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Tag: aviation careers; professional pilots; airlines;

Fuel planning

Like any other business, airlines are hawkish about keeping costs in line. The biggest expense for an airline is fuel. Recently, oil prices have climbed, and as a result, airlines predictably have begun to re-emphasize fuel-saving strategies that often are allowed to wane. Single-engine taxi operations, minimizing APU usage, and flying a cost-efficient flight plan are all common ways to stretch the company dollar.

Balancing the pilots’ needs with those of the bean-counters to save money is a never-ending source of tension. In general aviation, it is standard procedure to fill the tanks and go, no matter how short or how long the flight is. Preventing water condensation in the fuel is a common rationale for this, especially for an airplane that doesn’t fly every day.

But in a jet, topping of the tanks is almost never an option. Most of the time, this will cause a landing weight that exceeds the limit. Further, it’s very expensive. Roughly 3 percent of the fuel on a jet is used to carry the fuel on a jet, and that is a number that adds up. Dispatchers, who actually file the flight plans, will take into account the anticipated weather and regulatory needs and fuel the flight accordingly. Each airline has a different policy when it comes to planning fuel, but most will plan to land with the legal reserve plus a small cushion.

Further, every airline keeps extensive records on fuel burn. Historical burn data is tracked for each route, flight, time of day/month/year, individual aircraft, each engine, and even for each captain—and the accuracy of the data is uncanny. Analyzing this info allows an airline to keep fuel costs in check without comprising schedule integrity or safety.

One of the most common data points used is the frequency of a diversion based on the amount of extra fuel carried. For example, an airline knows that a given flight has a normal completion percentage of X. For every so many minutes of extra fuel, the completion percentage needle may move incrementally upward. At some point, no amount of extra fuel is going to make a statistical difference, but it will harm the bottom line. And, once that point is reached, the success of other flights (the connections) comes into play, because if one airplane diverts for weather, odds are that a whole bunch will divert.

For pilots, there is almost never too much fuel, but there does need to be an acceptance that you can’t save every flight, and sometimes a diversion is the best option for all involved. Over time, the cost of carrying extra fuel begins to exceed the potential savings. As a result, it is incumbent upon us to realize that we need to think of fuel in terms of extra minutes. How many extra minutes of fuel do I need or want, based on weather, anticipated routing delays, et cetera? What amount of fuel am I comfortable landing with at the destination? There is nothing wrong with adding some extra fuel, as long as it is done with the big picture in mind. Adding extra fuel for the sake of adding it is a waste and only hurts the bottom line, and it runs the risk of driving up ticket prices and chasing away your passengers.—Chip Wright

Professional PAs

One of the most overlooked skills in being a professional pilot is using the public address (PA) system. Few pilots are natural performers; most of us are not. While a few give their PAs while standing in full view of the passengers, most of us do not.

Airlines usually require the pilots to give a PA anytime the seatbelt sign is turned on, and some require a PA at the beginning of the flight. Outside of that, much discretion is given to the crew. The general rule is that one should be given just prior to departure, one just prior to the top of descent (TOD), and during any weather encounters.

The PA at the beginning of the flight should be a genuine welcome, along with a quick summary of the flight time, the expected quality of the ride, and perhaps a note about the destination weather. Also worth noting might be certain items that are not working on the airplane that could affect everyone, such as problems with the air conditioning, the on-board WiFi, or unusually long taxi delays caused by weather. The Passenger Bill of Rights also plays a role in this, as does common courtesy. The passengers, after all, pay our salaries, and once the door closes, they’re trapped in a vacuum with little to no information.

Turbulence expectation announcements serve two purposes. First, they let the passengers know that it may not be safe to get up, and they should keep their seatbelts fastened. Second, it lets them know that the flight attendants may not be able to conduct their service in full or in part, or may have to delay it. This is an area that has received a lot of attention in the last few years, because changes in weather patterns have made turbulence encounters more frequent and more dangerous. Injuries to flight attendants who are standing have increased, so the airlines are responding in kind.

I’ve always made it a point early in the mornings to limit my PAs as much as possible because passengers are trying to sleep. When I can, I give them a heads up that we will say as little as possible to avoid disturbing them. That said, it’s important to do a PA prior to the TOD so that passengers who are standing, or need to use to the lav, or return something to the overhead bins, can do so safely. I also try to pass on updated arrival gate information on flights that have connecting passengers. When I can, I tell them where the airplane we are on is going, unless it doesn’t make sense (for instance, if the flight is from ABC to XYZ, and the airplane is going back to ABC, the odds are good that nobody is reversing course after an hour on the ground).

Prior to onboard screens and apps, sightseeing announcements were popular, but that’s no longer the case, especially if someone is watching a movie or a show on a TV screen that will be interrupted by the PA. But…sometimes a good sight-seeing announcement is warranted. On longer flights, the TOD announcement should include the remaining flight time and the weather, along with any anticipated bumps in the descent.

Announcements need to be professional and courteous, not to mention reasonably brief. A great way to practice is to practice giving them while you’re driving or in the shower.

Develop a general outline that you can follow and stick to it. If the flight will be delayed or even cancelled by a mechanical problem, be honest without going into so much detail that you overwhelm your audience. Tell them what you know, and tell them what you don’t know, and don’t make anything up.

Avoid using humor that may fall flat. Over time, you will learn when you can lighten the mood or how to do so in a way that isn’t going to make you look foolish for doing so, but tread lightly. Even on flights to happy places, there may be somebody on board who is going to a funeral or dealing with tremendous personal stress. Try to respect that.

PAs are a great way to make a positive impression, and done right, you will. Practice until it is second nature to hit all the key points. Be genuine, as well as professional. Learn to enjoy them, and recognize that nervous flyers are counting on you to set them at ease. Your PAs may be the reason passengers buy tickets on your airline again. And, they may be the reason that they don’t.—Chip Wright

Airports that are the same, but different

It’s all supposed to be done the same, but it often isn’t. Worse, nobody seems to be able to say how the differences came about or why the old ways are still in place.

I’ll give you an example. In nearly every airport, when an airline crew is ready for push-back, they call the ramp tower, if there is one, or they call ground control and advise they are ready for push. Ramp or ground then makes sure the area is clear and grants permission for the push-back to begin, possibly following with a specific disconnect point. It’s pretty straightforward.

A few airports have their own way of doing things that are not immediately obvious. Boston (BOS), for example, requires a crew to call clearance delivery with the ATIS code and the assigned transponder code—even if the same controller just read the clearance and the assigned transponder code to the crew. If you try to call ground, you will be sent to clearance delivery, but not for a clearance. Worse, do you know what clearance delivery will do? He or she will tell you to monitor ground control, and then lean over to the ground controller and say, “Hey, this one is ready.”

Other airports use what is called a metering frequency, but this one makes a bit more sense. Think of metering as an intermediate buffer between the ramp and ground. O’Hare (ORD) is a great example. Ramp control issues the push and immediate taxi clearances. The crew then moves to a designated spot, where they call metering. Metering then verifies that the crew has the right transponder code (the transponder will be on), and tells the crew to monitor ground. However, during bad weather, metering can pass on to the crew that they need to go to clearance for a new route, or pass on other information that will avoid cluttering up the ground controller’s frequency, such as runway changes, et cetera. Used properly, metering frequencies are one of the FAA’s better inventions, and some airports that don’t have one should get one (I’m looking at you, LGA).

Some airports don’t have controlled ramps, and crews are responsible for pushing back on their own with the marshallers and the tug drivers ensuring that the ramp is clear. Orlando (MCO) does this for some terminals, while others have a ramp control, so there are odd differences even at one airport. What is frustrating is that some of this information is either not published, or was published so long ago that nobody knows where, or worse, it’s sometimes published incorrectly by an airline in its internal manuals. It’s become institutional knowledge, and controllers tend to think that every pilot has been to their field every day.

Most of the time, the standardization efforts made by the industry are honored and they work. But like secret local traffic patterns, some airports continue to defy convention. Pay attention out there!—Chip Wright

Major life events

Getting married and having a family is a big deal for anyone, and pilots are no exception. There are, however, some other considerations that come into play.

As with any other big event, planning ahead is a big key to success. When I got married, my airline acted like nobody had ever been married before, and that my wedding was going to cause the entire operation to shut down. Fortunately, friends had given me some advice about how to broach the subject.

Because everything a pilot or a flight attendant does is based on seniority, the first order of business is to figure out how much vacation time you have. Since most companies let their employees accrue vacation time in advance, theoretically you should be able to count on your annual VA allotment for the following year. If you have the seniority to be able to hold the desired week(s) off, better still.

Once the engagement is set, it’s time to start a dialog with your chief pilot—not the assistant CP or the secretary or anyone else. You need the chief pilot on your side from the beginning.

Plan a reasonable and realistic amount of time off for the pre-wedding events such as the rehearsal, the ceremony, and the honeymoon (if you’re taking one right away). If a move of any sort is required as well, factor that in, and also plan to give yourself two or three days off before returning to work so that you’re not totally exhausted. Two weeks is usually pretty easy to get, and three weeks is not unrealistic. If it’s any more than that, then you may need to plan to ask for an unpaid trip drop, which means you also need to plan to lose a week’s pay.

Every chief pilot starts with one simple request: Bid for the time off you need, first, then come talk to me. The easiest way to do this is to plan on your events taking up the last part of one month and the first part of another. That minimizes staffing hits and makes it easier for the CP to justify giving you time off you may not be able to get with vacation accruals.

If the wedding is several months out, keep in touch with the CP office as a courtesy. If other pilots come in with similar requests, you want to be at the head of the line when it comes to getting days off you need.

In addition, you need to contact your human resources office early to start the process of adding your soon-to-be to your benefits, especially if you’re planning to use your flight benefits on your honeymoon. (Free advice: Don’t plan to use your flight benefits for your honeymoon—buy tickets for the peace of mind.) This is an easy thing to forget, but it’s an important step—especially if one of you is planning on a name change. Airlines have had to deal with dishonest employees abusing flight benefits, so expect to be required to produce what seems like an onerous amount of paperwork to prove that your intentions and actions are pure.

Part of this process is getting your future spouse on your health insurance and as a named beneficiary for your life insurance and retirement savings plans. The health insurance is especially important if you’ll be traveling outside the United States after the wedding. If a stepchild is also part of the package, address those needs as well.

Planning for childbirth is also a bit different. For starters, you may be on a trip. Once the pregnancy is underway and appears to be headed to term, have a discussion with the CP about contingency plans if you’re on a trip and need to get home. Most of the time, all you’ll need to do is make a phone call, and the wheels will be set in motion. However, if you’re on a trip to a fairly remote location and an emergency crops up, you may need to operate a flight to get out, which may have you flying in the opposite direction of where you want to go.

When it comes to having a baby, you can use FMLA provisions to take time off of work before and after the child is born, and generally you can use VA time to cover lost pay (until the VA bank is empty). Being financially prepared for the initial arrival of the baby helps. You should plan to be off the week before the due date, and for as long after the delivery as possible. Fortunately, pilot schedules make this easier, since most of us only work 12 to 15 days a month.

On the flip side, there are plenty of women who are pilots who also want to have children. Their planning situations will be a bit different. The FAA doesn’t specify a specific point in the pregnancy for a woman to stop flying. In theory, as long as the pregnancy doesn’t interfere with the pilot’s ability to do her duties, she can fly. However, this point in time will vary for each individual, and most airlines have a point at which the pilot must provide weekly or bi-weekly doctor approval to continue flying, and some will require the pilot to take time off starting around 30 to 32 weeks. Many suggest not flying at all in the third trimester.

Considering that most folks are going to want as much time off as possible, a new mother also may be facing an expiration of landing currency, or missing a scheduled training event. To the extent possible, phone calls should be made about the preferred method for handling these as soon as is feasible to minimize the headaches in returning to work. Nursing issues, day care, and other day-to-day concerns should be addressed as fully as possible before the downtime begins, with the realization that curve balls will likely follow. All the jokes about a lack of asleep aside, returning to work just for rest is not a good idea. You need to be well-rested, so coming up with a strategy with your partner to share night time duties as much as possible will be necessary to ensure your performance at work is up to par.

As with the wedding planning, you’ll need to get in touch with HR early on the get the FMLA paperwork filled out and approved. This is key, because many airlines use different forms for pilots and flight attendants than they do for hourly or salaried employees. The last thing you want is a delay in approval or pay because you didn’t get the paperwork right.

State and local laws vary with respect to FMLA, and of course, the federal law also applies. If you’re not based where you live, make sure you know both your rights and the rights of your employer. Because FMLA issues are commonly addressed in a collective bargaining agreement, touch base with a union rep early on to help guide you through everything—they’ve seen this before, and they’ll know which buttons to push.

Whether it’s a wedding or a childbirth, or even a death, major life events happen, and most will involve some help from the chief pilot and the staff. Once it’s all over, take the time to send a note and make a phone call to personally thank them for any accommodations they may have made. If the event is a baby, include a picture!—Chip Wright

FAR 117 challenges

Prior to the advent of FAR 117, the FAA held airlines primarily responsible for violations of its scheduling rules. In theory, the pilots also were accountable for what happened, but the FAA was well aware that airlines—especially smaller commuters and regionals—would lie, cheat, and steal to get their flights completed.

Further, the airlines had computers that were supposedly infallible, and when problems were occasionally found, it was because the airlines had created the problems. Because most airlines record conversations between pilots and schedulers, it usually didn’t take much to catch the airlines in the act—especially when the incriminating tapes would suddenly go missing, which they too often did.

FAR 117, however, has changed things. Now pilots are held to a much higher standard—but so are the airlines. The problem is that FAR 117 was supposed to make things simpler, and that wasn’t always the case. A series of tables was produced for both augmented and unaugmented flights, and the maximum hours on duty and hours flown was supposed to be as simple as using a table to get the magic number. The rules varied some for reserves, but even those rules were supposed to be easier to understand.

Unfortunately, there have been a lot of valid questions and concerns brought up over the years that required some interpretations from the FAA. Questions have been posed by the unions, the airlines, and individual pilots. The result was a lot of confusion. Most of that confusion has been eliminated, but some is still there.

I had a recent example of an easy mistake that could have led to a violation. My initial report time was changed because of a flight cancellation. My new flight left later, but it also ran late because of late-arriving passengers and a traffic jam at the runway. My next leg was a transcontinental flight, which created a problem. Even though the initial early report time was changed, the start of my duty time remained the same, because a phone call to me prior would have triggered a mandatory new rest period, so I was notified with an email that I got when I woke up.

I didn’t put all of the pieces together until we got ready to do the transcon and the gate agents were trying to get us airborne. Because of the confusion, we called the company to get a clarification. Fortunately, I could agree to an extension of my duty time, which I did in the interest of not stranding a jetload of passengers.

But, had we just assumed that we knew better and taken off, I would have been in violation of 117, and unlike the old days, the FAA would have come after me, possibly for certificate action. But under 117, both sides are equally responsible, and both are vested in getting it right. All of our Ts were crossed and our Is were dotted.

If you move into the 117 world, there are a number of resources you can use to ensure compliance with the rules, including some FAQs that have been compiled based on FAA interpretation and real-world experience. There are also apps for your phone. Know what your resources are, but more important, don’t be afraid to make some phone calls if you’re in doubt. Once you know you’re legal to operate, then—and only then—can you go. There is often more to the table than meets the eye.—Chip Wright

Different airplanes of the same type

Flying for an airline is obviously different than flying general aviation. The airplanes themselves are much more complex, and even when they are the same…they are different.

You likely have some familiarity with this in the GA world. After all, there are multiple models of the 172. Some have flaps that go to 40 degrees, but most don’t, and a few didn’t require waiting for the white arc to extend the first 10 degrees of flaps. There are also as many radio combinations as there are pilots with money to spend on radios.

Airlines do what they can to maximize fleet commonality, because it’s cheaper and safer to do so. When I flew at the regionals, the airplanes were exactly the same for the most part. The differences that existed were more behind the panels, and the few that were not didn’t really matter.

But there were a few differences, notably in the max takeoff weight of two variants of the CRJ. It was hard to miss this, though, since it was on a (big) placard in the cockpit, and our flight release always noted the heavier airplanes. The landing weights were the same, which helped.

At the majors, the differences can be more stark. I fly the Boeing 737, and my airline has four basic variants: the -700, the -800, the -900, and the -900ER. Some of the differences are obvious: The -700 is smaller and the -900 and -900ER are much bigger; the wingspans vary a bit as well; and the -700 has much better overall performance. In the cockpit, the -700 has a different temperature control system than the larger airplanes. There are some significant details that must be committed to memory when it comes to the -900 autoland system, which isn’t something we use a lot—which makes remembering those details even more important. Further, every airline operates airplanes differently, which means that procedures in use at Southwest may not be common at United, and vice versa.

There are other, smaller differences, most of which are transparent to the pilots. During an emergency, it becomes important to read the notes in the quick reference handbook (QRH) checklist, because sometimes the checklist will stipulate different procedures based on the serial numbers of the airplane. This is especially common when the manufacturers have made significant changes or upgrades to the electronics or the avionics.

The introduction of the 737 MAX has added some new wrinkles. The MAX looks different (although it has the same shark-tooth engine cowling as the 787), and the cockpit has been drastically altered, so there is no mistaking which airplane you’re flying. The start procedure is different—it takes twice as long per engine, and it must be done correctly to prevent an auto-shutdown. There are some system changes and enhancements as well, all of which required some form of training. The airlines operating the MAX also provide cheat sheets that summarize the differences for the pilots, especially since the small fleet size of the MAX means opportunities to fly it will be rare.

Fortunately, there is a movement underway to eliminate the requirement that copious quantities of information be memorized, as was done in the past. Now, the FAA encourages airlines to provide written guides whenever possible. There are too many minor variables involved, especially after the round of mergers that took place in the past 15 years. Throw in airplanes purchased from airlines overseas, and it just makes sense to provide up-to-date guidance whenever possible.

However, none of this alleviates the pilots’ responsibility to be aware of those differences, even if they don’t have to memorize all of them. Limitations still need to be recognized and respected.—Chip Wright

Loss of the turboprop

Recently, Hinson Airways, a small regional airline on the East Coast, flew its last flight in the venerable Bombardier Dash 8. The Dash, as it was commonly called, was once a popular turboprop, a 30-seat puddle jumper that connected small cities to airline hubs, often by making stops in other small cities on the way. Such flying now represents a largely bygone age.

While Horizon Air still operates the Dash 8 Q400, a larger version of the airplane, the company is the only regional still flying turboprops for its major airline partners. Everyone else has committed to some form of the regional jet.

This is not an insignificant development for pilots who want to fly for the airlines. Back in the day, turboprops were the backbone of regional flying, with Saabs, Brasilias, ATRs, Jetstreams, and Beech 1900s—the airplane everyone loved to hate—providing a large chunk of the lift from Smallville, USA, to the hubs to connect to jets (or, God forbid, another turboprop).

These airplanes were often a major stepping stone for pilots who had not yet been exposed to flying a turbine aircraft. The training could be challenging, especially since a lot of it took place in the airplane itself, usually in the middle of the night. In time, more sophisticated simulators came into play (the simulator for the EMB-120 Brasilia was said to have cost more than the airplane, but the gain in safety more than offset the financial cost).

Nowadays, pilots from the piston world have even fewer opportunities to get entry-level jobs flying turboprops for Part 135 operations or smaller commuter airlines, as they were called. That means the big leap is no longer from a piston twin such as a Piper Seneca or Aztec to a Beech 1900. It’s from a Piper Seminole to a jet. The transition is eased by the fact that so much of general aviation is using avionics that equal or exceed what RJs have. However, it’s a large leap from a piston twin that might fly 140 to 160 knots to a jet that can have a true airspeed of more than 400 knots.

Speed is probably the biggest challenge associated with moving into jets. Everything happens much faster, except for slowing down, which takes forever. As a result, speed and energy management are real challenges, and training and practice are critical. Unfortunately, the sterile environment of the simulator does only so much to prepare a pilot for all the various curve balls that the real world can throw your way. Tight turns to final, weather deviations, high speed aborted takeoffs, and even ATC mistakes will all be in a day’s work.

It’s both a shame and a blessing that turboprops are gone. They provided great experience, a great stepping stone, and in the airplanes with no autopilot, they made for phenomenal instrument pilots with well-developed decision-making skills. The work was exhausting (six to eight legs a day in airplanes with minimal air conditioning, followed by short nights), often in the worst of the weather, and words of thanks were relatively rare, but quality of the pilot produced was first rate. The blessing, of course, is that jets are much faster, more comfortable and, with the proper training, safer.—Chip Wright

The line was moving

Part three of a three-part series. Read parts one and two here.

 

Finally, departures opened up, and we got our final, this-is-for-real route. Tower was now advertising a runway we could all use, but the line was a long one: When we pushed back, we were number thirty-plus for takeoff. But the line was moving, and in our case, it was moving faster than the clock, so we’d get out before we timed out and couldn’t legally fly. Neither of us relished the possibility of having to go back to the gate and explain to the passengers that we couldn’t legally fly.

The only route out of Denver was still a west one, and we flew most of the way to the western border of Colorado before turning north, and eventually east. On the radio, we heard an awful lot of airplanes getting holding patterns for Denver—and now crews weren’t just talking about diverting, they were diverting, and some weren’t even waiting.

As we flew east, the ride deteriorated to “moderate-plus” chop. It was awful, even after slowing down. We had to head southeast to avoid both traffic and weather. On the radar, we saw a couple of holes beyond what we could see out the window. I sent a message to our dispatcher asking about a possible new route that was south of what we were filed for. We didn’t have much time, however, because we were headed right to the worst of the line of east-west storms.

Dispatch liked what we suggested and sent us a specific route to request, which I passed on to Center. It took longer to get it back than I anticipated, but we got approved for a route that would ultimately save us nearly 20 minutes. The ride didn’t improve for nearly 90 minutes, but it finally smoothed out enough to let the passengers get up, which allowed us to get our dinner. The weather in Newark was clear and breezy. Thank goodness for small favors.

We landed nearly three and one-half hours behind schedule, exhausted and relieved to be on the ground. I had not had a day like that in a long time, and I was overdue for one. My flight home, it turns out, had cancelled, which was actually a relief—I’d hate to think that I had just missed it. I headed off to my crash pad to get some sleep. The mid-morning flight was wide open, probably because of other missed connections from the night before. But I didn’t care. I was going home.—Chip Wright

SWA 1380

As I write this, Southwest 1380 has already started to fade from much of the public memory. Much has been made about the way the crew responded to such an explosive event—explosive in more ways than one. Nobody ever really anticipates or expects to deal with an engine that blows up in flight, let alone one that also breaks a window and generates a sudden decompression of the cabin.

That said, there is training for something like this. Most airlines in the United States have transitioned to advanced qualification program (AQP) training. Without getting into the nitty-gritty details, part of AQP includes flying scenarios in the simulator that represent real flights between two regular cities, with some kind of a snafu thrown in for the crew to handle. Some scenarios will force a diversion, and some won’t; some are deliberately vague enough that some crews will divert and some will not.

Southwest recently put its crews through an event that included a catastrophic engine failure in cruise  United did the same with its 737 crews a couple of years ago). I don’t know if the scenario included the decompression, but an engine failure is handled almost the same way in either scenario. Like many transport jets, the 737 is designed to fly at or near the highest MEAs on one engine, and it will level off at 22,000 to 24,000 feet at maximum weight on one engine. Obviously, in the case of 1380, that kind of level-off wasn’t possible, but the initial response is the same: Get the airplane into a descent while maintaining a safe airspeed. With the decompression, the goal is to get down to 10,000 feet as quickly as possible so that passengers don’t need oxygen.

Every airplane will respond differently to an engine failure. A wing-mounted engine will cause substantial yaw—possibly a noticeably rolling motion that needs to be addressed fairly quickly. The crew of this flight likely needed a few seconds to register just what had happened—after all, in the sim, everybody already knows what’s coming, but this was real. The immediate response to the cabin pressure change would have been to don their oxygen masks while regaining control of the plane. That means turning off the autopilot (or silencing the disconnect alarm), setting power on the operating engine, and retrimming. This is the “aviate” part of aviate, navigate, communicate.

Every airline dictates who will do what during an emergency, and the final report from the NTSB will spell out how the crew determined who would fly and work the radios versus running the checklist. In this case, there were at least three non-normal checklists that needed to be completed: the engine fire/severe damage checklist, the decompression checklist, and the single-engine approach and landing checklist. The crew at some point also needed to make contact with the cabin crew to get an assessment of the extent of any injuries or damage in the cabin. They likely also asked the flight attendants what they could see out the window as well—and this all happened while dealing with a tremendous amount of noise thanks to the hole in the window.

In spite of the fatality on board, the crew appears to have handled this event as well as or better than expected. No doubt the relatively recent sim event brought a sense of familiarity with the situation, and their years of combined experience helped produce a successful outcome. Like many, I’m already curious to see what the final report will say; expect to see it sometime next winter or spring.—Chip Wright

When pilots get arrested

There are certain categories of people that, when they get in trouble with the law, garner a lot of headlines. Movie and TV stars (see Sheen, Charlie, and Lohan, Lindsay) seem to always attract media attention when they get into even a whiff of trouble. Likewise with professional athletes and high-profile business people, not to mention elected officials.

Add pilots to the list.

Whenever a pilot gets involved with law enforcement, it’s usually bad, and it tends to put the media in an uproar. The reasons are pretty simple. First of all, unlike the people listed above, we pilots actually have to worry about our actions not just affecting others, but also causing harm, destruction, and death. In short, people trust us with their lives.

Remember the crew of the America West flight in Miami that was actually taxiing out for departure before being called back to the gate, where they were found to be drunk? The outrage was justified and real. Likewise with other crew members who have shown up to the airport under the influence. Every airline has their own policies for handling this sort of behavior, but I don’t know of any airline that has adopted the FAA’s eight hour bottle-to-throttle rule; it’s more like 12 hours, and the 0.04 percent allowance given by the FAA is likewise superseded by a zero-tolerance policy. The flip side is that most airlines and pilot unions will do whatever they can to help get pilots into treatment programs and put their lives back on track when they ask for help. Further, they will also gladly accept a sick call and a cancelled flight over having crew members try to fly when they shouldn’t.

Social drinking is fine when it is done responsibly. Pilots with enough time on a layover frequently have a beer or cocktail with dinner, and the overwhelming majority act responsibly. That extends to their crew members cutting them off when necessary.

But it isn’t just drinking that causes problems. Remember the pilot who was found running naked through the woods after a dalliance with a flight attendant a few years ago? I know of pilots who have done one of the following: urinated in public; got caught trying to steal something from the clubhouse of a major league baseball team (he lost a fight with the police); been arrested and charged with corruption of a minor and having intercourse with girls as young as 13; failed a drug test. Another accidentally shot his gun in the cockpit of a USAirways flight. He wasn’t arrested, but he had some explaining to do.

People get arrested for mind-numbingly idiotic actions every day. But with pilots, there is a fascination with what we do. In addition to the responsibilities of our jobs/hobbies, we are expected to have above-average intelligence and the ability to use common sense in everyday matters. We are viewed as fairly straight-laced, conservative people who simply do stupid things. We have, like it or not, an image and a stereotype.

Whether you fly professionally or not, or just aspire to, accept that others have certain expectations, and if you make a mistake, you will likely face a harsher judgment from others, if not from the law. Further, if you are hoping to make a living as a pilot, bear in mind that in the post-2001 world, there are number of criminal activities that will render such a career impossible, as you will not be able to get the appropriate security clearances.

Remember, too, our individual actions reflect on all of us, not just ourselves.–Chip Wright