Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Logbooks, e-logbooks, and Safelog

Pilots track their lives by the number of hours in the air, as if any other kind of time isn't worth noting.
Michael Parfit, "The Corn was Two Feet Below the Wheels", Smithsonian Magazine (May 2000)

A logbook is the most important thing in a pilot's life. Not only does it contain the required information in "a manner acceptable to the Administrator" to prove that you're eligible for your pilot's certificate, it also contains a treasure trove of memories.

...First solo...
...That first time taking up a passenger after the big checkride...
...That trip around Tampa Bay and up the beaches on the Gulf on the honeymoon...
...The ferry flight to Florida the day after Thanksgiving where the 182 picked up more unforecast ice than I have yet seen on the Dash-8 in months of Northeast winter flying...
...That sunset on a day so clear and perfectly calm where the sun happened to align perfectly, silhouetting the buildings of downtown Toledo a hundred miles to the west...
...That foggy approach into Galveston where ATC's vectors misled you and the pilot you were with into confusing the FAF for the IAF so you saw the lights of the airport slide underneath you through a break in the fog several miles ahead of where you expected them to be, leading to your first real missed approach in actual IMC....

There is an old, anonymous aviation adage that goes, "You start with a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck." Your logbook is that transaction ledger. The triumphs, the stressful moments, the sublime, the scary: every time you take a withdrawal out of the bag of luck and convert it into a deposit into the bag of experience is summed up in a short line in a logbook.

If you're here because you've decided that now is the time to start preserving those precious hours electronically and are just looking for advice on which one to choose, you can skip the next few paragraphs and scroll down to just below the second picture.

When you first start learning to fly, your logbook is as simple as it will ever be. You have one kind of airplane, you're puttering around the practice area, and you're recording the hours of training required to meet the requirements necessary to take your checkride. If you are learning to fly just for the pleasure or the challenge of it, a paper logbook might suit your needs for the rest of your life. (Even so, backing it up with a spreadsheet version in Excel, Google Drive, or something quick and easy like that is a very good idea.)

However, if you're planning on flying for a living, an electronic logbook is too handy to not have one. It will prove worth the price once you take the first step into the professional aviation world: the time-consuming, detailed AirlineApps application. This website is used by many of the companies you'd be likely to apply at for your first airline job, so chances are you'll find yourself filling this out at some point or another.

The general application itself isn't particularly daunting; it's basically the same material you'd fill out for any job anywhere. That is, until you get to the experience grid, and that's where an e-logbook will save you (and I'm not exaggerating) a day or two of your life. Even if your chosen company doesn't use AirlineApps, whatever company you do apply at will have a similar experience grid to fill out.

I know the pain of losing two days to this "tiny" little hurdle, as I didn't keep an electronic form of my logbook until after I filled the application out, and my application took two days to complete: an hour for the general items, and the rest going through my logbooks trying to sort out what times I had in what aircraft. After a little bit of trying to add up 172 time vs. Diamond time (what should I do about DA20 time vs. DA40 time since they're both fixed, non-complex, non-high-performance?) vs. Cirrus time (the SR20 isn't high-performance but the SR22 is... @#$%!), and several different ways of sorting aircraft into lumps, I decided that single-engine Diamond time is not different in any substantial way from 172, Saratoga, SR22, and the other 27 (yes, I had 30 different single-engine aircraft types in my logbook—although I only know that because I used my e-logbook to tell me as I wrote this) kinds of single-engine time I had. So I decided to sort them into two buckets: fixed-gear single and retractable-gear single. Each multi-engine aircraft, however, got its own entry, which meant I now had a few more totals to break out and add up separately.

The items along the left are standard application fare until you get to the dreaded experience grid. It's easily tamed if you have an electronic logbook to add it all up for you, however. That alone makes one worth the money.

Problem solved after only a few hours, right? Not quite. AirlineApps asks you to separate your "normal" PIC time from your instructor PIC time. On seeing that new monkey in the wrench, I threw up my hands and went to bed. I spent almost the entire next day working on that little wrinkle.

However, with my e-logbook, just for fun I went and totalled all that up right now. Instead of the entire day, it took me less than 60 seconds. Not only that, I got a more precise answer than I got when I was filling out the original application. (As it turns out, I actually had over 30 more hours than I put on the application, which means I probably accidentally skipped a page while going through the 120+ pages of logbook entries to add up.)

While I was on AirlineApps to grab that screenshot, I decided to add my Dash-8 time for no other reason than because it is there. Since the 200 weighs 36,300 pounds and the 300 is 43,000 pounds, they need to be broken out separately because they straddle the 12,500-41,000 pound line. No problem this time—the electronic logbook keeps track of such details automatically! No reason to break out the calculator to find out that as of this very second I have 152.68 hours in the 200 and 82.40 in the 300. I don't even need to add up the two to figure out how much total Dash time I have: all I do is click the box next to them and it tells me I have 235.08 hours.

This will get even more useful in the next couple of years once I upgrade, because then not only will I have times to sort out between the 200 and 300, I'll have to break out how much of each of those times are PIC time vs. SIC time. Right now, as a First Officer I'm logging SIC time, but once I move into the left seat it changes to the all-important turbine PIC time. But when that time comes, it will be a matter of a couple of minutes to figure out instead of hours.

If I've sold you on the idea that if you're looking at an aviation career getting an electronic logbook is a necessity and not a luxury, here are the factors I considered when picking out the one I went with.

Safety: Does it come with an online backup service or am I hosed if the iPad or phone breaks or my computer crashes?

Convenience: I have an iPad, an Android phone, and a Linux PC. Which of these can I use it on?

Company's reputation: I plan to be flying for several more decades. Will the company still be around then?

Price: Again, I plan to be flying for several more decades. Do I have to pay for this thing every month/year for the rest of my life?

Features: This is actually the last on the list because all of the logbooks I looked at do basically the same slicing and dicing. The only "must-have" feature is the ability to export my logbook to a file just in case the vendor went out of business.

I played with and evaluated three of the electronic logbooks that are most popular today: LogTen Pro, Logbook Pro, and Safelog. As you can see from the screenshot above, I went with Safelog. I don't have any connection with Dauntless Software (in fact, a long time ago I sent in an application to be a partner for them in order to make a small commission on all of the Private Pilot study software I was selling for them and I never received any reply from them at all, so I should actually be a little less likely to recommend them), and your needs/desires may differ from mine, but here are my reasons for selecting them for a big decision like this:

Safety: Safelog is basically a cloud-based server system whose app is just a front-end to interface to that cloud. In other words, not only is it included in the price, there's not really a way to not have it backed up.

Convenience: This is huge. I have an Android phone and LogTen Pro doesn't run on anything except Apple. Logbook Pro is tied to the desktop, although it has apps to interface with it. With Safelog I log the day's flights while I'm in the van on the way to the hotel and they're backed up immediately. Safelog also has a web interface, which was immensely convenient while converting the old paper logbook to e-format.

Company's reputation: I've used their GroundSchool written prep software for all my writtens from the Commercial level on (and I would have used them for the Private and Instrument too had I known about them back then) and found it easy to use, always up to date, and quite reasonably priced. They've been around for even longer than I've been flying, and will probably still be around once I'm forcibly retired in 25 years.

Price: LogTen Pro has no lifetime subscription option unless you're using a Mac, so if they want to jack up the price from $49.99/year to $99.99/year, you either pay it or go through the pain of converting to a different company. Logbook Pro was rejected outright at this stage (in other words, I didn't even bother to install it after looking at their price sheet) because their add-on pricing for things that should be included is insanely overpriced and practically incomprehensible (I mean, what is this APDL thing? Do I need it? Is it something I want? How would I know if you don't even explain it on your order form?! For all I know it just makes my iPad say "PC Load Letter". And you want HOW MUCH extra for cloud backup, schedule importing, a mobile version, that mysterious APDL doohickey, and other features that everyone else just includes? Is there a checked-bag fee thrown in there, too?) I've read aircraft performance charts that were easier to understand than their order form. Next. Safelog has a subscription model but also has a lifetime option of a flat $299 and you never get a bill from them again. After 6 years of LogTen Pro, I've broken even at that price, which means 19 more years of professional flight logging for free.

Features: Safelog exports everything you've put in it in a format that is easily converted to a spreadsheet. It does pretty much everything the other apps do, too, and even creates a map in Google Earth or Google Maps of where you've flown if you ask it to:

No matter which electronic logbook you decide fits your needs best, the sooner you start using one the better. I had approximately 1200 entries to convert, and it took a month to do. Fortunately there's not much else to do in hotel rooms during the winter, but it still wasn't a fun month or one I'd like to repeat any time soon. Or ever. Logbook Pro will do that work for you at the bargain price of only $200 for 500 entries, meaning that it would have cost me only $500 to have someone else do the boring work. (Which may seem like a lot, but considering that it takes approximately a minute per entry, that works out to $24/hour, which isn't actually all that high a price.) Incidentally, while converting to e-format I was able to polish up and correct some minor errors along the way (things like accidentally putting night hours in the cross-country column next to it, forgetting to include cross-country hours for a flight or having a night landing but nothing in the night hours column, etc.) which a paid transcriber wouldn't notice or be able to correct. You can save yourself a lot of time and money by getting started with one before you accumulate all those hours in the first place!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: The Year in Review

Thanks to you, readers, it's been another successful year at Keyboard & Rudder and the Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel. Although the number of posts slowed down in the latter part of the year, that was because I was busy becoming an airline pilot, not because I'd run out of ideas. There are plenty of posts left in the Becoming an Airline Pilot series, and still plenty of interesting topics to post on besides that in 2015.

I have a lot of fun writing this blog, even though it is a lot of work and eats up a considerable amount of my limited free time. But what is even more fun is seeing that people have so many questions and they come here to get answers. Some of them are more serious questions, like what is an AGI good for anyway, while others are more out of curiosity, like why airport symbols change at 8069 feet instead of some nice, round number.

One of the most fun things about writing this is that I get to cover some old topics in a new way, or just some plain odd topics (like something that looks like an airport for aliens and is covered with protected airspace). Flying is one of the most enjoyable things anyone can do, and reading about it should be just as enjoyable. Here is a rundown of the 5 posts you've enjoyed the most this year based on views:

A successful failure: A cross-country trip with a student where everything that could go wrong did. One of those hours in the logbook worth 100.

The "Fun Curve" of Flying: Learning to fly is fun overall, but it's not fun the whole time. Here's what to expect, so you don't feel discouraged when you reach an inevitable plateau during your lessons.

What do beer and thunderstorms have in common? Despite the clickbait title, the condensation on a small can of beer and the formation of an enormous thunderstorm do share a fundamental physical principle.

SPECIAL PROGRAMMING NOTE! This is the introduction to the Becoming an Airline Pilot series. Although it is rapidly becoming the most popular, it is currently #4 because of how late in the year it was finally posted.

The best advice often comes in the fewest words: With several years of instructing behind me after getting my multi-engine rating, a simple sentence from the old instructor I had for it had much more meaning for me now than it did then.

If you have suggestions for something you'd like to see covered in the upcoming year, drop me a line or leave me a comment. Writing this takes several hours each month, and if you've found it useful and would like to show your support with a tip, you can do so easily via PayPal.

Happy New Year and may the next year hold nothing but blue skies and tailwinds for you!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 1: Ground school

It's 0900 on Monday morning. First day. The process begins—as does the training folder that will follow each of us for the rest of our career.

A notebook, highlighter, operations manual, Jepps, chocolate, and coffee. Let's get this party started.

There are ten seats reserved. Surprisingly, although I got hired the day after my 40th birthday, I'm actually #3 in seniority. (Most airlines assign seniority in classes by birthdate, starting with the oldest and working downward.) Of those ten, nine are here, which is actually a pretty good show percentage. Many pilots apply and interview at several places at once, so in the month or so in between they may end up taking a position at a different airline, so 90% attendance is pretty good. The one that didn't show was ahead of me, so I've already moved up a seniority number and I've only been here 15 minutes!

All airlines do the same basic things in similar ways. Most of the differences have to do with routes, authorizations, the capabilities and limitations of the equipment that airline flies, etc. This means that Week 1, "Basic Indoc", is going to be 90% the same no matter where you go because most of this week covers the FAA regulations and how to apply them to that particular airline's operations, and other things the FAA requires every airline to include in their training curriculum.

Today is the first day of the next three weeks of your life.
The modules are numbered in a logical sequence, starting from your duties and responsibilities as a soon-to-be airline pilot, working through 14 CFR 121, what the company is authorized to do (the types of navigation and approaches, airports it can fly into, and so on), how the company's dispatch and flight supervision procedures work, and end by reviewing basic aviation subjects you already know about from the studying you've done for all the writtens you've taken and the experience you've gained to make it to an airline class in the first place. Many of the review modules harken all the way back to the old instrument rating days (weather, the 1-2-3 rule, alternate planning, ATC procedures, how the FAA constructs instrument approaches, etc.).

One of the big changes in this class are a module dedicated to the new Part 117 rest requirements, which are a lot more complicated than the old-school regs. Like most laws, they have some pros and cons. They actually take some common sense into account: for example, if you have to get up at 4:00 a.m. to start a day, you're not going to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed by the afternoon, so your duty period will be shorter. The downside is that you often end up with a couple fewer days off per month because you can't cram as much flying into each day. They're complicated enough to spend an entire module on to make sure you understand them, but fortunately the company's scheduling software keeps track of the Table B requirements for them and for you, so you know at a glance exactly when you'll "time out".

We get assigned our all-important "Blue Books", which we'll carry in our flight bags for as long as we're with the company. The two parts of the Blue Book (which is about things that are identified and actually fly, not the old Air Force UFO project) are the AOM and GOM: the Aircraft Operations Manual and the General Operations Manual. This week we're covering the GOM half, since what we're covering are the general operating procedures we're expected to follow and understand. The following two weeks will go into the AOM half in detail.

Since we now have our AOM/GOM, we're assigned reading from it from here on out. (And, yes, you will be quizzed on the reading.) By the end of the first week, the reading will cover the entire GOM—334 pages in total. Now you can see why in my previous post I emphasized studying the flows, limitations, and memory items before coming to class: the pace is very fast. During my interview, one of the HR questions I was asked was if I had ever had to learn a large amount of material in a short time. I was in the Army as a cryptanalyst, and our AIT consisted of covering almost an entire Bachelor's degree worth of material in only 17 weeks, so I was able to answer with a confident "yes". The foreshadowing of that question becomes clear now, especially since we'll cover both the aircraft's systems manual and the AOM in weeks 2 and 3, which is another 862 pages worth of material.

While we were at lunch on the first day, the company left us some nice, cheap swag on our desks: a lunch bag (with notepad, note cards, Post-Its, and even Cup-O-Noodle and microwave popcorn for the long study sessions to come) and a United Express pen with a mini-flashlight on the end. (Which unfortunately comes in handy when doing a pre-flight inspection so early the sun hasn't even risen yet and your brain hasn't engaged enough to remember to take your flashlight out of the flight bag.) They also stocked a chest full of vending machine goodies for those days you end up too busy studying to take a lunch break. Sure, it doesn't cost them much, and maybe I'm morale-bribed pretty easily, but they didn't have to do any of that, so it's a nice gesture. After it's all over, I estimate that it probably cost the company around $20,000-30,000 to get each one of us through training and on the line, so what's another $100 or so?

In the middle of the week, we were introduced to the CPT: the cockpit procedures trainer (AKA the "paper tiger"). This is like the cockpit posters I've been using to study from, but instead of them being spread out on the dining room table, they're rigged up roughly how the cockpit is laid out itself:

These are used for flow checks (which go into your training folder) and so you can practice on your own after class to build some muscle memory for how they'll actually go. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses in any subject or occupation, and the flow checks that begin this week start to show my weakness from the GA world, where flows are short. Although I've had no problems keeping up with the reading and absorbing the large amounts of material thrown at me, the flows themselves are the only thing giving me a spot of difficulty. My brain just abhors memorizing sequences without understanding what they mean, so I tend to miss a switch here or a knob there this week. This is why you want to come in as prepared as possible: you'll find your own weakness in something at some point, and you can use the time saved on things you've already become good at to devote to whatever ends up being your personal sticking point.

Toward the end of the week, ALPA (the airline pilot's union that represents our pilot group) took us out to dinner. Although as probationary members for the first year, we don't pay dues (and therefore don't get to vote), they still covered a night at a restaurant by the office to welcome us into the fold.

To round out the free goodies, the company also started providing $500 worth of uniform gear this year in order to attract more First Officers in the current highly-competitive market, so we got measured for that, too. After a busy week in the classroom with two more weeks of it to go, it's a nice reminder of what you're there for. With day after day with the head down in the books, looking up and seeing the uniform was a good way to take a short break.

The reward for making it through the first five days is the big Week 1 test: the first opportunity to get weeded out and/or get an ugly mark in your new training folder companion. It is a computer-based assessment with 50 questions and a 70% minimum. I ended up with over 90% and felt well-prepared—our training department did an excellent job! Not everyone passes every class, but everyone in our class did. A weekend off and on to Week 2: Systems!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 0: The post-offer stage

In my last post, I went over what a typical airline interview is like. If you're lucky, your company will tell you right away if you're hired. Mine did, and as a welcome aboard present gave me a packet of material to study before showing up for my class date three weeks from then.

Airlines differ in philosophy when it comes to preparing for ground school. Some of them do not want you to study anything before coming in because they don't want you to be studying the "wrong" things or the right things in the "wrong" way (meaning not the way they do it there). Others expect you to have already studied quite a bit so they can spend your ground school time on cramming in a huge amount of material in a short time.

My airline is one of those who expect you to come in with a lot of material already memorized. Fortunately, knowing what it is you need to know beforehand is easy: they give you 21 pages of material and three cockpit diagrams to spend a lot of quality time with. If it's in there, they want you to know it. If it's not, then you don't need to yet. The study packet's introduction makes this clear in a more verbose way:

(From the study packet)

At this stage of training, basic rote memorization of these items is sufficient and expected. You may be tempted to increase your knowledge of the aircraft, or even other... policies and procedures besides what is included in this guide. Resist that temptation! [Emphasis theirs.] Expend your energies and efforts learning what is included within these pages. During ground school, you will undergo three weeks of intensive training in all aspects of our company policies, aircraft systems, and flight crew procedures. Our ground instructors are skilled at directing your learning, ensuring it is focused on the proper areas of study during this time. However, this process only works if you show up on Day 1 with a thorough understanding of this Pre-Training Study Guide.

Although I'm not usually big on quoting things verbatim, this is good advice straight from the horse's mouth. They wrote the packet, they wrote the ground school curriculum, and they know what they want.

Unlike college, where 21 pages of mere reading might have constituted an assignment, you'll be expected to not just read those pages but also memorize them. Depending on when your interview was in relation to your class date, you'll probably have from 2-4 weeks to work on getting that accomplished, and you'll need it. In that time, you'll have enough to learn to keep you busy without adding to it by doing additional research. You'll probably end up with questions as you study or things that don't make sense or you'll be curious about why you do x in such a way. Your questions will be cleared up once class day comes, so just keep on plugging away.

The packet included three main categories of things to have down cold before class starts:

Memory Action Items, which are defined as "the procedures necessary for the safe handling of certain emergency situations. It is expected that when presented with an emergency situation... you should be able to list the appropriate crew response from memory." The introduction goes on to warn you that "there will be daily spot-quizzes during the first two weeks of ground school to test your recall of these memory action items." (And, yes, that wasn't an idle threat. We did have daily quizzes beginning on Day 2.)

These aren't actually all that different that what you may have done when preparing for your private or commercial checkride. When preparing for your oral and flight test, you probably (or at least should have) memorized a few critical items to check in the event of an engine failure or a fire. Things like switching fuel tanks, putting the mixture to full rich, etc. The biggest difference here is that there are 21 different procedures to memorize instead of just a couple.

Limitations, which like the previous section isn't all that different than the things you studied when doing checkrides before. As above, there are many, many more of them to memorize. I counted 21 (which by total coincidence is the third time this number has appeared) different sections of limitations, each of which ranges from 1 item to as many as 12 different items. Some of them you've seen before (like the max crosswind component, max takeoff weight, flap extension speeds) in your Cessna or Piper. Others you probably haven't, like Max Zero Fuel Weight, which in many cases is more of an issue than Max Takeoff Weight.

Flows, which will probably seem new to you but actually aren't. If you were taught GUMPS (of which there are almost as many variations as there are instructors, and which I taught as gas, undercarriage, mixture, props/pumps, and switches), you've done a flow. I also taught my students to use a flow pattern when checking instruments and gauges at runup. For example, I taught them to check the flight instruments in a "backward C" flow: airspeed 0, attitude indicator level and erect, altimeter set and within 75 feet, VSI 0, DG set to compass, and turn coordinator level. After checking these, then use the checklist to make sure they were all completed. This is the same way the company will expect you to do it, as in their own words, "flows are used for flight deck configuration without reference to a checklist, although a checklist will usually be called for at flow completion to verify critical items have been completed."

As before, the biggest difference is in the number and size of the flows you'll be expected to know. There are 8 of them, and one of them has 25 different items—and some of those items in it have more than one substep. Remember: at this point you're just rotely memorizing. Follow the flow along on your cockpit diagrams (it's why they gave them to you, after all) and practice, practice, practice. You'll be evaluated on them at the end of each week of ground school, and you have to pass the last evaluation of the course to get signed off to move on.

What a flow looks like. (I happened to be studying the Before Taxi Flow at the time.) The page is highlighted in blue and what it looks like when done are the numbered steps in red. You'll be expected to do that (plus many more) from memory.

Wow, that's a lot of memorization, isn't it? Well, there's a good reason for it: there are other things you'll have to memorize once ground school comes (like systems and their components, flight profiles, and so on), and if you didn't start getting some of it out of the way ahead of time, you'd never get it all done in the month or so of ground school ahead.

Now that you know what to learn, how do you actually go about learning it? The intent of this post was to show you what to expect between the time you're hired and the time you start class, so that's beyond this post's scope.

However, just so you don't think I'm blowing you off, I'll give you a simple answer: learn them the way that has always worked best for you. By the time you're ready for an airline, you've already gone through high school and college. You've had plenty of experience figuring out whether you learn well via flashcards, making up acronyms or little songs, talking through lists with your eyes closed, or whatever crazy thing works for you. As with anything, the most important study habit you can have is to have one!

The reward that you get for all this work before the real work starts is that ground school lets you learn a lot of neat new stuff every day. You'll learn about systems that are way more complex than the Cessna or small twin you're probably used to, how the pros fly approaches, and many more things that will expand your knowledge and capabilities as a pilot. However, you won't get to the end unless you start before it begins!

If you haven't bought The Turbine Pilot's Flight Manual the first several times I've mentioned it, do it now. It isn't specific enough to interfere with your future airline's ground school, and it's broad enough that it covers a lot of the things you might be learning about for the first time. I didn't find out about this book until after I had already been on the line for several months, and it would have made my life a lot easier had I known about it before I started.

Next stop: Week 1 of ground school!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 0: The interview

In Part 1 of this series, I went over my qualifications and gave some suggestions of things to consider when choosing an airline to apply at. This time, I'll get into more detail about what the interview itself was like. And, no, there will be no "dress nicely" or "smile and make eye contact" tips in this post to waste your time.

I mentioned before that a resource I wish I would have known about before my interview is the excellent overview book The Turbine Pilot's Flight Manual by Greg Brown & Mark Holt. (If you prefer an eBook, there's a paper copy bundled with the e-formatted version here.) It is a gentle introduction to the world of the bigger aircraft you'll be interviewing to fly, and it will make your life easier in ground school once you get hired. This book is definitely worth the money, and I'm not just saying that because if you purchase it with one of the links above or the picture below, Keyboard & Rudder gets a small commission. Seriously, if you haven't bought it yet, do it now and thank me later!

There are tons of sites covering airline job interview questions. Some airlines even post their own list of topics you might be asked about during your interview. For example, here's a "helpful" pilot study guide from Endeavor (PDF). The reason I put "helpful" in scare quotes is because when you look at it, it almost boils down to "just study everything."

However, there is an easy way to get way more specific information on what to concentrate on: interview gouges. If you search "[airline name] interview gouge", you'll find not just a vague list of topics, but specific questions people were asked in that specific interview. Not only that, you'll also get other useful information about how that airline structures its interview day, how many people you'll talk to, etc.

No matter which airline you're interviewing for, your day will look something like this:

  • Welcome and company background presentation
  • Written test(s)
  • Human resources interview
  • Technical interview with one or more current company pilots
  • Sim evaluation


 Welcome and background presentation

Every company does this. The only difference from company to company is how long they spend talking about themselves. Your only requirement here is to pay attention, smile, and nod occasionally without nodding off.

Written test(s)

Every company also has one or more written tests. You will definitely get one that has several dozen questions either straight from the ATP written test bank or extremely similar to the ATP written. Although it hadn't been that long since I took my ATP written, I brushed up for this hurdle by re-reading the Gleim ATP written test prep.

Some airlines administer other tests, usually ones that measure personality or general intelligence (like the Wonderlic). You can't really study for these, and you're not expected to, since they're not exactly pass/fail exams. The Wonderlic is the same test that NFL prospects take, and there are a lot of places you can practice for it, but don't spend a lot of time on it. Get a feel for the flow of the test and get back to studying the important things, like your ATP or instrument questions. After all, if you bomb the technical written portion, your day is going to be a short one no matter how well you did on the non-technical one(s).

Human resources interview

This isn't all that different from any HR interview you'd have for any job anywhere. The questions are general and pertain to your personal background and history. Chances are you're going to be only with the HR specialist, who probably doesn't know much about aviation besides what they'll need to know to make sure you're qualified. (Don't take that as a given, however, because many of them are very sharp people.) That means you're going to get generic TMAAT ("Tell me about a time...") questions, why you chose this company, what are your career goals, etc. at this point in the interview.

Some companies use this as another screening point to cut the field down before proceeding to the technical interview. If you don't get chosen to proceed to the technical portion, that doesn't necessarily mean there's something wrong with you. You may have just had the bad luck of interviewing on a day when there are 30 applicants and only 8 spots, in which case HR will eliminate half of the people on the spot and the next interviewer will eliminate half of the ones who made it through to them. Or you may have just drawn the short straw that day and the next lowest person compared to you had three times as many hours as you do and a fistful of type ratings. No matter what happens, use it as an opportunity to hone your interviewing skills.

Technical interview

You may get this next, or you may do the sim eval first. In many places the order it takes place just happens to be luck, as the schedule will have some people in the sim while others interview. Once you've made it past the first two hurdles, the interview starts becoming more fun, because now you have a chance to sit down with someone who already flies for that airline and talk flying. As a pilot, isn't that what you love to talk about most anyway?

One of the things you'll find the most help when preparing for this part is a humble instrument guide. Dust off your old instrument oral exam guide and the FAA's Instrument Procedures Handbook.

Why the instrument stuff? Because that's what 80% or more of your technical questions will be about. Once you start flying in the airlines, all your flying is "in the system". Much of it will be into busy airports like EWR, ORD, ATL, etc. and in conditions you might not have experienced before. Being sharp on instrument procedures will help you the first time it's 300 overcast at Newark and New York Approach is so busy you can't even check in and they just spit out at you "Foobar4762decendandmaintain3000toTeterboroflyheading170tointerceptthe22Llocalizer190orbettertoGIMEE." Yeah, that's going to happen, believe me, and maybe 10 minutes after you got out of a "hold as published over COATE" that was sprung on you 90 seconds before you made it to COATE intersection. (Seriously, that is a real example from what happened to me my second week on the job.) Flying into New York is fun, but your interviewer is there to make sure you've got what it takes first, or at least enough knowledge to figure it out on the fly.

Since you're going to the wayback machine and reminiscing about the good ol' instrument rating days, you'll also find that the list of tips I wrote for acing an oral examination also apply quite well here. After all, the technical interview is basically an oral exam, with the difference being passing one gives you a signed new certificate and the other gives you a signed new offer letter. The principles of both are almost identical.

My technical interview consisted in large part of flying a short flight along a Jeppesen low-altitude en route chart. I point out that it was a Jeppesen because if you're used to government charts, you'll want to familiarize yourself with the Jepp symbology, since that's what the airlines use.

Although it was made a little more difficult by me being so much more used to government charts, a lot of the questions were more about general instrument navigational skills and procedures. For example, "How many ways can you identify this intersection?" "What does this racetrack mean?" "How would you enter this hold?" "What do you have to do when you enter it?" "Here's the METAR. Do you have the minimums you need to shoot an approach?" "Will you have them three hours from now according to this TAF?" "If you don't, how far past the final approach fix can you go to attempt the approach?" As you can see, most of these are general knowledge and not Jeppesen specific, and almost all of it comes from the instrument rating.

While you won't be asked questions about this next thing, your interviewer is also silently evaluating whether you're the kind of person they'd want to be sitting next to in a cockpit for several hours. Given the choice between a candidate with fair skills and a fun personality versus one with great skills and an overbearing personality, the "lesser" skilled one will get the job 9 times out of 10. That's because technical skills can be trained and polished, whereas personality can't.

Of all the questions I was asked, by far the hardest one was, "What will make you a good captain?" Even though you're interviewing for a spot as a First Officer, airlines don't want to spend tens of thousands of dollars training someone who would be a bad fit come upgrade time. I knew this company would be a good fit when I thought for a bit about his question and admitted, "I can't think of a way to put it without sounding arrogant," and he replied, "That's OK; we're all pilots here," and we all had a good laugh.

Sim Eval

Most places also have you perform a short ride in a simulator. It may be a large, expensive one that is also used (or used to be) in their training department or it may be a small desktop sim. Either way, it's not usually a company's way of abusing you; its purpose is mainly to separate those who are great at memorizing canned interview answers but can't fly from those who are great at memorizing canned interview answers and can fly.

Relax and enjoy the flight. Your evaluator understands that you're most likely totally unfamiliar with the equipment you're being asked to fly. They're there to get a general feel for your ability, not to give you an IPC. Just follow their instructions and have fun, because a large part of it is their way of finding out simply whether you can follow instructions. Those who can will usually do well in training, after all.


Prepare to be there all day, and possibly for more than one day. A short airline interview still consumes about four hours, and 8-12 hours is common. After all that, you may get the offer you came for right away! However, if you don't, don't despair. If you've been there 12 hours, then so have the interviewers, and they may simply not have the energy left to put their heads together and review everyone that day. An airline hire is a five-figure investment by the company, and it's a decision they may not want to make without rest.

Almost all airlines have a policy of notifying you within two weeks either way. If you don't get it, remember what I wrote above and don't take it personally. There are many factors that are totally out of your control that may have played a part. Debrief yourself about your own interview by reviewing what you think went well and where you could have done better. Just as with anything else in life, keep what worked and work on what didn't.

If you got your offer, congratulations! Now you're in for even more long days ahead, and come sim training you'll be wishing for something as easy as an all-day interview! Get ready to spend some quality hours at home with a pre-class study packet and some cockpit diagrams:

What my dining room table looked like for weeks.

And now it's on to the post-offer stage!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 0: The pre-hire stage

I'd planned to start this series much earlier, but the process (plus keeping up with regular life) has been more energy-demanding and time-consuming that I expected—and that's even after taking Hofstadter's Law (it always takes longer than you expect) into account.

I hadn't planned to enter the Part 121 (airline) world, but then again, when I learned to fly years ago, I hadn't planned to become a flight instructor either, and that worked out pretty well anyway. Aviation has a way of drawing one in little by little. One seemingly big step leads naturally to another one: the "how do I even become a pilot?" step leads to the "can I actually fly this thing solo?" step, which leads to "I just passed my checkride... now what" step.

Some people stop at that step, whereas for others it's just the first flight of stairs leading to an instrument rating. Many stop at that floor, and others—like me—want to see what's the next step after that. That leads to the commercial certificate, then the CFI.

I loved instructing, and didn't expect to move on from there. (Notice that I didn't say "move up", because instructing is a worthy and worthwhile position on its own, not a "lower class" aviation job.) But there was still another step I hadn't taken: the airline world.

Since I didn't get into instructing just build up 1500 hours and run, I had over 2100 hours when I applied. Even so, this didn't even put me in the top half of the class of 9 I was in as far as hours went.

Probably the hardest thing to build up is the required multi-engine time. Most airlines want at least 50-100 hours of multi time. Having a lot isn't a negative, but it's not a huge help, either, since they know you're going to build up plenty with them anyway. You need a decent knowledge of multi-engine procedures and aerodynamics, but spending hundreds of hours in a twin with both engines running isn't all that much more impressive than getting the rating and enough hours to be insurable and meet the ATP aeronautical experience requirements. Once you know "dead foot, dead engine" and "identify, verify, feather", you'll do it so many times in the sim that having barely more than the interview minimums isn't as big a handicap as you might fear. I'll devote a post on some ways to get multi time later. Mine came with a bit of luck, by meeting someone who owned a Baron and needed an instructor to accompany him on trips.

Once you've built up the experience to qualify, it's now a matter of choosing which airline(s) to apply to. There are a lot of factors to consider, and no answer is the right one for everyone since everyone will weigh their factors differently. Or you could take the lazy road and just put your application into and go with whoever calls first, but do you want to trust the next several years of your life to luck?

Some factors to consider:

  • Whether your airline has a base where you live and, if not, how easy the commute is to where you would be based.
  • The type of equipment they fly. (Shiny regional jets, big turboprops, small turboprops, etc.)
  • The stability of the company. Many regionals live and die by the terms of the CPA (capacity purchase agreement) they have with the major or majors they fly for.
  • Upgrade time. This has a major effect on when you start logging that all-important turbine PIC time as a Captain.
  • The company atmosphere and pilot group.
  • Pay and benefits. This isn't as big a factor as you'd think, basically because the pay scales are low at just about every regional, and by the 2nd or 3rd year most hourly rates are in the same ballpark. However, as an example of how benefits make a difference, one major regional that I ruled out flew a particular aircraft that they had major, long-term maintenance problems with, yet their benefits didn't include cancellation pay. If you were working for them, you could show up at the beginning of your four-day trip only to see all those hours vanish, along with your paycheck.

All of these factors will combine to give you the big QoL: Quality of Life. As I said, each one of these will have different weights for different people, so I can't give you the One True Answer—although that doesn't keep the online pilot forums from being filled with hundreds of people who claim to have the "right" answer.

I recommend rating each one of these factors for yourself on a scale from 1-5, with 1 being "don't care" and 5 being "critical". This will help you consider whether the airline you're looking at will be a good fit for you, rather than just taking the word of "PilotDewd007" who said in one of the forums that "Come to XYZ because it's super kewl here!"

As an example of my thinking, here's how I rated each one for myself when I was considering where to apply.

Commute or home base: 2. As long as I can get there, I'm happy. Being home-based would definitely be better, but the airline world changes so much that what's a base today might not be one tomorrow.

Type of equipment: 1. To me, turbine time is turbine time. I'd fly anything from my Cessna 172 to a Embraer 190 and be perfectly happy.

Company stability: 5. I'm too old to sit around getting furloughed over and over again just because the company bought too many jets a couple of years ago and can't afford the payments now.

Upgrade time: 5. Beginning a 121 career at 40 means that I need to upgrade in a decent amount of time so I can still have 15-20 years left when it's time to move to a major. I don't have the luxury of spending 7-9 years as a regional FO.

Company atmosphere: 4. While I can tend to get along with most people, being surrounded by a bunch of uptight and/or cocky people, or pilots who are miserable because of management vs. union issues, for the next several years was not something I wanted to deal with.

Pay and benefits: 2. My wife is an RN, so we already have a good, stable paycheck and a decent health plan.

After you evaluate which places might be a good fit for you and you've applied and got an interview, it's time to prepare for that interview. One of the nice things about evaluating your priorities is that you've also done a lot of the research that you'd want to have done before the interview in any case. After all, you're almost definitely going to get the "Tell me why you applied to our company" question during the interview, and you want to have something more impressive to say than, "Because your planes have two wings."

I will devote an entire post to my interview later, but for now, I will say that the run-down (or what's known as the "gouge") at for the company I interviewed at was spot-on. If you put "[airline you're interviewing at] gouge" into your favorite search engine, you'll have plenty of things to study before your big day so you can dazzle them with your knowledge.

A resource I wish I would have known about before my interview is the excellent overview book The Turbine Pilot's Flight Manual by Greg Brown & Mark Holt. (If you prefer an eBook, there's a paper copy bundled with the e-formatted version here.) It is a gentle introduction to the world of the bigger aircraft you'll be interviewing to fly, and it will make your life easier in ground school. I found it only while getting ready for my recurrent training, so my initial training was over before I started reading it. Even so, I picked up quite a few things from it, mostly of the "Oh, so that's why such-and-such is like that." This book is definitely worth the money!

I'll dazzle you more with my interview experiences in my next part in this series, "Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 0: The interview". If this helped or there's something else you wanted to know, leave a comment!

Becoming an Airline Pilot, The Series

There are a lot of posts in this series, since there is a lot that goes into becoming an airline pilot. For those who don't want to read through all of them from beginning to end, here's a table of contents for you.

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 0: Before the beginning

Part 1: The pre-hire stage
Part 2: The interview
Part 3: The post-offer stage

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 1

Ground school: Basic Indoc

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 2: More ground school (Coming soon!)

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 3: Still more ground school (Coming soon!)

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 4: Simulator training (Coming soon!)

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 5: Checkride time (Coming soon!)

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 6: IOE (Initial Operating Experience) 1 (Coming soon!)

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 7: IOE 2 (Coming soon!)

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 8: IOE 3 and signoff (Coming soon!)

Being an Airline Pilot, Week 9: Sitting Reserve (Coming soon!)

Being an Airline Pilot, Week 10ish: We're all counting on you (Coming soon!)