AviatorCast Episode 63: AirlinePilotGuy aka Jeff Nielsen: Airline Pilot | Children of the Magenta | Automation Dependency | Captain Authority
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Today’s Flight Plan
On this episode we get into a deep discussion with Jeff Nielsen, aka AirlinePilotGuy. AirlinePilotGuy is a long running and awesome aviation podcast that is definitely worth checking out.
Jeff is a regular, every day airline pilot. Our discussion works through how he went through his training in the Air Force, flying the 727, Maddog, L-1011 “Queen of the Fleet” and more.
We also go over time on the show and talk about Automation Dependency, in addition to Captains Authority. Both are great and enlightening topics.
Join us with Jeff and we live in the world of AirlinePilotGuy.
Jeff Nielsen aka AirlinePilotGuy
Thanks so much for joining us on the show, Jeff! It was a great discussion. Could have gone on for hours! Keep up the great podcast, and let’s circle around the pattern and meet up again soon.
Major thanks to the amazing Angle of Attack Crew for all their hard work over the years. Our team works incredibly hard, and they’re very passionate about what they do.
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Wicked children of the magenta, this is AviatorCast episode 63!
Calling all aviators, pilots, flight sim enthusiasts and aviation lovers, you’ve landed at AviatorCast! Join us weekly in our efforts to become better masters of the air through interviews, refreshers, lessons, training topics, simulator set-up, hangar talk, news and more! Buckle up and prepare yourself for this week’s episode of AviatorCast! Preflight complete, fuel on board and flight plan filed. Let’s kick the tires and light the fires!
Here’s your humble host, Chris Palmer!
Chris: Welcome, welcome, welcome aviators, you’ve landed at AviatorCast. My name is Chris Palmer. Whether it’s airliners or a beat-up air-worthy Cessna, I admire all flying things except for helicopters because they’re just weird. But really, aviation is a huge part of my life and my passion and that is why I am here on AviatorCast. So welcome. This is our weekly show here on AviatorCast where we talk to inspirational figures in the aviation industry and the flight simulation industry whether that be developers or airline pilots or corporate pilots or instructors or any wide variety of people out there that are passionate about aviation and are kind enough to take time out of their busy schedule to come and meet with us. And sometimes, when we don’t get to someone like that, we have just a great discussion about some topics that can help us become better aviators. There are so many great listeners out there.
We have reviews come in each and every week on AviatorCast, and this one comes from the USA. It comes from Flyer51 and he says “Chris’ passion and knowledge shine through.” He says “Chris Palmer hosts an excellent show with the perfect combination of GA, sim and interviews. Consistent in content and weekly delivery, it is the one podcast I must listen to as soon as it is available. The host’s passion for aviation is infection and has encouraged me to get back in the cockpit after years of inactivity. Listening has educated me in the value of sim training and the products available to make it a robust learning experience. Thank you Chris.”
Awesome Flyer51. Really cool that you’ve been getting back into aviation because of the inspiration that you’ve gathered from the show. I certainly can’t take all the credit. There are so many people out there that make the show possible including you, including the Angle of Attack team, including the wonderful people that come on this show that we get to interview and talk to. It’s all this community thing that we’re doing here. So I really appreciate you leaving that review on iTunes. Because you did, make sure to email me and you’re going to get an AviatorCast t-shirt, an exclusive AviatorCast t-shirt, so I really, really appreciate that and again, it’s so awesome that you’re getting back on the flight deck. Super, super cool.
Alright, so we have a wonderful interview, a hangar talk episode for you guys today. We have Jeff Nielsen with us today. So you hear the name Jeff Nielsen you think, “Well who the heck is Jeff Nielsen? Just seems like kind of a regular everyday name.” Well Jeff Nielsen is not just Jeff Nielsen. Jeff Nielsen is Airline Pilot Guy. You may know him from airlinepilotguy.com or The Airline Pilot Guy podcast. He is an airline captain. He’s been at it for many, many years. We get into a great discussion about a lot of topics that he has. And this guy, he has a robust show. This thing usually goes about 2-1/2 hours, sometimes 3 hours, so he does a fantastic show just sharing about a lot of the current events that are happening and he’s one of the only podcasts that do that. I definitely don’t do it from week to week. I don’t necessarily share all the aviation news out there that’s happening and my opinion on it, but Jeff is a guy that does that, and he is the epitome of an airline pilot guy.
So we have a great conversation with Jeff on this episode of AviatorCast. I hope you guys enjoy it. We’re going to get right into that, so here we go. This is Jeff Nielsen, airline pilot guy.
Now, a special hangar talk segment…
Chris: Alright everybody, we are honored to have a very special guest with us today. We have Jeff Nielsen who is famous for The Airline Pilot Guy podcast. How are you doing Jeff. Thanks for joining us on AviatorCast.
Jeff: I’m doing great and thanks for having me on your show.
Chris: Yeah, no problem. You and I have been trying to hook up for a while now. You’re a busy airline pilot so it’s been a little bit difficult but it’s good to finally be here on the air. So you’re in Atlanta, that’s what you’re based. We’re not going to say what airline you fly.
Jeff: I fly for Acme Airlines.
Chris: Okay, Acme. Great. I’ve heard of them before.
Jeff: That’s what I say on my show anyway.
Chris: Fantastic. Alright, so the first question we always ask our aviators that are on the show, that is how did you fall in love with aviation? So let’s rewind a few years and hear that story.
Jeff: Well we’d have to rewind, well I’m 56 years old and as early as I can remember, I’ve always loved airplanes and flying and looking up in the sky. I grew up in Southern California, and so that area of our country is very, very busy with airplanes flying all over the place, and I just fell in love with the idea of piloting an airplane from a very early age. And then watching things like the Thunderbirds on TV, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that program, but it was this show with these really weird dolls that were kind of flying in the future, flying these rockets and stuff like that and other cartons that involve flying and pilots and that kind of thing. It was always thrilling for me and I’d be out there in the backyard with my little tiny airplane, imagining I was flying it and that sort of thing. I’m sure a lot of people listening probably can identify with that, probably did the same thing when they were younger and of course if they’re doing it now, well, I don’t know about that.
And also, to take it a step further, we’d use to go out with my family to the Los Angeles International Airport and bring people there for their flights or pick people up from flights, etc. I’d see the pilots walking through the concourse in their really nice looking uniforms and carrying their suitcases and the smell of burnt Jet-A just smelled wonderful.
Chris: Nothing like it.
Jeff: I know. You smell that and I guess for the true aviation geek, that’s aviation incense.
Chris: Totally is.
Jeff: So I just kind of fell in love with that whole thing, about travel. It just seemed exotic and glamorous and I thought “You know what? That’s what I want to do.” Not only do I want to fly airplanes but I want to be an airline pilot. So I started going to the library and for those of you who are young people, the library is this building that books in it or used to be anyway.
Chris: Right, right. Yep. Now maybe just computers that have books online or something.
Jeff: Yeah. So I’d go to the library and find all I could, books about flying, etc. I ended up subscribing to Flying Magazine when I don’t remember how young I was but I was pretty young. I think I convinced my mom and dad to write a check to Flying Magazine and I’d read every month’s issue, probably Plane and Pilot as well. And I’d be reading through the pages of this magazine and having no idea really what they were talking about a lot of times when they’re talking VORs and ILS and NDB and that language that we have in aviation that most people are not into aviation probably just scratch their heads.
But over time, I’d started realizing the context of what they were saying. I started picking up little bits and clues along the way. And we also knew some people in our neighborhood in Southern California that were pilots. One was a United Airlines Pilot and another a Western Airlines Pilot. And that one in fact, again, they were good friends of our family, he was such an enthusiast that he was building a home-built airplane in his house.
Chris: His house? Not even his garage?
Jeff: Well, to me, I’m trying to recall exactly. I guess it was kind of a, it must’ve been an extension of the house or something.
Jeff: It didn’t seem like a garage. It seem really nice to me inside there. So I don’t know if he especially constructed this room or modified the garage. I was still a very young person at that time but I do remember.
Chris: Still impressive.
Jeff: Yeah. And he handed me a book. “Here’s How To Fly” I think is the name of it. I think I still have it. I forgot to return it to him. And so that was one of the books that I have at my collection of the fundamentals of flying and aerodynamics and such. That stuck with me throughout my life. When I was about 13, we moved to Mobile Alabama and I was still thinking that flying is something that I’d want to do for my career. And I was also very involved in music as well especially in my middle school and high school years, and so my passions were flying and music, particularly trumpet playing.
And I got to the point where we all get I think, and maybe some other people listening or right there right now where I was at this age where you really have to start thinking very seriously about what you’re going to do. Are you going to go off to college and what are you going to study in college and what are your goals? And again, thinking that music was such a big part of my life, I thought “You know, I’d love to do that but I’m not sure I have the super talent to get out there and be a superstar trumpet player, so most likely I would end up being a band director or something like that which will be very fulfilling but in general, band directors don’t make big sums of money and if you’re going to fly as a hobby, you’re going to need kind of big sums of money to do that.
Chris: Yeah, definitely.
Jeff: And so reality started sinking in. I’m thinking “Well, I do love flying as well or the idea of flying” and so I did a little bit of research and found out that pilots, especially airline pilots at that time for major airlines were very well paid. So that would pay the bills and I’d also be able to do music on the side if I wanted to. So that’s when I finally pulled the trigger and said “Okay, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
Chris: So how did that translate, that decision translate into actually getting into training. Because I actually came to that same point as a teenager too right around 15 or 16, the heavens kind of opened, it was like “You can be a pilot.” I just knew that’s what I was gonna be. I’m not necessarily an airline pilot but it’s definitely an everyday part of my life. So how did that translate into actually getting into training and getting the money together and all that sort of stuff?
Jeff: Well, as soon as I could work a job legally, I was out at the airports, at the FBOs trying to find a job so I can be around airplanes and around people that love flying as well. And so I ended up working at the Mobile Air Center in Mobile when I was in high school. The cool thing about that was I had the chance to talk to like these jet pilots that would come in and need to have their airplanes refueled and I’d talk to them about how they got into flying and what they recommended for me to get into this world of either corporate or airline flying.
Jeff: And again, just being around that environment, smelling that Jet-A and Avgas and being around airplanes all the time. I took a couple of lessons with one of the other, I think they called us lineboys at that time, I don’t know what they call that job now, or lineman. We were the ones out there putting fuel in the airplane.
Chris: That still sounds right to me.
Jeff: Yeah. Everytime I say it now though, it just doesn’t sound right.
Chris: Yeah, lineboy doesn’t sound as good as lineman but.
Jeff: Yeah. Well I was one of those guys out there working on the ramp, one of the teenagers out there. And one of my cohorts who was a little bit older than me was a certified flight instructor so when we would have enough money scrapped together to pay for the gas and the rental, I think the owners of the FBO let us rent the thing for pretty good rate. We’d go up and fly a 15-0 or whatever so that’s when I actually started my logbook. So I was doing that and looking at where I was going to college and all that kind of stuff and then it kind of dawned on me that at that time, the people that were getting hired by the major airlines were mostly people that were in the military or getting out of the military.
I did not come from a military family at all. I had no idea what it meant to be a military pilot. And again, I wasn’t one of those who was dreaming of flying a fighter jet. So I was always looking at the airline world and the big heavy airplanes and flying around the world, that kind of thing. So I thought “If I’m going to go into the military, I’m not so sure that my passion is that deep for doing this.” So I started getting advise from my father and some of his peers about what I should do and they all said “Oh, what you need to do is you need to go out and be an engineer, get your engineering degree, and then get a Master’s in business or something like that.”
So off I go to Georgia Tech and I’m in Information and Computer Science. Back then, of course this was before personal computers, and I realized that after learning Fortran and Cobol and what’s the other one, Pascal and some of these other big machine languages, that this was not exactly what I thought computer science was going to be.
And so I switched over to Auburn University, in-state tuition and that kind of thing and switched over to electrical engineering and I did that for another little over a year. And finally I got to the point where I was struggling trying to understand all these things, very difficult courses. My grades weren’t very good and I’m trying to project where I’m going to be into the future with this kind of degree and I just couldn’t picture myself doing it. I could picture myself in that cockpit of an airliner and I finally came to the conclusion that if I wanted to do that for a living, if it meant going into the military then that is what I would do and I would just treat that as my post-graduate training or schooling.
And so at that point, I went over the aviation management college or school over at Auburn and I said “I want to transfer to your school” and they said okay. And at that time I was underneath the, it was in the same engineering school. Right now I think it’s under the business school. It’s kind of a hybrid program, at least it was when I went through business courses and engineering courses with a lot of aviation stuff thrown in.
Chris: That sounds really cool.
Jeff: Yeah, and it was, and I was finally something, I was taking courses and something that I was just fascinated about and my grades started going through the roof. Of course the courses were a little bit easier as well. I still was taking some engineering courses etc. but I finally was in the right place, I just could feel it.
Jeff: So I started looking at this. Most of the people I was going to school with were in the ROTC program, Reserve Officer Training Corps program, but they were getting, some of them had pilot slots, they’d have a pilot slot and it would be taken away and then it would be given back to them and I’m thinking “I don’t want to do this for the next two years or so and not have a pilot slot” because if I’m going to go into the military, I want to be a pilot.
Jeff: And so I just kept plugging along with the courses. I was not taking the professional flight option so I wasn’t flying at all. At this point, I only had like 3.5 hours in my logbook of flying time. So I went over to the recruiter in Opelika and “So what do I need to do to go to officer training school and be a pilot candidate?” And they said “Go back over to Auburn, take these tests and then we’ll get back with you.” And the rest is history. A couple of weeks later they said “Your scores are back and you’re accepted as a pilot candidate” and after I graduated two weeks later, I was down in San Antonio Texas at the Medina Annex for the officer training school.
Now, I didn’t have a private pilot’s license. So because of that, I had to go to a little course that we have right before you go to officer training school and that was called Flight Screening Program Officer Trainee I think, FSPOT, of course we call it fish pot. We’d get in a bus everyday and head out to Hondo, Texas. They had a little miniature undergraduate pilot training program set up in the T-41 Mescalero I think they called it and that’s a Cessna 172 that the military coopted I guess. Civilian instructors but they had all this whole program set up to mirror what it would be like to be in the air force’s undergraduate pilot training program. And they just wanted to see if you had the aptitude to do it because they didn’t want to invest this money and you being an officer and end up not being able to make it through the pilot training programs. I made it through that. I made through officer training school, became a second lieutenant and then off to air force pilot training.
Chris: Wow. We’re covering a lot of ground now.
Jeff: Yup. And I know I’m probably talking your ear off.
Chris: No, no, no, this is great. This is exactly what people want to hear. Everyone goes through this right? They have this point they come to where they have, at least everyone who’s listening to this show, I’m not saying everyone in the world is passionate about aviation. But those that are teenagers or come to a point where do they have to decide on a future. Everyone that has passion in aviation definitely wants to make this work and it’s just a matter of finding the right recipe for your situation to make it work, and for you that was from what I’m hearing, it was putting in all the right education work up front.
You already had a lot of the lingo down in you. You knew kind of where you were going, but getting a lot of the education done and then to me it sounds like once that was done, you’re just throwing yourself in kind of the deep end of the pool and now it’s time to fly. That’s not necessarily the recipe for everyone. Some people get their private pilot license on their 17th birthday and that’s completely acceptable, but finding your own recipe at that stage in life is so important. For me, it was a little bit different. I did ground school and human factors classes in high school, kind of half day release program sort of thing. I didn’t actually do flying and then I got my private pilot in my first year of college, dropped out of college and then I finished a lot of my training from there. So everyone’s recipe is different and I think with your story, it’s just another one of those unique recipes that makes you you and it’s just another example of how you got to go out there and kind of get it done.
So pick up from there and tell us, now you’re getting thrown into, kind of how I referred it, the deep end of the pool, and now you’re actually going to go as I’m assuming and you’re going to fly jets, is that right?
Jeff: That’s right. Now, I’ll back up. A lot of the people that were in that fish pot program, the people like me who did not have any licenses at all and some actually, they had zero hours. They’d never been in a small airplane before. And in fact some of them and this is just astonishing to me, the only airplane they’d ever been in before they were there at the Annex for the whole flight screening program, the first flight that they had been in was the one that took them to San Antonio, Texas.
And I’m thinking, I was just flabbergasted because I’m thinking I have just eaten, drunk, slept aviation for as long as I could remember and this is what I had wanted to do, I knew I wanted to do for so long with maybe a couple times when I was in high school, the music thing was also a part of my process but I just couldn’t identify with these people. I think “Really? So why are you here?” And they said “Well, I went to the recruiter and they said “Hey, would you be interested in flying an airplane?” They go “Oh yeah. Well I guess so.”
Chris: Gosh, weird.
Jeff: I was like “What? Really?” But that doesn’t necessarily mean that this person is not going to be a good pilot. In fact, we’ll talk about this probably a bit litter in the show, but even in the world that I am in now in the airline world, I still fly with people that are kind of like that. This is just something to do. It’s like I’d rather do this than something else.
Chris: And I think the point there is that there is room for passionate people in this industry, people that go out there and make it happen. That just goes to show you that there are definitely ways that you can find a way to make this work, you just got to get a little creative.
Jeff: Right. And what I wanted to do as I mentioned before, I knew nothing about the military. I thought I was going to be living the barracks and eating in mess halls for my entire air force career and then I realized than once I got though pilot training, actually in pilot training but from that point on, it was more like a regular job except that you might find yourself in a situation where people are shooting at you but for the most part, living in your own house and you don’t have to live on base, you don’t have to live in the barracks, you can have your own house, that kind of thing. You can have your life outside of the military as well.
But anyway, I went through the program, I became a second lieutenant and that’s the thing in the military, you want to be a pilot, you got to be an officer, and you’re an officer first and pilot second. And the other thing is to be an officer, you have to have a four-year college degree. So anybody out there considering going the military route, that’s something that you have to keep in mind.
So I went off to pilot training in Columbus, Mississippi and a year later approximately, I was pitting on my wings and off I went off to fly the C-141B Starlifter, a military transport.
Chris: Yep. I know it.
Jeff: And it was my first choice. And I really thought I was coming back as what we call a first assignment instructor pilot because I did pretty well but I wasn’t the outstanding student in pilot training. I wasn’t the one that was going off to the checkrides and getting excellence. We had this grading system, excellent, good, fair and hook. I was very consistent. I got a lot of goods. In fact, that’s all I got was goods and occasional excellent but I was not as I said the hot stick, the star of the class, that kind of thing. And so basically when they’d start doing their evaluations toward the end of your year-long pilot training, they kind of convened and decide which ones would have the skills to be fighter pilots or attack pilots, A-10, F-16, F-15 at that time. Those that can do that and could be instructor pilots.
Because there could be a guy that’s really a hot stick but would not be the appropriate person to teach people how to fly. They didn’t have those people skills. And so they have the FAR, fighter assault reconnaissance I think is what that stands for, rating or FAR, IP rating and then everybody else, they will fly tankers or bombers or transports, the things that are not fighters and reconnaissance airplanes or instructor pilots.
And so I was in that FAR-IP rating and again I thought for sure, everybody was telling me, I was going to be coming back. I was going to be an instructor pilot and so I kind of started making my connections and figure out where I was going to go. And then a couple of weeks before, or actually just a few days before assignment night, my student quadrant commander called me up in the phone right before our stand-up in the morning and said “Hey, Chuck what you doing?” And I said “Well, we’re about to start our stand-up.” And he said “Well, come meet me between the squadron buildings.” And I go “What?” And he goes “Just come out. Just do it.” “Yes sir.” He was a captain I think and I was a second lieutenant.
I met him out there and he goes “What do you want to do? What assignment do you want?” I said “It doesn’t really matter because I’m coming back, I’m going to be a T-37 instructor pilot,” and he goes “No, no, no. What would you pick if you could?” and I said “Well, I’d pick the 141” and he goes “Yeah, me too. That’s what I want to fly, so I’ll see you out there in about a year.” And I went “What?” and he goes “Nothing. Just go back to the squadron.”
So a couple days later, we had assignment night I got my first choice of the C-141. They had a thing back then, I don’t know if they’re still doing it, if you’re in the top 10% of your class, they call it a distinguished graduate, you get to choose, you get your first choice if it’s available, and the C-141 was available and that was my first choice. That’s what I got.
Jeff: The point of that is that you don’t have to be hotshot in the class as long as you are consistent throughout your training, it could pay off and it did for me. So I flew a 141 at Travis Air Force Base for a couple of years. When I left the air training command base, I thought, when I saw that sign in the rearview mirror, I thought “That’s it. Never gonna see ATC again or training command.” And then about two years after I was at Travis Air Force Base, I got this letter that said that “You are being considered to come back to the air training command.” I said “What? I don’t want to do that. I want to fly a 141.” And at that time I was under the impression that to get hired by a major airline, you had to have that heavy time and you had to have thousands of hours.
And I was devastated because I thought “You know, if I have to go back and fly as an instructor pilot in undergraduate pilot training, there’s no way I’m going to get hired by the airlines.” I didn’t know that the airlines, most of them anyway, look for instructor time and…
Chris: Yeah, they actually love that.
Jeff: Yeah. They actually love it. And I didn’t realize it at that time. I was very, very kind of depressed about the whole thing. I went to my ops officer and I said “What do I need to do so that I don’t go to the air training command?” and he said “Well, you can go out there and bust a check ride.” “Well I’m not gonna do that.” “Number two, you can get a bad officer evaluation rating” and I said “Well I don’t want to do that. What if the airlines aren’t hiring? I don’t want to burn my bridges and tank my career.” And I forgot what the third option was but all three options were not options in my mind.
So off I went to be an instructor pilot on a T-37 back in Columbus, Mississippi for the last four years of my time in the air force. And it worked out. Actually my wife always says “Things happen for a reason.”
Chris: That’s so true.
Jeff: So about that time, her father was diagnosed with cancer. They live in the Atlanta area and Columbus was relatively close, much closer than the west coast to the United States. And so we really got a chance to spend a lot of time with him, his last year of life on earth. It was a good thing overall and when I learned that the airlines like instructor time, I was very happy about that.
Chris: Great. Yeah, they definitely like it. On personal note, when did you meet your wife in this process?
Jeff: Well, I met her when I was at Auburn University.
Chris: Okay, great.
Jeff: I guess I was a junior at Auburn. I don’t know how personal you want to get, don’t worry, it’s G-rated. When we were dating and this is my plan, this is my career track is to graduate, to go into the military, to be a military pilot, to get all that good training and experience then get hired by the airlines maybe when I’m 28, of course I was 30 when I was hired, and then maybe start thinking about settling down, getting married, having a family and that kind of thing. My wife says that she was in a car looking at the window thinking and that’s what you think. She made me fall in love with her.
So we were engaged before I graduated from Auburn University. She was about a year behind me. When I was in pilot training actually is when we got married which is not something I would recommend. Pilot training is very intense. We did it about three quarters of the way through and that was kind of a stressful thing not only for me but for her as well. It was 32 and a half years ago.
Chris: Great, great. I love that. I’d actually like to pick your drink. Why don’t we do that right now. How do you make a marriage last after 32 and a half years being in such an intense job? I mean, because a lot of people, the running joke is it’s called AIDS, aviation-induced divorce syndrome, but it’s really how you approach it right? And all the practical tips that I’ve heard from airline pilots that have made that work over the years, it’s actually pretty amazing what they come up with. So how have you guys made it work?
Jeff: Well first of all, don’t confuse love with infatuation for someone, that incredible feeling that you feel when you’re first falling in love and in passionate love with somebody. Love is a verb and love is a work. Understand that unlike Hollywood when that infatuation wears off, you can just get a divorce and get married again, well I guess you could do that in our world as well, but that’s not the way to go, and it’s something that you got to work for. And I think my advice would be especially for people who are going to get into this job, chances are you’re going to have a type of schedule that takes you away from your family for many days or nights at a time, and you have to make sure that when you are home, that you are actually home.
I used to fly with these captains and I couldn’t understand how their marriages work actually and in many cases they didn’t very well. They’d fly their trips and then they’d come home and they’d be on the golf course for the next few days between trips and then they’d be out there on another trip. Maybe it was generational thing. I don’t know. Maybe some people are still doing that out there today but I think that the newer generation of pilots understand that when we’re gone, our spouse has 100% of the responsibilities and obligations of attending to the house and the family and I think that we understand now that when we come home that it’s time for us to take on some of that.
So I would always volunteer to be the guy that would drive the kids to school and pick them up and take them to dance lessons and soccer practice and everything else. So the idea of going out and playing to the golf course for the next few days between trips is just like a foreign idea to me. Even if I could’ve done it, I would’ve felt guilty doing it. That would be my advice. Just make sure that, because you’re home 24 hours a day when you’re off between trips and be at home. Don’t do something else because that’s just not going to help the marriage.
Chris: Definitely, cool. I just like to get that advice because I think for people getting into the industry in all different types of aviation careers, and really it’s good advice in general for any career but specifically here to aviation, it’s just be home when you’re home and put the work into it and the attention into it. That seems to be the recurring team that I get from airline pilots and specifically that have made it work is they focus on their family when they’re at home and that’s what they do, and they give the credit to their wives or their spouse, their significant other that’s on the other end, they have a very difficult job as well making sure that things are taken care of at home.
Jeff: It’s a much more difficult job than our job with flying airplanes, I tell you that.
Chris: Yeah. We’re passionate about flying airplanes, not really about cleaning toilets or changing diapers and things like that so a little bit easier.
Chris: Great. So talk to us in brief about your airline career. I’m assuming that you went from the 141 and now you got hired, or not the 141, you’re actually the instructor and they hired you straight out of that instructor position to the airlines. So have you been with the same airline that entire time?
Jeff: I have, and as I’m sure many of the people listening to the show now, a successful career has a lot to do with timing. I was listening to one of your earlier podcasts with Karlene Petitt and she said I think that she had been with like eight different airlines.
Chris: Yeah, seven or eight, something like that.
Jeff: I was very fortunate because the timing for me worked out very well. When I was getting out of the air force, my original separation date, a little after seven years of being in the military, the airlines were hiring and they were kind of in the midst of a hiring boom and that was the end of 1988 is when I got out. And again, great timing. I got hired when the hiring was going very strong and they were continuing to hire for a year or so after I got hired which is key. Because I had a lot of people getting hired behind me, so that gives you…You know, when you are early in the airline career at an airline that uses a seniority-based system which is most of them, early on your career, the most important thing isn’t the number people they are hiring after you, not so much how many people were ahead of you.
Now, when you are in my phase of the career, I’m in probably about the top 22% now in the seniority list, the thing that matters to me are all the people that were hired before me. That’s what determines the airplane that I fly and the schedules that I fly and the vacations, etc. So yeah, it was great timing, got hired by the airline for which I fly 26 years ago, a little over 26 and a half years ago and I’ve been with the same company the whole time. And I’ve never been furloughed either. Another thing about timing is that I have suffered a little bit of stagnation in my career and maybe moving backwards, I was displaced off of the 727 to the airplane that I currently fly, but I still had a job. I wasn’t on a furlough or didn’t lose my job completely so I’m very blessed with the career that I’ve had so far.
Chris: Great. And so what types of aircraft have you actually flown? You said the 727, I see another one here, the Lockheed L-1011. Tell us about that. I don’t know a lot of people that have actually flown that aircraft.
Jeff: Well, the 727, I’ll start with that. I was a flight engineer for a year and a half and then I could’ve jump off that and become a first officer on the DC-9 at about a year point, that’s how quickly things are moving at that time, but I decided to stay on the 727 another six months to about a year and a half and I moved right from the engineer’s position to the first officer position on the 727 mainly because I already knew the systems of the airplane and I knew that the very best job that you can have in an airline is on an airplane that has three pilots, and if you’re the first officer, the co-pilot on a three-pilot crew, you are basically retired. All you do is talk on the radio or fly the airplane every other leg and that’s about it. You don’t have to do any walkarounds, your checklist was essentially turn the pitot heat on, turn the window heat on and you’re ready to go.
So I did that for seven years and then I got a chance to fly the L-1011 as a first officer. I was convinced there was absolutely no way that I could ever fly, and I love hand-flying airplanes and the 727 is a beautiful hand-flying airplane. I was convinced there was no way that there could be any airplane better than the 727. My friend who had been hired a few years before me at Acme said “Oh, that L-1011 if you ever get a chance to fly that, that’s even better than the 727” and I said “There is no way.” Well, I got the bid on the L-1011, went to training, I flew the airplane for a few weeks and then finally about a month after I started actually flying the airplane, I called him up and I said “Ken, you were right. The L-1011 actually is better than the 727 as far as manual flying.”
It was a just a beautiful airplane. Beautifully engineered. We talk about things in technology as state of the art, a lot of people refer to the L-1011 as start of the art. It had a lot of things that a lot of airplanes didn’t have at that time. It had vertical tape instruments. Now of your modern cockpits now use vertical tape instruments and the cockpit display you probably fly an airplane simulator that has that kind of display, the round dial. It still had round dials and it was kind of a mix of old and new technologies. It did have an RNAV or an FMS system although it was a very crude one. You actually had to put in the waypoints as north, blah, blah, blah, west, and all the digits, and so you couldn’t put in waypoints and jetways and that kind of thing or arrival and departure procedures but hey, they made it easy when they cleared you from LA to Atlanta direct. You just hit the button and it did its thing.
Chris: Was that a thing?
Jeff: Yeah. If you’re flying the all-nighters as I was.
Chris: Wow. That doesn’t happen anymore does it?
Jeff: No. Not very often unless you’re FedEx and UPS or flying the red eyes from the west coast to Atlanta or New York. When it’s not very busy out there, they’ll do that. And even in the 727, we got those kind of routes except for we didn’t have area navigation, we just had headings. We had the technology to fly heading and so everytime you went from one air traffic control in route center to another, they just adjust your heading maybe five degrees and so you did that all the way across the country and basically it was the same thing, the great circle route and it worked just fine.
Chris: Great, great.
Jeff: But the L-1011, beautiful airplane. We called it the queen of the fleet and I know the 747 is the queen of the skies but at that time, we weren’t flying the 747 so the queen of our fly was the L-1011 with its big Rolls Royce RB-211 engines with that distinctive sound and it’s just a very comfortable airplane, very fast airplane. You wouldn’t believe it, you look at it and it looks like a big blob.
Chris: It does.
Jeff: But it was the fastest airplane I’d flown except for the T-38 Supersonic airplane. But yeah, the thing was normally cruising, I think our normal cruise was like 0.86 and sometimes a little bit faster than that if you had to get home, but beautiful airplane. Great airplane.
Chris: Yeah. I have the Wikipedia page up now. I need to learn more about that because that sounds like… I’m kind of a guy that likes to learn about the evolution of technology so that would be interesting to learn about, how it brought in some of those things and the aviation specifically.
Jeff: There were several things on there that are unique to the L-1011 and one such feature was direct lift control. When you are in the landing configuration, the spoilers would deploy from a faired position to I think it was like six or seven degrees so they’d pop out a little bit and the flight spoilers. And then when you would want to make an adjustment on glide slopes, say you’re a little bit high, in any airplane, we would push the control yoke or the control stick forward to get back down in the glide slope and what happens, your pitch changes a certain number of degrees and on this airplane, your pitch would stay the same when you push the control stick forward and the spoilers would actually deploy a little bit more so you’re like an elevator.
So the deck angle of the airplane would essentially stay the same and you just drop a little bit faster because the spoilers are out and then as you brought the yoke back to that more neutral position, then they’d go back and fair to their six or seven degrees or whatever it was. Same thing, if you’re a little bit low, you pull back on the yoke, then the spoilers would be stowed and your descent rate would decrease and so that’s the way you would fly a precision-approach glide path or any kind of glide path.
Chris: Goodness. That’s definitely unique.
Jeff: Beautiful thing. And one of the later versions of the L-1011, I don’t know if it was a 250 or the 500, we flew all three of those series, they had the first, basically fly by wire system that I know of that where because the wings was a little bit longer, they were concerned, the engineers were concerned about the flexing and turbulence and that kind of thing, and so they actually had accelerometers located on the outboard portions of the wings that would sense acceleration forces and they actually had a system that was working without our having to do anything with it that would adjust various devices on the wings to prevent that wing bending and loading. And so it would provide a very smooth ride when you are in turbulence.
Chris: That’s pretty incredible. Gosh, it almost seems like some naked resurrect, you know?
Jeff: I think actually some of the airplanes, I think the Dreamliner uses that technology. They have some kind of an active system that senses when certain forces are acting upon various parts of the wing and various wing devices will activate to kind of soothe that moment. Not sure I’m using the right terminology but they say that it makes for a very, very comfortable ride. And I can tell you anecdotally that we’d be cruising across the country and people right and left, behind us and ahead of us complaining about turbulence and they’d ask us if what the ride was like, and I said “Smooth.” It’s not affecting us for some reason.
Chris: And looks like there are 11 still in service today so it’s not quite gone yet. Who knows where they’re flying though.
Jeff: I think most of the airplanes I’ve flown have been retired, at least in active airline flying and even military flying. I think the only airplane that I flew in the military that has not yet been retired but will probably be soon is the T-38.
Chris: Yeah. Wow. Great. Well, that was a great history of kind of your, I guess the different types of airplanes you’ve flown, and I don’t think we’ve finished up with what you’re flying today, so what are you flying today?
Jeff: I’m flying basically the DC-9ER. It’s the McDonald Douglas 88 and the McDonald Douglas 90 series which are more modern and stretched versions of basically the gold old DC-9. At my airline at least, this airplane didn’t have a good reputation. When we were flying the 727 and the L-1011, people said “Oh you don’t want to fly that mad dog. It’s a piece of you know what.” So I kind of planned my career around not ever flying that airplane and so instead of jumping from the 727 flight engineer to right side on the mad dog, I stayed a little bit longer so that I could stay in the 727 and then I would jump the L-1011 and then I ended up checking out as a captain, my first captain seat was on the 727 so I actually got to fly all three positions on the 72.
At one of those periods of time when things were kind of sliding backwards a little bit just after 9/11, the industry kind of took a big hit and we were already kind of talking about retiring the 727 as well. So they accelerated the retirement of the 727 so I was the second batch of captains that were displaced from that airplane and the only airplane that I could fly captain on in Atlanta because I didn’t want to commute was the Mad Dog, so I’m thinking “Well, I’ll just fly this airplane for as long as necessary until I can move up to something like the 737 or something else.”
And so I went to training on it and I flew it. I’m thinking “Yeah, it’s not the Boeing nor the L-1011 but it’s not really that bad” and I kept waiting for it to get bad and it never did and the trips were pretty much the same. My 727 trips and the airplane has its idiosyncrasies but once you learn them and compensate for them, it’s a great airplane. Ironically, the airplane that I had never planned to fly, I’ve flown for the longest of any airplane. I’ve been on this thing for about 13 years and it’s a good jet.
Chris: Well if it works, it works. Great. So, you kind of preempted our conversation here at least through email with a couple of concerns or things that were kind of hot topics for you. Now, almost every week, you consistently, I mean maybe you missed an episode here and there, but you have a podcast every week with Airline Pilot Guy, you guys can look that up, you listeners can look that up at airlinepilotguy.com. You can also search that in iTunes and it should come up pretty easily. Even just google it, it’s going to come right up. It’s a pretty brandable name.
So basically, if I understand this right, your show is wrapped around kind of the current events of what’s happening in aviation. You talk about accidents quite a bit or hot topics. I saw that recently you talked about the German Wings accident that just happened several days ago. You talked about Harrison Ford’s accident, so different types of things. In my understanding, is that correct, is that how you would wrap up your show to or how you would explain it?
Jeff: Yeah. Actually my tagline is “The view from my side of the cockpit door.” And so it’s a show that people can listen to and my audience demographic is anywhere from fellow professional pilots like me to military pilots, to general aviation pilots, radio-controlled model pilots, PC simmers, a lot of them listen to the show and even just people that have an interest in aviation, aviation enthusiasts that aren’t pilots themselves. So I try to target my show to encompass that entire range of experience. So I try not to get too technical with things and use all the acronyms and everything else that only people who have been doing this for a number of years would understand.
And what I do is basically, you’re right, I just talk about what had happened, what has happened in the previous week because I try to put out a show every week and my take on it if I have one, and then the remainder of the show, I say at least 2/3 of the show is dedicated to answering people’s questions.
Chris: Great, great. You must get a lot of questions.
Jeff: I do.
Chris: Good, good.
Jeff: That’s why my show is so long.
Chris: Great. I wish I got more questions on my show but we get a fair amount. But that’s great. I really like that user interaction. So a couple of the hot topics that you actually said were kind of in your mind right now and I’d like to talk about a little bit is automation dependency and then another interesting one that I actually didn’t even consider and that was the erosion of a captain’s authority. So if we can, let’s talk about those couple topics if you don’t mind, just kind of a discussion here. First off, starting out with the automation dependency which is definitely a hot topic right now especially in the airline industry even looking back at the past. Specifically, even just the past five years of accidents in the airline industry and how connected those are to automation. So why don’t we just go from there? Why don’t you just start off maybe even just defining the problem and kind of what’s being done about it right now, maybe what your suggestions are and we’ll just start to
go with it.
Jeff: Okay. Well, we live in this wonderful world of automation, and I’ll tell you what automation can do for you. They can fly that airplane better than you can most of the time although I like to hand-fly the airplane and my goal is always to strive to make it as solid and precise and experienced as the autopilot does when it’s flying the airplane. And so this world of advanced automation that we’re in, it’s kind of a two-edge sword because the automation does such a great job that even though we’ve flown airplanes for a good part of our lives and went through all that training, a lot of us military training and everything else and a lot of rudder, stick and rudder time, it’s so easy to just let the automation do its thing because it does it so darn well.
Your intention probably is to, you know, occasionally I’d actually probably hand-fly the airplane or manually fly the airplane but darn it, this airplane is doing it so well and I haven’t really manually flown the airplane in some time and you know what, I’m here with my peers and we pilots and you know this, we are proud of our skills and we want to look as good as we can and so if we’re sitting there in the airplane and we think we should probably practice our manual flying skills but you know what? I might embarrass myself. So it’s just easier to let the airplane continue to fly as well as it does.
And, because it’s doing such a great job most of the time, it’s a vicious cycle where we allow the automation to do its thing and it’s doing it so well that we’re paying less and less attention to it and maybe we’re not understanding what the airplane is doing and what the automation is doing and the modes of automation, everything else that when all of a sudden, and if happens more often than you’d realize, the thing decides to give you the airplane, a lot of us would go “Oh, I don’t know what to do. I’m out of loop. I’m not even sure what the automation was doing at that time.” You hear a lot of this in the airplanes, like why is it doing that? And 99% of the time it’s because “Well, you told it to do it, and that’s just a computer.”
Chris: Right, exactly.
Jeff: When you have problems with your computer programs, it’s usually because you told it to do and you just didn’t realize that you told it to do that. There are some times that we kind of still scratch our heads and go “You know, we did everything the way we’re supposed to do and it still did something really weird.” So this is the world we’re living in right now and as you mention, there are some very high profile accidents that have occurred in the last few years that are symptoms of a problem with our dependency on automation. And Asiana, the guy is not knowing how to fly visual approach because they always use automation for the airplane to land itself.
Chris: Yeah. That’s just wild. That’s pretty black and white.
Jeff: Yeah. Air France 447, why a first officer would think that an Airbus 330 heavy jet at 35,000 feet would have the capability to climb 7000 feet per minute? And why would you pull aft on the control stick. It just boggles my mind, like what are you thinking? AirAsia, we’re not really sure exactly what happened with that but it has a lot of the same kind of fingerprints that the Air France 447 had. Colgan 347, guys in a stall and instead of pushing the airplane forward and getting the critical angle of attack or the angle of attack lowered so that the wings starts flying, this stuff that you learned when you were up in the 150, 172, whatever airplane that you’re learning how to fly in, why do we forget that?
So I think maybe the problem goes all the way back to our initial training and the emphasis that we need to place on knowing what it feels like to stall an airplane and knowing how to recover from a stall, the fundamentals of flying. So I always recommend to people and I stumbled upon this a few years ago and it was something that was a video that was produced back in the late 90s, 1997.
Chris: I know exactly what you’re going for here.
Jeff: Captain Warren VanderBurgh, it was the head of training I believe for American Airlines, and he had a great lecture on automation dependency. And I’m sure that you’ve already talked about it on your show. You can put the link, I would suggest you put the link in your show notes if you want.
Chris: Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m just writing it down here so I make sure to get to that.
Jeff: Okay, I’ll give you the link after the show here. Just a couple of quotes from him. We are not automation managers, we are captains and pilots and via our aviator skills, we have to ensure the vertical and lateral path of these planes at all times. And then to maintain flying skills, autopilot and autothrottle is off, and what he says a lot in the videos, click, click, click, click, and that is the action that we would take to turn the autopilot off and the autothrottles off and to maintain pilot skills, you must both manipulate the controls and manage the energy of the aircraft and by doing so, it requires a cross-check and the maintenance of normal pilot skills.
So I can’t recommend more highly that people watch this, especially people that are doing my job, that they need to be reminded that you are in charge as the pilot of what your airplane is doing and if the automation isn’t doing it, then for god’s sake, turn off the automation and fly the darn airplane. There are so many instances, accidents, terrible tragedies where people didn’t take control of the airplane, they just let the automation do whatever it was doing and they ended up crashing. So I’m very concerned about that.
And even the NTSB has been concerned about it for years and then finally the FAA, January of 2013 I believe, sent out a, I think they call it a FASO or SAFO, Safety Alert for Operators I think, and they basically said “Look, you major airlines part 121 operators out there really have to start emphasizing that your pilots practice their flying skills because we’re seeing evidence that many of these accidents that are occurring are because your pilots aren’t practicing their skills, they’re losing their skills. And some airlines have done a better job than others of incorporating that into their procedures and in their training and I’m just hoping that we haven’t waited too late for this.
Chris: Right. And you know, it’s interesting because in today’s world, people are starting on automation and initial pilot training. I mean, they’re starting out in 172s with G-1000 in them. I would imagine that the good schools actually have a rule that you cannot use the autopilot in your private pilot training and maybe they would even go further than that to say you can’t use it in your instrument training. I would definitely introduce it during instrument training and talk about how it can help especially in single pilot situations. But it’s starting all the way back at that time.
And with the digital generation, with the digital natives and the millennials, that is the way that they are going to fly, is with a lot of technology but we need to be connected to those original aviator skills. It’s a reason why I called my podcast AviatorCast and not PilotCast, or using that pilot word because I think a pilot is often, for me often connected with kind of a job and just kind of doing it rather than an aviator which is more elemental and in connected at the core of actually flying the airplane or being part of the airplane which I think is in a lot of ways what we need to be getting back to. I’m definitely on board and I myself have found that I am guilty of this, where I’m using automation too much and I just need to hand-fly the airplane.
Talk a little bit if you could to the airline’s kind of promoting automation dependency because from what I understand, a lot of airlines will have SOPs that actually require you to fly the airplane on automation. Some airlines say you have to engage the autopilot on X amount of feet. I think a lot of the good airlines are backtracking on that now, giving the pilots some more freedom. But speak to that a little bit because there’s obviously been an evolution of thought there too.
Jeff: You’re absolutely right. And first of all, I’d like to commend you for making the distinction between an aviator and a pilot. You’re absolutely right, and number two, your concern about this new generation of pilots is spot on. This is the way people are cutting their teeth flying airplanes, is with the automation. And as hard as it is and as uncomfortable as it is, you got to just manipulate those controls yourself. Turn the automation off, look outside of the horizon and if you can, I really highly recommend that people take a few hours of aerobatic training and just feel what it feels like to be upside down in attitudes that you’re not used to.
Chris: And it’s some of the most satisfying type of flying too, actually flying the airplane yourself is very satisfying. When you’re controlling things through, maybe a very difficult terrain, these days I kind of do things in Alaska terms. If I fly across the bay and I take the float plane and we cut down around a glacier and through a mountain valley and land on a glass lake, and I do all that by hand, that is so satisfying to me. Again, it connects to those core aviator skills.
Jeff: But wouldn’t it have been more satisfying if you had somehow programmed that all in and just sat there and watch the airplane?
Chris: No way. No way.
Jeff: Exactly. And as far as your point is, the airlines emphasizing and pushing for, and sometimes requiring that the automation be on 99.9% of the time? Yeah. That’s a big problem. The reason why they do that is because they think that if you have the automation on, it’s going to make for a safer operation and it’s going to save fuel and maybe I have those out of order. Maybe saving fuel is the highest priority because they’re always responsible for keeping costs down to a minimum. Again, it’s kind of like, and I forgot what the term is, but seeing the trees for the forest or whatever the, what’s that saying, anyway, it’s focusing on something and not seeing the big picture.
The big picture is that the pilots are losing their skills, and let me tell you, the nickels and dimes and dollars that you’re saving on a couple gallons of gasoline or fuel don’t get anywhere near the expense of an airplane that crashes and the millions and millions of dollars of liability and everything else involved with that, not to mention the fact that the good will of the airlines. Some airlines have gone away because of…
Chris: Terrible publicity.
Jeff: Yeah. So I think that airline managements have to kind of step up, and usually the people that are enforcing these or putting these kind of procedural policies and effect aren’t really pilots. They don’t understand what it means to fly an airplane versus managing a computer. Unfortunately, in this modern day, we have to kind of do both. We have to know how to manage the automation. We also have to know what the automation is doing, very knowledgeable of it and understand that when you’re handed the airplane that you know what to do.
Anecdotally as well, I’ve flown with some people who flew with another airline that flew the Boeing-717 which is another version of the DC-9, I think it was the MD-95 originally and then Boeing bought McDonald Douglas so they rebranded it Boeing-717. And at this airline, their policy was that you would never, ever turn off the autothrottles I guess until you’re on the ground. And so it got to the point, because this was a policy, that when a pilot crew would get to an airplane and then the throttles were written up, the autothrottles, they would actually refuse to fly the airplane.
In a way you can’t blame them because you’re forcing me to use the autothrottles all the time and then now all of a sudden I find myself in a situation where I’m not going to have autothrottles available and I’m not so sure that this is going to be a safe situation because I’m not used to activating throttles myself, so that’s another symptom of this disease that we have out there, this overdependence on automation and the airline management is not really in all cases helping with the matter.
Chris: Yeah, definitely. Kind of on the flipside of that autothrottle argument for this 717, Southwest Airlines, they actually didn’t have autothrottle for years. I don’t know how many years ago now was it, they finally implement it in the flight deck but for years, they didn’t allow their pilots to have autothrottle. It’s just straight-up not available. I don’t know if they put a plaque. I’m assuming they actually just disconnected it altogether. I don’t know for sure but I know that they wanted their pilots to have full control of the power of the aircraft which I thought was a very interesting and kind of an outlier approach to how other airlines were doing it at that time and when you look at the safety record of Southwest Airlines, they have a very great safety record. You can’t ding them on that.
Jeff: Yeah. 10 years of my flying, well a year and a half of that was on the panels so I wasn’t actually controlling the airplane, so what would that be, 8-1/2 years of my flying at the airline has been on the 727 and it didn’t have autothrottles either. So I still have that automatic, when the control yoke comes back, the throttles go forward and when the control yoke goes forward, the throttles come back, that connection with what the throttles should be doing. And even when the autothrottles are connected, having a hand of the throttles and feeling what they’re doing, what the engines are doing and not that disconnection. That’s one of the problems with modern automation, is that you just become disconnected from it because it’s just working and so you kind of start not paying attention to it anymore.
Same thing with navigation, and I’m guilty of this. In the old days, in the 727, we didn’t have FMS and RNAV systems so we were flying with VOR to VOR courses, halfway switch to the new course, and you are always focused on where you were because you had to be. For many years now I’ve done flying airplanes that you program the course and then once you hook up the lateral navigation, it’s going to do it unless you screwed up and put in the wrong course or airway or whatever, and it’s easy to just not pay attention where your airplane is going because it’s just doing such a great job.
Chris: Yeah, definitely. Okay, so here’s where we’re at. We have an issue that has been identified, I think it’s beyond a question now that automation dependency is a systemic issue through all parts of aviation, not just the airlines but through general aviation. We’ve identified that there are digital natives that are going to be using these types of aircraft and growing up differently than how you grew up through the airlines. You have the opportunity to actually go through a 727 and through a lot of aircraft that didn’t even have this stuff. How do these younger pilots, how do we latch on to some of these knowledge that you know? What are some of the things that they can do to gain those skills? Is it as simple as the click, click?
Jeff: Well, it can be. If you’re taking your flying lessons from a school that has all these fancy G-1000, the Garmin G-1000 instrument arrangement, and maybe your instructor is emphasizing the use of automation, etc., just say “Hey, is it alright if we turn some of the stuff off and kind of go to more basic flying?” and see if they’re open to that. They might not be comfortable with that. I’m not sure exactly what to do in that situation when you’re growing up in this world where people are just emphasizing the automated flying so much. I’m still kind of scratching my head as to what to do and the world that I’m living in because even though my airline has strictly stated that when it’s appropriate and the weather is appropriate, etc., turn everything off and fly the airplane. You know what? Since they’ve made that statement, I hadn’t noticed any difference from the way people are flying than they were before the statement is issued. So I don’t know. What do you think? What do you think we should do Chris?
Chris: Yeah, yeah. I think it’s just getting back to basics you know. And there’s even been the argument within the airline industry to mandate the requirement to actually go back to a single engine Cessna and go out and do slow flight practice and different, just very basic maneuvers with the airplane. So I know that I did, it’s been tossed around. But I think at the end of the day, it is a self-thing. It’s saying that I am not going to depend on the automation as my primary source of control and really it should be so far down that I’m using it in situations where maybe it’s my copilot. Say I’m a single pilot operator guy and I approach it from more of the copilot perspective that says “When my workload gets too high and I need to focus on some other things for a few minutes, I mean to flip this on and focus on it that way, I think that’s going to the extreme of hand-flying quite a bit because hand-flying obviously gets into some human factors issues where we’re talking about fatigue.
If you’re hand-flying the aircraft for hours and you don’t necessarily need to, you may be subjecting yourself to different dangers because of that. But just knowing that this is a danger really from the human factors perspective and we need to be flying the airplane ourselves more, and just focusing on the fact that it’s actually fun and it’s actually enjoyable and you’re becoming a part of the airplane and you can actually, I don’t know. I really like the idea of getting to know your airplane and just being part of it and that’s where I continue to come back to with a lot of things.
And I even say that when people are getting disenchanted with aviation, when they’re just driving planes too much to say “Hey, get out of your job for a while, maybe not a while, but just go to your local airport and just do something for fun for once.” I don’t know, even something as simple as that. So those are just kind of my random jumbled thoughts.
Jeff: Yeah, and I have to be careful here because I think sometimes when people hear how I feel about our dependence on automation, sometimes people equate that to, well Captain Jeff was saying that you should always be hand-flying the airplane and never use the automation. I’m not saying that at all because most of our flights are up at cruise altitude or the climb areas and the descent profiles and that kind of thing, and you want to have the automation on for that. I’m not saying that we should hand-fly the whole darn flight but instead of waiting until you’re 200 feet above touchdown and then clicking it off and just doing a landing, how about like when you are in the arrival area, approach area, and especially if it’s beautiful weather and you’re on a visual approach, how about just turning everything off and like the children of the Magenta video, by the way that’s the name of it if you want to do a google search for that video that we were talking about as far as airline automation dependency.
Just click everything off and fly the airplane in that situation. Again, if the weather minimums are down, close to ILS minimums, then that’s probably not the appropriate time to turn the automation off. It does tend to make the pilot monitoring’s job a little bit harder because when you’re hand-flying, the pilot monitoring then is responsible for doing a lot of different things and I puts added effort and fatigue on the other person as well, and in fact, a lot of people would use that as an excuse for not hand-flying the airplane. “Well I don’t want to go over there. He doesn’t want to be turning the heading, select bang and pushing these buttons and that kind of thing while I’m hand-flying the airplane. I don’t want to bother him.” But your life and the lives of your passengers may depend on your skills of being able to fly the airplane at some point.
Don’t worry about that other person sitting there and having to work a little bit harder but again, I’m not saying that you should fly the whole flight in manual flight. I’m not saying that at all. In fact, we can’t even do that above some of our crew’s altitudes above 29,000 feet, we’re not allowed to. We have to have been working autopilot to fly up there.
Chris: Yeah. And that makes sense because the control movements have to be so fine that you really can’t hand-fly that high. It’s this difference between what’s comfortable now and what’s good in the long-term. Sure, it’s more comfortable to turn on the autopilot and just let it do its thing, what is it, gear up, flaps up, sports page. It’s more comfortable to do that but it’s this long-term degradation of the skills that is happening and if that isn’t practiced, then it will perish. That’s what it boils down to.
Great. So I think we kind of came up with some practice solutions there on that one and even kind of just talking about it and bringing it out in the open I think helps everyone who is already thinking about it, think about it more, you know? And maybe bring it into their training routine. You know, I’m big on speaking to general aviation pilots. Actually, this is a very good connection to what you guys do in the airlines. I think general aviation pilots should be much like airline pilots where they’re doing recurrent-type training every six months.
And I’m not talking super intensive but there’s no reason why as a private pilot you can’t go out and, at least if you’re a regularly flying private pilot, especially if you’re an irregularly flying private pilot, you should be going out every six months to just take an hour or so with an instructor, work on some things that you’re not comfortable with, maybe things you haven’t done before, and kind of have a self-guided training routine where you’re on top of things more. I think that’s a great thing to do too because in the day to day rush of flying from point A to point B, whether that’s in MD-88 or whether that’s in a Bonanza, you are essentially trying to be very efficient and you generally use the autopilot a lot and you don’t get out of your normal routine in doing those things and so by doing training like that, you can get out of that routine and practice some of the less practiced things and I think that’s useful for everybody and just kind of as an idea out there for the general aviation guys, that’s maybe something they can consider themselves.
Jeff: That’s great. Great advice. I highly recommend that as well. I don’t know about most of my peers but I know that for me, when I have to go to recurrent training, it’s just “Ah!” It’s like one of the worst parts of my job because you’re being evaluated and you’re having to do V1 cuts and all these things that you don’t normally do but thank goodness. But it’s so important that we do that and also forces you to get back in the books and look at the limitations and some of these things that you may have forgotten about, you need at one point but had forgotten. So it’s a good thing that we go every six months or nine months or a year or whatever, your airline does or your training program or however you maintain your currency.
I was thinking about something and I know that you talk a lot about simulator flying and as such. Part of my training, every recurrent training and initial training involves the simulator and we use these pretty fancy full motion simulators. And I remember when I was hired more than 26 years ago, and I’d say probably for the first five to 10 years of my career, when you went in the simulator, you are hand-flying the sim the entire time. The only time you turn the autopilot on was when you had to practice a couple of approach, like a category two or category three approach. Otherwise, they were expecting you to hand-fly the simulator.
And then the next 5, 10 years, or maybe 5 years, it was kind of a transition where half and half. Half the time you have the autopilot on and half the time you’re hand-flying it, and I’d say probably for the last at least 15 years, the emphasis has been as soon as you can, you throw that autopilot on. And so you’re in the simulator and the only time you turn it off is when you have to fly, in my airplane, it’s single engine precision approach because the airplane is not certified to fly single engine ILS and so we have to practice hand-flying the airplane with single engine.
So everything is like turned upside down from the way it used to be and that’s just again what’s happening in the industry as a whole, and we got to do something to keep that from happening.
Chris: And I think it’s great that the FAA is coming along and actually supporting those programs for the airlines and even the airlines themselves supporting kind of going the other direction which hand-fly the airplane more because they’re seeing that happen. I think that’s, I may be uneducated in saying this, but I think that’s definitely been adopted a lot faster by western airlines than it has eastern airlines. I feel like in some of the training aspects, western airlines are usually ahead five to ten years in those cycles. I don’t know. But, positive things and negative findings in front of us. I guess as pilots, we get to choose what’s going to happen on our flight deck because after all, we are the pilot in command so we get the choose where our skills are at in that range.
Alright, so we’ve talked about that topic a whole lot and although we are overtime, I still want to talk about your other topic here about the reduced role or the erosion of a captain’s authority. So this one actually surprised me and I don’t even know if I have anything much to contribute to this conversation but I definitely love to hear what you have to say.
Jeff: Okay, what I mean by that is captain’s authority is something that is a traditional thing, going all the way back to ship’s captains. The buck stops with one person and that is the captain of the ship. The reason why I say that captain’s authority is being eroded, and it’s not necessarily completely due to outside or controlling agencies taking this authority away from us, it’s we as pilots not exercising it, afraid to use the authority that we have best in our role as captain or commander of the airplane.
And I think it’s my strong opinion that if there had been captains using their authority properly in the past, we wouldn’t have this three-hour tarmac rule that was legislated into a fact so that we didn’t keep people on the airplane hostage or five hours, seven hours, ten hours, 12 hours. There were just some bad decisions made in my opinion for captains that were afraid to do the right thing and say “You know what, I’m not going to keep my passengers hostage on this airplane. I don’t care if it takes a call to the CEO of the airline, I’m gonna talk to somebody and I’m gonna tell them ‘You’re gonna have a problem here because I’m gonna dump these people on an unsecured land and we’re gonna walk to the terminal because this is just crazy.’”
And I think that there were enough of these high profile in the news kind of incidence that finally congress said “You know what? If you’re not going to do anything about it, we’re gonna do something about it.”
Chris: Literally it took an act of congress.
Jeff: It did which is sad I think.
Chris: So tell me about this story because I actually really like this, actually a couple stories, I’ll just share one though, and I’m sure you know exactly what this is. I’m sure you actually have a show on it. I’d love to go back and hear your thoughts on it. I think it was, I won’t even say the airline but there was an airline where they had a bunch of security vehicles come out to the airplane. They are surrounding the airplane. There are some suspicions of terrorism, something like that, and they would not tell the captain what was going on. And he basically got on the radio and said “I will evacuate this aircraft in 30 seconds if you don’t tell me what’s happening.” He was just like very demanding.
And maybe you have a different perspective on it but I saw is an amazing sense of leadership, that this guy really did have control and he wasn’t going to take crap from anybody. So do you remember that specific incident?
Jeff: Yeah. I think so. Was it at Kennedy?
Chris: Yeah, I think it was.
Jeff: Yeah. I remember that and did talk about it and I agree with you completely. It was like “Yes, finally somebody is saying ‘You know what? You’re not going to do this. I’m still in charge of this flight and you better tell me what’s going on or else I’m evacuating the airplane.’” That’s the kind of attitude you have to have when you’re in command of your airplane, whether it be just you in the airplane or a couple people, a couple passengers that you happen to be flying with or you have 300 people in the back of your airplane. You’re responsible for them and their well-being. And just because your airline management or local people at a, let’s say Rochester Airport and it’s late at night and nobody’s going to come in to open up the jetway so the people can get, drive the jetway to the airplane so people can get off the airplane, they are not. You have to be strong and make these…
I have to say that the airline for which I fly is very supportive of our very important authority and they’ll back us up unless we’re doing something completely negligent or criminal.
Chris: Which is very, very rare. I find that captains are very straight tinkers. And a lot of this is just common sense. It’s common sense so definitely.
Jeff: So in my airline, if I make a decision that’s in the favor of the well-being of my passengers and safety and all that kind of stuff, I’m going to be backed up. They’re not going to question it. Well, they might say “Why did you come to these decisions?” etc., but they’re not going to say “Well, you shouldn’t have done that and you’re fired.” They’re very supportive of captain’s authority at my airline. I’ve heard that there are airlines where they’re not quite so supportive of what you’re doing and kind of directing you what to do and implying that if you don’t do it, then you’re going to be in trouble and perhaps lose your job and that is dangerous.
Chris: That’s when safety, there starts to become safety issues when pilots are second guessing themselves.
Jeff: Right. And captain’s authority not only goes to that but also it goes to people afraid to use the words “I’m declaring an emergency.” I mean, that is our right, our authority as pilot in command that if the situation is such that you require that extra handling and priority, then don’t be afraid to declare an emergency. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times where you’ve seen things going on and you’re thinking “Why didn’t they just declare an emergency and that would’ve given them the priority to get to the airport sooner and wouldn’t have crashed,” I’m thinking of the Columbian Airline tragedy several years ago in the New York area. But that was partly due to a language kind of a situation as well.
Just don’t be along for the ride pilots. Take control of the airplane because if you are the pilot in command, well then be the pilot in command. And it’s not a big deal to declare an emergency. A lot of people think that that’s somehow going to expose you to all kinds of threats and problems in the aftermath. You don’t need to worry about that.
Chris: It’s better than people dying or even getting injured even if it’s just on that lower scale. And the other incident I was actually thinking about and this is actually a perfect segway to that one was an American Airlines, I think it’s a 767 landing in Kennedy and I think they were just holding for too long, there were missed approaches, all sorts of things were going on, they were very low on fuel, and they came in for landing, they were told to go around again and they basically said “We’re not going around. We’re declaring an emergency. We’re taking runway blah blah blah for landing.” And the controller came back and said “Fly heading blah blah blah, go to…” and he’s like “No. Get everyone out of the way, we’re landing on the runway.” He just took control of the situation.
There’s heated discussion on both sides of the isle saying why was his fuel so low or he made the right decision, but it seemed like a situation to me where he knew what he needed to do to keep his passengers safe. Whether or not he got himself in that situation, that’s for other people to find out but he made it happen and we didn’t hear anything from it other than the fact that he was on liveATC.net and everyone kind of heard it publicly. I’d imagine a lot of these things actually happen a lot more often, we just don’t hear them publicly.
Jeff: And from what I know with the situation, the fact that they did get to a very low fuel I don’t think was due to any bad decision-making in his part. It’s just the situation got that way because of the weather and the winds and that kind of thing. Basically yeah. Again, great example of saying “Okay. No. That’s enough. We’re not playing this game anymore. We’re going to land on this runway. Just clear everybody out of my way. We’ll talk about it once we’re on the ground safely.” And that’s the way, that’s the attitude you had to have as a captain in my opinion.
I don’t mean to be reckless or be the authority and say you could just come in any airport and just say “Move everybody out of the way. I’m landing.” You’re not gonna last very long like that.
Chris: No, no. You would just last once on those. Have you ever had any situations like this where you’ve had to do those sort of things to just take authority?
Jeff: I’m never afraid to declare an emergency whether it be a situation that’s a mechanical situation or a low fuel situation. I did have a low fuel situation a few years back and we were coming down from New York, down to Fort Lauderdale. It was one of those weird weather situations where all of a sudden, all these thunderstorms that were not forecast all of a sudden formed and it was basically a solid lien of these things, it was closing all the airports in South Florida and we were out there holding at one point and then they’d make us go down to Bethany and hold down there for a while and then hold over here and finally we’re starting to do the calculations and you know what? We’re getting kind of low on fuel and I think we’re going to be at minimum fuel.
And then at another point, not long after that, we said “You know what? I think we’re going to be emergency fuel.” So we basically started diverting back up toward, we had to go all the way up toward Melbourne before we could find an airport that wasn’t close because of the weather. There was a little confusion going on because the ATC people were telling us that the airports are closed but in discussion with our dispatcher over our A-color system, he was saying “I don’t know what you’re talking about. We’re not showing any of these airports closed.” And so there was a lot of confusion going on and we’re starting to suck that cushion up.
And I finally made the decision “You know what? I’m uncomfortable with this and if we have to go all the way up to Melbourne to divert, we will be emergency fuel” and I declared an emergency or an emergency fuel situation. And then, we’re not 10 minutes going up the Atlantic toward Melbourne when I hear one of the controllers say to another flight, “Hey, it looks like there might be a window of opportunity for some folks to get in to Fort Lauderdale. Would you like to give that a try?” And before he was even finished with that sentence, I got on the radio and said “Hello, I’m the emergency airplane out here with emergency fuel, I would like to be that airplane to take that path.” And so basically they let us do that and we ended up landing with a reasonable amount of fuel. It wasn’t even minimum fuel mode at that time but I would’ve been if I had continued to the divert field.
I was not happy with the air traffic control because they were just yanking us around and I’m thinking “Hello, can’t you sense the urgency in my voice that we’re about to run out of gas?” But that was probably the thing that comes to mind when it comes to not being afraid to say something and declare an emergency.
Chris: Yeah, great. Perfect example. And you know, there are those unsung heroes every single day that are doing exactly what you’re talking about, that captain’s authority, they’re using it and we just don’t hear about it.
Jeff: Right. Use it and use it responsibly. That’s the thing you have to keep in mind. But don’t, if you continue to not say anything and just go along for the ride, one of these days, it’s going to catch up with you possibly and it could be a bad thing. I think it’s also hurting all the rest of us out here. The more you let people determine what you’re going to do and you’re not taking control of the situation, the more we’re going to lose that authority. It just continues to erode so we had to make a stand and stand up for the operation of our flights.
Chris: And it’s kind of a double edge sword because the FAA holds us responsible as the pilot in command of our aircraft and we are ultimately responsible for the safety of that flight. So if they’re going to hold us responsible, then we get to use all available assets to us to make that happen. So when something like an emergency comes up or something like that, we need to take those tools and use them as they are meant to be used for the safe operation of the flight. So it can’t just go one way, they have to be things that we can all use.
So, great. So I think that about wraps up our conversation. I think we could stay on the line for hours and talk about stories and some of your other thoughts, but what would your advice be to someone looking to get into the airline industry specifically with your knowledge of today’s market and today’s challenges. What advice would you give to up and coming airline guys?
Jeff: Well, I would say that if you have a passion for flying, no matter what the odds are that you think have before you or ahead of you for not succeeding, if you have that passion, it will come true. If you have the will to do it, you can do it. And I would add that if you’re a young person, or maybe not so young, right now is a good time, if being a pilot for a career is something that you’ve been considering for most of your life, because we can have a discussion about pilot shortage, no pilot shortage, etc., but I do think if you just run the numbers and you see the number of retirements that are going to happen in the next several years and the supply of pilots, I think it’s to me clear to see that we’re going to need people in this industry and this is a good time to be hired by an airline and work your way up to the majors if that’s what you want to do. Just don’t give up.
If you put your mind to it, and I know that a lot of people say “I just don’t have the money” but there are ways that you can do this even with a limited amount of money and I would recommend listening, there are so many great podcasts out there. Chris’ awesome podcast that you’re listening to right now. Carl Valeri has a great aviation careers podcast where he gives a lot of great advice not only to people that want to become pilots in this industry but also other jobs that are available in the aviation industry and just avail yourself to a lot of these great podcasts out there and resources that are in such abundance right now and find somebody maybe that can be your mentor. I’ve heard you talk about this on your previous shows Chris. People have found people that have really made a difference in their lives and their careers. Again, don’t give up. If this is what you want to do, then don’t give up. It will happen.
Chris: Definitely. Great. Perfect advice. Well I appreciate you coming on the show and taking your time with us. I know this is actually probably seems like a short show for you with all the questions that you usually answer but we really appreciate it and we’d like to have you on the show again. Actually I think talking about some of these deeper topics is pretty interesting so I think our listeners are definitely going to like this and again, just thank you for your time and we’ll be in touch.
Jeff: It was all my pleasure.
Chris: Thanks Jeff. Appreciate it.
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For more information on Angle of Attack simulation training videos for FSX, X-Plane and more, go to www.flyaoamedia.com. If you are looking for a professional aviation training video services and other media, inquire at www.angleofattackpro.com. Now, for the final release clearance, back to Chris Palmer.
Chris: Alright, a huge thanks goes out to Jeff for joining us on this episode of AviatorCast. I really enjoyed those discussions about automation dependency and the erosion of captain authority or just having that authority as a captain. Both very fascinating discussions. I wish we could’ve spent more time talking about that. But you know, I learned a lot from Jeff in this episode because I really felt like there is a journey for every single pilot to get to the point where they achieve what they want to in their aviation career and he is a epitome of that.
Again, going back to something I mentioned in the podcast, everyone has their own recipe. Your recipe isn’t necessarily going to be Jeff’s recipe, but there’s definitely a way for you to achieve your aviation dreams and I just encourage you guys to go out there and do that. Even if that’s just doing a flight every now and again and that’s kind of what you want to work toward, it’s absolutely worth it. I know you guys can do it and I’m sure that Jeff knows that too. So there’s so many things that we can learn from Jeff, from many other sources out there. He’s another podcaster like me and he’s out there kind of fighting his own battles and building his own community and people are latching on to that as well.
I’m so excited that there are other people out there that are working hard on their podcast and making this happen and Jeff is definitely one of those guys that consistently week after week he makes this happen. And so he definitely deserves support. So what I did is I went to Jeff’s Patreon page and I’ve become a patreon of Jeff and his show so I’m going to be donating $5 per episode for his podcast and I think that is money well spent because Jeff deserves to continues to do this and as an aviation community, I want all of us to get that information from Jeff and continue to get that information.
If you would like to do so as well, you’re more than welcome. Again, you can find on Patreon, Airline Pilot Guy. And if you guys want to go find him as well, airlinepilotguy.com is the best way to find him. You’re going to get straight to his podcast that way. And if you are the type that actually subscribes to a podcast, go ahead and go to iTunes and subscribe to Jeff’s podcast. I know it’s something that I’m going to be doing much more often, is listening to Jeff’s podcast weekly as I’m doing work and brewing things here in the AviatorCast studios. So that’s a going to be a lot of fun.
So that’s it for this show. I want to thank the Angle of Attack crew for all that they do to make these AviatorCast episodes possible. Really these guys are complete rock stars. I can’t say that enough. Thank you to the listeners. Really this show would not be possible without you. I really appreciate you coming here week after week. I have these reviews come through on iTunes, and these are, I talk about them a lot and I share them at the beginning at the show and I ask you guys to review on iTunes, and kind of outside all of that and the fact that you would get a t-shirt from actually leaving that review, I just want to say that from week to week, actually getting those reviews and being able to read them, it’s actually very motivational for me. It keeps me going.
Outside of everything that those reviews kind of do for us as a podcast and helping us grow, it really does mean a lot to me that you guys get on there and take the time to just spend a couple of minutes and leave a review for us. We actually read those in our weekly business meetings and it’s just very inspirational for us and helps us keep chugging along and kind of fighting this fight that we’re after here in making more aviators and getting people more inspired and getting people back in the flight deck and keeping the passion alive for those that may be losing it in their aviation career. So I really do appreciate those reviews. It really means a lot to us and it’s just one of those things that you as listeners can kind of show us in a direct way how much you appreciate it and I genuinely, I do appreciate that so thank you so much.
Again, thank you for being a part of this community. We’re excited for the next episode. It’s going to be coming soon. Consistent, consistent, consistent. That’s what we’re all about here so join us next week, we’re excited for it, and until next time, throttle on!
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