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Archive for March, 2010

Entering the Pattern Part 3 by Nathan Carriker

by on Mar.29, 2010, under Articles, Aviation

Whoever said, “It’s Never as Good as the First Time,”
Did Something Wrong on his Second

 
The first time I trained to fly internationally, I was a bloody stroke risk.

We’ve all seen this little “stress inventory,” whereby you score points for any major changes or developments in your life, and as your score climbs, you’re considered increasingly stressed and need to take increasingly sharp corrective actions to avoid health problems.

Well, I know I started to take it sometime in 1999 but gave up midway, since my calculator, along with most of my other worldly possessions, was in storage after I’d vacated, without assistance, my second-story condominium.

I was probably on a flight to or from my base in Miami, my new wife’s old place in Seattle, our new home in Missouri, my storage bin in San Diego, or our training hotel in Dallas, where I’d spent four of the past eight months learning two different jobs on five different models of two very different airplanes operating over two separate route systems.

No, wait, maybe it was—-no, I couldn’t have done it while actually driving the wife’s U-Haul from Seattle, or one junky airport car to, or another back from, Miami, now could I? No, no…

Maybe it was on one of the two-day breaks I had during that first, involuntary trip through 757/767 International training, although I know it couldn’t have been the one we used to find and contract to buy our first house, or the one we used to take possession, or the one in which we got the stuff I’d stored back under my own roof for the first time in six months.

Perhaps it was during the shortened version of our honeymoon—that being the week (less three non-revenue travel days) for which my company so graciously moved my (did I say “involuntary” yet?) training schedule so we could “frolic” in Hawaii (while trying not to think about eight weeks in the company’s most-often-failed program while still on new-hire probation)—-even though my fiancé and I already got to attend that wedding or whatever thing we had going on right before. My chief pilot made it clear that it was quite a bit more than the least they could do, but since the six-week working version on Miami’s South Beach I’d already secured with a deposit was sooo not about to happen, the company still wanted to show me just what family means around there.
I may have even taken the inventory after my training was over and I had yet another sweet-smelling temporary license in my wallet—this one with “B757/767” typed beneath the “AIRLINE TRANSPORT PILOT” I’d still hadn’t stopped taking out just to stare at since I’d earned the “Ph.D of flying.”

Perhaps it was at some other corrupt memory address created in the next nine months I spent commuting two legs to Miami and New York to sit around on reserve, ready to fill-in as relief pilot on all-night transoceanic and trans-Amazon flights for pilots hired at least ten years before me. When I wasn’t learning my new job, or paying off a sleep debt with payday-loan interest rates, I was learning about being a husband, stepdad, father, and home- and aircraft-owner.

Yet, I just can’t recall, for some reason, when or where I was when I took that stress inventory. I don’t recall if any of the warning signs it listed included sleeping with your tongue trapped between clenched teeth, but I do recall awakening more than one morning with the sides of mine looking (and feeling) like someone had pulled it out and tenderized it overnight. Can’t quite figure why.

In any case, that was Then, and this is Now. Well, not any more. Now this is Now. No, wait…

For a long time, I didn’t think I’d ever come back to the 767 fleet. The difference in pay didn’t seem to justify the long hours and large workload of unfamiliar duties. But when negotiations on our multi-billions-of-dollars-off, post-9/11 contract (and the $300M management bonus programs it engendered) entered their third year, I began to look for a way to get through the next few years of undeclared impasse without waking up with my tongue black and blue. I noticed that my seniority, and thus the number of days I’d have to spend away from home to bring bacon back, would be the same if I were flying internationally from Miami as it was flying domestically from Chicago. The only difference would be having to take two flights to get to work versus one, but offset by rarely having to show up before 6 p.m.—-for about a 15% pay increase. We pilot types call that a no-brainer.

So I went back to the “schoolhouse,” wiped out the cobwebs, and relearned what I surely once knew so long ago. Big shock—-for some reason, this time it was ever so much easier. The (same) wife and kids (plus one more) were tucked snugly into our same house, and everything that required my personal oversight in life now fits easily onto a thumb drive. Oh, and this time I could, and did, share how I really felt a few times during training, with almost no fear of winding up flying that proverbial cargo plane full of rubber dog poop out of Hong Kong.
In the decade I spent flying domestically, I’d already learned how to fly a jet (really fast, thanks), how autothrottles work (to confuse pilots), and that, to Boeing, the Flight Management System

(FMS) isn’t just a navigation, performance, and datalink communication system. It’s God. Actually, wait, I take that back. A check of my manual here finds that God is, in fact, an uplinking VNAV function accessible through the second page of the ACARS submenu. If you’ve performed a valid preflight alignment, that is.

More importantly, I learned that, at least at this major airline, I shan’t modify checklist challenges or responses like “Navigation Displays” or “Set and checked” to be spoken as “Nav Displays” or “Checked and Set,” lest our obsessively standardized little world crumble down around, er, from beneath us, and I be flogged as a heretic.

Since the last time I went through 767 training, I’d learned well that when almost anything unusual happens, even if I think I fully understand what to do, I shan’t touch anything without specific checklist guidance—unless doing so falls under the amorphic heading of “correcting the ‘obvious’,” in which case you better do it.

Critiquing any number of unwelcome, variable, micromanagerially imposed “techcedures” can make a sim session degrade into a debate tournament at the Tower of Babel. “Go along to get along,” and “cooperate to graduate” are mantras employed by legions of pilot virtuosos to deny their gift and just play as directed, however hackneyed the piece or tone-deaf the conductor may be.

Best of all, I’d already learned that to try to impress anyone would be utterly in vain. Apparently, praising copilots only invites trouble, so self-flaggelation is at all times the appropriate behavior, in response to performances both middling and superior. We may or may not be our own worst critics, but we damned surely have to be our own biggest fans.

Isolation

 

“Does anyone know where the love of God goes,

when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”

-Gordon Lightfoot,

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

With simulator training over, all that remained to be considered a fully-requalified International 767 pilot was to take a trip with an instructor pilot and do nothing that scared him. Having never been to Paris before, that was where it was ordained I go. Darn the luck!

 Having gotten quite attached to that wife and those kids, I sure saw things rather differently out there over the North Atlantic last week. The first time I heard the joke about what ETOPS, the acronym for Extended Twin-engine Overwater operations, “really” stands for (Engines Turn Or People Swim) when I was a new husband ten years ago, it just seemed much so much funnier than it was as I tried to catch twenty winks or so on my break.

Greenland’s fjords didn’t used to sound that scary. The Azores used to be just over there to the right, Keflavik a skosh closer on the left. The MTBF, Mean Time Between Failures, for jet engines on an ETOPS-approved maintenance program is such a really ridiculously long time, a three-way mid-air collision with two flying saucers invading Earth is a statistically larger risk than suffering a mechanically-induced dual engine failure.

Smoke in the cockpit? You never used to hear of that happening (SwissAir 111 had just crashed and was then still under investigation). Fire in the cargo hold? Nah—give me something realistic to worry about (Valujet 592, same thing)—now where’s Betty with our hot towels, anyway?Â

Tonight, at our second ETP, Equal-Time-Point, where our choices of emergency diversion airports switched from Goose Bay, Labrador or Keflavik, Iceland, both more than two hours away, to Lajes Field in the Azores or Shannon, Ireland, also more than two hours distant, it occurred to me as I fought to sleep through as much of my two-hour rest break as possible, just how quickly those two hours could flash by were I were summoned to the cockpit to help work a complex problem—and just how endless a simple, merciless one could make them seem to three “superhuman” pilots and our two-hundred fragile charges.

Sixty-six years ago this April Fool’s Day, my Uncle and his crew lost an engine to flak over their secondary target, far more than a mere two hours from the safety of Dover’s Cliffs. To survive, they had to not only keep their wits about them despite how badly damaged their plane and their bodies were, but also to fight off hypoxia, hypothermia, and any number of German fighters thrilled to use their crippled ship for gunnery practice. They almost made it. Their luck ran out over Reims.

Nothing of the sort occurred to us, however, and not long after I began drooling on my pillow in my comfy chair, beneath my soft, warm blanket, in my air-conditioned, pressurized cabin, dawn seeped through the cracks around my window shade, telling me, “get back to work, Monsieur. Et bienvenue au France.”

The flying Carrikers were back in Europe’s sky.

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Upward Mobility, Entering the Pattern, Part 2 , by Nathan Carriker

by on Mar.13, 2010, under Articles

Upward Mobility

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I took this cherished picture, which I call “Upward Mobility,” with my cell phone (yes, while stationary) from an O’Hare taxiway a few summers ago after a squall line had just passed. I use it for my background on my Twitter profile page.

We were about number eighty for takeoff, and this 757 blasted off right in front of us, with that moon and clouds kissing softly in the afterglow of a fantastic storm, in the background. It was a rich metaphor for how I was feeling about my career in its sixth post-9/11 year: stuck. Idle. Utterly stranded with no credible hope, but with a front-row view of the rest of the world moving on with their lives as if nothing had happened. In that same frame of mind, I later wrote “The Terrible Teens” and “First Officer, Second Fiddle” about our career’s stagnation.

Then out of nowhere, just before Christmas last year, I got a call from my company, asking if I’d be “willing” to come to an International 767 class on short notice. I finally understood what Einstein was talking about: the speed of light really didn’t seem all that fast as my brain dispatched, then recalled, a “Hell, yes!” then actually allowed my mouth to speak the far more considered, cool-airline-pilot-like, “Well, I’ve got a trip on Christmas Day, but I don’t guess I’d be legal to do that and the class, so, yeah, I guess that’d be ok.” Another call from my union’s Professional Standards committee averted.

I reported for class after one of the happiest Christmases ever and was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually had a little spare time to write my previous post about AQP (Advanced Qualification Program) training, Simulating Excellence. The hardest part was being the only pilot in the training center who was moving up; that, and watching the news about how many people are suffering through job losses and bad economic times, which, of course, those of us in the airline business have known nothing different from for nearly a decade now.

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Entering the Pattern, by Nathan Carriker

by on Mar.09, 2010, under Articles, Aviation

With profuse thanks to my new friends at aviationnewsfoa.com, I’m all a-twitter(groan) to introduce myself to those who are, like me:

Actually, calling me a Friend of Aviation is like calling Saddam Hussein’s son Uday a Friend of Hedonism (not that there’s anything wrong with that). If I could only live and breathe flying, I’d be deprived. I live it, breathe it, eat it, sleep it, snort it, shoot it, deal it, ogle it, fondle it; if I could get enough of it together in one place I’d stop, drop, and roll around in it then walk around making people smell me.

I could brag that this lusty affair began in my childhood, but I honestly believe it goes far deeper. When my dad told me about my favorite uncle, whom I’ve never met—at least not in the workaday temporal sense—something went “CLICK” inside me and never stopped. B-24 flight engineer/turret gunner Sergeant Raymond “Rudy” Carriker was killed in action April 1, 1944.

 

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Uncle Rudy wanted to be a pilot in the worst way, but lacked the education for an officer’s commission, so he got as close as he could, and the only man to survive their last mission remembered him as a tireless, paternal, tinkering custodian of their plane, Barfly. His baby brother, my dad, also wanted to be a pilot but, like so many have, he waited until the pressure built to an intolerable level before he ignored the bills and learned to fly anyway at age forty-five. “Carriker” is a mangled version of the medieval German title/name “Karcher,” which was, in those days, a guy who drove carts from village to village. So, while my life may not advance my family’s standing in the world one iota, no one can say I didn’t heed the call. Every time I raise my palm and call, “gear up,” I can almost hear Uncle Rudy, and so many Karchers before him cheer, “Go, kid.”

The crowd’s really been going wild this year. In what seems to be a never-ending pattern of me going “zig” when my company goes “zag,” I was just awarded a bid to return to flying the 757/767 internationally after a decade in its narrow-body domestic route system. Now, flying’s flying, don’t get me wrong; but ten years of layovers in places like El Paso, Tulsa, Indianapolis, Raleigh, well, you get the idea. Let’s just say I got a lot of writing done…a LOT of writing. About 200,000 words’ worth, to tell the truth.

I had been forced to fly in the international system for less than a year when I was very new, back in what airline people now call “the good old days” before 9/11. I know it sounds crazy on several levels that flying a 767 internationally could be involuntary, but most pilots avoid bidding “up” until they’re senior enough to have a schedule they can live with, and I was not yet off new-hire probation when they ran out of heroes, I mean volunteers, that year. In other words, the needs of the company had to prevail, and they were (almost) sure I’d do just fine. If I didn’t, they’d be ok; they’d just find someone else who would. No pressure.

I’d been hired as a flight engineer on the 727,  so that first time through 767 training, I hadn’t touched a control yoke in nearly a year. That last one was attached to bellcranks and pushrods with which I manually moved controls to an airplane that carried 30 people in only moderate discomfort for up to 90 minutes at 300 miles per hour.

I awoke from what seemed like another of my bizarre dreams to find myself over the Amazon jungle in a 200-ton behemoth with power-everything, auto-pilots and -throttles, and a cockpit full of CRTs I could double dribble in. It was great, but it didn’t take much coffee to stay eyes-bugged-out alert all night long, and being a “junior puke” on reserve kept me from my new family far too much, so I squeaked like a wheel and squealed like a pig until They finally let me step down a few pegs on that scary-tall ladder.

Just last month, after only ten years of domestic flying, two weeks of ground school, two weeks of simulator training (the subject of an earlier blog post) and a couple of days of international ground school, it was finally time for my Operational Experience, or OE, trip with an instructor pilot. Time to stop trying to drink from a fire hydrant and just step headlong into the stream.

This is the part where I think everyone expects me to digress into a long, for some tedious travelogue of what we did on that trip to Paris and the others since, and how and why we did them, but that’s where I’m hoping to carve my own little niche within the pack (ok, the den) of aviation writers.

My literary wings can’t get enough exercise just flapping about my trips from perch to perch, but neither is my artistic wingspan big enough to effortlessly toy with the zephyrs and thermals all day like the seagulls we all so admire. I’d like to consider myself more like, let’s say, a falcon: I fly for a purpose: I fly to survive. That said, I still enjoy the hell out of it and work at it every second to get as good as I can be, to live as well as I can live, by my craft.

My glare belies my pleasure, and my grin belies my purpose, so I write—and hope you’ll understand.

Enamored with aviation from his first memories, Nathan Carriker was taught to fly by his father, a professional educator and private pilot, from age eight.  He became a private pilot in high school, then worked as a flight instructor while still a student at his alma mater, the University of Central Missouri.  Upon graduation with a B.S. in Aviation Technology in 1990, he was hired by regional airline Air Midwest and spent the next three years as a First Officer on Swearingen Metroliner II and Beechcraft 1900C turboprop airliners.  He then followed another childhood dream to California, moving there to fly for SkyWest Airlines in 1994. An avid pilot even in his free time, Nathan was nearly killed in a light airplane accident later that year, sustaining a spinal cord injury that he was told would surely paralyze him for life.  He was treated at Loma Linda University Medical Center and returned to flying at SkyWest a year to the day later. 

Now a pilot in his tenth year with a major airline, Carriker is an ecstatically married father and stepfather of three.  When not flying or writing, he enjoys a boat with his family, pampering his “pet” machines, and growing and enjoying his collections of music, rum, tequila, and cigars.

Friends of Aviation are very pleased to introduce Nathan Carriker as an additional aviation writer for our blog.

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