Category Archives: Aviation

TSA logo contest

Sick and tired of the farce we call the TSA at the airport security lines? Some are calling for a contest to design a new logo for the organization that needlessly hassles anyone who flies in the U.S. Click on the logo above to see more of the submissions. The one above is great, as it is a depiction of an Eagle clutching a tube of toothpaste in one talon and a box-cutter in the other. It is designed by Travis McHale. My favorite is the one with the attack dogs mauling an innocent passenger. (Note: not all are kid friendly)

You can read more about the farcical TSA in Patrick Smith’s weekly column at Ask The Pilot. He, like me, is an airline pilot who has to deal with the “security” all the time.

Manilla and Shanghai

I just finished a trip that took me over to Hong Kong, then round trips to both Manilla and Shanghai, and then back to the U.S. It was a long eleven days, but it was very nice to fly to two different cities out of Hong Kong; places I don’t normally go. I hadn’t been to the Philippine capital since training, and I have never been to mainland China.

The routes that I normally fly are freighter routes, but these two trips were passenger routes. I also haven’t flown passengers since training, and that was a blast. I had to remember to talk to the cabin crew over the P.A., think a little more closely about the seatbelt sign, and definitely had to hope for better landings than the ones the freight boxes enjoy. The freighter is nice because if you want a cup of coffee or something to eat you just get up and get it, without bothering a flight attendant with your request. However, the flying seems a little bit more satisfying when you have 399 people (379 + 20 crew) counting on you for a safe flight.
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Frontier + Midwest

There has been another airline merger, albeit not as major or significant as the recent United/Continental deal. My former employer, Chautauqua Airlines, has a parent company known as Republic Airways Holdings. RAH runs Chautauqua Airlines, Shuttle America Airlines, and Republic Airlines. These three are regional jet operators. A few months ago, they bought Frontier Airlines out of Denver, and Midwest Express Airlines out of Milwaukee. So now, RAH is running 5 airlines!

Midwest was in trouble for a lot of reasons but RAH is turning them around. They gave back Midwest’s larger Boeing 717 aircraft and have replaced them with Embraer 190 aircraft, which are smaller and less expensive to operate. Then Frontier was purchased and will be merged with Midwest Express. The new airline will be under the Frontier brand and paint scheme, but the famous, warm chocolate chip cookies served on Midwest Express will remain!

Now, Republic Airways Holdings runs three regional operators and one “major” airline. I wish them all luck and hope they succeed. It’s very tough to run airlines in today’s economy. The CEO has said that mistakes will be made along the way but they will work as hard as they can to make it all work out. I say good for them. I’m glad all this happened after I left for Cathay Pacific, or I may have never left the airline.

Atlanta to Vancouver

On the same trip that I lost my iPod and Bose noise canceling headsets, I got to fly from Atlanta to Vancouver. I had never flown this route before, and though I had flown in and out of ATL many times in the past, I’d never flown the queen of the skies, the 747, in or out of Georgia’s capital. The captain and I had an early wake-up call, at 04:10, but when getting to the aircraft, there was a last minute maintenance issue that caused a three hour delay. We both wished we could have slept for three more hours that morning.

During the delay, the sun was coming up so I went on my own little “walkabout” with my Canon S90. All airline pilots do an exterior inspection prior to each flight, known as a walk around. To me, it sounds a little like the Australian version of an adventure, called a walkabout. Walk arounds are much more dull than walkabouts unless some major technical problem is found. Even so, I use the time to admire the amazing aircraft I fly, the 747-400. As eloquent a description of the 747 as I’ve ever read, Barry Lopez compares the aircraft to a gothic cathedral, describing it with, “Standing on the main deck, where ‘nave’ meets ‘transept,’ and looking up toward the pilots’ ‘chancel’ . . . The machine was magnificent, beautiful, complex as an insoluble murmur of quadratic equations.” Amazing. I love this machine and she truly is the “Queen of the skies.”
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Sweet Cargo

A few days ago, I pulled up to the aircraft in JFK to fly to Anchorage.  The 747 was dwarfing this little red machine sitting on the ramp next to it.  That little red machine was cargo destined for Hong Kong and pretty sweet machine it was. A Ferrari F40! The other crew members and I couldn’t tell what year it was made, but the production years were from 1987-1992. When new, these hot little things sold for just under a half million bucks.

When driving around town, I often see these stupid, jazzed up Honda Civics that have a fat exhaust pipe and spoiler (in case the rear end wants to lift up at high speeds — whatever!) This Ferrari actually needs the spoiler, when ground speeds easily exceed 200 mph (321 kph). This was a racing version of the car, which came with a spartan interior, racing seats, no air conditioning or glove box, and racing dials for engine gauges.
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United + Continental = Unental?

It’s happened. Another airline merger that will create the largest airline in the world. Just a few years ago when the merger frenzy started, American took over TWA, chopped it up, spat it out, decimated St. Louis, and came out the other side as the largest airline in the world. Then, the shambles we all called USAirways was taken over by America West and even though it didn’t make the new largest airline in the world, smart management saved both airlines from going under. Then Delta and Northworst merged, and, you guessed it, we had a new world’s largest airline! Not to be left out and out done, United and Continental merged today. Do they now form the largest airline in the world? Yes, dear readers they do. “No way!” you say. The trend continues.
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The checks keep coming!

It seems like training never ends at work. I had a sim check in September, then a line check in January, and now another sim check in March. Because we take a simulator check ever six months and because my annual line check falls right in-between them, I get a stressful and hectic six months, from September to March. But, now that I’ve passed my most recent sim check, I’m free until September again. Yay!

My sim partner captain was a really good guy and we had flown together before, and our check captain was very nice as well. We learned a lot this time around and the checkride went very smoothly. They are always stressful, but in a strange way, it’s actually good that they are because it forces me to study hard. I always over prepare and that helps me sleep well at night. However, I aways learn something new, because no one ever has a perfect checkride — there is always something that could be done better. Most of the time, checkrides are humbling experiences where we make lots of mistakes, but learn from them. Part of the reason for that is because we almost never have emergencies in the real world, so dealing with them twice in six months helps to knock off the rust. Also, because it’s a check, I always make dumb, nervous mistakes that I normally wouldn’t do, simply because of the stress. However, the checkers know this and take that into account.

All in all, it feels good to be be able to pay the mortgage for six more months and have that behind me. That is, until September, and I get to start it all over again.

First line check

I passed my first line check at Cathay Pacific, and am good to go for another year. Airline pilots have lots of recurrent checks and training during their career. At Cathay, we have two simulator checkrides a year (every six months) and an annual line check. These three checks are the cause of many sleepless nights, heartburn, stress, and angst amongst most pilots. Especially at Cathay, the checks are taken quite seriously. At other airlines, sometimes the checks aren’t too stressful as there isn’t much jeopardy in the grading of the recurrent checkrides. At my last job, I knew the aircraft and the operation quite well, and the checkrides were no big deal, but since I’ve moved on to Cathay, it’s a whole other story. I’m newer, don’t fly as much, and have a lot more to think about compared to my last job.
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Anchorage to Hong Kong: the Western Way

Khabarovsk (UHHH) was cold and quiet. At five in the morning, there still wasn’t a lot of activity on it’s streets. As the sun was still beyond the horizon, the deep blue sky in it’s predawn light made things look even colder in this Russian town. Snow blanketed the entire landscape, and at this early hour, it was hard to tell where the deep blue of the sky ended and the cold blue ice on the ground began. A few amber sodium-vapor lights shown out from the cold darkness to reveal that life does indeed exist out here on the western plain. Life during the winter months has to be tough in a city like this, at least it would be for a Texas boy like me. On this cold, hard day north of the Chinese border, I’ll have to resign to simply imagining what lies ahead this work day for the inhabitants of Khabarovsk.

As our 747-400ERF pressed on at 38,100 feet, (or 11,600 meters due to being in Russian airspace) I’m sure we looked like a silent glint, slowly passing high overhead. As so often is the case, I wonder what is going on down there in the cities and towns we pass by so quickly, at nearly 9 miles a minute. Can they hear us or see us? Are they getting ready to head out to work? What kind of jobs exist in a city like this? Have they ever ventured as far as Moscow or even Europe? Have they heard of God’s grace? How do they deal with the bitter cold? Will I ever get to visit this city and see it from the ground, where I can connect with locals and truly take in the culture?
I was excited about this most recent trip across the Pacific, traveling from Anchorage to Hong Kong, because we were taking a more Western route, one that I had never been on before. As this route plot will show, (click on it to see it larger) instead of staying off the Eastern coast of Japan like I typically have in the past, we headed inland over Eastern Russia and China. The perfectly straight line on the map is the great circle route, and the zigzag line is the route we actually planned on flying. We try to stay as close to the great circle route as possible, because it is the most direct path. However, airspace restrictions, air traffic control restrictions, restrictions that force us to stay somewhat close to alternate airfields, and depending on the upper level winds, we often have to deviate from the “perfect path.” Because of this, we crossed over Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Harbin, Beijing, and actually approached Hong Kong from the West. It seems odd to approach Hong Kong from the West, like flights do from Europe, but that is the way things often happen with the high winter winds.

This trip included a great crew, but also a chance to look down and see things I have never seen before. We could clearly see the border between Russia and China — a river, that to the south supplies water to thousands of small Chinese farm plots. Odd rectangle after odd rectangle littered the ground like an uneven checkerboard that extended hundreds of miles. North of Harbin, (pronounced Har-been) China, I wondered how these farmers lived, especially in the cold winter months. Do they have cars and drive to Harbin? Do they only live with cattle and donkeys? How can there be so many individual family plots so close together? I’ll have to visit someday to find out. To the North of the river was mother Russia. The landscape there was stark and bleak. There weren’t any farm plots and there wasn’t much of an organized look to the landscape. The soil may not have been conducive to farming, or people found work in the cities instead.
As the miles ticked off further South, we crossed over Harbin. It is renowned for the winter ice show that is put on there every year. Click this link to see more photos of this amazing event. This isn’t anything like what is seen in other parts of the world, but a huge production that takes months to plan and put together. Blocks of ice are cut out of a river and hauled to a central local where huge ice sculptures are made, like castles and such, and then lights are placed inside of the ice. At night, it’s a sight to be seen. Farther south was the huge city of Beijing and the Great Wall. Clouds came in, so I wasn’t able to see the wall, but I’ve heard it’s quite the sight as well. Also unseen, but flown over, is this tower in Guangzhou, where engineers are building the second tallest metal tower on Earth.

Approaching Hong Kong from the West, heading Southeast, means the Sierra arrival. It can be a bit tricky to fly because it leaves you high as you fly over Macau’s airport and then controllers can give you a quick descent clearance and point us toward the airport. As my Australian friends like to say, you can get “caught out” by being too high to get down in time. It’s a lot like arrivals into JFK, where sometimes you get slam-dunked down, and other times you go way out and then way back in to the airport with a gradual descent. Murphy’s law says that if you plan on a quick descent, you’ll get the slow one, and if you hope to get the slow descent, that is when controllers point you at the runway and clear you to descend 15,000 feet, and do it quickly. The 747 is a beautiful machine, but when we are heavy, it takes a lot of work to get it to slow and descend at the same time. As soon as we plan ahead, ATC has a different idea.

This was a good trip because I got to see a lot of new things. Aviation is all about routine and getting things to be as mundane as possible, so that we are ready if anything should happen. However, sometimes, breaking things up a bit and seeing new things is good for the soul and the aviator in all of us. People often ask me how I don’t get bored on these long flights. Honestly, there is too much to do to get bored, however, boring can be a good thing, because it means emergencies aren’t happening! On this trip, breaking through the routine proved to make for quite a fun trip.

747 Checkride

I have a 747 type rating on my pilot’s license flying at Cathay. Because I fly an airliner with a type rating, I have to get checked out in a simulator every six months, like all airline pilots. Pilots always sweat these checks because they are stressful and our job is somewhat riding on our performance in the simulator. Obviously we want to be proficient during emergencies but these “tests” aren’t like the kind most people take with pencil and paper. I can study all day and night for weeks, but if I don’t perform on the day, my immediate future will have a lot of trouble in it.

We sit in a large box that has the exact cockpit set up inside. It pivots and moves up on large hydraulic lifts and has a wrap-around visual system that we can see through the cockpit windows. These sims are scary at how realistic they can be. For example, when we set the power up for takeoff, the sim tilts backward so we fall into our seats so we feel the acceleration during the takeoff roll. The sims are real enough that we can be certified to fly the real aircraft without having flown the real aircraft.

With that type of realism, the sim instructors put us through our paces with engine failures, windshear, and all the rest. It’s a stressful two days of checks, but when they are all over, the weight of the world is lifted off our shoulders and we are safe for six more months. What a feeling, indeed. The stress comes from not passing and also because even though the sims are pretty real, they aren’t the same as the real thing, and that can mess us up at times. For me, the stress is over as I passed, and am safe for the time being. That is, until six months from now.

Our sims for Cathay Pacific are in Hong Kong, so when I have a checkride, it begins with a trip across the Pacific to headquarters. This trip turned out to be really great as far as timing. My sim slots were set for 10 pm to 3 am Hong Kong time, which is 10 am to 3 pm East coast time for my body clock. Yes, I said sims, plural. We start one checkride as a “recurrent training” sim, or RT. It supposedly isn’t graded, but I’ve come to learn that everything at this company is graded. After that is complete, the following day is the PC, or proficiency check, the big momma, the graded evaluation, the one that really counts.

Each six months, the profiles for the RT/PC changes so we cover different aspects of training each time we go to training. There are regulatory items that we have to cover for our licenses to remain valid, like engine failures and approaches, that happen each six months. Then there are training events like windshear recoveries and emergency descents that get rotated in each six months.

This time around, we practiced engine failures at V2 (instead of the regular V1) because a lot of data shows that most engines fail at V2 or later, not at V1. V1 is a speed based on our weight, for the decision to abort a takeoff or continue it, and V2 is the speed where the aircraft is just lifting off the runway. We also practiced visual circling approaches, rapid depressurization and descent, system failures, and even a point where I got incapacitated and my captain had to set up and execute an autoland approach by himself. The PC ride was a lot more tame than the RT, and focused mostly on manipulation of the autopilot. All in all, it was a good session but I am certainly glad that is out of the way.

I was able to get some practice time in our IPT — integrated procedural trainer. The IPT is a multi-computer screened computer with touch screens that simulate the cockpit controls. It’s good to practice procedures, but it also simulates flying the approaches that we may see in the checkrides. Its a great tool.

Like I said, this turned out to be a pretty good trip. Because I am based in New York, the company flies me to Hong Kong and I went direct on our 777-300ER for the 16 hour flight. Arriving early to JFK, I was able to sit in the Business lounge for a few hours of free everything: drinks, wifi, food. That was a nice touch for a few hours. Then it was time to board. I normally ride in business class as a copilot. First class was open and the captain made sure I was put there for the flight — nice! First gives passengers who are willing to cough up the coin a bed, a private “cocoon”, a closet, pajamas, caviar, and a second seat for a spouse or business partner to join you for dinner, along with excellent service and small subtleties that make the hours fly by and deplaning a sad affair. Yes, I enjoyed all of that in first. The caviar is okay, but I think it makes a lower society person like myself at least feel like high society, if but for a few hours.

It was amazing for me to sit in that huge seat, eating the fancy food and sipping wine, over the north coast of Greenland, remembering back to being a small kid dreaming of being a pilot. If I could have only seen myself now, as a boy. I know I would have studied harder, been more focused, and worked more tirelessly. That’s the way life is though, isn’t it? If we can see the end goal, we work harder. That’s why successful people succeed: they can envision that end goal clearly. Me? My end goals can get murky at times.

After the checkrides were over, it was time to relax. I had the dinner of champions: rice and beef. Then, I headed into town around 10:00 am (evening for my body). I checked out the camera shops and took a stroll though the bustling streets of Hong Kong. Whenever I head downtown, I always try to ride the Ferry across the Mersey. Oh wait, that’s a song, never mind. I rode the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor. It was a good trip indeed.

I operated a cargo flight back to Anchorage and then on to JFK to come home and that was fun because I got to be the pilot flying on the sector to ANC. It was awesome because we took off out of Hong Kong at 370 Tonnes, or 815,000 lbs. Setting the thrust for takeoff, it’s easy to tell if we are heavy or not. If we are heavy: the engines roar to an unbelievable level and the aircraft just sits there, not moving. Then it starts to lumber down the runway before it really starts to hum. Once airborne, it’s easy on the controls and steady as she goes. No quick movements on the yoke or the airspeed will drop off below the flap speed or go over the max speed limit. There is a very fine window that the aircraft has to be flown in at heavy weights. Sometimes, only a few knots (seven) is all we have to play with.

I feel good that the checks are out of the way and now I can start studying for my next one. Fun times. For more pictures from the trip, click on the photo of the simulator at the top of the blog.