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Category: Career flying (page 1 of 10)

Learn your airplane on a different level

If knowledge is power, education is the fuel. Pilots have myriad avenues for increasing their knowledge. Before I got hired at my first airline, I had already devoured countless books on aviation safety, accident analysis, accident investigations, human factors, and related topics. I had an enviable library, to say the least.

Once I started flying, I became more and more interested in accidents that involved the airplanes that I was actually flying. Let’s face it: Accident reports on Cessna 172s almost never involve a problem with the airplane. They almost all have their roots in poor pilotage/airmanship, bad ownership decisions, and occasionally a maintenance issue. But by and large, the person flying the airplane does something they shouldn’t do, and the result is an accident or a fatality. Further, the systems are so simple that systems knowledge isn’t really a factor.

In turbine equipment, there are a lot more variables at play. The pilot is still the most important, but systems knowledge, fatigue, maintenance practices, and the like play a bigger role. As a pilot new to a particular airplane, some of what may be involved may be difficult to understand in great detail, but once you have a bit of experience, it will be easier to digest certain accidents or discussions.

With certain accidents or aircraft, it’s not uncommon to come across superstitions about how dangerous certain systems are or how difficult the airplane is to operate. The Mitsubishi MU–2 ran into this because of a relatively high accident rate, but there was a realization that a more rigorous training program could decrease the number of incidents and accidents. And guess what? It worked.

Given that I was flying a turboprop as my first airliner and my first turbine airplane, I wanted to know what was going on in the fleet as a whole. So, I continued by quest by downloading and reading a number of NTSB and FAA summaries and reports. I didn’t necessarily need to read every word of every report, but I did spend a lot of time reading the pertinent sections. I also did this when I got to the CRJ, and when noteworthy events occurred, I’d do the same thing. It was amazing how many errors or mistakes a well-meaning mainstream media reporter could make (it still is).

I’ve since read more reports and books on accidents than I can recall, and while most still come down to the pilots, not all do. But there are more pieces than ever before. Human factors is often much bigger than one would expect, and weather is still the beast we can’t tame. But one of the most fascinating things to me to learn about was how difficult the investigation process can be. For proof of that, just look at the USAir 427, or even TWA 800.

Whether you go into the regionals in the CRJ, ERJ, or E-Jet series, or eventually make it to the majors flying Boeings or Airbuses, it behooves you to educate yourself as much as possible on common causes of confusion or incidents on the airplane you fly. You’ll be surprised at what you learn, what you may not have been taught, and how the past changes what we do in the present or the future.

Plus, you’ll just feel better armed with as much knowledge as you can get.—Chip Wright

Your first trip

A pilot’s first trip with an airline is a combination of both stress and excitement.

The reasons for the excitement are obvious: new job, new airplane, new cities, new coworkers, even the new uniform can be a source of a thrill. The excitement is also equal parts stress, as you try to figure out or remember where to go, learn the protocols of the airline, introduce yourself to flight attendants, gate agents, captains, and other employees who seem like they’ve been around forever. And, of course, you actually have to do your job.

The first several trips, however, are a continuation of your training. The FAA does not allow green, fresh-from-training new hires to be thrown out on the line to fend for themselves. You will fly under the watchful eye and tutelage of a line check airman (LCA), who will introduce you to the day-to-day operation of the company and provide the finishing touches on your aircraft training. This is called initial operating experience (IOE), and you go through it with each new job, each new airplane, and whenever you upgrade to captain.

In some respects, the LCA has the easiest job, and in some ways the hardest, when it comes to training. The transition from the sim to the airplane can be a challenge, and it’s the first time you are truly dealing with all aspects of getting a flight off the gate: maintenance, fuel, catering, aggravated passengers and flight attendants. This is no longer an academic exercise in the schoolhouse. It’s real, and it’s real time.

And speaking of time, the LCA also has to keep the flight on schedule without compromising the instruction. As you might imagine, when it comes to dealing with chaos at the gate, there’s a lot that will generate a “we’ll talk about this in flight” comment or two. At some point, you also have to be signed off on walkarounds.

Once you get underway, you get to deal with a blizzard of radio calls that most pilots new to the airlines aren’t ready for. Ramp control and ground will not care that you’re new or in over your head. They will simply expect you to comply—correctly and quickly. Your captain will probably have to bail you out a few times, and it is nothing to be ashamed of.

Airborne, you may or may not actually fly the first leg. Some LCAs believe in a trial by fire and will let you get into it right away. When I was an LCA, I always flew the first leg with a new pilot just to give him or her a chance to observe and catch up. But eventually, you need to get your hands on the wheel, so to speak, and the best advice is to simply fly it the way you did in the sim. You will be required to log X number of legs or hours as the nonflying/monitoring pilot, but you can expect to fly the majority of the legs so that you can get comfortable with the airplane.

In the sim, you spend a lot of time either dealing with emergencies, doing air work, or practicing all manner of approaches. There is very little time to introduce you to flying as it actually is on the line, though you will take a checkride that features a flight that is representative of life on the line. Even then, you will probably get a minor system failure to deal with on the way.

Your first trip will be an opportunity to see what the airplane is really like with everything working. Further, you will be exposed to all of the little nuances of managing a flight, from energy management during climbs and descents to dealing with the flight attendants and making public address announcements to the passengers. You’ll also see how compressed the time can get as you prepare for arrivals, descents, and approaches.

As a new hire, you can expect a lot of time with the LCA on the ground and during layovers as well. There is a lot of material to review, some of which may be a new introduction to you, depending on how the airline structures the training. You’ll also spend time going over things you have done well as well as things you need to improve upon. The learning—and the teaching—never end! If you are hitting the line during the winter months, you can expect to deal with deicing and winter ops, which is challenging enough for veteran pilots that have been around, let alone for someone who has never had to deal with deicing, holdover times, et cetera.

The first trip is both exciting and exhausting. By the time it’s finished, you will begin to feel as if you are settling into a bit of a groove. By the end of the first day, you will be ready to collapse, and you should sleep well. Every time I’ve gone through OE, I’ve had some trouble sleeping the night before the first trip, and I always sleep well after the first day is in the books.

The end of the first trip is a sign that the training process is almost over, but it’s also a crucial point, as you are now being put into the pointy end of a multimillion-dollar machine and entrusted with all the lives behind you. The company wants to make sure that you are safe, competent, and ready. You want to feel … well, safe, competent, and ready. This is a final chance to ask a lot of questions and to perfect your techniques and procedures.

If the first trip goes well, the last trip (or two) will focus more on getting your required IOE time completed before you do your final line check. Once the LCA puts pen to paper and signs you off, you’re considered ready for the day-to-day grind, and your training is complete. Now you get to embrace life on reserve!—Chip Wright

Rejected takeoffs

As I write this, a business jet was just on the news for rejecting a takeoff at a small airport in California that led to a fire that, by all accounts, destroyed the airplane.

On the same day, I was evaluated during a flight by a check airman, and the rejected takeoff (RTO) procedure was a point of discussion—in our case because my captain, whom I have flown with before, does a more-detailed-than-typical briefing of the procedure. My airline requires a full briefing of the RTO on the first leg of a trip or during a crew change. The reason is simple: RTOs at high speeds are high-risk events.

The airlines typically use 100 knots as the threshold between “low” speed and “high” speed. In the high-speed regime, aborts are generally done for one of four reasons: wind shear; an engine failure; a fire of any kind; or the belief that the airplane is unsafe to fly.

Further, this procedure is practiced every time we visit the simulator, and we practice it during takeoffs from either seat. This is important, because it may be prudent for the first officer—technically the second in command, in a rare moment making a command decision—to initiate the maneuver. Most carriers would dictate that the captain will assume command of the airplane at a safe point in time. This is done not just because the captain is in charge, but also because the RTO checklist is very specific about who does what, and it is predicated on the captain being in control of the airplane as it slows down.

I don’t know what happened in the California event, but there are very few acceptable reasons for an RTO to lead to an airplane leaving the runway and getting consumed in a fire (in this case, thankfully, there were no injuries).

Further, I don’t have any idea what the background or training of the crew was. But that said, any pilot in a turbine aircraft of any kind should not only be proficient in the maneuver of an RTO, but also should brief the mechanical steps that will be executed in order to bring the aircraft safely to a stop on the remaining runway. Closing the thrust levers, activating the thrust reversers, verifying the deployment of the spoilers, and maximizing the use of brakes are pretty standard steps.

RTOs are high risk because they are likely to occur when the airplane is accelerating at an accelerating rate, and may even be close to V1 or rotation speed. Remember that once you reach V1, you are committed to taking the airplane airborne and troubleshooting in flight. In other words, the wings will be generating a fair amount of lift, and the weight of the airplane will not be fully set on the wheels. It’s important to destroy that lift as quickly as possible and get the weight back on the wheels in order for the brakes and the drag of the airplane itself to work to your benefit. Weight on the wheels also will allow the tires to better grip the runway, which will also slow you down.

The act of aviating is terribly unforgiving of indecision and delayed reaction, and arguably, the high speed RTO is the event with the smallest window of time in which a tremendous error in action and judgment can occur. Don’t let it happen to you. Prepare for it, brief it, and fly it.—Chip Wright

Winter is around the corner

If you’re considering a career in the airlines or even in the corporate world, this time of year is one in which you should get into the habit of moving your brain from summer to winter operations. As I write this, it is not yet Labor Day, but temperatures have started to cool after a difficult summer of unrelenting heat. In the northern states, the nights are much cooler, and by early October, there will be places that are getting regular bouts of morning frost, and that means that the deicing season has begun.

Hints of this have popped up already around the country, as I have noticed a number of airports have pulled their deicing trucks out of storage and begun to run them to make sure the truck portion works, to say nothing of the deicing equipment. Everything needs to be tested and calibrated, and each season there are new wrinkles added to deicing programs and protocols. These can include new fluid manufacturers, new procedures for both deicing crews and flight crews (a few years ago, a concept called “liquid water equivalent” was introduced, and to be honest, I still don’t totally understand it, but it is the new standard for determining deicing strategies and holdover times). New employees will also get trained, and that process is easy to recognize as you see deicing trucks spray water on airplanes.

Preparation by the airlines or even fixed-base operators for deicing operations, especially on a large scale, starts around June. But for flight crews, it is on the horizon as the school year starts, and winter ops present their own challenges. Getting sprayed to remove a layer of frost is generally no big deal, but it has to be done correctly and by people who are trained to do it. In the next few weeks, airlines will begin disseminating their annual revisions to the manuals across their systems reflecting changes for the upcoming season. While liquid water equivalent is the new standard for calculating holdover times, it isn’t available for everyone. However, with the proliferation of iPads and electronic flight bags, apps are available to help take some of the guesswork and error out of the process.

I personally make it a habit to review the Cold Weather Operations sections of our manuals each season, especially if I got lucky the previous year and didn’t have to deal much with bad winter weather (last year was one of those years for me—it was cold, but I managed to avoid most of the snow and ice). There are limitations for the airplane and the operation for cold weather ops, and some aircraft systems are used differently. Some airports have fairly simplistic deicing complexes, and others are straightforward and simple. The Canadians are masterful at deicing, but it’s up to us as pilots to know how their systems work in order to keep it moving; a good review of the appropriate Jepp pages well before you need them will go a long way.

The next few months offer some of the best flying of the year as summer storms give way to cooler weather and more stable air, but it is worth remembering that around the corner, Old Man Winter awaits, and he isn’t one to trifle with the rules. Study up, and be ready, because ice and snow are unique hazards all their own.

Remembering Capt. Al Haynes and CRM

As I write this, it has been less than 24 hours since the family of Capt. Al Haynes has announced his passing. Haynes was famously in command of United Flight 232 in the summer of 1989 when the DC-10 suffered a complete loss of hydraulic power after a fan blade on the number two (center) engine failed and caused the engine to disintegrate. Using differential thrust from the remaining two engines, the crew was able to exercise a modicum of control and bring the jumbo jet to a controlled crash in Sioux City, Iowa. While the accident resulted in 111 fatalities, 184 passengers and crew survived.

It didn’t take long for the stories about United’s cockpit resource management (CRM) training to make headline in the news. Historically, airline cockpits were run with concept of the captain being autocratically in charge, and there was no obligation to solicit input on anything from other pilots on the flight deck. It didn’t matter what their experience or perspective was. If the captain made a decision, that was it. Today, it’s hard to believe that such an environment not only existed, but was encouraged.

United was pushed into developing a CRM program from a previous accident involving a United aircraft. United Flight 173 crashed in Portland, Oregon, in 1978 after running out of fuel while the crew tried to troubleshoot a problem with the landing gear. The NTSB cited the crew’s inability to work together as a contributing factor to the accident. This accident followed the 1977 Tenerife collision between Pan Am and Lufthansa 747s, the worst aviation accident in history. With prodding from NASA, United began training its pilots on CRM, and eventually included the flight attendants as well.

I was fortunate enough to attend a few of Capt. Haynes’ presentations about the 232 accident. He readily acknowledged the value of the CRM training, and when asked if he or his crew could have been as effective without it, he quickly said, “I doubt it.” CRM encourages authority with participation by the captain, and assertiveness with respect by the remaining crew. In other words, captains are encouraged to solicit and genuinely consider input from other crew, and the first and second officers are encouraged to speak up when they see that something is wrong or unsafe.

In the years since, every U.S. airline has developed and implemented CRM training, and it often extends to dispatchers and mechanics as well. The Flight 232 accident has become a classic case study in numerous businesses and industries when it comes to dealing with time-critical, high-pressure emergency situations. Capt. Haynes was an early advocate for acceptance of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in noncombat traumatic events, because he openly discussed his own PTSD. He said giving his speech was the most effective method he had found for dealing with his PTSD and keeping it at bay.

The full effect and value of CRM was proven in the minutes after United Flight 232 suffered that engine failure. It has since been used to avert all sorts of incidents and accidents, large and small. Every pilot should be grateful for its inception, and they should definitely raise a toast to Capt. Haynes for his willing embrace and implementation of it in the summer of 1989.

The long wait to get home

I’ve touched on the challenges of commuting before. I recently endured a nightmare of an experience in trying to get home after a trip, and all I could say to myself is that I have been pretty lucky of late with respect to the (relative) ease of my commute to and from work. I was due for a “[t]here I was …” story, and this one more than filled the bill.

I finished a two-day trip at 12:15 p.m. in late July, and just missed a flight that was leaving at about the same time I was finishing. Not that it would have mattered, as it went out full with a jumpseater, but … still. I recognized a few of the names on the list of standby passengers, and I knew who would be trying the same strategies as me. Still, I headed to a different terminal for a different airline, hoping for the best. Unfortunately, one of the said pilots was already at the counter waiting for an agent so that he could list for the jumpseat on the 2:00 p.m. flight. All I could do was hope for the best. Unfortunately, this flight also left full.

My next option was a 3:45 p.m. flight, at my own carriers’ terminal. So, back I went and I was listed for the jumpseat. I should mention at this point that when I checked flights the night before the passenger loads weren’t great, but I was fairly confident about getting home. Unfortunately, that confidence was misplaced. Overnight I’m not sure what happened, but the loads went completely to pot, and getting home was going to be a challenge at best. The next day wasn’t much better.

In the meantime, I looked at alternative airports where I could either rent a car or have my wife drive and pick me up. They were even worse, with jumpseaters already listed (access is first come, first serve if it isn’t your own airline) and loads that were well over-sold due to flight cancellations.

Back to the 3:45 p.m. flight. Weather was the main threat, but I found out that the auxiliary power unit (APU) was broken, and while that normally would just be uncomfortable, in this case, it would be much more than that. Temperatures were in the upper 90s, which meant that the airplane would be well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Keeping passengers locked up for a long delay would be unconscionable. But, if they could fix it, I was assured of the jumpseat as long as the weight and balance didn’t become an issue on the E-145. I wasn’t the least bit confident that it would work out in my favor.

And then the weather hit. Rain. Monsoon-like rain. The airport ground to a halt. The 5:00 p.m. flight had no jumpseaters listed, and there was a possibility of one open seat. The downside is that it was far enough away that I was ultimately going to have to choose and gamble. I decided to go list for the 5:00 p.m. jumpseat, with the idea of coming back to the 3:45 p.m. flight in my back pocket if that would work out. Realistically, I knew I was basically changing my plans, but I had to get to that realization later.

Luckily, I got the jumpseat on the 5:00 p.m. flight, just beating out a friend of mine. About the time that occurred, the airport closed, and every flight was taking delays of no less than forty-five minutes. Then the weather went from bad to worse to nobody-may-be-going-anywhere worse. Rain, thunder, and lightning were the story of the day, but I’ll say this about the weather affecting the three New York area airports: Newark gets hit first, but it also reopens first. Finally, there was a break, and the public address systems were echoing with panicky gate agents trying to get wayward passengers back to their gates in order to board and leave. My flight was no exception, and we began boarding a bit after 8:00 p.m.

In the meantime, passengers that stayed the night or made alternative arrangements (thanks to a bribe) had left. Somewhere in the midst of all this my gamble paid off, as the 3:45 p.m. flight was canceled. My flight (the third option, if you’re keeping score) began to board, and I got on and introduced by myself to the captain, who it turns out was on his first trip as a captain and under the watchful eye of a line check-airman. My first question to them was how much duty time they had remaining. It turned out that they were legal until 3:00 a.m. the next morning. “The pilot in me feels your pain,” I said, “but the commuter in me is thrilled!” That got a knowing chuckle.

Oddly enough, there were enough seats that my buddy got on, as did a flight attendant who was also trying to get home, and I even got a seat in the cabin—I didn’t have to sit in the jumpseat! We weren’t entirely out of the woods yet, though, as we had to sit on the ramp and wait our turn to taxi, which took well over an hour. The ride was better than I anticipated. When I landed, the temperature was no longer pushing 100, but was instead struggling to hit 75 degrees Fahrenheit. I got home around 12:30 a.m., which meant that I had spent over 12 hours just trying to get home, eight of which were spent just trying to get on an airplane.

The adage was proven again: Don’t give up until you can be sure the aircraft will leave without you. There are three of us who can vouch for that.

Deficiencies in emergency training

I try to be pretty positive about life at the airlines, and for the most part, I am. This will be one of the few times I criticize both industry and the FAA.

Airline training is pretty intense, and some of it can be done in mind-numbing, excruciating detail. However, there are a few areas in which the training required by the FAA is all that is provided, and as a result, the training provided often is lacking. One of those areas is dealing with a water landing or a ditching.

Fortunately, such events are rare. Unfortunately, as a result of this rarity, and also as a result of the relative ease of US Airways Flight 1549 (the so-called Miracle on the Hudson), emergency water training for pilots has not been made a priority. The airlines usually only do the minimum required with respect to training because of the cost.

Flight attendants often get better training than pilots on ditchings, since the assumption is that they are the ones who will conduct the bulk of the actual evacuation. Flight attendants at major carriers are put through training in a pool with a raft and given an opportunity to get hands-on experience with life vests and other emergency equipment. Pilots…not so much.

So what is missing, and what to keep in mind? In a perfect world, where the flight deck crew finishes the landing with minimal or no injuries, and is able to actively participate in the evacuation, the following are points to keep in mind:

The life rafts are stored in the ceiling. In six years of training at a major, I’ve never seen what they look like when they are packed and sealed. I have no idea how heavy they are (I’m guessing about 80 pounds minimum), or how awkward they would be to move from the ceiling and out the door to the water.

Once in the water, there is no “upside down,” as the rafts are designed to be used no matter which side faces up. That said, the sides are fairly high, so I can only speculate what it must be like to try to get in one of these rafts from the water while wearing a full uniform or even a coat. Add to this the possibility of dealing with frigid water temperatures and you can imagine how smoothly this isn’t going to go in real life.

There are ways to work together to get into the raft and once one or two people are in, they can help the rest get in relatively quickly. Getting those first couple in may prove challenging, especially in rough water.

With respect to some of the other equipment that is available, like portable radios, knives, first aid kits, flashlights, et cetera, we are shown them in a classroom, on tables, but we are never given a chance to use them, and we aren’t forced to find them in the airplane. Given how poorly humans respond in situations of great stress, this is a huge shortcoming.

Some of the emergency evacuation training deficiencies go beyond just water landings. In almost 23 years of airline flying, I’ve never had to partake in a simulated evacuation of the cabin. As mundane as this would be in normal circumstances, imagine what it would be like trying to do this while putting on a protective breathing equipment hood in a cabin that is filling rapidly with smoke. Now imagine being forced to help a passenger with a serious injury try to evacuate—someone with a broken leg or even unconscious. We are exposed to none of this. Further, none of our training is done jointly with the cabin crews.

Airline training covers a gamut of scenarios, and most of what we do is done well, but some of the emergency possibilities are extremely limited. It comes down to each of us to think through some of these scenarios to determine the best courses of action, with the realization that some people will freeze and others will panic. The possibility of a water event strikes close to home for me because I spent a few years doing nothing but overwater flying. Even now, I spend a lot of my time on Atlantic routes, and I fear for the day when an airplane is forced to ditch and a crew begins to realize just how poor their training for such a scenario has been.

If I had my druthers, water and emergency training would be required for every new hire, for each airplane change, each upgrade, and every two years that follows. That training would take place in a wave pool and in a simulated cabin fire, and it would require the use of as many pieces of emergency equipment as possible. Further, pilots would be required to learn and demonstrate basic CPR skills, which we don’t have to do currently (flight attendants do).—Chip Wright

Pilot on-the-job injuries

Every job has its hazards, and airline flying is no different. You wouldn’t think that something as benign as flying could at times be so risky—and I’m not even referencing the possibility of an accident. In twenty-three years of airline flying, I’ve seen both predictable and unpredictable on-the-job injuries, all of which call for some increased vigilance. Here are some examples.

A fellow first officer was getting out of the cockpit seat of a Brasilia, which has a very narrow space between the center console and the seat. There was an art to placing your inside foot in such a way that you could stand, pivot, and turn to get out. This guy’s foot got stuck in the worst place at the worst time, and as his weight shifted forward, his foot stayed still. He shredded several ligaments in his knee, which required extensive surgery and a lengthy rehab and absence from work. It was more in line with what you’d see in a bad football injury, but it forever changed the cavalier way in which any of us who were there that day get in and out of a seat. The pain on his face as he sat waiting for an ambulance is hard to forget.

In the pre-iPad days, with flight bags that routinely weighed more than 40 pounds fully loaded, shoulder injuries were very common. Bag stowage in the flight deck was often a secondary consideration of the manufacturer, if it was a consideration at all. Too often, in the interest of expediency, pilots would just reach around their seats and heft the bag out of its location, and anyone could see the potential for an injury. Repeat this act several times a day, and the risks just magnified. At my regional, it was even worse, because the bag had to be picked straight up at least 6 inches just to clear the hole it sat in. Imagine twisting your body 90 degrees, using the outside arm, and trying to get the leverage to lift 40 pounds straight up before pulling it toward you and twisting some more. While shoulders were the most common problem, lower backs and elbows were also affected. It became so expensive in terms of health costs that the parent airline began to work toward a transition away from such heavy bags, and those costs are a common argument made by most airlines as a driving force toward electronic flight bags.

Speaking of bags, several pilots suffered injuries while trying to do more than just their jobs. In an effort to help mitigate the impact of delays on both the company and the passengers, pilots have taken it on themselves to help load or unload luggage, especially valet-tagged bags that passengers are eagerly awaiting before they move on to their connections. Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished, and several pilots have been hurt. To add insult to the literal injury, the company refused to honor workers compensation or to cover the medical expenses because the pilots were outside the bounds of their jobs. While most of these refusals of help result in such a loud cry of outrage the company is forced to reverse its decision, it doesn’t always work out that way, especially after the warnings are given. If it isn’t in your job description, think twice before you do it.

When regional jets were first introduced, very few used jetways, so boarding and deplaning required the use of air stairs on the door. When it rains, air stairs get wet and slippery. Imagine the potential with the aforementioned 40-pound flight bags while trying to navigate the air stairs during a driving rainstorm. I’m here to tell you that it’s a hoot and a half—until somebody gets hurt. More than one pilot and flight attendant has fallen (either forwards or backwards) from the air stairs, sometimes resulting in broken ankles, mangled knees, or even head injuries, to say nothing of torn uniforms. You didn’t even need to be carrying a bag, as the steps are steeper than standard, and slipping was all too easy.

One injury that didn’t take place on the job, per se, occurred in a hotel during a layover, when a pilot was asleep in a hotel and suffered a bite on his ankle from a brown recluse spider. It was right before his alarm was scheduled to go off, so he got dressed and decided to work the flight home. By the time he landed, nearly three hours after the bite, his foot and ankle were so swollen he had to take his shoe off and needed emergency transportation to the hospital. His delay almost cost him his foot, but he eventually made a full recovery and returned to work.

The most avoidable injuries seem to occur in vans and cars taking crews to and from hotels. While accidents are relatively rare, they do happen, and most of the injuries come from not wearing seat belts. A crew getting a ride to the airport on a foggy morning was involved in a single-vehicle accident when the van driver lost track of his location and took the van over the curb. The van driver suffered no injuries, but all of the crew did, as none of them were wearing seat belts.

Pilot on-the-job injuries often come from the files of the absurd, silly, or even humorous, but those affected are rarely laughing. You need to keep your vigilance up, keep a comfortable cushion of hours in your sick bank, and if your company offers short-term disability insurance, you should have it. When you see a situation in which the potential for injury is clear or obvious, use the appropriate means to report it and suggest changes. If the company refuses to consider your suggestion and something happens, you can at least have it on record that you tried to make a positive change.

If nothing else, always wear your seat belts and be careful in the rain.—Chip Wright

Making the most of holiday flying

The Fourth of July holiday is this week. I’m fortunate to be off, but at least half of my fellow pilots will be working. This isn’t all bad. Although some holidays are easier to work than others, the key is a positive attitude and a glass-is-half-full approach.

When I knew I didn’t have the seniority to hold the big days off, I decided to use the system to my advantage. There are a lot of great cities in which to enjoy the festivities of the Fourth. Using the bid package and knowledge of the hotels as a guide, you can find a layover that will allow you to see some great fireworks, often in a downtown location on the roof of a hotel. Boston, Washington, D.C., New York, and coastal cities in Florida all come to mind as great places to enjoy the holiday.

Even if you have to fly a leg at night, it isn’t all bad. One of my most memorable flights was a Fourth of July flight just after sunset, and along the entire route we saw fireworks non-stop—some right below us and some miles away. We couldn’t hear them, but it was a visual spectacle. When we landed, even the passengers were smiling at their luck, as they saw more fireworks in one passing than they had ever seen combined.

Christmas can be tough because we all want to be with our families. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to fly to Florida, especially south Florida, getting some warm weather can be a nice alternative. You’ll still be feeling the pangs of homesickness, and you can’t entirely make that go away, but being able to take a walk on the beach in shorts and a T-shirt or having a slice of pizza and a beer outside in December has a way of making things just a little less depressing. You might even be able to go for a swim in the hotel pool if isn’t too cold.

Like the Fourth, you can plan your Christmas travel by using the bid package as a guide. It’s very common for Thanksgiving and Christmas to have a full day in a layover city, as the flight schedule is often a skeletal one at best. Find those layovers, and see if there are any festivals or events that might make the down time more enjoyable. Likewise, see if they are cities where friends or family may be that you can visit and have a home-cooked meal…and get paid for it. These are likely to be in smaller cities, but not always. The one benefit of being a junior pilot working on a holiday is that layovers and trips you might not normally be able to hold suddenly make themselves available. Take advantage of it!

Last but not least is the option of taking your family or significant other along on a trip. This may require some planning or purchasing tickets or extra hotel rooms, but it also means not being alone and miserable. Holiday work isn’t always fun, but it doesn’t have to be something to dread. Use your job to your advantage, and you might find yourself enjoying those holidays more than you ever thought you could.—Chip Wright

Minimum equipment lists

Every once in a while, a flight will be released with something on the airplane that is amiss. The minimum equipment list (MEL) is a document that is written by the airplane manufacturer in conjunction with the airlines and regulatory authorities. It spells out items that do not have to be in perfect working order in order to safely dispatch a flight. Likewise, an MEL can be pretty specific about items that must be working in order to operate a flight, or to conduct certain operations.

For example, every turbine airplane has multiple sources of producing electricity in the way of generators, usually at least three: on one each of the engines, and one on the APU. Some have more. There is almost always relief for flying with one generator that is inoperative, but for certain operations, such as long flights over water with only two engines, there may be a requirement that certain generators are functioning and available.

Certain low-weather approaches also have requirements with respect to equipment functionality and even basic maintenance. Category II and III ILS approaches require certain autopilot standards, and if the equipment isn’t tested or used on the proper schedule, the lower approaches can’t be legally flown until the mechanics can do their magic.

I recently had an airplane that had a problem with the plug for the external power cord that plugs into the jetway. This isn’t that big of a deal, but it can create some issues. With external power, the APU has to be run to provide electricity to the airplane, and APUs burn fuel, and fuel is expensive. It also means that between flights or crew changes, the APU has to be left running or the airplane has to be completely powered down. Some carriers—my first one, in fact—have strict rules about leaving an APU running unattended. Others have enough people trained to shut the APU down so that it isn’t that big of a deal, but it still costs money.

In our case, the deferral of the plug was on the release, and finding the airplane with the APU already running was no surprise. But we were doing a late flight to the outstation, so the company made sure that the outstation knew not to try to plug in the airplane (a maintenance sticker on the plug door would have theoretically alerted the ground crew). Further, the local mechanic was waiting for us, which meant that he could get his work done as quickly as possible and shut the airplane down for the night.

Some deferrals are relatively minor—like this one was—and some are far more complicated than they should be. But MELs are a part of daily airline life. The captain is responsible for being familiar with any deferrals, and both pilots need to know how to properly use the actual MEL document, which can run hundreds of pages. When in training, take the time to become familiar with the layout (it is standardized) and some of the restrictions specific to your company. Most important, know how to determine if an MEL is expired so that you don’t fly with something illegal.—Chip Wright

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