Thursday, September 30, 2010

What I do on Overnights




I have spent many nights away from home during my airline career.  Sometimes I jokingly refer to my home as an overpriced storage shed.  I spend most of my nights in a bed that has been slept in thousands of times...very few of them by me.  It sometimes can be very difficult to get to sleep when you are in a bed that feels very different to your own, or with pillows that are not quite like yours.  It's funny how quickly you can figure out what your idiosyncrasies are when you spend so many nights away from home.  For example, I hate big thick pillows.  They might be great for watching tv, but I'm not a fan of when I lay my head down, my chin touches my chest plate!


Here's another example, have you ever noticed what side of the bed you sleep on.  I have, and every time I enter a hotel room, I never know what side of the room the bed will be on.  This determines which side of the bed I sleep on.  In my home, my bed is always on the left wall, which means I sleep on the right side of the bed.  Surprisingly, you get used to it being that way.  Do you sleep on your side? Is you right or left arm out to the side.  These things are predicated on which side of the bed you're on.

People often ask me if I ever wake up in a hotel and not know where I am.  Fortunately, I have not had that too many times.  The one thing I do have a problem with is which way to turn when I walk out of my room.  The hallways are long, seem to go on forever, and look the same.  Rarely can you see where the elevators are, so you think to yourself, which way do I go.   I try to make a mental not when I get to my room, so I know which way I have to go when I leave.  It's these little things that can be disorienting.

The one thing that is consistent when I enter a hotel room is the first thing I do: remove the bedspread.  When you think about it, that is the one thing the housekeeping staff don't change on a daily basis.  The next thing I do is check the sheets.  I like to look for any telltale signs that the sheets have not been changed since their last use.  You also want to make sure there are no critters in there.  There's nothing like sharing your bed with a bunch of uninvited guests.

Most times, I try not to think of these things.  If you did, you'd never stay in a hotel.  It's a lot like hot dogs...I love them, but I don't want to know what's in them.  I try to focus on the good things, like what I'm going to do during my overnight.  I certainly try to make the best of my times away from home.

Sacre Couer
When I was going overseas for the majority of my flying, I used to try to do one main thing while I was there.  First of all, You don't have a lot of time to too many things.  The overnights are usually 24 hours and with sleep, that usually leave you about 12 hours to see the sights.  Secondly, you have to leave something to do for the next time you are in that city.

In Paris, you could do the Louvre during one trip, and Sacre Coeur the next.







Jameson Distillery, Dublin
In Dublin, you can do the Guinness tour one trip, and the Jameson Distillery tour the next.
Guinness Brewery, Dublin

Scotch Whiskey Experience, Edinburgh
In Edinburgh, Scotland, there's the Scotch Whiskey Experience.    Wait a minute!  For a guy that rarely drinks, I am sure naming all the alcohol tours...and I haven't even mentioned the Heineken tour in Amsterdam. 


 Speaking of Amsterdam, after you finished taking in the Heineken Brewery, stroll over the the Museum District for some of the best museums in the world.  If you're into World War II history, you should also check out the Anne Frank Museum. This is a must see!  Better to remember than to forget.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam - Museum of Art and History


Anne Frank House

I have to apologize for my formatting.  I haven't quite figured out how to get the pictures into the right spot and have text around it.  I'll have to take that blog lesson in the near future.  It's a good thing I can put a 570.000 pound airplane on the same spot every time, because I sure can't do the same with a picture and some words.  But I digress...

If you're thinking the bills can really add up on these overnights, you're not the only one.  Most of these things cost money.  While not much, it does add up.  Occasionally though, I find myself spending spending more money to do something than I normally would.  I call these the "things I would do once."   Not that they are so bad that I wouldn't consider doing them again, they are just a little more costly than other things.  For example, I had an overnight in Seattle a few years ago.  My crew got together and we all went to the Boeing Museum of Flight at Boeing Field.  On the ramp next to the museum, there was a company giving rides in an old Stearman.  I had always wanted to fly one, and thought this would be the perfect place to do it.  There's nothing like flying around the Puget Sound.  I asked the lady at the table about the cost and was told that if I wanted to fly it, I should take the 40 minute tour and the pilot would let me fly once we got out over the Sound.  The cost was $240.   To fly an old, open cockpit biplane around Seattle would be priceless.  This is something I had to do: Once.  That would be all I'd need.  Check that one off the Bucket List.

I had always heard that Portland, Oregon was a great city.  I had a trip with a 48 hour layover, so I rented a car for 2 days.  On the first day, my Captain and I drove around the Columbia River Gourge.  It a truly spectacular drive, with many opportunities to stop and take pictures, or take a hike.  The following day, we went down to the Evergreen Aviation Museum.  This is where the Spruce Goose was moved to a number of years ago.  The Spruce Goose was the huge sea plane built by Howard Hughes that only flew once.  The story was shown in the Leonardo DeCaprio movie called The Aviator.  If you wanted to spend an extra $50 dollars at the museum, you could get a private tour of the upper deck of the plane with one of the museum's Docents.  There was no time limit on this tour and you got to have your picture taken while sitting in the pilot seat that Howard Hughes himself had occupied on that only flight.  It was a wonderful experience and one that I will never forget.

I don't know about you, but I'm getting tired from all of the worldly adventures we've shared today.  I think it's time to get back to the hotel for some rest.  It's a good thing I've already checked the bed and packed my bag.

Until next time, please make sure your tray tables and seat backs are in their fully upright and locked positions.  Flight Attendants, please prepare the cabin for arrival.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Planes of My Past - In The Beginning


I was recently reminded by a friend that I forgot one of my previous planes.  In truth, he was only partly right.  I had forgotten 3 planes from my past.  The Piper Navajo Chieftain, Beechcraft Baron 58, and the Cessna 310.  I flew these airplanes for a company called AirNet Express, based in Columbus, Ohio.

To get to the airlines, a pilot must have many hours of flying experience.  When you think about job experience, you probably think of how many years someone has been doing something.  In aviation, it is all about how many hours you have.  There are only a couple of ways for an aspiring pilot to gain his flying hours.  One is the military, and the other is the civilian route.  The military is pretty self explanatory, but the civilian route takes a little more explaining.  In the beginning, you have to get your pilot certificates and ratings.  You can go to a local airport and take flying lessons, or you can do what I did, which is go to a university that has an aviation program. I went to the University of North Dakota, in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  It is a regular four year university with the normal majors, but it also has an aviation degree program.  I took all the same core classes that everyone else took, but I also took classes that specialize in aviation subject mater, like weather, aerodynamics, aviation safety, performance, and many others.  I Would spend the mornings in class, and the afternoons flying at the airport, putting into practice the things I had learned in the morning,  earning all of my pilot certificates.  Upon graduation, I received a Bachelor of Science degree.

My dream as a child was to fly for the military.  I had hoped to get my experience paid for by the government, but they had other plans.  I had knee surgery when I was 15 and the military was concerned that it would affect my ability to be a fighter pilot.  They told me that if I ejected from an airplane, there would be a good chance that I would re-injure my knee when I parachute landed.  Therefore, I was rejected and had to find another way to get my hours.  I decided that I would teach people how to fly.  They say there is no better way to learn, than to teach.  

My first job was in Leesburg, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC.  I was Flight Instructing during the day and working on the ramp at night for Atlantic Coast Airlines, a subsidiary for United Airlines. That job entailed loading baggage and marshaling airplanes in and out of their parking spots.  It was also a way to help pay the bills because flight instructors normally only make about $10,000 a year.  I flight instructed in Leesburg for about 3 months, and during that time, I had flown 24.8 hours (but, who's counting).  That is not enough time to rapidly gain my experience, let alone pay the bills in Northern Virginia.  I decided to get a job back home in the Chicago area that looked very promising.  They said that I could expect about 1,000 hours a year, which is exactly what I needed.  The quicker I could get my flying time, the quicker I could get to the airlines.  There was only one downside to the job in Chicago, they did not have a multi-engine airplane.

I told you that hours of experience at the controls of an airplane was what was required to get to the airlines.  Hours of flying are weighted by employers by whether the planes have one engine or two.  Two engined airplanes are more complex and are looked at more favorably by prospective employers, and the airlines want lots of twin-engine flying hours.  I wasn't getting twin engine hours teaching in Chicago, so I needed to get some as quickly as possible.  One way to do that is by flying freight.  I applied for a job at a company called AirNet Systems.  They fly canceled checks and small freight using Lear Jets and small twin-engined propeller airplanes.  The catch is, all the flying is done at night, by yourself, and in any weather conditions.

What are canceled checks, you ask?  These days, they are almost a thing of the past.  The government is requiring banks to clear your used checks electronically, but in the old days, they would ride on a plane.  When you wrote a check to your credit card company, the United States Postal Service would take it to them.  When it arrived there, that company would deposit those checks in their bank accounts.   In order for those check to clear, they had to make their way back to your bank.  They did this on airplanes like those used at AirNet Express, flown by young aspiring pilots trying to build their hours.  It was usually the most scary, risky, and dangerous flying a pilot will ever do.  He doesn't have to worry about passenger comfort, because the checks don't complain about turbulence.  Therefore, it doesn't matter what the weather is like, the pilot is going to fly it to it's destination.  To give you an example of how time critical these shipments can be, we had a bank charter one of our Lear jets to fly to Tampa, pick up one check, and fly it back to Columbus.  To charter a Lear Jet is about $2,300 an hour and to do this trip was about 6 hours of flying.  I know you are asking yourself, why would a company pay almost $15,000 to fly a single piece of paper?  The answer is simple, it's about economics.  The check was for 454 million dollars and if the check didn't make it to the home bank by 7 am, the bank would stand to lose about $70,000 interest for that day.  Now back to the story...

When I got the job at AirNet, I did my training at the company headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.  Pilots were based where their airplanes were located.  AirNet had planes located in cities all over the country, but I was assigned to be a Floater, based in Columbus.  A Floater was a pilot who was trained on 3 of the 4 airplane types we had.  Other pilots were trained in just one type.  He would fill in for other pilots when they were on vacation or sick, or if a new route opened up and they didn't have another pilot to take the position yet.  Essentially, I was flying different airplanes every night to cities I was unfamiliar with.  We had to do all of the fuel planning ourselves, but this was complicated because I never knew what the weight of the cargo was.  If I took too much fuel, I couldn't take as much cargo, so you can see that my job was fairly complicated.   The unfamiliarity also can make it dangerous.  I used to joke that I did things in airplanes I thought I would never do, and things I hope never to do again.  I am amazed that I never got an FAA violation and that I never had an accident.  I will say though, that the experience I gained at AirNet would help me get through anything else I would ever see or do in my aviation career.  The experience was invaluable.

Cessna 310
I spent a total of about 15 months flying for AirNet.  By that time, I had 2,357 total hours of flying experience and of that, 1,200 of them was flying multi-engine airplanes.  I flew the Beechcraft Baron 58, the Piper Navajo Chieftain, and the Cessna 310. Here are pictures of each:

Beechcraft Baron 58
Piper Navajo Chieftain
If you stayed with the company long enough to upgrade, you could fly the Lear Jet.  We were the largest operator of Lear jets in the world.  When I had gained the hours I felt were necessary to get me a job with the airlines, I started sending out my applications.  In September of 1999, I interviewed with and was offered a job flying for Atlantic Coast Airlines, the same company I had thrown bags for just a few short years earlier.  Little did I know that I would one day return to that company as a pilot.

Here is a video that shows a little bit of what it was like to work for AirNet Systems:


Well, I think that will be all for today.  As we approach our destination, please return your seat backs and tray tables to their fully upright and locked positions and Flight Attendants, please prepare the cabin for arrival.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Planes of My Past 4: The McDonnell Douglas DC-10


Toward the end of 2005, it started to become obvious that Independence Air was going to fail. The writing was on the crew room wall, so to speak. The fat lady wasn't singing, but she was definitely warming up her voice. (I know, that's enough of the cliché's). We had burned through nearly $400 million in 18 months. While there are many reasons why we failed, I am still very pleased to have tried. The employees of Independence Air are the best group of people I have ever worked with. It is probably the most fun have have ever had, and will ever have, in my career.

As the end of Independence was drawing near, I started to put feelers out for a job. I hope to find one before I was out of work, so I contacted some friends of mine. After being furloughed, one of my close friends had gone to a company called Gemini Air Cargo. They were a company, based at Washington Dulles, flying McDonnell Douglas DC-10's and MD-11's. My friend was on the MD-11, and was loving it as far as I could tell. I had always dreamed of flying the 'Big Iron,' so this might be my chance. He told me to send him my resume and he would walk it in to his boss, called the Chief Pilot. I then called another friend of mine who worked in the management side of Gemini. I told him that a friend was walking in my resume. He told me that if I really wanted the interview, that I should give him my resume to walk in. I immediately emailed him my papers and no kidding, the time from doing that, to interviewing and getting a job offer, was a week! In the airline business, that is lightning fast. The interview consisted of a written test and interviews with the Chief Pilot and the Director of Flight Operations. They told me I would probably be put on the MD-11, because of my glass-cockpit experience.

Normally in the airlines, when you show up to a company for your first day of work as a pilot, you choose the aircraft you are going to fly based on seniority and which aircraft were available. My class would have both the DC-10 and the MD-11 available. Gemini Air Cargo worked a little differently.  They told me that they would tell me what airplane I was going to fly in the official job offer letter that should arrive with the week. I was getting ready to go to Oshkosh for the annual Experimental Aircraft Association's Fly-in, so I told my roommate to call me as soon as the letter arrived. He called me three days later, saying the envelope had come. I said, tear it open and give me the news! I heard the paper tear open and unfold. He said, "you are the proud new co-pilot of a DC-10. ". It took me a few seconds to lift my jaw off the ground and respond to him. To say that I was surprised would be a huge understatement. I was going from the most automated plane in the world, the A-320, to one of the least automated airplanes in the world. (The picture at right was taken on a fuel stop in Benghazi, Libya).


The A-320 has an all glass cockpit (left), while the DC-10 (right) has what is lovingly referred to as steam gauges. This means it is all older style, round faced gauges. The DC-10 also has a third person in the cockpit, called the Flight Engineer(FE). The Flight Engineer monitors all of the aircraft systems from a panel located right behind the pilots. Modern aircraft have automated the monitoring of systems, removing the need for a Flight Engineer. The FE panel is a maze of switches and dials, that upon first glance, make your head spin. I was definitely a little scared going into training. As it turns out, the DC-10 FE panel is a very well thought out design. It was quite fun to learn it's inner workings. I have to say though, that is not true of FE panels on other airplanes.

Now, you probably want me to get stop rambling and tell you about the DC-10. TheDouglas Aircraft Corporation, based in Long Beach California, worked on a Heavy Logistic System design for the United States Air Force in 1965. The project was not chosen by the military, so Douglas decided to look into how the design could be suited for civilian purposes. Shortly thereafter, American Airlines put out a design request to the different aircraft manufacturers, for an aircraft smaller the the Boeing 747, but could fly long range routes, from shorter runways, and be airport-neighbor friendly. The McDonnell Aircraft Corporation merged with Douglas, creating McDonnell Douglas, and the DC-10 was the first offering by the merged company.

If you've ever wondered where the designations come from for airplanes, here's how. The first letters of the DC-10 stand for the Douglas Corporation. The B in say the B747, stands for the Boeing Aircraft Corporation. If you've flown on American or Delta recently, there is a good chance you've flown on the MD-80. The MD stand for McDonnell Douglas. The L in the L-1011 stands for the Lockheed Corporation. The first letters usually stand for the aircraft manufacturer. Now, back to the DC-10.

American Airlines ordered 25 of the the aircraft, while United Airlines ordered 60 planes.  The order was placed in 1968.  The first flight of the DC-10 was August 29, 1970, just 12 days before I was born.  Following nearly 1,000 test flights, the aircraft entered service in August of 1971.  It is still flown in passenger operations by Omni Air International.  They mostly do vacation charters and military troop transport.  The United States Air Force did eventually order the airplane to be an air refueling tanker aircraft.  It is called the KC-10 Extender and 60 of them were delivered to the Air Force.  McDonnell Douglass Stopped building the DC-10 in 1989, when it was replaced by the MD-11. 

The DC-10 has three engines, two mounted under the wings and one mounted in the tail. It was designed to be a medium to long-range airliner seating over 250 passengers.  One interesting tidbit, The Airbus A319 that I flew before the DC-10 had a maximum takeoff weight of 166,000 pounds.  The DC-10 carried more than that in fuel.  It carried 198,000 pounds of fuel and had a maximum takeoff weight of 572,000 pounds.  I flew the DC-10 series -30, that had an extra landing gear between the two main gear.  This supported the weight of the larger center fuel tank.  The longest flight I ever did on the DC-10 was 11 1/2 hours from Vatry, France to Miami, Florida.  We burned almost 186,000 pounds of gas.  That's 27,761 gallons of fuel.  I would hate to have pay that fuel bill! (at car pump prices of $1.50, that equals $41,641)  The engine we used had over 50,000 pounds of thrust each, and when it was lightweight, it climbed like a rocket ship.  I remember taking off out of Toronto once, ferrying the airplane empty to Dover, Delaware, where another crew was going to take it to Germany.  We had to do a maximum power takeoff, and the airplane climbed at near 10,000 feet per minute.

All in all, the airplanes were getting pretty tired by the time I got the chance to fly them.  Even though I was initially nervous about being awarded the DC-10, I am glad I got the chance to fly a plane with a flight engineer before there aren't any left.  Also, I flew with some great guys!  You depended on these guys when you were in places like, Lagos Nigeria, Entebbe Uganda, Libreville Gabon, Nairobi Kenya, and Benghazi Libya.  The experience I got while flying the DC-10 for Gemini Air Cargo definitely helped me get my current job.

Here are some videos I found of the venerable DC-10.  The first is a historical tribute to the airplane and details some of it's history. The last video is a tribute to Gemini Air Cargo.  For now, please return your tray tables and seatbacks to their upright positions.  Flight Attendants, please prepare the cabin for arrival!





Thursday, July 1, 2010

Planes of My Past Part 3: The Airbus A319




The third and largest commercial airliner I flew, was the Airbus A319.  when Atlantic Coast Airlines decided to re-invent itself into a low cost carrier in June of 2004.  We flew the A319 out of Washington Dulles International Airport just outside of Washington, DC.  Unfortunately, we were saddled with inefficient regional jets and we were never able to acquire 319's quickly enough to offset the losses from the regional jets.  The airline closed its doors in January 2006 after after 18 months of operation.

The Airbus is certainly one of the most advanced and automated airplanes flying today.  The A319 is the slightly smaller offspring of the A320.  The A320 family of aircraft was developed as a short to medium range, narrow-body aircraft.  In case you're wondering, a narrow-body aircraft has only one aisle running down the center of the cabin.  A wide-body aircraft has two aisles running the length of the cabin.  The A320 was launched in 1984 with its first flight occurring early in 1987.  It was delivered to its first customer in 1988.

One of the things that made this aircraft unique, was that it was the first commercial aircraft to have an all glass cockpit.  The only analog gauges were the brake pressure indicators and the Remote Magnetic Indicators (like a compass).  Most significant of all its advances was a fully digital fly-by-wire system.  Older aircraft had cables attached to the control wheels in the cockpit.  These cables ran through the floor of the aircraft, out to the hydraulic control units, that then move the actual flight control surfaces.  With a fly-by-wire system, there are no wires going to the flight controls.  Instead, a side-stick controller, a joystick, replaces the big control wheel in front of the pilot.  When the pilot moves the joystick, a signal is sent to a computer.  This comuter interprets the inputs from the pilot, and sends and electric signal out to the actuators that then move the flight controls themselves.  It's really an amazing system.  Boeing now also uses fly-by-wire technology in the 777 and the soon to be delivered 787.  Instead of having a side-stick controller, Boeing decided to stay with a control yoke in fron of each pilot.  Personally, I prefer the Airbus' side-stick.

While undergoing training at the Airbus North America Training Center in Miami, Florida, Airbus told us that the design philosophy behind their aircraft is to make the pilots job as easy as possible.  Give them all the information they need, let the computers do the flying, and the pilot will be a manager of everything.  I must admit, even though it is highly automated, you have to know what the airplane is doing at all times, lest it reach up and bite you.  That said, it was a wonderful, fun airplane to fly!

Here are some videos from Airbus on the development of the A320 family:






I hope you enjoy the videos. Until next time, Flight Attendants, Please prepare the cabin for Landing

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Home Sweet Home Away from Home


I am sometimes painfully aware that I spend many nights away from home.  Many of us have jobs that keep us away from home occasionally, but my job keeps me away from home most nights.  I jokingly refer to my home as a $900/month, climate controlled, storage shed.  Sometimes there is a heavy price to pay for all this time away from home, and sometimes can be very rewarding.

Many airlines utilize two different hotels for every city. One is for the shorter layover, and is usually located close to the airports.  For the times when you have a 9 or 10 hour layover, you don't want to wander to far from the airport.  Could you imagine arriving in Chicago during rush hour only to get stuck in rush hour traffic on the way to a downtown hotel?  That would leave you with about 6 hours in your room.  That's definitely not much time left for sleep.  Therefore, the airlines put us up close to the airport.

For the times when we have a layover of greater then 19 hours, my company puts us up in a downtown hotel.  Traffic isn't much of an issue, because we have more time at the hotel.  The biggest added benefit for the crew is the availability of things to do and places to eat at a downtown location.  When I was doing mostly international flying, my layovers were always more than 24 hours. We would arrive very early in the morning and immediately nap for a few hours.  If you had a good crew, you would arrange a time to meet in the lobby and venture out to do some sightseeing.

If you're really lucky, there may be festivals or big events going on.  One of the cities I've been pretty lucky with is Paris. On one Paris trip, I arrived on the first public day of the Paris Air Show, one of the most prestigious shows in the world. 
The leading aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus sell more airplanes during this show than any other.  Besides commercial aircraft manufacturers, many military and corporate plane makers show up and display their wares.  Since I was a little boy, I had dreamed of going to the Paris Air Show, so it was nice to make that happen and to get paid to go there. Among the highlights for me, was getting to see airplanes fly that I had only seen on tv or in magazines, like the Russian Mig-29 or the Dassault Mirage fighter jets.  The largest commercial airliner ever produce, the double-decker Airbus A380 also flew an exciting display.

Another trip to Paris had me arriving on the morning of Bastille Day.  This is the French version of our July 4th Independence Day.  It is a wonderful celebration and one that should not be missed.  The French have had many hundreds of years to perfect this party, and boy have they ever!  Our hotel is located in a prime location, only a block from the Eiffel Tower.  The entire mall around the tower was packed with people. If I had to guess, it was in the hundreds of thousands, maybe even close to a million. My crew and I grabbed some blankets off our beds and proceeded to find a patch of grass on the mall to park ourselves for the afternoon and evening.  On the way, we stopped at a local grocery store and picked up some wine, cheese, french bread, crackers and sausage.    If the French could do it right, so could we.  On the lighter side, we did have one run-in with the French Police.  They spotted us with our wine bottles and told us we couldn't take them in with us. Understandably, they did not want the glass bottles breaking and becoming a hazard for other spectators. Thankfully, I had gone to the crew lounge in the hotel, and gotten some coffee cups with lids.  I asked the officer if we could open the bottles right there, transfer the wine to the cups, and then take it in.  He said that was acceptable, and after pouring the wine into the cups, we were on our way.  That was some good French coffee...I mean wine. The evening was amazing!  After a concert by Jason Mraz, the fireworks began.  They were coordinated to music and one of the best displays I have ever seen.  It was like a 45-minute grand finale.  From our spot, we looked through the Eiffel Tower with the fireworks in the background. It was absolutely breathtaking!

Probably the most special trip I've done was a trip to Rome.  I wasn't originally scheduled to go to Rome, but instead, kind of lucked into it.  I think I was supposed to go to somewhere in the United Kingdom. We have a system at my company that will send us text messages when a trip suddenly becomes available.  If I would like to fly that trip instead, all I have to do is call my schedulers, and if nobody else beat me to it, they change out my old trip for the new one.  Rome trips do not pop into open time very often, as they usually go to the most senior people.  When they do become availiable, everyone and their mothers try to pick it up. Even with such stiff competition, I somehow beat them all to the punch and was able to pick up this trip...
It wasn't until the next day, that I realized I would be arriving in Rome on Easter Sunday morning.  Having been raised Catholic, imagine my luck when I was able to see the Pope celebrate Easter mass in St. Peters Square. Three of my Flight Attendants came with, even though two of them aren't Catholic.  This is one of those opportunities you just don't pass up.  That was about where my luck ended. A massive rain storm with thunder and lightning, bathed us for the entire mass.  When the lightning started to get heavy, I was beginning to think it might be smart to get out of this huge open piece of land where everyone was holding a lightning rod (umbrella).  Even though it rained of biblical proportions, all pun intended, it was a wonderful experience that I will look forward to someday telling my grandchildren.

Overall, I can't complain too much about the time I spend away from home.  It can be plain or boring, or it can be amazing and life-changing.  I have difficulty sometimes explaining to family, friends, or even outsiders, what my life is like, but one thing I can say is that I am always excited to see what adventures my career still has in store for me.

As we approach our destination, please make sure your seat belts are fastened, your tray tables are stowed, and your seat backs are in the full, upright position.  I hope to see you again soon, but for now, Flight Attendants, please prepare the cabin for landing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Planes of My Past (Part 2)

My previous post showed a short video of the Jetstream 4100.  It was the first passenger carrying airplane I ever flew. Two years after I was hired at Atlantic Coast Airlines, I transitioned to Captain of the Canadair Regional Jet.  It is a 50-seat plane built by Bombardier of Canada.  I have almost 2,000 flight hours in the left seat the the CRJ-200.  When I was finishing my training on the CRJ, the country experienced the worst terrorist attack on US soil, the flying of airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  I was to do my checkride the day after 9/11.  Needless to say, it was postponed for a few days.  My first trip out of training included a flight from Indianapolis to La Guardia in New York City.  The arrival brought me right over the top of the World Trade Center site.  What I saw will be permanently seared into my memory.  Thankfully, I had many good memories of flying the CRJ during the 3 years I flew her.  Here is a video that was produced by a friend of mine that I flew with at Atlantic Coast Airlines.  He made it while flying with another company.  I hope you enjoy it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Planes of My Past

I thought I would post some videos occasionally of planes I have flown throughout my career.  The first passenger plane I ever flew was the British Aerospace Jetstream 4100.  It was a twin turboprop that carried 29 passengers and a crew of three, including two pilots and a flight attendant.  It was also the first airplane I flew as a Captain, so I will always have fond memories of it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I feel like going to Aspen for lunch...huh?

Well, this will be new for me. I am actually trying to type this entry on my new Apple iPad. The keyboard is certainly easier to use than my iPhone, so I thought I'd give it a try. The funny thing is I really do like Apple products, but I am also one of the few people you will meet that bought an Apple computer, gave it a try, and went back to windows. I definitely think Apple is better than Windows, but I already knew the shortcuts for windows and was having a hard time learning the Apple ones. I digress...

I thought i would write today on some of the things I have been able to do in my life, that are not readily possible if i wasn't in the aviation industry. While most people can look at day trip as say going from Houston to Galveston, I look at it a little differently. My possibilities are only limited by the size of my imagination. Ask my teachers when I was growing up, and they would probably tell you that my imagination was too big for my schoolwork.

I'll give you an example. I was living in the Washington DC area. I had a sister living in Littleton, Colorado. I also had a friend, who is a pilot for United Airlines, who was at their training center in Denver. He was learning to fly the 757 at the time. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and go out to visit them both.

As a non-revenue traveler, we go standby. That means that we only get on the airplane if there are seats available. Thankfully, we have a computer system that will tell us what the loads are for the flight we are trying to get on. Therefore, we can't always be picky about how and when we want to go.

Things were not looking good for the day I wanted to go, and the only flight I had a fighting chance of getting on was at 5:30 in the morning. My sister had to work until 5 and my friend didn't get out of training for the day until around the same time. I was going to be arriving in Denver at about 9 in the morning. Herein lies my dilemma, what was I going to do for the day? I had a rental car reserved, and if I would have picked it up then, I would have had to return it at the same time at the end of my trip. That wouldn't help me out when it was time to leave, so I had to decide what to do for the day. Do I hang around the airport, or do I go somewhere? I walked up to the nearest flight monitor, just to see what there was. Low and behold, near the top of the list, was Aspen! I had done an internship with Air Wisconsin, a United Express carrier, during the winter months about 5 years earlier. I had not been back since, and I thought...that might be a good place to go for lunch! Even I have a hard time saying it. Here I had started the day in DC, flown to Denver, and was going to go to Aspen for a few hours to have lunch. WHAT? I know...crazy!

The flight was leaving in 30 minutes, so I walked over to the gate and asked if the Jumpseat was available. For those that don't know what the Jumpseat is, it's the extra seat in the cockpit that is available for pilots if they are going somewhere. It can be for pleasure, or it can help me get to or from work. I can do this on any of the airlines that my company has a reciprocal agreement with. For those of us in the United States, that is pretty much any of the US carriers.

The Jumpseat was available, so I was given a boarding pass and made my way down to the cockpit to introduce myself to the Captain and ask if I could catch a ride. This is a common courtesy and recommended most of the time. I do it every time, as I would hope they would if getting on one of my flights. As it turns out, this particular Captain remembered me firm when I had done my internship. At that time, I was a ramper, loading bags in the cargo hold, and guiding the airplanes in an out of the ramp. By now, I had my first airline pilot job, so he was interested in how my career was going. He invited me to ride in the cockpit, which I gladly accepted. The view into Aspen from the cockpit can be breathtaking. As It turned out, it was a perfectly clear day in Aspen...and I decided, maybe I didn't want to know just how close those mountains mountains were when you are on the approach.

When I arrived is Aspen, it was wonderful to see all of the people I had worked with. Many were still there, and we exchanged stories about how our lives had been in the 5 years since I had left. Not too much had changed, except there wasn't any snow on the ground at this time of the year. This was the first time I had been there outside of winter and Aspen is just as beautiful without snow. My friends then called a cab to take me into town to get lunch.

I have occasionally been accused of torture. Sometimes when I do these crazy little side trips, I will call my family and say, "guess where I am?" This certainly seemed like a good opportunity to rub in where I was to my family members. While this may seem mean, they have had ample time and opportunity to do the same to me. I enjoyed a great lunch overlooking the mountains and then made my way back to the airport. I was beginning to run out of time. The flight back to Denver was only 30 minutes. After I got back to Denver, I still had to pick up my rental car and drive into the city. I didn't have much time to spare!

All in all, it was a great trip! I got to see my sister and visit with my friend. It does make me laugh sometimes on the experiences my job has afforded me. Most places I go, foreign and domestic, I have friends I can call upon to share a good meal. This is just one of the examples of why my job has some amazing benefits. Right now, as I sit in Starbucks, typing on my iPad, I am letting my imagination wander. Where should I take my next trip? Oh yeah, from Houston to DC for my Godson's Birthday this weekend. Virginia, here I come!

Time to finish up, so fasten your seat belts and prepare for landing. Happy travels!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

787 Ultimate Wing Loading Test



This is a video by Boeing on the satisfactory completion of the wing loading test on the 787.  Click on the title above to go to the Boeing website for the video. The wing is bent upward to show that the composite wing will not break when subjected to 150% of the load the airplane could ever be expected to see during it's lifetime.  As you watch the video, notice how much the wing bends.  It flexed upward 25 feet from its normal position.  If you've ever sat in a window seat and watched the wing flex when we encounter turbulence, I'm sure you've never seen it bend this much.  This shows just how much the airplane can take without actually breaking.  This is considered a major milestone  in the testing process, especially when you consider one of the major delays  during the 787 program.  Over a year ago, during a similar preliminary test, the wing was bent to about 100% of the load she would ever see, and some damage was found during the post-test analysis.  There was damage to the area where the wing joins the aircraft body.  Boeing worked very hard to come up with a fix and adapt it to the aircraft that were already built and to those still on the assembly line.  This was the major reason first flight was delayed until just a few months ago.  The fix proved to be adequate, as shown by the successful completion of this test.

This is great news, as my company is the North American launch customer for the 787.  If the rest of the flight testing is completed on schedule, we can expect to receive our first aircraft sometime in the middle of next year.

I recently finished training on the 737, adding to my already long list of type ratings.  Will I try to bid for the 787?  That's a good question.  I think for now, I will enjoy where I'm at.

I'm sorry that I have been so absent on this blog.  As I just said, I have been busy with transition training from the 757 & 767 to the 737.  The training took a few months to complete and I also packed up my home in Atlanta and moved to Houston.  I'm sure you all know how fun moving is.  So far, I have been getting settled in and love the area I'm in.  If you have been a frequent reader, I thank you so much for checking back.  If you are a new reader, I hope you'll go back and check some of the stories in my old posts.  I have come up with some good ideas that I would like to write about in the near future, so I hope you will all come back and have a look.

If you have a question about the airlines or flying, I hope you will send them to me.  I would be more than happy answer your questions.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

My First Glider Flight

I just thought I would post a  video from a couple years ago.  I was vacationing in Hawaii and had the opportunity to fly a glider for the first time.  It was truly an amazing experience.  This video is the approach and landing into Dillingham Field.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How Did You Get Into Flying?

First of all, I have to apologize for not posting in quite a while. I have been busy training to fly a new airplane. I am transferring off the Boeing 757 & 767 and moving to the Boeing 737. I have really enjoyed flying the Bigger Iron, but I am ready for a new adventure. I have loved exploring the world, especially when it's not on my dime, but I'm ready to once again see what my country has to offer. I have been so buried in preparation and then involved in the training, that I neglected this site. I have also brainstormed some ideas on what to write about, so I should have a few fun and interesting topics to babble about over the coming weeks.

Now, on to the topic of today's post: How did I get into flying? That is one of the questions that I get asked most often. In my case, it started pretty early. I know it sounds cliche, but I knew what I wanted to do by the time I was 5 years old. I came to this realization after sitting through the takeoff of a Delta L-1011. The L-1011 was a GINOURMOUS airplane, or at least it seemed that way when I was so young and little! I was sitting in that seat, right behind the wing, because my family was on our first vacation. We were flying from Chicago to Washington, DC for the United States bicentennial celebration. It was 1976 and I was only 5 years old. I couldn't believe that something that big got off the ground! I couldn't believe the power and the way it pushed you into the back of the seat. As I gripped the armrests with glee, I'm sure the person in front of me didn't enjoy my feet firmly planted in the backrest of their seat. Never again would I have to imagine what kind of view birds had...I now knew.

On one of the days in DC, we went down to the National Mall, where they had helicopters, tanks, and jeeps lined up that you could climb all over. I remember sitting in the cockpit of a US Army UH-1 Huey helicopter, flipping switches and pushing buttons to my heart's content. I think that joy has remained with me all my life. I still enjoy flipping switches, so it's a good thing I am now going to fly the 737. There are ample opportunities for me to flip switches on this airplane.

As I sit here, I see that February is fast passing me by. I am reminded of the passing of my brother Kevin two years ago this month. He died at the far too early age of 42. I bring up my brother, because he was probably responsible for reinforcing my desire to fly. I told this story at his memorial service, and I now share it with you, because you might then understand why pilots are so fanatical about flying and aviation in general.

When I was 7, and my brother Kevin was 11, we were living in Evanston, IL, a suburb on the North side of Chicago. Kevin and I would have our mother take us to the YMCA in downtown Evanston for a day of fun. Being the busy mother of 5, she would drop us off for the day, while she took care of other errands and responsibilities. Kevin an I would walk inside, then turn around and watch for my Mom's van to pull away. Once we were sure of her departure, we would walk right back out the door. We walked to the Orrington Hotel, about a mile away, where they had a Coach Bus service to O'hare airport. The cost of the bus was $6.50 each, so we had saved up our allowances for about a month to be able to do this. When we got to the airport, we would walk around and get "cockpit tours" all day. Remember, this was before security and metal detectors! Nobody questioned where our parents were. I'm sure they just assumed they were at the next gate.

We did these trips 4 time over the next two years. One of my fondest memories of these trips was when we walked up to a gate, where a United Airlines 747 was parked outside the window. We looked up from below the level of the counter and politely asked the gate agent if we could get a tour of the cockpit. He wasn't really in the mood, but he relented at our saddest puppy-dog faces and called down to the airplane. The Flight Engineer was doing some pre-flight work for their trip to Hawaii in a few hours and agreed to show us around. I just about died, when I realized we would have to climb a spiral staircase to get to the upper deck. That was like the next best thing to a Tornado Slide. I sat in the Captain's seat and Kevin sat in the Co-pilot's seat. I swear, by the time I was 8, I thought I knew how to start every airliner. After a few minutes in the cockpit, the Flight Engineer told the gate agent he would take responsibility for us. He took us on the pre-flight walk around, outside and under this massive plane. Do you remember how things looked so much bigger when you we young, than they do as you get older. Well, they still seem big to me, so imagine how big it looked to me then! We spent close to two hours going all through that airplane with the Flight Engineer. He may not know it, but it's experiences like that that kept telling me I had to fly! It is also why I never turn away the opportunity to return the favor. If a child, or adult wanting to feel like a child again, asks to see the cockpit, I will always let them. Their parents better have the camera out as well, as they will get a picture of their child sitting in my seat.

Now, getting home was always a little more difficult than getting there. You know the luggage carts that you pay a buck for? (At least, they were a buck back then). When you returned them, you would get .25 cents back. In the 70's, they didn't have people employed to retrieve those carts from the parking lots like they do now. We took advantage of that loophole and would return carts until we had enough money to get home. If we were motivated, we would return a few more, getting enough money to buy a late lunch of sub sandwiches of even better, chili dogs! We would then take the bus 20 miles back to the Orrington Hotel. After walking the mile back to the YMCA, we would call our mother to come pick us and drive us home. When we climbed into the back seat, she would ask how our day was, and we would always tell her we played basketball, dodge ball, and went swimming. I'm not sure if she ever noticed that our swimsuits were never wet and the towels were never used. We got away with this for two years, until one day, Kevin went by himself and most likely ended up eating too many chili dogs. He no longer had enough money to get home. When he called my mother for a ride home, she was a little surprised to hear that he was not at the "Y", and was instead alone, at the busiest airport in the world, at the age of 12. That ended our little adventures to the airport, but I will always be thankful to Kevin, and his penchant for adventure, for taking me to the airport for "cockpit tours."

As I said, I told this story as his funeral service. I also said how my parents had both been fortunate to ride on my airliner, when I was at the controls. Kevin had always wanted to, but never got the chance. I somehow knew, that on my next trip across the Atlantic to Europe, that Kevin would somehow get his chance to come along. A few days later, I was on my way to Paris. It was during the middle of the night and I was halfway across the ocean, looking at the stars and how the moon was reflecting off the clouds below. Normally, I'm not one to believe in such things, I looked out the window and had feeling that Kevin really was right there beside me. I think he enjoyed the ride!

Until next time...Flight Attendants, please prepare the cabin for arrival.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Happy Holidays!

With Thanksgiving behind us and the major holiday season looming ahead, I spent some time thinking about the holidays and being an airline pilot. I sure my friends in the industry will know what I'm thinking, but those friends and family outside of aviation might not know what it is like for airline crew members during the holiday season. You may have flown on an airplane to visit family, but there are pilots, flight attendants, gate agents, ramp workers, and maintenance personnel who are pulled away from their families so that you can be with yours.

Seniority is the deciding factor in whether or not you will have to work on holidays. I have been pretty junior for much of my career, so I expect to be away from home. Having to work these days can be a mixed blessing. The downsides are numerous. You're having to be away from family. You have to sleep in a strange hotel, in a strange city, where all of restaurants are closed. You're lucky if the hotel has food for you. Once, I got food from the airport and brought it to the hotel so that I would have something to eat. I remember spending one Thanksgiving in Hartford, Connecticut. Every restaurant, including the hotel's, was closed. Thankfully, the hotel chef had made cold cut sandwiches for us and left them in a fridge where we could help ourselves. That, potato chips, and a coke from the vending machine made for some good eats. Well, maybe not, but at least I had a good crew and we were able to make the best of it.

On the other hand, luck can knock on your door and provide one of the most surprising, best experiences of your life. I was an CRJ Captain, sitting at home on Reserve. Reserve, for those of you not familiar with the term, is where you sit at home, next to the phone, and wait for it to ring. If your crew scheduler calls, you usually have 2 hours to get to the airport and report for your trip. On Christmas morning, I got the call. I was going to spend Christmas night in Chicago. I am originally from Chicago and my father still lives there. Unfortunately, my father was spending Christmas in San Francisco with his step-children. The rest of my siblings were living out of town. Luckily, one of my very best friends from high school lives about 5 minutes from O'Hare Airport. I gave him a call, and remember, this was on Christmas morning. I asked him if there was any chance that I could join he and his family for dinner. I usually don't just call someone on short notice and invite myself to dinner, but his family has always been like a second family to me and I really didn't want to be alone in a hotel room on Christmas. He said, “Absolutely!” I told him I felt bad that I wouldn't be able to contribute anything to the meal, but he said to just make sure I got to Chicago!

I arrived at ORD (O'Hare) around 5 in the afternoon. My friend was waiting at the curb and whisked me to his parent's home. I am their third son, so they were ecstatic to see me. His Aunt and Uncle Tommy were there from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, whom I hadn't seen in years. It was a regular family reunion. Dinner was amazing! By the time I was done, I needed a wheelbarrow to get me out of the house. My tummy was stuffed with turkey, ham, all the fixings, and let's not forget the pie. I know pumpkin pie is the usual pie of choice during the holidays, but at my friend's favorite was French Silk pie from Baker's Square. If you've ever had it, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, you REALLY should!

After dinner was over, we all moved to the living room and arranged ourselves around the tree. It was time to open the gifts. Back then, the economy was pretty good, and I had never seen a tree with so many beautifully wrapped presents underneath it. This family isn't overly extravagant, but they love giving at Christmas. I made my way to a chair away from the tree, with the intention of leaving the area around the tree for those who would be getting presents. I was just happy to be there and celebrating with these people. Then came one of the most emotional evenings of my life. My friend and his mother, who is an amazing woman, had gone shopping for gifts, for me, on Christmas day. When they heard I was coming to town, they found and open Target store and proceeded to get me 7 gifts, all wrapped and underneath the tree. SEVEN!!! I couldn't believe it. As if there weren't enough things to do around the house to prepare the food, and get the house ready for guests, they took the time to make sure that I would have something under the tree to open. I would not be left out of the festivities. I became very emotional. I'm not sure they know how much that meant to me. I went from thinking I would be alone for the holiday, to having the most amazing holiday I've ever had! I will never be able to thank them enough. It is proof positive that there are amazing, selfless people in this world. Christmas is a time for family, for giving and receiving. That year, I received! Thank you Andersen's!

I am also reminded of one last story. Two years ago, I had a four day trip on the 767-400 to Geneva, Switzerland. I don't have any friends there, but with 3 Pilots and 11 Flight Attendants, you're sure to have somebody to do something with. To get in the holiday spirit, one of the flight attendants hung paper snowflakes from the ceilings and underneath the overhead compartments in business class. I was the relief pilot, so I was the first one in the cockpit, while the Captain and First Officer where in the weather room checking the flight info and plotting our course across the Atlantic. I was feeling festive earlier in the day and found a Walgreen's pharmacy near my crashpad. I found some battery operated Christmas lights. Before the Captain and FO came down the jetway, I had hung the lights all around the ceiling of the cockpit. They were programmable to stay on, blink, or flash. The crew left the lights on the whole way while they searched for any signs of Santa and his sleigh. This year, I will be on a trip to Costa Rica on Christmas. I'm sure it will be a good trip!

While the aviation industry may seem large, it never ceases to amaze me what a small community it really is. I am fortunate to have friends in cities all over the world. The best overnights are those that you can meet up with a friend. It makes work seem less like work and more like a vacation. I have had the good fortune to spend a few holidays with friends while on a work trip. I hope that someday, I can return the graciousness they have always shown me.

When you get on your flight to go home, thank your crews and wish them a happy holiday. While you are going to visit family, you have just become a part of their family, even if for only a few hours.

Happy Holidays and Please be seated for Landing!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

20 Years Later

I am sitting here typing this from around 34,000ft, somewhere over the top of Tropical Storm/Depression Ida.  No, I have not taken a job with Northwest Airlines, I am riding in the back of a Delta Airlines MD-88.  The aircraft is equipped with GoGo Inflight Internet.  Thankfully, it is free to try.  Let me tell you though, it is difficult to juggle a laptop, peanuts, and a glass of water on the seatback table. Also, I had better type fast, because the length of my post may be limited to the space remaining on my battery.

When I was on the shuttle bus from the parking lot to the terminal, I glanced over the front page of the USA Today.  It had a story on the front page talking about this being the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  I remember that day very clearly in 1989.  I also remember the great Ronald Regan telling Russian President Gorbachev to "Tear Down This Wall!"  That will forever be embedded in my head, as most of my formative years took place during the cold war.

The story in the USA Today also reminded me of a training event I went through back in 2001, right before the Twin Towers were brought down by terrorists intent on toppling the United States.  It was August and I was in the middle of training.  I was upgrading from Captain on the Jetstream 41 to Captain on the Canadair Regional Jet.  At that time, the economy was still going strong and people were flying in record numbers.  I was fortunate to benefit from this through rapid upgrades from First Officer to Captain.  Life was looking very good!  Due to the this rapid growth, the airlines, mine included, did not have the simulator resources to train all the pilots it needed to.  Therefore, we did the ground school training in-house and then bought simulator slots wherever we could find them.  At my airline, Atlantic Coast Airlines, we bought CRJ sim slots in Delaware, Montreal, and Berlin, Germany.  I really wasn't interested in doing my sim training in our Washington DC base, because I would then have to stay at home where there would be far too many distractions.  Instead of studying and preparing for my sim sessions, I might be tempted to watch the latest episodes of my favorite tv shows on cable.  When it came time for me to decide where I wanted to go, I chose Berlin.

I had been to Germany a few times on Vacation and loved the area and the people.  And if the food wasn't good enough, the beer was amazing!!!  I had heard a rumor that there are over 5,000 varieties of beer in Germany, each of them tested by the government for purity.  WHERE DO I GET THAT JOB?  I was thinking I might be in the wrong line of work!  At least my travel benefits allowed me to go over there a few times and enjoy some of my favorites. 

I was scheduled to deadhead on Lufthansa directly to Berlin.  It was a Capital-to-Capital shuttle that was being heavily promoted.  I introduced myself to the lead flight attendant and asked if I could do the same to the Captain.  She took my ID up to the Captain, who then invited me up to the cockpit.  After chatting for a few minutes, he invited me to ride the cockpit jumpseat of his Airbus A340 for the takeoff and climbout.  Remember my friends, at the beginning of this post, I told you this was a month prior to 9/11.  That would never happen today.  I was very thankful for his hospitality.   I stayed there until we were over New York City, when he invited me to get my co-pilot in coach class, and bring him up to Business Class where we were being upgraded.  Did I already say that I loved the Germans?  Another thing about the Germans, is that they are very efficient.  I'm sure you've heard that you can set your watch by the train schedule, and they're not lying.  You wouldn't believe how efficient they were when we arrived in Berlin. When I walked out the front door of the airplane, I literally walked 20 feet to the customs and immigration official.  He stamped my passport and I walked through a sliding door. Right in front of we was the baggage carousel. My bag came within 5 minutes and I walked about 30 feet to another sliding door.  When it opened, I was deposited at the curb where our transportation to the hotel was waiting. If only we could do it like that here in the USA.

A short time later, we arrived at the hotel I would be spending the next 17 days.  It was in East Berlin and 2 blocks from Check Point Charlie.  This is the famous border crossing between the East and West parts of Berlin.  On either side would be the Berlin Wall.  There isn't much left of the wall.  The only remaining section of the wall is an 1,800 foot section that is a now a memorial.  It contains graffiti all along it's length.  Instead of it degrading the wall, they have artists come and decorate the wall with artistic graffiti.  I have heard that it changes every few years.  It is difficult to walk into a tourist shop, and not find pieces of the wall that you can buy and take home with you as souvenirs.

Well, we have started our descent into my destination of Pittsburgh.  Thankfully, my battery has lasted the flight, and I just need to finish up before the Flight Attendants force me to turn off my computer.

As I read the article about the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, I couldn't help but remember the time I spent in Berlin.  I have looked through the history books at what life was like prior to the fall of the wall.  I came home to the worst terrorist attack in the US history.  It is proof that evil, pain and suffering is never far away, but peace will always prevail.

"Flight Attendants, Please Prepare for Arrival!"

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Video of the Day!

Video of the day! This is a special from the BBC on Airline Pilots during a long-haul international flight. It's from quite a few years ago. The pilots talk about many of the things we still deal with today, including fatigue, numerous time zone shifts, sleep, and boredom on long flights. I love when the Captain walks through the cabin in flight, greeting the passengers. PS-Did you notice the spectacles on him? He must be the British Equivalent of Harry Carey! ;-D



Saturday, November 7, 2009

Great article about Northwest Flight 188

I read an article from Ask the Pilot on salon.com and wanted to re-post it. It is written by Patrick Smith and accurately talks about the overreaction by congress to the overflight of Minneapolis by Northwest 188. 99.9% of the pilot population are serious about being professional and being safe. There is nothing we want more that to get our passengers to their destination safely and comfortably, in that order! Besides, if we get there in one piece, so do you! These two pilots did nothing but degrade the public opinion of my chosen profession. I wanted to post Mr. Smith's article, because I couldn't have said it better myself.

Here it is:

The real distractions for pilots

The scolds in Congress pushing for legislation banning nonessential gadgets from the cockpit are on the wrong track
AP Photo/FlightAware.com
The flight path of Northwest Flight 188 on Oct. 21, 2009.

For those of you who live in a cave and didn't catch it, back on Oct. 21, both pilots of Northwest Flight 188, an Airbus A320 bound from San Diego to Minneapolis, went mentally AWOL somewhere over Minnesota -- distracted by their laptop computers, so they say -- missing a series of air traffic control calls and straying off course. The incident sparked a media frenzy that lasted nearly two weeks.

Now, as I feared might happen, the witch hunt is on: Politicians are weighing in, pushing for federal legislation that would prohibit pilots from using laptop computers and other devices while flying.

First on this square-wheeled bandwagon is Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who wants to ban all nonessential gadgets from the cockpit.

"With dozens or sometimes hundreds of lives in their hands," said Sen. Menendez, "we need to ensure that pilots are focused on one thing only: getting their aircraft from point A to point B safely and efficiently."

"What's true in a car is generally true in an airplane," he added, demonstrating an exquisite knowledge of how jetliners are operated, "and we need to address distracted flying, just as we are addressing distracted driving. The fact that there isn't already a prohibition on 'texting while flying' for airplanes seems reckless."

Well, except that such rules do in fact exist. Almost all airlines prohibit the personal use of computers in the cockpit, and the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) restrict a pilot's use of certain other devices just as they do for passengers. Is a federal law going to make any difference?

And if Menendez is truly that concerned about "distraction," why is he not weighing in on the improvement of flight and duty time regulations, which, believe me, are a much bigger threat to safety than a pilot's laptop or iPhone.

Chiming in with Menendez is his colleague Al Franken of Minnesota. Now, I was a fan of Franken going back to his early days on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1970s (Franken & Davis, not Stuart Smalley), but I wish he'd butt out of this.

"As passengers, we open our laptops on airplanes for one reason," wrote the senator in a statement. "To distract ourselves from the fact that we're flying. But airline pilots can't be distracted from constant monitoring of their aircraft and traffic."

Constant monitoring? What does that mean, Al? I can't argue with the gist of your concern -- like anybody else you want pilots to be, as we say in the biz, situationally aware. But how much do you know, honestly, about what goes on in a cockpit at 35,000 feet during cruise flight -- about which things pilots need to monitor, and how?

"We all pay a lot for air travel," added Franken. "I think an attentive pilot should be included in that ticket price."

Now he's being cute, and so I can't resist: This is ripe for argument, Senator, but I'll submit that we don't pay a lot for air travel, comparatively speaking. Airfares have been in decline for each of the past 10 months, and on average we're paying the same to fly today that we were paying in the 1980s. And, of course, an attentive pilot (two of them to be more accurate, and sometimes a third or fourth) is included in that ticket price -- though one of the reasons they are earning 20-40 percent less than in years past is because that ticket price is so low.

I'm just saying.

Although what occurred over Minneapolis was an obvious dereliction of duty on the part of the crew, the media's fixation on the event was and remains vastly disproportionate to any danger the passengers faced. To have members of the U.S. Senate joining the fray ratchets up the hysteria even more. Of all the things government can and should be doing to improve commercial air safety -- from overhauling the lunacy of the Transportation Security Administration to dealing with the very real dangers of lithium-ion batteries carried as cargo -- for any lawmaker to spend even five minutes on a proposal like this is shameful. Alas issues involving batteries aren't very sexy, lacking the more scandalous aspects of our wayward pilots and their PCs.

And what exactly constitutes a distraction? Are Franken and Menendez suggesting that, for example, a pilot on a nine-hour flight be banned from snapping a photograph while traversing the grandeur of Greenland, or shooting a few seconds of video? I try not to overuse the word "preposterous," but in this case it's perfect. Such rules would do nothing -- nothing -- to enhance safety. Should pilots be banned from eating meals or carrying on conversations? Is everything under suspicion save for staring straight ahead?

Ultimately, I think there are two underlying factors at work here.

First, despite my best efforts over the past seven years, the truth remains that a vast majority of people have no real idea what the environment of a cockpit is like. They have little understanding of what an airline pilot actually does up there, and what the repercussions of certain mistakes are -- or aren't.

Pilots are at times extremely busy; at other times there are long stretches of low workload. Duties come and go, ebb and flow, and an aircraft will not suddenly flip upside down or come screaming out of the sky if a pilot's attention is temporarily diverted. Indeed it often needs to be diverted. If you want to guarantee more tired and brain-fried pilots, the best way to do it would be through some of that "constant monitoring" that Sen. Franken seems to be hinting at.

Meanwhile, nervous passengers hear the term "pilot error" and it frightens them. Occasionally it should, but I don't always like that term because it fosters the ridiculous idea that any error is a potentially fatal one, and that for a flight to be safe its pilots cannot in some way err. In practice pilots make minor, inconsequential mistakes all the time -- just as any professional does in any line of work. There is no such thing as a perfect flight, and we will not, ever, engineer, automate or legislate this reality away. Considering the rarity of crashes, people should be more comfortable with that.

I also sense that this is yet another manifestation of people's distrust and dislike for airlines. Pilots, more so than most airline employees, usually escape the traveling public's wrath, but we're not immune (especially when people have this crazy, ill-formed idea that pilots are bringing in huge salaries in exchange for little or no actual work). Politicians smell blood, and this is an easy way for them to look good. Really, what's to lose in any legislation that in some way takes airlines to task?

Am I absolving the Northwest pilots of blame? Am I advocating that crews should be allowed to break out their laptops to play computer games or surf the Internet while flying? No. But here again we are witnessing one of this country's most wasteful and self-defeating tendencies: that of coming up with unrealistic, zero-tolerance solutions to problems that are either greatly exaggerated, badly misunderstood, or that don't exist in the first place.

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Lastly, a quick thanks to the many readers who sent condolences and other kind words after the death of my mother. I received more than 150 e-mails during the past several days, in addition to the dozens of posts left in the letters section of last week's column. I could not respond to everybody with a personal thank-you, but all of your letters were appreciated.

I was going through some of my mother's things a few days ago, and among the items I found were her American Airlines stewardess wings, an "AA" eagle lapel pin, and a "Stewardess Corps" pendant, all from 1965. They are rendered in sterling silver -- tarnished but beautifully engraved.

It should go without saying that airlines no longer give out sterling silver wings.

The first airplane I was ever on, big or small, was an American Airlines Boeing 727, in April of 1974. We flew from Boston to Washington, D.C., and they served sandwiches and cheesecake -- yes, in economy class on an 80-minute trip. I remember the stewardess asking if I wanted seconds.

The photo you see here, taken by my mother, shows me and my sister walking up the stairs to that airplane.

There are some definite date markers in that shot -- the haircuts, the clothes, the old-timey air-stairs in lieu of the modern jet bridge.

Astute viewers will notice one thing that hasn't changed, though: the American Airlines livery. I know of no major carrier that has stuck with the same color scheme and logo for so long. The bare polished aluminum, the gothic tail bird and tricolor cheat; there's nothing particularly beautiful about it, but I hope they keep it going -- if for no other reason than it bucks the annoying "in motion" livery theme that is now so common among airlines. Take a look at the tarmac palette these days -- there are enough streaks, swishes, swirls and curls out there to make anybody dizzy, most of them indistinguishable from each other. Carriers want to appear slick, sleek and modern, but they've jettisoned their identities in the process.

I am really fond of those drive-up stairs. There's something dramatic about stepping onto a plane this way: the ground-level approach along the tarmac followed by the slow ascent. The effect is similar to watching the opening credits of a film -- a brief, formal introduction to the journey. By contrast, the jet bridge (Jetway if you prefer) makes the plane itself feel almost irrelevant; you're merely in transit from one annoying interior space (terminal) to another (airplane cabin). Many of the overseas routes I fly find me at airports that still employ stairs, and I always get a thrill from them.

All right, except for those times when it's 95 degrees and I've got 90 pounds of luggage.