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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Back In The Ville

So, I've come full circle with this story, geographically.  It began on a flight to Louisville in 1966 and I was back 24 years later.  It  was purely a coincidence, but an interesting one. 

Louisville is a beautiful place in the spring and spring occurs a month or more before it does in Pittsburgh.  The Kentucky Derby is held on the first Saturday of May.  There is a weeks long celebration leading up to it with parades, airshows and fireworks.

We were spending time getting our kids set up in the schools they would be attending.  Both Caitlin and Mike tested well enough to be in the advanced programs.

At work, I was getting better at my job and it was fun to experience flying as an engineer, after the time I had spent training engineers several years ago.  Flight engineers are most busy from the time they report for duty, until the airplane levels off at the top of climb. If there is any kind of hiccup in the engineer's duties, the flight will depart late.  The part I hated most was calculating the speeds and power settings for takeoff, climb and cruise.  The method involved interpolating from tables and charts and had many opportunities for error.

They look something like this.

Approaching the end of my probationary first year, I received a letter to interview with United Airlines.  Doreen was very happy.  She had been seeing me get up in the middle of the night to go to work and come back home in the middle of the night and wanted me to work for a passenger airline, with a more normal schedule.  To make a long story short, we were trying to figure a way to make that possible.

We were going to have to rent an apartment, less expensive than the house.  We were already in more debt than we had ever been, except for the mortgage and this was just to try to keep up with necessary expenses.  I was finishing the first year with low pay at UPS and would be facing another first year of low pay at United.  We weren't sure exactly how we were going to do it, but we were going to do it.  It felt like running toward a wall with an opening that we could not fit through, but we were going to try to hit it hard and crash our way through.  It was a troubling time.

I had to make it through the United interview process with all the troubles that were facing us on my mind.  I don't know if I have an objective view of that, but I felt as if I did well.  When it was done, we just had to wait for the result.

Finally a letter arrived.  I opened it and read that they had decided not to hire me.  I have to admit, that the first thing I felt was relief.  All options were now gone and I had to stay at UPS and make the best of it.  The second year at United would have had a big pay raise and with what we knew about both pay scales and all other circumstances at that time, United would have been a far better career, but I just didn't know how we could get through that first year.  The second consecutive year of low pay, with commuting would have been very traumatic for our little family.

Soon after this, I had an opportunity to upgrade to first officer, copilot, a window seat again.  Conventional wisdom says to not go into training again during your probationary year.  It is not considered wise to expose yourself to another opportunity to fail a check ride, when you can be fired without cause and do not fall under the protection of the union.  I was not worried about that.

I could have bid the DC-8 or the 747-100.  I chose the 747.  I knew more about the way the different planes were scheduled now and thought I would be on reserve as a junior first office on either.  UPS owned many 8s, but many fewer 74s.  The 74s flew long distance, trunk routes.  The 8s flew just about everything.  They were a versatile plane and could fly internationally or domestically.  

Because of all that, I thought reserve on the 747 would be easier.  Besides that, I liked the idea of flying the Whale.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Far East

I was moving up the UPS seniority list rapidly.  Pilots senior to me were leaving for other jobs at a rapid pace.   They were not used to being treated the way they were at UPS.  The manager to pilot ratio was much higher than traditional airlines.  The fact is, pilots don't require much management.  You train them how to do their job and give them their schedule and send them off around the world.  No one needs to sit over them, making sure they do their job.  You know they have been successful when the plane arrives at the correct destination.  Nothing to it, from a management stand point.  We had so many of them hanging around, that they felt they had to do some managin'.  They were mostly a pain in the ass.

It did not take long before I was able to hold a "line of time", which means I would know in advance what my schedule was, instead of being on call around the clock.  We had a 3 month big period.  Most airlines bid for schedule every month.  There are pros and cons both ways.  If you do it monthly, you are bidding 12 times a year.  If you have a 3 month big period, you only have to bid 4 times a year, but the problem is, you are compromising the days off you want.  Let's say you have a child with a birthday in January and a wife with a birthday in February and you can't find a line you can hold with your seniority that gives you both dates off.  You have issues.  I didn't like it.  I would rather bid more frequently.  We usually had lots of time while flying or hanging around a hotel to do it and it gave you much more flexibility.  Three month bids helped the company with long term planning, but screwed up the pilots' long term planning.

The first crew I flew with was kind of memorable.  The first officer was a great guy, Curt.  The captain was an asshole.  I was a new guy, still trying to hang on with both hands.  The old saying about that is that I was 10 miles behind the airplane, which is a good thing, I guess, if the asshole wrecked it.  But he didn't give me any slack and was always pointing out my short comings.  He was also very non-standard.  He would call for a checklist that I was supposed to read and then the appropriate crew member would call the response as they assured the item was complete.  Captain A. Hole would immediately start calling all the checklist items from memory and then giving the response.  I guess he wanted to speed things up.  This made me feel like I was another 5 or 6 miles behind the plane.  Frequently, there were issues with some of the systems on the plane and when I brought them to his attention, he would tell me to do some non standard crapola procedure that wasn't in the book.  It usually solved the problem, but I was even farther behind.  It was going to be a long 3 months.

I don't remember how long it took me to get pissed off, but despite the fact that I was on probation, I finally decided to speak up.  One night, when I finally had gotten all my duties up to speed and we had time to wait, I looked at him and told him I was very impressed with his ability to memorize the checklist and recite it, but that was not the way it was supposed to be done.  I was new at this and had been feeling behind the curve and we needed to slow things down, so that I was satisfied that things were being done properly and that I was learning how to do my job, instead of just feeling like I was along for the ride.  He looked at me and said, "OK".  That was it.  But he still jumped all over my many mistakes.

Later in our bid period, Curt was not flying with us for some reason.  We had a guest first officer named Arnold.  The captain, whose name was Jeff, looked very seriously at Arnold and gave him this big speech about how he and I had been flying together for a long time and our normal FO, Curt, was not with us this time and Arnold was sitting in for him.  He said we had a certain way of doing things and we had one boss on this airplane and one boss only and it is him.  He was pointing at me.  I had to laugh at that one.

Even later in the bid period, Curt was back and we were at the end of a long night descending into Omaha Nebraska.  We were all tired, our brains were numb and our eyeballs were hanging down on our cheeks.  (Not really, I am just kidding, yo.)  We were cleared for a visual approach to one of the parallel runways 32 and Jeff was lining up with runway 36.  Curt didn't catch it either.  The only person on that plane who knew what was happening was that dumass, rookie plumber.  I said, "Hey, Jeff, that's the wrong runway".  He sat up straight, saw that I was correct and manuevered to land on the correct runway.  He thanked me.  I laughed out loud and said, "You live by the sword, you die by the sword.  If you ever give me shit about my mistakes again, I will tell everyone about the time I saved your ass from landing on the wrong runway".  That still brings a smile to my face.  (I have a friend who is still flying, who will not fly with Jeff, for all the same reasons I hated doing so.  My friend is a nice guy, not as obnoxious as I am.)

I began to get the feel for the job and later that year, I picked up a trip in open time, that was flying from Anchorage Alaska to Tokyo Japan.  I rode a DC-8 jump seat to Anchorage and wen to the hotel with the crew.  

The captain was a young guy, but he was very senior in the company.  His name was Dan and we got along very well.  We were going to be flying a load of cherries from the West Coast to Japan.  I was told that the Japanese love cherries and buy all the cherries they can from the US.  A plane load of cherries weighs 80,000 lbs.  We were fueled with 90,000 lbs. of kerosene to fly them there.  Our plane would be at its maximum allowable gross take off weight.  This would be the only time I had seen an 8 loaded that heavily.

As young as he was, Dan was an experienced DC-8 pilot.  We took off toward the Chugach Mountains and then turned to fly out along the Aleutians.  We used much of the runway and were climbing slowly.  It would be about a 7 hour flight, my first international flight with UPS and my first visit to the Far East.

We had a couple UPS employees on board, who were supposed to deal with the people in Japan, because this was a charter flight.  The cockpit was cramped, but they spent most of the flight bundled up in the seats just out side the door, sleeping.  Dan said he liked me, because I was a Florida boy and kept it warm in the cockpit.

We were flying to the Tokyo international airport near Narita.  As we descended through the clouds and I got my first view of Japan, I remember thinking, "We're not in Kansas anymore".  

As we were getting off the plane, Dan was approached by a guy who wanted us to choose our catering for the return flight.  They ignored the UPS dudes who had been sent to take care of this kind of stuff.  Over there, the people have more respect for the captain and pilots in general, than the UPS box heads do.  We went to a hotel with the tiniest rooms I had ever seen.  There wasn't much time to do any sight seeing, before we had to report for the return flight.

When the catering began to show up, Dan was laughing.  He told me he had ordered all kinds of expensive sushi and other stuff and that the company would probably be pissed when they got the bill.  I was not a big fan of sushi at that time, but there was so much to eat, that I did not go hungry.  I did try some smoked salmon and liked that a lot.  The UPS dudes slept all the way back.  They had done some sight seeing while we slept in our tiny hotel rooms.


I had a flight engineer rating and had been a simulator instructor for a year in Atlanta.  (I'm sure you remember that, eh?)  Now I was actually going to get a chance to fly the line as a "plumber".  I was kind of looking forward to that.  At this point, it was nice to have something to look forward to. 

After the indoctrination classes, we had a little break and I was able to jump seat home for a few days.  I wanted to drive my pickup to Louisville, so I had a way to get around.  Lou was another member of my class.  He lived in Orlando and had worked for Braniff also.  He had worked for Braniff Int., but had refused the recall to Braniff II, because he had started a little business in the interim and did not want to commute to Dallas.  He had applied to Florida Express, but not been hired, mostly because of a misunderstanding.  Then, when Braniff bought Florida Express, Lou was hired by them and came back on the seniority list below all the Florida Express pilots.  I invited Lou to drive to Louisville with me and then we went into a "crash pad" together with a couple other guys.  Crash pad is what we call a house or apartment where several pilots have a room to stay in when they are not flying, but can't get home.  We had a nice apartment.

Commuting to a job like this is a possibility and Doreen and I considered moving to Pittsburgh, our home.  We started looking for a small house, while visiting my parents.  The more I thought about the expense of buying a house and keeping a crash pad in Louisville, the more I felt that it was smarter to move to Louisville.  Doreen and I had some disagreement on this, but I thought it was a much better idea.

Once I started earning some money, I started paying Grandma Ann's utilities and taxes.  I felt better not being a complete mooch.

In Louisville, some of my friends had been buying houses, using a real estate agent named Dave.  I met Dave and we started looking for a house.  As he got to know me and understand our situtaion better, he told me he thought I should not be buying a house, but renting one and waiting until I could save for a decent down payment.  We had broken even on our Orlando home and had not been in it long enough to build up equity.  Dave helped me find a home to rent, which I thought was very generous.  He was not going to be making any money for his time.  He was betting that I would come to him when I could afford to buy.

Now I had to figure out an inexpensive way to move.  My old pal, Dan, from the Butler Graham days, had been building a trucking company after he was hired at USAir.  When I told him of my dilemma, he offered to have one of his trucks stop at the house in Orlando with some space saved for our stuff, then drive it to our house in Louisville.  I got some friends to help with the move in Orlando, then got some guys to help in Louisville.  This was in May 1990, and we got the stuff in the house just in time to go into the basement, because of a tornado warning.  We did not have any problems at the house, but there was damage to the building at the UPS Training Center.


So, I was going to be spending some time in this building.  First there was ground school, in which all the academics of learning the DC-8 systems took place.   Then came the simulator.  It looks just like the cockpit of the airplane and it can be "flown" by pilots, while the engineer is sitting in front of the panel that controls all the systems.  The instructor then pushes buttons and tortures the student with all the abnormalities and emergencies that can occur in the airplane.  After the curriculum is complete and if the instructor chooses to recommend the student, a simulator check ride is scheduled.  After that, the student begins Initial Operating Experience (IOE).  This is training on an actual revenue flight, with an IOE instructor.  In my opinion, the worst part of being a flight engineer is calculating all the performance data for each phase of flight.  We had to use charts in our manual and on the table top of a little desk at the panel.  This table was under a piece of plexi glass and the lighting was terrible.  This is the first time I felt that I needed to start wearing glasses.  I was starting to become a little far sighted and went to a drug store to buy a pair of magnifying eye glasses.

With successful completion of the IOE curriculum, a release to line check ride is scheduled.  If that is passed, the student is now prepared to fly the line, or at least, that is the plan.  I managed to get through all of that unscathed and was on reserve, which meant I had to hang out at the crash pad and wait to be called to work.

The toughest part of flying for UPS, is that most of the flying is done at night.  UPS is a package delivery company.  It began in Seattle in about 1907.  In 1971, Federal Express came along and revolutionized the package delivery company, by promising to deliver them overnight.  This is how airplanes became such a big part of the business.  FedEx, as it is called now, flew to nearly every city in the US, then ran a hub and spoke system out of Memphis Tennessee. UPS developed its airline to compete.

This meant there was a whole lot of night time flying going on out there and I was now a part of it.  At the time I started working at UPS, reserve was a 24 hour deal.  I could be called at any time and was responsible to be available for contact.  The UPS pilots had a very lousy contract.  When the operation began, the pilots were represented by the Teamsters, the same union that represented the truck drivers.  The pilots who negotiated the contact did not know what they were doing and I think they felt they were over a barrel.  

Things were so bad, that during the first year, 1988, several of the pilots began the steps that would lead to forming their own union, The Independent Pilots Association (IPA).  This was a very risky enterprise.  They had to pass out cards to all the pilots to get them to turn them in, saying they wanted to change representation.  This has to be done secretly, or they run the risk of being fired.  They may get their jobs back, but they have to sweat out the process, not knowing for sure how things will go.  

By the time I showed up, all the heavy lifting had been completed, and the IPA began to represent the UPS pilots in January, 1990, while I was in training.  Of course, I would not be part of that, until I completed my first year on probation.

Freight Nazis

I might have understated the difficulty of being out of work and not knowing if I would ever get another flying job.  I guess I try to forget bad times like that and I think most pilots have the "no sweat"  attitude of down playing the challenges they face.

I remember thinking about the impact all of this could have on my family.  Stress levels were as high as they could be and we had to work very hard to get on the same page.  I thought about the possible difference in my kid's future, if I didn't get back on the pilot track.  What would I do?  I was 44 years old and had never been good at anything else and never wanted to do anything else for the rest of my life.  I did not have a college degree and it felt way too late to start down that path.  

I had the responsibility of 3 other people.  If I had been single, I could have slept on someone's couch and taken a job as a flight instructor.  But, now I needed to achieve a level of income to support the four of us.  My confidence was seriously shaken.

As I said before, I was moping around with a dark cloud over my head for the 3 months of my unemployment.  When I went to the UPS interviews, I took advantage of my learned ability to compartmentalize challenging issues and focus on the problem at hand.  I knew I had to do my best and I felt good after all the interviews.  

Normally, getting a job flying airplanes for a financially solid company, like UPS, would be reason to celebrate, especially after having worked for three shaky, new entry airlines, all of which had collapsed into financial disaster.  UPS had very deep pockets.  If this employer went broke, I would know that I was the problem.

However, there were still lots of dark clouds following me around.  I would be taking a large pay cut at UPS, not just for the first year, but for many years to come.  When looking at the pay section of the contract with the pilot group, you could see that getting back to the income level I had enjoyed at Braniff, let alone Florida Express (remember, we had taken a pay cut when Braniff took over) was going to be a slow climb.  The best possibility was upgrading  but that was a giant unknown.  It depended on UPS's decisions to grow the airline.  I had certain financial responsibilities that could not be mitigated.  Selling the house had taken care of the biggest one, but we still needed a place to live.  Doreen and the kids could not fit on the couch with me.  We are forever grateful for Grandma Ann and the plan was for me to commute to Louisville, while the family stayed with her.

We supplemented my income by using credit cards and were unable to pay the total amount off each month, so we were accumulating high interest debt at very high rates.  At the end of my first year, we had more than $10,000 in credit card debt and I went to the two credit unions I had been doing business with.  One of them, the USAir Federal Credit Union, had been my checking account for almost 10 years.  I tried to borrow $10,000 from each credit union and they would not lend me the money, because my income was so low.

I rode to Louisville with Russ, a young Florida Express guy I had flown with many times, who was also in my new hire class.  He had been notified that he was hired before I was, but I was the oldest in our class, so I was the most senior member.  Russ never got over that and still whines about it, but we had fun on our drive.  

We were going to be flight engineers on the DC-8.  The 8, Douglasaurus or the Diesel, was an old plane, even at that time, but the ones we flew had been modified with newer technology engines to make them more powerful, quieter and more fuel efficient.  UPS loved them and so did all the pilots who had flown them before.  It is a relatively uncomplicated, strong and reliable jet, that can carry lots of stuff and go a long distance.

We started class with a company indoctrination.  UPS had been running its own flight operation for almost 2 years.  Prior to that, they had used several contractors to provide pilots to fly their planes, but the FAA wanted the owner to be the certificate holder.  UPS was learning about pilots and pilots were learning about UPS. Frequently, things did not go smoothly.  UPS was known as the Freight Nazis.  They had a reputation of being difficult to work for.  

I started hearing lots of stories about some of the stuff they had tried to pull.  For a new hire, on probation, this is not a good situation.  Personally, I had always tried to establish a policy of not forming an opinion about a person or company or any entity, based on the opinion of someone else.  I didn't want to show disrespect to the pilots who were telling me the stories, but I didn't want to put a chip on my shoulder toward this employer.  I needed this freaking job, bad as it was, and I also had bigger fish to fry at this time.  

Just for a few examples, UPS likes to promote from within and they were thinking about trying to make their truck drivers pilots capable of flying large jet airplanes all over the world.  They just did not have a clue.  When they broke the code on that one and had to actually hire pilots from the outside, they were not easily able to deal with the facts that these pilots, who actually had the experience to do that, were not going to be easy to push around.  These were people who had flown planes in combat, they were former colonels and generals.  They were people like me, who had other military experience and had been airline captains for years.  We knew the regulations and UPS hated when we put a wrench in their wheels with the regs.  

UPS gave a class in their indoctrination that stopped just short of calling all of us thieves.  One of the stories from those who had preceded me there was that they actually did call them thieves in the earlier classes.  I always said, "I hear what you are saying and respect that, but I have to give them at least one chance to hose me before I get pissed off at them." 

Another thing about UPS, was that they were accustomed to having long term employees.  Most people suffered through the abuse, especially in management positions, because they had a great retirement plan.  They paid less for comparable positions, but the managers were given and could purchase large blocks of company stock, to be sold at retirement for big money.  The stock at that time was private, so the company manipulated it to keep the reward at the end as high as possible.  When they started reviewing the resumes of pilots who were actually available to come to work for them, they were seeing resumes like mine, with 6 employers in 16 years.  In their way of seeing things, this was an indication of a bad employee, who could not hold a job.  If you have been reading this from the beginning, you know the situation.  Airline deregulation, company bankruptcies and many other issues had caused many of us to be "bounce arounds".  Prior to deregulation, getting hired by one of the legacy airlines was like dying and going to heaven.  Afterwards, you did not know if you had made the right choice in airlines until retirement and in some cases, not even then.