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Dear FAA

Dear FAA,

I am writing to you from the comfy confines of my pandemic-imposed quarantine-like shutdown, and like many Americans, I have gotten a fair number of things done around my house that needed doing or that I was told needed doing, or that I was told that I wanted to need to do. But I digress.

Doing these things made me realize that there are some housekeeping items that you should have addressed while airlines around the world were basically grounded. In fact, much of general aviation wasn’t flying much either, so you wasted a lot of good opportunity, which is almost as bad as wasting my tax dollars.

In the event that the world shuts down again, please consider using the following as a To Do list:

Clean the runways. Runways everywhere are covered with discarded rubber from tires, and these black patches are slicker than ice when they get wet. Speaking of ice, when that rubber gets snow and ice on it, slick doesn’t even begin to describe what one must deal with. The severe decrease in traffic is a great time to get the rubber cleaning equipment out of the garage and put it to use, so chop chop.

Fix the lights. There are, I’m guessing, millions of lights on and around airports. Runway lights, taxi way lights, approach lights, sign lights, and probably lights I’m not even aware of. Some of them I’m not aware of because they are burned out. I have yet to figure out when lights need to be fixed, but it must be some formula I don’t understand, because some are always (it seems) notam’ed out of service. With fewer airplanes to avoid, this would be a grand time to get all the lights working again. Even the Motel 6 leaves the lights on for people.

Paint! There is no better time than during an aviation-grounding pandemic to whip out some brushes and rollers and start painting taxi lines, runway stripes, lead-in lines, hold-short lines, taxiway markers, spot numbers and anything else that has paint in, on it, or with it. I’m going to cut you some slack on this one, because paint is hard to stay on top of, especially since it needs time to dry. It fades in the sun, gets scraped by plows, runover by vehicles large and small, and pounded by rain and even lightning. But, too many airports have too many lines that are too hard to see, especially at night and in the rain, and this really needs to be fixed, pronto.

This list could keep you busy for a while, so consider this a good starting point, but not necessarily an end point. Pilots everywhere will be grateful and less likely to get lost on one of your aerodromes.

Many thanks, and peace out,
Chip—Chip Wright

Bad overnights

It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while, you have a layover that is just an awful experience. I’ve had a handful in the years since I started doing this.

Most of the time, it comes down to personal comfort. Air conditioning that doesn’t work isn’t all that uncommon, and in the summer, that can make for a long night as you try to sleep and not sweat like you’re camping in the Sahara.

Noise is another common issue, especially around raucous holidays like New Year’s or the Fourth of July. But it’s also an issue with everything from family reunions to weddings to a hotel full of kids in town for a sporting tournament. Loud arguments—or the opposite—in the room next door can also be an issue.

The one thing about noise, though, is the hotel will almost always do whatever they can to contain it or stop it. Crews are generally supposed to be placed in pre-designated places, such as the upper floors or the longest walk from the elevator, all in the hopes of keeping noise down. In my experience, the worst times for noise are when you need to go to bed much earlier than usual because of an early wake-up or a long day coming up. The hotel also knows that if noise is affecting one person, it’s probably affecting others (or will), and they won’t hesitate to call the police if necessary.

I’ve had two memorable experiences with middle-of-the-night fire alarms as well. One was in Raleigh-Durham in the summer, so at least it was comfortable outside. The hotel was one that often had a majority of its rooms used by crews from different airlines, and this was one of those nights. We were outside for well over an hour, from about 2:30 to 3:30 a.m., and all of us were upset. Some of us never got back to sleep. I can’t speak for the other carriers, but ours wound up with a number of fatigue calls that cancelled flights the next day because so many people hadn’t been able to get adequate rest.

The second one was in Buffalo in March, and the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament was going on. Several of the teams were in the hotel, and the rumor was that the alarm was pulled by a student from another school in hopes of affecting the games. This one also lasted about an hour.

One night that didn’t affect me so much did affect my crew as well as most of the hotel. It was the night of the time change in the spring, and the computer in the hotel that handled the wakeup calls malfunctioned, and phones all throughout the building began ringing in the middle of the night, and then an hour earlier than scheduled. I hadn’t checked my phone (this was in the pre-smart-phone era) before I went to bed, and it was just as well: It had been unplugged by a previous guest. Mine never rang, but when I got downstairs, my crew had been there an hour because they couldn’t sleep, and a dozen other guests were ready to tar and feather the poor guy working the desk. But I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Most of the time, sleep comes fairly easily, and occasionally you wake up with no idea where you are. But, as with any other job, bad nights are going to happen. It just feels worse when it happens on the road. That said, there’s always the next night’s hotel to catch up on your sleep.—Chip Wright

Aviation Strikes Back

The last month has been, suffice it to say, the dark side of aviation. A combination of maintenance misery, coronavirus, European rules, and an airplane turned money pit has tainted the glories and freedoms of aviation with the dark, menacing cloud of a massive thunderstorm. In many instances of ranting to friends, one suggested that I write about my experience, ostensibly to point out how various byzantine Kafkaesque rules could use an overhaul. My only reply was: “It is going to sound like I am whining about the consequences of my own ignorant, ill-fated decision to voluntarily ship an old airplane to Europe and not expect to be driven insane by the rules that were well known to exist beforehand.”

Well, here I am, writing about it anyway.

Putting the Economist Hat On – Mechanics

The situation I have been facing this month devolved into a cesspit of money spending, eventually landing on a situation requiring specialized assistance, which meant finding a specific mechanic willing and able to do the job. It is always an issue to find one that will work on an N-registered aircraft, either if the person is a FAA A&P, or uncomfortable with performing the work, furnishing a work order, and having a separate FAA A&P return it to service.

After getting over those hurdles, which often means far fewer mechanics are available, I find that they are all booked solid, despite the fact that the world is flying less. This seems to be the case most of the time, and I had to ask why that is the case. In a previous post, I wrote about how EASA had changed some rules to loosen up mechanical licensure, stepping closer to the “freelance mechanic,” which otherwise barely exists here.

The problem lies in the quantity of policies, procedures, and paperwork that revolve around flight instruction and maintenance activities. It favors organizations over individual mechanics and instructors, which favors highly active flying clubs instead of private ownership. That means a small fleet of [rented] aircraft, flying quite regularly, with resources onsite in the case of a problem. If a plane is out of service, there are others to rent.

Along comes the American with a Cub, asking for some help from an organization like this, even if the European mechanic is a FAA A&P, and the answer is almost uniformly that these institutions are booked out for weeks. How could this be, that in the land where rules stifle aviation, there are thriving, profitable businesses?

When one combines paperwork and rules eliminating freelancers, pushing activity to busy clubs and repair stations, one can find that they are incentivized to run at full capacity, pushing new bookings out into the future. That is not a problem with clubs and companies with small fleets, as aircraft can be substituted. Some private owners have their airplanes “operated” by clubs, which means they are part of the system, likely getting priority. Add in that some European countries have labor laws that discourage eliminating staff, and one can see that economics + the rules and structures that be = limited organizations keeping their order books full. In the US, another A&P would be hired part-time to pick up the slack, whereas those decisions are made far more conservatively on this side of the pond. Besides, who cares if some immigrant wanders in with a broken plane?

That does contrast with the reality that I have wondered how A&Ps in America earn a good living. Many freelancers are either vintage airplane enthusiasts, work weekends for extra money, are retired, or are poor businessmen. To run a proper repair station, cover fixed costs, bear the risk of liability, and earn more than a low-end wage, fees would need to be structured not too differently than in Europe, with order books as full as possible.

I am not sure what the point of this subsection is, other than exasperation that offering to shower money on maintenance technicians seems to not produce…. maintenance activities.

Coronavirus – Get Out of Jail Free Card

It is apparent that the pandemic’s effect on supply chains is separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to competence. Unfortunately, I had two maintenance nightmares span this situation, and they both are revelatory.

The first was an exhaust stack repair early in March. I phoned an outfit in the USA, who told me they would repair it two weeks after I sent it. Noting how I would be out of service a month, I asked if we could come to an agreement and prioritize it for a fee. After some back and forth, the price was set at $250 for the expedite fee. “We’ll get to it in 3-5 days.” “From now?” “No, after it arrives. Wait….6 days. We can do it in 6 days.” “Six calendar days?” “No, 6 business days.” “Then why I am I paying $250 for it to take the same amount of time.” “We’re not shutting down our shop for you! Good day!” [click]

I called another in the USA, same deal: 2 weeks. I asked about AOG fees and these people kindly told me that “We used to do it. Everyone then pays it, and we can’t keep up.” I would say hire more people, but I digress. Maybe they figured out the European model of profitability…

I got recommendations for an excellent outfit in Germany. I called them and they said the backlog was one week. I packaged loads of customs paperwork, including that the whole aircraft is customs cleared into Germany, and shipped overnight, ok with the week delay as shipping round trip would be overnight instead of a week. After 10 days, nothing had happened, as it was still at customs. DHL said the exhaust shop was ignoring them. The exhaust shop sent signed copies of paperwork submitted to customs. A week later, I was informed that German customs was returning it “for insufficient paperwork” and it would take… a month. I would have driven up there to clear it, except lockdown began and borders were closed. “We’ve had people do that before,” said the shop.

That’s it! I am going top dollar brand new PMA!

I called another shop in the USA, agreed on $1500 for new parts, gave specifications, and they were wonderful to get it done in a few days and hurry up to ship it as lockdown was looming for them. It arrived in Europe, after $250 in express fees….and it didn’t fit. While exhaust systems can be subjective on Cubs, there is nothing subjective about the exhaust port on the cylinder and the location of the adjacent intake elbow. At this point, I found a blacksmith in town who heated and whacked the relevant portion into submission, and that problem was solved.

While it was a frustrating charade that ropes in the pandemic, it is a microcosm of everything that is miserable about attempting to keep a 1940s airplane in the air. I am beginning to lose the romance of the idea, that’s for sure.

Coronavirus woes are not over. The latest round has resulted in ordering no less than six installments of parts from the UK and USA, and each order begins with “carriers are not guaranteeing delivery times.” That actually means two things: the carrier is released from doing the job, and the parts seller now has no obligation to be dutiful in getting “overnight” orders out, communicating about it, or getting anything right. I could go on about the miseries endured, down to full on incompetence and outright fraud (charging for overnight, sending economy, refusing to credit the difference). Some carriers are delivering as promised, and some distributors get things out as promised. Some distributors indicate their fulfillment backlog clearly, others take the order and payment and ship it a week later with not a shred of understanding why that is a problem, pointing to the pandemic as a blanket excuse for blatantly failing to live up to promises. It has been, needless to say, challenging.

It would be helpful if distributors would post clearer notice as to their current situation (as some do), though I would imagine there is an incentive to hide deleterious backlogs so as to ensnare customers into making a sale that they wouldn’t otherwise make. It is interesting to watch how some keep the parts flowing as if nothing has changed, and others seem to have fallen apart.

The End of General Aviation

I woke up this morning with a headline in Swiss news. The Upper House of Parliament voted for a package to impose taxes on each passenger for commercial airline flights, for environmental reasons. I also noted that it includes “private flights where fees will be from $500 to $5000 per flight.” Come again? That caused a panicked Google search, which revealed little as to what a “private flight” meant. Stewing over breakfast, I didn’t even need to articulate the ramifications if this were true. My wife was the one to suggest living in another country if that was correct.

I didn’t think it would apply to light aviation, as it would immediately end all non-luxury general aviation in the entire country. None of these mechanics I am spending so much time talking about mentioned it, nor did it appear anywhere else, so I sent some emails, and response was that the proposed legislation apparently is limited to private flights in “jet aircraft.” I don’t know if that means jet a-1 powered flights (including diesel engines), includes turboprops, or is for turbofan engines only.

While those in the US would cringe at these fees, I must point out that they are fractional compared to the total fees paid in Swiss aviation for larger aircraft. The type of individuals that come and go in Switzerland in private jets are of the highest wealth tier globally and will likely pay the fees, with some modest decrease in utilization. The issue, however, lies with how, if that law were written poorly or incorrectly, it could, in one fell swoop, end all general aviation in the name of environmental reasons.

We talk frequently about “user fees” and other such things “creeping” into aviation in America, slowly squeezing it. We do not talk about an Armageddon where one law ends the entire thing overnight. While it is unlikely to happen, this morning’s news headline was at the very least educational. It also cemented that the battle keeping an old plane flying is losing its romantic appeal, though I can’t imagine choosing to have a life without aviation.

I suppose, much like flying a Cub low and slow in a thunderstorm (hmmm…that has never happened), the clouds eventually clear and one flies again on a sunny evening over bucolic farmland. My prefrontal cortex can intellectualize the concept, though the emotional reality of my sentience is so immersed in this misery that I can’t seem to get my head around the idea of flying before I am no longer middle aged. This too shall pass…

Addendum: The Quest for the [Heli Coil] Holy Grail

I wrote the above portion of the post roughly one week ago. While I was duly rattled and frustrated, I thought I had a solution lined up, as a friend found another Swiss A&P/IA to try, one who had lived and worked in the USA for over a decade. After we spoke, he was amenable to coming up to install a heli-coil on a stud, a problem which had derailed my entire enterprise and for which one shop after another told me that I must basically bring the engine to them for the case to be split. Interfacing with A&Ps in the USA told me a field repair was possible, although I couldn’t find anyone to do it.

Anyhow, he was “always looking for new customers” and “just needed to check if he had the tool.” Excellent! The problem will likely be solved and, to make matters better, I like the guy. The next day, I got a call and it was explained, after consulting with other staff, that it is a risky job due to the hardened aluminum of the case, where free drilling could be the wrong angle or create a crack. It would help if there was a jig, though they did not know where to find it.

So, I was back to the drawing board. I double checked with a few A&Ps in the USA to confirm if a field repair is a shop school myth, and they said it is not preferable, though it can be done. Forum hunting online pointed me to Divco in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I called them to ask if a jig exists and if I could buy it. “Not really, but if you have one, and most people don’t, you can cut a junk cylinder and use the base as a jig.” Miracle of miracles, I have a junk cylinder and I was just about to throw it out! Problem solved!

Or so I thought… I emailed the new A&P that I had developed a crush on and…crickets. If there is one thing I have learned, is that a mechanic’s confidence and the intelligence of a certain repair method are two different things. The sudden lack of interest meant that, for this repair, he is probably not the guy if he is slinking away after having announced I found the much sought after jig.

So, it was back to the “Swiss guy who travels around in a van doing repairs.” He is also an A&P, albeit quite a distance away. I had spoken before and he said that he was extremely booked out, wasn’t afraid to do it, and he didn’t have the tools for the coil installation, as he “tried to buy them once a few years ago and gave up.” Now that he was going to be the one, I called him to schedule, advising that I would be ordering the parts. His reply was: “Things are crazy with coronavirus, so I am not scheduling anything until you get the parts. Nothing is for certain.” I thought he was being persnickety, though so be it, let me get the tools ordered to get a confirmed delivery date.

And this is where my week went sideways.

I called Divco, who told me most of the details what to get. Divco, by the way, is wonderful. I phoned the distributor in California that they use, and after some back and forth, called Divco again willing to “pay them for this nonsense” and they walked me through the exact heli-coil specs. It is quite a web of what to buy. They didn’t want money (which makes them even more incredible). I got pricing final, which was about $150, and then the distributor said, “We cannot prepay and add shipping. We need a courier account number.”

Strange. Be that as it may, I phoned a client, got their UPS number and…inactive. I called another client, got their UPS number, and upon attempting to ship, that account doesn’t allow that kind of shipping. At this point, I requested some sort of way to ship it, and they said its “against company policy,” for which I raised an immortal hell and was told that they got defrauded once so, sorry, but “we will ship it to someone in the US.” I declined to mention that they should be content next time their Amazon order goes to Indonesia for re-routing instead of their house.

I took their quote and sent it to a company in the UK and Switzerland, both of which promised to get back to me. Nothing. I then looked for more distributors and found a stock function on the Stanley Engineering website and found that one other company in the USA stocks the install tool. I went through their online shop, loaded up the cart, and….requires a courier account number. I called them and asked if it is a manufacturer requirement and they said, “It isn’t. We took a US card once for an order of $40,000 of stuff that went to Africa and it got charged back, so it’s company policy. “But its $150, it’s going to Switzerland, I am a US citizen, and I will send you a copy of my US driver’s license or anything else you want.” “Sorry, company policy.” Someone else called back and recommended three other distributors. I called them all and they stock the coil but not the tool. I mentioned to one about the African fraud story and she eloquently replied, “Everyone knows not to trust when the Ethiopian prince writes you online.”

I started digging through Google searches and found that I could get an equivalent tap from a distributor in the UK. They had no tool nor coil, but I thought I could divvy this up and attack that way. The tap, by the way, is on page 562 of their massive catalog, but alas, they did not have the install tool. Eventually I found another distributor, in Switzerland, and navigated their web shop. The part numbers were not equivalent, so after digging through a mass of them, I found all three parts, although I would have to order 200 heli-coils in a bag instead of two. So be it. At 1-3 working days, I’ll take it. When I went to check out, they will only ship to Germany. I then called the Swiss office, and they said “We don’t ship from Switzerland. You must do it from France.” On to the web shop in French, load up the cart…will only ship to France.

Somehow, in my despair, I found through Google that an industrial supply company in the US had one of the parts…the elusive tool! Maybe I can get the coils from Texas, the tap from the UK, and the tool from the USA! To my surprise, they had all of them! I checked out, adding the Swiss address and my credit card and….it worked. Suspicious, I called the company, told them I placed the order, and confirmed that they would ship. “It is ‘in review,’ but if we need anything, we’ll email you.” Six hours later, just before bed, I got an email, “Thanks for your order. Due to the cost of complying with export regulations, we are cancelling your order.” At this point, I located a parcel forwarder in New Jersey, called the supplier, switched to the NJ address, and will have to swallow probably $100 to $150 in costs to forward via an intermediary, for which the parts should arrive in 10-12 days, for which hopefully this vandwelling Swiss mechanic will be willing to show up before August.

The candidate Swiss A&P did explain that European procedure is to CNC machine the case if a stud pulls. “That’s why you aren’t able to find a European mechanic to do it. It is not standard procedure here. What they do not understand is that it is a November registered airplane and we can do things the November way. It does not have to be precise, as it is an American product.” What they also fail to understand is, based on my research, how probable it is in the life of an O-200 engine that a stud will eventually pull.

So, there you have it…the dark side of exotic international flying. I will either ditch aviation and become a monk or buy a second plane as insurance against mechanical woes. Stay in America…or buy a new plane with a warranty and global service network.

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

The smallest airplanes are getting bigger

When I first started to do any kind of regular travel, let alone fly for a living, turboprops were very common. Dash 8s, Brasilias, ATRs, Saab 340s, and the venerable Beech 1900 were ubiquitous in small towns all over America. Some of the flights were part of the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, and they were subsidized by Uncle Sam in order to provide some degree of air and mail service to the various Smallvilles of the USA.

Passengers, however, never did love the “puddle jumpers.” They were loud, they shook, they vibrated, and they were perceived to be less safe. After deregulation, small commuters sprouted and eventually began to work hand-in-glove with the jet drivers to produce the current hub-and-spoke system, while in some cases marketing a few flights on their own.

In the 1990s the concept of the regional jet gained steam, and while pundits and critics said it was doomed to failure—too few seats and too high an operating cost—the RJ revolutionized travel. The days of the turboprop were numbered, and by 9/11, with a spike in fuel prices and change in travel demand, the turboprop was on its last legs. Fifty-seaters dominated, because of comfort and speed, but those same high fuel costs became an issue for the RJs as well, and the real push for larger small jets began.

Nowadays, as we wade through the COVID-19 pandemic, the 50-seaters by Bombardier and Embraer are the airplanes facing demise. Some have been converted into corporate jets or cargo planes, but most are being sent to the desert. The CR7 and CR9 are now the Bombardier mainstays (the verdict is still out on the C-Series, since sold to Airbus and marketed as the A-220), while Embraer is making the most of its E-Jet series. Both have become major players, to the point that Boeing felt it necessary to buy a portion of Embraer and Airbus of Bombardier.

It’s interesting to see how the smallest airplanes have become bigger. Turboprops with 19 seats didn’t require a flight attendant, and they were cheap to operate. But jets offered far more opportunity and a better experience for the passenger at a premium price. The race now is to determine if there is a true market need for something in the 100-seat range, similar to the old DC-9s and early 737s. There doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus, and airlines would rather fill  up an  airplane up and leave folks behind than fly even one empty seat.

(The same thing has also happened on the other end of the spectrum: The A-380 has proved to be a flop, and the 747 is being phased out of passenger service in favor of smaller, lower-cost twinjets like the 777 and 787.)

As the E-190 appears to be near the end of its run in the United States—American announced plans to park theirs, and jetBlue has been planning to do so for some time—the smallest mainline jets will be the 737-700/A-319 variants, which seat 120-137, depending on configuration. The gap between large RJs and small mainline jets will be either a target of opportunity or a bit of a no-man’s land as we move forward.

For pilots, it means that more and more will get their introduction to airline flying in some of the most sophisticated aircraft in the sky, and not in the old steam-gauge turboprops.—Chip Wright

Coronavirus recovery

In 25 years of airline flying, I’ve either been involved in or observed  several full or partial shutdowns of airlines or the industry as a whole.

In 2001, I was employed at Comair for the pilot strike, and the shutdown of the airline was an organized, four-day process as the company moved to get airplanes and crews in position before the pilots would stop flying. A few months later, we were part of the industrywide immediate cessation of operations when the tragic events of September 11, 2001, occurred.

The following year Comair also weathered a scheduling computer system crash over the Christmas holidays that was anything but orderly. In addition, I’ve watched strikes at other airlines take place, and I’ve seen the fallout of employee job actions, failed websites, and the grounding of fleets of airplanes at unexpected times.

All of these events led to the inevitable restart of operations of some sort, and in the case of 9/11, the spool-up was also followed by the near retirement of fleets of airplanes, mostly the venerable 727.

As we work our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, we are witnessing similar events. We can use these to get a bit of an idea of how the industry will begin the return to service. The closest comparable event is 9/11, and that isn’t even all that close in terms of the damage. Every airplane in the United States was grounded, but only for four days. The rest of the world continued to fly, and even though demand was diminished when flights resumed, it was better than it is now.

C-19 has stopped travel around the world. At one point, 16,000 of the world’s 24,000 airliners were parked at airports around the globe. Entire airlines were shut down or announced that they had or planned to go out of business. People stopped buying tickets, and fewer people flew in a month than normally fly on a single day. Flights in April and early May were averaging 10 or so people.

As in 2001, airlines began announcing  plans to eliminate entire fleets of airplanes. In the United States, Delta and American announced retirements of multiple fleets, to include the MD-88/90, A-330, 757, 777 and E-190, with rumors of the B-717 also being put to bed. Eliminating these airframes will reduce costs dramatically with respect to spare parts, fuel, training, and the occasional equipment swap. Carriers in other countries are planning to park the A-380, the world’s largest airplane, and one that never really found a niche.

In the last few days, there have been some signs of optimism. Ticket sales starting in July have begun to show some positive activity, and passengers are showing a bit more tolerance for close-to-the-neighbor seating in order to get where they need to go. United has quietly made plans to bring more than 60 airplanes out of storage for the July schedule, and Southwest is strategically adding flights as well. While all of the airlines have announced plans to emerge in the fall “at least” 30 percent smaller, it’s clear that they will take into account demand for travel as they add flights and try to bring the daily cash burn to at least zero.

As we move into the fall, everyone will be holding their collective breath on two fronts: How many employees might be furloughed, and how severe might a second wave of C-19 turn out to be? Furloughs are on everyone’s mind right now, and most recognize that the airlines will probably have no choice. But if demand continues to rise at a somewhat predictable pace, hopefully any time on the unemployment lines will be short. The larger issue is the unknown of the resurgence of the virus this fall and how people might react to it.

Some travel will be lost for good, and many leisure trips won’t be taken. But business travelers will continue to fly, and the airlines will adapt to the new demands and whatever cleaning procedures will be ongoing. Ticket prices will undoubtedly rise. More airplanes will come out of storage, but not all. An airline or two may fail, victim of too many dollars going out and not enough coming in. But in time, the system will work itself out. It always does.—Chip Wright

Preparing for the post-COVID job market

As the airlines begin to regroup to adapt to the new realities of a COVID-19 world, pilots who are trying to get into the industry must surely be confused and even discouraged, which is perfectly understandable.

But the world still needs airlines, and airlines still need pilots, and low-time pilots still need jobs. There is no sugar-coating the fact that low-time pilots will be delayed in getting that first job and those precious FAR 121 turbine hours. But those opportunities will come.

For now, you need to keep your applications up to date, current, and accurate. You also need to stay in touch with your network and follow up any rumors to cut through to the facts and truth of what is going on. Bad information is acidic, and it won’t do you any good at all. Seek out the truth, and keep your ears to the ground for opportunities and openings.

In the interim, fly as often as you can, and if you’re a CFI, look for any teaching opportunities that might arise. There may not be many, but it may not be as bad as you might think. You can also look for opportunities to take airplanes up for owners just to fly them, and if you can work a deal to get an airplane to fly on the cheap, this would be the time to build some hours and stay current.

What you can’t do is just give up. Even if you have to shift gears into other work for a while, you need to keep your sights on your goals and dreams and continue in the direction you have worked so hard for. The industry has been through upheaval before—nothing like this, to be sure—and it will eventually turn the corner. The strong will survive, and there may even be some new entrants if carriers fail and leave assets to reuse. But people and cargo are going to need to be moved.

Even if you’re outside of the industry, you can work on currency and maintaining a list of good contacts while staying abreast of what is going on. Once the economies around the world get a foothold, the return to growth is likely to be steady, if not quick. Nobody knows when that will happen.

But you do have the choice to be ready versus being left behind.—Chip Wright

An Evolving Theory of Mountain Flying Safety

One subject that I have grappled with over the years is the disparity between mountain flying being “dangerous” versus a pleasant flight on a sunny day. The reality is, actual mountain flying can be either, or a grade of both. It is not accurate to unilaterally state that it is nothing but dangerous; yet, a cavalier attitude has gotten many in trouble. I started, in my ignorance, subscribing to the danger model, then flirted with the idea that it’s not that big of an idea at all, and now have settled into a new thought paradigm.

It took a recent experience crossing a shallow glaciated saddle at 10,000 feet for the concept to crystallize. Nothing bad happened on the crossing, though at my most vulnerable moment, it suddenly occurred to me that I had not factored one input related to wind. If I was proven to be incorrect in my initial assumption, I would suddenly find myself in a wind shear situation, 300 feet above a glacier, with an engine capable of putting out 70 horsepower at that altitude. The chance of descending onto the shallow glacier (or coming terrifyingly close), would have been unacceptably high.

The good news is that I was correct about the wind, there was no wind shear, and the crossing of the saddle and two glaciers was pleasant and uneventful. What did occur to me in the cockpit was how, if I was at 800’ AGL at the saddle instead of 300’ AGL, the thought wouldn’t have crossed my mind at all. I asked myself why that was the case, and it led to an answer which I think balances conflicting concepts of mountain flying terror and nonchalance.

Every aircraft, day, pilot, and mountain range combined produces a combination of factors where, based on each unique situation, there is a boundary between a safe flight configuration and an unsafe one in each geographic locale. That, I think, is relatively black and white. The result is that certain flight paths can be entirely uneventful, whereas others are extremely risky.

The reality is mixed with many variables. Note how I mentioned that I wouldn’t have given the saddle any thought at 800’ AGL, yet 300’ gave me waves of angst. That tells me that the boundary between safe and unsafe was somewhere in between. Yet, that boundary would be different if winds weren’t the same, if I was loaded with a passenger, if I had more horsepower, if I was flying a spam can, if there was a cloud layer…the list of variable inputs to the equation seems endless, though the boundary of safe versus unsafe flight in the mountains is not.

If there was a visual of how this plays out, I would imagine a landscape mountain scene with red shaded areas demonstrating danger. Box valleys where turning radius is too wide, strongly turbulent areas in the lee of ridges, formation of orographic clouds, low altitudes in valleys where terrain ascends faster than aircraft rate of climb…these would all be shaded red reflecting their danger. Areas that had plenty of altitude, wide enough valleys, and a lack of deleterious winds, well, those are wonderful places to fly and enjoy oneself in the mountains.

To revert back to the technical nature of my sudden concern, there is a 5-minute video of the crossing and below I will walk through some images, explaining what I knew and didn’t know, and where I was when I figured it out.

After passing Les Haudères, Glacier d’Arolla comes into view in the distance.

My options were to head left, right, or turn around. 

While I wanted to turn right over the Col de Charmotane, I wasn’t high enough. Snuggling with the glacier made it clear that winds were coming down the glacier, which made sense as wind reports were out of the south.

I went back to the left option, which took me to Haut Glacier d’Arolla. Winds were not evident here. It is interesting how fast terrain below seems to come up toward the airplane, and what seems like adequate room suddenly feels like it isn’t. Since there are no trees or buildings and the scene is clearly majestic, one can wrongly assume that things are bigger than they seem.

On the way out from the left option, which puts the valley into perspective. Even though the glacier is descending from this angle, the valley now looks quite tight.

Back to the saddle that I would like to get over. The issue with high pressure days is that pressure differences build up on both sides of the Alps. With daytime heating, even in winter, winds begin to pick up, though they are not prevailing in the whole region as one would expect. Instead, they blow through valleys, passes, and openings various ranges, often blowing in a variety of directions. Therefore, I can presume, but not be certain, what the wind is doing. I knew it was coming off this glacier and heading down below me. My presumption was that it was blowing down the glacier in the middle left, and up the glacier on the right, both meeting and descending below.


By the time I got to the saddle, I had a sudden thought that I might have it wrong. What if the glacier to my left, which was blowing down into the valley I came, turned and was blowing forward in this image? I’d have some unpleasant wind shear. I also couldn’t tell how high above the glacier I was, as the snow was one giant soft pillow.

Looking to the left of the saddle, where I was now wondering if the winds were heading out behind me, or if they would bend to the right. It turns out my original theory was correct, and other than getting knocked a bit by wind, it was uneventful.

 

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

Navigating the COVID-19 airline world

I’ve been tooting the horn on progress in the airline industry for several years now, so you can imagine my shock and dismay at the developments in the economy since mid-March.

The C-19 pandemic has obliterated the prospects of a thriving industry that just a few months ago didn’t have enough pilots, airplanes, runways, or cheap fuel. Now, billions of dollars are being lost as the airlines are forced to park hundreds of airplanes, while the ones they are flying are largely empty.

I was asked recently what a day at work looks like now, and in a word, it’s surreal. I haven’t flown in three weeks because my trips have either been cancelled, or I can’t get to work because there are no flights.

When I was last there, the airports were empty. I’ve seen terminals that had more people in them at 3 a.m. than I’m seeing at 3 p.m. There are more employees than passengers. Restaurants are closed or have a limited menu. The retail shops are completely locked up.

You don’t realize how big even the smallest terminals are until you see them completely empty. Miles of security line barriers look silly and out of place now. The TSA personnel are bored to tears. Some flights are so empty that the gate agents don’t even use the PA system to announce boarding. I’ve had as few as 10 people on one of my own flights, and I’ve ridden on flights of multiple carriers that only have one paying passenger on board.

For years, I’ve had to endure periodic memos and initiatives on saving fuel and being on time to minimize clogging up either airspace or taxiways. Saving fuel now consists of carrying an extra 30,000 pounds—up to five hours’ worth—because the fuel farm at the hub has too much fuel and can’t store any more. Never in my career did I see that coming.

When the flights are only carrying a few people, it’s natural to want to push back 20 to 30 minutes early, but we’re being asked not to because of busy gate space. That sounds laughable, but the issue is real. So many airplanes have been grounded that some airports are out of room to store them. Many are stored at the gates, and airlines are minimizing the number of gates they are using. So, being early is still a problem.

Some large hubs are using runways to store airplanes. Right now this isn’t a problem, but it could be. Not only might the runways be needed, but airplanes are so big that if you need to move the one in the middle of a row of twenty, it could literally take all day to rejuggle everything.

As I sit here, the outlook on bookings isn’t good. The airlines that took CARES Act funding have to maintain staffing through the end of September, but based on what we see now, there is likely to be a bloodbath of furloughs come October. It will take some time to work through all of the pilots, since there will be so much training involved.

The feeling is that the flying public needs to regain confidence in travel, and they are looking for one of four things to happen: a treatment, a cure, a vaccine, or herd immunity. None of those are looking great right now, though a vaccine may be closer than we had hoped.

The other piece of this pie is that people need to have something to fly to. The Florida amusement parks are talking about staying closed until 2021, and restaurants will take a while to return to normal, either in capacity or on the menu. Food shortages are possible as well.

This is going to be a challenging recovery. Two airlines—Trans States and Compass, both under the Trans States Holdings umbrella—have gone out of business, as has Jet Suites. Overseas, South African, and Flybe have shut down. Others are likely to follow, and all of the legacy carriers in the United States have acknowledged that they will be substantially smaller come fall. It’s clear that they are now hoping to save the holiday travel seasons. But with billions in debt, soon to be made worse, it’s possible that there will be some more consolidation.

On the positive side, governments at all levels are doing everything they can to help keep the global economy alive. There is a clear goal of trying to let the economy regain some traction in hopes that it restarts relatively smoothly, if not quickly. Only time will tell if that’s going to work.

So what is a prospective pilot to do? Some things are simple: keep applications up to date, making especially sure they are accurate. Stay in touch with your network. Fly when you can, and at least stay legal. If you can provide any aid to those in need with an airplane, do so. And most important, stay healthy. Odds are the airlines are going to offer early retirement packages to senior pilots, and a number of them will jump on the opportunity. That will move things along, especially since retirements are just now picking up.

There will be some “right-sizing” at the regionals as well, and it will bear watching to see exactly how they retool their operations. But there will be room for opportunities for the RJs as well, since they can go to cities with lower demands and help restore a market for their partners. In other cities, they can hold the fort until the majors can bring in larger equipment.

We’ve all heard that we will recover from this, and we will. But it will take time, patience, and fortitude. But a recovery will happen.—Chip Wright

Weathering the C-19 pandemic, part 2

I’ve been flying during the sudden contraction in air travel caused by COVID-19, and the sudden changes have been jarring, to say the least.

I had to leave home as the bottom was falling out, and that meant being prepared for just about any contingency. First, I packed some extra clothes in case I got stuck somewhere. That’s already happened once, and it may happen again.

Second, I’ve tried to keep up with options for getting home if I get stuck somewhere. There are myriad sources a pilot can use to see what flight options might still be on the table if your own airline cuts service or pulls out of a city temporarily. I use Flight View Free, as well as apps for each airline I might use. There are also a few groups on Facebook that airline employees can use to check loads and options.

Third, a number of people began carrying their own food on trips. I did add a few snacks to my bag, but I opted not to take a lot of extra food. Instead, I’ve been using Uber Eats, which has eliminated a lot of delivery fees in order to encourage folks to support local restaurants. Grocery stores are still open, and they are a great option. I’ve also bought food from airport vendors to take with me.

Fourth, my wife and I have been in constant touch, and in a bind she can drive a day to come get me if I can’t get home. On the few occasions that I’ve been too far away for that, we have been tracking rental car availability and pricing. I’ve also reached out to a pilot or two with their own airplanes who may be able to come get me.

This is an unusual time, to say the least, and when you’re at work, there isn’t much you can do but ride it out. In cities where I know people, I’ve reached out to see if I can stay with them if push comes to shove. I know the company will do whatever it can to get me home, but they are overwhelmed right now, and it may well be faster and easier for me to solve my own problems.

I’d like to say that everything always works like a well-oiled machine in times like this, but we all know that isn’t the case. It wasn’t the case after 9/11, and it isn’t now. But with a little forethought and some ingenuity, you can find a way to work around this. And where determination isn’t enough, patience will have to be.—Chip Wright

An Overdue Rant

The discussion started with my wife’s innocent commentary on France’s coronavirus lockdown requirements. “Can you believe that the French have to carry a piece of paper to leave the house?” Before she could say another word and to the surprise of both of us, I erupted with a diatribe: “Excuse me? So, they need a piece of paper to leave the house? How about the fact that I need to file an avis de vol or PPR prior to every flight in Switzerland, that a flight plan is needed for any border crossing inside of the “border free” European Union, or that I am required to have my Mode S transponder on, broadcasting to the world a precise track of all of my activities? If French health rules are going to be presumed to signify the dawn of authoritarianism, then try being a pilot in the free world.”

Aside from the tantrumesque nature of my fusillade, I have been brewing (ahem, repressing) an argument for a while in my mind that private aviation is treated rather unfairly compared to automobile transport, if one considers the underlying principles behind reasons for regulation of both. What works for cars focuses on safety and respects freedom, yet pilots and aircraft seem willing to put up with an overbearing and disproportionate excess of rules compared to ground transportation. It took the inconvenience of a health crisis to synthesize the argument in my mind.

The most poignant case stems from Switzerland regarding airport hours. For those who read my rantings from Germany years ago, “operating hours” rear their ugly head again, something that thankfully Spain doesn’t seem to care about. I’ll digress a moment to remind everyone that operating hours and information service requirements in Germany stemmed from the Nazi era. At present, uttering the slightest Nazi phrase in Germany can result in job loss and arrest, whereas Germans will admit that the genesis of information service requirements is from the Third Reich, and its completely ok to practice that restrictive Nazi tradition (against pilots) in modern Germany, whereas everything else has been eviscerated from their culture.

Ok, so back to Switzerland. Local communes “come to an agreement” with airports (i.e., tell them) what hours the airport can be open. Most in Switzerland are sunrise to sunset, capped at 8PM in summer. Some go to sunset in summer, others allow only takeoffs until 8PM and landings until sunset. A few allow some basic night VFR on occasion. The rule springs from noise concerns. The commune basically determines when they want to hear airplanes fly. I failed to mention that some airports have restrictions on Sunday, at lunch time, and if a funeral is occurring at a local church.

As with most things in Switzerland, they at least have a traceable origin and make a shred of sense. At the same token, when I compare to automobile traffic, I can’t help but grimace at the disparity. I personally loathe, with a vehement passion, noises from cars and refuse to live anywhere near a road, which is how I solve my personal preference regarding the ever-present miserable hum of car traffic. While I would love if local towns would regulate car noise out of my life, it is a concept that simply never crosses my mind. Yet, when it comes to aviation, occasional air traffic after 8PM is deemed excessive, while cars and trains continue to make a racket in Swiss villages, free to do so whenever they please. To me, it boggles the mind that the differential in treatment is not questioned.

Another matter, that is more prevalent in Europe, arises with regard to insurance. If an aircraft is out of annual or if the pilot has anything but a current license and medical for the flight in question, then there is no coverage, even if those matters had nothing to do with it. I have never toyed with the matter, though I would presume the same condition exists in the USA. Yet, if an automobile is out of inspection, or if maintenance was done not in accord with manufacturer recommendations, would coverage be denied for an automobile accident? Of course not! I am unsure of the situation with an expired license and insurance with a car in the US.

The irony with insurance is that “breaking any regulation” can result in the loss of coverage in Europe. I believe, though do not quote me, that causality with aviation insurance in the US is more of a factor than Europe, and may be US state specific. At any rate, are not most automobile accidents the result of breaking a regulation? Yet, “that is what insurance is for.” In the case of aviation, good faith piloting with an error in complying with a mountain of rules carries incredible weight.

For that matter, I have seared into my mind the deleterious horror of as much as being on the ramp near an airplane without one’s pilot certificate, medical, and state-issued photo identification in my possession. Fines are in the thousands of dollars, in the US, in the event of a ramp check – not if one attempts to enter and fly an aircraft being a non-pilot – but if the person left the documents at home. In a car, the police furnish a limited period to return to the police station with the driver’s license and do not squabble as much about issues as to whether it is in one’s possession.

I could go on and on, though I think the point is made that pilots face far higher requirements on all fronts, and far worse consequences. Some might argue that “aviation is different,” and I would be inclined to agree with regard to commercial and transport operations (more people, more speed, more weight, more fuel, more boom). There are strong requirements, they result in very low accident rates, and those are not in question. Yet, for a small aircraft that weighs less than a car carrying the same amount of people as a sedan, I think the corollaries are more profound than we think.

The issue with aviation is protecting the general public mostly, and passengers second. The same rule applies with cars. In fact, if an airplane crashes, the chance of it hitting a bystander or building on the ground is much less than if a car endures a crash. The amount of pedestrian deaths or, for that matter, deaths of occupants of other vehicles not at fault, is staggering in the United States. Cars routinely travel within 5 to 10 feet of opposing traffic, pedestrians, and sometimes buildings. The condition of automobile maintenance in the US can be staggeringly disregarding of the value of life, yet we culturally think it’s fine to careen down the road in vehicles weighing one to three tons with a fraction of the training, licensure, and maintenance regimentation than a private aircraft. The results speak for themselves: cars kill at an astonishing rate.

One has to ask where the root of the problem lies. Regulation is a product ultimately of democracy, which derives of looking after the interest of the majority. It is rather simple and obvious that more people drive than fly; thus, the incentive is to arrive at an equilibrium that the average citizen agrees with regarding automobiles. When it comes to airplanes, there is little reward for a non-pilot to have any sort of non-airline aviation; thus, fear and disinterest in aviation inconveniences (noise, funding local airstrips, etc.) abounds. AOPA in the US is a fantastic example of banding together as pilots and pushing back against the inevitable monster that would be the general public’s disinterest in aviation, whereas AOPA membership and therefore power in Europe is miniscule comparatively. A smaller percentage of pilots in Europe join their local AOPA, rendering the final lobbying outcome far more anemic. The results are evident with byzantine and nonsensical regulation imposed upon pilots by a web of public ignorance.

It is further interesting to analyze differences with American and European automobile training and licensure. Europe has requirements for extensive schooling, compared to the US where parents teach their [unenviable] driving habits to their children. Automobile inspections, while nothing like an aircraft annual, are far more rigorous, such that the sight of a “rust bucket” on the road is virtually non-existent. The results are clear: road deaths are significantly less in Europe, so much so that I have seen three total accidents in four years of European travels, including on packed roads that are far tighter than anything in America. As one can tell, I support the European approach to driving.

Yet, there is still a paradigm that holds true with roads in Europe, despite significant differences in training and maintenance: rules make sense. Road engineering, speed limits, and other posted signs and restrictions follow the same basic concept that exists in America: people want to get from point A to B as fast as they can without killing themselves or others. This reality is a perfect example of how precise, targeted, and effective increases in regulation can create a required investment of training, maintenance, and operating practice that pays tangible dividends for everyone involved. Many of the aviation regulations in Europe that I rail against produce no tangible dividend, other than a Byzantium of nonsense that needs to be tracked, for a purpose few probably even remember.

I illustrate the prior paragraph to demonstrate that quantity of regulation is not the sole barometer of restrictions to freedom. There is much more to do and keep track of on the roads in Europe, yet the outcome is still relatively equivalent to America, despite higher regulatory burden. Higher European regulations in aviation, on the other hand, just annoy pilots, operators, and maintenance professionals. That further cements my democratic and lobbying argument: the general public, even in Europe, would not tolerate mountains of stupidity in driving regulation, as there would be a groundswell of public rage at the prospect. Since aviation here has small numbers and its political influence is not weighty, non-pilots often devise the rules, with no feedback cycle to their lack of sense. In fact, in a recent article I posited the basis that some European aviation rules have been relaxed, due to the squashing of GA experience. It was my theory that, if rules squeezed off the pipeline of pilots to airline cockpits, then the general public couldn’t go on vacation, which is an example of democracy at work.

This rant could go on ad infinitum. I will mention, on a positive note, rules and coronavirus restrictions notwithstanding, that flying is still a tremendous unbridled joy, even during this crisis, and I treasure whatever I am allowed to do in these crazy times even if, for reasons I do not understand, some coronavirus related restrictions require enhanced fire services, thus reducing airport operating hours….

 

 

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.
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