Sunday, July 27, 2014

Live from Mitchell, SD

As I wrote in my "Taking Wing" column in the August issue of Flying that hit newsstands this week, I'm flying into Oshkosh for the fifth time this year - the first time in my flying club Piper Cub. What I didn't say is that I was flying 220 nm in the wrong direction to Mitchell, South Dakota, and then racing one of the world's slowest airplanes to Oshkosh! I'm participating in the 2014 AirVenture Cup tomorrow, technically from Mitchell to Wausau, WI, and continuing on into OSH.

I was roped into this by a friend who formerly flew with me at my last airline and now flies for USAirways. He's the Vice-Chairman for the race committee, and has been helping put in on since he was in his teens. I've met other AVC volunteers and participants at previous Oshkoshes, and it always sounded like a good time. So yesterday, Friday July 25, I packed up the Cub with camping equipment and headed west, averaging 55 kts groundspeed over 4 hours flying time to Mitchell with fuel stops in Redwood Falls, MN and Brookings, SD. Approaching Mitchell, the airport was already quite busy with arrivals by RV-6s, Long-EZs, Lancairs, Glasairs, SX300s, Questairs, Thunder Mustangs, and even a Cassutt or two. If it wasn't clear that this is a race populated by people serious about speed, it was after I flew over the airport while three experimentals made low passes down Runway 30 at velocities I'd normally associate with the jets I fly for work. What was I doing here with a Cub!?

I duly made my "high speed" pass down Runway 30 - I think I broke 100 mph in the dive! - and landed. From the moment the little 75 hp Continental puttered to a halt, all the volunteers, racers, and spectators welcomed me as though I was an old-time veteran racing a 300 mph Lancair. Racing the Cub, believe it or not, isn't exactly a novelty - they've had an equally-slow Pietenpol race multiple times before! But it has been a good conversation starter, and I've naturally become known as "the guy racing the Cub." Most of the people here have Cub memories of their own, and clearly have a soft spot for the airplane. There were actually three Cubs in attendance today for the open house and Young Eagles event. Despite a 3 hour delay due to some heavy weather this morning, a lot of people ended coming out and we flew 126 Young Eagles. We had plenty of pilot volunteers, and I took up 3 youngsters in the Cub, all of whom elected to leave the door open and enjoy the cool breeze and great views. Mark Baker, President of AOPA, flew in with his Caravan amphib and addressed the crowd both at the airport and at our pre-race briefing/banquet tonight. He had some great things to say about lowering the expense of flying for newcomers, particularly promoting flying clubs and simple used aircraft like the C150/152, or the Cub. You don't hear many industry groups talking like that, because it doesn't benefit the manufacturers - not directly, anyways (down the road, I think anything that reverses the decline in the pilot population will pay dividends throughout GA).

I'm taking off tomorrow at 6:30am, in the interest of making it across the finish line and into Oshkosh while the beer's still cold. It sounds like I'll actually have good tailwinds, but perhaps some lower ceilings and showery activity across Minnesota and Wisconsin. It's 368nm to the finish line, and another 80 or so into Oshkosh, which is a grand adventure in a Cub any day! We'll see if I make it in one day - safety is priority number one, and if weather forces me to abandon the race, that's a lot better than pressing on into deteriorating conditions in a very basic airplane. Whether I finish tomorrow or later in the week, there will be a lot of cool new friends with slick speed machines to meet up with in Oshkosh.

Friday, July 25, 2014

I Heart NY

Well, it sure didn’t take long to get off low-time restrictions. My seven weeks of line flying on the Mad Dog have netted me 120 hours in the plane despite being on reserve. Reserve pilots usually fly less than lineholders because you're seldom used every day, you do plenty of oddball 1- or 2-leg trips, and you tend to ride around in the back of airplanes a lot (deadheading). This summer, though, my company is doing a lot of flying, especially in the Mad Dog, and it’s all hands on deck. Thus far I’ve been used on nearly every day of reserve, mostly for 3 and 4 day trips.

I’m based in New York City, partially by choice. My airline has a Mad Dog domicile in Minneapolis, but it’s proving to be an extremely popular base among our junior pilots. I estimate that there are 50+ pilots between me and the “plug” in MSP, meaning it could be a year or more before I can hold it. In the meantime I’m forced to either move or commute. Dawn has a good job she enjoys in the Twin Cities, we like our home here, and we’ve become used to having family nearby, so we’ve decided to stay put for the time being. My choice then, is which commute is least painful. I can hold all three other Mad Dog bases, but the first is a small base connected to MSP only by 50-seat RJs, and the second has a ton of employees that commute from MSP, making it difficult to find an open seat or jumpseat. New York, however, has plenty of flights from MSP, they tend to have seats available, and I have higher seniority there than I would in any other base. This is true across all fleets at my airline: NYC goes junior.

This extra seniority comes at a price. NYC-based pilots at my company must cover three separate airports (LGA, JFK, and EWR); moving between them is slow and expensive, and the airspace and airports are both quite congested. Because there’s so much Origination & Destination (O&D) traffic, many of the rotations begin early in the morning and end late at night, forcing pilots to commute on their days off and spend extra nights in the domicile. That said, because so many NYC-based crewmembers are commuters (I’ve seen estimates of 80%), there’s a pretty well developed infrastructure in place. For starters, there are many crashpads scattered throughout Queens between LGA and JFK. One area, Kew Gardens, hosts so many crashpads that it has acquired the nickname of “Crew Gardens” and boasts a cab company that caters almost solely to airline crew. Some crashpads are pretty basic and offer little more than a mattress for the night; others offer all the comforts of home. My crashpad is actually pretty close to LGA, in Jackson Heights, since ¾ of the Mad Dog flying is out of that airport. It’s quite nice, well equipped and clean, with its own free shuttle service to LGA and JFK. It's also not far off the E or 7 trains, making it easy to go into Manhattan on the rare reserve days I'm not being used.

Commuting to reserve is a notoriously tough gig, but the work rules at my airline make it a lot easier than it was at either of my last two companies. Most reserve days are “long call," meaning I get at least 12 hours notice before report time, and I usually know about trips by 3pm the day before I start reserve, making informed commuting decisions much easier. On the first day of reserve we cannot be assigned a trip that begins before 10am. Many of the trips begin or end with deadheads; our contract allows us to “deviate” from a scheduled deadhead positive-space. So if I begin work tomorrow and am awarded a trip for which the first leg is a deadhead LGA-ATL, I call crew scheduling, tell them I will deviate, and book positive-space travel MSP-ATL for around the same time as the original deadhead. I save myself a night away from home and get a confirmed seat to work - score! Reserves can put in “Yellow Slips” that tell crew scheduling their preferences for awarded trips. I have a permanent yellow slip for trips that begin or end with a deadhead, as well as for trips that have a report time after 1pm and/or release time before 6pm (allowing a same-day commute). Obviously if a trip needs to be covered and I’m next in line, I’m going to fly it regardless of preferences, but if there are several trips to be covered and one meets my criteria, that’s the one I get. This has worked very well over the last month, giving me multiple extra nights at home and eliminating several potentially stressful commutes.

The Preferential Bidding Software (PBS) that my airline uses also gives reserve bidders much more flexibility than my last company. If you wish, you can lump all 17 reserve days into a single giant block, giving yourself a stretch of 13 days off (or 26, if you go back-to-back across bid periods). Of course, under Part 117 you are required to have 30 hours free of duty every 168 hours (7 days), so unless you are awarded a trip with a 30-hour overnight, you’ll end up with extra days off in the middle of your reserve block. This has happened several times, and the timing has worked out to give me several extra nights back in Minnesota.

Because of all the flying this summer, crew scheduling is offering a lot of “green slips” – basically, last-minute trips on your days off for premium pay and/or additional “payback days” off later in the month. A lot of senior pilots, anticipating the ability to make extra cash by green-slipping, purposely bid reserve with the first two weeks off, during which they pick up enough green slips to get the next two weeks off, during which they greenslip yet more, essentially flying the whole month at 200% pay. This is known as "Rolling Thunder." Those senior enough to buddy-bid with check airmen often get their trips bought off for IOE and then greenslip the entire month, basically making 300% pay. We have one Mad Dog FO in NYC that reportedly made over $300k last year doing exactly this.

As for me, I value summer days off far more than extra cash, so I don’t bid with green slips in mind, and I don’t hang around NYC any longer than necessary hoping I’ll get one. Thanks to the fact that reserve is going fairly senior, and that I’m already #80 out of 105 FOs in my category, I got a regular line for August, and a pretty nice one at that! All the trips are commutable on at least one end, I got partial weekends off, and I got a mid-month 8-day stretch of days off for a sailing trip I’m doing out of LA. Not bad for my third month! So yes, New York can be a pain to get to, and it can be crowded, dirty, and expensive, and the airports can be pretty hectic places – but these things, much like the Mad Dog's quirks, keep senior FOs away and afford me much better seniority than I'd otherwise have. So I don't care what anyone says - 'till the day that I can hold Minneapolis, I love NY!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Old School / New School

I’ve been flying the Mad Dog on the line for about five weeks now, have finished IOE, am on my third week of reserve, and have about 90 hours in the airplane. I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable yet – that’s going to take some time – but it’s getting more natural, I’m not having to make such a conscious effort to think ahead, I’m making fewer mistakes, and I’m up to about 90% of the speed of an experienced FO. It takes time to get used to any new airliner, but probably more than most in the Mad Dog, simply because it’s such a quirky, busy airplane. The good news is that the quickest way to get used to any airplane is to fly a lot of cycles in a short amount of time, and I’m certainly doing that.

The Mad Dog is basically a late 1980s stretch and update to a 1960s design. It is a contemporary of both the Boeing 757 and the Airbus A320, two much better designs in many respects. Perhaps a better comparison is the B737, another continually stretched and updated 1960s airplane that is not as good as it should be because Boeing maintained commonality with the earlier design. The Mad Dog’s builder was notorious for their thriftiness, reuse of existing components, and leaving as much of their designs unchanged as possible. The Mad Dog actually uses the exact same knob for its cockpit window latches as was used on the DC-3 (and -4, -6, and -7) throttle levers! Less humorously, the largest Mad Dog variant weighs in at up to 168,000 lbs MGTOW and uses the same basic wing as much smaller predecessors.

This lack of wing is the airplane’s most notable shortcoming. Its clean stall speed is quite high, which combined with takeoff warning system malfunctions has resulted in several bad accidents when crews forgot to set flaps for takeoff. After takeoff, we are limited to 15 degrees of bank until reaching a clean maneuvering speed of 250 kts or more at high weights; if a tighter turn is called for, we have to leave the slats out until maneuvering is complete. At altitude, one has to pay very close attention to airspeed, as it’s easy to get behind the power curve and be forced to descend to avoid stalling. Consequently the airplane is quite altitude-limited; it’s common to have an initial cruise altitude of FL300 or lower, a real handicap in thunderstorm season. The B737 comparison holds up here, as the newest super-stretch versions of that design are similarly limited.

In the cockpit, the Mad Dog kept many of the quirks of the original. Several systems retain manual controls and switches where competitors automated them – the pneumatic crossfeed valves, for example, or the fuel system, or engine ignition. The engine start valves are manual and must be continuously held throughout the start, making that a three-limb exercise in which the poor FO begs the Captain to taxi slower lest a pothole dislodge his finger and prompt an aborted start. The engines have no FADEC and care must be taken to avoid an overtemp or overspeed. The spoiler and flap handles are Rube Goldberg devices (held over from the original) that take practice to activate without a struggle. The whiskey compass is famously (and hilariously) mounted on the aft cockpit bulkhead, requiring a light switch and a glareshield mirror adjusted to look through another mirror in order to read it! There’s no way the FAA would certify such an arrangement on a new design, but because somebody gave the OK in 1965, the cockamamie arrangement lives on even in the Mad Dog’s younger cousin, the Angry Pup.

For all that, this is an airplane that has glass, dual FMS, autothrottles, autoland, and even VNAV. It’s all these new-school gizmos, combined with the retention of old-school systems, that make the Mad Dog so much busier than its simpler predecessors.  There's also the fact that these features represented early efforts in automation, as conceived by Long Beach - consider them an alternative vision of a future that never was. So we have glass, but the engine display shows the exact same round engine dials as the non-glass airplane, and the PFD just displays an attitude indicator; airspeed and altitude still have their own round-dial analog gauges. There’s a Flight Mode Annunciator, but it’s mounted inboard of the flight instruments, out of the pilot’s direct view despite being absolutely critical to keep in one’s scan. The autothrottles are laggy and flaky and occasionally command huge splits. The autopilot has two speed windows depending on which pitch mode you’re in, and reversion to another mode will also cause reversion to another speed if you’ve failed to keep the inactive window updated. The dual Honeywell FMS is surprisingly modern and capable (it's actually fairly similar to the JungleBus’ FMS) but since the airplane doesn’t have GPS, we can’t do RNAV approaches and frequently monitor raw data (the box determines its position through IRS/DME/DME inputs). The VNAV is unnecessarily complicated while being rather opaque and often unreliable, requiring very close attention to make sure it’s doing what you think it should be doing. That’s a pretty good description of the whole plane, really. It demands a lot of attention.

From this description you might think I dislike the Mad Dog, and nothing could be further from the truth. I’m having a blast! It’s so utterly unlike the JungleBus, and that’s 90% of the fun. The JungleBus would lull you to sleep if you let it; that’s never a threat in the Mad Dog. The plane is built like the proverbial brick shithouse. Flap and gear speeds are ludicrously high (Flaps 11 at 280 kts, Flaps 40 at 200) so there’s seldom any danger of being caught high. The engines are the penultimate -219 variant of the venerable JT8D, and are pretty reliable for an old design. Systems, though they lack automation, are extremely simple and robust. The controls are virtually foolproof (with proper maintenance; see Alaska 261); fly-by-wire in this plane means 3/8” stainless steel cables connecting the control columns to control tabs on each flying surface. The controls aren’t sporty by any means (those are pretty small tabs that you’re moving!), but the plane flies so solidly that it doesn’t really matter. It just sorta stays where you put it – kinda like the Piper Lance of my freight-dogging days, now that I think about it. The cockpit is extremely quiet, thanks to the rear-mounted engines. The seats are pretty comfortable. There are some neat unique features, like the takeoff condition computer to verify your takeoff trim setting and the dial-a-flap detent for optimized-performance takeoff configurations and get-down-quick descent settings. There are something like 30 different rheostats for ultimate night cockpit customization; I’m still figuring out which does what. Yeah, so cockpit trim pieces are always falling in my lap and the windows leaks on me every time it rains. It builds character! My airline is 100% sold on the Mad Dog’s financial performance and it seems they’ll be in the fleet for a long time to come. If the Mad Dog is going to be my upgrade airplane, I’m glad to be getting experience in it as an FO.

It’s worth noting that my airline actually has two Mad Dog variants. I'll call the newer one the Big Dog, as it seats 11 more passengers. It also has high-bypass turbofans with electronic engine control, more automated systems, and a hydraulic elevator that improves control responsiveness. Over the last couple years my airline has greatly expanded the Big Dog fleet, buying every used copy they could get their hands on; there are now roughly half as many Big Dogs as Mad Dogs. One of our largest competitors was until recently the world’s largest operator of Mad Dogs, though they call them by another name. Their variant is the exact same as ours, except they lack our quasi-glass cockpit. Our version has a different designator only because my airline insisted on it when they ordered them. Alas, the competition is rapidly forsaking their Mad Dog roots for the electric charms of the A320, making my airline the world's new Mad Dog king (especially if you count the Angry Pup, of which we're getting 88). Lots of Mad Dog FOs are moving to other airframes or to the left seat, making the Mad Dog a very common first airplane for new hires, and affording me nearly instant seniority in our junior New York base. I'll write about commuting to work there in my next post.