Monday, February 28, 2005

The Law of Unintended Consequences

One underpining of conservative political thought, is that new laws seldom solve problems so much as they cause new problems. Consider the new EU law that requires airlines to compensate passengers for delays, and how it affected the safety of one particular flight.,,2-1499342,00.html

Update: According to a BA engineer on duty at Manchester when the flight landed, there was about 9000 lbs fuel remaining - about 3% of total capacity, only a few minutes' worth at low altitude and high power. The pilot declared "Pan-Pan," the international distress phrase one step below "mayday," and remarked to ATC that a go-around was not an option due to his fuel state.


Rather few airline pilots ever fly light aircraft. Wags joke that there's nothing scarier than an airline pilot in a Cessna. I still enjoy flying small planes, and Dawn likes going up with me, so we rent C150's and 172's at Troutdale occasionally. When we were in Minnesota over Christmas, we went out to my old haunt, Cambridge Municipal Airport, where I got reaquainted with C-172 N738FZ for an hours' flight. Now you know where my AIM screenname came from.

Freight Dog

This is an essay I wrote several years back, when I was flying for a small freight company, but was never published.

What do you do when you’re tired and bored? Watch TV? Listen to music? Just go to sleep?

Sleep is exactly what I need right now, but it’s not an option. I glance at my DME – I’m 15 miles past Avenal. That makes it about 160 miles to Oakland, right? About an hour to go. It’s 3:30AM, so I’ve only been flying for an hour. It feels a lot longer than that. The altitude probably doesn’t help the sleepiness. I’m almost two miles over the central valley of California.

Directly behind my seat is 1300 pounds of cancelled checks in 135 cloth bags. Across the nation, there are hundreds of planes clawing their ways through the darkened skies hauling the exact same cargo. Except for the sleep-deprived few who make their living this way, nobody really ever thinks about the massive amount of bank paperwork that needs to get from Point A to Point B every night, and how it gets there.

Earlier today you cashed a check from your friend in Stockton. Near the end of the day, a courier driving a battered ’89 Dodge pickup truck stopped at your bank and picked up several bags of cancelled checks, including the one you cashed. He drove these to a distribution center, where it was determined that certain checks needed to go to Stockton via Oakland. At about 2AM, workers loaded hundreds of these Oakland-bound bags into a white Ford cargo van, which then drove to the Burbank airport. Your check is now sitting right behind my seat, secure under a cargo net. After it gets to Oakland, another courier will take it to Stockton, where it will be delivered to your uncle’s bank. It absolutely, positively needs to be there overnight – or the bank loses money.

At this time of night, the skies are pretty quiet. I look outside for other aircraft but don’t see any. The radio frequency has been silent for the past ten minutes. The only people flying are the “freight dogs,” and we don’t say much. The air traffic controllers on duty at night seem to reciprocate; they say nothing more than is necessary. The last transmission I heard from Oakland Center was just to acknowledge when I “checked on” to her frequency. I wonder what she’s doing to keep herself awake. She probably has more options than I do at the moment.

Freight flying has a strange rhythm. It’s hours of boredom punctuated by bursts of frenzied activity. In Burbank, I patiently waited for my cargo by reading an old newspaper and sipping stale coffee. It finally showed up after 2 hours – over an hour late. The next five minutes was a brilliant explosion of energy: four people heaving, dodging, sweating, swearing, stacking, panting, stepping on each other to throw 1300 pounds of checks into my airplane. Two quick signatures, strap down the cargo, and I’m off. Starting the engines, copying my clearance, taxiing to the runway, reading checklists; ready to go? Throttles up and 620 horsepower strains to accelerate the heavy laden ship. There’s flying speed; ease back on the control wheel and she groans into the air. We’re heavy tonight, and a little unstable. I trim her up, check in with So Cal Departure, read my climb checklist, and sink into my seat with a heavy sigh. Darkness envelops the aircraft as we leave behind the neon glow of LA. The adrenaline slowly drips back down through my veins.

Now, an hour later, I fight to keep myself alert. Contrary to films such as “Airplane!,” airplanes tend to be pretty stable; keeping them straight and level is simple work that doesn’t lend itself to keeping a tired pilot awake. I look outside at the stars; they sure are bright tonight. I turn the panel lights down low and crane my neck to see Orion in the eastern sky. Away from the lights of LA and above most pollution, you can see every detail. Beautiful. I peer down at the sleeping world below. The Tule fog has enshrouded the entire central valley; the lights of each city cast a warm orange glow through the overcast. Bakersfield and Fresno shine brightly, a friendly and inviting sight, but I know the fog is too thick to land in. If I have a problem, I’ll have to turn left and head for the coast. San Luis Obispo and Monterey are clear tonight.

I never really thought I’d be flying freight. Only two years ago, the aviation industry was still booming and it looked like I was next in line for a commuter airline job. In fact, due to FAA regulations, it was easier to get a job as a first officer with a regional airline than it was to become a poorly-paid, sleep-deprived freight dog. Then came September 11th and its aftermath for the aviation industry. Thousands of airline pilots are out of work, and jobs of any sort can be hard to come by. When the cargo-flying opportunity came up, I jumped at it. If the war drags on or we are attacked again, the industry will be devastated – and flying jobs will become even scarcer. Being a freight dog is certainly preferable to being unemployed. The pay and lifestyle leave something to be desired, but it’s valuable experience for a young pilot. When the industry recovers, it is experience that will serve me well.

Time to turn the lights back on and check on my progress. 20 miles to Panoche – I’m still 120 miles out from Oakland. Things should start to get busier in another 20 minutes. Just need to find something to do until then. I force my mind to stay active by solving mental math problems. Contrary to conventional opinion, you don’t need to be a math whiz to be a pilot. There’s no algebra involved, no trig, certainly no calculus. A knack for simple mental math, on the other hand, can be a useful thing. I think about the engine out there to my left, 310 turbocharged horsepower just purring long. It’s turning at 2400 revolutions per minute; the intake valve on each of the six cylinders opens 1200 times during that minute. The engine is consuming 16 gallons of fuel per hour. How much fuel does the intake valve let into the cylinder each time it opens? By the time I decide it’s around 3 ten-thousandths of a pint, I’m just past Panoche. Stockton Approach radios for me to descend to 8000 feet.

The arrival is like the departure in reverse. As I get closer, the number of tasks at hand steadily increases. It’s a welcome change – I’m tired enough now that without some action, it’d definitely be a fight to stay awake. There’s a broken layer of low clouds over Oakland, so the air traffic controller directs me to an instrument approach for runway 27R. As I break out of the clouds, I am treated to a very nice view of the lights of San Francisco sparkling across the bay, the Bay Bridge alive with early morning traffic, and the approach lights at Oakland beckoning me home. No time to gawk – I bring the throttles to idle and ease back on the control yoke, mindful of the instability that a heavy load in back will bring. I anticipate a nice “chirp” and instead get a muffled “thud.” Not my nicest landing, but not a bad one either. I’m just relieved to be back on the ground. The hotel is but a short van ride away.

But there’s still work to be done. The courier is already waiting as I shut down the engines. Suddenly it’s another sweating, twisting, panting symphony of frenzied chaos as I hurl 135 bags out of my airplane and into the van. It takes under 5 minutes, but my muscles ache as the courier takes off across the ramp, leaving me in silence to collect my things and tidy up the airplane. I’m not that tired anymore. The adrenaline is flowing again and the eastern sky is getting light. When I get back over to the hotel, I’ll eat some breakfast and read the Wall Street Journal and ponder the flight for almost an hour. Finally, the tiredness will return, and I’ll collapse into bed.

Despite making good time between Burbank and Oakland, we were late. The cargo was late getting to the plane in Burbank, and that meant it got to Oakland an hour after the bank needed it. That cost the bank money, and they’re not too happy about it. After I wake up today I’ll find out that my company lost the Oakland contract, and I won’t be flying this run anymore. Tonight I’ll be flying the plane back to Southern California, empty this time. Aviation can be such a brutish business; it’s a constant struggle to survive for company and employee alike.

The public image of the well-groomed professional pilot in his crisp uniform making $300,000 a year to guide wide body jets to exotic places is just plain wrong. Most of us are guys and gals struggling from paycheck to paycheck, getting sweaty and sore and tired and dirty in the middle of the night while America sleeps. Would I choose this career again, knowing now what it’s really like? Without a doubt. Interspersed with times of boredom and tiredness are moments of incredible beauty and immeasurable satisfaction: Vapor trails from my wings shining in the moonlight; breaking out of the clouds after a tough approach to find the inviting lights of an airport; the snow-covered Sierras gleaming in the early morning light. These are the things I’ll remember about this job forever. That was was really flying, I'll think. That’s what I became a pilot for.
In retrospect, airline flying is a ridiculously easy job compared to flying freight. I retain a fascination with the Part 135 cargo industry and the pilots who do it. They're an interesting lot I'll likely write more about in the future.

The Life of an Airline Pilot

I think that "airline pilot" is a likely candidate for #1 misunderstood job. Most of the public thinks they have an idea what we do, and very few actually have a clue. Typical conversation:

Them: So, what do you do?
Me: I'm a pilot.
Them: Oh, like for United?
Me: No, a regional airline called Horizon.
Them: Oh, I've heard of them. You must make a ton of money.
Me: Not really. It's under $30k/yr.
Them: Oh my god! Why don't you quit!
Me: Because every other regional pays less.
Them: Well at least you get to see the world!
Me: Uh, I get to see places like Missoula and Spokane.
Them: least you only work like 10 days a month...
Me: Hahahahahaha
At that point they usually walk away, figuring I'm some crackpot impersonating a pilot. I guess they're not that far off! Still, the average person is widely missing the mark by thinking pilots are overpaid, underworked playboys frolicking with the "stewardesses" (that's neanthandral for flight attendant) on the Hawaii layovers when they're not home with the missus for 20 days a month. In the interest of correcting public perceptions, and warning off would-be pilots who want to get into the profession for the money and lifestyle, I present: The Life of an Airline Pilot.

First things first: Pay. Nobody in the industry is pulling down $300k. The few that used to make that much have taken huge paycuts. Senior United guys are making well under $200k now, plus they've lost their pension. The junior people are making far less than that. You can argue that it's a correction for years of overinflated paychecks, but in my mind they were always worth what they were paid. I'll save pilot pay for another post, but suffice it to say these guys have a huge amount of responsibility, and had to survive years of very low pay to get to where they are.

Now, take away senior widebody captains at the majors, and pilots have never made as much as the public thinks. You can barely survive on the entry level positions. I averaged about $1000/month as a flight instructor, and that was while working myself to the bone. If you work for a freight operation - which, mind you, requires that you have significant flight time - you'll still be lucky to break $20k/yr. So lets say you finally get picked up at a regional. Good thing you're used to living on soup by now, because first year pay still averages around $20k/yr. It might be several years before you exceed $30k. Now after all that, you finally upgrade to Captain at this regional airline - a position of serious responsibility over several hundred lives each day - and you'll likely make somewhere around $50k/yr. Fly in that position for a few years, and you might be inching up towards $100k - but if you chose to go to a major airline, you'll be taking a serious paycut for your first several years. See, that major airline captain, who you envy his $200k/yr - he spent years and years making dirt wages, struggling along just to make it to the point where you can tell him that he's overpaid.

Glamour. If anyone in the public still thinks of this as a glamourous industry, their head is still in the 60's. Airline life, while still enjoyable to some, is hard. You're spending hundreds of hours each month away from home, and unless you're senior at a major airline, that time is more likely to be spent in Billings or Detroit than Hawaii or Europe. You're not staying at 4-star hotels, either (well, there are exceptions, but most crew hotels are simply accessible and functional). Usually, especially at regionals, the layovers are long enough for you to eat and get a good sleep - not really long enough to do any exploring, shopping, etc.

Schedule. International pilots - the rather senior ones - may work 10 days a month (they fly their maximum monthly hours in that time). The rest of us are working far more. I'm currently getting 12 days off in a 35 day bid. Even if you can hold 15 or 16 days off per month, you're still likely away from home for 250-400 hours. That 70 hr/wk lawyer down the street is probably home more than you are!

Oh, one more thing. Until you get some good seniority, you'll be working weekends and holidays. Hope the kids weren't too set on having daddy home for Christmas.

A Day in the Life...

Okay, so having corrected a few misperceptions, what is it really like? I picked a fairly average day from a recent trip of mine. Some days are better, some are worse.

10:30am: I'm at home, enjoying the uncharacteristically nice weather the Northwest has been getting this winter, when the phone rings. It's crew scheduling and they have a 4-day trip for me, with overnights in Sun Valley, Edmonton, and Calgary. Better pack warm! I throw a pizza in the oven, knowing I don't get into Sun Valley until 10:20PM and I may not get a chance to eat until then. After eating and packing, I leave the house about 35 minutes before my show time of noon.

11:45am: I pull into the PDX employee lot, located about 2 miles from the terminal. We use a shuttle bus to get there. You need to allow some time for this, since the buses can be slow and/or late. Now, the key to parking in the employee lot is to park somewhere you'll remember when you return late at night, four days later. You're usually totally fried by then, and I've spent more than a few minutes wandering around the huge lot looking for where I parked my car.

11:55am: I walk down to the crew room at the end of "A" concourse and check in at the SBS computer. I print out my trip key, which looks like this for the first day:
Date Flight Depart Arrive Eq. Blk Grnd Duty Cred
25Feb 2308 PDX 1303 SEA 1350 400 47 45 ( 1
25Feb 2341 SEA 1435 SUN 1706 400 131 39 ( 2
25Feb 2408 SUN 1745 OAK 1845 400 200 40 ( 3
25Feb 2409 OAK 1925 SUN 2220 400 155 1505 (4
Rpt 1200 Rls 2235 SUN 613 935 613
Not a horrible day: only 4 legs. It comes to just over 6 hours' flying and 9.5 hours' duty time. Our longest break during that time is 45 minutes.

I meet the rest of the crew and find out which airplane we'll be flying. It's coming into A6 at 12:30, so until then I hang out and chat with my friends Ryan and Jill, who are checking in for trips of their own.

2:00pm: The inbound airplane arrived on time, so we should've been able to depart to Seattle on time, but we had 70 passengers - some of whom were on tight connections - and boarding was slow. We left the gate about 10 minutes late.We were about halfway to Seattle when one of our FA's, Melissa, calls to say there is a loud vibration around Row 6. "Yeah, it's called a propeller," I crack. But apparently several deadheading crewmembers say it's worse than usual, so we write it up when we get to Seattle. I hate this kind of writeup, because it's probably nothing, and it's going to be hard for maintenance to duplicate the problem and figure out what's wrong, if anything - and meanwhile the plane is grounded. Fortunately, there's a spare airplane sitting in Seattle that we can take to Sun Valley - but the aircraft swap means our 45 minutes on the ground will be busy.

500pm: We're over the Sawtooth Range of Idaho on descent into Sun Valley. I take it off autopilot, punch "stby" on the AFCS, and hand-fly the airplane, "raw data." There's no reason to use all the automation in the cockpit when it's a gorgeous day over some breathtaking terrain. This is enjoyable flying. I fly over the eastern side of the Wood River valley, make a descending turn over the town of Bellevue, and roll out onto a 4 mile final, where we quickly configure the airplane for landing on the rather narrow runway. The touchdown is nice. We're a little late, so we'll have to hurry to turn the airplane around for Oakland.

7:00pm: I was totally looking forward to a gourmet burrito in Oakland - there's a great place just across from gate 8 - but when I got into the terminal: complete pandemonium. It's an absolute zoo, and every eatery has a line at least 20 people long. Looks like a late dinner for me. I head back out to the plane, where I grab some snack crackers from the back before heading back up to the cockpit to get ready for our final leg to Sun Valley. I grab a New York Times so while on the way there, I can see what the official mouthpeice of the Democratic Party has to say.

10:40pm: We actually landed in Sun Valley a bit early. Sun Valley is unique in that we stay in a condo rather than a hotel, and the crew gets its own car. After landing, we drove to the condo and changed really quick, and then three of us head to the Red Elephant Saloon to eat. I call Dawn and talk to her briefly. She's bored at home alone and is somewhat upset that I can't talk longer, but my stomach growled the whole way from Oakland - I gotta eat! I promise to call her tomorrow morning, since we don't leave the condo until around noon. I get an overpriced Beef Dip and a Long Island at the bar, then turn in shortly after we get back to the condo.

That's an average day. Other days, you might have only two legs followed by a 20-hour overnight, or you might have a hellacious 8-leg day followed by a reduced-rest overnight (under 9 hours) followed by another hard day. It just varies.

I'm not telling you any of this to make you feel sorry for me. Despite the downsides, I enjoy this job and am still glad I fly for a living. However, way too many people get into this business with an unrealistic expectation of what it'll be like, and get angry when reality doesn't match their dreams. Angry people aren't fun to fly with. Anybody looking to enter such a turbulent, troubled industry needs to take a long, realistic look at what the job is like before they expend significant time and money to pursue this career.

One more thing: Never, ever, ever believe anything that flight schools tell you about becoming a professional pilot. They are generally full of crap: they know a really balanced look at the career would disuade many people from spending tons of money at their school.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Just a quick post...

Because Dawn and I are off to church, and then doing some house-hunting. We're looking at buying a place in the next few months - it's exciting, if a little scary.

Usually I dread calls from crew scheduling in the middle of a trip, but they gave me a rather nice surprise yesterday. I was on day 2 of a 4-day trip (Sun Valley, Edmonton, Calgary) when they called and said I was deadheading home at the end of the day, and that was it for my trip. Furthermore, we got into Seattle early and I was able to get a very early deadhead, which got me home two hours earlier than crew scheduling planned. Sometimes the stars align just right.

I still have home reserve today and tomorrow. I'm hoping not to get used, but they've been really short on Q400 FO's lately; I'm probably still first in line to get called.

Friday, February 25, 2005

The Rumor Mill

A prominent fixture of any airline is The Rumor Mill. You constantly hear rumors of new cities, new planes, cutbacks, mergers, buyouts, labor problems, etc. The vast majority of it turns out to be untrue; in fact, very few actual events are preceeded by corresponding rumors. When I was an intern at TWA, I heard a rumor that we were about to be bought by Continental Airlines. Two days later, TWA announced it was declaring bankruptcy and the assets were to be purchased by American Airlines.

I think part of the reason that so many rumors circulate is because most airlines do a ton of bidding, negotiating, and general wheeling-and-dealing - of which only a small percentage becomes a bona-fide business deal that gets announced to the world. I've heard rumors that my airline was gonna fly MegaWhackers for Northwest out of MSP, and MiniWhackers for Continental out of IAH. Both of these died, but those "in the know" say there were negotiations taking place at one point.

Right now, the rumor mill is saying that Something Big is in the works. Our VP of Flight Ops, GH, addressed the rumor but declined to deny it:

Other rumors concern third-party contract flying, of which I can only say so much.

The good thing is that it always give me the opportunity to remind everyone of the three segments of our business (native network, AAG development, and third-party contract flying) and the ongoing daily efforts to explore opportunities for growth in each.

Generally, we agree to not disclose the terms of a request for proposal from a potential partner, because it's essential we not tip our hand to the competition when looking at new markets. So, we seldom get to talk about them. Our situation with Frontier is a perfect example. Hard to believe, but it was only about 18 months ago that we started discussions with Frontier. About six weeks later, we announced the deal. Only 100 days later, we started operations in DEN.

A friend was talking to one of the assistant chief pilots a few days ago, and he urged her to send him an updated resume for somebody she's trying to get into the company, because "we may potentially need a ton of pilots on very short notice." Seems to validate the notion that something's going on the scenes; what it is, or whether it'll ever come to fruition, I have no idea.

Would be nice to get a lot of pilots under me, though.

Close Calls

Lakeview actually wasn't all that bad. It's remote, but kinda pretty. The motel's internet connection was down, but somehow I wasn't surprised.

I had a close call tonight while flying the Chieftan on our last leg. Portland Tower put us on a right downwind for 10R, intending for us to follow company traffic on a right base. However, a Horizon Q200 was significantly faster than the company traffic, leaving little room for tower to squeeze us into. They resequenced us for landing behind the Horizon flight, but ahead of an Ameriflight Be99. There wasn't a lot of room between the planes, so I followed the Q200 pretty closely, leaving just enough room for him to get off the runway before I landed. I was aware of the potential for wake - most of the approach was flown above glideslope - but wanting to get off the runway for company traffic hot on my heels, I aimed for the very beginning on the runway.

Sure enough, I got caught in some very strong wake from the Q200 at about 30 feet. It wasn't turbulent; just a smooth, ever-increasing rolling moment to the left. I used more and more aileron to counteract until I was just about to the stop, when I realized I might not be able to keep from getting flipped upside down. I brought in some power to try and get above the wake, and had almost full rudder and aileron deflection when we finally flew out of it. I pulled back the power, landed, and got off the runway on my planned exit.

Following the Horizon flight so closely, and then trying to land early, was a stupid error in judgement on my part. It's not that I lacked the knowlege in how to avoid wake turbulence; I'd learned everything I needed to know before I got my private pilot license. It's just that with all the traffic around, and the tight sequence I was given, my attention was elsewhere. I would've done well to ignore the airplane behind me and either land long or give the Q200 more room; or, better yet, refused the sequence when I thought it was too tight.

This incident highlights the role of experience in the shaping of a pilot. Good training goes a long way towards making a good pilot, but experience is equally invaluable. You learn so much from your missteps, mistakes, and downright close learn things that can never really be taught in a classroom. It is with good reason that experienced captains are skeptical of "500 hour wonders" coming to the right seat of airliners almost straight out of school. Sharp as they may be, they still have a lot to learn - and many of them don't even realize it. It's easy to get cocky and complacent at 500 hours - you've got all the ratings licked and you're comfortable in the airplane, ready to settle in for a lifetime of competent captainhood. A few thousand hours later, you've scared yourself enough times to know better. You're more honest about your abilities and limitations, and more aggressive in seeking out weak spots in your flying and ironing them out.

Of course, there are always the experienced pilots who never do learn from their mistakes, and are just as dangerous at 10,000 hours as they were at 500. Everybody knows at least one of these, and nobody wants to be them. The key is to keep learning from your mistakes, and accept that learning is a lifetime process.

Amflight Chieftain

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Off to Lakeview

Yesterday I "cross-trained" (rode along with another pilot, observing) on AMF1968, which is a run that goes down the Oregon coast carrying boxes for UPS. It's a pretty route; the leg from Newport to Florence is flown at low altitude down the shoreline, passing the famous Heceta Head Lighthouse along the way. Today, however, I'm flying to Lakeview, OR, which is neither scenic nor hardly populated. Eight hour layover in the armpit of Oregon - yeah, that'll be fun. Bringing the laptop with because, remoteness notwithstanding, the layover motel supposedly has wireless internet. Coming right up: Blogging from Lakeview!

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Freight Doggy Dogg

At my airline I am engaged in the supposedly respectable business of shuttling passengers around. Prior to this job, I worked in the seedy underbelly of aviation - Part 135 cargo flying. I say that in jest; tell people you're a cargo pilot and they ask what's wrong that they won't let you fly people. But the reality is, flying Part 135 cargo is a demanding, tiring, and sometimes dangerous job. Individual experience may vary, according to which outfit you fly for - some are respectable, soom rather shady. I flew for a small, struggling company before going to work for Ameriflight - the nation's largest Part 135 operator and really well-run outfit.

I'll write more about being a "freight dog" later. Right now, I have to get to bed so I can get up early to fly a freight run for Ameriflight out of PDX. Yeah, that's right...I'm not completely out of the cargo business. I recently was rehired by Ameriflight to fly for them on my days off from Horizon, since they're really short on pilots in Portland. I requalified in the Piper Chieftan aircraft last Thursday, and will be flying to Newport, OR, tomorrow.

Cool Q400 Pic

Just to give you an idea what I fly, here's a pic I took before an early-morning departure from Kalispell, MT. Psst, nevermind the emblem on that tail.

On being junior whipping boy

Some wag once remarked that an airline pilot's life is based on sex, seniority, and salary, in that order. Based on that, my life really sucks right now - at least in two of those categories! For a pilot, seniority determines the schedule you fly, your job security, and for my airline's first officers, your pay bracket.

My airline currently has 690 first officers. Of those, I am number 671...only 19 from the bottom. Furthermore, I am dead last in my aircraft, thanks to my being the youngest pilot in my indoc class last April. Airline pilots use a seniority based bidding system to determine their schedule, so being most junior means that I take whatever line (schedule) is left over after the 80 other MegaWhacker first officers have had their pick. I think the system is fair, but it does mean your quality of life is directly linked to how quickly the company hires pilots after they hire you - that is, how quickly you advance in seniority. In my case, I was hired last April - and the company hired nobody more into my airplane until last month. Those four new pilots won't be below me until the month after they finish training.

Obviously, not all lines are created equal. Some have weekends and/or holidays off; for others, your weekend is Tuesday and Wednesday. The number of days off typically varies. Some lines, known as regular lines, tell you exactly which trips you'll be going on - where you'll be staying, when you get home, etc. Reserve lines, which typically go junior, consist only of days off, and days you are on reserve (on call). On your reserve days, you must be able to be at the airport within 90 minutes of a call from crew scheduling. At my airline, the on-call period will be 4:30AM-6:30PM ("AM Reserve") or 10:30AM-Midnight ("PM Reserve"). There are also several lines containing airport reserve. As the name implies, this consists of sitting at the airport, ready to go with 5 minutes' notice, for a period of 8 hours. To many pilots, airport reserve is the ninth circle of hell. I actually don't mind it.

Junior pilots on reserve get used and abused at many airlines. Our pilots have a fairly good contract that helps prevent the worst abuse, although it's not unknown for crew scheduling to ignore certain provisions of the contract. I actually don't mind reserve that much - it helps that I live near the Portland base - but the fact that crew scheduling can change your trip at will, and sometimes does so multiple times in a few hours, can get a little maddening. Don't count on being home at 2PM on Sunday just because that's what your trip says - you could very well end up getting home at 10PM on Tuesday, so pack accordingly!

At certain airlines - particularly regionals that are not unionized or do not have a strong contract - junior pilots are often forced to fly on their days off, a practice known as junior manning or drafting. At [ABC Co], the contract makes a senior pilot just as likely to get drafted as a junior pilot, and typically crew scheduling gives pilots the option of accepting or refusing the trip ("Hey, got an open trip we need filled. Would you mind flying today? It's a premium pay trip!"). Because of the way our pay is structured, premium pay (150%, all above and beyond min guarantee pay) is worth more to pilots who don't fly much on reserve. Until recently, I had my name on the voluntary "draft me!" board at crew scheduling. Yeah, I'm a glutton for punishment!

Having your "weekend" fall during the weekday isn't all bad. For example, there are some great lift ticket deals on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Today, I'm going skiing at Mt. Hood Meadows from 1PM-9PM for $10. Try scoring that on your Saturday off!

Our amusing Canadian friends

The Canadian Rockies last summer, flying YEG-SEA.

You know what makes flying in Canada interesting? Like Vincent Vega said, it's the little differences. Actually, that was in reference to visiting Europe and flying to Canada is a far stretch from that...but there are still small, amusing things that tell you that you're not in Kansas anymore.

In the US, you contact ATC by using your airline callsign followed by the flight number, spoken colloquially - for example, 2448 becomes "twenty-four forty-eight". In Canada, the controllers speak the flight number phonetically ("two four four eight"). Yesterday, though, we were Horizon 333. In the States that'd be "three thirty-three." In Canada it should've been "ABC three three three" but every controller went to the other extreme and called us "ABC triple three."

In Canada, you automatically contact departure control after taking off, rather than wait for the Tower controller to hand you off, as in the States. I'm pretty used to this now, but the first time I flew out of Edmonton, I totally forgot to contact departure. We were on the Edmonton Two departure, which calls for runway heading and a climb to 7000 feet...and we level at 7000, still on tower's frequency, me with a dopey grin on my face, and the captain looks over and asks "You gonna contact departure anytime soon, bud, or are we gonna fly east at 7000 'till we run out of gas?" Yeah, I felt about 2" tall.

In Canada, controllers and pilots alike use the phrase "check remarks" where we'd use "roger" in the States. But it doesn't end there. Canadian controllers - particularly Edmonton Center - have some annoying need to get in the last word whenever possible. Example conversation:

Us: Edmonton Center, ABC 333 at one-five thousand feet climbing flight level two three zero.
Them: ABC 333, good evening, maintain flight level two four zero.
Us: Climb & maintain FL240, ABC 333.
Them: Roger, ABC 333. Ride reports at FL240 have been good.
Us: Check remarks.
Them: Roger.

They do that all the time. You give them a check remarks or roger, and they'll respond with a totally superfluous "roger."

Well, if those things don't convince you you're in Canada, just visit a bar in Edmonton and try to breathe. They smoke like chimneys...or rather, like Europeans.

Monday, February 21, 2005

First, a little background...

I am a first officer at Horizon Air, a regional airline based in Portland that serves the western US and Canada. I fly the Q400, a 70-seat twin-engine turboprop. I've only been working here since April 2004, but have been flying since 1994, when I was 13. I originally started flying lessons simply because I thought it'd be fun, but as I got older I decided that it was something I wanted to do for a living.

After high school, I attended the University of North Dakota, where I majored in Air Transport. To build hours, I flight instructed both at UND and a flight school in southern California called Air Desert Pacific. Those In the Know in SoCal crack that ADP stands for Another Dead Pilot or Another Downed Piper. After building enough hours, I flew Part 135 cargo for a now-defunct company called AEX, and then for Ameriflight.

I've been married to Dawn since July 2003. She's from Minnesota, as am I, and moved to California with me after we graduated college. She teaches high school math in a small town just north of Vancouver.

At my airline, I fly over some gorgeous country to some pretty cool places, so a lot of this blog will probably be photos and descriptions of places I'm at. Other times, I'll be writing what life is like for a junior first officer at a regional airline. Other times, I'll just simply vent when crew scheduling extends me into my day off again. I'll occasionally post stuff that has nothing to do with flying, because let's face it: the public finds aviation a lot less glamorous than we pilots would like to think.

Right now I'm in Calgary. It's about 20 degrees and sunny outside, quite pleasant really. I just walked 6 or 7 miles from the crew hotel to downtown and back. It's a pretty nice city. I was here a few weeks ago with Dawn and her parents. We rented a car and drove to Banff; but that's a story and a rant for another time.

Dawn and I taking a glider flight over the north shore of Oahu on our honeymoon, July 2003.

Sam jumps on the Blogging Bandwagon

According to Fortune Magazine, approximately 100,000 new blogs are being created daily across the internet. In true blue "me too!" fashion, I've figured I might as well jump on the bandwagon before it gets, like, soo last year! But, what to write about? There are blogs on politics, art, culture, food, hobbies, etc. But...I realized I have yet to see a blog about flying. Now I'm sure there are a few out there, but the fact that I've yet to come across such a blog or a link to one indicates that there must be enough of a dearth of flying blogs to support some interest if I should create one.

So without further ado, I present: Blogging at FL250, Rants and Reflections from a Regional Airline Pilot.

UPDATE: Sylv says there are indeed a number of flying blogs, airline and recreational. I apparently haven't been looking hard enough...or really, at all. Most of the blogs I read are political & cultural.