Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Just What Are We Doing Up There, Anyways!?

Since my piece in Flying came out, I've heard a lot of feedback - from friends, coworkers, Flying's readership, and those of you following this blog - and the vast majority has been gratifyingly positive. That said, eight years of running a blog with open comments has taught me to expect some haters - and endowed me with a thicker skin to them - and indeed a few did come out of the woodwork. The source was a little surprising: fellow regional pilots, albeit of the anonymous forum variety. I guess I shouldn't be too surprised, as the regional forums had a lot of hate for Captain Sully, the most high-profile, eloquent, and truthful spokesman our profession has ever known. So I was prepared to ignore the haters, until I realized that their gripes contained a kernel of truth.
A few of my fellow regional pilots took exception to the second half of the sentence, "The autopilot and autothrottles keep the airplane right on course, flying more smoothly than I am able." The general public already thinks we're overpaid and underworked, the argument goes; I just gave them ammunition by claiming the automation is a better pilot than I am.
I'll admit that sentence was overblown. It's not even particularly accurate: I would like to think my flying is smoother than the autopilot most days, for the 10-15 minutes per flight I fly manually. But it was part of a paragraph describing the high level of automation in the JungleBus, which does result in very low workload in good-weather cruise flight. This was the second beef my fellow regional pilots had with the article: I depicted a low-workload day, thus tempting the general public to think that all we ever do is sit, eat, chat, and stare out the window.
I considered writing up a "day from hell." I actually started on it. But the reality is that such an article, besides being boringly boastful, would have been less truthful than the one I wrote. Maybe I have extraordinarily good luck, but I would guess that I have a "day from hell" less than 10% of the time. Conversely, at least half of my flights pass with nothing out of the ordinary happening. I chose to use such an ordinary day - and uneventful cruise flight - as a framing device for talking about the regional industry and regional pilots as a whole. I thought it was more truthful, more interesting, and it was what I really wanted to write about.
But the criticism isn't entirely unwarranted. Several non-flying friends & family, upon reading the article, remarked on their surprise that I do so little at my job. Furthermore, Bob Collins, who writes the News Cut blog for Minnesota Public Radio and frequently comments on this blog, had the same takeaway. And he's a pilot! So while the ennui of uneventful cruise flight is a major part of the modern pilot's life, perhaps I should have been less glib in writing about that aspect for the uninitiated. Even on an uneventful day, there actually is a lot of work that goes on, more than I really think about. Yesterday was a great example - on the same routing as depicted in the article, no less.
Yesterday morning began with a soaking thunderstorm in Dallas. Dawn had come on the overnight with me, and we braved water-clogged freeways to have breakfast downtown with two good friends. The storm had moved to the east by the time we showed up at the airport, but it had delayed many inbound flights. I put Dawn on a delayed Minneapolis flight and waited for our aircraft to LaGuardia. It pulled up to the gate only 20 minutes before scheduled departure time of 12:20. To make the turn go faster, I read through the release at the gate, pulled up the radar to confirm that our dispatcher's routing up the backside of the storm and through a gap in mid-Arkansas was doable, and ran my own fuel calculations to see how much holding fuel we would have if the storms starting to pop up west of LaGuardia shut down the airport. As soon as the last of the inbound passengers deplaned, my crew dragged our bags down the jetbridge, greeted the inbound crew, and began our preflight checks. For me, this consists of scanning the logbook for errors, recent service checks, and recurring writeups, checking emergency equipment, "making my nest" with my flight bag, headset, and jepp binders, performing my flow items, and programming our flight plan and performance perimeters into the FMS. That complete, my FO Eliot and I briefed the weather, our ATC clearance, expected payload, takeoff performance, engine-out procedures, abort items, departure procedure, and our programmed route. Eliot then read the Preflight Checklist. By now passenger loading was complete, so I made a welcome aboard PA, the ramp lead brought our load manifest, Dottie the "B" flight attendant brought the passenger count, and Eliot programmed these all into the FMS and sent a Weight & Balance ACARS request. Our takeoff performance data came back a few minutes later, and Eliot entered the thrust and flap settings and Vspeeds into the FMS while I reviewed the data. Inga our "A" flight attendant announced that the cabin was secure and shut the cockpit door. I ran through my before start flow and called for the checklist, which Eliot read before calling ramp control for pushback. When we got our clearance, I released the parking brake. Then and only then did Eliot and I start getting paid. All the above was a freebie for the company, even though it is hugely important to the safe outcome of the flight.
We were moderately heavy at 82,000 lbs - too heavy for single-engine taxi - so I had Eliot start both engines as we were being pushed back. After wave-off I asked him to set our planned takeoff flap setting, Flaps 1 - relatively rare, used in this case to aid engine-out climb performance in the scorching Dallas heat. We ran the before taxi checklist, and Eliot called ramp and then ground control for taxi clearance. The route - "Taxi 17R via Kilo, Echo Golf" - was straightforward, but we reviewed it on the airport diagram before beginning our taxi. Six minutes later, we were cleared for takeoff, and I pushed the thrust levers up to the rating detent as we began rolling down the 13,000 foot runway, scanning the engine instruments for any abnormalities. When Eliot called "rotate," I was careful not to pull back on the yoke too hard. It's fairly easy to strike the tail on Flaps 1 takeoffs, and because we use average passenger weights, it's not uncommon to have imperfect weight & balance that results in a mistrimmed aircraft.
At 400 feet I called for "NAV" and began following the FMS-generated guidance for the AKUNA2 RNAV departure. At 1000 feet I called for "VNAV, Speed FMS," but kept the airplane pitched a bit higher than the flight director guidance, as we had a relatively steep crossing restriction to make despite the hot air and heavy airplane. I hand flew through 13,000 feet, and then asked Eliot to turn on the autopilot. We had climb checks at 10,000 and 18,000 feet, and then at cruise altitude we asked ATC for ride reports and turned off the seat belt sign for a while, until we reached the line of weather we had to pick our way through. This was less eventful than I feared, for although we were in restricted visibility due to blow-off from the storms, we were able to use the radar to find a pretty wide gap that let us pass unmolested. Even after the line, we deviated six or seven times for cumulonimbus popping up along the route, although it was all scattered enough that we never had to turn more than 10 or 15 degrees. Midway through the flight, I ACARSed our dispatcher inquiring about the storms west of LaGuardia, and he replied a few minutes later saying there were multiple cells popping up. I kept refreshing the LaGuardia D-ATIS every half-hour, but good weather prevailed at the airport.
Over central Pennsylvania, we were given a new clearance changing our arrival from the Milton 4 to the HAARP 2. Soon we began hearing LGA-bound aircraft on the Milton 4 being issued holding instructions, and I remarked on our luck to escape this. No sooner had the words escaped my lips than we were cleared back direct to Milton, hold as published, expect further clearance in a half hour! Eliot programmed the hold into the FMS and I began calculating our bingo fuel. A half hour of holding would put us right at it, with a diversion to Allentown a distinct possibility. I was just about to text our dispatcher when New York Center cleared us direct to BEUTY, deleting the hold. Whew! For the rest of the arrival, we passed big cells on either side, but only had to deviate slightly once. On the descent, Eliot retrieved the newest ATIS, obtained landing performance data, programmed the arrival and v-speeds, sent our in-range message, and read the descent and approach checklists when I requested them.
LaGuardia was landing 22 and departing 31, so over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge approach control sent us direct to LGA, and then heading 070. I heard several aircraft ahead of us being cleared for a short approach, so I slowed down and configured early, and thus was able to get down when we were turned in early to a short approach from 4000 feet. I commanded flap and gear extension in sequence, and was slowed to approach speed in landing configuration with the engines spooled up by 1000’ AGL, our mandatory stabilized approach altitude. The wind was gusty and we had ice speeds due to an earlier encounter – rather ridiculous, since it was 82°F at the airport – giving us a rather fast approach speed of 149 knots to a 7000 foot runway. I made sure not to float much but still made a fairly soft touchdown, applying the brakes and reverse thrust quickly and decelerating briskly to turn off at Taxiway Charlie.
I called “Flaps zero, after landing checklist,” and Eliot’s hands went through the flow pattern as he switched his audio panel to Comm 2 and called ramp control to check on our gate. Meanwhile I turned left onto Bravo and talked to ground control, who told me to turn right on Echo, Left on Alpha, hold short of Foxtrot. Eliot came back on to inform me our gate was open but the alley was occupied, and would be for 10 minutes. He relayed this information to ground, who shunted us back over to Bravo short of Juliet behind an idling American Eagle E145. I made a PA explaining the situation to the passengers, and then we listened to both ramp and ground control frequencies for further instructions. Ramp apparently forgot about us, for when Eliot made an inquiry six or seven minutes later they immediately cleared us into the gate. Ground sent us in via Juliet, Alpha, November. We had landed on time, but blocked in late due to the delay.
The return leg was much like the first, except that we were severely load limited due to a high fuel load, hot temperatures, and LaGuardia’s short runways. I ran a preliminary performance calculation, consulted with the rampers to find the number of bags, and concluded that we could take up to 72 people, or 74 if at least 4 were “half-weights,” ie children under 12. I took a walk through the gate area, counting the number of children, and told the ground agent we would be able to take all 68 confirmed passengers and 6 nonrevs who had been told they wouldn’t get on the plane. In fact, when our final performance came back, we were 500 pounds under Max Runway Takeoff Weight, thanks to an outside air temperature 1°C cooler than planned. The takeoff required Maximum Thrust with no derate, Flaps 4 (normally only used when runway length is the limiting factor), and Bleeds Off. I was even more attentive than usual to the slightest flicker of engine instruments on the takeoff roll down Runway 31; the EGTs were very nearly at their maximum. An abort anywhere near V1 would require us to do everything absolutely perfect if we weren’t to go sailing into Flushing Bay. The engines stayed running, though, and we lifted off at 145 knots with about 1500 feet of pavement remaining.
We spent the return leg dodging scattered thunderstorms that had grown a bit since the previous flight, and raced an isolated cell approaching DFW. We won the race handily and touched down on Runway 35C a few minutes early. I said goodnight to the deplaning passengers, shut down the ship’s power, collected my bags, and headed out to the curb with my crew. The hotel van took 25 minutes to come, and then it was 15 minutes to the hotel. We had a 14 hour overnight, affording me enough time to visit a nearby bar & grill for a slice of pizza and a pint of microbrew.
For all that, if you had pulled up a barstool next to me, ordered a Moose Drool Brown Ale, and asked me how my day was, I would’ve shrugged and said “Pretty much the usual. Dodged a few storms. Almost got held going into LaGuardia. Pretty heavy on the way out. Fairly typical day.” And it was. Eliot and I still chatted quite a bit in cruise. I pulled out the atlas and followed along. We called the flight attendants halfway to New York to tell them a joke because we were bored. We still worked plenty over the course of the day, and we still had numerous opportunities to use the skill and judgment we’re paid for, but having relatively little to do during the interminable hours of cruise flight is an undeniable part of the modern pilot experience, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise. That wasn’t really what the article was about, but since the topic has been brought up…now you know the rest of the story!


D.B. said...

Thanks for the view into the "High Life". I'm a private pilot and CFI, flying a Bonanza lower and slower than you, and I only talk to my FO when I'm talking to myself. Which I do, reading the critical checklist items out loud.

Even when flying IFR, I open a VFR sectional on my laop and follwo along. I wouldn't call cruise flight cross country boring, there's always radio traffic and soon someone is going to hand you off, and you don't want to be that pilot who has to ask for a repeat or misses the call. But with today's automation, even my little plane is not a challenge to actually fly. Our challenge is to do it right (and not have the controller ask "xxx, say intentions?"), stay safe and be just as professional as you guys.

Anonymous said...


I have three comments; First, congrats on being published in Flying.

Second, I enjoyed your story, and I think it IS representative of most flights, honesty works. I know that either as a pax or pilot, I prefer routine boring to "interesting".

Finally, If you had written "more efficiently" instead of smoother, I think some of the critics may have been silenced, and besides, you were published in Flying, not some generic magazine, I presume most readers, like I did, would "autocorrect" the "smoother" line.

Landlocked Sailor said...

Good call on the Moose Drool. We make good beer in Missoula. Loved the article, look forward to more!

Tim C said...

Been following the blog for a few years. This type of entry is the reason I enjoy reading it so much. You addressed the haters in a level-headed, informative, and honest manner. No condescension. No glorification. Just telling it like it is. Nice work!

Anonymous said...

So true... My office job is the same way.. I spend hours in a cubicle browsing the internet, wishing I was flying and, well, reading this blog.. The executives at my company get paid to GOLF and eat 1500 dollar dinners (each).. They also go to 500 dollar lunches on a daily basis.. I mean that's what people should be outraged about. It's silly to direct that at a pilot making a middle class salary (if they are LUCKY) who spent well over 100k of schooling to get there, not to mention all of the studying, tests, checkrides, training, time away from their family and friends, etc. There is downtime in every job.. Look at the cops at dunkin donuts next time you pass, or sitting their with their radar guns as you pass them on the interstate.. I mean that money comes directly out of your taxes every day.. People can be so short sighted.. Ugh. Good article though!


Don Hodges said...

Sam, saw Delta is hiring 300 pilots on the Delta employee web site. Are you in line? It says 200 offers will be made to pilots on furlough who have previously declined, then hire from Compass and another Connection carrier (Endeavor?)

Don Hodges, lurker and DL retiree

Eric Bohn said...

Thanks for writing this.

John said...


First time visiting your blog in a while, this was a good entry to come back to.

I look at it like this: it's like sports (I always use sports analogies). People love to hate Tiger Woods, but at the same time those haters can't wait (need) for him to win another major. Just like how people love to say we don't really do anything, but they actually want and need for it to be routine.

Let's face it, people don't really want to read the things that make up the other 7/10s of the job: watching commuting flights pushing back from the gate without you, then renting a car and driving through the night to get home....spending one day off due to transition doing mountains of laundry and cutting grass....having a merger drag on for several years only to have management ask for wage concessions in the 11th hour.....checking my schedule 12 times a day, trying to trip trade in an effort to get a day off for a kid's dance recital...none of this is really compelling reading and almost makes us seem normal. Too many "haters" still like to put us up on a pedestal and focus on how easy our job is, which it really is, it's the other stuff I listed that makes it not easy.

As for our more "negative" peers, there are those in every workgroup. It just seems that in our group, most of them are on internet forums ;)

Good post, as always!

laura linger said...

Meh. You know the saying, "Haters gonna hate"? Truer words are never going to be spoken, especially about blogging. I swear, the Internet is mostly comprised of people with axes to grind.

Stand in your personal truth and be proud of every word you write. I am an aviation enthusiast and I love your blog. I was so worried when you had your health scare!

I made friends once with an American Eagle pilot who was hitching a ride on a flight from Phoenix to Chicago. I will not name him personally, but let's just say that that was one of the most enjoyable flights I have ever had...and he beat me soundly at poker. He told me all about his job, so many of your details here resonated loudly with me. I would never, ever say that yours is an "easy job." Quite the opposite.

Greetings from a grateful passenger and fellow blogger over at A Touch Of Tuesday Weld.

-laura :-)

Anonymous said...

Are you still blogging?

Sam said...

Anonymous - Yep, just not this summer. Since that last post two months I've been home maybe a total of five or six days, it's been nuts! More to follow....

Amir Hossain said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Joaquin Espinoza said...

The criticism of your piece is based on a misunderstanding of what pilots are (or should be) really paid for. You are not being paid to push the throttles forward, dial in frequencies, or do any of the other many tasks that make up a typical flight. Nowadays much of that could be automated anyway. You are being paid to manage and monitor the overall flight, make critical safety decisions if the need arises, and respond to emergency situations in the way only a well-trained human can. Therefore shooting the breeze with your FO and drinking coffee during uneventful cruise is totally acceptable.

The same misunderstanding occurs with anesthesiologists. As nurse anesthetists take over more and more of the tasks that anesthesiologists used to do (intubation, staying in the OR for the entire surgery), many anesthesiologists find they can spend almost the entire case sitting in the break room sipping coffee. It might seem like they're lazy, but they still have final responsibility when the patient crashes, and that responsibility is what they're being paid for.