Cockpit Chronicles: How I Fell In Love With An Airplane (Video)

The MD-80 just might be the Rodney Dangerfield of the airline world. It just can’t seem to get any respect. But for those who really get to know the airplane, it offers some features, and admittedly a number of quirks, that has made it near and dear to many pilots. Against all odds, this Boeing pilot has fallen in love with the Mad Dog.

Passengers either love the airplane or hate it. And much of those feelings depend on where you’re sitting. A perch up in first class offers one of the quietest cabins in the air. Conversely, finding yourself in the back row between the engines and across from the lav would only be appealing to the truest aviation geek who somehow enjoys the noise.

Compared to a Boeing, there are so many sounds, levers and quirky features in the cockpit of an MD-80 that I can only do justice by video. So on my last week of flying the airplane back in February, I decided to document a few of the features that have made me fall in love with the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 or the “Super 80″ as we call it.

For all the quirks, as I mention in the video, it has an enviable safety record.

But let’s face it; the reason I’ll miss the MD-80 the most might have more to do with which seat I sat in. Bumping back from captain to co-pilot as these airplanes are retired means that I won’t find myself taxiing around La Guardia or Chicago, or any place for that matter as the captain does all the taxiing.

And the co-pilots I flew with were the hardest working aviators at the company. I will absolutely miss them as some became good friends along the way.

You never know, with the flood of A319s, A321s and new Boeing 737-800 and -900s coming at my company, I could be back in the Super 80 left seat soon, or in one of those shiny new jets. Either way, I’m glad I had the opportunity to fly the airplane before it’s gone.

[Photo credit: Kent Wien]

Related: “Captain on the MD-80? Why?” and “A Captain No More.”

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a captain co-pilot on the MD-80 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Cockpit Chronicles: A Captain No More

Occasionally, pilots seek out a better ride by climbing a few thousand feet. Sacrificing a bit of fuel to climb earlier than scheduled often makes sense as long as there’s less turbulence at the new altitude. But it’s frustrating to discover that the premature climb didn’t help and then find yourself headed back to where you started.

Discontinuing a takeoff roll or performing a missed approach – or even a mechanical at the gate – are all annoying for pilots. But nothing, perhaps short of being laid off, is more frustrating than upgrading to captain and then being bumped back to a co-pilot position.

And that’s where I find myself today. After enjoying eleven months on the MD-80 in the left seat, the company has noticed that there are too many captains in New York on this airplane. So they’re displacing eight of us back to our choice of co-pilot positions, and they’ve announced intentions to bump another group back in April and May.

Once I knew it was inevitable, I could give my displacement preference – a line of text saved in a computer system for just this kind of action by the company – some more thought. Initially, I had planned to fly the 777 as a co-pilot, an airplane that I flew briefly in 2005. But after looking over the various destinations, schedules and the seniority (or lack thereof) my choice came down to three:777 International: While there are only four destinations on our largest airplane from New York – London, Tokyo, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires – they were all exceptional places to see. But even as a co-pilot, the 777 was a senior airplane, meaning I would likely be on reserve just as I was as a junior MD-80 captain. Reserve means that you don’t have much say in your schedule and typically fly when needed, which is often less hours than a full month. This may sound nice, and it can be if you’re working around the house or, say, blogging on the side, but it limits the flexibility in this job. It’s hard to string a bunch of days off in a row to travel, for instance.

767 International: Going back to what I did before the El Jefe position seems like a let down. But at just 36% down the seniority list, I would be able to fly to some of my favorite places in Europe, the Caribbean and Rio. The hourly pay is a little less than the 777, but could be made up by flying full schedule. And as a side bonus, many of my captain and flight attendant friends are still flying there.

737 Domestic: One of the happiest times of my career was 14 years ago when I first flew the brand new (to our company, at least) 737-800 and snagged trans-cons to Seattle, where most of my family still lives. Today in New York, there’s a one-leg-out, layover for 30 hours and one-leg-back trip I could easily hold since I’d be number one on the seniority list there. But what if that trip switched to the 757 in the future? There weren’t any other trips I was tempted to fly and it would be a larger pay cut. It also felt like I’d be taking a giant step backwards.


Goodbye Grand Canyon. Hello again, North Atlantic.

So in the end, I elected to go back to the 767, flying internationally to Europe and Rio. We’re adding a new destination, Dublin, in April and I’m excited to fly there.

Rumors are always flying (no pun) around the company, and the word is that the MD-80 will likely be leaving New York before any other base, possibly by the end of this year. So I doubt I’ll get the chance to fly it again, but I will always have a soft spot for the airplane that introduced me to the left seat at this company.

I suspect we may have a few light bumps in the ride going forward, but with the announced aircraft orders, it will hopefully smooth out soon. Perhaps I’ll be writing about an Airbus upgrade in the future – an airplane I’ve always wanted to fly and never thought I’d get the chance.

Through video over the next two posts, I’ll explain just what little features I grew to love in the MD-80, plus how one feature has changed our job. Stay tuned.

[Photo credit: Kent Wien]

Related: “Captain on the MD-80? Why?

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a captain co-pilot on the MD-80 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Cockpit Chronicles: A Landing Fit For A King

Harriet Baskas from StuckatTheAirport.com asked a few of us to identify the “scariest airports” as seen through the eyes of pilots. I gave her a list of “challenging” airports instead. I told her about New York’s LaGuardia and Washington, D.C.’s Reagan airports but I wondered if I should have mentioned Eek or Nightmute, two of my personal favorites from flying in Alaska, that attract only a few local travelers.

In the end, LaGuardia, Reagan and Orange County, in Santa Ana, California, made the cut in her article. I couldn’t really disagree with the choices. All three are short runways and each one has at least one unique departure or arrival procedure that requires a bit of piloting skill.

But do pilots worry, or get scared when flying into these places? I haven’t seen any evidence to support that. Do we feel some pressure? Sure.

A recent LaGuardia landing is a good example. Since finishing my initial operating experience (IOE) as a new captain on the MD-80, I hadn’t flown into LaGuardia for over a month. I managed to get two or three landings there with the instructor giving me the IOE training, but most of my subsequent trips had been out of Newark, another airport that’s part of my home base.

Finally, after finishing a three-day trip with layovers in Cleveland and Albuquerque, I’d get my first landing back at the USS LaGuardia. We joke about its short length, but it really isn’t much worse than the shortest runway in Boston, Chicago or San Diego. And as a co-pilot, I had flown into LGA many times. So why the pressure?

It might come as a surprise to some, but most pilots don’t constantly think about the responsibility that comes with flying a planeload of passengers while they’re flying. I suppose it’s because, in a selfish way, a passenger’s safety is no more important than my own, and this tends to be enough to ensure that the airplane and its occupants are flown in a safe way.

But I do have one recurring thought that goes through my mind during the more challenging times. Because of the hundreds of accident reports we’ve read that never fail to leave an impression, a little voice in my head can often be heard critiquing every decision or action.

And especially when things begin to go wrong on a flight, either mechanically, or because of weather or poor decision-making, that little voice in your head begins to craft your own accident report. And when you start hearing excerpts in your head, such as “captain elected to take off from the shorter, ice-covered runway to save time as the flight had been delayed” you tend to step back and re-think your decisions.

During my first LaGuardia landing as a captain, these type of thoughts were going through my head. Nothing was out of the ordinary – the weather was clear and while it was dark, the visibility was excellent.

But this time, it wasn’t an NTSB accident report that I was hearing; it was a newspaper headline because that night I had royalty aboard the flight.Jerry Lewis was flying in seat 2F. I could already hear not only the accident report, but the newspaper headlines. “The King of Comedy, involved in airline accident – new captain making his first landing into short New York runway.”

A double-blink and a glance over at my co-pilot, Mark, quickly brought me back into the present situation. I had briefed Mark on the turn-off point I intended to use, the approach we’d be flying, and the final flaps we’d select (all of them, or 40 degrees). In my mind the touchdown point was visualized, and we were now slowed to our approach speed. Really, what could go wrong?

“Lewis, who was returning from a performance in Las Vegas, had connected in Chicago for the doomed flight back to LaGuardia.”

Oh, stop it. This is just another landing. OK, so yes, there was a bit of a crosswind at 14 knots, but that’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

“50, 40, 30, 20, 10 …” The electronic radio altimeter called out as we crossed over from water to runway, punctuated by a nice ‘thunk.’ It wasn’t a roll-it-on-greaser, but the landing was on speed and right at the touchdown point at about 1,000 feet down the 7,000-foot runway, leaving more than a mile to slow down smoothly.

After the flight, I smiled at how easy it was to think up dreadful headlines on the approach, which was especially ironic, since I struggle to put a title on my “Cockpit Chronicles” posts for Gadling.

As we were finishing up the parking checklist, Mr. Lewis poked his head inside the door and said, “Thanks for the great flight, guys.”

Some landings you’ll never forget, and this was just one of them.

[Photo credit: Kent Wien]

Related: Kent’s favorite and least favorite runways.

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a captain on the MD-80 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Captain Of Wrecked Cruise Ship Cries Foul, Says He’s Innocent

captain

When we last visited Captain Francesco Schettino, he was being accused of several crimes as a result of the Costa Concordia grounding. He still is. But now, the Italian master of the ill-fated cruise ship says he’s innocent and that the truth will be told – in his new book.

“Soon I will reveal the shocking truth,” Schettino told Italian newspaper Il Giornale as reported by the Telegraph. “And then all those people who denigrated me will have to apologize, not to me but to the families of the victims and to the public, which was conned with false information.”

By all accounts, Costa Concordia was sailing too close to shore on January 13, 2012, when the ship grounded off the coast of Italy. However it happened, the event took the lives of 32 passengers and crew in the process.Now, Schettino, who has been accused of abandoning his ship, manslaughter and causing the shipwreck, says he is innocent and did all he could do to help. Sticking to his story that he tripped and fell into a lifeboat, the fallen 52-year-old captain is resolute in his contention.

“I will no longer accept being massacred with slanderous lies,” Schettino told Il Giornale. “I’m writing a book and I will reveal what people don’t want to come to light.”

No details are available on the book or when it will be out.

Meanwhile, salvage operations continue at the site of the grounding of Costa Concordia, now aided by the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board.




[Photo Credit: Flickr user Il Fatto Quotidiano]

Cockpit Chronicles: Ten tips for the new co-pilot

Copilot talking on the radio over FranceDespite the fact that our airline is parking older and less efficient airplanes, senior co-pilots have been upgrading to captain at a pretty good clip. I thought the recent events would have put a stop to all that, but I was ecstatic to learn that I had finally reached the seniority needed to fly the MD-80 as a captain. This was due to the wave of pilot retirements we saw last fall.

So as I reached my 20th year of flying as a co-pilot, I figured I might be able to offer some unsolicited advice for any new co-pilots coming into this job. There are plenty of tips on how to get a flying job, but very little talk about what to do when you finally arrive at a major airline.

I didn’t always embrace the following recommendations, and I’ve marked those needing further explanation with an asterisk. Often the best advice comes from the mistakes of others.

10. Don’t fall in love with a co-worker. *

You might not have to worry too much about this one. It seems flight attendants are taught during their initial training that all pilots are evil and should be avoided like the H1N1 virus. Dating a flight attendant can be extremely convenient – think of the layover possibilities – but any nasty break-ups reverberate through the company, which could be awkward. Working with your ex-girlfriend’s best friend, for example, might not be very pleasant.

* Technically, I was married to a flight attendant, but not in the traditional fashion. My wife and I were married for a couple of years before she went to work for a different airline. My siblings have both dated within their respective airlines with varied results.

9. Collect all the good techniques you find in the captains you fly with. And take note of the worst.

Do you like how a captain flies? Appreciate his professionalism and demeanor? Emulate it when you’re a captain. Think of the top five captains you’ve flown with. What do they share in common? Chances are, everyone else likes flying with them too, and a cockpit that’s less stressful is a safer cockpit.

On the other hand, you know that captain that shows up in the cockpit five minutes before departure? You didn’t like it when you were his co-pilot, so hopefully you’ll go out of your way to avoid that kind of behavior when you upgrade. Think of the five worst captains you flew with and do your best not to operate like they do.
8. Face it you’re a chameleon.

In hopes of not annoying the captain you’re flying with, you’ve probably become good at conforming to his way of doing things. Watch how the captain flies the airplane and try out their method. You may or may not adopt his style as your own someday, but for now, he seems pleased. But don’t disregard your influence as well. If they’re too laid back, you may need to step it up a bit, be alert and set a different vibe. And if they’re a nervous Nellie, show them that you’re also paying attention to their concerns and not discounting them. They may start to relax more.

As an example of how not to annoy your captain; if he’s flying and you’re talking on the radio, when he asks you to request 20 degrees right for weather to air traffic control, try to repeat it just like he said – not, “We need to come right a bit for weather.” Chances are, the way he phrased it is how he wants it said over the radio.

7. Try not to commute. *

Pilot sleeping in business classMy brother used to say that commuting turns a good deal into an ordeal. If you can find a place that’s good for raising a family near your base – which are usually near big cities – move there. Your family will appreciate that you’re home, and you won’t be afraid of bidding reserve where you’ll have to be available on short notice. If you can live within an hour of the airport, that’d be perfect.

* When I was first hired as a 727 Flight Engineer, I kept getting bumped out of New York, where we were living, to Miami. I went back and forth four times in six months, and moving just wasn’t practical with one-year leases (the norm in New York). So I picked what I thought the junior base was and stuck with it, that is until the first co-pilot opening came available in Boston.

After twelve years of living an hour north of my base at Boston, I’m now going back and forth between New York and Germany, which may be the mother of all commutes. But I tell myself that it’s a great opportunity for my kids, and for that, I think it’s worth it. In other words, you’ve gotta do, what you’ve gotta do.

6. Study before recurrent training and assume it’ll be tough. *

This seems pretty obvious. I mean, who’s not petrified of an oral and check ride every six months (or year) during recurrent? But after a few thousand hours on the plane, you’ll start to think you have things nailed. This is when you’re most vulnerable. Don’t get complacent. Study more than just the emergency items and the limitations. Know the changes since your last recurrent session because they’re going to use that to see if you’ve been paying attention.

* As an experienced 727 Flight Engineer, I thought I knew every nut and bolt on the plane. And I probably did, but I found recurrent was especially challenging if I went in confident and assured. On the other hand, when I was most paranoid and panicked, I studied harder and subsequently performed better.

5. Make sure your chief pilot has no idea who you are. *

I’ve heard many pilots say that their career goal is to retire and have the chief pilot say, “So now, who are you?”

Chief pilots like to say that it’s the 2 percent of the pilots that occupy 90 percent of their time, and so it should be your goal to stay out of that group. Do your job professionally and by the book and you’ll succeed.

* In order to write for Gadling and create photos and videos to share here, I’ve had to get permission from my base chief pilot and later the vice president of flight operations at our company. I also had the notoriety to be the last pilot hired after nine years of rapid growth in the ’80s and ’90s. So I was subsequently at the bottom of the company for the next five years with pilots marking their position from the end of that list by saying, “I’m Wien plus 470.”

4. New Equipment coming to your airline? Jump on it!

In 1998, I was flying as a co-pilot on the MD-80 and enjoying the window seat that I had worked so hard to reach. But the movement was slow and I was on reserve for the first year with no real control over my schedule. I figured I’d have little to lose by bidding the 737-800 that was coming to Boston.

What happened was a surprise. I went from having just 10 percent of the MD-80 co-pilots behind me to being in the middle of the 737 list and flying coveted non-stop “trans-con” flights to Seattle that allowed me to visit family.

The lesson: pilots didn’t like to take chances on the unknown. They wanted to wait and see what the trips looked like, how the training was and if the airplane had any negative traits. Some just didn’t want to go to school and be away from their families for five weeks. But they ended up going in the end as the MD-80 was pulled out of the base eventually.

3. Don’t buy a “captain’s house” – even if you’re a captain. *

The tendency for anyone is to buy the most home you can afford. But affording the house doesn’t mean housing should end up being your only priority. You’ll need a buffer, and the bigger reserve the better, to save for college for the kids, go places with the family and put away during the downturns, which WILL happen.

* Crusty old captains used to tell me to buy the biggest house I could, as they only go up in value. So after a few years on the 737, I felt like life was finally moving forward. Furloughs were a thing of the past I thought, having done my time from 1993 to 1996, and it was time to get a house and think about filling the rooms with critters in the form of kids.

So why not buy the biggest house possible? Because you work in the airline industry. It’s always been a turbulent occupation, and never more volatile than after 2001, around the time we bought our “captain’s house.” Hey, I was to be a captain in a year or so anyway, right?

It took us another eight years while I was flying as a co-pilot before we grew tired of not having furniture, vacations or even the ability to get ahead. So when the company announced the possibility of more shrinkage a few years ago, we sold the house and bought a smaller place. Fortunately, for once, our timing was pretty good.

2. Fly out of a small base. *

Smaller bases are like smaller airlines. They’re more like working with family. When you fly out of a “master base” like DFW for American or Atlanta with Delta, you may never see the same captain or flight attendants again, or if you do, you may not even remember working with them years before. A base with 200 pilots is ideal if your company has one. It’s always more fun to fly with people you consider your friends.

* I’ve enjoyed being based in Boston for 13 years, but the opportunities in New York are much greater and my seniority is a whole lot better. I would never have been able to do the commute from Boston and the upgrade to captain would have happened years later if I had stayed there.

1. Stay Positive

Remember how excited you were when you were hired at a major airline? Well, keep that in mind when the going gets tough or movement slows down or even goes backwards. This is what you wanted to do. The company isn’t out to deliberately make your life miserable. In fact, I don’t even think of upper management as “the company.” The company is really the employees who are married to it for life because starting over at the bottom of a seniority list at another airline isn’t very appealing.

Volunteer with your union and try to give something back. Pilot unions serve a role in guiding airline safety that the public may not realize. But don’t get too worked up during contract negotiations. You’ll likely be negotiating for half your career, and if you’re on edge and bitter, you’re going to be miserable.

No one wants to hear a fellow pilot complain (for proof of that, just read the comments on my post on the 757). For the most part, your co-workers are going through similar issues that you are, and ranting in the cockpit isn’t going to make it better. Try to remember just how excited you were when you found out you were hired.

happy pilot with leather helmet

So take the above advice for what it’s worth. And listen to those you’re flying with. They’ve been through some of what you’re dealing with and they’re often full of great tips, mostly because they’ve made some big mistakes along the way. (See asterisks above).

Good luck and tailwinds!

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 a junior domestic captain based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.