Monday, January 30, 2006

The Weakest Link

Over at Freight Dog Tales, resident freight dog John is contemplating the possibility of engine failure in the single-engine Cessna Caravan he flies. It's a very serious scenario in any single-engine airplane, but the stakes go up in the Caravan: its size and landing speed make a survivable landing less probable than in, say, a C172.

The Caravan's engine, the Pratt & Whitney PT-6, is known for its relability and bulletproof design. Unfortunately, the Caravan's PT-6 installation has an Achilles' heel that has attracted FAA attention lately: fuel is supplied by a single high pressure engine driven fuel pump, with no backup. If the pump fails, the engine will quit from fuel starvation and the pilot has no alternative to attempting an emergency landing on whatever the most suitable terrain within gliding distance is.

I'm rather surprised that Cessna didn't put an auxilliary fuel pump on the Caravan. True, smaller Cessnas lack a backup pump, but in those cases gravity feed from the tanks in the high wings provides sufficient flow to the engine if the fuel pump fails. Low wing Pipers, on the hand, require a fuel pump to run, and every one of them has an electric standby pump. Seems like an oversight on Cessnas part; maybe they know something I don't.

That discussion reminded me of a similar weakness I found in the Piper Lance back when I was flying freight for AEX (that's the actual airplane I flew, N626JD). The Lance is powered by a Lycoming IO-540 that puts out 300 horsepower. Like most reciprocating aircraft engines, this engine uses magnetos to provide spark to the spark plugs. The usual arrangement is two independent magnetos with each magneto providing spark for one of the two spark plugs in each cylinder. The multiple spark plugs improve combustion within the cylinders, but the main purpose for having two magnetos is to improve the dependability of the engines.

One day I was preparing to depart for San Diego and had just called for taxi clearance when the engine abruptly quit. I figured that I just leaned it too far and tried to start it again. No good. I tried the hot and flooded start procedures. No dice. I let the starter cool for a while and tried again, and actually got the engine started. Kinda. It was firing about once every other revolution of the propeller, just enough to keep going for five or six seconds before quitting. By this time, a small army of mechanics had gathered nearby, pointing and laughing at the idiot pilot who couldn't even start the plane. I swallowed my pride and let one of them have a go at it, and then gloated when he couldn't start it either.

The mechanics pulled the cowling off, started tearing into the engine, and in short order found the culprit. Apparently, early Lances have both magnetos contained in a single component that bolts onto a single accessory pad. Both magnetos are driven by a single gear, which happens to be nylon. On my airplane, that gear had shattered into several pieces, rendering both magnetos inoperable. I still wonder how the engine fired even once. I shudder to think what would've happened if the gear failed even five minutes later, when I was in the air.

When I was in ground school at Ameriflight, I asked about the dual magneto assembly on their Lances. Apparently they had problems with it also, and had since installed a later model of the TIO-540 in all their Lances. It has a different accessory box with two truly independent magnetos. Some of their older Chieftains still had the dual magneto assembly, but at least it's a twin and a (properly managed) engine failure leaves you with some options.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Last Straw, Reprised

Those of you who read about and commented on my decision to remove the name of my employer from this blog might be interested to read the newest comments on that post. The pilot from my company who originally took exception to this blog posted some thoughts there, which I've responded to. He brings up some good points. I don't agree with all of them, but they're certainly worth reading and discussing.

Link to post: The Last Straw.


Today Dawn and I flew down to SoCal to visit some of our friends down there. Other than the occasional LAX turn, it's my first visit to the old stomping grounds in several months. The weather, as usual, was gorgeous. In the middle of a Northwest winter, seeing the sun and some palm trees sure felt good. I saw the ocean, and realized how much I miss it.

On the other hand, I was reminded why I really don't care to ever move back to LA. Endless sprawl, congested traffic, rude drivers, dirty concrete rivers, ugly brown hillsides... it all makes me appreciate once more what a great place to live Portland is.

We went up to the Getty Center for a while. Even with weekend crowds, the Getty is an island of tranquility amid the chaos of the LA basin. Amazingly, our friends had never been there. As an out-of-towner, it was fun to introduce native Angelenos to something cool in their own backyard.

It's good to know that if I'm in serious need of sun, LA is an easy two hour flight south. For now, though, I think I can stick out the winter. I'll just frequent the coffeehouses, occasionally grab some sunshine at FL250, and take advantage of all that snow on the mountain.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Slipping and Sliding, Kicking and Screaming

We had a howling crosswind out of the south when we landed at Portland today. As with most southerly wind, mechanical turbulence over the West Hills made for a wild ride on approach. I pulled a decent crosswind landing out of it, but used more rudder than I've used in a while. It reminded me of something that student pilot Aaron DeAngelis wrote in his blog earlier this week:
Also, I didn't use the ailerons as much when lining up on final. I would set my self up, right after turning from base, and use the rudders to keep myself in line. By not using the ailerons, I could keep my right wing down slightly, into the crosswind, so my plane wouldn't be pushed over. I found this much easier than trying to correct with the ailerons, then having to correct my correcions because the wind blew me over.
What Aaron stumbed onto is essentially the proper crosswind technique: use rudder to keep the nose aligned with the runway, and aileron into the wind to compensate for drift. I suspect that his instructor has been trying to get him to do this for some time, but it wasn't until he experimented a little that it clicked; that's certainly the way it was for me. Crosswind technique is one of the harder things for a student to learn because it's something you have to work out in your own head before you can work on the mechanics of it, which are actually quite easy. There are actually quite a few private pilots out there that have a poor understanding of the proper technique, or why they're doing what they're doing. There's a lot of disinformation out there, too. Perhaps I can make things a bit more clear...

In most phases of flight, we correct for wind by crabbing. This means that to hold a course with any crosswind, we intentionally steer a few degrees off course into the wind, so that the wind drifts us onto our desired course. For an excellent graphic demonstrating a crab, look at the beginning of this post by Dave at FL390. See how the airplane is pointed to the left of the green line (the desired course)? There is a crosswind from the left, so Dave crabs his airliner to the left in order to keep on course. From the cockpit, it'd look like the plane is moving slightly sideways.

This works great for crosswinds until you have to land. Moving sideways is a really bad idea at the moment that the wheels touch pavement. Besides the sideways structural loads imposed on the landing gear, you'll find yourself headed for the weeds in a hurry. So we need some way to keep the airplane aligned with the runway without the wind drifting it downwind. That's where the side slip comes in.

If you're old enough, you might remember Galactic Warrior or similar arcade games where you have a spaceship moving forward at a uniform speed, and you'd use a joystick to slide it left or right. Airplanes can actually move in the same way, by banking the wings in the way you want to "slide." Most pilots don't realize this at first because they associate banking with turning. If you use the rudder to keep the airplane from turning, however, you'll simply move sideways in the direction of the bank. When landing in a crosswind, you bank in the direction that the wind is coming from, and "slip" into the wind until it's not pushing you sideways anymore. At the same time, you use the rudder pedals to keep the nose of the airplane on the same heading as the runway.

But wait! demands the grizzled airport bum. What about the "kick method?" Well, it's true that many pilots finding slipping to be an unnatural act of aviation, and prefer to stay crabbed the whole way to the ground, only to "kick" the airplane to runway heading at the last moment before touchdown (using the rudder pedals). Really, though, one of two things is going to happen in that last moment: either the wind will start to drift the airplane sideways (bad!) or you will unconsciously put in some aileron towards the, a slip! So really, there is no "side slip method" versus "crab method." It's all the same method, with a difference of when you transition from the crab to the side slip.

So when is the best time to make the transition? To introduce a new student to slipping, I'd have them do it for a good two-mile final. While honing your slipping skills, the last 300-400 feet of altitude should be sufficient. Of course, many weekend warriors make the transition at the last moment, as mentioned above, but more than one has found out too late that they didn't have enough control authority for the crosswind present. About 100 feet above touchdown is a good compromise. Many airline pilots transition to a slip somewhat lower, because prolonged slips feel funny to passengers - but these are guys and gals who fly in some pretty gnarly conditions on a regular basis, and are well attuned to the crosswind characteristics of their aircraft.

One final note: just because you're on the ground doesn't mean you can release that aileron! Keep your correction in, and actually increase the deflection of the wheel or stick as you slow down. You'll notice that some rudder is needed to keep the airplane from weathervaning into the wind. If you find yourself making a crosswind landing on a slippery runway, you'll find that keeping these control inputs in after landing will save you some unwanted excitement.

There actually are two airplanes that I can think of that are designed to be landed in a crabbed condition. One is the classic Ercoupe, which lacked rudder pedals. It incorporated trailing-link landing gear that straightened out the airplane upon touchdown. The other is the Boeing 747. It cannot be banked very much when close to the ground, because of the risk of striking the outboard engines on the runway. Therefore, it is landed crabbed in any strong crosswind; castoring gear trucks protect the landing gear from sideload damage and keep the airplane tracking straight down the runway.

I just know some purist is going to mention the crosswind landing gear on later model C-195's. Yes, it has some castor built in, but it wasn't meant to allow the airplane to be landed in a crab - it just keeps a slight sideload from becoming an instant groundloop.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A Sunny Day...

...chases the winter blues away!

It's been raining for about a month straight, one storm after another. Nothing but clouds and rain and drearyness. The local news stations have been running a bunch of feature stories on mental health, like they're afraid the weather is gonna have depressed Northwesterners offing themselves by the dozens.

Boy, was today ever a welcome change. It was an absolutely gorgeous day across the Northwest, with clear sunny skies and unlimited visibility. If my work was anything other than flying, I would've called in sick, because it would've been an awesome day for skiing or hiking. But it was great weather for flying, too, so I went to work.

My first leg up to Seattle was deadheading, and I ended up sitting in the jumpseat so I took a few pictures.

Mt. Hood on takeoff out of PDX.

Downtown Seattle, turning base for SEA.

On final for 16R, clear view of Mt. Rainier.

And to top it all off, a very nice sunset:

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I am the Comment Monster!

I eat all your Comments, Yum Mmm Mmmm!!!!

Hehe, apparently I accidently turned on comment moderation without realizing it a few weeks back, so I have 36 comments that did not appear. I was wondering if I really got that boring, that fast! Comment moderation is now turned OFF. Thanks Doug for alerting me via email.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Sun Valley, Idaho

Sun Valley, Idaho (KSUN) is an airport that has a justified reputation for being tricky to fly into and out of. The airport, actually located in the town of Hailey, is situated in a fairly narrow valley with high mountains on three sides, making "one way in, one way out" the usual procedure. It's 6952' x 100' runway would be quite generous at sea level, but at 5300' elevation and frequently contaminated by snow or ice, it's short enough for most turbine drivers to sit up and fly straight. The airport is served by NDB-A and GPS-31 approaches, to be used by the brave and the well-equipped, respectively.

My company is one of two airlines that fly into Sun Valley. In terms of aircrew training, flight standards issues, and dealing with abnormal operations, I'd say we put more effort into that airport than any other in our system.

Notice that the GPS approach only gets you down to 1800' above airport elevation, and for Cat C airplanes like the Megawhacker, three miles of visibility is required. Although Sun Valley is blessed with many dry, clear days, all that snow has to come from somewhere - and when it does, the airport is almost unusable. Fortunately, the company usually has advanced warning, and can operate out of Twin Falls instead. When that happens, the company just busses the passengers to and from Sun Valley, 60 miles north.

A few weeks ago I was doing a trip that had me flying Boise - Sun Valley - Oakland - Sun Valley - Seattle. The first time flying into SUN, it was daylight and pretty clear out, and we got in on a visual approach without a problem. Our return was to be at night, but the TAF was calling for a pretty high scattered ceiling, so we weren't anticipating any problems. Indeed, approaching KSUN after our Oakland turn, the ATIS was reporting calm winds, 10 miles visibility, and an overcast ceiling at 5500' (above airport elevation). I was pilot flying; I told the captain I'd anticipate a visual approach but would brief the GPS approach "just in case."

Salt Lake Center had cleared us for PRESN; by the time we got there, we were still in the clouds at 9800' so they cleared us for the GPS approach. Turning inbound past WTSOX, we realized this approach was going to happen "for real," and configured the airplane accordingly. Past LIBYO, we descended via VPATH (kinda like a glideslope, but computed by the GPS). "500 to go," in and out of clouds, with heavy snowfall. "100 to go," we have ground contact but no forward visibility. "Minimums, Missed Approach." Holy crap, we weren't expecting this! It took me a moment to recall the missed approach callouts: "Condition levers max, set power, flaps one notch up...gear up...flaps up, climb power, after takeoff checklist." Just as we crossed over the airport, we broke out of the clouds and could see the airport far below us. It's too late now, though - it'd be dumb to try to save the approach even if you could do circling approaches into SUN at night (it's prohibited).

Complying with the missed approach procedure, we made the turn direct to PRESN and entered the hold there. We took stock of our fuel situation (plenty on board) and called up our dispatcher. She was aghast that we went missed approach: "It's 5500' overcast and 10 miles vis there!" We gently explained that the weather was much worse over the entrance to the valley. Not satisfied, she called Sun Valley Tower and the SUN station manager. Tower reported 3800' overcast and 9 miles vis in light snow; the station manager reported seeing us as we flew over. How could we go missed in those conditions? We replied again, somewhat more testily, that the weather often varies greatly over small distances in the mountains. "Well, can you try another approach, then?"

We had a decision to make. Second and third approaches after going missed are not something to be taken lightly; statistically, the accident rate goes up quite a bit on them. I was feeling good and alert, and have plenty of experience flying into SUN at night; I was willing to give it one more shot. The captain, however, had never flown into Sun Valley at night - in perfectly good weather, much less an approach to minimums in a snowstorm. He didn't want to do it - and even if I wasn't his subordinate, I wouldn't have pressed the issue. Messing around with multiple approaches at night in the mountains in poor weather requires everything to be done right, and if any crewmember isn't comfortable with it, neither am I.

We ended up diverting to Boise and then repositioning empty to Seattle. Not getting into Sun Valley inconvenienced a lot of passengers, and we both felt bad about that. Still, I think we made a wise decision. Could we have made it into Sun Valley? Perhaps. Would we have crashed on approach? Most probably not. Still, there was a definate increase in risk, and that sets off little alarm bells in any captain's head. The fact that captains are allowed - and expected - to make these kinds of judgement calls is as big of a factor as any in the remarkable safety record of U.S. airlines over the past several years.

The MegaWhacker at KSUN on a nicer day...

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Go Hawks!

I've never been a big Seahawks fan, but these days a Northwest transplant can't help but get infected by the tremendous excitement over their current season. They've replaced the rain as the daily topic of conversation; heck, to hear people talk, you wouldn't know it's been raining for over a month straight. Here's hoping for a Steelers-Seahawks Super Bowl!

*Off to watch the game*

Update: 4:25pm, seconds into the second quarter and the Hawks are up 17-0. Completely dominant in the first quarter. Sure sounds loud in Qwest Stadium!

Update: 5:20pm, halftime, Hawks 20-7. Carolina has been held to a mere 62 yards of offense thus far. Kinda surprised the refs picked up the flag on Steve Smith's punt return TD. The refs seem to be very indecisive & noncomittal this game.

Update: 6:55pm. They did it! Super Bowl XL, here we come!

Friday, January 20, 2006

Snow Bomb!

"Today: Snow heavy at times this morning then snow showers in the afternoon. Breezy. Snow level 2500 feet. Snow accumulation 8 to 13 inches. Total storm accumulation 10 to 18 inches."

Mt. Hood Meadows is up to 310" of snow this season, and we're hardly halfway through. A lot of that melted in the early season, but they still have 16 feet of snow at mid mountain, with a bunch of more storms stacked up across the Pacific to bring us even more...

With the freezing level this low, it should be pretty dry stuff, too. Fresh powder? Say no more...

"At the Mountain."

Thursday, January 19, 2006

New Captains

My airline recently ordered another twelve Megawhackers, with the first ones delivered later this year. They're just starting to ramp up training for the expansion, hiring new first officers and transitioning captains from the Miniwhacker. In the past three months I've flown with many of these new captains on some of their first flights after IOE (Initial Operating Experience). It's been an interesting variation on the usual routine.

The Megawhacker shares a type certificate with the Miniwhacker, but it differs significantly enough from it's little sister in a number of ways, control feel being not the least of them. It's for this reason that my airline operates the two airplanes as seperate fleets. Still, the common type certificate means that captains transitioning from the Miniwhacker need only complete differences training rather than the more thorough transition training, and they don't have restrictions such as "High Minimums" that they would have for the first 100 hours on a new type of aircraft. Indeed, three of the new captains I flew with ended up shooting Cat III approaches nearly to minimums - on their first flight after IOE!

All of the new captains I've flown with so far were excellent; that's a testament to my airline's training department. Still, as a first officer, you pay much closer attention to the captain when they're brand new, and they're grateful for any hints you can offer. For example, in this airplane it's possible to get so high on a visual approach that flying at redline won't get you down in time, but you can make it by slowing down, extending the landing gear and flaps, and then descending. Knowing when that's neccessary takes experience. The Miniwhacker is a much draggier airplane, so it's easy for a new Megawhacker captain to get high on a visual approach. They caught on quick, though.

It was also the first time many of the captains had flown into the various airports served only by this airplane. Before flying into each new airport, we'd pull our charts out and I'd discuss some of the quirks at each airport. Most of the places we fly are smaller airports, and it's pretty low stress. I flew into LAX with several new captains who were apprehensive about flying there, but it's really not that bad of an airport to fly into, and they did fine.

Having just been at the schoolhouse, the new captains were all quite sharp on systems and procedures. There were a few times they corrected me on items I'd forgotten about. I have a proficiency check coming up, so I guess I should hit the books and freshen up my knowledge a bit.

The reason I was flying with new captains is because I bid for reserve lines in order to hold weekends off. With new first officers coming into the airplane, though, I'm getting to where I can hold a weekends-off coverage line, so I probably won't be flying with too many more new captains. That's too bad - it was enjoyable to fly with such sharp guys and gals, to give a few pointers, and to be relied upon as an experienced first officer.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Mountain, in all her majesty.

The Cascades are chock full of gorgeous mountains with their own personalities. The indigenous peoples of the area gave them the names of warriors and princesses, and made up elaborate legends that explained their various temperments. Today's Northwest-dweller will give you their own theories about why Mounts Shasta, Hood, Adams, Baker, and others are the way they are. But towering above them all, unique in her commanding position and alone in her power to take away our breath every time we see her, is the mighty Tahoma - Mount Rainier - "The Mountain."

Flying Careers

The Flying Careers series got spread around a little bit so here's an index for easy access to the whole thing.

Part 1: My story
Part 2a: The Airlines & Beyond (airline-type jobs)
Part 2b: The Path Less Taken (odd jobs)
Part 2c: Doin' Time (starter jobs)
Part 3: Climbing the Ladder (career progression)
Part 4: Details (various job requirements)
Part 5: Making Bank (pay)
Part 6: Benefits and Retirement
Part 7: Lifestyle
Part 8: Job Stability
Part 9: Getting the Ratings
Part 10: Final Thoughts

Monday, January 16, 2006

Flying Careers Part 10: Final Thoughts

Well, the Flying Careers series has stretched considerably longer than I originally meant it to, and I've covered more than I meant to. There's only a few more things I want to say.

I've been thinking more about what I wrote the other day regarding the fact that the flying is the only thing this career has going for it. I argued that these days, a love of flying is almost a prerequisite for an aviation career. That said: a passion for aviation alone isn't enough. Look at the sometimes poor pay and schedules, the impact on family life and health, and the lack of job stability; if your need to fly doesn't overpower those considerations, rethink your career. You can make more money in another profession and fly your Bonanza to the beach on weekends.

In a few weeks, I'm going to write about how the regionals made the jump from flying 19-seat turboprops to 70 seat jets, and how ALPA failed to recognize what a threat it posed to the profession until it was too late. The last few years, the growth of cut-rate regionals has accounted for much of the destruction of good jobs at mainline carriers. If there's one message I would want the reader to take away from this series, here it is: the piloting profession is in trouble. If you choose to jump in anyways, make a positive contribution by considering the effect that your choices have on the profession. Think beyond the quick upgrade. Think long-term.

You'll enjoy airline flying more if you're a bit of a geek. The new technology in our aircraft is stuff they didn't dream of 20 years ago, and it's continually evolving. Old-timers complain that airlins have turned aviators into button-pushers, and to an extent they're right. You'll do well if you enjoy learning all about those buttons.

Networking starts long before you're ready to apply for the airlines. Consider that a friendly attitude will do more for your career than the ability to nail an ILS to minimums in blowing snow and a 30 knot crosswind. Go out of your way to meet other pilots. Help them in any way you can. When it comes time to ask a favor, don't be shy. Everyone else is eager to do one so you can help them out someday. It's kinda like "The Godfather."

Along the same lines, treat your first flying job like the most important one you'll ever have. People will notice and it will help you later in your career. Conversely, burned bridges have a way of coming back to haunt you. Karma is strong in aviation.

When starting out, the temptation is to make aviation your whole life. Those who do so are known as pilot dorks, and you don't want to be that person. Maintain other hobbies and interests. Of course, this is coming from somebody who flies for a living and maintains an aviation blog. Heh. But seriously, the best aviation interview you'll ever have is the one where you and the chief pilot talk flyfishing.

Speaking of chief pilots, they're usually the ones with the most pull for hiring. If you have a buddy at an airline you'd like to fly for, get the chief pilot's contact info and give him or her a call. Even if you're far below the company's hiring minimums, demonstrating interest early on is the best way to get a call for an interview when your resume is on their desk in a year or two.

The more you talk to pilots at major airlines, the more you'll hear the following: "You know, I miss flight instructing/freight flying/regional flying. I sure had a lot of fun back then!" So don't be in such a hurry to get to the majors that you forget to enjoy the journey.

Whether you have a union background or not, they are a fact of aviation. Get used to it. Don't be the idiot who refuses to pay dues and talks nonstop smack against the union. Warts and all, unions can be a force for positive change. Pitch in to help your union become better.

Consider bringing chocolates for the crew when jumpseating on another airline. They'll love you for it!

When shopping around for flight training, be a critical listener. They'll try to sell you on a lifestyle that doesn't exist to separate you from your money. If anybody mentioned Kit Darby or the Tarver Report, quit listening immediately, they're full of crap.

At some point in your life, fly a glider or a seaplane. They're a ton of fun!

Consider that the majority of commercial pilots who die on the job are at between 500 and 2000 hours. This is when you'll start really feeling comfortable with the airplane, and there's a temptation to cut corners and let your discipline slide. Steel yourself against that. Fly by the book whether somebody is looking or not, even when it causes extra inconvenience. Don't let anyone pressure you into something stupid to "get the job done." Many pilots look back on their formative years and are aghast at the risks they took. It's not worth it; don't give yourself anything to regret.

That's all I have to say. Hope you enjoyed the series!

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Craziest Pirep Ever


For the uninitiated, the above means: Urgent Pilot Report at 2200 Zulu, a Cirrus SR22 encountered severe icing between 7700' and 9000'. In the remarks: the aircraft was descending by parachute due to severe ice buildup. That's one you don't see every day.

The FAA defines severe icing as
"an atmospheric condition in which the rate of ice accumulation is such that de-icing or anti-icing equipment cannot reduce or control the hazard." Therefore, a pilot's concept of severe icing will vary pretty widely according to equipment flown and the effectiveness of its anti-icing/de-icing equipment. Pulling the 'chute to save the plane, though - I think that fits within anybody's idea of severe icing.

According to early reports, this airplane lacked the optional TKS anti-ice system, much less an FAA approved system, and was therefore not legal to take into known icing. The fact that this pilot did so, and continued to the point that he lost control of the airplane, is an issue that I suspect the FAA will be chatting with him about. Chalk another save up to Cirrus and BRS - saving pilots from their foibles one 'chute deployment at a time.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Let it be resolved...

In going through my old posts, I'm struck my one thing: I used to update this blog a lot. And I really haven't updated it much at all the last few months. That's unfortunate, because the best blogs are the ones that are updated often, like Cockpit Conversation and Freight Dog Tales. Part of it is that I've been pretty busy between flying, the holidays, and such important activities as skiing. The other thing is that I've been concentrating on the Flying Careers series, which turned out to be longer and more in-depth than I was originally thinking. Many of the posts were huge, and it often took a week or two of procrastination for me to finish each one.

Now that the series is just about done, I'll hopefully be posting here more often. I have a few ideas on subjects I want to write about, but I'd like to get some suggestions. If there's anything aviation related (professional or recreational) you'd like to hear my thoughts on, drop me a line or leave a comment and I'll put it in the suggestion bank. Thanks!

Whitetail Megawhacker

In the process of redacting my employer's name from this blog, I've deleted quite a few pictures of my airplane due to my airline's name being on it. However, until recently we operated a "white tail" without company livery, so here's a suitably anonymous picture of the MegaWhacker.

Flying Careers Part 9: Getting the Ratings


We've established that a flying career is neither fast, flexible, or for sure (to borrow from a particularly fisk-worthy Flying ad). The pay is decreasing, pensions are disappearing, the job market is increasingly unstable, and there's no end in sight to the worst industry slump in history. Anybody starting a flying career right now has to turn a bit of a blind eye to the carnage in the field and simply hope that things get better.

I've seen a lot of pilots simply quit flying and move on to more lucrative fields over the past few years. It seems to me that there's been a "winnowing" taking place: those who fly for material reasons are getting out, and those who love to fly are staying despite all the setbacks. Mind you, that's not to say that pay and retirement don't matter - they do, and a love of flight doesn't stop professional pilots from fighting for the betterment of their profession. But at this point, the only thing that an aviation career really has going for it is the flying. If you have the talent and interest to do something other than flying, I'd suggest you do it, and once you're raking in the dough as a tax attorney or chemical engineer or whatever, you'll have fun flying your Mooney around. If the flying bug has bit you hard, however, and you can't imagine doing anything else for a living, resign yourself to a life of hardship and read on.

I've already written about the various jobs that pilots take to build time after they have their commercial certificate; this post is about getting to that point. Basically, before you get that first job, you need to have your commercial pilot certificate with multi-engine and instrument ratings. This will usually include around 250 hours of flight time, with 10-20 hours in multiengine aircraft. There are several ways you can get to this point from zero experience.

Professional Training Programs

There are a number of flight training outfits across the US that do little but train professional pilots. Examples include ATP, Delta Academy, PanAm, or RAA. They typically have integrated programs designed to take the applicant from zero time to commercial pilot in a fairly short time. Most of this training is done under Part 141, meaning that their courses have been approved by the FAA and often involve less flight time than would otherwise be required. The quality of training is usually pretty good, if somewhat rushed. Many of these schools have connections with regional airlines that may get you hired at one sooner, for whatever that's worth.

There are a few downsides to doing your training this way. Many of these schools are hellaciously expensive; expect to pay $40-60k for a program that takes you from zero time to multi-engine instructor. These schools brag that they can churn out "professional" pilots in 9 months, but that pace carries disadvantages with it. The training can be little more than an assembly line designed to simply pump in the skills and knowledge required to pass a quick succession of checkrides, with little in-depth knowledge or aviation background. Many trainees graduate having never taken a flight that wasn't on the syllabus. Finally - and this is only my opinion - studying nothing but flying for months on end, surrounded by other flight students, could get pretty dang mind-numbing.

Small FBO/Flight School

Another option is to do your training at a smaller FBO or flight school, local or otherwise. FBO stands for "Fixed Base Operator" - the guys at the local airport that sell gas, do aircraft maintenance, rent out airplanes, and offer flight instruction. Some FBO's offer Part 141 instruction, although the majority still train under FAR 61, which is less structured and more flexible. Training at an FBO is usually more relaxed and informal than a large flight school, which can be good and bad. Quality of training can vary pretty widely; you may have to search a bit to find a good CFI that you work well with. The payoff is much lower cost than a large professional program, and the freedom to discover flying at your own pace.

Although a few FBOs have put together integrated programs for aspiring professional pilots, you'll generally do your training piecemeal. The order will usually be Private Pilot, timebuild a little, Instrument Rating, timebuild some more, Commercial Pilot, Multi-Engine Rating, CFI (and II/MEI if desired). If you're a quick study and fly cheaper aircraft, you could do it for under $30k at many FBOs.

The Collegiate Option

If you're planning on flying for a major airline, there's no getting around it: you really need a college degree, preferably a bachelor's or better. If you already have the degree, going to college to learn to fly doesn't make much sense. It will take longer than using an FBO, and cost as much or more than a professional training program. An aviation degree won't give you much advantage, if any, over the degree you have right now. However, if you need both flight training and a degree, an aviation college is a good way to kill two birds with one stone, and get an excellent aviation background besides.

There are a few schools that are entirely aviation centered, Embry-Riddle being the best known of these. More common are aviation programs that reside within larger universities. There are some good programs at both public schools (University of North Dakota, Southern Illinois University) and private (SLU, Purdue).

The cost of flying at aviation colleges is usually comparable to or less than a non-collegiate program, but there's the additional cost of tuition and fees. Some of the state schools are pretty reasonable, but at a place like Purdue or ERAU it can really add up. You could spend anywhere from $30k to over $100k getting an aviation degree.

Mixing It Up

Mind you, nobody said you have to do all your training in one of these three ways. I've done all three, although the bulk of my training was in a collegiate program (UND's). Although large flight schools try to sell the zero-time through commercial packages, they'll generally give credit for prior flying, so it's feasible to start at a small FBO and transfer to a professional program later on. The same goes for aviation colleges, although college credit becomes an issue - you may have to do the classwork over or even some of the flying, depending on the school. I personally earned my private pilot at a small FBO while still in high school, but got credit for it through the local community college so that UND accepted it when I transfered there.

Getting Your Toes Wet

There are a few good reasons I'd encourage you to start at the local FBO. It's worthwhile to get your Private Pilot's license before committing to an aviation career, to make sure that flying's something you really want to do. Flying at a local FBO lets you discover aviation at your own pace, and gaining the new perspective on an area you know well makes it doubly interesting. You'll get to know the world of general aviation better and appreciate it more. Finally, flying in the "real world" will add some perspective when you enter "the bubble" of a professional or collegiate flying program. It's all a good reason to visit your local airport and take an introductory flight lesson sometime soon. If it leads to a Private Pilot certificate, awesome. At that point you'll be well equipped to make a decision about a flying career.

Getting Started

So, Private Pilot or not, you're sure that you want a flying career and you don't want to wait another minute, eh? Well, I've presented a pretty balanced look at the career, I think, and if you're still up for it I won't do anything further to disuade you. Hopefully this series has given you some good information; you should be able to find lots of additional resources on the internet. AvWeb has some good articles on flying careers. There's some good info at JetCareers. Aviation mega-portal Landings has directories of FBOs and Flight Schools, and other training resources. Your best bet, however, may be talking to a professional pilot. We're generally more than happy to help newcomer pilots. Strike up a conversation at the local airport and visit the flight deck after your next commercial flight. Register for the forums at FlightInfo or CAAM, many of the members are professional pilots. In all these cases, you'll not only get good info, you'll also be making contacts that may prove useful later in your career.

My next post will be the conclusion of this series & will include some final words of advice. Is there anything else I should be including as a topic for this series? If so, leave a comment and I'll do my best to address it in the final post.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Last Straw

Tonight I came across a posting on my union's bulletin board referencing this blog. Predictably, I got lambasted for it pretty quick. Basically, the poster felt that I shouldn't be discussing my employer's problems in a public forum. I disagree from the standpoint that problems within the regional airline industry and piloting profession should be discussed, and not just in the echo chamber of the union bulletin board. But, at this point, there's no good reason that I should identify who my employer is, as the challenges I discuss are by no means unique to them.

I've been having more and more coworkers find this site, and it's only a matter of time before I get "outed." There's no guidance for employees on this subject from my company - at least that I'm aware of - but that probably wouldn't stop them from disciplinary action or perhaps even termination. Given the reaction from fellow pilots, I don't know that I'd get much support from the union. Basically, this is the last straw. I'm anonymizing this blog.


Scratch that. After sleeping on it overnight, and reading a few emails, I've realized that the genie is out of the bottle & there's no way to be truly anonymous at this point, if someone really wanted to know who I am. Rather, the best thing is just to omit the name of my employer. I'll be going through the old posts in the next few days and editing them, and also deleting any comments that name my employer. Sorry if your comment falls victim. In the future, I'd appreciate it if those who know my employer or guess it (it's really not that hard) would refrain from using their name in comments. I'll also be deleting pictures that have my employer's name in them. Let me know what ya'll think of this.