Saturday, December 29, 2007

FUBAR

Last Sunday I experienced one of the most completely screwed up days of flying I've ever had. Everything that could go wrong - except loss of life, limb, or license - did go wrong. The entire time I was thinking I'd have to write about it in the blog, but it got so ridiculous that I started doubting whether anyone would believe it all actually happened. Nevertheless, here's the whole sad tale: how weather and maintenance troubles were compounded by incompetence and apathy to create a miserable holiday travel experience for passengers and crew alike. It's a long post, but it was a pretty long day too.

We started in Missoula at 5:15am. Our schedule for the day was MSO-MSP-MSN-MSP, with a 1pm release time. The first hint of trouble was when the captain saw that we were flying Ship 609 and let out a groan. “This thing is the biggest piece of crap,” he exclaimed. “We've had nothing but trouble with it since getting it a few weeks ago.” Apparently he had flown it a few days prior and had the autopilot fail; it was still MEL'd, so we'd have to hand fly and stay below FL290 since RVSM airspace requires use of an autopilot. Also, he'd written up the cockpit door for opening in flight with a closed & locked indication; it had supposedly been fixed.

The mountain peaks were still enshrouded in pre-dawn gloom as I pushed up the thrust levers to begin our takeoff roll from Missoula. The Captain called off V1, then “rotate” and I pulled back on the control column and rotated to 11 degrees pitch and the plane began to lift off. Suddenly there was a loud crash and the darkened cockpit flooded with light. I kept flying. “Positive rate, gear up.” At 400 feet I called “Nav,” and then at 1000 feet: “Flight Level Change, Speed 210.” Then I glanced back and confirmed that the cockpit door had indeed come crashing open on rotation despite a “closed and locked” indication. The Captain was able to pull it closed with his right hand but was unable to get it to latch or lock. He asked if I was okay flying the departure by myself, and when I said I was, he took off his headset and slid his seat back to a more advantageous position for wrestling with the door. At 7600 feet I began the left turn back towards Missoula VOR for the transition from the KONNA2 departure, and shortly thereafter the Captain got the door to cooperate and joined me again. “That's definitely getting written up in Minneapolis,” he said grimly.

Halfway to MSP we used ACARS to pull up the most recent ATIS and it was worse than forecast: 1 ½ mile visibility in light blowing snow with strong gusty winds out of the northwest. The Captain, like most at NewCo, is on “high minimums” since he has less than 100 hours in the JungleBus; this requires adding ½ mile and 100 ft to all approach minima, making the minimum visibility for MSP one statute mile or 4500 RVR. We got frequent updates but fortunately the visibility held steady at 1 ½ mile. I flew the bumpy, gusty approach and saw the runway well above decision altitude.

Fixing the cockpit door delayed us by about a half hour, and then we had to get deiced before departure. The weather in Madison wasn't great, about the same as it was in Minneapolis but forecast to get better. We had a Green Bay alternate, and although the weather wasn't really good there it was forecast to be well above alternate minimums by the time we'd get there. Our dispatcher gave us decent contingency fuel but some got burned during the lengthy de-ice process; we were still well above minimum fuel when we took off.

The flight to Madison was very quick; we were barely leveled at FL230 when I got the newly updated ATIS with some very bad news: ¾ mile visibility in blowing snow with strong gusty winds out of the west. We got instructions to hold over the final approach fix for the ILS for runway 21. As soon as we knew we couldn't get in yet, the Captain had me message our dispatcher via ACARS with current fuel load and a request for updated weather in Green Bay. Once established in holding, the Captain had me fly (no autopilot, remember!) so that he could figure out our fuel state and options for diverting. He messaged our dispatcher again, still with no reply. He asked Madison approach for Green Bay weather and it, too, was making a mockery of the forecast: ¼ mile visibility in freezing fog and blowing snow. We had to come up with a new diversion plan. The Captain texted our dispatcher to request a new alternate, but wasn't hopeful about a prompt reply and started looking at his options.

Madison notified us that Milwaukee, a mere 60 miles east, was reporting VFR weather. That sounded like a wonderful place to go until we realized that MKE approach plates had been removed with the last Jepp revision. Whoops. Chicago was doable with our current fuel if there was no delay getting in, but that's always a big gamble with Chicago. Our dispatcher finally sent us a message telling us to go to Des Moines; that required 6000 lbs of fuel and we were now down to 4800. The dispatcher had apparently assumed we had enough fuel because of our message from nearly a half-hour prior! The Captain was disgusted and was about to pull the trigger on going to Milwaukee – approach plates or no – when our dispatcher told us they wanted us in Cedar Rapids. Despite high winds the weather was still decent there and we had the approach plates. We had just enough fuel to fly there and still land with 3000 lbs, which is basically “minimum fuel” for a JungleBus. We quickly got re-cleared, pointed our nose southwest, and climbed to a more fuel-friendly altitude of FL240. With “captainy work” complete, the Captain took the controls back.

When I called Cedar Rapids operations a few minutes before landing, they informed us that the gate was not plowed and we'd have to sit tight at remote parking for a while. The JungleBus has no airstairs and the station didn't have jetstairs, so the passengers would have to remain on board. When we touched down in Cedar Rapids, they'd already been on board 3 hours for a flight that was supposed to take 38 minutes! We sat on the ramp for almost another hour until the gate area was plowed; the passengers were on the edge of revolt. Everyone clapped when we announced that we'd be starting our engines and taxiing to the gate.

We soon discovered that being able to taxi to the gate and being able to use the gate are two very different things. As soon as we were parked our marshalers bolted for an adjacent gate. I called operations to figure out what was going on. Cedar Rapids is a small station that's run by another RedCo Regional. They only had a few people working, and it turned out that both of them were needed to turn a scheduled flight that was arriving soon. “We want to get this one out on time. It'll be at least an hour before we can get the gate up to your plane.” The Captain got on the radio and told him in no uncertain terms that was unacceptable: “These people need to get off the plane, now.” The station manager was unmoved. We called our dispatcher, then the chief pilot, and then tried to call the company president before salvation arrived in the form of a United Express gate agent (Air Wisconsin, actually) who had some experience with the JungleBus and agreed to drive the gate. She ended up working the whole flight. She was wonderful – in fact, she was the only real support we got all day, and she wasn't even affiliated with RedCo. Absolutely pathetic.

Our passengers got themselves fed and composed while we waited for the weather in Madison to improve. When it did we loaded everyone up and pushed back to get deiced. By now it was 5:30PM, so we'd been on duty 11 hours, which was longer than we'd thought our day would be but was well under the usual 15 hours maximum duty or 16 hours with reduced rest. We'd be able to make it to MSN and MSP just fine so long as everything went smoothly. Yeah, right!

Deicing in Cedar Rapids took about 45 minutes, first because the rampers apparently had trouble with the deice truck and then because their headset was broken so they couldn't communicate with us. With the station being understaffed, there was nobody in Ops to relay our radio calls to them. They ended up driving around the terminal to Ops to talk to us via radio, then came back to deice us, then returned to Ops to give us our numbers. It was 6:30pm by the time we took off from Cedar Rapids, four and a half hours since we had landed.

The flight to Madison was short and bumpy. The visibility was improving but the winds continued to howl out of the west. The crosswind component was near our maximum for a contaminated runway. I saw Runway 21 shortly after the final approach fix but the approach was still a real workout with continuous moderate turbulence and a 25 degree crosswind correction angle as low as 1000 feet. I told the Captain I'd plant it on and then unintentionally made my smoothest greaser to date, a big no-no on a contaminated runway with a crosswind. Fortunately, the runway was actually pretty bare and braking action was quite decent. “Great landing!”s and handshakes abounded when the passengers deplaned and I privately found it deliciously ironic that their highlight of the whole ordeal was my one screwup.

When we turned off the runway in Madison, I retracted the flaps and shortly thereafter got the ding! of a master caution along with a Flap Handle Disagree message. I ran the QRH which instructed me to reposition the handle to match the actual position of the flaps, and was rewarded with Slat/Flap Fail and a host of other messages. This was no good at all. This had all the earmarks of being broke hard. We called maintenance control while we waited for a Chautauqua E145 to deice so we could get into our gate. When we pulled in at 7:30 pm, maintenance personnel were there to meet us as they'd been working on a RedCo A320 that had been on the ground waiting for a part since 6 am. That part was, as you may have guessed, in our very own cargo hold.

Timing out was now a very real threat. We'd gone on duty at 6:15am central time, so the normal 15 hours max duty time would require us to be on the ground at Minneapolis by 9:15 pm. That clearly wasn't going to happen. However, if we used eight-hour reduced rest, then we'd be good until 10:15pm. When we got the paperwork it showed a flight time of 42 minutes so we figured we'd need to take off by 9:33pm to be legal. However, when cutting things so close we agreed it'd be prudent to run our calculations by crew scheduling and make sure they concurred. The captain called and asked their opinion. The crew scheduler was completely frazzled; unforecast low visibility across the area had thrown the operation into disarray and he had a half-dozen crews close to timing out. He promised to call us back.

We headed upstairs to keep the passengers abreast of what was going on. Many of them had been at the airport since 5am, for the aforementioned canceled A320 flight. Some had been waiting since 6am the previous morning. They were understandably at their wits' end but were grateful that we were keeping them in the loop. One man who was on his second day confided to me that we were the only positive contact he'd had with RedCo through the whole ordeal. I didn't tell him that we're not even RedCo but the cost-slashing bottom-feeder subsidiary.

The maintenance guys rebooted the airplane a few times and it was yielding positive results. I headed up the jetway to give the good news to the passengers. I hadn't been horribly positive in my previous assessment so the news that the flaps would get fixed was welcomed all around. The bigger question was whether we could beat the clock. Crew scheduling still hadn't called. The Captain asked me to call them back; I kept getting a busy signal but finally got through only to be royally chewed out for calling the crew scheduler when he had said he'd call us back. The Captain and I weren't really willing to leave without talking the crew scheduler but figured we could get loaded up and ready to go before he called. We summoned the gate agent, who'd had a long day and had been rather brusque with us to this point, and told him that we had 40 minutes to get loaded, pushed back, deiced, and taxi to the runway. He flatly stated that this was impossible and it would take at least 30 to 40 minutes to get the people boarded. The Captain said that if that was the case then there was no point as we'd have to turn around and deplane them when it became clear we couldn't get off the ground by 9:33pm. “Fine, I'm canceling the flight,” snapped the gate agent as he turned to head up the jetbridge. I guess that's that, said the Captain. We awaited crew scheduling's inevitable call.

It wasn't the call we expected. “Why aren't you off the ground yet? I show you fixed!” They hadn't even been informed that the flight was canceled and were furious to find that we were sitting doing nothing while the precious final minutes ticked away. It was too late now. There was no way to make it to the runway in time under the best-case scenario. Crew scheduling asked us if we wanted to ferry the airplane back under FAR 91, which has no duty time limitations. We were all tired but felt that we could make the flight safely, and just wanted to go back to our families for Christmas Eve Day. We said yes, and then the Captain and I plodded up the jetbridge once more to retrieve the paperwork for the ferry flight.

Big surprise: all the passengers were still standing around, looking at us expectantly as we entered the gate area. The gate agent had not canceled the flight as he threatened; he had not told the passengers anything. I was furious, at this point I felt like going up to the guy and screaming at him. It wouldn't help, though, it could only come back to hurt me. I held my cool and helped the Captain explain to the passengers why we couldn't legally take them. Meanwhile the gate agent spoke to ops on the phone. I later found out that he told them – within earshot of many passengers – that he believed the Captain wanted to time out so he could spend the night in Madison.

Of course as soon as we canceled we went from top priority to last priority. After the passengers left, the gate agent started to do so before I reminded him that we still needed our flight paperwork. “Of course I can wait on you, I've been doing it for over two hours already,” he grumbled. Then he changed his mind: “I gotta be downtairs. Call Ops for your paperwork.” Ops had just sent our paperwork over the printer when the Captain emerged from the restroom, and then I realized that we were both locked out of the gate with no way to get in.

We called ops with no answer. We waved for rampers. We searched for other gate agents. We tried waving to our flight attendants through the terminal windows and cockpit windows. Nobody saw us. I'm not sure how long we were locked out but it was at least a half hour. The day was getting more and more ludicrous. Finally we were able to get ahold of Ops and they sent a ramper upstairs to let us in. We quickly set up for the flight, pushed back, and got the heck out of dodge.

The weather had passed by MSP when we finally touched down around 11:30pm, but the day had a few annoyances left in its bag of tricks. Our gate was occupied and we taxied around the airport for a few minutes; then the rampers guided us into the gate wrong and we had to remain on board while they located a tug and realigned us so the gate agent could open the door. It was 12:15am by the time Dawn picked me up in front of the baggage claim. It was an 18 hour day for three measly scheduled legs.

It turned out to work well for me. Crew scheduling gave me the 24th off in an unusual fit of compassion, although I had been scheduled for reserve. Dawn and I had our Christmas that morning, and then traveled to my parents' place for the extended family Christmas that afternoon and the immediate family Christmas that night. I did end up getting called to fly a Vancouver turn on Christmas Day but that was alright because the 24th was a fine Christmas. I did, however, have to restrain myself from hysterical laughter every time a family member asked, “So, how are things going with NewCo? Are they a good company?”

Friday, December 21, 2007

Bugs & Quirks

An old aviation axiom says "Never fly the 'A' model of anything!" While perhaps overstated, it does illustrate the truth that new aircraft designs inevitably have kinks that need to be worked out of them. Some of these are more serious than others. When I was at TWA, they were having a problem with the B717 where ice melting in the forward galley was seeping down into the electronics bay directly underneath and shorting out major components. That's a pretty big deal. Less seriously, I can't count the times I had to reset the FCECU #2 circuit breaker on the Q400 to clear a spurious #3 Rud Hyd caution light right after startup. Until Bombardier finally found a fix last year, there were a few planes that did it every third cycle or so.

NewCo has had pretty good luck with JungleBus reliability thus far. The major flaws seem to be related to cold-weather operation; we've had problems with the potable water system freezing on the ground. Other than that, most of the bugs have been annoyances with little effect on our dispatch rates. I know jetBlue had a lot of problems when they launched the JungleBus+, but the Brazilians seem to have got on top of it pretty quickly and incorporated the fixes into the production line. There are still plenty of little things the JungleBus pilot has to watch out for.

After finishing IOE last week, I had a few days off and then started three days of reserve on Monday. With only about 25 FOs off of IOE compared to 75 Captains, our usage is going to be much higher for a while, which is fine with me as I hope to get some good experience in the airplane before upgrading in a few months. I flew all three days, including NewCo's very first flight to Chicago-Midway on Wednesday. On Monday, I had one flight from Minneapolis to Missoula. I got to experience three JungleBus quirks and bugs on that one flight.

When you first apply AC power to the JungleBus after it's been "cold" (batteries off), it runs a Power-up Built In Test (PBIT) that tests various systems including the fly-by-wire. It takes three minutes and is notoriously sensitive to any interruption during that time, including moving any flight control or putting a load on the batteries. If anything is out of place, you get a "Flight Control No Dispatch" EICAS message that requires a power-down or even maintenance action to clear. The best course is to just leave to cockpit for three minutes after powering up.

On Monday we were about 10 minutes from pushback for Missoula with the APU off since the gate was providing warm air for cabin heating. One of the rampers didn't realize our APU was off and disconnected the external power without asking the captain. Pzheuwww! With only the DC essential busses still powered by the batteries, most of the cockpit went dark. The Captain quickly opened his window and yelled for the guy to plug it back in. In the meantime he started the APU in case it happened again. With AC power back on the airplane, we did a quick damage assessment. Most electronic airplanes really don't like to be depowered unexpectedly. This time we seemed to get away with it...until we saw the dreaded "Flight Control No Dispatch." We realized that the ramper plugging in the external power again had restarted the PBIT just before the Captain put a draw on the batteries by starting the APU. Whoops.

The Captain called maintenance control. They listened to the circumstances behind the PBIT interruption and then directed us to turn to on the #1 and #2 electric hydraulic pumps. After a few seconds, the EICAS message went away. It turns out that not all "Flight Control No Dispatch" messages are created equal. For one resulting from an electrical interruption, supplying hydraulic power to the flight controls is enough to make the computer realize it's not really broken after all. Good to know.

We finished loading, handed out the paperwork, buttoned up, and pushed back. After engine start we ran the before taxi check and I obtained taxi clearance. The Captain engaged the steering handle and pushed up the thrust lever to start moving. DING! "Master Caution, Steering Fail." Hmm. That's great. When you first engage the steering handle, you're supposed to let it go for a few seconds to let the system test itself before reengaging the steering and beginning taxi. The Captain figured he'd just not waited quite long enough. Momentarily engaging the handle again didn't clear the message.

The Captain whipped out his cell phone, turned it back on, and called maintenance control again. This is one of the things that was a lot easier to do at Horizon, where you could simply call over the radio. We were blocking the busy alleyway at MSP until we could get steering back. Maintenance directed us to pull and reset the circuit breaker for the Modular Avionics Unit (MAU) #2. The Master Caution tone began ringing incessantly as various systems pulled themselves offline for self-tests. We waited with bated breath as the messages extinguished one by one until the EICAS was completely cleared. Problem #2 solved.

The flight went very smoothly until we were approaching Missoula. The weather was reportedly decent but not quite enough for a visual approach. We got vectors to the ILS 11 (yes, you can get vectors to the approach in a few parts of Montana). I was flying; while on downwind I called for the approach checklist, which the Captain ran. We were in green needles, meaning that we were set up for ILS guidance rather than FMS guidance. Both Nav radios were tuned to the ILS frequency.

When the controller gave us our final vector and cleared us for the approach, I pushed the APP button to arm the autopilot's approach mode; this was confirmed by the appearance of a white LOC and GS in the flight mode annunciator just above the attitude indicator. This means that the autopilot will retain its previous modes (Heading and Altitude in this case) until it's able to capture and follow the localizer and glideslope. As expected, the LOC annunciation changed to green as the localizer started centering, and the airplane began turning to capture it. The next thing was very unexpected: both my localizer display and the Captain's turned yellow, and LOC and ALT disappeared from the flight mode annunciator, replaced by the default modes of ROLL and FPA (flight path angle).

The JungleBus' autopilot will only capture and follow a localizer signal when each pilot is using on-side navigation guidance; that is, the Captain is using NAV 1 and the FO is using NAV 2. When this is the case, the HSI displays green needles. If either pilot pushes their V/L button to change over to opposite-side navigation guidance, both pilots' needles turn yellow and the autopilot will refuse to capture the navigation signal. If the LOC mode is already active, the autopilot reverts to its basic modes of ROLL and FPA. This is exactly what happened - except neither the Captain's hands nor mine were anywhere near the flight guidance panel. It was like the airplane pushed a V/L button on its own.

Flying the airplane is always Job One. Since the airplane was in a 15 degree bank when it reverted to ROLL mode, it would continue making big turns until I changed the mode. I quickly punched ALT and HDG, confirmed those modes on the FMA, and used the heading bug to guide the airplane back towards the localizer. Next we needed to figure out who had the off-side nav guidance. My nav display still showed LOC 2 like it should, so it had to be the Captain. "Push your V/L button," I said. Voila, green needles. I pushed APP again and this time the airplane obediently captured the localizer but remained in the ALT (altitude hold) vertical mode. I saw why: during all this we had passed through the glideslope and it was now below us. I pushed the FPA button but ALT simply flashed at me in the mode annunciator. Grr, the altitude selector. I spun it up to some random altitude, pushed FPA again, and set it for a 4.5 degree descent to capture the glideslope from above. Now we were high and fast. "Flaps 3, Gear Down." The airspeed wasn't decreasing fast enough so I decreased the descent angle to 3 degrees until the airspeed was just below the Flaps 5 limit. "Flaps 5, Landing Check." I increased our descent angle to 4.5 degrees again and captured the glideslope just before the final approach fix. The airspeed was still high but with a 3 degree descent and the airplane dirtied up it decreased fast enough for me to get the airplane stabilized at Vapp well above the 1000' minimum altitude for doing so. We popped out of the clouds much closer to minimums than the ATIS had led us to believe. I clicked off the autopilot and autothrottles and made my nicest landing so far.

The whole episode left me with a rather uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I'd handled it fine and made a good recovery but furious button-pushing on approach in IMC with big rocks around really isn't an ideal situation, especially with two pilots very new to the airplane. The fact that the airplane's gremlins screwed things up rather than one of us almost made it harder to figure out what was going wrong and correct it. It would've been a lot harder to figure out if I hadn't seen the sim do it several times. I'd been told the bug was not specific to the sim and the airplane could also do it, but this was the first time the Captain and I had seen it in the airplane. I'll be watching for it like a hawk in the future, that's for sure.

Quirks like this are one of the reasons that I'm glad I'll get a few hundred hours as a FO before I upgrade. The current Captains are having a tougher time getting experience because the majority have flown very little on reserve since finishing their IOE. As we get more airplanes and more routes that situation should correct itself, though.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Blogging at FL350


Wow, it feels great to be flying again! I hadn't touched an airplane since mid-September. There's nothing like a three month break to make me realize that even with the hassles of the job and the way this career has soured the last six years, I wouldn't be able to stay away for long if I tried. Flying, it seems, is a bug not easily uncaught.

I was actually more nervous going into this IOE than I was in 2004 when I first flew the Q400, which is strange because the JungleBus has a lot more in common with the Q400 than the Q400 has with a Navajo. Once I got started, though, I became comfortable pretty quickly. I passed my line check last night on the fifth day of IOE with 26 hours in the airplane.

I think back in October I remarked on the blog that I'd be doing IOE in the left seat. The people in the training department who told me that were wrong, it was FO IOE only and I won't do CA IOE until it's time to actually upgrade. I'm quickly learning to take everything I hear at NewCo with a grain of salt!

The JungleBus is a really sweet-handling airplane, moreso than anything I've flown with the possible exception of the Beech Baron. The airplane and the simulator are astonishingly close in feel; although that is the general idea of a simulator, they seldom replicate it so well. I guess the fact that the control feel is completely artificial and computer-generated makes it easier to replicate!

Compared to the Q400, the JungleBus is much lighter on roll and the overall control feel is smoother. Like most jets, it's tougher to slow down and you have to choose between slowing and descending because it doesn't do both at the same time very well. You can't do 250 knots to the marker like you could in the Q400. I expected that, though, and gave myself extra room and configured early whenever I got stuck high, and it always worked out pretty well. The biggest difference was landing: the JungleBus approaches at close to 5 degrees pitch up and the flare is more pronounced, which along with a higher stance gives it a very different sight picture in the flare. It feels like you're still at 20 or 30 feet when the mains touch down. None of my landings were all that great, but the check airman was happy just to see them on centerline and in the touchdown zone. The landing gear on the JungleBus is quite a bit more forgiving than the Q400; my hardest touchdown felt about like the average Q400 landing.

Other than landings, the IOE was spent learning how to use this version of the FMS software (the sim has an older version), working with ACARS, figuring out how they do things in MSP, and generally just getting in the groove of things. I found that there are quite a few FO duties on the line that aren't being taught in the sim (after all, they were primarily training us as captains), so I experimented in how to most efficiently incorporate those duties into the existing flow patterns.

After flying the JungleBus, I'm even more convinced that it should really be at mainline. It's a "regional jet" in name only. It has 2200 mile range, good fuel economy, and altitude/speed performance of much larger airliners. NewCo is already flying routes like MSP-YVR, MSP-IAH, and MSP-BOS. More concerning, from a passenger standpoint the JungleBus is much more comfortable than the CRJ200 and even the newer CRJ700/900 series. I hope that mainline pilots realize what a threat this poses to their flying and hold firm on scope. Ultimately if we at the regionals do our job and get our labor costs up to a reasonable level, it will make economic sense to put the E-jets back where they belong at mainline. I'm guessing some of you will think that counterproductive - intentionally pricing ourselves out of a job! - but pilots are coming to realize that a job at the regionals is pretty worthless so long as your mainline partner can put "your" flying back up for bid.

I tried hard not to think about that too much on IOE, though. Mostly I sat back and simply enjoyed being back at home in the air.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

An Airline of One

A few posts ago, Fred asked what general aviation pilots could do to "attain or attempt to attain the same kind of safety levels the airlines have." It's a good question and one I've thought about a fair amount. Honestly, I don't think GA can ever match the airlines' safety record without flying becoming prohibitively expensive or losing it's utility. That said, GA's current safety record isn't even close, and I think there are certain aspects of airline operations that GA pilots can mimic to cost-effectively tighten the gap. The following list is not exhaustive, and not every item will apply to every type of GA operation, but I think it's a good place to start to build an "airline of one."

Equipment

In the past it was just accepted that airliners would be better equipped than their GA brethren. Today, the microchip revolution has given us lightweight, relatively cheap advanced avionics that make it possible to fly a C172 with better equipment than many airliners. If you're still flying with yesterday's technology, there are likely some upgrades you could do that would boost your safety.

Now, if money was no object you could go ahead and retrofit your airplane with glass, autopilot, dual WAAS enabled GPS, terrain mapping, traffic avoidance system, radar or strikefinder, weather datalink, and ice protection, and you'd have a cockpit on par with the most advanced airliners out there. Of course few GA pilots have pockets that deep, and all that would be complete overkill for the kind of flying most pilots do. My advice is to look at the above list, decide which upgrade offers the greatest improvement to safety for the kind of flying you do, and start with that. If you fly around VFR in a busy urban area, it's probably traffic avoidance. If you take frequent VFR cross-countries, you'll find a weather datalink invaluable. I think an autopilot is almost essential for single pilot IFR (more on that later). If you find yourself shooting a lot of non-precision approaches, adding a glideslope to every approach with a WAAS-enabled GPS will instantly improve your odds. Thunderstorm avoidance and ice protection are must-haves for someone who uses their airplane for serious IFR transportation in all seasons. A glass cockpit, while flashy, is actually way down on the safety list for me; its main advantage is that it allows more seamless integration of all the above listed features.

It's worth noting that installing every bit of equipment mentioned above would only give you airline-equivalent equipment, not capability. There would still be days that airliners could fly but you should not. Airliners can fly in a wide variety of icing conditions not because they have anti-ice equipment but because they have the performance to get out of icing conditions quickly. Likewise, having on-board radar doesn't help the airliner tackle monster lines of storms nearly as much as having the speed and range to just go around areas of dangerous weather. Adding equipment does nothing to increase safety if you simply use the equipment to put your airplane in situations beyond its capabilities.

Maintenance

Maintenance is a factor in a rather small portion of GA accidents; putting a C150 on an airline-style progressive maintenance program would cost a lot without much improvement in safety. That said, there's a pretty widespread tendency in the GA community to simply ignore inoperative equipment until the next annual or 100 hour inspection. There are certainly circumstances when certain equipment isn't needed and the plane can be safely and legally flown with it inoperative, but pilots rather seldom define those circumstances and instead their decision ends up being based on how badly they want to make it home. The airlines use Minimum Equipment Lists which strictly define which equipment may be inoperative for flight, under which circumstances, and any special pilot or maintenance procedures that must be followed. If you own an airplane, you can develop your own MEL in cooperation with your local FSDO. The procedure essentially consists of obtaining a master minimum equipment list for your aircraft, meeting with an airworthiness inspector to ensure you understand the process, customizing the MMEL for the equipment actually installed in your own aircraft, submitting your MEL for approval from the FAA, and receiving a letter of authorization that makes your MEL a legal document.

Two Pilot Crew

I think there's a misperception among GA pilots that the reason airliners have two pilots is because they're more complex aircraft. That's not really true with highly automated modern airliners; the JungleBus is actually less workload-intensive than the Navajos I used to fly around single-pilot IFR without an autopilot. The beauty of having two pilots is that one can devote all their attention to flying the plane while the other takes care of all the other tasks. I know single-pilot IFR can be done, but I also know that there are lots of situations that demand that you "aviate, navigate, communicate" more or less simultaneously and none of them gets done particularly well.

Now, I'm not suggesting that you go hire a FO to accompany you on all your IFR flights; an autopilot can very ably take the place of Pilot Flying, freeing you to devote your brainpower to all the other tasks that need accomplished. Of course you still need to monitor the airplane to make sure the autopilot is doing what you want it to do, but that requires a lot less brainpower than manually flying the plane on instruments in moderate turbulence while copying a reroute and entering it into your navigation system. I flew lots of hard single-pilot IFR without an autopilot when I didn't know any better and the job demanded it, but now in a personal airplane I'd get an autopilot and use it extensively. There are too many pilots who simply use the autopilot in cruise when they feel there's no challenge to hand-flying and then turn it off when it's time for the "manly flying." That's insanity - cruise is the one time you can get by just fine without an autopilot, its real worth is in the workload-intensive arrival and approach phases.

If you fly only VFR or light IFR, an autopilot may be overkill but you can still make the aviating easier on yourself by keeping the airplane in trim. It always amazed me as an instructor to see students with hundreds of hours struggling to tune a radio or write down a clearance because they were fighting an out of trim airplane. Trimming should be automatic; you should instinctively do it every time you make a power or airspeed change.

Dispatch

Airline crews have the advantage of never being alone in the sky. Besides air traffic control, help is always a radio call away in the form of our dispatcher. While they can't make the Captain's decisions for him or her, they can make those decisions a lot easier by providing all the pertinent information. Now, you probably don't have a dispatcher you can call up at anytime, but you can use every resource available to make sure your decisions are based on the best information. That starts with having current and appropriate charts in the airplane as well as an AFD (or equivalent, I like JeppGuide) and making yourself familiar with your planned airports of use. Enroute, you should keep yourself updated on weather conditions along your route and at your destination. A weather datalink makes this task a lot simpler, but pilots without a datalink can get the same information from Flight Watch or FSS stations. You should know how to contact them at any given time; make a habit of calling them on every cross-country flight for at least one weather update. Your goal is to never be surprised; you should know about changing conditions well in advance and revise your contingency plans accordingly.

Checklist Usage

I've actually written about this before so I won't repeat myself at length, but the airline system of flow patterns and checklists (not do-lists!) is one thing that GA pilots can easily mimic to improve safety and make flying easier for themselves at the same time.

Training

There's a truism in the military that applies equally to aviation: "Fight like you train and train like you fight." The airlines are doing a much better job than they did in the past to make training realistic and applicable to the real world of line flying; General Aviation, unfortunately, has some catching up to do. The overriding emphasis is on checking off FAA requirements and prepping the student for the checkride rather than adequately preparing them for the real world flying they'll do after the checkride. The reality is that if you're trying to get training done reasonably close to the FAA minimums, there isn't enough time to train the maneuvers to checkride standards and do significant "real world prep." The GA community is unwilling to recognize that the current training is inadequate and petition the FAA to increase the minimums because they (likely correctly) fear that increasing the already-high cost of flight training will dissuade many would-be students.

Therefore it's really up to the individual student to ensure that they get training that goes beyond the minimums and really prepares them well for the sort of flying they plan on doing. My suggestion is to find a forward-thinking, flexible, and preferably experienced CFI and tell them what kind of flying you intend to do after you earn the intended certificate or rating, and ask them to tailor your training accordingly even if it adds on some flight time. Secondly, once you get the rating, use either your instructor or an experienced pilot to ride along with you on a sort of IOE where you can gain some real-world experience outside the training environment before venturing off on your own. During this time search out challenging weather, airports, and airspace, so the first time you encounter these on your own it will be old hat.

The above advice applies not only to training for a new certificate or rating but recurrent training as well. Airline pilots get a lot more recurrent training than the average GA pilot, generally every six months for Captains and once a year for FOs. The FAA's recurrent training requirements are pretty skimpy for private pilots: one hour of ground instruction and one hour of flight instruction once every two years. Many BFRs seem to be basically a warmed over PPL or instrument checkride, with a little airwork plus a few trips around the patch or down the ILS. Unless the pilot feels like they really need brushing up on these areas, I think it'd be far preferable to actually go somewhere the pilot might normally go under the usual conditions and have the instructor ride along and observe. Many pilots get lax in their discipline and procedures over time and this is a lot more likely to come out during a "normal" line flight than in a training environment. With experienced instructors few and far in between these days, you may want to do this with a CFI once every two years for the official BFR and do it with an experienced pilot whose judgement you trust at other times, at least one a year.

Experience

The average airline pilot has a lot more experience than the average GA pilot, even in this day of 250 hour regional FOs. Few GA pilots have the time or money to fly 800-1000 hours a year - and those that try are guaranteed to become quickly bored with flying. When you fly as much as airline pilots do, flying get a lot easier, almost a second nature. This doesn't put the GA pilot at as much of a disadvantage as one may think: familiarity can breed complacency, and flying the same equipment in and out of the same handful of airports all the time means that 10,000 hours can simply be the same hour repeated 10,000 times. The GA pilot can make their more limited flight hours count by varying the kind of flying they do and stretching themselves (within the margins of safety, of course). Taking a mountain flying or aerobatics course will expand your experience out of proportion to the flight hours involved; adding an instrument rating makes you a more precise pilot and a multi-engine rating makes you think ahead more even if you don't intend to fly IFR or twin-engine airplanes. Inexperienced pilots might think I'm talking about taking all the fun out of flying, but you can only go bore holes in the sky for so many hours before it gets old and gaining new experiences is the key to fun flying.

Of course the things I'm suggesting aren't cheap, and many people have a rather limited flying budget. There are ways to increase your experience level without blowing your life savings. You can double the length of your cross-country flights by finding a flying buddy to split costs with and trade off every leg. Hang around the airport long enough and you'll become friends with more experienced pilots with their own airplanes; get yourself invited along on some flights with those who have a good reputation and you'll learn a lot just by watching them work. There's a lot of good knowledge to be gained from reading various aviation magazines. I've personally found reading NTSB reports excellent for gaining experience vicariously; more than once I've had an overwhelming sense of déjà vu while flying and then realized it was because I was in a situation I'd recently read about in an accident report.

Flight Operations Manual

What determines what you can and can't do in an airplane? If you said FAR 91, you're being way too easy on yourself. It's pretty easy to be in legal compliance with Part 91 and still get yourself killed. I'd like you to consider the following: Part 121, which all airlines fly under, is considerably more restrictive than Part 91 - yet each airline has its own FAA-approved Flight Operations Manual that's usually even stricter than Part 121! This contains pretty explicit instructions on how the airline's pilots are expected to fly and what limitations they are under.

For years safety experts and CFIs have recommended that GA pilots develop their own personal minimums, and many have. In many cases this is a number that the pilot arbitrarily picks and keeps in their back pocket, such as "I will not fly VFR outside the traffic pattern with less than 2000' ceiling or 5 miles visibility." I would suggest that having personal minimums is pretty useless if you don't write them down along with specific guidance on what to do if a personal minimum is exceeded, and then give that guidance the same weight as the FARs. At the airlines, disregarding the FOM is as serious as breaking a FAR. Ideally, GA pilots would write their own FOM and treat it the same way airline pilots treat their FOMs. A lot more can go into this FOM besides just weather minimums: I'd include guidance on training and currency, required preflight action, inoperative equipment, fuel requirements, checklist usage, etc. It gives yourself a standard to hold yourself to. There's nothing that says you can't rewrite the FOM as you gain experience; the point is that you don't find yourself revising your personal "minimums" mid-flight!

***

There's obviously a lot more that goes into general aviation safety than the above; these are just some areas in which I see the airlines having an edge on GA when that needn't be so. Like I said, GA won't likely ever approach the safety record of the airlines, but it'd be huge to simply improve GA's record to where it's as safe as, say, driving.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Props are for Boats, Jets are for Hot Tubs!

On my flight bag, I have a sticker that says "Dash Trash" in large type and then "Silly Pilot, Jets are for Hot Tubs!" It's a (now ex-) turboprop driver's playful rejoinder to the jet jocks' standard jab that "Props are for boats." The war of words between prop pilots and jet drivers has been mostly waged in jest; just about everybody understands that however cool they look and sound, modern jets aren't harder to fly and don't confer superhuman status on their pilots. That said, there are some key differences between jets and propeller driven aircraft that anybody making the transition for the first time must keep in mind.

The powerplant itself is actually one of the more minor differences, at least when transitioning from a turboprop to a modern jet. Most of today's "jets" are actually turbofans and little of their thrust is true "jet thrust" caused by exhaust gasses being expelled from the tailpipe. Rather, the majority of the thrust is generated by the large fans on the front of the engine, very similarly to how propellers are used in turboprops. The GE90 engine used in the B777, for example, has a 9:1 bypass ratio, meaning that for every pound of air that moves through the engine core and is used in combustion, nine pounds of air are accelerated by the fan blades and bypass the engine core. Similarly, the PW150A turboprop on the Q400 gets 85% of its power from the propeller; the remaining 15% is supplied by jet thrust from the engine core. You could almost say that modern jet engines are really ducted turboprops. The main difference is that turboprops have fewer blades of much larger diameter that are geared down to slower rotational speeds. This makes them more efficient at lower speeds and altitudes but limits high speed potential because the propeller tips encounter supersonic speeds long before the aircraft is supersonic. In turbofans, the duct and fan blades/low pressure compressor cause an area of high pressure that slows incoming air enough that the aircraft can cruise at transonic or even supersonic speeds while providing steady, subsonic airflow to the engines.

Operationally, the main difference in powerplant operation has traditionally been spool up / spool down time. A piston engine can usually go from idle to full power in very little time. Normally aspirated piston engines just need more fuel/air mixture to accelerate, and this is available instantaneously. Jet and turboprop engines need more compression, which is obtained by adding fuel to the combustion section, causing the turbines to spin faster, which drives the compression section faster, increasing the mass of air available to the engine for increased power. There's some lag involved. On the first generation of turbojets, it could take as long as 10 seconds to go from idle to full thrust, which caused several accidents when pilots inexperienced with jet engines found themselves at low altitude and low airspeed with "unspooled" engines. Adding another spool to the engines so there were separate low pressure and high pressure compressors helped considerably but lag was still a factor so long as most of the thrust was generated by accelerating hot gasses out the tailpipe. With high bypass turbofans, however, thrust increases as soon as the low pressure spool accelerates. Spool-up time can still be somewhat lengthy - it varies by design - but the engine doesn't need to be fully spooled up to produce significant power. Turboprops still hold an edge in providing near-instantaneous power but the difference isn't as much as it used to be.

Now this is not to say that going from turboprops to jets isn't a significant transition. It is, but generally for reasons not directly related to the powerplant. Most of the differences are in aircraft systems, high speed/high altitude aerodynamics, and low speed swept-wing characteristics.

Compared to older turboprops like the King Air, Metroliner, or J31, most jets are more capable, more automated, and designed with greater redundancy. Over the long run this makes life a lot easier on the pilot, but during the transition there are significant systems differences to be learned. Some systems like the hydraulics or pneumatics may be more complex, unfamiliar technologies like fly-by-wire may be incorporated, and the avionics (and the electrical system that powers them) will be more important than anything else in the airplane. This really isn't a prop vs jet issue; it's an old plane vs new plane issue. Recent turboprop designs like the Q400 and Piaggio Avanti utilize technology to about the same degree as jets of the same vintage.

Like I said, the aerodynamic limitations inherent to propeller-driven engines mean that they typically operate at lower altitudes and slower airspeeds than jets. Therefore, the transition to jet aircraft also involves learning about high speed and high altitude aerodynamics. Most transport-category jets regularly cruise at speeds of .75 to .85 Mach (75%-85% the speed of sound). This is within the transonic speed range, meaning that while the aircraft itself is below the speed of sound, airflow over some parts of the aircraft will be accelerated to supersonic speeds. This typically isn't much of a problem until airflow over the wing reaches supersonic speeds, which is known as Critical Mach or Mcr. At Mcr, a shock wave begins to form on the wing; as speed is increased beyond Mcr, the shock wave intensifies and moves aft, which has several undesirable side effects. The shock wave moves the wing's center of pressure aft, which requires increasing amounts of elevator to counteract. Eventually, the elevator may run out of authority and the aircraft will pitch down, which increases airspeed and exacerbates the situation, a phenomenon known as mach tuck. Additionally, the shock wave will cause flow separation which decreases aileron effectiveness and, depending on aircraft configuration, may blanket the horizontal stabilizer and contribute to the tendency towards mach tuck.

The problems associated with transonic flight have been well known for 60 years and aircraft designers have a number of weapons in their arsenal to combat them. The use of swept wings is universal among aircraft designed to cruise above .70 Mach; it delays critical mach by artificially increasing the wing's fineness ratio, since the relative wind travels a greater distance across the wing than its actual chord. Supercritical wings, which have a relatively flat upper surface and an unusually curved lower surface, decrease the strength of the shock wave that forms on the upper wing at speeds beyond Mcr. Vortex generators add energy to the boundary layer and increase resistance to flow separation in both high speed and low speed flight. Trimable horizontal stabilizers provide the elevator authority necessary to counteract the aftward shift in center of pressure. All these design features can decrease or delay undesirable effects of supersonic flow but they do not eliminate them. For this reason, new designs are thoroughly flight tested and a maximum operating mach limit (Mmo) is established. This is in addition to Vmo, the maximum operating airspeed limit, which provides structural rather than aerodynamic protection. Typically Vmo is limiting below FL250-FL300 and Mmo is limiting above those altitudes.

If high-speed aerodynamics were your only worry at high altitude, staying out of harms way would be a snap: don't exceed Mmo. However, low-speed aerodynamics also come into play. It's somewhat counterintuitive, because you're zooming over the ground at 400+ knots, so you'd think you wouldn't have to worry about stall speed. Keep in mind, however, your indicated airspeed will be quite low compared to true airspeed when at high altitudes. Angle of attack varies with indicated airspeed, meaning you're much closer to a stalling AoA in high-altitude cruise. If you plot maximum and minimum airspeed versus altitude on a chart, you'll see the two lines eventually merge as altitude increases. The area where there is little margin between high speed and low speed danger zones is colloquially known as coffin corner. Keep in mind that the danger of stalling comes not from low airspeed but high angle of attack; therefore, an altitude that's perfectly safe for level flight at a light weight in smooth, cold air could be dangerous for maneuvering, at a heavier weight, in turbulence, or at higher temperature. You can avoid coffin corner by using your aircraft's maximum cruise altitude performance charts: they'll show you the highest altitude you should cruise at given a certain aircraft weight and air temperature.

One final consideration is the handling characteristics of a swept-wing jet. Sweeping a wing introduces significant spanwise flow at low speeds, making the wing tips susceptible to stalling before the roots. This condition is unacceptable for a few reasons ranging from loss of lateral control to the forward shift in center of lift which causes a further pitching up moment. Aircraft designers use a few tricks like washout, cuffs, or vortex generators to keep the tips from stalling first, but the fact remains that swept-wing aircraft seldom stall as docilely as straight-wing airplanes do. The solution is to never allow the aircraft to stall, and to this end most swept-wing planes have stall protection devices like stick shakers and stick pushers. That said, you don't need to stall a swept-wing jet to get in a pickle; getting slow at low altitude will do nicely, as the spanwise flow also guarantees rapidly increasing induced drag below Max-L/D. When jets are lost in landing accidents, it is often due to an unarrested low-speed sink that results in impact short of the runway.

Lastly, some swept wing aircraft are susceptible to "dutch roll," a phenomenon of simultaneous uncoupled roll and yaw oscillations that progressively increase in magnitude. It's most prevalent in aircraft with strong lateral stability; swept wings are inherently stable laterally. Basically a sideslip causes extra lift on the side of the slip, resulting in a rolling moment in the other direction at the time that directional stability is causing yawing moment in the original direction of the sideslip. If the directional stability is weak compared to lateral stability, the yawing moment lags slightly behind the rolling moment, allowing an opposite sideslip to develop, and the process repeats again, feeding on itself. In extreme cases it can render an aircraft uncontrollable; susceptible designs prevent it by installing a yaw damper. If your yaw damper can be deferred (MEL'd), your aircraft probably isn't extremely prone to dutch roll, but you'll want to make a mental note to stay coordinated with an inop yaw damper rather than flying with your feet on the floor like usual!

None of this is very hard stuff to grasp and the procedures for dealing with differences between props and jets are pretty transparent given all the other things you have to learn when transitioning to a new aircraft. I personally found the transition from prop to jet very easy, at least in the simulator training phase. I'll fly the real thing for the first time in a few days when IOE starts.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Airline Transport Pilot



I actually got it a week ago, last Wednesday. The fact that I was able to do the LOE early meant that I got to actually spend Thanksgiving and the weekend with Dawn and our families. They're saying I'll start IOE sometime after December 1st so at the moment I'm in Portland getting the mail and watering the plants.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Two Down, One to Go...

My sim partner and I had our Maneuvers Validations (MV) on Friday. It went really smoothly, we actually flew better than we did in our first five sim lessons. The MV is the AQP equivalent of a proficiency check, so in a traditional program we'd be done right now. Instead we have a couple of line oriented flight training (LOFT) modules, two in the IPT and one in the sim, before our Line Oriented Evaluation (LOE). That's scheduled for next Sunday since we have a few days off between now and then for Thanksgiving.

The end is in sight!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Are the Regional Airlines Safe?

As a pilot, I often get the question "are the airlines safe?" I don't know whether the people asking it think I'm privy to some horribly damning information that's been hidden from the public, but I think the airlines' record this decade speaks for itself: terrorism aside, airline travel has become very safe. That's the answer I usually give, and the people I'm talking to are satisfied. It's a good unequivocal answer.

When people ask whether the regional airlines are safe, as a commenter in one of my training posts did, my answer tends to be more nuanced. Nobody likes a nuanced answer to that question. Well, it depends on what you think the question is really asking. If the question is, are the regional airlines safe compared to, say, driving or skiing or lawn darts- why, yes they are. If the question is, are the regionals safe compared to the major airlines - that's where my answer gets a little wavy. The accident record for the last ten years is not worse for the regionals than it is for the majors. However, I do believe that certain trends at the regionals right now do lead to a decrease in safety margins, and we could be sowing the seeds of future accidents.

My primary concern is the plummeting experience levels in regional airliner cockpits. After 9/11, the regional airlines exploded as major airlines sought to slash costs by outsourcing more small jet flying to the lowest bidder. The regional airlines have been very aggressive in controlling costs so they can competitively bid, resulting in poor pay and working conditions at many regionals. This, along with fewer opportunities at major airlines and the erosion of wages and benefits at that level, has contributed to a sharp decrease in the number of pilots training for an airline career. The end result: a severe pilot shortage in the lower echelons of U.S. aviation, where several airlines have dropped the pretense of minimum experience levels altogether and are hiring at the lowest legal qualification (commercial multi-engine land certificate, 190-250 hours) and still can't get enough pilots to properly staff their airlines for all the contracts they've been awarded.

This isn't the first time that airlines have hired low-time candidates. In the boom days of the late 1990's, massive hiring at the major airlines meant that some regional airlines were hiring pilots with less than 1000 hours to fly 19 seat turboprops. These days pilots with even less experience are flying 50-90 seat jets. Fortunately, these new planes are relatively idiot-proof; this and the training I've been describing is, I think, largely responsible for preventing a rash of experience-related accidents.

The good news is that inexperience has a way of taking care of itself; pilots hired with 250 hours don't stay at 250 hours for long. However, some of the most abusive regionals have massive attrition in their FO ranks as low-time pilots leave as soon as they have enough experience to get hired at a better airline. At Pinnacle, for example, 30% of the entire pilot group has been with the company for less than a year and meager new-hire classes can't even keep up with the attrition. There is a lot of attrition in the Captains' ranks as well as the major airlines ramp up their hiring, and several airlines (including Pinnacle) have started to hire "street captains" because none of their FOs have enough flight time to qualify for the upgrade (typically around 2000-2500 hours)! This is the real challenge, in my opinion. With a seasoned Captain, an inexperienced FO is more of an annoyance than a hinderance to safety. When you put a Captain with little time in type together with an FO with little time in any type, though, I think you will see a real degradation to safety margins whenever abnormal situations arise. And thanks to the seniority system, that's exactly what will happen: the street Captains, perpetually junior, will always get paired with new, junior FOs. Incidentally, I just described my own near future.

Maintenance is another major concern at some regionals. Horizon had a very good maintenance department. They hired qualified mechanics, paid them decently, had a lot of oversight, and did the vast majority of maintenance work with our own mechanics. Whatever maintenance was outsourced (mostly line maintenance at smaller outstations) was done so with rather strict oversight. This is becoming the exception to the rule at many regional airlines (and even a number of major airlines). The new M.O. is to outsource at least all heavy maintenance and often line maintenance as well to contractors. NewCo does not employ a single mechanic, only supervisors and maintenance controllers. This is more than a passing concern: shoddy, under-supervised outsourced work has caused two crashes already, Valujet 592 and Air Midwest 5481. In the latter case, Air Midwest (part of Mesa Air Group) had contracted their maintenance out to the lowest bidder, where an unlicensed mechanic improperly rigged the elevator using an unapproved procedure. The licensed mechanic he was working under signed off the work without inspecting it. All five of the mechanics working on the aircraft that night had almost zero experience on the B1900. Mesa's penny-pinching killed 21 people. After the accident Mesa decided to stop outsourcing maintenance work. "After an accident like that, you reassess," said Jonathan Ornstein, Mesa's CEO. "Bringing the maintenance back in-house is a cost-effective way to facilitate more direct control of the work."

Few in the industry have listened to him, because the trend is definitely toward more outsourcing, not less. The Air Midwest crash impacted Mesa Air Group's bottom line only, and other airlines will not change until an accident cuts into their profits. The regionals are obsessed with keeping their costs low because their survival depends on it. The major airlines share a major part of the blame because of how they play regionals off each other to secure the lowest cost feed possible. Nobody wants to change because doing so puts them at a competitive disadvantage. The obvious solution would be for the FAA to change the regulations, keeping an even playing field for everyone while increasing safety, but the FAA has proven time and time again that they will not do anything to cut into the airlines' bottom line until public outrage forces them to.

One very good example of this is the area of pilot fatigue. There is ample evidence to suggest that the current regulations are inadequate. NASA has stacks of ASRS forms where pilots reported fatigue as being a major factor in deviations and other incidents. The NTSB has excoriated the FAA on numerous occasions for not changing the regulations to conform to modern knowledge about fatigue's effect on human performance. It's actually been on their "Most Wanted" list of safety improvements since 1990. In two recent fatal airline accidents (American 1420 and Corporate 5966), the NTSB found fatigue to be a significant contributing factor. This issue affects the majors almost as much as the regionals, especially since their contracts were gutted in bankruptcy. In an effort to keep costs low, airlines are flying their pilots as much as they legally can. For a major airline that may mean 8 hours of flying in three legs and 12 hours on duty; for a regional that may mean 8 hours of flying in six legs and 14 hours on duty.

The basic thead that connects all of this is airline management being cheap. They won't pay the pilots, they won't pay for quality maintenance, they wring every bit of productivity they can out of their employees, and they'll continue doing so until inexperience, shoddy maintenance, and tired pilots cut into their bottom line. Profits in aviation being underwritten by others' blood has a long and pedigreed history. Google "American 191" and consider that the man who approved the forklift procedure against McDonnell-Douglas' recommendations is now in the top echelons of AirTran management. Read the NTSB report on Alaska 261 and think about what it means that, after everything they said about Alaska's maintenance program, the FAA found Alaska MD80s with unlubed jackscrews coming out of (outsourced) heavy maintenance last year. Consider that as cheap as the majors have become, they outsource a portion of their flying to regionals because the regionals are cheaper!

I suppose this post would have a rather frightening effect on non-pilots. You should understand that despite my concerns, accident rates at the regionals are at the same amazingly low rates of the major airlines. I just think that if airline management continues along the path they're on, that won't continue to be the case forever.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A380 Sighting

I didn't have any training on Monday and it was a nice day so I took the Metro downtown and spent some time walking around Old Montreal snapping photos (which I will post soon). While I was there I heard a jet coming overhead somewhat low so I looked up and took a quick shot.



At first I thought it was a 747, but that didn't look quite right. Then it banked and I realized it was a the A380! Mon dieu!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Training Days, Part II: Transition, Differences, Upgrade, and Recurrent

It usually takes two to three months to get through the entire initial training syllabus that I described in my last "Training Days" post. Thankfully, this is the longest training cycle you'll typically go through; that said, you can still end up in training for a pretty significant portion of your career, especially if you fly for a carrier that operates multiple types of aircraft.

Every time you switch between types of aircraft - from DC9 to A320, for example - you have to go through transition training. This is basically the same as initial training except that you don't have to do the Basic Indoctrination portion of ground school, just aircraft systems. Other than that the syllabus is pretty close, although a transition is really a little easier because you're already so familiar with the airline's general operating practices and fleet managers try to harmonize procedures between types. Depending on the number of aircraft types in an airline's fleet and special contract provisions like seat locks, it is sometimes possible to go through several cycles of transition training in a single year. A guy I know got hired onto the MD88 at Delta and only flew it for a month or two before going back to the schoolhouse for transition training on the B757/767.

Closely related to transition training is differences training. The FAA requires differences training when they ascertain that two or more models of the same type are different enough that a pilot already holding the type rating needs to get additional training on that specific model before operating it under FAR 121. The best example of this is the B757 and B767. They actually share a type certificate and their pilots hold a "B756/B767" type rating, but in reality there are some differences (195,000 lb difference in takeoff weight between the 757-200 and 767-400ER, for starters) that require additional training for pilots who fly both. A less obvious example is the B737-200 and the newer B737NG's, because the cockpit is so different. Differences training is typically much less intensive than initial or transition training.

There actually is one instance where a pilot already with an airline is required to go through initial training again: when they have not served on the same "group" of aircraft (turboprop, turbojet). Therefore, at Horizon, Dash-8 pilots going to the CRJ had to go through initial training again, and vice versa. It's basically transition training with a general subjects refresher course thrown in.

When a First Officer is promoted to Captain, they go through Upgrade training. I won't have to do this because I'm already being trained as a Captain; the company didn't want to send me through two training cycles within a few months of each other. Most airlines, however, train their First Officers as FOs only; there's no real advantage to having them all type rated and captain qualified (and most new FOs at the regionals today aren't even close to ATP minimum qualifications).

Upgrade training is, by itself, pretty straightforward: a "refresher" ground school, some CPT sessions to learn the left-seat flows, and then simulator training to learn how to fly from the left seat. The only thing that's really new for most people is learning how to taxi! Because of the way the seniority system works at most airlines, it's pretty common to upgrade into an airplane other than the one you flew as an FO. In this case, upgrade training can be combined with initial, transition, or differences training, as appropriate. For example: a CRJ FO upgrading in the DHC8 would go through initial + upgrade, a 747 FO upgrading in an A320 would go through transition + upgrade, and a Q400 FO upgrading into the Q200 would go through differences + upgrade (which would've been my case had I stayed at Horizon).

Now even if you're hired as a Captain at a one-type airline, you don't escape from training for years on end. There's always recurrent training to do. All flight crewmembers must go through recurrent ground school once a year. This tends to be dreadfully boring, as the FAA has a long laundry list of things that must be covered, which leaves little time for extra training on pertinent and timely issues that'd actually be useful on the line. On the plus side, you often find yourself in class with coworkers you haven't hung out with in a while, and that can be a good time.

And then there's recurrent simulator training/checking. The regs say that captains must take a proficiency check every six months and FOs once every twelve months, but that recurrent flight training may be substituted for every other pro check ("training-in-lieu"). I've discussed this before, but the pro check is actually easier than most training in lieu sessions, because a pro check is a fairly structured event in which everyone knows what to expect, while the instructor can (and will) throw pretty tough, complex situations at you in a TIL session. I actually think it's easier on Captains because they fly the sim every six months and therefore have a pretty good memory of what it flies like...not always quite like the airplane! Maybe I'll think differently once I have to visit the torture box every six months, though.

AQP programs are considerably different where recurrent training is concerned. The time intervals are different and are unique to each airline's program, although I understand that nine months is a common interval. The recurrent sim training is usually done right after recurrent ground school, which isn't always true of traditional programs. Also, AQP doesn't have training one time and checking the next; rather, pilots are trained and checked within the same training cycle. Usually there are at least two sim sessions, including one maneuvers validation and one LOFT (Line Oriented Flight Training) scenario. These are rough equivalents of the pro check and TIL, and doing both in the same cycle is why AQP programs get away with longer intervals between training cycles.

Finally, each pilot is required to be line checked once a year. This involves a line check airman sitting on your jumpseat during one or two legs of normal revenue flying and silently taking notes of what you're doing wrong. You have to do something pretty blatantly unsafe to actually bust a company line check, but at many airlines even small screwups count towards a running point total. If you reach a certain number of points over a given time period, you get hauled in for retraining or even a review board.

I just calculated how much time I've spent in training in less than four years at two airlines. My initial at Horizon took about ten weeks including IOE, I sat through three recurrent ground schools, and I had one recurrent pro-checks and two TILs. Initial here at NewCo will be about six weeks (not including the self study period) plus about a week of IOE. So that'll bring me up to about 20 weeks of training in under 4 years. That's actually not bad, I'd bet there are people who have done that in a single year. Like I said, it's a major part of an airline pilot's life - and that's a major reason the airlines are so safe.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Back in Business

Well, we took the plunge and bought a MacBook. I like it so far...a lot. I'm still getting used to the Mac OS X Leopard operating system, it's considerably different than windows (although vista copied some of its features). I'm continually finding new quirks and features that make you go "Hmm...why didn't Microsoft do that!?" 

Thank you everyone for your suggestions and tips in the comments of my last post. There seem to be a fair amount of Mac users that read this blog, so I'd like to ask you all to post your best Mac OS X tips and tricks in this post's comments. Thanks!

Here's a picture of the new machine:

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Oops

You guys are going to love my latest stroke of genius. It truly merits a "brainiac of the year" nomination.

I've had the same Dell Inspiron 1100 laptop computer for the last four years. It goes with me on almost every trip, and sees a fair amount of use at home as well. It was a budget laptop when I got it (Celeron 2GHz, 256mb ram) and has long since been left behind by technological progress, but it's still pretty adequate for web surfing, blogging, chatting, and word processing usage. For more processor-intensive computing I use our home desktop machine.

Four years of heavy usage have taken a toll on my laptop. The case has a chip out of a corner, the screen has a crack on its edge, and there are scratches aplenty. It never had internal wifi capability, so when the PCMIA slot stopped working two years ago I had to swap out my PCMIA wifi adapter for a USB version. About the same time the power supply module went bad so that the computer would revert to battery power and refuse to accept the AC power adapter if I let the battery fully charge. I adapted by taking the battery out of the computer once it reached a 99% charge and then not using it until I really needed battery power. A year ago the power supply cord also went on the fritz, so I got a replacement.

A few days ago, that power supply cord started going bad exactly like its predecessor did: intermittent power that could be made continuous by holding the cord just so in a certain spot, apparently due to broken wires within. I ended up getting a universal power supply at Radio Shack, figuring I could still use it after the Dell passed the point of usefulness. Before hooking it up, I made sure that the input power specs matched and that output DC voltage and amperage (20V @ 4.5A) was correct. Great. I found the correct Dell adapter plug and attached it, and then plugged it into my computer.



Immediately I caught a whiff of the acrid smell of burning electrical wires. I unplugged the adapter right away and plugged in my old adapter. The computer didn't respond when I pressed the "on" button. I put in the battery: the yellow "fault" light illuminated and the computer refused to turn on. Worse yet, the burning smell came back. I double-checked the output voltage, amperage, and wattage of the new adapter. Everything matched the old one. I plugged it in again, and got the nasty smell again. I wasn't sure what was happening, but it was obvious that I'd just fried my computer.

Suddenly I realized why: the power supply output is DC, meaning it's critical that the polarity be correct, but the design of the adapters allowed them to very easily be attached backwards so that the positive wire went to negative and vise-versa. I inspected the power supply side of the plug: sure enough, there was a small imprinted word, "tip," that was apparently supposed to be matched up with the equally small imprinted "tip" on the adapter side of the plug in order to keep the polarity correct. I'd had the polarity reversed.


So here's what I've concluded from this little episode: I'm just tech-savvy enough to be dangerous. To a smarter, geekier techie, this would've been a painfully obvious mistake. The computer-illiterate would've read the manual and alligned the "tip" imprints without ever knowing why they had to do so. I'm the computer version of the 600 hour CFI who's been instructing for six months and thinks they have this flying thing figured out.

Anyways, the end result is that there is a MacBook in my near future. I've toyed with the idea of making the jump to a Mac for years, but the price difference versus PCs of similar performance plus the compatibility issues always held me back. With the newest generation of Intel-based MacBooks, though, Apple has brought the price within spitting distance of comparable PC laptops. I also considered the Dell Inspiron 1520. Built to the same specifications as the base model MacBook (2GHz Core 2 Duo w/4mb cache, 800Mhz fsb, 1Gb ram, 80Gb hdd, 802.11n wifi), the Dell is only $150 cheaper and the Mac comes with better default software. Actually, I know someone who works at an Apple store; with their employee discount it's the same price. The coup de grâce is that Apple has reportedly worked the bugs out of their BootCamp software and bundled it with the newest version of mac os x, Leopard, making it fairly painless to run Windows when you need it to run your "PC-only" software. I'm pretty sold.

By the way, my Systems & Procedures Validation ("the oral") was on Saturday and it went well. There was a pretty strong emphasis on FMS usage, apparently because some previous trainees had made it into the simulator without a good grasp on the FMS. It's a rather easy box to use once you get used to it, though. I start sim training on Thursday.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Training Days

Airline travel in the US has become amazingly safe. After American 587 crashed in November 2001, it was almost five years before there was another major fatal accident (Comair 5191 in August 2006). In the "golden age" of the 1960s there were single years with numerous major accidents. Even in a fairly recent five year period from 1986 to 1990, there were 14 major crashes involving US carriers which killed over 700 people. Since 2000, though, the fatality rate for scheduled Part 121 operations has held steady around .015 per 100,000 flight hours. To put that number in perspective: A kid born today could spend every second of their life on board US airliners in flight and still have only a one in ten chance of being killed in a plane crash by the time they reach age 75.

The same has not held true of general aviation. Although exact statistics are hard to come by because nobody knows exactly how much the GA fleet flies, the NTSB estimates a fatal accident rate of 1.32 per 100,000 flight hours. In other words, for every hour spent flying in General Aviation, you are 88 times more likely to die than on a Part 121 airliner. It's even worse if you look at fatalities per miles flown.

There are quite a few factors you could attribute the gap to: aircraft capability, reliability and redundancy, maintenance, dual pilot vs. single pilot, and greater experience levels in airliner cockpits. One undeniably huge advantage that airline pilots get is the quantity and quality of training they receive. In my opinion, the GA training industry does a poor job of preparing GA pilots for the real-world challenges they face, while the airlines do a mostly exceptional job of preparing their pilots for safe line operations.

Unlike GA pilots who typically receive little recurrent training after certification, airline pilots spend a significant portion of their professional lives being trained and checked. They have training programs to complete when first hired at the airline, when transitioning into new equipment, and when upgrading; they undergo recurrent training every year; and they are checked in both the simulator and on the line at least once a year. Part 121 is quite specific about the training and checking crews must be given, and this is one area in which the FAA exercises considerable oversight.

The traditional airline training program is set forth within FAR 121 Subpart N, but in recent years many airlines have come to use an alternative method for qualifying their crewmembers contained in Special FAR 58 known as "Advanced Qualification Program," or AQP. Whichever program an airline chooses to use, there are four main categories of training for crewmembers: initial, transition, upgrade, and recurrent. This post will focus on initial training, and Part II will cover the others.

When first hired at an airline, you go through initial training. This usually starts with several weeks of ground school. The first portion is typically spent reviewing general subjects such as meteorology, aviation weather, aerodynamics, regulations, and instrument charts and procedures. Then the material becomes more company specific: the Operations Specifications and FOM (Flight Operations Manual) are studied at length. These provide guidance on a wide variety of non-aircraft specific subjects and constitute the official company policies that all pilots are expected to know and follow. This can range from the more asinine aspects of uniform policy to CRM philosophy to stabilized approach requirements to deicing procedures. Finally, the ground school becomes aircraft specific, and the candidates will study systems, limitations, and procedures. There are usually several thick manuals to work through: a systems description manual which contains in-depth information on aircraft systems, and a flight standards manual that sets forth standard operating procedures for that aircraft at that airline. Throughout ground school, there are usually written tests, and sometimes a final exam.

Most airlines used to send candidates directly from ground school to flight training, but as simulator and/or aircraft time has become more expensive many have introduced an intermediate step: the procedures trainer, known by various acronyms such as "CPT" or "SPT" or "IPT" but commonly called the "paper tiger." This is a full-sized mock-up of the cockpit that can vary in quality from little more than a three-dimensional cockpit poster to a near-simulator lacking only motion and visuals. However it is constructed, the idea is that here the crewmember can learn their flows and procedures thoroughly before having to use them in real time in the simulator.

After ground school and usually after the CPT sessions if they are used, the candidate will undergo an oral exam with a check airman. These typically last between two and eight hours and are comprehensive: they include general knowledge, company policies and regulations, aircraft systems and limitations, and flight procedures. After the oral exam, the student is ready for flight training.

Not too many years ago, it was commonplace to do at least some of your training in the actual airplane. Now, the FAA allows all training and checking to be done in level D flight simulators, which have full motion and advanced visual capabilities; as Level D sims become common, it's pretty rare to touch the real airplane until after your checkride. Some of the bigger airlines have their own simulators; most regionals and some majors lease time in simulators owned by companies like FlightSafety, SimuFlight, PanAm Flight Training, and CAE. The flight training is most often provided by the airline's own instructors, but in some cases the training center's instructors may be used as well.

Candidates are usually paired with each other for the duration of training. Sometimes if there is an upgrade class going through at the same time as an initial class, new hires will be paired with upgrade candidates. This is an efficient way to train because each student is always being trained for their own seat, and the upgrading student's prior experience is usually helpful to the new hire, especially if the upgrading student flew the same airplane as an FO. It doesn't always work out this way, though. At Horizon I was paired with a fellow new hire; when one of us was training in the right seat, the other would "play captain" from the left seat, using flows we hadn't been taught and weren't expected to know. I'm afraid we weren't always horribly helpful to each other. Fortunately we got a fully qualified captain to sit in the left seat during our checkrides. At NewCo I'm also paired with a new hire; we're both being qualified as Captains but also have to learn First Officer duties, so our time in the right seat won't be wasted.

The first simulator session is typically spent just getting to know the airplane, usually flying a normal flight with nothing inoperative. That's about the last time you'll fly with everything working until you get to the line! Subsequent sessions are chock-full of engine failures, fires, electrical emergencies, rapid depressurizations, landing gear malfunctions, and more than a few simple glitches to serve as potential distractions. In modern aircraft there is a large emphasis placed on proper management of automation, including the autoflight and flight management systems. You can be the sharpest stick since Chuck Yeager and still fail out of flight training if you don't know exactly how to make the "black boxes" do what you want them to.

In a traditional training program, you would have five to ten simulator sessions of several hours each before your Proficiency Check. This is basically an ATP checkride; in fact, if the type rating requires an ATP certificate and the candidate has only their Commercial certificate, the Pro Check will be given by an Air Crew Pilot Designee (APD) and considered the equivalent of an ATP checkride. Although the Pro Check of course carries an inherent amount of stress with it, in reality it's more laid back than the previous training sessions, because you know exactly what maneuvers need to be completed and you'll usually have but two engine failures: one high-speed abort and one failure just after V1 followed by a single-engine approach. Once the Pro Check is complete, you are issued your brand new type rating and are ready to go fly the real airplane.

AQP programs differ from traditional initial training programs in that there is no single climactic checkride but rather a series of "validations" throughout the training. At NewCo we have our Systems & Procedures Validation (SPV, ie the oral) after the four IPT sessions; my SPV is scheduled for next Monday. After that we do five simulator sessions and then a Flight Maneuvers Validation (FMV), which is similar to a Pro Check but may be conducted by an instructor rather than a check airman or APD. Then we run several LOFT (Line Oriented Flight Training) scenarios in the IPTs and one in the sim before our final checkride, the LOE (Line Oriented Evaluation). The LOFT and LOE sessions are basically normal line flights that never have anything major go wrong, just little things that have a way of building on each other and forcing the crew to exercise their decision making and CRM skills. This is considered the type ride and is conducted by a check airman or ADP. The use of LOFT is not exclusive to AQP programs (Horizon had one LOFT session between the Pro Check and IOE) but the emphasis on making flight training more geared towards the challenges of real life line flying is an AQP hallmark.

After your Proficiency Check or LOE is complete, the last step to becoming a fully line-qualified pilot is Initial Operating Experience, or IOE. At long last, you finally get to fly the real airplane for the first time - with paying passengers on board, no less! No matter how thorough your simulator training was, IOE can be a pretty stressful experience. It's pretty funny, because you're finally flying around with both engines operating and nothing on fire, yet you'll get freaked out by something as simple as being cleared for a visual approach. Who practices visual approaches in a sim!? You're with a check airman, though, and they're good at getting you squared away on normal line operations in short order. Once the check airman is confident that you know what you're doing, they or another check airman will conduct a line check over one leg. Assuming you don't screw something up badly, that will be your final signoff from training and you're free to start getting used and abused by crew scheduling.

Next post: Training Days Part II: Transition, Upgrade, & Recurrent Training.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Catchup Time

Yikes. This is my second post of the month and it's the 21st. I've been slacking. I had thought that with all the exciting life/career changes I'd have lots to blog about, but it turns out I've been fairly preoccupied with said life/career changes.

And the short trip I mentioned in my last post. My buddy and I did make it to Frankfurt on the flight we were trying for (90+ open seats!) and had a good time spending a few days around Bacharach. The weather was pretty typical for Europe in the fall - overcast, a little chilly, some rain, some fog, some sun - but it rained in Portland the whole time so I figure I came out ahead. Besides - gloomy, misty weather is better for exploring ruined castles, at least from an atmospheric standpoint.

We had some excitement getting home. Because NewCo is so new, we don't have many reciprocal jumpseat agreements yet. My buddy had lots of options - United, Delta, USAir, Continental - that I didn't have. For me, it had to be RedCo or Air Canada, and RedCo only has one flight a day from Frankfurt - which was full on the day we were coming home. Air Canada has several flights, including one to Toronto that was wide open, so I decided to try for that.

International jumpseating always involves the risk of running into gate agents who don't know the procedures, and in this case the fact that Air Canada's reciprocal jumpseat program is fairly new made it virtually certain that we'd run into problems. Sure enough, the gate agent had no clue about jumpseating and told us in no uncertain terms that we could not sit in the cabin without a paper ticket of some sort (nonrev pass). We tried to explain the procedures relayed to us by Air Canada's jumpseat coordinator, but she was adamant that we were wrong and told us to get lost while she closed the flight. I stepped back from the gate, intending to speak to her after the flight left in hopes of clearing things up so I could catch the next Air Canada flight. She tapped away on her computer for a while and then abruptly said, "OK, I'm putting you on. Do not come back here without a paper ticket, ever." My buddy and I couldn't believe our ears. We grabbed the boarding passes, thanking the gate agent profusely, and raced down the jetway. We didn't breathe again until the 777 pushed back from the gate.

The same day I got back from Germany, the HR department at NewCo called me and asked if they could move my week of classroom training up one week, to 15 Oct. At that point I was already three quarters of the way through the CBT training, so I readily agreed - especially since that meant I'd be getting paid full-time a week sooner!

I didn't have any luck selling the house. There are no two ways about it: the housing market sucks for sellers right now, and the early onset of poor weather in the Pacific Northwest didn't help matters at all. We got a few nibbles but nobody is in much of a hurry to buy...the few buyers out there are just laying back, waiting for the perfect house at the perfect price to come along. They'll get it, too - there's a ton of inventory and prices are starting to come down. We listed with a real estate agent shortly before I left Portland. Trying to sell by owner was basically a waste of six weeks time. Live and learn, I guess.

The Computer Based Training was all pretty easy. I feel like I still have a lot to learn on the JungleBus, especially concerning the FMS and autoflight systems, but I understand they cover it pretty thoroughly in Montreal, and there's a lot of down time to study on your own. The JungleBus is a very different airplane from the Q400, and the systems should provide some good fodder for future blog posts.

I just finished the week of training in Minneapolis. It was a combination of CBT review, subjects that the FAA requires extra emphasis in (CFIT, runway incursion avoidance, HAZMAT), sensitive material they don't want floating around (security), and hands-on training that can't be accomplished via distance learning (emergency equipment). There were five other guys in my class; because I was moved up, I hadn't met any of them before. All have significant flying experience. In fact, I'm the only person without turbine PIC time. Four of us have flown for another regional airline, and five of us are former freight dogs. The other one flew F-15s for the Air Force for 12 years. It's good to hear NewCo is attracting experienced pilots, because we're not going to have much time to get up to speed with the airplane before we're upgraded to Captain.

We bid for IPT/sim schedules in Montreal based on seniority. Because I was moved up a week, I was junior except for the Air Force guy, who was moved up two weeks. The four senior people bid together, so there was one line left over for the Air Force guy and I, making us sim partners. He has actually been away from flying for several years but seems like a very sharp guy. He told me he'd be picking my brain on FMS/autoflight stuff, which is fine by me - he's now my go-to guy on high altitude/high speed aerodynamics! Interestingly, he already "knew" me - he and his wife read this blog, and he also recognized me from an aviation message board. Small world indeed.

I'll be heading to Montreal tomorrow. If the schedule is correct, I'll be there until just after Thanksgiving. I found out that my first flights in the airplane (IOE) will be in the left seat, acting as Captain. That should happen sometime in early December.

I'll be studying plenty in Montreal but I should have enough down time to explore the city. I've never been there but I hear it's beautiful - and a good time, too. I'll hopefully find some time to blog, too. My next post will be about airline training in general, since I've been using a lot of terms and acronyms that may not be familiar to the general aviation pilot.