Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tools of the Trade

Walk through any airport anywhere in the world and you will find pilots trudging through the terminal with their rollaboards and flight kits in tow. The fact that we're often gone from home for days on end necessitates bringing at least a few changes of clothes and some toiletries; the flight kit is needed to haul along the tools of our trade that've been largely unchanged for 70 years.

Most flight kits are simple top-loading leather cases measuring around 18 inches wide by 13 inches tall by 8 inches deep. Depending on the aircraft, each pilot's flight case is usually kept next to him throughout flight; there's often a space provided for it just outboard of each pilot seat. Between being put into and taken out of the cockpit, being dragged through crowded airports, and having luggage tossed on them in the hotel van, flight bags take a lot of abuse. For that reason, most are very sturdily built and cost between $200 and $400. These will often last 20 years or more. My flight kit is a vinyl $30 Office Depot special that's falling apart after five years of admittedly heavy use.

Many pilots adorn their flight bags with stickers. This helps differentiate your kit from the dozens of identical bags sitting next to it on the crew room racks. Many of the stickers are for companies the pilot has flown for or airplanes they have flown. Union supporters have union logos, and during negotiations it's common to see expressions of unity or slogans calculated to poke management in the eye. Anti-union types seldom have the gumption to express their opinions on their flight bag; more than one unpopular pilot has opened their kit after leaving it unattended only to find an unpleasant surprise inside. Non-aviation related stickers are fairly common; political allegiances, funny or ironic sayings, and hobbies are all popular subjects. My own flight bag has the following stickers on it: an American flag; CAE Aviation Training Montreal; Horizon Air Q400; a JungleBus; the Apple logo; Mount Hood Skibowl ("Do it under the lights!"); the Mountain Hostel of Gimmelwald, Switzerland; ALPA "Schedule with Safety"; QXTeamsters "Protect and Improve Our Contract!"; and Hyland, my little brother's rock band. It used to have an awesome sticker that said "Dash Trash: Silly Pilot, Jets are for Hot Tubs!" but that wore off from heavy use about the time I no longer qualified as Dash Trash.

Flight kits typically contain every thing the pilot will need with him in the cockpit: required equipment like charts, manuals, and headset, as well as extra things the pilot has found useful to have at hand during his working day. Some of this stays in the flight bag during flight, but there are usually favorite nooks throughout the cockpit for various items. Unpacking one's flight bag after entering the cockpit is referred to in the airline world as "building your nest."

A quick inventory of my own flight kit reveals the following contents:
Headset. I still use my trusty Peltor Sport LE, the same headset I used for flight instructing, freight dogging, and Horizon. It's an over-the-ear style passive noise reduction headset that's fairly cheap but is light, comfortable, and durable. You might be surprised that I'm still using a general aviation headset in a jet, but a great many of our pilots have stuck with their David Clarks. The JungleBus has a lot of wind noise in the cockpit; it's just slightly too loud to comfortably use the Telex Airman style headset more commonly associated with jets. I have seen several pilots use the Bose Quiet Comfort 2 earphones with the UFlyMike conversion; now that it's TSO'd, that may be my next headset.

Jepp Manuals. When I started at NewCo, we flew to so few airports that all our approach plates and en route charts fit into one 3" binder. Now the approach plates alone fill two 3" binders, with the en route charts in an additional 2" binder. These binders take up most of the space in my flight kit.

Company and Aircraft manuals. At Horizon we had to carry these around in paper format, which together with the Jepps made for some very heavy flight cases. At NewCo they are contained in the ship's library, located in a cubbyhole just behind the Captain. I do, however, keep electronic copies of the AOM & FOM on a CD-ROM in my flight kit. This way, I have the reference material on hand if a question ever comes up when we're not on the airplane (I almost always bring my MacBook with me on trips).

Flashlight. The FAA requires each crewmember to furnish their own D cell or equivalent flashlight. Mine now sees infrequent use since First Officers normally do preflights, but I turn it on once in a while to make sure the batteries are still alive.

Sunglasses. I flew for years without sunglasses and I'm not sure how I did it. My eyes are pretty sensitive to glare. The JungleBus does have good sunshades - a cool roll-up shade on each side window and removable Rosen visors for the main windscreens. I have to be careful to make sure I don't leave my sunglasses behind in the airplane, as prescription sunglasses aren't cheap to replace.

Digital Camera. You never know when you're going to see something cool from the cockpit. Sadly my camera has seen far less use at NewCo than it did at Horizon.

Extra weight & balance forms. We do our weight and balance manually and have a specific W&B form we're required to use. These are kept in the airplane but the company doesn't restock them; it's up to individual pilots to carry extras and restock the planes as necessary. This is a pet peave of mine: I regularly receive airplanes with one or two forms left. If we ran out, we'd be stuck. I've found that my FOs lately have been good about bringing extra forms, but I carry a wad of them just in case.

Atlas + misc maps. I enjoy following our progress on maps and locating major landmarks to point out to passengers. I carry the Captain's Atlas, which is a fairly basic 50 state plus Canada atlas that has VORs and airways overlaid. The scale is pretty small, though, so I also carry several free state maps I've picked up from visitor information booths over the years.

Oatmeal + Ramen. One major luxury of working for NewCo that I didn't enjoy at Horizon is getting on-board meals. However, there are no meals on flights of less than two hours, or if First Class is full and everyone wants to eat. In a pinch, instant oatmeal or Ramen requires only a cup of hot water and a spoon. Yum!

Propel water-flavoring powder. The air at FL350 is pretty dry, so you have to drink plenty of water to stay properly hydrated. I find that I drink a lot more water when it's slightly flavored. My favorite is Propel's Berry flavor, followed closely by Crystal-Lite Peach Tea.

Notebook. Recently I've changed my blogging process. I've started writing all my rough drafts in a notebook, revising it on my MacBook, and then posting the final edition within Blogger whenever I have internet access. Having the notebook at hand means I can write whenever inspiration hits; keeping it in my flight kit also gives me something to do on long legs. Interestingly enough, our company policy prohibits non-company reading materials but says nothing about writing materials!
Flight kits as we know them may soon be a thing of the past with the advent of the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB). The hardware is already in most of NewCo's aircraft; they're testing the software now and it's supposed to go live within six months. When that happens we'll no longer carry Jepp charts, which make up most of the bulk and weight of our flight bags. Even though my current flight kit is falling apart at the seams, I'm resisting buying another because the EFB will make flight bags immediately obsolete. This will be the biggest change to the load pilots carry around on their trips since overnight bags sprouted wheels. I imagine that the pilots of yore had massive biceps from wrestling control-cabled aircraft through the sky all day and then hand-carrying their luggage and flight kits through the terminal like real men ought to. If that generation was still around I'm pretty certain they'd take one look at us girly-men (and wussy-women) dragging our bags around and laugh.

On the other hand, once they saw what a shambles we've made out of the profession they worked so hard to build, perhaps they'd cry instead.


Brian said...

My wife will be so proud of your stickers... well, one of them. She grew up in Bend.

And I think the pilots of yore would encourage you to take advantage of the new technologies (perhaps they'd even be a tad jealous?). Heck, in my industry (newspapers), the fact that we didn't take advantage of emerging technologies plays a large part in the boondoggle we currently find ourselves in.

I say use it and enjoy it!

Danny Boy said...

I like the last comment. It seems to me that the "better" and "safer" the FAA makes flying, the more expensive and harder it is. I wish I had grown up in the old days when you could walk onto the tarmac and bum a lesson from some jockey and learn to fly in time. Now, we need medicals, background checks, and noone trusts the "Airport kid" anymore... Sad.

Best of luck; love the blog; and I hope I get to be flown by you one day.


Mike Roth said...

Sam, I just wanted to say great job on the blog.

I just found it in the last week or so, and have spent that time reading the entire thing. Thank you for creating this, and sticking with it through some tough times.

It's bookmarked and I'll be reading.

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