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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Moose Is On The Loose

I have been jumping around in time a little on this Florida Express segment of the saga.  I'm telling the stories in the order I remember them.  I've never forgotten this one, but I think this is a good time to tell it. 

Upon parking on the Orlando ramp after a morning flight from Cincinnati,  I noticed Chief Pilot Dixon walking toward my jet carrying his flight bag and wearing his uniform.  I knew what was happening.  

Earlier that morning, Captain Twirly (Dave) had driven Doreen to the hospital.  When he saw that she was in good hands, he hugged her, said good luck and left.  The nurses thought he was her husband and were dumbfounded.  I almost wish I could have witnessed that, but if I had, it wouldn't have happened.  This is getting confusing.

So anyway, Dixon came on the plane and told me what's going on and I headed for the Orlando Regional Medical Center, arriving in time to witness the birth of my son.  He was a big one, 8 lb. 15 oz.  He was a chunky rascal and I always said he was like a chunk of moose meat.  Oh, come on, it's a father and son thing.  His nickname was Moosey.  Caitlin's was Boo Dinky which evolved to Boom when she was a little older.  Doreen said she was glad that I got my son, but I would have been very happy to have another daughter.  I really liked my kids when they were growing up.  They were lots of fun and in some ways I wish we all could have frozen all our ages in the Florida Express era.

Captain Twirly became Uncle Twirly, except that the kids had a funny kid way of pronouncing Twirly.  Twirly became Torly or Tor.  Maurice became Uncle Pepe.  We were a small, tight group at Florida Express and everyone knew everyone.  I always felt that I could have walked into the office of the CEO, addressed him by his first name and discussed anything with him.  Of course, I would not violate the chain of command.  The military experience still had a strong influence on how I conducted myself.  If I were going to talk to him, I would get permission from the chief pilot or director of operations.

We started looking for a house to buy when I was able to exercise my first option on the shares of stock that I received for setting up the ground school.  The shares opened on the market for more than the price I was offered and I bought and sold them in one transaction, netting enough for a nice down payment.  

Although we were not looking for a house with a pool, the first house we both liked had one.  We knew the problems this created for parents of young children.  Drowning and near drownings were pervasive in states like Florida and Texas, where there were lots of pools and other bodies of water.  We were determined to do everything in our power to assure that our children would be safe with a pool in our backyard.

Doreen heard about a guy who offered swimming lessons to children.  We talked to lots of people and watched several lessons in progress.  After talking to the guy, Harvey Barnett, and his wife, we decided to enroll our kids in lessons.  Mike was about 20 months and Caitlin about 3 years.  There is much controversy about this guy and his company and method, but we were convinced that it was something we had to do.  It was kind of like getting inoculations for your children.  They don't like it and cry and you don't like seeing this happen to them, but you know it is something you must do.

This is Harvey at work.  It seems a little rushed and abrupt compared to my memories of our kids' lessons, but Harvey was a little more abrupt and less gentle than his wife was.  We believed in all the reasons for doing this and wanted our kids to be able to buy time for themselves and even be able to return to the side of the pool and get out, if they fell in.  They learned how to do that and I have an old video on tape that proves it.

Learning all this was not enough.  We bought a special fence and had it installed around our pool.  We had to be concerned about the children of our neighbors and we had to have a barrier right at the edge of the pool.  There were all kinds of stories about children climbing chain link fences around back yards or finding doors that were not secured and getting into pools.  When they get into water without training, children try to doggy paddle and remain vertical.   Then they sink and drown. Near drownings are nearly as tragic.  The lack of oxygen causes severe brain damage. They must be trained to rotate to their backs and float.  Their legs are shorter and weigh less, so they float easier, than adults do.  They also cry, which is like an alarm sounding to alert adults that something is wrong.  

I have video of Mike from under water.  I am always impressed when I see the change in his demeanor as soon as he rolled face down and started swimming toward the side of the pool.  He went from crying to all business.  You can see him looking around to find the wall and then getting busy propelling himself toward it.  When he got tired and needed air, he rolled to his back and cried a little.  When he was rested, he rolled again and moved toward the wall in a calm, but serious fashion.  He would hold the side of the pool and then hike his leg up and crawl out.

When kids are beginning their lessons, they start crying while floating.  If they cry too much, they blow all their air out and sink a little into the water.  I was always intrigued watching them experiment to see how much air they could expel in their crying to be able to stay on top of the water.

Because of the age difference, Caitlin was finished earlier than Mike.  Harvey wanted to teach her to snorkel with fins and we said OK.  At this point, his stern attitude and abruptness began to bother me.  She had learned the survival techniques we had set as our goal and I thought that was enough.  It was time for her to start having fun in the water, instead of working.

When they were both finished, we started spending hours in our pool, having fun and learning how to swim better.  I would challenge them to swim across the pool, then the length of the pool, then go to the bottom, 8 ft. deep and retrieve objects.  There was a slide into the pool and we were having a blast.  I think the pool helped us all get through the hot days and evenings of the Orlando summers.  When there was not adult at the pool, the fence went up and it was off limits for the kiddos.  

I think these lessons did a lot to teach our kids how to deal with challenges and adversity.  I often told them later that they had that to fall back on when things were looking tough for them.  They had been taught and challenged from an early age to persevere and they succeeded.  The mental toughness they gained from this experience would serve them well in later years, when they grabbed the responsibility for their educations by the horns, when that was necessary.  Caitlin became a very accomplished competitive swimmer in later years.

I thought that Doreen had demonstrated such interest in the training, that I suggested she become an instructor, if she wanted to.  After a little thought, she decided to give it a go and this would be very helpful to us a few years later.  In the mean time, she was teaching children in our pool and I think she was a much better and effective teacher than the guy who developed the system.  

As I said there is much controversy surrounding that guy.  You can Google his name or Infant Swimming Research if you want to see what I am talking about. He has changed the name of his organization slightly a couple times.  I have mixed feelings about him.  However, I think the purpose and fundamentals of what he is doing are important and I never regretted having Caitlin and Mike take the lessons.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Flex Air

The symbol above was created by my son, Mike, for the cover of his Flexible Flyer song and the CD album of the same title.  You may recall that one of the reasons I came up with the title of my blog was the Flexible Flyer sled I had as a child.  Another part of that was our call sign at Florida Express, Flexair.  It came from the first two letters of each of the words FLorida EXress.  Yes, I know most of you are smart enough to figure that one out.  Remember Pacific Express was PacEx.

The call sign was often abbreviated to Flex, by both our pilots and the controllers.  Often when we were just talking about the airline with fellow pilots, it was referred to as Flex.  We had to be very flexible to fly for that company, so that is just about all that went into the process of coming up with the title.  As I said, I thought about this for a long time and used to bug Mike to write a song titled Flexible Flyer or even use that as a name for one of his bands.  I wasn't all that serious about that, but I guess he thought I was.

I look back on this time as the peak of my flying skills.  I had spent 3 years teaching the systems of the plane I was flying.  I had spent more than a year thrashing around learning how to fly it in mountainous parts of the American West, eventually upgrading to captain.  About a year after upgrading to captain at Flex, I became a check airman.  This meant I was a training captain for both new captains and new first officers.  Check airmen did the training in the simulator in Pittsburgh and in the airplane while flying the line.  

We had to be able to fly the plane from either the left or right seat.  This was a little trickier than you might think.  One of the first things you would notice when training someone who was moving from the right seat to the left seat was that they did not line up on the runway or taxiway center line at first.  This was not too big a challenge to correct.  It was just necessary to show them the sight picture when they were on the line.  Of course, another issue was switching the hands with which you flew the flight controls and moved the throttles.  (They are called thrust levers on American made jets, but were still called throttles on the British Bullet.)  It may just have been me, but another issue was getting used to having all that open cockpit space on the side where I had become accustomed to having a wall and window.  It was weird....weird I tell you.

My friend, Warren, became a check airman at about the same time. We could give each other our required line checks while flying on the same trip together.  One such occasion occurred on a nasty winter night, while flying to the Akron-Canton airport, one of our new destinations as we acquired more planes.

I was flying and Warren was in the right seat, acting as FO, but also checking me.  When we got the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service - I know you remember this from my previously mentioning it.), we learned that the cloud ceiling was 200 ft. and the visibility was 1/2 mile.  Those were our minimums for starting the approach.  If they would have been worse, we would have had to go to an alternate, without beginning the approach at the destination.  

This situation was a classic example of a problem we emphasized to newly upgrading captains with our airline.  I mentioned earlier, that we were flying the BAC to the limits of its range, far more than the original intent of the designers.  Preflight planning by the dispatchers and pilots require having enough fuel to fly to the destination, then to an alternate if weather requires, then for an additional 45 minutes.  Jets have a much higher fuel burn rate at lower altitudes than higher.  Once you leave your cruise altitude, descending to the destination, your options are limited.  While at the higher altitude, you could glide at idle thrust to all the airports within a mileage radius of about 3 times your altitude, so you should be checking weather at all these places and talking to dispatch to make all these decisions before you have to descend to the original destination.

The Akron - Canton airport (CAK) is between Pittsburgh and Cleveland and is definitely the smallest dog in that fight.  By this, I mean those two busier airports have higher priority in the air traffic control considerations when it comes to the strategic planning and developing of arrival and departure routes as well as the tactical considerations in real time.  What this meant to our Flexair flight that night is that we were held a little high by the controllers and had to do a "slam dunk" descent, with speed brakes, to get down in time to be at the correct altitude to begin the approach.

Warren is a big dude, from Texas and likes to hear himself talk.  Nothing wrong with that most times.  He is smart and knows a lot about a lot of subjects.  I always enjoyed listening to him talk.  On this particular night, I found myself wishing he didn't talk so much.  As we approached the point where we needed to begin our descent, we had the big picture on surrounding airport weather and our plan was to attempt the approach, then go to an alternate, if we missed the approach (did not see enough to land).  Warren got into a conversation on our second radio involving dispatch and the Florida Express station people at CAK.  Blah, blah, blah!!!!

I needed him to be dealing with the ATC situation, as they were not giving us the descent altitude clearances we needed and we needed to brief the approach to make sure we were both on the same sheet of music.  We were both check airmen and had flown together enough that we could do that in abbreviated terms, but we still needed to make sure we had the same plan.

The procedure for the ILS approach would be to get slowed and configured for landing before intercepting the glide slope, then flying the GS to 200 ft. above the runway.  This would all be hand flown, because we did not trust our old autopilots to do it as well as we could and well, we just liked the challenge of doing that.

When we got to minimums, there are several specific things the pilot not flying needs to look for.  If he sees one of them, he calls it out and we land.  If he does not, he calls that out and we execute a go around.  We practice this stuff in the simulator all the time.  No sweat.

Some of the problems with this particular approach, was that the runway was short, it was covered with snow that had been plowed and was hardened by planes operating on it.  It would create a braking challenge.  Furthermore, the plowed snow was piled up along the side of the runway into snow banks.

My plan was to fly the glide slope to the runway, with very little landing flare and get the plane on the ground at the earliest possible point.  The snow would soften the landing a little, but I was more worried about getting stopped in time.  I would not use the wheel brakes until I was convinced they would not cause a skid.  I would use the engine thrust reversers until I was certain the plane would stop before running off the far end of the runway.  Normally we would stow the reversers as we decreased through 80 knots, but I was going well below that to about the speed you would use to walk on a slippery sidewalk.   

Yak, yak, yak.  I finally said, "Just tell them what we are doing and get back in the dance.  I need you here with me." or something to that effect.  Real captain stuff.  As I said, it didn't take much time to transfer my plans and we were in agreement.

This turned out to be one of the best approaches I ever flew and that is probably why I remember it so well.  When we got to 200 ft. Warren could kind of see the glare of the bright, flashing approach lights, we call the rabbit, coming up through the fog and snow.  We decided that was enough and continued to 100 ft., where we saw runway lights.  That is the definition of one of the requirements for what we must see on such an ILS approach.  Very cool.

I was locked on the localizer and glide slope and Warren was watching for any deviation.  If it happened, he would call it out.  It all went just as we had planned.  We touched down in the target, got into reverse, stayed in until we were down to walking speed, then tested the wheel brakes and stowed the reversers.  We were about the length of the plane from the end of the runway at that point.  If it had looked closer, I would have tried the brakes a little sooner.  

Taxiing in those conditions is as challenging as flying.  We made our way to the ramp, parked and shut down as the passengers walked off the plane into the blizzard.  Warren said he was buying the beer at the debrief at the hotel.  See you at the bar.

We discussed one of our captains who called in sick more than all the other pilots combined and frequently ended up at alternate airports.  Warren explained it this way:  "When guys like you and I learn that the weather is 200 and a half, we think, 'Oh, I have a chance to get in there and we fly the approach and miss if we don't see anything.  When (blank) learns that weather is at minimums, (blank) thinks, 'I'm calling in sick or going to the alternate.'"


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

That's the way it is.

There were three cycles in our business in Orlando.  It was like a wave, building up to a peak, three times a year.  The first wave build up of the year was Spring Break.  The passenger count would build slowly after the first of the year, until the spring frenzy was over.

The next peak was during summer.  The loads would begin to build until late in August, then drop precipitously.  The third wave built up until Christmas, then there was another big drop.  We had three frantic periods, then three periods during which we could take a breather.

The problem for the managers of our little airline was staffing.  If they staffed for the peaks, they had too many people for the valleys.  If they staffed for the slow time, we would be overwhelmed during the busiest times.

Staffing in other departments had issues also.  For example, the agents and mechanics in Orlando were very busy when the planes were on the ramp in a bank, but things were snoozy after they left.

In experimenting to find the best level of staffing, the company let things get a little thin and expected the pilots to pick up the slack.  They started calling us on our days off to come out and fly.  Some of the pilots bought answering machines and screened their calls.  Some decided to just say they could not fly when called.

One very busy day, when several pilots had refused to come in on a day off, Director of Operations, Captain Al Frink was in the crew room, where dispatch and scheduling were located.  He lost it and said, "Fire the next pilot who refuses to come in."  You may recall, Jim, the guy who ran dispatch and scheduling at Pacific Express and then came to Florida Express in the same capacity.  When he heard what Frink said, he said, "Wait a minute.  We have a problem with not enough pilots and you want to start firing them?  Why don't you offer them money to come in?"  They did and it worked and this was the beginning of the end of our lousy salary system of pay.

The pilots had been hanging in with the company, flying tough schedules and junky airplanes and making it work.  It was time to find a way to reward their loyalty.

The first attempt was to offer a bonus based on fuel consumption.  There were comparisons of the fuel burns of all the pilots on all the various legs and those who had the lower burns were given a bonus.  It didn't take long to understand the pitfalls of this process.  Pilots were beginning to experiment with techniques that had dangerous potential.  Just one example had to do with what is known as "stabilizing" an approach to land.

Jet engines are a little slow to "spool up" from idle to an engine speed that produces significant thrust.  The conservative way to fly an approach is to slow the plane, extend the gear and flaps, establish the correct speed for weight and conditions, then adjust the power setting to maintain all that on the correct glide path to the runway.  Everything is stable and most airlines require this to be done by 500 ft. above the runway.  This can be done earlier, which is more conservative, but uses more fuel.  It can also be done later, which is less conservative and saves fuel.  The problem with the latter, is that if something which requires a go around occurs, there may not be enough time for the engines to spool up, before the plane contacts the ground.

With all the variables, it is far more complex than that, but I think that gives you an idea of where some of the folks were trying to get that bonus money.  The good thing about our little company was that we could see things like this happening, bring them to the attention of the chief pilot and get them corrected quickly.  The company was pretty good about letting the pilots run the flight operation side.  They had learned to trust that we were doing what was in the best interest of the company.

After the fuel conservation pay program was broken up, the company came up with one that paid a bonus for flying extra hours each quarter.  It is not easy to explain and I probably don't remember it as well as I could, but essentially, if a pilot flew 25 extra hours each quarter, there would be a bonus paid.  

I talked to my friend, Warren, who was holding some position in pilot management at the time, and he gave me all the details and answered all my questions.  The thing about pilots is, that they are really good at figuring out ways to work a pay system.

After getting the fine points of this system digested, I took a pencil to it and determined that I could make an additional $10,000 per year.  To confirm my thinking, I called Information Victor and he agreed with me.  It would be rather easy for a pilot to make an additional 10 Grand.  We had more than 100 pilots at the time.  10,000 times 100 equals a million bucks.  I called my friend Maurice (also known as Pepe Le Pew, because he was French and he was always chasing the womens), explained the deal to him and asked him if he thought he could do what was necessary to make the 10 Gs.  I picked him, because he was sharp with the $s and he was about midway on the seniority list.  He said he could do it.

So, within a few hours of knowing the details of the pay plan, 3 pilots had determined that it had the potential to cost the company a million dollars or more.

Maurice and I went to the pilots who were currently managing the flight operations department and asked if they would like us to monitor the system and maintain a howgozit view of it.  Dixon was taking a break from management and went "back to the line", to just fly the airplane for a while.  The new guys said no, there was a new computer system tracking everyone's time and they would just wait until the end of the year and total it all up for the bonus.  We said, "Oh", and just kept track of how we were doing as individuals and we were on schedule all year to do what we thought we could do.  We actually wondered what we might be missing.

At the end of the year, our CEO had another pilot meeting.  He announced that we would not be doing the bonus for time plan the next year, because it cost more than $ 1 million and they did not expect it to be that expensive.  Information Victor, who was never bashful, stood up and told the boss that a few of us dumb pilots had gotten together as soon as the plan was announced and calculated that it would cost the company a million bucks, so why didn't management know that.  The boss said, "Well Victor, I guess you are just smarter than us."  He was right.

There was one guy, who was even smarter than we were.  We all flew our butts off each month.  This guy saw that all you had to do was fly your butt off one month each quarter, then goof off the other two, to get the 25 extra hours each quarter and 100 for the year.  This was what the bosses were mad about and probably the main reason they decided to cancel the program for the future.  If we had been allowed to monitor the process, as we requested, we would have seen what he was doing and what the group was doing and given them a heads up, but NOOOO!  They had a computer doing all that. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Flying The Line

The original route structure, with only three planes was designed so that all three planes arrived in Orlando (MCO) at the same time.  For example, they would layover each night in the northern cities, Indianapolis, Louisville and Richmond.  Their departures in the morning were timed so the planes could make their intermediate stops in Nashville and Norfolk, then match up at MCO.  At this point, the big ant pile process, known as a bank, with passengers either remaining in Orlando or getting on the other planes to continue, took place at the terminal and then the planes flew to Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami.  After unloading and reloading, the planes were flown back to MCO, then to the northern cities and back for an afternoon bank.   From here they went south again, then back for an early evening bank, before flying to the overnights in the north country. 

There were several marketing thoughts behind this process.  First, we were flying to mid-size cities so as not to compete with the larger, more established airlines.  (After my Pacific Express experience, I thought this was a great idea.)  Secondly, we were bypassing the major hubs of Atlanta and Charlotte, offering non-stop service to Florida.  The fares were so low that we attracted people to drive to our northern cities from cities several hours away.  Then we kept all of our people together in our system to offer 3 more Florida destinations.

We were small, we had our own little niche and the big boys did not see us as a threat.  They left us alone to do our thing, because we were not trying to do what they were doing.  At Pacific Express, as the major airlines were coming back from their most recent recession, they were putting good airplanes against our junk, for the same low fares.  We were going to lose that fight.  Florida Express (Flex) was maintaining a much lower profile.

As we added airplanes, we added new cities.  Above is an example of another route structure.  It was changing all the time, as the marketing people tried to keep the airline profitable.  As pilots, we always liked going to new places.

Eventually, we began to buy BAC 1-11-400 series airplanes.  These were the version designed for American Airlines.  They had a maximum gross take off weight that was 10,000 lbs. greater than the -200 series and about 1000 lbs. more thrust per engine.  They carried more fuel and were capable of greater range.  

The company continued to fly to mid size cities and to bypass the big hubs, flying non-stop to Orlando.  Harrisburg, PA, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, MI and Cleveland are examples of the new cities at greater distances.  We avoided the northern hubs of other airlines, such as Pittsburgh and Chicago.

We went to more cities in Florida.  Ft. Meyers, Sarasoto and West Palm Beach were added.  We started flying to Nassau in the Bahamas.

New Orleans, Birmingham, Knoxville were our kind of cities.  I loved New Orleans, where we could get a cup of gumbo for lunch in the terminal or eat shrimp, oysters or crayfish for dinner on a layover.  We flew to the Cincinnati airport, which is actually across the Ohio River in Kentucky.  I won lots of bets with the flight attendants on that one.

For the most part, our flight attendants had never flown professionally before.  They were all very happy to be flying for Florida Express.  It was a very exciting new experience for them.  They were mostly young women from the Orlando area, but we did have some older women who had raised their families and were looking for an interesting job.  In my opinion, they were largely responsible for whatever success the airline achieved.  They were where the rubber met the road.  They and the agents were where the personal contact with our passengers took place.

These were tough jobs and required certain personal attributes that are not possessed by everyone.  They had to be able to deal with people who were often angry about something that was not within the control of the flight attendants.  

With my anecdotal observations, I noticed a cycle that the flight attendants went through as they progressed with their time at the company.  When they were first hired, they were very happy to be flying and saw it as a glamorous job.  As time passed, they encountered reality.  Passengers were mean to them.  Some of the pilots may have used and abused them.  The company overworked and under paid them.  Their attitudes usually took a nose dive.  If they could not climb back out of the hole they ended up in, they didn't last long.

If they could avoid that nose dive or climb back out of it, they would become very good flight attendants.  They just knew how to roll with the punches and survive.  Most of them thrived and were great friends and fellow employees.  I admired them and enjoyed flying with them.

Some of the flight attendants were dudes.  We had lots of the stereotypical gay flight attendants and a few straight dudes.  The straights would always try to assure that the pilots knew they were straight, often by coming in the cockpit during boarding and making complimentary comments about the physical attributes of some of our female passengers.

We usually had more planes than gates in Orlando at each bank, so we loaded people by having them walk across the ramp, instead of using jet bridges.  Several flights would be loaded in sequence through the same door.  This gave the straight dude FAs a chance to appraise our female passengers and let the pilots know their preferences.

Some of the pilots did not like flying with gay flight attendants. Being a happily married guy and a complete professional, I didn't mind flying with them.  I thought in some ways, they were more professional and did a better job than some of the women.  They were not looking for a rich passenger or pilot to marry them.  This was their job and they did it well.  They took care of their business in the back and I didn't have to deal with any of them coming to the cockpit crying, because some passenger had said something mean to them.  I respected that.

Early on, we actually had one young woman who was a part time prostitute and was making business arrangements with passengers to meet them in the layover cities.  She was fired when this became known.

Jumping ahead to current time, I am still in touch with many of these flight attendants, they are fantastic people and several of them are still working for other airlines today.  I can tell you that those who are, really love what they do.   

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Tom Cat

Another bone I had to pick, regarding pilot hiring, was the military/civilian conundrum.  Those who had come from a military background believed theirs was the better system of training and experience in preparation for an airline career.  The principle feature of military training that led to their conviction was the wash out factor.  If someone is not hacking it in military training, they are dropped out of the program.  The belief was that in civilian training, the student was "trained to proficiency", which meant they were moved along and eventually passed.

Information Victor came up with a point system for hiring and promoting pilots at Florida Express, in which military experience was given a much higher score than civilian pilots.  The only problem with these assumptions was that, we had several pilots with military backgrounds, who were among the weakest.  

Take the guy who thought he was gay when he was drunk, for example.  He flew military freighter jets in the Air Force, the perfect preparation for airline flying.  There is little parallel between flying fighters, yanking and banking all day and the type of flying we did at Florida Express.  However, the C-141s, KC-135s and C-5s were very similar to civil transport category jets.  The KC-135 is a military version of the Boeing 707.  



Boeing 707


This guy was the first pilot hired by the company and was earmarked to be the chief pilot, but he could not pass his captain check ride.  That is how Dixon became chief pilot.  He was number 2 on the list and had been chief pilot for a small operation in Miami.

This guy, let's call him Harry Larry, was also deathly afraid of thunderstorms.  Now it is not a bad thing to be afraid of thunderstorms, but when you have to fly 50 miles away from them, it is a real challenge to fly in Florida in the summer.

There were several other examples of former military pilots who were weak.  I developed a list, so that every time one of my former military pals named a weak dick, civilian background pilot, I named a weak dick, military pilot.  It was fun.

Don't get me wrong, we had lots of really good pilots from both backgrounds and I truly loved and respected my Steve Canyon pals, but I believed we should look at and deal with each pilot as an individual.  Could they fly the freaking plane or not?  Take all the other crap and shove it.  I was simply not going to take any guff from the military dudes.  They had their limitations.

Back in my general aviation days, my friends and I had developed the opinion that the military pilots were not that good.  It seemed the only time we heard an emergency on the frequency, it was a military plane.  Perhaps they were flying worse junk than we were. When I actually got to fly with them, I learned that they broke down the same way all the civilian pilots I knew broke down, some were good and some were not.

Back in the Pacific Express days, the President of the company, at one point, was a former Navy F-4 pilot.  He was riding on my plane one day when I made a perfect crosswind landing and did it very smoothly.  I rolled the upwind main wheel on the runway with the wing down, then the downwind wheel, then the nose wheel.  As he was getting off the plane, the pres was teasing me for making 3 landings.  I guess when you land an F-4 on an aircraft carrier, you never have to worry about crosswinds and you sure as hell don't worry about making a smooth landing for the peoples.  You just have to catch that hook.

The thing that always cracked me up was when they thought they knew so much more than I did, but did not.

One of my favorite former military pilots was Tom O.  He had graduated from the United States Naval Academy and flew F-14s, before he went to work at Texas International, Continental and then Florida Express.

When we first met, he was respectful, but I could tell he believed he was a far superior pilot.  Not cockiness, confidence.    I was OK with that.  I wouldn't want to fly with a pilot who did not have that feeling and really was good.  Cockiness is when a pilot feels that way, but is not that good.

We flew together a few times when I was a first officer.  I could tell that Tom was keeping an eye on me, until I showed him what I could do.  One such situation occurred while we were sitting on the ground in Louisville and there was some kind of emergency at the building where Indianapolis Center is located.  It was a fire, a bomb scare or something like that.  I can't remember, but the problem for us was that we could not get a clearance to depart for Orlando.  

The country is divided into several Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC).  The controllers for enroute flying within the country work at the centers.  Louisville is in Indianapolis Center.  As you fly across the country, you talk to different sectors within a center, then pass on to the next center.  They monitor your flight and maintain separation from other aircraft.

Saving a thousand words.

Tom wanted to get going and was getting a little frustrated, because we did not know when the situation would be corrected.  Suddenly, I remembered something I had learned as a general aviation pilot, while flying shortly after the air traffic controllers strike.  I was working at USAir at the time, but still doing some small plane flying and knew what was going on.

To facilitate the recovery of the Air Traffic Control (ATC) system, the FAA had established what was called a tower to tower system.  They were short staffed, so they allowed small planes to fly enroute, by talking to radar controllers for local airports, instead of center controllers.  It was kind of like crossing a stream by stepping from stone to stone.  I mentioned this to Tom and asked if I could check with the controllers at Louisville to see if we could get a tower to tower clearance to Lexington, which was in Atlanta Center.  From there, we could get a clearance from Atlanta Center for the rest of our flight to Orlando.  We would have to fly at low altitude until we talked to Lexington, then as soon as they handed us off to ATL, we would be able to climb.

Tom looked a little skeptical at first, but said, "Sure, give it a try."  I did, it worked and badda bing, badda boom, we were on our way to FLA.  General Aviation triumphs again.  Ha!  I really enjoyed that.

Another time, we were flying to Orlando from either Tampa or St. Petersburg.  The weather was beautiful and we were going to get a visual approach, but for some reason the controllers wanted us to fly over the field at about 5,000 feet, then land to the south, instead of just flying a downwind leg on the west side of the field.  As we were directly over the airport, I told Tom he could tell the controller we had the airport in sight, to see if we could get a clearance for the visual.

We did and I did one of my patented constant bank turn, visual approaches.  For those who haven't seen it before, they think I start the turn too soon and will be high, but it works out and is a thing of beauty, to be admired by all those who know wtf I am doing.

Another time, I was flying into Orlando in  a pretty good rain shower.  The windscreen wipers on the BAC were notoriously weak.  Tom's side was ineffective and mine was clearing the water only on the backswing.  By this time, we had been flying together enough, that he had developed confidence in my abilities, but not being able to see was giving him the willies reason to be concerned.  I was flying the ILS, but eventually, I had to see something to land.  

Tom kept telling me he wasn't seeing anything and asking me if I did.  I kept saying yes, but after about the fourth time, I said, "The runway keeps staying in the same place and is getting bigger each time I see it.  I'll go around if it isn't right."  That seemed to calm him down, or at least he didn't want to bug me any more.

Eventually, we became so comfortable flying together, that we both said it would be a good thing to split up and fly with others. 

Tom and I still stay in touch.  He really likes to talk.  I just listened to him a couple weeks ago. 

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.

Building Our Band Of Brothers (And Sisters)

Just a little flashback to the original chapter of the saga.  Love that airplane.  Check the flames shooting out on both sides of each engine.

While preparing the ground school, I was putting in long days.  I had to do most of the work myself.  I went whining to Dixon that my finances were tight and needed a little more income.  He went to the powers that be and explained how what I was doing was going to save the company money and managed to get a little extra for me.  He was starting to become my favorite boss of all time.  

The first class had to be presented with an FAA Air Carrier Inspector attending.  He could approve or disapprove the class.  I had been dealing with FAA Inspectors for many years by now and was not intimidated, as some pilots are.  The guy we had was a great guy and was a pleasure to hang out with.  I schmoozed him really good and he bought it.  His name was Stan Okan and I would see him many times for upgrades and check rides in the future as well as in a very unexpected place in one of my later lives.  He became our Principal Operations Inspector (POI).  Previously, he had flown a Sabre Liner for the FAA, flight testing instrument approaches for accuracy.

My three years of experience at the USAir ground school paid off.  I was able to fill the time requirements for the Florida Express school and even teach the dunderheads the airplane.  I used my old trick of filling time by getting the members of the class to participate and tell their war stories.  We even got a few from Stan and we were all pals when it ended.  It received the FAA Seal of Approval.

The company had rented a classroom in a building on the west side of the Orlando Airport (MCO).  There was a Navy club there, where we usually went for lunch.  It was kind of like a military mess hall, in that you grabbed a tray and moved through a line, selecting your food.  The food was usually very good, unlike some of the mess halls in which I had eaten.  The navy club was a really nice place to eat lunch.

Lloyd, the UPS pilot who was running the recruiting department at Florida Express, stopped by for lunch one day, to see how his boys were doing.  As we were going through the line, he was discussing one of the pilots who was hired during the start up.  He said he had been kicked out of the Air Force, because he had gotten drunk one night and when he came home to the Bachelor Officer Quarters (BOQ), he crawled into bed with another man.  I asked, "Was he (gay)?"  Lloyd replied, "No, but when he got drunk, he thought he was."  I almost dropped my tray of food laughing.

Later, when Florida Express went public, I was issued options on thousands of shares of stock at a given price.  I could exercise 20% of my options on the first 1500 shares each year, for 5 years.  When the IPO occurred, I was able to buy and sell my first 20% and make enough for a down payment on a house.  My price to buy was well below what the stock sold for when if first opened.  But that came later.

For now, Doreen and I were dealing with another year of low income, after having just dealt with a year of low income, during which we spent all of our savings.  We were struggling and trying to make the best of it.  We were betting on the future.

I was not in any way part of the management team early on but Dixon was bringing me into all the meeting, because of my knowledge of the airplane and because I was demonstrating every day that I wanted to do what I could to help our little airline thrive.

I was not the only one.  We had a very impressive group of pilots.  There were several guys who had worked for Texas International Airlines, which was merged with Continental Airlines.  Frank Lorenzo was the hated owner of Continental when the pilots went on strike.  You can follow the hyper links or just let me summarize it to say, that these guys lost their jobs, hated Lorenzo and had been through the war.

There were a couple guys who had worked for Braniff International, the first airline to declare bankruptcy after Deregulation.  There were guys who had flown the BAC for corporations, Dixon was one example.  There were guys who had flown smaller corporate jets.  There were guys who had been furloughed (layoff) from legacy airlines, such as TWA, PanAm and Eastern.

Dixon was smart enough to realize that he had a talented group of pilots, some of whom knew more about the airline business than he did and he used us all to his advantage and that of the company.  And of course, we had Information Victor.  When one of our guys, a Naval Academy graduate, F-14 pilot, Continental striker, heard Victors story, he asked, "How old is he?"  Victor had done it all.  He had been a member of the Canadian Olympic ski team, owned an FBO in California, and flown the F-111, just to scratch the surface.

The original group at Florida Express included a very impressively high percentage of achievers, but they had all been hammered by the profession, or they would not have been there.  I used to call us the Oakland Raiders of aviation.  Being a Steeler fan, I had seen many years of battles between the two teams.  I hated the Raiders, like any good Burghboy would and should do, but I did admire the way they took the castoffs of other teams and patched them all together into a very competitive team.  Our gang was very much like that.  We had all been bounced a time or two in our chosen profession.

But, we had no whiners.  We all put our heads down and tried to make it work.  When we saw a problem, we found a way to fix it.  The first task was to address the manuals we had inherited from USAir.  We had a series of meetings in which we went over everything from stem to stern.  We discussed everything we did and made changes that we thought were more appropriate to what we were doing out of Orlando.

The more the pilot group demonstrated that they were dedicated to trying to make Florida Express work, the more the upper management butted out of the flight operations department.  There had been several examples where one or more of us had stepped up to help fix a problem.  We were streamlining our procedures to make things work more efficiently.

I've talked about this before, but this seems like an appropriate time to mention some of this again.  Prior to the Airline Deregulation Act, getting a job as an airline pilot was like what my old First Sergeant in the Army liked to call "dying and going to heaven".  You had no more worries.  You had the job of your dreams and everyone lived happily ever after.

Deregulation changed all that.  The Civil Aeronautics Board controlled all the business activities of all the airlines in the US.  In order to go to a new destination, the airline had to petition the CAB.  In order to increase or decrease fares, the airline asked the CAB for permission.

Under Deregulation, the companies could go where they wanted to go and charge as much or as little as they wanted to.  It happened so suddenly, it caused chaos for a while.  It became like swimming in a tank with sharks for some of the airlines.  Starting with Braniff International, many airlines began going bankrupt.  

There were several "new entry" airlines created, such as Pacific Express and Florida Express.  It was a free for all and the jobs of the employees were in jeopardy.  Without getting too political here, I think it is necessary to point out that this was all done during the Carter administration, with major assistance from Senator Ted Kennedy, in the Congress.  The "first right of hire" stipulation that was added to pacify labor unions really did not do much for the employees who lost their jobs.  Some, but not all benefited and were hired by existing airlines, but the seniority systems meant they went to the bottom of the lists and took huge pay, benefit and quality of life hits.  This applied to not just pilots, but mechanics and many other professions.

This created what I called "bounce arounds", pilots who had worked for a laundry list of airlines.  Working for a company like Florida Express was a last resort for many pilots.  Between the fierce, out of control competition and the unleashed financial sharks like Frank Lorenzo and Carl Icahn, the airline employment situation was like a dangerous swamp, full of predators.  It was out of control and employees suffered major life set backs, at the very minimum.