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From the Flight Deck
Plane Talk and Sky Science
By Doug Morris, Crissy Boylan
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2007 Doug Morris
All rights reserved.
The Life of a Pilot
Getting into the Business
While this holds true for most goals in life, becoming an airline pilot is no easy task. Sacrifices have to be made. There is no magic way to gain flight experience; you have to log the hours. Gone are the days when pilots were hired at age 18 or 19 with bare-minimum qualifications. Nepotism is out, with hardcore qualifications taking its place. Having said that, the aviation world is rather small; I'm always amazed by who knows whom in this tight-knit community.
There are three main routes to becoming an airline pilot. The path I took — taking flying lessons at a flying club — is a popular option. But think about backing it up with postsecondary education; it makes a candidate more appealing to the employer, and it's always good to have something to fall back on, just in case. Flying lessons at a club can be the fastest route, or the slowest, depending on how much cash and time you have on hand. Logging valuable flight time is a challenge, and many new pilots offer sightseeing flights to get an hour's flight in while splitting the cost of renting an airplane. It's funny to think that now I rack up nearly 16 hours in one flight, whereas when starting off in this business you're near to begging for one measly hour.
Training in the military is the second path to an airline pilot job. In the United States, the Air Force, Navy, Army, National Guard, and Marines all train pilots. In Canada, the military pool is much smaller, and even if you enter the service you may end up flying a helicopter. (Something to think about if your goal is the airlines.)
The third route is flight colleges, and there are some great ones throughout Canada and the United States. Many are affiliated with established colleges and universities and provide a well-rounded package. For new recruits, Air Canada, like most airlines, values candidates with postsecondary education, diplomas in aviation, or a military background.
Learning to fly is expensive, and many would-be aviators give it a miss when they discover the poor wages they must endure while trying to gain flight hours. I knew of one company that allowed pilots to fly for free while they collected unemployment insurance as pay. Agreeing to fly for poverty wages just to get their derrières into a cockpit shows how passionate pilots are about their profession.
Why do some pilots have three stripes on their tunic sleeves and shirt epaulets while others have four? A first officer (also referred to as copilot) has three; a captain has four. But what's the difference?
Not all flights are created equal. Flying the jumbo Airbus A340 to destinations such as Paris, London, or Tokyo is a better gig than the hectic twice-in-one-day Toronto to La Guardia, New York, route. How are these routes assigned to pilots? For many airline companies, including Air Canada, seniority dictates: the airplane a pilot flies, the base from which the pilot flies, the routes flown, the number of days off, and the specific days worked. Airlines may choose age, experience, or marks achieved in initial training to determine seniority. Nowadays, for pilots hired the same day, the valuable seniority ranking is simply decided by fate, with a number pulled from a hat. This happened during my new-hire class. The same thing happened at another airline I flew for, but luckily I drew number one.
The more senior the pilot, the better the chance of getting his or her preferences for aircraft, bases, destinations (domestic versus overseas) and schedules, vacation, and promotions. If you have seniority number 2000, you won't get promoted until the pilot ahead of you, number 1999, makes his or her choice. To complicate things, there is overall seniority within the airline, seniority among the pilot base, and seniority in the airplane and position held. A pilot holding a very senior number flying as a copilot would start near the bottom of the list if he or she went to captain on the same airplane. (Believe me, lawyers have become rich representing pilots dueling over seniority issues after airlines merge.)
Pilots are awarded their monthly schedules by a preference system — the more senior a pilot, the better the schedule. Pilots choose what is most important to them: senior pilots will be home for Christmas and have summer vacation. I've spent Christmas doing laundry in a Toronto hotel readying for my flight to Beijing, so you can guess where I sit in the pecking order. At Air Canada, and for most North American airlines, we bid our preferences using a computer program with seniority as its foundation. Number one gets the cream, whereas the bottom-feeders are invariably on reserve (on call). If you want weekends off, want to avoid red-eye flights, or prefer Paris over Tokyo, the choice is yours — providing you're senior enough.
One adage that circulates among the pilots is, "Stay senior on junior equipment." Others want to fly captain as soon as possible, and still others don't care about the rank and put more emphasis on the size of the airplane. For instance, some pilots prefer to fly as first officer on the "big bus," the Airbus A340, over flying as captain on the "little bus," the Airbus A320. And some prefer to be home with their families every night and might remain a copilot in order to build seniority within the rank and fleet instead of upgrading to captain.
Until very recently, my approach was to gain seniority on the A340 as a first officer, avoiding the temptation of going captain on the "little bus." But considering the major hiccups in the aviation world in the last few years, and after the experience of six-and-a-half years flying internationally, I bit the bullet and I was awarded A320 captain flying domestically. By the time this book hits the bookstores, I hope to have completed all the necessary paperwork and procedures and have my extra stripe as a captain.
Seniority distinguishes the rank of captain and first officer, but that's not all. In a two-pilot flight deck only one can have the final say. That's the captain. Even though the captain and first officer share the duties (meaning they alternate the flying), the final decisions rest with the captain. This holds true for most airlines around the world. Not only do the uniform, seniority, and responsibilities differentiate the two, pay does as well. A first officer makes about 50 to 60 percent of the captain's wage.
As far as pay goes, this too has no simple answer. Pilots start on a flat salary and then, after a few years, enter a formula pay scale with many factors, such as years of service, position held (captain or first officer), aircraft type, night versus day rates, destinations flown (domestic or overseas), and the speed and weight of the airplane (size matters). Other companies simply base salaries on years of service. This strategy discourages pilots from transferring to bigger aircraft simply to earn more, thereby cutting training costs for the airline.
Surprise is the look most passengers have when I sit next to them in full uniform. I can hear them thinking, "Why is a pilot back here in economy class? Isn't he supposed to be flying the airplane?" I'm a commuter. I chose to live in Halifax, but I fly out of Toronto. There are many pilots who do not live in the city they fly from. Rumor has it some 50 percent of U.S. airline pilots commute or have commuted.
As I write this, yet another full flight closed and pushed back, leaving me at the gate. Luckily there are two more flights that can get me to Toronto in time for work. Living in Halifax but working in Toronto, I'm torn between two cities. Even people committed to an hour's commute must find it hard to fathom driving to an airport, waiting for a flight on a standby-only basis, sitting in an airplane for more than two hours, only to wait in another airport to go to work.
As Maritimers, my wife, children, and I tried to assimilate in Toronto for several years. I adapted well, but the pull to return home for my wife only intensified with time. (It didn't help that her identical twin sister was calling almost every night asking, in a roundabout way, when she was coming home. Perhaps our Toronto residency was doomed from the start, as I tried to separate twins fused by a 40-year bond.)
While I was living in Toronto my company encountered financial turbulence, so I decided to pursue another flying job. This took me to the Middle East, where I picked up a saying from the ex-pats, "Happy wife, happy life." If momma bear is not happy, no one in the family is happy. I also gained perspective — seeing the quality of life there versus what we have in Canada. Toronto is where my job is, but luckily for my family and me, I have the option of commuting. So we packed up the moving truck and scurried back to the east coast, where it's laid back, with a more tranquil way of looking at life.
I'm not alone in my civic indecision; there are many more commuting from various cities across this country. I'm just glad my commute doesn't involve another country, as it does for some.
The agent working the flight is paging my name, and it looks like I'll get on this next flight. As my home life and job tears me between two cities, I know one thing for certain, my wife and family are happy (and that includes my wife's twin sister).
While some of us travel "incognito" (out of uniform), there's a good chance that the next time you fly you'll run into a pilot commuting to work. Commuting is a way of life for many in the airline industry, not just pilots. Flight attendants, aircraft mechanics, ramp handlers, and ticket agents have all been known to commute.
And don't assume commuters just show up at the gate and grab their assigned business-class seat. Commuters fly standby at a reduced rate (yes, sometimes "standby" means "standing" there and waving "bye" to the plane as it pushes back). If the flights are full commuters wait for the next, always with a plan B. Weather is also a big issue. I'm always checking forecasts to see if anything that may keep me from getting to work on time is lurking on the horizon. Many of us have a commuter pad (think fraternity-style living at the commuter's expense) in their work city. Other commuters realize this will be their way of life to the day they retire, so they opt for better accommodations. As for me, I stay at hotels near the airport.
On one recent flight of mine, Toronto non-stop to Hong Kong, the crew consisted of four commuting pilots: a first officer from St. John's, Newfoundland; a cruise pilot who resides in Calgary, Alberta, but is based in Vancouver; a captain who lives six months in Phoenix and the other six near Lake Muskoka, Ontario; and me, from Halifax. Not only that, but among the Toronto-based flight attendants were two Montrealers, one living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and one enjoying Florida's climate.
I know of several pilots who commuted most of their careers. Even though it can be challenging, there are always compelling reasons to keep doing it: better schedules, more desirable airplanes and routes, a better or more economical place to live, and a happier spouse.
Commuting isn't the only reason you'll see pilots in uniform taking a seat in the cabin. They may also be deadheaders. Deadheading refers to crew members — flight attendants and pilots — who are being repositioned as part of their flying schedule. Here's one website's definition of a deadhead: "A person traveling on a pass; specifically, an airline crew or crew member in transit." In other words they fly as passengers while on duty. Deadheading is sometimes a result of irregular operations; that is, flights operating at different times than originally scheduled due to factors like maintenance, equipment (aircraft) changes, or inclement weather.
For example, the type of aircraft for a flight may be substituted; a flight was supposed to be on an Airbus A321, but at the last minute a Boeing 767 took its place. The airline has the option and ability to switch aircraft. (This is something to think about when booking a ticket. Some small operators may not be able to find a replacement quickly if the plane goes mechanical, for instance, and your trip may take longer than you bargained for. As the adage goes, "you get what you pay for.") Pilots are only "checked out" on one aircraft type at a time. A Boeing pilot can't just hop in the seat of an Airbus and go flying, nor is it legal for a turboprop pilot to fly a commuter jet. When aircraft are swapped, a pilot might travel as a deadheader on the flight he or she was originally scheduled to fly. Once at the destination, deadheading pilots pick up the next leg of the trip on their aircraft type.
Deadheading is also used for regular repositioning. Some of my deadheading has taken me to Beijing, Tokyo, and London to fly the flight back. On-call (or "reserve" crews) are frequent deadheaders, as they can be repositioned to start a trip from another aircrew base. For example, Vancouver-based pilots may be needed to fly Toronto pairings because of a crew shortage there.
Keeping up to Speed
It's been a busy afternoon for the captain and the first officer of Flight 101. They've just been advised by air traffic control to go into a holding pattern before landing, and the flight deck is a hub of activity. Checklists are itemized as the two crew members notify flight dispatch, the service director, and the passengers. Soon after, Flight 101 concludes circling in its racetrack holding pattern, touches down for an uneventful landing, and taxies over to the arrival gate. Then the unexpected occurs. The cabin door opens to the outside world, but no bustling airport comes into view. Instead, an instructor steps out of a flight simulator, ahead of the flight crew he has just spent four hours testing.
The flight simulator or "sim," as pilots call it, is a multi-million-dollar computerized marvel. Capable of replicating normal, unusual, and emergency flying conditions, it uses cutting-edge motion, sound, and visual effects to simulate the experience of flying an actual aircraft for training purposes.
For all airline pilots, there's no escaping the flight simulator. Just because a pilot has a license to fly and a good job at an airline doesn't mean the end of exams. Every six months, Air Canada pilots are required to renew their licenses with a flight test. Simulator exercises become routine for all airline pilots regardless of their level of experience. Tested twice a year throughout our careers, we get to know the procedure, which involves a full day of training, complete with a pre-briefing, four hours of simulator training, and a debriefing. On day two, pilots put what they've learned into practice with a three- to four-hour flight test. Many of the simulator's scenarios replicate emergency situations and the tests are never taken lightly. I've flown simulators in Paris, Zurich, Miami, Toronto, and San Diego, and they all have a commonality: it's like walking into a morgue — there are no windows and few smiles.
The simulator may be a way of life for an airline pilot, but for me and many other pilots the accompanying stress is something we would rather avoid. It's about as fun as getting a root canal. (Spouses and kids know to tiptoe around the house during simulator time.) Much of the stress is self-imposed. As one supervisor put it, "Most pilots are A-plus to A caliber, but there's a few Bs and some Cs out there." But how would you feel if your job came with a six-month renewal stipulation? I have, however, met other pilots, believe it or not, who rather enjoy the sim and look forward to their next session.
For years the six-month simulator ride came with a pass or failure. At Air Canada two strikes (failures) in two years meant you were looking for other employment. A failure to pass the upgrade exam to captain either meant automatic dismissal or being frozen as first officer for years. Because some pilot supervisors dished out more of their fair share of failures, their reputations preceded them, with nicknames like the Terminator or Smiling Assassin. Now we "train to standards." The focus has shifted from the threat of failure to the encouragement of learning and professional betterment. That doesn't mean, however, that the pressure to excel doesn't still exist for most pilots, myself included.
Each airplane type has its own simulator, also referred to by pilots as "the box." At Air Canada, these are located in either Toronto's or Vancouver's training facilities. (When things get busy, pilots will use simulators from private companies and other airlines.) These state-of-the-art sims recreate a gamut of scenarios with astounding graphics that would impress even the most avid video gamer. Pilots can be ready for takeoff in Montreal or whisked away to Hong Kong with a push of a button. Thanks to the simulator's realistic capabilities, pilots can take off in next-to-zero visibility, fly in day or night settings, or land in a blinding snowstorm. The graphics are so detailed that if I taxi the airplane on a snow-covered ramp and turn the airplane around, I see freshly made tracks behind me. Flashing thunderstorms, vehicles on the runway, low cloud heights — these are just a few of the many things pilots see in the simulator.
The motion experienced in the simulator is also very realistic. A typical simulator sits in a large two-story room and is mounted on powerful hydraulic jacks that create the feeling of acceleration, turbulence, turns, climbs, descents, and landings. During the simulation exercises, radios are used for communication between the pilot and the government-approved instructor/examiner. The instructor, who programs the exercises while sitting directly behind the pilot, plays a variety of roles: head flight attendant, air traffic controller, company dispatcher, weather office, and maintenance personnel. Working behind the scenes is the support staff, which maintains control over the high-powered computers that monitor the sim. These simulators, which cost some Can$20-million each, are put to the test almost every day of the year. When they aren't being used for pilot training, they are being fine-tuned by maintenance crews for the next session. Simulators typically cost Can$600 to Can$1000 per hour to run — a small cost to preserve safety, which is taken very seriously by pilots. Simulator training means that school is never out for pilots, which is just as well, because, after all, practice makes perfect.
Excerpted from From the Flight Deck by Doug Morris, Crissy Boylan. Copyright © 2007 Doug Morris. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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