Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Being an Airline Pilot, Week 9: Sitting Reserve

Did you ever wonder what happens if an airline pilot gets sick, has their car break down on the way to the airport, or can't make it in for some reason? In other jobs, the other workers pick up the slack that day. One airline pilot, however, can't just decide to do the work of two people that day.

So does a planeload of passengers end up stranded at the airport because one person got the sniffles?

Nope. That's what reserves are for.

Welcome to reserve. It's a long staircase and you're at the bottom. And the escalators are out of order, rookie.
Being on reserve is where the fresh meat just out of training ends up. Once you get a line, you know what trips you'll be doing, on what days, and for how long. However, before you get there, you pay your dues by sitting reserve. Instead of knowing what you'll be doing—or even if you'll even do anything at all that day—you sit around waiting. And waiting. Aaaand waiting.

How long you'll be on reserve depends on what airline you fly for. At some, it can be a few months; at others, it can be several years. They all have one thing in common, however.

No matter if it's a few weeks or a few years, it's too long.

Pilots are different from most people. That's not news to anyone who knows a pilot (after all, my wife has been saying that for years). One of the ways we're different is that we're one of those rare lucky ducks who actually want to go to their job. Pilots want to fly. We're not good at sitting around all day wishing we were flying. (Most of us did enough of that before we got paid to do just that.)

Unfortunately, that's exactly what reserve ends up being many times: a whole day sitting around not flying, but not knowing you're not going to fly until your shift is over. Then heading back to a hotel room that you paid for yourself (unless you happen to live in base) and getting ready to do it all—or nothing at all—tomorrow.

Getting paid to sit around sounds like a pretty nice job, doesn't it? It's not. Imagine going to your job and being told you're to sit in the break room for the next 8 hours. And then the same thing the next day. And the day after that. And while you're imaging that, keep in mind all the time, money, and effort you spent to get that job in the first place, and now maybe you'll get to do that job, and maybe you won't.

It you still don't think it sounds that bad, or you just want to experience life as a brand-new airline pilot, sit in an uncomfortable chair and stare at this picture for the next 8 hours:

"So, what do you do for a living?" "This." "You watch the baggage carousel go in circles for a living?" "Exactly. I got a degree, paid almost $100,000 in plane rental and instruction costs, and spent years of my life passing 7 different FAA checkrides to sit here and make sure that carousel doesn't go anywhere. And so far it hasn't."

It may sound like you're being punished for making it all the way to this level, but in reality you actually do serve a very important purpose. If a crewmember gets sick, or gets stranded out of position due to a broken aircraft, or is going to "time out" (exceed the maximum duty hours the FAA allows), etc., you are called to step in and fly. You keep passengers lives from being disrupted by the inevitable.

If it weren't for reserves, thousands upon thousands of passengers each day would be stranded. Instead, 99% of them never know there was a problem. As a reserve, you're the reason they get home or to that important meeting or start their long-awaited vacation. You are the buffer that takes a minor scheduling burp and turns it into a non-event.

If you keep that in mind, and also keep in mind that it will eventually be over and you'll join the rest of the lineholders one day, you might be able to tolerate the long days of uncertainty. New airline pilots are often shocked at the transition. Some of them jump ship and head to a different airline, thinking that maybe things will be better somewhere else. It isn't; the grass is just as brown on the other side of the fence while you're on reserve. It gets better, but it takes patience.

To occupy my time, I spent the first few weeks getting to know every nook and cranny of Washington-Dulles. After a while, I knew the airport as well as Eero Saarinen himself. You know you're starting to become a reserve veteran when:
  • You can rank multiple different restrooms in preferential order
  • The hotel knows you by phone number
  • The information desk volunteers ask you questions about where things are
One game I created for myself to kill time was to guess where a particular flight was heading to without looking at the sign. After a while I got pretty good at being able to simply look at what the gaggle of passengers lined up in front of it was wearing, how many kids there were in line, or how the group was behaving, and usually tell where they were going. Mix of weird/trendy clothed people and people in business attire? San Francisco. Lots of strollers? Orlando. People actually having fun while standing in line? They're headed to Las Vegas and have already started partying. And so on.

Unfortunately, the game lost its appeal once I had been there long enough to have many of the flight time/destination pairs memorized. It's 5:15 p.m. and a bunch of people are lined up at D32. Seattle. It's 7:20 at D31. Denver. And so on.

One of the positive things about reserve, besides being the one who makes the difference between Little Suzie making it to grandma's house this afternoon or tomorrow morning, is that my photography skills improved from all the time I spent wandering around taking pictures. I also got to see some things I'd never seen before, like what it looks like when the "hood" is popped on a jet engine:

Here's yer problem. You were out of blinker fluid. Topped it off for you and cleaned the bugs off the windshield.
Or an interesting little bend in the otherwise-straight C/D concourse:

"Paging Captain Biv. Captain Roy G. Biv, please pick up the nearest courtesy phone."


And a terminal floor so immaculately polished you could almost fly in it:

Whoever is in charge of waxing the floors here seriously deserves a raise.

The good news is that, like all things, it eventually comes to an end. Once you get a line, quality of life improves dramatically. As I noted above, how long you're on reserve will depend on what company you're with. For me, it was 3 1/2 months, as I finished IOE on September 22nd and got a line on January 1st. That was long enough.

This post has been all about what it's like to not fly. However, I spent a lot of time actually flying while on reserve. In the next post, I'll have a nail-biting "so there I was" story that happened to me on a reserve trip.

(See the series index here.)

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 8: IOE 3--the World's Newest Airline Pilot

This is it. The last time I'll be evaluated. Well, at least until the next time I'm evaluated, since airline pilots do recurrent training every six months. But at least this is the last time before I get signed off and released to the line.

It's also the difference between being an airline pilot and being an unemployed pilot.

A good way to start the last trip.

This trip, much like the last, is simply another series of days like those I'll expect once I become a full-fledged member of the pilot group. However, since this time I'm specifically doing a trip that goes back and forth into Newark, I'm introduced to one of the more unpleasant aspects of flying into one of the NYC 3 airports: the GDP.

To everyone who's not an airline pilot, and to me up until this trip, GDP stood for Gross Domestic Product. Not anymore. Going into Newark, it stands for Ground Delay Procedure, a name which sounds more official and less unpleasant than "Hurry up and wait."

It had been an unseasonably hot September thus far. Temperatures had steadily been in the upper 80s to low 90s, which is not pleasant in an aircraft that doesn't have air conditioning if the engines aren't running. Today was a very pleasant change: beautiful blue skies, a gentle breeze, and about 70°. That last part was important, because upon getting the clearance we found out that we were going to be ground stopped for at least an hour and 45 minutes. We weren't going anywhere, but at least we'd be comfortable while we waited.

At least it gave me time to lock down my flows more and review some of the Blue Book. I was starting to get settled in, but still had a long way to go before I felt polished. But that is, after all, the point of IOE: to get experience under supervision in order to be polished enough to be set loose on the line. You won't be polished to the point of bright and shiny, but you'll be good enough to go out and get that way.

But if you get through IOE and you're still learning (and, like all things in aviation, you will always be learning), what happens if you get paired with a Captain who is brand new?

Don't worry: the FAA has already done the worrying for you. They won't allow a crew to be paired with one another unless at least one of them has 75 hours in their position. In other words, a brand new First Officer (like me) can't be paired with a brand new Captain. Somebody needs to know what they're doing up there, after all.

Seventy-five may seem like a strange number, but it actually has some merit. Once I had about 60-70 hours, I started feeling like I was actually contributing to the smooth flow of the flight instead of being a drag on it. By 75 hours in, I felt like I wouldn't be uncomfortable or unsafe flying with a newly-upgraded Captain—which was a good thing, because once I had barely squeaked over 100 hours, I ended up being paired with one who had a total of 3 Captain hours. That flight went quite smoothly.

Having all that downtime while sitting on the ground gave me a chance to talk to my IOE Captain about what I was doing well and what I needed to do to ensure I'd be ready to be signed off in a couple short days. As before, my flying skills were quite good, but my flows lagged behind. They were getting better and faster and I got more locked in, but still needed a bit more before being sign-off quality.

The difference in our personalities came into play in a quite beneficial way. In this case, we were polar opposites: I am a big-picture, intuitive kind of person, and he is an extremely detail-oriented, methodical person. That was exactly the kind of person I needed to learn from. As we talked things over during our delay, we figured out why my flows still had work to do.

It turned out my relatively large number of hours as a general aviation pilot before moving to the airlines was a negative in this case. I had picked up some habits that work fine in a 172, but not in a Dash-8. I was trying to do everything at once, and since there are so many things to do, I would often overlook something. In a small plane, it is possible to do almost everything at once, since all there is to do is a basic GUMPS (gas, undercarriage, mixture, props/pumps, and switches). In an aircraft like this, it isn't possible to just get everything done without a methodical process for doing so. That methodical process is the heart of a flow.

After that, I concentrated on not skipping ahead to something until I had completed what was supposed to be next. I broke the big flow into a series of smaller units, no more than 2-4 things in a chunk, and worked those chunks until each one was automatic, then strung those chunks together to make up the entire flow. By slowing down and concentrating only on what chunk I was on and what I was supposed to be doing in only that chunk, my performance during the second-to-last-day improved dramatically. I probably would never have figured that out unless I had someone as methodical as he was to make me see it.

The last day had come. The night before, we had deadheaded (flown as passengers instead of crewmembers) down to Dulles after the first three days at Newark. Those three days—despite a few more GDPs—went much smoother than the first and only time I had been here before. The controllers were still up to their old tricks, but I was ready for them this time. They had caught me by surprise the first time, but I wasn't about to let that happen again. As the saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." As part of the action, I even ended up shooting the Stadium Visual to 29 one day, which was the first time I'd ever done a charted visual approach. No problem. Bring it on.

The last day was here. As long as things went as well today as they did the day before, I'd be done. It was a short but fast-paced day, with one turn (going from one airport to another, dropping off the planeload of passengers, and then going back to the original airport with a new load of people) to one of our shorter routes, and then finishing with the shortest flight in our entire route structure: Dulles to Charlottesville, VA.

I ended up making the flight back in only 17 minutes. Although it was just a normal, uneventful flight to the passengers in the back of Flight 3601, that flight was the end of a long journey for me. It felt like it took months to reach this point—because it did! After 41.92 hours of IOE, I was officially signed off and deemed competent enough to be the world's newest real airline pilot. (For a few minutes, at least.)

I wouldn't be going home triumphantly, however. I, unfortunately, was immediately going to be starting two days on reserve before heading home. It certainly was better than going home for good, and I celebrated by going back to the hotel, turning on the television, and watching more TV that day than I'd watched in months, blissfully unaware of what being on reserve would end up being like.

And just like that, I was no longer becoming an airline pilot. I was now being an airline pilot.

(See the series index here.)

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 7: IOE 2

In the last post, I had just started my first week in the actual aircraft as a newbie on IOE (Initial Operating Experience). This week, it's a new trip, same old thing: learning life on the line.

The FAA requires at least 20 hours of IOE in the kind of aircraft we fly. Since last week's trip wasn't 20 hours long, I get to do at least one more. We can technically do up to 100 hours (and some airlines do, just to ensure the 100 hours in the first 120 days requirement in (g) of the same regulation is met), but we typically receive 25-40 hours and then are signed off. That means I may be set loose on the line after this trip, or may get another one to ensure everything that needs to be covered gets covered. Since my first week on IOE was rather uneventful, that means there's still a lot left I haven't seen.

Personally, like most pilots I feel confident enough in my skills that I think I'll be ready after this trip is over. After all, the first week went well, and I'll only get better with experience. However, I'm not in a huge hurry to be released into base, because while I'm still on IOE status, the more annoying parts of the job don't affect me yet. I'm still deadheaded positive space to my assignments, meaning I'm guaranteed a seat to work. Once I'm signed off, I'll be flying on a standby space-available basis, which can be a pain sometimes. Also, I don't have to pay for hotel rooms, since those are still automatically covered should I time out or be cancelled in base. Those benefits vaporize as soon as I'm signed off.

The week goes smoothly, just as the previous one did. Too smoothly, in fact. Once again, everything went as it should operationally speaking. There were no maintenance issues, the weather didn't pose too many challenges (just the same air mass thunderstorm dodging as last week, with the exception of a major thunderstorm that rolled directly over Washington-Dulles—but even it got there a half-hour before we did, so it was already gone before we showed up), and there were no real air traffic delays. This trip, like the last, was the sort of four days every lineholder dreams about.

Until the last leg of the last day, when the weirdness at WEARD began.

Successful flights are all alike; every unsuccessful flight is unsuccessful in its own way. (Although Anna Karenina was written 30 years before the Wright Brothers' first flight, the principle that comes from its first line is one every pilot should ponder. After all, aviation is, as Wikipedia succinctly describes it, "...an endeavor in which a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms it to failure.")

That said, this isn't about an unsuccessful flight; it's about one that didn't go as expected up front. In the back, the passengers had no idea that anything was out of the ordinary, in large part because this was just an ordinary day going into the beautifully complicated airspace overlying Newark-Liberty International Airport. They also had no idea it was my first time ever flying myself in there.

We weren't originally supposed to be going to Newark in the first place. Our original Rochester-Dulles flight was replaced with a Rochester-Newark one for reasons only known to the crew scheduling department. That was fine with me, since I was looking forward to the challenge and the opportunity to learn something new. That's what IOE is all about!

Getting put into a holding pattern going into Newark isn't all that common, but it isn't out of the ordinary, either. Sure, the airspace over the NY 3 airports (Newark, LaGuardia, and JFK) is exceptionally congested, but ATC amazingly manages to fit all these fast metal tubes into their slots with less holding than one has a right to expect. They have several tricks up their sleeve to accomplish this.

One trick, which you've probably had happen to you if you've ever gone to one of the NY 3 later than approximately noon, is by ground stopping aircraft before they have a chance to take off. If you've sat in the airplane (or, with larger delays, sat in the boarding area and stared at the "Flight delayed until 5:30 p.m. for ATC" sign) at your original city until your wheels-up time, you've experienced this.

If the flow still gets too heavy, the controllers tend to give delay vectors instead of outright holding patterns. So instead of heading straight for the final approach fix, they may have you turn away from the airport anywhere from 30-180 degrees for a brief interval to open up some space and kill a bit of time. Often this means you're still heading generally toward the airport, but taking the long way there.

One of their last resorts is the holding pattern. Naturally, this means that I would get one on my very first time in! No problem: after all, entering holding patterns into the FMS is something we spent time on way back in the third week of ground school, right?

Ever wondered what the ground track looks like for a holding pattern? Now you know, thanks to FlightAware.com

That doesn't look all that unusual, and it's not, except for one thing: that's not how I was supposed to fly that hold!

I am amazed and awed at how good a job New York Approach does in managing to get all their blips in a row, all day every day. Of course, one of the ways they keep it rolling is by being flexible, sometimes by the second. Another way is by having no patience with those who can't keep up. New York Approach is definitely no place for noobs. Which I was.

We were flying blissfully along, waiting to get to Newark and end a nice trip. Then, only 12 miles from WEARD intersection, we get this out of the blue (or, in this case, "into the blue"): "Clearance limit WEARD hold as published at WEARD expect further clearance 1650 time now 1615." [I left out any punctuation because punctuation implies that the controllers actually breathe when speaking.]

Hancock VOR, where we were coming from, is circled in blue at the upper left. Newark is circled in magenta at the bottom. The red box in between is WEARD intersection. (IFR low-altitude en route chart from VFRmap.com)

Notice that racetrack pattern northwest of WEARD? (There's a zoomed-in version below where it is probably easier to see.) That's the published holding pattern. And now I was 10 miles away from it. No problem in a car. Less easy in an airliner going almost 5 miles a minute.

Once again, thanks VFRmap.com

I had 2 minutes to program the hold into the FMS. It's a published hold, so the computer should know what it is, right? It knows all the holds during missed approach procedures, so why should it be any different for published holds en route?

As it turns out, and as I would learn, the FMS doesn't know any en route holds. When you program it, it just creates a holding pattern based on your current heading unless you tell it otherwise. In many cases, this amounts to the same thing as the published, since the chart designers often arrange it in such a way as to have the published hold be on the heading you're likely already on. (If we had been coming from the north, this would have indeed been the case here.) In this case, however, since we were coming from the northwest instead of the north, it wasn't the same thing at all.

And I had less than 30 seconds left to figure that out.

By the time I had my chart out and the intersection located, we were already in the holding pattern.

The wrong pattern, that is.

Notice that the racetrack next to WEARD was oriented generally north-south. What we actually flew looked like this:

Once again, thank you FlightAware.com
That's exactly what you'd expect from entering a holding pattern on present heading from Hancock, and definitely not a north-south pattern.

Fortunately, in this case it was no big issue. We were in the middle of nowhere (we were 66 miles away from the airport; not even in the same state as Newark), and the long EFC (Expect Further Clearance) time meant that they just wanted to keep us out in the middle of nowhere until something opened up. They didn't care how we twiddled our thumbs, as long as we stayed out of their hair.

As it turned out, we got extremely lucky, because we weren't even in the hold long enough for anyone besides ourselves to notice. As soon as we started our turn to start the second time around, we were told to continue on our way. And that's where the weirdness continued.

Everything was back to normal until we were getting close to landing. As it turned out, it was just a normal afternoon arrival into Newark, but since I'd never been there before, nothing about this afternoon was normal for me.

I was assigned 180 knots until 5 miles out. That's pretty standard at Newark, but definitely not a textbook approach for us. I handled it as well as could be expected for a first-timer, utilizing the turboprop's slow-down-and-get-down capabilities to my own fullest capabilities, managing a professional-quality landing. Nonetheless, I had to ask for some advice while doing so, and since this is something I'd be facing day after day on the line, we arranged for me to fly one more trip on IOE, this one going continuously in and out of Newark.

Which means one more week and I'm set loose on the line.

Monday, March 23, 2015

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. 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: Systems

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 3

Still more ground school: FMS lab and final exam

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 4

Part 1: Welcome to the simulated jungle
Part 2: Simulator training grinds on

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 5

Checkride time

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 6

IOE (Initial Operating Experience) 1

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 7

IOE 2: Weirdness at WEARD

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 8

IOE 3: the World's Newest Airline Pilot

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

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

Being an Airline Pilot, Six months later: Recurrent training (Coming soon!)


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

To the 37 passengers on board, this is simply Flight 5006, a quick flight from Washington-Dulles International to Greenville-Spartanburg, SC. Sit back for 90 minutes, sip on a Coke, and everyone is back home from where ever in the world they're returning from. Probably some interesting places, since Dulles was designed to carry the East Coast's overseas traffic. Paris, London, Dublin, Berlin, Abu Dhabi, Sao Paulo, and a hundred more come through IAD, and we take them the rest of the way home.

For me, it's my first flight as an airline pilot, and there's no chance of me sitting back and sipping anything. Not even the big bottle of water next to me.

It's my very first flight and we're already pointed straight at a thunderstorm.
Many people are surprised to find that the first time a new First Officer flies in their new airliner is with a load of passengers on a normal revenue flight. I hope that the previous several entries in the Becoming an Airline Pilot Series have given you some insight into why this shouldn't be surprising after all.

There is a surprise, however. The simulator training in (mostly) realistic, multi-million-dollar equipment with extremely detailed cockpit layouts and hydraulic/servo motion allows for a relatively smooth transition into the real thing. The ability to create demanding scenarios and drill them over and over again actually makes a day as a real airline pilot in a real airliner one of the easier parts of training!

That's not to say there's nothing left to learn or that it's easy. The simulator training covered the technical skills required to fly according to the company's OpSpecs and procedures. It left practically no time for the ancillary operations involved in getting a daily airline flight off the ground, and it is entirely impossible for it to simulate each flight's flow.

This is not the same flow as the cockpit flows described earlier in the series. Instead, this flow refers to the dozens of little things that have to come into place before the start switch is selected to "2". Most of them happen simultaneously and wrap together into a small packet of paperwork that's passed out the door just before the real flight begins.

The flight attendant prepares the cabin while the captain reviews the aircraft's logbooks and the dispatch paperwork and weather reports, catering (which is our case is a fancy word for "drinks") drops their items off to put away, bags are loaded while the passengers board, the fueler loads us up with a few thousand pounds of Jet-A, the ATIS and clearance is obtained and the flight plan entered into the Flight Management System (FMS, which we spent a whole week on way back in ground school), the cargo report detailing the number of bags and where they were loaded is dropped off, the weight and balance (just like you did ever since you were a student pilot, although a bit more complicated) is calculated and its paperwork filled out, and if these things are all done properly, the Fasten Belts sign is turned on, the cockpit door shut, and the fun starts.

Except since it's my first day, it's all just a bustling jumble going on around me while I try to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing at each moment. I have a decent idea of what I'm supposed to be doing; just no clue when exactly I'm supposed to be doing it. That's because I haven't developed that sense for the outside flow going on.

"What are we supposed to be doing now?"

I hear that a lot the next few days. If I knew the answer, it would already be done. Instead, I guess.

"The Before Taxi checklist?"

"We haven't even started up yet!"

Wow, was I wrong. Duh. We're not going anywhere without the engines running.

"It's your leg, so you should be briefing me so we can do the Before Start checklist."

Wait, it's my leg? On my very first real flight, I have to fly the thing, too?!

One of the misconceptions people have about the airlines is that the Captain is always the one flying. That's not the case. Instead, the flying legs are usually split evenly by taking turns. Usually the Captain does the first leg, but in this case since I'm in training I'm going first this time. No opportunity to sit back and watch him operate the first time: instead I'm going right into the fire.

Let's do this.

Before every airline flight, the designated Pilot Flying gives a briefing of that leg's plan: the runway in use, the departure, the flight plan, what turn procedure has been assigned in case of an engine failure on takeoff, etc. I run through mine and we start the engines.

After the Before Taxi checklist is done, things proceed rather normally. Although it's my first time in the cockpit of an airliner, it's far from my first time in a cockpit, so I'm familiar with how to talk to controllers. Although Dulles, like many large airports, has a ramp controller in addition to the usual ground and tower frequencies, it's just another person to talk to.

We finally take the runway. Once we're lined up, the aircraft is mine. I push the throttles up and we start rolling. It wants right rudder, I give it right rudder. It rotates differently than a 172 because it's 84 feet long, but I treat it smoothly yet firmly and it climbs away happily.

As I noted in one of the simulator posts, being Pilot Flying is a bit of a blessing in disguise for the next hour and a half, since the Pilot Not Flying has more work to do than the Pilot Flying. For the first time ever, I actually have a time when I'm in a Dash-8 cockpit and can relax for a while! In the sim, the hours are so expensive that once one task is accomplished you are thrown right into the next one with no adjustment period or break. In the real airplane, you sit there and monitor while the plane flies steadily along until it's time for the descent and the workload starts coming back.

After dodging some typical late-summer—since ironically I started on Labor Day—thunderstorms en route, I fly an uneventful approach to a surprisingly good first landing ever. One of the most common and unfortunate misconceptions about flying (one sadly shared by many pilots, who should know better) is that a good landing means a good pilot. Actually, there are so many things that go into accomplishing a successful flight that the landing is just the cherry on the cake. You can have a good cake with a bad cherry and it's still a good cake, but a good cherry with a bad cake is still a bad cake. Unfortunately, most people don't see the rest of the cake, so they only judge it by the cherry.

On the way back to Dulles, the roles are reversed and I'm back to my "normal" First Officer duties. The pop-up thunderstorms on the way in turn out to be the leading edge of a cold front moving in, and on the way I get my best-ever picture of a distinctly visible front, which is quite a treat for a weather-lover like me. It's something I never would have gotten in the old 172, because it's not equipped to fly through a front like that. With a 22-ton airliner, onboard weather radar, and controller vectors, we just pick a heading and outmaneuver the front instead. This will be just the first of many weather treats (some delicious, some not) I'll see over the following days, weeks, and months.

Years of studying and teaching about fronts, and my first day on the job I get to look down on a textbook example of one.
That wouldn't be the last weather I'd see for my first day on the job. On the next leg, we traded off once more and I was once again Pilot Flying. Our destination, Charleston, WV (whose airport is named after Chuck Yeager, so there's a good omen) was being poured on by rain in a 400-foot overcast ceiling. That means my first instrument approach. If you're going to have to shoot an approach the first day on the job, having twice the minumums required is a good way to start, and it, like my first one of the day, went smoothly.

After my first overnight, the rain cleared up for the next morning's flight. Unfortunately, it left a heavy mist behind it, dropping the RVR (Runway Visual Range: basically, how far you can see down the runway) to 800 feet. That means that if I stood at the end of my driveway, I would barely be able to see the trees at the end of my back yard. It's never pretty when the visibility is crappy enough to be measured in RVR instead of miles. Good thing it's not my turn to fly.

Except the Captain had me fly this leg too, just for the hard experience. As soon as I rotated I was in IMC (Instrument Meterological Conditions: "the soup"), but having an ATP means having an instrument rating for a reason. We broke out just a few thousand feet up and it was a pretty day the rest of the leg, since cold fronts do often clear the air after they pass through. It's always amazing how nice it can be only a few thousand feet up while the weather for those stuck to the ground is terrible.

The rest of the trip proceeded much like this, day by day. When you're in IOE, you're not just paired with anybody: you're paired with an experienced Captain whose job it is to watch you closely and give you opportunities to learn. This one certainly did, and I certainly did learn. It was only a 3-day trip with 10 legs, but I felt amazingly better by the end, yet still daunted by how much I still had left to learn before I could get signed off.

After my first trip was over, I was actually a bit disappointed to have 3 days off. I would have kept right on flying if I could have. (One of the signs you've found a good job for you is when you don't have to drag yourself to the office.) Unlike in sim, my self-evaluation ended up being almost identical to my IOE Captain's evaluation in my training folder: "Larry flies the plane very well. Needs to focus on the details."

On my last day, I got to look down on a rainbow, which was a nice way to bookend the rainbow I saw on the way home from sim training:

Try seeing that from any other office window.
Although the first trip went well, a lot of that had to do with it being a relatively uneventful stretch of days in general. With the exception of some normal summer thunderstorms (and some delay vectors going into Dulles to let a storm that was directly over the airport pass) and that instrument approach the first night, there weren't many big challenges thrown my way. When everything is going right, that rigid structure and lack of drama is precisely why flying is safer than walking.

However, there were still plenty of hours left in IOE before I would be eligible to get signed off and be released to the line. How would I do when everything stopped going right? You'll find out in the next post.

(See the series index here.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

New landing technique video and more!

It has been 9 months since I posted the last YouTube video to the Larry the Flying Guy channel. Not coincidentally, I have been an airline pilot for 8 1/2 months now.


The new YouTube channel art.



Although I actually have a lot more time off than I did back when I was a flight instructor, I'm away from home (and the computer I use to create videos) a lot more. I still have a long list of videos to create (and the list gets longer every week), just a lot less time available to make them, since when I am home I'm usually catching up on things from the last several days on the road. Blog posts are a bit easier to keep up on, since I can write those in a notebook at the hotel and type them in when I get here, which is how the Becoming an Airline Pilot Series has been rolling along in the meantime. (And will have a new post on Monday morning, in case you're missing it.)

Nonetheless, I had to feed my video creating fix this time around, so I made an updated version of one of my early videos on "the spot that does not move".

The original version was meant to just introduce the concept of the aiming point. I always intended to follow it up with one that shows how to put that concept into practice, and the new one does that. Although it is an extremely important concept, this idea is, unfortunately, almost never taught during primary instruction. Instead, the poor student is left to figure it out on their own, if they ever do.

Although I teach my students that idea as part of the pre-solo work, I did not invent this concept. Wolfgang Langewiesche, in the book I've mentioned over and over again on this blog (maybe because Keyboard and Rudder is named after it), Stick and Rudder, gets into detail about it in Chapter 15. Of course, that was written long before YouTube came along, so I carried on his work for him.


Help support Keyboard and Rudder by buying it here!

In the year between the two videos, I think I've gotten much better at making them. If you agree or disagree, feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think, suggestions for new videos that might help you, or any other feedback you have.

Since I've made almost a dozen Five Minute Flight Lesson videos, I've started tagging them with the tag 5MFL to make them easier to search for, and I created a Five Minute Flight Lesson playlist, too.

The YouTube channel isn't the only thing growing around here. I've had the Twitter handle @Lairspeed for quite some time that has been unused, waiting for the project I intended it for to get rolling. That time is soon, so head on over there and follow me to be the first in on the fun that should start this summer! If you're a student pilot wanting to improve your knowledge, or a certificated pilot wanting to maintain and refresh that knowledge in a quick and easy way, you'll definitely want to for a fast, free, and fun way to do that!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 5: Checkride time

After a week and a half in the simulated jungle, the end was not near: it was now. Like Captain Willard making his way through the jungle in Apocalypse Now, eventually there would be a final confrontation to end the journey. In this case, instead of the insane Howard Kurtz, I would be up against the sim and the list of tasks in the Airline Transport Pilot Practical Test Standards.

Although I've written posts with tips on taking your FAA written and acing your oral examination, I haven't done one devoted to the flight portion of the checkride itself. I'll fix that at some point in the future, but for now let's just say that the ATP checkride is just like any other: an oral part and a flight part. Just like any other performance, how easy it is depends on how much work you put into preparation.

(True story about preparation: I had spent so much time studying the single-engine missed approach procedures the night before that when my alarm went off I woke up saying, "Condition levers max! Set power! Flaps one notch up!" before I realized that that noise was my alarm clock. I'm not making that up.)

There is a saying in sports that games are won on the practice field, and flights are no different. Although I probably wouldn't have turned down an extra practice session if one had been offered to me, I felt ready to take this ride and go home for a few days' rest. Our airline, like most, will give an extra session if the trainee really feels behind or their instructor says they need one, because after all that money spent already on their training they want to see their new First Officer succeed. After all, if they take the checkride and fail, they have to spend even more money on an additional sim session or two and another checkride, so it's cheaper and easier for all involved to spend a little more up front than a lot more afterward.

I remember years ago killing time at the FBO one day waiting for a brief rain to pass so I could get on with my lesson. As I waited, I leafed through the ATP PTS and was amazed anyone could get one with one of the tasks being a single-engine instrument approach with multiple instruments failed. That was just an insanely hard thing to imagine having to do.

Now I was going to do just that.

The checkride started, like all checkrides, by making sure all the required paperwork was in order and the application for a new certificate or rating (the "8710") filled out. After the i's were crossed and the t's dotted, we proceeded on to the oral. This went a little differently than previous oral exams, since there wasn't much general aviation knowledge covered. After all, by the ATP level you already have those kinds of things down cold. Instead, it was a much more technically-oriented exam, with the focus on the capabilities, limitations, and systems of the aircraft. After a while, the examiner opened up a software program that allowed for a virtual tour of the plane. We went through a typical preflight walkaround and talked about what system was located where, how it worked, what it was connected to, etc.

As I noted in the first Week 4 entry in this series, I was overprepared for this part because I spent too much time studying systems when I should have been also studying the operations manuals. All the time spent studying the systems at least had the benefit of making the oral part go smoothly, and after about 2.5 hours we proceeded on to the flight portion.

No one likes being evaluated. I'm on the lower end of the "fear of evaluation" scale (after all, I get up in front of people to speak about aviation and to teach my Private Pilot Ground School at LCCC, I put my thoughts and opinions out into the blogosphere regularly here, and I even face the wild rage that is the YouTube commenter by having my own YouTube channel) and I've already passed 6 checkrides, so this one is just another one on the pile, right? The reason that people hate being evaluated is everyone's big fear of being called a failure in the eyes of others.

Remember my awe at the ATP standards all those years ago? Now I was going to have to meet them myself. That meant I ended up being more nervous than I had ever been before, with the exception of my initial CFI checkride. The checkride started off with the simple stuff: stalls and steep turns. I'd been doing spectacularly on those up until now. I didn't realize just how nervous I was until I did the worst steep turn I'd done in a looong time. About halfway through I said that I thought that the sim was broken, because the controls felt way off.

Just like so many "mechanical problems" in aviation, it turns out that the problem was the nut connected to the yoke, not the yoke itself. I was so unexpectedly tense that instead of flying with my usual smooth, confident style, I was putting an enormous amount of input into the maneuver—way more than required. I still have a football player's physique, and the year before I won the college's bench press competition, so if I start muscling things around it gets sloppy.

Nonetheless, I managed to keep it pretty close to standards. Close enough to proceed to the next things on the list of tasks, at least. Not as precise as I was expecting, but at the time I chalked it up to having my checkride at 8 a.m. when I had been in the sim until 10:00 the following night. I got back into a bit of a groove as I warmed up, and we churned on through almost everything else except for two tasks: a single-engine ILS to a landing (I had already done a pretty nice single-engine missed approach during the GPS approach task) and a non-precision VOR approach with a 20-knot tailwind.

One of the disadvantages of having the checkride in the sim is that it can be as hard as the examiner wants it to be. Single-engine missed approaches are one of the most dangerous things a pilot may ever face in real life. Since you're doing the checkride in the sim, you'll get them. In the real world, you probably wouldn't risk your life and $15 million worth of airplane on doing one in a checkride situation.

No problem, since I had already passed my single-engine missed task earlier in the checkride. Just don't go missed and that's not a factor.

Except unfortunately this time I misjudged the flare in the landing and was about to pancake the plane in from a few stories up. My sim partner, who had flown the Dash for another airline, saw the red screen (what the sim does if you break it) coming and called for a missed approach. Either pilot can call for one and once a missed approach is initiated, it must be followed through on.

No problem, since I had just done one a few minutes ago and did fine.

Except this time there was a problem. The "GA" mode (Go Around) mode for the flight director never engaged. To this day, I don't know if I forgot to push it in the heat of the moment or if it just didn't work. The reason for the uncertainty is that later on, the next people to use that sim wrote the TOGA button up as intermittently inoperative.

It doesn't matter which caused it, because if I had been more experienced or been more situationally aware at the time I would have realized something wasn't right. A missed approach—and especially a single-engine missed—is a "high workload environment" in the same way that being doused in gasoline and set on fire is a "high temperature environment". With all the stuff going on at once in the transition, I didn't notice that since the GA mode wasn't engaged, the flight director was blindly trying to get me to climb back up to the glideslope, which was now way above us, and commanding a 180-degree turn back to the localizer (the needle that lines you up with the runway), which was now way behind us. I, meanwhile, was blindly following the flight director.

Remember how two posts ago I said that following the flight director was going to take some getting used to? I was now used to following it, but not used to it enough to be able to tell when it was telling me to do something stupid. Fortunately, in real life, where there are two pilots to cross-check each other, it would have been caught. Although I had the aircraft under control, I was 90 degrees off the proper heading and way below the proper single-engine climb speed.

It was over. Only two things left and I would have been the world's newest ATP, but I had stepped up to the plate ready to hit a home run, swung for the fences, and... missed. Now that new certificate—and my flight home—would have to wait two more days: one day for extra training on what I hosed (and the VOR approach we didn't get to) and one day for the second checkride. (As it turned out, the sim wasn't available until the day after my extra sim session, so I got my one and only chance to check out downtown Seattle. At least there was some upside.)

The extra session went quite well, and I was re-signed off with no problem. The second attempt also went well. With the stress of possibly failing off my shoulders, since I had already gotten that out of the way the first time, I was back to my relaxed, smooth style again and passed with no problem.

The hard part was over. The weeks of studying, the long nights in the sim, the weight of an impending checkride hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles... over. In exchange, I had a brand-new ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, and had earned the opportunity to get evaluated all over again with the next step: Initial Operating Experience (usually just called IOE, for obvious reasons).

My flight back was the red-eye the following night, so I checked out a little more of the city. I arrived at Cleveland-Hopkins the next morning during a heavy rainstorm. By the time I got home, it had trailed off, leaving this in its wake as a welcoming present:

That's a nice welcome home.

Little did I know that I would be looking down on a rainbow in just a few days.

(If you're jumping into the series here, you can see the series index here.)