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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Being an Airline Pilot, one year in: Pro Pilot Ponderings

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This is the last formal post in the Becoming an Airline Pilot Series. We've come a long way together, from interviewing and getting ready for the big class date, crushing ground school and getting crushed in the sim, learning to guide a 22-ton airliner through some of the world's busiest airspace, and connecting people despite Mother Nature's best efforts.

Now that the series has come to an end (until I upgrade to Captain, that is), there will be more of the mix of oddball, funny, beautiful, and practical posts that those of you who have been following Keyboard and Rudder for a long time have been used to. While the Part 121 world has let me see how the "other half" lives, it hasn't diminished my love of flying for flying's sake.

The previous entries in the series were detailed week-by-week accounts. However, this one wraps up four months of activity since the last one, so it is a melange of observations and short anecdotes about what's happened since then.

Although I've been doing the job almost a year, I'm actually liking it more, not less. With any job, the better you get at it, the more enjoyable it is. And with any job, the more you do things, the more they become routine. However, unlike most jobs, flying may become routine, but it never becomes boring.

There are people—invariably those who have never flown for a living—who look down on First Officers because they haven't tacked on that fourth stripe yet. Those people don't bother me at all; in fact, I'm always a little embarrassed for them because they have no understanding of the dynamic in the cockpit between a Captain and a good FO. A skilled First Officer makes a flight run much more smoothly and makes the Captain's job easier. Until I had about a hundred hours under my belt, I'd often end a day's flying feeling guilty about being as much an impediment to the smooth operation of the flight as a help. As I've learned to do my job well, I've begun to be able to anticipate what the Captain will need before they need it, and now more often than not when I'm asked to do something, my answer is, "Already done."

I try to anticipate what will be needed because now that I've gotten good at my position, I can make an effort to not only understand the flight from the perspective of my own duties, but through the Captain's as well. After all, I will be in that seat someday, and the more I learn now the better at it I'll be when I get there. It also helps me to become the sort of FO I'd want to fly with when I'm on the other side of the cockpit.

I've flown with bad Captains and outstanding ones, and they all have one thing in common: I've learned a lot from all of them. If even the great Bob Buck said he learned something on the last flight of his celebrated, multi-decade career that spanned from DC-2s to 747s, then I'd better be learning something every day, too.

The bad ones are lessons in how not to behave as a Captain, and fortunately there have been way fewer of them than ones who are great examples. All of the bad ones share one characteristic: every single one of them think rules are things that only apply to other people, not them. And almost every single thing I've seen them do that was downright stupid wouldn't have happened if they had simply followed the rules.

I got an e-logbook for Christmas and spent the winter month overnights transferring 1200+ entries from the paper ones to it. It gave me something to do while cooped up in hotel rooms waiting for the weather to break, and now I'm always up to date on the logbook because I can easily update it with the day's activity on the van to the hotel.

I got a line in January. Reserve times here are short, as I spent just over 3 months on reserve. Reserve is never fun, but it's not as bad as it could be because reserve FOs here fly a lot, so there isn't a whole lot of sitting around twiddling thumbs. I actually timed out because of all the hours I flew on reserve in December: I hit the 190 hours in 28 days FDP (flight duty period) limit, the 60 hours in one week FDP limit, and got to 98.2 out of 100 flight hours all at the same time and ended up getting pulled off the last day of a 4-day.

The upgrade times here are fast. In fact, people in the class six months ahead of mine are upgrading, which would put my upgrade at 16 months. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that can continue, because the pilot shortage has really started to become a major issue in the last six months. We're getting to the point where we're so short on First Officers that I may have to wait to upgrade due to a lack of FOs behind me to replace me. If you're a pilot looking for a job, now is an incredibly good time for you!

Commuting is by far the worst part of the job, and is the only part of the experience that I can say I seriously dislike. We have some commuter clause perks they added to our contract in 2014 where we get 4 free hotel rooms a month at the beginning of trips so we can fly in the day before, but all that does is reduce the stress of getting to work by stealing half or more of your last day off. We don't get penalized (except for the loss of pay) if we can't make it in as long as we have 2 flights booked, which is pretty standard among airlines.

I've had to leave the flying club I was a part of due to lack of time. The wife thought I should stop racking up $100/month dues when I don't have time to fly for fun anymore, and I agreed with her. On the other hand, I miss the old 172 terribly and want to fly it. There are some pilots here who either still fly GA aircraft or would like to, but unfortunately the majority lost interest in their roots once they end up flying for a living.

Look below the wing of the Dash-8 ahead of us. See anything?

How about now? Yes, that IS a 172 mixing in during the morning push at Washington-Dulles! I want to be that guy someday.

One cold but beautiful Sunday morning in Charleston we were getting ready for the flight back to Washington-Dulles. I was heads-down programming the flight plan into the FMS and I heard a 182 taking off. I was too busy to look up, but I was thinking, "Man, I wish I was up there like that enjoying a beautiful Sunday morning flight just because."

But the envy was short-lived because even though I was flying someone else's airplane on someone else's schedule, I still had it good because I was getting ready to fly one of the few airliners left that hasn't had all the stick-and-rudder challenge engineered out of it. The people with Shiny Jet Syndrome may look down on Dash-8s, but the way I look at it, turbine time is turbine time, and if you can handle a Dash, you can handle the big iron. You don't know what a V1 cut is until you've had one in a Dash-8.

Nonetheless, going through the logbook during the e-logbook conversion made me miss the entries like "Sunset over Sandusky Bay" or "Lunch at Put-in-Bay" or just "Puttering around with wife", which I'd like to continue to do someday.

However, those entries are hard to make when you're too busy making ones like one from 12/23/14 at IAD: "One of the last planes to make it in this morning before airport shut down. ILS 1C: Used the 'approach lights in sight, continue-to-100-above' rule for first time. Wx 150 feet, vis 3/4; IAD dropped to 100 and 1/8 shortly afterward and airport closed." (A nice feature about the e-logbook is that I can make the comments as long as I want.) In my GA days, if the Terminal Area Forecast was that bleak, we just wouldn't go. That's obviously not an option anymore when you're working for a scheduled carrier, and now any TAF better than 300-3/4 makes me yawn.

Another entry from a couple weeks later as one of many winter storms rolled through the Northeast: "So much turbulence on the approach that two passengers threw up. Neither of them were in the cockpit. Landing was forgettable, but any safe landing in conditions like that one is a good one."

And one from 1/26/15: "We were the ONLY airplane to make it in to State College today because of Winter Storm Juno. Heard the [airline name edited out so they won't get jealous] ahead of us on NY Approach decide to divert. Those Canadian engineers know how to build a bird that isn't afraid of a little snow and ice!"

The State College, PA ramp that day. Not a single shiny jet to be found, but the Dash-8 ate that approach for lunch.
In Toronto, where DeHavilland (now Bombardier) builds the Dash, ice is just a little sky bling, and brakes are for planes without a prop-beta range. The DHC-8 isn't the most elegant aircraft ever built, but it does things an airliner isn't supposed to be able to do. Canada must have felt so guilty about unleashing Justin Bieber that they gave us Rick Moranis, the movie Strange Brew, and the equally-quirky yet amazingly-capable Dash-8 to make up for it. Throw in some maple syrup and it's not a bad trade.

And with that, the Becoming an Airline Pilot series draws to a close. Next week it's back to Keyboard & Rudder's normal programming, starting Wednesday with a post on what hairy balls have to do with flying. Seriously!

See the series index.

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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