Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Deja Vu All Over Again

Today I start a three day trip, with layovers in Helena and Spokane. It's the exact same trip I did last weekend, and the same one I'll do next week. I have the same Captain, and at least one of the same flight attendants. It's gonna be like Groundhog Day!

I'm not used to repeating myself, at least not at this company. Being on reserve, I got sent just about everywhere on every schedule imaginable over the course of a bid. Regular lines, however, often repeat trips. Not sure which I'll prefer.

The last three times I've been in Helena, I've done the Mt. Helena hike. I think I need to find a new hill to climb. I'm thinking of doing a little exploring in the mountains just south of town this time. Or I might just break with tradition and vegg out the entire morning. Actually, come to think of it, that's more in keeping with my normal routine!

Monday, August 29, 2005

Worthless Freakin' Radar

Anybody who flies my airplane will tell you that the plane's real weak point is the radar. Any plane that spends significant time at FL250 should have some decent storm detection equipment, but this airplane is woefully lacking. It's kinda funny, because a smaller version of the same plane has a much better radar, despite being an older design. You'd think they could've just kept that radar unit for the new design.

For those of you new to airborne radar, here's how it works. Radio waves are sent out by an antenna in the aircraft's nose (or mounted in a wing pod). Some of these waves may hit a reflective object, such as rain or ground objects, and bounce back to the aircraft. The radar unit analyzes the reflected signal to determine distance and bearing to the objects, as well as how reflective the object is. The pilot looks at the radar returns and decides which are actual precipitation and which are simply ground clutter. Supposing the most intense returns - red and pink on color radar screens - to be thunderstorm activity, he keeps the aircraft clear of them.

That's how it's supposed to work, anyways. There are a few inherent limitations. The idea is to avoid turbulent air; but radar detects precip, not turbulence. We operate on the supposition that turbulence will accompany heavy precipitation - and it often does - but that doesn't protect us from developing storms where rain is not yet falling. Furthermore, sorting ground clutter from actual returns can be a full-time chore. You can try to minimize ground clutter by using the "tilt" control to tilt the radar beam upwards, but here's the catch: precip reflects radar waves best at and below the freezing level. At FL250, that involves aiming the radar beam downward.

It's not such a problem with a good radar unit that sends out a narrow, focused beam of radio waves. Such a narrow beam, however, is associated with large radar antennas. You'll find such antennas on airliners like the B757, but they will physically not fit in a light airplane's nose. My airplane also uses a small antenna - not because the nose is too small, but because somebody decided a large antenna would be too expensive. Thus, at altitude, cruising along with the tilt down results in massive amounts of ground clutter which prevent us from seeing returns until 15-20 miles away - only a few minutes' flying time. That's fine for a little tactical dodging and weaving, but makes navigating any large lines of storms a real treat.

Besides the problems associated with a small dish, this radar seems to either send out a weak signal or have a problem receiving the echoes. I've flown into heavy rain before with nary a peep of green on the screen. Other times, like yesterday, the screen seems to signal the coming apocalypse when actual conditions aren't that bad.

We had our first fit of winterlike weather in Seattle yesterday, with thick bunches of towering cumulus to 14,000 and heavy rain showers throughout the area. We went into the clouds while on the GLASR6 arrival and got our butt kicked with turbulence, but the radar painting no precip. As we got closer, our radar started painting some really heavy precip near HETHR intersection. The controller turned us before we got there, and vectored us onto the final approach for 16R. As we joined the localizer, we did a double-take at what the radar showed directly over the airport: large amounts of red and pink. I adjusted the tilt upwards, with the same results. It was not showing ground return.

I asked the tower if it was raining on the ground. They said yes, with aircraft reporting moderate precipitation on final approach, but no turbulence or windshear. As we broke out of the clouds over downtown, it looked dark near the approach end but nowhere as bad as the radar was saying. We chose to believe our eyes and the recent reports over the flaky radar, and sure enough: it really wasn't that bad.

The sad thing is that I've flown a Be58 Baron with a better radar than this one. Until somebody comes up with a solution, the best option is using visual avoidance whenever humanly possible, just like a non-radar equipped aircraft. Unlike light aircraft, however, I don't have the option of using VFR to stay low for visual avoidance.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Night Flight

I like flying at night. You could attribute this to my freight-dogging days, but that brings back memories of fighting to keep myself awake over a dark desert. Here's my own theory: during the day, you look at the scenery, but from FL250 it's seldom a better view than from the ground. At night, you look at the stars, and it's always better viewing than from terra firma. I love turning the cockpit lights down low and gazing at the stars. During a new moon, the effect is especially overpowering: the sky, lit up with millions of stars, contrasts to the darkness of an earth only occasionally punctuated by the glow of civilization. Back east, you can't get far enough away from the cities to experience this.

Night flying can be disorienting, especially to a newer pilot. Flying on dark nights with overcast skies is a very close thing to instrument flying. I remember flying over northern Minnesota on such a night shortly after I got my private license, and finding myself in a 40 degree bank without realizing it. Even after 700 hours of night time, I still find uncomfortable moments when circling to a "black hole" runway at night. For the most part, though, the only way to get comfortable at night is to get the experience.

Most freight dogs have extensive night experience; a few seldom log any day time. I didn't enjoy night flying nearly as much when I flew freight for AEX, because it was always at the end of a long, exhausting day, and I was fighting sleep for my final hour over the dark Mojave. I'd listen to Art Bell on the ADF, work mental math problems, do a few steep turns, even pinch myself...anything to stay awake. I almost welcomed turbulence, thunderstorms, or icing along my route: they'd ensure I stayed alert.

I don't seem to have that problem at this company. Having an extra crewmember to talk to helps, as does having extra room to stretch and move around to keep the blood flowing. I'm usually still wide awake when we finish flying. One thing I do dislike about PM schedules is that we'll typically arrive at our layover around midnight, which puts the kibosh on going out to the bar with your crew. Even if you're not going back out until 5pm the next day, my company prohibits consuming alcohol on the same calendar day that you fly, ie starting at midnight.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


What's the best seat in an airplane? As a non-rev passenger, it's whichever one gets you home. Often it'll be next to a screaming baby or somebody who, um, likes to eat a lot. But with load factors being so high these days, beggars can't be choosers. Half the time you're lucky just to be on the airplane.

Pilots, fortunately, have an additional seat that cannot be taken by a paying passenger. Each airliner has one or two additional seats in the cockpit known as jumpseats. These are required for use by company check airmen or FAA inspectors conducting line checks, but that's a fairly rare circumstance. Most of the time, the jumpseat can be used by commuting pilots whenever the cabin is full. Pilots from the same airline have precedence; after that, it's available to other airline pilots on a first-come/first-served basis. In any event, use of the jumpseat is always at the Captain's discretion.

For obvious security reasons, I'm not going to go into the procedure for requesting and obtaining jumpseat access. I will mention jumpseat is imperative to remember that the captain is extending a courtesy to you, and one should act accordingly. That means asking his permission, staying out of the way, being polite to the whole crew, cleaning up after yourself, and thanking the crew after the flight. You should observe sterile cockpit rules, and only talk at other times if the crew feels like chatting.

From a crewmember's standpoint, I don't mind having jumpseaters along. Yes, they're taking up extra space, but the our cockpit is pretty big. After talking to the same captain for three days straight, it's nice to have someone else to converse with. You'd think the extra set of eyes would put extra pressure on you, but you don't notice when you're busy. In fact, I had a jumpseater in the cockpit during my smoke-in-cabin emergency a few months back, and I almost forgot he was there.

The one situation I dislike is when you have an extremely chatty captain, and he starts talking to the jumpseater as soon as the gear is up and doesn't stop talking until the landing checklist. It's obviously violating "sterile cockpit," and in extreme cases can begin to affect safety. In one extreme case, they weren't catching my heavy hints to shut up, so I turned off my intercom so I could hear ATC. So...if you're ever riding along with me when I'm flying with that sort of captain: please, don't encourage him. I understand that ettiquette demands that you play nice with the captain, but you can surely get less chatty once my body language is telling you that it might not be such a great idea to be blathering away at 3000' in congested airspace.

Incidently, we don't have jumpseat access on international flights, and it's irritating. Loads to Europe have been rather high this summer.

Saturday, August 20, 2005


Missing: One Fuji FinePix A340 digital camera. Last seen in aircraft 413 at Boise on 8/16/05. I used it on our turn through LAX, left it in the pouch on the first officer's side, and forgot to transfer it to my flight bag before leaving the airplane that night. Yeah, I'm a bonehead. Here's hoping it gets returned.


I got some bad news today. Freddy, a FO I know, was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident in Seattle this Tuesday. Apparently he and his wife were on the freeway when one of the tires blew, causing him to lose control. He's been unconscious ever since; at least one operation has taken place to relieve swelling of the brain. His wife is in even worse condition; her situation is extremely critical. Not much more is known; like I said, I only just learned about it today.

Freddy, we're all pulling for you. You're one seniority number I don't want to move up.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Another Crash

Dave at Flight Level 390 proved to be prophetic with his post last night about aviation accidents happening in threes. At 3AM, a MD80 operated by West Carribean Airways crashed in Venezuela, killing all 160 on board. Apparently the crew had declared an emergency after having trouble with both engines (more likely, with fuel supply...).

Developing story here.

Job Description

Jennifer recently asked, via comments: "What is an FO? (you describe yourself in your job as one?)."

The aviation industry is chock-full of acronyms. If the average instrument-rated pilot reads that you called FSS to check the NOTAMs at KPOC and the LLZ was OTS on the ILS 26L so they were using the VOR-A approach, which restricted you to a MDA of 1800', which is 789' HAA, because your DME is INOP...they'd understand what you're talking about! What we all need to remember, then, is that those outside aviation have little or no exposure to the jargon, and simplify & explain lest we bore them all to death.

The short answer, Jennifer, is that "FO" stands for "First Officer," or what many people outside of aviation call the "co-pilot."

The term is nautical in origin, as are many things in aviation. The First Officer, otherwise known as the First Mate, was second-in-command, just below a ship's Captain, and was responsible for seeing that his orders were carried out. In aviation, the first officer is designated as second-in-command while the captain bears the authority and responsibility delegated to the pilot-in-command.

A common public misperception is that "co-pilots" are "pilot trainees," who've very recently learned to fly and must build the necessary time before they can be qualified as "pilots." While this may be true in a few very limited cases (here's looking at you, Gulfstream Int'l right-seaters!), usually an airline first officer has extensive experience as captain or pilot-in-command at a previous job. Because all airliners require both a captain and a first officer, newhire pilot at any airline start as first officers, and become captains once they are about half-way up that airline's seniority list. If they switch airlines, they start over as first officers.

A common quote in aviation is that airlines hire captains, not first officers. In other words, they want somebody with the experience, knowledge, and skill to be a competent captain, even though they may serve several years as a first officer before upgrading. After all, things change fast in the aviation world, and when airlines expand rapidly, you'll find first officers becoming captains rather soon after being hired (not a concern at my company, I'm afraid!).

So what makes my job different from the Captain's? Well, I'm paid about a third of what he (or she) is. Only they can taxi the airplane, since the nosewheel tiller is on their side of the cockpit (the left side). They're expected to make the tough decisions when in tight situations, and they take responsibility for those decisions - although, should something go wrong, the FO will surely share the blame. Other than that, though, it's pretty much the same job. On each flight, one pilot is designated "Pilot Flying" and the other is "Pilot Not Flying." The "PF" simply flies the airplane while the "PNF" take care of radio communications, navigation, and aircraft systems management. Usually, the captain will be PF on the first leg, I'll be PF on the second leg, and so on.

Hope this clarifies it for you, Jennifer. Any reader, always feel free to ask for clarification when the jargon gets to be a bit much.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Whipping Boy No Longer!

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm off reserve next bid. Crew schedulers take note: You won't have me to kick around anymore!

This current bid, I'm doing the "AM split line," which is half airport reserve and half home reserve. This line used to result mostly in day trips, with few overnights, since they want to keep you around for your airport reserve days. This bid, though, I've only sat airport reserve twice...they're so short of reserves that they've had no choice but to take me off airport reserve to assign me 3 and 4 day trips. Worse yet, they keep switching me from AM to my body is used to getting up at 5am, and then I end up flying until midnight. It's maddening.

My buddy who jumped ship for Skywest is going through sim training right now. It looks like after IOE, he'll be on reserve for one or two months maximum. I've been reserve for 14 months. Greener grass, sour milk, and all that.

Actually, until lately, I haven't minded reserve that much. I was actually toying with the idea of intentionally staying on reserve so I'd be home more often, and so I had enough flight time left over to fly for Ameriflight occasionally. But like I said, neither is very true anymore with how much they're flying us. I might as well take a regular line and know when I'll be gone, and have a few more days off.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Notes & Observations

- Jaime Lee Curtiss was on our flight on Saturday. Apparently the ladies next to her went gaga and kept telling her what big fans they were. And these women were in their 60s, you'd think they would act less teenybopperish.

- I was awarded my first non-reserve line yesterday! It's a surprisingly good line, with labor day weekend off and some good trips. Goodbye, reserve! Well, assuming I don't get it again next month.

- My brother Jon is going back to Iraq. He's been back from his yearlong stint since April, but decided to volunteer for another year. I have mixed emotions on that one.

- The airplane I fly is very fun when empty. Our last leg today was a reposition from SEA to PDX. It took 22 minutes from takeoff to landing.

- Yesterday kinda sucked. We waited for over 3 hrs for our plane to arrive from SEA. Apparently the problem was that the 34L and 34R glidepaths were out of service for maintenance at the same time 800 RVR fog showed up. Whoops. Then when we got into Seattle, we had a plane swap...and waited 1.5 hrs for our plane to show up before we could take off for Edmonton. We got there after 2am. Egh.

- We departed YEG an hour late today, and thanks to the wonderful rampers at GEG and BOI, were on time by our 6th leg...only to get a plane swap in SEA, to a plane running 45 mins late.

- There is nothing better than a good single-malt scotch after 2 frustrating days!

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Blogging Live from KFCA

Greetings from Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Montana. Dawn came with on the Kalispell overnight; our flight out is running about 3.5 hrs late due to really low visiblity in Seattle this morning. Nobody went in or out for over 3 hrs, apparently due to Cat III equipment being out of service. So, I spent some time talking to stranded passengers, and now we're just chilling at the gates. Yay for free WiFi at small town airports!

This is day 3 of a 4 day trip. I spent Friday night and Saturday in Sun Valley, Idaho, where we had a 24-hour layover. Yesterday, three of us went to the local animal shelter and volunteered to walk some of their dogs. We took a 2-hr walk up into the hills; it was a lot of fun and a rather unique layover activity. Below: Drew, Opie, Lori, Happy, and Cricket. You can guess which names belong to humans and which to canines.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Everybody, meet Kelly...

...our newest & coolest aircraft mechanic!

I've known Kelly and her twin sister Lori for five or six years now. After graduating from college with a computer science degree, Kelly decided to become an aircraft mechanic and enrolled in A&P school. As she finished her schooling, I got her apps in at my company. They called her for an interview last week, she flew in yesterday, and her interview was today. She got the job and starts training soon. Way to rock, Kelly!

1/5/06: Pay no attention to that sign! Hehe....

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Twelve Minute Flight

At my company, we operate several triangle flights to cities that'd otherwise be too small to serve with any frequency. An example is Helena and Great Falls. Neither of these cities alone would be able to fill several aircraft to Seattle every day, but together they do. So we operate SEA-GTF-HLN-SEA. The middle leg is extremely short, since GTF and HLN are something like 56 nm from each other. A lot has to happen in that time, and you need to do some shrewed flying as well to make sure you're able to descend quickly enough after ATC keeps you high. One of my first legs on IOE was GTF-HLN. Fortunately I was the pilot flying - the PNF is the person who really has to work on these short legs. It was still pretty overwhelming.

Once you're comfortable with the airplane and familiar with the short legs, though, they can be pretty fun. It's airline flying distilled down to the interesting parts - takeoff, climb, descent, landing, with no hours of boredom in cruise involved. It's an exercise in efficiency.

Late last night, I flew the last leg of the day, the 57 miles between Bozeman and Butte. The weather was good VFR. Poor weather, while increasing the stress of the flight, gives you more time to think about it because you'll have to fly the departure procedure, fly further to the initial approach fix, slow down early for the approach, etc. In the short time from takeoff to touchdown, here's the tasks to be accomplished:

1. At 400', start climbing right turn on course. Keep up a steep climb at 200 kts so we can get to cruising altitude of 14,000 quickly. PNF retracts flaps at 1000'.
2. At 2500', PNF accomplishes after takeoff flow and checklist.
3. PNF checks in with Salt Lake Center; both pilots look for traffic that SLC points out.
4. PNF calls off times to Bozeman station.
5. In climb, both pilots reset airspeed and altitude bugs for landing, and set up nav radios for approach into BTM. PNF performs 10,000 foot flow.
6. Brief VOR/DME-A approach into Butte, with circle to Runway 15. Although the weather is good, the approach lets you get descend early so you're not caught insanely high.
7. Level at 14,000 feet. PNF gets Butte weather via ASOS. Accelerate to 280 kts.
8. PNF requests approach from Salt Lake, copies approach clearance and frequency change to CTAF. PNF reads descent checklist.
9. A few miles before Whitehall VOR, slow down in preparation for rapid descent. PNF performs early 10,000 foot flow. PNF makes in-range radio call to Butte station.
10. Crossing Whitehall, retard power levers to flight idle and begin descent to 9000'. PNF reads approach checklist.
11. A few miles past Whitehall, airport appears behind ridge. Call "Landing"; PNF reports position on CTAF.
12. Since it looks like it'll be tough to make the pattern altitude while going this fast, level off and have the PNF increase the condition levers for 1020 rpm. The extra drag helps you slow down to 200 kts, where you call for "Flaps 5, Gear Down, Landing Checklist."
13. PNF reads landing checklist. Aircraft rapidly descends to pattern altitude of 7100 as you cross midfield for the righthand downwind for Rwy 15.
14. Increase torque to maintain pattern altitude; keep wide enough to avoid 6400' hill just before turning base; call for Flaps 15, then Flaps 35 at 1000' AFE.
15. Stabilized approach at Vref by 500' AFE, touch down at exactly midnight, call it a night.

This flight reminds me of something my first flight instructor told me: - "Never take an airplane anywhere your brain hasn't been five minutes ago." My instrument instructor told me to always be thinking about the next three steps. Good advice on both counts.