Who’s Flying The Plane? Aircraft Left On Auto-Pilot As Pilots Nap Together

Even though we’re all aware that auto-pilot is flying our aircraft the vast majority of our trip, it’s always reassuring to know that there’s a pilot sitting behind the controls, ready to spring into action in case something goes wrong. Even better, there are usually two pilots up in the cockpit prepared to take charge. So news that a packed airplane heading to the UK was left on auto-pilot as both pilots fell asleep is a little unsettling.

The British Civil Aviation Authority has revealed that the pilot and co-pilot flying an Airbus A330 on an unnamed airline had decided to take turns napping. However, at some point during the flight, one pilot woke from his nap to discover the other pilot was fast asleep. The pilots voluntarily reported the incident which happened in mid-August this year. It’s believed the pair had only gotten about five hours of sleep over the two nights prior to the flight.The incident has sparked debate over pilot fatigue and mandatory rest periods between flights. Proposed changes in Europe would actually mean pilots could go even longer before getting a break, and includes rules like allowing pilots to land a plane after having been awake for 22 hours. The UK pilot’s association, Balpa, is fighting the changes.

Cockpit Chronicles: Ten tips for the new co-pilot

Despite 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. *

My 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.

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.

JetBlue pilot removed from Boston plane after gun threat incident

A JetBlue co-pilot has been removed from his Boston crew lounge when he sent an email to his ex-girlfriend mentioning his plans to harm himself.

The pilot is a member of the TSA Federal Flight Deck Officer program, which allows pilots to carry guns on their plane – the program was developed after the attacks on 9/11. Upon being confronted by authorities, the pilot handed over the gun and was taken to a local hospital for mental evaluation.

Local authorities were quick to point out that the man never threatened passengers and was only considered a threat to himself.

Gadling gear review – CoPilot Live for Android phones

In this Gadling gear review, I’m going show you CoPilot Live for Android. CoPilot Live is a navigation software package for Android powered phones like the T-Mobile G1 and MyTouch 3G or the upcoming Sprint HERO.

The software turns your Android powered phone into a full navigation system with text to speech, offline maps and traffic information.
The Interface of CoPilot Live is very easy to use, and it makes use of large icons, making it easier to use when you are driving (not that you should be controlling your GPS unit when driving!).

Since the best way to show off an application like this is to show the product in action, I’ve made a bunch of screen shots that show the interface and its various features.

When planning a route, you can select 5 different modes of travel – by car, foot, RV, motorcycle and bike. Each mode will pick a different route, appropriate for the selected transportation method. This means you won’t be routed over the highway if you want to walk to your destination.

Picking a destination can be done by address, point of interest, manually on the map, by intersection, by photo or by coordinates.

The PhotoNav feature is pretty slick – it allows you to pull up a photo and navigate to it. This requires the photo to have geotag locations embedded in it.

Destination entry is quick and simple – CoPilot Live uses its own onscreen keyboard instead of the Android keyboard.

As you type, the database shows locations that match your entry. As soon as you see the one you want, you tap it.

Once you have found your required destination, you can call before navigating to it, which is especially handy if you are just looking for a nearby restaurant or hotel and want to know whether it makes sense to make the drive to it.

Before you actually tell CoPilot Live to start navigating, you can get a quick overview of the route it picked. This is great if you’d like to make modifications to the route it selected, or if you’d like to be 100% sure you picked the right destination.

Once on the road to your destination, you can view the map in several ways – 2D, 3D, “Safety view” (which shows very little distracting information) and itinerary view.

3D maps are vibrant and show just the right amount of local information. You can also increase or reduce what is shown on the map, making it just right for your personal preference.

The “Live” part of CoPilot Live refers to several online services offered within the application. Live Traffic offers real time traffic on your route, or any other location covered by the CoPilot traffic information network.

Live Link allows you to share your current location with other CoPilot Live users, though obviously only those that you have selected.

And finally, Live Weather shows the current and upcoming weather conditions of your destination city, as well as any location on your route.

The CoPilot Live premium services cost $19.95 per year, and include traffic information and fuel prices.

Traffic information can be viewed as a reference, or used in order to recalculate your route, should you come across nasty traffic, detours or accidents.

Final thoughts

It should be obvious from the photos that CoPilot Live is a really impressive application. It offers all the features you’d expect from a high end GPS unit, including text to speech and automatic rerouting, along with up to date maps and an extensive point-of-interest database. And in addition to all this, it also provides online services, making the most of your smartphone.

But by far the best part of CoPilot Live is the price – at just $34.95, it is more than 5 times cheaper than a standard GPS unit. You’ll find it in the Android Market by searching for “CoPilot”.

Getting CoPilot Live on your phone is relatively easy – after purchasing it from the Android Market, you will receive an email from the manufacturer directing you to a download location. This download is for the maps required to use CoPilot Live. By installing the 2GB map package, you’ll be able to use CoPilot even when you are out of range of a cell signal.

CoPilot Live for Android is a no-brainer. Obviously, if you already own a GPS unit, you may not need it, but if you are regularly on the road without one, and you own an Android phone, then it really is worth the low purchase price.

I couldn’t find any downsides to the program, other than an occasional slow performance on my T-Mobile MyTouch 3G. Sadly, some Android phones are delivered with a limited amount of memory, so it can really help to install a task manager to “kill” as many applications as you can before starting CoPilot.

The only other issue is heat – if you have CoPilot running for longer periods of time, your phone will get hot, and you really will need a car charger cord if you plan to use it for more than a couple of hours. Other than that, the application is easy to use, well written and its routing and navigation skills are excellent.

CoPilot Live is also available for Windows Mobile and the iPhone. They also offer a desktop/laptop based version.

Plane Answers: Frost on the wings and non-flying pilot duties

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!

Paul asks:

Can a plane take off with frost on it or does it have to be de-iced ?

In the U.S., the FAA’s Federal Aviation Regulation 121.629 (c) says:

(b) No person may take off an aircraft when frost, ice, or snow is
adhering to the wings, control surfaces, propellers, engine inlets, or
other critical surfaces of the aircraft. Takeoffs with frost
under the wing in the area of the fuel tanks may be authorized by the

While there may be cases where some frost is allowed on the fuselage or even the bottom side of a wing, any frost, snow or ice on the wings and tail must be de-iced before takeoff.

De-icing technology has advanced significantly in the past 20 years with the increased use of newer anti-ice fluids. Previously we would de-ice with what’s called ‘type-1’ fluid, which removed the ice and snow from an airplane, but didn’t protect the wing from any further snow accumulation.

After de-icing, we have what’s called a holdover time. If we weren’t off the ground within the time specified in the holdover charts, we would have to have the wing inspected to ensure that snow isn’t accumulating or we’d have to be de-iced again. It wasn’t uncommon for a flight to make a couple of unsuccessful attempts at taxiing for takeoff within the holdover time.

Today we use a two-step process when it’s snowing outside. We still de-ice with type-1 fluid, either at the gate or after we push back and then our de-ice crew will apply a type-IV fluid, which has anti-ice properties.

You may have seen a wing with the thick green fluid on top. As snow continues to fall, this fluid can prevent any accumulation on the wing for well over an hour, depending on the conditions. This is a huge improvement to the type-1 holdover times which were as short as 10 minutes.

Unfortunately this two-part process takes at least 30 minutes to complete, depending on the amount of snow on the wings. I’ve had it take well over an hour, in fact. And that doesn’t include waiting for the other airplanes to finish before the de-ice crew can start on our aircraft.

Airlines are incredibly conservative about de-icing. Because of some high profile accidents that occurred in the early ’80s, we understandably still get many concerned questions from nervous passengers about the process.


Tom asks:

Hey Kent,

In a lot of your Paris trip posts you mention “non-flying duties.” What are these non-flying duties? How long do some of these take and do you have any paperwork to fill out after a flight like a police officer does at the end of his day? Or do you just fly and land and once your trip is done go home?

I may have been talking about non-flying duties as they relate to a pilot who’s not the flying pilot on a particular flight. Since the captain and co-pilot swap ‘legs’ allowing one pilot to fly the trip over and the other to fly back, the pilot not flying handles most of the non-flying duties.

This mainly involves communicating with ATC, but it also includes bringing the landing gear and flaps up and down and a few specific tasks such as setting the target altitude and headings when the other pilot is hand-flying.

The non-flying pilot usually pulls up weather and types any messages to the company via the ACARS unit as well.

After we arrive at our home base, it’s just a matter of saying goodbye to the passengers and the rest of the crew, jumping on the employee bus and driving home.

One of the best parts of the job is the lack of homework, with one exception; we change out hundreds of pages in our Jeppesen approach plates and aircraft operating manuals between trips. These packaged updates take about twenty minutes each, and we tend to get four to eight a month.

I personally have the added non-flying duty of writing about some of the more interesting trips, and sharing photos and video with you, although I’ve been running a few weeks behind in these Cockpit Chronicles posts.

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