Cockpit Chronicles: Landing an airline pilot job just got harder, but here’s one way to do it.

Last year H.R. 5900 was signed into law requiring the FAA to set a new 1,500 hour minimum flight time requirement for any new airline pilots including small companies hiring co-pilots for their 19-seat airplanes.

The law is mandated to take effect by August of 2013 and was one of the recommendations to come from the Colgan Flight 3407 accident in Buffalo, even though both accident pilots had more than 1,500 hours at the time of the crash, with the captain having logged 3,329 hours and the first officer 2,200.

In the past, major airlines culled their aviators from the military and regional airlines. As hiring tapered off, military pilots went to the much lower paying jobs at the turboprop and small jet operators.

Today, fewer pilots are leaving the military, instead opting to make it a career. Furthermore, Air Force Magazine reported:

USAF is already training more UAV pilots than F-16 pilots. Within two to three years, Air Force officials predict, drone pilots will outnumber F-16 pilots, numbering as high as 1,100.

Airlines don’t recognize this as piloting experience, though. Fortunately, these pilots may be able to move on to a flying position after three years in the service, which brings them three years closer to the twenty years needed for retirement, something that may affect their decision to move on to the airlines.

As the military pool of pilots dries up, most new hire classes will be filled with high-time regional airline pilots. But with the 1,500 hour requirement for new co-pilots, (what had been a typical minimum experience at the major airlines) these smaller companies are going to be competing fiercely for new pilots.

So while it’s going to be more difficult to get to the 1,500 hour point, once you get there, the job market will likely be far less competitive.

But getting there won’t be easy. I’ll share with you how I would go about it if I were starting today.For a college-educated new pilot to finish their basic requirements which include a commercial flying license with multi-engine and instrument ratings, and perhaps a flight instructor certificate, they’re looking at a minimum of $40,000 worth of debt, not including their college expenses. After making it through the training, they’ll still only have 250 hours at this point.

Traditionally, these pilots would then become flight instructors in order to build flight time for a few hundred hours. But now they’ll need to extend that employment until they reach at least 1,500 hours. And instructor jobs will be far more scarce, especially as their students drop out after they realize what a daunting (and expensive) task is ahead of them.

If our 250-hour pilot can’t find an instructing job, they would have to spend at least another $125,000 renting a single-engine airplane ($100 an hour for 1,250 hours) until they reach the new minimum flight time requirement.

Let’s add that up, shall we?

$80,000 for a 4-year college degree in whatever subject they choose.

$40,000 to reach the old minimum ratings and flight time.

Another $125,000 to reach 1,500 hours of flight time.

That works out to $245,000!

Now, I find it hard to believe that anyone would be willing to invest that much money to land a $24,000 a year commuter airline co-pilot job, even one that offers a chance to make $80,000 after upgrading to captain after a number of years.

There’s no doubt in my mind that some shortcuts will need to be made. Airlines will likely reduce or drop altogether the requirement for candidates to have a college degree, for example. They’ll also lobby the FAA to allow them to hire pilots with less than 1,500 hours if they’ve gone through an aviation university, perhaps.

Regular readers of the Cockpit Chronicles know that I love my job. I can’t imagine doing anything else. But would I recommend this to anyone given the added expenses involved?

That’s exactly the question (edited for brevity) that Jeffrey asked this week:

Hey Kent,

I’m a student at a Community College in North Carolina and I hope to have an associates degree by July. The few questions I have to you are about aviation and where I should go from this point forward.

1. After earning my instrument rating and racking up a total of 165.4 hours what is the next step for me? I’m really unsure where to go from here and what to do. Should I cut my losses in aviation and change career goals?

My main concern would be a loan for the commercial training which would be at least a twenty thousand dollars to get my commercial single and multi and CFII rating. That would then put me owing thirty thousand dollars in loans. I do realize that in aviation the money is not great especially for someone first starting out. I’d have to endure several years of low pay as a flight instructor and then several more years as a first officer with low pay. I’m not sure that’s something I want to do. I completely understand that money isn’t everything but I’d like to be able to live on my own one day and be able to be happy doing what I am doing with my career choice.

2. Would you recommend this industry to anyone that is in my shoes right now? The price of gas is likely causing fewer people to fly. I’m just unsure of the current state of the aviation industry. Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

With 164 hours, you’ve already invested a sizable amount of money to get where you are right now. There are three things that will all happen in the next two years that should give you some hope.

First, the lack of movement at almost every airline is about to change on December 12th of 2012. That’s the date when pilots will start hitting the mandatory retirement age again after the number was raised from 60 to 65 back in 2007.

Next, new flight time and duty regulations are set to be announced on August 8th of this year that will likely cause airlines to hire more pilots. In their response to the rule, American Airlines claimed they would need 2,300 more pilots to fly their existing schedule. Currently, American has about 9,500 pilots plus another thousand on furlough.

Finally, the 1,500 hour requirement will likely discourage many potential pilots from putting in the investment and years of training required.

But if you can get to that magic 1,500 hours, you’re going to be in an enviable spot in a few years.

Would I do it? Heck yes. It’s still a great job, and I can’t see myself doing anything else. Although, in fairness not all pilots agree, most notably Sully Sullenberger, that this is still a viable career.

So here’s how would I do it today, assuming I couldn’t find an instructing job, since flight instructors will be staying around until 1,500 hours, creating a logjam at that position:

First, get your ratings. You’ll need a Private, Commercial, Multi-engine, and Instrument licenses, or ‘ratings.’ Each has different flight time requirements, from 40 hours for the private license to 250 hours for the commercial rating.

In order to get from 250 hours to 1,500 hours I would buy an inexpensive airplane to build up flight time, reducing my cost per hour down to as little as $30 to $50, which might cut the $125,000 in half or more after selling the airplane 1,250 hours later. Airplanes generally don’t depreciate much, although it’s a buyers market right now in this economy.

Here’s an example airplane, a Cessna 172. If that link should break, just go to and look at the listings for Cessna 152s, 172s, a Cherokee 140, or, if you’re more the type to drive a Mini or an MG, by all means look at the Luscombe, Aeronca Champ, or Cessna 140. All are relatively good values (under $20,000 or $30,000) even if the Luscombe and Champ are more than sixty years old.

You’ll have some great experience, and wonderful memories to go along with that flight time.

The author building time in a 1946 Luscombe that helped him land his first flying job.

So Jeffrey, I think you should stick with it. As someone once said, “The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking places.”

Let’s just hope your future parking place will be at a jetbridge.

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 the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Cockpit Chronicles: Airline de-icing

Not only does the frosty precipitation add weight to an aircraft, but it also disrupts the flow of air over the wings and tail and can cause an accident if the circumstances are just right. The FAA and NASA have gone through great lengths to teach pilots about the adverse effects that snow and ice can have on an airplane.

But the most important lesson pilots learned from was from the infamous Air Florida 90 crash in Washington D.C. in 1982. But snow on the wings wasn’t the only problem that aircraft had to deal with. Even more of a factor was the iced up engine probe that is used to display the amount of thrust the airplane was developing during takeoff. The result was that the 737 was producing much less power than the pilots thought, at a time when the snow and short runway made an accurate power setting vital.

Airline deicing has presented a problem long before the jet age arrived. During the twenties while flying passengers in Alaska, my grandfather not only had to make sure the wings were clear of snow and frost, but he had to preheat the engine oil, usually over a stove in the coldest conditions, before putting it back in the preheated motor that was warmed from below using a custom made stove with large blankets wrapped over the engine.

Noel Wien Photo – 1929

While flying to the Eskimo villages outside of Bethel, Alaska, as a new co-pilot I was tasked with using a push broom to get the snow and ice off the top of the wings of the Twin Otter. Usually it was a simple matter of brushing the cold snow from the wing while crawling across the slick aluminum with a push broom. But sometimes the ice was so thick that it was necessary to break it up as gently as possible with the side of handle. It was during one of these mornings, in the cold dark winter, that I thought to myself that Twin Otters were also flown in Hawaii and that I might want to look into that. I managed to capture some of those ice-cold days in a video from back then.


Prior to landing a flying job, I worked for Era as a ramper on the night shift and one of the tasks I was trained to do was to de-ice aircraft in the morning. I learned two lessons from that experience. Firstly, that it was very important not to spray the glycol based de-ice fluid into the wind, and second, that this fluid tasted a lot like maple syrup.

How much does it cost and how long does it last?

The De-ice Process

I have a lot of sympathy today for the certified deicers that clean our airplanes. It’s not an easy job.

Before every ‘snow event’ as our base in Boston calls these storms, crews are assigned and trucks are prepared for the day’s worth of spraying. It’s ultimately up to the pilots when and what type of de-icing fluid is to be used, but the deicers do a good job of planning ahead, especially at our base.

Everything is based on what’s called a ‘holdover time.’ This is the amount of time the FAA says the Type I or Type IV fluid can prevent snow, ice-pellets or freezing rain from adhering to the wings.

Years ago, Type I fluid was really our only option. It’s a de-icing fluid that is used to remove the snow and ice from the airplane. But it’s holdover time was then and still is today rather limited; typically between ten and thirty minutes in duration. So by the time you’re de-iced, if there is any delay departing, which invariably happens during a snow storm as the airport opens and closes runways for clearing, the holdover time is often met.

It is possible to takeoff with an expired holdover time, but it involves an inspection by a pilot from inside the cabin or certified de-icer from the outside within five minutes of departure. This might explain why you’ve seen a pilot come back to check on the wings on occasion before takeoff.

This inspection is very rare today, since we now have Type IV fluid, which is an anti-icing fluid. It’s far more common now to use a two-step process using Type I to remove the snow and Type IV to ensure a long holdover time. Our charts show that Type IV fluid can resist snow for as much as an hour and a half.

While the wings must not have snow or ice adhering to the upper surfaces, the fuselage is usually cleared as well, since the added accumulation can add weight to the aircraft.

The whole process isn’t cheap. Currently Type I fluid costs $3.29 a gallon and Type IV fluid runs a rather steep $5.79. Often these fluids are diluted with up to 50% of the solution made up of warm water, but it’s not uncommon for an airline to spend over $5,000 on a single ice-coated airplane.

Even though it’s so expensive, the effectiveness of Type IV fluid is rather startling-it’s not uncommon to fly for a few hours and still have an oily film sticking to the surface of the airplane after landing.

Occasionally, when the snow fall has slowed a bit, it’s common for the airplane to be de-iced before it’s even boarded, so you won’t encounter the delays from the de-ice process. But the station has to make a determination that the snow won’t be picking up in intensity anytime soon.

If the airplane is to be de-iced after pushing back from the gate with passengers on board, we close off any outside air from entering the cabin during the de-icing to prevent the fluid smell from entering the airplane. A few years back, an Alaska jet had a well publicized incident where de-icing fluid mist filled the airplane while it was getting de-iced. Closing the engine ‘bleed air’ and turning off the air-conditioning ‘packs’ reduces this smell significantly.

Finally, there’s one other anti-icing fluid used to make flying safer and that’s on the runway itself. Airports often add anti-ice fluid in the form of potassium acetate to a runway after plowing the snow in order to keep the braking action fair or better as reported by the airplanes landing there.

The next time you see a de-icer giving your airplane a glycol bath, give ’em a thumbs up. They could use any warm thoughts you might be able to send their way.

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 or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.

Cockpit Chronicles: Nearly a near midair collision

“Traffic, Traffic!” Announced the computer voice from the speaker on the ceiling just above me.

This is something we hear frequently enough, perhaps once every three or four flights when an airplane in close proximity is climbing rapidly with a clearance to level off 1,000 feet below us. The TCAS (Traffic Collision and Avoidance System) is just giving us a warning that, should the airplane not level off, we may have to take action.

We were at FL390 (39,000 feet), an altitude where the traffic warning was far less likely. The captain and I looked down at the TCAS screen to get a quick idea where we should be looking for the other airplane. It was 800 feet lower than us and at our 2 o’clock position. It was easy to spot, with huge puffy contrails billowing out and slightly below it. A 737 for sure. We were both satisfied that it would pass behind us, since it was moving from left to right across the windscreen. A stationary position in the sky would mean it was coming right at us.

But before we could discuss this passing airplane, the computer voice came on once again.

“Climb, Climb now!”
Our procedures dictate that we should honor thy TCAS request, known as a Resolution Advisory or RA, by disconnecting the autopilot and following the rate of climb commands computed by the TCAS system.

Since it was my leg, I immediately disconnected the autopilot, while glancing down at the vertical speed indicator to find out just how many feet per minute of a climb would be needed. It wasn’t much, in fact. Just 200 feet per minute, hardly even noticeable to the passengers. It commanded a level off when we were at 39,100 feet and shortly after allowed us to settle back down to our original altitude.

All this was done in a matter of seconds, with no input or guidance from Air Traffic Control. In fifteen years using TCAS, this was only my second resolution advisory-the other one having occurred while on approach just east of Port-Au-Prince Haiti years ago.

“Center, confirm we were cleared from 380 to 400?” The other aircraft asked.

The controller said yes, which made us think this could have been an error on the part of the controller.

“Can you explain then what just happened?” The 737 pilot queried.

There was no answer from the controller.

We let the controller know that we had also just responded to a resolution advisory. The other pilot asked for a phone number of the Air Traffic Control center that he could call. We copied this number down as well.

There was some discussion between the captain and I whether we needed to report this as a near midair collision (NMAC). I pulled my manuals out, now conveniently located on an EFB equipped iPad (Electronic Flight Bag) and searched for the NTSB criteria for a near midair collision. Nothing came up.

But I did find an interesting recent change to our procedures. The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) requires that any flight responding to a TCAS resolution advisory above 18,000 feet must pull the voice recorder circuit breaker after completing the parking checklist. This would allow the NTSB to analyze the tapes from ATC and the aircraft involved in the loss of separation incident.

Just knowing that the NTSB would be listening to our conversation for the next two hours tends to make you aware of every word you’re saying. In fact, I debated with myself about getting into a discussion during our approach briefing about wind and gust additives that we would be applying for the approach.

I recognize that there’s value in allowing the NTSB access to the conversations that led up to an incident. They’ll hopefully study the procedures and policies that could prevent this kind of situation. There’s still a big brother feel to it.

I couldn’t help but feel bad for the controller on duty. While the captain and I were waiting for the employee bus, he phoned the air traffic control center. The controller explained that a clearance was given to the Trans-Siberiana 1701, but that Trans-Siberiana 1790, who had also asked for a climb, had accepted the clearance instead. All airline names have been changed to protect the innocent.

I looked up the FAA definition of a Near Midair Collision:

A near midair collision is defined as an incident associated with the operation of an aircraft in which a possibility of collision occurs as a result of proximity of less than 500 feet to another aircraft, or a report is received from a pilot or a flight crew member stating that a collision hazard existed between two or more aircraft.

It turned out we were just a 100 to 200 feet away from the NMAC definition. So I guess it was “nearly a near midair collision.”

We both filed a report detailing the events. I recently received the response. We did everything by the book and it obviously wasn’t our fault, which meant that the case was closed as far as our involvement.

Someday I hope we’ll have a third layer of safety in addition to the protection offered by ATC and TCAS in the form of a two-lane airway using a half mile offset to the right. Ever since GPS was invented, we have reduced the normally 8-mile wide airways down to just a few feet thanks to the precise nature of the technology. But with that came greater reliance on TCAS to keep us out of trouble. I wrote about an inexpensive offset airway proposal previously and I’d love for the FAA to take another look at it. Adding layers to our safety net is what has made air travel so much more safe than in the early years of flying.

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 or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.

Turbulence hurts: leading cause of in-flight injury

If you aren’t splattered in a fatal crash, you’re most likely to be injured by severe turbulence. Don’t get shaken up by this, though, odds are the biggest risk you’ll face is a middle seat sandwiched by garlic-eater and a heavy talker (choose which way you want to read that one). While you can’t be saved from the people around you, you can protect our body from a bouncing plane: put on your seatbelt.

The discussion of people getting smacked around in flight on a plane has arisen (again) because of the 21 people injured on United Flight 967 because of severe turbulence. According to USA Today:

Some passengers were tossed around the plane like dolls, passenger Kaoma Bechaz, 19, told The Denver Post. One woman’s head struck the side of the cabin, leaving a crack above the window, and a girl was flung against the ceiling, Bechaz said.

Last year, according to data from the NTSB, 15 of the 22 people seriously injured on flights in 2009 (e.g., broken bones) had turbulence to blame.

Flight attendants, of course, are at greater risk, given that they are more mobile in flight than passengers. Sixty-two percent of serious injuries were experienced by flight attendants, according to an FAA study.

Are you feeling sufficiently alarmed? Yeah, it’s not worth getting upset about. But if you’re wearing a helmet on your next flight, we’ll know why.

[photo by mockstar via Flickr]

Pilots forced to talk about work in the cockpit

Big Brother may not be watching, but he’ll be listening. A new recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board would involve the use of “black box” recordings to monitor the conversations that occur among pilots in the cockpit. This comes on the heels of several high-profile incidents in which pilots were distracted. According to a report by USA Today, this would be the first time that workplace monitoring would penetrate the cockpit. Of course, pilots’ unions oppose the measure, calling it intrusive (isn’t that the point?).

Until now, the black boxes have only been used after accidents. This new step, if executed properly, could make the recordings useful in preventing them – well, that’s the plan, at least.

Needless to say, the timing couldn’t be better for the NTSB, given the Northwest Airlines flight that overshot its destination by a hundred miles and the Colgan crash near Buffalo last year. In both case, pilot conversations were cited as among the reasons for the problems that occurred.

So far, this is only a recommendation from the NTSB to the FAA (the former has no regulatory authority). The NTSB’s Robert Sumwalt claims, “This is not a case of Big Brother spying on pilots.” Well, it really does seem like one, but it isn’t a hard measure to defend in this climate. It might be easier to see the pilots’ point of view if their objections weren’t centered on pilot privacy. Workplace privacy is a thing of the past for everyone.

Mike Michaelis, chairman of safety at the Aillied Pilots Assocation, the union over at American Airlines, told USA Today, “It’s the wrong way to go safety-wise.” What I don’t understand is how that can be true.