Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Last week I had the unusual (for me, anyways) privilege of flying with a brand new First Officer. I don't mean new to me - I mean brand spanking new to the company and the JungleBus, on his very first trip after Initial Operating Experience (IOE). I shouldn't be so surprised, because there are a ton of new faces on the line given all the hiring NewCo has been doing to replace those of us flowing up or moving on to other majors. But I've been bidding around 14% (from the top) in the MSP Captain category for over three years, and have become accustomed to flying with the same 20 or so senior First Officers. Many of them could hold a junior Captain position on reserve or in our new LAX crew base, but choose to stay in the right seat for the weekends & holidays off, efficient trips, and 18-day-off monthly lines that their seniority provides. All are extremely comfortable with the JungleBus and our system, and their knowledge often surpasses my own. Flying with excellent First Officers who you know makes the left seat a pretty easy gig on most days.

Joe joined the trip in Salt Lake City, replacing the reserve First Officer from Detroit who had flown the first two legs. I'm not sure what happened to the FO who originally bid the trip; I'm guessing he was sick or was able to drop the trip into open time. My first thought when I met Joe was how shockingly young he looked, much like myself when I was hired at Horizon ten years ago. Indeed, he turned out to be nine years my junior, at age 23. Born in 1990, Joe was 10 years old when I started instructing. It makes me feel suddenly old! Incredibly, this isn't Joe's first airline; he spent over a year at Great Lakes, and his experience is fairly instructive of how the pilot shortage has been shaping up so far. He struggled through a year of poverty-level First Officer pay (less than $15,000/yr) and upgraded in the Beech 1900D as soon as he turned 23. By then, Lakes was losing so many First Officers that he ended up flying in the right seat even after upgrading, which at least gave him captain pay but no turbine PIC flight time. When NewCo started hiring, it wasn't a hard decision to jump ship; even our paltry first year FO pay is as much as Great Lakes' captain pay! Six of the ten pilots in Joe's NewCo class were ex-Lakers, and they also made up the majority of the classes before and behind his.

All of Joe's IOE took place in our east coast system, flying in and out of LaGuardia. He had never been to our trip's airports of Salt Lake City, San Francisco, or San Antonio; he had flown in and out of LAX as a Laker, but not from WidgetCo's terminal. I passed along some of the finer points of flying in and out of these cities, though few of these tips actually involve flying. The Jeppesen plates do a pretty good job of presenting all the data needed to navigate one's way to a busy airport; it is mostly on the ground that some tribal knowledge comes in handy. This includes typical taxi routes, which ground and ramp controllers to contact and where, whether operations will respond to your on-the-ground call, which services are available - even something as simple as "The ground power at gate 48 isn't reliable, so leave the APU running." In Salt Lake City, I noted the semi-permanent winter inversion layer and cautioned Joe about the sudden thick fogs that often defy forecasters, suggesting the occasional need for a precautionary alternate. Approaching San Francisco, I explained the Tipp Toe, Quiet Bridge, and new FMS Bridge visual procedures, reviewing the techniques needed to comply with altitude and speed restrictions and still get stabilized by 1000' and sharing tips on avoiding TCAS Resolution Advisories (RAs) when paired up with another aircraft on the parallel approach.

Mostly, though, the trip was notable for just how little instruction was needed. If Joe hadn't told me he was fresh off IOE, I never would have guessed it. His aircraft control was smooth and precise, his procedural knowledge flawless, his automation management confident and fluid. It's worth noting that this is Joe's first time flying a glass, FMS-equipped airplane. I suspect such a transition is much easier for his tech-raised generation than going from a technically advanced aircraft to an old-school steam-gauge bird like the B1900. Our procedures required that I make the landings and takeoffs in San Francisco since it is a special qualifications airport and Joe is "green," but I would have been perfectly comfortable letting him fly at SFO or anywhere else. About the only clue that Joe was new to the airplane was the fact that he started slowing down for approaches a few miles earlier than I would have. This is a smart technique when new to any aircraft, but especially when coming out of the B1900. Its lighter weight and massive drag with props at fine pitch make carrying 250 knots to the outer marker standard procedure. The JungleBus is actually draggier than many jets and its large flight spoilers and high gear and flap speeds making getting down and slowing down relatively easy, but it's certainly no B1900, and it behooves one to play it conservative until intimately familiar with its drag characteristics. Even then, you have to be careful not to leave yourself hot and high, as I discovered with a Fed on my jumpseat four years ago.

Flying with Joe was a heartening reminder of how well most airline training programs prepare their pilots for flying the line from Day One, even when it's a big change from their previous aircraft. I myself have a similarly stark transition in my near future, going from the well-designed, modern, highly-automated JungleBus to the decidedly quirky, semi-automated hodgepodge of workaround design from several eras that is the "Mad Dog." It's a little intimidating to think about, but then I remember flying freight in decrepit Navajos single pilot in hard IFR sans autopilot. If I could do that then, I can certainly make it through MadDog school with one of the world's largest airlines' notably thorough training program. Sometime later this year, I'll have the privilege of introducing myself to my first post-IOE captain as the "FNG." Let's hope that I fly as well on my first trip as Joe did!



Anonymous said...

Great post thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Here is a question for you, when hired at the Major, or the regional for that matter, did the airline run their own medical test, or did they accept your First class medical as evidence of meeting the standards? Reason I ask - I can get an FAA first class no problem, but I need to use a special color vision test (faa approved, they accept like 17 diff tests, but I can only pass certain ones.) that my AME has. Wouldn't wanna pour my heart into getting my Commercial / ATP if they are gonna turn me.. One would think this would be discrimination, since the FAA says I'm safe, but anyway let me know if you can. Much appreciated thanks!

Sam Weigel said...

RS1 -- The regionals generally accept a FAA Class I medical, a few have done their own medical exams in the past but stopped doing so out of cost considerations. The majors vary. Delta does their own medical exam. United does not. USAir doesnt, but American did when they were hiring, so who knows what the combined company will do. I would be surprised if a major would refuse you employment based on not passing their specific color test if you explained that you can pass certain FAA approved ones, but I'm not a company doc either & can't say I know anyone who is. Sorry I can't help more.

Chad Gurchinoff said...

Sam--first of all, I’d like to say that I discovered your blog (and the Flying Magazine column) just about two hours ago. I was aimlessly thumbing through the April 2014 issue with a mug of coffee when I came across a photo of a UND aircraft. Having returned from a visit to UND one month ago today--I am a high-school senior--I was interested to see what the column had to say about the place. It made me think back to my visit:

I wore a leather jacket and a sweater over two shirts for the trip up to Grand Forks and was surprised when I noticed many of the indigenous pilots of MSP Airport hidden behind scarves and overcoats. [I thought briefly that I had overdressed, ha!] Our flight departed with de-ice fluid streaming across the windows; wind gusts pelted the fuselage during climbout over the twin cities, reminding me of waves crashing against a boardwalk. Signs of habitation along our route of flight steadily diminished into negative space by the top-of-descent. Final approach into KGFK was uneventful, the thin coating of de-ice fluid on the wing sparkled in the sun. A continuous sheet of drifting snow tumbled along the surface of the runway while we flared and touched down--the captain’s yoke fully deflected left to soothe the aircraft in the crosswind, heavy braking was applied to slow. We held short of the westerly runway for a number of UND aircraft to complete touch-and-goes, wisps of snow still cavorting. Grand Forks was fascinating to me, having grown up around mountains and rednecks and humidity. I anxiously await the fall of 2015 when I may attend UND. (I decided that I will move to Minneapolis this June and live there for a year so I can take advantage of MN tuition, it’s more affordable that way.)

Anyway, I just wanted to say that--having been a dedicated Flight Level 390 follower--I am excited to have discovered your blog. I am a sucker for good writing and more so for good aviation writing. Is there a way I might be able to send you an e-mail? Mine is c.gurchinoff@gmail.com. Thanks much!

Sam Weigel said...

Chad-- Shoot dude, I'm sorry I didn't respond to this sooner. Have been pretty dang busy for the last six weeks as you might imagine. Shoot me an email at samweigel@gmail.com.

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