Sunday, June 24, 2007

Turbulence Detection Device

"When she hulas, the seatbelt sign stays on. When she falls over, the flight attendants sit."

-- A Megawhacker Captain

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Two Good Bids

I've been at my company for more than three years, and advancement has been pretty slow. I'm sitting about halfway up the list of Portland based Megawhacker First Officers. The lengthy upgrade time causes the most angst among the FOs that hope to fly for a major someday, but in the meantime low seniority also means relatively little control over my schedule. By the time that pilots senior to me have bid, all that's typically left over for me to choose between are regular lines with crappy trips and no weekends off, or else reserve. Earlier this year I bid several months of reserve to get weekends off. I flew very little on reserve, which was hard on the checkbook and a little boring, so I reluctantly went back to bidding a regular line. To my suprise, the last two bids have turned out very well for me.

Last month I got a junior line - my twenty first choice, in fact! The trips weren't that great - lots of Reno involved, egh - and they covered every single weekend. In the past, I've had little choice but to fly what I'm assigned, as trip trades require an unusually high level of reserve staffing at my airline. These days, however, we're extremely "fat" on Megawhacker FOs, allowing me to drop all my assigned trips and build myself a really decent line from the unassigned ("open time") trips. In the three years I've been here, this is actually the first time my trip trade requests were granted on the first try. It's nice to be well staffed for once!

The line that I built had all weekends off but one, with a pretty good mix of trips including an entire week of daytrips that showed at 6am and ended at 4pm. It was almost like being a normal person with a real job - right down to creeping home in rush hour traffic! One of those days ended up getting cancelled and several of the legs on other days were cancelled, which hurt my pay by putting me back down to minimum guarantee (92 hours). Unfortunately, our contract does not provide cancellation pay, one of its weaker points.

I was prepared to do the same drop-and-add routine this bid but ended up not having to. In a rather unlikely turnabout from last bid, I got my first choice - a very senior line with all Fridays and weekends off and pretty good trips. One of the very senior FOs originally picked this line as his #1 choice, which I think discouraged others from bidding it, but he changed his mind at the last minute. It screwed up everyone else's bidding, or at least those who bid based upon what lines were "taken." I usually just bid what I like regardless of whether it seems taken, and it worked out for me this time.

Being summer, I normally wouldn't even be trying to get weekends off, but Dawn is planning on teaching summer school this summer so I'm still bidding around her schedule. It does appear that we'll be well staffed for a while so I'll continue to enjoy flexibility in reworking my schedule to fit my needs. That makes being junior a lot more bearable.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Layover Routine

As much as newer flight instructors like to gripe about their job, few realize that it may be the last job in their life that allows them to sleep in their own bed every night. After flight instructing, most pilots spend a significant portion of their lives away from home. At most airlines, day trips comprise a rather small portion of the flying, and it is a senior pilot indeed that can hold a line with no overnights. The rest of us fly trips that range anywhere from two to six days long - or, for international flying, even longer. At my airline, the vast majority of the Megawhacker trips are four days long. A typical schedule has one such trip each week, so many of our pilots are spending 150 nights per year away from home.

The shortest a layover is normally scheduled for is nine hours. Now, you need to understand that this does not mean nine hours at the hotel. It means nine hours from release time (15 minutes after block-in) until show time (45 minutes before block-out). Hotel transportation to and from the airport can eat up an hour or more when we stay far from the airport or when the van is late (dismally often). Finding a bite to eat at an ungodly hour can take time. You need to allow time in the morning to shower, groom, and dress. A nine hour layover actually means six hours of sleep or so. If followed by an easy day that might be enough, but most airlines consider only legality when building their schedules. A 14 hour duty day followed by a nine hour rest period followed by another 14 hour duty day is legal, and it does happen. The airlines claim that's safe, but I doubt too many CEOs would put their families on a flight where they knew the pilots will be making their eighth landing of the day in tough weather on six hours of sleep.

Fortunately, nine hour "combat rest" is a pretty rare occurrence for Megawhacker pilots at my airline (it's more common on the Miniwhacker). Most of our layovers are 12 to 17 hours, with the occasional 36 hour mini vacation. These layovers let you eat and get well rested with time left over to spend as you please. Given how much we're away from home, everybody has their own routine for spending their spare time.

The first thing I do after getting into my room is shedding the monkey suit (ie, my uniform). I really don't know why, but after a day in uniform it really feels good to put on civies. Maybe I'm allergic to polyester. I pack one or two pairs of clothes for four day trips, depending on how lengthy each layover is, plus shorts and a t-shirt for working out and maybe some swim trunks if the weather is nice.

At the end of a long day of flying, scoring some grub is job one. I've discussed this in a previous post so I won't beat a dead horse too hard, but finding food late at night can be a real challenge at some layovers. Of course, if it's that late you're probably tired enough to fall asleep on a grumbling stomache. Many crew members pack food with them, at least for the first few days. I've started to do this myself lately. It's far easier on the pocket book than eating out all the time, it's mostly better for you, and it eliminates the problem of having to run into the terminal for food and dashing back to the plane on a 30 minute turn.

Many crewmembers consider exercise to be a requirement for every layover. I find this to be most prevalent among svelte young flight attendants, even though the aging potbellied pilots are far more in need of it. Really, our job is so sedentary that any exercise you get is going to make a big improvement to your long term health. Most of our hotels have exercise rooms, although the quality of the equipment varies.

Of course, many crewmembers make a point of regularly partaking in the "16 oz workout" - repeatedly lifting their favorite adult beverage in the hotel bar. Stricter company alcohol policies and FAA enforcement have cut down on the drinking on short overnights, but on longer layovers there's plenty of time for a brew or two. Crew hotels often have contracts with more than one airline, so it's a good place to meet pilots from other airlines. You won't have trouble recognizing who they are, particularly if you're in Sacramento on R&B night (they're the only middle aged white guys wearing jeans in a sea of sharply dressed, predominantly black younger folks).

Many pilots and FAs bring their computers with them. For most, it's for entertainment and staying in touch with the fam. A few of the smartest crewmembers have businesses on the side that they can work on during their layovers. I volunteer for our union in a few different capacities and tend to do this work on the road. Of course, I started this blog as something for me to do on layovers, but I've recently found that I do more of my blogging at home between trips.

I personally like getting out and exploring at layovers. I've done a lot of hiking around Helena, and also at Missoula, Sun Valley, Butte, Boise, and others. I've rented a car in Redmond and Reno to drive up into the mountains to hike. I've been waiting for a long layover on a nice day in Arcata with a cool crew to take them sailing. Every time I'm in Spokane, I walk downtown for superb BBQ and peach cobbler at Chicken-N-More.

When weather or my own sloth keeps me indoors, I tend to read a lot, assuming I've brought a good book with me. Otherwise I chat with friends online and get myself into a funk over the state of the industry by reading Flightinfo. I don't watch very much TV, though. I usually end up watching CNN and that puts me into a funk over the state of the whole world.

I find that it's a lot easier to go to sleep if I'm not worried about whether I'm going to wake up. I always request a wakeup call if we have an early van, but they're not 100% reliable so I set both my watch and cell phone alarm clocks. Once in a while all three will go off simultaneously, which is good for getting me out of bed quick.

I usually give myself 30 minutes to shower, get dressed, and pack. That maximizes my sleep time and forces me to wake myself fully to get through my morning routine in time. If we're at the rare overnight that gives you free breakfast, I'll allow extra time for that - you don't want to give up free food! Many people get up early to brew coffee in the room's coffeemaker. I don't care for instant coffee so I don't bother. I've heard of people bringing oatmeal or other hot cereal and using the coffeemaker to heat water to cook it with. There are other layover tricks, such as draping wet towels over the heater to act as a humidifier.

Before I leave my room, I take one last lap to make sure I didn't leave anything. It's really easy to do - I've forgotten my ID badge twice in three years, among other things. Then it's down to the van, hopefully on time so your fellow crewmembers aren't scowling at you when you board.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Flows & Checklists

There are many things about airline flying that are very different from GA flying. You often cannot apply techniques from one to the other. I'm reminded of a Piper Aztec crash about 50 years ago. It was being flown by a TWA Constellation pilot and two other TWA pilots were riding along when they lost an engine shortly after takeoff. The airplane wasn't climbing well - the first Aztecs had only 150 hp per side - so the pilots applied the engine-out technique used in the Constellation: deploying the flaps. The results were predictable and an aviation truism was born: "The only thing more dangerous than an airline pilot in a light plane is two airline pilots in a light plane." That said, there is one area of airline operations that GA pilots would do well to mimic: our usage of flow patterns and checklists.

Most GA instructors do teach their students to use checklists, but they are most often taught as "do-lists." In other words, as you read each item, you flip the switch, adjust the knob, or read the gauge that it directs you to. This can be cumbersome, as your attention is continually flitting between the checklist and the instrument panel, and longer checklists can take a long time to work through. Many pilots stop using checklists as soon as they have the procedures memorized and they're out of their instructor's watchful gaze. When I was an active CFI, I found that advanced students who'd been flying on their own for long had to be cajoled and threatened into consistent checklist usage.

At the airlines, the desire to keep one's job provides ample motivation to use checklists and comply with the other dictates of standardization. Fortunately, we have a pretty good system of checklist usage. They tend to be fairly short given the level of complexity in our cockpits. If it's not important, it's left off the checklist, and if a number of switches can be grouped into one item, they are (de-ice boots, prop anti-ice, pitot-static heat, and windshield heat are all grouped under "Ice Protection," for example). Furthermore, checklists are actually used as checklists, not do-lists. You first configure the airplane appropriately for the stage of flight and then read the checklist to verify that the listed items have been accomplished.

"But wait!" you protest. "My instructor told me not to memorize the checklist!" Well, your instructor told you that so you wouldn't ditch the checklist the moment he was out of the plane! If you're using the checklist to verify everything, it's perfectly acceptable to accomplish the procedures by memory. At the airlines, we memorize every procedure for each normal stage of flight, on airplanes considerably more complex than the average light plane. Now, the best of us occasionally miss items, but that's what the checklist is for. Another tool we have to help us remember the procedures are flow patterns.

A flow pattern is simply a logical pathway across the panel or panels that will guide you to the systems that need reconfiguring for each phase of flight. Each phase of flight will have a different flow pattern, but they often follow roughly the same order. Here's a picture of the First Officer's "Before Start" flow pattern on the Megawhacker:

If you asked me to name each of the fourteen items that the Flight Standards manual says I should accomplish before start, I could rattle them off to you - not because I memorized a list of procedures but because I can visualize the flow pattern and know which systems it leads me to and in which order. Obviously, this works only because the flow pattern follows a logical, linear path. If it had me jumping all over the panel, it'd be worthless and I might as well remember the procedures by how they're listed in the FSM.

The airlines have full-time flight standards people to put together and revise flow patterns, procedures, and checklists. You can do it for the airplanes you fly, though. You can develop your own flow patterns, checklists, or both. The goal is to come up with something that you like and that you find easy to use consistently, and keeps your eyes out of the cockpit for more time than the system you're using now.

You'll typically design flow patterns for the following phases of flight: before start, after start, before takeoff, after takeoff, approach, before landing, after landing, and parking. I suggest you work out the flow patterns either by sitting in your cockpit or using a high resolution picture of it. For each phase of flight, trace an easy-to-remember "trail" that connects each item that needs to be checked or reconfigured in an order that makes sense. Memorize each "trail," thinking about which items you would be touching, checking, or moving along the way.

Here's a sample Before Start flow I put together for the Cessna 150:

You start at the lower left corner of the panel with the master switch (turn it on) and work your way counterclockwise. This directs you to the electrical panel (CBs in, lights as required), trim (set), throttle quadrant (throttle & mixture set for altitude & type of start), flaps (up), radios (off, ELT armed), flight instruments (clock and altimeter set) and finally back down to the lower left corner (prime as appropriate, then in and locked). You would then read a simplified Before Start checklist that ensures the major items for the start have been accomplished.

Master Switch-------ON
Lights--------------AS REQUIRED
Mixture------------ SET
Primer--------------IN & LOCKED

Note that this checklist says nothing about flaps or trims even though it's in the Before Start flow. That's because you'll also be checking them in the before takeoff flow, and then they're in the Before Takeoff checklist. You keep the checklists short and usable by including only items that are applicable to that phase of flight, even though you may be taking care of "housekeeping" items ahead of time in the flows.

The C150, like most smaller piston singles, is simple enough that you can use the same flow pattern for most phases of flight. For example, imagine how the above counterclockwise flow would cover approach items: lights set as appropriate, mixture set for density altitude, ATIS received and radios set, altimeter and DG set, primer in and locked.

I remember using an abysmally long before start checklist for the PA28 that was actually a do-list and went so far as telling you, step by step, how to start the engine. The engine on the PA28 really isn't that complicated to start - you don't need to include simple memorized procedures like this on your checklist. Now, there may be more complicated variations that you don't use often - hot or flooded starts, for example - and it's perfectly acceptable to include these on your checklists as designated do-lists.

Certain time-critical emergency procedures are memory items both in GA and at the airlines. For an engine failure at low altitude, for example, there is a procedure you should have memorized and be able to execute within seconds. These memory items should have associated checklists that can be accomplished if time permits to make sure that the appropriate actions were taken. Any emergency checklist that does not back up a memory item should be used as a do-list. If you don't have a good emergency checklist for your airplane, make one - the emergency checklists in the Pilot Operating Handbooks are typically inadequate and usually inaccessible anyways. Keep yours in a handy place and make it visible - I suggest pasting the checklist to hot pink card stock and laminating it.

Flow patterns and checklists used as checklists aren't completely foreign to General Aviation: most of the structured Part 141 training programs use them from Day One, as do more progressive FBOs and independent CFIs. If you've never used this method, I suggest you give it a try. It makes good cockpit discipline a whole lot more palatable.