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Best Practices for Aircraft Survival Gear in Alaska

What kind of equipment do you carry as survival gear when you fly?  When flying over the vast boreal forests, endless tundra, massive glaciers and rugged mountains of Alaska, one really wants to have some equipment for the off chance of an unplanned landing, or even something as simple as not being able to get the engine started when returning from a remote location.

I regularly receive calls and emails from pilots planning to fly from the “Lower 48” to Alaska. One of the most frequent questions is: “I know Alaska is different. What do I need to bring in the way of survival gear?”  This is often the start of a discussion that explores topics such as, “When are you coming?”, “What part of the state are you planning to fly to?”, and “What type of aircraft are you flying?”  After all, a DC-3 has a lot more space for survival gear than a Super Cub.

People have also heard that Alaska has a law requiring survival gear be carried on board.  It does.  The first regulation dates back to 1943, before Alaska was a state. The regulation adopted at that time provided a short list of items to be carried. More recently, the state statute was revised which changed the requirements a bit, but is still basically a list of items, with some seasonal additions for winter operations.  It also contains language indicating that these “…are considered to be minimum requirements…” indicating that this topic is worth more attention.

More than a List
To address the requests for information, and provide some guidance for pilots, representatives from several aviation groups drafted a “Best Practices” document, intended to touch on key factors to consider when putting together a survival kit.  Elements such as shelter, signaling, fire arms, and food are covered, along with some discussion about where to carry components of your kit. This document does not include a prescriptive list of items to carry, although it has several references with more information and ideas regarding items to carry, and how to personalize your individual kit.

What is a Survival Situation?
Many of us like to go camping, hiking, hunting, canoeing, skiing, snow machining, etc.  We probably consider ourselves to be fairly handy operating in remote areas. The skill and experience gained from those activities certainly is a benefit over someone who is not comfortable in these settings.  But a survival situation has one key difference—you didn’t PLAN to be there.  Plus, the camping gear carried behind the back seat might not have made it out of the aircraft, following a forced landing and subsequent fire.  You, or some of your passengers, may have injuries. Just taking one hand out of commission makes it much more difficult to open a can of beans, or to heat water for a freeze-dried meal.  THESE are the situations we need to prepare for, both in terms of what we carry in our aircraft, on our person, and perhaps most importantly, in our minds.

Planning for an unplanned situation, figuring out in advance what equipment to have with you, and mentally preparing for a variety of situations is important to achieve a successful outcome when things go wrong.

Practice
The best practices document includes a brief discussion about the importance of training.  I would like to suggest a fun exercise you can perform to test your survival gear.  Years ago, the Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation held a workshop in Fairbanks, with about a dozen aircraft participating, that executed this scenario.  Get with a few aviation friends and plan an overnight outing to a nearby back-country airstrip, or someplace you can camp.  Instead of taking the normal load of camping gear, and shopping bag of steaks to cook, fly out and spend the night ONLY USING YOUR SURVIVAL GEAR.  Construct a shelter, make dinner out of your survival food. See if the stove you carried for the past five years really works.  Make breakfast the next morning, also ONLY from your emergency supplies. No sneaking in a dozen eggs from the store!

Make some signaling devices, such as a Canadian smoke generator, and launch one of the aircraft to see what it looks like from the air.  Be sure to monitor the local CTAF frequency in case a non-participating aircraft is attracted and thinks you are really in distress.

At the end of this outing, take stock of what worked as you thought it would, and what didn’t.  Use this as a basis both to refresh supplies, and to consider ways to upgrade the equipment you carry.  It could be a fun first outing of the year, or a long weekend spent cold and hungry. Either way, it can be a great lesson in preparing your survival gear and survival attitude for the busy flying season ahead!

Thanks to the organizations that supported the effort to prepare this best practices document:

Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation

Alaska Airmens Association

AOPA Air Safety Institute

Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association

Delays

Delays don’t happen often, but when they do, they are a source of great aggravation and concern.

The airlines are all about customer service—or at least they are supposed to be. Most of the time, things go pretty much as advertised, but some days, for whatever reason, they don’t. Examples might be missing blankets, bundles of paper towels, broken toilets, or a catering screw-up. Catering can consist of the sodas and snacks in the main cabin, or it can consist of issues with the meals that are served in first class—which the first-class passengers have paid for and have every right to expect.

Flight attendants are required to be on duty at the majors ahead of the pilots, because boarding can start without us. In fact, on larger airplanes, this is pretty common in order to get everyone on board expeditiously for an on-time departure. Part of that early arrival is to give the cabin crew time to spot any issues as quickly as possible. It might be something mundane like some trash, or it might be something more serious such as broken seat belts or missing or damaged emergency equipment. Some of these things are obviously show-stoppers, like the emergency equipment, but most items can be deferred for later maintenance or addressed quickly with a phone call.

Catering, on the other hand, always takes time, because there are only so many catering trucks, and they don’t always have what you need. Hot meals are a great example. There isn’t much worse than having the flight attendants announce that the expected dinner is going to be replaced by breakfast, or vice versa, or that coffee won’t be available (I might be the only one that doesn’t get concerned about this, since I’ve never had coffee, but I’ve seen what happens when people don’t get it, and it ain’t pretty).

Sometimes, no matter how many times you plead on the radio with Operations, things just aren’t going to get fixed. At that point, the decision often comes down to what the flight attendants want to do, since they’re the ones who have to deal with the passengers directly. An announcement over the public address system can help, as can a personal explanation to those most affected.

Most of the time, if the flight isn’t too terribly long, the decision is made to close the door and go. Longer flights require a little more tact and thought.

Airlines have collected extensive amounts of data on just what the paying passenger expects, and as much as we all like to complain when things don’t go our way, the number one issue for passengers is getting to the destination on time. Not only is that most important, but the gap between on-time performance and every other expectation is huge. Further, when an airplane leaves the gate late, the risk is that the flight inbound to that gate is going to be delayed, and the airplane may fall behind schedule for the rest of the day. It’s one thing to be late for maintenance, but to be late for some missing meals or bottles of water is a different issue entirely.

The other form of delays that cause problems are delays off the gate going to or from the runway (going to seems to be much worse). Most of the time, these are driven by bad weather or a ground stop. It helps when the weather is right on the airport and can be seen. Passengers don’t always understand that the bad weather affecting a flight may be several hundred miles away.

Most carriers encourage openness and honesty with people when delays of any kind hit, but ground stops and weather delays are definitely no place to try and pull a fast one. In the day and age when everyone has a smart phone, you can expect that people are looking up delay data either from the FAA or from your airlines app. Consistent with safety and your company policy, keeping passengers updated with a PA every 15 to 30 minutes will go a long way to keeping people from getting restless, especially first-time or nervous fliers. You can’t do anything about potential missed connections, but you can keep them informed of any progress or updates from ATC. These announcements should be short, factual, and devoid of any jargon. Humor can go wrong, so don’t use it unless you know how.

The risk with a departure delay is that someone may insist they want to get off the airplane if they’re going to miss a connection or an event, or just get nervous. This can be a tricky situation, because sometimes going back to the gate can lead to such a delay that the flight cancels and everyone gets inconvenienced. Often, continuing toward takeoff is the lesser evil. But if they insist, the captain needs to coordinate with Dispatch to make the best decision.

Delays after landing pose their own issues. I’ve been on time or early during the beginning of a weather event, only to sit in a penalty box for an hour or more waiting for a gate to open up. International flights present a particular challenge because only certain gates are set up to funnel passengers to Customs and Immigration, and this is something that needs to be articulated to the passengers.

Other gate delays are usually (but not always) driven by weather affecting the outgoing flights. Passengers, however, start getting antsy when they feel trapped. Again, good PAs will help, as will conveying any developing situations in the cabin to Operations so that they can appreciate the seriousness of what is going on.

Delays are a part of flying for both passengers and crew. How you handle them is key. Communication is everything: the flight attendants, the passengers, and the company. You may not win all of the battles or make everyone happy, but you’ll greatly improve the odds, which will improve the odds of ensuring repeat business.

Boredomitis

Gethereitis is the most common form of in-flight decision-making disease, though my past exploits cause me to wonder if we should add a new one: boredomitis, the antics resulting in a lack of anything useful to do coupled with a desire and willingness to fly.

I suppose my first exposure to boredomitis was when I was quite young, living in New York next to my grandfather’s grass airstrip. At the time, he was in his 50s, jaded from many things in life, choosing to spend his time rebuilding Cubs in his shop, or taking local flights. While he had gone some distance in his younger years, by the time I came along, he was past the novelty of it all and had his routine: evening flight here, a burger in Great Valley, land at a few pilot’s airfields every now and then and….buzzing. When he would get frisky, he would buzz the snot out of my grandmother, my aunt (who lived nearby), my parents’ house, and other rural-dwelling friends of his. There were war stories (possibly just rumors) of an incident or two where foliage needed to be removed from the landing gear.

At any rate, I enjoyed every second of it my entire youth, and it all unceremoniously stopped about eight months before I started taking lessons on the same field. So I am told, there was a concerted conspiracy, probably led by my aviation-hating mother, to “not set a bad example.” Rest assured that I remembered his methods.

Anyhow, fast forward to the Winter of Discontent 2018-2019 in Spain. I had recently returned from Switzerland, having achieved the pinnacle of my aviation experiences, both figuratively and literally. At first, I had an initial zeal to breathe some energy into my local flying. “Every flight in Switzerland was 2.5 to 3 hours. Why not do the same in Spain, instead of these silly little flights I usually take?” Fresh with optimism, I plunged into the high country of the Pyrenees on a two+ hour flight the day after arriving back, enjoying some early season snows, thinking that this new zeal was wonderful.

Then reality struck, in the form of the weather.

Early season snows disappeared, though wind and the pernicious inversion to the south set in. So, I decided to chase them. First it was the wind, weaseling up into the high peaks in strong waves and moving clouds, deftly doing so without a problem. Another day, it was flying above a cloud deck under a strong NW flow near Pic Carlit, France, getting the snot beat out of me in orographic turbulence. That switched to chasing the inversion below. Instead of it being an aggravation that limited cross country possibilities, I decided to treat it as something beautiful, taking flights right over the rim of it, which was fine assuming the engine kept operating the entire time.

The inversions quit showing up in cloud form, though remained in haze, exacerbated by a small forest fire, which I decided to go flying around. That led to breaking my altitude record in a mountain wave, flying to 19,500’. Not to be deterred, another day I decided I was “finally going to do some aerobatics.” The legality of aerobatics is somewhat murky here. I talked to a French instructor, who said it’s a pain in the rear over the border, so they come to Spain to do it, though I couldn’t tell, as usual, if Spain was regulatorily permissive or just so disorganized so as not to care.

I climbed to altitude in the typical place, did some clearing turns, fired up the GoPro, and was ready to go for my first loop. At thirty degrees nose up, I completely wimped out. “I can’t do this!” I descended and went home, staring at 70-year-old weld joints that hold the airframe together, wondering what I was thinking. Save aerobatics for a newer, properly constructed device.

Then the unthinkable happened: 5 weeks of solid, unforgiving, nonstop blue sky and sun, right in the middle of winter, with some days as high as 72F/22C. Not a shred of snow or rain, mostly sunny from the end of January until the beginning of March. While my fellow compatriots in America will be inclined to give a speech to “count your blessings,” especially given the nature of the foul winter many have had in North America, I must note that it was especially hazy, and the surfaces were quite brown and devoid of snow, with the exception of very high-altitude locations. Cross country flights weren’t appealing given lowland haze, so I resorted to flying in a circle in the valley: touch and goes, spot landings, max performance takeoffs with vortex generators (26mph indicated) to entertain airport restaurant goers, 2000 RPM takeoffs, low approaches, and the like.

Recently, we had a clear day in the mountains, so I went up for flight over Cadí-Moixeró, and on the tediously long descent down, I decided to solve a nagging question I’ve had. When I was a student, I went to 14,000’ in the PA-11 specifically to annoy my father, who had a tizzy I went up to 7,500’ and venomously barked “never to do it again.” I made a point to go as high as I could without oxygen in a statement of teenage rebellion. On the way down to field elevation of 1,284’, I decided to pull the mixture to confirm what I had suspected: the prop still spins, though at a few hundred less RPM. Push it in and off we go.

I had since read about the aeronautics behind engine-out forced landings and the effects of windmilling, and an article made reference to a “dangerous” maneuver to slow the airplane to get the prop to stop, in order to remove the drag of a windmilling propeller. With boredomitis, the mind has a long list of things to probe, so I gave her a whirl descending from Cadí-Moixeró. At 48mph, the prop stops in about 15 seconds without anything special involved. Thankfully, I have a starter. Anyhow, the airplane does glide really quite nicely without any power. For any who think I am a lunatic, I was about a mile above the ground.

Since I rarely suffer from gethereitis as I usually pick sunny days that are good for photos, boredomitis is more likely to show up. I have a few stories of trying to cross the USA under a schedule in the PA-11, and they are filled with typical nonsense gethereitis implies. It is definitely worse to toy with weather to meet an arbitrary goal. Boredom, on the other hand, is a bit of a two-edged sword. It probably is why so many have tried new things and pushed the envelopes of aviation to new places, though could be the source of total stupidity if left unchecked. Fortunately spring is around the corner.

First flight after Switzerland, filled with optimism for the winter. Central Pyrenees, looking west.


First indication of boredom: going above the clouds with strong mountain waves.


Getting knocked around above the cloud layer near Pic Carlit, France.

Making some beauty out of inversions that usually present issues with cross country flights.


This photo appeared in my recent P&E article in the March issue of AOPA Pilot.

Rather windy and turbulent, looking over the edge. If I got sucked over, I likely would have not been able to outclimb the descending wave back into the Pyrenees.

Forest fire.


Lowland inversion presenting as haze instead of clouds. This will stay until April like this.

Going into the Andorran Pyrenees while the waves are in force. At least it prevents boredom!

Wave signature, after getting out without too much of a problem. It was turbulent.

Finally! Some clouds. Who would have thought I’d be so happy to get precipitation?

 

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 Atlas Air accident

The recent crash of Atlas 3591 under the banner of Amazon is already producing its share of arm-chair investigators. Because there was weather in the area, many jumped to the conclusion that it was a weather-related accident. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.

I’ve heard others postulate that it was a pilot suicide—an idea prompted by the apparent nose-down attitude of the airplane when it hit the water. Again, maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.

What it was, though, is fatal. What is unusual so far is that the media is paying it more attention than most cargo accidents. This is no doubt driven by the facts that the accident took place mid-afternoon with witnesses, that it was in close proximity to an airport, and that it was affiliated with Amazon, a company we’re all more than familiar with in the world of e-commerce.

There will be a lot of attention paid to the actions of the crew, in part because of the fact that there was a third pilot riding in the jump seat. What we don’t know yet is whether that pilot was in the cockpit or riding in one of the seats that are installed in the cabin forward of the bulkhead for the main cargo compartment. If the jump seater was in the cockpit, close attention will be paid to any degree of distraction that his presence may have caused. Close attention also will be paid to any violations of sterile cockpit procedures. The NTSB has a tendency to use sterile cockpit violations as an easy out for any other causal factors, allowing them to place the blame on the crew.

Without knowing the preceding schedule of the crew, it’s hard to know whether crew rest will be found to have played a part. After Colgan 3407 crashed, FAR Part 117 was created to bring a more scientific approach to crew duty and rest issues, especially at the regionals. Cargo carriers, however, succeeded in convincing Congress and the FAA that it was unnecessary to subject them to the new rules, since any accidents would “only” result in the loss of a couple of people. The pilot associations understandably were (and are) still quite upset about this, because while cargo carriers may not carry hundreds of passengers, their pilots often work under extremely demanding conditions. They often fly entirely at night on the back side of the clock, usually in airplanes that are decades old with less restrictive Minimum Equipment Lists (MELs). The pilots are constantly in a battle to get quality sleep that, even in the best of hotels, may be hard to come by because of noise, lights, and the natural desire of the body to be awake during the day. Further, the rest facilities on the long-haul flights are not required to be as modern as those for passenger flights.

I have no idea what the cause of this particular accident might have been, but expect fatigue to get close scrutiny, along with the weather and the potential distraction of the jump seater. Like most accidents, this one is likely to take a year or more to reach a final report. Fortunately, the wreckage seems to be fairly confined. Exercise patience and wait for the NTSB to wade—literally—through the evidence to put the events in context.—Chip Wright

Bidding vacation

I’ve written before about the significance of seniority with respect to bidding, bases, quality of life, et cetera. When you talk to pilots about what factors into their decision to upgrade, change fleets or switch domiciles, a number of factors crop up, and one of those is vacation.

Pilots accrue vacation based on years of completed service, with two weeks for the first four to five years behind standard issue, followed by three weeks for several years, and topping out with five or maybe even six weeks a year. Every airline has to figure out a way to have a certain number of allotted vacation weeks in each seat, in each fleet, in each base, every year. For example, there might be eight slots to take vacation starting the first week of April in a given year, but there may only be six slots the first week of July, because July is the peak of the travel year.

From a pilot’s perspective, this is critical because at any airline, most anyone can tell you what kind of vacation weeks their seniority can hold. As you might imagine, summers are difficult to get because everyone wants time off during the summer. These positions tend to go senior, and if the company allows pilots to bid consecutive weeks, the junior pilots are virtually frozen out of getting a summer vacation.

There are other times of the year that cause similar issues: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July, and the end/beginning of the school year. To make matters worse, bidding for vacation usually begins no later than 14 months from the end of the vacation year, because the bidding process takes time, and because it’s critical to get the awards for the first month of the year into the computer so that pilots can bid their regular schedule around it.

Vacation also affects training scheduling for both recurrent training and new position/equipment training. Scheduling around recurrent isn’t usually too difficult; you just can’t bid for both concurrently. Extended training events, however, can wreak havoc on vacation planning. Depending on the airline, you may be able to defer the training event for your vacation, but that might mean waiting months for your next chance to get that long-awaited time off. On the other hand, you may lose the week and see it pushed into another year (some find this desirable), or you may have to forfeit it in exchange for pay or a 401(k) deposit.

Most airlines also allow some kind of vacation “slide,” which means you can move your vacation forward or backward from the posted start date. Three days either way is fairly typical, which means that if you can’t hold consecutive weeks, you may be able to get two weeks that are six days apart, and slide them each to produce consecutive weeks, or you can try to bid the days off in between them.

Changing your current base, seat, or fleet can wreak absolute havoc on your plans. Usually, you’ll lose your scheduled vacation, because of the aforementioned allocation of slots based on staffing for each category. If you have vacation later in the year, and then take advantage of a captain position, you will have to bid for whichever weeks are left over in your new position. If there aren’t any, you’ll have to take your fate per the rules at your airline. Often, pilots who know they are planning to upgrade or change positions will do so after their vacations are used up, or start negotiating with the chief pilot to keep the week(s) off if there are plans set in stone.—Chip Wright

Fighting the Elements

There are days I don’t give enough credit to the fact that day-to-day life can be hard on aviation. I take a belief that not flying much isn’t really an option, and thankfully have the ability to configure things such that I can fly quite regularly. Motivation is usually not a problem; if something gets in the way, I take it as a matter of extreme urgency to get back in the air, if anything just because a good moment might be around the corner.

This winter has proven to be a bit different. A variety of back-to-back unpleasantries that could be summed up as “life” accumulated, and before I knew it, I started referring to the fact that I “used to” fly. Granted, that is quite dramatic, as I think something like 10 days went by, though I found myself struggling to fight uphill against this year’s Spanish winter. Usually when it snows, the wind dies down enough that I can scamper to the airport in glee, shovel in hand, defying snow piled on the runway, and make a run for it before it melts. This year has featured screaming wind during and after each storm.

Staring at the problem long enough builds up a chemical tension that demands satisfaction, so one day after a 10” snowfall, I checked the wind report online at the airport, and it showed 12mph down the runway. This reading was compared to wind gusts in excess of 50mph at the house a few miles away, though winds can be localized in this valley, so I figured I’d plow through the snow and go around the pattern.

The little voice inside knew it was futile, but alas, I went to the airport instead. Wind was far in excess of 12mph. I drove to the edge of the unplowed runway and decided to walk it to feel the snow consistency and depth. While winds were gusting over 30mph, it was down the runway, despite the fact that it was unpleasant and agitating. Walking over 1000 feet of the runway to check for drifts and hidden snow thickness, the wind picked up with such a fury that I had to lean into the wind to walk with zero visibility in blizzard conditions. Ok, forget that. I was remiss that I “technically” could have not had to worry about snow thickness due to wind, though I would have been blown over taxiing.

A few days went by before the next incoming storm, for which the wind blew a lot of snow away. It was starting to snow over terrain, curiously stalled just on the north end of the valley with NW flow, so I battled nasty wind to take off. It was, needless to say, raucous in the air, so I turned around and went back with my tail between my legs.

That storm did produce 8” in the valley, without as much wind afterward. I had a chance to get to the airport to see if I could takeoff with that much on the ground. Granted, the last storm deposited a giant drift in front of the hangar, which was in the shadow of the sun. For this problem, I negotiated with the airport maintenance guy to shove some out of the way with the tractor, as the plow truck unceremoniously died in the parking lot. Now wrangling a brutally heavy airplane parked in front out into the snow, then getting mine out, and warming up, I found that I could taxi, with quite a bit of power. I taxied up and down the whole runway, finding waves of drifted snow in what appeared to be even snow cover. A brief run a full power showed little promise of picking up speed. Since I had tightened the shoulder belts “just in case” she nosed over, I decided to pull the plug on that one as I didn’t like it one bit – if one needs the caution of such safety restraints, then one might wish to restrain the activity at hand. Perhaps some Alaska guys can weigh in on how much snow 8.50×6.00 tires can handle, though I confess 7” is the max I have done.

After some days, the sun came out, and enough snow compressed and melted to blast through it and takeoff, for which winds were still not that pleasant in the air. I was sandwiched between systems, and was angling to see some high terrain before the clouds blew in. They beat me to it, cloaking the mountain ridge ahead of me in unpleasant and overly energetic wind, for which I was forced to abort and scurry from a forming cloud layer.

Finally, high pressure came in some days later. The field was melted, and I took aim for the Central Pyrenees. These continuous storm systems had deposited over 6 feet of snow in parts of the mountains, and I went for the heart of it in the Vall d’Aran, something I realized I hadn’t yet done. In winters past, local snowfall was so shiny and enthralling that I didn’t venture as far to see it. As the photos show, it was a rewarding flight.

I do have to confess that motivation wasn’t the same this winter. Each time I shoveled a pile of snow, yanked a heavy plane over ice, battled wind, and dealt with aggravations associated with winter, I could only look back on a year ago and wonder where all that energy came from. I had unrequited glee to fight what the mountains could throw, whereas this year, well, life sometimes makes it harder. I guess for all those who park their planes and don’t bother to fly in winter in areas with foul climate, maybe this year I get it.


Snow on the north side of the valley, with nasty wind.


The PA-11 with snow jammed in all sorts of places after plowing through and giving up on taking off.

Clouds beat me to the ridge.


Finally! Escaping the confines of winter. Andorra la Vella, Andorra.

Ridge above Andorra la Vella. This rocky feature sneers at me when I go to Starbucks. Now I can return the favor.

Back in Spain, rounding the bend at Parc Natural de l’Alt Pirineu.

Aftermath of an avalanche. Vall d’Aran.

Peculiar snow patterns, which appeared in many places. I suspect it has something to do with the amount of snow that fell.


Avalanche, from source to terminus.

Vall d’Aran, looking west, with France below on the right horizon.

More interesting snow patterns.

Look out below! Avalanche made it down to the river.

Creeping up on Pico Aneto (11,168′), the tallest peak in the Pyrenees.

Pico Aneto. Just below the summit, the smooth sections contain the largest remaining glacier in the Pyrenees.

Aneto ridge, from the west.

On the way home as sunset approaches. Snow depth is less as I depart the Central Pyrenees.

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.

Answer honestly–or not?

A recent exchange on social media with some friends led to an interesting discussion. One of them commented that a pilot was asked in an interview with a regional whether he intended to stay with said regional for the rest of his career.

In this day and age, it’s a silly question, especially for a young pilot (as this was) just starting out in a career. It’s fair if the pilot is a late-bloomer or a career shifter who is closer to retirement, in which case the airline just wants to get back their investment. But for a young person just starting out? It’s pointless. Virtually nobody enters the regional sector looking to make a career out of flying RJs. Some do, obviously, but almost nobody plans to do that. Most pilots want to move on to more secure and stable options.

The obvious question is, how does one handle a situation in which the truth is not going to be music to the listener’s ears? And why would a regional ask a question that sets up an answer that will be feigned at best, and a lie at worst?

For the latter, I have no idea. When I was beginning my regional career, it was made plain to me that the company wanted to see us move on after a certain time. It made the company look good to produce pilots who made it to the majors, and keeping the average seniority level down kept costs down. It’s a win-win, so long as the pace of hiring keeps up with the pace of attrition.

Today, keeping up with attrition is indeed the challenge, and the current market is such that the airlines need the individual pilots more than the pilots need the individual airlines. I’m not sure what the best way is to answer this particular question, but in our discussion, we agreed that it’s best to say what you think they want to hear in order to get the job, figuring that nobody can be forced to stay anywhere they don’t want to work. If you’re prepared, you can say something like, “I will work anywhere that values my services and pays a fair wage for them.” That’s more honest, and it leaves some wiggle room, but it isn’t a firm answer either way.

The pilot in question decided he didn’t want to be dishonest, and told them as much. He wasn’t going to commit to staying for a career any more than the company was going to guarantee that it would be around until he retired. Consequently, he told them he was going to take a job with a competitor. I’m not sure either was happy in the end.

Once in a while, you will run into similar scenarios, and the best strategy is to pause and think for a second, and give an answer that is convincing, even if it’s…not entirely true.—Chip Wright

Paper versus electronic QRH

In the last several years, airlines have made the transition to electronic flight bags. Nowhere is this more common than with charts and flight manuals, and the reasons are obvious. Updates are automatic; currency of publications is assured; and the decreased weight saves fuel.

An often-overlooked issue from the past was on-the-job injuries, which were very common because of shoulder and back injuries sustained from manipulating the bags (some airplanes were worse than others for causing injuries).

But there are still some skirmishes being fought. For years, pilots have relied on paper quick reference handbooks (QRHs), which contain Abnormal and Emergency checklists. The temptation is to switch to an electronic QRH for some of the same reasons: cost, efficiency, currency, et cetera. However, there has been some strong pushback from pilots on this, and for good reason.

The paper QRH might be a last resort, and it doesn’t have a battery that can die or overheat. It also isn’t prone to fat finger dialing. Imagine, if you will, the adrenaline rush that kicks in during some of the more dire emergencies, such as a catastrophic engine failure, a pressurization issue, or some other calamity. The electronic checklists often have hot-links in them, and during a bumpy ride or one in which your nerves have your fingers shaking, it can be easy to make a mistake and tap the wrong link, which can lead to confusion. Or worse.

Another advantage of a paper QRH is the ability to pass the book back and forth, if necessary, without worrying about bumping the screen and triggering an unexpected change. One compromise that some airlines have reached with their pilot and union reps is to ensure that there is at least one paper QRH on board versus the two that some had. Pilots are usually asked to demonstrate proficiency with the tablets in the classroom or the simulator, but they have discretion as to which one to use. Most find it easier not to have to worry about toggling between multiple apps when dealing with abnormal procedures.

The electronic flight bag is definitely here to stay, as it should be. It’s a great tool, and it needs to be utilized as much as possible. Sometimes, the old adage “less is more” applies. This definitely applies, in my opinion, to the QRH. I also sometimes wish we still had paper maintenance logs, which didn’t have as much of the tracking history in them, which made it easier to find more recent trends if you needed them.

Life is much easier with the electronic flight bag, and I have no desire to go back to paper charts, revisions, or 40-pound bags of dead weight. I do miss a few of the advantages of paper, but the one tool I don’t want to lose is my paper QRH. Here’s hoping that the airlines will recognize that is a small expense to be paid for an easy enhancement to safety.—Chip Wright

Surfing the Wave

This whole idea started with an online forum discussion, pondering how high a Super Cub can really go. Sure, there is the whole published ceiling that might offer insight, though there was my rather extensive personal experience flying the PA-11 to interesting heights. I exceeded the ceiling once, with a passenger, in Colorado, getting to 16,300’. In France last summer, I came close on a warm day, reaching 16,000’ just over the summit of Mt. Blanc, but still hadn’t broken the record again in almost five years. I had even installed vortex generators since, and it was looking like the published ceiling was about it (16,000’ in the PA-11). I supposed, on engine power alone, a Super Cub would do the same thing: roughly its published limit and not too much more.

Well, that is fine on engine power. Mountain winds are another story. What goes down must have gone up somewhere else, so find the upward wind currents and see how far one can go.

On an innocent morning in the Pyrenees, I told my wife I was going for a flight (without telling her what I was up to), filed a flight plan to talk to ATC, and went to the airport. I talked to the airport manager, who is a renowned glider instructor, and confirmed exactly how to best catch the waves, and asked to borrow a nice oxygen setup.

The thing is, mountain waves are very tranquil…once in them. The transition layers beneath feature plenty of turbulence and rotors, usually enough that when about to enter the wave and have things calm down, a sensible pilot turns back. After all, he and his airplane are getting the snot beat out of it. Why risk more? I had gotten into waves a number of times in Colorado and in the Pyrenees, though it was usually a nominal altitude gain and wasn’t necessarily with the intent to ride them as far as I could go.

As it was a chilly winter morning, climb out was good. By 7,500’, I was beginning to get knocked around. At 9,000’, it got a little interesting. By 12,000’, turbulence was almost gone. At 15,000’ I really hooked the wave and was heading up nicely. At 19,500’, French ATC put an end to the party, as Class A was lurking above, and despite my repeated pleas to continue my fun and go for a better record, they couldn’t issue a variance. You know, airliners going into Toulouse and Barcelona….sigh. It took 43 minutes to get from field elevation of 3,609′ MSL to 19,500′ with full fuel and 100hp.

So that answers the musings of the mind. It was astonishingly cold, though the airplane handled as normal. Mixture was leaned quite a bit to keep the engine running, airspeed was consistent, and nothing was too terribly out of the ordinary. Some descending circles with GPS indicated upper level winds of 58kts in the wave, though I still haven’t broken my wind record. That was done at 13,500’ just east of Yellowstone in 2015 in the Absaroka Mountains.

If it’s not obvious, I’d love to go higher in the Cub.

Statistics from the Climb

Waves in the upper atmosphere from 12,000′.

13,000′. The Pyrenees, looking west from France to Spain and Andorra.

19,000′. Took a photo with the wing to prove I wasn’t faking it in another aircraft. Timberline below is 7,500′, and the highest peaks in the foreground are 9,500′.

19,500′. The highest peak in the Pyrenees is on the horizon at 11,168′.

Cockpit view. I don’t even have a 10,000′ hand on the altimeter, though the altitude from standard altimeter settings on the transponder reads FL192.

18,500′ on the way down, with the Mediterranean on the horizon. The pass beneath is roughly 5,400′.

Getting to more reasonable altitudes at 11,500′.

Note the boats in Barcelona harbor on the extreme left horizon of the image. They are 76 statute miles from the airplane.

 

 

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.

Breaking the chain to get the job you want

Recently, I’ve had to sit on the cockpit jump seat during several commutes because of heavy loads during the holidays. It isn’t the most comfortable seat in the house, but hey, a free ride is a free ride and full airplanes bode well for my job security and profit sharing. This has led to all manner of conversations with the crew—outside of the sterile cockpit realm, of course.

Most of these commutes tend to be on Republic, which is one of the largest regionals in the country, and also the world’s largest operator of the Embraer E-170/175 series of jets. In fact, following Republic’s bankruptcy a few years ago, it’s the only airplane the company operates, having shed the older E-145 “Jungle Jet.”

Almost without exception, the conversation at some point turns to the topic of hiring at both the regionals and the majors, rumors, fact-checking, and seeing who knows who. Republic flies on behalf of United, American, and Delta, and it is a key cog for each carrier. Numerous pilots have relayed to me that it’s extremely difficult for Republic pilots to get on directly with one of their code-share partners; friends who work for Republic have told me the same thing. The conclusion and consensus is that the three “brand names” don’t want to contribute to a shortage of pilots at one of their key regional partners. That said, all three have other carriers with whom they have preferential hiring or interview programs set up, but those other regionals tend to be much smaller. and the process is tightly controlled in order to manage the flow of pilots in such a way that metal can still be moved.

I saw this when I was at Comair. For years, Delta had three regional partners responsible for over 90 percent of its regional flying: Comair, ASA, and Skywest. When Delta needed to hire, it tended to take pilots from one of the three carriers in chunks, and when that carrier called Atlanta to complain about losing pilots, the ratio would shift to favor pilots from one of the other two.

This is a bit of a simplistic explanation, but the reality was that Delta didn’t want to leave any of its regionals with a shortage that would only hurt Delta, so the company hired relatively evenly from all three. By doing so, the company also got pilots that were intimately familiar with the Delta system, so it was a win-win. Keep in mind that Delta was also getting pilots experienced in flying jets when that was a relatively rare phenomenon, unlike today.

Those days are largely over, and the pilot shortage is real enough that the majors with regional feed need to consider the ramifications of their hiring decisions on their regional partners. As a result, pilots at Republic are forced to consider “breaking the chain” if they want to get on one with one of the big legacy carriers. Essentially, this means that many are opting for a carrier such as Spirit, JetBlue, Allegiant, or one of the cargo ACMI operators like Southern or Kalitta. Many are also going to Southwest.

Once they get hired by someone outside of their brand of choice, they test the waters for a year or so and make a decision about going through the job-searching process, a new training cycle, et cetera, taking into account career goals and the disruption to family life.  As you might expect, many stay, especially with strong carriers like Southwest and JetBlue. But not all do, and they find that getting hired at UA/AA/DL is much easier when they are no longer directly tied to those carriers. Passing muster in a bigger airplane also helps.

None of this is necessarily fair, but it is the reality of the current job market, and it’s a strategy that people in other fields have been using since the dawn of time. Pilots are no different: Job One is looking out for yourself. Hopefully, Republic will enter into genuine flow or feed agreements across the board, which would benefit all parties. In the meantime, pilots at carriers in a similar position need to be willing to consider the same strategy.—Chip Wright

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