Cockpit Chronicles: Groundhog day – The St. Thomas turn (with video)

One of the benefits of working as an airline crewmember, whether it be as a pilot or flight attendant, is the chance to get to know a city in a manner that’s second only to living there. But when we’re given the option to fly a month of ‘turns’ – those one day trips with flight times occasionally exceeding eight hours, many of our Boston international pilots forgo the London or Aruba layover for a line with 9 or 10 turns in it.

It’s tough to pass up a schedule that allows you to be home every night and have a good deal of time off as well.

As a result of the popularity of these turns, they’re not always available to choose when you’re as junior on the seniority list as I am. But my seniority must have improved since the beginning of the year, since I’m able fly FO (First Officer, as opposed to FB, the relief pilot) lines to St. Thomas.

Some might consider it torturous to see a glimpse of warm weather during a walkaround inspection lasting less than ten minutes, only to come straight back to the northeast and land while it’s snowing.
But for the entire month of February, I’ve been doing just that – flying trips to and from St. Thomas, and occasionally trading for a different day or different destination, such as San Juan. I’ve kept an eye open for an opportunity to ‘chronicle’ the trip, but the flights have been rather uneventful and amazingly consistent.

So consistent in fact, that I feel like I’m experiencing a pilot’s version of the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day.

Wake up at 5, depart at 9. Answer a Plane Answers question during the 1 hour crew rest break. Fly a visual approach to runway 10 in St. Thomas, park at gate 3.

I’ll debate whether the view is interesting enough to go outside and snap a picture, and then decide I have plenty of St. Thomas ramp pictures already so I check my e-mail on the phone before doing the interior preflight. The FB comes back in from inspecting the outside, followed by the captain with the paperwork he collected from operations in the terminal and we’re again departing to Boston 5 minutes before our scheduled time.

The flight home might include sleeping on my break, and then returning to the cockpit just in time to watch the sun set before getting ready for the visual approach or ILS to runway 27 back in Boston.

Taxiing in, we maneuver around the same outbound US Airways flight, before finally parking at gate B31.

The FB races out of the cockpit like he’s late for a date, which is entirely expected of that position since there’s nothing left for him to do, except maybe to take the trash bag out of the cockpit as he leaves.

But now, after 10 of these trips in a row, I’ve learned to enjoy the repetitiveness of the flying. It’s refreshing to be familiar with each VHF frequency you’ll dial in as the airplane progresses through the various ATC boundaries. I don’t even mind the same turkey wrap or chicken caesar salad meal option we get on each leg.

And while the captain and relief pilot are occasionally different people, airlines insist on standardized callouts and actions, so even that doesn’t offer much variety.

Last night, however, we had a little experience that finally made the trip one that will stick in my memory for a long time. As we were descending to 24,000 feet (flight level 240 in pilot speak) we leveled off just above a cloud layer.

I call this cloud skimming, and anytime we’re above 10,000 feet, I like to pull out my camera to capture the sensation of speed that 300 knots provides when you’re just a few hundred feet above a layer of clouds.

But today, of all days, I chose to leave my new, amazingly wonderful, mind-blowing Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR slash HD video camera at home. I figured I knew everything that would happen today, right down to the approach and gate we’d be using, and since I had taken enough shots of anything even remotely interesting during the previous flights, today seemed like the day to shed the extra three pounds.

Never again! I was forced to pull out my $210 Flip Mino HD video camera, which I love for it’s simplicity and incredible portability, but I know the 5D’s HD mode would have been even more beautiful.

For those learning to fly, a quick note. After you get your private license, you might be thinking about adding an instrument rating to your ticket. You’re probably weighing the costs and benefits of such an investment. Let me tell you that, in addition to improving your flying skills and your options during long cross country flights, you’ll also be able to experience scenes such as the following that just might make all the studying and checkrides worth 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 Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers.

Plane Answers: A pilot’s inflight routine, cruising speed and chasing the dream

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Frank asks:

I’ve recently been on a few long flights and was wondering what the routine is like for pilots when the plane reaches cruising altitude?

‘Long-haul’ flights are a nice break from domestic flying for me. When flying domestically, the non-flying pilot (which could be the captain or the co-pilot depending on whose turn it is to fly) is listening for calls from ATC and changing frequencies as the flight crosses the country.

Transatlantic and transpacific flights require position reports to be made to ATC every 10 degrees of longitude, which is approximately every forty-five minutes. These flights are quieter than a domestic flight, since we don’t have the constant ATC chatter found over populated countries. We do monitor an emergency frequency in case a flight has a problem en route, as well as an air-to-air frequency that allows for pilots to give turbulence reports to other flights in the vicinity. If a controller needs to contact our flight, they simply chime us with a SELCAL (SELective CALL) ding.

I recently read a rather humorous story at called “5 Jobs You Wanted as a Kid (And Why They Suck)” which reasoned that the long hours of sitting in a seat with nothing more to watch than the sky is painfully boring.

Apparently, I must have tired of simply looking at clouds all day, so I queried some of the pilots I’ve flown with recently.

“Is boredom the worst part of this job? Do you even find yourself bored while at altitude?” I asked.

After a quizzical look, they all came to the same conclusion; not one of them found boredom to be an issue. Going through security two or three times a day far out-ranked boredom.

Most of the pilots I work with have some rather interesting stories or insights to share. I rather enjoy these conversations. A few of the discussions can be rather heated during the political season, but most are about family, home DIY projects or opinions shared on more effective ways to operate the airline.

And as you may have gathered from my photos, I enjoy looking out the window occasionally. It’s a better office view than my CEO has, that’s for sure. And sometimes clouds can be spectacular:

Frank adds another question:

Who determines the cruising speed? The pilot? The FO (co-pilot)?

Cruise speed is up to the captain, who may choose to fly at the company’s planned cruising speed or another speed if conditions warrant.

The planned cruising speed is listed on our flight plan, which looks at our estimated arrival time and our fuel burn to come up with the best speed for us to fly. That said, a flight running late may fly at mach .82 instead of .80, which is only a 5 knot difference. So our best method to make up time is by keeping the speed up in the climb and descent, and arranging for any shortcuts that may be possible with ATC.

But this speed only takes into account the winds aloft and en route. It doesn’t look at how late or early the flight lifted off the ground. So some leeway is required for the captain. If the flight is running early, we’re encouraged to back off on the speed to save fuel and there’s always a chance that we won’t even have a gate available at our destination if we get there too early.

Chris asks:

Hi Kent,

I’m currently in my final year at University here in England, studying Computer Science. Although computers are a passion of mine, I would say that flying is something that interests me even more. Once I graduate and settle into a job, I hope to begin working towards my PPL and beyond.

My only concern is that of future job prospects. With the economy looking ever more glum, is pursuing a career in flight a bad choice? I’ve been told by a friend in America (who already has his PPL) that many pilots are coming up to retirement age, and also that travel is, on the whole, increasing – both of which suggest a future pilot shortage, and excellent prospects. However, airline recruitment pages right now seem to paint a very different picture, with few if any of them looking to recruit pilots – especially those with little/no experience.

I’ve read in one of your previous entries where you’ve suggested that people shouldn’t give up if “they absolutely must fly”, and that is exactly how I feel. I’m most definitely not in it for the money – of course I’d like to make enough to get by, but I understand that I won’t be pulling in a hefty salary any time soon!

So really, any advice you can offer would be most appreciated.

I hesitate to push people one way or another in their career choices. I will tell you this, however. I’ve been getting a lot of emails from readers who wish they had pursued a flying career when they had the chance even though hiring had come to a screeching halt, like it did in the late ’70s.

Had they worked toward their ratings then, they would have been perfectly placed to enjoy the boom that started in 1984 and continued to 1991. After those seven years, we saw another seven years of lackluster recruitment followed by another mini-boom that lasted from 1998 to 2001. The slump we’re seeing since then has been unprecedented.

This weekend, an article in the Fort Worth Star Telegram says it all: Pilot hiring is at lowest point since 9-11, firm says.

AIR Inc., a pilot hiring information service that is often upbeat about future job prospects, lays out the numbers:

133 pilots hired in November compared to 1,084 in November of ’07. And over 4,000 pilots are still on furlough in the U.S.

These facts demonstrate the cyclical nature of the airlines. Junior pilots and flight attendants are hired, laid off and rehired. Airlines fold and employees scatter. Even the corporate fractional operators, once o
ffering a great opportunity for advancement to the left seat, are slowing down, having hired just ten pilots in October according to AIR Inc.

Finally, the increase in the pilot retirement age from 60 to 65 that occurred in the U.S. last December has meant that fewer pilots are retiring at most airlines. It will be another four years before pilots see mandatory retirements happen at their airlines.

But as long as people have a need to travel, there will be flying jobs in the U.S. and Europe. You can take your flight training in stages while working your IT job, acquire ratings as you have the time and money and hopefully you’ll be ready when things turn around. Last summer there was a brief period where regional airlines were hiring 250 to 400 hour pilots into the right seat of a jet.

My father discouraged me from flying since the industry was going through such turmoil just before I started my lessons. He thought maybe I should become a private pilot and earn a living elsewhere while simply flying for fun when I could. I considered his advice, but I knew that I wouldn’t be as happy with any other job. It’s a choice I don’t regret.

Someone once said that the road to success is dotted with many tempting parking places. So as hard as it’d be to chase the dream without success, the one dream you don’t chase could be the one regret you live with for a long time.

Just keep in mind, someone has to fly those planes over your head. It may as well be you.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monday’s Plane Answers