Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Racing The Cub

The 2014 AirVenture Cup Cross-Country Air Race officially began at 8:48am on Sunday, July 27th, but I wasn't in Mitchell to see the checkered flag drop. I had in fact already been airborne for nearly two hours and was diverting to Windom, MN for fuel, gusty 20 knot direct crosswind notwithstanding. In a nod to my Piper Cub's very limited speed and endurance, I had been allowed to start the race early, just after daybreak. The weather across the route wasn't great, but not horrible either. Most importantly, I wouldn't be facing any significant headwinds over the 370 nm course. For the first leg, I even had a good tailwind up high; I took the Cub to 7500 feet and saw 85 kts groundspeed in cruise! Mind you, that was with a nearly 30 degree crab to stay on course. I had high hopes of making St James but it was not to be. The occluded front that was producing so much wind also created an increasingly solid undercast 50 miles west of Mankato. Staying on top was not a wise choice in a very fuel-limited, non-gyro airplane, so I dropped to the deck, saw my groundspeed drop to 50 knots, got tossed around pretty good, and crabbed my way to Windom.

The 20 knot crosswind was sporting, to say the least. I'd previously landed the Cub in up to 15 kts and have been on board while the friend who sold me my share landed in 23 kts - but he's an expert taildragger CFI, & still nearly lost it if not for a well-timed jab at the downwind brake. I fortunately was able to keep the wing pinned down without resorting to such heroics, but turning around and taxiing downwind was tricky. And then when I shut down and hopped out to chock the wheels before the Cub blew away, I discovered that the airport's fuel tanks were literally gone, dug out of the ground. Whoops - missed that NOTAM. I had an hour of fuel left in the Cub, and I was an hour away from the official pit stop of Mankato. Fortunately, I had a five gallon gas can in the baggage compartment for this exact scenario. I put it all in the header tank, checked the weather in Mankato, threw the prop over, and was soon bouncing my way to the northeast.

I was nearly to Mankato when the other race planes caught up with me. I hadn't been monitoring race frequency; there's no electrical system in the Cub and the juice in the onboard motorcycle battery had to last me the rest of the day to Oshkosh. I turned on the radio just in time to hear "Passing on your right, Yellow Cub, stay straight ahead!" A few seconds later, a white Lancair came screaming by at an absolutely astonishing speed. It was like I wasn't even moving; seeing something that small go that fast was shocking and thrilling. I saw a few other racers go by as we converged on Mankato, but none so close.

The crosswind component to Mankato's wide Runway 33 was "only" 15 knots, making for a much less exciting arrival than Windom. And they had fuel! I added half a quart of oil to the Cub's aging A65, checked the weather, took off, and circled back across the airport for the turning point timekeeper to restart my time. I was in very familiar territory now, passing south of Airlake and almost directly over Stanton. Here on the east side of the front, the skies cleared and the wind eased; the ride smoothed out, the crab lessened, and my groundspeed crept back up to 70 knots. I had been planning on a short leg to Red Wing MN followed by one long final push to Wausau, an endurance-stretching 123 nm. There were a few private grass strips along the way to refuel via gas can, if need be. But when I checked the weather in Mankato, I noticed that the wind, which had backed to the west a bit, was forecast to swing north throughout the day and across the course. This seemed to match what I was seeing in the air. Why not make my northing now, land in Menomonie WI, and then run straight east for the last 95nm to Wausau? It was a little more distance but I was pretty sure it would be faster, very similar to playing a shift in sailboat racing.

I turned a bit left, crossed the Mississippi just north of Red Wing, and dodged a few scattered rain squalls on my way into Menomonie. I landed there just after 11am, refueled, grabbed a soda and some chips, texted Dawn, and checked the radar. A big cell was just moving across Wausau but would be gone by the time I arrived. I took off to the northeast, skirting around Eau Claire's Class D (which race rules prohibited penetrating, likely with Lancair speeds in mind) before turning straight east along Highway 29. An hour later, the Wisconsin River and Rib Mountain came into view, and then the Wausau Airport. I started a cruise descent from 3500', enjoying a last burst of speed. Rolling out over the river, I gave the old Cub everything she had and possibly even broke 100 mph in the last dive to the finish line! "Race 103....Mark! Congratulations!" crackled the voice on race frequency.

On landing I was surprised to find that many of the racers were still in Wausau, though they soon began to leave en masse for Oshkosh. I refueled the Cub (cheap mogas!) and enjoyed a picnic meal courtesy of EAA Chapter 640, then beat a hasty path out of town with the last two support planes as a large thunderstorm bore down on the airport. From there it was an enjoyable last hour to Ripon, and then the now-familiar Fisk arrival to Oshkosh. My arrival there was complicated by the fact that I was flying a plane that couldn't even nearly maintain the standard 90 knots - I'll write more about that next post. Suffice it to say I made it in safely without too much commotion, and was rewarded with one of the best parking spots in all of Oshkosh: smack dab in the middle of show center, right on the flightline. My little Cub, wings and fuselage marked with duct-tape "103" decals, looked oddly at home with all the sleek Lancairs, Glasairs, and RVs in the race corral. She had kept me safe and even fairly comfortable over 7 hours and 470 nm in a single day, my greatest Cub adventure thus far. Over the next week her yellow fabric-covered wings would provide shade for countless spectators at the daily airshows.

That night the racers and family & friends reconvened at Wendt's on the Lake for fried perch, cold beer, and the awards ceremony. It was fun hearing all the different stories from the day. Some very impressive race times were posted, above all that of "Screaming Yellow Zonker," a Lancair IV that finished the course in 1 hour 13 minutes at an average speed of 346 mph. On the opposite end of the field, I finished in 5 hours 24 minutes (excluding stops) for a rather respectable average speed of 78 mph. I actually won the Vintage class! Unfortunately, I was the only entrant in that class after a Taylorcraft (which would have smoked me) dropped out.

Racing the Cub in the AirVenture Cup was a very fun way to begin an enjoyable week at Oshkosh, one that was quite a bit different for me than previous years. I'll write about that next time.








Sunday, July 27, 2014

Live from Mitchell, SD

As I wrote in my "Taking Wing" column in the August issue of Flying that hit newsstands this week, I'm flying into Oshkosh for the fifth time this year - the first time in my flying club Piper Cub. What I didn't say is that I was flying 220 nm in the wrong direction to Mitchell, South Dakota, and then racing one of the world's slowest airplanes to Oshkosh! I'm participating in the 2014 AirVenture Cup tomorrow, technically from Mitchell to Wausau, WI, and continuing on into OSH.

I was roped into this by a friend who formerly flew with me at my last airline and now flies for USAirways. He's the Vice-Chairman for the race committee, and has been helping put in on since he was in his teens. I've met other AVC volunteers and participants at previous Oshkoshes, and it always sounded like a good time. So yesterday, Friday July 25, I packed up the Cub with camping equipment and headed west, averaging 55 kts groundspeed over 4 hours flying time to Mitchell with fuel stops in Redwood Falls, MN and Brookings, SD. Approaching Mitchell, the airport was already quite busy with arrivals by RV-6s, Long-EZs, Lancairs, Glasairs, SX300s, Questairs, Thunder Mustangs, and even a Cassutt or two. If it wasn't clear that this is a race populated by people serious about speed, it was after I flew over the airport while three experimentals made low passes down Runway 30 at velocities I'd normally associate with the jets I fly for work. What was I doing here with a Cub!?

I duly made my "high speed" pass down Runway 30 - I think I broke 100 mph in the dive! - and landed. From the moment the little 75 hp Continental puttered to a halt, all the volunteers, racers, and spectators welcomed me as though I was an old-time veteran racing a 300 mph Lancair. Racing the Cub, believe it or not, isn't exactly a novelty - they've had an equally-slow Pietenpol race multiple times before! But it has been a good conversation starter, and I've naturally become known as "the guy racing the Cub." Most of the people here have Cub memories of their own, and clearly have a soft spot for the airplane. There were actually three Cubs in attendance today for the open house and Young Eagles event. Despite a 3 hour delay due to some heavy weather this morning, a lot of people ended coming out and we flew 126 Young Eagles. We had plenty of pilot volunteers, and I took up 3 youngsters in the Cub, all of whom elected to leave the door open and enjoy the cool breeze and great views. Mark Baker, President of AOPA, flew in with his Caravan amphib and addressed the crowd both at the airport and at our pre-race briefing/banquet tonight. He had some great things to say about lowering the expense of flying for newcomers, particularly promoting flying clubs and simple used aircraft like the C150/152, or the Cub. You don't hear many industry groups talking like that, because it doesn't benefit the manufacturers - not directly, anyways (down the road, I think anything that reverses the decline in the pilot population will pay dividends throughout GA).

I'm taking off tomorrow at 6:30am, in the interest of making it across the finish line and into Oshkosh while the beer's still cold. It sounds like I'll actually have good tailwinds, but perhaps some lower ceilings and showery activity across Minnesota and Wisconsin. It's 368nm to the finish line, and another 80 or so into Oshkosh, which is a grand adventure in a Cub any day! We'll see if I make it in one day - safety is priority number one, and if weather forces me to abandon the race, that's a lot better than pressing on into deteriorating conditions in a very basic airplane. Whether I finish tomorrow or later in the week, there will be a lot of cool new friends with slick speed machines to meet up with in Oshkosh.





Friday, July 25, 2014

I Heart NY

Well, it sure didn’t take long to get off low-time restrictions. My seven weeks of line flying on the Mad Dog have netted me 120 hours in the plane despite being on reserve. Reserve pilots usually fly less than lineholders because you're seldom used every day, you do plenty of oddball 1- or 2-leg trips, and you tend to ride around in the back of airplanes a lot (deadheading). This summer, though, my company is doing a lot of flying, especially in the Mad Dog, and it’s all hands on deck. Thus far I’ve been used on nearly every day of reserve, mostly for 3 and 4 day trips.

I’m based in New York City, partially by choice. My airline has a Mad Dog domicile in Minneapolis, but it’s proving to be an extremely popular base among our junior pilots. I estimate that there are 50+ pilots between me and the “plug” in MSP, meaning it could be a year or more before I can hold it. In the meantime I’m forced to either move or commute. Dawn has a good job she enjoys in the Twin Cities, we like our home here, and we’ve become used to having family nearby, so we’ve decided to stay put for the time being. My choice then, is which commute is least painful. I can hold all three other Mad Dog bases, but the first is a small base connected to MSP only by 50-seat RJs, and the second has a ton of employees that commute from MSP, making it difficult to find an open seat or jumpseat. New York, however, has plenty of flights from MSP, they tend to have seats available, and I have higher seniority there than I would in any other base. This is true across all fleets at my airline: NYC goes junior.

This extra seniority comes at a price. NYC-based pilots at my company must cover three separate airports (LGA, JFK, and EWR); moving between them is slow and expensive, and the airspace and airports are both quite congested. Because there’s so much Origination & Destination (O&D) traffic, many of the rotations begin early in the morning and end late at night, forcing pilots to commute on their days off and spend extra nights in the domicile. That said, because so many NYC-based crewmembers are commuters (I’ve seen estimates of 80%), there’s a pretty well developed infrastructure in place. For starters, there are many crashpads scattered throughout Queens between LGA and JFK. One area, Kew Gardens, hosts so many crashpads that it has acquired the nickname of “Crew Gardens” and boasts a cab company that caters almost solely to airline crew. Some crashpads are pretty basic and offer little more than a mattress for the night; others offer all the comforts of home. My crashpad is actually pretty close to LGA, in Jackson Heights, since ¾ of the Mad Dog flying is out of that airport. It’s quite nice, well equipped and clean, with its own free shuttle service to LGA and JFK. It's also not far off the E or 7 trains, making it easy to go into Manhattan on the rare reserve days I'm not being used.

Commuting to reserve is a notoriously tough gig, but the work rules at my airline make it a lot easier than it was at either of my last two companies. Most reserve days are “long call," meaning I get at least 12 hours notice before report time, and I usually know about trips by 3pm the day before I start reserve, making informed commuting decisions much easier. On the first day of reserve we cannot be assigned a trip that begins before 10am. Many of the trips begin or end with deadheads; our contract allows us to “deviate” from a scheduled deadhead positive-space. So if I begin work tomorrow and am awarded a trip for which the first leg is a deadhead LGA-ATL, I call crew scheduling, tell them I will deviate, and book positive-space travel MSP-ATL for around the same time as the original deadhead. I save myself a night away from home and get a confirmed seat to work - score! Reserves can put in “Yellow Slips” that tell crew scheduling their preferences for awarded trips. I have a permanent yellow slip for trips that begin or end with a deadhead, as well as for trips that have a report time after 1pm and/or release time before 6pm (allowing a same-day commute). Obviously if a trip needs to be covered and I’m next in line, I’m going to fly it regardless of preferences, but if there are several trips to be covered and one meets my criteria, that’s the one I get. This has worked very well over the last month, giving me multiple extra nights at home and eliminating several potentially stressful commutes.

The Preferential Bidding Software (PBS) that my airline uses also gives reserve bidders much more flexibility than my last company. If you wish, you can lump all 17 reserve days into a single giant block, giving yourself a stretch of 13 days off (or 26, if you go back-to-back across bid periods). Of course, under Part 117 you are required to have 30 hours free of duty every 168 hours (7 days), so unless you are awarded a trip with a 30-hour overnight, you’ll end up with extra days off in the middle of your reserve block. This has happened several times, and the timing has worked out to give me several extra nights back in Minnesota.

Because of all the flying this summer, crew scheduling is offering a lot of “green slips” – basically, last-minute trips on your days off for premium pay and/or additional “payback days” off later in the month. A lot of senior pilots, anticipating the ability to make extra cash by green-slipping, purposely bid reserve with the first two weeks off, during which they pick up enough green slips to get the next two weeks off, during which they greenslip yet more, essentially flying the whole month at 200% pay. This is known as "Rolling Thunder." Those senior enough to buddy-bid with check airmen often get their trips bought off for IOE and then greenslip the entire month, basically making 300% pay. We have one Mad Dog FO in NYC that reportedly made over $300k last year doing exactly this.

As for me, I value summer days off far more than extra cash, so I don’t bid with green slips in mind, and I don’t hang around NYC any longer than necessary hoping I’ll get one. Thanks to the fact that reserve is going fairly senior, and that I’m already #80 out of 105 FOs in my category, I got a regular line for August, and a pretty nice one at that! All the trips are commutable on at least one end, I got partial weekends off, and I got a mid-month 8-day stretch of days off for a sailing trip I’m doing out of LA. Not bad for my third month! So yes, New York can be a pain to get to, and it can be crowded, dirty, and expensive, and the airports can be pretty hectic places – but these things, much like the Mad Dog's quirks, keep senior FOs away and afford me much better seniority than I'd otherwise have. So I don't care what anyone says - 'till the day that I can hold Minneapolis, I love NY!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Old School / New School

I’ve been flying the Mad Dog on the line for about five weeks now, have finished IOE, am on my third week of reserve, and have about 90 hours in the airplane. I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable yet – that’s going to take some time – but it’s getting more natural, I’m not having to make such a conscious effort to think ahead, I’m making fewer mistakes, and I’m up to about 90% of the speed of an experienced FO. It takes time to get used to any new airliner, but probably more than most in the Mad Dog, simply because it’s such a quirky, busy airplane. The good news is that the quickest way to get used to any airplane is to fly a lot of cycles in a short amount of time, and I’m certainly doing that.

The Mad Dog is basically a late 1980s stretch and update to a 1960s design. It is a contemporary of both the Boeing 757 and the Airbus A320, two much better designs in many respects. Perhaps a better comparison is the B737, another continually stretched and updated 1960s airplane that is not as good as it should be because Boeing maintained commonality with the earlier design. The Mad Dog’s builder was notorious for their thriftiness, reuse of existing components, and leaving as much of their designs unchanged as possible. The Mad Dog actually uses the exact same knob for its cockpit window latches as was used on the DC-3 (and -4, -6, and -7) throttle levers! Less humorously, the largest Mad Dog variant weighs in at up to 168,000 lbs MGTOW and uses the same basic wing as much smaller predecessors.

This lack of wing is the airplane’s most notable shortcoming. Its clean stall speed is quite high, which combined with takeoff warning system malfunctions has resulted in several bad accidents when crews forgot to set flaps for takeoff. After takeoff, we are limited to 15 degrees of bank until reaching a clean maneuvering speed of 250 kts or more at high weights; if a tighter turn is called for, we have to leave the slats out until maneuvering is complete. At altitude, one has to pay very close attention to airspeed, as it’s easy to get behind the power curve and be forced to descend to avoid stalling. Consequently the airplane is quite altitude-limited; it’s common to have an initial cruise altitude of FL300 or lower, a real handicap in thunderstorm season. The B737 comparison holds up here, as the newest super-stretch versions of that design are similarly limited.

In the cockpit, the Mad Dog kept many of the quirks of the original. Several systems retain manual controls and switches where competitors automated them – the pneumatic crossfeed valves, for example, or the fuel system, or engine ignition. The engine start valves are manual and must be continuously held throughout the start, making that a three-limb exercise in which the poor FO begs the Captain to taxi slower lest a pothole dislodge his finger and prompt an aborted start. The engines have no FADEC and care must be taken to avoid an overtemp or overspeed. The spoiler and flap handles are Rube Goldberg devices (held over from the original) that take practice to activate without a struggle. The whiskey compass is famously (and hilariously) mounted on the aft cockpit bulkhead, requiring a light switch and a glareshield mirror adjusted to look through another mirror in order to read it! There’s no way the FAA would certify such an arrangement on a new design, but because somebody gave the OK in 1965, the cockamamie arrangement lives on even in the Mad Dog’s younger cousin, the Angry Pup.

For all that, this is an airplane that has glass, dual FMS, autothrottles, autoland, and even VNAV. It’s all these new-school gizmos, combined with the retention of old-school systems, that make the Mad Dog so much busier than its simpler predecessors.  There's also the fact that these features represented early efforts in automation, as conceived by Long Beach - consider them an alternative vision of a future that never was. So we have glass, but the engine display shows the exact same round engine dials as the non-glass airplane, and the PFD just displays an attitude indicator; airspeed and altitude still have their own round-dial analog gauges. There’s a Flight Mode Annunciator, but it’s mounted inboard of the flight instruments, out of the pilot’s direct view despite being absolutely critical to keep in one’s scan. The autothrottles are laggy and flaky and occasionally command huge splits. The autopilot has two speed windows depending on which pitch mode you’re in, and reversion to another mode will also cause reversion to another speed if you’ve failed to keep the inactive window updated. The dual Honeywell FMS is surprisingly modern and capable (it's actually fairly similar to the JungleBus’ FMS) but since the airplane doesn’t have GPS, we can’t do RNAV approaches and frequently monitor raw data (the box determines its position through IRS/DME/DME inputs). The VNAV is unnecessarily complicated while being rather opaque and often unreliable, requiring very close attention to make sure it’s doing what you think it should be doing. That’s a pretty good description of the whole plane, really. It demands a lot of attention.

From this description you might think I dislike the Mad Dog, and nothing could be further from the truth. I’m having a blast! It’s so utterly unlike the JungleBus, and that’s 90% of the fun. The JungleBus would lull you to sleep if you let it; that’s never a threat in the Mad Dog. The plane is built like the proverbial brick shithouse. Flap and gear speeds are ludicrously high (Flaps 11 at 280 kts, Flaps 40 at 200) so there’s seldom any danger of being caught high. The engines are the penultimate -219 variant of the venerable JT8D, and are pretty reliable for an old design. Systems, though they lack automation, are extremely simple and robust. The controls are virtually foolproof (with proper maintenance; see Alaska 261); fly-by-wire in this plane means 3/8” stainless steel cables connecting the control columns to control tabs on each flying surface. The controls aren’t sporty by any means (those are pretty small tabs that you’re moving!), but the plane flies so solidly that it doesn’t really matter. It just sorta stays where you put it – kinda like the Piper Lance of my freight-dogging days, now that I think about it. The cockpit is extremely quiet, thanks to the rear-mounted engines. The seats are pretty comfortable. There are some neat unique features, like the takeoff condition computer to verify your takeoff trim setting and the dial-a-flap detent for optimized-performance takeoff configurations and get-down-quick descent settings. There are something like 30 different rheostats for ultimate night cockpit customization; I’m still figuring out which does what. Yeah, so cockpit trim pieces are always falling in my lap and the windows leaks on me every time it rains. It builds character! My airline is 100% sold on the Mad Dog’s financial performance and it seems they’ll be in the fleet for a long time to come. If the Mad Dog is going to be my upgrade airplane, I’m glad to be getting experience in it as an FO.

It’s worth noting that my airline actually has two Mad Dog variants. I'll call the newer one the Big Dog, as it seats 11 more passengers. It also has high-bypass turbofans with electronic engine control, more automated systems, and a hydraulic elevator that improves control responsiveness. Over the last couple years my airline has greatly expanded the Big Dog fleet, buying every used copy they could get their hands on; there are now roughly half as many Big Dogs as Mad Dogs. One of our largest competitors was until recently the world’s largest operator of Mad Dogs, though they call them by another name. Their variant is the exact same as ours, except they lack our quasi-glass cockpit. Our version has a different designator only because my airline insisted on it when they ordered them. Alas, the competition is rapidly forsaking their Mad Dog roots for the electric charms of the A320, making my airline the world's new Mad Dog king (especially if you count the Angry Pup, of which we're getting 88). Lots of Mad Dog FOs are moving to other airframes or to the left seat, making the Mad Dog a very common first airplane for new hires, and affording me nearly instant seniority in our junior New York base. I'll write about commuting to work there in my next post.

Friday, June 13, 2014

No More Inflight Selfies?

Well silly me for not keeping closer tabs on the Federal Registrar. I didn't know about this until a friend brought it to my attention, but in April the FAA published a final rule amending FAR §121.542 - more popularly known as the "sterile cockpit rule" - to include a prohibition on the personal use of laptops and personal electronic devices during all phases of flight. This isn't a huge surprise, because Congress told them to change the rule two years ago in a delayed reaction to the NW188 overflight incident in 2010. It's somewhat of a moot point now as the language is restricted to Part 121 operators and most airlines have already changed their policies to prohibit inflight pilot usage of PEDs. But the final language is a bit interesting, not least because it leaves somewhat ambiguous the question of whether it is legal to take a photo in cruise with a digital camera.
§121.542(d): During all flight time as defined in 14 CFR 1.1, no flight crewmember may use, nor may any pilot in command permit the use of, a personal wireless communications device (as defined in 49 U.S.C. 44732(d)) or laptop computer while at a flight crewmember duty station unless the purpose is directly related to operation of the aircraft, or for emergency, safety-related, or employment-related communications, in accordance with air carrier procedures approved by the Administrator.
First off, the reference to "flight time as defined in 14 CFR 1.1" means that this rule is applicable from the time the aircraft first moves under its own power to the time it comes to rest after landing - i.e., from taxi until parked at the gate. Though it doesn't say it in the reg, the FAA clarified in the final rule that the "personal" in "personal wireless communications device" refers to usage, not ownership. So this regulation also applies to company-provided EFBs or tablets if they are used for any purpose not directly related to operation of the aircraft, or emergency, safety-related, or employment-related communications. The real question is what exactly constitutes a "wireless communications device." The definition used comes from the Communications Act of 1934, which as amended states that "personal wireless services means commercial mobile services, unlicensed wireless services, and common carrier wireless exchange access service." In the final rule, the FAA further defined wireless telecommunications as the transfer of information between two or more points that are not physically connected. This would seem to exclude, say, an old-school iPod or cheap memory stick music player, yet the FAA included these as examples of devices which would be prohibited, as well as e-readers though the early ones had no wireless capability. Their sample list of prohibited devices doesn't really jibe with the language of the ruling.

What about cameras, then? There's no specific mention of them in the rule or accompanying discussion. It's pretty clear that a smartphone or tablet camera is prohibited. I suspect my little Nikon Coolpix is as well, since it has wifi & bluetooth transmit features. But what of my Nikon D5100 digital SLR? It has no wireless capabilities. Ditto for my first-generation GoPro camera. It's a gray area. Here's another potential loophole: the FAA says jumpseaters are excepted from the rule. So maybe, you can have a jumpseater fish your smartphone out of your bag and take a photo! But don't ham it up too much for the camera, the feds might call that "use!"

It's a moot point for me, in any case. My new airline has FOM language that is more restrictive than the FAR, as it includes both pilots and jumpseaters using any electronic device not certified for use in the aircraft, and actually begins with the reading of the Pre-Flight Checklist (typically 10 minutes prior to pushback). I originally had the idea that my old Nikon N60 35mm SLR would be allowed, but then realized that as old school as it is, it does use electronics for autofocus, metering, and film rewinding. So it looks like the one legal camera to use for inflight cockpit shots at my new airline is one of those 12-shot disposable film cameras...as long as I can find one without a flash! Sorry to say, I don't think you can expect any more inflight shots from me, at least in the Mad Dog.

Now the Cub? That's still fair game! The feds seem hellbound on legislating airline pilots straight to sleep, but thankfully we can still have some fun in GA!


Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Way We Train Today

The last fifteen years or so have seen a significant change in the way that airlines train their pilots, even though in many cases the airplanes themselves have not changed (the Mad Dog being a perfect example - it's a mid-80s update to a 1960s design). The methods of instruction, means of evaluation, areas of emphasis, training footprint, and regulatory framework are all completely different than they were through most of aviation history, up until the late 1990s. There were many factors behind the seismic shift: advances in technology, greater data collection and analysis, human factors and CRM research, cultural shifts, and aggressive airline cost-cutting. Whether the new system is better is still occasionally debated by line pilots, but it's almost certainly here to stay.

I arrived at the airlines midway through the changeover, and so I got to see a glimpse of the old ways during new-hire training at Horizon, when they were just beginning to change their program. Other than that experience, most of what I know of how it used to be has been related to me by older pilots, instructors, and check airmen.

Under the old regime, there were three distinct, separate phases of training: ground training, flight training, and checking. "Ground School" typically lasted several weeks and covered all aircraft systems, limitations, and emergency procedures in great detail. Everyone - Captains,  Copilots, and Flight Engineers - was expected to learn aircraft systems at an aeronautical engineer level of understanding. Because the QRH (Quick Reference Handbook) concept was still in it's infancy and cockpit warning systems were still fairly rudimentary, it was expected that flight crews be able to diagnose malfunctions instinctively through advanced knowledge of the systems involved. This knowledge was tested through lengthy oral exams in which the questions occasionally reached a ridiculous level of detail ("How many rivets are there on the left wing?") that had little to do with the actual operation of the aircraft.

Flight training was originally conducted in the actual airplane - mostly at night when it wasn't needed for revenue operations - but moved into full-motion flight simulators as they become more advanced in the late 1970s and early 80s (later for smaller regional aircraft). The emphasis was mostly on specific maneuvers required to be tested by the FAA, and especially V1 cuts, single-engine approaches, and various other emergencies. There was little emphasis on line flying during initial training; this was reserved for line check airmen conducting Initial Operating Experience (IOE) during revenue operations. In the late 80s and 90s, as CRM became a greater emphasis item, the FAA required that airlines tack on a few LOFT (Line Oriented Flight Training) events to train & evaluate crews in their use of CRM during line operations. This was practically an afterthought at many airlines, and usually a non-jeopardy event.

The culmination of training was the "checkride," the Proficiency Check required by FAR 121.141. There was really no checking before the PC; though the instructors ultimately had to sign you off, you weren't under the microscope during training events. Woe to the pilot who failed a PC, though! At many airlines, failing a PC could be a career-ending event, especially if you were a new hire. And you could - and would - be failed for very minor deviations from ATP Practical Test Standards. Everything was geared towards passing the PC. Even at Horizon in 2004, for new hires it was a high-pressure event in which you were expected to perform flawlessly if you wished to stay employed.

Nearly all of that is gone now. First off, ground school is almost an anachronism. The vast majority of systems training is done via Computer-Based Training (CBT) - usually at home, on your own time, though most airline contracts still pay you for it. You may or may not get paper reference materials - at NewCo if you wanted them you had to print them off the PDFs at your own expense. Far better to learn to love Acrobat, and Ctrl/Cmd-F is your friend. The level of systems knowledge taught is far, far less detailed than in years past. If you're the sort of person who actually likes to know the path that an air molecule takes on its journey through an Air Cycle Machine, good luck finding that information in anything the airline provides you. They don't expect you to know it, and you will not be tested on it. The reality is that they'd just as soon have you not know it. Over the years they've come to the conclusion that crews attempting to diagnose systems malfunctions make things worse as often as they make things better. Now crews are expected to religiously use QRHs any time a system abnormality is encountered, which combined with greatly advanced indication & warning systems has greatly simplified the task of dealing with malfunctions. Meanwhile the number of aircraft limitations and emergency recall items expected to be memorized has been greatly reduced, essentially to only those time-critical safety items that aren't easily referenced in real time.

Nearly all airlines have moved to the Advanced Qualification Program (AQP) regulatory framework which replaced the old system of separate flight training and checking events. Training and checking are practically the same thing now. AQP programs typically consist of several blocks of training each consisting of a number of training modules followed by a validation. Each module has completion standards associated with it, essentially turning every event into a checking event that can be failed & required to be repeated. Meanwhile the validations are not 100% checking events; many allow for some degree of retraining and repetition of unsatisfactory maneuvers. Rather than being purely "pass-fail," most events are graded on a scale both by maneuver and by competency. For example, you may have flown a "5" V1 cut (good!) but only get a "2" in use of CRM (bad!). A mid-level passing score may involve some deviation from ATP standards, but with early recognition and correction.

Typically the earlier blocks of training now take place in "paper tigers," "systems/procedures trainers" (SPTs),  & "flight procedures trainers" (FPTs). These are all non-moving simulators of varying sophistication in which the pilot cements systems knowledge, learns flow patterns, and practices "buttonology" and basic flight procedures before moving on to the more elaborate & expensive full flight simulators. In the flight simulator, the initial emphasis is on maneuvers such as steep turns, stalls, V1 cuts, approaches, go-arounds, and landings. These lessons are followed by a Maneuvers Validation (MV) which is very similar in format to the old Proficiency Check.

LOFTs now typically make up the entire last block of training and are followed by the penultimate checkride, the Line Oriented Validation (LOE). These events help ease the transition to Initial Operating Experience, and allow the trainee to see a variety of emergencies under realistic line conditions. Where the emphasis used to be on individual performance, now crews are now expected to use all available resources in dealing with abnormal situations, exactly like they would on the line. It's entirely possible to fail a LOE by responding to a malfunction with the correct technical actions but in a "lone ranger" fashion. It's equally possible to fail the LOE for failing to speak up when your partner is doing something boneheaded.

The end result is a training footprint that is considerably shorter than in years past, and less use of the full flight simulator, which the airlines love for cost and scheduling reasons. Much of the burden of training has been shifted onto the pilot; rather than just showing up and expecting to be spoonfed, you have to do a lot of homework before training begins or you'll never keep up. That said, you're expected to remember a lot less total information than in years past. The pressure of training events has gone up, but the pressure of checking events has gone down. It's harder to flunk out, but it's also harder to sail though.

This is what the training footprint looked like on the Mad Dog (it's actually changed somewhat since, I was the last person to go through this curriculum):
  • 4 modules Systems Training. 2 SPTs, 2 FPTs. Electronic Systems Validation (eSV), an extensive computerized written test that replaces the oral exam. 
  • 4 modules Procedures Training. 4 FPTs. Procedures Validation.
  • 4 modules Maneuvers Training, all in full-flight simulator. Maneuvers Validation.
  • 4 modules Line Oriented Training, all in FFS. Line Oriented Validation. 
This is very similar to most airlines' training footprints today, including NewCo, United, USAirways, and Spirit (have had friends go through all those programs lately).

I'm happy to say that I passed each event on first try and did particularly well on the 4 validations. I studied my tail off and was assisted by a very sharp sim partner, one who had actually been a Mad Dog captain before he was displaced back to the right seat. He also happened to be an avid motorcycle rider and I had a bike in town, so we snuck in some fun rides to decompress from the grind of training. The one big hiccup was when I came down with shingles - on my face! - the day before my MV. The APD (check airman) rightly insisted that I call in sick for the MV for various reasons, not the least of which was he'd never had chicken pox and could therefore get them from me. I got on meds right away and only lost a few days, and the training department was great about rescheduling me. Unfortunately they sent my sim partner ahead without me, so I was by myself or with seat support for the remainder of training. It still went quite well. I had a very good LOE on Tuesday, sat on Mad Dog jumpseats for an observation rotation on Friday and Saturday, and start IOE tomorrow. I'm really looking forward to it. The Mad Dog is a very interesting, busy airplane, a unique combination of old and new. I'll write about that in my next post.