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Category: Chip Wright (page 1 of 11)

A rough winter

As I write this, I am home dealing with round two of a wicked cold that is wreaking havoc this year. Where I live, it has become so pervasive that schools are closing because of high absentee rates, and some are dealing with a lingering cough that lasts for weeks, if not months. On the news, all the talk is about the coronavirus, while online there are jokes about corona virus being cured with a slice of lime. Personally, I’m feeling pretty miserable, and I’m sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.

All kidding aside, this brings up the point that flying while sick is not a good idea. It can be dangerous (think: blown ear drums, vomiting, et cetera), inconsiderate, and illegal, since the FAA demands that you not do anything in violation of your medical. Certain medications may render you unable to fly for awhile as well.

Flying while sick also degrades your performance, and you never know when you’re going to need to bring your A game. While a desk-bound person or a sales rep or a number of other professions can get by with someone not feeling well, pilots may need to react to an emergency in a three-dimensional environment in very trying conditions. If you are sick or dizzy or sneezing or in a state of fatigue because  you are sick, your judgment is likely to be impaired and your reaction times diminished.

No matter where you are in your flying career, it would be a good idea to review your immunization records. In the last several years, there have been a number of sudden and unexpected changes in requirements for proof of vaccinations from certain diseases in certain countries. Recently, the Marshall Islands implemented a requirement for proof of measles vaccinations for crew members. If you’re considering a flying career that will cross borders, take the time to visit the State Department and Centers for Disease Control websites to see what shots they recommend getting for certain geographic regions. Diplomatic sites for the specific countries can also provide useful information. (This isn’t intended to start or engage in the argument of being in favor of or against the practice of vaccinations, but if crew members can’t or are not willing to show compliance with the laws of nations they may reasonably be expected to visit, then they may be denying themselves the possibility of employment, or risking a termination.)

Flying sick is also a pretty good way to make sure that you stay sicker longer. Staying home and resting is a better idea than trying to power through anything, even a common cold. When you do have to go to work, be a little more aware of basic hygiene practices such as washing your hands with soap, and using hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes. Use sick time for the intended purpose, and you’ll be fine. Back in the day, airlines—especially the regionals—were known for draconian sick leave policies. Those days are (largely) gone, as airlines now recognize that brining your illness to work is never the better solution.

Ask me how I know this…—Chip Wright

Buddy pass tips

One of the benefits of working for the airlines is the free and reduced-cost flights for yourself, your family, or your friends. Generally called buddy passes, you can offer your friends or friends of friends tickets that are essentially stand-by for pennies on the dollar. The common misunderstandings are that a buddy pass is a real ticket (it isn’t); and you can dress and behave pretty much like a normal person while flying on a buddy pass. Not so.

Buddy passes are offered as a stand-by option, which means that if the person wanting travel isn’t too picky, he or she will get a seat on a flight, assuming that there is one. Buddy pass travelers are the last on the list of priorities, and how those priorities are prioritized depends on each airline. The rules of engagement here are important, and it’s critical that you know what those rules are. You need to be able to discuss them intelligently, and be able to answer all of the expected (and a few unexpected) questions.

First and foremost: There are no guarantees. Buddy pass travelers get a seat if one is available, and that often means waiting until the boarding door closes—and even then they can lose their seat at the last minute. In fact, they can be on the airplane, buckled in, and ready to go, only to find out that they are being pulled off for a revenue passenger.  And they need to conduct themselves with grace and dignity and not get visibly upset.

The dress code is a major area of conflict. A few years ago, United Airlines was in the news for kicking a buddy pass passenger off because the passenger was wearing a miniskirt. The airline was in the right, and Twitter was in the wrong.

Now, keep in mind, it doesn’t matter one whit if you agree or disagree with the rules of a given airline. You simply have to follow them. If you’re going to allow others to use your buddy passes, PRINT OUT THE DRESS CODE and hand it to them! Quiz them on it!

One common strategy is to list a buddy pass rider for first class, no matter what, because you can always be bumped from first down to coach, but you can almost never be bumped up from coach to first. That means telling your friends (or soon to be ex-friends) that they need to dress and be prepared for a first-class seat just in case. If your friends can’t comply, then either don’t give them a buddy pass, or don’t list them for first class.

What is frustrating is that gate agents are not always consistent in their enforcement of the rules, and some can even be a bit overly zealous. But if you meet both the spirit and the letter of the law, you should be fine.

Another important lesson is this: Make sure that your riders can carry out the listing process on their own without having to call you every time something changes. Pass riding can be very fluid, and you can’t be expected to give up too much of your valuable time trying to get someone a ride.

Passes can be great, but they aren’t for everyone. Choose wisely and choose carefully. And brief in full!—Chip Wright

Luggage: Pay now or pay twice later

Early  in your piloting career, you begin making not-insignificant investments in everything from books to headsets, sunglasses to spare headsets, and everything in between. Just when you feel like you’ve already bought everything that Sporty’s has to offer, you get hired by an airline, and you’re up to the next sizable purchase: luggage.

Quality luggage is critical. You’ll be dragging a suitcase through airports, parking lots, airplanes, rain, snow, sleet, and the occasional pile of dog droppings. You’ll be jamming your bag into overhead bins, storage spots in cockpits, and places you can’t even imagine. You’ll also be using a flight bag of some sort every day. However, unlike in days of yore, you won’t be needing an old-fashioned “brain bag.”

There are three major brands of luggage that can take a beating and will get you a lot of miles. LuggageWorks is by far the most common. The bags have a metal frame, a durable cloth material, and roller-skate wheels. More importantly, they come with the backing of the company, and if you ever need to have a bag repaired—and at some point you will—the company will rebuild it for the fraction of the cost of a new one. You can also get personalized handles, so that your name is visible to anyone else looking for a black suitcase in a pile of black suitcases. The only downside to LuggageWorks is that its bags are heavy. But…they last forever.

LuggageWorks also makes an entire array of modular luggage that all works together, and it is all made of the same rugged material.

Tumi is another popular brand of luggage, but it is also—by any reasonable measure—prohibitively expensive. That said, it is rock solid; the suitcases are expandable when full; and they are effortless to roll. I mention them because a few airlines use them as “official” luggage, which means you can usually take advantage of substantial discounts. However, those discounts usually apply only to the selected units used by the airline. With the discounts, the prices are very competitive with LuggageWorks.

The third most common is Travelpro. Travelpro is made more of plastic, and it isn’t as durable. The cloth isn’t as rugged as LuggageWorks, but for the standard person it is fine. However, we aren’t standard people when it comes to travel.

Like headsets, luggage is one of those things where you can pay now or pay twice later. Get good quality in the beginning, and you’ll be glad you did. It will also behoove you to get a second suitcase at a minimum. Eventually, your suitcase will need to be repaired or fixed, no matter how well you take care of it. Either way, you need quality stuff that is rugged, well-designed, and fits overheads and cockpit storage areas.—Chip Wright

Pilot applicant New Year’s resolutions

The beginning of the year is a popular time for making New Year’s resolutions. So, for those of you who might be in the process of looking for a first or a new flying job, here’s a list of things to work on:

Network: Build your network! Make contacts in as many places as possible, and keep in touch with them on a regular basis. Phone calls are always best, but emails and texts can work too. But, voice and in-person visits are the most effective way to build a true relationship (or sustain one). Your network is going to give you the best, most recent and most accurate inside information on jobs, leads, et cetera.

Logbooks/Resumes: Update your logbooks regularly, and your resume every time you add a new rating, achievement, job advancement, and the like. Your logbook should be current enough that you can show it to a potential employer at any time without being embarrassed by how far behind it is. The times should be accurate, and the writing legible (if you’re using a hand-written log).

Resumes need to reflect current as well as previous jobs. You shouldn’t need more than a sheet of paper, and all of your major ratings and times should be on there. Along with your logbook, your resume should help to sell you. Contact info needs to be current and up to date.

Letters of recommendations: This is both part and separate from networking. Letters of recommendation need to come from two sources. The professional source consists of the pilots that can vouch for you as an airman, both in skill and in professionalism. The personal source is that group of non-aviation folks that can vouch for your character: family, friends, neighbors, and the like. You don’t necessarily need to have all the letters written and immediately ready to go, but you should line up who you’re going to ask and make sure that they are on board with helping. And keep in mind that they need some time to sit down and put something on paper. A couple of weeks should be sufficient.

Applications: Job applications are tedious, time-consuming, and boring. But it is critical to get them done correctly. With so many online these days, it helps that multiple airlines are using the same application portal. That’s great for you. The one thing you need to do is ensure that yours is error-free. Print out the application, and let it sit for a day or so before you read it. Further, have someone else you trust read it  to spot any mistakes or omissions. Keep a printed copy (or two) in a safe place in case you ever need to start over or just reference it.

Experience: You need this–not just in the airplane, but in other areas of your professional work. Experience in running an office, handling the cash, jockeying the paperwork, solving the major problems—these are all skills that will make you marketable as a pilot. In the corporate world, you’ll do much more than just fly. In the airline world, they will want to know that if you lose your medical that you will still have some value. So, build up skills and talents that go beyond just flying the plane.

The airlines are in a major hiring boom right now, but you won’t get a call for an interview just because. You need to do your part, and get ahead as much as you can. Make the plans, and use them to make an action plan so that you can better your odds of getting hired not just sooner, but where you want to be.—Chip Wright

Human factors assumptions, part 2

The Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX crashes have brought some attention to the relatively recent concept of multi-crew pilot license (MPL) certification.

The MPL was designed as a work-around for the traditional pilot training tracks that don’t include the military. Instead of following the current private/instrument/commercial/multiengine progression that thousands of us have done in the past, the MPL works by getting some basic private pilot-like training done in a single engine airplane, with perhaps a bit of instrument training as well. But the overwhelming percentage of the training is conducted in a simulator or fixed training device specific to the aircraft that the candidate will be flying. In other words, an MPL candidate for the 737 would get the majority of his or her training in the 737, and only the 737.

On paper, this can be attractive, because a few hundred hours of dedicated time spent learning to fly and handle one aircraft can be performed in a structured, building-block methodology. Over time, more and more complex situations can be introduced and responses evaluated and repeated, if necessary.

But this also leaves a lot out. Simulators, for example, are terrible replicators of weather. Becoming weather-savvy is something that can really only be learned from experience, not from reading it in a book or watching a video. Complex air traffic control communications are also difficult-to-impossible to work into a simulator, especially if English is not your first language, or one you speak fluently.

An MPL might produce a pilot who is book-smart and a checklist-monkey when he or she gets in the airplane, but you can’t buy experience. And with such a narrow scope of knowledge from which to draw, you may not have the tricks or the know-how to handle complex events that may not have been covered in the box.

Pilots who gain experience by building time in a variety of flying opportunities are like putting together a much more valuable box of tools to draw upon when things go south. Further, they are doing so in a real-world setting that truly tests their grit, stamina, and threshold for stress. No amount of MPL simulator training is ever going to provide the same thing, no matter how diligent the efforts at realism.

If the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accident reports come down on the validity and quality of training, even if only remotely, let’s hope that the MPL concept is at least paused or reconsidered. Additional real airplane training might cost more up front, but it will be cheaper in the long run, for there is no substitute for real experience in anything.—Chip Wright

Human factors assumptions, part 1

As I write this, the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air Boeing 737 MAX accidents are still being investigated. While we know that the MCAS system is going to get the major share of the blame, there is also a push to change the way pilots are trained. One of the topics that has come up is one that was addressed in the movie Sully, the story of the USAirways dead-stick landing in the Hudson River, and that is some of the assumptions that go into aircraft and systems design.

Engineers—both hardware and software—creating a new design need to make some basic assumptions about pilot reaction time, knowledge, and experience. Reaction time delay is one of the most difficult things to predict. Modern aircraft are so dependable and so reliable that it’s easy to take them for granted. And that’s the problem: When something does go wrong, it’s critical that the time lag of a response be given adequate consideration. As Sully showed, when the crews in the sim knew exactly what was going to happen and when, and were allowed to respond immediately, they had no trouble getting the crippled A320 back to departure airport, especially when allowed to practice several times.

In reality, though, such events almost never go so smoothly—after all, who ever anticipates losing both engines to a flock of geese? Imagine dealing with the shock of some kind of a collision, followed by a marked change in the normal noise pattern of flight, and then the audible chimes and lights and other indications of an anomaly. Then, once that has begun to set in, the brain has to convince itself that what it is seeing or hearing is real.

Media reports indicate  this happened with the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air crews. Additionally, it involved a system that the crew of the Lion Air flight was totally unaware of, and the crew of the Ethiopian Air flight was only marginally aware of. The noise of the stick shaker—which is extremely loud and distracting in the 737 by design—combined with the realization that the airplane was descending and trimming itself nose down must have been overwhelming. In both incidents, there was surely a realization at some point that the crew was unable to overcome the airloads in order to reverse the trim.

It’s one thing for designers to try to anticipate crew responses during the early phases of flight. But they also need to look at human factors from several angles, including crews that might be in the middle of a longer flight on the back side of the clock, such as a red-eye or a transcon. The effects of fatigue on sensory response need to be accounted for, which is another reason that some warnings are designed to be loud and attention-getting.

The type of fatigue matters too. Is the crew tired because it’s the last leg of a six-leg day, or is it because they are flying in the middle of the night? Crew experience also needs to taken into account. An experienced, well-trained crew is going to have a better response under virtually any circumstance, and there is reason to believe that at least one of the pilots involved in the Ethiopian Air crash may have been extremely low on the experience meter. Throw in a similar situation with fatigue or personal stress, and such an individual could easily be overwhelmed. It might impossible to account for every possibility, but realistic common denominators need to be established.

Manufacturers do what they can to test their theories and assumptions in the simulators, but there are limits to the effectiveness. Every pilot knows that during a sim flight, something will go wrong. They may not know what, or when, or where or how, but they are primed for a surprise, so even the surprise isn’t a total surprise. Further, when you know that you’re in a box, you know that you’re eventually walking away. That means that the effect of full-blown fear and panic is almost impossible to test for or measure.

There has already been much discussion about human factors assumptions moving forward as result of these accidents, and it’s a discussion that will go on for some time. Checklists and procedures are already being retested, rewritten, and studied. Pilots have complained for years that inexperienced cockpit inhabitants—usually first officers—are unable to cope with a sensory onslaught of often conflicting information. These accidents seem to bring some evidentiary data to that argument, though we must wait for the final reports to be written.

What we do know is that 346 people were killed in very preventable accidents, and the laws are written in blood. Changes will be coming.—Chip Wright

Sim seat-fill

No pilot wants to be under the scrutiny of an examiner or an instructor any more than is absolutely necessary. However, airliners require two pilots, and that means any training in the sim also requires two pilots. Most of the time, pilots are paired with another student, and each gets equal time to practice whatever is on the schedule.

But, as the saying goes, best laid plans… Occasionally, a pilot is not paired up with another student. This may be attributable to an odd number of trainees, or because one student needs to be held back for remedial training, or one quits or gets fired or is sick, et cetera. And some airlines—increasingly fewer do this, but it still happens—won’t let two pilots who have been training together take a checkride together. When this happens, the training department needs to use what is often termed a seat-fill, which is another pilot brought in to occupy the second seat and perform accordingly.

Most of the time, seat-fill pilots are stand-by instructors, but when they aren’t available, local pilots near the training center usually get the call. Sometimes the airline is required to use reserve pilots, but often, lineholders can make themselves available as well, using whatever sign-up process is available.

The immediate question is, why would anyone want to do this, and is there a jeopardy component to this? Well, yes, you are in a jeopardy situation, which means that if you perform in such a fashion that you would have failed your own checkride, you can find yourself effectively grounded until you’ve been retrained. That, however, is rare.

Most pilots volunteer for seat-fill because they consider it an easy way to make some extra money on a day off without having to go to the airport or spend a night away from home. It’s also a great way to stay sharp on procedures in the sim that you don’t get to do very often. Last, but not least, you get to know most of the instructors and examiners, and they get to know you, so when you go in for your training, you are much less nervous and more comfortable than you might otherwise have been. Taking that a step further, you might get the benefit of the doubt if you make a mistake or two during your own ride that might have been cause for concern previously.

Another benefit to doing a lot of seat-fill is the networking that can take place. If you’re interested in getting into the training department, this a great way to show your bona fides in terms of your preparation, readiness, willingness to help a new hire, and the like. The truth is, there is no downside to doing the seat-fill if you can. If your schedule is flexible, and you live near the training center, take advantage of the opportunities that seat-filling provides, especially as your own checkride approaches. Extra training, extra cash, and more confidence: It’s a lot more upside than down!—Chip Wright

Airline charters

As the calendar turns to winter, regional airlines will be doing more and more basketball charter flights, especially for colleges. RJs of all sizes are ideal aircraft for this particular mission, between the seating capacity, the ability to get into smaller airports, and the cost to operate.

From a pilot’s perspective, charters generally work in ways similar to regular flights, but there are some differences. A charter coordinator from the airline usually rides along. The coordinator is the primary point of contact between the team and the airplane. The coordinator’s responsibilities include making sure that meals are properly catered (this is a major part of a charter, and if this gets messed up, it can cost an airline the contract), that buses are arranged, and, in remote places, that the flight release is properly delivered to the crew. This last responsibility is less of an issue now with the widespread use of iPads, but it’s not unusual that a paper copy is produced as a backup.

The worst part about charters is the unpredictability, and perhaps the hours. While games are scheduled, they can go long, and when they do, things can get interesting in a hurry.

Many charters take place at night, so one of the concerns is getting the airplane in position for its next assignment. I recently worked a regular trip with a morning departure out of Miami. The airplane, however, was coming off a charter for the Tampa Bay Rays, and the game—in New York—had gone into extra innings, delaying the flight to St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, which delayed the ferry flight to Miami. We had to wait for the airplane to be cleaned, given a security inspection, and then made available to us. Our delay was more than an hour. When that happens, the delays can ripple through the day.

Baseball and basketball charters also include a lot of late-night or red-eye flying. Football isn’t quite as bad, but Thursday, Sunday, and Monday night games can be rough.

I did a NASCAR charter years ago (we were carrying a pit crew). We had a mechanical issue that we could not legally defer, and owing to a comedy of errors, it couldn’t get fixed in time. We wound up canceling the flight as our duty time expired (not so comedic), which caused all kinds of mayhem. Companies and organizations pay an awful lot of money for charters, and their patience for delays and cancellations is minimal. Throw in disgruntled employee job actions and the challenges to the airline can be steep.

Some events cause a surge in charters. The NCAA basketball tournaments, the World Baseball Classic, the College World Series, even corporate mergers all can generate a surge in charter activity. It also isn’t unusual for an organization or a college or university to request certain crew members who are known to go above and beyond in their efforts to please. I knew a captain at a major airline who was highly thought of by several of the NFL teams that he flew, and discreet efforts were made to get him assigned to those flights. He considered it an honor and did whatever he could to get the trips onto his schedule. Of course, the opposite also holds true, and you can be banned from charters, if not outright terminated.

Some charters can be a lot of fun, and others can be more tedious, but they all require a fair amount of flexibility. Charters are also guaranteed money-makers for the airline, and the contracts are valuable. Treat them like the important asset that they are and provide the best possible service you can. Heck, you might even wind up with some free tickets to a game or a concert!

Airport reserve

If you’re new to an airline, you’ll soon find that not all of the assignments are of the type that bring fame, glory, and riches. One of the least desirable is going to the airport and just sitting there.

This particular assignment goes by several names: ready reserve, field standby, hot standby, airport reserve. Whatever you call it, 99 percent of the time it is boring.

Essentially, airport reserve is just that: You’re assigned a window of time to spend at the airport, in uniform, ready to go. Your job is to be immediately available to get to a gate and get a flight out that has a sudden shortage of a crew. Last-minute sick calls; mechanical problems; crews timing out on their duty day; diversions of an inbound flight; and ferrying airplanes are common reasons for Scheduling to call the airport reserve crew to save the day.

Most of the time, you’ll go to the airport and go nowhere but home, but as we move into the winter months, there is usually an uptick in the usage of the airport reserve crews. Flu season compounds the problem, especially if pilots wake up to find out one of their kids or their spouse is sick and need to stay home. The contagious nature of the flu also means that people will spread the virus without realizing they are sick themselves. The same is true of the common cold. Summer also sees an increase in airport reserve usage as thunderstorms wreak havoc and force Scheduling to pull out all the stops to keep the operation moving along.

Depending on the airline, airport reserve will last anywhere from four to eight hours. Regionals tend to use this tool more than the majors, but the majors have it as well. It’s also common among cargo carriers, which are very schedule-sensitive.

There may be some overlap from one shift to the next, and there may or may not be rules in place to determine the methodology Scheduling can use to determine if the airport reserve can be called out versus someone sitting reserve at home. Often, you’ll question the logic of how certain people are used when. More often than not, you’ll be right to question those decisions. Hopefully, there will be other rules in place as well to prevent pointless scheduling practices, such as not bringing in a pilot for a late afternoon/evening shift who can’t do an overnight, or bringing in a pilot who has flown enough in the previous several days that he or she can’t do any of the flights on the schedule. It also helps to have a limit on the number a pilot can do in a given month.

The best thing you can do to make the time pass is to bring books and magazines to read, movies to watch, or use the time to catch up on company-mandated training. While you will be technically required to be in uniform, it may be possible to put your uni on a hanger and wear your civilian clothes, as long as you can change in short order and not create an undue delay in getting to the gate.

Airport reserve is one of the least appealing things about being a pilot, but used appropriately, it can be a life-saver for the airline. Done poorly, it can be a waste of money and resources. On some fleets, airport reserve doesn’t make sense, either because the fleet is too small or, for wide-bodies, the duty time limitations prevent it from being used effectively. Your job is to simply be prepared, suitcase stocked, ready to go at a moment’s notice to save the day and get at least one flight completed.—Chip Wright

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

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