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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Jabba The Hutt

I knew this would happen.  As soon as I move on the the Braniff phase of the saga, I remember another story from the Florida Express phase.

Some time before the meeting in which the Flex management announced they were looking for a buyer, they hired a guy as vice president of operations.  Al Frink had left by this time.

The new guy had a pilot meeting and he was promoting a fuel savings program.  He was a little on the stout side, with no neck.  Some one said he looked like Jabba the Hutt from the Star Wars movies.  That is what we all called him from then on.

Jabba had a pilot meeting soon after his arrival.  Remember that these meetings are always held to convince employees to do something they probably don't want to do.

At this meeting, Jabba told us he wanted to initiate a fuel savings program and the primary tool was going to be to try to reduce the fuel loads.  The theory was that excess fuel was excess weight and it cost fuel burn to carry excess fuel.  If you have been with me since the beginning, you know how dumb this idea was.  We were flying this plane to its range limits and the airplane was not being maintained to the highest possible standard.  You also know we had a fuel burn incentive program that created safety and maintenance issues and had to be discontinued.

I got the protest started by pointing out all those facts.  I also said that the only way we could save fuel was to do things like rigging the flight controls properly, assuring that the gear doors closed completely and fixing the seals on the cabin entry doors.  You could see daylight through the cracks.  All of these thing were creating drag.  It also wouldn't hurt to wash them once in a while.

Soon the other pilots jumped in and you could see on Jabba's face that he knew he was losing this argument.  We were not going to accept lighter fuel loads.  We knew we were already at the minimum on that.

That must have been all Jabba had up his sleeve, because he did not hang around very long.  He moved on to another galaxy in a few months.

This story and many of the others show the power that pilots have in an airline or any airplane company.  They are the final line of safety.  All the other people involved in the flying of airplanes, owners, passengers, mechanics and even flight attendants have other interests that may conflict with safety.  It is up to pilots to stand up to all the pressures which may be applied.  They are backed up by the regulations and the Federal Aviation Administration.  However, if they make a stand, they have to be certain that they are correct.

Friday, July 29, 2016

(Not so) White Knight

Braniff.  Not the real Braniff, Braniff II.  We had all been thinking about who was going to come along and pull our fat from the fire.  There were lots of possibilities.  Some seemed pretty good, but Braniff II was not one of those.

Braniff International Boeing 747

Braniff International Concorde

The Pritzker Family, owners of the Hyatt Hotel chain came along and reorganized the original Braniff Internatonal and bought it out of bankruptcy.  Then they changed the name to Dalfort, made it an umbrella company and created Braniff Inc., a fully owned subsidiary.  The idea was to capitalize on the Braniff name, use Braniff employees and fly some of the Braniff planes.

Braniff Inc. Boeing 727

Braniff Inc. began service on March 1, 1984, a little more than 4 weeks after Florida Express began operating.  In effect, it was another new entry airline, but it was much better financed than Flex had been.  They started with 30 727s.  Flex started with 3 BAC 1-11s.  That's about the best way I can compare them.

At the time this looked like a good deal to us.  Braniff was a national airline, Florida Express was a regional airline.  At the very least, we would be flying to exciting new cities.

The merging process took some time.  We began changing the paint on our planes to call ourselves Braniff Express.  All the BAC pilots were frozen in their positions.

We had a lawyer come to a meeting to discuss our options in merging the seniority lists.  Braniff pilots were represented by the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), we did not have a union.  Their pilots believed their seniority dated back to their original dates of hire at Braniff International.  They had maintained the same seniority with the new company.  When we talked to our lawyer, he asked how much money we could come up with.  We decided he would spend whatever we could come up with and we would still just be stapled to the bottom of the Braniff list, so we opted not to move forward with him.

The vice president of the Braniff ALPA, Master Executive Council (MEC) was a guy named Dick Goduti.  He was a dick and a snaggle toothed dick at that.  Someone needed to introduce him to an orthodontist.  I had lunch with him once and the bread from his sandwich was getting lost up in his snaggle teeth that were going every which way.  When we talked to him about getting stapled to the bottom of the list, he said the company just wanted to let us all go and the union saved our asses.  What a guy.

The Braniff management pilots wanted to have a meeting with the Florida Express pilots.  Bob Dixon invited me to attend, even though I was not technically a management pilot at that time.  I guess it was just a habit with him.

All the big shots came down, from some vice president of operations named John something or other and some chief pilot everyone called Billy Blue Eyes.

Blah, blah, blah, something about Cockpit Resource Management, blah, blah.  Then John asks what kind of operational problems were we having.  Nothing.  I looked around the table and all of our management pilots, who had been trying to help us keep that POS BAC 1-11 flying for 4 1/2 years, were silent.  I figured, WTF?  I looked at John the VP of Ops and told him what a POS this airplane was.  I told him I had flown it at Pacific Express for a year, then the 4.5 at Flex.  I told him how we had documented how the plane had so many repeat discrepancies.  For example, there was one that had to have a generator control panel replaced about once every 2 to 3 weeks, at $10 Grand a pop.  I went on for a long time.

You have to understand that Braniff International was one of the early operators of the BAC in the US and that almost all of the planes we had acquired from USAir were originally Braniff planes. I think I hurt his feelings.  When I finally finished, he said something to the effect that, we'll teach you kids how to fly the BAC 1-11.  I thought, "Looking forward to that."

Stock Options

I mentioned that the CEO of Florida Express often had meetings with the pilots.  I always thought the basic reason for these meetings was to pacify the pilots, while not paying them nearly what pilots were earning at legacy airlines.  He also had meetings with all the combined employee groups.  The reasons varied, but were usually to bring bad news or to prepare us for something we probably would not like.

One such meeting was to announce that another airline, Air Illinois, was going to be flying some of our passengers.  The reason pilots hate something like this is that we have seen it all before.  This is a classic way to pit one pilot group against another, which leads to pilot "pushing", trying to make them do things they don't want to do, because they think it is unsafe.

This was something that I was upset about and did not know if any other pilots or other employees would be speaking out against it.  I also did not know if it was something we could stop.  Before the meeting, I was going over what I would say.  Before I had a chance to open my big mouth, my Naval Academy grad, former F-14 pilot pal, Tom, spoke up.  

Tom pointed out that Air Illinois had a crash several years ago, in which the captain had made a serious error in judgement.  He said that any such mistake in the future would reflect on Florida Express and that we could not afford such a bad reflection.  We pilots had been operating the airline with that thought in the back of our minds for several years.  We were frequently confused with Air Florida, which had a crash into the Potomac River in Washington DC several years ago.

As Tom spoke, I could see that he was persuading the members of the other employee groups and I could see that our CEO, Gordon Linkon, could see that he was loosing the argument.  I was relieved, because I would not have been so smooth and probably would have blown that opportunity.  Tom had advanced the perfect argument to get the entire company on our side of the issue and we simply got more airplanes, which we flew ourselves.  Our managers must have believed that they would need the cooperation of all the employees to make their plan work.  I think he was right.

When an airline or any other company is started, with a plan to sell stock publicly at some time, there are always key employees in the beginning who are given stock options at a price which will be significantly below the opening price on the market.  In a very small way, I was one of those employees.  You may remember that I told you how I exercised my options and used the profit as a down payment on a house.  I was being rewarded for the work I did to set up the ground school, which saved the company a significant amount of money, as it was trying to get started.  Several other pilots who worked above and beyond in the beginning received such options also.

Members of top management certainly receive such options and it is reasonable to assume that their price advantage is much greater than mine would have been.  I learned that they received much larger numbers of shares than I did, also.

For some reason, a little column in the business section the Orlando paper caught my eye.  This column is not something I usually paid attention to, it just caught my eye this one day, for some unexplainable reason.  The title was Insider Trading and it showed that Gordon Linkon, our CEO had exercised an option to buy and sell 50,000 shares of Florida Express stock.  I don't remember is there was more detail, but I was a little concerned that our boss was selling such a large amount of company stock.  The stock had peaked and the price was falling, as the company was having problems for the reasons I talked about in earlier posts.

This was the time when I was wondering if it would be better to look for another job or stay at Florida Express.

Eventually, Mr. Linkon had another meeting with members of all employee groups.  We all had a bad feeling about this one.

I tend to forget details of unhappy events like this, but there are a few things I remember.  Mr. Linkon told us the company was not making it.  They were going to try to find a buyer.  We were just not able to compete against the other airlines that had now started coming after us.

Many of the employees were so upset, that they just kind of let it all hang out in their comments to the bosses.  They pointed out that many of us had been trying to point out shortcomings and failures that were costing us customers.  I have talked about much of this in previous posts, but it was mostly about the mechanical problems with the BAC 1-11.  As I used to say partially joking, "We make our passengers earn their discount."

It was pointed out that we should have acquired better planes when we had the money from the initial stock offering.  Staying with the BAC was BAD.  There were also several who pointed out that the company failed to spend money to fix several problems that were angering our passengers.  My pal, Pepe, said with his French accent, "Mr. Gordon Linkon, we love you, but your are too cheap, cheap, el cheapo."  He was sounding more exasperated with each cheap.

So, now we were in a state of limbo, waiting to see who would be our "White Knight" to the rescue.  Good times.

I knew that I had exercised my last stock option.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

FOs and FAs

You may remember my First Officer philosophy.  As an FO, I never wanted to put a captain out of his comfort zone.  In my experience as a captain, not all first officers share that philosophy.  When you fly with a really good first officer, it is like a Fred and Ginger dance.  Choreography, baby.

Or a tune played by Jonathan's Machete, where they do all the fancy guitar shit.

Or maybe like this.

And we have to do that, even when our heads are in the clouds.

When things aren't going well, it just seems that the 2 pilots are always bumping each other's hands or bumping heads together.  Every airline just seems to have a few copilots who have their own agenda on every flight.  They are a real pain in the ass.  You may remember when I told you about a friend at USAir who had just upgraded.  When I told him now he got to be the asshole instead of flying with the asshole, he said the first thing he learned when moving to the left seat was that all the assholes are not in the left seat.

We had a guy who had upgraded to captain, but when the company receded a little, he was bumped back to the right seat.  He was older than most of our group.  He had been a navy noncommissioned officer and was a major pain in the ass.  The flight attendants called him Grumpy.  He had a button under his lapel that said, "I'm entitled to be Grumpy".  This proves that anyone who feels entitled is a pain in the ass.

We were flying an arrival into an airport and it involved tracking a VOR radial to intercept another one, making a turn to the left.  I was tracking outbound on the left VOR receiver and had set up the right VOR in the leg we were to intercept inbound.  This gave me a Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) read out of my distance to the intersection(with some second grade math).  A few minutes later, I checked that DME and the distance didn't make sense.  The right VOR frequency had been changed.  I told Grumpy that I wanted it set on the inbound VOR and the reason.  He said that was his VOR.  I controlled my anger, but I told him the entire fucking airplane was mine and he was here to assist me.  I told him when he was flying the airplane, he could set the radios up however he wanted, but when I was flying they would be set up the way I wanted them.  

There was another guy, I will call him The Czar, who was a sharp shooter.  He was always trying to do things before I did or to seem smarter.  That is not that hard to do with me, but the problem was that he was usually wrong.  I never gave a crap about stuff like that.  To me, it was about trying to have a perfect flight, every thing went well.  I didn't care who got credit or who was the one who came up with the good idea.  I did expect the first officer to run everything through me, though.  When a copilot started thinking he or she had a great idea, I wanted to know about it, before they tried to put it into action, especially with a guy who was aways getting it wrong.

One night, after a long day, The Czar and I were flying into Columbus Ohio.  It is my leg and the wind was blowing across the runway at a speed that was near the demonstrated maximum for our plane.  Upon the first call to the tower, they gave the wind direction and speed (as they are required to do) and cleared us to land.  We were within our max. speed.  I was flying the glide slope and things were going well, when the Czar decided to ask for a wind check.  I didn't say anything at the time, but this pissed me off.  I did not want to give the controller an opportunity to give a cross wind speed that would create a dilemma.  

You may have noticed that I said we had a maximum demonstrated crosswind speed.  I always interpreted that to mean that it was not technically a limit, but if something happened on the landing and we had exceeded that, I would have to explain why I had not gone around.  We had a speed that was less than the demonstrated speed and everything was going well.  No one in the world knew more about what the wind was doing to that plane than I did at the time I was landing it and I did not want to hear a number that created a dilemma.  

If the landing was not going well, for any reason, I was going to go around.  If I got a number I did not like, I would have to go around and hope the wind numbers were better than the first attempt or go to an alternate.  Cross wind landings were something that I was especially good at.  I had learned how to do them from some of the best instructors back at Graham Aviation.  When we were arriving at our northern destinations, we did not have lots of extra fuel to mess around, waiting for the wind to get it together.

I had this discussion with the Czar after the landing and he decided to dig his heels in on this one.  I told him he could do whatever he wanted to when he made captain, but when he was flying with me, not to  ask for a wind check unless I told him to.  I would never have done any of these last two things I have told you about.  They would have been completely against my originally stated philosophy.

It's not always the captain and first officer who are bumping heads.

Most of the time, it was not like any of that.  I flew with many terrific FOs.  I remember one of them, John, as we were flying into Birmingham Alabama one afternoon.  With our older navigation equipment, you have to learn to have an intuition about where you are relative to the airport, to avoid being too high.  I became aware that we were high on this particular approach and John did not seem to be aware.  I thought about telling him, but waited to see if he would get it himself.  I was watching him out of the corner of my eye and knew the instant he realized his situation.  He suddenly sat up straight and started doing all the things he had to do to catch up to the situation.  He raised the nose to slow down, pulled the speed brakes, started extending gear and flaps when we slowed below their maximum speeds.  It was a thing of beauty.  We probably had a little extra time before it would have become a big problem for him and I really enjoyed watching him in action when he broke the code.

There were many others, but one I am remembering now was Dan.  He was a calm and cool as he could be and flew a very good airplane.  He also liked to join me for a beer, when we had enough time and we had some great discussions, solving the worlds problems  Dan was a real pleasure to fly with and we are pals to this day.

I told you about our flight attendants before.  They were terrific.  They were mostly relatively inexperienced young ladies, who took the opportunity to fly for the new home town airline.  Some of them were older women whose families were grown and were looking for a fun way to make a few bucks.  They were all starry eyed when they started and often the rigors of the job beat them down.  It was not quite as glamorous as they had anticipated and some of them had to move on.  The ones who remained were most often very good flight attendants.  They were tough and resilient.  They took some good punches and did it with a smile.  In fairness, I should point out that we had a few male flight attendants and same was true of them.

With Florida Express, we did not use jetways in Oralando.  The passengers exited the terminal through a door and walked down steps, across the ramp and up the forward air stairs of the jet.  Orlando was usually very hot, especially in the summer.  The air-conditioning on the BAC 1-11s was not very good.  There was not enough airflow.  I knew this back in the day, when I worked for USAir.  Often the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), a small jet engine in the tail of the plane for providing electrical power and airflow for the AC, was not operating.  This combination was deadly for reals.

When the planes arrived in Orlando from the south Florida cities, the cabin was warm or even hot.  The flight was not long enough or high enough to cool things down.  The passengers we had picked up down there and were staying on the same plane had to sit in all that heat.  The number of bodies on the airplane and the ambient temperature usually had more impact on cabin temperature than the AC.

One hot summer evening, we had an older woman passenger sitting on a plane who had a heart condition.  She began to become ill and was taken out to the ramp and was lying there on the concrete as one of our female flight attendants gave her CPR.  This was a reminder that the flight attendants are there for more than serving Cokes and peanuts.  The woman died, literally as the FA was mouth to mouth with her.  Her manager made her continue on to the layover in the northern city that night.

The young man playing the green bass guitar in the above video took his own life a couple months ago.  

This is how I'd rather the world be.

Thursday, July 14, 2016


Part of the reason for the long layoff since the last segment of the saga, is that we are leading up to what is probably the worst part and I have to get my head right to discuss it.  Also, I want to make sure I tie up all the loose ends of the Florida Express experience.

Just to review, my adult life began the night I was traveling to Ft. Knox and not knowing what was in my near or distant future.  My world had been shaken up when I was drafted and I decided to make some big life changes as I rode on a TWA Constellation to Louisville.  After my separation from the Army, I began taking flying lessons with the sole and express purpose of becoming an airline pilot.  There were several tough issues to deal with, some of them self inflicted.  I finally got all the pilot licenses, ratings and flying time necessary to be qualified for an airline job, but could only get hired by a tiny airline in California.  However, it did get me the jet experience I needed and I had checked out as a captain, before the company went bankrupt and disappeared.  That led to my calling in on favors from some of the friends I had met along the way and getting hired at Florida Express, another tiny airline.

I have already discussed some of the reasons Florida Express was struggling.  Most of the new entry airlines, started after airline deregulation, were having similar problems.  They were all targets of the "legacy" airlines that existed before deregulation.  The larger companies could offer low fares against the new companies and subsidize with other markets.  In many cases, they offered superior service to the low cost airlines.  However, as more and more low fare companies popped up, it was forcing everyone to offer them and many of the legacies began to have trouble also.  The problem was that the system went from complete regulation of routes and fares to no regulation, literally overnight, and it became like swimming in a shark tank.  They were all trying to kill off the others.  No one could make money.

We were all watching this and wondering how it was going to effect us in the long run.  The analogy that kept running through my head was that I was on a runaway train, going down a mountain and about to go into a dark tunnel.  It looked dangerous in there and I didn't know if I would be hurt more by jumping off or by trying to ride it out through the tunnel.

If I didn't explain it before, changing jobs as an airline pilot is almost always painful.  Seniority is paramount for airline pilots.  Your income and quality of life are very much impacted by being junior on the seniority list.  You bid for schedule and vacation based on your seniority.  When I started at Florida Express, I was at the bottom of the list, number 29 of 29 pilots.  As the airline grew, more pilots were hired in below me and some of those senior to me left for other jobs.  For example, my old Annapolis grad, F-14 pilot pal, Tom went to American.  It was widely believed that working for the bigger, legacy companies was a better, more secure position.

Because I did not have a college degree, there were fewer opportunities for me.  One of them was Piedmont and I gave that some thought, then they merged with USAir.  I gave that some thought also, but anticipated possible issues applying there, since I had already interviewed and been rejected.

But, the real hang up was uncertainty and the knowledge that I was now about number 13 on the Florida Express list and we had a nice life in Orlando.  We were comfortable and making a change would mean going to the bottom of some other seniority list and suffering through a probationary year of low pay.

So, I stayed.  It was not that tough.  We had grown to about 150 pilots at one point.  Our system of cities had expanded and it was fun to fly to the newer ones.  Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, West Palm Beach, New Orleans and Knoxville were examples.  We even flew to Nassau in the Bahamas for a while.  That was fun.  We flew a couple who thought they could get a quickie marriage down there and they were on our return flight, mission not accomplished.  I joked around and said I could marry them as a captain of a ship over international waters.  I had a nice little ceremony over the P.A. and ended it by saying, "And by the powers vested in me by John Wayne and Chuck Yeager, I now pronounce you man and wife."  Touching.  I don't know if they took that seriously or not.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Dirty Dozen

I apologize to my faithful followers, all 12 of you.  I hope I haven't lost any of you forever.  I took a break. Writing this blog is kind of like exercising, even though I love it, once I have not done it for a while, it is a challenge to get back in the routine.