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We don’t all just fly

One of the neat things about meeting so many different people in this line of work is to see what others bring to the table besides just their bona fides as a pilot. I’ve met some folks with fascinating backgrounds and side jobs that make for some interesting stories.

A friend of mine is well known among his comrades as a competitive race car driver, good enough that he had a chance to sign with a NASCAR sponsor back in the day. It was, he said, a difficult decision to make, but he chose to focus on flying and stuck with the racing as a hobby, which he has continued to enjoy as his schedule allows. The professional racing circuit, he said, was just too demanding for any sense of normal family life.

I used to fly with another fellow who now flies for Southern Air, and his trips are 17 days long, but that means he gets a couple of weeks off when he comes home. Because he was forced to find a way to support himself during a furlough, he became a commercial truck driver, and now he owns his own 18-wheeler rig that he uses on days off to deliver cargo on the ground. He loves the travel and the itinerant lifestyle, and his posts on social media are always entertaining to read.

Quite a few pilots have come to this line of work by way of success elsewhere. For a while, it seemed like everyone I flew with had something to do with medicine or pharmacology. The fields, they said, were fascinating. The red tape…not so much. Long hours and burnout from spending so much time haggling with insurance companies helped push them to pursue the opportunities in aviation, but several kept their fingers in the cookie jar by working part time and keeping up with continuing ed requirements as a fallback.

Other pilots have been able to take advantage of their flexible schedules to pursue or create opportunities outside of the cockpit. When furloughs were happening or threatening to happen, a number went back to school to get degrees in everything from law to accounting to becoming a physician’s assistant. Another got his MBA and created what could best be described as a boutique travel agency focusing on his home country in southeast Asia.

Real estate is another common hobby, because once tenants are in place, the workload drops considerably. The flurry of activity in filling a vacancy or doing a rehab is largely contracted out, and it can take up considerable time and resources while it is ongoing, but an occupied property in the right location is a nice piece of residual income.

The moral of the story? Simple: Keep looking for lemons that need to be turned into lemonade, and if you play your cards right, one of those interesting, fascinating backgrounds could be yours.—Chip Wright 

Your first trip

A pilot’s first trip with an airline is a combination of both stress and excitement.

The reasons for the excitement are obvious: new job, new airplane, new cities, new coworkers, even the new uniform can be a source of a thrill. The excitement is also equal parts stress, as you try to figure out or remember where to go, learn the protocols of the airline, introduce yourself to flight attendants, gate agents, captains, and other employees who seem like they’ve been around forever. And, of course, you actually have to do your job.

The first several trips, however, are a continuation of your training. The FAA does not allow green, fresh-from-training new hires to be thrown out on the line to fend for themselves. You will fly under the watchful eye and tutelage of a line check airman (LCA), who will introduce you to the day-to-day operation of the company and provide the finishing touches on your aircraft training. This is called initial operating experience (IOE), and you go through it with each new job, each new airplane, and whenever you upgrade to captain.

In some respects, the LCA has the easiest job, and in some ways the hardest, when it comes to training. The transition from the sim to the airplane can be a challenge, and it’s the first time you are truly dealing with all aspects of getting a flight off the gate: maintenance, fuel, catering, aggravated passengers and flight attendants. This is no longer an academic exercise in the schoolhouse. It’s real, and it’s real time.

And speaking of time, the LCA also has to keep the flight on schedule without compromising the instruction. As you might imagine, when it comes to dealing with chaos at the gate, there’s a lot that will generate a “we’ll talk about this in flight” comment or two. At some point, you also have to be signed off on walkarounds.

Once you get underway, you get to deal with a blizzard of radio calls that most pilots new to the airlines aren’t ready for. Ramp control and ground will not care that you’re new or in over your head. They will simply expect you to comply—correctly and quickly. Your captain will probably have to bail you out a few times, and it is nothing to be ashamed of.

Airborne, you may or may not actually fly the first leg. Some LCAs believe in a trial by fire and will let you get into it right away. When I was an LCA, I always flew the first leg with a new pilot just to give him or her a chance to observe and catch up. But eventually, you need to get your hands on the wheel, so to speak, and the best advice is to simply fly it the way you did in the sim. You will be required to log X number of legs or hours as the nonflying/monitoring pilot, but you can expect to fly the majority of the legs so that you can get comfortable with the airplane.

In the sim, you spend a lot of time either dealing with emergencies, doing air work, or practicing all manner of approaches. There is very little time to introduce you to flying as it actually is on the line, though you will take a checkride that features a flight that is representative of life on the line. Even then, you will probably get a minor system failure to deal with on the way.

Your first trip will be an opportunity to see what the airplane is really like with everything working. Further, you will be exposed to all of the little nuances of managing a flight, from energy management during climbs and descents to dealing with the flight attendants and making public address announcements to the passengers. You’ll also see how compressed the time can get as you prepare for arrivals, descents, and approaches.

As a new hire, you can expect a lot of time with the LCA on the ground and during layovers as well. There is a lot of material to review, some of which may be a new introduction to you, depending on how the airline structures the training. You’ll also spend time going over things you have done well as well as things you need to improve upon. The learning—and the teaching—never end! If you are hitting the line during the winter months, you can expect to deal with deicing and winter ops, which is challenging enough for veteran pilots that have been around, let alone for someone who has never had to deal with deicing, holdover times, et cetera.

The first trip is both exciting and exhausting. By the time it’s finished, you will begin to feel as if you are settling into a bit of a groove. By the end of the first day, you will be ready to collapse, and you should sleep well. Every time I’ve gone through OE, I’ve had some trouble sleeping the night before the first trip, and I always sleep well after the first day is in the books.

The end of the first trip is a sign that the training process is almost over, but it’s also a crucial point, as you are now being put into the pointy end of a multimillion-dollar machine and entrusted with all the lives behind you. The company wants to make sure that you are safe, competent, and ready. You want to feel … well, safe, competent, and ready. This is a final chance to ask a lot of questions and to perfect your techniques and procedures.

If the first trip goes well, the last trip (or two) will focus more on getting your required IOE time completed before you do your final line check. Once the LCA puts pen to paper and signs you off, you’re considered ready for the day-to-day grind, and your training is complete. Now you get to embrace life on reserve!—Chip Wright

Medical events

I recently worked a flight on which a passenger fell ill. Actually, the passenger fell down, as in passed out. The phone call from the cabin became the first of many, and it kept us pretty busy as we flew to Vegas. Medical events don’t happen every day for each crew, but they’re pretty common.

As you might expect, the flight attendants immediately asked the passengers if a qualified medical professional was on board. In this instance, there were two of them. After the passenger was returned to her seat and regained consciousness, they questioned her about how she felt, her overall health, and any medications she might have been using. This took several minutes, but once they had some useful information, they called us. We, in turn, contacted the company and had them patch us through to MedLink.

MedLink is a service provided by contracted medical professionals to the airlines. When a medical event develops on board, the doctors at MedLink will talk to the pilots, collect the information they need, and make a recommendation about either diverting or continuing to the destination. This service can be used 24 hours a day, seven days a week, anywhere on the planet. The doctors also have a database handy that will allow them to quickly determine which medical facilities might be available for a particular issue. On a domestic flight, this might seem like overkill, but on international flights over sparsely populated areas or third world countries, this information can be critical.

In our case, it helped that we had medical professionals on board whocould help process the information from the passenger and provide an objective, professional analysis of her condition. In our case, we split the various communications duties between us. I handled ATC communications and took the calls from the cabin while the captain handled communications with the company and MedLink. Had the ATC workload become too great, I would have simply asked them to stand by. Once the company and MedLink were taken care of, I stuck with ATC and the captain took over all secondary communications.

MedLink and the folks in the cabin recommended that we press on based on the passenger’s condition. We consulted with the company and the doctors on the ground to determine the best diversion alternates for our situation if the need might arise. We were flying over an open array of farmland with no large cities immediately available. For several minutes, the best option would actually be behind us. Beyond that, we could at least deviate forward.

I’ve been lucky. My medical events have been relatively rare, and in all cases, we’ve been able to make it to the destination. Eventually I won’t have any choice but to divert. But, with the help from the doctors on the ground, I can make sure the airport I choose will give my passenger the best chance of a good outcome, and I won’t have to make that decision alone.—Chip Wright

The Ab Initio Flaw

Ecclesiastes tells us there’s nothing new under the sun. Where the pilot shortage debate is concerned, that’s definitely true. More than one industry veteran has wryly noted the “impending pilot shortages” of every decade since the Second World War. And considering the number of pilots trained during that conflict, you could say the shortage history goes back a lot further. How about to the very dawn of powered flight? I mean, Wilbur and Orville could have saved themselves tremendous time and money if only they’d had an experienced instructor to guide them!

Every “pilot shortage” article, blog post, and discussion I’ve seen centers around short-term hiring trends and possible improvements in salary and benefits for aviators. Nobody asked my opinion, but for what it’s worth, it seems both clear and logical that the regional airlines are hurting for pilots. The pay and working conditions at those companies are horrific. Major airlines, on the other hand, will probably never have trouble attracting people. I don’t know if that qualifies as a pilot shortage. I tend to think it does not. It’s more of a shortage of people who are willing to participate like lab rats in a Part 121 industry cost-cutting experiment.

What the pilot shortage mishegas really has me thinking about is the long-term possibility of ab initio schemes migrating to the United States and what a profoundly bad thing that would be for aviation at every level.

Who knew that JAL operates a huge fleet of Bonanzas?  For decades they operated an ab initio program out of Napa, California

Who knew that JAL operates a huge fleet of Bonanzas? For decades they operated an ab initio program out of Napa, California

According to Wikipedia, “ab initio is a Latin term meaning ‘from the beginning’ and is derived from the Latin ab (‘from’) + initio, ablative singular of initium (‘beginning’)”. In aviation, it refers to a method of training pilots. In fact, it’s the de facto technique in use for the majority of airlines around the world. Essentially, foreign airlines will hire people off the street who have no flight time or experience. They are shepherded through the various ratings and certificates necessary to fly an Boeing or Airbus while on the airline’s payroll.

This might sound like a brilliant idea — and to an airline, it probably is. Imagine, no bad habits or “we did it this way at my last job” issues, just well-trained worker bees who have been indoctrinated from day one as multi-pilot airline crew members.

I don’t know if the airlines love ab initio or not. What I do know is that non-U.S. airlines use it because there’s no other choice. The fertile, Mesopotamian breeding ground of flying experience we call general aviation simply does not exist in those countries. Without GA’s infrastructure, there are no light aircraft, flight schools, mechanics, or small airports where aspiring pilots can learn to fly. Those who do manage to get such experience more often than not get it here in the United States.

To put it another way, the “pilot shortage” has been going on in foreign countries since the dawn of aviation, and ab initio is the way they’ve solved the problem in most places.

So what’s my beef with this method of training? To put it simply, in an era of atrophying pilot skills, ab initio is going to make a bad problem worse. While it’s a proven way of ensuring a steady supply of labor, ab initio also produces a relatively narrow pilot who is trained from day one to do a single thing: fly an airliner. These airline programs don’t expose trainees to high Gs, aerobatics, gliders, sea planes, banner towing, tailwheels, instructing, or any of the other stuff that helps create a well-rounded aviator.

If airlines in the U.S. adopt the ab initio system, the pilots they hire will only experience things that are a) legally required, and b) directly applicable to flying a modern, automated airliner. Nothing else. After all, an airline will only invest what’s necessary to do the job. It’s a business decision. And in an era of cutthroat competition and razor thin profit margins, who could blame them?

The problem is, all those crap jobs young fliers complain about (and veterans seem to look back on with a degree of fondness) are vital seasoning for a pilot. He or she is learning to make command decisions, interact with employers and customers, and generally figure out the art of flying. It’s developing that spidey sense, taking a few hard knocks in the industry, and learning to distinguish between safe and legal.

These years don’t pay well where one’s bank account is concerned, but they are create a different type of wealth, one that’s often invisible and can prove vital when equipment stops working, weather is worse than forecast, or the holes in your Swiss cheese model start to line up.

Thus far, airline ab initio programs haven’t been a major part of the landscape here in the U.S. because our aviation sector is fairly robust. We are blessed with flying jobs which build the experience, skill, and time necessary for larger, more complex aircraft. But it’s easy to see why it might become an attractive option for airlines. For one thing, that darn pilot shortage. The cost of flying has risen dramatically over the past decade while the benefits (read: money) remain too low for too long. Airlines can cure the shortage by training pilots from zero hours… but at what cost?

Coming up through the ranks used to mean you were almost certain to be exposed to some of those elements. That’s why I believe ab initio would be just one more nail in the coffin of U.S. aviation, one more brick in the road of turning us into Europe. While I like visiting The Continent, I do not envy the size or scope of their aviation sector and sincerely hope we don’t go down that path.

Addendum

Apparently I’m not the only one with ab initio on my mind. The day before the deadline for this post, AVweb reported on a major announcement from Boeing:

Now, with its subsidiary company Jeppesen, [Boeing] will undertake ab initio airline pilot training to provide a supply of pilots with an “Airline Transport Pilot License” (certificate in the U.S.) and a Boeing type rating who “will be ready to move into the first officer’s seat,” according to Sherry Carbary, vice president of flight services.

Boeing’s ab initio training program is divided into two parts. The first, run by Jeppesen, will take an applicant—referred to as a cadet—who must hold a first-class medical at the time of application, and put her or him through a screening process. Those who pass will go through 12-18 months of flight training, resulting in, according to David Wright, director of general aviation training, an Airline Transport Pilot License. The second phase involves the cadet going to a Boeing facility for another two months of training where she or he gets a first exposure to a full-motion jet simulator, and that will result in a type rating in a Boeing jet. Wright said that cadets will come out of the $100,000-$150,000 program with 200-250 hours of flying time and will be ready to go into the right seat of an airliner.

Boeing jets are operated by major airlines, not regionals. An American pilot would typically sport several thousand of hours of flight experience before being hired there. Now Boeing is proposing to put 200 hour pilots into their airplanes on a worldwide basis. That won’t fly (yet) in the U.S., where 1,500 hours is currently required for an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. But I believe the ab inito trend bodes ill for airlines and general aviation alike.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

Airline pay practices

dollar signA post on a recent online thread about the airlines asked about the way pilots get paid—specifically, the fact that we don’t get paid for all of the time we spend not flying. It’s a good question, and one that is often not completely understood. Here is an abbreviated answer.

There actually is a history behind why are paid the way we are. When the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) first started, one of its goals was to have pilots treated—and paid—like professionals. There are generally three “professions” in the classic sense: doctors, lawyers, and accountants, all of whom are at some point paid by the hour (surgeons are paid by the procedure).

ALPA was aiming for the same level of recognition for pilots. Even if you accept that pilots are really more like a trade or a craft (which, in reality, is what we are), tradesmen and craftsmen also tend to get paid by the hour. Think of your local electrician, plumber, carpenter, et cetera. There may be a service fee involved, but almost all charge some sort of hourly rate.

That said, as professionals, we are getting paid only when we are practicing the “craft” of flying, which is generally defined as brake release to brake set.
Over time, the union contracts at the majors addressed the issue of unproductive trips with trip-and-duty rigs. With the trip rig, you are guaranteed to be paid one hour of pay for so many hours of time away from base (TAFB), which also determines per diem for most pilots.

A good trip rig is one hour of pay for every 3.5 hours away from base (1:3.5). The duty rig looks at each day of work on the trip, and it pays you a minimum of so many hours of pay per day (5.0 hours being considered a historically good number). At the end of the trip or the month, you look back and take the greater of the trip rig, the min day values, or the actual hours flown, and that’s what you get paid.

An extreme example is a trip I flew recently. It was a five-day trip that began with a deadhead. I flew three legs over the next four days that were worth 10 hours, but because of the minimum day credit, I got 25 hours of pay. Unfortunately, there is no other way to build the trip. Without the rig, it could only be flown by reserves, who wouldn’t be able to do anything else for those five days.

Other unions followed suit, and once one company jumped on the bandwagon, it made it easier for others to do the same.

Most regionals don’t get any kind of rig. When I was at Comair, we had rigs that were based on a look back at the end of the month (as opposed to using the rig to look forward, which would force more days off when your schedule is actually built). Even with a look-back rig, I had many months where the rig paid me extra money. Unfortunately, there has been relatively little success in getting rigs at the regionals. The companies tend to cry wolf, and claim that it will cost them too much money, and the pilots tend to accept a slightly higher pay rate in lieu of the rigs, especially since no pilot at a regional ever thinks s/he will be at that regional long enough to care.

Done correctly, trip-and-duty rigs incentivize both management and the pilots. For the company, there is a motive to make the trips as productive as possible (or, alternatively, where they have no choice, to minimize crappy trips). For the pilot, not only are there more days off, but you usually will lose some money on a sick call, because you often only get paid for the block time, not the lost “soft” time, thus minimizing the need for extra reserves. In theory, the rigs force the company to optimize trips as well as individual duty periods, which should lead to a decrease in fatigue. The concept of the rig precedes the jet age, so in that respect it’s a bit dated.

The fractionals often pay a monthly salary, which is then used to work backward to compute an hourly rate for various penalties that the company must pay. Pilots—especially (but not only) ALPA—have historically fought against salaries for fear that there will be fewer opportunities to make extra money, and the company will try extract more flying from the pilot, thus decreasing the cost per hour of the pilot, and decreasing the number of jobs at a given carrier.

Airline pay actually is pretty complicated, and it takes effort to keep up with it. But, once you understand it, you have an easier time of making sure you are getting what you are owed.—By Chip Wright