Author: Chip Wright (page 2 of 24)

FAR 117 challenges

Prior to the advent of FAR 117, the FAA held airlines primarily responsible for violations of its scheduling rules. In theory, the pilots also were accountable for what happened, but the FAA was well aware that airlines—especially smaller commuters and regionals—would lie, cheat, and steal to get their flights completed.

Further, the airlines had computers that were supposedly infallible, and when problems were occasionally found, it was because the airlines had created the problems. Because most airlines record conversations between pilots and schedulers, it usually didn’t take much to catch the airlines in the act—especially when the incriminating tapes would suddenly go missing, which they too often did.

FAR 117, however, has changed things. Now pilots are held to a much higher standard—but so are the airlines. The problem is that FAR 117 was supposed to make things simpler, and that wasn’t always the case. A series of tables was produced for both augmented and unaugmented flights, and the maximum hours on duty and hours flown was supposed to be as simple as using a table to get the magic number. The rules varied some for reserves, but even those rules were supposed to be easier to understand.

Unfortunately, there have been a lot of valid questions and concerns brought up over the years that required some interpretations from the FAA. Questions have been posed by the unions, the airlines, and individual pilots. The result was a lot of confusion. Most of that confusion has been eliminated, but some is still there.

I had a recent example of an easy mistake that could have led to a violation. My initial report time was changed because of a flight cancellation. My new flight left later, but it also ran late because of late-arriving passengers and a traffic jam at the runway. My next leg was a transcontinental flight, which created a problem. Even though the initial early report time was changed, the start of my duty time remained the same, because a phone call to me prior would have triggered a mandatory new rest period, so I was notified with an email that I got when I woke up.

I didn’t put all of the pieces together until we got ready to do the transcon and the gate agents were trying to get us airborne. Because of the confusion, we called the company to get a clarification. Fortunately, I could agree to an extension of my duty time, which I did in the interest of not stranding a jetload of passengers.

But, had we just assumed that we knew better and taken off, I would have been in violation of 117, and unlike the old days, the FAA would have come after me, possibly for certificate action. But under 117, both sides are equally responsible, and both are vested in getting it right. All of our Ts were crossed and our Is were dotted.

If you move into the 117 world, there are a number of resources you can use to ensure compliance with the rules, including some FAQs that have been compiled based on FAA interpretation and real-world experience. There are also apps for your phone. Know what your resources are, but more important, don’t be afraid to make some phone calls if you’re in doubt. Once you know you’re legal to operate, then—and only then—can you go. There is often more to the table than meets the eye.—Chip Wright

Different airplanes of the same type

Flying for an airline is obviously different than flying general aviation. The airplanes themselves are much more complex, and even when they are the same…they are different.

You likely have some familiarity with this in the GA world. After all, there are multiple models of the 172. Some have flaps that go to 40 degrees, but most don’t, and a few didn’t require waiting for the white arc to extend the first 10 degrees of flaps. There are also as many radio combinations as there are pilots with money to spend on radios.

Airlines do what they can to maximize fleet commonality, because it’s cheaper and safer to do so. When I flew at the regionals, the airplanes were exactly the same for the most part. The differences that existed were more behind the panels, and the few that were not didn’t really matter.

But there were a few differences, notably in the max takeoff weight of two variants of the CRJ. It was hard to miss this, though, since it was on a (big) placard in the cockpit, and our flight release always noted the heavier airplanes. The landing weights were the same, which helped.

At the majors, the differences can be more stark. I fly the Boeing 737, and my airline has four basic variants: the -700, the -800, the -900, and the -900ER. Some of the differences are obvious: The -700 is smaller and the -900 and -900ER are much bigger; the wingspans vary a bit as well; and the -700 has much better overall performance. In the cockpit, the -700 has a different temperature control system than the larger airplanes. There are some significant details that must be committed to memory when it comes to the -900 autoland system, which isn’t something we use a lot—which makes remembering those details even more important. Further, every airline operates airplanes differently, which means that procedures in use at Southwest may not be common at United, and vice versa.

There are other, smaller differences, most of which are transparent to the pilots. During an emergency, it becomes important to read the notes in the quick reference handbook (QRH) checklist, because sometimes the checklist will stipulate different procedures based on the serial numbers of the airplane. This is especially common when the manufacturers have made significant changes or upgrades to the electronics or the avionics.

The introduction of the 737 MAX has added some new wrinkles. The MAX looks different (although it has the same shark-tooth engine cowling as the 787), and the cockpit has been drastically altered, so there is no mistaking which airplane you’re flying. The start procedure is different—it takes twice as long per engine, and it must be done correctly to prevent an auto-shutdown. There are some system changes and enhancements as well, all of which required some form of training. The airlines operating the MAX also provide cheat sheets that summarize the differences for the pilots, especially since the small fleet size of the MAX means opportunities to fly it will be rare.

Fortunately, there is a movement underway to eliminate the requirement that copious quantities of information be memorized, as was done in the past. Now, the FAA encourages airlines to provide written guides whenever possible. There are too many minor variables involved, especially after the round of mergers that took place in the past 15 years. Throw in airplanes purchased from airlines overseas, and it just makes sense to provide up-to-date guidance whenever possible.

However, none of this alleviates the pilots’ responsibility to be aware of those differences, even if they don’t have to memorize all of them. Limitations still need to be recognized and respected.—Chip Wright

Loss of the turboprop

Recently, Hinson Airways, a small regional airline on the East Coast, flew its last flight in the venerable Bombardier Dash 8. The Dash, as it was commonly called, was once a popular turboprop, a 30-seat puddle jumper that connected small cities to airline hubs, often by making stops in other small cities on the way. Such flying now represents a largely bygone age.

While Horizon Air still operates the Dash 8 Q400, a larger version of the airplane, the company is the only regional still flying turboprops for its major airline partners. Everyone else has committed to some form of the regional jet.

This is not an insignificant development for pilots who want to fly for the airlines. Back in the day, turboprops were the backbone of regional flying, with Saabs, Brasilias, ATRs, Jetstreams, and Beech 1900s—the airplane everyone loved to hate—providing a large chunk of the lift from Smallville, USA, to the hubs to connect to jets (or, God forbid, another turboprop).

These airplanes were often a major stepping stone for pilots who had not yet been exposed to flying a turbine aircraft. The training could be challenging, especially since a lot of it took place in the airplane itself, usually in the middle of the night. In time, more sophisticated simulators came into play (the simulator for the EMB-120 Brasilia was said to have cost more than the airplane, but the gain in safety more than offset the financial cost).

Nowadays, pilots from the piston world have even fewer opportunities to get entry-level jobs flying turboprops for Part 135 operations or smaller commuter airlines, as they were called. That means the big leap is no longer from a piston twin such as a Piper Seneca or Aztec to a Beech 1900. It’s from a Piper Seminole to a jet. The transition is eased by the fact that so much of general aviation is using avionics that equal or exceed what RJs have. However, it’s a large leap from a piston twin that might fly 140 to 160 knots to a jet that can have a true airspeed of more than 400 knots.

Speed is probably the biggest challenge associated with moving into jets. Everything happens much faster, except for slowing down, which takes forever. As a result, speed and energy management are real challenges, and training and practice are critical. Unfortunately, the sterile environment of the simulator does only so much to prepare a pilot for all the various curve balls that the real world can throw your way. Tight turns to final, weather deviations, high speed aborted takeoffs, and even ATC mistakes will all be in a day’s work.

It’s both a shame and a blessing that turboprops are gone. They provided great experience, a great stepping stone, and in the airplanes with no autopilot, they made for phenomenal instrument pilots with well-developed decision-making skills. The work was exhausting (six to eight legs a day in airplanes with minimal air conditioning, followed by short nights), often in the worst of the weather, and words of thanks were relatively rare, but quality of the pilot produced was first rate. The blessing, of course, is that jets are much faster, more comfortable and, with the proper training, safer.—Chip Wright

The line was moving

Part three of a three-part series. Read parts one and two here.


Finally, departures opened up, and we got our final, this-is-for-real route. Tower was now advertising a runway we could all use, but the line was a long one: When we pushed back, we were number thirty-plus for takeoff. But the line was moving, and in our case, it was moving faster than the clock, so we’d get out before we timed out and couldn’t legally fly. Neither of us relished the possibility of having to go back to the gate and explain to the passengers that we couldn’t legally fly.

The only route out of Denver was still a west one, and we flew most of the way to the western border of Colorado before turning north, and eventually east. On the radio, we heard an awful lot of airplanes getting holding patterns for Denver—and now crews weren’t just talking about diverting, they were diverting, and some weren’t even waiting.

As we flew east, the ride deteriorated to “moderate-plus” chop. It was awful, even after slowing down. We had to head southeast to avoid both traffic and weather. On the radar, we saw a couple of holes beyond what we could see out the window. I sent a message to our dispatcher asking about a possible new route that was south of what we were filed for. We didn’t have much time, however, because we were headed right to the worst of the line of east-west storms.

Dispatch liked what we suggested and sent us a specific route to request, which I passed on to Center. It took longer to get it back than I anticipated, but we got approved for a route that would ultimately save us nearly 20 minutes. The ride didn’t improve for nearly 90 minutes, but it finally smoothed out enough to let the passengers get up, which allowed us to get our dinner. The weather in Newark was clear and breezy. Thank goodness for small favors.

We landed nearly three and one-half hours behind schedule, exhausted and relieved to be on the ground. I had not had a day like that in a long time, and I was overdue for one. My flight home, it turns out, had cancelled, which was actually a relief—I’d hate to think that I had just missed it. I headed off to my crash pad to get some sleep. The mid-morning flight was wide open, probably because of other missed connections from the night before. But I didn’t care. I was going home.—Chip Wright

You can’t make this stuff up

Part two of a three-part series. Read part one here. 

ATC wouldn’t change runways despite the fact that nobody could use the runway being advertised. While all of this was going on, the airport was effectively ground stopped, during which time the departures were shut down. The weather that had been north of the airport had circled around to the east and south, and a new set of cells was forming to the north.

My opportunities to commute home that night were quickly evaporating. With the extra time to kill, I began tracking my options on the company app, hoping the inbound flight that made up my flight would be late as well (airplane…crew…I didn’t care, as long as one was late and my flight was delayed enough for me to get on).

In the span of time that we were sitting there at the gate, the passengers were boarded because we wanted to be able to get off the gate in short order. With 12 years of captain experience, I knew this decision was fraught with peril. It can make one look like a genius, or it can be a disaster.

This one, unfortunately, was option B. We announced the delays, and before long we were on our fifth flight plan. I was ready to just delete everything on my iPad and be done with it, especially when the dispatcher told the captain we’d need substantially more fuel.

The new route had us taking off and flying west for almost 30 minutes, and then turning north and staying north, flying over Milwaukee and into Canada to join an arrival usually used by European inbounds. The flight time was scheduled to be 30 minutes longer, and because we needed an alternate, we needed an extra 5,000 pounds of fuel, which was going to take some time. It was clear that our route options were limited, and ATC and the company were both working to keep us north of a line of weather that extended from just east of Denver all the way to the East Coast.

In time, the passengers began to get jumpy, especially those who were going to miss international connections. One passenger wanted to get off to go find a place to smoke, and another wanted to get off to buy a cell phone charger. You can’t make this stuff up.

Others just wanted to get off, and several did…but then a few new ones from a later flight got on. This led to some confusion later with respect to getting our final passenger count and weights, which had to be accurate to determine our runway options, flap setting, and speeds. As a friend of mine would sarcastically say, “Good times.”

The captain muttered at some point, “I think I’ve lost control of this situation.” I could only laugh, especially since the app showed I could still, in theory, make my flight home. I knew that wasn’t likely, and I had basically given up hope. Knowing I had no chance took away the stress of trying to make it, but I missed my own bed.

To compound the problem, we were starving. We were scheduled to get a meal on the flight, and neither of us had gotten off to eat in Denver, because Murphy’s Law says that if we had, we would have missed a chance to leave. The stop-and-start nature of the efforts to get out of the gate also kept us from eating at the gate. To top it all off, we were facing some FAR 117 legality issues if we waited much longer.—Chip Wright

In the third part of this three-part series, Chip’s aircraft is number 30 for takeoff. Will the crew time out before they get off the ground? 

Sometimes you just can’t get a break

Part one of a three-part series

I often joke about certain things at work by saying that “This was not in the brochure!” People often imagine pilots on layovers sitting on a beach somewhere with an umbrella drink while they bask in the glow of their career and enjoy the scenery and the sun. And that does happen—but certainly not every day, and not for every pilot.

I recently had one of those “not in the brochure” days, and as a pilot who commutes, it took on even more meaning (and misery).

The day started easily enough, with a leg from San Diego to Denver, but getting into Denver was the beginning of the end of any kind of schedule. Storms in the area meant we had to hold for the better part of 20 minutes. Progress was measured by the descents in the holding pattern just east of the Rockies. Initially, we couldn’t get below 25,000 feet, but eventually we were brought down to the teens. For us, fuel wasn’t much of an issue, as our dispatcher had given us quite a bit of extra fuel in anticipation of the weather. Other crews, however, were beginning to talk about diverting. We kept updating the weather on our iPads to see what was going on not only near the field, but also on our anticipated route home.

We could see the weather moving on the radar as we flew circles, and it was moving fairly fast. However, a sizable area was affected, and I was already worried about our outbound flight to Newark. After all, I only had about an hour on the ground in Newark to catch my flight home, and hey, we all have priorities, especially with a week off coming up after having been home one night in the previous two weeks.

At long last, we began getting vectored to the final for Runway 8. Just north of the field, we got a visual on the weather. It was big, and it was ugly. That said, we could see a few places where we should be able to take off and get through the line before it closed up.

On the ground, the ramp had just opened up after a brief closure for lightening, another sure sign that we weren’t out of the woods. When we downloaded the flight plan, the route looked pretty straightforward: We’d go a bit north, and then beeline east to join the arrival. If only…

Soon enough, a message came over the ACARS (sort of an in-flight email/fax/texting device) telling us that we needed call clearance for a reroute. When I dialed in the frequency, it was jammed, so I patiently waited. I waited so long that I finished the USA Today crossword puzzle. Finally, I got a word in, and I got our new route, which I was immediately told was no longer any good.

Three out of the four departure gates were closed, and the one runway that ATC insisted on using was causing all kinds of problems for everyone. It was too warm to use because of Denver’s elevation and the tailwind. For reasons I still don’t understand, they wouldn’t change runways despite the fact that nobody could use the runway that was being advertised.—Chip Wright

In the second part of this three-part series, the weather gets worse and Chip wonders if they will get off the ground in time. 

Per diem

One of the less discussed, but still critically important, aspects of a career involving travel is the issue of food and expenses. In the working vernacular, this is shorthanded as per diem.

In nonflying occupations, employees get a certain per diem allowance each day, and it usually covers hotel and food expenses. At the end of a stint of travel, expense reports are submitted, and once they are verified by the accounting personnel, the employee is reimbursed.

The airlines do things a bit differently. Per diem is paid by the hour, starting with the official report time for the trip. It ends whenever the pilot is considered done with the trip, be it a one, two, three, or even 15-day assignment. So, if a pilot reports at noon on the first day of a trip and goes home on day four at noon, he will have logged 96 hours of what is called time away from base (TAFB). If his airline pays $2 an hour per diem, he’ll receive $192 in per diem expenses, which is intended to cover the cost of meals and incidental expenses; the company pays for the hotel directly.

At the majors, there is almost always a slightly higher rate for international trips to cover the higher cost of food in those locations. Per diem is usually paid on the second check of the following month, which allows the folks in payroll time to conduct due diligence on the record keeping.

Under the tax law, if a pilot flies a one-day trip, the per diem is taxable as regular income. If the trip has any overnights, the per diem is not considered taxable. For this reason, it’s common practice at the regionals for pilots and flight attendants to take a lot of their own food on trips, which allows them to pocket per diem as though it were extra income.

The downside to the way the airlines pay per diem is that the rate is always the same. That means that you’re getting the same allowance for dinner in an expensive city such as San Francisco as you’re getting in a less expensive town such as Cedar Rapids. Until the tax law changed this year, pilots and flight attendants could use the IRS meal and incidental expense (M&IE) tables to determine how much they were entitled to in each city, and their accountant or tax software would compute how much of the difference they were entitled to. Under the 2017 tax law, early interpretations are that this allowance has been eliminated, thus increasing the cost of eating on the road.

If the early interpretations of the tax law changes hold, it’s possible that per diem will paid and computed differently. Either way, as an employee, it’s up to you to verify that your per diem is paid to you properly, as well as understand how the rules apply to you and when.—Chip Wright

Getting adequate sleep

One of the best parts of flying for a living is seeing the country and the world while somebody else pays the bill. One of the hardest parts of flying for a living is ensuring that your sleep needs are met. Unfortunately, the two issues are tied together.

When flying domestic routes, the biggest issue with sleep usually pertains to the hotel. The air conditioning may not work to your satisfaction; the pillows may not be hard or soft enough; there may be noise outside your room or outside the building that makes it difficult to sleep. The all-time favorite is the middle-of-the-night fire alarm that keeps you out of your room for an extended period of time (this has happened to me twice).

Sometimes, sleep is difficult to come by because of the schedule. Everybody handles the schedule variations differently. I tend to wake up at the same time every day no matter what time I go to bed, which means that if I finish exceptionally late, I have a difficult time sleeping in. Others can sleep anywhere at any time (I do not care for these people!). For cargo pilots, the challenge is being able to sleep during daylight hours when your body is used to being awake, and then staying awake potentially all night to fly.

It’s said that you should just sleep when you’re tired and eat when you’re hungry, and there is some truth to this. Short naps, taken whenever the time permits, will help. Learning how to nap effectively can be an art, but ear plugs and sleep masks can do wonders. Putting a blanket or a sheet over your body to mimic your night-time sleep also helps “trick” the body, as does removing your shoes. If you’re in a hotel, going through your entire bed-time routine—brushing your teeth, adjusting the temperature, taking a shower—can go a long way to catching a good sleep. It also helps if you can allow for at least two hours, so that your body can go through an entire REM sleep cycle.

On those nights that you can’t sleep well, be honest about the reason why. There’s no question that sleeping in a different city every night is a challenge, but if the issue is the hotel, try to fix it. Noise is probably the most common issue, followed by climate control. Try to address the issues with the front desk, and if that doesn’t work, move on to the approved process your company has, which may require the use of a fatigue call. Calling in fatigued is not something done lightly, because of the potential cancellations, but if it needs to be done, it needs to be done. The FAA takes fatigue seriously, and if the hotel is routinely one that causes problems, a few fatigue calls usually will generate a quick resolution. If the hotel is indeed the problem and you don’t say anything through approved channels to fix it, the problem won’t go away.

Sleep is a critical part of your health, and nobody knows better than you when you’ve had enough or are lacking. Listen to your body, learn the tricks of the trade, and don’t sacrifice your safety by short-changing your sleep.—Chip Wright

When a pilot gets sick in flight

An Allegiant Airlines flight made news recently for diverting because one of the pilots had a seizure. While I don’t know any more than anyone else, this is a significant event and a big deal. A pilot who experiences a medical event is, in the FAA’s eyes, a medical emergency. Such is not necessarily the case with a passenger—an airplane, after all, requires a pilot to land, not a passenger.

It’s a rare event that drives a flight to divert with a sick pilot. Most of the time, the pilot can power through the flight and at least make it to the destination. That isn’t to say that to do so is always a great idea, but a diversion usually  occurs only in fairly severe cases. My guess is that the pilot who seized did so fairly extensively (early reports are that he walked off the airplane under his own power).

It’s one thing when the captain makes a decision to divert for a medical event in the cockpit, but it’s a very big deal for the first officer (FO) to make the call. After all, the FO basically needs to assume command of the flight for the duration, and that is not a decision that comes easily. Further, the diversion field needs to be considered. The Allegiant flight in question diverted to Gainesville, Florida—a city that doesn’t have a lot of airline service and is not one of Allegiant’s regular cities.

In more than 20 years of airline flying, I can  think of only a couple instances in which a flight diverted because of a sick pilot—let alone a diversion that went to an off-line airport. That said, sometimes it becomes clear that the captain is the one who is ill, because the FO may ask that the emergency medical technicians meet the airplane on the runway. The FO won’t be able to taxi easily, if at all, because the only control tiller for the nosewheel is on the captain’s side.

If a fellow pilot is clearly sick, an emergency needs to be declared and a diversion checklist needs to be executed. Passengers and flight attendants need to be alerted as quickly as possible so that the cabin can be prepared. A qualified pilot in the cabin who can come up and help is a huge asset, because the workload can quickly over-saturate the remaining pilot.

ATC can help coordinate EMTs on the ground, and can often contact the company if time is short. If the FO will be landing, and concern about getting to the gate exists, ask for air stairs (if appropriate) so that emergency personnel can board the aircraft on the runway and possibly remove the sick individual.

No diversion is fun, but a diversion for a sick crew member is a new level of stress. Stick to your training, use the checklist, and concentrate on a safe landing first. The rest can wait. It has to.—Chip Wright

Single-pilot cargo ops

A recent proposal in Congress included a push for single-pilot cargo operations. This is significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that this is an indication that the pilot shortage is real, and companies are doing whatever they can to reduce their labor costs. It’s also an indication that portions of the industry are pushing ahead toward single-pilot and unmanned flights.

Getting rid of one pilot obviously will save tremendous money in training, employment, and recruiting costs. However, it doesn’t come without serious risks. First, cargo tends to be flown at night, when our bodies are programmed to sleep, so fatigue is necessarily going to be even more of an issue than it currently is. At least with a multi-crew cockpit, pilots can talk to one another and help each other stay awake, if not always alert. Second, most planes have several emergency scenarios in which it takes two people to safely fly and execute the appropriate checklist. Simply put, the plane becomes extremely difficult to control during certain flight control failures, hydraulic leaks, etc., and a single pilot trying to manage all of that while running a checklist from a book is nearly impossible. Third, some planes are not ergonomically designed for fewer than two pilots. This kind of takes a bit from my second example, but as an example, the Embraer Brasilia, a turboprop, was once a candidate for single-pilot operations, but the design for extending the landing gear manually didn’t allow it. The emergency gear extension can only be done from the right seat, not the left. In a case where fuel is low, or the weather is bad, the pilot can’t be trying to jockey between seats.

Single-pilot operations, to be perfectly honest, are probably going to occur at some point down the road. Experimenting with cargo is the logical choice because if there’s an accident, only one person is killed, and let’s be frank: If this is about money (and it is), nobody wants to lead the way into risking a cabin-load of passengers—who, by the way, probably won’t be comfortable with a single pilot for some time.

In order for this to even begin to work, certain conditions would have to be in place or assured. It should go without saying that the first one would be a first-rate autopilot, and maybe even multiple, independent autopilots that can handle more challenging workloads than what we have today on many planes. Computerized checklists that can be accessed from the control wheel via a thumb toggle would be a huge step. Category III ILS capability would be necessary for low-weather, which means some form of head-up display (HUD) or autoland. Fatigue, though, is still a major consideration, and there is no obvious way around this. Humans are not meant to live by sleeping during the day and working at night, and some of us struggle to make this work. How long would the work day be? How many legs a night? What airplanes would qualify? These are but a few of the questions that need to be addressed. Modifying and certifying the airplanes to allow for single-pilot operations would also require a significant monetary investment, one that all parties have to be convinced would equal or exceed the projected savings. Would it just be cheaper to pay the pilots more?

While I personally think that single-pilot cargo operations is a bad idea, I also believe that it’s further off than most people think, just because of the logistical challenges that lay ahead. For now, there is a movement to kill the current proposal in Congress. But, even if the movement to kill the bill is successful, the odds are that this is an idea that isn’t going to go away easily.

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