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.


zb said...

Very true. The single most important reason why I quit (a job outside aviation) at my two previous companies was that pretty much the only topic at the lunch table was how bad the company was. This attitude towards constant complaining can eventually gain so much momentum that you just can't fight it any more and become a part of the complaining bunch.

Maybe the best piece of advice came from one co-worker who put it all into no more than five words and told me to love it or leave it.

When the situation on the job market doesn't allow the option of leaving it, I would like to ask everyone to please be so kind to complain only in situations where there is a chance of improvement. At all other times, I completely agree to Sam: Everyone, please remember why you chose the job in the first place and be good at what you do. Stuff happens, and aviation is tougher than other jobs are once stuff has happened, but usually, there is a way out.

A company can put you into classes and training a lot, but the biggest and best source of knowledge and inspiration is your colleagues and the solutions you find with them during day-to-day work.

siouxpilot said...

Sam, another good post. I am another person who is "stuck"(not really I enjoy instructing a lot) in aviation.

I also know a few people who have lost their jobs because of different reasons. I know that this is almost as much as a killer as a DUI or other felony.

Please everyone watch yourself so you don't get lazy and derail your career of choice!

Also please check out my blog about being a flight instructor.

greg said...

Sam- good post. I am at Horizon now and am starting to get a little sour, though I do try very hard to look on the bright side. Or at least not focus on the shady side.

ZB- I am going to take your comments to heart. There are some good lessons in what you said.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sam,

Thanks for writing this excellent blog.

The following comment/question is tangential to the topic at hand, but...

Based on the readers' comments section of the newspaper story you linked to, it seems like a certain percentage of the flying public has a negative attitude toward pilots who happen to be female. What are your thoughts about this?

a loyal reader

Sam said...

Anonymous - Because a certain percentage of the flying public are complete morons.

Michael said...


This discussion has many parallels outside the aviation "industry". I think alot of the advice is applicable to people in other lines of work (me included! -in the auto industry). The details may be different, but the sentiment is universal. Thank you for your blog!

greg said...

Sam- please check your APC message inbox when you are able.

Andrew said...

Thanks for all of your info on the industry! I'm only a private pilot at a public university, but this is already a great resource. Thanks again for writing.