume the role of professionals with an airplane full of passengers entrusted to your care.

If you have worked as a CFI, you’ve probably seen something similar with at least one student. And given that pilots tend to have fairly similar personality types, it isn’t unexpected. But it is up to each of us to honor and respect the systems and procedures in place to keep those lines clear and risks minimized.—Chip Wright 

We don’t all just fly

One of the neat things about meeting so many different people in this line of work is to see what others bring to the table besides just their bona fides as a pilot. I’ve met some folks with fascinating backgrounds and side jobs that make for some interesting stories.

A friend of mine is well known among his comrades as a competitive race car driver, good enough that he had a chance to sign with a NASCAR sponsor back in the day. It was, he said, a difficult decision to make, but he chose to focus on flying and stuck with the racing as a hobby, which he has continued to enjoy as his schedule allows. The professional racing circuit, he said, was just too demanding for any sense of normal family life.

I used to fly with another fellow who now flies for Southern Air, and his trips are 17 days long, but that means he gets a couple of weeks off when he comes home. Because he was forced to find a way to support himself during a furlough, he became a commercial truck driver, and now he owns his own 18-wheeler rig that he uses on days off to deliver cargo on the ground. He loves the travel and the itinerant lifestyle, and his posts on social media are always entertaining to read.

Quite a few pilots have come to this line of work by way of success elsewhere. For a while, it seemed like everyone I flew with had something to do with medicine or pharmacology. The fields, they said, were fascinating. The red tape…not so much. Long hours and burnout from spending so much time haggling with insurance companies helped push them to pursue the opportunities in aviation, but several kept their fingers in the cookie jar by working part time and keeping up with continuing ed requirements as a fallback.

Other pilots have been able to take advantage of their flexible schedules to pursue or create opportunities outside of the cockpit. When furloughs were happening or threatening to happen, a number went back to school to get degrees in everything from law to accounting to becoming a physician’s assistant. Another got his MBA and created what could best be described as a boutique travel agency focusing on his home country in southeast Asia.

Real estate is another common hobby, because once tenants are in place, the workload drops considerably. The flurry of activity in filling a vacancy or doing a rehab is largely contracted out, and it can take up considerable time and resources while it is ongoing, but an occupied property in the right location is a nice piece of residual income.

The moral of the story? Simple: Keep looking for lemons that need to be turned into lemonade, and if you play your cards right, one of those interesting, fascinating backgrounds could be yours.—Chip Wright 

The hiring boom is back

The pandemic may not be over, but it’s clear that people are no longer going to be as willing to lock themselves at home anymore. They want to get out, and they want to travel.

This summer has seen a major boomerang in travel demand that has strained all segments of the travel industry. In some places, getting a rental car will cost upwards of $800 per day for the cheapest car. In many places, restaurants are still struggling to reopen. And at airports, the airlines are bursting at the seams as they have gone from the extreme of parking airplanes wherever they could find a runway to land them, to suddenly scrambling for the most important of all assets: employees.

Virtually every airline did something to reduce their payrolls, and the pilot ranks were no exception. Some, however, may have gone too far. The early retirement offers and long-term leaves of absences that so many took left gaping holes in the staffing models of several carriers. It’s one thing at an company like Southwest or Spirit, where the fleet consists of one model and training can be spooled up pretty quickly, but it’s an entirely different animal at an airline like Delta or American, which fly multiple fleets, and the training has to be done in some kind of a logical sequence in order to properly rebalance the staffing numbers. The same holds true for the regionals.

Most of the domestic flying has returned, and if it isn’t back in full, most cities have had at least some of their service restored. Airplanes are full and ticket prices are increasing, both of which are good. But the impending pilot shortage that was kicking in only months ago is now very much back front and center. United Airlines has recently announced some massive aircraft orders, and while some of them will be replacement aircraft, much of it will be growth, which will necessitate more pilots. In a recently closed bid, United began to kick-start its recovery, and the airline is now hiring almost 50 pilots a week indefinitely. The bid that just closed will trigger at least a thousand training events, hundreds of which will go to pilots not yet on the property. Similar events will happen throughout the industry.

The majors all share one concern: They have a pool of what they consider to be qualified, acceptable pilots that sits at around 5,000 applicants, but that pool is pretty much the same at each carrier, since most pilots apply to multiple airlines. To use United’s projected hiring needs, that pool would be gone in two years. Obviously, some of it will be refilled with fresh applicants as they become competitive and apply, but it’s still a harsh reality that needs to be dealt with in some form.

For job applicants, this is all great news. The world has been through an event unlike anything we have ever seen, and while the work still must continue, the determination to take control of our own lives again is beginning to generate hiring cycles, which will create more economic activity and jobs. If a career as a pilot of any kind is your dream, there is no better time than the present. —Chip Wright

Is the 50-seater done?

When the CRJ came on the scene in 1993, it revolutionized air travel. With a 50-seat jet, airlines were able to overcome the high per-seat-mile operating costs and make money because of the appeal of being in a jet versus the previous turboprops that had dominated the market for so long.

Derisively referred to as “puddle jumpers,” turboprops had a limited range of around 400 nautical miles. To stretch much beyond that was to risk schedule disruptions becasue of alternate fuel requirements, as well as reduced loads. The RJ changed that. While payloads could still be limited in some cases, the standard range of operations increased dramatically, while offering passengers a faster, more comfortable ride.

Recently, the FAA increased the standard weights of passengers from 170 pounds (this includes a bag) in the summer/175 in the winter to 190 and 195 pounds respectively. There has also been an increase in the allowed weight for personal items.

What does all of this mean? In short, it could be the death knell for the current fleet of 50-seat RJs. The increase in weight for passengers is going to take a bite out of the allowable payload. In a recent email from my local union folks, the payloads on 50-seaters are said to max out at 48 passengers. Some may even be limited to 47. For the airlines, this is going to be a problem. The RJs were already relatively expensive to operate, and this will only make it worse. The other major challenge is going to be finding a way to continue to serve certain markets that cannot sustain service from larger jets.

There have been efforts to bring the larger turboprops back, most notably the Dash-8 Q400 from Bombardier. However, it hasn’t worked on the scale needed. The passengers have voted with their wallets and opted for competitors that had a jet, which they view as safer and more reliable, not to mention more comfortable. There is also a perception that turboprop pilots are not as well-trained or as experienced.

The 50-seaters are definitely long in the tooth, and larger numbers have been parked or turned into beer cans. Unfortunately, that trend is likely to continue. There is currently no movement afoot to introduce a new model to the North American market, which means that the 70-90-seaters will be the airplanes filling that niche. Airlines are currently trying out a 50-seat variant of the CRJ-700 by taking out some seats and adding first-class service and different seating classes in coach. Only time will tell if this is going to be a long-term answer.

It’s possible that there won’t be another 50-seat jet introduced, and that some communities will indeed see a decrease in, or even a loss of, service. If so, that would be a shame. It will also be a shame to see a workhorse airplane no longer in the skies.-–Chip Wright 

Old revisions vs. new

Ask any pilot about the advantages of the old, heavy paper ‘brain bags’ versus the modern electronic flight bag (EFB), and you won’t find many, if any, that prefer the old days. Jepp binders, company manuals that would run 1,000 pages or more, and personal items meant that the flight kit, usually black or brown leather and adorned with stickers, would weigh 40 to 50 pounds. In fact, one of the strongest arguments for going electronic was the steady rash of injuries that pilots suffered from the bags, usually to shoulders and backs that were abused in manipulating the bags in and out of the cockpit.

But there was one huge advantage to the paper books, and that was the ability to write, note and cross-reference from one book to the next. There was hardly a pilot around who didn’t keep some kind of notes in the manuals based on his/her previous experiences or inability to remember complex tables. In my case, I was always double-checking requirements for weather for certain approaches, for filing for an alternate, and for determining the need for a second alternate. I came up with my own tables and flow charts for this, but I also made heavy use of notes and ‘see page XXX in the other manual.’

Revisions also came with vertical change bars on the margins, so when you were doing the revision, you could immediately see what had changed. Highlighted passages could be transferred (or deleted, or added) as needed or desired. I always used two highlighters. One was yellow and one was pink, and they each had a different meaning. Doing the revisions by hand, in my opinion, made everyone slightly more aware of what was going on within the operation, because you felt compelled to read and understand the changes. It was also a bit of a challenge to try to find the inevitable mistakes that made it through several layers of editing and proof-reading. Minor mistakes would be taken care of in the next revision cycle, but major mistakes would be addressed right away, usually with a yellow-paged temporary revision. Every three or four years or so, there would be a total rewrite the books, and we’d all get the fun of getting familiar with some slight ‘improvement.’

With the EFB, the updates are constant and instantaneous. Notes in the margins of pages no longer work, because they get deleted during the updates. Same with highlights. There is a revision summary that goes through all the changes and has a hyperlink to the affected pages so that you can you see the actual change. But unless you want to create a separate PDF of the book, the days of dog-eared pages covered with notes and comments and highlights are gone. Is that good? Bad? It’s probably both, and like my brethren, I am in no hurry to lug a 50 pound bag around anymore with all of the risks involved (the handle on mine broke as I was going through security one day; fortunately, I was able to get a new one in the airport). Because nobody any longer worries about the cost of printing or the number of binders needed, a few of our manuals are pushing 2,500 pages, which is ridiculous. And, all of my personal notes, comments, memory joggers, etc. are in a spiral notebook as well as a file on my computer.

That said, I no longer have to worry about coming back from a vacation to a V-file stuffed with revisions. One quick tap on my EFB, and I’m ready to go in less time than it takes to put on my uniform. And that’s okay.

The people are coming back

I’ve been pretty lucky flying during the pandemic. Most of my passengers have been cooperative and understanding of the mask rules, the social distancing we all had to endure, and the temporary changes to normal procedures that were implemented to minimize risk.

That said, now that summer is here and people are making up for lost time, airports and airplanes are getting crowded again, and it’s great to see from a job security point of view.

But more people means more short tempers. I recently had a flight on which a passenger very nearly got himself banned from the airline, and possibly from multiple airlines. We had just closed the door in Houston for a flight to Newark. There was some last-minute confusion with a couple of jumpseaters (we had one pilot in the cockpit and two flight attendants in the back, all trying to get to work). When the final passenger count came off the printer, it was off by two. Unfortunately, it took more than 20 minutes to figure out what had happened. And the truth is, I’m still not sure exactly what transpired in the gate area, but we finally got the mess sorted out.

And then it started.

One of the flight attendants called and said we had a very belligerent, non-compliant passenger who was causing problems. His complaint was that we were running late, and he had paid for an on-time departure. That’s fair, but we can’t leave until we can confirm that the passengers who are on the airplane are actually supposed to be there. It’s hard to believe that people still get on the wrong airplanes in 2021, but it does happen rarely.

What this fella didn’t realize is that he was now making us even later, because now we had to make a determination about possibly returning to the gate and removing him. That led to a discussion of which gate we might use, and how long it would take for us to get the police there. As a result, we were taxiing very slowly to buy time while the cabin crew worked to de-escalate the situation. Removing people from an airplane is never fun or pleasant, and in this case, it would have been in part due to our late departure. It wasn’t like he got on and started causing trouble just to cause trouble—that’s easy to deal with.

Finally, the lead flight attendant called us back and said she had spoken to the passenger and his wife, and had made it clear that he was fast running out of time to change his attitude. His wife did what spouses do and got through to him that if got thrown off the airplane, his troubles were just beginning.

The rest of the flight was uneventful, and we were in fact on time landing in Newark. Ironically, we would have had to wait for a gate if we were early, because ours was occupied by a flight that was late getting off the gate. To top it off, that flight had to return to the gate for a mechanical issue, which required our ground crew, so we were looking at a late arrival (by just a few minutes) no matter what.

Sometimes, you just can’t win for losing.—Chip Wright

Special airports

A recent conversation with a non-aviating friend of mine brought up a reminder about certain airports not being of the every day, run-of-the-mill variety. The question was whether or not my airline could just fly any plane into any airport with any pilot on any given day (assuming proper runway length, et cetera).The answer is no.

Every carrier and many corporate flight departments have certain airports that require specific training or operating procedures. At my former carrier, these were called Special Airports. Back in the day of printed approach charts, these airports came with color print charts with photographs, several pages of notes, and a slew of other information that described why they were special. Most of the time, the goal was simply to call attention to an airport that might pose certain challenges based on geography.

For example, KAVP (Scranton-Wilkes Barre) is built right next to a hill in a valley, and the localizer is offset for terrain avoidance. The winds can make this approach challenging. KAVL (Ashville) is another airport in a valley with significant surrounding terrain and some wicked winds and wind shear. KROA (Roanoke) is a bit of all of this, with short runways to boot.

At my current airline, on my current equipment, KAVL is considered special for a different reason: The runway is much narrower than the ones we normally use, so the potential for adverse yaw during an engine failure means that, under certain weight conditions, the rudder may not have enough authority to keep the plane on the runway should an engine quit. The solution is to make sure that the aircraft meets certain minimum weights prior to takeoff. The easy way to do this with a light passenger load is to add some fuel.

Almost every airline that flies into Vail, Colorado, has training procedures that require the first officer to fly in with a captain who has already been there, and the captain usually has to fly there for the first time under the supervision of a check airman. Further, if the captain has not been there in a certain window of time, he or she will again need to go under the supervision of a check airman. Some carriers have a few airports that require a captain to go in with a check airman every so many months no matter what.

Bogota, Colombia, is another airport that is problematic. The terrain is intimidating, and as a result weather deviations are limited. So are diversion options. Throw in the fact that a lot of arrivals come in after dark, and you have bad weather, high terrain, fatigue, and communication challenges all rolled up into one.

Back in the United States, another airport that fit the Special category, even for a turboprop, was Key West. It’s a short runway (4,800 feet), but plenty long for a turboprop. However, the challenge is the extremely close proximity of NAS Key West off the east end, which could lead to some interesting traffic conflicts. It’s also built with no spare room on either end of the runway if you have an overrun. Last, but not least, it can be both windy and wet. Frequent rains in the summer often leave puddles on the runway. Needless to say, flying a jet into Key West is a different level of challenge.

Special airports are not always so obvious. And they’re not always problematic. However, the require your attention and respect. Read up on the notes when you haven’t been there in a while. And remember, just because it doesn’t seem like a big deal to you doesn’t mean that it can’t become a very big deal very quickly if you’re not careful.—Chip Wright

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How long does it take?

Pilots who are new to a company and an airplane can at times feel like they will never “get it.”

The first shot out of the firehose is information. Lots and lots of information, about everything from the company to the managers to how to get a mistake on your ID badge fixed. Then there is airplane training, which is information on steroids. There are memory item checklists and limitations to memorize, some of which feel silly or seem to have no reason (and often don’t).

Next is the simulator, where everything goes from being an abstract, academic concern to a practical one, as you try to tie up all the pieces you’ve been given so far. Callouts, flows, crew resource management…it’s a lot to master, and there never seems to be enough time to do so. Worse still, you don’t realize how narrow the scope of flying is in the sim until it’s over. Most of the time is spent flying approaches and learning how to use the flight management system (FMS), while also figuring out how to keep the blue side up during an engine failure. In fact, in sim training, you actually get very little time experiencing what the airplane flies like when everything is working. You also get almost no exposure to the cruise portion of your flight.

Simulators are great for a lot of things, but they are terrible for mastering the art of a visual approach, because the graphics, as good as they are, still lack a certain amount of depth perception. The sims also usually do a poor job of replicating terrain-induced winds and turbulence on an approach. At some point you will begin to feel a little bit cocky about how you’re doing, because you will have mastered (or come close to) this narrow field of flying in a very controlled environment.

It’s only after you get on the line and have to really and truly put it all together in an airplane with passengers and other distractions that you finally have to master the art of not crashing and flying with some degree of grace. Generally speaking, it takes around 100 hours in an airplane to get your first new level of comfort, and it takes around 500 to begin to feel less apprehension in challenging weather conditions. With larger airplanes that fly longer legs and do fewer takeoffs and landings, it may take more. Getting the hang of hand-flying and performing smooth visual approaches is a sign of comfort, and a big boost to your confidence. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen with practice and repetition. You’ll also learn from your mistakes, of which there will be many at first.

But there comes a time where sitting in your seat feels like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes. And that’s a great day when it comes.—Chip Wright

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