Cockpit Chronicles: A ‘new’ pilot’s first trip on the line

To say it’s been a long time since we’ve seen any newly hired pilots at our airline is an understatement. Up until now, the junior most pilots have been here for more than ten years.

As I was riding in to work on the JFK Airtrain a few weeks ago, I looked up the crew list again on my phone. I was surprised to see that the co-pilot (I was the relief pilot this day) was listed as ‘open.’ That meant that crew scheduling was likely scrambling to find a pilot to cover the trip after someone must have called in sick.

When I arrived at operations, I found the captain giving directions over the phone to the other co-pilot to the employee parking lot, so we both assumed we’d be flying with someone new to the base. It hadn’t occurred to us that he may also be new to the airline.

Back in 1998 an agreement was signed that brought pilots over from the affiliated regional and gave them slots at the major airline. But the agreement required them to wait for two years before coming over, and when the downturn occurred after 2001, some of these pilots were withheld from the ‘mainline’ for the next decade.

Now that we’re recalling pilots from furlough at a pretty good clip, with hopefully all of them back to work early next year, some of the senior most captains from the regional airline are starting to come over again.

As I was setting up the cockpit for departure, the other co-pilot introduced himself and explained that he was one of these flow through pilots and had just finished training.Regardless of your experience level when you come to a new airline, there’s so much to learn-a new airplane, procedures, rules, checklist responses and computer entries-that it’s comparable to taking a drink from a fire hose.

Now imagine getting called out for a trip, being told that the airplane and passengers are waiting for you and not knowing who you’re flying with or anything about the city you’re going to. After twenty years of flying to Des Moines, you’d certainly be out of your comfort zone.

Because of the late notice, Dan (not his real name) showed up in the cockpit a minute or two before our scheduled departure time. I had prepared his side of the airplane as much as possible for him, something I would have done for anyone who happened to be running late. In this case, his late call wouldn’t be the reason for our late departure, since we were also waiting for a mechanic to fix a minor problem found during the preflight.

The biggest challenge of flying the 757 and 767, as opposed to pilots who fly a single type of airplane like the 777 or 737, are the different configurations of instruments and flight management systems (FMS) that we have. Dan had already flown a few trips with a check airman in the 757, 767-200 and 767-300, and had been exposed to the three different display layouts, two types of FMS (Flight Management System) computers and three different versions of the device we use to send text messages to the company called the ACARS.

Much of his time in simulator training was spent getting up to speed with our normal procedures, approaches and emergencies before flying with an instructor for his IOE, or Initial Operating Experience.

He had spent six weeks learning the intricacies of the hydraulics, electrical and pressurization systems, among many other things, so it’s normal not to be as familiar with the normal, day-to-day things that occur on ‘the line.’

Since this would be his first trip with line pilots, we were determined to make it enjoyable. We welcomed him aboard and tried to put him at ease. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had shown up in tears given his harried drive to the airport and short call out. But he handled it well and managed to joke about the situation.

I showed him my favorite trick to request the FMS flight plan information with a single push of a button and the captain went over some ACARS entries while offering to have Dan do the majority of the computer inputs if he wanted to get more comfortable.

He took everything in stride and frankly, it seemed like he had been here for years.

Midway through the flight, he shared with me a funny story about his first trip with an instructor. When the relief pilot came back after her nap, the captain told Dan to take his two hour break. So he stepped out of his seat and went into the cabin. Unsure of where to sit, he scanned business class, and noticed it was rather full. One seat was open, but it had a blanket neatly laid across it and a Bose headset sitting in the seat.

So he went back to coach and found a seat in the exit row and sat down. A few minutes later, one of the flight attendants approached him.

“What are you doing?” She asked.

“I’m taking a break.” He sheepishly responded.

“Do you know anyone back here?” She asked, puzzled.

“Uh, no.”

“Get back up there!” She said, motioning to the front of the airplane.

When you fly with people who have been doing the same thing for so long, it’s easy to forget what it was like to be new. The flight attendant was likely unaware that this was the first time Dan had ever taken a break on an airplane before, and he certainly had no idea where the designated crew rest seat was located.

For the record, in case you ever find yourself in this situation; it’s seat 2J on the 767.

What Dan lacked in crew rest etiquette was well made up in his ability on the radio. He handled the accents of the Spanish controllers very well, even after flying through the night. After a smooth approach and landing at Barcelona by the captain, it was time for a few hours of sleep at the hotel before we’d get out to see the city.

A week before, another co-pilot told me about a jazz-themed catamaran cruise in Barcelona, so I thought I’d drag along as many of the crew as possible. What better way for us to welcome the new guy, I thought.

It’s hard to say which was better; the weather or the sangria. As the jazz saxophone player moved about the boat, playing a new-age type of jazz, three of the flight attendants and I sat out at the front of the boat, while Dan and the captain were in the back steering the large catamaran across the Mediterranean for a few minutes at a time. Some layovers are just better than others and I knew that this one would probably be memorable for Dan.

The six of us had enjoyed some bread and cheese by the marina before setting out for an early dinner by Barcelona standards, where it’s not uncommon to eat at 10 p.m.

We went to La Fonda, which I’ve been told is a cooking school that serves as a restaurant, although I couldn’t find anything about the school online.

The dollar to euro exchange rate takes some getting used to and I explained to Dan that it’s easily possible to spend $50 a person on dinner at many of our destinations. La Fonda looks like you’d need to take out a loan to eat there, but it’s actually quite reasonable, with dishes running around €9 to €12. Most of us had the “Grilled salmon with honey and mustard crispy with avocado and tomato” at €9.55 or about $14.

On the flight home to New York, I figured we should mark the occasion. You have to understand that for the past ten years, we haven’t worked with any new employees at the airline. In fact, this was probably more of a monumental event for us than it was for Dan.

So we presented him with a menu full of well wishes from all of us on the flight. I jokingly asked if we should have each of the 220 passengers aboard sign it as well, before remembering that we did have a celebrity in business class.

Placido Domingo, one of the famous ‘Three Tenors’ was flying with us. Graciously he signed the front cover of Dan’s menu and congratulated him on his new position flying internationally.

I couldn’t think of a more poetic way to celebrate such a career change. Welcome aboard, Dan. We’re glad you could finally make it.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 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.