Thursday, May 22, 2014

New Format!

As promised, the slight redesign from the week before last was only an interim stopgap; since then I've used a parallel test site to do a complete redesign of the blog. This is an adaptation of the "OrangeLine" template offered for free over at BTemplates. You'll notice the main page has a rotating display of photos from throughout the course of my career; I'll occasionally change these. I've added new pages about me & the blog's history, compiled a reading list of some of my favorite posts from the last nine years, and am in the process of adding labels to the archived posts. In addition I've added social media sharing buttons to the main page & at the bottom of each post. I'm redoing the long-neglected blogroll, so if you have a favorite aviation blog you think I should check out, please tell me. And let me know what you think of the new digs!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

First Day of School

April 7, 2014. I was already awake when my cell phone alarm clock started beeping at 6am, and when the automated wakeup call came a few moments later. I lay in the dim dawn light of my hotel room, thinking. I'd been dreaming of this day for 20 years. There wasn't really anything to be nervous about, but my heart was in my throat. I had slept fitfully through the night. It was the first day of class at a major US airline. My new airline.

I got up, showered, and fretted about what tie to wear for a good 10 minutes before picking the one I'd planned on all along. Outside of my room, I ran into Jack P. He and I had been in the same basic indoc class at NewCo, though that was only a one-day event (most of it was done via computerized distance learning). Jack and I ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant, eying a similarly attired group a few booths down who looked like they could be our classmates (they were). After breakfast we found the rest of our suit-and-tie-clad counterparts milling in the lobby, having shown up early for the early van to the training center. On the first day of class, nobody was going to risk being late.

The van dropped us off at the front door of the training center. This is a large brick four-story building that turned out to be a bit of a misnomer, for it only hosts a portion of the airline's training activity; there is a similarly sized annex next door, and several stories of the two operations buildings across the street house flight simulators, briefing rooms, & instructor lounges. Indeed, the pilot new hire classroom was not in the training center itself, but up three floors, down a long hallway, across a footbridge to the annex, and halfway down another long hallway. A line pilot who was early for his recurrent training graciously showed us the way, marveling all the while at the sheer volume of new hire pilots and flight attendants in training (currently 600 FAs, he said!). It's been a while since this airline has seen such a hiring boom.

We were all 45 minutes early for class, leaving plenty of time for chitchat. I noticed, with some dismay, that the class immediately split into its constituent parts. There were ten flow-throughs from my airline, 9 flow-throughs from another carrier, and 5 off-the-street hires from Skywest, ExpressJet, and Pinnacle. All of the flow-throughs had been hired at their respective former airlines around the same time (several, like Jack and I, on the same day), and therefore most of them knew each other already. That said, you can go months or even years without running into someone who is right next to you on the seniority list, and so the only person I really knew well was Richard, my sim partner during JungleBus initial training in 2007. I chatted with acquaintances for a while, then broke off to meet a few new faces. The first person I chatted with, Roger, recognized me as "the Flying columnist," and to my dismay started introducing me as such to our classmates. I wasn't trying to hide the writing - I was certain my new airline was aware of it - but had hoped to stay "under the radar" during basic indoc. That said, I appreciated hearing fellow pilots saying how much they enjoyed my articles. It's about the closest I've ever come to minor celebrity!

The manager of fleet-common programs arrived right on schedule, we took our seats, and he gave us the first of what would be many warm welcomes to the airline throughout the day and week. "We're so glad you're here!" and "You're getting in at a great time!" was sincerely uttered so many times that it became a bit of a running joke by the end of basic indoc. We went around the room and introduced ourselves, our background, and why we chose to come to this airline. I mentioned I had been hired at Horizon on April 7th, 2004, exactly ten years prior, and that Dawn and I had traveled the world on this airline and had been treated very well over the years. I was struck by the fact that at 32 years old and with 10 years of airline flying, I was one of the youngest and least experienced of the 24 new hires. Most of the others were in their upper 30s to lower 50s, with 15+ years at the regionals. Also notable was that only a few had flown in the armed forces, and none had come straight from the military, which would have been unthinkable in a major airline class this size only a few years ago. This is of course a partial consequence of the flow-through programs and may change as the flowups dwindle later this year, but even in the classes before and after ours that had few flowups, pure military hires made up half or less of the off-the-street hires. This is an enormous shift from previous hiring waves. I think the airlines still prefer military pilots, but there just aren't a ton of them leaving the service compared to previous eras.

The first day of indoc, and indeed much of the first week, was comprised of presentations by various managers and heads of departments. I was surprised at how high-ranking many of the presenters were; there were several VPs who took the time to welcome us aboard. My second impression was of the sheer size and complexity of many of the departments involved, several of which would have been handled by a skeleton crew of a few people at most regional airlines. The presenters seemed very aware of this, and several times we heard the refrain: "We are not the regional airlines. We know how some of your previous airlines were run and how they might've treated you, and you have to leave that in your past. We do things differently here." On the third day, we toured the operations center, an enormous room that houses domestic and international dispatch, load planners, maintenance control, crew routing, meteorologists, radio communications specialists, the duty pilot desk, and more. It was an eye-opening and humbling look at what it takes to make one of the world's largest airlines run - and for every person on duty in the operations center itself, there are another five or ten working elsewhere in the operations complex. As part of the tour, each new-hire got to sit with a dispatcher for an hour while they worked their flights. It was one of the highlights of my week, and it made much of what was subsequently discussed in class make a lot more sense.

Lunch was catered the first day of class, and the new-hires started to mingle outside of their earlier groups. I met Nick, a Skywest Brasilia check airman who I'd share a few beers with while getting Windows running on his Mac later that week, and Lindsay from ExpressJet, a friendly gal who seemed to already know everyone in the training department thanks to a Women In Aviation scholarship that had provided a type rating course in the airline's B737 flight simulators. By the end of the day I had talked to most of my classmates and several of the instructors who would be teaching later in the week. My heart was no longer in my throat; my suit felt lighter. Everyone I met made me feel welcome, like I belonged here, regardless of flow-through status. With the anxiety gone, I actually enjoyed myself, recalling how often I had dreamed of this day over the years, and pinching myself at my good fortune to be here now.

Looking back over this blog's archives from late 2008 into 2009, during the merger and recession I had fully expected to have this airline's pilots flow down to NewCo, displacing me onto the street and likely sending me to China to find work! The fact that this never happened, that I enjoyed some great years of good seniority insulated from much of the regional industry's turbulence and have now seamlessly flowed up to my dream job even after NewCo was sold off, can be regarded as nothing more than the product of extremely good luck and perhaps a few nudges from my guardian angel. Likewise my decision to go to NewCo in the first place, when I had been planning to take a leave of absence from Horizon to fly Metroliners for Ameriflight (and nearly blew off the NewCo interview until Dawn talked some sense into me!). I look at the winding path that took me here, and there are so many twists and turns that could have easily gone another way. I'm thrilled that things turned out the way they did, but am under no illusion that my good fortune is the product of my own intelligence or hard work. Yes, I put in my time and made the decisions that seemed to be best at the time, but there are a lot of smarter and harder-working pilots than me who are still stuck at the regionals. The good news is, I don't think they'll be stuck for long. All of the US airlines are hiring, and several (including mine) have already revised their hiring numbers upwards several times this year. I've had friends with zero turbine PIC get hired at major airlines recently.

I'm trying to avoid triumphalism because I'm keenly aware that many 1999 and 2000 hires thought they were set for life, only to wind up on the street a few years later. The airlines have always been boom-or-bust, and have typically careened from one to the other with little warning. The same will likely hold true this time, and nothing in particular says I and my friends won't be caught in the bust whenever it comes. But for now at least, times are very good at the majors, and I want to encourage those who are still toiling away in the lower levels: keep up the good work. There's light at the end of the tunnel. You'll get there, and when you do, it's an absolutely amazing feeling.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

So Long, "Blogging at FL250!"

I've kept this blog essentially unchanged since I started it in 2005, retaining the same title & format even after my job took me well above FL250 (which came from the maximum certified altitude of the Q400 that I was flying back then). I never really cared for the verb "blogging," though, particularly in the name of a blog. I stuck with it because...well, I didn't really have anything better in mind. But when I started writing the monthly column for Flying, it forced me to brainstorm titles appropriate to the subject matter I anticipated covering, and I ended up really liking Taking Wing. It's an equally appropriate title for what I've written about here and anticipate writing here in the future. I've toyed with the idea of changing the blog's name for years, and now, while I'm starting a new chapter in my flying career, seemed like the right time to take the plunge.

I'll also be experimenting with layout and formatting over the next few weeks. Bear with me as I do, I have little experience with blogger template design & tweaking. I anticipate this current layout being an interim stopgap until I find something I like better. Meanwhile I'll likely revamp the blogroll (which hasn't been touched in years) and organize the archives better. Any suggestions are quite welcome.

Finally, it's worth noting that with my change in jobs will come a certain change in content. I've been able to express some pretty strongly felt opinions over the years without the slightest pushback from my employers. I know that many fellow pilots, other employees, flight ops management, and even a few senior managers at my last two companies visited this blog. I've generally been careful about not naming my employers while at those companies (though their identity has been pretty easy to guess for anyone with industry knowledge), and I've made it clear that my opinions are solely my own. I've also become more careful about how I post operational details over the years. So far, I've been able to stay out of hot water. I suspect it's partially because my work record has been otherwise very good and partially because most regional airlines have limited resources and much bigger fish to fry than a blogging pilot.

My new employer is different. They are a huge airline that is very sensitive about their corporate image. They have a well-defined social media policy that, among other things, prohibits public criticism of the company or fellow employees. They have a social media department whose job it is to know exactly what is being said about the company online, by both the public and employees. They have a history of firing employees who strayed from their social media guidelines. They have a very large and active legal department. Their flight operations department takes their new-hire pilots' probationary periods seriously. And frankly, I have a lot more to lose now. This is my dream job. My Flying Magazine gig meets the requirements of their media policy, but likely raises my profile a bit at a time I'd rather be under the radar. So I'm naturally going to be careful in what I write, while still trying to be honest and relevant.

The first change is that I'm going to stop using even a cute pseudo-name for my employer. The one I've been using makes it a bit too obvious who it is. From now on, they're just "my company" or "my airline." I'll continue to refer to my plane as the "Mad Dog," since it's an unofficial nickname common to several US airlines. There will likely be fewer posts about my current flying, and you're not going to find much opinion in them about our procedures or the people I fly with unless it's fairly positive (the good news: so far I've only found positive things to say, anyways). I'll be largely focused on the airline industry as a whole, recounting past flying I've done, and giving advice to other pilots on their way up through the ranks. And as always I'll throw in the occasional travel, motorcycling, and GA flying posts to mix it up a bit.

That said, I'm going to try to post here more often (he said for the hundredth time!), include more photo content like I used to, link to my columns at, and be quicker about responding to comments. I'll keep the "FL250" web address as a homage to the blog's beginnings. I hope you like the new "Taking Wing" blog, and welcome your comments and suggestions!

(Photos deleted) Above: My last flight at my last airline, March 27th 2014. (Photos deleted)