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Into the Alligator’s Mouth: Installment 3

As  usual  Mother Nature gave me some real-world experience which challenged my own personal minimums on a recent flight.   I head to the Pacific Northwest monthly for business. Having my own personal time machine has allowed me to realize the dream of living and working in two very different states.

Planning for a 4.5-hour trip over some beautiful but inhospitable terrain is a challenge.  With no de-icing or anti-icing systems on my vintage Mooney, weather can be a friend or foe.  For this trip 30-35 knot headwinds were forecast at my “normal” altitude of 10,500-12,500.  Typically, I leave my fuel stop in Northern California and climb right up to cruising altitude.  Due to the forecast winds I decided to fly low until reaching Redding, CA, then up and over the terrain. 

This might not sound like a big deal to many pilots, but altitude has always been my friend and I like the options it affords me, should I become a glider. With this in mind I opted for the northwesterly course around Mt. Shasta.  This flight plan, while not the most direct route, puts me very near Redding, Weed, Dunsmuir and Siskiyou airports.  I have to say that at 8,500 feet I got a great view of the terrain, and the ride was smooth as silk. However, this was a calculated risk, based on my personal guidelines.

It hasta be Shasta

My goal in writing this series is that as PIC you do everything in the airplane intentionally and with forethought.

So here we go.  In the past few months, we began our journey into the mindset needed for the functional implementation of minimums.  As I pondered personal minimums in a pandemic, I reached in to my address book of pilot friends  to ask questions about minimums, guidelines, self-restrictions and the like. I spoke to range of folks from pretty newly minted private pilots, to those working on an instrument rating, commercial, CFI and DPE.  I talked with female and male pilots with hours ranging from low hundreds to 25,000. As one CFI/DPE pondered in regards to minimums…

How far do I put my head in an alligator’s mouth before I can’t get it out?

I had a fabulous time talking with a baker’s dozen pilots and I got a little gem or a pucker factor from each of the conversations. My hope is that our words might start an honest discussion on ways that we can keep ourselves safe in the airplane or on the ground. Because in the end, cheating on your minimums is cheating yourself.

This series centers on the psychology of personal minimums.  Like most relationships, we will focus why we create them, why we commit them to paper [or not], when we fudge on them, what we learn from them, and what we hope never to again experience.

Interviews: For the interviews I asked starting questions and interchangeably used personal minimums and personal guidelines.  The reason for this is some pilots initially thought when I spoke of minimums, I was referencing charted instrument approach minimums.  The answers will be in their voice, the first person.

Questions

  • Do you have a current set of personal guidelines or minimums for your flying?
  • If yes, do you have them written down?
  • If so, do you ever review them or alter/update them?
  • What are the areas you consider when you think of your own minimums?
  • Have you had a time where you cheated on your personal minimums?
  • Has there been an experience in the airplane you would like to share that gave you a “pucker factor” that others might learn from?”
  • Do you have a “hidden gem”, or learning tip, to share?

*[For the sake of this article, in their responses, I will simply use the word “minimums”]


K.W. Airline Captain CFI, Mooney owner

Looking down on Sedona, AZ

I got an instrument rating right after private and waited a bit to get my commercial. When thinking about personal minimums I divide things into three categories: the airport, myself, the airplane.

For the airport I am most concerned with surrounding terrain or weather conditions and my level of familiarity.  My minimums would vary if say, terrain was high and my airport familiarity was low.

I am the most important part of the equation. I ask myself if I feel tired, what time of day is the flight and if I slept well. I pay attention to whether I am hydrated and eating well. I like to do airport homework a few days before. I consider destination and alternate airport approaches.

Airplane familiarity is something I consider every flight.  When I am in my personal aircraft which I have owned many years, I know the ins and outs of the maintenance which factors in to my decision making.  I have to say, I am very particular when it comes to fuel on board.  My personal guideline is that I always land with 1.75 hours of fuel remaining.

When I was a private pilot did I not have things written down in terms of personal minimums.  But I wouldn’t go to charted minimums with a 15 knot crosswind. Now that I am flying for the airlines, I have had to fly a variety of aircraft and the limitations are built in to our procedures.

Pucker Factor:  I took off from Galveston some years ago. I’m not sure if I didn’t check for icing, or if icing wasn’t predicted (This flight was pre-ForeFlight and and other easy weather tools). It was typical Gulf Coast winter with 600’ overcast. I expected tops to be around 3,000’. It wasn’t that cold on the ground, maybe 45°F – 50°F. While climbing through the clouds at 1,500 ft I completely iced over. It took about 2 seconds. The windows were covered in frost and I couldn’t see anything. Fortunately, I was still climbing and speed was good. A really long minute or two later I saw sunlight coming through the frosted over windows. A few seconds after that all the ice melted off. It was gone as quick as it showed up. Lesson learned, always know where the freezing level is…even on the Gulf Coast.

Hidden Gem:  I don’t have to fly anywhere, even as a pro-pilot. I have canceled a lot of personal flights when I feel I need to. There is no shame in sticking with your minimums and canceling a flight.


D.J., Commercial, Instrument, Mooney owner

Ice buildup on the Mooney wing.

I love flying, but I am a big sissy.  As an instrument pilot, I  have very high minimums. I don’t want to fly approaches down to charted minimums, my preference is to break out at 1,000 feet.  I also wouldn’t launch on a flight to fly solid IFR.  I have no backup vacuum so that is reasoning for wanting IFR to VFR on top.

I also consider the airport and weather conditions. For example, the cross-wind limitation is 11 knots from the POH.  While I know I could do better on a long runway, for me that is a hard limit on a short runway. I am also particular with minimums about fuel, I always want to have 1.5 hours of fuel left on landing.

Another aspect of  personal minimums is consideration of my health. If my sleep was not good night before, I won’t fly. If I am sick I wouldn’t fly. If I am emotionally upset I wouldn’t fly. I do find that flying is a stress reliever for mild stress.  So determining my stress level is vital.

Pucker Factor:   My airplane was loaded with medical personnel as I was headed to Mexico on a humanitarian flight. I encountered un-forecast icing over Julian [San Diego area] at 8,000 ft. The Mooney could not climb.  Every surface was covered with the mixture of rime and clear ice and it flew like a slug [see photo above]. I  immediately talked to ATC and let them know about the icing.  Fortunately, within 20 minutes the ice had broken off, though we could hear it hitting the tail section.

Hidden Gem: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  I took off Boise in dense fog.  I accelerated down the runway in the fog, and once airborne I knew I would never do that again.


M.J. Airline Captain, Master CFII and Cessna owner

Over the Yellow Sea between Incheon, South Korea and Beijing, China

My best advice regarding personal minimums, is to write them down and take them seriously. Never change them for a single flight. If you change them for a current flight, they are not really a minimum. I suggest quarterly updates, perhaps in keeping with your landing currency [every 90 days].

During an instrument training and checkride you have to fly down to published minimums. After rated you will need to develop your personal minimums. Do you have one set of minimums for takeoff airport and landing airport [plus alternate]?

I have a lovely, and frequent passenger who isn’t a fan of bumps.  Therefore, when I have passengers on board, I adjust my minimums for wind and turbulence.  My maximum cross wind on landing is 10 knots for passenger comfort. It is important that I consider weather, my currency, proficiency, passenger comfort, day/night, and complete a runway analysis every flight.

Pucker Factor: I would describe my example of pucker factor by a story of one of my flights home from OSH. There was weather over the Rockies, starting right over Boulder, CO and continuing pretty much all the way to our Plan A destination at Grand Junction. My passenger was a fairly experienced CFI, but I was PIC for the trip. We discussed the weather issues (afternoon thunderstorms in the mountains) before takeoff on that leg and agreed on a couple points. First, we established a couple decision points, the first of which was over Boulder. Our criteria at that point was, could we see over the Divide adequately to attempt to cross Rollins Pass and continue, or turn around? Plan B was to divert to Ft Collins, where a friend had offered to put us up for the night. So, we knew what the concern was, had established our decision criteria, and had our options defined. We set another decision point near Eagle, CO, with a Plan C to land there and wait out the storm at a hotel for the night. As we approached Boulder (DP1), we assessed the situation and agreed that the pass looked good to continue, so we pressed on with Plan A and discarded Plan B. Did that again at DP2 and continued along. This portion was a little sketchier, but we both monitored the conditions and the way back to Plan C (landing at KEGE) remained good. In the end, we were able to continue with Plan A and had a very nice dinner at KGJT, and then a great flight on the final leg the next morning.

Hidden Gem:  As pilots we are responsible for two types of environments:  the strategic environment [on the ground planning]; and the tactical environment [in the air reality].  The strategic planning environment is measured, concrete and methodical.  The tactical environment is situational, reality-based, and fluid. Make sure you take both into account on every flight.


I hope you enjoyed this month’s installment.  Please consider using one of the AOPA templates to write your minimums down whether VFR or IFR.  If you have feedback about the interviews, please feel free to use the comment section below.


In the meantime, keep up with online safety seminars, join your state aviation association, and stay involved with your local airport.  Make sure that you consider all aspects of minimums; airplane, pilot, and environment before you yell. “clear prop.”

My flight plans include 4S2 Hood River, Oregon, and KOSH, Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  As my Dad used to say when we touched down, I am looking forward to another successful trip of “Haywire Airlines”

 

 

 

Jolie Lucas makes her home on the Central Coast of CA with her mini-Golden, Mooney. Jolie is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, and commercial pilot. Jolie is a nationally-known aviation presenter and aviation writer. Jolie is the Region 4 Vice President of the California Pilots Association. She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. Email: [email protected] Web: www.JolieLucas.com Twitter: Mooney4Me

Into the Alligator’s Mouth: Installment 2

The choice was before me, stay an extra day in LA with friends departing first flight after annual in instrument conditions into busy airspace, or leave a day early in crystal clear blue skies.  That small decision could have turned into a big implications had I not considered my personal minimums which happen to include the aircraft.

Last month we began our journey into the mindset needed for the functional implementation of personal minimums.  As I pondered minimums in a pandemic, I reached into my address book of pilot friends, to ask questions about minimums, guidelines, self-restrictions and the like.

I spoke to range of folks from pretty newly minted private pilots, to those working on an instrument rating, commercial, CFI and DPE.  I talked with female and male pilots with hours ranging from low hundreds to 25,000.

How far do I put my head in an alligator’s mouth before I can’t get it out?

I had a fabulous time talking with the 12 pilots and I got a “hidden gem” or a “pucker factor” from each of the conversations. My hope is that our words might start an honest discussion on ways that we can keep ourselves safe in the airplane or on the ground. Because in the end, cheating on your minimums is cheating yourself.

For the next few months this series will center on the psychology of personal minimums.  Like most relationships, we will focus why we create them, why we commit them to paper [or not], when we fudge on them, what we learn from them, and what we hope never to again experience.


Interviews

For the interviews I asked starting questions and interchangeably used personal minimums and personal guidelines.  The reason for this is some pilots initially thought when I spoke of minimums, I was referencing charted instrument approach minimums.  The following answers will be in their voice, the first person.

Questions:

  • Do you have a current set of personal guidelines or minimums for your flying?
  • If yes, do you have them written down?
  • If so, do you ever review them or alter/update them?
  • What are the areas you consider when you think of your own minimums?
  • Have you had a time where you cheated on your personal minimums?
  • Has there been an experience in the airplane you would like to share that gave you a “pucker factor” that others might learn from?”
  • Do you have a “hidden gem”, or learning tip, to share?

*[For the sake of this article, in their responses, I will simply use the word “minimums”]


B.S., Active CFII, Captain for major airline, Citabria owner

The way minimums are taught in the airlines is by policy manual. The pilot themself is a part of that policy which includes sleep, wellness and emotion. As a CFI I make a similar policy manual with students and actually have them sign it.

Are they Iron clad rules?  Yes and no. It is important to make them realistic.  If you say, “I am never going to fly unless I have 5000 OVC,” you will end up cheating. If you cheat on your minimums you might as well not have them at all. As you become more experienced and comfortable, you can lower the minimums. Make sure to revise as needed. If they become expired then they are useless.

As an instructor I impose limits on the student for solo flight. Gradually  the transfer of the responsibility from the instructor to the student pilot takes place. Many times, I ask my students to put themselves in a Pro-Pilot position and think of having passengers in the airplane, even if alone.

Another technique is to mentally put yourself in the back seat and become a passenger. Pro-pilots have to be willing to make a plan that might disappoint your passengers or yourself.

Pucker Factor: I was ferrying a Cessna 310 across the country for its new owner in Northern California. He made it abundantly clear that he wanted this airplane NOW. “No problem” I said, contemplating flying the twin from Tulsa, OK to San Jose, CA. Eight to ten hours of coveted multi-engine time would make a wholesome addition to what was the first in my collection of logbooks. An Eastbound cold front was racing me to the Rocky Mountains, and I had to make good time. Unfortunately, the prevailing Westerlies hampered my progress. So, I pushed it for the new owner. It got dark, no problem. One generator had failed, no problem. There was another generator still generating. Nighttime over the mountains with strong headwind and downdrafts while unable to maintain altitude and having no supplemental oxygen – no problem.

Until it was…

When a downdraft takes you below the menacing mountain peaks on both sides of your airplane, it turns out that not only does the VOR receiver become dead weight, but radar contact with ATC is lost too (GPS was not a thing yet for GA). “You’re below my radar coverage. Radar contact lost, squawk 1200, good day,” they said. Good day? Dead reckoning between mountain peaks at night in turbulence is nowhere I ever want to be again. The lights of Tonopah, NV never looked so glorious. (This is probably the only time that the words “glorious” and “Tonopah” have ever been used in the same sentence.) A landing was made, the ground was kissed and a vow to never succumb to external pressures was indelibly etched in my personal minimums.

Hidden Gem: Emulate an airline pilot. No matter what you are flying regard yourself as a professional.


JA Private Pilot, Instrument student when interviewed, now Instrument rated, Cessna owner.

I had my personal minimums written down for private pilot but have not updated since, but will for Instrument check ride.  I keep in mind three broad areas: weather, airplane, and pilot.  With that said, my comfort level has expanded with my IFR training.

I always take extra caution when going into unfamiliar airports. I particularly like Foreflight’s runway info, NOTAMS , weather, and I use their comment section.  I also use AirNav to assess runway conditions, airport facilities and read comments.

I do tend to stick with a basic minimum of 3 miles visibility, but when you think of it, that isn’t much.  I have come up with a minimum about cross-winds which is 5-7 kts.  With passengers who haven’t flown much I have adjusted minimums on wind and turbulence for their comfort.

In regard to the aircraft, I am careful about pre-flight and engine run-up.  If something is missing [piece of equipment, fasteners, etc.,] then I would not fly. A mag check fail would equal a no-go for me. Even for VFR if something failed, I wouldn’t fly as it isn’t worth the risk.

For my personal evaluation I use IMSAFE going through each of the letters in the mnemonic.  I always ask myself about sleep, and how I feel.

Pucker Factor: I was headed to French Valley for lunch.  The winds were okay on launch, but when got there I noticed there wasn’t much traffic, unusual for this popular airport.  Checking the ASOS the winds were now above my personal limit. I landed fine, but I was a little surprised, and  it did take quite a bit of concentration and focus.

Hidden Gem: Fatigue can bite you. There were a  couple times where I disregarded fatigue and went ahead an IFR lesson anyway.  My performance was greatly degraded. I won’t make that mistake again.

 


EE, Active CFI, Aeronca TC-65 Defender owner

My minimums are not written down, however  I grew up with flying.  My Dad worked for the FAA as a check pilot.  As such I suppose there was a lot of trickle down knowledge.

I have found a lot of pilots overlook personal minimums because of ego, which proclaims “I can do that!”  In regard to flight instruction when someone does something stupid in the airplane it is usually an instructor problem. IE: not having student fly a close-in pattern for downwind. Many CFIs don’t know how to get into the head of the private pilot, and teach the mental aspect of how to fly. I am a hands off instructor, and will sit back not touching controls as long as possible. This helps students  because it teaches them to be ahead of the airplane, for example knowing what it is going to be doing ten seconds from now.  When assessing students in regard to wind limits I have to remember that a student’s capabilities are always changing. Conditions with big gusts are out of the question at beginning of training, but close to solo, would most likely be a yes. Much like a CFI assessment of a student, we need to assess ourselves and raise or lower our minimums accordingly.

Another bit of wisdom I picked up from my Dad, “Don’t be in a big hurry to get there.” I have waited out weather on long trips to Wyoming for days. For visibility I prefer 5 miles. I have to say I am a real stickler for ceiling requirements.  I land with at least an hour of fuel on board.  I consider my wellness as a pilot too.  For example, last week I had three teeth pulled and the doctor gave medications for pain. Since I did need the medications, I decided to cancel flying for the week.

My 1941 Aeronca Defender, has no electrical system.  One time a mag went out and I was 300-400 rpm low, putting along at 65 mph. My thought process was “Should I put in a field or try to get back to airport?”  I assessed the situation and since I was  VMC I chose to fly a route where I knew I  could land if  needed.

Pucker Factor:  Flying to home to Schaumburg Airport which was reporting  30 kt cross-wind with gusts to 27.  I  first did a low approach and went around.  I felt everything out and concluded, “I will be able to land here,” but there was a pucker for sure.

 

Hidden Gem: Make sure to look at your physical health as objectively as possible to make sound decisions.

 


I hope you enjoyed this month’s installment.  Please consider using one of the AOPA templates to write your minimums down whether VFR or IFR.  If you have feedback about the interviews, please feel free to use the comment section below.

In the meantime, keep up with online safety seminars, join your state aviation association, and stay involved with your local airport.  Make sure that you consider all aspects of minimums; airplane, pilot, and environment before you yell. “clear prop.”

For me, I am looking forward to some fabulous capital improvements at my home ‘drome Oceano Airport [L52], and planning my cross country to Oregon this month and on to #OSH21 this summer.

Jolie Lucas makes her home on the Central Coast of CA with her mini-Golden, Mooney. Jolie is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, and commercial pilot. Jolie is a nationally-known aviation presenter and aviation writer. Jolie is the Region 4 Vice President of the California Pilots Association. She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. Email: [email protected] Web: www.JolieLucas.com Twitter: Mooney4Me

Customer service and COVID

“Customer service,” unfortunately, is not usually synonymous with the airlines. We’ve all heard or experienced the horror stories of lost bags, exorbitant fees, lost kids, and heaven knows what else. But in this era of COVID, customer service is taking on new meanings and new challenges.

In the post-9/11 world, it is all but impossible for a pilot to leave the flight deck to deal with an unruly passenger, yet more passengers seem to be more aggravated and aggressive than before.

With the proliferation of masks, there has been a rise in cases of people who don’t seem to be willing to fully comply with the new rules, though the rapid spread of the virus has helped to some degree. In my recent travels, I’ve seen a number of confrontations that could—and should—have been avoided, and in this case, most of the blame falls on the customers, not the airline.

Every airline is now not only requiring a mask, but also requiring passengers to acknowledge the new rules when a ticket is purchased and/or during the check-in process. There are also numerous announcements made at the airports (which have their own rules), as well as on board the airplanes.

Flight attendants routinely remind everyone of the requirements for a mask, usually as a part of the first public announcement, and then regularly thereafter. On top of that, most captains are also emphasizing the need for a face covering, with reminders that noncompliance will not be tolerated.

In my 20-plus years in the airlines, I’ve never seen such a universal effort to ensure compliance using such harsh measures. Instead of just offering a verbal warning, noncompliant passengers are being escorted off the airplane, and are quickly finding themselves on a list of passengers who are banned from that carrier until at least the end of the pandemic, and maybe longer.

Pilots can still help defuse some situations on the ground, but in flight, they are relying on the cabin crew and potentially any crew members riding along on the flight. There have been several cases of pilots witnessing a disruptive situation from afar, and stepping in to offer support of the employees on the ground (usually the gate agents).

Because the overwhelming number of passengers are folks who fly only once or twice a year, they may be dealing with situations where they have to keep the mask on for longer stretches of time than they are used to. This may make them uncomfortable or just frustrated. That’s understandable. But there are also other folks who are not totally sold on the stated efficiency of aircraft cabin filters, and those are passengers that we can’t afford to lose. Just about every flight in the air these days is losing money. Tickets are cheap and seats are empty.

It is imperative that we all be sensitive to one another, but it is also imperative that we understand that we tacitly agree to abide by certain rules when we go to certain places. That includes, for now, the masks. Speaking up so as to be heard, as well as speaking slowly and clearly, also help. Sometimes someone just needs to be vent and be heard. Often, if they feel some validation when they need to talk, they will readily go back to full compliance. Give eye contact and a genuine ear.

This new norm is going to be with us for a while, and we all need to work together to get to the other side of the pandemic. In the meantime, we all need to use our best “customer service” in all facets of our lives.—Chip Wright
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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

Buddy pass tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pilot applicant New Year’s resolutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human factors assumptions, part 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

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