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Monday, June 24, 2024

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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My Journey As an Airline Pilot
Part 2 - One Year On Property

(Image: Embraer 145 in the flight levels)
E145XR walkaround at sunset in Roanoke, VA

This article is a followup to an article that described my arduous journey to the cockpit of an airliner following over three decades of GA flying. Feel free to check out the previous article as it will provide some context for this article.

As I write this I've been employed by a Part 121 air carrier for a year and "on the line" for eight months. I have accumulated about 400 hours flying the Embraer 145XR (eXtended Range variant). It's been an interesting journey in itself, from IOE to reserve and now to a line (a fixed schedule), so I figured I'd write up my experiences for anyone who might be following in my footsteps.

Initial Operating Experience

Technically a continuation of one's training following the checkride, Initial Operating Experience or IOE is the term given to the process of bridging one's ability to fly the airplane, as demonstrated on the type rating checkride, with exposure to the real airplane flying in the real world.

(Image: Tail end of winter 2019 operations at Newark Airport Terminal A)

To begin IOE I made arrangements with the training scheduling department to schedule my observation flights. These are flights required prior to operating a line flight as an FO at my company. Not all companies require observation flights but I was happy my company did as I found them very enlightening and a convenient way to ease into the process. I was lucky in that the guy doing the scheduling, known by his nickname "Spaghetti" because few could correctly pronounce his similarly spelled last name, had a great reputation. He answered a lot of noob questions and gave me a bunch of options from which to select. I elected to observe a turn from EWR to SYR early in the day as I did not want to deal with the delays that I knew, even at this early stage, tended to plague EWR in the afternoon.

The first officer on this flight was nearly as new as I was (only about a month on the line at this point) and therefore still on reserve. Yet the captain said to me he had flown with him before and thought he was a great FO. Sure enough, he worked calmly and swiftly with the captain, suggested alternatives, and did his job well. I knew I would be wise to emulate his performance later on the line.

The irony of my interaction with the captain was that I would eventually come to know him as one of the more ham-fisted at the company. As I was new to the airplane I didn't fully appreciate it at the time but after I watched countless other captains land the airplane and developed my own technique to smoothly land both the mains and the nosewheel (the latter being a particular challenge in the E145, at least for noobs) I realized in retrospect this captain's approach and landing technique was horrible. He would later go on to tail strike the airplane and be retrained, only to ultimately leave the company for a lateral move to another regional carrier (Air Whiskey if you must know...look out you guys). Other pilots I spoke to confirmed my suspicions and one blatantly said "bid avoid that guy, he's a fucking moron and he's going to kill someone someday...don't let it be you". Mind you, this captain had come to my company from another company that has (deserved or not) one of the lesser reputations in the industry (and you know the company I'm talking about) so he now appears to be hopping between regionals to keep his job when he should, in my opinion, go do something else with his life.

This provided a clear perspective that aviation is most certainly a merit-based industry and that some people are up to the task of flying an airliner, while some are not. Needless to say, I was glad to later learn he had left the company as this was one less guy that might crash a planeload of people, sink the entire company and derail my career. The message here is to avoid going to a company with a lot of these kind of guys. If the training department has a bad reputation or the instructors are known to look the other way, you'll be at the NTSB hearing along with the clod from the left seat, assuming you're still breathing at all. A corollary to this realization is "don't assume that your captain is perfect". While most have more experience than FOs, they're human too and make mistakes. Your job as an FO is to make sure those mistakes don't turn into accidents. The problem, of course, is when the ink is still wet on your license you're not exactly qualified to question the captain's experience or take over if necessary.

After observation I had a couple weeks off due to a lack of available line check airman (LCA) -- in other words -- instructors -- whose responsibility is to fly with ink-still-wet-on-the-license FOs and get them up to speed. Also contributing to the delay to IOE was a government shutdown that limited the company's ability to mint new LCAs as they must fly with federal examiners. While I enjoyed nearly a month off between my checkride and the start of IOE I naturally grew a bit apprehensive that I might forget my flows and procedures before I hit the line despite regularly reviewing my study materials. And while that sounds a bit crazy, the reality is this early in the game everything is sort of crammed into the mind by force and some information naturally leaks out over time. Eventually, just as I discovered years ago after getting my private license and flying more regularly, it becomes possible to step away from the airplane for increasing periods of time without losing one's "touch". Fortunately, Spaghetti soon emailed me my IOE schedule and I prepared to continue my training the first day of March 2019.

First Trip

(Image: Nosewheel and lights during a preflight of the E45X)

The first day of IOE involved three legs including a Norfolk VA (ORF) turn followed by my first international flight (as a crewmember) in nearly 30 years, the last being training flights in college we took to Toronto Island in southeastern Canada.

I was hoping for a smooth beginning to the day but we had a few maintenance issues, a FA with a bad attitude, and air traffic issues that ultimately delayed our departure from EWR as well as our return to it. The last two legs were flown at night, something I also hadn't done in some time, and we wound up touching down in Quebec shortly after midnight. I then had to do the walkaround in 10F weather with wind chill below zero. Needless to say, I was burnt out and cold. Trial by fire, indeed.

The next day was a late report again and only involved two legs -- a return to EWR and a flight to Memphis, TN, home base to FedEx. We experienced fewer issues this day but we still wound up getting into Memphis after 10:30PM. The airport was basically deserted by that point, and this also precluded getting a decent meal. Fortunately I'd brought what I call MREs or emergency rations, so while not exactly the quality of meal I care to eat I did not go to bed hungry.

We wrapped up the first three day trip by flying back to EWR, then to Dulles VA (IAD) and then back to EWR. What made these legs challenging was their relatively short duration. I would later realize these were far from the shortest legs we do at the company (the shortest being IAD to CHO, with a roughly 20 minute flight time) and as my technique and speed improved these legs would become routine. But to a shaky new FO they were a challenge at the time.

As we arrived back in EWR and waited for the crew van to take us into the terminal from the C130 hardstands (parking spots with no jet-bridge connection to the terminal) the FA with the bad attitude complained that several of the passengers were rude to her. This was no surprise to me, given the "resting bitch face" this girl had -- I mean, she looked pissed off all the time and never smiled. She then proclaimed that she no longer had to "take any more shit from these passengers" because she had just got a job offer from JetBlue and would be leaving the company after one more trip. As she walked away to get in the crew van I said to the captain under my breath "good riddance, and don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out". Although I would later come to appreciate that the vast majority of FAs at our company were professional and kind to our customers, this would sadly not be my last encounter with people that have no business working in this industry.

Second Trip

The second trip was a lot more comfortable for me as I had already experienced the process of getting to the airport, finding the airplane, and getting into the routine of preparing it for flight. At this stage of the game my landings were neither consistent nor perfect but they were improving.

The hardest part of landing the airplane initially was getting used to the aircraft's sight picture. I was guilty of flaring late the first few times because I was so used to flying smaller airplanes with cockpits closer to the ground. My arrivals were never harsh thanks to the trailing link gear but they were hardly the kind of greaser I was accustomed to making. The instructor told me that every landing in the 145 has to be treated as two landings -- first the mains, and then the nose. As it would become clear to me over the next 100+ hours, the 145, like most jets, is quite sensitive to energy (airspeed) at touchdown. What I did not understand at the time (and sadly my instructor failed to point out) was that I was consistently approaching at the right speed but reducing throttles too early. This would cause me to bleed more speed in the flare than I realized and wind up landing 5-10K below Vref, mostly because at that point my eyes were up and out rather than staring at the airspeed tape. That in turn caused the tail to stall after the mains were planted but before I had a chance to get the nose down and so it would come crashing down instead. I did not solve this problem until my first few flights on reserve and only then because I was able to diagnose the problem myself by asking the captain to give me airspeed callouts below 100 feet for a single flight as well as a 20 foot callout (common at other carriers that fly the 145). I simply lacked the data to understand what was going on and the captain helped me get that data.

(Image: We fold the release and place it somewhere visible by both pilots)

The most exciting (and nerve-wracking) part of this trip was my early morning departure from Washington National (DCA). Northbound departures from this airport are unique and quite serious as the capital is a few miles off the departure end and there are huge warnings all over every chart associated with the airport that they will not tolerate anyone flying over the capital. Even in an engine failure scenario, which at most airports negates the normal departure procedure in favor of straight out climb on runway heading, the charts at DCA say "thou shalt turn left to 330" with the implied consequences of "or else have thy wings blown off by the hidden missile battery protecting the White House".

Of course, little did I know as I advanced the throttles for takeoff on runway 1 that this real-world departure was to feel more like the time I spent in the simulator where something always blew up on every takeoff. Our airspeed tape came alive as expected at 40K but as it reached 50 knots we heard the dreaded triple "bong bong bong" indicative of a master warning. My pavlovian response, honed to a fine edge in the simulator, kicked in and I said "identify cancel". "SPS Fail, AOA1 Fail" came the captain's response followed quickly by "We're aborting, my controls". As required I released the controls and responded "Your controls". By this time I saw the airspeed peaking at 60K before quickly falling back down as the captain chopped the thrust levers to idle and applied the brakes. Since DCA tends to launch airplanes in rapid succession I knew at this moment I had to let the tower know we were about to hog the runway a bit longer. "Tower, [company name] 4901 is rejecting the takeoff". Tower quickly responded "4901, roger. If able exit the runway on your next left. Do you require assistance?". Very busy at the moment I just responded "Negative, stand by".

Once off the runway I executed the after landing checklist as requested by the captain and coordinated with ground control to park the airplane adjacent to the runway while the captain applied the parking brake and grabbed his phone to call dispatch and maintenance control. While he did that the controller asked for details on the abort and our intentions. I didn't know the exact plan at that time so I punted and simply told him we were on the phone to company at the moment and would either be fixing the problem with them and attempting another takeoff or returning to the gate, and I'd let him know the plan as soon as we formulated it.

Unable to reset the fault with maintenance control we ultimately wound up returning to the gate. All of the passengers were accommodated on the next hourly flight back to EWR while we wound up sitting in the terminal for six hours waiting for the company to fly in parts and a mechanic to investigate the problem. Once they arrived scheduling told us to take that aircraft and fly it back to EWR, stiffing the flight crew that brought it in. While we hated to do that to the crew, scheduling was being proactive and trying to get us back to base before we timed out for the day. The inbound crew, of course, had just started their duty period so they could afford to hang out while the mechanic fixed the airplane.

(Image: Button hit regularly after flying an approach to minimums)

For the techies, the problem ultimately turned out to be a failure of the captain's side AOA (alpha) sensor. The interesting thing about this failure is that due to Embraer's foresight in the design of the aircraft there is true redundancy here, meaning had the warning occurred in the high speed abort regime (above 80K and below V1), where there is increased risk of a runway overrun and hence a reluctance to abort for non-critical items, we technically could have continued the takeoff and the aircraft would have continued to fly normally, albeit utilizing the backup AOA sensor on my side of the airplane. While the E145 catches a lot of shit for being an old, clapped out design, this event made me happy its AOA system is not plagued by faulty design and software logic like the 737 MAX.

We wrapped up the day by flying to Burlington VT (BTV) later that night. This was my first flight with a jumpseater who was not a company employee. Most jumpseaters are all too willing to sit in the back of the airplane if seats are available as the jumpseat in the cockpit of the 145 is not particularly comfortable, but this evening we had all 50 seats filled so he had to sit up front with us. Like most flight crews we were all too happy to help him get home but as we were to find out during the flight he liked to talk. As we continued our nighttime descent below 10000 feet into challenging terrain and not a sliver of moon to help illuminate the hazards the guy started to give us a blow-by-blow tour of the local hotspots in BTV before the captain politely cut him off in deference to the sterile cockpit rule. Had the guy been pointing out terrain of which we should remain wary I'm sure the captain and I would have welcomed this information.

The second to last day of the second trip acquainted me with cancellations for the first time. In this case we were originally planned to fly to Presque Isle (PQI) a somewhat remote city in northern Maine close to the Canadian border. Our leg that evening was canceled because of an accident at the field. This caused scheduling to set us up for an overnight in base, which is pretty rare, and then have us operate our next flight out in our trip sequence to Albany NY (ALB).


I'll cut to the chase and say I had to do four months of reserve at my company. People new to the business might consider that cruel and unusual punishment but some perspective is in order. Not long ago people were doing 3+ years of airport reserve and I remember stories of 7-8 years of reserve in total at some companies. So my reserve period was, by comparison, a walk in the park.

My company uses only two types of reserve. Airport (Hot) reserve and Short Call Reserve.

My first two months of reserve were almost like IOE, as scheduling assigned me many trips during this time so I could consolidate (a term used to describe the 100 hours of flight experience required within a period of time following the type rating checkride. These trips came up as a result of FOs calling out sick or scheduling intentionally pulling lineholders off their trips so I could fly. Normally this wouldn't be that big of a deal since lineholders at other carriers are typically paid for the dropped trip and sent home. Unfortunately at my company this would result in the lineholders being placed on what the company called "conditional reserve". Needless to say when I learned of how this worked I vowed to vote against conditional reserve in the next contract.

The main difference between a trip on IOE or a regular line vs a "reserve trip" is this: when you're done flying your last leg on a given day as a lineholder you're released from duty at that point. However, while on a "reserve trip" I was technically on call until my duty day was done, typically 8 hours after report time. If I was used for a few legs and got an overnight I was typically released after those legs but not always. This just meant I had to remain in "relaxed" uniform (i.e. pants and shirt, but no tie) until the end of my duty period just in case they decided to change their minds (as scheduling often does) and have me fly another leg back to base or wherever.

Most of my reserve was in base (i.e. either at home via short call or hot reserve in EWR). On a rare occasion I wound up flying a leg or two, winding up at our base in Dulles (IAD) early in the day and serving the remainder of my duty period in the Dulles crew room. One day I did this plus was kept in Dulles the entire next day of reserve until the evening when I was scheduled to pick up a deadhead back to base. Of course, on this day I'd reported at 8AM and was considered short call so that meant I was off duty at 8PM. My deadhead was scheduled for 6:30PM but didn't get off the ground until 10. I didn't get back to base until 11:30 and was thus "extended". While I was a bit miffed to be on duty that long I was paid 150% for the overage.

The third month was spent doing more traditional "plug the hole" reserve flying, where I would be asked to do a one or two legs or deadhead somewhere. Deadheads, for those that are unaware, are flights where a pilot is being relocated. Deadheading pilots nearly always sit in back of the airplane as they are considered "positive space" (i.e. must fly) tickets and these tickets will boot paying customers from the airplane. This explains why, at times, a flight can be full and then it winds up "oversold" by 3 or 4 seats. This is usually due to an immediate need to deadhead several crewmembers to pick up a flight somewhere. Deadhead pilots are on duty, and as such are credited for the length of the flight.

(Image: A mechanic replaces the left hand engine bleed air valve in rain)

By the beginning of the fourth month of reserve I was the highest seniority FO on reserve in my base. That meant I could hold short call. For the most part I elected "call last" whenever doing short call since the entire point was to avoid flying and traveling to the airport. However, given my relative inexperience at this time I still felt it important to fly on a fairly regular basis so I would occasionally request call first. This caused me to be called more frequently, but I still did my share of "call first" without any calls.

Overall I believe my stint on reserve was a cakewalk, and certainly not the nightmare I was led to believe it would be. Most of this had to do with my relatively short time on reserve. As I write this, all the FOs we hired over the preceding 6 months have clogged the system and we are limited on captains, so that means new hires are looking at 6-8 months of reserve...at a minimum. It's pretty amazing how quickly the industry -- or indeed, a single company -- can change nearly overnight. The message in this, of course, is that when picking an airline don't put too much stock in what's happening right now, and try not to fall into the trap of predicting the future as that's impossible.

One of the things you must cultivate on reserve is the ability to react quickly and always be ready to do what is expected of you. I had only one "oh shit" moment on reserve where all my planning was for naught and that was during my last two weeks on reserve. I was on short call reserve, call last, working on a business project at home, sitting in front of my CAD station with my phone right in front of me. I had already staged my cleaned and pressed uniform on the side of my bed and pre-loaded my car with fuel, my roller bag, jacket and food. I would occasionally leave the room to go to the bathroom or make lunch downstairs, and so when I returned to the room I would check the phone even if I didn't hear it ring. After lunch I was sitting at the computer for around 45 minutes and I saw a notification come in. It was a friend texting me. I read the text and then -- to my horror -- saw another notification from "Crew Scheduling - Missed Call, Voicemail". I must admit to freaking out at this point, since I had no idea when they had called. With a quiet home I was surprised I did not hear the ringtone. I didn't even bother to check the voice mail as scheduling would typically just leave some generic message like "we have a flight assignment for you, please call us back within 15 minutes", with little substantive information.

I called scheduling and while they were not happy I hadn't called back in 15 minutes they revealed that they had a trip for me, the report time for which was in 2 hours and 5 minutes from that point. A later check of the notification indicated they had called me about 3 hours in advance of the trip. I acknowledged the trip, hung up, hastily shut down my computer, ran to my bedroom, dressed in under five minutes -- cursing all the way of course -- and launched for the airport. I would have made it to the gate exactly on time had I not just missed the bus when I drove into the lot and had to wait 20 minutes for the next one, even though they're supposed to run every 10 minutes. Fortunately the flight itself was delayed and a quick call to the captain while I was waiting in the employee lot revealed I didn't have to rush. Needless to say, I still did. The annoying thing? I ran all the way, and was sweating and gasping for air by the time I arrived at the airplane. Two days later I got sick. Coincidence? Probably not.

The slap in the face? A few days later Apple came out with a new version of iOS. The release notes described one of the fixes as "Fixes no ring on calls when WiFi calling mode is active". I had WiFi calling mode enabled on the day in question. I knew I'd have zero chance of convincing crew scheduling that the almighty Apple could actually make a phone that wouldn't reliably ring so I let the matter drop.

Line Holder

(Image: My office in the right seat of the Embraer 145XR during summer)

Following four months on reserve I managed to get a "line", which means that I was granted a fixed schedule for the month. While reserve wasn't nearly as bad as some made it out to be, to say this changed my quality of life would be an understatement. I went from being beholden to crew scheduling to almost never dealing with them except in rare cases.

The first month as a lineholder I was granted every pilot's dream schedule -- 70 hours of flying with 18 days off. This allowed me to work on my own business efforts which are unrelated to the aviation industry. The next month was a bit worse at 16 days off as I needed to complete my LOFT (a 6 month training event in the simulator) and that consumed a full two days. I flew to Houston early the first day, started the sim at 6PM, wrapped it up around 10:30 including the debrief, and then...uncharacteristically found myself in a bar on the water (cleverly called "The Barge") with the instructor and #2 seniority pilot in the company. After getting back to the hotel at 1:30AM I had to get up at 4AM to catch the 6AM flight back to NJ. The upside is I was back in NJ by early afternoon and had the remainder of that day to prep for a 3 day trip that was starting the next day because my bidding system request for a minimum of two days off between trips apparently didn't apply to a training event. The downside is I pushed myself a bit too hard and wound up getting sick and needing to call out for the first time on the line. Note to self -- don't do that again.

By the second month on the line I became comfortable with the cadence of flight operations and better at predicting the needs of my crewmembers. I also learned the difference between official procedures and the realities of the line. For example, in training we always completed our release and departure briefings before we closed the door, but on the line we don't get paid until the door closes so we very often do all the setup that allows us to close the door (like weight and balance) but wait on the briefings until we're closed.

At some point in the third month I had the first of several captains say they really enjoyed flying with me and suggest that I bid to fly with them. I'd like to think this had a lot to do with the fact that I was not lazy, extremely detail oriented (I'm a +/- 1K guy, at least when I'm not tired) and always actively involved in the decision making process, but it may just be because I tend to joke around (when appropriate) and keep my crew laughing. I even had a couple guys tell me that barring the 1000 hour 121 requirement they thought I was ready to take the reigns. That's probably the highest praise any FO could receive but in each case I countered that I still have a lot to learn before that day comes.


(Image: Yearning of a captain facing a possible flight cancelation)

I caught the tail end of winter operations as I hit the line in March of this year, which familiarized me with de-icing procedures and the effect of wing-anti-ice bleed valve failures in flight. Later, as the summer materialized I became acquainted with irregular operations (IROPS) including ground delay and stop programs, the practice of tarmac delays along with their legal consequences, and gate returns when we go below our minimum takeoff fuel requirements. I've hand flown a slalom course of thunderstorm cells that seemed to line up on the centerline of our arrival just to spite me, and I've been struck by lightning late at night, a result of going over the top of a dissipating thunderstorm that didn't show up on radar on a moonless night. I also experienced an associated fume event that to this day remains unexplained (and no, it wasn't ozone caused by the lightning discharge).

I have also dealt with my share of mechanical failures or deferred maintenance items, not the least significant of which were APU and autopilot failures. A deferred APU requires us to use external compressed air to start the first engine. That's more of an inconvenience that adds to flight delays rather than a serious operational limitation.

An autopilot failure, however, is considerably more inconvenient as it requires hand flying the airplane for the entire flight. I did that on one morning going from Charlottesville to Dulles, VA. A short flight, thankfully, but done mostly IMC with perhaps a few minutes of straight and level flight. Needless to say I was thankful I had prepared for this very possibility over the preceding months by hand flying the airplane at every opportunity. Skills built up over years of hand flying in IMC in general aviation came in handy here as well, just as they did in the simulator. The upside is I found the airplane easier to hand fly than the simulator, but we also don't experience atmospheric effects (turbulence and mild windshear) in the simulator so in that sense the airplane is more difficult to keep on track in real life. One thing is sure -- I was noticeably more fatigued when I arrived at the final approach fix on the ILS that I was required to fly to near minimums, and I gained a new appreciation for automation in jets many pilots take for granted.

What's Next

The next challenge is my proficiency check (PC) at the 12 month mark. That is a jeopardy event, and because our training department does not support the Airline Qualification Program (AQP) process we get exactly one shot at doing everything properly. Failing the PC results in a training failure on record so needless to say I plan to enhance my ongoing study efforts to ensure that is a non-event. If I pass that I'll have another 6 or so months on the line before I upgrade to captain and achieve another goal I set over 30 years ago.