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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Uncle Twirly

The company had raised some capital by going public and there was talk of getting decent airplanes.  5 DC 9 - 10s were in the discussion.  They were previously owned by Republic Airlines.  Republic was bought by Northwest Airlines and the planes became available.

The DC 9-10 was the shortest version of the DC 9 and was just slightly bigger than the BAC 1-11s we were flying, but was a more reliable airplane type.

The story going around was that Florida Express was going to receive some financing from guys who were probably the mob.  When the meeting took place, the mob guys said they thought Florida Express was going to come up with the money.  I hadn't  watched the Sopranos at that point, but that sounded more like the way I thought the mob operated.  It just did not make sense that they would be investing capital to buy airplanes for an airline, especially since they were not going to be gaining control of the airline.  

When this deal fell through, we still had hopes that we would be flying DC 9s or Boeing 737s, but the company ended up buying the same 1-11s I had flown at Pacific Express.  Once again, our wonderful management team did something that seemed foolish to me, involving the acquisition of airplanes.  I was the only person they could have consulted to get the true picture of the condition of that fleet and they knew it.  They never approached me.  I would have told them in no uncertain terms that buying those planes would by a major mistake.  Since they did not even mention it to me, I concluded that they may never have intended to build a strong airline.  I could be wrong, but I was concerned that they only wanted to raise money through the IPO and then shut the airline down.  Seeing an article in the local paper saying that the CEO had sold 50,000 shares of stock did not do anything to change my mind.  Once again, I was thinking about looking for another job.

The airline had been struggling to be profitable and had just had a spurt of black ink before the IPO.  We were having another problem in the training department.  The new airplanes required additional hiring and upgrades to captain among those who had been first officers for the start up.  That included me.  Because I had been an airline captain on our airplane type previously, my training and check ride requirements were not as stringent as the others.  Dixon told me that we were having too many failures among those who were upgrading.  The FAA is tougher on captains, than they are on first officers, so some had slipped through easily at first, but were now having problems checking out.

You may recall a previous discussion about an FAA approved training department being required to maintain an 80% passing rate to be able to continue.  If we could not do that, we would have to go back to having USAir train our pilots and that would be very expensive.

Dixon gathered a group of our pilot leaders to discuss the problem.  Remember, several of our leaders had been striking Continental pilots.  They were very vigilant about what a company does regarding things like seniority.  However, we concluded that we may have to come up with a method of vetting those who we were sending to be trained as captains.  There were occasions when the list of those who were going for upgrade training was posted and captains were going to Dixon saying, "You're not upgrading (_____), are you?"  The people had been with the airline such a short time, that the chief pilot did not know who was good and who was not.

We decided to require captains to fill out a report on the first officers they flew with for a monthly big period and turn it in at the end of the month.  We explained that honesty was in the best interest of the airline and all of the employees.  No one likes to say something that could be harmful to another pilot's career.  We also established a Captain Upgrade Review Board.  Each candidate for upgrade would have to sit before a group of captains, 3 from management and 3 from the line, before being sent to the ground school and then the simulator in Pittsburgh.  It was kind of a flaming hoop they had to jump through, but we explained the situation and the importance to the survival of the airline.

Because we did not own a simulator and rented time on the one at USAir, we did not have new hire applicants fly a simulator as part of the hiring process.  The company was depending on logbook honesty and background checks.  Good luck with that.  This is why we had to take the measures we did to ensure a more qualified product going to the upgrade process.

I began to think that I knew several pilots from my general aviation days at Butler Graham, who could surely pass a captain check ride after a little experience in the right seat.  I called Weber, Twirly and my old helicopter instructor, Pete.  Weber and Pete were not interested.  I think they thought flying for the airlines was a big can of worms they did not want to jump into.  They were aware of all the turmoil that had been unleashed by Deregulaton.  Pete was still working at the FBO in Latrobe, PA and flying a Lear Jet for someone and Jim Weber was managing an FBO in Akron Ohio.

Dave Orris, Captain Twirly, my old chief pilot and single dude running mate was flying for an FBO in Louisville, KY.  He was single again and was interested in giving it a try.  I got him initiated in the interview and hiring process.

I had been involved in helping with the interviews and knew the drill, but for some reason, I decided to let Twirl have an honest interview, without prepping him for it.  That was probably a mistake.  At this point, I had done so much to help the airline survive and thrive, that I assumed a glowing letter of recommendation from me would be all he would need.  

I met his plane when he arrived in Orlando and he stayed at the house with us.  He did the interview and went home and after what I thought was an appropriate time, I began to pry to learn how it had gone.  After lots of arm twisting, I learned that he "had not interviewed well".  I asked if we were hiring people to interview or to fly airplanes.  I was very pissed off.  I had thought that I as doing the company a favor by trying to bring guys down who could fly the hell out of an airplane, unlike some of the duds they had been hiring, who obviously "interviewed well".  There were a few who had done so poorly, it compelled me to ask if they had "interviewed well".  They got my point.

I have to admit, that after years of trying to get myself hired at the top tier airlines and going through all of that process, I was angry that the airline where I worked, a bottom feeding, little, shoestring operation was pretentiously trying to act like the big boys and was failing.  The interviewers were worried about what kind of suit the applicant was wearing, what kind of tie, how he or she answered stupid questions.

Twirly had never thought about applying at an airline before.  Those of us who did, knew what kind of bullshit we had to spew to get through the process.  Now I was kicking myself for not prepping my old friend.  I turned that anger into action.  As far as Twirl's interviewers were concerned, I decided I was going to bypass their ass.

I did what I always do.  I went to Dixon.  Dixon had come up through the general aviation route, same as Dave and I did.  He also had not gone to college.  He was one of the smartest pilots I ever met and he was a savvy leader.  I pointed out that the three of us were like peas in a pod and that Twirl would really fit in with our group.  I told him that he would pass any check ride that could be devised by man and that we would all be proud of him.  

He was in a tough spot, because he could not just over ride the process, without offending those who interviewed Dave, but I pointed out that they had not rejected him, they had just not given him a high score.

As time passed, I told those involved that I thought it was stupid for us to try to imitate the major airlines in our hiring process.  We were a special case.  Many of you probably do not know what I mean when I say Steve Canyon, but that is what we called the ideal applicant in those days.  Blonde hair, blue eyes, square jaw and a go around in the Space Shuttle in his log book.

Florida Express could not really attract those guys, they went to the major airlines.  Twirly was none of that, but he could fly the crate the airplane came in.

Eventually, Dixon called me at home one Friday night and asked me if Dave could make a class next Monday.  I said I wouldn't be surprised if he told us to go to hell, but that I would call and ask.  I did and he said he could fly down on Sunday.

We had an extra room and we rented it to Twirl.  It was a win - win.  He had an inexpensive place to live, while getting through the low income phase and we had some additional income.  

He became little Caitlin's Uncle Twirly.

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