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Tag: career flying (page 1 of 6)

Behind the scenes

Like any other industry, aviation has a lot of stuff that happens “behind the scenes” that the average Joe isn’t aware of.

In fact, often people within that industry may not be aware of some of it either. After all, how often do you go to a restaurant and think about all the stuff that goes on in the kitchen before you get your food? Someone has to know how much of what to order, and someone has to determine how much of each food to make ahead of time based on demand and popularity.

The airlines work the same way. As you read this, the calendar will be indicating summer. And not just any summer, either, but the first summer after the strangest summer any of us can remember, along with a weird winter that didn’t seem to want to end. Many airlines already have a small team of people working on next winter’s operations. Deicing fluid needs to be ordered well in advance, with supplies adjusted based on expected fleet plans at each airport/hub, training manuals for all affected work groups need to be updated and harmonized, and equipment needs to be maintained, replaced, and repaired. Just getting the manuals updated is time consuming, because at some airports the work is contracted out to a company that handles multiple airlines, so everything has to be written as simply as possible.

Deicing equipment only gets used a few times a year, so functionality checks start early in order to find issues that result from leaving stuff sitting around for months on end. The folks who train the trainers also need to be brought up to speed early so that the training pipeline gets started, staffing can be adjusted, and schedules accommodated.

Another big behind-the-scenes area is the long-term scheduling of flights. Every airline calls it something different, but it’s basically the same: where will we be going, and with which airplanes, in 12 to 24 months. The three big seasonal peaks are Thanksgiving, which is easy (in the relative scheme) to plan on; spring break; and summer vacation, specifically the month of July.

My airline is constantly putting out communications about the next one or two summers, because those busy months drive the training schedule for pilots, and to a lesser degree, flight attendants. Big events factor in as well. For instance, last year, the Olympics were supposed to be a major focus point. COVID changed that, and this year the Games may be held with no crowds. Next year, the World Cup is on the docket, but it’s too soon to say how COVID may or may not affect that event, and that doesn’t take into account which teams may or may not qualify.

Maintenance is another never-ending cycle of planning and contingencies. Airplanes are subjected to some form of light maintenance every day or so, but they also need to be scheduled for “heavy” inspections based on the manufacturer recommendations. These checks pull the airplanes out of service for a few months at a time, and they are scheduled a year or more in advance. A majority of these events take place outside the United States, especially for wide-bodies. That is yet another variable that needs to be accounted for.

There are also unexpected events, like the grounding of the 737 MAX, which was down for two years, got released to fly, and then was partially grounded again. Airlines can accommodate some of these curveballs, but too often the only resort is to cancel flights and issue refunds.

Just like a restaurant that has to plan for a big social event, the airlines have to constantly tweak their plans, and often there are a lot of partners involved and a lot of unexpected ripples that have to be dealt with in the process. It’s part of what makes aviation such a dynamic, exciting industry: There is never a dull or a still moment. But there is always something that needs to be done.—Chip Wright

Sports charters

As we move into spring and summer, the airlines are heading into some of the busiest charter work that they do: basketball tournaments and Major League Baseball. Charters are not the money-makers that they used to be, but they still turn a guaranteed profit for the airlines, and they are an important part of the business model.

College basketball can be among the most challenging, because it is so unpredictable. Nobody knows when a team is going to be eliminated or move on to the next round, so the schedule has to take that into account. Usually, when traveling by charter, the schedule is built to take in the best possible option, which is that the team in question will make the next round. If they lose, then they usually have to sit around for a day or two or three in order to return home on schedule.

If the team is lucky, the contract with the airline can include the flexibility to leave early if they lose, but this is entirely dependent on the airline and its ability to have a crew and an airplane in position, to say nothing of the catering that must be done according to the terms of the contract. Catering and food are a big part of these arrangements, so don’t underestimate their importance.

Baseball is much easier to predict, because the schedule is laid out in advance. That said, baseball charters can be demanding, difficult work because of the hours. Most charters (of any sport) include three total flights at a minimum: one to get the airplane into position, one to actually fly the team, and one to get the airplane back into the regular schedule. The fee charged covers all three, plus whatever crew-related expenses there will be. Most baseball (and football) teams negotiate with a single carrier, and they often use different-sized airplanes based on the trip, with long flights usually requiring a bigger airplane.

For the crew, the job begins with getting the airplane into position, usually by flying it empty to the pick-up point. This is the easy part, and also the most important. It’s also where the problems usually start, because if a game goes late—or really late—it messes up the schedule.

Let’s say a baseball game goes 12 or 13 innings—not common, but not unheard of. That can easily add an hour or more to the schedule. The standard post-game order of events doesn’t change: showers, press obligations, packing, et cetera. The team loads up on buses and heads to the airport. The airplane can be loaded fairly quickly, but being late is being late.

Since most games are played at night, the flight is usually a red-eye of sorts, so the big battle is fighting fatigue. But the job isn’t done. Dropping the team off is usually even quicker than loading them up. However, because charters usually start and stop at FBOs or company hangers, that means the airplane may have to be cleaned or fueled before it can go to the gate. Or, worse, it may have to be flown empty to another city to work a flight. As a pilot who has done these three-flights-in-a-night adventures, I’m here to tell you that the last ones aren’t a lot of fun.

More than once, I finished a basketball charter pulling into the gate as the crew working the first flight of the day was showing up. It was a mad dash to get the airplane ready to go as we slogged off to a hotel or grabbed a seat in the cabin to go home, another baseball team or university (hopefully) grateful to us for a job well done.—Chip Wright

Some bright spots

As the pandemic appears to be winding down, travel is showing some signs of recovery. Flights for spring break saw some of the highest load factors seen since early 2020, and Americans are itching to avoid another summer of being stuck at home.

Several airlines, including a couple of majors, are showing signs of growth and pilot hiring. United recently announced point-to-point service for several Midwestern cities that are not typically a part of its core hub-and-spoke system. This is a significant departure (pun very much intended) for a company that is so focused on maximizing the hub part of the hub-and-spoke.

Other carriers have also been quietly making adjustments to their schedules as well, and a cursory examination of the announcements shows what was long predicted: Leisure travel is expected to rebound first.

Here’s the best part of the good news, though: Much of this added flying is being done on regional aircraft. That makes sense, because a smaller airplane allows an airline to “right-size” the airframe for the market, which in this case, is relying on zero connecting passengers. If the smaller airplanes fill up, the option always exists to bring in something bigger later or on a seasonal basis. From a pilot perspective, it means more block hours of flying, which means more jobs. Endeavor, a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta, has begun training new-hire pilots, and is expecting to hire as many as 400 before the end of the year. Spirit and United are also expected to see a net growth in pilot jobs.

This is a stark turnaround from where we were a year ago, when pilots at the majors were sweating out the possibility of a furlough. Fortunately, three significant government bail-out bills have kept the airlines afloat and allowed for some creative solutions to be crafted to minimize any lost jobs. It appears to have worked as advertised. Early separation packages got some senior folks to retire, some retraining costs were saved or totally avoided, and the ability to rebound was kept in place. On my last couple of trips, the airways and radio frequencies were jammed, and it was a great sense of normalcy in a year that has had anything but.

Pilots who are interested in stepping up to the regionals or higher need to be updating applications regularly and touching base with contacts at various carriers. Job fairs are likely to be virtual, if they occur at all. But if they do, that face time with a recruiter will be more important than ever before.

Because it stands to reason that many countries will require a vaccine to enter, getting vaccinated should be a priority for anyone looking to get into the travel industry, and pilots will be at the top of that list. The Biden administration is pushing to broaden the ability for everyone to get a shot by May 1, so if you can get one, don’t wait. The airlines have not specifically come out and said that they will require a vaccine, but at least one as hinted that it may, and they may all require future job applicants to have one. There is no point in delaying what feels like the inevitable, especially if it has the double bonus of both protecting you and gaining a leg up on future employment.

What was threatening to be a long period of recessionary activity is now showing signs of hope and recovery. While nothing is ever guaranteed, the signs are positive, and that’s far more than we could have dared hoped for a year ago.—Chip Wright

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

Missing the classroom

Training, it seems, never ends. Back in the day, all training took place in a classroom, a teacher lecturing and sharing wisdom, knowledge and a few lies, students dutifully taking notes and pretending to understand what was being said, all the while taking the lies as true gospel.

Nowadays, less training is done in the classroom, and more is done on the student’s own time. Ironically, the general aviation world got a bit of a jump on this with the introduction of self-study books by Gleim, ASA, and a few others. Ground schools, once immensely popular, began fading away.

Nowadays, the trend is to do virtually everything, well…virtually. Even when I was going through new-hire training at my current airline, the actual learning and introduction of most of the material was done through Computer Based Training (CBT) in the hotel, and the classroom time had almost nothing to do with what we were supposed to be learning. This was less true when we began to learn the systems of the airplane, but not by much.

Today, all continuing education is completed on our personal time. We get paid once it’s all done, but we are still giving up some of our personal time so that the airline can save huge sums of money on the costs of hotel rooms, transportation, per diem, et cetera.

A friend just finished training on a new airplane, and we were commiserating how different the learning environment is today versus what it was in the past. We both agreed that the old days were better for learning. There is just something better about listening to a teacher who actually knows the airplane tell you how things work in the real world. The opposite, of course, is having to deal with instructors who have absolutely no real-world knowledge of the airplane, and instead just regurgitate what is on the PowerPoint slide or what they themselves have been told—and that was pretty common for a while.

The classroom setting had a lot of advantages: It facilitated open discussion; questions could more easily be addressed, and confusion minimized. The structure of the day also helped, since most blocks of time were 50 to 60 minutes, which kept you on a predictable pace. Not so much today. I just recently had to finish an online course for 737 MAX return to service, and it was drudgery. Most of it was the same material I had learned when the airplane first came into service, but even the new material was often boring. Worse, I won’t be flying the airplane until at least spring, if not summer or fall, so I may have to do a review when it comes up on my schedule. However, unlike the initial rollout, I will get some sim time, and I’m looking forward to that.

We now do continuing ed around the calendar, and we can space it out or cram it all together. Both systems work, but waiting until the last minute is both stressful and hellacious. Either way, it’s too easy to get distracted and not learn as much as we might, but the old days simply aren’t coming back, and that’s a shame. I miss the days of the “There we were…” stories, as they often made it easier to remember the nuances of whatever was being described.

Now, I just click “Next” and watch the timer creep closer to the next slide.—Chip Wrightзайм великий новгородзайм на счет кивимоментальный займ без отказа

California Pilots Association Zooms into View

The California Pilots Association (CalPilots) held its annual conference and annual meeting virtually this year. The event, California Zooming, featured 8-hours of Zoom content for hundreds airport and airplane lovers and featured John and Martha King as keynote speakers. CalPilots established in 1949, is a statewide non-profit corporation committed to the support of CA state general aviation airports and flight privileges.

Local, state, regional and national aviation groups have been challenged to meet the needs of its members during the COVID crisis.  I have been impressed by the virtual events I have attended both in terms of scope and quality.  California Zooming was an example of both and I was honored to be a part of it.   Here’s a list of offerings from the event, many of these seminars will be available on CalPilots’ YouTube channel in the coming weeks. My hope is that other state aviation associations or local groups can offer this type of education on airport advocacy as well as proficient pilot safety courses.

Through generous support from these great companies, we were able to offer wonderful member door prizes.  A big thank you goes to: King Schools, Lightspeed Aviation, Flying Eyes Optics, LIFT Aviation, Precise Flight, ACI Jet, and MyGo Flight.


General Session Presenters


Airport-Centered General Sessions

FAA WINGS Credit Courses

California Zooming provided attendees with four WINGS credit courses focused on pilot proficiency.  Thank you to  John and Martha King, Captain Brian Schiff, Captain Mike Jesch, Captain Gary Schank,  Paul Marshall, Ron Lovick, and  Ed Story for their informative and entertaining presentations.

California Flying Oddities – What Makes Flying in California Odd and Fun.

Captains Brian Schiff and Mike Jesch shared with us the interesting challenges ranging from the terrestrial (mountains, deserts, and oceans) to the man-made (big cities and complicated air space). They took us on a tour of several interesting and challenging airports and areas all around the state, to highlight some of what makes California flying fun.  This WINGS credit course is viewable on our YouTube channel.

Keynote: Straight Talk about Aviation Safety with John and Martha King

Pilots throughout the world regard John and Martha as their personal aviation mentors from multimedia training programs. Having had a hand in the aviation education of nearly half of the pilots in the United States in the last four decades, the Kings feel a deep responsibility toward their students and a strong sense of mission about passing on practical and insightful tools for risk management.  While we will never completely eliminate the risks of general aviation, but the Kings’ presentation covered procedures and techniques that can help pilots manage aviation risks effectively. This WINGS credit class is viewable on our YouTube channel.

Responding to the Pandemic: CalDART COVID-19 Operations

The California DART Network (CalDART) organizes California’s pilots to safely help their communities respond to disaster through its Disaster Airlift Response Teams (DARTs) located throughout the state. For COVID-19, CalDART launched Operation Medical Shield (OMS), helping front line workers get their Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) even when their main sources of supply ran out, or when their thinly funded organizations could not afford them. Flights have delivered PPE all around California and as far away as Walla Walla, Washington. In OMS, CalDART developed new Flight Medical Safety practices to keep people safe from viral infection. This WINGS credit class is viewable on our YouTube channel.

Avoiding Wing Dings: Operating Your Plane Safely on the Ground

Captain Gary Schank provided a fun and informative look at an airline pilot’s tips for safely operating your aircraft before and after you take to the air. Every flight begins and ends with ground operations, and therefore, it is a skill that should not be taken for granted. Topics included airport signage, markings and lighting, clearances, standardization, taxi etiquette, emergencies, low visibility taxi, and runway incursion avoidance. This WINGS credit class is viewable on our YouTube channel.


 Three-Tiered Airport Advocacy

Given that we are not holding large aviation gatherings, these virtual events give us opportunities to socialize, get education and explore airport advocacy. I support the three-tiered approach to airport advocacy.  Here’s a brief introduction to the concept.

Tier 1 – Local Advocacy: Local wisdom is the best source of information at an airport. Who better understands current issues, history, and future needs better the pilots who are based there? What can you do locally?

  • Join your local airport organization.
  • Find out who your AOPA ASN volunteer is.
  • Attend Airport Land Use Meetings.
  • Host community events at your airport.
  • Form a business relationship with your City or County Planners.
  • Attend all City or County sponsored airport meetings.
  • Attend Airport meetings.
  • Look for chapters of state aviation organizations in your town/area/region.
  • Use media to the airport’s best interest [newspaper, radio, social media, TV].
  • Create a good working relationship with your airport manager.

Tier 2 – Statewide Organizations: Not every state has its own general aviation organization. But a quick Google search will tell you if your state does. Statewide airport advocacy organizations are important because they maintain statewide contacts, information, and strategies. Further, our statewide groups can also advise and assist the local airport groups when issues arise.

Tier 3 – National Organizations: Our national aviation organizations are a critical piece of the three-tiered airport defense strategy. Membership ensures that each maintains its ability to support statewide or local airport/pilot organizations. If you do not belong to AOPA, EAA, NBAA, you should. Critical to interfacing with our congressional representatives, lobbying that national pilot organizations provide a large presence in Washington, DC. This voice serves to remind DC of the importance of general aviation to the nation’s transportation infrastructure. We were happy to have Melissa McCaffrey our AOPA Regional representative for the Western Pacific Region join us throughout the day.


Life has changed for us all in 2020. However, one thing that remains constant is our need for connection, camaraderie, and fun. Join your local aviation groups, become a member of your state aviation association, and utilize our national organizations fully.  We will come out of this on the other side, but we need to make sure that our airports are protected and our piloting skills are proficient.

 

 

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

The humble O2 mask

Most passengers—especially frequent travelers—don’t pay much attention to the flight attendant safety briefings. That said, there is actually some good information being passed along, and as a potential professional pilot, it would be wise to start learning some of it yourself.

For instance, how much attention have you paid to the discussion about the oxygen masks falling from the ceiling? You might know that you need to put the mask on during a depressurization situation, but did you pay any attention to the particulars? If not, you should.

The oxygen that you will breathe during a depressurization actually isn’t on the airplane yet. It has to be produced, and guess who does that? You do.

Every jet uses some kind of a pressurization controller to maintain cabin altitude. If the cabin climbs above a certain setting (around 14,000 feet msl), the controller will (should) release the “rubber jungle” into the cabin. If the automatic system fails, the pilots can manually deploy the masks, but first they need feedback from the flight attendants that the masks didn’t fall. If there are a few units that don’t work, the flight attendants can use a tool to pop open the doors of the unit that is right over your seat.

Once the masks are out, there is a catch: Oxygen isn’t generated until you pull the mask toward you. You actually need to give it a little tug, because the hose is attached to a pin that needs to be tripped. When you give that mask a tug, the pin activates a chemical reaction that will then produce the oxygen that you will breathe. This is why you’re told that you should put on your mask first and make sure it’s activated. If the cabin depressurizes at a high altitude, there won’t be much time of useful consciousness, and if you can get your mask working, then you can help a child or someone next to you.

Once the canister is activated, it generates a tremendous amount of heat, so you don’t want to reach up and touch it. It can—and will likely—also produce a bit of a burning or foul odor. You don’t want to mistake that for a possible fire. It is instead a sign that the system is working as advertised. There may also be a bit of dust or smoke, both of which can generally be ignored.

What the flight attendants don’t tell you is this: The canisters only produce enough oxygen for around 12 minutes of breathing, though you may be able to get 15 minutes out of it. Worse, the oxygen is a continuous flow. It doesn’t matter how deeply or slowly you breathe. The good news with that is that if you (or a seatmate) pass out, air is available. The bad news is that if you pull down on two masks at once, you will still only have the 12 minutes of air to use. So, if you are in a row of three seats by yourself, you might have 36 to 45 minutes of air to use if you use them consecutively.

Why so little time? The assumption is that a depressurization at altitude is going to be followed by an immediate and rapid descent to (preferably) 10,000 feet. Since passenger jets are limited to 41,000 feet, the crew would be trying to lose 31,000 feet. In 12 minutes’ time, that works out to around 2,600 feet per minute, which should be very easy to do. Keep in mind that this is a worst-case scenario, because very few full jets can reach FL410.

So, next time you board, pay attention to the safety briefing. There are nuggets of information in there that really can save your life. And in this case, they will also be on a checkride if you are looking to fly professionally.—Chip Wright

Onboard fires

Considering that the two worst things that can happen on a passenger jet are a fire or a structural failure, fire detection and extinguishing are significant parts of airplane design and emergency equipment.

There are fire detection systems in the engine and APU compartments, as well as in the cargo bins and various locations in the cabin (think of the lavs). There are also overheat detectors in the wheel wells, but generally with no extinguishing capability.

There are also extinguishers on board. There is always a fire extinguisher in or near the flight deck for the crew. The cabin is also equipped with multiple extinguishers based on the number of people the plane can seat.

Two types of extinguishers generally are carried on board. The red canister that you might have in your home or see in your place of work or school is one of them, and it is equipped with Halon. Halon is the preferred option if the fire is electrical in nature, and it works by smothering the flame and depriving it of oxygen as quickly as possible. Because it is also compressed gas, it is cold, which helps to cool the temperature quickly around the source of the flame. The risk for the user is that, in a confined area, a chemical extinguisher may displace the oxygen you are breathing.

Water fire extinguishers are less prevalent, but they are only used for what are termed as Class A fires, such as paper or waste. For this reason, you can expect to see a water extinguisher near lavatories and/or galleys. Water might be able to put out a small electrical fire, but it also increases the risk of shock or electrocution, and considering that you might already be dealing with a compromised system, adding more risk to the equation doesn’t make sense.

In the age of rechargeable batteries used in phones, computers and tablets, fire awareness and extinguishing are even more important. There have been a number of onboard fires related to lithium batteries, and at least one cargo plane was lost to such a fire.

These fires burn extremely hot and are difficult, if not impossible, to control. As a result, airlines require that they be handled a certain way, and if a fire breaks out in a cabin because of a faulty battery, it is common to see some kind of thermal containment bag that is used to corral the offending device. The bag usually has a pair of heat-resistant gloves (think of a large oven mitt) that can be used to get the device in the bag. Once it is sealed inside, the hope is that the fire will burn out from a lack of oxygen. If a battery fire can be extinguished, it’s OK to douse it with liquids in order to smother it and get the temperature under control. In fact, it’s critical to keep an eye on the source, since the fire could reignite.

Fires are less of a threat than they used to be, which means when they do happen, they can totally catch everyone off guard. Learn what you can use to extinguish each type of fire, and know where the extinguishers are located and how to use them. Pay attention during training drills, and always be ready to put that training to use.—Chip Wright

The smallest airplanes are getting bigger

When I first started to do any kind of regular travel, let alone fly for a living, turboprops were very common. Dash 8s, Brasilias, ATRs, Saab 340s, and the venerable Beech 1900 were ubiquitous in small towns all over America. Some of the flights were part of the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, and they were subsidized by Uncle Sam in order to provide some degree of air and mail service to the various Smallvilles of the USA.

Passengers, however, never did love the “puddle jumpers.” They were loud, they shook, they vibrated, and they were perceived to be less safe. After deregulation, small commuters sprouted and eventually began to work hand-in-glove with the jet drivers to produce the current hub-and-spoke system, while in some cases marketing a few flights on their own.

In the 1990s the concept of the regional jet gained steam, and while pundits and critics said it was doomed to failure—too few seats and too high an operating cost—the RJ revolutionized travel. The days of the turboprop were numbered, and by 9/11, with a spike in fuel prices and change in travel demand, the turboprop was on its last legs. Fifty-seaters dominated, because of comfort and speed, but those same high fuel costs became an issue for the RJs as well, and the real push for larger small jets began.

Nowadays, as we wade through the COVID-19 pandemic, the 50-seaters by Bombardier and Embraer are the airplanes facing demise. Some have been converted into corporate jets or cargo planes, but most are being sent to the desert. The CR7 and CR9 are now the Bombardier mainstays (the verdict is still out on the C-Series, since sold to Airbus and marketed as the A-220), while Embraer is making the most of its E-Jet series. Both have become major players, to the point that Boeing felt it necessary to buy a portion of Embraer and Airbus of Bombardier.

It’s interesting to see how the smallest airplanes have become bigger. Turboprops with 19 seats didn’t require a flight attendant, and they were cheap to operate. But jets offered far more opportunity and a better experience for the passenger at a premium price. The race now is to determine if there is a true market need for something in the 100-seat range, similar to the old DC-9s and early 737s. There doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus, and airlines would rather fill  up an  airplane up and leave folks behind than fly even one empty seat.

(The same thing has also happened on the other end of the spectrum: The A-380 has proved to be a flop, and the 747 is being phased out of passenger service in favor of smaller, lower-cost twinjets like the 777 and 787.)

As the E-190 appears to be near the end of its run in the United States—American announced plans to park theirs, and jetBlue has been planning to do so for some time—the smallest mainline jets will be the 737-700/A-319 variants, which seat 120-137, depending on configuration. The gap between large RJs and small mainline jets will be either a target of opportunity or a bit of a no-man’s land as we move forward.

For pilots, it means that more and more will get their introduction to airline flying in some of the most sophisticated aircraft in the sky, and not in the old steam-gauge turboprops.—Chip Wright

Preparing for the post-COVID job market

As the airlines begin to regroup to adapt to the new realities of a COVID-19 world, pilots who are trying to get into the industry must surely be confused and even discouraged, which is perfectly understandable.

But the world still needs airlines, and airlines still need pilots, and low-time pilots still need jobs. There is no sugar-coating the fact that low-time pilots will be delayed in getting that first job and those precious FAR 121 turbine hours. But those opportunities will come.

For now, you need to keep your applications up to date, current, and accurate. You also need to stay in touch with your network and follow up any rumors to cut through to the facts and truth of what is going on. Bad information is acidic, and it won’t do you any good at all. Seek out the truth, and keep your ears to the ground for opportunities and openings.

In the interim, fly as often as you can, and if you’re a CFI, look for any teaching opportunities that might arise. There may not be many, but it may not be as bad as you might think. You can also look for opportunities to take airplanes up for owners just to fly them, and if you can work a deal to get an airplane to fly on the cheap, this would be the time to build some hours and stay current.

What you can’t do is just give up. Even if you have to shift gears into other work for a while, you need to keep your sights on your goals and dreams and continue in the direction you have worked so hard for. The industry has been through upheaval before—nothing like this, to be sure—and it will eventually turn the corner. The strong will survive, and there may even be some new entrants if carriers fail and leave assets to reuse. But people and cargo are going to need to be moved.

Even if you’re outside of the industry, you can work on currency and maintaining a list of good contacts while staying abreast of what is going on. Once the economies around the world get a foothold, the return to growth is likely to be steady, if not quick. Nobody knows when that will happen.

But you do have the choice to be ready versus being left behind.—Chip Wright

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