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.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

New Format!

As promised, the slight redesign from the week before last was only an interim stopgap; since then I've used a parallel test site to do a complete redesign of the blog. This is an adaptation of the "OrangeLine" template offered for free over at BTemplates. You'll notice the main page has a rotating display of photos from throughout the course of my career; I'll occasionally change these. I've added new pages about me & the blog's history, compiled a reading list of some of my favorite posts from the last nine years, and am in the process of adding labels to the archived posts. In addition I've added social media sharing buttons to the main page & at the bottom of each post. I'm redoing the long-neglected blogroll, so if you have a favorite aviation blog you think I should check out, please tell me. And let me know what you think of the new digs!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

First Day of School

April 7, 2014. I was already awake when my cell phone alarm clock started beeping at 6am, and when the automated wakeup call came a few moments later. I lay in the dim dawn light of my hotel room, thinking. I'd been dreaming of this day for 20 years. There wasn't really anything to be nervous about, but my heart was in my throat. I had slept fitfully through the night. It was the first day of class at a major US airline. My new airline.

I got up, showered, and fretted about what tie to wear for a good 10 minutes before picking the one I'd planned on all along. Outside of my room, I ran into Jack P. He and I had been in the same basic indoc class at NewCo, though that was only a one-day event (most of it was done via computerized distance learning). Jack and I ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant, eying a similarly attired group a few booths down who looked like they could be our classmates (they were). After breakfast we found the rest of our suit-and-tie-clad counterparts milling in the lobby, having shown up early for the early van to the training center. On the first day of class, nobody was going to risk being late.

The van dropped us off at the front door of the training center. This is a large brick four-story building that turned out to be a bit of a misnomer, for it only hosts a portion of the airline's training activity; there is a similarly sized annex next door, and several stories of the two operations buildings across the street house flight simulators, briefing rooms, & instructor lounges. Indeed, the pilot new hire classroom was not in the training center itself, but up three floors, down a long hallway, across a footbridge to the annex, and halfway down another long hallway. A line pilot who was early for his recurrent training graciously showed us the way, marveling all the while at the sheer volume of new hire pilots and flight attendants in training (currently 600 FAs, he said!). It's been a while since this airline has seen such a hiring boom.

We were all 45 minutes early for class, leaving plenty of time for chitchat. I noticed, with some dismay, that the class immediately split into its constituent parts. There were ten flow-throughs from my airline, 9 flow-throughs from another carrier, and 5 off-the-street hires from Skywest, ExpressJet, and Pinnacle. All of the flow-throughs had been hired at their respective former airlines around the same time (several, like Jack and I, on the same day), and therefore most of them knew each other already. That said, you can go months or even years without running into someone who is right next to you on the seniority list, and so the only person I really knew well was Richard, my sim partner during JungleBus initial training in 2007. I chatted with acquaintances for a while, then broke off to meet a few new faces. The first person I chatted with, Roger, recognized me as "the Flying columnist," and to my dismay started introducing me as such to our classmates. I wasn't trying to hide the writing - I was certain my new airline was aware of it - but had hoped to stay "under the radar" during basic indoc. That said, I appreciated hearing fellow pilots saying how much they enjoyed my articles. It's about the closest I've ever come to minor celebrity!

The manager of fleet-common programs arrived right on schedule, we took our seats, and he gave us the first of what would be many warm welcomes to the airline throughout the day and week. "We're so glad you're here!" and "You're getting in at a great time!" was sincerely uttered so many times that it became a bit of a running joke by the end of basic indoc. We went around the room and introduced ourselves, our background, and why we chose to come to this airline. I mentioned I had been hired at Horizon on April 7th, 2004, exactly ten years prior, and that Dawn and I had traveled the world on this airline and had been treated very well over the years. I was struck by the fact that at 32 years old and with 10 years of airline flying, I was one of the youngest and least experienced of the 24 new hires. Most of the others were in their upper 30s to lower 50s, with 15+ years at the regionals. Also notable was that only a few had flown in the armed forces, and none had come straight from the military, which would have been unthinkable in a major airline class this size only a few years ago. This is of course a partial consequence of the flow-through programs and may change as the flowups dwindle later this year, but even in the classes before and after ours that had few flowups, pure military hires made up half or less of the off-the-street hires. This is an enormous shift from previous hiring waves. I think the airlines still prefer military pilots, but there just aren't a ton of them leaving the service compared to previous eras.

The first day of indoc, and indeed much of the first week, was comprised of presentations by various managers and heads of departments. I was surprised at how high-ranking many of the presenters were; there were several VPs who took the time to welcome us aboard. My second impression was of the sheer size and complexity of many of the departments involved, several of which would have been handled by a skeleton crew of a few people at most regional airlines. The presenters seemed very aware of this, and several times we heard the refrain: "We are not the regional airlines. We know how some of your previous airlines were run and how they might've treated you, and you have to leave that in your past. We do things differently here." On the third day, we toured the operations center, an enormous room that houses domestic and international dispatch, load planners, maintenance control, crew routing, meteorologists, radio communications specialists, the duty pilot desk, and more. It was an eye-opening and humbling look at what it takes to make one of the world's largest airlines run - and for every person on duty in the operations center itself, there are another five or ten working elsewhere in the operations complex. As part of the tour, each new-hire got to sit with a dispatcher for an hour while they worked their flights. It was one of the highlights of my week, and it made much of what was subsequently discussed in class make a lot more sense.

Lunch was catered the first day of class, and the new-hires started to mingle outside of their earlier groups. I met Nick, a Skywest Brasilia check airman who I'd share a few beers with while getting Windows running on his Mac later that week, and Lindsay from ExpressJet, a friendly gal who seemed to already know everyone in the training department thanks to a Women In Aviation scholarship that had provided a type rating course in the airline's B737 flight simulators. By the end of the day I had talked to most of my classmates and several of the instructors who would be teaching later in the week. My heart was no longer in my throat; my suit felt lighter. Everyone I met made me feel welcome, like I belonged here, regardless of flow-through status. With the anxiety gone, I actually enjoyed myself, recalling how often I had dreamed of this day over the years, and pinching myself at my good fortune to be here now.

Looking back over this blog's archives from late 2008 into 2009, during the merger and recession I had fully expected to have this airline's pilots flow down to NewCo, displacing me onto the street and likely sending me to China to find work! The fact that this never happened, that I enjoyed some great years of good seniority insulated from much of the regional industry's turbulence and have now seamlessly flowed up to my dream job even after NewCo was sold off, can be regarded as nothing more than the product of extremely good luck and perhaps a few nudges from my guardian angel. Likewise my decision to go to NewCo in the first place, when I had been planning to take a leave of absence from Horizon to fly Metroliners for Ameriflight (and nearly blew off the NewCo interview until Dawn talked some sense into me!). I look at the winding path that took me here, and there are so many twists and turns that could have easily gone another way. I'm thrilled that things turned out the way they did, but am under no illusion that my good fortune is the product of my own intelligence or hard work. Yes, I put in my time and made the decisions that seemed to be best at the time, but there are a lot of smarter and harder-working pilots than me who are still stuck at the regionals. The good news is, I don't think they'll be stuck for long. All of the US airlines are hiring, and several (including mine) have already revised their hiring numbers upwards several times this year. I've had friends with zero turbine PIC get hired at major airlines recently.

I'm trying to avoid triumphalism because I'm keenly aware that many 1999 and 2000 hires thought they were set for life, only to wind up on the street a few years later. The airlines have always been boom-or-bust, and have typically careened from one to the other with little warning. The same will likely hold true this time, and nothing in particular says I and my friends won't be caught in the bust whenever it comes. But for now at least, times are very good at the majors, and I want to encourage those who are still toiling away in the lower levels: keep up the good work. There's light at the end of the tunnel. You'll get there, and when you do, it's an absolutely amazing feeling.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

So Long, "Blogging at FL250!"

I've kept this blog essentially unchanged since I started it in 2005, retaining the same title & format even after my job took me well above FL250 (which came from the maximum certified altitude of the Q400 that I was flying back then). I never really cared for the verb "blogging," though, particularly in the name of a blog. I stuck with it because...well, I didn't really have anything better in mind. But when I started writing the monthly column for Flying, it forced me to brainstorm titles appropriate to the subject matter I anticipated covering, and I ended up really liking Taking Wing. It's an equally appropriate title for what I've written about here and anticipate writing here in the future. I've toyed with the idea of changing the blog's name for years, and now, while I'm starting a new chapter in my flying career, seemed like the right time to take the plunge.

I'll also be experimenting with layout and formatting over the next few weeks. Bear with me as I do, I have little experience with blogger template design & tweaking. I anticipate this current layout being an interim stopgap until I find something I like better. Meanwhile I'll likely revamp the blogroll (which hasn't been touched in years) and organize the archives better. Any suggestions are quite welcome.

Finally, it's worth noting that with my change in jobs will come a certain change in content. I've been able to express some pretty strongly felt opinions over the years without the slightest pushback from my employers. I know that many fellow pilots, other employees, flight ops management, and even a few senior managers at my last two companies visited this blog. I've generally been careful about not naming my employers while at those companies (though their identity has been pretty easy to guess for anyone with industry knowledge), and I've made it clear that my opinions are solely my own. I've also become more careful about how I post operational details over the years. So far, I've been able to stay out of hot water. I suspect it's partially because my work record has been otherwise very good and partially because most regional airlines have limited resources and much bigger fish to fry than a blogging pilot.

My new employer is different. They are a huge airline that is very sensitive about their corporate image. They have a well-defined social media policy that, among other things, prohibits public criticism of the company or fellow employees. They have a social media department whose job it is to know exactly what is being said about the company online, by both the public and employees. They have a history of firing employees who strayed from their social media guidelines. They have a very large and active legal department. Their flight operations department takes their new-hire pilots' probationary periods seriously. And frankly, I have a lot more to lose now. This is my dream job. My Flying Magazine gig meets the requirements of their media policy, but likely raises my profile a bit at a time I'd rather be under the radar. So I'm naturally going to be careful in what I write, while still trying to be honest and relevant.

The first change is that I'm going to stop using even a cute pseudo-name for my employer. The one I've been using makes it a bit too obvious who it is. From now on, they're just "my company" or "my airline." I'll continue to refer to my plane as the "Mad Dog," since it's an unofficial nickname common to several US airlines. There will likely be fewer posts about my current flying, and you're not going to find much opinion in them about our procedures or the people I fly with unless it's fairly positive (the good news: so far I've only found positive things to say, anyways). I'll be largely focused on the airline industry as a whole, recounting past flying I've done, and giving advice to other pilots on their way up through the ranks. And as always I'll throw in the occasional travel, motorcycling, and GA flying posts to mix it up a bit.

That said, I'm going to try to post here more often (he said for the hundredth time!), include more photo content like I used to, link to my columns at flyingmag.com, and be quicker about responding to comments. I'll keep the "FL250" web address as a homage to the blog's beginnings. I hope you like the new "Taking Wing" blog, and welcome your comments and suggestions!

(Photos deleted) Above: My last flight at my last airline, March 27th 2014. (Photos deleted)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ode to JungleBus

Well, Basic Indoc class is over, and I'm officially a [nameless major airline] pilot, wings and all. It was a really good experience, extremely welcoming regardless of flow status and quite a bit more chilled out than previous indocs. But I still have to get through Mad Dog school, which starts in a week, with computerized home study until then. It will not be chilled out, it's notoriously fast and furious, so I'll be hitting the books hard this week. My life at NewCo already seems impossibly long ago, and the "brain dump" on JungleBus systems and procedures is already well underway. You have to forget your previous airplanes as an airline pilot, or that knowledge will interfere with the one you're flying now. But I can't let all things JungleBus slip from my brain without some acknowledgement. This is the airplane I've flown far more than any others in my career, a plane I came to know rather well. I left NewCo with 4801.6 hours in the JungleBus, which is slightly over half of my total time. In all that time I never had a serious systems-related emergency. I had perhaps a dozen maintenance cancellations in over six years. JB seldom let me down; she deserves a tribute before I become intimate with another mistress.

The first time I saw JungleBus, I was a Q400 FO at Horizon, who had recently lost their Frontier JetExpress flying only three years into a supposed 12-year contract. As our CRJ-700s came back from Frontier they were being put on inefficient routes like Portland-Seattle, and so the factors that would eventually lead me to leave Horizon were already evident. In Spokane, I saw a Republic JB in Frontier colors taxiing into the gate, and my initial reaction was profound dislike. It looked like a child's pudgy plastic toy airplane to me, and the fuzzy baby animal on the tail added to the impression. My critique of the airplane's aesthetics never entirely changed even after I was flying it. But that first impression was likely tinged by jealousy and frustration over my stalled career at Horizon. Six months later I was in class at NewCo, learning to fly that pudgy toy plane.

The training began with a home self-study CD-ROM, which seemed awfully slim on in-depth systems knowledge. I figured the classroom systems lectures would go into greater detail, but when I got to Montreal the ground instructors seemed to know even less about the plane than we did. Alarmingly, the same was true of our simulator instructors. The checkride examiners asked plenty about each control and button's function and system logic, but very little about the underlying systems themselves. I entered OE feeling like I knew less about this airplane than any I'd ever flown before - and despite that, got through in only 25 hours feeling pretty comfortable with line operations. And that wasn't me being superpilot; everyone was getting through with 25 hours of OE. I realized then that the lack of systems instruction wasn't a byproduct of a new airline or a relatively new type, it was an integral feature of a design meant to remove pilots and their pesky human failings from its operation to the greatest degree possible.

The JungleBus is in fact a fairly complex airplane, but from the flight deck it is simplicity itself. The overhead panel features a few rows of large, rarely-touched "dusty buttons" which select the systems to "Auto" or "Off." When everything is selected to its normal (auto) position, the switchlights are dark. The ram's horn yokes are beautifully ergonomic and nicely balanced, which they well should be since they're not connected to much of anything - it's all computer-augmented fly by wire with the exception of the ailerons, which actually have control cables running to their hydraulic actuators. The FADEC-controlling thrust levers glide smoothly from idle to the rating detent, which you seldom feel since the autothrottles are generally engaged before you ever get close to it. The secondary controls - Flaps, Spoilers - are big and unmistakable, and protect themselves by refusing to deploy when they shouldn't. The real heart of the cockpit, the Flight Guidance Panel, has quite a few easy to understand and use modes for lateral and vertical guidance - the most commonly used of which are the FMS-derived LNAV and VNAV. When everything is working, it's a rather easy airplane to fly. 

But what about when things break, you ask - what then? Again, the airplane makes it as simple for the pilot as possible. Most major systems go through extensive self-tests, transparent to the pilot, on aircraft power-up. If they fail their self-test, they display an error message and you call maintenance. The only systems the pilot tests himself are the fire protection, annunciator lights, and trim switches. After startup and proceeding through the flight, the EICAS system inhibits many faults, discreetly sending minor ones directly to the airline and displaying others after landing or shutdown. Only outright failures are shown on the EICAS display in real-time or close to it (most are inhibited between 80 knots and V1), and then the system prioritizes the order of their display so that malfunctions most likely to be the root cause of secondary faults are addressed first. You just pick the highest priority message and run the associated QRH checklist. Nine times out of ten, the checklist tells you to select the system off, wait sixty seconds, and turn it back to auto, and nine times out of ten this resolves the fault – the aeronautical equivalent of Ctrl-Alt-Del. If the QRH leaves any room for confusion, you can bring up the appropriate system schematic on the Multi-Function Display (MFD), and the status and relationship of every component in the system is displayed. If our instructors never placed much emphasis on knowing exactly what is powered by each hydraulic system, for example, their laxity makes a little more sense when you realize that the hydraulic synoptic page shows exactly what is being powered at any given time, no rote memorization required. My colleagues and I have often theorized that this airplane was designed to be flown in challenging third-world conditions by inexperienced, occasionally fatigued crews, and most of the time it will keep even this “lowest common denominator” crew out of serious trouble.

Of course, JungleBus’ front-end simplicity is achieved through a great deal of back-end complexity of the electronic variety, and this means it is still prone to human error – but these errors can lay hidden within layers of code or imbedded on circuit boards for months or even years before surfacing in unexpected ways. In six years I’ve seen this airplane do some truly mind-boggling things, like spontaneously change a pilot-entered VNAV descent angle from a reasonable 3.5 degrees to an untenable 6 degrees, or abruptly turning 20 degrees off course upon crossing an intermediate fix where the airway didn’t bend. A good friend had a baffling situation where the pneumatic synoptic page showed that both pack valves had closed themselves and the cabin altitude was rapidly increasing. He quite reasonably made an emergency descent and subsequently diverted to our maintenance base in Louisville, where subsequent investigation showed that it was an indication error – both packs were working correctly and cabin altitude had actually remained steady at 8000 feet! I personally experienced a current surge event in one of the Secondary Power Distribution Assemblies (SPDA) that fried multiple circuit boards in one fell swoop, creating a puzzling array of seemingly unrelated faults; this fortunately happened on the ground, during the Power-On Self Test.

These type of events are not a slight against the JungleBus’ basic design; they happen in every modern airplane, and I dare say more often in many than in the JungleBus today (early on it had many more bugs to work through). I would say they are notable in the JungleBus primarily because most of the time the airplane does work so well that it lulls crew into less active monitoring than they might practice in a less reliable design. This complacency is the easiest way to get into trouble in a JungleBus, and usually not because of some insidious bug hidden deep in the software. Most of the time JungleBus crews screw up, they do it to themselves with bad input, and subsequently fail to catch the error through lax monitoring. Too often when the error is finally discovered, they attempt to fix the automation in a hurried, panicked manner rather than simply flying the airplane and having the other pilot fix the automation when time allows it to be done methodically. And this problem, I would argue, is a direct result of JungleBus’ design philosophy and the resulting way we have trained her crews. If you take so much of an aircraft’s operation out of a pilot’s hands, encourage him to continually use full automation, and keep him in the dark as to much of what his aircraft is doing, you cannot reasonably expect him to remain alert and engaged in the aircraft’s operation over countless uneventful hours, and you cannot expect him to become instantly attuned when something does go amiss. It goes against human nature. The FAA and the airlines have become quite aware of this and the pendulum is finally swinging the other way across the airlines and across fleets, toward a greater emphasis on manual flight skills and automation shedding when appropriate.

Fortunately, many of us who’ve been flying JungleBus for a while recognized her potential for creating automation dependency early on, and took our own steps to ward it off. We hand flew whenever appropriate, and occasionally turned off the autothrottles and flight director too. We backed up the VNAV with good old 3-to-1 ratio mental math (which saved my bacon on that spontaneous path angle change incident). We talked amongst ourselves and learned some of the more insidious “bad input, bad output” scenarios, like accidentally hitting PREV twice and setting ourselves up for an offside-localizer capture and subsequent reversion to ROLL HOLD mode. We talked to our mechanics and learned the nuts and bolts behind the Auto mode buttons. We opened the QRH in cruise with synoptic pages displayed on the MFD, unraveling the reasoning behind the procedures. We followed our progress across the country and played the “if everything goes blank now, where do I go?” game.

Fortunately, none of us ever had those “everything goes blank” scenarios actually happen. Everything generally worked very well. When JungleBus did throw us a curve, we usually caught it early on. When I made dumb inputs, my FOs almost always caught them before agreeing to “Activate.” Once in a while the autopilot and/or autothrottles would do something funky and I’d turn them off, and I’d appreciate all over what a wonderfully honest, smooth-flying airplane it is when you just fly the damn thing – a big Cherokee, really. JungleBus never did anything to put me or my ticket in danger, as long as I just paid attention. I finished my stint at the regionals with a clean record and about 7000 accident-free, violation-free, and mostly uneventful airline hours. I have useful training & prior experience, great coworkers, and two very different but ultimately very good airplanes to thank for that. Goodbye, JungleBus. I’ll miss you.