Sunday, May 01, 2016

How to Fly with a Jerk

Yea, they're out there. The perfectionists, the disgruntled, the narcissists and especially the ones who are going to teach you the "proper" way to fly. Spend enough time in the front of an airliner and sooner or later you will be paired to fly with a jerk. Short of calling in sick, you will have to spend the next several days locked in a closet sized space for hours on end with the south side of a northbound horse.

So how will you cope? Remember that you have an important job to do and to do it well, you have to work with the other pilot. There was a time when the standard method of dealing with a jerk was to simply not deal with him or her. This could've meant each pilot scanning the 10 or 2 o'clock positions permanently while never interacting save for required checklist callouts.

That strategy clearly has drawbacks and can seriously degrade safety. There's a reason that airliners still have two pilots (for now). You're a professional even if the other guy or gal is less so, and the folks in back are counting on both pilots up front to conduct themselves as such. With all that in mind, here's the Captain's guide to surviving a pairing with a jerk! (Me included.)

Don't Keep It to Yourself

I think that most people are generally conflict averse. I know I am. Most of us don't go around looking for a fight or trying to cause trouble, especially on the job. We want to get through our day, finish with zero airspeed at the correct gate and go to the hotel. So when a situation crops up that causes us some consternation, a first reaction may be to just keep it to ourselves. After all we place a high value on good cockpit relations and rationalize that some internal discomfort is not too high a price to maintain a cordial cockpit atmosphere.

Don't fall for this rationalization. It is built on a fallacy. For starters, if the other guy is doing something that bothers you, he may not even realize it. Secondly, your discomfort won't go away. It will only fester and get worse. Trust me on this. And if you keep your feelings to yourself for any length of time, it can get really awkward when you finally do speak up. It is always best to get things off of your chest as early as possible.

Don't Ever Accept Non-Standard Operation

Again, there may have been a time in the distant past where the Captain was omnipotent and not to be questioned no matter what he did, even if it fell outside of standard operating procedures (SOP). Those times are absolutely long gone. You have a legal and moral duty to make sure that the aircraft is always operated by the book. Does this mean that you must become a pecksniff and point out every deviation no matter how minor? No it does not; there is a middle ground between being a bag of sand in the seat and what we sometimes refer to as a "check F/O".

Getting back to the professionalism part, when the aircraft is operated in a non-standard fashion and something bad happens, claiming that the other guy was flying is of course no defense. My advice is to predetermine your own personal boundaries and then stick to them. You'll sleep better at night. If push comes to shove, which it hopefully never will, take the airplane if you must, and after landing grab your gear and get off the airplane. This will of course involve scheduling and chief pilots but your career is worth it.

And I want to add a note here about bringing in third parties to a dispute. I believe in handling conflict personally whenever possible. The outside resources available to you are your union's professional standards people and your chief pilot. The first thing either of these people will ask is whether you discussed the matter with the other person. If you reply in the negative, your credibility drops. Nobody will care about your issue more than you, so start there. 

The pro standards folks and (most) chiefs are great, but my thoughts are that if the guy you're flying with is that big of a jerk, the pro standards folks are probably already well acquainted with him. Taking an issue to a chief pilot should be an absolute last resort. You don't want to be known as the guy who runs to management with a personality conflict. Gross or continued non-standard flying? Maybe. Just be ready to defend your actions.

Sometimes You Have to Just Suck it Up

I personally like to let my F/Os fly the airplane any way they'd like as long as it is within SOP, but that's just me. Some cappies like to dictate how the plane should be flown or how a system should be operated. According to most airlines' procedures and FARs, they are within their rights to have it done the way they want it done, again as long as it is within SOP.

As an F/O, you learn to become a chameleon and do it the way the boss likes it to be done. For instance, in the age old argument of whether or not to run the packs on high on a hot day in a 737, everyone has an opinion. But if the guy in the left seat has a preference, his vote is the one that counts. Hopefully he will be willing to listen to your reasons. If not, there's not much that can be done until you upgrade yourself.

My airline has a "bid avoidance" feature that can be used by F/Os to avoid people with whom they really don't want to fly, but it comes with the price of subrogating their own seniority. This feature didn't exist when I was in the right seat so the "suck it up" or "talk it out" methods were all that were available. It did, though, in some measure force people to get along to some degree.

Take a Look in the Mirror

If you find that you seem to end up having more than a few tiffs in the cockpit, then perhaps the problem doesn't lie with the other guy. If it seems to you that everyone you fly with is a pig-headed jerk, then that may become a clue for you. I think this advice is especially useful for captains. F/Os are naturally inclined to become chameleons, so if you find that your cockpit has a tense atmosphere or you spend a lot of time eating alone in the hotel, perhaps some introspection is merited.

Captains, on the other hand, really get very little feedback. Some are conscientious enough to ask how they're doing, but many are not. Most people with a blind spot are unaware that they have one, which is why my above advice to not keep things to yourself may be more useful than first thought.

Do I have war stories about conflict in the cockpit? Yes I do. I think conflict of some sort with another pilot is inevitable given enough time. My personal technique is to try to not bring up topics which might be touchy such as union issues or politics. I'll talk about that stuff all day long if it comes up, but it is much easier to "kick someone's anthill over" when discussing those things as opposed to Da Bears. And I'm not a huge sports fan, but being at least somewhat conversant in sports can be helpful.

In Conclusion

Unlike many other workplace environments, a cockpit is an especially bad place for conflict. Both pilots must make an effort to recognize and to quarantine conflict. Getting things on the table early and using techniques such as humor can go a long way to defuse the bad feels. Pilots aren't necessarily known for being great "people people" but getting along up front should be considered as essential a skill as maintaining airspeed on final.

 Of course, I always get to fly with my favorite jerk.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Troubling Report from Rostov

An interim report on the crash of FZ981 has been released
Reconstruction of the FlyDubai 737-800 wreckage

The Russian Interstate Aviation Committee has published an interim report on their investigation into the crash of FlyDubai FZ981. The report is quite troubling as it suggests that the aircraft did not suffer a low speed event or stall, but rather hit the ground with flying airspeed in an extreme nose down attitude. The report is here.

The report starts with the facts that are already known: the aircraft attempted one approach which was aborted followed by an extended time in a holding pattern. Nearly two hours later, a second approach was attempted and a second go around was initiated at 721 ft above ground level (AGL).

The report states that a possible reason the second go around was initiated was due to a sudden increase in indicated airspeed of 20 knots to 176 knots. This is entirely plausible as a gust of this velocity would cause the flaps to automatically retract to avoid an overspeed. Should this happen while on final approach under 1000 ft AGL, the correct decision would be to go around.


There has been some speculation that windshear might have been the primary cause of the crash. I think it is important to differentiate between the windshear which might be generated due to convective activity (a thunderstorm) as opposed to gusts found in frontal activity. The weather was consistently poor for many hours preceding the crash with gusty winds but no reported thunderstorms.

The winds were reported as 20 degrees off of runway heading at 27 knots gusting to 42 knots. These winds would certainly make for a difficult approach and landing as the plane would be bucking like a bronco, but they would not be a challenge to staying airborne. Windshear found in thunderstorms can threaten an aircraft on approach but there is no indication such conditions existed here.

Anomalies on the Go Around

It was on the second go around that trouble started. The crew set the flaps to 15 and retracted the gear which is normal procedure. At a height of 1900 ft, the pilot flying pushed on the control column which decreased pitch and caused airspeed to increase. It is at this time that the flaps would normally be retracted so as to not overspeed them. The report states that the flaps automatically retracted to position 10 while the speed increased to over 200 knots.

The flaps blow-up protection on the 737-800 is designed to prevent damage to the flaps due to unintentional overspeeds. Called the Flap Load Relief system, it will retract the flaps from 15 to 10 when the airspeed indicates 201 knots. The flaps will automatically re-extend to the selected position of 15 when the airspeed falls below 196 knots.

It was at this time that the thrust was reduced slightly and the flaps auto-extended themselves back to 15. The thrust was then increased back to full power while pitch and airspeed increased. The flaps once again auto-retracted to 10 where they remained until impact.

The aircraft continued on a rather steep climb of 3150 feet/minute until reaching an altitude of nearly 3000 feet. A vertical velocity of 3000 feet/minute on a go around is steep but not necessarily a problem. The aircraft is by now light having burned its holding fuel, and is not carrying a full load. Pilots can choose to use somewhat less than full thrust in these types of situations but using full thrust is not procedurally wrong. It just means you might have a greater likelihood of overshooting an altitude or causing a flap overspeed which is what happened.

Pitch Over

It was at this time that the aircraft pitched over and began its fatal dive. The report states that the FDR recorded a simultaneous push on the control column accompanied by 12 seconds of forward stabilizer movement. Let's take these one at a time.

Pitching over to stop a steep climb is completely normal. Pitching over which results in a -1g acceleration is not. Normal gravity is 1g. Anytime you feel light in your seat, you're at something less than 1g. A zero g pushover would mean everything in the cabin would float. You'd come off your seat slightly. It would be uncomfortable and rarely happens. A negative 1g acceleration is effectively the same as if your seat was upside down and you were hanging from the seat belt. It would be extremely uncomfortable and short of extreme turbulence just doesn't happen. And it appears to have been caused by a combination of flight control and trim input.

Stabilizer trim is designed to compensate for airspeed changes affecting how the airplane flies. As an airplane increases speed, the nose naturally wants to come up to attempt to maintain the same airspeed as before. Pilots would have to keep pushing on the control column when accelerating to maintain level flight. Trim repositions the horizontal stabilizer to relieve this force. It is controlled by a thumb switch on the yoke which activates an electric motor to actually move the entire horizontal stabilizer and align it with the slipstream. 

On the 737 there is a large wheel next to the throttles which also is connected to the trim motor. This wheel allows manual positioning of the trim if the motor fails and also provides visual feedback to the pilots when the trim motor is running. Normal trim technique is to trim in bursts of one or two seconds. The trim motor on the 737 has two speeds for use depending on whether the flaps are extended or not. The high speed setting is active when the flaps are down. 

A 12 second run of the trim motor, especially in high speed mode, would never be needed during normal operations. This might lead to some speculation that the aircraft suffered what's known as "runaway trim" where the switch might stick and run the trim uncommanded. Boeing has provided several safeguards to prevent this from happening. There is an electric stab trim cutout switch located on the center control stand which removes electric power from the system. 

In addition, power is removed from the system any time pitch inputs don't match the control column inputs. This means the motor cannot trim forward when a pilot is pulling aft and vice versa. Lastly, the trim wheel is designed to be grasped and held when running if all else fails. With these safeguards, a runaway trim problem seems unlikely.

Final Dive

The report states that after the forward control column and trim inputs, the aircraft entered a dive after reaching a peak altitude of just under 3300 ft and subsequently hit the ground in a 50 degree nose low attitude at a speed of over 320 knots. Normally an airliner doesn't see a descending pitch attitude of more than 5 or 10 degrees nose low.

I honestly don't know what to make of this report. The crew flew a somewhat sloppy go around allowing the speed to increase where the flaps blew up, but that by itself wasn't gross or necessarily dangerous. The flap load relief system functioned as designed.

The question to be answered is why the pilots initiated the pushover and simultaneous forward trim? The airplane essentially dove into the ground. I am sure various mechanical or structural failure and other possible scenarios are being considered. The investigators have their work cut out for them.

This is just a preliminary report and the CVR tapes, while referenced in the report, have not been released to the public and may provide more context. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Boeing 737-200 Pilot Report

The Boeing 737 is the world's most popular airliner.
Boeing has now delivered nearly 9000 737s

The Boeing Model 737 is considered one of the most successful airliners ever built. Boeing has built nearly 9000 of these aircraft since its introduction in 1968 with thousands of more orders on the books. Just this month the 737 celebrated the 49th anniversary of her first flight. Currently Boeing's only narrow body aircraft in production, the 737 has been produced in seven variants over the years, the -100 through -700. The next iteration, the Max-8, is currently undergoing flight testing and is scheduled for delivery to launch customer Southwest Airlines next year.

I flew the 737-200 in both the left and right seat from the time I was hired until my airline retired the aircraft from the fleet in the early 2000s. I have many thousands of hours of time in this aircraft and really enjoyed flying her. The 200 was a pilot's airplane meaning that she was responsive and easy to fly. It was easy to put the airplane where you wanted her and once you learned the tricks to make a smooth landing such as the "roll-on", she was a real cream puff.

The 200 had her drawbacks as well. Being underpowered was one of the greatest frustrations. When Boeing introduced this aircraft as the -100 model, it came equipped with Pratt and Whitney JT8D-7 engines producing about 14,000 lbs of thrust. This aircraft was so underpowered that it was not even allowed to use full flaps to land as there was too much drag. The 100 model was quickly replaced by the -200 model which offered the upgraded JT8D-9 engines producing 15,500 lbs of thrust. I only flew the aircraft with the -9 engines. Still, she was kind of a pig.

Don't Shut Off the APU!

Taking off of short runways was always kind of exciting. One procedure with which all -200 pilots had to become intimately familiar was the "bleeds off" takeoff. During normal operations, hot, compressed or "bleed" air is drawn out of the engine to run the air conditioning and to provide pressurization. When taking off from a short runway on a hot day, drawing that bleed air means that it isn't available to produce thrust. So one method to increase thrust from the engines was to turn the bleeds off and to use air from the auxiliary power unit (APU) for air conditioning until getting airborne.

Without the extra thrust from the bleed air being available, there often wasn't enough thrust for a safe takeoff. It was during taxi-out and after takeoff that problems arose. There are six switches controlling the bleed air plumbing on a 737 and they must be positioned correctly. One particular mistake could cause damage if both the engine and APU bleed valves were open at the same time as the engine would overpower the APU. Otherwise, one of the more common mistakes was to forget that the APU was needed and to accidentally shut it off. This usually happened right after being cleared for takeoff meaning an embarrassing call to the tower that you had to delay to start it up again.

Once airborne, forgetting to reconfigure the bleeds back to normal could be a big problem. If you climbed high enough like this, you might get the altitude warning horn as the cabin wouldn't pressurize. Go higher still and you'd get the "rubber jungle" as the masks fell. Besides causing a severe panic in the back, it was a guaranteed trip to see the chief pilot followed by an unpaid vacation as you'd probably get some time off.

Other aspects of the low thrust of the aircraft meant that turning on the engine anti-ice would slow your climb rate and turning on the wing anti-ice meant almost no climb capability as it used quite a bit of bleed air. That said, the cooling capability was always great on the 200. It wasn't until the introduction of the -300 that Boeing changed the air conditioning to include a "low flow" setting which made that airplane hot in the summer.

Pilot's Airplane

I loved flying the 200 as it was very responsive to control inputs and easy to trim. Later models for whatever reason never had the tight feel of the flight controls that the -200 did. Think of going from a Triumph to your dad's Buick. She was quite easy to land consistently well once you learned how to do the "roll-on".

The roll-on was accomplished by executing a slightly aggressive flare just before touching down at about 5 feet altitude and then releasing back pressure on the yoke just as the aircraft touches down. Done correctly, there would be nearly no perceivable thump at touchdown, just the appearance of runway rumble. It was quite impressive.

The "science" behind the roll-on was that the landing gear are aft of the center of lift. What this means is that the release of back pressure on the yoke actually caused the landing gear to touch down at less vertical velocity than the aircraft overall as the plane was now rotating forward around the center of lift. The only problem with this technique was that if you screwed it up, you really knew it. Time it wrong and the gear will hit the runway at a vertical speed greater than the aircraft as a whole resulting in a really hard touchdown.

Back in those days you might get a flight attendant to come up who had refastened her bra around her waist to drive home the critique of a hard landing.


As I mentioned, the -200 was a pleasure to fly. The caveat was that this was only on nice or "visual flight rules" (VFR) days. She was not much fun in the weather for many different reasons. As I mentioned above, using the anti-ice tended to kill climb performance, but there were other problems.

The radar was close to useless in many cases due to its inadequate stabilization. The weather radar on an airliner is designed to allow pilots to avoid thunderstorms. It does this by bouncing radio waves off of relatively thick storm clouds. The radar antenna has to be stabilized in relation to the horizon because when the aircraft is in a bank, the radar would only see ground returns. For whatever reason, the stab on those radar just didn't work right which meant a screen filled with red ground returns whenever the airplane was turning. Thankfully that problem was fixed in later models.

Another annoying issue was that only the captain's instruments could be tied into the autopilot in order to fly a "coupled" approach on our models. That meant that first officers had to ask the captain to set up their radios when the first officer was flying an approach. It seems crazy, but some captains would be put out by such a request. That problem went away after I upgraded to the left seat. After that, I always got to fly with my favorite jerk.

One fun feature of the autopilot is that when it was turned off, it would make a small click whenever the controls were moved out of the neutral position. Pilots of course would then use this "scoring" system to bet for beers by who could fly an approach generating the fewest clicks. 

Stupid Pilot Tricks

This next part may have more to do with flying during the era before 9/11 but I associate it with flying the -200. Flight attendants would routinely come up front to chat before armored doors and protocols made it so onerous. We might be flying a 40 minute leg completely full, but the flight attendants would still manage to come up to give us our beverages if not to chat for a minute. It's a rare occurrence today. I'll fly a five hour flight and never see or hear from them. Ah well, at least I got to experience some of the more relaxed times.

One of the favorite tricks was to float a lightbulb on the gasper vent and to then call the girls up front. We had a store of small lightbulbs to be used to replace burnt out bulbs in the cockpit, and also an air vent called the eyeball gasper much like the overhead vents in back only this one pointed up. Well, the airstream would float the bulb in midair as a hairdryer will float a ping pong ball. We'd then explain that it was voice activated. I'd give the command to stop as my F/O would discretely turn off the switch and the bulb would drop. When offered to give it a try, it wouldn't work for the visiting F/A. We then concluded that it must be tuned for male voices only.

Other fun tricks were to explain that the overhead map light was really a telescope and oh, would you like to take a look? This meant having the gullible F/A lean way over to have a glimpse. Great fun.

Time Marches On

The -200 was a fun airplane to fly in a fun era but her day came to an end. What ultimately killed off the -200 was economics. The new -300s launched in the early '80s were much more fuel efficient and much more capable than their older siblings. It became rare that we had to accomplish a bleeds off takeoff and the aircraft burned significantly less fuel.

The last of the -300s are themselves being replaced by the "next generation" or NG series 737s, introduced in the late '90s, which themselves will eventually be replaced by the Max series aircraft now undergoing flight testing in Seattle. The airplanes I fly today all have large flat screen digital displays, integrated flight management systems and all the geegaws you expect to find on the most modern airliners.

What became of all those old airplanes? Well some of them went to Eastern Europe or Africa to fly around before being retired. I remember one of our airplanes which had flown for us for decades was wrecked by some fly-by-night outfit perhaps months after leaving our fleet. Most of those airplanes, though, were probably made into soda cans.

An ignominious end to a glorious flying machine, but the memories of that time still remain. And while the gig isn't perhaps as good as it once was, it's still pretty good. And as I always say, it still beats working for a living.

Update: Do you have any good old-school war stories about the -200 (or three holer, or DC-9)? I'd love to hear them. Leave a comment here or on the FB page!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Big Airlines buy Smaller Jets: Should Regional Airlines Worry?

Delta is close to purchasing the new C-Series aircraft
Bombardier C-Series Regional Aircraft

The airline business model for the past decade or so has depended on the big six (now three) network carriers flying larger narrow and widebody aircraft to and from fortress hubs while outsourcing regional flying to lower cost regional partner airlines through capacity purchase agreements (CPAs). This model was driven by both the introduction of new and capable 50 to 70 seat regional jets (RJs), and also the need to compete with low cost competitors such as Southwest and America West.

By the late 90s, network carriers had found themselves hamstrung by union pay scales and work rules when attempting to compete with the fast growing low cost carriers (LCCs) unleashed by deregulation. Competitive responses such as United's Shuttle by United and Ted, Delta's Delta Express and Song, and Continental's Continental Lite were all terminated after lackluster economic results.

As I detailed in an earlier post, partnerships with regional airlines who operate under the brand of the mainline carriers allowed a competitive response to LCC incursion by circumventing high labor costs and work rules. Loopholes in union contracts at the mainline carriers allowed for the outsourcing of this flying.

This model, however, may no longer be working.

Mainline Carriers Seek Regional Jets

In the past year or two we've seen increased interest in regional aircraft by mainline carriers which suggests that the mainline carriers wish to bring at least some of their regional flying back in-house. One of the first accessions was by Delta of all the Boeing 717 aircraft that Southwest had acquired in its merger with AirTran. The 717 is a smaller, 100 seat variant of the MD-80 line and a highly desired aircraft as it fills the niche between RJ aircraft and larger narrowbody jets like the 737.

The next move by Delta was its attempt to reach a contract with its pilots last summer that included the purchase of 20 Embraer E-190 regional jets. This would have been the first time that Delta operated regional aircraft in its mainline operation using its own pilots and not a regional partner. That contract was rejected by the pilots for reasons mostly unrelated to the RJ purchase, but it could be assumed that Delta was still interested in those aircraft. And as we shall see, they were.

Next up was United who last fall made an unsolicited offer to their pilot's union to reopen their recently negotiated contract. In a letter to the union, a senior vice-president mentioned that a successful conclusion of the negotiations would result in the acquisition of new small narrowbody (NSNB) aircraft to be flown by United mainline pilots. That contract extension was passed by the union.

Here Come the Jets

In recent weeks we've seen a flurry of smaller jet purchases by both Delta and United. Delta is reportedly very close to a deal with Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier for 75 of their new C-Series regional aircraft. These new and highly efficient aircraft come in two variants which will seat between 100-160 passengers depending upon model and interior configuration. This aircraft will fit nicely with their already existing 717s for the 100 seat market.

And back in January United announced an order for 40 Boeing 737-700 aircraft. While the 737-700 is not considered a regional aircraft, United's configuration for its existing -700s is for 118 seats which puts it right in the middle of the pack for regional flying. They reportedly got the airplanes for a screaming deal of $20-25 million per plane which Bombardier, the other choice under consideration, simply couldn't match. Boeing has just launched the newer variant 737-Max and is giving United a deal to clear the last of the -700s off the lot as it were.

American Airlines is in a somewhat different situation as they've owned their own regional airline, American Eagle (now Envoy) since buying out all their regional partners back in 1987. Apparently American was able to wrangle exceptions to the scope clauses in their union contracts allowing this arrangement. Already being the owner of their regional would seem to reduce the need for bringing that flying in-house. After American's bankruptcy and merger with USAir though, they have resumed American Eagle branded flights with a number of outside regional partners under capacity purchase agreements.

Why Change Now?

The current model has worked for some time so why rock the boat and change things around now? There may be a few things going on here. The first one may have something to do with the cost of fuel. Let me explain. 

When regional airlines first started flying RJs, the 50 seat RJs were very popular and allowed network airlines to raid each other's hubs with these fast and relatively long range aircraft. Later, though, as the price of oil climbed through $100 a barrel, the aircraft became uneconomical to operate. The reason for this is that they cost just slightly less to purchase and operate as larger aircraft, but generate only a fraction of the revenue putting them at a disadvantage. Fuel is cheap now but airline managers realize it may not stay that way for long.

This is one of the reasons regional airlines are retiring their fleets of 50 seaters and moving to aircraft with larger seating capacities.

A second reason for the declining popularity of smaller regional airliners may have to do with limits on the capacity of the nation's airspace system. Slot limited airports such as Laguardia or Newark can only handle so many arrivals per hour. In order for an airline to increase revenue in a particular market like this, the only feasible means is by using higher capacity aircraft.

Even at non slot restricted airports, a particular market may not support additional departures as most business travellers like to travel early in the morning or at the end of their day. Again, the only way to boost capacity in such a market without doubling costs by deploying a second aircraft is to use a larger aircraft.

Lastly, there is an ongoing shortage of pilots to fly regional aircraft. Regional airline jobs are entry level jobs into the industry, and as the major airlines are on a hiring binge to replace retiring Baby Boom era pilots, the regionals are having trouble replacing their departing pilots with new hires. 

Also, by bringing their regional flying in-house, the network carriers may be attempting to gain control of their pilot pipelines. Once a pilot is on a seniority list, they are not likely to leave a particular airline as they have to start over at the bottom of the list. If one corporate entity controls both the regional and mainline flying and keeps their pilots on one seniority list, there will likely be less draw for them to jump ship to another carrier.

There are many reasons for this dearth of pilots which I addressed here. The upshot is that regional airlines are having to make hefty boosts in pay and benefits to attract the diminishing pool of new pilots. This negates their cost advantage in comparison to the network carriers which is really their reason for existing in the first place. 

As regional aircraft size and capacity grows, the mainline network carriers will find themselves bumping up against their union contracts which require larger aircraft to be flown by mainline pilots. With no cost advantage and control of their pilot pipelines to be gained, it may be advantageous for the mainline network carriers to bring their regional flying back in-house thereby ending the era of outsourced regional flying.

This may be a perfect storm of bad news for the operators of regional airlines, and one that they probably knew would eventually come. 

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Another Drunk Pilot?

Pilots are routinely tested for drugs and alcohol
All airline pilots are randomly tested for both drugs and alcohol.

Last week another pilot was pulled out of his cockpit and arrested for being under the influence. So what's up with these guys? It seems like you can hardly turn on the news without hearing about another drunk pilot, right? They're even making movies about them. Why is this even a thing?

Well it's easy to explain why the furor over alcohol abuse by pilots is a "thing". And by that I mean something which garners immediate headlines and watercooler talk. This is because short of nuclear power station operators or cruise ship captains, few other professions leave so many lives in the direct immediate control of another human as does aviation. And for all the oft-stated reasons that riding in an aluminum tube at 30,000 ft is already nerve wracking enough, the thought of having a tipsy pilot up front is something that no one needs or wants. And that is completely reasonable.

If your lawyer is sloshed on the job, maybe it'll cost you some money if you lose a suit. And perhaps after a few martinis your doctor might prescribe a Tylenol when what you needed was an Advil. Even if a hammered surgeon nicks an artery and the patient bleeds out on the table, it's just one person. But a pilot can kill hundreds, which is especially bad if you happen to be one of the ones riding along.

As an aside, I admit to being amused by passengers who will say something like: "Well, you know, pilots really only fly the plane for an average of 30 seconds during any given flight. It's the computers which really fly the plane." And then quickly follow it with "Did you hear about that drunk pilot? He could've killed everybody!"

Alcohol Abuse Among Pilots is Actually Rare

So is there actually an alcohol abuse problem among pilots or is this something which just tends to make the headlines? In actuality, airline pilots are nowhere near the top of the list of professions with high degrees of alcoholism. Ironically, doctors and lawyers are high up on the list. But a study conducted by NIH found a total of 13 alcohol related incidents involving airline pilots over a 16 year period between 1990 and 2006 which would indicate that this "problem" is actually quite rare.

Additionally, there has never been an aviation accident attributed to substance abuse by airline pilots. Government data suggest that about 12 pilots annually are found in violation of FAA standards for blood alcohol content out of over 11,000 tested. But overall, the incidence of alcoholism among airline pilots is below that of the general population.

Where There are Humans, There are Human Frailties

Because the "Drunk Airline Pilot" headline makes such excellent clickbait and draws so many eyeballs (see the title I chose), there's little incentive to tone down the story to something like "Airline Pilot Only Half as Drunk as You Driving Home". That's because the legal limit imposed by the FAA is a BAC of .04% whereas a DUI in most states is defined as a BAC of .08%. Furthermore, a test result of .02 to .04% will result in a pilot being removed from duty though it doesn't carry a criminal penalty.

Now this guy may have really tied one on and was actually blotto, I don't know. But most of the cases I'm familiar with resulted from one too many drinks the night before followed by too short of an overnight for the alcohol to wear off. If this was the case, our hero was probably not ripped but rather just across the line of .04%. Obviously he was displaying some signs of inebriation or perhaps odor as he was identified at the security checkpoint.

Please don't get me wrong. I am not defending this guy's actions. He screwed up big time and betrayed the trust placed in him. He will also pay an extremely heavy price. My point is that this guy was most likely not as stumble drunk as the headlines usually suggest, but he certainly was impaired.

So What Happens to Him Now?

To use a technical term, this guy is royally screwed...and he has nobody to blame but himself. The use of alcohol by airline pilots is governed by federal aviation regulation (FAR) 91.17 and stipulates:

(b) Committing an act prohibited by §91.17(a) or §91.19(a) of this chapter
is grounds for: 
(1) Denial of an application for a certificate, rating, or authorization
issued under this part for a period of up to 1 year after the date of that
act; or 
(2) Suspension or revocation of any certificate, rating, or authorization
issued under this part.

The mechanism that the FAA uses to get problem pilots out of the cockpit is through the denial of a medical certificate, which is needed to fly. Furthermore, the FAA defines a history of alcohol abuse as a disqualifying medical condition. Using a bit of circular logic, being cited for attempting to operate an aircraft while having a BAC in excess of the limit can be considered as evidence of a history alcohol abuse and therefore disqualifying for holding a medical certificate.

Getting past all the legalese, this means the guy is quite possibly grounded for good. But that's just the Feds. Most airlines have very severe sanctions for alcohol use by employees in safety sensitive functions which includes pilots. If this guy tested at more than .04% BAC, he will most likely be canned. And that likely means termination with prejudice as it is unlikely that he'll find another flying job.

There is a pathway back to the cockpit, but it is long and expensive often taking years to regain ratings and certifications from scratch. In the meantime he'll be busy selling his house, finding new schools for his kids and explaining to friends and family why he's no longer an airline pilot.

But I Thought Alcoholism was a Disease

Alcohol abuse has always carried the stigma of being a moral failing but that perception has faded over the years. The American Psychiatric Association describes the conditions which define both alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM). The recently published DSM-5 is moving away from treating both abuse and dependency as separate conditions though the criteria used by the FAA in defining alcohol abuse is significantly different than that described in the DSM.

It is generally recognized though, that a problem with alcohol should not be faced alone. To that end, the Human Intervention and Motivation Study (HIMS), a program funded by the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) has resulted in resources being made available for pilots who have alcohol problems. The idea here is that a program which concentrates on the rehabilitation and return of pilots to the cockpit would encourage others to come forward for treatment.

The caveat of this program is that it does not protect pilots who operate or attempt to operate an aircraft under the influence from sanction. So what should this guy have done? How could he have avoided all this bother?

Well, short of not drinking so much the previous evening, he should have called in sick and not gotten on the aircraft. In fact any time up until a predetermined point a pilot can refuse to operate the aircraft and not be in violation. At my airline that point is the threshold of the aircraft door though it may be different for other carriers. That is the point of no return when determining intent.

Are You Drunk?

One of the more enervating aspects of being an airline pilot most likely not enjoyed by other professionals is having complete strangers come up to you and ask if you're drunk. This just happened a few weeks ago to me as I was in the gate area waiting to board a deadhead flight. The guy came up and asked, "Hey, you look sober. Are you our pilot?" I told him I was not (his pilot) but must confess to being a bit annoyed. 

He should ask his doctor that question on his next visit. The odds are statistically higher that the answer is yes.

But I get it. People getting on an airplane are nervous and see a guy in uniform so they open their mouth and something stupid comes out. One reply which I always long to make (but never would) is "not as far as you know."

So rest assured, nervous flyer, your pilot is not drunk. But you might want to ask yourself who would you honestly rather have flying your plane given the choice: The alcohol and drug abusing pilot played by Denzel Washington in Flight who saved everyone's life, or the stone cold sober Asiana pilots who crashed their 777 into a seawall in San Francisco on a clear day? Take your time answering. I'll wait.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

What Makes a Go-Around So Dangerous?

Distractions and fatigue make tough go-arounds even tougher
A FlyDubai 737-800

Even though the investigation into the crash of FlyDubai 981 is still in its preliminary stages, one of the more plausible accident scenarios being discussed is that the aircraft attempted a go-around from an approach and subsequently stalled causing the high descent rate and impact on the runway. Video which captured the accident shows the aircraft in an extremely steep descent which is indicative of a stalled condition. And in fact the last transmission from the aircraft to the tower was that it was going around. So why are go-arounds so dangerous?

A go-around is simply a maneuver whose purpose is implied by its name. If at any time during an approach the pilot feels that for whatever reason that landing isn't the best idea, he or she aborts the landing and "goes around" for another try. This involves adding power and climbing away from the runway for another shot while retracting the landing gear and flaps or "cleaning up" the aircraft.

Sounds simple, right? Well for various reasons go-arounds seem to be one of the most stress inducing maneuvers for pilots. It is also one of the most critiqued items during checkrides as a result of being performed incorrectly. But to be perfectly truthful, a search of the NTSB database turned up only three fatal accidents attributed directly to go-arounds since 1985, at least in airline, or Part 121 flying. In general aviation, however, the number is much higher at 273 fatal accidents since 1982 attributed to go-arounds.

Those accident results suggest that pilot experience may play a factor in the successful completion of go-arounds as many general aviation pilots don't have the experience that airline pilots do. Still the go-around can be deceptively difficult and due to the low altitude nature of the maneuver leaves very little room for error if performed incorrectly.

And while the NTSB results do not capture low-speed events which did not result in a stall or accident, those types of incidents are now being identified by new data recording and analysis equipment recently installed on most airliners. These data suggest that low speed and approach-to-stall events are more prevalent than previously thought.

So What is it About Go-Arounds that Makes Them Difficult?

There are two aspects to a go-around that can make them difficult to fly and costly to screw up. The first is that the maneuver is performed close to ground. Any mistake made at low altitude has less time to be corrected before terra firma ends the flight in an abrupt fashion. The second aspect of the maneuver is that the entire vertical vector of the aircraft has to change. 

By this I mean that your 30 ton airplane which is descending at perhaps a vertical velocity of 800 feet per minute while on approach has to have its downward momentum stopped, reversed and flung back into the air at perhaps 1000 to 2000 feet per minute. It is this reversal of momentum which causes the most problems. The problem is one of "energy management".

Energy management is best illustrated by thinking about an old style roller coaster and is central to flying an aircraft. As a roller coaster tops a hill, its speed is slow but the potential energy is high. As it hits the trough, the potential energy is low but the speed, or kinetic energy, is high. The same principle applies to an aircraft as pilots can often trade airspeed for altitude or vice versa.

During an approach, however, both the speed and altitude are necessarily low. The aircraft is flying at only 1.3 times its stall speed and has both gear and flaps extended which add drag. It has a low energy state. The only way to get the airplane back up in the air from this position is to add a lot of power from the engines. But this addition of power must be accompanied by a coordinated and precise pitch adjustment.

Pitch control during a go-around is extremely important. The use of insufficient pitch, or keeping the nose too low, may cause the aircraft to merely accelerate but not climb. Use too much pitch, or raise the nose too high, and the aircraft will climb, but the speed may drop. Remember that at this point the aircraft is already very close to stall speed. Stall the aircraft, and it drops like a rock with little chance for recovery at low altitude.

One last characteristic of most airliners is that their pod-mounted engines are hung below the wing. What this means is that an addition of power causes the nose to tend to come up as the thrust vector is being applied from below the wing. This tendency must be anticipated and countered to prevent the pitch from getting too high.

Distractions and Fatigue Don't Help

So we've decided to go around, put the power in and are climbing away from the ground. What happens next? It gets extremely busy is what happens next. The tower will be barking instructions at you with headings and altitudes to fly or you may be scrambling to read your previously issued climbout instructions and approach plate. You will also have to clean up the aircraft without overspeeding anything. This means retracting the gear and then the flaps on their speed schedule. You'll also be getting a frequency change right about now to return from tower to approach control. Not blowing through your assigned altitude is also somewhere on your plate since you are now climbing at full power.

There's a hierarchy of flying priorities that many a flight instructor attempts to instill in their students: Aviate, Navigate and Communicate (and in that order). Forgetting to do these tasks in the proper order can result in a bad outcome. Or as an old aviation commandment instructs: 

Thou must maintaineth thy airspeed lest the ground reach up and smite thee.

A mention of fatigue is in order here. All of these things are challenging to do on any given day, but being fatigued, as has been alleged of the FlyDubai pilots, makes them especially tough. My personal experience with fatigue is that while you might feel alert during a tricky approach and go-around, channelizing attention on one particular item is very easy to do when fatigued. This means that instead of simultaneously managing many different tasks in the cockpit during a go-around, it is easy to become fixated on one particular item at the expense of others

The danger of course is that of fixating on say a course change while dropping your pitch and airspeed out of your scan. This one mistake, if not corrected quickly, can doom an airplane. Recovering from a stalled condition takes many thousands of feet of altitude if the stall is severe enough, and that is altitude you just don't have.

Go-arounds, if you happen to be on an airplane when one happens, are really no big deal and I don't mean to make any nervous flyers more so. Many times they are for mundane things like spacing too close to the previous airplane or being directed by the tower. I personally like flying them as they're a challenge and something a little different from the routine. Just know that when they do happen, the guys or gals up front are really busy.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

FlyDubai 737 Crash - No Survivors

Flydubai FZ-981 crash - no survivors
No survivors from Airdubai crash

A FlyDubai 737-800 enroute from Dubai to Rostov on Don in Russia crashed on approach to the runway. There were no survivors among the 55 passengers and seven crew.

The aircraft had attempted one approach which was unsuccessful.The aircraft then held for two hours. Upon the second approach attempt, the aircraft appeared to strike a wing tip and crashed on the runway.

The weather at the time was an overcast ceiling with winds gusting between 27 and 42 knots. Investigation continues.

Friday, March 18, 2016

So You Want to Be a Pilot? Career Advice for Beginning Pilots (Pt 3)

Career advice for future aviators
An aviation career is rewarding but not without risk.

So let's say that you've graduated from high school or college and want to pursue a career in aviation. You want to "slip the surly bonds of earth" and spend your days with your head in the clouds. Well hold on just a second there, pardner.

I don't want to crush your dreams, kid, but I'd be remiss to not be brutally honest about the career field you are hoping to enter. Let's explore for a few moments some short and long term trends in aviation that you need to consider before chasing this particular dream.

Short Term Outlook: Big Opportunities but High Barriers to Entry 

As I mentioned in an earlier article in this series, there's never been a better time than now to get into commercial aviation jobs-wise. There are huge numbers of pilots retiring from the largest major airlines who need to be replaced in the next five to ten years. These pilots are mostly being replaced by pilots who are currently flying for regional carriers and to a lesser extent the military.

A huge vacuum is forming at the regional carriers who for various reasons are having trouble replacing those pilots with new hires. This means job opportunities for pilots who have or are willing to get their ratings and hours. I recently attended an aviation job fair and the competition for new pilots is fierce. Regional airlines are boosting pay, offering signing bonuses and even offering to pay for crash pads for commuting pilots, all unheard of for years.

Now for the reality check. You have two routes into an airline cockpit: military or civilian. Both routes will get you where you want to go but they both have high costs, one in time and the other in money.

Military Flight Training: Long Service Commitments

In years gone by, the majority of airline pilots came from the military. That is no longer even remotely true. While I don't have the exact numbers, the majority of pilots being hired by major airlines now have only a civilian background. Reductions in the size of the military along with lengthened pilot training commitments are two of the biggest reasons.

The Air Force requires a ten year service commitment in exchange for pilot training while the Navy has an eight year commitment. The Coasties, Army and Marines have similar commitments. These commitments don't start until after successful completion of flight training which takes about a year. Leaving the service on the day your commitment expires might not be completely realistic as well as you'll probably incur other service commitments for things like aircraft commander upgrade or training like fighter weapons school.

The military spends a ton of money on its pilots and wants to get a return on that investment. You also have to hope that the airlines are hiring when you are ready to leave the service. This was the route I took, spending a total of 10 years on active duty (the commitment was six years when I joined). On the bright side, when you leave the military you will have the hours and experience to apply directly to a major airline.

If this is the route you wish to pursue and haven't yet graduated from high school, your choices for commissioning are through either an ROTC program at a college, or one of the service academies such as USAFA, Annapolis or West Point. ROTC scholarships are available and the service academies are free. Upon completion, you will have a college degree and be commissioned as an officer. But getting into these programs is highly competitive and even then you are not guaranteed a pilot training slot. You must compete for those as well.

If you already have a college degree, you can join the military and be commissioned through an officer training program such as the Air Force's OTS or the Navy's OCS. This program was memorialized in the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. From there you would go to pilot training. This was my route. I had a degree and joined the Air Force after college (but never dated Debra Winger).

If you get selected for pilot training you will undergo a very intensive but comprehensive training course in advanced technology aircraft. Your training will involve all aspects of contact and instrument flying for starters. Should you perform well enough to be selected for a tactical aircraft, you will also be trained in formation flying. Once you graduate from a pilot training course you will be awarded your wings and then proceed on to your mission aircraft which may involve up to another year of mission training and qualification.

The training is fast and intense and offers very little tolerance for regression. Every simulator session and ride in the airplane is graded. Pilots who experience difficulties during the program are given some remedial training, but once the extra training has been expended, a quick dismissal from the program can be expected for pilots who can't keep up with the syllabus. When I was an undergraduate pilot training instructor in the Air Force, three busted rides in the airplane was all it took to get a ticket home.

Civilian Flight Training: It's Your Nickel, Spend it Wisely

Taking the civilian route will likely get you into an airline cockpit in less time than the military, but it is going to cost you a ton of money to get the ratings and hours to qualify for a job. The FAA recently started requiring all pilots hoping to fly for a commercial carrier to have a rating known as an airline transport rating or ATP. Here's the problem. You'll need 1500 hours of time to qualify for this rating. That number is reduced to 1000 hours if you graduate from an accredited aviation school. 

What kind of money? A quick internet search came back with numbers like five to nine thousand dollars for just a private pilot's license which only qualifies you to rent a plane to buzz around. Getting the full panoply of ratings that will allow you to start on your career will set you back something on the order of 60 to 80 thousand dollars.

After spending that kind of money you will still have to flight instruct or do another entry level flying job such as banner tow to build the 1000 (or 1500) hours you will need for your ATP. Simply purchasing those hours is not realistic at $100-$120 per hour airplane rental costs.  

No matter how you slice it, it will be expensive. But if you're willing to take on the debt, there's probably a job waiting for you. And while the pay at regional airlines is famously low, it is going up as regionals are engaged in a bidding war for the dwindling number of available pilots.

Another difference in taking the civilian route is that you will end up being the architect of your own career more so than the military route. You have to decide which aviation school you will attend, whether to take out loans or work a day job while pursuing your career and which flying jobs to take. Deciding between flying jobs such as corporate, regionals or night freight are some of the decisions that await you on your path to the majors.

My advice is to seek out mentors who are working pilots and can advise you on the best path to take. I took the military path and as a result would probably not be able to offer meaningful specific advice to someone in the civilian pipeline. But seek out someone who took the path you are contemplating. There are many aviation internet forums available where pilots like to hang out and many are willing to offer advice.

And you will need advice. There are dozens of schools all promising a path to an airline seat and all willing to take your money. Caveat emptor is the rule when vetting flying training programs.

Long Term Outlook: Automation and the Pilotless Airplane

So things look rosy for the short term, but what about the long term career outlook? That is an excellent question. If you are say, 20 years old and hoping to begin your career in aviation, you are planning on a career lasting 45 years (more if they raise the retirement age past 65).

We've all heard about drones and Google's driverless cars, but what about airplanes? Will there ever be a day when people line up to get on an airplane that has no pilot? The answer is unequivocally yes. There will eventually be pilotless airliners. The only question is when.

Balderdash and poppycock you say? Consider this: What would have been the reaction if you'd asked a railway passenger back in, say, 1890 if there would ever be engineer-less trains. I'm guessing the reaction would have been similar and yet we routinely get on trains with no humans driving and think nothing of it.

But, you retort, those are small applications such as airport transports on closed systems. Subways, passenger and freight trains still have human drivers! And you are absolutely right, but how many humans are driving those trains? A fraction of the number it used to take. And that's the key.

Simply look at the trend of how many humans it has taken to fly an airliner over the years. In the immediate postwar era it took four: two pilots, a navigator and an engineer. Navigators were quickly eliminated by INS systems and the engineers were next to go being replaced by ECAM systems. Now we all love first officers (well, most of them), but airline managements, maybe not so much.

Current research at places like DARPA is aimed at perfecting robots to eliminate first officers. And just eliminating copilots will slash the need for pilots by 50% overnight. Again the question isn't so much of if but rather of when. Estimates vary, but if you are just now embarking on a career that you hope will last for four decades, you will likely finish your career as a system monitor in the front of an airplane (or perhaps a flight center data linked to an airplane) if you have a job at all.

That's not what I'd call great aspects for career advancement or seniority. Food for thought. Still not convinced? Take a look at this video.

In Conclusion

This post concludes my series on career advice for pilots. I'll be the first to admit that even though I've had a charmed career and love flying, I'm not sure I can recommend a flying career without some reservations, especially to a bright kid who has other options. 

If you're already flying for a living, it's a great time to be in the profession. If you are thinking about starting on a career in aviation, some deep soul searching is in order. This profession has a knack for crushing souls and dreams, but should you pull the trigger and go for it, the view from your office window will be second to none. Good luck!

And if you have any questions at all about your own situation, leave me a message in the comments. I'm here for you!

Parts 1 and 2 of the series are here and here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

So You're Getting Out of the Service? Career Advice for Pilots (Pt 2)

Leaving the military for the airlines
Leaving the military for the airlines requires careful planning.

So you've decided it's time to hang up the spurs. Perhaps you're tired of being deployed, are fed up with the service or simply feel that you've accomplished all that you wanted to and now it's time to move on. Or maybe you've got your 20 years in, don't want to climb the leadership ladder beyond the squadron or wing level and are looking for your next gig but want to keep flying.

Well you're in great company. As most military pilots eventually realize, the longer you stay in, the less you'll fly. And if flying is your bag and going to work for USAA or your father-in-law doesn't appeal to you, you're in luck: the airlines are looking for you. I mean they're really looking for guys or gals just like you.

The airlines really really like military aviators and over the years have given them hiring preference. And even though this has always chafed pilots with civilian backgrounds, there are several reasons for this. One of the biggest is that you are a known entity. That is, airlines know that your flight training was comprehensive and rigorous. They also know that you fit well within a hierarchy and play well with others, especially if you made it to retirement. Lastly, they know that if you are a retiree, you are getting a monthly check from Uncle Sam for the rest of your life. This, they believe, will ameliorate future pay and retirement demands.

For you civilian guys firing up your keyboards to flame me, please don't take any of this personally. I'm just the messenger. Many of the absolute best pilots I've ever flown with have had civilian backgrounds and some of the biggest horse's rear ends have been military bred. But from a management point of view, military pilots are known and wanted.

Things to Think About Before Pulling the Trigger

I'm going to assume that you've saved some money and have thought about how you'll pay the bills in the interim before leaving the service, but there are other things you should consider.

Get an FAA Class I medical. That's the medical certificate you'll need to be an airline pilot. Some airlines only require a Class II for copilots, but you'll eventually need a Class I, so get it now to see if there are any problems. I'm aware that you get an annual physical from the flight doc, but while the FAA medical requirements are in many ways less restrictive than the military, you want to make sure any problems are uncovered and dealt with. If you fly under a military medical waiver, you'll probably need to get an FAA waiver for the same issue. That can take a while so start early.

The next thing to think about is your FAA ticket or license. If you don't have one, you'll need to get one. Luckily, the FAA has made this a little easier for military pilots exiting the service. If you are currently qualified in an aircraft, you need only take a written test to be issued a commercial instrument license. And if you are currently flying a military version of a civilian airliner such as the C-40 (737) you can even get a civilian type rating in that aircraft.

Another license you will need is the ATP or "airline transport pilot" rating. This you'll have to purchase on your own unless your prospective employer offers one to you in their training program. There are many programs around the country offering these in light twin aircraft. It will take about 5 days, 10 or so flight hours and involve a checkride with an FAA examiner or designee. A cursory internet search showed prices at about $5K. Don't forget transportation and hotels costs.

Guard or Reserves?

If you still want to keep your hand in military flying, then signing on with the Guard or Reserves may help you to do that while offering a little extra income and a fallback should the unthinkable happen and you get furloughed. This was the route I took. There are a few things to consider here as well.

First, if you have a regular commission you might be asked if you want to resign your commission or take a reserve commission. If you're sure that you'll never again set foot on base then go ahead and resign. But my recommendation is to accept a reserve commission so that if you change your mind and try to get a Guard or Reserve job, you'll already have the reserve commission. Without that, the unit you hope to sign on to will have to offer you one, and it might be at a lower grade than the one you now have.

My second bit of advice if you join the guard or reserve is to make sure to avoid what I call the "devil's triangle" of combined military and airline duty. That happens when your home, airline domicile and reserve duty station are in different places. It will be nearly impossible to make this work unless you're single. And if you aren't single, this is an excellent method to become single. Trust me, I've never seen it work well. I was lucky enough to have my airline job, reserve base and home all within an hour drive and I recommend you attempt to do this as well.

Lastly, don't forget your priorities. Working effectively for three masters may leave none of them very happy with you. The airline has to give you time off for military reserve duty by law, but my feeling is that abusing this to avoid weekend or holiday airline flying is dirty pool. And just ignore all the cajoling you'll get from your reserve or guard unit about your "career". Your career is now being an airline pilot and the military is something you occasionally do because you're a patriot and enjoy hanging with your squadron mates.

Once You're Out

Military pilots leaving the service and hoping to fly for an airline will find that while some things about civilian aviation are very familiar to them, other aspects are bewildering and new. For pilots who flew a crew aircraft, the flying will be pretty close to what you've been doing already but without the extra mission qualifications such as airdrop or air refueling.

Pilots who flew tactical aircraft may have a few new things to learn in a crew aircraft, but the overall pace of the action will be slower than you've been used to. And even though we know you can do it all day long with your eyes closed, you're not expected to both fly and talk on the radios at the same time.

One huge difference between military and civilian flying is that in the civilian world, you are being hired to fly airplanes and to only fly airplanes. Your ability to write a shining OPR or awards citation that would water the general's eyes is just not that important. And while it is certainly fine to bring those additional duties up in an interview, remember that it is your flying and leadership skills as a pilot that are most important.

Interviewers are going to want to know how well you get along with other pilots in both routine and also stressful flying situations because no one wants to fly with a d*ck. For you single seat tactical guys, emphasizing your leadership and followership skills in a formation setting will help to fill this square. Being a team player, a skilled aviator, and demonstrating that you are not too full of yourself are the keys to getting hired.

In Conclusion

Making the decision to bail out of the military or transitioning to civilian life after retiring is a huge change. Many people you encounter may have little understanding of the lifestyle that you spent the last several decades immersed in. Your bosses won't be wearing birds on their shoulders (and it can be tough to figure out who they are) but you should still accord them all the respect you did your commander. It will, though, be a new adventure for you, and you're good at those. Good luck!

If you have any questions regarding the transition from military to civilian aviation, leave me a note in the comments. I'm here for you, Mav!

Update: Part 3, advice to non-pilots wishing to start an aviation career is here.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

So You Want to Fly an Airliner? Career Advice for Pilots (Pt 1)

Aviation career planning is essential
Charting a path to a successful aviation career can be daunting.

I often get asked for career advice by aspiring and younger pilots and thought it might be helpful to condense some thoughts in a post on aviation career strategy. The Women in Aviation Conference was recently held in Nashville and I gave jumpseat rides to a number of younger pilots making their way out there for some face time with the recruiters who were there. This got me thinking about where a young pilot might find some career advice. There is quite a bit of change currently underway in the aviation career field, and plotting a path to a successful career can be daunting.

The Timing has Never Been Better to be a Pilot

So you want to become a major airline pilot? Well the timing has never been better in terms of demand for pilots. Due to the mandatory retirement age of 65, US airlines will need to replace thousands of retiring pilots in the next five to ten years. The numbers are staggering. Estimates run to a need for over 18,000 pilots to be hired just to replace retiring US pilots in the next five years. Those numbers don't account for airline growth nor do they factor in early retirements and should therefore be considered minimums.

And it is unlikely that many of these pilots will be hired from overseas as the pilot shortage is a worldwide phenomenon. Boeing estimates the worldwide need for pilots at over 500,000 in the next 20 years. The major airlines have or are about to embark on a hiring binge to replace the thousands of retiring Vietnam era pilots currently flying their airplanes. They are hiring primarily from the ranks of regional airlines who in turn are scrambling to keep their airlines staffed. The military, a traditional source of trained pilots, is doing a better job of holding onto their people so those numbers will be made up primarily through the hiring of pilots with civilian backgrounds.

One need only search the term "pilot shortage" to see stories of regional airlines having to park airplanes due to a lack of pilots. Republic Airlines even cited the pilot shortage in its recent bankruptcy filing. In the meantime, a bidding war has broken out between regional airlines for the dwindling number of pilots who meet the new 1500 hour minimum requirements. Those requirements are dropped to 1000 hours for pilots who have graduated from an accredited aviation school, but those graduates will likely be carrying the better part of a hundred grand of debt for their schooling, which is why there aren't many of them.

The following comments are directed at currently qualified regional, military or corporate pilots who are looking to make a jump to a major airline. I'll address the subjects of entering the career field for non-pilots and special considerations for military pilots leaving the service in parts two and three.

Seniority is Life

As an old tale from aviation lore goes, a wise old captain was once advising a young copilot on the things which contributed the most to a fulfilling career. The captain said that a career flying airplanes was, besides a love of aviation, about time off and money. And he made sure to emphasize and in that order. 

A career in aviation means being away from home. A lot. It is a tradeoff that all pilots make. And while we understand that we will be at the bottom of the seniority list when starting out, the hope is that given enough time, we will eventually earn those coveted weekends off and summer vacation blocks and an upgrade to the left seat or a widebody. And that means seniority.

There are two ways to become senior at any airline. The first is through growth. If the airline you get hired by doubles in size in say five years, you will upgrade to captain in five years give or take. The second way to seniority is through the retirement of those pilots who are senior to you. Given the current state of the four largest airlines which control about 80% of the US domestic market and are not likely to grow any faster than the overall economy, it is retirements which will likely fuel your ticket to watching football in your own living room and not in the hotel bar on a layover.

This means that during any extended hiring binge, like the one which is just getting under way, getting your foot in the door as early as possible is of supreme importance. Getting ahead of a hiring wave means you will spend most of your career in the left seat enjoying the pay and prestige that comes with that position. Get hired at the end of the wave and you will likely spend years throwing the gear for captains who are just a few years older than you.

My advice, then, is to get on with your preferred carrier at the earliest possible time. This means getting your required PIC hours as soon as possible through whatever means. There's a land rush going on out there and you don't want to miss out.

For you regional pilots toiling away with the hope of getting a job through a flow-through program, my advice is to ignore those and do whatever it takes to get your hours and to then get your resume out on the street. A flow-through program is just a promise and not worth the paper it is written on if things change, and things change all the time.

Which is the Best Airline to Fly For?

That's an easy one. The best airline is the one that hires you. Don't ever turn down a job offer from any airline offering you a job flying equipment that is larger than what you currently fly. Show up to training, act like that airline is the only one you've ever wanted to fly for, and then should an offer show up from where you really want to work, just walk out the door. Of course be polite and gracious for the opportunity, but never forget that this is your career and life we're talking about here. It's just business.

But all else being equal, and assuming that you get an offer from the airlines you're considering, there are a host of factors which will influence your decision. As I mentioned above, the existing demographics and pending retirements will be one of your biggest considerations. Next you'll want to consider where your prospective airline has pilot domiciles. Pick the one which has a domicile in a city where you want to live. Yes, commuting is possible, but a career of it will effectively mean extra years sleeping in hotels and crash pads which could be spent in your own bed.

Next you should consider the equipment that the airline flies. Widebody flying pays the most and generally has the most days off. It will take some time to get into a widebody, but if the airline doesn't own any, you'll never fly one. And if you ever get sick of flying international routes, bidding back to domestic equipment is always there if you so desire.

Furloughs. Yes, the "F" word. No one can predict the future and fuel shocks, mideast wars and recessions are always possible. And when they happen, you might find yourself back on the street. Southwest is the only one of the big four US airlines which has never furloughed any pilots, but they are resembling a legacy carrier more each day, so past performance may not guarantee future results. In any event, getting on early with an airline that has the most retirements will move you up the list and away from the furlough zone the quickest.

In Conclusion

I've just barely scratched the surface here but have touched on some of what I feel are the most important considerations for pilots who are looking for a job at the majors. Since the topic is so large, I'll be doing several additional installments where I give my advice to military pilots who are leaving the service, and also to non-pilots who may be hoping to explore a career in aviation. Stay tuned!

Lastly, please feel free to ask any questions you might have about your own job search in the comments. Is there something you'd like to ask about your own career progression? Just let me know. I'm here for you!

Update: Part 2:  Career advice for pilots leaving the military is here.

Update: Part 3  Career advice for those looking  to start a career in aviation is here.