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Tag: professional pilots (page 1 of 11)

A rough winter

As I write this, I am home dealing with round two of a wicked cold that is wreaking havoc this year. Where I live, it has become so pervasive that schools are closing because of high absentee rates, and some are dealing with a lingering cough that lasts for weeks, if not months. On the news, all the talk is about the coronavirus, while online there are jokes about corona virus being cured with a slice of lime. Personally, I’m feeling pretty miserable, and I’m sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.

All kidding aside, this brings up the point that flying while sick is not a good idea. It can be dangerous (think: blown ear drums, vomiting, et cetera), inconsiderate, and illegal, since the FAA demands that you not do anything in violation of your medical. Certain medications may render you unable to fly for awhile as well.

Flying while sick also degrades your performance, and you never know when you’re going to need to bring your A game. While a desk-bound person or a sales rep or a number of other professions can get by with someone not feeling well, pilots may need to react to an emergency in a three-dimensional environment in very trying conditions. If you are sick or dizzy or sneezing or in a state of fatigue because  you are sick, your judgment is likely to be impaired and your reaction times diminished.

No matter where you are in your flying career, it would be a good idea to review your immunization records. In the last several years, there have been a number of sudden and unexpected changes in requirements for proof of vaccinations from certain diseases in certain countries. Recently, the Marshall Islands implemented a requirement for proof of measles vaccinations for crew members. If you’re considering a flying career that will cross borders, take the time to visit the State Department and Centers for Disease Control websites to see what shots they recommend getting for certain geographic regions. Diplomatic sites for the specific countries can also provide useful information. (This isn’t intended to start or engage in the argument of being in favor of or against the practice of vaccinations, but if crew members can’t or are not willing to show compliance with the laws of nations they may reasonably be expected to visit, then they may be denying themselves the possibility of employment, or risking a termination.)

Flying sick is also a pretty good way to make sure that you stay sicker longer. Staying home and resting is a better idea than trying to power through anything, even a common cold. When you do have to go to work, be a little more aware of basic hygiene practices such as washing your hands with soap, and using hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes. Use sick time for the intended purpose, and you’ll be fine. Back in the day, airlines—especially the regionals—were known for draconian sick leave policies. Those days are (largely) gone, as airlines now recognize that brining your illness to work is never the better solution.

Ask me how I know this…—Chip Wright

Buddy pass tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human factors assumptions, part 2

The Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX crashes have brought some attention to the relatively recent concept of multi-crew pilot license (MPL) certification.

The MPL was designed as a work-around for the traditional pilot training tracks that don’t include the military. Instead of following the current private/instrument/commercial/multiengine progression that thousands of us have done in the past, the MPL works by getting some basic private pilot-like training done in a single engine airplane, with perhaps a bit of instrument training as well. But the overwhelming percentage of the training is conducted in a simulator or fixed training device specific to the aircraft that the candidate will be flying. In other words, an MPL candidate for the 737 would get the majority of his or her training in the 737, and only the 737.

On paper, this can be attractive, because a few hundred hours of dedicated time spent learning to fly and handle one aircraft can be performed in a structured, building-block methodology. Over time, more and more complex situations can be introduced and responses evaluated and repeated, if necessary.

But this also leaves a lot out. Simulators, for example, are terrible replicators of weather. Becoming weather-savvy is something that can really only be learned from experience, not from reading it in a book or watching a video. Complex air traffic control communications are also difficult-to-impossible to work into a simulator, especially if English is not your first language, or one you speak fluently.

An MPL might produce a pilot who is book-smart and a checklist-monkey when he or she gets in the airplane, but you can’t buy experience. And with such a narrow scope of knowledge from which to draw, you may not have the tricks or the know-how to handle complex events that may not have been covered in the box.

Pilots who gain experience by building time in a variety of flying opportunities are like putting together a much more valuable box of tools to draw upon when things go south. Further, they are doing so in a real-world setting that truly tests their grit, stamina, and threshold for stress. No amount of MPL simulator training is ever going to provide the same thing, no matter how diligent the efforts at realism.

If the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accident reports come down on the validity and quality of training, even if only remotely, let’s hope that the MPL concept is at least paused or reconsidered. Additional real airplane training might cost more up front, but it will be cheaper in the long run, for there is no substitute for real experience in anything.—Chip Wright

Sim seat-fill

No pilot wants to be under the scrutiny of an examiner or an instructor any more than is absolutely necessary. However, airliners require two pilots, and that means any training in the sim also requires two pilots. Most of the time, pilots are paired with another student, and each gets equal time to practice whatever is on the schedule.

But, as the saying goes, best laid plans… Occasionally, a pilot is not paired up with another student. This may be attributable to an odd number of trainees, or because one student needs to be held back for remedial training, or one quits or gets fired or is sick, et cetera. And some airlines—increasingly fewer do this, but it still happens—won’t let two pilots who have been training together take a checkride together. When this happens, the training department needs to use what is often termed a seat-fill, which is another pilot brought in to occupy the second seat and perform accordingly.

Most of the time, seat-fill pilots are stand-by instructors, but when they aren’t available, local pilots near the training center usually get the call. Sometimes the airline is required to use reserve pilots, but often, lineholders can make themselves available as well, using whatever sign-up process is available.

The immediate question is, why would anyone want to do this, and is there a jeopardy component to this? Well, yes, you are in a jeopardy situation, which means that if you perform in such a fashion that you would have failed your own checkride, you can find yourself effectively grounded until you’ve been retrained. That, however, is rare.

Most pilots volunteer for seat-fill because they consider it an easy way to make some extra money on a day off without having to go to the airport or spend a night away from home. It’s also a great way to stay sharp on procedures in the sim that you don’t get to do very often. Last, but not least, you get to know most of the instructors and examiners, and they get to know you, so when you go in for your training, you are much less nervous and more comfortable than you might otherwise have been. Taking that a step further, you might get the benefit of the doubt if you make a mistake or two during your own ride that might have been cause for concern previously.

Another benefit to doing a lot of seat-fill is the networking that can take place. If you’re interested in getting into the training department, this a great way to show your bona fides in terms of your preparation, readiness, willingness to help a new hire, and the like. The truth is, there is no downside to doing the seat-fill if you can. If your schedule is flexible, and you live near the training center, take advantage of the opportunities that seat-filling provides, especially as your own checkride approaches. Extra training, extra cash, and more confidence: It’s a lot more upside than down!—Chip Wright

Airport reserve

If you’re new to an airline, you’ll soon find that not all of the assignments are of the type that bring fame, glory, and riches. One of the least desirable is going to the airport and just sitting there.

This particular assignment goes by several names: ready reserve, field standby, hot standby, airport reserve. Whatever you call it, 99 percent of the time it is boring.

Essentially, airport reserve is just that: You’re assigned a window of time to spend at the airport, in uniform, ready to go. Your job is to be immediately available to get to a gate and get a flight out that has a sudden shortage of a crew. Last-minute sick calls; mechanical problems; crews timing out on their duty day; diversions of an inbound flight; and ferrying airplanes are common reasons for Scheduling to call the airport reserve crew to save the day.

Most of the time, you’ll go to the airport and go nowhere but home, but as we move into the winter months, there is usually an uptick in the usage of the airport reserve crews. Flu season compounds the problem, especially if pilots wake up to find out one of their kids or their spouse is sick and need to stay home. The contagious nature of the flu also means that people will spread the virus without realizing they are sick themselves. The same is true of the common cold. Summer also sees an increase in airport reserve usage as thunderstorms wreak havoc and force Scheduling to pull out all the stops to keep the operation moving along.

Depending on the airline, airport reserve will last anywhere from four to eight hours. Regionals tend to use this tool more than the majors, but the majors have it as well. It’s also common among cargo carriers, which are very schedule-sensitive.

There may be some overlap from one shift to the next, and there may or may not be rules in place to determine the methodology Scheduling can use to determine if the airport reserve can be called out versus someone sitting reserve at home. Often, you’ll question the logic of how certain people are used when. More often than not, you’ll be right to question those decisions. Hopefully, there will be other rules in place as well to prevent pointless scheduling practices, such as not bringing in a pilot for a late afternoon/evening shift who can’t do an overnight, or bringing in a pilot who has flown enough in the previous several days that he or she can’t do any of the flights on the schedule. It also helps to have a limit on the number a pilot can do in a given month.

The best thing you can do to make the time pass is to bring books and magazines to read, movies to watch, or use the time to catch up on company-mandated training. While you will be technically required to be in uniform, it may be possible to put your uni on a hanger and wear your civilian clothes, as long as you can change in short order and not create an undue delay in getting to the gate.

Airport reserve is one of the least appealing things about being a pilot, but used appropriately, it can be a life-saver for the airline. Done poorly, it can be a waste of money and resources. On some fleets, airport reserve doesn’t make sense, either because the fleet is too small or, for wide-bodies, the duty time limitations prevent it from being used effectively. Your job is to simply be prepared, suitcase stocked, ready to go at a moment’s notice to save the day and get at least one flight completed.—Chip Wright

Rejected takeoffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get ready for training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alcohol standards are tightening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bidding vacation

I’ve written before about the significance of seniority with respect to bidding, bases, quality of life, et cetera. When you talk to pilots about what factors into their decision to upgrade, change fleets or switch domiciles, a number of factors crop up, and one of those is vacation.

Pilots accrue vacation based on years of completed service, with two weeks for the first four to five years behind standard issue, followed by three weeks for several years, and topping out with five or maybe even six weeks a year. Every airline has to figure out a way to have a certain number of allotted vacation weeks in each seat, in each fleet, in each base, every year. For example, there might be eight slots to take vacation starting the first week of April in a given year, but there may only be six slots the first week of July, because July is the peak of the travel year.

From a pilot’s perspective, this is critical because at any airline, most anyone can tell you what kind of vacation weeks their seniority can hold. As you might imagine, summers are difficult to get because everyone wants time off during the summer. These positions tend to go senior, and if the company allows pilots to bid consecutive weeks, the junior pilots are virtually frozen out of getting a summer vacation.

There are other times of the year that cause similar issues: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July, and the end/beginning of the school year. To make matters worse, bidding for vacation usually begins no later than 14 months from the end of the vacation year, because the bidding process takes time, and because it’s critical to get the awards for the first month of the year into the computer so that pilots can bid their regular schedule around it.

Vacation also affects training scheduling for both recurrent training and new position/equipment training. Scheduling around recurrent isn’t usually too difficult; you just can’t bid for both concurrently. Extended training events, however, can wreak havoc on vacation planning. Depending on the airline, you may be able to defer the training event for your vacation, but that might mean waiting months for your next chance to get that long-awaited time off. On the other hand, you may lose the week and see it pushed into another year (some find this desirable), or you may have to forfeit it in exchange for pay or a 401(k) deposit.

Most airlines also allow some kind of vacation “slide,” which means you can move your vacation forward or backward from the posted start date. Three days either way is fairly typical, which means that if you can’t hold consecutive weeks, you may be able to get two weeks that are six days apart, and slide them each to produce consecutive weeks, or you can try to bid the days off in between them.

Changing your current base, seat, or fleet can wreak absolute havoc on your plans. Usually, you’ll lose your scheduled vacation, because of the aforementioned allocation of slots based on staffing for each category. If you have vacation later in the year, and then take advantage of a captain position, you will have to bid for whichever weeks are left over in your new position. If there aren’t any, you’ll have to take your fate per the rules at your airline. Often, pilots who know they are planning to upgrade or change positions will do so after their vacations are used up, or start negotiating with the chief pilot to keep the week(s) off if there are plans set in stone.—Chip Wright

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