Around the Airport

Friday, February 28, 2014

Good Judgment and the Mythical Pilot Shortage

Each wayward soul that pursues flight, as a sport or a career, must endure one overly stressful occurrence to earn the license; the checkride.  Similar to a hazing followed immediately by a strict initiation ritual, this event is easily the one thing all pilots could do without if given the choice.
Officially, the tolerances a pilot must adhere to in order to pass a checkride are really quite precise.  Yet, so specific and simultaneously subjective is every maneuver that on any given day two pilots with the same performance on the same maneuvers could either pass or fail.  Fortunately though, items other than maneuvers are scored.  One of them is “judgment”.
The line item “judgment”, if properly used, allows a check airman to see a greater trait than the ability to do perfect eights on pylons or a V1 Cut to the letter with exact phraseology.  Yes judgment, or should I say good judgment, as a trait is critically important to every pilot.
Good judgment will keep you away from trouble, help you overcome unexpected dangers, and if you find yourself in need of a maneuver that goes against the almighty FARs, then good judgment will allow you to do what’s necessary without remorse or hesitation.  Good judgment is therefore perhaps the single greatest skill a pilot can possess.  That is also often the reason two equally skilled pilots have different outcomes on checkride day.
So how does good judgment apply to the mythical pilot shortage?  When airlines completely ignore the most striking evidence of sound judgment, in favor of candidates who openly display a lack of it, then it is pertinent to the shortage debate. 
When I was still flying at a regional, one of my favorite things to do was to ask new pilots how they got into flying.  Amazingly, the most common answer had nothing to do with a passion for flight.  Instead, the most numerous answer by far was, “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do so I looked for a job where you work the least and get paid the most.  A friend was getting his pilot’s license, it sounded good to me, and so I went to Embry Riddle (or other 141 school) and here I am”.  That answer was so common and so identical to the next that I bet many of you reading this have heard those very words.  But how does that apply to the mythical pilot shortage?
If you don’t know the answer to that question by now, I should back up and walk through the last paragraph.
First there is the statement, “I looked for a job where you work the least and get paid the most”.  That’s funny because that’s not what young regional pilots bitch about most.  Instead, as soon as they sit in the seat their biggest issues with the job are the long hours away from home and pathetic pay.  Now to be clear about this, those conditions have never been a secret.  So why then did they not know about them before making it all the way to employment?  There are only two possible answers.  New pilots chose to ignore reality and hope for the best or they did zero research.
More critical to the point I’m trying to make is the next part, “…so I went to Embry Riddle and here I am”.  That pretty much says it all.  In order to get that glamorous job as a pilot where you never work and make lots of money, the next “logical” step was to apply for student loans and go to Embry Riddle.  There they could also get a degree which is required by the majors for employment, and in the door they go.
Exiting the other side of the building, four years later, is a person with one logged hour repeated 1500 times, a worthless degree, no passion for flying, an undeserved attitude, and a crappy job.  Now they’re mad.  And to some extent, they should be.
They were deceived by their friends from day one, student loans came easy to feed the machine, the school puffed them up with BS and a bogus degree, and the airlines told them to suck it.  $100,000 - $200,000 in debt, and with nothing to fall back on, they swallow their dignity and move on with flying.  But hey, there’s always that looming pilot shortage on the horizon to keep them around.
Many years later, when a wave a hiring (not a shortage) finally happens, all of them apply to the majors and a few get a slot.  Now they’re the major’s problem.  Angry, educated in the twisted slogans of unions, probably on their second marriage, in need of more money, and still possessing no passion for flight, the regional is glad to get rid of them.  Meanwhile, thousands of pilots who love flying, and are talented beyond ten 141 pilots combined, can’t get in; nor are they even considered.
What is it that holds these deserving pilots back?  They don’t have a degree.  It’s true.  Without a degree you’ll never be considered unless your dad is friends with the chief pilot.
But what about good judgment?  That's my point exactly.  You can't find better examples?  The typical pilot who meets the qualification for a job at the majors, except for the degree, is more skilled, more driven, more rounded, and more responsible.  They ended up that way because from the beginning they were realistic people who knew what the early jobs would be like.  Therefore, there was no way they were going to become slaves to the machine to get a degree (in name only) just so they might have a chance to possibly get a job at the majors where they would live half their lives on furlough.  Instead, they took every job they could get, paid for their own lessons, learned responsibility, and used a die-hard work ethic to scrape for every hour they earned.  My friends, that is good judgment.
So why are these hardworking passionate types overlooked at the majors?  Because the folks in HR rarely have any knowledge about flying and therefore they weed people out any way they can.  Since most of the people in the office have degrees, they reaffirm their own certificates by making the assumption anyone with a degree is better than anyone without.  And in the end, a huge segment of highly skilled and desirable employees are overlooked in favor of pilots who will do nothing but lug the attitude of entitlement into the seat.  That my friends is bad judgment.

Note to my 141 friends:
Yes I know it’s always painful when this subject comes up and I’m sorry to make you face it again.  If I had 40 more pages of space, I would list all of you who’ve personally told me that if you had to do it over again you would NEVER go the 141 route.  But remember, if you’ve admitted that, you are one of the good ones.  And quite honestly, most of you are far greater 121 pilots than I will ever be and these schools infuriate me on your behalf.  If I could get your money back I would.  Yet, on a more positive note, I am thinking back to something someone very dear to my heart once told me, “Never allow anyone to call you worthless.  If nothing else, you can serve as a bad example”.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Safety Is Killing Us

When I first saw this video, one thing quickly came to mind; safety is killing us.  Of course, by “us” I mean aviation, and by "killing" I mean destroying the sport of flight. There simply is no better example than flying to demonstrate how the disease of obsessive compulsive safety disorder destroys greatness.  Even worse, most people refuse to face it.
When you see videos like the one above there are always comments that follow.  One striking example I saw today was from a person who runs an aviation insurance company.  This person’s comment was about what humans can accomplish and endure and to me it was incredibly striking.  Nowhere did this individual mention, and perhaps did not notice, that aviation was almost absent.  Maybe it was missed because it starts with some straight and level formation shots then moves on to a video that is full of risky sports which attract millions of spectators worldwide.  Whatever the case, I’m not faulting their observation as it was good.  Yet, I can’t help but wonder if it was noticed how relatively little aviation was present in the film?
How can that be?  There are few sports which offer more potential thrills than aviation. Unfortunately, there just aren’t any to be had.  Let me rephrase that; there aren’t any that would draw spectators without the scorn of the aviation community itself.  Why is that?
Some of you may say, “Fun aviation is done at heights and distances too far for people to see”.  And although that notion doesn’t explain it, it is on the right track. 
The true core of this problem is that aviation, even airshows, are old hat when the people of the world want to see radical crazy stuff.
So maybe you’re thinking “what about aerobatics”?  If that's you, I'm sorry, but aerobatics just aren't exciting.  The most easily thrilled person on the planet begins to yawn the first time they see the second person do 33 snap rolls.  And this is the best we have to offer, with one exception.
Nobody has proven what works and what doesn’t better than Red Bull.  They took pilots that were typical aerobatics guys and put them in a race course, feet from the ground, with little to no airshow aerobatics taking place and received a predictable response? The world exploded in applause.  Do you know why?  The answer is obvious and it’s not because it is safe.  Yet, sure enough, even those races were shut down for a while. 
Early on, although they did do everything they could to make it safe, it wasn’t Red Bull that wrung their hands about safety.  No, it was the pilots receiving all the glory and all the fun who did that.  Within a few short years and near misses, they were the ones complaining that pilots who weren’t up to par were being allowed in the race; translation – they aren’t safe enough for us.  Think about that.  They aren’t even on the course together.
It's hard to believe isn't it?  The Red Bull racers are the best example of why I believe the obsession with safety it a disease; a mental disorder.  Drug addicts have the same problem.  Many of them know they should stop but they can’t, and most pilots know safety is killing aviation but they can’t quit calling for more of it.
Look around, go ahead, it won’t take long; everywhere you look is an admonishment to use the glorious gift of self-awareness and consciousness found only in humans to overcome the animal instincts that put you at risk.  Pay attention and you’ll also notice those stern words almost always come from people who tell you to never eat meat, drive fast, and fly below 3000’ or without a flight plan.  It’s true.  And sadly, people listen.
When I brought up this subject to a friend, he pointed out that I had recently called some guys idiots for a low fly-by caught on video.  And you know what?  He was right. So why am I telling you about it?  Because as as I pointed out to him, I called them idiots; I didn’t say they shouldn’t do it.
There was a time when people did these crazy things way more often.  They also had truck loads of fun and accomplished far more.  If they had a plane they tried it all and, if they survived, a few crashes did not ruin their career or ability to fly.  Naturally more people died operating in such a manner but, as long as everyone involved was ok with and aware of the risk before hand, I see no reason to be concerned.  I mean that.  Stupidity killed them.  Now safety is killing us.
Ages ago sanctioned short field landing contests disappeared from the lower 48 fly-ins because people and planes were getting hurt and the liability issues that followed. Today, because of one accident, Reno is on the ropes and the pilot is blamed for being reckless with his machine.
Remember, it was a race of the “unlimiteds” in which the accident happened.  Yet now it seems the pilot’s definition of “unlimited”, the old school version, is to blame.  After he crashed, it was discovered the class should have be called the “tightly scrutinized, sterilized, and safety-wise planes flown by the same people from a very small club”.  And what was the solution to the confusion about “unlimited”?  New safety rules were created that actually made it less safe.  That’s usually the case.  The airway to hell is controlled by good intentions.
If it were up to me, I would solve all Reno's problems with one easy step.  Outside the gate I would place a camera and a sign that read “Look at the camera and repeat these words, “By attending I acknowledge that due to both predictable and unforeseen dangers I could be killed and I therefore waive all liability”, and then I would allow each category to run unlimited.  I would also bet any number of you a thousand dollars that after three years attendance would have gone through the flight levels. Instead, with today’s focus on safety, interest is waning. You just can’t get away from it.  Safety is killing our sport.
Think about it.  Is there any real reason why we don’t have air combat competitions or armed aircraft that run courses shooting up targets in the desert or on military proving grounds?  Can anyone explain why nobody flies disposable airplanes into flimsy buildings at airshows?  There are no X-games for aviation.  Why not?
Think about a contest where entrants had to fly a cropduster under wires and over fences as they navigate between smoke obscured pylons to put out a fire with water from the hopper.  Afterwards they would do a 180, fly back out, and touch down on a narrow winding road lined with signs?  Or what about this one?  Can you think of a real reason not to have a contest in farm country where anyone could enter any plane of their choice to fly a course weaving through trees, over fences, and around barns?  In my mind there at least has to be room for a competition where pilots flying taildraggers start at 1500’, deadstick through a prescribed set of maneuvers, and land on a 20’ x 800’ strip surrounded by a moat. Heck, that could be done at Oshkosh and as long as it was fresh water the planes could be dried out and used again.  All it would take is for Americans to embrace the risk inherent in living life to the fullest and remove the restraints.  
Of course if we were to do these things, people would be spurred to step up their skills, create new designs for the competitions, and imagine crazy new stunts that would make their videos go viral.  Furthermore, and rather ironically, the greatest developments spawned by this atmosphere of embraced risk would be safety features which would allow you to survive horrible crashes.  The boundaries of possible would expand exponentially (Evidence exists to support that belief ***).
Behavior based, aka programming
A few years later, attendees to airshows would go wild over the two guys who took off in the Fly Baby mounted to the top of a modified AgCat, separated in flight to perform a cat and mouse airshow, then mated back up and landed.  After their first appearance, the Youtube video of the act would have 50 million views overnight and they would be booked in all corners of the world.
The next year they’d be back but with something new. The routine would consist of the mated take off and the usual cat and mouse airshow.  The difference would be the finale where the Fly Baby would crash into a barn built for the show and burst into flames.  The AgCat would then fly by and douse the fire set by the Fly-Baby pilot after climbing out.
And yet, after two years of the greatest team in aviation setting airshow attendance records and making the world go wild with their “insane”act, aviation would be doing its best to shut them down.  And sadly, they would succeed.  Why?  Because it encourages unsafe behavior in our children.  Don't you know, it's always about the children.
To add insult to injury, our publications would discuss the team as a black eye on aviation and include, on the opposite page, a coupon for $50 off an angle of attack indicator called “The Angle of Safety”. The logo would be an Angel holding up a wing.  Their motto would be, “Safe pilots go to heaven on their own terms”.
Two years later the FAA would celebrate, with great fanfare, the lowest airshow death rate in three years.  Of course it would also be the season with the lowest attendance.
The Evidence
*** Before the CAA (later to become FAA) was created in 1926, the skies were open to interpretation.  And before the dreaded three letter bureaucracy took over, nearly everything that is aviation and space today was dreamed up and at the very least put on paper; ducted fans, jets, rockets, flying wings, canards, helicopters, everything.  Usually it was even attempted.

Even more telling about that era in time is the fact that to this day engineers look to those early years for inspiration.  Many modern designs therefore actually trace directly back to those formative decades. Unfortunately though for yesterday's developers, something incredibly crushing to it all was on the horizon; regulation.
Already in the pipeline when the CAA was born, flat air-cooled powerplants would soon dominate the world of small aircraft.  Yet thanks to the CAA, now the FAA, we’re still running the same engines.  Under the shadow of the Feds, experimentation, invention, and the motivation to expand the horizon of what was possible stalled.

If you want to see modern evidence of this, look only to the FAA’s online history.
A Brief History of the FAA (from the FAA's website)
The modern age of powered flight began in 1903, when Orville Wright made the first sustained, powered flight on December 17 in a plane he and his brother Wilbur built. This twelve-second flight led to the development of the first practical airplane in 1905, and launched worldwide efforts to build better flying machines. As a result, the early twentieth century witnessed myriad aviation developments as new planes and technologies entered service. During World War I, the airplane also proved its effectiveness as a military tool and, with the advent of early airmail service, showed great promise for commercial applications.
Despite limited post-World War I technical developments, early aviation remained a dangerous business. Flying conditions proved difficult since the only navigation devices available to most pilots were magnetic compasses. Pilots flew 200 to 500 feet above ground so they could navigate by roads and railways. Low visibility and night landings were made using bonfires on the field as lighting. Fatal accidents were routine.”
So much incredible massaging of reality exists in these two paragraphs it’s hard to know whether to be stupefied or pissed off.   First and foremost, as usual the FAA downplays advancement and portrays the world as an orb constantly in need of more oversight and safety so as to improve commercial aviation.  They also imply the only reason for advancement was to increase safety; “Despite limited post-World War I technical developments, early aviation remained a dangerous business”.
But wait, what about all the advancements they touted prior to WWI?  “As a result, the early twentieth century witnessed myriad aviation developments as new planes and technologies entered service”.  Interesting isn’t it?  And of course there was WWI; “During World War I, the airplane also proved its effectiveness as a military tool…”  And surely everyone knows WWII brought huge advancements in aviation.  Do you notice a trend?
All of the great moments of growth and expansion in aviation either happened before the CAA existed, or during a time of war when the CAA had no control over what was designed and built.  It happened because safety was not the primary focus.  But, if you still don’t believe the cult of antithesis exists in the FAA, read this last line from their history page.  That is why FAA has defined a vision of the future that integrates achievements in safety, security, efficiency, and environmental compatibility.”   The FAA believes the future of aviation is safety, security, efficiency, and environmental compatibility.  Yeah, that’s right, nothing grows a sport or elicits the howls of excitement like a gray message of safety, security, fuel economy, and subjective superfluous restrictions based on theory.
Finally, never forget what the FAA itself admits:
"The modern age of powered flight began in 1903, when Orville Wright made the first sustained, powered flight on December 17 in a plane he and his brother Wilbur built. This twelve-second flight led to the development of the first practical airplane in 1905, and launched worldwide efforts to build better flying machines."  In other words, flight itself came into being in an environment of zero regulation.  And as the FAA says, that environment led to the development of the first practical airplane and launched worldwide efforts to build better flying machines.  I couldn't have said it better myself.
“A focus on safety will always kill that to which it is applied".
"The FAA beats the drum and aviation marches in step".

Monday, February 10, 2014

Talking to Anchorage

“Talking to Anchorage” is the answer I received when I walked into the cockpit.  Having just finished 5 hours in the bunk and quietly navigated the darkness where jumpseaters were sleeping, I marked my arrival up front with the usual question, “Where are we”?  Thus the response. 
Sitting in the front seats were the captain and operating first officer.  Behind them sat another first officer who together with me would replace them for the next five hours.  I leaned on the observer’s seat gathering my wits.
During other times of the year I could have looked outside to see our location but in mid-winter it’s still dark this time of day over Alaska.  Because of that the cockpit lights were up and the guys were talking about a favorite subject; flying.  That may seem redundant to non-commercial pilots but in the world of commercial aviation it’s not the norm.
Long gone are the days of pilots tapping instruments to get them to stabilize, and with them have vanished those who understood it to be an acceptable fix.  Rap the glass today and your fingerprints will do nothing but annoy the next guy as he observes the ever evolving video game that is flat screen flying.  Sigh.
Fortunately though, where I work, finding a true pilot in the cockpit isn’t that strange and there’s a reason for that.  A hard rule of aviation which few like to discuss drives it; the higher you go on the list of desirable flying jobs, the fewer pilots (aviators) you’ll find.  The closer the job gets to being a country club, the closer the pilots get to being members.
One of my first landings.
Those at top don’t like to talk about it because deep down they know it’s true.  And those at the bottom don’t like to talk about it because they do too.  The pilots at the top are there because they come from the right backgrounds and have the skills for the position; kissing butt, “playing the game”, and being “professional”.   Those at the bottom are there because they have the skills to fly airplanes; airplanes that at some point in history may have flown drugs through river valleys, hauled weapons for the CIA, and been held together with bailing twine.   Cropdusters, bushpilots, water-bombers and such, the rejects of modern aviation, almost never make it to the club.  But other than the pay, retirement, respect, what’s to like about the top?
Fortunately, at this point in time, I seem to have found the middle.
Where I work, the company doesn’t hire you because you’re unemployable elsewhere and those fit for the country club rarely stay.   With me as a likely exception, they just seem to hire good people.  Therefore, what we have is an overall group of good pilots who, with a little more ambition and passion for starch, would likely move on up.  Yet, many of them have no desire.  The country club types that stay around do so to play big fish in a little pond, and the pilot types stay around in hopes of seeing a Colonel fly without the auto-pilot.  Simple pleasures for simple minds I guess.
So like I said, when I came up front a discussion about flying, real flying, was in full swing.  I joined the conversation when the captain mentioned an RV-3.  “Want to buy one”, I asked.   His heart said “YES”, I could see it in his eyes.   Unfortunately, as he admitted, his wife preferred something along the line of a jet so the RV was out.  Then he added “Well, I need to find a nice airpark to live on first”.  And I asked, “Where do you live”?  “Atlanta”, he said.  And that’s when something very interesting happened.
Here’s how it went:
Me – “Oh yeah.  You ever go to Peach State”?
Captain – “Yeah I love the restaurant there but it’s a little far for my wife so I’m still looking.  How do you know Peach State”?
Me – “The owner is a friend of mine”.
Captain – “You fly small planes”?
Me – “I’ll fly any old plane I can get my hands on”.
Second First Officer – “Oh yeah, have you ever been to Spokane”?
Me – “Yeah, are you from there”?
SFO – “Yeah.  We have a lot of old planes out there”.
Me – “Do you know the guys in the cul de sac”?
SFO – “How do you know about the cul de sac”?
Me – “They’re friends of ours”.
SFO – “You’re kidding.  They took my wife and kid up for a flight in the Stearmans.  Larry and Addison I think.  That flight convinced my wife to let me have a plane.  We have a Bonanza there at Felts”.
Third First Office – “I know a fun airport.  Have you ever heard of a field called Triple Tree”?
Me – “Yeah; great place.  Have you been there”?
TFO – “Yeah I live nearby and go there quite a bit.  You sound like you’ve been.  Do you go to the fly-in”?
Me – “I’ve never been to the fly-in but I know the owner Pat, Mr. Hartness, and I’ve dropped in to see him.  Super guy.  He really built something there”.
TFO – “Yeah I love it there and I also do the RC event”.
Captain – “You guys are making me think of my property again”.
All of us – “What property”?
Captain – “I own a lot on this place west of Chicago where I really wanted to live but my wife wasn’t into it”.
Me – “Poplar Grove”?
Captain –  “You know that place too”?
Me – “Yeah, the owners are friends of ours, well we have several friends there; that’s another great place.  I always stop there anytime I’m through the area.  It would be an awesome place for you to live.  You could fly out of Chicago”.
Captain – “Yeah that was my thought too.  Where do you keep your RV-3”?
Me – “We keep it on a little field about half way between Cincinnati and Louisville”.
Captain – “Does it have a name”?
Me – “Yeah, Lee Bottom”.
Captain – “You’re kidding?  I’ve read about that place.  Keep wanting to visit.  Now I have to”.

SFO -  “You know, there’s a lot of guys here that really love flying”.
Captain – “You’re right; we have a lot of-em”.
All three F0’s nodded in agreement.  And with that the conversation faded with a long successive naming off of such and such with such and such airplane.
I’ll never forget that moment.  There over Alaska, six hours into a twelve hour flight to Incheon, four guys from very different backgrounds, all paid to fly 747’s, revealed their passion for aviation by the airports they frequent.  And what did I learn?  Two things: airports tie us together, the planes and people are the details.  Next, because of Lee Bottom Ginger and I have met a lot of wonderful people who either own airports or call them home and sometimes the number of people catches us off guard.  You really are our extended family.
A possible solution to an obvious problem.
If you own an airport or consider one your home, please remember that nobody ever says, “I’m going to see the Morane Saulnier MS.406"; they say, "I’m going to La Ferte-Alais".  Likewise, instead of, “I’m going to see the Avro Triplane”, they say, “I’m going to Shuttleworth”.  Pilots also don’t say, “I’m going to see Rich and Ginger”.  They say “I’m going to Lee Bottom”.
Airports are critical to our existence.  No matter how much you love your antique or classic airplane and couldn’t live without your aviation friends, if you forget your local hangout and let it die or fade away you’ll have neither.  It is for this reason we always try to express the point that preserving Lee Bottom for future generations isn’t about us.  It’s about creating a refuge for aviation; a place where aviators can set down and feel safe.