Friday, February 22, 2008

Settling In & Moving Out

As of today, I have 161 hours in the JungleBus. While I'm a long ways from "experienced" in the airplane, I've moved beyond the beginner stage where you have to think about everything you do to the level of familiarity where at least routine procedures become second nature. It's a comforting feeling for a pilot: an airplane that once seemed foreign, clumsy, even intimidating becomes as familiar as one's own home. Just as you can find your way to the bathroom or refrigerator in pitch black darkness, or know exactly where your floor will creak, a pilot develops instinctive motor memory for a machine he's been flying for a while. I'm at the point where merely thinking "altitude" sends my hand stretching for the altitude selector, while the mention of speed guides it to the speed selector knob two inches to the left. Now, any familiar airplane can become unfamiliar again in a hurry by doing something you've never seen it do or being put in a situation it wasn't designed for. But at least having a firm grasp on normal operations better equips you to recognize and deal with those abnormal situations.

After six weeks of nothing but Saskatoon hi-speeds, the MSP-YXE-MSP route was getting a little too familiar to me! Thankfully, I was able to trade away the last two weeks of February for a four day trip plus a few Vancouver turn daytrips. That four day trip was interesting. It was mostly east coast flying out of Detroit, so I went to a lot of airports I've never been to before (DTW, CLT, PIT, BNA, ORF, OKC). It's nice to see we do have a system outside of Minnesota & Saskatchewan! The airports are pretty easy to get used to (standard signage and good airport diagram charts go a long way) but all the unfamiliar VOR names had me referencing enroute charts rather frequently. I also got a refresher lesson in U.S. geography since I haven't spent much time on the east coast. Winter weather with widespread cloud cover cut down on scenery watching, but I did enjoy a nice low-level tour of Chesapeake Bay on the way into Norfolk, VA the other day. It was my first time to Virginia. Norfolk seemed much nicer than its gritty reputation, from the air at least.

We're settling into our apartment pretty well now. Aggressive craigslisting has furnished our apartment with some cool stuff on the cheap. I joke to Dawn that our place could be the craigslist equivalent of an IKEA showroom. I'm getting familiar with the watering holes and coffee shops within walking distance, and have a pretty good system for getting myself to and from work via public transit. I'm pretty sure we're going to sell my Blazer and get by on one car. I may get a motorcycle come summer. Although I complain constantly about the Minnesota weather, and I do miss the Pacific Northwest, in a certain way it's been exciting to go about building a new life for ourselves in Minneapolis.

At the moment, Dawn and I are back at our townhouse in Vancouver, WA. For the last two days we've packed up the remainder of our belongings and loaded them onto a U-Haul truck; tomorrow we'll be driving to Minnesota. Yes, the townhouse finally sold. Last week on Wednesday we got a full price offer with no contingencies. In today's real estate environment, we consider ourselves very f0rtunate to be selling our house for quite a bit more than we bought it for in 2005. The house passed inspection and the buyer's financing appears to be on track so we decided to take advantage of a 5 day gap in my schedule to move everything back to Minneapolis. Our place is utterly empty right now; it already feels like someone else's house. I have a lot of good memories in this place so it's hard to leave, but I remind myself that very little of that life remains here, so lingering is useless.

A few readers seem to have misinterpreted a comment I made in a previous post about my impending captainhood. No, I'm still a First Officer. However, an award for 24 new captains is coming out in a few days, and as I'm 15 from the top of the FO list I assume I'll be on it. Unless something changes, it's looking like I'll be a Captain at NewCo sometime in March.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Q400 Retrospective Gallery

Unlike Horizon, Newco has a fairly specific employee internet policy. It does not directly prohibit blogging but does forbid the internet posting of pictures that include any visible portion of a company uniform or aircraft livery. That's crimping my style in the photoblogging department a bit. Fortunately, my separation from Horizon means that I'm able to post all the pictures I wasn't free to put on this blog when I worked there. I've searched the dusty shelves of my photo archives and picked my favorite Horizon Q400 pics. Some of these were posted before in the first year of the blog but were taken down after I removed references to Horizon.













Friday, February 08, 2008

Curmudgeonly Advice from a 26 Yr Old

A while ago, a fellow airline pilot told me emphatically that "if I knew then what I know now, there is no way I would have gone into this stupid industry." That got me thinking. This pilot started flying about the same time I did, although his airline career began a few years before mine. He, like I, chose an aviation career at a time when senior airline captains were commanding salaries into the $300,000 range, major airlines were hiring like mad, and aviation analysts were predicting a severe pilot shortage stretching on into the foreseeable future. At that time - the late 90s - "airline pilot" was an enticing career indeed, and it was an easy decision to make for many of us who were young and enthusiastic about aviation. Since then, we've seen a major terrorist attack involving the airlines, a recession, a ton of lengthy furloughs, bankruptcies, an unbroken string of concessionary contracts, the outsourcing of much of the airlines' capacity to low-paid regionals, a few mergers and the threat of more, a likely second recession, and now the slowing of retirements due to a change in the retirement age. All of this has served to take the luster out of a once lucrative profession. I personally don't regret going into aviation because the primary attraction for me - the actual flying - is still as enjoyable as it was when I chose this career. That said, if I had a crystal ball back around 1998, and knew what was going to happen to this industry, it is quite likely that I would've pursued my other interests at the time and gone into law or perhaps architecture.

Over the time I've been writing this blog, I've come to realize that many of my readers are new or prospective pilots considering a career in aviation. Although I originally set out to write for the traveling public, I've come to accept this demographic as my "target audience," if you will, and tend to write with them in mind. I've written about the changes the profession has seen, the challenges we face, the downsides to the job that aren't always apparent to outsiders. My goal has become to educate those entering the industry, giving them a realistic perspective that is seldom provided by the flight training industry. Throughout all this, however, I've tried to avoid advising my readers for or against a career in aviation. Now, though, I'm ready to revise my neutrality.

If you are considering a career in aviation, here's my honest advice: you should absolutely go for it.

I haven't gone off my rocker; hear me out. If you've been paying attention the last seven years or so, you've seen the very worst that the industry can dish out. If you've seen all that and still want to be an airline pilot, it is for the very best reason: a love of flight and a wish to make it an integral part of your life. From where the profession is now, I fail to see how things can get much worse. Salaries can't get much lower without pilots quitting in droves. Major airline pilots are finally realizing what a threat outsourcing is and are unwilling to let another slice of the pie go to regional carriers. All signs are that the global demand for air travel will continue to increase precipitously; while many pilot retirements have perhaps been deferred five years, they will continue apace after then. The problem for pilots of my generation is that we've only seen things get worse. For someone starting out now that has a clearheaded idea of where the industry is at now, things can only get better.

Furthermore, those starting now have a few advantages that those of us starting in the 90s did not have. A pilot starting today will not have to flight instruct for long; they will likely not have to fly freight. You will very likely be able to get a job flying a modern jet airliner with only a few hundred hours in your logbook. While I have delineated the reasons this is perhaps not favorable for the traveling public or the captains you'll be flying with, it really is good for you. Flight instructing and freight dogging are both hard, occasionally dangerous, often low-paid jobs. Those of us who did these jobs for years will point out that they provided excellent experience, and that's true - but this experience came at a price in both money and time lost. Some people paid the ultimate price; I knew several people who lost their lives while building experience for an aviation career. If you play your cards right, you have a shot at skipping this stage for a much easier job at a regional airline with a seniority number that will let you upgrade in only a few years with a shot at the majors shortly thereafter.

I'm not saying that your aviation career will be all roses; I'm not even saying that it's a good idea in all circumstances. I'm saying that if you love flying and want to make a career of it, this isn't a bad time to do it. I do, however, have some provisos for you:

1. Don't go deep into debt for flight training. Aviation is not as well paid as it used to be and with the greater expense of training it is no longer a great return on investment; therefore it makes sense to be frugal. I went deep into debt for training and if I have any great regret about my aviation career, that's it. I can tell you from experience that it is very tough to be paying $750+ per month in student loans on regional airline first officer pay. Skip the big name aviation colleges, whatever advantage they had in getting you an airline job in the past is gone now because the regionals are taking anyone with a commercial certificate and a pulse. Go for the cheap mom-n-pop flight school but beg for the best flight instructor you can find. Spread your flight training out over time if necessary to avoid going into debt; I personally think it's still going to be a few years before we see a real turnaround at the airlines, so take your time and sit out the rest of this downturn.

2. Study your butt off. Realize that you will be going to the regional airlines at a far lower level of experience than those before you, and you need to make up for your low experience with a high level of knowledge. Get your hands on every aviation text you can and talk to experienced aviators at every opportunity. There are a lot of opportunities for networking with airline pilots that weren't available a few years ago, such as aviation message boards. Make it a point to learn not only about the technicalities of flying but also the history and responsibilities of your chosen profession.

3. Be choosey about the regional airline that you fly for. In the past the conventional wisdom was that you take the first seniority number that comes your way but these days they're all hurting for qualified applicants. Your ideal airline is the one that offers the best combination of quick advancement and good pay/working conditions. My years at Horizon are a good example of how great pay and working conditions are all for naught if there's no advancement, but a bottom-feeder airline that uses and abuses you will kill your love of aviation and the fast advancement is a moot point then, too. Find a happy medium.

4. Keep a humble attitude. You will be flying with captains like me who flight instructed and flew freight for years to get on with a regional. We'll be a little skeptical of first officers who waltzed into their first job with a few hundred hours of flight time, but the only people we'll really have a hard time with are those who think they know it all. I remember how confident I was at 500 hours and how it seemed that there was little left to learn; only since have I realized how little I knew. Be as helpful as you can be to your captain, but realize that your first year or so as a first officer is really just another step in your training; keep an open mind and stay trainable.

5. Be involved in your profession. You need to realize that while the aviation industry will turn around, airline management will do their utmost to ensure that only they and the stockholders whom they have a fiduciary duty to will reap the benefits of the turnaround. It is up to you to ensure that pilots also benefit. Whatever your thoughts on unions, they are the only mechanism pilots have to look out for their interests in this cutthroat industry, and they cannot function effectively without an involved membership. Do your part.

One last piece of advice: be willing to relocate globally. The greatest expansion in aviation, and the greatest shortage of qualified pilots, is outside the US and Europe. The Middle East and Asia, particularly, are full of lucrative opportunities for qualified pilots and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Those with the greatest flexibility towards seeking work overseas will be the most able to withstand further instability in the aviation industry in western countries.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Wintertime

It's snowing in Minneapolis. An hour ago huge flakes were blowing sideways and obscuring even the shops across the street; now the wind has died down and the snowfall looks more picturesque than malevolent. Either way, I'm glad to see snow. Without new snowfall, the snowbanks turn into ugly barricades of ice, sand, and salt. More importantly, snow in Minnesota heralds the arrival of "warm" weather, 29 degrees F today. When we have long winter stretches without snow, it's usually because the atmosphere is too cold to carry enough moisture for significant snowfall. We've had several weeks of frigid weather with a few Alberta clippers that combine gusty winds with bitter temperatures for days on end of wind chills in the -30 F and colder range.

This would be a superb time to bid four day trips with overnights exclusively south of the Mason-Dixon line, but in my infinite wisdom I bid a line that contained nothing but hi-speeds to the one place we fly in North America that's colder than Minneapolis: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Saskatoon redefines the word cold. Last Wednesday we spent the day there with a broken airplane. When we finally ferried it out at 8pm, the airport was reporting -37C (-35F), which is only three degrees from the JungleBus' minimum temperature for takeoff. The wind chill was -52C (-62F). I offered to Paper-Rock-Scissors the Captain for the preflight inspection, since that's our standard method of determining who flies which leg; he just laughed at me so I dutifully grabbed my flimsy pilot cap and headed out into the maelstrom. I returned a few minutes later without any feeling in my ears, nose, or face.

I'm apparently a glutton for punishment because I bid the exact same line for February. I didn't really want to, but it was the one line I could hold that had the days off I absolutely needed off (Dawn's birthday & my sister's wedding). I then set about trading away as many hi-speeds as I could in exchange for warmer overnights - which would be just about anywhere. In the end I only gained Pittsburg, Nashville, and Detroit overnights and accidentally scheduled myself to fly during the weekend I was hoping to go to Florida with Dawn and her parents. My trip-trading technique at NewCo can obviously use some improvement. I do have five days off at the end of the month; an airline buddy and I are talking about going to Mexico for a few days. I think after another month of Saskatoon that'd be a very welcome change of scenery.

Other than the cold preflights, winter flying isn't all bad. The plane performs pretty well in the cold air. The stronger, more southerly jetstream can make for bumpy rides but the JungleBus usually has the performance to climb to smooth air; it's nice not cruising through the tops at FL250 all winter like you'd do in the Q400. Frequent deicing can be a pain from a keeping-the-schedule standpoint but our flights are long enough that we can make up most of the time by cruising at Mach .78 or .80 rather than the planned .76. I imagine that monster lines of thunderstorms in the summer carry more potential for schedule disruption. There are more low instrument approaches and crosswind landings than you'd expect in the summer but I'm glad to get that experience in the plane before I upgrade.

Besides all the north-of-the-border flying, I got a healthy dose of winter driving on a cross-country road trip the weekend before last. Dawn and I have been living in her aunt's basement since I came back from Montreal, a rather less-than-idea living arrangement. We've been looking to get our own place, but our budget is rather limited given that we're still paying the mortgage on our still-unsold townhouse. We ended up getting a two-bedroom apartment with a single college friend of mine who just started flying for NewCo. His Subaru was still in Washington while he was in Montreal; once he was done, I met him in WA to bring back the car, which had every square inch of cargo space packed with his stuff and ours, as well as a monstrous roof bag. We detoured up to White Pass to go skiing with his cousin, and then set out at about 8pm Saturday with the intention of driving straight through to Minneapolis.

We managed to time it just right to be driving through the middle of a major winter storm for the first 500 miles. The snow was dumping in the Cascades, then a sleety mix near Ellensburg, then snow again at Moses Lake and rain on top of previous snowfall in Spokane, a slushy mix that started freezing as soon as we started climbing into the Bitterroots past Coeur d'Alene. It was harrowing for a while until we got high enough that it was pure snow, no ice. Dan's all-wheel drive Subaru performed admirably. Dan woke up and took over the driving duties for me at Lookout Pass, ID, which we crested around 3AM. I settled into the passenger seat and fell fast asleep.

I woke up an hour later to Dan's exclamation, "Oh #%#!!!" as the car slid sideways straight into I-90's center meridian ditch. We were still going about 30 mph when we hit the snowbank and the car plowed about 20 feet into the ditch before grinding to a halt. Dan tried reversing without any movement. We were stuck fast. I got out and pushed, to no avail. It was sleeting outside; we had again descended to an altitude where freezing rain on top of previous snow made the roads absolutely treacherous. A snowplow stopped and called the state patrol for us; I suggested that we see if we couldn't dig out the car. We didn't have a shovel so I used Dan's snowboard to scoop most of the snow away, and then Dan used an ice scraper to break through the bottom layer of snow and ice to give the tires traction against bare dirt. We scooped as much snow from under the car as we could, and then cleared a path ahead and behind it so that by rocking the car and pushing we were able to dislodge it from where the undercarriage was hung up on the snowbank and clear that spot out so we had about a 30' clearway where the car was fairly free to move. Then we scooped and stomped a path up to the shoulder of the highway. I moved the car to the very back of the cleared area and got as much speed as I could before we hit the second path and the car had just enough momentum to claw its way up the path and onto the shoulder. After 90 minutes of shoveling heavy, wet snow in sleet and rain, we were exhausted, soaked, and exuberant. We stopped in Missoula to change into dry clothes and have breakfast. The weather was decent the rest of the way, but the trip took 29 hours instead of the usual 22 and we pulled into Minneapolis at 3am on Monday morning.

The moral of this story? If you're tempted to drive cross-country in the middle of the winter, don't. RedCo will fly you there in a fraction of the time for less than the cost of gas. Heck, half the time I think they'll charge you less than their cost of gas! [/shameless plug]

Blogging has been slow/nonexistent because we don't have internet in our new apartment yet so my only internet access is on my short overnights or during visits to Caribou Coffee. Heck, we don't really have furniture yet. The apartment is still mostly bare, a somewhat depressing sight. So much of this move has felt like moving backwards: back to first year FO pay, back to frigid Minnesota, back to living with roommates in a rented apartment. At least one thing is moving forward: my seniority. Another eight first officers are upgrading in February so I now have only 14 FOs above me. NewCo has moved up several deliveries and has begun several lines of flying more quickly than expected, so they're finally getting thin on Captains. It looks like I'll indeed be upgrading in April or even March. On Captain pay I'll be able to afford some furniture for the apartment and perhaps even internet access for more regular blogging!

Final amusing winter flying story: the day that we were stuck in Saskatoon, the plane was down on maintenance due to a leak in the crew oxygen system. The oxygen quantity went below minimum for dispatch just as we were getting ready to push back. The contract maintenance worker was able to refill the bottle within an hour but there was still a leak in the system; the captain and I weren't willing to fly it without knowing the location and cause of the leak. If it was from the oxygen bottle or associated plumbing, that's in the forward cargo compartment and it could create an oxygen-rich environment in that compartment (can you say ValuJet?). The mechanic mentioned that he's seen many bottles leak in bitter cold temperatures like those we were experiencing in Saskatoon, and went down to the cargo compartment to find the leak. He returned a short time later to say he couldn't find the leak using the standard method. The reason? The normal procedure is to spray water on the fittings and look for bubbles, but at -37C water freezes quite instantaneously!