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Human factors assumptions, part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rejected takeoffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making the most of holiday flying

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minimum equipment lists

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving around

Hiring is so hot at the airlines right now that pilots are quite literally hopping from one carrier to the next.

In the last few years, I’ve known of several pilots that have been hired by one major only to leave for another in short order. As pilot compensation packages have become more similar across the board, it makes it easier for pilots to either stay in one place or go somewhere else that is more desirable for their individual circumstance.

Even the power-house airlines are not always safe. A handful of hires at Southwest—long considered one of the best, most stable jobs in the industry—have jumped ship in order to go another carrier of choice. The rationale varies from one individual to the next, but it usually comes down to not wanting to commute or move, or desiring to do international flying that may not be available to pilots at Southwest or JetBlue.

Generally, when this kind of turnover takes place, it happens with pilots who have less than a year or two of seniority. Once the first big pay raise kicks in, it’s hard to bring yourself to leave. Also, you start to see the movement up the list that makes  the left seat more of a reality than just a dream. Leaving and starting over means taking a potential pay cut and going back on new-hire probation while possibly learning a new airplane.

But this trend is an issue at the regionals too, as pilots look for the quickest way up the ladder. Signing bonuses and other monetary incentives are being used, and often need to be paid back if taken. Resourceful pilots are not allowing themselves to be bound to any particular loyalty other than themselves, and that’s OK, though it does come with risks. Airlines don’t want to see someone who can’t—or won’t—stay employed at one place long enough to allow the company to recoup their investment. After all, training a pilot is expensive.

The other risk you run is that you can wind up burning some bridges in various human resources departments. I’ve written before that this is a relatively small industry, and word gets around about certain people fairly quickly. You may walk out on a job today, only to find that the person you left in a lurch is an obstacle at another company down the road. If you’re going to make your stay short, at the very least, be professional about it.

All of that said, by all means, keep your applications out there. If you have your heart set on a particular company, don’t give up, and take the first job that comes. If your dream carrier comes through later, you can re-evaluate based on whatever your new circumstances are.—Chip Wright

Get ready for training

If you’re heading to your first airline job, it will pay to do some work on preparation. The typical airline training footprint is at least 6 weeks long, and it may be as much as 9 or 10 weeks.

During this time, you will be immersed in the metaphorical fire hose of training. From the day you walk in, you’ll be hit from all directions with information and material that you need to learn, and learn fast. Pack a bunch of flash cards and some highlighters—you’ll need them.

The first segment is basic indoctrination, which is a combination of human resources and admin stuff, followed by some company history and a week or two of intense study of the company operations manual, FAR 91 and 121, part 117 work rule restrictions, weather, and dispatch rules. Somewhere in here, you also need to do your benefit selections for insurance while you study, study, study for the first of several tests.

Once basic indoctrination is done, you’ll move on to the airplane, though you might get lucky and have a few days off. The airplane study will be intense, and in the current age, it might consist of just classroom lecture or a combination of lecture and computer-based training (CBT). Unfortunately, it might just be CBT, which the airlines like because it is viewed as more cost effective.

Either way, you’ll be learning about hydraulics, fuel flow, electrical schematics—all while memorizing the limitations and memory item checklists that will be meaningless until you’ve been exposed to each system. You’ll spend a lot of time in front of trainers or a wall poster learning where all the switches are, and what they do, and when. Flow patterns will be introduced, and you’ll be expected to memorize them before you set foot in the sim.

Once the systems training is complete in about a two-week span, you’ll move on to the sims. With luck, there will be some integration that takes place in the classroom with a trainer to help you get acclimated to the cockpit before heading to the sims. But if not, when you get to the sims, the workload really picks up. You’ll be expected to have the calls and flows down pat early on, and now you have to show off your ace-of-the-base flying skills while learning new maneuvers and flying an airplane that is almost always broken. Nothing ever works in the sim!

During sim training, you’ll take at least one and possibly as many as three checkrides that will result in your type rating.

Once the sim is done, you can usually expect a few days off. The next step is initial operating experience (IOE) with a line check airman in the airplane. A lot of regionals will have you ride a few flights in the jump seat on these down days in order to view the operation live. You get a chance to see how everything comes together on a real flight, and you can talk to the crew and ask questions while being an observer who isn’t observed.

IOE takes up the last part of your training. It’s usually scheduled for at least two trips, and maybe three depending on the schedule. Once you’re finish, you’ll move on to the last requirement, which is consolidation, which is the accumulation of 75/100 hours of time in type, after which you are no longer considered low time.

Training is intense and it requires all of your focus. There will be very little time to spend on personal issues or problems, so make sure that your family and loved ones know that you will be checking out once training starts. If you’re married, your spouse is going to need to carry the load while you’re in training. If you’re single, plan ahead for dealing with bills, pets, et cetera. It’s a lot of work, and a lot to learn. But the payoff comes when you finally get to rotate and go airborne for the first time on the line, having mastered an overwhelming amount of information in a short span of time.—Chip Wright

Alcohol standards are tightening

Recently, other countries have adopted more stringent rules for pilot drinking, and in the United States, at least one state (Utah) has moved to lower the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) for driving to 0.05 percent.

It’s always a big deal when a pilot is arrested or implicated in an alcohol- or drug-related arrest. We are held to a higher moral standard, because of the lives we are responsible for, both in the air and potentially on the ground, on each flight.

In parts of the world, there is a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol. While the FAA still allows a 0.04 percent BAC, most airlines also have a zero-tolerance rule, so even though you may not be outside the bounds of the federal aviation regulations, you might still find yourself on the unemployment line if you test positive. In other countries, any positive BAC test could put you in jail in a legal system that you do not understand.

In the United States, the opioid epidemic has forced the addition of more drugs onto the screening profile. A positive test will result in an immediate grounding, and it could lead to a full revocation of your certificates. You may be able to go through rehab and participate in the Human Intervention and Motivational Study (HIMS) program to get back your medical, but you may be forced to reapply and re-test for all of your certificates—an expensive endeavor no matter what. If you’re at a regional airline when all of this happens, you may render yourself unemployable at a major.

I’ve known several pilots over the years who have been forced to deal with a positive test. Some walked away from aviation, believing that the lifestyle of a pilot contributed to the problem. Others traveled the long, hard road of rehab and recovery. A few were unable to stop the cycle of destruction and suffered an untimely death. All had to deal with painful fallout with family, friends, and coworkers.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying a few cold beers or a glass of fine wine on a trip. But the temptation to have more than a drink or two on a long overnight can be stronger than some of us can handle. Throw in a chance encounter with another crew in the bar or restaurant, and things can quickly get out of hand. If you find yourself unable to control your intake of either drugs or alcohol, get help sooner rather than later, and take whatever steps are necessary to avoid becoming another unfortunate statistic. Employee assistance programs are a great resource and can help you navigate the health insurance process along with any HR issues. They can also help point you toward resources that may allow you to keep flying while you seek treatment instead of playing Russian roulette with a drug test.

Pilots may be held to a higher standard, but we’re human, and we have the same fallibility and issues as any other group of people. If you need or want help, get it. You’ll be glad you did.—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

The minutiae of seniority

Most people know that seniority is the way of life at the airlines. But seniority is a fickle thing. It matters in all aspects of your day-to-day lives, and some pilots will study the minutiae of seniority until they can’t see straight.

When I was at Comair, there was a captain who was famous for having been the most junior captain in the company for a number of years. He was on reserve, and he had the worst possible schedule one could get. He never had weekends off; he got the vacation nobody wanted; he had the worst trips. But, as he always pointed out, he was a captain. The guy who was one number—one lousy number—below him was the most senior first officer. The FO had the best schedule, his first choice in vacation, and a lot of days off, but he was still an FO making significantly less money. He also was not logging turbine PIC time, which was making his future job searches much more difficult.

In every airline, in every category, there is that one person who is just one number away from being where he or she wants to be. This person’s reasons and desires aren’t always known, but in time those desires can be fleshed out. It becomes most obvious when the company opens a new bid for something, and you see pilots trying to jump in to get what they want. With all of the advancement taking place now, it’s almost a linear progression for a lot of pilots who have waited years for what they want. But there are also strategic bidders.

For most airlines, being on reserve is the least desirable option, and in some cases, it’s downright brutal. Many first officers will try to wait until they know they will be assured of being off reserve before moving over. This is risky on a couple of fronts.

First, unless you know what other, more senior FOs are thinking, you may find yourself getting left behind for the left seat more than you might have imagined.

Second, even though this is a boom time, you run the risk that movement will stop for unforeseen reasons for an indeterminate amount of time. The captain I mentioned above made his move for exactly this reason. Had he waited, he would have been stuck in the right seat at much less pay for a number of years.

Another common unknown is an impending change to the union contract. If new work rules or better pay rates are on the horizon, a strong argument can be made for making the move to the left seat sooner versus later, especially if you will be a relatively junior captain.

Studying the minutiae of seniority can also tell you just when you can expect to hold weekends off, holidays, morning versus evening trips. Vacations are tougher to figure out because not everyone wants or needs a summer vacation or the week at Christmas, but you can still see which way the trend is going for your seniority. And, as is so often the case, there is almost always a stark dividing line between two pilots who are just one number apart.—Chip Wright

Sim landings versus the airplane

Airline training is always conducted in a simulator these days because of costs and safety. Back in the day, training was done with a combination of simulator and in the airplane (prior to that, it was all done in the airplane). Sims are great procedures trainers, where much time can be saved in getting in the necessary repetition.

But one thing that simulators are not great trainers for is learning how to land. As good as the graphics are, sims don’t provide the necessary depth perception, though they have gotten magnitudes better over the years. Further, wind simulations for landings have never been very good, and so getting an accurate, realistic feel for the effects of various winds is difficult. I say this not only from my own experience of hundreds of hours of simulator time, but also from friends who are experienced sim instructors.

I’ve also seen this problem from flying with new-hire first officers who are inexperienced in the airplane. Believe it or not, the most difficult procedure to fly is the visual approach without reference to guidance from an approach source. Keep in mind that every airline wants you to use whatever approach aids are available, but there will be times when one isn’t available, and as a basic skill you need to be able to land strictly using the eyeballs.

The transition to the airplane is difficult for several reasons: It’s much bumpier (and the bumps are realistic) than the sim; the sounds are a bit different; and most of the time you won’t be the only airplane on the radio.

Engine response to thrust input may differ slightly from airplane to airplane, and unlike in the sim, you can’t always set a thrust setting and leave it there. Moreover, as I mentioned, the winds are vastly different. In the sim, when the winds are set, they are fairly universal. In other words, you won’t see a 15-knot tailwind at 3,000 feet that shifts around to a 10-knot headwind at touchdown. The effect of terrain is on wind in the sim is not there, and the gusts are virtually non-existent.—Chip Wright

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