Tuesday, December 29, 2009

White Christmas

Day One

The airport at night is a dark void from the air, but down here it's lit like the proverbial Christmas tree. There are blue taxi lights, white runway lights, green centerlines, red and green navigation lights, blinking red beacons, rotating yellow beacons on ground equipment, and the ghostly glow of klieg lights on the deice ramp, all haloed with snowflakes flying past. This snowstorm is only a few hours old and already causing lots of kinks, but I can't help enjoying the bewitching atmospherics of a snowy night. It feels like Christmas. My reverie is pierced by the blinding glare of a taxi light. A company JungleBus has turned onto a taxiway perpendicular to ours and the Captain is displaying a regrettable lack of courtesy. I mumble a few words under my breath and right on cue, the light goes out, leaving me seeing stars.

When I can see again, I glance at my watch. We haven't moved an inch in ten minutes. For reasons not readily apparent to me, the powers that be have chosen to only open three lanes of the 12L deice pad for the opening salvo of the biggest Christmas storm in years. The few crews present seem to be working extraordinarily slowly: it's taken two trucks over 40 minutes to deice a 757-300. It's not snowing that hard yet. Rob speculates that the crews are intentionally working slowly to signal their displeasure with intentional short-staffing on management's part. It's plausible; the tactic isn't exactly unknown among pilots.

I started the day in darkness, too, rising some fifteen hours ago to prepare for an 8:15am show time. Dawn gave me a ride to the airport before heading to school for her last day of work before Christmas vacation. Despite my best efforts in bidding and trip trading, I'd been unable to get Christmas off, so Dawn would be heading to her parents house in South Dakota after school tonight. I look out at a rapidly drifting snowbank by the taxiway and hope she stays safe on the lonely country roads west of Alexandria.

Our earlier roundtrip to Jacksonville passed smoothly and quickly. The winds aloft were unusually southerly, ensuring a fast return leg and signaling the size and strength of the approaching low. The subsequent three hours of unpaid "airport appreciation time" seemed longer than the six hours to and from JAX, particularly since our crew room has no sleeping facilities or even couches to rest on (our former chief pilot, when asked about this, reportedly replied that he didn't want crews fornicating in the crew room!). I'm definitely getting tired. I yawn, stretch, and look outside again to spy the A320 ahead of us creeping forward. I drop the parking brake and roll a few feel closer to the deice pad.

An hour later, we roar down a quite snow-covered 12L, reach V1 mercifully quickly - I'd rather not abort in these conditions - and bound into a night sky full of snowflakes whipping past our landing lights. It took an hour and a half to taxi out and deice for a thirty minute flight! Now there is plenty for me to do. As we pass through 18,000 feet, I complete the climb checklist, stow my Minneapolis charts and retrieve those for Madison, complete the flight release, and begin preparing for the approach into Madison. Over 100 miles out, I pick up the latest weather: a relatively high ceiling and three miles visibility, but a nasty gusting crosswind, an ugly mix of snow pellets and freezing drizzle, and worse yet, runway friction readings around .28 Mu. This is on the low side of "poor" braking action and approaching "nil," which we cannot land in. I check the weather at Green Bay, our alternate; it's still holding up, so I have an easy out if Madison gets any worse. As we begin our descent into Madison, I use Comm 2 to call the tower directly to inquire about the latest field conditions. They inform me that the runway is being plowed and sanded as we speak, and new and improved braking numbers are forthcoming. Sure enough, within a few minutes Madison Approach passes along friction readings around .40, still slick but a lot better than .28.

Descending through 5000 feet, we pass through a layer of warm air, and rain pelts our windshield. The massive low is sucking in warm, moist air from the gulf, which is resulting in sleet and freezing rain over a wide area around Chicago tonight. Another two thousand feet lower, we encounter colder air and the rain pings sharper against the fuselage and runs sluggishly up the windscreen before freezing on every unprotected spot. Freezing rain is the bane of every pilot; no aircraft, however well equipped, can withstand it for long. We request short vectors, the controller obliges, and soon we are bumping down the glideslope to Runway 36. It's a wild ride but Rob handles it well, making an textbook crosswind landing.

Upon touchdown, Rob uses full reverse thrust, as is normal procedure on a contaminated runway, but it seems to me like he's being awfully light on the brakes. Once I take control, I discover why; there is very little braking action to be had. However recently it was plowed, this runway is slick. I slow to a nearly complete halt before gingerly edging the tiller over for a careful turn off the runway. As we pull up to the gate, we are two hours late. The passengers are nonetheless unfailingly polite and grateful as they deplane.

I call the crew hotel for a pickup after putting the airplane to bed, only to learn that the company has not booked us rooms there. In fact, the receptionist informs me that the same thing happened last night and the crew stayed on the Captain's credit card - but that's not possible tonight, for they are fully booked. I call crew scheduling; the supervisor tells me he will contact our hotel booker right away and get right back to me. Fifteen minutes pass; I call crew scheduling back and get a voicemail message. Suddenly, the hotel van is there; we file out into the snow and the driver announces that he is picking up the NewCo crew. We get in, and we no sooner drive off than the driver gets a call from the front desk: it's a mistake, we're not coming to that hotel, we're supposed to be at their sister hotel across town. The driver gamely agrees to take us there, but we've barely left the airport property before crew scheduling finally calls back to say that the hotel booker swears up and down that we should have reservations at the first hotel but he is finding us a new place as we speak. Back to the airport we go.

The van has just disappeared when crew scheduling calls to reveal our new hotel: the one the driver had just been bringing us to! I wearily call the hotel directly to request pickup. Sorry, says the receptionist - we have no driver, we require a 24 hour notice for airport pickup. I sprint outside to see the very last of the taxi cabs departing with the last of our passengers. Another call to crew sked, another apology, another promise to get things fixed right away - and ten minutes later, rooms have magically opened up at the first hotel! What a goat rope.

It takes a while for the van to come back for us, and then it's a twenty minute drive to the hotel through deserted, slickened streets flanked by tall snowbanks. By the time I get in my room and wearily strip off my uniform, it's 11:30pm, and we've been on the ground an hour and a half. Having been on duty some fifteen hours, we are now on a reduced-rest overnight, a good portion of which was spent waiting for the hotel van. I wonder what tomorrow's passengers would think about their pilot landing in a snowstorm after five and a half hours sleep to recuperate from nineteen hours of wakefulness. It's perfectly legal - you can thank the spineless FAA and morally bankrupt airline management for that. At the end of the day, though, I'm the Captain, and if I feel too fatigued to fly safely, I won't. For exercising this discretion, I would face the very real possibility of being called into the chief pilot's office to explain what personal problems are preventing me from being properly rested for work. I collapse wearily into bed and try to calm myself enough to sleep. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.

To Be Continued....

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Wild Coast, Part 2

Day Three.

Having "slept in" until 7:15 am, it was already light out when we woke up and began packing. I was happy to see that my fears about somebody stealing or harming the BMW during the night were apparently unfounded. After topping off the 4.4 gallon gas tank (a frequent chore, since that equals 175 miles range when fully loaded, 2-up) and taking a few wrong turns in finding an onramp to US-101, we were headed southward by 8:15. My original plan was to take US-101 to Salinas and then jump over to Monterey for the day's main course, Route 1 through the Big Sur area. Unlike the roads I'd been on further north, I knew this stretch of coastline fairly well, and was looking forward to riding it on motorbike for the first time. I wanted to have enough time to enjoy it without worrying about arriving at my destination after dark for the third straight night.

Alas, my curiosity and dislike of freeways teamed up to prompt me to abandon the plan in a snap decision. I saw the sign for Route 92 to Half Moon Bay and decided to take it, having flown into Half Moon Bay but never driven Route 1 between there and Monterey. It turned out to be a nice ride, not jaw-droppingly scenic like later portions of Route 1 but laid back and certainly a big improvement on stark freeway views. Riding without the benefit of chaps or riding boots, Dawn was grateful for a respite from the icy blast of morning air at 70 mph.

We stopped for donuts in Santa Cruz and gas in Carmel, and were off on the fabled road to Big Sur by 11am. Having been on this section of Route 1 a number of times, I recognized the landmarks, yet the road itself felt unfamiliar. I recalled it being slower, twistier, and in poorer condition. Another trick of memory, recent improvements, or the entirely different experience of riding it on two wheels? Before the road was the means of getting from one scenic splendor to the next, now a primary attraction in its own right. I found myself getting into the rhythm of the road again, and I could feel Dawn right there with me, leaning when I leaned, anticipating each move and bracing accordingly. The K100 has been noted for being a superior 2-up bike; I'd even say it handles better with the extra weight.

Around a left-hand bend, another panoramic vista unfolds; I roll on the throttle to accelerate into the straightaway, upshift, reaching 60 mph, ease off the throttle, pick my line into the upcoming series of curves - a sharp u-turn followed by a fast s-turn -- brake lightly, downshift, shift my weight to the right of the saddle and the right footpeg, right knee outward, left knee flush with the tank - lean hard now, feeling the G-forces press me down in the saddle, straining to keep my head up and eyes out around the curve, slowly bringing the throttle up. Hit it hard now out of the curve, snap from right edge to left and then back to the right, accelerating all the time, feeling the engine's stabilizing power and listening to the exhaust's animal-like howl echoing off the cliffsides. It's just as well that nobody can see the stupid grin that's permanently stuck on my face right now. There's a turnout just ahead where I remember taking photos on our first excursion up this road seven years ago; I pull over, stop the engine, and take off my helmet. I look back at Dawn, and my concern over her comfort level with this type of riding evaporates as she pulls off her helmet. She's wearing the same silly kid-in-a-candy-store grin I am.

And so it went. We picked up a pair of fellow tourers on KTM's with panniers, who we led through a long series of chicanes like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, each copying our every move. We pulled over to let a guy in a Porsche pass, and another on a sport bike. They both rocketed past and were soon out of sight. In reality we weren't going that fast, just fast enough to be a fun challenge on a 24-year old touring bike with full saddlebags and two adults. I tried to always give myself enough margin for safe braking if an unexpected obstacle should appear, as happened several times. Rough roads on the southern end of the scenic stretch slowed us considerably. Still, the eighty miles were over altogether too quickly. Dawn and I agreed that it was the highlight of the trip.

The sky had been almost clear in San Francisco but grew progressively cloudy south of Monterey. By San Simeon it was completely overcast, and a little blustery and cold as well. We rejoined US-101 in San Luis Obispo, and stayed on it until Oxnard. From previous experience I knew that the section of Route 1 from Pismo Beach to Las Cruces is neither coastal nor that scenic. I saw an In-N-Out at Santa Maria and had to stop; it's been a good two years since my last fix. The Double-Doubles and fries warmed us and cheered us up and we were underway soon thereafter.

After a few fast downhill sweepers through Gaviota Pass, we broke out into glorious sunshine as Highway 101 turned eastward along the coast. It felt a good ten degrees warmer on this side of the mountains. I got my first taste of SoCal freeway driving in five years on the long stretch through Santa Barbara, its suburbs, and into Ventura, and was more than happy to exit the freeway in Oxnard. By now the sun was setting in the western sky, covering the Santa Monica Mountains with the same beautiful golden hue that bathes all my favorite SoCal memories. From Oxnard it was a quick ten miles to our destination for the night on Route 1, here more popularly known as the Pacific Coast Highway. It was still twilight when we pulled into Point Mugu State Park, where we pitched our tent on the beach.

By the time we made camp, it was dark, windy, and cold. My flashlight had got turned on in the saddlebag at some point during the day and the batteries were dead; we not brought matches to light a campfire thanks to TSA carry-on restrictions; and while we were still full from In-N-Out, I felt such an excellent day deserved to be capped off with an adult beverage on the beach. So we hopped back on the bike, sans bags, and backtracked to Oxnard to gas up and buy the requisite supplies. A number of wrong turns and minor traffic incidents later, we returned to camp with batteries that turned out to be the wrong size, a BIC lighter that proved insufficient for the task of lighting a fire in windy conditions, and a bottle of wine that I thought was screw-topped but was actually corked. The last foible merited a chuckle because it's the exact mistake I made on the night I proposed to Dawn on a beach much like this one twenty miles down the road, and my solution in the absence of a corkscrew now was the same as it was then: push the cork into the bottle with a long screwdriver and pinch myself at my luck in finding a girl willing to swill corky wine from the bottle on a beach with me like a homeless wino. We finished the bottle together while shivering in our tent and drifted off to the crash of waves on the beach, feeling oddly at home.

Day Four.

The temperature got down to 45 degrees during the night. I regarded that as positively toasty and slept well; Dawn froze and slept very fitfully. We rose shortly after the sun and took our time breaking camp. I strolled down to the water to snap some photos of a gorgeous sunburst to the east. By pure chance, my little brother Steve's band was touring Southern California at the same time we were there, so we set up plans to meet in Huntington Beach for breakfast. Once we repacked the bags and loaded the bike, we headed toward Malibu on a familiar stretch of the PCH. Dawn and I used to drive it often when we lived in LA. I proposed to her one dark, rainy night seven years ago on a deserted strand of Topanga Beach east of Malibu.

All of our short visit to LA was like this: everything we saw seemed very familiar and imbued with memories, but in an oddly distant way, as when recalling brief fragments of half-submerged dreams. The effect was unsettling. Was it really so long ago we called this place home? No, only five years. We weren't here that long, though, and we knew it was likely temporary. I enjoyed living in LA well enough (Dawn wasn't so charitable in her assessment) but formed no lasting attachment to it as I did to Portland. Much has happened in our lives since then, and much has changed. LA has changed too - new buildings downtown, more construction on Palos Verdes despite fresh evidence that the whole works is slowly sliding into the ocean - and it is mostly empty of the friends we knew when we lived here. Their lives too, have moved beyond the sun-scorched mountains that hem this fantastic apparition of the plain, this ephemeral city of transients and transplants.

I had forgotten the vast scale of LA. We picked our way through the little beach communities we used to frequent - Manhattan, Hermosa, Redondo - and were in Torrance when my brother called from Huntington Beach. I said we'd be there in twenty minutes. Forty-five minutes later (including a long stretch blasting along the twelve-lane 405 freeway at 85 mph) we finally got to the end of Beach Boulevard, which was at least twice as long as I remember it. Brunch at Ruby's on the pier with Steve and the band - oh, those malts! - then off on some of our favorite drives, around Palos Verdes and up to the Griffith Park Observatory. We blew off our planned 3pm and 6pm flights for the long ride out to Ontario to watch Steve's band (Hyland) play and then the longer, faster, and colder ride back to LAX to catch the midnight redeye flight to Minneapolis. Incredibly, we put 300 miles on the bike in one day in LA.

I left my faithful mount under cover on the top floor of a parking garage at LAX, noting at the last minute a significant drip of brake fluid from the rear master cylinder. That will have to be attended to before my next leg to Dallas, tentatively planned for mid-January. The trip to diagnose and repair the brake problem will have to be squeezed into one of my two-day-off blocks before then, and if I'm lucky the fix will be quick-and-easy enough to allow for a run up Mount Wilson or Azusa Canyon Road.

Mileage Totals:
Day 1 - 260
Day 2 - 560
Day 3 - 430
Day 4 - 300
Total Leg - 1550
Total Trip - 4150
Remaining - 5950

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Wild Coast

Day One.

The sea of waving green-and-yellow cartop flags gave way immediately as soon as I turned off traffic-choked I-5, replaced by a few orange and black flags until I got to Corvalis - then, no flags, and indeed few cars at all. The road narrowed as it plunged all at once into the thick tangle of green that marked the beginning of the coast range. At only 2 pm, it was already growing dark under the evergreen overcast. No matter: it was a relief to be out of heavy traffic after 90 straight miles of it. I had unwittingly begun the third leg of my round-the-country adventure on the same day as the Civil War, the annual matchup between the Oregon Ducks and the Oregon State Beavers that is the sporting event of the year in NFL-less Oregon. In response, I decided to cut over to the coast 40 miles short of Eugene, my original turnoff point.

Route 34 was in truth no faster than the interstate - appreciably slower, in fact - but I'll take a tangle of tightly wound hairpin turns as a time-consuming obstacle over a horde of SUVs piloted in mass formation by distracted sports fans any day. The pavement was smooth, dry, and without leaves or gravel; I quickly settled into the rhythm of the twisting road, right and left, up and down.... my freeway-induced stiffness melted away as my right hand teased the bike faster and I began shifting my weight across the saddle as I took more aggressive lines and carved the turns steeper. At some point, I no longer thought about which lines to take or turn entry and exit speeds, no longer concentrated on the intricate dance of my hands and feet on the controls...I simply saw and did, acting instinctively, the bike a mere extension of my body. This is not so different from the best sort of flying. To coordinate effortlessly, simply willing the machine wherever you wish, intoxicated by the rush of speed, feeling exhilaration in the artistic perfection of a perfectly banked turn...these are familiar pleasures indeed. The road, of course, is the fundamental and defining difference, its constant reassuring presence as sacrosanct to motorcyclists as freedom from its boundaries is revered by aviators. As one artist revels in embracing unconventional and limitless means of expression, another finds pleasure in working creatively within the boundaries of chosen limitations.

Soon enough I was at Oregon's coastline, a wild and broken stretch that would be lonely and isolated by the Coast Range if not for Highway 101, on which I now turned south. I was hoping to make Bandon, some 100 miles to the south, but the sun was now low in the sky. I couldn't resist the beautiful late-afternoon light and stopped to take pictures a number of times. At Heceta Head, I pulled over at a turnout to photograph the iconic lighthouse, and heard the distinct barking of sea lions as soon as I turned off the motor. Sure enough, a large colony was gathered in the cove below, audible over the surf from a good half-mile away.

It was nighttime by the time I stopped for gas and dinner in Coos Bay, making for a pitch-black ride for the last twenty miles through the forest to Bandon. I'm not experienced at night riding, and it puts me at ill ease. I imagine animals and other obstacles that aren't there and tend to initially lean into turns far too aggressively, fearing they are tighter than they actually are. I was relieved to soon reach Bullard's Beach State Park, where I made camp for the night. It was still fairly early, but in the absence of anything better to do I quickly settled in for a long, cold, mostly sleepless night listening to the surf crash ashore.

Day Two.

I was fitfully dozing when my wristwatch alarm went off at 5:30am, and rose with strange dreams still replaying in my mind. It was cold so I put on my full riding gear right away before breaking camp. The first two miles into Bandon were quite numbing, making for an early decision to stop for a cup of coffee. By the time I left, the sky was turning light. An hour later, the rising sun warmed my face and again bathed the coastline in beautiful light that begged me to pull over and take photos.

I reached the California border and Crescent City before 10am, and simply crossing into the Golden State seemed to warm the air several degrees. Redwood trees lined the road, filling the air with their wonderful scent. South of Crescent City the highway turned away from the coast, narrowed, and entered Redwood National Forest. Needing to arrive in San Fransisco that night, I couldn't afford to stop, but the ride alone was a glorious introduction. Each turn brought another gasp-inducing view. The late-morning sun filtered down through the massive trunks in bright shafts; while the comparison to the interior of a cathedral is overused, it is inevitable as I know no better description of the look and feel of the place. There was no other traffic other than a guy on a Harley who followed me and appeared to be having an equally wonderful time. In the south of the park, the views opened up as the road widened to four lanes and turned downhill towards the sea. I opened up the throttle, leaving my friend on the Harley behind as I cruised down a beautiful set of sweeping turns at 70, 80, 90 mph.

Just north of Arcata the views became suddenly familiar again. When I flew for Horizon, I had frequent Arcata/Eureka layovers. The layover hotel, the pizza joint, Lost Coast Brewery where I had enjoyed many a handcrafted brew... I kept an eye out around the old haunts, hoping in vain to spy one of my Horizon friends enjoying an overnight in Eureka. Not seeing any, I continued onward.

South of Eureka, Highway 101 becomes a four-lane freeway, the form it retains most of the way to Los Angeles. While a good road in its own right, it does bypass virtually all coastline along the way, so I was planning on taking California's justly famous Route 1 the rest of the way to LA. It doesn't begin until Leggett, some 90 miles south of Eureka. Because the intervening coastline is left undisturbed by roads or many other human touches, it is an especially wild and lonely place known as the Lost Coast. It is, I suppose, an example of how isolated the entire rugged west coast would be had the coastal highways not been constructed in the short period after civil engineering had progressed enough to make such roads possible but before environmentalism made it unfashionable to blast your way through untrammeled wilderness.

Perhaps I was enjoying the fast sweepers of Highway 101's Lost Coast bypass too much, because I somehow missed Leggett and the turnoff for Route 1. I didn't realize it until about 20 miles later. By now it was late enough in the day that my only hope of reaching San Francisco before dark was to continue on Highway 101 and bypass the rest of the northern California coastline. Otherwise, I could cut back over to the coast at Willits, and plan on riding the last hour or two in the dark. I glumly decided that scenery took precedence over timeliness and turned west on Route 20.

Boy, was I glad I did. What a road! It started out straight enough, then snarled into a series of tight, climbing switchbacks. After a fair climb, it leveled out and traversed the slopes with unending hairpin turns. As it reached the west side of the range, the trees thinned and the road straightened somewhat to allow for fast, open ridgeline sweepers. As it neared the coast, it again plunged downward with hairpins and switchbacks, finally ending 35 glorious miles at the small town of Fort Bragg.

Now I had high hopes of making up some time, for I had traveled this stretch of Route 1 in 2004 and recalled it being somewhat straight, flat, and fast. Actually, a large portion of it is straight and flat, but it is not fast because those straight and flat sections are broken up by innumerable little gullies that the engineers did not bridge for whichever reason, but built several slow, tight switchbacks down and up each side instead. It might have proven a fun road in another circumstance, but having already sliced my way through countless turns this day, and with my light fading fast, it was merely obnoxious and tiring. Around Fort Ross, the road became downright rugged as it again hugged the crumbling, heaving coastline. By now it was nearly pitch dark, heavy opposite-direction traffic was blinding me, and the road was not well marked with reflectors. I felt like I was groping my way through a maze marked not by walls but sheer cliffs. Once I hit an unseen pothole in the middle of a turn and my rear wheel began sliding out from under me. I yelped, eased off the throttle as I stood up, and then gingerly leaned back into the turn to return to my lane before an oncoming car hit me. I rode on over the crumbling road with shaking knees.

At Bodega Bay I stopped briefly to call Dawn, who was at MSP waiting for her flight to San Francisco. I was dead tired, cranky, and getting cold again in the night air, but Dawn's voice helped calm my nerves. I hadn't eaten a thing since Crescent City, which certainly wasn't helping matters although I didn't feel hungry. The first twenty miles outside of Bodega Bay were easy country roads, not at all unpleasant for night riding. The next thirty miles to Stinson Beach were slow and curvy, but were pleasant enough riding along Tomales Bay and through dense strands of Douglas Fir and Eucalyptus trees. After Stinson Beach, though, the road got steep, snarly, and pockmarked as it climbed over the Muir Hills. Worse, I soon climbed into a dense fog bank. It fogged my face shield and then my glasses, and even when I removed both I couldn't see enough to creep forward at more than 10 to 15 mph. It was a constant balancing act: just fast enough to stay upright on the bike, but slow enough to not unwittingly drive off a cliff. I lost all sense of position, direction, or time, putting all concentration into negotiating the next twenty feet of road at a time. Several times I reached what I thought was the crest, only to resume the climb after a short level stretch. Finally, past a full parking lot that obviously doubled as a Lover's Lane, the road finally began its downward stretch. I was out of the fog mercifully soon, the road surface improved quickly, and the switchbacks weren't so tight on this side. Soon after rejoining civilization I was rocketing along Highway 101 at a suddenly-blazing 65 mph (and getting passed by all comers!). Across the timeless Golden Gate Bridge, through the cheerful streets of downtown San Francisco, and back onto the freeway to SFO, where I checked into a cheap-and-seedy Travelodge.

My destination finally reached at 9pm, exhaustion and hunger overtook me. I had been riding for 14 hours and had covered 560 twisting miles; while far short of my record thus far (920 miles), this was far more tiring. After a long hot shower and a breakfast-supper at IHOP, I collapsed into bed for a 30 minute nap before Dawn called me to say she was on the ground at SFO. After a short, cold ride to pick her up at the airport, we went to bed to the sound of revelers outside, and I hoped my bike would still be parked there and unmolested when we woke up to resume the ride to Los Angeles.

(To be Continued in Part Two)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A New Adventure

Well, I'm not sure this blog has been so much neglected as it's been abandoned. A month is the longest I've gone without posting since I started it back in 2005. It hasn't been for lack of time: now that the summer is over and things are settling back down, I've been attending to such pressing matters as catching up on my reading. It hasn't been for a lack of subject matter: while nothing earth-shattering has happened on the line, there have been little incidents here and there that, at the time, I thought might make for a good blog posting. I can't say I'm suffering from writer's block because I've been making decent headway on my other project (although I won't come even close to making the goal I set last New Year's Day).

The problem, I think, is that I've lapsed into a sort of inertia where my flying life is concerned. With eighteen months in the left seat, I'm getting comfortably settled into Captainhood. The JungleBus hasn't been holding any major surprises. I'm still learning things all the time, but they tend to be small tips and tricks that make the job go smoother, no big revelations that make for interesting stories. Except for the occasional trip through Atlanta, I'm intimately familiar with the routes I've been flying. With little movement at my airline, I've even grown used to flying with the same group of FOs in my seniority bracket. I'm still enjoying my job, but it's an enjoyment more akin to sinking into your favorite couch to watch a favorite movie you've seen ten times already, as opposed to the sort that goes with strapping on boots and a pack and heading down an unexplored trail into the wilderness. I'm content with my job - just placidly, quietly content to coast along.

This isn't to say I'm bored with life right now, simply that most of my adventures as of late have taken place here on terra firma. I'm blessed with a wife who shares my hereditary wanderlust, and we've had a great year of traveling. We took major trips to Greece, Norway, and Italy this year, with shorter forays to Mexico and London. Of course, the more we see and do, the longer our list of "must-go" places grows. We're already planning 2010's Spring Break trip to go backpacking in Patagonia, and lately we've been getting a strong hankering for an Africa trip, too.

Motorcycling, too, has provided a lot of enjoyment this year. Last October, I bought a 1985 BMW K100RS, which I rode from Colorado to Minnesota before storing it for the winter. After retrieving it from storage this spring, I rode around Minnesota and Wisconsin for a few months before putting on a new set of tires and heading out west. I rode 1800 miles to Portland over three days; my longest day, from Wheaton MN to Three Forks MT, set my new one-day record of 920 miles. Over our anniversary, Dawn and I took the bike on a 800 mile trip through Washington's Olympic Mountains and San Juan Islands with our friends Brad and Amber. We'd been meaning to visit both places when we lived in Washington, and never did until now.

On the way back into Portland, the BMW developed an internal transmission problem that's common to the type. The shift selector shaft has a grub screw that tends to back out if its not secured with loctite, causing excessive shift lever play and, eventually, transmission failure once the screw drops into the gears. It's a simple fix once the transmission is off the bike and taken apart, but that's no easy task. The bike sat at the Portland airport for a few months until I had the time off to fly out, tear out the transmission, take it to a local mechanic for overhaul, and reinstall it. Twelve hours of labor and a few hundred dollars later, I have a 24-year old bike that shifts as smoothly as the day it was born. By the time I got it back together, it was too late in the season to bring the bike back to Minnesota via the northern route. I considered leaving it in Portland for the winter and riding back next spring. Then I came up with a better plan:

View 2009-2010 Round Robin in a larger map

I'm going to continue riding the bike throughout the winter and spring, completing a 8500 mile circumnavigation of the United States in seven legs, including the two I've already done. When I'm done with work tomorrow, I'm flying to Portland, and from there riding to Los Angeles via the Coast Highway. Later legs include LA-Dallas in January, Dallas-Atlanta in March, Atlanta-Cape Cod via the Blue Ridge Parkway in April, and Cape Cod-Minneapolis in May to have the bike back in MN as riding season gets underway. Dawn is joining me in San Francisco on Friday night and may ride along for portions of later legs, and my good friend Brad is planning on doing the Atlanta-Cape Cod-Minneapolis portion with me. In between legs I'll leave the bike stashed with friends, in storage, or at motorcycle-friendly airports.

I've already been on a good portion of the roads I'll be riding out west, but most of the southern states and east coast will be relatively new territory for me - at least from the groundbound perspective. The Appalachians, for example, I cross and crisscross on a weekly basis, yet I haven't driven through them since I was seven. Three of the four states I've never been to are in New England (the other is Alaska, a truly appalling omission). As I prepare to start this trip, I'm excited in a way that flying has not excited me in a long time.

No, I'm not abandoning the blog as I take off on my new adventure. I'll even keep writing about airline flying when I have good material - hopefully more than once a month! But you may have to bear with me for a few months as it also becomes a motorcycle, photography, and wanderlust blog.

To start off, here are a few pictures from the previously mentioned trip to the Olympics and San Juans.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

New Kid on the Block

"Atlanta Ops, "NewCo Fifty-eight seventy-six."

The operations frequency is quiet.

"Atlanta Ops, NewCo 5876, over."

Still nothing. I wait thirty seconds before keying the mike again.

"Atlanta Ops, NewCo 5876, anyone home?"

Finally, the silence is broken by an anonymous jokester: "You must be new to Atlanta, NewCo...you generally call twice before giving up, landing, and taxiing around aimlessly until someone marshals you in!"

As a matter of fact, we are new to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the world's busiest airfield and our new corporate overlord's largest hub. NewCo started service from ATL to CLT and SDF on October 1st, so this is the first time flying in for both my FO and I. In fact, this four day trip has us flying in and out of Atlanta multiple times; not until the last day do we see any of RedCo's hubs, a very rare occurrence indeed. When I first saw this trip, I tried to trade out of it simply because flying anywhere on the fourth day of service is begging for complications. I prefer to let other people work out the kinks and report back before I sally forth into the unknown. This time, though my guinea pig role was unavoidable thanks to inadequate reserve coverage to do any trip trading, a semi-permanent state of affairs at NewCo.

Flying to any airport for the first time is bound to get an airline pilot's blood pressure up just a little bit. I know there are dozens of corporate pilots rolling their eyes at that statement, and yes, we airline pilots have it easy flying into the same couple dozen airports most of the time. I think the fact that we rely on our routines so heavily is the only reason we even batt an eyelash at landing somewhere we've never been. Knowing little things like the preferred arrival routes, most commonly assigned crossing altitudes, vectoring patterns, common taxi routes, location of gates, operations frequency, availability of services, and where to get your paperwork all cut down on workload and generally make everything run smoother. The first few times into an airport, you're collecting all these tidbits for future use. If it's a small, uncongested field, there's little stress because if there's something you're not sure about, it's a simple matter of keying the mike and asking someone.

An airport like Atlanta is another matter. The workload is quite a bit higher to begin with, giving you less time to look up information and think through problems. Air traffic control frequencies are congested and the controllers much less disposed to answering neophytes' dumb questions. There's certainly some peer pressure involved in that you don't care to look stupid in front of so many other pilots, particularly when your company is brand new to the airport. The consequences of screwing up are higher; a minor error that might go unnoticed or unpunished in Minot is more likely to earn you a trip to the chief pilot's office or a call from the feds when made in Atlanta. So while I'm comfortable flying in and out of other busy airports like DFW, IAH, PHL, EWR, and JFK, flying into a place like Atlanta for the first time does spark some apprehension.

Thorough preparation helps. On the first leg down to Charlotte, I carefully studied the charts for Atlanta. There are quite a few arrival routes, so I only looked at the most likely ones for an arrival from the northeast. The airport familiarization plates indicated that when landing east, 8L, 9R, and 10 are the most likely arrival runways, while 8R and 9L are primarily used for departures. Our company-issued airport information chart (we call it the "ten dash seven" due to its Jeppesen indexing label, 10-7) indicated that NewCo uses gates B11 through B19, which would involve a taxi to Apron Two or Apron Three. I traced possible taxi routes on the airport diagram, memorizing the names of the major taxiways paralleling the runways. Of course we will consult the diagram when ATC assigns us a taxi route, but knowing roughly where to look for a particular taxiway reduces head-down time significantly. Ramp control frequencies are one of the few things whose location is not standardized on Jepp charts, so I looked up the frequencies for Aprons Two and Three on the 10-9B chart and jotted them down. Moving on to the approach plates, I looked over the ILS 8L, 9R, and 10 charts. I noted that each runway also has a ILS PRM plate for simultaneous close parallel approaches. We're authorized for PRM approaches, I've seen the training video so many times I can almost recite it verbatim, and have flown into a number of airports with PRM approaches - but I had never actually flown one. Our ten dash seven didn't mention to expect PRM approaches so I didn't think much about it.

The flight from Charlotte to Atlanta is a fairly short one. Before departure, my FO and I talked over our assigned arrival route into Atlanta and expected approach there in addition to our normal clearance briefing. I pulled all the charts that I expected to use out of my thick Jepp binders and placed them in the ship's clipboard behind the Charlotte charts. There was little left to do. The weather in Atlanta was kind of lousy. It had been raining all day, and the ceiling was hanging around 800 feet. We took off from Charlotte and turned westward, popping above the clouds into the glare of the evening sun. I realized that we would be arriving around sunset, which would make for a darkened airport under the overcast skies. A rainy night isn't exactly the ideal time to grope your way around an unfamiliar airport.

Now, 100 miles northeast of Atlanta, I come back from my one-sided conversation with Operations to find that Atlanta Center assigned us a new arrival in my absence. Our dispatcher had filed the WHINZ One arrival, and Center wants us on the FLCON Three. I make a mental note to call our dispatcher after the flight to inform him of the preferred route as I entered the new arrival, get a thumbs-up from my FO, and hit "Activate." We are soon cleared to cross DIRTY at 14000, and begin our descent shortly thereafter. We decide that an ILS to 8L is most likely from this arrival, and I brief the approach. I put it in the FMS and we each set the frequency, inbound course, and minimums. After completing the descent checklist, I make a short PA and call Atlanta Operations again. This time they answer, informing us that we can expect gate B18.

When I reselect VHF1 in my comm panel, my FO is just checking in with Atlanta Approach. They inform us that we can expect a ILS PRM Approach to 8L. We both pull out the plate and start reviewing it for changes from the normal ILS. There aren't many: the primary difference of a PRM approach is the requirement to monitor a backup frequency on your VHF2 radio. Controllers are carefully monitoring all aircraft to make sure nobody strays far from their ILS, and if one does blunder into the "No Transgression Zone" the controller will issue an immediate breakout to any other aircraft nearby. The backup frequency ensures that a stuck mike or long-winded pilot cannot prevent the controller from promptly issuing breakout instructions. There are a few other considerations; we quickly read a PRM briefing page to review all the procedures.

We are almost to the point of turning downwind for 8L when Atlanta Approach turns us to a southerly heading, clears us direct to BOJAA, and tells us to expect an ILS PRM to Runway 10. We hunt around the arrival plate for the fix, find it, punch it into the FMS, get the autopilot recoupled to NAV, put the approach in the FMS, and dig through our charts for the ILS PRM 10 plate. By the time we have set up for the new approach and briefed it, Approach is already turning us for a tight-in right base leg. I quickly note our likely exit taxiway and potential routes for the long taxi back to the terminal complex. We are cleared for the approach, and I select the backup frequency in VHF2 and our comm panels.

We break out of the clouds just above 1000 feet to the welcome sight of approach lights guiding us to the well-lit runway. It is indeed dark down here in the driving rain underneath thick clouds. I move the windshield wipers to "fast" and the view clears a little. My FO makes a beautiful landing on the wet runway and we decelerate evenly to a crawl before I take the controls and exit on Taxiway Sierra Golf 14. It's a high-speed exit but I'm paranoid about turning too fast off of a wet runway, particularly at night when it's difficult to assess whether the runway is doing a good job of draining the water and staying uncontaminated.

Tower tells us to follow a WidgetCo 737 westbound on Sierra Golf, hold short of 9R on Romeo Three, and monitor tower one one niner point three. The 737 is already a ways ahead of us and taxiing rather fast. It's still raining hard and I can barely see the taxiway centerlines; even lighted taxiway signs are a little tough to spot. I reach taxiway Sierra Juliet in time to spy the 737 at its end turning left onto Romeo. I figure he'll be long gone by the time we get to Romeo Three but the route to get there is now obvious. We hold short of 9R for several arrivals before tower clears us to cross and contact ground "point seven five."

That controller clears us "November, Papa, cross 9L, Lima to the Ramp." I stop for a moment to verify the route on our map and the ground controller barks at us to get moving, we have traffic crossing 9R behind us. My FO assures me that it's a left turn on November so I make the turn before glancing at the airport diagram. We're basically taxiing back to the departure end of 9L to cross there, since all the departures use 9L at Mike Two. I would later discover that the north complex has a similar arrangement, using taxiway Victor to route arrivals around the departure end of 8R without getting in departing aircraft's way. This is rather different from most airports with inboard/outboard arrival and departure runways, like LAX; there, arrivals are usually held short of the departure runway around midfield and then crossed during a pause in the takeoffs. Atlanta's system results in long after-landing taxis, but also allows them to sling out departures at a very high rate.

NASA once did an aeromedical study in which they hooked airline pilots up to a variety of sensors and then measured how much stress they experienced during the various phases of a normal line flight. As expected, cruise flight was very relaxed, takeoffs somewhat stressful, and the approach and landing phase considerably more so. The surprise was that taxiing caused stress levels only slightly below landing, and parking the airplane registered the highest stress levels of all! This may surprise outsiders but it meshes with what every airline pilot knows: airline ramps are busy, chaotic places where you stand the best chance of bending metal in your career. You are maneuvering much closer to a wide variety of other airplanes, are often assisted by less-than-attentive wing walkers, and there are suicidal tugs, catering trucks, and bag carts constantly darting in front of you. Meanwhile you're looking for your gate, which is quite often occupied regardless of what operations and/or ramp control said, and likely has at least one piece of ground equipment out of position in the safety zone. Managing all these threats can be stressful on a bright sunny day, much less a dark, rainy night.

As we approach spot Two South, my FO contacts Ramp Control and they direct us into the west lane to hold abeam gate Alpha Five for traffic. A B757 is pushing from A9, and a MD90 is waiting for his gate to open up abeam B6. The B757 crew tells their tug driver to pull them forward enough for us to slip over to the east lane between him and the MD90, and on to our empty gate. As we approach the gate, wingwalkers sprint out to their positions, to my astonishment. I would see this performance repeated at the B gates several times over the next few days. When I mentioned this to a WidgetCo pilot, he laughed and said he's never seen a ramper hurry in Atlanta. We just happened to have an exceptional supervisor with a motivated crew.

What we do not have, however, is a marshaller. We stop and wait. Nobody shows up. There is a green light above the gate. Do we use an auto-park system in Atlanta? Our company ten dash seven page doesn't say anything about it... but those pages tend to omit a lot of helpful details in the early stages of service to an airport. Eventually the light turns red and a marshaller appears and vigorously waves us in. Well, okay then. I throttle up, glide into the gate, brake to a gentle halt, and then we go through our parking flows and checklist. After the passengers have deplaned, the friendly ramp supervisor comes up and tells us how to use the auto-park system. Would've been nice to know that beforehand, but he's been dealing with enough puzzled NewCo pilots over the last few nights that he knew to jump in right away and marshal us manually. I later find details on the auto-park system in a bulletin that the company quietly slipped into the FOM.

When I walk out of the jetway, the gate area is a sea of humanity; it's going to be a full load to Louisville. The paperwork is still printing so I saunter up the B concourse, scoping out the food court and grabbing a coffee. I reflect on the short flight. It was a pretty normal leg, really, even with the weather and the PRM approach. It was only stressful because I didn't completely know what to expect beforehand. Over the next few days, I fly in and out of Atlanta several times, and it gets easier and easier as I learn how they do things. For an airport handling 2700 flights a day, everything flows pretty smoothly. Of course I haven't seen Atlanta during thunderstorm season yet; I'm sure that'll be the source of a few good blog posts come next summer.

Monday, October 05, 2009


"NewCo fifty-seven fourteen, holding instructions for you, advise ready to copy."

My First Officer looks up from the FOM he is studying in preparation for an upcoming training event and gives me a quizzical look. "Was that for us?" he asks.

"NewCo 5714, you copy Minneapolis Center?"

Well shoot, it was for us. NewCo recently switched their flight numbers from the 1800-2099 range to the 5700-5999 range, and I'm not quite used to listening for the new numbers. I grab the release and a pen. "Center, NewCo 5714, sorry 'bout that. Ready to copy."

"Minneapolis Center clears NewCo 5714 to SKETR intersection, hold southwest as published, twenty mile legs approved, expect further clearance two two five five zulu, time now two one five niner zulu."

I read back the clearance and begin entering the hold into the Flight Management System by selecting "Hold" from the NAV page, then entering it over SKETR on the Flight Plan page. This brings up a form where I enter the inbound course, leg length, holding airspeed and altitude, and expect further clearance (EFC) time. Punching the 6R line select key inserts the hold into the flight plan, displaying the proposed route in white dashes on my MFD's map display. My FO looks over to verify that the hold looks correct, gives me a thumbs up, and I hit 6R again to activate the flight plan. The FMS takes about ten seconds to recompute everything - I've become so used to it that I no longer make 286 processor jokes - and then displays the hold in solid white on the map display, signifying that it is indeed active. At this point, the FMS will automatically choose the correct holding entry, enter the hold, and continue until we tell it to do otherwise. It's a mockery of all that holding practice over NDBs in 30 knot crosswinds that I did as a young pup.

"Wonder what's going on in Minneapolis?" my FO muses. I shrug and request a new D-ATIS from the FMS' ACARS menu. It takes about thirty seconds to pop up; it's still the same ATIS I pulled up about 30 minutes ago. The weather isn't too bad: 2100 foot ceiling, eight miles visibility, winds out of the north at 15 knots. That last item is likely the cause of the delays. Runway 12L/30R is under construction, and Minneapolis is down to three runways that all intersect or nearly intersect each other: 30R/12L, 35/17, and 4/22. So long as the weather is nice and the winds are light or from the south, ATC can keep things humming along smoothly with approaches to runways 17 and 22 (land and hold short of 17) while they fire departures off 12R in quick succession. Meanwhile ground control lines up all the crossing traffic on each side of 12R and crosses them en masse whenever departures pause for an arrival to 22. It's a thing of beauty to watch when everything is running smoothly.

It doesn't take much to mess up the plan, though. Marginal weather takes away Land and Hold Short Operations (LAHSO) so that the arrivals must be staggered, or else ATC will use 17 as the sole arrival runway. If the ceiling gets much lower, it takes away both 22 and 17 for arrivals since those runways are served only by localizer approaches with fairly high minimums. In this case arrivals use 12R and departures use 17, which really gums up the works. Winds from the north, while not as problematic as a low ceiling, do also slow things down. Since the construction began in early September, ATC has become very good at predicting how the weather will affect the maximum arrival rate and issuing ground holds accordingly to make sure the arrival banks don't all arrive at once. This is only the second time I've had to hold so far.

Entering the hold into the FMS automatically changed the Estimated Time of Arrival and Estimated Fuel at Arrival display to reflect the extra 45 minutes of holding at FL240 and 230 knots. It's a nice feature that can make a captain lazy. However, I'm rather mistrusting of machines in general and of the JungleBus' Flight Management System in particular. If there's anything I've learned in two years of flying the JungleBus, it's to not believe a thing its computers tell me. Every software patch that fixes one bug seems to introduce two new ones. It's very reliable for navigating from point A to point B, it's just the theoretically labor-saving features like VNAV and fuel management that give us plenty of "what's it doing now?" moments.

Therefore I pick up a pen and paper to do some quick and dirty figuring. I conclude that this time the airplane is not lying to me and we will indeed land right at what I consider to be our minimum arrival fuel - 5200 lbs, enough to go to our alternate of Rochester plus 3000 pounds of reserve fuel. This is slightly more than the minimum fuel shown on the release, because their reserve is based upon 45 minutes of long-range cruise at 10,000 feet and is generally 2200-2400 pounds. I don't ever want to land with that little fuel in the tanks so I use a more conservative number. I add the fuel burn from SKETR to the airport to that minimum arrival fuel, throw in a few extra hundred pounds for vectoring, and write down our "Bingo" fuel number on the release after discussing it with the FO. We will reach it right at our current EFC time. Fortunately our dispatchers have been very liberal with holding fuel throughout the construction.

It's time to let our dispatcher know what's going on. I text him our holding point, EFC, altitude, fuel on board, and my calculated bingo fuel. A few minutes later he texts back an acknowledgement along with his own calculated bingo fuel, which of course is 800 lbs less than my number. We enter the hold and I make a short PA to the passengers about the delay.

After about twenty minutes in the hold, I start hearing Minneapolis Center extending other flights' EFC times. Several divert to their alternate airports. I query whether our 2255Z EFC is still holding up, and Center replies that it is - for now. I check the Minneapolis weather again. It's still good. The reality is that my bingo fuel number is a little more conservative than it needs to be, because it assumes that I'll be vectored for the approach, fly it to minimums, go missed approach, and then fly to Rochester. Diverting from SKETR - or even from any part of the downwind or base leg for Runway 35 - will require a lot less fuel. My FO and I discuss the fact that an alternate isn't legally required; we could have our dispatcher remove it and hold for a while longer, but still divert once we got down to 3000 lbs plus the fuel needed to reach Rochester. In the end, I decide not to officially remove the alternate, but to use our dispatcher's bingo fuel number instead of mine. The reality is that once we get past SKETR, the likelihood of a diversion drops to near zero and some 4600 pounds of fuel in the tanks on landing in MSP is plenty in this situation. The difference gives us almost twenty extra minutes of holding.

It turns out that we don't need it; as if to mock all my contingency planning, Minneapolis Center clears us past SKETR twenty minutes before our EFC, and we land with 6200 pounds of fuel remaining. It takes us a while to reach our gate on the G concourse because the departure lineup for 30L extends all the way to Runway 22! Thankfully, the backlog has mostly cleared out by the time we leave an hour later. I smile as we climb westward into the setting sun. We're going to Montana, where the beer is good, the gate agents are friendly, and even airports under construction are blissfully delay-free.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Keep Your Nose Clean!

Of the several insightful comments to my last post, this one by Ron Rapp really struck home for me:
I would add another suggestion to your excellent list: if you do have a flying job, don't drop the ball there.

I mention this because many of us who are "in the pipeline" flying full time have probably been at that job for a couple of years, maybe more. These are often jobs which traditionally have high turnover rates. However, with the industry at a standstill, nobody is leaving. So nobody is upgrading. And that poor FO who's been stuck in the right seat for two years when he'd normally upgrade in 5-6 months might be getting antsy.

My advice: stick with it. Don't get sloppy on the job. Maintain a good work ethic. Why? Because someday this pipeline will start flowing again, and when it does, that Dream Job you're going to apply for may hinge on what your current employer says about you.
This is something that rarely gets talked about. Those of us working our way up the ladder tend to be very focused on our career paths, always planning that next move. Of course we learn along the way and strive to become experts at our current job, but that's pretty natural when your job, position, or aircraft is changing every year or two. You take a job, get really good at it, and move onto the next step. It's certainly not a bad thing, steady advancement, but we've become so accustomed to it that many pilots have no experience in cooling their heels at one job, one position, one airplane for an indefinite period of waiting for things to get moving again. Those who are unprepared, those who had been expecting best-case career scenarios, may find disillusionment, boredom, complacency, or even a disregard for procedures and regulations creeping into their professional life.

I have some experience in this. My last airline, Horizon, has had a very stagnant seniority list since 2001. When I was hired in 2004, upgrade times were finally falling and there was a lot of talk of further expansion. It never happened; by 2007, upgrades were approaching seven years. Captains would comment on how the most senior FOs tended to be the most difficult to fly with, those most prone to either Captainitis or being relaxed to a fault. I felt it myself as I gained experience and advancement remained well out of reach. I became frustrated, and it affected my attitude towards my work. Going back through the blog posts from my last year at Horizon, I can see it in my writing. It was one of the factors that prompted me to seek a change, with the final result being my move to NewCo.

Since I left Horizon, the airline has continued to shrink as they traded Dash-8-200s for a lesser number of Q400s; they're now talking of getting rid of their fleet of CRJ-700's by sometime next year. Fifteen percent of the pilot group is furloughed. The most junior Captain is a 2000 hire, with more downgrades (and furloughs) in the works. Unlike 2007, there are no options for trapped FOs to go somewhere else. They are stuck unless they leave the industry altogether. I keep in contact with my Horizon friends, and their frustration is palpable every time I call them.

While I was in Portland this week, I went to see my friends T & J. We go back to April 2004, when I was J's sim partner during initial training. Dawn and I became friends with her and her husband T, who was hired at Horizon about a year after us. We hiked, sailed, and barbecued together when we lived in Portland; now I try to visit them when I'm in town, but otherwise we talk on the phone every few months.

Within minutes of sitting down at T & J's kitchen counter to shoot the breeze, it was obvious that something was wrong. J was visibly distraught. The story soon came out: she had been the First Officer on the runway overrun incident in Bellingham last month. I felt a horrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as she recounted what happened. It sounded as though things were fairly normal right up until the end. The Captain, who was new to the Q400, simply carried too much speed and then floated a good portion down the runway. If he had just chopped the power they probably would have made it; the Q400 will land at almost any speed once you reduce power in the flare, and those 13' propellers are extremely effective in beta. In any case, they came to rest only 50 feet past the end of the runway, with no injuries and not much damage to the airplane.

Although she was both FO and PNF, J received the same discipline as the Captain: a two month suspension without pay. At least she kept her job; others in the same situation have not been so lucky. The FAA, too, is being lenient by accepting retraining in lieu of taking certificate action. Still, an incident like this on one's record is a big stumbling block on one's career path. As I listened to J's woeful story, it struck me that she may have just become another Horizon lifer.

That gnawing in the pit of my stomach was partly pity for my friend's plight, but also uneasy recognition that this could've just as easily happened to me. J is a good pilot. She did great during initial training and the Captains I flew with all spoke highly of her. I knew she was frustrated over the lack of advancement at Horizon, but was still positive about flying. Her mistake that night was not especially egregious; she probably should have been more vocal about the Captain's excess speed, but nobody is feeling particularly vocal at midnight after a long day of flying. We've all been there.

The reality is that you don't even need an accident or incident like this one to mess up your career. A FAA violation will do just nicely; even a simple Letter of Correction in your file will require explanation at all subsequent interviews. A firing, even from a basic job like flight instructing, can prove to be problematic. FAA and employer action aside, aviation is an amazingly small world, and like Ron hinted, there's a pretty good chance your reputation will precede you on job hunts. A good reputation is worth more than a logbook full of multi time.

So while everyone plays the waiting game, don't simply bide your time. Do everything you can to become an expert at your job, and then up your guard against complacency. As my friend's experience shows, a career-changing (or worse, life-threatening) situation can develop in a matter of seconds, and you need to be mentally prepared for it. In the meantime, you never know who's watching and how they will influence your career down the road.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Aviation Survivorman

These are dark times for a great many people in aviation (and outside aviation too, for that matter). Thousands in our industry have lost their jobs with little hope of finding a replacement, others have seen their incomes shrink with downgrades and displacements, and things could potentially get much worse with a few airlines - mainline and regional - teetering on the brink of oblivion. The economy seems to be getting better, but the twin threat of rising oil prices and an international flu pandemic leaves some of us wondering if that light at the end of the tunnel isn't just a freight train about to run us over!

As was heavily discussed in the comments to my last post, prospects are particularly bleak for the newest entrants to the piloting profession - those who have just completed their training, or are in the middle of it, or have just started. The traditional first timebuilding jobs are somewhat scarcer than in years past, and the few new openings are quickly snapped up by experienced, out-of-work pilots. With a pocketful of expensive licenses and ratings but little chance of getting a flying job that will support them or even build time, these pilots have to be frightened at the prospect of these conditions lasting for several more years. It's as if they are seeing their careers die before they ever began.

Here's the good news: aviation has been a cyclical industry throughout its existence. Things will get better, and when they do I think they will get dramatically better. The other thing to recognize is that there have been plenty of other downturns that resulted in conditions just like these, and many pilots, including those at the major airlines, have experienced similar stagnation early in their careers. The 70s, 80s, and 90s each had a number of slump years where nothing was moving for civilian pilots. The post-9/11 downturn was the worst of all, but it mostly affected pilots at the major airline level. Their misfortune resulted in large growth for regional and low-cost airlines, and that kept things moving for low-time pilots. We've become so used to plentiful opportunities for new entrants over the last 15 years that this downturn sounds to many like the thundering crash of the career door slamming closed, never to reopen. It will; it always has.

The intent of this post, however, is not so much encouragement as practical advice that new pilots can use right now. Most of the career advice out there, particularly from the eternally-optimistic flight training industry, assumes that jobs will be available and one will be able to advance one's career steadily, if not downright speedily. That's clearly not the case and vastly changed conditions call for drastically altered career strategies.

It seems to me that the worst of the carnage is over and, unless certain airlines go belly-up, we won't see large numbers of additional furloughs. Still, I foresee things remaining essentially static for several years until the first wave of Age-65 retirements begin and the economy gains enough traction to prompt widespread airline growth. Nobody is really going anywhere else; most are stuck in whatever position they hold now. Time is essentially frozen; we're all just playing the waiting game. That's a lot easier for those of us who have decent jobs and a livable wage; for the newest entrants, it's nearly unbearable. I suspect that many of these will give up and leave the industry before things turn around. Those who hope to still have an aviation career on the other side are engaged in a grinding war of attrition. Survival is the name of the game; putting oneself in a position to benefit from the upswing is an important but secondary consideration. The following are some tips that I think will help with these twin goals.
  • If you currently have a job outside of aviation, keep it. If you've already quit but have a marketable skill-set that will allow you to get a decent job for the next 2-4 years, concentrate on doing so. I know that most career-changers are getting into aviation precisely because they couldn't stomach their old jobs; you need to approach this with the mindset that it is a temporary, necessary step to launching your aviation career. You will quit as soon as you can get a full-time aviation job, but in the meantime it is necessary to have an income stream to live on, train on, and save some money for the paycut your first aviation job will inevitably entail.
  • If you have no marketable skill outside of aviation, consider going (or going back) to school to get one. You'll experience more than one downturn in your career and you'll be much better prepared for the next one if you have a second skill to fall back on. If the major airlines are your goal, most require a four-year degree anyway. Meanwhile, a few years away from this labor market isn't a bad thing; student loans, which will be deferred during your schooling, can include living expenses and even flight training expenses if your school offers aviation courses. I'm going to definitively say that you should stay away from expensive aviation programs like UND and Embry-Riddle; the student loan debt will be simply too crushing once you're out in the "real world," potentially making little money in entry-level jobs for several years. If you need to complete flight training while in school, look for a state school with cheap tuition and a small aviation department that contracts out flight training to a local FBO, and either get an aviation minor to go along with your non-aviation major, or take the aviation courses on an elective basis.
  • Don't rush your flight training. The flight training industry insists that because "seniority is everything," you ought to shell out ridiculous amounts of money for their accelerated 9-month programs. If you were beginning your training at the start of an upswing they might have a point, but in this case finishing early just means that much more time sitting unemployed, with more debt (or less of a nest-egg to live on)! If you can save money by searching out a good instructor at a smaller flight school and training part-time while still working outside aviation and paying as you go, you'll find yourself well positioned to make the jump to full-time flying as timebuilding jobs open up in a few years.
  • This is connected to the last point, but if there's any way it is humanly possible to complete your training debt-free or with as little debt as possible, do it. Jobs like flight instructing, freight dogging, and regional airline FO don't pay much, but it generally is enough for a single person (or married with a working spouse) to live on - unless they're also paying $500-1000/month to service student loan debt. Not having that hanging over you will really free up options later on, and right now in this industry you need every bit of flexibility you can get.
  • Building flight time after earning your ratings is important, but in the absence of available full-time jobs, concentrate on maintaining currency. Landing that first job with minimal flight time has always been tough, but it's a lot easier if you can show that you've been at least consistently flying. You may need to rent an airplane on your own dime a few times a month. Use the time to improve the skills needed for whatever full-time job you are pursuing. In other words, if you hope to get an instructing job, fly from the right seat and bring your sister along for free lessons.
  • There's a natural tendency to concentrate on full-time jobs that quickly fill the logbook and give you the satisfaction of living off of your hard-earned certificates. However, it may be a lot easier to find a part-time job that allows you to keep your non-aviation job while still maintaining currency. Flight instruction, banner towing, and skydiver hauling are three entry-level jobs that all tend to be a lot busier on the weekends. In the case of instructing it can be difficult convincing larger schools to hire you for weekends only, but it's more common at smaller FBOs, especially in rural areas. Being out at the airport at the time when most pilots are makes it that much easier to network and sniff out that full-time job you really want, anyways.
  • If you can't find anyone to hire you, consider becoming your own boss. Some schools and FBOs take freelance instructors, as do virtually all flying clubs. A more extreme example - but potentially very cost-effective - is buying your own airplane and setting up shop as a Flight School of One. The last few years a lot of larger schools and FBOs sold their older airplanes in favor of new-fangled glass cockpit equipment, and now find that they've priced themselves out of the masses' reach in the downturn. There is a niche to be exploited here by the savvy entrepreneur. You could potentially buy an airplane, do most of your training in it, instruct in it, and then sell it for very close to what you have into it. Your total cost of flying will be a fraction of what it'd be at an accelerated program and airplane ownership will give you a great deal more real-world experience.
  • Be willing to relocate, globally if need be. The aviation scene might be dead in your city but it may not be a state or two over. If you are a dual citizen or have the right to work in another country, take a very close look at any opportunities there; although the downturn is global, it's mostly US pilots that are suffering the triple whammy of a poor economy, lack of retirements due to age 65, and a glut of qualified pilots. Sponsored expat positions used to be limited to those possessing significant Part 121 command time in specific aircraft types, but this is changing; as foreign countries seek to become more self-sufficient in pilot staffing, they are starting to set up training programs for local pilots on their own soil, creating a need for foreign instructors. I realize relocation can be a problem for those with families, but let's be completely honest: by choosing an aviation career for yourself, you've already sentenced your family to sustained poverty, frequent absences, and perpetual instability. A change of scenery that gets you past the difficult early stages quicker is going to be better for your family in the long run.
  • Use this extra waiting time wisely. Don't just run out the clock waiting for things to turn around, actively do everything you can to prepare yourself for when they do. This doesn't have to be expensive; you don't need to fly twice a day at a 9-month zero-to-hero program to eat, sleep, and breath aviation. Read every text you can get your hands on, particularly regarding advanced subjects you won't necessarily cover in training at a small flight school. If you can develop a very thorough understanding of subjects like meteorology and aviation weather, aerodynamics, transport category systems, long-range and oceanic navigation, aeromedical and physiological research, and safety & risk management programs before you even apply for that first job, you'll be far ahead of the average pilot. Likewise, network relentlessly, both at the airport and online. In 2007's job market, basically any bozo with a pulse could get hired at an airline, but in an economy like this it takes knowing people to land even a flight instructing job. The contacts you make and maintain will prove even more valuable in subsequent stages of your career.
As I've written previously, I see a critical pilot shortage developing at the regional airlines in 2012-2014; this will present opportunities to make up much of what our profession has lost over the last eight years. In the meantime there are some tough times to slog through. Those who make smart decisions and survive will reap the benefits. If anyone has advice in addition to what I posted above, I'd like to hear it in the comments.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Experience Counts

Over the last week there's been a tremendous outpouring of opinion among pilots regarding the proposed legislation I wrote about in my last post. The most controversial aspect is (predictably) the proposal to require all airline pilots to possess Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificates within three years. A fair amount of the opinion I've heard on the web boards, in person, and in the comments on the blog is negative. The two primary objections to the proposal that I've heard are that it represents an undue burden to newer pilots and that increasing experience won't do anything to improve safety. The first argument is understandable and not entirely without merit, but a close examination of conditions in the industry and a peek at future trends ought to ease concerns. The second argument I take much greater issue with; whether advanced out of ignorance or cynical self-interest, it is the same dangerously flawed trope that's never far from the lips of the most noxious CEOs in the airline business. It deserves a spirited rebuttal.

A lot of the alarm being voiced over requiring an ATP for airline newhires comes from those with significantly less experience, particularly those who've already invested a lot of money in training and are now trying to build flight time. I'm sympathetic to these pilots' concerns; having been in their shoes not so long ago, I'm not inclined to pull up the ladder behind me. There are too many people in aviation who are willing to throw those below them to the wolves; it is the exact attitude that gave birth to the cancer that is destroying our profession from the bottom up.

Times are tough for everyone in aviation right now. The major and regional airlines, fractionals, charter operators, and corporate outfits have all laid off thousands of pilots, including several of my friends. I'm still somewhat doubtful that my own job will survive this downturn; reportedly, WidgetCo and RedCo are collectively overstaffed for this winter by as many as 1200 pilots. For those just starting out, openings for the traditional timebuilding jobs are in short supply and competition is fierce. Even those with one of the coveted instructing jobs might not be building very much time: the sorry state of the airlines has killed career-oriented flight training and the economy isn't encouraging anyone to take up an expensive flying hobby, either. On the face of it, adding more restrictions does seem like kicking a guy when he's already down.

The unfortunate reality is that things are so bad right now that this law, if passed, isn't likely to affect anybody currently in aviation, or at least those well along in their training. The few airlines doing limited hiring (including mine) have extremely high competitive minimums. I don't think it's going to change anytime soon. There isn't any attrition at the regionals, and they're not going to grow any further; some will shrink significantly as major airlines attempt to reduce 50-seat lift. There are already many well-qualified airline pilots on the street, and it will get far, far worse if one or more major airlines goes out of business or is acquired this winter. The bottom line is that if you don't already have significant airline experience, you will not likely be hired at an airline in the United States for at least several years whether this law passes or not.

Things will eventually turn around; I personally think that the economy will recover enough to support airline growth at about the same time retirements resume after five years of stagnation, around 2011-12. Once the majors start hiring in large numbers, it's going to cause regional airline attrition to skyrocket. Initially, competitive hiring minimums will stay high as the regionals work through a large backlog of highly qualified pilots (which includes furloughees and those who've been building flight time steadily from now until then). Those currently finding it so difficult to build time will then find timebuilding jobs much easier to come by (assuming they haven't already thrown in the towel). I suspect that even without the proposed law, competitive minimums will remain at or above 1500 hours by the time most of today's commercial pilots reach the regional airlines.

The change of law will primarily affect those who begin training between now and ~2013, particularly those who jump in at the beginning of the next hiring cycle. Absent any changes to legal requirements, the relative lack of new pilots in the intervening years will cause competitive minimums to fall from 1500+ hours to 250 hours very quickly, just as happened in 2006. I'll get to why that would be a very bad thing in a minute, but now I wish to address whether requiring these future pilots to build 1500 hours represents an undue burden. Firstly, they will have entered aviation and paid for their training knowing the 1500 hour requirement. Secondly, the ability to be hired by any airline with less than 1500 hours is a historical anomaly that has only happened a few times throughout the last fifty years. Finally, it is likely that timebuilding jobs will be much more available than today (and better paid!) to those who build their time during the next shortage.

The suggestion that increasing newhire experience will not improve safety puzzles me. For the most part, I've seen it not from aviation newbies but from moderately experienced pilots who were hired at the airlines with low time during the last five years. I can understand why industry groups would fight against the requirement tooth-and-nail, but what motivation can these pilots have? Pride? A wish to justify the route they took to the airlines? I don't blame anybody for accepting a First Officer position with low time; I surely would have done so if I'd had the opportunity. To subsequently claim that the practice was just as safe as hiring more experienced candidates, however, bespeaks ignorance that hints at some of the limitations of inexperience.

I've heard three primary arguments in favor of this assertion. The first is based on personal experience and goes something like "I hired on at XYZ Airlines with 300 hours and didn't have a problem in training or on the line." Obviously, self-critique isn't the best means of judging these things; I'd prefer the opinions of check airmen and the Captains flying with the low-timers. But let's assume that our debate partner's check airmen and Captains agree that he exhibited superior aeronautical knowledge and skill as a low-time new-hire. There isn't a direct parallel to safety here. How many unusual situations happened in this pilot's early career? How many tough decisions? How many times did he have to challenge an off-the-reservation Captain? How many emergencies? Probably few, if any; I've only had a small handful in 4000 hours of airline flying. Airline flying is pretty uneventful most of the time and real tests of one's worth as a pilot come infrequently. It's very possible, even probable, that a low-time pilot will not be truly tested before he gains some experience. One cannot extrapolate this stroke of luck across the industry, because over thousands of flights per day things do happen, and any system that puts thousands of inexperienced pilots in the right seat is guaranteeing that some of them will be called upon in a dicey situation. I haven't flown with many low-time First Officers but some of my friends have, and they generally agree that most of them are fine in normal situations but many are virtually useless when things go wrong. It's not that they're bad pilots, they just haven't experienced many similar situations in their careers yet.

A frequent corollary to the above argument is "I flight instructed for 300 hours, and I fail to see how another 1000 hours of pattern work would have made me a safer pilot." If those 700 hours were flown in the same pattern with the same perfect weather and the same infallible student in a perfectly trustworthy airplane, that might be a good point. The reality is that one will encounter a wide variety of challenging situations in those 1000 hours which will develop decision-making skills, sound judgment, and practice in keeping one's composure in a bind. I scared myself and learned important lessons many, many more times in 2000 hours of instructing and freight dogging than I have in the 4000 hours since; those lessons could fill an entire post. It's worth noting that those who denigrate the value of timebuilding are generally those who didn't do a great deal of it.

The second common argument is that various organizations have employed 250-hour pilots with great success; the most common examples given are the major airlines back in the 60s, the U.S. military, and major airlines in Europe. All three are really apples-to-oranges comparisons. In the case of the major airlines of yesterday (who, by the way, weren't exactly shining examples of aviation safety), new-hires generally spent several years observing experienced pilots as flight engineers, and then moved to the right seat under the tutelage of experienced Captains. The U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines do put pilots with as little as 200 hours in command of high-performance fighter jets, but only after a very intensive,lengthy, and costly screening, selection, and training process that weeds out the majority of candidates and leaves only the cream of the crop. The European airlines have a fairly stringent selection process, many do their own ab-initio training, and all require an ATP. Yes, it's a "frozen ATPL" until the pilot builds enough flight time - but unlike the FAA ATP, the flight time is the easy part of earning a JAA ATP. Their ATP is all about demonstrating a command of aviation knowledge far superior to that of most regional newhires in the US (and actually, many Captains as well).

If the regional airlines in the U.S. screened their 250-hour candidates intensively, put them through a lengthy, costly, and difficult training program, required them to demonstrate a knowledge level equivalent to JAA ATPL standards, had them observe line operations for a while, and then paired them with experienced Captains, the above comparisons would be valid and I wouldn't be writing this post because I wouldn't see a problem with 250 hour First Officers. The regional airlines of 2005-07 did none of the above and industry trends suggest that it will be even worse in the next shortage. If regionals were willing to take essentially anyone with a pulse and a commercial certificate after a three-hour interview process, rush them through a training program designed for much more experienced pilots, and throw them on the line after the minimum legal IOE to fly with 2000-hour Captains who just upgraded, what will they do in a deeper and more prolonged shortage at a time when the regionals aren't making the large guaranteed profits of 2005-07? Many industry players have been pushing for the FAA to adopt the Multi-Crew Pilot certificate (MPL) concept developed by ICAO, which would put "pilots" with less than 120 hours of actual flight time into the right seat of airliners. They wouldn't be legal to act as pilot-in-command of a Cessna 150, yet are somehow expected to pull their weight as part of a well-functioning airline crew. If this law does not pass, you can be sure that the RAA will be pushing hard for MPL during the next shortage.

The final argument I've seen is that the airline accident record does not support the idea that inexperienced pilots pose a significant safety risk. Its supporters are quick to point out that both pilots in Colgan 3407 had flight time exceeding ATP minimums, or that the majority of pilot-error airline accidents involve experienced pilots. First off, airline accidents happen so infrequently that accident data alone is a pretty poor metric of aviation safety trends, particularly those involving fairly short-term phenomenon like the three year span in which widespread hiring of pilots with less than ATP minimums was pervasive. Secondly, low-time pilots made up a fairly small portion of all pilots even at airlines that extensively engaged in the practice of hiring low-timers due to the rapid accumulation of flight time, making statistical analysis on the basis of accident rates all the more problematic. I'd be much more interested in a study involving ASAP, NASA, and FOQA data, but no such study has been done.

As for Colgan 3407, I'd argue that experience did play a role, along with many other factors. True, both CA Renslow and FO Shaw had well above ATP minimums, but CA Renslow was fairly inexperienced for a PIC of a 76-seat airliner. That was a direct consequence of Colgan hiring him direct from Gulfstream with 600 hours, very little of which was prior PIC time. It's impossible to know for sure, but one can't help but wonder if more real-world experience before the airlines would have made a difference. Airline flying is an efficient breeder of complacency if one lets his guard down. I know that in my own case, getting bit by complacency a few times early on made me much more wary of it later in my career. The US Navy cited complacency as a primary culprit in their study of aircraft accidents that found Navy pilots were most dangerous between 700 and 900 hours of total time.

There actually is one argument against the new regulation that I find credible. If the law changes, it's possible that at the height of the next shortage, regional airlines will be so desperate for candidates with 1500 hours that they'll take anyone with the flight time regardless of prior checkride busts, violations, crashes, etc. The fact that the new legislation addresses hiring standards, as well as the fact that the airlines weren't much more selective than that in the last shortage, makes me less swayed.