Sunday, March 23, 2014

One Last Trip

Tomorrow I start the last four-day trip of my career at NewCo, and what is hopefully the last hurrah of my career at the regional airlines. I have an April 7 class date at WidgetCo, and it appears that NewCo is going to let me go without exacting their last few drops of blood in the first days of April. That's just as well; I have a few loose ends to wrap up before I disappear down to Atlanta for a few months of training, and Dawn and I are also taking a quick trip to the Netherlands and Belgium for her Spring Break next weekend.

It's actually fairly uncommon for Captains of my seniority level to bid for 4-day trips - especially those of us who live in base. I do occasionally bid the more conventionally desirable 2-day trips and daytrips, especially in summer, but for most of the year I really don't mind 4-days. They get me out of Minnesota - a real bonus this brutal winter - and give Dawn time to catch up on the endless test correcting and lesson planning associated with her teaching job. And truth told, I enjoy going out with and getting to know my crew over the course of a 4-day trip. I've made some very good friends over 4-days. With a 2-day or daytrip, you barely get to know a person.

My flight attendants for this last 4-day are, quite coincidentally, old friends whom I've flown with quite a bit and have had some great layovers with. I've never flown with the FO but am told he's a good guy, so maybe there's one more friend to be made before I move on. Perhaps I am looking at my ten years at the regionals with rose-colored glasses now that they're almost over, but I think I will always look back at them as some of the very best years of my life. I've made so many great friends, seen so many neat parts of this country and our world, and enjoyed many quiet moments of sublime beauty in the sky that has become my second home. Sure, the career stagnation has been bothersome at times; I certainly never saw myself spending a decade at the regionals. But I've flown with many good pilots who suffered far more turbulent careers than my own, yet are able to go to work eager to see what the new day has in store. I share the cockpit with these guys and gals for four days at a time, with little to do for much of it but talk of life and our loved ones and our mutual passion for flight, and then talk yet more over a beer or two at the layover, and by the time we part I'm utterly shameful of any thoughts of self-pity I've been harboring over my own circumstances.

I'm growing quite excited to find what the future holds at WidgetCo as my class date approaches, though the prospect of such drastic change after a time of prolonged stasis is also a bit nerve-wracking. There's a lot to learn right off the bat, an entirely different culture to adjust to and a new way of doing things to adapt to. I can adjust and adapt, I'm confident of that - I've done it plenty before, in the hungry early days of my career. I just haven't had to do much of it lately. The prospect of a fresh challenge, the first in a while at least where flying is concerned, stirs up the nervous pacing excitement of a fighter before a match.

But first, one last trip to be savored. I'll miss flying the JungleBus quite a lot, and I'll write about that in a separate post. I'll miss being in the left seat for a while. I'll miss being based out of MSP for a year or two. I'll miss NewCo's interesting, diverse route structure. I'll miss the easy camaraderie that comes from flying with a lot of the same people over the years at a small airline. But for the next four days, I needn't miss any of that - only appreciate it, one last time.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

FNG

Last week I had the unusual (for me, anyways) privilege of flying with a brand new First Officer. I don't mean new to me - I mean brand spanking new to the company and the JungleBus, on his very first trip after Initial Operating Experience (IOE). I shouldn't be so surprised, because there are a ton of new faces on the line given all the hiring NewCo has been doing to replace those of us flowing up to WidgetCo or moving on to other majors. But I've been bidding around 14% (from the top) in the MSP Captain category for over three years, and have become accustomed to flying with the same 20 or so senior First Officers. Many of them could hold a junior Captain position on reserve or in our new LAX crew base, but choose to stay in the right seat for the weekends & holidays off, efficient trips, and 18-day-off monthly lines that their seniority provides. All are extremely comfortable with the JungleBus and our system, and their knowledge often surpasses my own. Flying with excellent First Officers who you know makes the left seat a pretty easy gig on most days.

Joe joined the trip in Salt Lake City, replacing the reserve First Officer from Detroit who had flown the first two legs. I'm not sure what happened to the FO who originally bid the trip; I'm guessing he was sick or was able to drop the trip into open time. My first thought when I met Joe was how shockingly young he looked, much like myself when I was hired at Horizon ten years ago. Indeed, he turned out to be nine years my junior, at age 23. Born in 1990, Joe was 10 years old when I started instructing. It makes me feel suddenly old! Incredibly, this isn't Joe's first airline; he spent over a year at Great Lakes, and his experience is fairly instructive of how the pilot shortage has been shaping up so far. He struggled through a year of poverty-level First Officer pay (less than $15,000/yr) and upgraded in the Beech 1900D as soon as he turned 23. By then, Lakes was losing so many First Officers that he ended up flying in the right seat even after upgrading, which at least gave him captain pay but no turbine PIC flight time. When NewCo started hiring, it wasn't a hard decision to jump ship; even our paltry first year FO pay is as much as Great Lakes' captain pay! Six of the ten pilots in Joe's NewCo class were ex-Lakers, and they also made up the majority of the classes before and behind his.

All of Joe's IOE took place in our east coast system, flying in and out of LaGuardia. He had never been to our trip's airports of Salt Lake City, San Francisco, or San Antonio; he had flown in and out of LAX as a Laker, but not from WidgetCo's terminal. I passed along some of the finer points of flying in and out of these cities, though few of these tips actually involve flying. The Jeppesen plates do a pretty good job of presenting all the data needed to navigate one's way to a busy airport; it is mostly on the ground that some tribal knowledge comes in handy. This includes typical taxi routes, which ground and ramp controllers to contact and where, whether operations will respond to your on-the-ground call, which services are available - even something as simple as "The ground power at gate 48 isn't reliable, so leave the APU running." In Salt Lake City, I noted the semi-permanent winter inversion layer and cautioned Joe about the sudden thick fogs that often defy forecasters, suggesting the occasional need for a precautionary alternate. Approaching San Francisco, I explained the Tipp Toe, Quiet Bridge, and new FMS Bridge visual procedures, reviewing the techniques needed to comply with altitude and speed restrictions and still get stabilized by 1000' and sharing tips on avoiding TCAS Resolution Advisories (RAs) when paired up with another aircraft on the parallel approach.

Mostly, though, the trip was notable for just how little instruction was needed. If Joe hadn't told me he was fresh off IOE, I never would have guessed it. His aircraft control was smooth and precise, his procedural knowledge flawless, his automation management confident and fluid. It's worth noting that this is Joe's first time flying a glass, FMS-equipped airplane. I suspect such a transition is much easier for his tech-raised generation than going from a technically advanced aircraft to an old-school steam-gauge bird like the B1900. Our procedures required that I make the landings and takeoffs in San Francisco since it is a special qualifications airport and Joe is "green," but I would have been perfectly comfortable letting him fly at SFO or anywhere else. About the only clue that Joe was new to the airplane was the fact that he started slowing down for approaches a few miles earlier than I would have. This is a smart technique when new to any aircraft, but especially when coming out of the B1900. Its lighter weight and massive drag with props at fine pitch make carrying 250 knots to the outer marker standard procedure. The JungleBus is actually draggier than many jets and its large flight spoilers and high gear and flap speeds making getting down and slowing down relatively easy, but it's certainly no B1900, and it behooves one to play it conservative until intimately familiar with its drag characteristics. Even then, you have to be careful not to leave yourself hot and high, as I discovered with a Fed on my jumpseat four years ago.

Flying with Joe was a heartening reminder of how well most airline training programs prepare their pilots for flying the line from Day One, even when it's a big change from their previous aircraft. I myself have a similarly stark transition in my near future, going from the well-designed, modern, highly-automated JungleBus to the decidedly quirky, semi-automated hodgepodge of workaround design from several eras that is the McDonnell-Douglas MD88. It's a little intimidating to think about, but then I remember flying freight in decrepit Navajos single pilot in hard IFR sans autopilot. If I could do that then, I can certainly make it through MD88 school with one of the world's largest airlines' notably thorough training program. Sometime later this year, I'll have the privilege of introducing myself to my first post-IOE Widget Captain as the "FNG." Let's hope that I fly as well on my first trip as Joe did!

http://aviationtroubleshooting.blogspot.com

Friday, February 14, 2014

The End of the Beginning

A few nights ago, on a vote of 5-4, the Master Executive Council of American Eagle's pilot union voted to reject the concessions-for-jets deal that American Airlines Group had been pursuing with the union under the threat of closing Eagle down if concessions were not approved. In rejecting the concessions, the majority cited industry conditions and forces very similar to those I laid out in my essay on the topic immediately below this post. Before the vote, the MEC had been expected to approve sending the Tentative Agreement to the wider pilot group for member ratification. Those opposed to concessions were able to convince one representative to switch his vote.

This development comes several weeks after the pilot membership at ExpressJet Airlines voted against a similar concessionary contract by an overwhelming 83%. Other recent events that may have swayed the MEC include Great Lakes Airlines shutting down their Minneapolis hub for lack of pilots, United announcing that they will close their CLE hub to alleviate staffing shortages at their regional partners, and Republic Airways' statement that they will be prematurely ending 50-seat contracts at their Chautauqua branch in order to by able to staff Embraer 175s currently coming on line for American flying. On the heels of the AE vote against concessions, Republic today announced that they have come to a tentative agreement for a new contract with their pilots after seven years (!) of negotiations. The details are not yet known but Republic stated the contract contains increased pay to help attract new pilots.

All these events are the direct result of a "pilot shortage" that is really only in its infancy - which is to say that for now, there are still plenty of qualified pilots, just not enough who are willing to work for pauper's pay. It's going to be very interesting to see how things progress. I think airline pilots and especially regional pilots will have some great opportunities along the way, and it seems like many are just awakening to this fact. I have no doubt that AAG will attempt to make good on their threat to shut Eagle down - and the Eagle MEC has said they'll try - but I think they're going to have a very hard time shifting that flying anywhere but mainline and finding pilots to fly it. Kudos to the Eagle pilots for recognizing which way the leverage is swinging.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Insanity of Concessions in 2014

My next Taking Wing column is coming out in a few days in Flying's March 2014 issue, and takes on the much-discussed (and sometimes disputed) pilot shortage. It was sparked by a string of articles in major newspapers over the past year, cockpit conversations I've had on the subject, and the sudden, inexplicable concessionary environment that has emerged at the regionals. As usual, the column is written mostly for a non-airline, general aviation audience. Therefore I wrote another essay, somewhat on the same subject but written more for an airline pilot audience and addressing the concessions more directly. I posted it to the Airline Pilot Central forums, where it received quite a bit of attention, and it went a bit viral after that, being reposted on various forums and email lists. This essay is copied below. If you like it, check out the March issue of Flying when it comes out. In a few days I'll also write a post containing the retirement and new commercial pilot statistics & analysis used in writing both articles.

The Insanity of Concessions in 2014

It’s just about all that pilots are talking about these days: in classrooms, at flight schools, in cockpits of airplanes big and small, the pilot shortage is on everyone’s mind and everyone’s lips. Mind you, not everyone is a true believer: many of us have been hearing about the pilot shortage our entire careers, even as we were furloughed, stuck on stagnant seniority lists, and forced to start over at poverty-level wages. Much of the loudest hype comes from the flight training industry and others with something to gain. Every time the shortage seems to be gaining steam, something unforeseen comes along and pushes it back another five years. It’s not surprising that so many pilots – regional pilots especially – are so cynical about the current shortage talk.

And yet, the numbers are incontrovertible. The three remaining legacy megacarriers (Delta, United, & American) will see a huge pilot retirement spike in the coming years, peaking in 2023 and not really easing until another decade after that. In the next five years alone, they will lose 5098 pilots to mandatory retirement. By 2023, that number increases to 15,235; by 2027, the number is 23,850, or 64% of the current seniority lists. Add in FedEx and UPS, and the 14-year total is 28,450. The national and non-legacy majors add thousands more.

Now, there is still a lot of flight training infrastructure in this country, and we certainly have the capability to train 30,000 new pilots in the next 14 years. The problem is that historically low numbers of people are investing $80,000 or more in training for a career and industry whose troubles have been widely publicized in the general media. The FAA issued fewer commercial certificates in the last three years than any other period since the early 1980s, and a large portion of these were issued to foreign nationals who plan to return home to fly for their national carriers. Even if the pilot shortage publicity sparks a renewed wave of flight training, there will be a 3-4 year lag before these new entrants are qualified to fly for an airline, by which time the effects of the shortage will be very deeply felt and rapidly multiplying.

Of course, these effects will not be felt equally by all sectors of the industry. The three airlines retiring the most pilots will be almost entirely unaffected. They know that their pay and benefits will attract enough pilots from the military, corporate world, lower-paid national carriers, and regional airlines to easily replace their retirees. In fact, the regionals alone have over 21,000 pilots, most qualified to fly for the major airlines and many planning to do exactly that. It is who will replace these regional pilots that is the real problem – especially since the modern regionals represent such a large share of the major airlines’ domestic networks. Already, with the shortage barely underway, the lowest-paid regionals like Great Lakes have been absolutely crippled by a dearth of qualified pilots willing to work for them, and more established regionals like American Eagle are already offering signing bonuses of $5000 or more to meet their rather modest demand for pilots. In the very early stages of major airline hiring, airlines like Endeavor are already losing many more pilots than they can entice to show up for class. If you look at the retirement numbers discussed above, it becomes clear that the later effects of the shortage will be far, far more pronounced.

Any first-year Econ student could tell you that in this situation, with a shortage of qualified labor, one can expect wages to rise. And yet, here we have a peculiar example of an entire industry defying the laws of economics, for the very opposite is presently true: there is strong downward pressure on regional pilot wages. This is because the newly emboldened mega-legacies are treating their erstwhile regional partners much like Walmart treats its suppliers: smaller, vulnerable targets to be bullied into submission and forced to slash costs, even to their own detriment, because the alternative is annihilation. Regional management has grown increasingly desperate, having seen their peers unsuccessfully attempt branded flying (ACA, ExpressJet), merging with other carriers (Pinnacle, ASA), or diversifying their partnerships (Mesa, Republic) in an effort to survive the storm. They are now willing to slash costs no matter the consequence, even if it eventually robs them of pilots to fly the airplanes, so long as it lets them live to fight another day. To do this, they are preying on their pilots’ insecurities about their careers, forged in the turmoil of the post-9/11 era and not yet attuned to the opportunities of a labor shortage.

Pinnacle was the first to do this, with Delta pulling the strings and assisted by a bankruptcy court. They were able to convince their pilots that rejecting concessions would result in an even worse contract being imposed by the court, Delta slashing capacity at the airline, and the loss of many jobs. This was the stick; the carrot was a promise of future mainline jobs. Together it was enough to lure the pilots into massive concessions only a year after securing a very hard-won contact that took years to negotiate. PSA was next. Outside of bankruptcy, they were able to convince their pilots that their 50-seat exposure spelled eventual doom, and only voluntary concessions to secure 76-seat flying could save them. And now American Eagle, the second-largest regional airline in the nation, is telling its pilots that they must endure a second round of draconian concessions only 18 months after approving the first round – or be shut down as Comair was. This, even while they offer $5000 signing bonuses to attract new pilots! The sheer nerve of it is breathtaking.

The problem here is that the turmoil and stagnation of the last 13 years, coupled with a seniority system that traditionally ties a pilot’s career to the health of his airline, has made it very easy to convince pilots that the death of one’s employer means the death of one’s career. In the context of the regionals and the pilot shortage from 2014 forward, it’s simply not true. First off, the major airlines are not looking to reduce system capacity. Their yields are consistently high, they are making record profits, and they have begun ordering airplanes. While they will continue to shift capacity from the regionals to mainline, they will not cut overall capacity. Coupled with the massive retirements at the majors, this means ample job opportunities for regional pilots regardless of how long individual regional airlines survive. Secondly, any shutdown of a regional airline – due to lack of concessions, or more likely, due to other industry conditions – will necessarily be long and drawn out, as Comair was. Delta taking possession of Pinnacle in bankruptcy rather than risk a shutdown, at a time Delta was actively trying to get rid of 50-seaters, shows that they could not afford to cut or shift that capacity suddenly. If Eagle is shut down – with or without concessions – I expect it will be drawn down at roughly the rate of pilot attrition, not with massive furloughs sending starving FOs to the unemployment dole. Thirdly, it’s not clear where capacity could be shifted to, if not mainline; few regionals can easily staff their present flying, to say nothing of growth.

The reality is that concessions will not save the regional airline industry; they will only prolong its demise. The regional business model of the past 20 years is essentially dead. It was always based on cheap fuel, a cheap and plentiful labor supply, low employee longevity, new airplanes with inexpensive maintenance, expensive and unproductive mainline pilot contracts, and nearly endless growth. None of these conditions apply anymore. The pilot shortage is the final nail in the coffin. Going forward, the industry will slowly return to its roots of the 80s and early 90s: a niche player in small markets where high yields can justify high costs. It benefits none of us to prolong this process, keeping more of us at the regionals longer. It benefits none of us to put downward pressure on wages of airplanes that will likely end up at mainline in the long run. It benefits none of us to accept smaller paychecks at a time that our skills are becoming increasingly valuable.

Finally, regional pilots of all people ought to recognize the moral repugnance of freezing pay for newhires who will work for the regionals after we’re gone, consigning future pilots to even worse wages than the ones we’ve spent so much time lamenting. How many times have we decried major airline pilots selling scope and creating a C-scale? And yet there are many of us prepared to do essentially the same thing to those who follow in our footsteps! It’s utterly shameful, and given current industry conditions, more than a little insane. The only thing that can prompt us to do something so illogical – the only tool in management’s toolbox these days – is fear. The pilots of ExpressJet are to be commended for taking a clearheaded look around the industry, realizing that there is nothing to fear but fear itself, and making a stand for their chosen profession. It is my sincere hope that the pilots of American Eagle will heed their example, reject the poisonous whispers of the fearmongers, and make us proud. 

Friday, February 07, 2014

On The List

Ask a regional pilot what his or her career goals are, and about 75% of the time they will answer "to fly for a major airline." This can mean many different things. They may mean simply that they wish to fly a mainline-sized airplane, and a national carrier like Allegiant or Spirit might fit their plans quite nicely. They might mean a large airline with thousands of pilots and multiple crew bases, making domestic majors like jetBlue and Southwest worthy destinations. The designation could include freight companies like FedEx and UPS, or overseas airlines like Emirates. Niche majors like Alaska or Hawaiian may be tempting targets. But for many, the ultimate goal is to be hired by one of the remaining consolidated legacy carriers: Delta, United, or American (still in the process of merging with USAirways). These airlines offer good payrates, a variety of equipment, a mix of domestic and overseas flying, and significant career progression due to older pilot groups that will retire en masse in the next 15 years. Alas, there has been precious little pilot hiring at these companies over the last 13 years. Until now, getting hired at one has been akin to winning the lottery.

When I got hired at NewCo in 2007, I was aware that there was a flow-up/flow-down agreement between NewCo and the company I then called RedCo. This was a product of RedCo's bankruptcy and the compromise they reached with their pilots' union in order to form NewCo. At the time RedCo had thousands of pilots on furlough, and it was believed that many of them would staff the JungleBuses at NewCo. Therefore, NewCo pilot slots were reserved for current and future RedCo furloughees. In return for this measure of career uncertainty, off-the-street NewCo pilots were given flow-up rights whenever RedCo was hiring: 20 pilots a month, up to around 100 pilots a year, only after upgrading and completing 30 months of service at NewCo.

Ultimately, by the time NewCo started flying RedCo had recalled most of its furloughees, with the result that only four RedCo pilots ever flew for NewCo; the rest of us were off-the-street hires, and were given flow rights to RedCo. For some, this was the entire attraction of NewCo. I was more skeptical. The history of flow agreements between regional and major carriers had not been promising; they tended to only work in the downward direction. I correctly suspected that a merger was in the works, and thought there was a much better chance of me being furloughed due to flow-downs than of me flowing up to RedCo or its successor company. It was a risk I was willing to take because I figured I would get a JungleBus type rating and 1000 hours of turbine PIC before that happened, and the alternative was indefinite stagnation at Horizon. When the merger was announced and the bottom fell out of the economy more or less simultaneously, I started looking into well-paid JungleBus jobs in China pretty seriously.

But a strange thing happened: the combined airline ("WidgetCo") never furloughed. They were seriously overstaffed for years, and came perilously close to furloughing several times, but their new joint pilot contract preserved both flow-up and flow-down, and the training costs of flowing their pilots down to NewCo were huge. By 2010, traffic had recovered sufficiently that Widget decided to hire 300 pilots; 60 of these were NewCo flows. Just before they left, NewCo was sold off to the company I call Osage Holdings, again endangering the flow. The agreement was in fact cancelled for future NewCo hires, but all pilots then on property retained flow rights. The movement afforded by the 2010 flows gave me excellent seniority the last few years while we've all been waiting for WidgetCo to hire again.

Within the last two years, Widget has really started to hit its stride and reap the benefits of industry consolidation: restraining capacity, rightsizing equipment in each market, elevating yields, and ultimately raking in record profits. They began shifting capacity from regional carriers to mainline as industry conditions rendered the regionals increasingly irrelevant. Along the way, their pilot overstaffing evaporated even though few pilots left during the 2007-2012 retirement freeze. Many people at WidgetCo thought they would hire in 2012. They didn't, and ended up seriously understaffed on several categories over the summer of 2013.

I was in a bar in Cape Town when I got the news on July 15th: WidgetCo had announced pilot hiring would commence in the fall. The wait ever since has seemed endless. The hiring moved to January as hundreds of military leave and deferred-return furloughees filled the autumn classes. I got my flow letter in October while at the Interline Regatta in the British Virgin Islands. I received a FedEx envelope with newhire paperwork to be completed just after Christmas. I got a class list with a choice of aircraft and bases to bid at the end of January. And finally, this last Monday, February 3rd, I became pilot number 11,648 on WidgetCo's 11,649-pilot seniority list. It's still hard for me to believe after all that has happened. I do indeed feel as though I've won the lottery. Widget is expected to hire at least 300 pilots this year, and it's likelier the number will be closer to 600. Absent another economic meltdown or 9/11-type event, mass retirements mean they will continue to hire for another 15 or 20 years.

It's not time to break out the champagne just yet, though. Due to one of the provisions of the flow agreement, NewCo is retaining me for "operational necessity" until April or May, at which time I'll be released to Widget's Basic Indoc training. After that I have ground school and then simulator training on my awarded aircraft, the McDonnell Douglas MD-88. After six and a half years of Junglebus automation, passing "Mad Dog" school will take a lot of hard work and knocking the cobwebs off my old freight-dog skills. Then its off to IOE ("Initial Operating Experience), learning to operate the old girl within WidgetCo's system. After that I'll be commuting to reserve in New York City, and will be on probation until February of next year. During this time I am essentially an at-will employee. My greatest fear is that WidgetCo will take exception to my blogging or my writing for Flying Magazine; they're famously protective of their image. I'm not willing to stop either if I can help it, so I'll just keep writing professionally, objectively, and as honestly as I dare, and if it causes problems we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Other than that, all I can do is work hard to learn my aircraft and the system, and try to make a positive impact on everyone I work and fly with. It's going to be an interesting year!

In honor of my next aircraft, an interesting video of some of its features and quirks:

Friday, January 17, 2014

That Sinking Feeling

One of the most frequent questions I get from non-pilots - after "what route do you fly" - is "don't you ever get bored up there?" The quick, obvious answer is "of course." Modern airline flight is thankfully routine and devoid of frequent surprises, and a certain amount of enroute ennui is inevitable. I've written before about ways that I combat that, such as talking to crewmembers and following our route on a road atlas. But there's a big difference between being occasionally bored enroute, and being completely bored with the job. I've known more than a few people who find airline flying terribly dull. I see where they're coming from, but I also think it's what you make of it. I would probably find it tiresome as well if I didn't bid different routes every week, make an effort to get to know my crewmembers and do things with them, and make sure I get out of the hotel and explore our layover cities. Those things keep the job fresh, and every once in a while something even happens in flight to shake up the routine a bit. Of course, I'm seldom appreciative at the time.

Last Friday I flew a daytrip to Steamboat Springs, Colorado (actually Hayden, KHDN) and back. Now, in the winter I tend to bid more 3- and 4-day trips to cut down on the driving and get out of the snow for a few days a week, but the computerized Preferential Bidding System (PBS) that builds my schedule determined that staffing required I fly one daytrip, and added it to my January line. I hadn't flown to Steamboat in two years, partly because we only do it in the winter and I avoid winter daytrips, and partly because I avoid Steamboat specifically due to the low credit time (4.5 hours roundtrip) and operational challenges associated with it. Fortunately, when I looked at the weather before heading to the airport, Steamboat Springs had clearing skies and it was forecast to be a nice day.

When I got on the airplane in MSP, mechanics were on board clearing an MEL. One air cycle machine ("pack") had been deferred, limiting the airplane to 31,000 feet, but now it was fixed. I called our dispatcher to take the MEL off of the release and get the phone briefing that our company requires before all flights to Steamboat Springs. On a bad day, some of the issues I would discuss with the dispatcher might include snow removal and runway braking status, maximum landing weight considering contamination and climb performance limitations due to terrain and icing, permissible load out of MSP considering our landing weight, weather at alternate and second alternate airports, and potential problems getting into Steamboat considering that we can only land on Runway 10 with a 3 knot or less tailwind when it's snowing, and the fact that 28 is served only by an RNAV approach with relatively high minimums. Besides that, we might also talk about performance limitations for the return flight, and whether the booked payload out of Steamboat might require taking a reduced fuel load and a tech stop to refuel in Denver on the way back to MSP. This day, however, there were no such troublesome matters to discuss. "There's a little bit of snow just moving out of the front range now," said our dispatcher, "but Steamboat and surrounding area should stay clear. No alternate needed." He added that though he had planned the flight at FL300 for the now-removed MEL, we could go up to FL360 to save fuel. With that he cheerily wished us a good flight. I briefed the First Officer - who I had flown with several times - on what we had talked about, and continued with my preflight routine.

We were about 55 minutes into the flight when "MESSAGE RECEIVED" popped up on our FMS screens. It was a text from our dispatcher. "New Hayden TAF just out would require an alternate. Are you ok continuing without one?" Per the regulations and our Flight Operations Manual, the well-known 1-2-3 rule (alternate airport required if within +/- 1 hour of arrival, less than 2000' ceiling and 3 miles visibility is predicted) only applies to preflight planning. If we take off and then the predicted weather goes below 1-2-3, we are permitted to continue without an alternate if the Captain determines it is safe to do so. The FO and I eyed the amended TAF. It was drastically worse than the original, showing 1/2 mile visibility in snow until after our ETA, and winds picking up heavily from the west around then. "I'm pretty sure that's below minimums at Hayden," said my FO. We flipped through our Jepp plates. Sure enough, the minimums for the special ILS Z Rwy 10 are 3/4 mile visibility. If the winds from the west were more than 3 knots - a seeming certainty - the RNAV Rwy 28 approach requires 1 & 3/8 mile vis, with a MDH of 514' above touchdown elevation. I used the ACARS "Weather Request" function to pull up the most recent METAR. Sure enough, it was 1/2 mile visibility in moderate snow with 8 knots of wind from the west. Clearly, continuing without an alternate would be sheer madness. My FO agreed vigorously.

I decided to do a little homework before responding to our dispatcher. I pulled up the weather for Denver; it was fine. Laramie and Cheyenne are closer and the weather was good at both, but a quick review of their 10-7 (Company Info) pages showed that neither is a regular line airport, and a divert to either would involve sitting on an FBO ramp and depending on them for services they may or may not be able to provide in a timely manner. If a divert was in the offing, I'd best avoid those two. I checked our fuel and did some quick calculations. Thanks to our higher-than-planned cruise altitude, we would be arriving with about 600 lbs more fuel than originally planned. If we diverted to Denver, I wanted to land there with no less than 3500 lbs (2640 is official reserve but it would be foolishness to land at a busy airport with that little, especially with unforecast, unsettled weather around). We had just enough fuel to fly one approach at Steamboat Springs, go missed approach, and divert to Denver. If the weather was still below minimums when we got to Steamboat, we had no more than five minutes of holding fuel.

I typed a message back to our dispatcher. "New TAF and METAR shows below minimums at HDN. Request Denver alternate, FOB 9.2, show 6.4 on arrival at HDN, bingo to DEN 6.0. Also, please call HDN ops and request most recent MUs." Hayden is a designation Special Winter Operations Airport (SWOA), which is the reason we can't land with no more than 3 knots tailwind when it's snowing. It also requires runway friction numbers (MU being one type) or a braking report from a transport category aircraft less than an hour before our arrival. The dispatcher replied promptly: "Hayden MUs 39/41/33 as of 5 minutes ago. A320 just landed reported good braking." We were landing in only 40 minutes, so that met the requirement. "Denver alternate looks good, add that to your release, sending numbers to your printer." The ACARS printer spit out a new flight plan page with amended fuel required numbers that roughly matched my calculations, though a bit less conservative.

With that the FO and I set about reviewing Hayden's 10-7 sheets, which are a full eight pages long as opposed to most airports' 1 or 2 pages. About half of these applied to our arrival, and included quite a few review items we had already considered and a few we had not (e.g.: call CTAF 15 minutes out to get all the snowplows off the runway!). We briefed the ILS Z Rwy 10, noting that the missed approach procedure is different than the normal ILS in our FMS, as well as the RNAV 28. Runway 10 also had a Complex Special procedure to consider for an engine failure during missed approach. While discussing these items, we kept requesting a new METAR on the ACARS every five minutes. Special METARs kept coming out, but showing little improvement. Denver Center issued a descent clearance and we started down. I silently cursed myself for not requesting more fuel with any snowfall anywhere in the mountains. I know from experience just how unpredictable mountain weather can be. Oh well...it's not helpful to dwell on that now, I told myself, and concentrated on the task at hand.

We were passing through 18,000 feet when Denver Center triumphantly informed us that Hayden's new weather was 6 miles in light snow, ceiling 2200 broken, wind 230 at 4, and asked us which approach we would like. The weather at the airport was good enough for the RNAV Rwy 28, but I suspected it would be worse east of the airport, where we would be approaching from. The southwest wind was just light enough to land on 10. My FO requested the ILS Rwy 10. The controller immediately cleared us direct to the Hayden VOR, 12000' until established, cleared for the ILS Rwy 10 approach. I called for the approach checklist a bit early, overflew the VOR, joined the backcourse, and passing INEDE hacked the timer for a good-ole-fashioned freight-dog-style procedure turn onto the ILS. We broke out of the clouds right at INEDE inbound, and the sight was about what I expected: a clear airport with a wall of snowfall immediately east, over the town of Steamboat Springs. The snowplows confirmed on CTAF that they were clear of the runway, and we landed on the nicely plowed runway without incident. We did have to wait a few minutes for the gate, as the WidgetCo A320 that had landed 45 minutes prior was still loading up for its return to Salt Lake City.

Thankfully, it snowed only lightly for our departure and our outbound load was light enough to fill up on gas without a Denver tech stop. Our winter considerations did not stop with departure: it was snowing with low ceilings in Minneapolis. Still, with multiple long runways, oodles of snowplow capability, no performance restrictions, and Cat II approaches, Minneapolis is a walk in the park after Steamboat Springs. I smiled and relaxed as we cruised northeastbound over Nebraska with absolutely nothing to see on the ground and little chatter on the radio. Sometimes, a little enroute boredom is a wonderful thing.

Speaking of the Cub...

...be sure to check out my "Taking Wing" column titled "Sunset Patrol" in the February issue of Flying magazine, out on newsstands now. It's the fourth column I've done since starting in November, and my personal favorite so far - it was a lot of fun to write!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

An Unfortunately Memorable First Flight

One of the things I like best about owning the Cub share (and being in the C170 club before that) is taking people flying who don't normally fly in small planes. This has included a number of coworkers, friends, members of my extended family, and even strangers who my family or friends put me in contact with. I advertise fairly vocally that I'm more than happy to take anybody flying who wants to go up. It provides a good excuse to fly, and gets me in the air more often than I would on my own. Seeing the spark of discovery on a neophytes' face - especially a kid - rekindles some of the enthusiasm of my own youth. And flying really is more enjoyable as a shared, social activity.

Honestly, the C170 was quite a bit better for this sort of thing than the Cub. The metal construction, larger size, side-by-side seating, more modern look (!), greater power, and an engine you don't have to hand-prop all put nervous flyers more at ease. I was able to fly sets of kids at the same time as their parent, which I can't do in the Cub. It was quite a bit more comfortable, and warmer in the winter. The Cub is a more adventurous airplane, which is great for Dawn and I and also for taking up fellow airline pilots who haven't flown small planes in a while, but not ideal for introducing someone to flight unless conditions are perfect. Nevertheless I've taken a few relative newcomers flying in the Cub, including my young nephew Dylan, who now rather likes it but still says he preferred the Cessna.

A few months ago I got a call from Katie, a good friend and NewCo First Officer. She told me that a mutual friend of ours and NewCo flight attendant, Anabel, was interested in learning to fly, and Katie suggested that we get in touch. Anabel and I talked a few times, I gave her some advice, and promised to take her up in the Cub  as she'd never flown in a small airplane. After that, though, our schedules refused to line up for weeks, and when they did the weather was poor. We had an exceptionally cold and snowy early winter. 

Finally, in mid-December, we were both off on a snowy Monday with a forecast for clearing skies and a balmy high of 21F. I figured that if I waited for any nicer of a day that fit our schedules, it wouldn't be until springtime, so I called up Anabel and suggested we go flying. Well, it turned out the forecast was a little optimistic: by the time we arrived at Airlake, the snow had just tapered off and the ceiling was still overcast at 1500 feet, the temperature was barely 15, and a brisk north wind made the wind chill considerably colder. I'd still fly under those circumstances myself, but I probably should have scrubbed it for an intro flight. After picking up Anabel and driving all the way to the airport, though, I went against my better judgement.

It took a while to preheat the engine and shovel all the snow from the front of the hangar, by which time our toes were thoroughly frozen. And then once we pulled the Cub out and Anabel was all strapped in, I couldn't get the damn thing started. Anabel had been looking at the uncowled little 75 horse Continental with a rather skeptical eye, and now she looked even more dubious as I fiddled with throttle, primer, and mags in between each futile throw of the prop. Finally it fired, but wouldn't stay running for more than 20 seconds. It likely didn't help that the plane hadn't flown in over a month. Rather than admit defeat, I dragged the preheater back out and gave the engine another 10 minutes of heat while our toes lost all feeling. That and an extra few squirts of primer did the trick: the little four-banger sputtered to live one cylinder at a time, and stayed running in spite of itself.

I gave the engine plenty of time to warm up before runup and takeoff. Once we were off the ground, we turned southward, following I-35. I flew for a few minutes, demonstrating climbs, descents, turns, and straight & level flight, then asked Anabel if she'd like to try her hand at it. She did so very gingerly, keeping her turns to about 15 degrees of bank, but was quite smooth and good at finding the right sight picture to hold her altitude. I suggested that she try a descent, and so she put the nose down a hair and reduced throttle by maybe 100 RPM. "You can bring the throttle back a little more than that," I told her.

Sput-sput-sput-silence! The engine quit completely; with my encouragement, Anabel had cut the throttle a bit too fast for the Continental's liking. "My airplane!" I said in what I hoped wasn't a terribly panicked voice, and pushed the nose well below the horizon. The Cub is an extremely draggy airplane, and with no power you have to be aggressive about getting the nose down or your airspeed will decay dramatically. Besides the threat of a stall, you don't want to let the prop stop, or you won't get another chance at reviving the engine until you've landed on a road or in a field.

I pulled the throttle to a bit above idle, then fiddled with it until the engine caught and came roaring back to life. We were down to about 600 feet above a snowy field that probably would have provided a decent landing surface, but it would have been a chilly half-mile walk to the nearest road. "We're fine now. You ok?" I queried, leaning forward from the back seat. Anabel turned halfway around and gave me a weak chuckle. We'd only been without power for a few seconds but it definitely caught both of our attention, and she was obviously uneasy.

I climbed to a higher altitude than we'd been at, explained that in cold weather you had to be pretty ginger with throttle changes, & said if it hadn't started we had a perfectly good field to land in and would have been just fine. I asked if she'd like to fly again and she said no, she'd rather just look around now. So we flew around for a bit looking at lakes and icehouses and mansions with hockey rinks in their backyards before heading back to Airlake.

The Cub wasn't done acting up yet. On landing, I was just about to turn off the runway at midfield for the fuel pumps when the engine quit once again, and wouldn't start when I got out and threw the prop a dozen times. So Anabel piled out of the airplane to help me push it off the runway and to the fuel pumps. How embarrassing. By the time it was fueled and back in the hangar, we were both frozen through and through. Our teeth stopped chattering about the time I dropped Anabel off back in Minneapolis.

I really hope I didn't kill Anabel's interest in learning to fly. Our flight was uncomfortably cold, getting the plane prepped and started was a pain in the butt, the engine cutout gave her a scare, and the second one on landing probably had her guessing that it happens all the time. I felt pretty bad about it and told her so, and said I'd take her up again when the weather was nicer and it'd be a lot more fun. Anabel's a pretty gutsy girl - she travels more often than I do, to more out-of-the-way places and sometimes solo - so I think she'll take me up on it. But I should have waited until a better day in the first place. We get a pretty limited number of opportunities to share the joy of flight with would-be pilots, and it's important to make a good first impression. I think that in the future, Cub flights with first-timers will have to wait for the open-door days of summer.