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Monday, June 24, 2024

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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My Journey To The Airlines
Part 4 - Upgrade to Captain

(Image: Holding short in Cody Wyoming waiting for release)
Holding short of the runway waiting for release in Cody, Wyoming

A Year Passes

I recently realized that it had been over a year since the last installment in my Journey to the Airlines series of articles, but I think that can be forgiven given the state of the industry during this time. Like most airline pilots I was in a holding pattern since Covid 19 reared its ugly head and deployed the speed brakes on airline flying and life in general in early 2020.

(Image: Snapshot of flight flow at the height of the covid pandemic)

The twist is that my Covid 19 story begins well before then, in August of 2019. That month I was down in Houston for training and returned home with a few days off before my next trip. The following day I felt the twinge of a sore throat developing and by the next morning I began to cough. And cough. And cough. I am rarely sick because I take care of myself, keep stress as low as possible, eat well and don't smoke or drink. And when I get sick I am often not sick for very long, though about ten years ago I did get a bug that stuck with me and gave me every flu symptom known to man over a period of about two weeks. This time was different in that I had only one symptom -- a persistent, non-productive cough.

On the sixth day of my illness, a couple days after I was forced to call in sick, I coughed so hard I almost lost consciousness so I decided that the over-the-counter cough medication I traditionally used to combat coughs was no longer effective and I needed to see a doctor for the first time in 15 years. The doctor measured my vitals, saw my O2 saturation was in the low 80s and immediately brought me into the next room for some chest x-rays. These revealed that my lungs were full of fluid, so he administered a high dose of Albuterol, a medication commonly prescribed to asthma patients, and sent me home with an inhaler of the same medication. I took that for a full seven days and noticed my cough mostly subsided only after twelve days into the ordeal.

Pilots usually talk about a variety of subjects in the cockpit including some personal topics, but we don't usually talk about getting sick. Later, in November, I was flying with a captain who mentioned casually that he had just gotten over an odd sickness that lasted two weeks. When he described the symptoms -- sore throat at first, followed by nearly two weeks of coughing -- I immediately exclaimed "wow...I had the exact same thing a couple months ago". The really screwy thing is this conversation was to be repeated several times, with increasing frequency, in December of 2019.

I first heard rumblings in the news about Covid 19 and a potential SARS V2 outbreak in China in January of 2020. Two short months later my flying schedule had been cut in half, and then cut in half again. By the end of April I was flying a monthly equivalent of about 25 hours. Covid19 had arrived.

Empty Terminals

Perhaps the most surreal moment in my aviation career came when I found myself walking the full length of Newark Terminal C to pick up a deadhead to start my trip and seeing only flight crew and maybe 1 or 2 passengers the entire time. It was eerily quiet and all of the restaurants were closed. It felt like I was walking the ruins of a failed society. On that same trip, we had at most single-digit passenger loads. We felt privileged if we had a load over 10.

Just around the time the payroll support program (CARES Act) was making its way through Congress, our company announced a significant furlough. My seniority was high enough to avoid this initial round of furloughs, but this didn't make me feel any better. Fortunately, just five days after the announcement, we received money from Uncle Sugar and the furlough notices were rescinded. Everyone was back on property, so to speak, but the unfortunate reality was that at least half our pilots were sitting at home getting paid.

Fight to the Death

By September of 2020, the APC forums were bustling with speculation about yet more regional carrier closures but this time the rumors hit close to home because my company and a sister company, also partially owned by our parent company, were on the short list.

Although my company was in contract negotiations at the time Covid 19 hit us, due to travel restrictions and higher priorities negotiations were never completed and we wound up stuck with the same crummy contract with nearly the lowest pay in the industry. Little did anyone know at the time that this crummy contract would save our company at the expense of our sister company. In September our corporate officers held a town meeting that overloaded the group communications platform, in which they announced that our parent company had elected to keep us around and terminate operations with our sister company.

Needless to say, this news came with mixed emotions. I was happy to have a job in the current climate, which was, like post 9/11, affecting the tech industry as well and my company's sales to boot, but was extremely disheartened to note that there would now be almost a thousand well-qualified pilots on the street. As the discussions on APC continued it became clear that the main reason we survived while our sister company did not was because the sister company was home to a lot of pilots with high longevity (what are commonly referred to as "lifers"). These guys were at the top of the pay scale and enjoyed good benefits. While they were light-years away from mainline compensation scales, they were too expensive for the regional industry, and Covid simply drove the final nail in their coffin.

Although I'd always been aware of the fact, this was when I came to fully appreciate that the regional industry exists simply to reduce cost, and when costs rise above a certain level the regional airline business model breaks down. There is no incentive in the regional industry to reward employees for years of service. In fact, doing so increases labor costs substantially. My company has intentionally kept pay low and kept the longevity scales short (meaning, pay stops increasing after a limited number of years) to keep costs low but also to encourage people to leave as soon as they have their time to move on. Had we been just as top-heavy as our sister company due to a better contract, our fate would have likely mirrored theirs.

Sadly, I'm not convinced at this point that our company will survive long term despite having recently signed a 6 year CPA (capacity purchase agreement) with our parent company. The head of our parent company has indicated their desire to curtail 50 seat jet operations in under 5 years and while only time will tell, my assumption is that my company will either start flying bigger airplanes that the customers enjoy, like the Embraer 175, or the company will cease to exist. I always had plans to move on from the regionals, but the question now is whether I am able to get to my destination airline before this happens or leave the industry a second and final time.

1000 Hours

Based on my pre-covid schedule I had expected to reach 1000 hours in Part 121 operations in July of 2020. Normally, when FOs upgrade to Captain they are forced back to reserve for some period of time due to their seniority being lower than other captains. However, because our company hired nearly 100 "street captains" (FOs that at time of hire already had the 1000 hours in 121 required to upgrade) and I was higher in seniority than all of them I was on plan to upgrade into a line. In other words, I would not serve any meaningful time on reserve.

Unfortunately, Covid changed the entire industry and my gameplan. With a significantly reduced flying schedule I wound up reaching 1000 hours six months later than planned in December 2020. Worse, Covid decimated the international flying upon which my Newark base was so dependent. In fact, for a period of six months I didn't operate a single flight out of Newark and my flying was shifted to our Dulles base. I began and ended every trip with a deadhead (paid to sit in back) to and from Dulles. While less than ideal, things could have been a lot worse. I credit our union with proposing this solution and negotiating with the company to implement it. The alternative would have involved a base closure or displacement, as well as the furloughing of countless pilots.

By February of 2021, nearly a year since the flying public was forcibly pulled out of our aircraft as well as their work establishments by misguided policy and political posturing, I was back to a normal (70-75 hour schedule) and occasional trip that began or ended in Newark. Sadly, also during this time our parent company reported to our management that traffic in Newark, while forecast to be significantly higher during the summer, wasn't expected to approach Pre-Covid levels for at least a year...and possibly longer. This meant while I was qualified to upgrade, there were no vacancies in my Newark base.

The upside, however, was that, unlike most airlines at this point in time, my company was given directives by our parent company to grow, and grow fast. In October of 2020 we opened a new base in Houston, and in April 2021 opened another new base in Denver. The problem is that neither base was particularly appealing to me given that I live on the east coast. I came to the company precisely because of the chance to base in Newark and turned down a couple other offers to fly the 175 for companies with bases in Houston and other western cities precisely because I did not want to commute (i.e. fly standby using my non-revenue flight benefits to get to my base from my local airport).

Preparing for Upgrade

Due to my relatively high seniority, for the better part of the last year I managed to bid routinely with a half-dozen of my favorite captains. Two of these captains took an interest in mentoring me, and last fall one went so far as to tell me "When we fly together, I expect that you'll run the show." By this point I was pretty comfortable with the technical aspects of managing the airplane and more than one captain noted how effective I was managing the operation (talking to gate agents, ramp crew, operations, the flight attendant, dispatch, etc.) but little did I realize at the time the challenge this opportunity would present.

In little more than a single trip with this captain I earned how clearly different the first officer and captain roles are -- the FO is largely "heads down" and deals primarily with the "high interrupt rate" of minutiae required to manage the airplane (i.e. pushing all the right buttons at the right time) while the captain manages the "big picture", which requires a keen level of situational awareness and hence a lot of "heads up". Each job is difficult in its own right but I quickly learned how difficult it is to do both jobs at the same time effectively because of the requirement to be "heads up" and "heads down" simultaneously.

Looking back I realize that the final six months as an FO and my flying as a "captain with three stripes" was my true upgrade training. Needless to say I walked into upgrade class with a confidence I can't imagine acquiring any other way.

Upgrade Class

The five day classroom course was taught by a well known and liked instructor and active line check pilot. In addition to doing the FAA-approved death-by-powerpoint presentation, he added a complex scenario for each day, which included some combination of weather and maintenance issues to handle. The entire industry appears to be moving to scenario based training and I think this is a positive, as it focuses on the application of knowledge, rather than the rote memorization and regurgitation of that knowledge.

During class we had an expected visit from the local chief pilot, who would ultimately be my boss. What we did not expect was the director of training to show up and state the obvious "upgrade is a big deal, so take it very seriously" and threaten that the fail rate for upgrades was currently ranging from 40 to 60%.

Then the COO showed up unexpectedly and predicted we would likely lose our Newark base in 2022. While I had already elected to leave the base in order to upgrade, I did hope to return as quickly as passenger loads returned to normal. Unfortunately that prediction turned out to be true, as a few months later the company announced our parent company's intent to remove 50 seat flying from EWR and close our base there. I would now be forced to be a commuter until I left the company.

Procedures Training

After a single day off I started three consecutive days of procedures training, which utilizes primitive ground training devices to validate flows and some flight procedures. I refer to these devices as "primitive" because they consist of multiple physically independent touch panels that are inexplicably configured as a single touch surface, which means only one pilot may touch them at a time. As both pilots typically perform operations simultaneously this needlessly lengthens each session. Despite this limitation, the equipment serves its purpose.

Each day of procedures training we were presented with yet more scenarios, which we discussed at length in the two-hour briefing session. The sessions ultimately served their intended function, which was to make sure we were ready for our simulator sessions. As sims are expensive ($1000/hr typically), that is not the place to learn the basics including flows.

Upgrade Sim Training

After five days off and a trip home I returned for two weeks of simulator training. My first four lessons reacquainted me with my old nemesis -- the 10PM to 2AM simulator session. After showing up for the first simulator session my sim partner and I both learned quickly that the company had completely changed the simulator curriculum and substantially increased the scope and complexity of each lesson. So much so, in fact, that two people in my class dropped out after the second session. When we asked why they bailed they said "to avoid a checkride failure". Needless to say, I understood their logic, however premature it may have been.

The first three sim sessions went reasonably well for us, and we only failed to complete a couple items. The instructors, fully acknowledging that the sim lessons were a bit too busy for the time allotted, said we were progressing nicely. Then the fourth session happened and I felt "off". My blood sugar must have dropped precipitously, because I started yawning uncontrollably and losing situational awareness. This started to feel disturbingly familiar. Then the sim broke and we lost 45 minutes of my session, leading to an incomplete.

Sim #5 sported a slightly earlier report time and served as a turning point in my training. I made sure I slept in and had a good meal in the middle of the day. This session was run by the same great instructor we had for class, and he was being observed by another instructor that came to us from the sister company that terminated operations late last year. I don't know exactly why, but I completely relaxed during this lesson, perhaps accepting my fate, good or bad. As a result, I had the best session so far and impressed both instructors, one saying "you seemed to be very comfortable and confident", no doubt because I was cracking the occasional joke as I often do on the line. It was at this point that I began to think I had a chance of getting through this gauntlet.

My sim partner had some issues with RNAV single engine approaches and missed approaches, and my portion of the lesson was cut short due to sim maintenance issues, so my sim partner and I had a single "make up" session on a previously planned day off to bring us back to the normal progression. By the last sim session prior to the checkride it was clear my sim partner still had some issues to work out. He seemed a bit behind the airplane as well and had some issues programming the FMS. I was helping him out as much as I could but it got to the point that the instructor had to tell me to sit on my hands and let him figure it out. If you've read this entire series of articles this will sound familiar.

The day before our checkride the company pulled my sim partner into the training center to conduct another mock checkride. I asked our training scheduler to exclude me from this training event, as I needed time to study for the oral portion of the checkride and thought that his dependency on me may have been contributing to his issues. Early the next day my sim partner called me and said that the session went well except for the items for which he wanted additional training, and, fearing a checkride failure, he bowed out, leaving me to conduct my checkride with a seat fill (another pilot or instructor that is qualified to serve the role of First Officer). In spite of feeling appropriately confident about the checkride, I was still very nervous. As with all prior training events I knew full well that if I experienced another training failure, particularly for an upgrade, my hopes to progress to a major or LCC were virtually guaranteed to be dashed, so the pressure was on.

Upgrade Checkride

By luck of the draw my checkride was with one of my company's "old guard". He had been with the company for 20 years and was known to be extremely knowledgeable and fair, as well as the kind of guy you would go out to drink with, even if, like me, you don't typically drink alcoholic beverages. When I first got to the hotel at the start of sim training several weeks prior I found him sitting in the lobby hanging out with other instructors. I walked over to say hello and, knowing me from a previous LOFT event, he presented a task for me -- "Doug, on the checkride, be prepared to teach me something I don't know". A tall order if there ever was one, but I thought about it over the weeks leading to the checkride and came up with something.

The oral began with that very subject. I told him something I learned based on my line experience and presented the following. "As you know we have three classifications of EICAS messages -- informational (Blue), caution (Amber) and Warning (Red). Often, a warning or caution message results in a (maintenance) writeup but informational messages typically don't. There is an informational message that normally occurs on the LR variant of the aircraft that is considered grounds for a writeup if it occurs on the XR variant. What is that message?" His face lit up and he said "I don't know". So I told him how I discovered this message on two separate aircraft and reported the issue to flight operations, which was later forwarded to our maintenance department. They said that based on the criteria of the flight and power setting for the engines at the time, that the message may indicate a bleed leak in a non-instrumented section of the airplane. Meaning, the aircraft might have extremely hot bleed air leaking into the fuselage and the aircraft systems would not indicate the danger as it would a traditional bleed leak because the leak was not adjacent to any temperature sensors.

Needless to say, this set the stage for a very comfortable oral exam, as I had proven I was not just a casual observer in the right seat. We talked about systems but mostly in the context of getting the mission done. He asked questions like "we have a limitation on the batteries -- below -15C and 24V we have to pull the batteries out to be charged. But say you're up in Presque Isle, where they only recently discovered indoor plumbing, and you don't want to wait for contract maintenance. What can you do?" I said "I've owned airplanes and have flown those aircraft in the winter. I've been in this situation before and my solution was simple -- find a source of hot air and preheat the battery compartment". His eyes lit up again as he raised his fist for a fist bump. "Absolutely outstanding, Doug. You get it. That's really great to see".

The checkride itself went very well. Mostly because I was able to relax throughout the oral I walked into the sim relaxed, and that led me to be myself, which is to say, personable and wise-cracking. As each challenge presented itself I took command, briefed my plan to keep my crew in the loop, and then executed the plan exactly as briefed. At the end of the session the examiner noted that I flew very well and actually recommended that I put six months on the line and come back to be an instructor. I don't know the way this works in other airlines, but at this airline you can apply to the training department all you want, but you won't get the job unless you have one or more recommendations and generally have a good reputation among the instructors and line pilots. Such as it is with an airline that (at least until recently) was tiny by airline standards. As I've known for many years, it's impossible to hide in a small company. So not only did I pass a difficult checkride but I got an opportunity to join the training department. Not a bad end to the day.

Of course my work was not over at that point. I had to pass my qualification LOFT, which in all honesty was more challenging than the checkride. Its purpose was to do two legs in real time, with one "good leg" and one "bad leg" -- the theory being that on the good leg nothing bad happened. But when one of the generators dropped offline and I had to do a write up, I knew the bad leg was going to be particularly "interesting" and it was. One of the instructors on the LOFT was a mainline pilot who came back to us while on a COLA program. He said he thought the LOFT went very well and thought I'd be a good captain. High praise from someone who had made it to the promised land.

The final three sessions involved spot training, which incorporated specific exercises that aimed to improve performance in certain scenarios that our pilots have been found to be less than proficient, and UPRT, or upset recovery training. These topics were identified through a combination of incident reports, ASAPs and FOQA (Flight Operations Quality Assurance) program data routinely downloaded from the flight data recorders of our aircraft. I found this training particularly useful, and it did serve to polish my operations and in one or two cases plug holes in my knowledge or proficiency. The last session was upset recovery training, or UPRT, now mandated by the FAA because far too many pilots have not been trained how to properly identify various upset scenarios and recover from them, as well as enlighten pilots as to the difference in recovery methods at low and very high altitude, where aircraft and engine performance differ significantly.

Operating Experience

(Image: Release with calculations to diagnose a possible fuel leak)

Captain candidates are required to obtain 25 hours of operating experience with a check airman in the right seat serving the role of first officer. I wound up doing three trips of operating experience totaling roughly 25 hours. We had been told early on that, in contrast to the last few years, the company was not going to give much over 25 hours of OE to candidates and they would only give you more if the instructor(s) thought you were actually making progress during those 25 hours. Make the same mistakes over and over again and they'd quickly terminate training.

The first trip was a trial by fire, and not for the usual reasons. For the most part our airplanes have been maintained well. MELs (minimum equipment list maintenance deferrals) were the exception rather than the rule. However, we recently pulled several airplanes out of the desert to supplement our growing fleet and they wound up being very problematic, contributing significantly to delays as crews worked to manage countless squawks. I wound up doing writeups on the first five legs of the trip. Then, on last day of the trip I finally managed to get an airplane that had no issues and I was instead greeted with a complex weather scenario to work through. First the airport was shut down on taxi-out for over an hour, and then once we got to the destination we received news that the same airport was ground-stopped -- meaning we couldn't take off -- for over three hours. And just for good measure, this happened on go-home day, and I missed my original commute flight home. Fortunately, I called scheduling early enough and they managed to grab the last seat for me on the last flight home that night.

The second trip was mostly enjoyable as I polished the few glitches in flows and the like I experienced on the first trip. After the first couple of legs the instructor (different from the first trip) said that the flights would have passed either the fed ride or line check, and that I was continuing to "progress normally".

The "fed ride" was next. Fed rides are just another leg with an FAA inspector or authorized company check pilot (APD) in the jumpseat watching the captain candidate do their thing. FAA inspectors are not usually knowledgeable about specific company or aircraft procedures so their primary function is to review the characteristics of a captain generic to all operations including their CRM and leadership abilities. If it's not already obvious -- in Part 121 first officers essentially have to prove to a check airman that they know the aircraft systems, and will not be a danger to their captains on the line. Captains, on the other hand, are expected to be proficient in flying the aircraft and managing its systems by default, and are also expected to be able to lead a team, communicate effectively, and run the operation as safely and efficiently as possible. It's called the "big chair" for a reason. Fortunately, despite an FO/check airman who was intentionally trying to be a dunce and causing me to pull information out of him vs. have him volunteer it as most good FOs do, I managed to pass that flight. I did one thing that the APD said would probably have resulted in a debrief item on a line check, but overall I did well and covered all my bases despite being rushed off the gate. Still shy of 25 hours, my final one day trip was scheduled with a turn, out of my old EWR base. That wrapped up nicely and the instructor really had nothing to add as he thought I was good to go.

A few days later my line check was scheduled for a EWR to BNA (Nashville, TN) leg. My check airman turned out to be a guy I had for my initial operating experience (IOE) as an FO, and that was in fact that last time I flew with him. I had seen him a few times on the line since then and he was always friendly. Naturally, this set the mood for the flight. He began by telling me that this was officially a checking event but considering all I had been through including the Fed Ride, I was obviously doing things the right way and he encouraged me to continue doing what I was doing. That statement in itself relaxed me, and I went about the flight as I had done on all my OE flights, meaning, I took the responsibility for the flight.

The perk of this particular flight was that it was long enough to relax a bit in cruise (after keeping tabs on the fuel and briefing him about the state of the aircraft) and talk about stuff pilots typically talk about in the cockpit. I was surprised to learn that he remembered a few personal stories I told him on IOE over two years ago, and this reminded me why I prefer smaller companies to larger ones. The company was positively tiny for a Part 121 carrier when I arrived, and it was possible to see familiar faces every day, even if we never flew together. Since the "after the fact merger" with our sister company, we've since tripled in size, to the point that it is impossible to get to know everyone or fly with the same people unless special arrangements are made during bid time.

(Image: Diagnosing problems with CMC error messages screen)

Fortunately, the forecast at Nashville was accurate and we arrived in good weather to a firm touchdown squarely in the touchdown zone. In the debrief at the gate I couldn't come up with anything to fault on my performance and the check airman agreed -- he said that he was struggling to find anything even to nitpick. I suggested if I could pick on anything it was my "firm" landing but he countered that saying that the landing was "textbook" and that he usually grows more concerned about people who try to grease on the landing and then stretch the landing toward the end of the touchdown zone...something that works at larger airports but unnecessarily wastes runway and can result in reduced safety margins at shorter fields. At that point there was nothing left for him to do but shake my hand and congratulate me on becoming a captain.

Post Upgrade Reserve Schedule

In most companies, once a pilot passes either initial or upgrade training it is typical to be put on reserve for the balance of the current month as the bid for the current month is already set in stone. I've discussed reserve before but it's a simple matter of being "on call" for a number of hours per day. If a pilot lives in base this is a simple matter of either sitting at home waiting to be called (if given short call reserve) or driving to the airport in advance of the report time and sitting there waiting to be called (if assigned airport or "hot" reserve). The trick is if you live out of base, you still need to be within 2 hours of the gate (if short call) or 20-30 minutes from the gate if airport reserve. That means "commuting to reserve", paying for a crash pad or hotels as needed. This increases one's expenses, naturally, and is universally considered the most annoying of all commuting scenarios.

Given that I accepted a base change to IAH as part of my upgrade and that I was still living in NJ at the time, normally I would have had to commute to reserve and find my own way to IAH by using my non-rev benefits or jumpseating privileges. Fortunately, I had the foresight to ask my OE schedulers, then crew planners, and finally, our regular scheduling department, of my desire to do reserve "out of base" in EWR, near my home. I dangled the obvious carrot "if this works for you I can simply drive home and no hotels will be necessary despite being technically out of base". While I'd like to think that they did this because I've always been friendly with everyone in scheduling, the reality is this is what the company needed operationally at that time -- apparently we had been given more block hours in EWR than expected and they found themselves short reserves in EWR that month.

The perk of this arrangement was that the company was responsible for deadheading me (via a company paid ticket and guaranteed seat) anywhere I was needed. As it turned out my first trip as a captain was out of Houston, but as I did not need to worry about commuting, at least for now, as the trip started simply enough -- with a flight to IAH on the company's dime.

First Trip as Captain

(Image: The thrust reverser is mechanically disabled with a bolt)

I wish I could give you a blow-by-blow of this process and tell you all of the challenges I experienced, but because I was so busy doing my job, I did not keep particularly good notes. But I'll touch on a few highlights.

The first three days were more or less fixed in terms of schedule, and that made them easier for me but I went through several FOs and FAs over that period, and so I was never able to become comfortable with anyone. Worse, I didn't know any of them.

As luck would have it, the company had changed our weight and balance numbers and a couple related processes a couple days prior to the start of the trip, so I had to deal with this on my very first leg as a captain. I managed to get the aircraft off the gate on time, but only because I arrived at the gate early and got all of my setup done well ahead of time.

On the fourth day I was expected to do only two legs, but upon return to base scheduling called and I was assigned another flight that was due out at that very moment. That meant shutting down the aircraft, running to the other gate, printing paperwork, analyzing weather and fuel, and getting the new flight off the ground as soon as possible given that it was already late. One of the skills I have honed in engineering is to quickly analyze and prioritize requirements or constraints of a problem. In this context I knew I had to check weather first, because without decent weather I wouldn't be able to depart. Sure enough, as I pulled up some tools I use for preflight weather analysis it became painfully clear that there were no reasonably direct paths to the destination airport due to thunderstorms. I wound up calling dispatch and ultimately speaking about my concerns with the duty manager. 20 minutes later operations canceled the flight.

The next day was even worse. One of the legs was short, which made it difficult in its own right, but I found myself navigating between two thunderstorm cells, and worse, being the "trailblazer", i.e. the first aircraft to go through the gap. I was flying with a good FO and he was flying that leg so I manned the radar and determined it was safe, but it was yet another complication added to what would become a long day. Scheduling called again when we got in, and put more flying on us, including a IAH to ABQ reposition turn late in the day. That aircraft didn't get off the gate for nearly an hour, and then ATC gave us a reroute. The original flight plan route had cleared of weather, but the new route took us into it and so far toward the Mexican border that we realized we didn't have fuel to do the trip anymore. Back to the gate we went to pick up more gas. Then as we were parking the automated parking system failed so we had to sit there and wait for a ramp crew, but the ramp was closed because lightning was detected within five miles of the airport. We wound up sitting on the airplane for 20 minutes before someone came to help us.

It seemed as though every other day on my short stint on reserve was like this and while I never contemplated quitting, I did begin to wonder whether the entire journey was worth it. Reserve as an FO was a cakewalk, mostly because our airline wasn't in a constant state of panic and I lived in base. But this was different, and I couldn't help but remind myself that it was stories like this told to me by old and crusty TWA and American captains I used to hang out with in the 1990s that made me exit the industry the first time. But then I just reminded myself that I had a line the next month and the next time I had to deal with reserve after that it would likely be at an airline that had better work rules.

100 Hours

Since writing a bulk of this article I've surpassed 100 hours, and hence "consolidation". I'm officially off "high minimums" and settling into the left seat nicely. My FOs have been largely awesome and only one gave me pause. The aircraft and weather challenges have continued. After diverting only once due to a medical issue as an FO I've diverted twice due to weather since upgrading. One divert was to a tiny airport we serve with only two gates. That ultimately required me to go up to the terminal and stand in front of 50 people to let them know their fate (a delayed overnight, meaning, the flight was postponed until the following morning). The second diversion occurred to an airport that we don't normally fly to and resulted in my first-ever (and likely last-ever) arrival at a Delta gate. To top it all off, a passenger on the flight faked a health problem to get off the airplane when we told them the only way we would allow her to deplane at an airport not served by our parent company was via a medical emergency. That overnight I spent writing reports required by our company....after I had a good meal with an awesome FO.


(Image: A nice gift from a customer at the height of the pandemic)

With upgrade complete I achieved one of my lifelong professional goals to become an airline captain. I worked my butt off to acquire all of the experience required to achieve this goal, even during the bulk of my career spent working in another industry and without any real intention to re-enter the airline industry. I have plans to move on to a major airline as quickly as possible but as with everything in this industry, getting the job of your dreams requires being in the right place at the right time, some good networking, and a stroke of luck. I think I'm in a sweet spot at the moment, as airlines once again find themselves behind the curve in attracting pilots, but something tells me that I won't entirely relax until my water cannon salute at the conclusion of my Part 121 career.

My advice to anyone considering flying airplanes for a living is this: have a backup plan. Go to an accredited college and acquire a degree in a STEM field or anything OTHER than aeronautical studies, and be prepared to leave the aviation industry and use that degree. Never stop learning, both in and outside of the field. Start a business if you can, and always have one or more redundant sources of income, because as many people have learned, even just recently, your "dream job" can quickly become a memory due to circumstances outside of your control, and the time to come up with a backup plan is NOT when you need it most.

You may notice the image to the right. It's of a gift my crew received one day during the height of the pandemic. It was only the second time I'd received any such sentiments in nearly three years of flying in Part 121. Most of our customers have absolutely no awareness of everything we go through to become pilots and manage a very complex airplane and operation as required to transport them safely to their destinations. My first instructor on IOE told me at one point that he had accepted a job at FedEx. When I asked him why, he said "boxes don't bitch". Even back then, when I believed the job was its own reward, I replied "I get it, but boxes don't say thank you either". For all of the headaches this job entails, particularly as a captain, rare gifts like this remind me why I do this and keep me going on a daily basis.

Although this will likely be the final installment in this series of articles, at the risk of repeating myself, I may resurrect the series when I move on to my destination carrier and engage in new experiences there. If you've made the decision to become an airline pilot, I hope you've found these series of articles helpful.