Monday, December 18, 2006

In Defense of Unionism

Monster Post Alert!

I ended my last post by suggesting that one way pilots can improve their profession is by getting involved with their union, if they work at a unionized carrier. Predictably, this drew some criticism from anti-union commenters. I say "predictably" because airline pilots have always been rather ambivalent about their unions, and at times downright hostile. Most airlines have a few notoriously outspoken union critics among their pilots.

There are several reasons for this. First, airline pilots tend to be politically conservative, although this was more pronounced when most pilots came from the military. Secondly, pilots are often independent and opinionated, and many bristle at "others" making important decisions that affect their careers. Finally, pilots have a long and distinguished history of cheapness, and there are plenty who feel that they aren't getting anything back for their 2% dues.

Growing up, I had no great love for unions. I come from a politically conservative family, and am still conservative on many matters. When I was young, my dad was in a carpenter's union but quit it in disgust over what he saw as a culture of petty corruption and laziness; the union thereafter made life miserable for him, sabotaging his vehicle and equipment and vandalizing job sites. I accepted the fact that I'd have to join a union someday as an airline pilot, but wasn't thrilled about it. Even now that I've changed my mind in favor of unionism, I am well aware of the shortcomings of various unions, the low points in the history of the movement, and some of the practical and philosophical sticking points to the whole system we have now. I can certainly understand where people like Big Country and Ryan are coming from.

The thing is, I haven't seen any better alternatives proposed. If you're going to do away with the current system, you'd better have something to replace it with, something that does a better job of protecting the things we hold dear: our careers, the profession, and our impressive record of safety. So far I haven't seen any workable proposals that do this.

Some people, like Big Country, propose to throw ourselves upon the mercies of the "free market." First, I'm not sure that unionism is truly at odds with the "free market system". Unionized airlines do not have a monopoly, so pilots are free to go to a non-union carrier if they wish. For that matter, no single union has a monopoly; ALPA competes with APA, SWAPA, Teamsters, etc. To me, a system which prohibited workers from banding together into unions would be the one that impedes the free market; after all, businesses and businessmen regularly enter into all sorts of arrangements to increase their buying power and exploit economies of scale, and unless these arrangements result in monopolies, nobody argues that they are an impediment to the freedom of the markets. Markets do not need to have a multitude of perfectly independent agents to be free. But this is an aside....

Ryan proclaims that we're in the information age, with the inference that codgy old unionism is not up to the demands of a dynamic, productive free market economy. An example that one might give is that of computer programmers, heroes of the new information age. Rather few programmers are unionized. Their job protection is according to their degree of competence. Productivity is rewarded: the best programmers are headhunted in a very free job market, where they can almost name their salary. Many change jobs regularly; some of the smartest become independent contractors and hire out to the highest bidder. The free market can be very good to smart programmers.

There is a temptation to take what's happening in the vibrant tech sector and proclaim it a "new paradigm" that applies to all industries and professions, including the airline world and professional piloting. There are a few glaring problems with doing so, ways in which aviation is very unlike the tech sector.

First, the free market rewards those who are seen as the most productive. In aviation, the most productive pilot is not necessarily the best pilot. One can be very productive by cutting corners when they think they can get away with it, bending the rules a little when they think nobody's watching. You could get away with it for years, and you'd be management's absolute favorite pilot. Meanwhile, the pilot who scrupulously follows the rules, takes his time, refuses to be rushed, and makes smart decisions is going to be less productive. Nevertheless, he is the better pilot. While the union system might not get him ahead, it will not penalize him either, and the pilots' unions at the airlines have been a primary factor in fostering the safety culture that exists today.

Secondly, a truly free labor market is dependent on workers being able to switch jobs easily with few penalties. If a good computer programmer is underpaid, he can be doing the same job elsewhere for more money next week; losing productive programmers is eventually going to force his former employer to up their wages. But computer programmers everywhere do essentially the same job, Nine to Five, Monday through Friday. Pilots do not. Airlines need pilots 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. They need both first officers and captains. Because of this, seniority is just as important as salary, making for a powerful disincentive to switch jobs. An airline system without unions would not be a free labor market, just one in which management had all the mechanisms of control.

Ever since aviation began, it's been a nasty, brutish business. Ryan mentioned the book Hard Landing; it is an excellent chronicle of some of the uglier turns the industry has taken. The people who managed the early airlines were a hard nosed lot that didn't mind breaking rules and even racking up a body count in the search for elusive profits. Pilots were often seen as an obstacle in this quest, always gumming up the works with complaints about weather or maintenance or fatigue. Government oversight was minimal. In this free market, no manager thought twice about firing a pilot who wasn't compliant enough, not "productive" enough. This attitude led directly to the formation of the first pilot unions - a free market reaction if I ever saw one. But that was 70 years ago, you protest; times have changed and the reasons that led to unions no longer exist. Don't they? Profits are just as elusive. Ryan was spot on in his assessment of much of the upper management throughout the industry today. Given the opportunity, I think many of them would easily revert to the habits of their early predecessors, and the flying profession would suffer greatly in all regards.

Both Ryan and BC put the blame elsewhere. Ryan says that unions "combat the power of a team and ultimately hinder relationships between labor and management." BC suggests that unions killed the legacies by demanding higher wages than revenues could support, although to his credit he acknowledges the role management had to play. Now, there's a kernel of truth in both statements. The relationship unions have with management is often combative. I won't say it's always management's fault or entirely their fault, but there is a definite correlation between management's aggressiveness with labor and labor's aggressiveness with management. "Enlightened" CEOs like Kelleher and Bethune mostly kept things amicable with their unionized work groups and rewarded their employees when the company prospered; the unions responded in kind by showing flexibility and bargaining in good faith. Where management took an aggressive stance and tried to screw over their employee groups at every turn, those employees elected combative union leaders who sometimes took things farther than was good for the company or the employees. The painful concessions of the early 90's that went unrewarded in the mid 90's produced the prohibitively expensive contracts of the late 90's, which contributed - along with considerable mismanagement - to the legacies' current troubles, as BC mentioned.

The fact that this unhealthy cycle has taken place at some unionized airlines - does it condemn the unions, perhaps even the very principles of unionism? What role did management play in all this? Let's say that a Crandall or a Ferris was successful at breaking their pilots' union. Would they have suddenly blossomed into a benevolent Kelleher once the money was theirs for the taking? I think not. If anything, breaking the union at Continental made Lorenzo even more ravenous.

Of course, there are non-union carriers out there, and my dire predictions haven't played out there, have they? Ryan says he's going to work at a non-union carrier, and I applaud him for putting his money where his mouth is, so to speak. But I wonder if his non-union carrier would treat their pilots nearly so well if it wasn't for the hard work unions have done at all the other carriers. Management at Skywest, Allegiant, and even jetBlue offer their pilots just enough to keep unions off their property. What would happen if that disincentive was removed?

BC says that "strong unions don't make strong pilots, they make strong unions." In other words, they are for-profit organizations that are no better than management in screwing over workers for money. Again, there is a kernel of truth here. The main organizations have attracted a lot of greedy and corrupt individuals over the years - my own union, the Teamsters, got so bad it was put in federal trusteeship for a time. Even rather uncorrupted organizations like ALPA have shown favoritism towards whoever is paying the most dues money, principles be hanged. But the real strength of a union lies with its active membership, the volunteer pilots who serve and lead at the local level. This is where most of the decisions are made and where most of the work is done - and these pilots usually have only the interests of the membership in mind.

Unions are by no means perfect. Their history is spotted, their imperfections are currently glaring, and I doubt they'll be really fantastic in the future. In short, they are a human institution. They did a great deal of good in building up the aviation industry and the piloting profession - and they've done plenty to screw both up lately, too. That doesn't mean they should be discarded entirely. Aviation history has shown them to be all too necessary. We do, however, need to work to improve them. That's why I suggested that new pilots resolve to get involved in their unions: not because those unions are so great, but because we need them to be better for the good of the profession. There are encouraging signs. ALPA members just elected a reform-minded President. Teamsters Local 747 members, including myself, just elected an Executive Board with a reformist majority. I'm personally volunteering for my union as an editor and writer for our quarterly periodical, and I'm seeing more young pilots become similarly involved. Things like this make me hopeful that we'll be able to stem the tide using the system in place now - which is good, because I haven't seen any realistic alternative.

In short - I'd rather patch the roof than tear down the house and pray for sunny weather.

(...and that's the only short thing about this post!)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Make It Better

My last post and the response in the comments section made me realize something today.

I'm really getting tired of moaning and complaining about the downfall of the airline industry and the piloting profession.

True, things have become worse the last few years. Yes, old-timers would be appallled to see how far the profession has fallen. And yes, anybody considering a career in aviation needs to take a good look at the true cost of this career before jumping in.

But the reality is, it can still be a pretty good career. I very much enjoy what I do for a living. It's usually interesting, I work with great people, and I see breathtaking sights every day. Even at the "regional" level, it's paying the bills and I'm living comfortably, albeit with two incomes and without kids. I've had some neat adventures here and abroad thanks to this job.

Furthermore, I should be about the last guy to talk about the uncertainty and suffering that an aviation career can bring, because I haven't experienced any of it. The worst I've dealt with is some unexpected time freight-dogging, a little time in a hiring pool that didn't pan out, and the prospect of a longer-than-average upgrade. Boo-freaking-hoo. To learn about the worst that aviation can do, there are plenty of furloughees and merger survivors and newly pensionless retirees you can talk to. I really have no right to do so.

But the main reason I'm tired of complaining is that it really doesn't change anything. My blog posts, crew room gripe-fests, bitterness - has it all done anything to reverse the slide? I'm not sure it has. What are we expecting to achieve, anyhow? Are we hoping that by making aviation look so horrible, we'll shrink the incoming labor pool and thereby improve our lot? If so, it's dishonest and unfair. Having achieved our goals, it's hypocritical to deny others theirs. When nice guys like LoadmasterC141 want to get into flying, I should be encouraging him, not dissuading him.

None of this is to say we should ignore the problems bedeviling aviation. It might still be a decent field but if the present slide continues, it will not always be. The generation that came before us did a pretty lousy job; we need to do better.This starts with educating the pilots coming up through the ranks. Those of us currently at the airlines need to do a better job of reaching out to those just starting their own careers, helping them in their advancement as well as educating them in the history and responsibilities of their chosen profession. Without hitting them over the head with gloom and doom, we need to make it clear to them that the future of this career is in their hands, and depends on them rolling up their sleeves and getting involved.

So those of you who are new to aviation, who are considering a career as a pilot, who are working their way up the ladder: I apologize for occasionally discouraging your dreams with gloomy pronouncements of what a shambles aviation is in. I should be encouraging and helping you. At the same time, I do want to urge you to get informed on what's going on in your profession, and do your part to make it better. "What can I do?" you ask. In general terms, consider yourself a caretaker of the profession and resolve to leave it better than you found it. Consider the effects each of your choices has not only on your career but also on those who come after you. Specifically, once you work at a unionized carrier, get involved in your union. They're only as good as their volunteers. They can use your skills. No part is too trivial - even seemingly boring jobs free up resources for other important tasks. This is a small price to pay for a rewarding career and a job that you love.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Return to Field

"Eighty Knots."

Caution and warning lights are extinguished, torque is set and steady, oil temps and pressures are looking good, and ITT is well under redline as our Megawhacker accelerates down Boise's Runway 28R.

"Vee One. Rotate."

The captain pulls back gently on the yoke and the machine lumbers into the early dawn sky.

"Positive Rate."

"Gear Up."

I reach for the gear handle on the instrument pnael, releasing the lock with my thumb and raising the handle with my palm in one practiced motion. The three yellow gear door lights illuminate, and the three green lights are replaced by red "gear unsafe" lights which go out one by one as each respective gear strut thumps into its wheelwell. Finally the yellow gear door lights go out as each gear door closes. Except for the right main. It's not going out. Hmm. It sometimes takes a few seconds, but never this long.

"Hey, check out the right main," I tell the captain. He glances where I'm pointing just in time to see the light extinguish, then come back on, and then cycle several times. A vibration accompanies each cycle, indicating that gear doors really are moving when they're not supposed to be.

"Hmm. Okay. Flaps up, climb power, after takeoff checklist," commands the captain, "and then run the appropriate emergency/abnormal checklist when you're ready. I'll keep it slow in the meantime."

The checklist runs us through a quick troubleshooting sequence that ends up telling us to put the gear down, leave it down, and keep the airspeed under 185 knots. Doesn't look like we're going to Seattle, I think. A quick call to maintenance control confirms that they'd like us to return to Boise.

A "return to field" is not in itself an emergency situation, but it is definately abnormal, with a higher workload than a normal arrival. The level of stress depends on the situation that precipitated the return to field, and how much time you have to complete the neccessary tasks. These pilots had just a few scant minutes to land the airplane before it burned up. In a non-emergency situation like our gear door, you can slow down or circle to give yourself more time and ease the workload.

The first step is communicating with Air Traffic Control. If it's not an emergency situation, you need to be clear about that; if they just hear "landing gear problem," they'll get a little excited. Tell them exactly what you want. Some delay vectors to give you time to run checklists and take care of other business can be a great help.

Next you have to communicate with company. Dispatch will want to know you're diverting. Station Ops needs to know to be ready for your return. Maintenance control will likely be involved in most returns to field. If they're playing "20 questions" with you at a critical time, be prepared to tell them you'll get back to them once you're on the ground.

Besides emergency/abnormal checklists, normal descent/approach/landing checklists need to be completed. The descent checklist can be easy to forget when you're already at pattern altitude, but you'll remember it when you land at a 3000' airport with a 500' cabin altitude!

You'll need to ensure you have adequate landing performance given current conditions. Dispatch calculated landing performance for your original destination, but you're not going there anymore. Make sure you're not over maximum landing weight - although in an emergency this is quite a secondary consideration.

Last but not least, you need to let the folks know what's going on. They'll notice you've turned around and are going back down, and are bound to be concerned. A long technical explanation isn't neccessary, but you don't want to be so vague that they're convinced the entire flight is doomed. If neccessary, brief your FAs on those details that are "unfit for public consumption."

And lastly, keep an eye on the other guy or gal. Mistakes are easy to make during periods of heightened stress, so you need to be watching each others' backs.

Our return to field turned out to be a no-brainer. We kept the plane slow, took time to communicate with everyone we had to, double-checked our work, and landed without further incident. Total flying time: 15 minutes. The problem was a broken uplock, which neccessitated a gear-down ferry flight back to PDX. Talk about the Slow Boat to China!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

'Tis the Season

Yesterday was the only Saturday I have free this bid, so Dawn and I decided it was a good day to get a Christmas tree. Now, we have tons of tree sales going on in our neighborhood right now, and there are cut-your-own tree farms a few miles away - but what's the fun in that? We decided to continue the tradition we started last year, snowshoeing in the National Forest to find and cut down The Perfect Tree. A $5 permit and patience are all that's required.

Flood damage and massive recent snowfall kept us from the higher elevations of Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and there was enough snow at lower elevations to pose a challenge to our 4WD Blazer. We eventually parked the Blazer and struck out on showshoes; surprisingly, it only took us about an hour of searching to find a nice Blue Spruce. It wasn't until we got home that we realized just how big it was. It is almost of Griswoldian proportions. Fortunately we have 18' vaulted ceilings.

Have I mentioned recently that I love living in the Northwest? Yup.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Back in the Metro Days....

This month I bid a regular line instead of composite or reserve. One of the side effects is that I'll be flying with the same captain for most of the bid. Fortunately, the guy I'm paired up with this month is a good captain and a nice guy that I get along with. He skis, flies a Stearman he restored himself, and happens to be a good storyteller. Yesterday he was telling me stories from "the Metro days," when our airline's workhorse was the SA-227 Metroliner. Many of the stories were hilarious and demonstrated just how gentrified regional flying has become. The following is my favorite story, which put me in tears. It actually happened to Ron, the captain I'm flying with.

Ron was flying a trip with "RD," a captain reknown for his unpopularity with FO's. He had a reputation for being rude to FO's, doing things abruptly without saying what he was doing, extreme overcaution alternating with impulsiveness, and just overall weirdness. Ron was a very junior FO when this incident took place, and couldn't avoid flying with RD.

Ron and RD were in the middle of their trip, on a leg from Spokane to Boise. They were at altitude, in cruise, when RD suddenly sat upright and in an alarmed voice, told Ron to "call Lewiston!"

Ron was perplexed at the request, so he asked why. "Because we have to land there!" was the reply, without further explanation. Ron probed further until RD expounded, sort of: "I was bit by a spider last week. I don't feel well!"

Ron was taken aback, but at RD's continued insistence, called Lewiston station. It turned out, however, that there was an airshow taking place and the airport was closed. "Call Pullman, then," RD commanded. Now, they were already past Lewiston; Pullman was an even longer backtrack. Pullman station confirmed that they could handle the diversion, but then Dispatch came on frequency, wanting to know what was going on. RD jumped on the radios: "A member of the crew isn't feeling well." He was very quick to clarify that he wasn't declaring an emergency. Dispatch pressed for the exact nature of the illness, until RD relented:

"I was bit by a spider."

"Oh. When?"

"Um...last week."

"Well, if it's not an emergency," said the dispatcher, "you'd be able to go past Pullman and land back in Spokane, right?" RD consented.

"Look, Boise is just as close as Spokane," Ron pointed out. "Why don't we just continue and get these people to their destination, and then you can call in sick?" RD steadfastly refused:

"No, we're going back, and that's final."

The moment the engines were shut down in Spokane, RD grabbed his bag and bolted from the airplane, leaving his flabbergasted FO to explain the situation to 19 angry passengers. After that, Ron had to deal with dispatch, crew scheduling, and then the chief pilot, all of whom wanted to know what happened, and where did RD go? The hospital? Ron had no idea: RD hadn't said a word after they turned towards Spokane. It turned out that RD had ran upstairs to jumpseat home on another carrier, without saying a word to anybody, much less a simple sick call.

Of course, the story quickly spread around the airline and only added to RD's notoriety and reputation for weirdness. The story got considerably funnier when another FO who had suffered under RD got the idea of buying a large bag of fake plastic spiders from a hobby store and leaving them wherever RD might encounter them: in his mailbox, in his flight bag, in the cockpit, even in his hat! It continued relentlessly for weeks; RD was absolutely furious. He assumed Ron was behind it and accused him several times; Ron had to beg the prankster to cut it out!

Eventually the notoriety of the "Spider Incident" died out, mainly because RD went on to out-do himself with other exploits.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

My Hot Saturday Night Date

The heavy laden ship lurched to a halt on the tarmac and the engines whirred down into silence. Passengers scurried across the wet pavement, their breaths misting the cold night air. Rainy in Portland in November? That's no great surprise. I was, however, caught off guard by finding myself with a free Saturday night. It'd been a long time. What to do? The possibilities stretched out before me. I shivered with anticipation as I unplugged my headset. And then I saw her.

She looks like trouble, I thought. The brunettes usually are. She was wearing a trench coat and an aloof look. I caught sight of a clipboard. This dame means business, I realized. Could she be looking for me? She soon answered my question by poking her head into the cockpit. "Are you Sam?" she asked breathlessly. I hesitated. Should I reveal my identity to the Mystery Woman? In all honesty, I couldn't lie. Not to a brunette with a clipboard, anyways. "Come with me," she commanded as she turned to go with a flip of her hair. I dutifully followed behind.

Who is this woman? And where is she taking me? The questions swirled through my head. My Saturday night had taken a turn towards the unexpected. What did this mysterious beauty have in mind? Could it be a trap? I needed answers.

I caught up to her and grasped her arm. "Hey Miss! Listen, what's the idea here? You ain't said boo since we left the plane. What's goin' on, anyways?"

She turned to me with an expression that bordered between amusement and contempt, and then her features softened and she spoke softly: "You mean you really haven't any idea? Didn't anyone tell you? We have a very special appointment tonight." She saw that I still wasn't following her drift, so she leaned towards me and whispered: "You're going to pee in a cup for me."

Suddenly it all made sense. This was no chance meeting; this was destiny! We were meant to come together! It was written in the stars and in 14 CFR §121.457! My doubts evaporated into thin air as I felt a familiar tingle of excitment. It'd been a long time since anybody had asked me to pee in their cup. And suddenly, out of the blue, this wonderful, mysterious woman came into my life....

She ushered me into her office and beckoned for me to sit down. I settled into a plush office chair opposite her and gazed into her dark eyes. She smiled and started speaking softly but evenly.

"We'll need a urine sample of at least 45 ml. It will be split into two specimens, one for the lab to analyze and the second to be retained in case of a positive. This form identifies you by employee number only. Put your contact information in Section Five in case the Medical Review Officer needs to contact you. One copy of this form goes with the specimen, one copy is for the Medical Review Officer, one is for my records, one is for the company, and you retain the last copy."

I was spellbound by her melodious voice as she explained chain of custody to me. Sure, I'd heard it all before from all sorts of dames, but never like this! She spoke like she really believed it. If I had to pinpoint the moment I really fell hard, it'd be when she demonstrated the specimen sealing procedure.

She offered me a drink. I asked for my usual snifter of bourbon, but she suggested that wasn't appropriate given the circumstances. The dame had a point. I drank Talking Rain spring water instead.

The rest of the evening is a blur. I remember her taping off the water sources in the washroom, which offends me a little. Did she trust me so little as to think I'd dillute my urine? I could never do that to her! I remember her turning the toilet bowl a beautiful cobalt blue. I remember missing her dearly when she left the washroom for me to do the deed. And I will always cherish the moment afterwards when she split the specimen and swiftly sealed both vials.

All too soon, our time together was over. I spent the rest of my Saturday night at home savoring the memories over a glass of Wild Turkey. She promised me that she'd see me again. Was she simply masking her perfidy? Lots of women have promised lots of things to me over the years. I'd like to believe she really meant it, and our meeting wasn't just a meaningless encounter. Time will tell. In the meantime, I'll end every trip with the anticipation of spying a woman on the ramp with a clipboard and a test cup.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Whistler, B.C.

Ski season is here! Storms over the last two weeks have dumped prodigious amounts of snow on the Cascades, and most of the ski resorts opened this weekend or are opening in a few days. Whistler-Blackcomb, in British Columbia's South Coast Mountains, opened on Saturday. I had some two-for-one vouchers from a recent Warren Miller film screening, and my parents were in town, so we decided to make a roadtrip of it. It was my Dad's first time skiing; Dawn and my Mom decided to skip the skiing part and proceed directly to Aprés-ski.

We decided to drive rather than fly into Vancouver. On Friday night we got as far as Bellingham, and early Saturday morning we drove across the border, through Vancouver, and up the beautiful Sea-To-Sky Highway into Whistler. My dad and I were on the slopes before 10am.

For those who are unfamiliar, Whistler-Blackcomb is the biggest (and many claim the best) ski area in North America. There are two mountains of over 5000 lift-served vertical feet each, for a combined 8000 acres and well over 100 named runs. With such a vertical extent, the climate can vary greatly from base to peak. Indeed, on Saturday the bottom 1100' of Whistler Mountain were closed due to slushy, inadequate snow, and the top 1100' were closed due to avalanche danger. Blackcomb Mountain was closed altogether. The remaining 2800' of Whistler were more than adequate for our one day outing.

The beginner ski area was also closed (low elevation, slushy snow) so I decided to teach Dad on the easiest green run from Roundhouse Station (6000') to Olympic Station (3200'). Whistler's green trails turned out to be steep enough in places to qualify as an intermediate run at many other resorts, so there were a lot of fast riders whizzing around us. It wasn't a great place to teach someone to ski for the first time. We took it easy and took about two hours to descend 2800 vertical feet.

I discovered that I'm a horrible ski instructor. Dad was halfway down the mountain before I realized he was putting himself off balance by planting the wrong pole prior to turns. Correcting that detail helped a lot, to where he was doing a good job linking turns by the bottom, but by that time he was absolutely spent from all the falls he took. We took the gondola back down to the village to have lunch with Dawn and Mom, and then Dad decided to call it a day. I headed back up the mountain to run some laps before the lifts closed. It was a good first outing of the season, I put on some decent vertical and woke up some muscles that've been disused. I felt it the next day.

The area around Whistler is gorgeous; Dawn and I are planning on going back later this season and perhaps staying a few days longer. I'd like to try the Peak-to-Creek run when the whole mountain is open; at 5000' vertical that should be a real thigh burner!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Meeting of the Blogger Buds

I met another aviation blogger last Friday night: GC of RantAir. He was here on a (rather short) layover, so I met him for dinner near his crew hotel. Dawn came with to ensure I didn't whip out my camera and photograph his legs. He turned out to be a very nice, laidback guy. Not that I was expecting him to be a freakin' weirdo or anything. His airline has a reputation for hiring nice laidback guys (and gals), and GC fits right in there, I think.

GC was the first guy to leave a comment on my blog, and link to my blog. These days he's pretty busy, so he doesn't update as much as many other bloggers, but I still enjoy his mix of flying, aviation news, sports, and politics - so he stays at the top of my blogroll.

Anyways, it's been fun meeting fellow aviation bloggers Aviatrix and GC. If anybody else is going to be spending any time in the PDX area, let me know. There's always about a 2/5 chance that I'll be home!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Otto Pilot and His Robotic Minions

Automation in modern transport category aircraft differs sharply from automation in light planes, both in design and philosophy. In most GA aircraft that have an autopilot - and many do not - it is often a simple type that can hold altitudes and headings. A higher end model might have the ability to hold climb or descent rates, capture altitudes, track VORs, and perhaps even shoot an ILS. Still, even capable autopilots are almost an afterthought, and are seldom well integrated with the rest of the aircraft's systems and avionics, even in newer glass cockpits. Most light plane pilots treat autopilots as a luxury that's nice to have at times, but easy to ignore when it's off. Rather few, in my experience, fully integrate autoflight capabilities into their procedures.

Modern airliners, however, treat automation systems as an integral part of the airplane, to be incorporated by varying degrees into almost every phase of flight. In these airplanes, it's never as simple as deciding whether to turn the autopilot on or off; it's moreso a matter of deciding what type of automation to use and how much of it for any given situation. This is as true of the Megawhacker as it is of the B777, and my airline's procedures reflect this.

Our Flight Operations Manual (FOM) defines three levels of automation. The lowest one, Level One, is hand flying without use of flight director or autopilot, commonly known as flying "raw data." This is the sort of flying GA pilots do every day without a second thought, but it is pretty rare at the airlines. It is generally done for proficiency purposes only, usually in good weather. Level One might also be used in situations where you need to maneuver rapidly, such as a TCAS resolution advisory or when the autopilot does something unexpected.

Automation Levels Two and Three are defined as "Basic Flight Director Command" and "Flight Management System Command," respectively. Interestingly, either level can be accomplished with or without the autopilot engaged; the automation policy makes no distinction between flight director and autopilot usage. In the Megawhacker, the autopilot merely couples to whatever flight director commands are active; you cannot use the autopilot without the flight director. The entire package is known as Auto Flight Control System (AFCS); you control the system through inputs to the Flight Guidance Control Panel, or FGCP.

This is the Megawhacker's FGCP. The three buttons with lighted carets on center-right indicate that autopilot and yaw damper are engaged, and that the AFCS is taking course guidance from the captain's-side HSI. The "Nav Source" knobs control whether those HSIs operate in VOR or LNAV mode (more on that later), the "Course" knobs control OBS selection on each HSI, and the "Hdg" knobs move the heading bug. The "Alt" knob moves the altitude selector on the pilots' primary flight displays (PFDs), and the buttons next to it select vertical modes. The pitch wheel controls those vertical modes, and the buttons to its right select lateral and approach modes.

This is a Primary Flight Display, or PFD. Above the attitude indicator it displays AFCS modes which were selected on the FGCP, lateral modes on the left and vertical modes on the right, with the altitude selector displayed just above the altitude tape. "But wait," you say, "there is no LNAV button on the FGCP!" Correct, LNAV is one of the modes selectable by pushing the NAV button. Others include VOR and LOC. Which mode actually gets selected depends on what's currently displayed on the HSI. Remember the "Nav Source" knob? We use it to decide if our HSIs get guidance from the FMS (LNAV mode ie "purple needles"), or from ground based navaids tuned in the radios (VOR mode ie "blue needles"). This is the difference between Level Two and Level Three Automation. In the picture above, the flight director is following course guidance given by the Flight Management System, which is following the flight plan route I programmed in before takeoff.

In this picture, you see that I have blue needles displayed on my HSI, although we're not receiving the localizer yet. I'm now in Heading Select mode, and the aircraft is turning to 050, where I set the heading bug. The airplane is descending in VS mode, and I've used the pitch wheel to select a descent rate of 1500 feet per minute. ATC has cleared us to descend to 11,000 feet, which is set on the altitude selector. Notice also that the vertical mode "Alt Sel" is displayed in white. Active modes are displayed in green, whereas white indicates an armed mode. The AFCS is armed to capture the selected altitude of 11,000 feet.

This picture is a good example of reverting from Level Three automation to Level Two. Moments before, I had been descending on a published arrival in LNAV mode, and I was actually using FMS-derived vertical navigation (VNAV) to descend. Then ATC told us to turn left heading 050 for vectors to the approach. I pushed VS to decouple VNAV and selected -1500 fpm, spun the heading bug to 050, pushed HDG, and then changed my Nav Source from purple needles to blue needles. I actually could've stayed with Level Three a while longer by inputing heading on the FMS while remaining in LNAV mode. I could stay on Level Three Automation all the way to the ground by requesting a GPS approach. I'll sometimes do this just for the practice. When I don't need the practice, though, it's just easier to go to Level Two and do it the "old fashioned way."

Note that all the inputs on the FGCP are the same whether the autopilot is engaged or I'm handflying with flight director. The only difference is that when I'm handflying, I'm supposed to command the PNF (pilot not flying) to make the inputs for me.

I think the average GA pilot would balk at all this gadgetry. "I'd rather just fly," you say. I can understand that - when I rent light planes, I find the utter lack of automation rather refreshing. But used properly, automation makes airline flying easier, safer, and more efficient. Highly automated flight decks are here to stay. That's why, as I've said before, you'll enjoy airline flying a lot more if you're a bit of a geek.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Pineapple Express

Last week, it seemed as though winter had come early. Temperatures were well below seasonal averages, with Portland seeing highs in the low 40's and large parts of the Intermountain West staying well below freezing. Last week I woke up in Kalispell to 5 degree F temps. That was a cold preflight, but visions of powder-filled slopes kept my spirits high. Bring on the cold, the rain, the wind: ski season is nigh!

And then again, maybe not. Today the Pacific Northwest got walloped by a warm, moist airmass known as the Pineapple Express, bringing howling winds, torrential rains, and - unfortunately - freezing levels above 10,000 feet. Western Washington took the brunt of it, with lots of METARs like this one:
KSEA 061703Z 20016G25KT 2SM +RA BR BKN005 BKN011 OVC017 16/15 A2979 RMK AO2 SFC VIS 2 1/2 P0004
Naturally, this royally screwed up our operation. A good many of our flights pass through Seattle, so when SEA gets bad weather, the effects reverberate throughout the system. Seattle had significant flow delays, as did Vancouver and Portland at times, and weather was pretty scuzzy at a lot of outstations too. Therefore we ended up with a ton of delayed flights and a lot of cancellations, too. At least passengers are fairly understanding about weather delays. It's a lot more tangible than maintenance problems for most people. With maintenance, a common complaint is "You people should've known it was broke earlier and fixed it then!" Yes, it is uncomfortable when they crush you in the grip of reason.

Our first leg to Seattle was delayed several hours and our subsequent roundtrip to Sun Valley was cancelled, which made the day a lot easier. We had a break of over four hours, which I spent hanging out in the crew room, catching up with a buddy I hadn't seen in a while, eating some Ivar's clam chowder (w/ Tabasco! Yum!), listening to gossip and spreading rumors, and watching the Seahawks wallop the Raiders 16-0 in the rain. And then it was off to Missoula and Kalispell, where we arrived at 2am. Today is a new day; with only two legs scheduled, one would think it couldn't get too screwed up. We'll see.

It is 16 degrees C above ISA at FL250. You normally see that in the summer. I'm afraid I'll have to endure some more wind and rain without pretty snow-covered mountaintops to encourage me.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Under the Microscope...?

I think the "powers that be" are onto me. Two of my last three trips, I've been flying with check airmen. It's a little bit disconcerting to fly with a check airman. You're in a bit of a limbo land. You're not being line checked, at least not officially. I've never heard of a check airman giving demerits to a first officer they were flying a regular trip with. But you're still quite a bit more careful to fly the book when the captain's main job is enforcing that book.

Increasing the uncertainty in my case was the fact that both check airmen were new and without reputations. In fact, I didn't find out one of them was a check airman until day three of the trip! If they'd been check airmen for a while, I'd know whether they were complete Nazis or were laid back about minor stuff. Was I under the microscope? Or were they kicking back and enjoying a regular trip, glad to not be worrying about training and enforcement for once?

I make it sound as if I'm a completely nonstandard pilot when I'm not flying with a check airman. I'm really not. I fly by the spirit of the book and by most of the letter. Many check airmen are satisfied with that. A few, though, feel that they must pick out any small details I'm getting wrong. And most pilots are regularly doing something "wrong." For an example, refer to my last line check.

Here's another example: Our flight standards manual states that whenever you are hand-flying the airplane, you should not make auto flight control system (AFCS) inputs yourself, you should direct the non-flying pilot to do so. The proper execution sounds like this:

ATC: "Megawhacker 347, turn right heading 090, direct to BANDR when able, climb and maintain 6000."
PNF: "Up to 6000, heading 090, direct BANDR, Megawhacker 347."
(PNF sets altitude alerter to 6000 and pushes ALT SEL.)
PF: "Push IAS twice. Select heading 090. Select my nav source to LNAV. Input direct BANDR on my FMS. Push Nav."

That just makes my head hurt. It's far easier to reach up and push a few buttons yourself. The Megawhacker is pretty stable. It's not going to roll over because your attention was diverted for two seconds. And therefore most pilots will do at least a little button pushing while hand flying, except on checkrides and line checks. Cooperate and graduate, as the saying goes. But what about when flying a regular trip with a check airman? I still fly to the very letter of the book, while grating my teeth at some of the asinine procedures written by desk jockies who seldom fly the line.

Of course, I can only escape an anal check airman by knowing every asinine detail in the book. Apparently I do not. Today I was kicking back with my feet on their usual footrest, the bottom of the instrument panel, when the captain told me that "your feet aren't supposed to be there. It's in the book." I was incredulous until he pulled out the flight standards manual. Sure enough, there it was: "The instrument panel and center console are not to be used as footrests." Nevermind that maintenance puts anti-skid material there for that express purpose.

Most of the check airmen on the Megawhacker are nice guys who I'm happy to share a layover beer with. But God Almighty, if I have to fly another four day trip with one, I'm going to reach an absolutely disgusting level of standardization.

Monday, October 30, 2006

A Stormy Halloween

From my buddy Chris comes this picture of the best dorky pilot Halloween costume ever:

Yes, they are cold and warm fronts, respectively. And yes, they are occluding. How cool is that!?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Aviatrix, I Presume?

Today I flew to [Anonymous Canadian City] to meet up with Aviatrix, author (and starlet) of Cockpit Conversation, one of the most popular aviation blogs today. I've met a number of readers before, but Aviatrix is the first fellow blogger I've met. I'm quite happy to report that 1) Aviatrix is indeed a woman; 2) She isn't a serial killer, or at least I'm not her type, victim-wise; and 3) She is as as funny and insightful in real life as on her blog.

After I verified these three facts, Aviatrix press-ganged me into a workout that I'll leave vague (see: anonymous canadian city) except to say it involved a whole lot of stairs, around 3000 total vertical feet worth. I'd say she's getting pretty well recovered from those blood clots. Try and steal Aviatrix's stuff now, teenage miscreants of the world!

After that, we headed downtown to have some Indian food and afterward went to a bar where we could watch airplanes take off and land. Yes, you've surmised correctly: we were in a Canadian city with a downtown and Indian restaurants and airplanes! Now that I wasn't gasping for air, I was better able to interrogate Aviatrix on all the details my readers want to know, like "Do you have that B737 job lined up yet?" and "When is 'Aviatrix, the book' coming out?" and "Just who is Badger Airlines, anyways?"

Eh, never mind that....I know what my readers really want to know: What did I think of Aviatrix's medically mandated sexy compression stockings? Readers, I came through for you on this one. In the aviation blogosphere scoop of the year, I got a picture of Aviatrix's "prescription for style."

Is there an aviation blogosphere equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize? I'd like to toss my hat in that ring...

Anyways, it was fun to put a face to the stories and grill Aviatrix on all the fun details she couldn't blog about. I'm eager for Aviatrix to get her unrestricted medical back, start her next job, and continue to wow the blogosphere with her many aeronautical adventures. If you're in Canada and know of a multi-crew turbine job, preferably in the western provinces, send Aviatrix an email. Her qualifications meet most such positions, I believe.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Montana Rockies Tour

On Sunday, the cold front had moved through Montana without snowing on Billings. It had, however, given much of the Montana Rockies a brilliant new coat of snow. The flight back to Seattle was gorgeous for scenic viewing, with 100+ mile visibility - again, courtesy of the cold front.

Taking off to the west from Billings, the first range you encounter is the Crazy Mountains. They are rather isolated on the high plain, with no geographical connection to the main spine of the Rockies - an orphan of a range.

South of the Crazies are the Beartooth Mountains. As the name suggests, this area is known for having a very high concentration of bears, grizzlies in this case. Nobody ventures far in without bear mace or a firearm. To the west of the Beartooths, the Yellowstone River meanders southward. If you look carefully, in the far distance you can see Yellowstone Lake and the Tetons.

West of the Crazies is the Bridger Range. Near the southern terminus of this range is the town of Bozeman.

I somehow managed to pass Butte without taking a picture of the Continental Divide. I must've been too fascinated with the Berkeley Pit.

This is the Bitterroot Valley near Hamilton, Montana. On the far (western) side is the Bitterroot Range and the border with Idaho.

A closer look at the Bitterroots.

With the Rockies far behind, a nice Puget Sound sunset on descent into Seattle.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Saga of My Long Lost Cellphone

Some of you may remember that I lost my cell phone back in August while jumpseating around visiting friends. I had left it on a railway platform in Hurst, Texas (just west of Dallas), and it was gone by the time I went back to look for it. I called the railroad's lost and found office for a few weeks, then gave up. I wasn't expecting to get it back.

Yesterday a friend called and told me that my cell phone had been found. Some cop called him from my contact list and asked if he knew anybody who'd lost a cell phone in Texas. My buddy passed along the officer's phone number, which I called today. I was quite eager to find out what adventures my cellphone had without me.

It turns out that the cop is a liason officer at a high school in Crowley, TX, just south of Fort Worth. My cell phone was turned into him after being found in a girl's restroom at the school. After perusing the contact list, he realized that the phone probably did not belong to a high school girl - there were too many out of state numbers, and lots of suspicious entries like "Crew Sked DO NOT ANSWER." He called one of the out of state entries to trace the phone back to me.

It turns out that after I deactivated the phone, the thief never bothered to reactivate it. I assume she was dissapointed to find out it didn't have a SIM card and could only be activated with Verizon. Why she still kept it all this time is beyond me. According to the liason officer, she took quite a few photos with it - including a self-portrait in a mirror!!! So he knows exactly who the thief is. Hopefully he rescues her from a life of crime, because with that level of intelligence she doesn't have much of a future in it.

So against all odds, it seems like I'll be getting my cell phone back. If high school girls in Canada are anywhere near as dumb as in Crowley, I'd say Aviatrix stands a good chance of getting her belongings back, too.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Back to the Salt Mines

I got home at about 9pm last night, made dinner, uploaded lots of pictures to my last post, went to bed, slept insanely long - take that, jet lag! - and upon waking had two hours to get ready for my four day trip and get myself to the airport.

I was dangerously close to not getting back on time. I was planning on taking Delta through Atlanta (~40 seats open) with New York via Delta as my backup (~30 seats open). All the other jumpseatable flights I checked out of Frankfurt were booked full. The night before I had attempted to call Delta's Frankfurt reservations line to list myself, but met a dead end with a surly woman who spoke no English. I made a pathetic attempt in Germanglisch: "Ich bin 'jumpseater.' Könnten Sie mich 'list' helfen?" She actually hung up on me! Oh well. I figured the gate agents could list me.

I showed up at Delta's ticket counter about 2 hrs 20 mins before the flight to Atlanta and requested the jumpseat. Buying the departure tax was no problem; on to the check-in counter.

"Did you make a listing?"

"No, sorry. I tried."

"Okay. We just got a brand new system for listing jumpseaters yesterday. I'm going to need my supervisor."

One supervisor came over, and then another. They sent the original agent on several errands to get documentation for the new system, but they kept coming up against problems. A man whom I assumed was the station manager came over and spoke to them rapidly in German. I understood only a few of his words but his tone made it clear he wasn't happy. The supervisors found enough documention to figure out how to list me and then proceeded to the employment verification portion of the program. More problems here. It kept coming up as my airline not having a jumpseat agreement with Delta (we most assuredly do). The reservations agent called Delta's jumpseat desk in Atlanta and verified that we do have a jumpseat agreement - but they couldn't find any record of my employment! "Sorry, sir, there's nothing we can do. Perhaps you can try another carrier."

I apologized profusely for taking up so much time and turned to go find the NWA counters. Standing in my way was the angry station manager. "I want a word with you!" he exclaimed. "You took up a lot of our time and made our passengers wait! As an airline employee, you should've been prepared. You know, I could see to it that you don't fly."

It was all I could do to keep my temper in check and continue apologizing. He backed off only after I told him that I was in fact not flying because their new jumpseat program wasn't working. "Guten tag," he said crisply and wheeled away. Hmm. Okay then, let's find me another flight...

Northwest's only flight was departing in 30 minutes - I was too late to make it. United, however, had a flight to Washington DC departing in two hours. Worth a shot. I took the tram back to Terminal 1, paid my departure tax, got listed, checked in - their verification system was working - and worked my way through the various security and customs checkpoints to the gate, which was bursting with a 747 load's worth of humanity. Several nonrevs did get on - surprising given that the flight was overbooked by 30 - but I was not one of them. I ran over to the C gates where a 747 to San Francisco was departing in an hour. This time, I got one of the last seats. Thank goodness, I was rapidly running out of options. I actually got to Portland sooner than if I'd taken Delta through ATL or JFK.


Right now I'm in Billings, Montana, on the first of my three overnights this trip. The western portion of Montana is being blanketed with snow, and forecasts indicate Billings might get some of it too. That sounds about right - it's bitterly cold here, 0 degrees celsius plus 15 knot winds. Okay, that's not bitterly cold by Butte or Edmonton standards, but a lot colder than I've been in recently. Winter, it seems, is on her way. That's not all bad. I'm eagerly watching the ski slopes as I fly over, waiting for powder to blanket them. My skis are out and ready for their annual tuneup. Have I mentioned I love the Northwest?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

There Sam Is!

(Updated 10/20 with additional pictures.)

Kudos go out to LoadmasterC141 for winning the "Where Is Sam Now" challenge, and all the other readers who figured out individual clues. If you didn't catch my comment in the last thread, I am currently in Bacharach Germany, on the Rhein River between Bingen and Koblenz. Loadmaster even figured out the building before I posted my next clue, which was going to be a picture of it. So here it is: Burg Stahleck, a 12th century castle-cum-youth hostel.

This stretch of the Rhein has more castles than they know what to do with. Most of them were originally erected to enforce the various tolls the local barons imposed on commercial river traffic. Many of them changed hands several times during the 30 Year War, were occasionally occupied by the French during their regular incursions into the Rheinland, and all were sacked and many destroyed by Napolean and the Revolutionary French Army when they came through the area. Burg Stahleck was taken by the pre-Napoleanic French Army during their occupation of the Rhine's west bank in the 1680s. They destroyed most of the fortifications, the keep, and part of the longhouse; the ruins sat for 350 years before restoration began in 1926. It wasn't completed until 1967, but what resulted has to be one of Germany's neatest Jugendherbergen. It's actually pretty modern inside, which is a little dissapointing, but you can't beat the views.

Burg Stahleck sits several hundred feet above the sleepy town of Bacharach. The region is known for its Riesling wines, and indeed every acre on sunny south-facing inclines seems to be cultivated. The town still has its original Rathouse (1368) and Post (1724 - surprisingly still bearing the Nazi Eagle painted on in 1936). The church (Sankt Peterskircke) is dominated by the few remaining walls of a beautiful chapel above it. Tourism seems to be the mainstay, although it's heavily dominated by German nationals. I've heard only a handful of English speakers, although it is of course the shoulder season. Unsurprisingly, weinstubes take the place of bierstubes here. Wednesday night some friends and I went to one and enjoyed a sampler of the local Rieslings (plus a Rotwein thrown in for good measure). This is still Germany though, so I made sure to enjoy a local Weissbier.

Thursday I took a boat down the Rhine to St. Goar, just past the famed Loreley, to explore the Rheinfels Castle. Reinfels was once the mightiest fortress on the Rhine and was considered invincible. Indeed, it was continually updated with the newest defenses after the first portion was built in the 12th century, and they were never breached. The castle was surrendered without a fight to the French Revolutionary Army in 1797. They promptly ensured they'd never have to seige it again by blowing up the fortifications and later the main castle as well. Most of the fortifications' stones were used to fortify other castles, so what remains is only a fifth of the 18th century size. It's still massive; I spent three hours exploring the ruins and could've spent more if I'd fully explored the underground fortifications and tunnels. The neatest thing is that very little of the castle is restricted from the public - you're generally free to poke around at will, and that includes squeezing through tight underground passages. You can imagine mail-clad defenders scrunched down in the galleries, crossbows at the ready, nervously peering through the arrow slits, waiting the next onslaught of beseigers.

So, that was my mini-trip to the Rhein. I'd like to go back with my wife someday and spend more time, it's very beautiful and relaxing. If anyone is interested in staying at Burg Stahleck, you can find more information here (in German), also older information in English here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Where is Sam Now?

I get into Portland at 7am today, I'm off until Saturday afternoon, and Dawn is at a math conference in Victoria all week. I'm therefore doing a little traveling via jumpseat on my days off. Can you guess where? I'll bring my camera and laptop and I think I'll have internet access, so I'll post periodic clues. Try to guess the country, state, and town - bonus points if you know the name of the building I'm staying in. First prize is dinner at Rock Bottom Brewery next time you're in Portland.

First Clue:

Second Clue:

Third Clue:

Bonus Hint: I won't be staying in the same place that I flew into. I have about an hour's train ride.

Fourth Hint:

Fifth Hint:

Friday, October 13, 2006

Corey Lidle and the Fearmongers

It is inaccurate to say I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.
-H.L. Mencken

The Corey Lidle crash in NYC had all the makings of a perfect media storm. It happened in the news capital of the nation. It happened near the site of the 9/11 attacks and was superficially similar. One of the deceased was at least semi-"famous." Finally, the crash involved a light aircraft, of which few media people - or their audience - seem to know much about. So a lot more has been made of this crash than, say, a non-celebrity pilot plowing into an apartment building in Santa Monica.

The media coverage predictably has unleashed an ignorant backlash from both politicians and the editorial pages. New York Rep. Anthony Weiner compared the East and Hudson River VFR corridors to "the Wild West"; Senator Chuck Schumer delivered this little gem of idiocy: “A smart terrorist could load up a small, little plane with biological, chemical or even nuclear material and fly up the Hudson or East rivers, no questions asked." Republican NY Governor George Pataki got in on the act by declaring that the FAA “needs to take a much tougher line” on GA flights over NYC. Mayor Bloomberg, himself a pilot, seemed to the sole voice of reason: “We have very few accidents for an awful lot of traffic. Every time you have an automobile accident, you’re not going to go and close the streets or prohibit people from driving.”

Potentially more harmful than blustering politicians was a woefully ignorant editorial from USAToday. Some choice quotes:
"The incident raises security concerns about the 220,000 small planes in the USA and the 5,500 airports that serve them. While 9/11 prompted a crackdown on commercial flying, many of the vulnerabilities of small planes have never been addressed."

"Small planes fly dangerously close to skyscrapers housing millions of residents and workers."

"The public saw Wednesday that a small aircraft crashing into a high-rise causes far less damage than a jetliner. But should a terrorist get hold of a plane and fill it with explosives or a biological weapon, the public also saw how little there is to stop him from flying into such New York icons as the United Nations headquarters and the Statute of Liberty, both of which Lidle flew past."
If you scroll down to the comments section, USAToday's readers quickly took them to the woodshed, as did Phil Boyer in an "opposing view" editorial. Anybody with a modicum of aviation knowledge would've known the facts that Boyer and others did. It wouldn't be hard for a non-pilot who's interested in the truth to get those facts. So, why didn't the politicians or the USAToday editorial staff do so? Is it possible that needless fearmongering works to their advantage? Every politician wants his constituents to see him as their "protector." This is one of those rare opportunities. The news media has long presented itself as concerned about their audience's well-being, the better to use scare tactics to gain ratings.

This concept extends well outside aviation, and it is a real threat to the survival of any democracy. Many of the founding fathers feared that democracy would lead to illogical mob rule as a result of people's own ignorance and bias. This fear resulted in the strong system of checks and balances we have today; but even this system cannot withstand the erosion of our rights if those in public office and the media use tragedies for their own advantage by magnifying the threat.


(Hat tip to Hamish)