Monday, February 27, 2012

Sometimes Being Late Pays Off

Quite a busy flight day.  After all was said and done, I racked up five flights and 5.93 hours of flight time.

The day was pretty typical at the beginning.  It was the first day of a four-day trip.  I woke up at 6:40, showed up at the airport around 7:45, and was at the (not yet there) airplane around 8:05 for an 8:35 departure.

We flew down to Columbus and back to Cleveland, then headed to Rochester where we sat for four and a half hours.  I caught up with a good friend on the phone, talked with a couple of Captains about sailing and adventure, and wasted time on the internet to pass the time.

We finally boarded up our 5:20 flight at 5:55 for an always-late flight to Newark.  Because we were late, all of our passengers had been put on other flights.  We literally flew with zero passengers.  We took off with me flying towards the city of never-on-time flights.  I have really come to hate that place.  With about 35 minutes remaining to go, we received word that Newark International Airport had been shut down.  An airplane had a landing gear emergency and was still on the runway.

Sam Costanza/New York Daily News
So we pulled back the throttles and cruised at 160 knots.  But the emergency was fairly long-lived.  The airport ended up being shut down for nearly an hour.  We were more than fine on fuel, but most of the other flights in the sky tonight simply were not.

So while we crept along through the air, our fellow pilots were hitting their "bingo fuel," the mark at which they must divert to another airport.  We hold Colgan head back to Buffalo.  We heard other people (including our own) end up heading to cities in New York and Pennsylvania.  They simply were running out of fuel just hanging out in the sky.

We ended up getting a hold over the WEARD intersection.  So we flew in circles for about 20 minutes as we waited for the airport to open back up.  We ended up doing two turns in the hold.  We were still looking good on fuel, and the fuel-sippin' airplane was more than happy to fly.  I commented to myself just how disorienting the night sky was, though.  As we made the turns in the hold with the heavy 60-knot winds, you couldn't make out anything but black.  I knew there were clouds below us (and bumpy ones at that), but the sky just wasn't visible.  It was BLACK.

We were finally allowed to head to Newark and ended up landing only 47 minutes late.  We had a very fun approach, though...ILS 22L circle-to-land 29.  It's fun to hand-fly.  We landed without incident and headed in where we learned our next airplane was one of the ones that didn't make it in.

I grabbed a much-needed dinner as we learned we were being given another plane so that we didn't "time out."  Basically, with the delay of waiting for our next airplane, we were creeping up towards our 16 hours of work.  Yup, you read that right.  16 hours.  I won't even get in to that here, but suffice it to say, we had had a long day.

We finally boarded up our passengers for our 8:00 flight at 8:58 and flew our fifth and last leg to Syracuse.  We were pretty light on passengers, though, with half of them probably not making it in to Newark in time.  But we were told to shut the doors and get on out of there.  Those decisions are simply out of our hands.

As we took off, we could still see the emergency aircraft disabled on 22L with tons and tons of emergency vehicles around it.  It was pretty neat to see.  The nosewheel didn't come down, so it landed on its main wheels only.  Everything looked perfect, though.  An airplane down the center of the runway with all emergency chutes deployed.  There should be no injuries with that one.  Well, done, sir, well done.

We finally ended up in Syracuse at 10:22, 55 minutes later than scheduled.  All in all, we worked 14 hours and 27 minutes.  Of course, we'll only be paid for 5.93 of those hours.  But I won't get into that here, either.

Remember, this is just another day in the life.  :)

A long day to start a four-day trip.  A realization that sometimes it's in our favor to be running late.  A couple of holds.  And an appreciation for the professionalism and safety of the airplanes flying around me.  An emergency with a crisis avoided.

Kudos to my fellow pilot at Shuttle America.  Well done, sir.  Well done.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ice Pilots: Flying in the Winter

Before flying for the airlines, I was a pansy when it came to ice.  My first experience with ice was over Ohio in a Cessna 172.  It wasn't anything major, but while traversing across the country, I went through some clouds that instantly froze on my airplane.  I'll never forget looking down on my left wheel and seeing the whole front of the tire changed to white.  I vowed to not do that again!

I admittedly hated ice and airplanes.

My second experience involved a Cessna 172 yet again.  This time I was flying low over Louisiana.  The clouds were very low, and the mist from them occasionally hung down.  But I was flying around 1000 feet above the ground and watched as the fronts of my wings turned a little bit different color than the paint.  What was most interesting about this one was that I actually thought I was staying out of the clouds!  I vowed not to do that again!

I admittedly hated ice and airplanes.

I continually try to learn more and more as a pilot.  One of my hobbies is reading NTSB reports about pilots who have crashed or almost crashed.  I ask myself how they arrived in the situation they did.  I also take online classses fairly regularly to stay fresh in various aspects of flying.  One of the classes I took was about icing.  Basically, it highlighted the various dangers of what ice can do to an airplane...and also how to fly through icing conditions.  Certain aircraft (all airlines) are certified to fly through icing conditions, and it's a combination of training, experience, knowledge, mechanics, and intuition to fly safely.

As I have progressed through airplanes, I have had to learn to fly in icing conditions.  It's illegal to fly in known ice with a Cessna 172, so it was right of me to hate ice when it came to airplanes.  But now that I fly an airplane that is capable and certified of flying through icing conditions, I don't hate the thought at all.  It's not something we take lightly, but the aircraft (and pilots) are quite capable of flying through icing conditions.  And rightfully so.  We operate to some of the worst parts of the country here in the United States.  Cities that compete with each other for the most snowfall in the contiguous 48.  Frankly, we need an airplane that is capable of handling winter weather.  So whereas before I should have hated flying through icing conditions, now it's just another day in the life.

Case and point:  It's now late February.  Truth be told, this winter has been one of the weakest on record.  I have seen snow a number of times, but each and every time, the snow disappears within a few days.  Either by sun or rain in the days immediately following.  But what I have also seen is ice.  I've seen freezing rain, drizzle, freezing fog, light snow, blowing snow, heavy snow, you name it.  It's quite the learning curve really.  I would NEVER fly through what I fly through now in my previous airplanes.  Frankly, I couldn't!  I really had no adequate ice protection (outside of pitot heat and carb heat).

But in just a few short months, in one of the mildest winters on record, I've had some experiences that other pilots will never see!  Ice.  Lots and lots of ice.  Frankly, sometimes you just can't get out of it.  We fly low and slow in the northeast.  In the winter.  In the soup.  On our routes, sometimes we just don't have the ability or time to jump to different altitudes.  We just fly and let the airplane shed the ice.

I was jump-seating on an ExpressJet flight (now AC) last month, and the female Captain asked me what we did if we ever encounter a freezing layer.  Here she was, flying a very powerful and very fast regional jet, and she was curious what a prop pilot did if found to be in icing conditions.

I sat there and rather nonchalantly said, "We fly."

But that's just it.  We fly.  It's kind of hard to explain.  I don't revel in the fact that I fly through icing conditions again and again.  But I don't shy away from it, either.  I have an FAA-certified airplane capable and allowed to fly through ice.  We pilots don't take our job lightly, and we monitor the ice situation rather keenly.  But we fly.  Contrary to jets, we don't climb out of it.  And we can't always descend out of it.  We fly.  It's all we can do.  We just simply fly.

I showed a picture of some of the ice I've encountered to a mainline 737 Captain, and he responded by saying, "Boots are for cowboys, props are for boats."  ha!  But I'm learning that is more and more the case.  Jet guys often just don't feel comfortable in icing conditions.  It's not that they couldn't's just that they don't have to.  So because of that, they assume that it's "bad."

Well, it's not bad, and it's not good.  It's just winter.

Mild or harsh, we fly.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Passing On the Joy

Towards the end of summer, I had a TSA agent pull me aside and ask me some questions about flying.  What was probably a simple question by him turned out to provide a bit of friendship between the two of us.  I learned that he had his commercial pilot's license but only had a little over 300 hours, a time sadly limiting for him.  I, too, have been through those terribly frustrating days of not having enough flight time to get a job and not being able to get enough flight time to get a job.  I didn't envy his position at all.

(In all seriousness, I really DO feel for him.  I came out of flight training with 327 hours and landed my first-ever aviation job as a flight instructor.  This was in the ever-so-painful flight year of 2008, and I was quickly laid off 28 days later because the company didn't have enough students.  I was dejected, to say the least.  I went a month with no job before landing a position mapping the country in a Cessna 172.  I wanted to fly for the airlines, and I was confident that my 900 hours at the end of my first season would do just that.  I was way wrong.  The minimums for even a regional airline shot up to 2500 hours, a barrier that was demoralizing.  I just plugged away, one hour at a time.  Sometimes painful, sometimes enjoyable.  I would not see my first airline job until I had over 1800 hours.  So, yeah, man, I get it.  I know the frustrations.).

But what excited me was that I learned he had a Piper Cherokee that he rarely flew!  I think he thought I was a bit out of the ordinary when I asked if I could fly with him!  He didn't understand why I would want to fly in something so small when I flew nearly every day in something way bigger!  That's just it!!!  Every day, I am told where to fly, when to fly, what altitude to fly at, how much fuel to take, what the weather is going to be at my departure/enroute/destination, and on and on and on.  The 121 airline is so regulated it's beyond safe.  And it's fairly simple!  But what we often miss out on is the joy of the freedom of flying!  The ability to fly low, check out houses from the sky, fly over lakes, circle back around for another look, drop in for the classic $100 hamburger.  The ability to have fun.

I was more than excited to fly with him.  And he was more than happy to oblige. So back in October 2011, we took his 1978 Piper Cherokee out for a little fun flying over the beautiful "hills" of central Ohio.  I treated him to a little lunch and pie, and he treated me to some enjoyable flying below 2000 feet.  We continued to stay in touch, and he continued to ask questions about how to move to the next step.

Well, insert January and February 2012.  He called me up to say that he had left his job as a TSA agent (gladly) and picked up a full-time job elsewhere.  He also let me know that he had sold his Piper Cherokee (financial reasons...I understood but was sad to see it go).  But he asked if I would still be interested in flying with him!  OF COURSE!!!  So one day in January, we set out and did some approaches in a Cessna 182RG.  He was admittedly rusty, but I was thrilled to be able to teach him how to better shoot the approaches.  We had a fun day flying just under two hours, and I was thrilled to pass on some real-world flying knowledge.  Sometimes I forget just how much I do know.  Not in an arrogant way.  But I literally shoot ILS approaches nearly every day.  He doesn't do them but a few times every six months!  "Rust happens" in flying.

Well, I received yet another phone call from him.  "I'm going after my multi-engine rating."  !!!  I was thrilled for him.  He really can't get picked up by any airline without it, so it's a step in the right direction.  He still won't get paid without his CFI rating, but this is one he really wanted.  So I met with him a couple of times and tried to make the blur of Vmc make sense to him.  I was quite dismayed to see just how much I had forgotten myself!

But he took me out for dinner and drinks a couple of times and listened to me as I explained accelerated slipstream, spiraling slipstream, P-factor, torque, and on and on.  He thanked me profusely for instilling some knowledge in him.  And I could barely understand that as I was thrilled to impart some knowledge to him!

Well, I was flying on February 16 when I received a simple picture text.  It showed a Piper Apache with a feathered propeller in flight.  I had told him that the craziest moment is looking out your window and realizing that the engine really is not running!  The propeller isn't spinning...nothing!  It is fully stopped.  Before his training, he just seemed fascinated with that image.  Well, now he had it.  A fully-stopped propeller just a few feet from his seat.  He just had to share.  I loved it.

Two days later, I received another text that every pilot loves to hear.  It was simple...

"Passed the checkride!"

That was it.  I received it between two of our flights that day...between loading and unloading passengers.  But it was the best part of my day.  Another one is in the ranks.  Another pilot is flying with two engines.  It's hard to explain, I guess.  Thousands of pilots get their multi-engine rating each year.

I guess it just means a little bit more when you have a tiny say in the outcome.  I certainly won't take the credit for his hard studying, but what a joy to share in a friend getting his multi-engine rating.

Flying really is fun.

Congrats, Vince!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

"This Will Never Happen Again" Happened Again

"Captain, this woman would like to speak with you two."

I've only been an airline pilot for a year now.  Actually just under a year, to be honest.  I will celebrate my first year on Singles Awareness Day the 14th of this month.  So when I say that something may never happen again, well, that is simply based on my viewpoint of life: that some things are indeed so rare that the likelihood of that scenario happening again is slim to none.  Like rescuing someone from a lake...I'm quite confident in saying that that is a once-in-a-lifetime scenario/opportunity.

"Captain, this woman would like to speak with you two."

The Captain I've been flying with is fun, to say the least.  He's one of the very few that I just love to fly with.  I am quite content flying with most of the other Captains, but when I see his name on my schedule, I am actually eager for the trip to arrive.  He's admittedly goofy, hilarious, and in no uncertain terms, absolutely sick and tired of flying.  Which cracks me up since he is so young!  He's only been with the company for five or six years, and (like most) he is already ready to leave!

My last experience with him was a trip from South Bend, Indiana, to Cleveland, Ohio.  During that rather mundane trip, we tuned in our ADF to find some get-rid-of-the-monotony AM radio stations.  We ended up finding a station with "Buck" and "Duke" right over the heart of Indiana.  They talked pagonia flowers, the weather, and everything else that normal Midwesterners talk about.  It was seriously like someone took a mic to a local coffee shop and just listened in while Buck and Duke talked.  Needless to say, everytime we've seen each other since, we've greeted each other with, "Hey Buck!"  "Hiya Duke!"  We have a unique connection.

"Captain, this woman would like to speak with you two."

Early on in my airline days, I heard this exact same line from the Flight Attendant.  It turned out we had a highly-anxious passenger that needed to board first.  I guess in the airline industry there a few times when someone is so overly nervous that they get special attention from the airline.  From what I gathered, they literally take classes to become more at ease.  They get special permission to board the aircraft before any other passenger.  And they sit there and prepare themselves for the upcoming flight.  I don't admire these people at all.  I understand the fear of flying, but the fear in these select few is so great that they actually almost become paralyzed with the fear.  They are seriously terrified of flying.  I've only had one passenger in a year that was like this, but he wanted to see the Captain and set himself at ease.  That's fine.  Whatever works.

"Captain, this woman would like to speak with you two."

I knew exactly what it was going to be.  Another very terrified passenger or a young little boy that wanted to see the flightdeck.  I was hoping for the latter!  I love when little guys come up and see the best room in the house!  Little did I know what I was in for...

A late middle-aged woman stuck her head around the Flight Attendant who continued to basically block the walkway to the flightdeck while the other passengers boarded.  She didn't hesitate...

"Hi, guys, I just wanted you to know that I'm a member of the Families of Flight 3407."

Whoa.  I had turned halfway around to see who wanted to see us, as did the Captain, but we both were not ready for this one.  My eyes went from her directly to the Captain, who was looking directly at me.  Silence.  What in the world do you say to something like that?!  My mind went immediately back to the experience I had several months ago, with a woman who came up to speak with another Captain and myself.  She still had her ticket from Flight 3407...she had simply shown up too late to catch the flight.  I knew right then and there that something like this would never happen again.  I just couldn't believe what I was hearing again today!  We were speechless.  It's the Captain's ship, and I have a place in the right seat (to an extent), and I just waited for him to say something!  For him to come up with some sort of cordial welcome despite the obvious pain and fear that she had to be experiencing.  Silence.

To be honest, I'm really not sure what the Captain ended up saying.  I remember it being very short, and I remember saying something myself to try to pick up the slack.  But what I remember the most is that nothing good was said!  I don't remember if he said "Welcome" or "Sorry" or "Let us know if we can do anything for you," but I remember sitting there thinking that it was not good enough!  After the moments of awkwardness, she turned and walked back to her seat.

The Captain and I just stared at each other.  Silence.

I should probably also mention some other aspects of this particular flight.  We were departing Newark.  The same departure airport as Flight 3407.  We were flying a Dash 8.  The same airplane as Flight 3407.  We were flying in February.  The same month as Flight 3407.  We had a little bit of winter weather.  The same conditions as Flight 3407.  We were flying to Buffalo.  The same destination airport as Flight 3407.

To say that this woman might have been nervous would be an understatement.

But I have to say this.  I was not nervous.  And I wholeheartedly mean that.  We fly the Newark-Buffalo flight numerous times a day, and I've flown that flight a number of times.  We constantly fly in the Northeast weather, ice and snow included.  I don't mean to say this statement lightly, but this was just another typical flight for us.  Of course, my heart went out to her, and I certainly felt compassion for the woman, but in terms of flying this flight, I honestly had no qualms or worries about it.  It's just another flight.

The Captain and I made a little small talk about the surprise and awkwardness of the situation, but it was short-lived.  The door was still open, the woman was still back there, and we had checklists to run.  I made a somewhat joking but serious comment before we left the ground.  "Captain, you better make this landing your best.  This is the last I'll say about it."  I didn't think he needed to have that pressure a minute or two before landing.  I wasn't challenging him.  I was merely vocalizing the desire of each of us to give this woman the best flight of her life.

It's often easy to forget that we fly passengers.  We fly real people.  I keep track of how many people I fly each day (around 15,000/year) along with my hours, but outside of the generic knowledge of that, we can easily forget that we fly husbands and wives, sons and daughters...until we declare an emergency.  Air Traffic Control quickly reminds us with that powerful question, "How many souls on board"?

Souls.  That's really what it's all about.  I'm flying moms to see their sons and daughters in college.  I'm flying men to their jobs to make money for their families back home.  I'm flying grandmas and grandpas to their retirement friends down south.  I'm flying people of all types to birthdays, graduations, celebrations, funerals, job interviews, promotions, sales pitches, new homes, deal closings, and vacations.

And today, I flew a daughter, a mom, a wife to her home in Buffalo.  I don't know her exact details, but I'm afraid that one of those three family connections was shattered one February a couple of years ago.

But today, we flew one beautiful daughter, mom, and wife home.  On a Dash 8 from Newark to Buffalo in the dead of winter.

Oh, and the Captain greased the landing.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Sim

Sometimes I sweat when I fly.  That's usually when it's over 100 degrees outside, and we don't have our APU working to blow air, and the station's air cart is out of service.  The hottest I've seen in the actual airplane is 39 degrees Celsius...or roughly 102 degrees.

It gets hot.

But today I sweated in the sim.  THE SIM!!!  It's an air-conditioned environment for crying out loud!

Yup, today I went in for my Loft ride.  It's basically a ride in a fancy-schmancy simulator (costs more than the actual airplane itself...true story).  Every six months our company puts us through a Loft ride...a normal flight just like out on the line, and one flight involving an emergency.

Frankly, it's a great idea seeing as how we [hopefully] don't get engine failures out on the line.  Of course, it could happen at any given moment, but it's not uncommon for an airline pilot to fly for 30 years and never see an engine failure.  But it can happen.  So rather than have him brush off 25-year-old training when it does happen, it's nice to stay proficient and have the flows in your memory from just a few months ago.

Enter Loft rides.

Well, the first ride was simple.  We flew an easy leg down to one of our airports.  Nothin' doin'.

The ride back we had an engine failure.  Our remaining engine showed low oil pressure.  Our airport went below minimums as we were landing, but we chose to take it on down rather than risk a single-engine go-around on a possibly bad engine.  Nothin' doin'.

Fairly simple stuff.

Then we did some other maneuvers which I was slow to act on.  I was ridden hard.  For good measure.  That's why we practice in the sim, because out on the line, we only get one shot.  But I was pretty slow on some maneuvers, and my instructor let me know.

Well, after we wrapped up our necessary training, the instructor asked if we wanted to see anything else.  Sure, I said.  I want to have an engine failure on my leg.

So we did just that.

Little did I know (you never really do, I guess) that my engine was going to quit on departure.  So I was given a V1 cut with an engine fire.  I elected to take care of the fire immediately.

That was fine.  We took care of the situation at hand.  No problem.

But all was not well.  As we circled back to the heading given to us by the instructor, my auto-pilot overshot the heading.  Crap.  I immediately took the airplane off of auto-pilot and flew by hand.  My Captain was immersed in the single-engine checklist, so I did that on my own.  The instructor didn't like that.

Anyway, I let my Captain know that I was flying the airplane on my own, but I realize that I could only turn...but couldn't change altitude.  We quickly realized that I had control of the ailerons and rudder, but I had no control over the elevator.  Unbelievable.

So here I was, flying a single-engine airplane with a former fire, and now I had no control on the pitch.  So the Captain was in control of the altitude and power, and I was in control of the roll and yaw.  We both had our hands on the flight controls then.  But every time he made a power change, I had to compensate with the rudder.  It took some getting used to, but we managed to keep the airplane [somewhat stable].

But it was NOT easy.  I was so frustrated at the situation, too.  It was tough!

Basically, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.  High workload (we had by now by-passed the checklists and were focused on just keeping the airplane flying) and stressful situation.

I starting sweating.

As we stablized the aircraft, I just sat there and fumed at the situation!  I was mad!  Not only did we get an engine failure, but all this?!  Sigh.

And I continued sweating!  EVERY maneuver the Captain did required a change on my part, too.

What's more is we had to shoot an ILS approach.  Yup, not only did we get all of these emergencies thrown at us, but we couldn't see, too.  Unbelievable.

We were able to work together, though, and after realizing the gravity of the situation, we started verbalizing all changes.  "Ok, now I'm going to reduce the power levers, be prepared on the rudder."  It helped out immensely knowing when the Captain was going to make his changes.  Of course, as we intercepted the localizer (me hand-flying) and then the glide-slope (the Captain hand-flying), it provided a whole new set of challenges, but we stuck with it.

It was so easy to get behind that airplane, but we stuck with it.  And we worked together.

But my back was soaked, and I recognized it!

We shot the ILS approach and saw the runway.  We were a bit offset but not bad.  I gradually brought it to centerline as he pitched for the runway.  We touched down with a bit of a hit, but we were down.  And we were down safe.

"Ok, that's it."

And just like that, the Loft ride was over.  No congratulations, no praise, just a "Ok, we're done."

Sigh.  What a flight.

We headed upstairs and talked about everything we did wrong over the past few hours.  It was honestly good to have criticism, but in the same breath, I'm thinking we just salvaged a flight that couldn't have been any worse.

At one point on an unrelated note (windshear go-around), he said I was frighteningly dangerous, a comment that stung and stuck with me!  Again, though, the criticism is decent.  I can recognize my weaknesses and slowness in reaction.  The comments were there, just NOT swiftly.  I'll concede on that one.

All in all, the process was good.  It's certainly a strength to have to fly through these emergencies in the sim, so that they are not really emergencies out on the line.  They would be "just another day in the life."  We are fully-prepared so that we're not confused or stunned out on the line.

Here's to hoping I never see a legitimate emergency, but here's to knowing that I will be well-prepared for when/if one does happen.

But oh, how I hate the sim.  If it can go wrong, it certainly will.