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I touched on the line check in the last Cockpit Chronicles, and I've had yet another trip with a check airman performing a line check, making it two in the last eight days. Both of the captains I was flying with were over sixty. As a result of the change in retirement age from sixty to sixty-five in 2007, a line check has been mandated every six months for those sixty and older.
I've spotted some of the items that check airman are looking for during these checks. Consider this a guide on how to make a check airman happy. I know my demographic here at Gadling will be thrilled to come across this information.
It's important not to fly any differently when you're not being checked. You won't be able to fool these pilots by 'stepping up your game' only when they're around. There are so many rules, procedures and techniques you'll need to adhere to, that it'll be obvious to the instructor that you haven't been paying attention to your training if you try to 'step up your game' only when the management pilot is around.
The 'Check Airman'
At my company, check airmen are captains that are chosen, usually by the base chief pilot, to fill the instructor positions. Some are exclusively 'line' check airman, who only perform line checks and the 'initial operating experience' for new pilots to the aircraft. Others are qualified to fly the line and also perform simulator checks.
What they want to see.
The following are some examples of what a pilot will be tested on during a six month or two-year line check.
As I was riding in to work on the JFK Airtrain a few weeks ago, I looked up the crew list again on my phone. I was surprised to see that the co-pilot (I was the relief pilot this day) was listed as 'open.' That meant that crew scheduling was likely scrambling to find a pilot to cover the trip after someone must have called in sick.
When I arrived at operations, I found the captain giving directions over the phone to the other co-pilot to the employee parking lot, so we both assumed we'd be flying with someone new to the base. It hadn't occurred to us that he may also be new to the airline.
Back in 1998 an agreement was signed that brought pilots over from the affiliated regional and gave them slots at the major airline. But the agreement required them to wait for two years before coming over, and when the downturn occurred after 2001, some of these pilots were withheld from the 'mainline' for the next decade.
Now that we're recalling pilots from furlough at a pretty good clip, with hopefully all of them back to work early next year, some of the senior most captains from the regional airline are starting to come over again.
As I was setting up the cockpit for departure, the other co-pilot introduced himself and explained that he was one of these flow through pilots and had just finished training.
Instead, after Hurricane Irene passed through the city earlier this morning there was an erie calm. As I woke up, I wondered if we were in the eye of the storm.
It turns out, Irene may have some strong winds on the back side, but for now, a little fun could be had by biking through the empty streets of the city.
Here's what I found at 5th Avenue, Central Park, Times Square, Grand Central Terminal, the U.N. Building the Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and the East River. Wide open streets and unencumbered riding! A video is the best way for me to describe the morning:
There was a atmosphere in the city today. One biker told me he saw people playing Wiffle Ball in Times Square. Tourists, with nothing else to do, gathered on Broadway, umbrellas in hand, just to look at the streets.
New York is an amazing city, but after a snow storm or situation like we had today, the break in monotonous city life offers a chance look around them and see just how great this place is.
I thought I'd had enough of Irene after experiencing it from the air, but today Irene brought many of us a pleasant surprise, and some time to reflect on how thankful we are that it wasn't worse.
"I'd just as soon call it quits here and go to a hotel." the captain said, looking at the latest weather report for Santo Domingo and the radar picture of hurricane Irene which was just northwest of our destination. All of Puerto Rico, where we were contemplating our decision, had just been through the hurricane and much of the island was without power. In our 200 square foot operations room at the San Juan airport, water was leaking all around the room.
Plunk, plunk, plunk.
We had just flown down from New York heading to Santo Domingo (SDQ) on what was supposed to be a turn-a one day trip, just down and back-but prior to beginning the approach, we were sent a message from our dispatch telling us to divert to San Juan.
Another flight just six minutes ahead of us had just touched down after breaking out of the clouds shortly before the minimum height required to see the runway. They said it was just heavy rain on the approach.
There were four surprised pilots in our cockpit at that moment; the captain and myself, along with the relief co-pilot and a check airman who was giving a line check to the captain. All of us were in agreement that we needed to go to San Juan. Dispatch could have had information that we just weren't privy to at the moment. The same policy applies (at our company) if any pilot had said 'go-around' during the approach, the flying-pilot is required to climb away from the ground and ask questions later. In this case, dispatch is very much part of our team. In this case, we didn't have time to discuss the particulars with our dispatcher. We had to trust that they had information about the airport, terminal, gate, runway, or some other operational need to get us back to San Juan.
After working our way around the tail end of the hurricane, we were now faced with turning back and flying through the same turbulent weather on our way to San Juan. Fortunately fuel wasn't a concern, since we had more than four hours available for our 45-minute flight to our alternate airport.
The climb out was just as bumpy as the arrival. Most of the time we were in the clear, but the chop would still be an issue for our passengers, who were probably nervous after we discontinued the approach into Santo Domingo.
Because they hadn't seen anything like this in the simulator, and the airplane was giving conflicting information, the recovery would have been all the more difficult.
Pilots are taught that an erroneous airspeed indicator can be countered by paying close attention to their pitch and power. It sounds so simple that many pilots wonder aloud, just how anyone in the situation could mess it up.
In the early morning hours of June 1st, 2009, the pilots of Air France flight 447 were working their way around thunderstorms while flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in the widebody Airbus A330.
A faulty pitot tube created a situation where any changes in pressure resulted in fluctuations in the airspeed indicator. To understand how difficult it is to recognize this problem and then correct for it, let me use the following analogy:
Imagine you're driving a car at night. You come down a hill and you feel the cruise control back off on the gas to prevent the car from going too fast. Just as you look down at your speed noticing that it is, in fact increasing, a siren and lights go off behind you. A police car has woken you up from your late night drive.
Instinctively you kick off the cruise control and apply the brakes. The speedometer indicates you're still accelerating, so you press harder on the brakes. Your car has now decided that because you're trying to slow so quickly, it will shut off the anti-skid braking system and allow you to use manual brakes. You then skid off the road and into a ditch.
Based on the released information about one of the most mysterious accidents in recent history, it appears the pilots of Air France 447 faced a set of circumstances similar to our driving example.
The eight ways to slow a jet
When you're driving your 5-speed manual transmission car and you exit an offramp, besides just taking your foot off the gas pedal, there are a couple of different ways that you can slow down. Most people probably put on the brakes, but you could also downshift as well.
In an airliner, there are four different ways inflight and four methods on the ground to slow a jet, and often these techniques can be used in conjunction.
Unlike turboprop airplanes, jets are rather difficult to slow down and require a bit of planning in advance to avoid burning too much fuel or ending up too high at the airport for landing.
So let's start with our Boeing that's at 33,000 feet. Pilots will use a rough "3 to 1" guide when deciding when they'll need to start down, adjusting for wind as needed.
To do that, take the 33,000 feet, drop the zeros and multiply it by three. 33 X 3 = 99 miles.
So, for a descent at idle thrust, the pilots will need to start down within 99 miles of the airport. Any later and they'll be too high and need to add drag to get down, and any sooner and they may need to add power and level off for a while. Either way, more fuel is burned.
A side note: If the engines were to fail, our airplane would likely be able to make it to the runway if it were within that 99 mile point. It's just going to take some perfect planning on the part of the pilots, as was the case with the Air Transat and Air Canada flights.
Since an airplane burns far less fuel at altitude, it's best to stay up high until the airplane can descend, ideally at idle thrust, all the way to the final approach segment. That's our goal, subject to air traffic control requiring something different.
It's not uncommon, especially in the U.S., for air traffic controllers to leave you at altitude past your normal beginning of descent point. In this case, it's going to take more than idle thrust to descend quickly enough.
While I have a rather long list that includes the Ford Tri-Motor and the Spitfire, solidly at the top of the heap lies Concorde. An airplane so special, you're not even allowed to put 'the' in front of its name.
Since there was no possibility of ever flying this airplane at my airline, I knew I had to do the closest thing. Even though my wife and I were very recently hired at our respective airlines, we both agreed that we'd have to pay for a non-revenue (slang for employee reduced-rate) flight in Concorde before it was retired. This was in the mid '90s and the one-way tickets were still a relatively steep $600 per employee.
At the time, my wife was a flight attendant for United, based in Newark. She was working in the aft galley when a gentleman came back for something. He happened to mention that he worked for British Airways at JFK as the director of Concorde charters.
My wife told him of our plans to purchase a pass on the airplane for a flight to London in the future, just for the experience.
"Don't do that." He said. "We have a charter flight from New York to Cincinnati in two weeks. Come along on then. No charge."
He even extended the offer to the other flight attendants riding that day, but they all passed on the opportunity.
Two weeks later, Linda and I arrived at the Concorde lounge early enough to watch the inbound supersonic jet taxi to the gate. There was a tremendous amount of activity by the staff, with everyone even more frantic than what would be typical for agents eager to 'turn-around' an airplane quickly.
We soon discovered what was happening.
The law is mandated to take effect by August of 2013 and was one of the recommendations to come from the Colgan Flight 3407 accident in Buffalo, even though both accident pilots had more than 1,500 hours at the time of the crash, with the captain having logged 3,329 hours and the first officer 2,200.
In the past, major airlines culled their aviators from the military and regional airlines. As hiring tapered off, military pilots went to the much lower paying jobs at the turboprop and small jet operators.
Today, fewer pilots are leaving the military, instead opting to make it a career. Furthermore, Air Force Magazine reported:
USAF is already training more UAV pilots than F-16 pilots. Within two to three years, Air Force officials predict, drone pilots will outnumber F-16 pilots, numbering as high as 1,100.
Airlines don't recognize this as piloting experience, though. Fortunately, these pilots may be able to move on to a flying position after three years in the service, which brings them three years closer to the twenty years needed for retirement, something that may affect their decision to move on to the airlines.
As the military pool of pilots dries up, most new hire classes will be filled with high-time regional airline pilots. But with the 1,500 hour requirement for new co-pilots, (what had been a typical minimum experience at the major airlines) these smaller companies are going to be competing fiercely for new pilots.
So while it's going to be more difficult to get to the 1,500 hour point, once you get there, the job market will likely be far less competitive.
But getting there won't be easy. I'll share with you how I would go about it if I were starting today.
Fittingly, on the 2nd and 4th of April, I flew the very last flights from SDQ and SJU-not exactly something worthy of a celebration, but noteworthy, nevertheless.
I made sure to take a group shot of the pilots I worked with on both flights.
The final Santo Domingo to Boston pilots:
And the last San Juan to Boston flight:
We've been shrinking the Boston base for the past few years, and while many of my friends took the plunge and went south to New York, I had always planned to be the last one to leave. But facing a commute to Germany for a year, I knew JFK flying would be far more convenient. Lufthansa, Air Berlin, and even Singapore Airlines offer non-stop flights to Germany.
But before leaving Boston, I planned to enjoy two Paris trips and revisit my two most memorable restaurant experiences from the city of lights, and catch one major tourist attraction that I'm almost ashamed to admit that I've never seen.
How things have changed.
There are now documentary, drama, comedy and reality shows that cover every aspect of the airline world.
BBC and ITV have each done 'fly on the wall' documentaries; Airport and Airline, there are dramas such as the upcoming Pan Am, the defunct, but wildly raunchy British show Mile High, reality shows like Discovery's Flying Wild Alaska and Ice Pilots, not to mention the painfully mind-numbing Fly Girls.
Now the BBC is back with six episodes of a documentary comedy called Come Fly with Me that premiers in the U.S. on BBC America at 11:30 p.m. eastern tomorrow.
We had a chance to watch the first three episodes from the show, which was enough to realize that the program will be just as controversial here in the U.S. as it was in the U.K.
If you haven't figured it out from the late night time slot, Come Fly with Me is a politically incorrect edgy comedy that isn't afraid to use racial stereotypes to get some laughs.
But the racial jokes don't even qualify as being funny. There were other amusing parts, since airlines are the low hanging fruit in the comedy world, but most of the jokes seemed overworked and not at all subtle.
Granted, I'll admit that I laughed out loud when a passenger service agent lied about a maintenance delay (caused by wing failure) explaining that it was because "The pilot is still at home 'cause he's watching Avatar on DVD and he didn't realize how long it was."
And I rather enjoyed the Captain and Copilot husband and wife team formed when the captain's wife decided to become a pilot to keep an eye on her husband after she discovered he had cheated on her.
Most of the scenes are played by David Walliams and Matt Lucas, each taking turns dressing up as the pilots, flight attendants, ticket agents, the CEO and many of the airport staff. In this scene, Walliams and Lucas parody the check-in staff:
The airport and airline scenes are highly realistic, having been filmed in London's Stansted and the cockpits of actual aircraft which was refreshing for a change.
In all, I'd say it's a show that airline nuts probably should watch as they'll likely appreciate a few of the jokes. But I'd leave the seat belt sign on for the onslaught of criticism Come Fly With Me will generate after the first airing.