Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Commutes and Burritos

The sound of my name pulls me out of yet another odd dream that I don't understand how my brain ever created.  A crashpad roommate asks for a ride to the airport and I am the only other one left in the house.

"Sure, let's go." I quickly dress and off we go.

Pulling into the driveway after dropping him off at terminal E at IAH, my stomach reminds me that I have not yet attended to it on this new day.  A bowl of cereal does the trick for now.  I had only 7 hours of sleep last night.  It is enough but there is nothing on my schedule yet today so why not see if I can get some more.  I toss and turn for a while as is normal when I try to return to sleep in the morning.  Sleep does come although it is somewhat fitful and mostly just an hour and a half of intense dreaming.  Nevertheless, I feel rested and a shower starts my day.

With some help from a New Testament study guide while reading Ephesians 5:22-25, I learn how Christ expects me to treat my wife.  While I am still single I plan to keep this in mind in the future and do my best to treat my wife as Christ would.

The hours pass and I get sucked into an endless chain of articles about software.  This article lists many of the rising languages of the day and that article tells about all the languages designed to run on the JVM.  I had no idea the list was that long.  It turns into an afternoon spent pondering about working in the Software Development world where I used to be compared to my current life as an airline pilot.  In the past year I have been to a myriad of new places in North America and Europe.  The world seems much smaller than it did before.  Reading about software though reminds of the high I often felt when I created a solution to a problem that I had been thinking on for days or weeks.

It is past 2pm and I refresh my schedule and see that I have been assigned a turn to Pensacola that will return to Houston after the last flight home leaves for the day.  This is no surprise.  Today is my fifth and last day of this reserve block and I did not fly on two of the days.  I hoped to not fly today either and catch a flight home at 6pm and that dream was just shot down.  With some hope remaining I check the status of that last flight home and it is currently showing a two and a half hour delay.

Can this be??

I try to control my excitement as it is possible Google has bad data or they will find another aircraft.  After checking a few more sources the delay is confirmed. Will it last?  If the delay never improves I will be back in time for this flight and can get home tonight.

With my bags on the shelf of the parking lot shuttle I check my flight status and the captain has been changed.  I don't know either captain so it is sixes for me.  The shuttle is rather full right now.  There must be a shift change soon with the ground crews.  The known crew member program is wonderful and I am through security in about 15 seconds and onto the train.  The man standing next to me keeps checking the gate on his boarding pass and seems nervous.  My guess is that his English is poor and the signs on the train are rather unintuitive.  He will be getting off at the same stop I do so I make a note to stop him if he tries to get off too soon.  He departs the train at the correct stop and I hope he finds the gate and that his flight is on time.

While printing some paperwork in the crew room, I heat up a burrito and then walk quickly to the gate.  The gate agent informs me that the captain is just about to arrive at a gate on the other side of the terminal.  He will be late and I want to return to IAH as early as possible in case the flight home is still delayed.  With the walk around complete I finish all of my preflight duties and as much of the captains stuff as I can so we will be ready to go when he arrives.  He gets into his seat just a few minutes before push time and with everything ready we push back on time.

On the climb out I marvel at the size of Houston. Seldom do I watch so intently. Something today is pulling me in. The captain requests the autopilot before reaching 10,000' and silently settles in. Interested in getting to know him, I ask a number of questions and he gives short responses.

What interests him and what approach will get him to engage in conversation?

At the gate in Pensacola, I check the status of my commute home and it looks like we will beat that plane to Houston. This should give me enough time to store my flight kit in the crew room so that I do not have to lug it home.  I quickly do the walk around and prepare for the return to Houston.  I have just enough time to eat my burrito and thanks to my insulated lunch box it is still warm.  The burritos I made this week are not that great.  Too many spices I think.

Heading into the setting sun he is talking more. Well, I am doing most of the talking and he is more actively participating. He is excited for the new Dan Brown book although he rarely reads. He is polite and listens to my meandering thoughts. I guess he just wants to ruminate about whatever it is that he ruminates about.

At gate A7 here at IAH, I check the flight status once more and the plane is not yet on the ground.  This is good because it is a long walk with the extra train stop at Terminal B to drop my bag at the crew room.  With the post flight complete I head off to drop my bag.  I refresh the standby list and I have already been assigned a window seat in Economy Plus!

I get to go home tonight!

The couple sitting next to me are heading for Provo to take their son to the Missionary Training Center. He will be spending the next two years preaching the gospel as a representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  Another missionary is on the plane returning home after the completion of his two year missionary experience.  The missionary circle continues.

I forgot to send myself a text with the row number where I parked my car at the employee lot.  Is it row 14?  The flight attendant next to me on the shuttle comments about the struggle to find your car and I tell her about the app called Dude, Where's My Car?  She looks it up and we have a laugh.

Yep, it is on row 14.

Home again. This month I have vacation so I will probably only sleep in my own bed four times this month as I plan to go straight to Australia after working later this week.  That thought makes my bed that much more appealing tonight.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Airline Pilot Training - First Time in the Airplane

We were told that yesterday was going to be an all day review in preparation for our Systems Exam.  Luckily we were surprised with a short field trip and we got to walk over to the maintenance hangar and spend some time at the airplane.  The company primary flies the EMB-145 and the only plane available for us to use was an EMB-135.  The plane is nearly identical and falls under the same type rating, it just has fewer seats.  Our instructor walked us around the airplane and showed us the many access panels that we will have to check during the walk around.  It is the First Officer's job to do the walk around so I will get to spend plenty of time getting to know the outside of this airplane.

After the walk around the instructor pulled a ladder up to the door and we all climbed in the plane. The guy with the highest seniority in the group got to go in the cockpit with his training partner and the instructor walked them through the safety inspection and power up flow and they started the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU). The APU is a small engine that can power the plane and run air conditioning instead of using the engines.  The rest of us wandered around the cabin and opened and closed all of the different compartments.  This plane only had 37 seats so we really couldn't wander too far.

The instructor let all of us spend a few minutes in the cockpit.  He showed us some of basics that we will do the first time that we get into the Flight Training Device (FTD: non-motion simulator). It was nice to sit in the cockpit and touch a few buttons.  We have been studying using posters which just does not provide the same effect as sitting in the actual plane.  The seats in the back of the plane weren't great and the seats up front were pretty good.  I can't wait to actually fly this plane! Just a month away.

This morning we all arrived at the training center anxious for the systems exam.  Everybody seems to get nervous about this test which is probably a good thing as it keeps everybody studying.  After a couple of short pep talks from the instructors we went into the computer lab and started the exam.  The first person raced through and finished the test in about twenty minutes.  Everybody finished in just over an hour.  And to the great relief of everybody in the class we quickly found out that everybody passed the exam!

The next phase of training will be in the FTDs.  The first three sessions are just basic familiarization with the airplane and how to prepare for pushing back from the gate and starting the engines and eventually getting airborne.  After the third session we have our oral exam with a check airman.  The last two FTD sessions are with a flight instructor and will we start learning how to fly the plane and manage the power and shoot some instrument approaches.  Then I get to go home for five days and get away from this hotel!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Airline Pilot Training - Systems and Badges

We learned about the last of the systems today.  It is great to get through that and see how all of the systems come together and understand what happens when we push those buttons.  They planned it well so that we have the weekend to study for the test.  Monday we will learn about flying around high terrain, then all day Tuesday we review for the systems test and first thing Wednesday we take our test.  The last class that took the test averaged 93.4 % and I hope that our class can come close to that.  We have to get 80% to pass.

On the first day at the training center we did a bunch of HR stuff and eventually one by one we got our pictures taken for our ID badges.  Airline pilots must always have their ID badge.  It is a very important piece of work equipment.  It allows us to access the ramp and the airplane so that we can do our job.  Along with the work stuff come some perks.  With a crew badge I will be able to get through security a bit faster and as a pilot I have the privilege to be able to travel free on most airlines and the badge is required.  For now I plan to live in Salt Lake and commute to work in either Houston or Chicago so free rides to work will be much appreciated.  We were told to expect our badges by the end of the week.  At the end of the first week they told us that the badges had arrived but none of them were marked "CREW" so they had to send them back.  Then a few days later we were told the ID printer broke. It seemed like every day somebody would come into our class and tell us that we would get our badges tomorrow.  On Wednesday they told us that the badges had come again but that there was no hole punched in them to hang on the lanyards so they sent them back to Atlanta again.  This afternoon they told us that a package arrived from Atlanta not with the badges but with a hole punch.  Oops!  I was surprised and not surprised at the same time. I mean come on!  Then about 20 minutes later a guy walked in with our badges. It was kind of funny watching how anxious some of the guys were getting about not having their badge!

So I finally have my official Crew badge with a goofy looking picture and ExpressJet logo.  I may not use it right away but I will be going to Salt Lake in a couple of weeks and I plan to use it to get through security and hopefully speed things up!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Airline Pilot Training - Systems

We started our systems class a week ago and that is why my blogging stopped.  I probably could have posted a bit on Sunday but we have been crazy busy.  Systems has been a fire hose of information.  The information is not difficult to understand it is just a lot of it.  Tomorrow will be our last day of new systems information and then next week we will have one full day of review and then take our systems test.  So to summarize what we have learned about the airplane: nearly everything!  It has been fun to be able to piece things together and finally be able to correlate why and when stuff happens in relation to other systems and why we push buttons in the cockpit when we do.  I am really excited to get into the FTDs and simulators and put this knowledge to some practical use.  Tomorrow we are going to use the cabin train to learn how to open and close the doors and practice evacuating from the plane.  The cabin trainer is just the first 30 or 40 feet of the aircraft and set up on stilts so it can be rocked around a bit for training in evacuation.  I have never been on this airplane so it will be nice to see at least some of it up close.

Now it is time for bed and then another round of information about the ERJ!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Airline Pilot Training - CRM Day 1 and 2

Crew Resource Management (CRM) is the idea that a pilot should use all resources available to them in the cockpit and on the ground.  We should work as a crew and make decisions together and work with ATC and our dispatch department to maintain a safe environment and make the best decisions should an abnormal situation arise.  The airline industry has made huge progress over the years to create a safe environment for the traveling public.  Countless hours have been spent analyzing human behavior and interaction with other crew members to understand why we make mistakes and how to avoid them or notice them before they become a problem.

In the earlier days of the airline world the Captain was treated almost as if he were God.  The First Officer (copilot) and Second Officer (Flight Engineer, the guy sitting behind them) would rarely question the decisions made by the Captain and many times allowed mistakes to go uncorrected.  We discussed a number accidents and incidents that occurred due to lack of CRM in that environment.  The airline industry used to focus on the definition of safety as avoidance of harm.  The industry has now shifted to a risk management mindset.  The captain and first officer (flight engineers are rare these days) now work together and are mostly happy to accept correction, help, and praise from the other to keep everybody safe.

Everybody comes from a different background and learns to fly in a different way.  In my class there are a number of guys that flew in the air force, some that flew turbine singles in the corporate world, and a bunch of flight instructors.  Each of us does things a different way and that will lead to problems in the cockpit together unless we use an agreed upon approach.  Use of standards has become the accepted best practice in the industry to maintain safety.  The training that we are going through is not to teach us how to fly (we already know how to do that).  This training is intended to teach us to do things the same way that everybody else in the company does.  The way the company does it may not be the same as the next airline, it may not be the best and it may not be the worst and it really doesn't matter.  Safety in the cockpit in large part comes from being consistent and doing it just like we were taught and having the person next to us do it in a manner that we expect.  It allows effective team work.

This CRM training emphasizes the need to constantly build our habits and learn the company standards and avoid complacency.  After a while it sometimes seems so routine or even goofy that we might decide to let things slide or put a twist on it and that is where errors begin.  Consistency is important.  A study was done where they grabbed pilot crews at the end of a four day trip and immediately put them in a simulator when they were worn out and tired.  In the simulator they made them go through all sorts of difficult scenarios and maneuvers and found that they did quite well.  Then they grabbed crews that had not worked together and put them in the simulator and did the same scenario and found that they struggled even though they were well rested.  They believe the weaker performance of the fresh crew was the fact that they had not yet learned the small nuances of their partner to effectively handle the situations together.  Standards help eliminate these problems.

Fatigue was a big topic today.  The company has a very understanding fatigue avoidance program.  It took them a while to adapt but studies done by NASA and the FAA have found out how to measure fatigue.  They compare fatigue to blood alcohol level and consider you to be fatigued when your reaction and responses are comparable to a person at the legal blood alcohol limit.  As pilots, if something causes us to miss our necessary sleep such as a loud party at the hotel, or the baby got sick, or family issues, or money issues, or whatever random thing then we can call in fatigued and the company will respect it.  In 2010 there were around 600 fatigue calls.  Sounds like a high number but considering that a pilot works at least half of the days in a year and there are thousands of pilots in the company it is a small percentage.  It is better to have to call in another pilot than risk the lives of many.  We talked about a situation where a flight was taking off and the pilot flying pulled back on the yoke to lift off and nothing happened so they aborted.  They tried again and the flight went well.  A study was done on the scenario and they found that the pilot flying was heavily fatigued and the other was tired and on the verge of fatigue.  The flight recorders indicated that they had tried to lift off at a very low speed and both pilots were so tired they didn't even recognize it.

A common conversation among pilots is how mysterious we seem to non-pilots.  I would like to share a few points about the aviation industry that often get overlooked from the outside.

  1. Pilots Fly The Plane - Many people think that airliners are just flown on autopilot with a couple of people up front monitoring the computer. Far from the truth.  While we may use the autopilot often to help provide a smooth ride, we manipulate the controls on every flight.  We are not allowed to turn on the autopilot until we are 500 feet in the air and we have to turn it off at least 200 feet up before landing.  That may not be much time but it is some of the most critical time.  Other than rare cases, autopilots do not land the planes.  The pilot lands the plane.  Smooth or rough, almost every landing is done with a pilot at the controls and the autopilot turned off.
  2. The Pilots Take Turns - The copilot is not there just to do paperwork and build the captains ego. Every other leg the pilots alternate roles. On the first leg the captain may be the pilot flying (PF) and the copilot be the pilot monitoring (PM).  The next segment the copilot with fly and the captain will monitor.  This is done so that both pilots are equally proficient in the operation of the airplane so that in the rare case of pilot incapacitation the other one can safely land the plane alone.
  3. Diverting is a Good Thing - Most passengers get highly frustrated when they are told that they will be diverting to another airport due to weather or other reasons.  It seems that most passengers think that the planes are bullet proof and that it is just wimpy pilots.  If ever you find yourself diverting I would encourage you to thank the pilots on their excellent decision making and effort to keep you as safe as possible.  Trust me, the pilots wanted to arrive at the destination just as much as you did, and maybe more.  In those cases where the pilots want to get home so bad even though they know the weather is dangerous often don't turn out well.  Unfortunately I can show you at least a dozen accidents that happened because the pilots felt the pressure to get to their destination even though they knew the weather was at the limits.  In these cases there was nothing wrong with the plane but the pressure was there and poor choices were made.  It is better to arrive late than not at all.
The airline industry is a safe way to travel because the pilots are trained on these ideas on a regular basis.  I have heard it said that for an airline pilot the most dangerous part of the job is the drive to the airport.  Statistics show that to be true and I like that idea.  I do recognize that this thought can lead to complacency so I will do my best on every flight to follow the decided upon standards and work diligently with my crew, company, and air traffic control to keep you guys safe.

Happy flying!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Airline Pilot Training - Indoc Day 6

Security is a pretty important part of the airline world and today we discussed our role in security.  When we do international flights we have to do certain inspections before leaving and upon returning to the country.  We talked about procedures for accessing the flightdeck and how to open the door to the cockpit to keep things safe.  We watched a video on basic self defense including how to block a punch and defend ourselves against an attacker with a knife.  Then we had to partner up and practice with each other.  It was nice to get up and move around a bit. It was pretty basic stuff and hopefully I never have to use it.  I have always wanted to learn a bit about martial arts, maybe this is the time.

Can everybody say hazardous material? I can say it and luckily I won't have to say it often.  Our company does not carry much hazardous material (HAZMAT) at all.  We allow limited amounts of dry ice and biological substances including human tissue, blood specimens, human organs (including eyes), and bone marrow. We will carry company supplies such as batteries, oil, oxygen bottles, and medical kits. We even carry infant children! Luckily as the pilot I won't have to deal with these items directly often at all and maybe ever.  We also learned what to do in case of infectious disease outbreak on the plane (hopefully this never happens).

We watched videos about how to correctly don and inflate the life vests and then we all had to try it.  Everybody had to put on a life vest with a self inflating charge and pull the handle and let it fill up!  That was kind of fun.  Then we learned about smoke hoods and went outside and started a fire on a trashcan and practiced putting on the hood and using a water fire extinguisher to put out the fire.  It was a small fire so it didn't take much!

We wrapped up the day by doing a brief review of everything we have learned thus far.  It was a good discussion to help clarify the myriad of things we learned this week.  The last item of the day was taking the Basic Indoctrination test.  We had two hours to complete the test and everybody was able to finish before the time ran out.  The best news of all was that everybody passed.  My training partner got the highest score in the class and I was right behind him.  He is a smart guy and I am lucky to be paired up with him.  I want someone that will keep me sharp and on my toes.

Tomorrow we start Crew Resource Management (CRM) training which is just a two day module.  There is no test at the end of CRM.  This gives us time to study our flows and profiles to get ready for systems training and Flight Training Device (FTD) sessions.

Airline Pilot Training - Indoc Day 5

Friday morning we started out learning about a special exemption that allows us to depart IFR even when the forecast at our destination is below the minimums for the airport.  Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts (TAF) often contain conditional sections such as TEMPO, BECMG, and PROB.  We still require that the main body forecast be at or above approach minimums and the conditional portions can be below required minimums by about half of what is required.  I guess this just means that we can launch when it will most likely be possible to land but with a chance that the weather at the destination will be quite poor. The mail must go through. (And paying passengers!)

We learned about dispatch releases and what they contain.  One important thing to check is that the dispatch release shows the same tail number as the aircraft that is sitting at the gate.  Terry told us about a crew that boarded the plane and taxied out to the runway and realized they were in the wrong plane. Oops.  Be sure to take the correct plane!

Mach Number is the speed of the airplane compared to the speed of sound.  If we are flying half the speed of sound we would be traveling at .5 Mach or .5M.  One exciting thing about flying a jet is that our typical speed will be in the neighborhood of .76M.  76% of the speed of sound! That is fast! As excited as I am to see some high mach numbers we learned that the most important number is flying at the True Airspeed (TAS) that is shown in our flight plan.  Once we get to our cruising altitude we let the airplane accelerate and when we are close to the correct speed we reduce the power until we get the fuel flow that was planned.  If that gives us the correct cruise airspeed then we are done. If we are too slow we push up the power until we get the correct TAS.  This may or may not show the expected mach number. It just depends on the conditions that day.  (The speed of sound changes with the temperature).

We reviewed the departure procedure hierarchy and Terry reemphasized the fact that if we have a Special Departure Procedure chart that it is controlling even above ATC.  If ATC clears us for some random departure and we have an SDP we have to tell them 'unable' and that we must fly our SDP.  They usually expect this but apparently sometimes it surprises them a bit.

That afternoon we learned other random things including how to handle windshear, when we can takeoff during icing conditions, who can authorize ferry flights for our company, procedures for pushback from the gate, and how to handle inflight medical emergencies.  We wrapped up by talking about international flying.  ExpressJet flies to Canada and does a lot of flights into Mexico and I am stoked for that.  I hope I get to spend quite a bit of time in Mexico and brush up on my Spanish. I also spent some time learning French last year. Maybe my trips into Canada will give me a chance to practice some more French. And when we fly internationally all of the uneaten inflight meals must be thrown away so I shouldn't be hungry on those trips!