Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sometimes Failure is Necessary

Sometimes failure is necessary to succeed.  I learned this lesson early in my aviation career- a lesson which I feel was particularly hard for a perfectionist pilot like myself, but a lesson that I needed.

I always found school and testing to be quite easy when growing up.  I accepted nothing less than an A in junior high and high school, and I was determined to continue my perfect scores when I got to college.  My first year of college was tough, by I managed to get fairly decent grades.  I began my flight training my first semester and looked forward to the days when I could go to my flight lessons.  I had to work hard at flying, but I enjoyed it.  Some people are natural aviators (I realized that as a flight instructor), but I was not.  I had to work at flying the airplane with precision.  But because I enjoyed it so much, it was a challenge I loved!

I passed my first year of college and my private pilot checkride without too much studying.  I was unstoppable- invincible even!  So I decided to take 20 credits and continue with my instrument flight training.

I found a new love when I began that training.  I found the instrument world fascinating (though incredibly difficult to fly without screwing something up).  This training was hard for me, but yet again, I could not fail, so I didn't worry too much.  My decent grades improved and I found it easier to sit and study for hours if I needed to.  I passed my instrument written exam scoring in the 90s.

When the school year came to a close, I found myself needing to take my instrument checkride.  I didn't feel quite ready, but my instructor insured me I was.  We scheduled my checkride, I had a mini heart attack, and then I dug into my books leaving my social life in the dust for a week.  I was nervous the day of my checkride, but I had never failed anything before, and I didn't see why that day would be any different.  I passed the ground with no problems and we were on to the flight.  My heart was pounding, but I tried to tell myself it would be fine.

The flight was going great until the examiner gave me some weird vectors to get us around some snow clouds.  I got a little disoriented, so when he cleared me for the ILS approach I blew right through the final approach course.  I realized it as the needle went full scale.  My heart sank.  I wished we could just redo it right then and there, but I knew that wasn't allowed.  I had failed.  Failed!  What was I going to do now?  I couldn't clear my mind, so we decided to just stop the checkride and finish the rest on a later day.

The examiner and I went back into the building where my friends were waiting to congratulate me.  I may have cried a little bit when I told them I hadn't passed; don't judge, that's just what girls do sometimes.  I tried to be strong, but I had never failed at something before.  I felt like I had hit rock bottom.  I felt like I had disappointed everybody- my friends, my instructor, but most importantly, myself!  I cried for probably 2 days straight, but then got it all out of my system.  I devised a plan- a plan that would allow me to pass every future checkride.  I would not give up!  I would let this situation make me smarter, and stronger, and even more determined.

Failing made me realize how badly I wanted this.  I failed fair-and-square, but I was able to pinpoint a couple things that equated to my failure.

The first was that I lacked the confidence I needed before I took the checkride.  My lack of confidence came because I hadn't performed the maneuvers to PTS standards enough times for it to be consistent.  This made me doubt my ability, which decreased my confidence.  I just figured that a miracle would happen and I would pass, but not so.  I decided that I would not take a checkride again until I felt ready; because with that readiness comes complete confidence in myself and my ability to pass.

The second was the pressure of knowing that everybody knew I was taking my checkride- it was my checkride, not theirs.  So I decided that I would no longer tell people when I had a checkride coming up.  Doing this took the weight off my shoulders and allowed me to focus on just the checkride and not what other people would think of me if I failed.  This took a huge weight off my shoulders!

After my mini realizations, I met with my flight instructor and hashed everything out.  Once I felt 100% with all the maneuvers, I took my chekcride again and told nobody of my ride.  Though the examiner kept saying "you better get this right so I don't have to fail you again," numerous times throughout the checkride, it did not phase me because I had the confidence that I could pass this.  I knew I could fly all the maneuvers even better than the PTS standards.  And I did!

But failing that checkride made me a better pilot.  It made me realize that I needed to be able to fly the maneuvers consistently before being tested.  It made me realize that I needed to be confident.  It made me realize that this was the career I wanted- no matter how difficult, it would be worth it.

Since then, I have passed every checkride, first attempt, including my CFI checkride (which I heard has only a 40%  pass on the first attempt).  Of all my checkrides, my CFI was the most fun.  But it was because I was ready.  I taught a bazillion lesson plans to anybody that would let me practice; I flew with the most intimidating chief pilots and asked for feedback on how to improve; I studied everything from the PTS and then some.  I was determined to be a CFI so I could pass on the determination and motivation I had learned.

I loved flight instructing- I had to to do it for 5 years!  I loved it, not because of the money or the free hours I got, but because I had the ability to give students the same motivation and determination that I had learned.  It was so rewarding to see a student go from the first flight, to soloing, to flying an airplane with precision.  I was probably happier than my students when they passed; that's how nerdy I am.  :)  

And to think, I became a better pilot and flight instructor from failing a checkride.  Maybe sometimes failure really is necessary to succeed.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Don't Let it Happen to You

Ever landed on the wrong runway, or at the wrong airport?  Though rare, it does happen.  But don't let it happen to you!

The possibility of landing on the wrong runway has been in the media quite a bit lately, after Southwest 4013 landed at the wrong airport.  When I first heard the news I couldn't believe it.  But after thinking about it for a few days, I realized that their mistakes are actually a lot easier to make than it seems.   In no way do I think that what they did was okay, but I want you to understand how it happened so you can be cautious and avoid the same mistakes.

Southwest's flightpath
Both Southwest pilots were pretty experienced; the Captain has been with Southwest for 15 years and the First Officer for 12 years.  However, the captain had never flown to that airport and the FO had flown there only once.  Had one of the pilots been more familiar with the airport, I'm sure this would have been prevented.  Familiarity is everything...

Airports with Similar Runway Layouts:
I often fly into Carlsbad-Palomar airport, KCRQ.  Oceanside airport, KOKB, is only 6 miles away and has the exact same runways, 6/24.   Here's a photo that shows how close the fields are:

The Southwest pilots were supposed to land at Branson, KBBG, but landed at Clark County airport,   KPLK.  These runways are only 7 miles apart; BBG has only runways 14/32 and PLK has only runways 12/30.  Not exactly the same, but a very similar setup- close enough to get confused if not paying close attention.

Because I was lucky enough to fly with experienced captains who had flown to Carlsbad a bazillion time in the beginning, they warned me of Oceanside airport and how it could easily be mistaken for Carlsbad.  Sadly, these Southwest pilots did not have this luxury.

Different Runway Lighting:
I have noticed through my few years of flying, that many major airports typically use dimmer lighting than do GA airports.  I know when I was flying GA it was HIRL (high intensity runway lights) or bust!  Even if MIRL (medium) and LIRL (low) were available, I never used them...why would I want dim lights?   I actually remember flying to a small airport in Idaho with a student once- the airport had only LIRL and it took us forever to find that runway.  Let's face it, dim runway lighting is much more difficult to see at night than bright runway lighting.

I'm not sure the setting of they runway lights at the time of Southwest's landing, but it wouldn't surprise me if Clark County had the runway lights at a higher intensity than Branson did.  If the lights were brighter, Clark County would have been much easier to spot.

A Few More Mistakes:
It is possible that these pilots did not brief the approach very well.  I know the company I work for  requires that we do a thorough brief even if we are planning a visual approach.  A few of the items we brief are the runway we expect to land on, any approaches we could use to back it up with, elevation, PAPI/VASI, where we plan to exit when we do touchdown (whether that be to the right or left), final approach heading, etc.  Had these pilots done (and remembered the items) a thorough brief, they would have noted the missing PAPI on the left side of the runway, the difference in runway heading, and the difference in airport layout.

The pilots didn't check their heading on final.  Had they done so they would have noticed that they were 26 degrees off on their magnetic heading.  One thing I do to mitigate landing on the wrong runway is always back it up with an approach.  If there is no approach, I create a pseudo localizer for the runway with the equipment we have onboard.

For Southwest, there was no localizer for runway 14, but there was a GPS approach.  If it is available, and the equipment is onboard the aircraft, why not use it?  But who knows- maybe the pilots had put the approach in, but just forgot to check and make sure they were actually on course.

There were three sets of eyes in the cockpit and nobody noticed another airport.  Interesting...

Double-Check Yourself 
Don't allow yourself to fall into the traps that Southwest and others have fell into.  Back up visual approaches, verify final approach headings, do a thorough brief, and always back-up the pilot you are flying with.  If you are the non-flying pilot, you are still responsible, so help each other out.  Be safe!

Monday, January 13, 2014

We Are a Team!

I've always heard how important it is to be a team... there is no "I" in "team."  However, I never played any sports so I felt this concept would never apply to me... until recently.

I have realized that the airlines would cease to be if the employees didn't work as a team.  And I'm not just talking about the company employees- it is so much bigger than that.  I'll use a simple flight from Palm Springs to Los Angeles to illustrate what I mean- keep in mind that this flight is usually only 30 minutes.

Before we, the crew, even have a plane to fly, the mechanics (who work tirelessly through the night) have to bring one from the MTX hanger to the gate.  The ground personnel (rampers) get the plane all tidyed up, push the ramp up to the plane, get the checked bags on, and I'm sure a bazillion other things that I don't see.

We print off a release, prepared by dispatchers, which is a ton of pages of important information that will affect our flight.  A few of the many items on there are: fuel load, departure airport, destination airport, any alternates, NOTAMS, weather, etc.

Traverse City fuel truck
We come out the the plane to see the fueler waiting for us to tell him the fuel load.  These fuelers are so good at their job!  They are quick, super friendly, and somehow manage to stay clean of fuel.  I'm sure I would come home with fuel all over me if I had to do that job.  

The captain climbs into the plane and gets it started while the flight attendant runs through the checklists.  I get the awesome job of the walkaround.  I used to dislike walkarounds, but with such beautiful weather in So-Cal, they aren't so bad.  It's a good chance for me to get up and stretch my legs.

About the time I get done with the walkaround the customer service agents begin boarding.  I climb into the cockpit to complete my list of duties.  I listen to the weather recorded by ATC and then give them a call to get our clearance.  I rarely have to wait more than 5 seconds for them to return my call and ramble off a crazy long clearance.  It is amazing how quick they are!

By the time we make it out to the runway, can you see how many people have to do their jobs for this one little plane to get their?  We haven't even taken off yet!  And I'm sure there is more that goes on behind the scenes that I don't even know about.
ATC assists us through our entire flight.  They are there to help us- remember that.  Sometimes they have a hard day and may be short with us, but they are keeping us safe, so let's not forget that.  On our flight from PSP to LAX we usually talk to 10 different controllers.  That's a lot of people that have to do their job right for us to make it there safely.  They sequence us from one controller to the next, always making sure that we are where they need us to be.

When we land at LAX, the ground controllers get us from the runway to our ramp area.  LAX is a large airport, but because of the efficiency of the controllers, it is my favorite airport to fly to.  I don't know how the controllers do it, but they do...and it's amazing!  There are times they are so busy that there is no break on the frequency to call them; but because they are so good at their jobs, they know we are waiting and will call when they can.  I seriously don't know how they keep it all straight in their minds.

Marshalling Wands
After speaking with ramp control and getting cleared into our alleyway, rampers are there to guide us in.  When I first started flying for the airlines I would get a so annoyed if they weren't standing there waiting for us, but now that I know how much work they do, I don't mind so much.  Besides, without them, we couldn't safely pull into the gate.  These rampers have to work in whatever weather condition it is- rain, snow, ice, extreme heat, wind.  I would never want that job, so I respect those that do it, and especially those that do it with a smile on their face.

After the passengers deplane, we go through the entire thing again.  There are so many people that have to do their job, and do it right, for us to make it safely from gate to gate.  I would not have my fantastic career as a First Officer if it weren't for the other employees that I deal with every day.  So next time you decide to talk badly about any of these people that you interact with, remember that you would not have a job if it weren't for them, and visa versa.  Gone are the days when the pilots can treat others as less, talk bad about the machanics, or tell ATC how to do their job.  We are all a TEAM! 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Radio Communication at Towered Airports

Radio Communications at Towered Fields

Photo from
Initial Radio Calls Format:
Who you are calling
Who you are
Where you are
Weather information

**I used Provo Airport and a made-up Cessna 256F for the examples; tailor those items for you
**If you want to hear live ATC feed, go to and listen to your heart's content 

Communications in the Pattern
Provo Ground, Cessna 256F at Millionaire, with information Delta, closed traffic

Cessna 256F, Provo Ground, Taxi to runway 13 via Alpha Charlie Bravo Alpha, cross runway 18

Taxi to 13 via ACBA, cross runway 18, Cessna 256F (you can say your Cessna 256F call sign before or after your transmission)

Run-Up Complete
Provo Ground, Cessna 256F leaving runup (or if you are in a non-movement area, request to leave the runup area) for 13

Cessna 256F continue taxi

Continue taxi, Cessna 256F

Hold Short Line
Provo Tower, Cessna 256F, Holding short runway 13

Cessna 256F, Provo tower, hold short of runway 13, landing traffic

Hold short runway 13, Cessna 256F

Cessna 256F,  runway 13 cleared for takeoff (or line up and wait), make right traffic, report midfield downwind each pass

Cleared for takeoff runway 13, Cessna 256F

Reporting Midfield
Provo Tower, Cessna 256F, midfield downwind runway 13, request touch and go

Cessna 256F, runway 13 cleared touch and go

Cleared touch and go, runway 13, Cessna 256F
Cessna 256F,  runway 13, cleared to land

Cleared to land runway 13, Cessna 256F

Communications for Departure and Arrival
Pre Taxi
Provo Ground, Cessna 256F, at Millionaire with information Delta, south departure

Cessna 256F, Provo Ground, taxi to runway 13 via Alpha Bravo Alpha, Cross runway 18

Taxi to 13 via ABA, cross 18, Cessna 256F

Runup Complete
Provo Ground, Cessna 256F, leaving runup for runway 13

Cessna 256F 13, Continue Taxi

Continue, Cessna 256F

Hold Short Line
Provo Tower, Cessna 256F, holding short runway 13

Cessna 256F, Provo tower, hold short of runway 13 landing traffic

Hold short runway 13, Cessna 256F

Cessna 256F, runway 13 cleared for takeoff, southbound departure approved

Cleared for takeoff 13, southbound departure approved, Cessna 256F

Arrival to Provo (remember to get weather info)
Provo Tower, Cessna 256F, (distance) miles south of the field at (altitude), with information Delta (or whichever identifier it is), inbound for landing

Cessna 256F, enter right downwind for runway 13, report entering downwind/ Cessna 256F enter left base for runway 31, report a 3 mile left base

Report right downwind runway 13, Cessna 256F/ Report 3 mile left base for runway 31, Cessna 256F

Provo tower, Cessna 256F right midfield downwind runway13/ Provo tower, Cessna 256F 3 mile left base for runway 31

Cessna 256F, Runway 13 cleared to land

Cleared to land runway 13, Cessna 256F

After Landing
Provo Ground, Cessna 256F, Clear of Runway 13 at (A2, A3), request taxi to parking

Cessna 256F, Provo Ground, Taxi to parking via Alpha

Monday, January 6, 2014

My First Year at the Airlines

I thought people were exaggerating when they said "if you can survive the first year at the airlines, then you will be fine".  I always wondered what that even meant.  I can't be as bad as they all say, right?  I definitely didn't understand it until I experienced it.  I'm writing this post so that you can be educated, because even though it will still be tough, at least you know what to expect.

Keep in mind that this is my experience only, and it doesn't mean yours will be just like mine.  I've seen some pilots get hired and hold a line (hold a line just means you get a schedule) within weeks after training.  I've also seen people who get hired and are on reserve (reserve just means on-call) for years before they hold a line.  But here is my story.

I finished IOE middle October 2012.  I lived in Utah at the time, but had my IOE trip out of Palm Springs, California, where I got based.  Though I had never flown standby, I quickly had to figure out how it worked so I could get to my IOE trip in Palm Springs.  Palm Springs is not an easy commute because the flights from SLC-PSP and visa versa are always full.  But I figured it out and got myself to and from PSP for IOE.

I finished IOE late one night and woke up first thing the next morning to travel back home to SLC.  As I walked into my Springville, UT home, I got a call from Crew Support telling me I would be on reserve for the next 5 days or so starting the next day.  What?!?  I just walked in the door.  There was literally no way for me to get back down there that same day.  I figured I would have a couple of days off after IOE, but I was wrong.  I had to use my 4 moving days starting the next day so I could figure everything out.

As Palm Springs does not have good city transportation, and movement in the company halted- squashing my hope of getting based in SLC, I decided to drive a car down.  I tried to live with my Grandparents who lived exactly 2 hours away, but after being late for work the first time I was called in, I realized that was not going to work.  So I found a crash pad.

My Awesome Crashpad
The crash pad had zero furniture, was not sound proofed at all, and had only 1 bedroom to be shared by me and 2 other guys.  Not ideal, but better than being late for work.  Because I was so junior, even though I bid for the reserve schedule I wanted, I never got it, and ended up being on reserve every weekend.  My husband and I realized that if he didn't come visit me on the weekends, we were going to see each other only a few hours each week.  That is hard on the marriage!

Luckily we didn't have any kids and my husband was willing to travel standby, so if I hadn't been called in by Friday night, he would go straight to the airport after work and fly down to stay with me in the crash pad.  Leaving him every week was really hard; especially since I knew I may not work; but also because I knew he may not make it down on those always full flights and then I would be alone for 4-5 days.  Not working (even though I was getting a paycheck) was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.  Working makes a person feel useful and productive.  Sitting around all day is awful!  Especially when you are not at home, staying in a place with no furniture, and living out of one suitcase.

After 1 month the crashpad fell apart, so I had to find somewhere else to live.  I rented a room from a single lady just a few minutes from the airport.  It was better than the crashpad (I had a bed now!), but still really weird to rent and have a roommate when I was used to living with just my husband.  Also, I came to realize that I hate dog hair, and she had 3 dogs that shed like crazy.  She was great to rent from, but I really did not like the situation.  My husband and I rarely saw each other, when he came to visit it felt weird sleeping in this lady's house together, and commuting was getting old.

I had 2 and sometimes 3 days off in between reserve days, but I had to use most of those days commuting, so it almost wasn't even worth going home.  But seeing my husband for just one evening was still worth it to me.  I can't even imagine doing this schedule with kids, but I know people do it all the time- those people amaze me!

After having this crazy schedule for only 5 months, I began to see why so many airline pilots are divorced.  If our marriage had been rocky (which it wasn't), this easily could have pulled us further apart.  What's a marriage if you never see each other?  The company was still at a standstill and there were only rumors of when movement would start again, so my husband decided it would be best, and a fun adventure, for us to just move down.

We moved down the middle of March.  Kind of scary to have everything you own in a tiny moving truck. Good thing it didn't get stolen!  My husband got a temporary restaurant job, and I continued to be on reserve.  Things started to look hopeful.  I was still bored out of my mind and wanted to work, but the company was overstaffed by hundreds of pilots, so I rarely got called.

Guest RoomMost of the time when I did get called in I was TDY'd (Temporary Duty Yonder) to LAX and had to sit in that hotel waiting to be called.  And I never did.  It sucked!  The closest grocery store was over a mile away, the area surrounding the hotel was super sketchy, and though the room was nice (pic on the right), eating out of my cooler for 4-5 days at a time was not ideal.  Though I am sure some pilots would love this situation, I did not.  I wanted to work!  The bad thing about not flying that much was forgetting things.  I continued to study, but every time I got back in the airplane I felt a bit out of place.

Like I've said before, some people like reserve, but it was not for me.  I had to have a bag packed at all times.  If my husband and I wanted to go do something, we had to drive separate cars.  I also didn't like being required to have my phone on me at all times.  Sometimes I like to not have it.

Finally in July 2013 things started turning around.  I got a composite schedule, which is half reserve half schedule.  It was fantastic!  I had a lot more days off, but got to work a decent amount.  August I got a full line!  Though I got stuck with whatever was left, it didn't matter because I was working now.  By October my seniority jumped from bidding 20 to bidding 6!  I went from getting what was left over to getting exactly what I wanted.

Though it was incredibly hard for me in the beginning, it was worth it.  If somebody told me that I would have to go through all that my first year at the airlines, I would still go back and do it because the payoff is fantastic.  During that first year there were many times I wished I would have stayed flight instructing, but now I realize that this job is so much better than that!  My life is better than I ever dreamed it would be.  I get to fly with great crews, I get to fly to beautiful destinations, and I get to travel all the time.  So when you go to the airlines, know that it will be an adjustment in the beginning, but if you stick with it, it will be worth it.