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Friday, January 27, 2017

Wise Ass

I flew the 747 for 5 years at UPS.  Because of the lousy conditions at UPS, pilots senior to me were leaving and going to other airlines.  Passenger airlines were always considered better places to work for pilots.  It was considered more glamorous to walk out a jetway than to be driven to your plane by a van, in the middle of the night.  

There were advantages to not having passengers in the back.  The boxes did not complain about anything and did not have any of the problems that humans can come up with.

Having realized that it was UPS or nothing for me, I had settled down and found a way to enjoy my life and enjoy my job.  I was becoming an experienced international pilot and very experienced on the 747.  Once you get used to the sight picture out the windscreen when you are landing, it is a really easy airplane to fly.

I went to a local airport to get checked out in a Piper Arrow, a plane I had flown for many hours in my Butler Graham Airport days, and when I was trying to land it, I was flaring way too high and scaring the instructor.  When we were touching down on the runway, it looked to me as if we were going under it.

I was now flying with captains who had less experience on the 747 than I did.  Many were brand new, just out of training.  It was fun to help them with some of the details and watch them as they were learning the plane.  There were some guys who were nervous about things like landing at the Hong Kong Tai Kak Airport and wanted me to do that a few times before they tried it.  They were all good pilots and were just being prudent.

There was one guy who had recently been flying the 757, with all its fancy avionics.  The Whale was definitely a step or two back in that respect, but it still had good stuff.  You just had to know how to use it.  The new guy from the 75 and I were flying across the country on a day trip.  

Somewhere in one of the western states, there was a big, lone column, that looked kind of like a thunderstorm.  It was not showing up on our weather radar and the captain was freaking and complaining about the junky radar.  The 757 had digital, color radar.  This gave you a very clear, very easy to see image of precipitation in 4 colors based on intensity.  The 747 had digital radar, but only one color, green.  The captain told air traffic control he wanted a different heading to go around the "storm".  The controller said he didn't see any weather on his radar.  I was having so much fun watching him fuss with the radar and complain about it, I did not tell him it was a big forest fire.  The radar was working just fine.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

From Metaphor To Reality

If you have been reading this blog from the beginning, you may remember a discussion about the problem of advancing in a career as a professional pilot seeming to be a metaphoric mountain.

I was just talking to my son, Mike, about a friend of his, who is a mechanical engineer, but is contemplating taking flying lessons and perhaps working toward becoming a pilot.  That reminded my of how things looked and felt when I was at the earlier stages of that process myself.  When you look at the point where we are in the story now, I am a first officer, a co-pilot on a Boeing 747, flying around the world for one of the wealthiest companies in existence.

This struggle, the climbing of this metaphoric mountain, is what this blog is all about.  Remember, the sub-title is How Not To Build An Aviation Career.  Observing the young man sitting in the right seat of that 747 and not knowing the story of the preceding 25 or so years, you could see the achievement as a forgone conclusion.  If you have read the entire blog, you know it was not.

Sometime, during the 5 years I flew the 747, I had a weekend layover in Ontario, California, where UPS had a fairly big west coast hub.  I had learned about a cable tram from Palm Springs California, up the eastern slope of Mt. San Jacinto, during my time flying for Pacific Express Airlines.  The tram rises from about 2,500 ft. above sea level to about 8,500 ft.  From there, you can hike about 5 miles to the summit at 10,800 ft.  The drive, from our layover hotel at that time, to the tram is about 70 miles and a little over an hour, depending on traffic.

These are pictures of the current tram cars.

This car is from the time that I first rode the tram.

I decided to rent a car and drive to Palm Springs to give it a try.  I decided to drag the captain I was flying with, Mark W., out there with me.  He was dumb enough to go for it.  As we were eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant, another 747 captain, Keith, walked in and joined us.  I threw out the lure and he went for it too.

This was probably the most unprepared mountaineering expedition I have ever been on.  It was also my first.  We were wearing our airline pilot layover clothes, shorts, t-shirts and white running shoes.  I may have had a baseball cap to block the sun.  We brought a small duffle bag one of us carried some of our stuff in while traveling and bought bottles of water on the drive to fill it.

As you drive eastward on Interstate 10, you realize this area is really a desert.  Mt. San Jacinto is visible almost immediately, if the sky is clear.  You can also see Mt. San Gorgonio, with the Banning Pass between the 2 mountains.  As you clear the pass and turn toward Palm Springs, you see the wind farm.

This is hog heaven for my lefty friends.

We drove up the steep, 2 lane road to the lower station, parked the car, walked up the steeply inclined parking lot, entered the station and bought our tickets.  There are 2 cars traveling in opposite directions and we did not wait long for our ride.  The transition in topography on this ride is dramatic.  The ride is only about 10 minutes and it quickly takes you from the hot desert to the cool, lush forest above.  

On a later trip, in the winter, there was a cloud layer to be penetrated about halfway up and there was deep snow at the upper station.  We popped out of the clouds and the transition was from a warm, summer like day, to harsh, cold winter.  I always describe it as a Jack In The Beanstalk experience, because it was like a fast trip to another mysterious world.

The upper station is a large, 2 story building with a couple restaurants and a small nature center discussing the wildlife on the mountain.  When you learn that there are black bears and cougars up there, you realize you are not at the top of the food chain.

I have made so many subsequent visits to this station, I don't remember exactly what my 2 fearless captains and I did there on this trip, beyond passing through and starting down the winding, paved path to the trailhead.

After a short walk, we arrived at the ranger station in Round Valley to get our permit.  Off we went, looking like a small group of dorks.  Western trails are not nearly as steep as those in the Appalachian Mountains, back east.  These trails were designed and built for pack animals and were much more humane.  Everything is based on switchbacks, which can be boring, because you feel as if you are not changing scenery very quickly.  They add distance, but they save you from steep climbs.  Because of the higher elevation, breathing was difficult and the switchbacks were appreciated.

We had bought a map, which is always a good idea.  The trail junctions were fairly easy to identify and navigate.  Most of the climb was under the forest canopy and it became a little cooler as we climbed, compensating for the increasing body heat as we burned calories.

Near the summit, we finally broke out of the forest and all that remained was a rock scramble of 100 feet or so on hands and feet.  The view in all directions was spectacular.  We could see Mt. Gorgonio to the north and on a clear day, the Pacific Ocean is visible at Los Angeles, 100 miles west.

This was really cool and I now had some inkling of the thoughts and feelings experienced by those nut jobs who climb dangerous mountains all over the world.  I was hooked.

Somehow, my earlier obsession with the mountain metaphor of my career building experience had now merged with the reality of hiking to the tops of serious mountains.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

NATS Revisited.

I just found an excellent article that I wish I had seen before I wrote my previous blog, 50/50.  It was created by a UPS pilot, who is also a cyber wiz, Ken Hoke.  This gives a very good explanation of the North Atlantic Track System (NATS).  It also talks about the data uplink systems that came into use after the time I was flying the 747-100s at UPS in the early 90s.

North Atlantic Track System


Communication on international flights was always a challenge.  I talked about that previously.   English is the international language of aviation.  That is lucky for those of us who are native English speakers.  It must be a challenge for those who do not to speak English as a first language and there are some funny examples of why it is.  For example, some sadistic so and so named the primary fix we use when transitioning from the North Pacific routes to Japanese airspace Melon.  The Japanese controllers pronounce it Meron and it takes a few times to train you ear for things like that.

Another critical type of communication is that which transpires in the cockpit.  There have been many deadly crashes, because of communication break downs in the cockpit.  One of the reasons for this, was that captains had always been like sky gods in the cockpit.  Copilots often feared them, or feared for their jobs if they crossed them. 

One of the most notable and famous such crashes was the crash between 2 747s on the runway at Tenerife, Canary Islands.

Another was the crash of a United Airlines DC-8 in Portland, Oregon, due to fuel starvation.

There was also a crash of an Eastern Airlines Lockheed L-1011 in the Florida Everglades.

These are some of the most famous, but there have been many more crashes that led the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to suggest what was first called Cockpit Resource Management (CRM), but has been changed to Crew Resource Management to include cabin crew members, flight attendants.

You can follow all the above hyper links if you want to learn more about all that.

CRM came into existence in the late 70s, but not all airlines were doing it.  The low budget companies I had been working for had never held CRM classes.  UPS eventually initiated a CRM program during the 5 years I was flying the 747, in the early 90s.

You may remember me talking about my old pal, Captain Jack Bingham, who I flew with frequently on the UPS 747.  He is the guy who seemed to think first officers were a voice activated autopilot.  I have a funny story about him with regard to CRM.

Jack and I were flying with a flight engineer named, Jim Miller.  Jim was a good guy.  He was very erudite and articulate.  He was writing a mystery crime thriller during the time we flew together.  He did not particularly like Jack, who thought he was erudite.  I used to say, "We are still looking for a subject about which Jack is not an expert".

Jim had attended one of the very first CRM classes at UPS just prior to our trip.  When I learned that, we were flying over the Pacific to Seoul or Narita, a very long leg.  I started asking Jim questions about CRM and he was providing lots of information and personal insight.

Before long, I noticed that Jack was being uncharacteristically silent.  Then it occurred to me that we had indeed found something about which Jack knew nothing.  (I suspect there were many others, but there is no way he could have logically claimed to be more  knowledgeable than Jim about this one.)  Jim seemed to have broken the code on that also. 

With a wink and a nod, we began having a funny conversation at Jack's expense.  Jim said that the most interesting thing he learned at the CRM class was that most pilots have a much better image of themselves than their fellow pilots have and this was especially true of captains.  We both began laughing at that and enjoyed the look on Jack's face.

When I saw that look, I knew Jack would be in the earliest CRM class possible.  He simply could not go off, flying around the world, risking the possibility that he would be flying with someone who know more about a subject than he could pretend to know.

Several months later, I had flown a Whale into Chicago O'Hare from Anchorage and gone to the hotel.  I was sitting at the hotel bar, having a burger and a beer, when in walks Captain Jack, in uniform.  He ordered a cup of coffee and told me he was flying the jet back to Anchorage.

Jack wasted no time telling me he had attended the CRM class and that the most interesting thing he learned was that there were first officers who had previously been captains and still thought they were captains, like me.  I laughed and thought, "Touche".