My Journey To The Airlines
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An Embraer 145 LR in High Altitude Cruise
Indoc was nine days long excluding two travel days, so the commitment wound up being 11 days. I was flown to and from training events via "positive space". This meant I had a guaranteed seat on the aircraft with one exception: a revenue ticket (a paying passenger) could bump me.
For at least the last 10 years the airlines have managed to keep the load averages above 95%, meaning that nearly all of the seats on any given flight are booked by the day of departure, so positive space is a good thing. This differs, incidentally, from non-revenue ("non-rev") travel benefits you might otherwise utilize in personal travel as an airline employee, because you're flying contingent on there being open (unbooked) seats, hoping one of those paying passengers doesn't show up to fly (possible if they miss a connection), or no one else shows up at the gate willing to buy a full-fare ticket to get on board. So non-rev travel, even for those with higher priority (like airline employees going on vacation) can suck. Positive space is, under normal circumstances, essentially a free ticket with a more or less guaranteed seat but it is a privilege extended to few people -- specifically, employees traveling on company business.
I was flown in on Monday and arrived at my hotel around 3PM. That allowed me to get settled and prep my clothes to report to the training center the following morning (Tuesday) at 8AM. In reality, I adjusted my schedule to show up 15 minutes early every morning. The training center was adjacent to the airport so it took basically the same amount of time to get from the hotel to the training center as it took to get from the airport to the hotel. Working backward I wound up leaving my hotel room exactly 30 minutes before report time each morning and at least one time that came in handy -- I drove a couple hundred feet down the road only to realize I had left my phone back in my room. Going back consumed precious time but I arrived with about 5 minutes to spare. Needless to say, arriving late sends the wrong message so my recommendation is to plan and ahead and don't be "that guy" (or girl).
I also found that waking up 2 hours before report time gave me an hour to take a shower and look presentable. Then an extra 30 minutes to have breakfast, pinch a loaf, check email, etc. The hotel had a basic breakfast buffet available including eggs, but I am generally not a breakfast guy. I have a sensitive stomach and so I am leery of eating food I do not prepare, but I did utilize the hotel buffet on Tuesday morning because I hadn't gone to the grocery store at that point. Subsequently I picked up some fresh fruit (bananas, apples, and grapes) at the local Kroger and ate that in my room in the mornings while I returned email and phone calls related to my business.
The reason why indoc is nine days long is because they need every minute of those nine days to convey a huge amount of information to new employees. Naturally, I can't disclose everything I was taught, but I can give you a 10000 foot view, so to speak.
Paperwork and more paperwork. Did I mention the paperwork?
Logbooks are reviewed to a greater extent than during the interview, but since I already had my ATP they did not look at my logbooks during indoc. If you have an ATP and are wondering whether you should still bring your logbooks to indoc, all I can do is echo the advice of the director of training when I asked him that question: it is better to have them than not have them, presumably just in case they want to take a look at something.
If you're a gun owner you'll likely have been through this before. If you haven't, I'll just say this no longer involves getting ink on your fingers. The machines take a high contrast picture of your fingers (not just the tips) and that gets put into a database somewhere. Ignoring the obvious privacy implications, the process was painless and took less than two minutes, much of which was spent with the operator verifying my personal data.
Mostly because I came from the tech industry and no one in that industry gives a shit what you smoke, snort or inject so long as you get your work done on time, this was something I'd never done before. I whizzed in a cup while a guy waited outside the specially prepared restroom. After cleaning up I watched as the guy poured my sample into two smaller sample cups. The cups were closed and then placed in a tray I held and took back to the room in which the paperwork was finished, thus preserving the chain of custody. The attendant then pulled two pre-printed labels off of a form, sealed the two sample cups with the labels, and asked me to initial the labels and sign a form. I was given a copy of the form.
The drug tests look for five specific types or classes of drugs, including THC. The airlines do NOT accept any recreational use of pot even if your state does. As far as they (and the feds) are concerned pot is still schedule 1. So, not to sound like Nancy Reagan, but if you want to be an airline pilot, don't do drugs. Oh, and don't eat a poppy seed bagel before your test. Not that anyone outside of New York or New Jersey would know how to make a bagel worth eating, but that does present a risk of a false positive. And while something like that could probably be resolved with another test, you would be well advised not to rock the boat.
After a lunch once again catered by Olive Garden my group went to uniform fitting. This company provided a basic uniform consisting of four shirts, two pants, blazer and trenchcoat for "free". In reality this and the other items we received were not free, but paid for through a reduction to 1/2 of the normal salary guarantee for the first 30 days on payroll. But I digress...
My fitter was a very friendly woman who just looked at me and got all my measurements correct on the first try. Naturally, she backed up her skill with an objective measurement. I tried on the blazer but did not try on the shirts or pants. I was told I would be allowed to exchange the items once without cost if they did not fit.
I much prefer long sleeve shirts in general, but in the peak of summer I can see why virtually all pilots go with short sleeves. At most companies pilots can choose to wear short or long sleeves year round with one exception: if you have tattoos they must be concealed while in uniform, hence that may require a long sleeve shirt. I also learned that the company only required wings on the blazer and not the shirt, so, accordingly, there were no holes in the pockets or elsewhere to accommodate the wings. My advice is that if your company does require wings on the shirt, get the shirt with the holes pre-sewn to accommodate the wings because they will make it trivial to correctly install and align the wings properly. While it is technically possible to install wings on a shirt without the holes, repeated installation and removal of the wings will ultimately damage the fabric so it's just best to go with the pre-sewn holes if required.
The trench coat could optionally be replaced with a 3 in 1 layered heavy coat. The 3 in 1 had the advantage of being quite a nice jacket you would likely be comfortable wearing when not on duty, it could be worn without the blazer, and the inner liner could be worn on the chilly (but not downright cold) months when you don't need the full insulation of the outer layer. The downside to the 3 in 1, at least for noobs, was that it was an extra $100 out of pocket, but it's fair to say a similar jacket could not be obtained in the retail market for less money. They did point out that one could get the trenchcoat now for free and then get the 3 in 1 in a year for free when the uniform allowance is refreshed but I didn't want to wait because I didn't want to deal with the blazer in the winter.
The company outlined a policy restricting facial hair. They say it's because the O2 mask won't seal securely over your face and there is some truth to that. I have never worn a beard so this didn't affect me. I've since learned that beards are typically acceptable during training but not allowed on the line.
Of the three flight bags offered I selected the largest mostly because I knew it would fit in the cockpit bin as well as under the seats of most if not all airplanes on which I might deadhead. I also knew it would have enough room for all of my personal and company electronic devices, backup batteries and headsets, as well as a change of clothes in case my roller bag is misplaced (though truthfully that is only likely to happen if I have to check it during a commute).
The company provided a LuggageWorks roller bag for free as part of the initial luggage allowance. There were three two-wheel roller bag options. One was a cheap and somewhat smaller plastic unit, another had a larger frame made from aluminum, and the last option was of identical size with a steel frame. The instructor pointed out that the steel frame unit was almost five pounds heavier and less desirable as a result so most people go with the aluminum frame unit. As I already had a nice spinner I had planned to use for overnights I asked if I could opt out of the roller bag and was told "no, but you can sell it if you want". I went with the aluminum frame unit.
Based on my experience a spinner is the way to go. Why? Look at how the bags work ‐ the two wheeled models are pulled behind you, with your arm extended rearward and shoulder and back twisted in an unnatural way as you are forced to hold up a sizable fraction of the weight of your bags. Do that long enough and you'll have shoulder and possibly back problems.
With a spinner the weight of the bag is placed exactly where it should be ‐ on the ground and my hand rests comfortably at my side on top of the handle to guide the bag where I'm walking. In those rare cases where I have to pull the bag on two wheels (like coming up a carpeted incline such as the jet bridge or on any well-cushioned surfaces) I do that easily enough, but quickly return to upright / spinner mode the second I get to a smooth, level surface.
While Briggs and Riley products aren't cheap they come with a lifetime warranty, and the perk is they come with a 20% discount if you're an airline employee and can provide a copy of your company ID. Although I wasn't an airline employee at the time I purchased the bag I received the discount because I told them I was going to an interview and was willing to send over a copy of my offer letter if required. They took my word for it at the time but reports are they don't do that any longer because non-airline personnel were taking advantage of the discount. So the message is to wait until you have your company ID before buying from B&R.
My one beef with the B&R is the handle. It tends to twist a bit when the bag is fully expanded and loaded as the outside casters create drag and a tendency for the bag to turn clockwise a bit. I think B&R should redesign the handle to be more robust. Incidentally, a strong handle is one of the perks of the LuggageWorks roller. That said, if the handle breaks B&R's lifetime warranty will replace it for free (well, aside from the cost to ship it to them).
Introduction to Flight Operations Manual (FOM)
At the end of the first day everyone was spent but we nevertheless began learning about the company's Flight Operations Manual. We touched on topics such as manual administration, general policies and how the company expects us to report safety violations or other incidents.
In the morning we learned about the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) which President Reagan signed into law many years ago. While the instructor pointed out our job was primarily to sit up front and fly the airplane safely and that the vast majority of time the gate agents and flight attendants would deal with the general public, we needed to know about the act to potentially resolve conflicts if necessary. This basically amounted to learning the legal reasons we could (or perhaps more importantly, could not) deny boarding.
We also learned about PRM (simultaneous close parallel) approaches, since these are popular at air carrier airports that most GA pilots like me never visit due to egregious fees. I had already learned a bit about these while searching for other topics during the months in which I prepped for my interview so this was mostly a review.
After lunch (which people either brown bagged or obtained from the cafeteria's kiosks) we received our EFBs in the form of a 2018 generation iPad. While I was happy to see the company using technology to their advantage, I would not have selected that particular unit for use in aviation. I recently bought the 10.5 Pro with laminated screen and anti-glare coating and its screen is much better in direct sun or brightly lit environments as compared to the standard screen it's ridiculous, but like so much in aviation the decision was made based strictly on cost and I wasn't the one writing the check.
I can't say anything about the apps installed on the devices as that is sensitive information but I will say that the company did not use Foreflight, and that's a bummer too, since Foreflight is definitely easier to use and better integrated than the company-selected applications. Foreflight should get off their butt, get whatever certifications they need to get in order to play in the airlines' sandbox, duplicate some of the more unique functionality of the tools the carriers use for weather, and then cut one hell of a deal for the many seats they'd sell.
One of the more interesting points made by the instructor was that in years past students would have been given several very thick binders of material, totaling well over 1000 pages, and those binders would be stacked 4+ feet high in front of the classroom. "But today," he said, "we give you this", as he held up the iPad and turned it sideways to emphasize its thin profile. "Don't be fooled. You have a lot of information to learn".
This was mostly a powerpoint day with the FOM. We learned about everything from crew scheduling to hazmat policies, how the company does weight and balance (pax and cargo), how to jumpseat and, to a lesser extent, how to commute (non-rev travel). We also touched on fueling and deicing procedures.
It was around this time in when, during the periodic 10 minute breaks, I kept hearing certain familiar sounds from people playing "Living the Dream" videos on their phones and laughing hysterically. Consider watching these videos (there are three in all, at least at this writing) as they are essential prep for indoc. You should know what you're getting yourself into.
This was perhaps the most fun day so far although for contract reasons we had to shift the work day from 8-5 to 6-3, hence we had to get up a couple hours earlier than usual.
The morning began with an impromptu visit from two flight instructors ‐ a man and a woman. They came to tell us about some of the issues they were seeing in procedures training. The guy openly admitted to being quite politically incorrect and "guilty of using the word 'fuck' like a comma". While I appreciated the outstanding professionalism of everyone I met up to this point, I have to admit I'm very used to the tech world where everything and everyone is far less formal. So after all the formality I'd encountered throughout the interview and hiring process I have to admit this guy was a breath of fresh air. He had the class rolling in short order, and the laughter continued when he added "and don't bother calling HR about me...they know about me already".
Both instructors told us in no uncertain terms that while the study guides (totaling about 400 pages) provided to us prior to the start of training were an an excellent reference, we absolutely needed to know the detailed information only available in the SOPs (a sensitive document made available only on the company-provided ipad) and hence procedures (callouts) before we got to the EFPT.
The woman was clearly more conservative in her approach but she pointed out something she saw as a problem with new hires, which I surmised from her tone was an issue with the younger pilots in particular. She suggested "many of you are instructors, but you need to understand you're not instructors here -- you're students -- please check your egos at the door". The guy then said "it's great when we see confident pilots, but that confidence must be tempered". According to him the best, most seasoned pilots are "appropriately arrogant". Meaning, of course, that you have to know your stuff, but you don't want to carry yourself like you know everything -- because you don't.
The day only got better when we met another awesome instructor ‐ easily one of the most knowledgeable pilots and instructors I've met in my 30 years as a pilot. He was a former Navy guy, former test pilot and aeronautical engineer. He had wrapped up his last job helping to certify the Trent 1000 jet engine before coming to teach here "for fun". And it showed.
He gave us an in depth review of aerodynamics, particularly in the high speed regime, and I found this to be a nice high level summary of the work I did at Daniel Webster except without all the math. There were discussions on V-N diagrams, mach effects, and coffin corner, all delivered with lots of real-world examples. We then did a review of jet propulsion, engine design and limitations and performance. This is where the instructor's knowledge of certification came in handy. We even discussed why new transport designs generally don't hang the hair dryers on the tail anymore (hint: it's due to requirements related to catastrophic engine failure).
Introduction to the Union
During lunch two union reps greeted us and provided pizza. The reps were there mostly to collect two forms that they said were optional or voluntary but I gathered really weren't. If you work in a union shop, you'll join the union. That's just the way it works. Dues wind up being roughly $50/mo which isn't much in the grand scheme of things.
I have to admit I have never been a "union guy". I've never been in a union and have never had any need for one, but that's because I have always worked in industries where my skillset was fairly specialized and easily differentiated from others who might approach the same tasks, and hence I was compensated based on my merits. Contrast that with the airline business, the goal of which is the normalization of skills across an entire population of employees.
Unfortunately, once you make everyone an interchangeable cog in the machine, individuals lose all leverage in negotiations. If business owners and corporate officers the world over weren't textbook sociopaths we wouldn't need unions because employees would be treated well simply because it was the right (i.e. moral) thing to do. I know this works in practice because my family's contracting business was non-union and we had very low turnover. Why? We hired good people, paid them above market rate consistent with their performance, provided good benefits, and respected them as individuals.
The same cannot be said for the airline industry over its long and varied history. Even the instructors admitted they were not exactly proud of their company's history but were equally willing to point out that things have definitely changed over the last 5 years, mostly due to the efforts of a lot of people who demanded that change. To some extent I think that's true -- the squeaky wheel does generally get the grease -- but having dealt with my share of C-level types throughout my career I think it's more likely due to a realization by management that they had squeezed all the blood from the stone, the word had gotten around that the career wasn't all hot stews and exotic destinations, and there wasn't anyone coming in the door anymore to fly their airplanes. Thus it became a simple decision of economics. Pay more for labor or go out of business. I have seen more people agree with this, dismissing the concept of a "pilot shortage" for one of a "pay shortage".
We were given a fairly rushed briefing on bidding but I didn't take much away from it because it was not well timed: we had not yet been granted access to the bidding system (that would come a couple weeks later) so we could not launch and otherwise follow along with the application. I would have preferred that the union reps spent their short time with us differently. Fortunately, we later received a more thorough lecture on the scheduling and bidding processes from the company's crew planning manager and I took a lot more useful information away from that session.
Initial Base Bid
Earlier in the week one of the instructors asked our class for a show of hands as he mentioned each of our bases so he could get an idea of where we wanted to end up. Interestingly, the class was pretty evenly distributed across the base structure. The only place no one wanted to go at that time was PIT, which surprised me because most people call LGA "LaGarbage" for a reason. Yet when LGA was mentioned many hands went up. When I later asked one guy why he selected LGA it was because he lived 10 minutes from the airport. Another guy was more strategic, adding "lines come quicker in LGA because everyone bids out of there the first chance they get and I want to fly on a schedule rather than be on reserve and then bid the base I want when I can hold a line there".
Later in the day we were given the option to provide the company with our initial base preferences. This required us to list all of the company's bases, in order of our preference. I selected EWR as my top choice since I live in NJ and know the area well enough to get around traffic jams. It was also around an hour from my house, which made it possible for me to "live in base" and avoid a crash pad for the time I expected to be on reserve.
Unfortunately, when the crew planning rep arrived to collect our initial base preferences he put up a powerpoint slide showing the current base staffing with asterisks near only four bases. The asterisks, he told us, are where he expected to initially place the class, roughly evenly distributed (one quarter of the class in each base).
My third choice (LGA) was in that list and (here's the kicker), the other three bases were not within driving distance, so if assigned a base OTHER than LGA I would have to commute to reserve, which is a pain in the ass. This company offered to provide commuter hotels because they buy blocks of rooms in our bases so the drill is to call travel and ask if they have a spare room, but commuting can, depending on your base, require you to travel the night before or return the day after your trip. This not only eats into your time at home but also puts you on the hook for the cost of any lodging required (i.e. when not on a trip).
Of course, I didn't really want to deal with LGA and many of my pilot buddies told me to avoid the place if I could. One went so far as to say "the only good thing about LGA is it's not JFK". However, at this time I didn't expect to be in LGA very long.
Emergency Equipment Training
This was another fun day that involved going out to a warehouse within the building and getting some hands-on experience utilizing all of the safety equipment in the aircraft and utilizing the slide built into a full size fuselage built by Embraer for use in training.
I got a chance to do some cool things for the first time:
First, I got a chance to wear and deploy a life vest using CO2 cartridges. As I looked at the boxes full of these things I couldn't help but contemplate the cost of doing this. Most airlines tend to use compressed air and while I think that gets the point across it's fair to say safety is served by using the actual deployment method at least once in training. The interesting thing about this was how cold both the CO2 cylinder and the vest itself became after deployment. Some frost was in fact formed on the surface of the vest as a result of the reduction in temperature.
Second, I threw myself down the emergency slide. The slide does not appear to be at a great angle but trust me, it is. As I stepped toward the edge of the door I found myself acutely aware of the possibility of falling backward a bit and banging my head on the base of the door as I fell downward. For that reason I lept a bit forward as I jumped. That caused me to more or less bounce off the bottom of the slide and almost face plant. Not my finest moment. But any trip down the slide you walk away from is a good one.
I was also instructed on how to open and close the aircraft door without deploying the slide. While pilots don't typically touch the door during normal operations (the door is typically opened from the outside by the gate agent after the jet bridge is moved into place and closed by the FA) there are times when the pilot is responsible for actuating the door like during repositioning (so-called repo) flights for maintenance or other purposes where no passengers (and hence no flight attendants) are on board. The door used for training is actually a simulator of sorts. It uses an LCD in place of the porthole that allows the operator inside to look outside. The rig can also simulate a variety of problems, including a failure of the slide to inflate, which of course requires pulling the manual inflation handle.
I then learned how to fight a fire. I donned a hood that was constructed mostly of silver reflective material and a rubber collar that fit tightly around my neck. The face of the hood was made from what I can only describe as a thick kapton-like material. The hoods used in the aircraft are equipped with small O2 bottles that provide about 15 minutes of breathable air and ultimately inflate the hood. The hood we were using in training, however, had no such bottles, and in fact had small holes cut in it to allow us to breathe. Once the hood was on I pulled the pin on a special fire extinguisher and used it to approach and take out a fire that was generated by what appeared to be a small gas grill with a few sensors on front. The sensors were present to detect a sweeping application of retardant material applied by the extinguisher and ultimately reduce the intensity of the flame before shutting the gas valves to simulate the fire going out.
It was around this time when one of the students looking at his phone told everyone that our bases had been awarded. As he scrolled down the list I learned two things: I was third in seniority in my class (hence one of the older guys but not the oldest) and I had received PIT. This was a surprise. Of the four bases that we were offered for our initial award LGA was my first choice yet for some reason many people below me in seniority got LGA.
Once we got back to the classroom I sent a quick email to the scheduling rep who sent the base award email. Within a few minutes he responded and apologized, saying he accidentally duplicated another person's award. He wrapped up the email with the simple statement "You can expect LGA". As crazy as it is to say this, I was quite relieved, since it meant I could commute via car, though I knew I would likely have to stay at a family property about 50 minutes closer to the airport to ensure I would be able to meet the 2 hour reserve callout time.
We touched on a series of FOM subjects including dispatch and maintenance (MEL).
Another instructor came in to talk about what they called "Captain Leadership and First Officer Awareness". This might sound like a yawn fest but I found it quite interesting. This four hour session discussed all aspects of the dynamics between Captains and First Officers, the roles and responsibilities of each, and what happens when these relationships break down.
One clear message that came out of this discussion was that they considered First Officers "Captains in training", and because our training would result in a PIC type rating they expect FOs to be active and assertive in all aspects of flying the airplane from the preflight, to writing up maintenance discrepancies, dealing with dispatch and release issues, and verifying the Captain's decision making process throughout the flight.
The instructor noted that upgrade times were dropping rapidly and it could be as little as two years (and possibly less) before we could bid for the left seat, and if we developed the poor habit of always looking to the guy sitting to the left of us to make decisions we might find ourselves unprepared to upgrade. Why is upgrading important? You get to log PIC rather than SIC and salary nearly doubles.
Another instructor pointed out to us later that almost half of initial upgrades fail to make the grade and are sent back for additional time as FO before being allowed to upgrade again. I researched the company extensively before I applied and yet I never heard of this kind of failure rate. This instructor's justification? "Our families fly on these airplanes. We're not going to lower our standards for any of you".
This was another series of lectures on meteorology, wind shear, wake turbulence and CFIT (controlled flight into terrain).
We also had a lecture on safety, the purpose of which was to look at many accident cases to identify what went wrong and why or how these situations typically develop. All of these cases were provided with ATC audio only, with one exception: a company accident about 10 years ago. We got to hear the full CVR audio for that one. CVR audio is normally not made public, and I now know why. It's one thing to read "<Explicative>" or "OH SH--, SH--!" on the transcript. It's quite another to hear the panicked pilots accept their fate. It's fair to say it made an impact on the class. You could hear a mouse fart in the room after that was played.
I won't describe the accident but I will say that while the aircraft was damaged the overall accident was relatively minor in that no one was seriously injured. The real message in this was that the pilots did not respond to the accident (post-crash) well at all and if more substantial damage to the aircraft had occurred passengers may have died due to their inattention. For this reason the FAA had planned to revoke the certificates of both pilots but they were allowed to keep them because they cut a deal, part of which included an agreement to allow their CVR audio to be used in training. The CVR audio was not made public.
Some time ago I was flying with a guy in a Twin Otter and I asked him "what's your greatest fear as a pilot?". He said "fucking up, dying, and having people piss on my grave and criticize what I did, like 'that asshole ran out of fuel and killed everyone'". Not surprisingly we shared that fear and I said that was always enough to drive me to do things the right way, even when no one was looking.
We were introduced to the company's "operations specifications", which is essentially a list of operations granted by the FAA that dictate what the company can and cannot do.
Part of the operations specifications is a list of exemptions from standard Part 121 regulations that do everything from allow a pilot to fly without their required documents (pilot certificate, medical) to specify how we derive alternate minima (i.e. how we determine whether an airport can be used as an alternate). Fortunately most carriers have increased flexibility beyond the standard 600-2 / 800-2 that most instrument rated pilots use to specify an alternate, and this allows the aircraft to carry less fuel to reach alternates because those alternates are more likely to be closer to the destination and its less-than- desirable weather pattern.
We also received our systems course content, delivered via an application on our iPads, that we would be responsible for completing at home in the two weeks following indoc. Two of the systems instructors came in to introduce us to the app and define the requirements for completion. We were also provided a schedule that effectively required us to complete the course in one week and then repeat the process for the second week to reinforce our learning.
The systems instructors warned us repeatedly that although we were going home for the two weeks required to complete the training we were not to mistake this for time off. They emphasized that we were still in training and being paid so they advised us to follow the same daily schedule we used during indoc -- get up early, eat breakfast, start training at 8AM, take a one hour lunch break from 12 to 1 and continue through (at least) 5PM.
The instructors pointed out that they had to terminate a guy from the last class because it was clear he had gone home and made little effort to complete the course. I was pleased to learn he wasn't fired strictly based on the course completion statistics recorded by the application, however. He was, in fact, given an opportunity to prove he had learned the material to the required standard and toward that end was given a short written and oral test, which he promptly failed. The summary to the class was "take systems training seriously".