On Pilots and the Sacred Trust

A violation of trust, an act of murder.

Like most other frequent airline travelers, I was horrified to learn this morning that the cause of this week’s German Wings airplane crash in the French Alps is most likely the deliberate action of the “co-pilot” (i.e., First Officer), who locked the “pilot” (i.e., Captain) out of the “cockpit” (i.e., flight deck) and put the airplane into a steep descent that ended when it hit a mountain.

The only good thing to note about this is that men, women, and children on board likely never felt a thing as their lives were extinguished, like a candle’s flame between two calloused fingers.

As a pilot, this was more horrific to me. Why? Because the pilot who is responsible violated what I consider a sacred trust.

Let me try to explain. When I fly my helicopter, there is nothing more important to me than my passengers. By climbing aboard my aircraft, whether it’s for a 7-minute “hop ride” around town or a cross-country journey lasting hours, they have proven to me that they trust me with their lives. I don’t take that trust lightly. Maybe I pay closer attention to details, like the wind speed and direction or the way the helicopter lifts off the ground into a hover with their weight distribution. Maybe I fly a little higher, to reduce mechanical turbulence on a windy day and ensure that I’m well outside the “Deadman’s Curve” in the unlikely event of an engine failure. Maybe I keep my bank angle on turns a little flatter and my approaches and departures a little shallower to ensure a smooth flight.

I want my passengers to be not only safe, but comfortable. I want their memories of flying with me to include only the pleasant experiences they have during the flight.

I know a lot of pilots who don’t seem to think this way. Their goal is to impress their passengers with what they consider their flying skill. They want to give “E-Ticket rides.” For some reason, they think this is what their passengers want — and maybe some of them think they do.

But what passengers really want is to get off the aircraft in the same condition they got on it: safe, unharmed — and yes — alive.

And that’s what I call a sacred trust. The passengers trust the pilot to ensure their safety. If the pilot does anything to compromise that safety — whether it’s buzzing a backyard barbecue or diving into a mountain in France — he’s violated that sacred trust.

Pilots who even consider doing dangerous or suicidal things with passengers on board should not be in control of an aircraft.

Airplane
I’m about to get on this airplane for a flight from CA to WA. Do I need to worry about the mental state of the pilots?

As a pilot, I’m upset that a young German pilot decided to kill himself and the 149 people who trusted him with their lives in such a horrific act. I’m worried about what future passengers will think about their pilots’ mental state of mind. I’m worried that people will use this incident to fuel their fears of flying, to avoid flying altogether. I’m worried that the FAA or airline management or other authorities will enact knee-jerk rules and regulations — like the one that made cockpit doors impregnable — that further burden responsible pilots with tests and paperwork that add to their stress and workload.

Most of all, I’m angry about the half-informed media coverage and their “experts,” jumping to conclusions and exploring crazy conspiracy theories, grasping for someone to blame, instilling fears in viewers and listeners and readers.

Again.

Let’s get this straight: it’s all about a pilot who betrayed his passengers’ sacred trust.

This is not just suicide by airplane. This pilot committed murder, pure and simple. In doing so, he sullied the reputation of other professional pilots who take their responsibilities as a pilot seriously.

And that’s what upsets me most of all.

28-Feb-15 Update:Pilot Who Downed Airliner Vowed ‘To Do Something’ To Be Remembered” might shed some additional light on his state of mind.

Pilot Motivations

What drives pilots at various career levels.

I’ve been flying helicopters since 2000, when I got my private pilot certificate. I learned to fly as a hobby but soon realized that if I wanted to fly, I needed an aircraft. Back in those days, I was earning a good living as a freelance writer and had authored two “bestsellers” in my field. I bought a helicopter and flew it in my spare time. I also worked toward my commercial pilot certificate, which I received in 2001, so I could fly for hire. After all, I wasn’t rich and who knew when the money from my writing career would dry up? Over time, I grew my business, bought a larger helicopter, and found a few lucrative niche markets for my services. Since the money from my writing career has pretty much dried up, I’m glad to have a solid standing in my flying career.

That’s the very short version of how I got to where I am today: an owner/operator with just one helicopter and a handful of regular clients, doing the occasional rides gig, tour, and photo/survey flight as need arises.

As I head home from two days of callout on a frost control contract in California’s Central Valley, I’ve been thinking a lot about what motivates pilots on each level of the aviation ladder: new pilots, experienced commercial pilots, and owner/operators. I’ve spent time in each group — although admittedly in unusual circumstances. I though I’d share a few thoughts from my experience — as well as what I’ve gleaned from talking to other pilots.

New Pilots

New pilots are mostly interested in doing one thing: building time.

Until they get enough experience as pilots, they’re not able to get a “real” flying job. Instead, they’re usually forced to take jobs as flight instructors, which most of them don’t really want to do. That’s the most common way for new pilots to build the 1,000 hours or more of pilot-in-command (PIC) time that’s usually required to get a non-training job.

This is an unfortunate time for any new pilot who doesn’t have the “right stuff” to be hired by a flight school. What is that right stuff? Flying skills, good attitude, patience, and a body weight under 180 pounds come to mind. Luck is part of it, too. Despite what flight schools tell their students, they can’t hire all graduates of their training program to be flight instructors. Sometimes new pilots need to be lucky enough to get their certified flight instructor (CFI) certificate just when one or more instructors are moving on to their first flying jobs.

For those new pilots who can’t secure a flight instructor job, things can be tough. They can’t get a job and move forward in their careers until they build time and they can’t build time without getting a job. Catch 22. These are the guys who will take any opportunity to fly, no matter what kind of flying it is, even if they have to pay for that flight time. I’ve had at least ten new pilots fly with me on long cross-country flights in my R44, paying an hourly rate much lower than what it would cost them to rent a helicopter, just to build time. There used to be a guy in Southern California who sold time in his JetRanger while he conducted traffic flights. (Is he still doing that?) And then there a few questionable operators who “hire” low time pilots to fly for them, requiring these “employees” to pay at least part of the helicopter’s operating cost when they fly.

Cherry Drying
No, I’m not interested in having a 300-hour pilot who can’t/won’t get a job as a CFI hovering at treetop level over cherry trees in my helicopter — even if he doesn’t want to be paid.

And don’t get me started on operators who use low-time pilots for potentially dangerous flying jobs, with that flight time as their only compensation. Every year I get at least one pilot calling or emailing me, offering to do cherry drying flights for free. My point of view on this: a professional should be compensated with money for his work, no matter what he does, and responsible operators should be hiring — and paying — sufficiently experienced pilots for the type of flying that needs to be done.

Time building is everything for new pilots — as it should be. Experience is vitally important for safety. And no matter how good a 300-hour pilot thinks he can fly, he’s nowhere near as good or safe as most 1,000-hour pilots.

Experienced Commercial Pilots

Once a pilot has gotten past the time-building stage and is able to qualify for a flying job, his main concern is — or should be — finding the right job. That should meet one (or all) of three criteria:

  • Be the kind of flying the pilot wants to do.
  • Give the pilot the flying experience he needs to get a future job doing the kind of flying he wants to do.
  • Pay a living wage — or better.

In other words, an experienced pilot’s main motivation is the advancement of his career down the path he prefers.

For example, someone interested in EMT work will need turbine flying experience, as well as night flying experience. He may have gotten night experience as a CFI doing all those night cross country flights with student pilots on board, but he likely didn’t get turbine time. A tour job at the Grand Canyon or in Alaska might be a good start. Those jobs are a good start for other kinds of helicopter work, including utility work, since some operators also have utility operations and might have a career path with training right into those jobs.

The $80K Helicopter Pilot Job

I want to point out here that those $80K/year helicopter pilot jobs do exist. They just don’t exist right out of flight school. If your flight school lured you in with promises of a big paycheck doing a cool job, they did you a disservice. Different types of flying pay different rates, but they all require a lot of experience to reach the higher pay levels. If your primary motivation is making a lot of money, you’re probably in the wrong career.

The more experience a pilot has, the more opportunities he has. And I’m not just talking about flight time, either. While logged PIC time is important, having a lot of time doesn’t automatically make a pilot qualified for a specific job. For example, I’ve got about 3200 hours of flight time logged, but I could never expect to walk right into an EMT job since I have limited turbine time and very little night flying time. But I could qualify for a job as a heli-skiing pilot because of my extensive experience in high density altitudes and off-airport landings. At this point in a pilot’s career, PIC time and experience, although related, are not of equal value.

So once a pilot has paid his dues and can start getting the jobs he wants, he’s mostly motivated to do the kind of flying he wants to do or that will help him further his career goals and earn a decent living.

Owner/Operator

And that brings us to where I am today and why I didn’t mind spending 40 hours traveling to and from and waiting around in California this week without turning a blade.

Owner/Operators are motivated primarily by one thing: making enough money to keep their helicopters, stay in business, and make a profit — often in that order.

In 2006, when I started seeing a decline in my writing income after riding a wave since 1998, I began to realize that if I didn’t keep my business in the black, I’d have to give up my hobby-turned-part-time-business. As the situation got worse, it changed the way I operated my aircraft. The ratio of non-revenue to revenue flight hours dramatically decreased as I flew more for hire and less for fun. While I still wanted to fly as much as I could — after all, I got into this business because I love to fly — money became my primary motivator.

Think about it: why would I let other pilots fly my aircraft if I love to fly? Because I was getting compensated for that flight time. That compensation would go toward paying my aircraft expenses.

Parked in California
Here’s my company’s most valuable asset on Wednesday, parked in California, waiting to be flown. A smart owner/operator will find ways to earn money without turning a blade.

As my Alaska Air flight descends into Seattle, I think about the chain of events that led me to seat 9A today: getting a frost control contract in December with a start date in March, repositioning the helicopter to California in late February (with another pilot at the controls), spending a few days on standby for an early contract start date before returning home. Then a phone call at 3:22 PM on Tuesday followed by a scramble to book and catch a flight to Sacramento, two nights on standby, another call to release me from standby, and a trip to Sacramento airport to catch this flight. Along the way, there were rental car reservations, hotel stays, and meals. I preflighted the helicopter once and woke up long before dawn both days.

And I didn’t turn a blade.

But I’m happy. No, I’m thrilled. Why? Because without putting any wear and tear on my company’s most valuable asset — my helicopter — I netted more money in less than 40 hours than I did during the period of from October through January. More than most new pilots make in a month.

Some people might think this is a great deal — after all, I’m making money without doing anything except traveling and waiting around. But these people are missing the big picture. I paid $346K plus interest to buy my helicopter. It costs more than $20K a year to insure it and keep it airworthy. Shouldn’t that enormous investment not only pay for itself but earn a profit? Every opportunity it can?

And, sadly, that’s what’s most important these days for me: keeping my bottom line healthy enough to keep flying for a living. That’s what’s on the minds of most owner/operators who aren’t independently wealthy.

Respect that — and don’t expect handouts.

Think About It

So here are three different ways three different pilots might look at what’s important to them about flying.

Why bring this up? Mostly so that pilots on each rung of the career ladder can better understand what’s motivating the other pilots.

I think about the new pilots and how eager they are to build time at almost any cost. I think about the more experienced pilots who are willing to be picky about the jobs they take just so they get set on a career path that’s right for them. And I think about owner/operators who have a helicopter at their disposal all the time but must responsibly choose how to deploy that asset for maximum returns.

I want the folks just starting to climb that ladder to understand the rest of us — and realize how their priorities will change if they slip into our positions some day.

On Spur-of-the-Moment Travel

It’s amazing where you can be in just a few hours.

I’m on my third consecutive year as a frost control pilot. I haven’t written much about this, mostly because I haven’t actually had to fly a mission. But for the third year in a row I’m being paid to have my helicopter ready, with relatively short notice, to fly slowly over almond trees on cold California mornings.

The Back Story

My first year’s contract, back in the winter/spring of 2013, had a relatively low standby pay for 60 days, along with compensation to move the helicopter from its base — in Arizona, in those days — to California’s Central Valley. Because I wasn’t sure about my living situation that winter — after all, my future ex-husband could get his head out of his ass and accept the very generous settlement offer I made and I’d have to move — I moved my truck and RV to California as well, thus guaranteeing a cheap and comfortable place to live near my work. (After all, that’s why I bought the RV; as a place to live when I was on the road with the helicopter.) I spent about two months traveling with Penny the Tiny Dog between Phoenix, Sacramento, and Las Vegas, getting called out just once for two days. I happened to be in Vegas at the time, so it wasn’t a big deal to change my plane ticket and spend a few days in California instead of returning to Arizona.

Last year I took a very different contract. It paid a generous standby rate for six weeks but I had to live near the fields. This turned out to be very convenient for me since I was out of my Arizona home for good and didn’t have a home in Washington yet. I brought the RV and helicopter down in mid-February and stayed until the middle of April. I really got to know the area, made new friends, went hiking and kayaking several times, got comped on a balloon ride, and even learned to fly a gyroplane. It was like being on a paid vacation in a pleasant place, with warm days and lots to do and see. If I did have to work, it would likely be between 3 AM and 7 AM, so days were free to do as I pleased.

Although the money was great, the drawback to that contract was the simple fact that I couldn’t get back to Washington until April. I wanted to be back earlier. I wanted to experience the spring: seeing orchards in bloom and leafing out, hiking along streams full of snow-melt runoff, starting a garden. So when December 2014 rolled along, I decided to try to get a frost control contract like the first year.

And I did.

I brought the helicopter down to California on February 22. The RV would stay home — with me — as I finished work on my home and enjoyed the spring.

That’s the back story.

Call Out

Frost control is not like cherry drying. In cherry drying, I’m required to be ready to fly at a moment’s notice. I can monitor the weather closely and vary my daily routine based on the likelihood of rain. When my clients call, they expect me to be airborne in minutes.

In my frost contract, the client monitors the weather closely and, if there’s a possibility of frost, he initiates a callout. My contract requires him to do this by at least 12 hours before he expects me to fly. This gives me the time I need to get to California from Washington. I’m paid for the callout — the fee covers my transportation with a bit to spare. And then I’m paid a generous hourly pilot standby fee from the moment I get to my California base until I’m released the next morning. If I fly, I’m paid a flying rate for that. The next time I’m called out, the process starts all over again

When I brought the helicopter down to California this year, I built in a few extra days to spend some time with friends in the area. When those plans fell through, I kept myself busy by reacquainting myself with the area and visiting other friends. But I couldn’t have timed it better. I was put on standby two of the three nights I was already down here. I was able to earn the callout and standby fees without incurring the related travel expenses. Although it did require a minor flight change for my return home with a $25 fee, that’s still pretty sweet. Really made it worth the trip.

I went home last Wednesday and got back to work on my home. The cabinets were installed on Thursday and Friday and the appliances were delivered on Saturday. Timing was everything and I lucked out.

My client called on Friday to make sure he understood how much lead time I needed to get back to California. Cold temperatures were forecast for Sunday through Wednesday nights. He wasn’t calling me out — yet. But he wanted to make sure he knew how much time would be needed to get me in position. I told him that if he called me by 3 PM, I’d be able to make it to the helicopter by 10 PM and be on standby overnight.

Of course, I watched the temperatures, too. Unfortunately, the forecasts of my various weather sources aren’t nearly as accurate as those available to almond growers, by subscription, from an agricultural weather resource. I had to rely on them to call me and didn’t want to fly down unless I had to.

So each day the forecasted low was 40°F or lower, I’d be a nervous wreck, wondering whether I’d get a call. Once 4 PM rolled along, I’d relax. I did this on Sunday and Monday and got a lot of work done at my place. But I did pack an overnight bag on Monday afternoon, just in case.

On Very Short Notice…

On Tuesday, at 3:22 PM, my phone rang. It was my client. He’d been sitting on the fence about calling me down. Forecasted lows were 32° to 39° in the area. He told me that he knew from experience that if the forecast said 32°, it could go lower. Better safe than sorry. He was calling me out.

Fortunately, I was sitting at my desk answering an email message when he called. When I hung up, I got on the Alaska Air website. There was a flight out of Wenatchee at 5:20 PM — less than two hours from then — and I needed to be on it. I booked the flight from Wenatchee to Seattle to Sacramento. I’d arrive at 9:28 PM.

While I was at the computer, I searched for car rentals in Sacramento. Thrifty had one for $22/day. Rather than book online, I called directly. With my bluetooth earpiece in my ear, I made car reservations as I changed my clothes and put a few more things into that suitcase.

I decided to board Penny. She’d been with me on the last trip and I thought I’d keep things a lot simpler by leaving her behind this time. So I packed an overnight bag for her with enough food for 2 days — just in case I needed to stay over an extra night. Club Pet is on my way to the airport, so dropping her off only took 5 minutes, especially since the paperwork was already waiting for me. As I type this, she’s likely playing out in the yard with the other dogs.

I checked into my flight and chose my seats using the Alaska Air app on my phone while stopped at a traffic light. I only had one bag — a carry-on — so I didn’t need to stop at the counter.

Seattle Sunset
I got off the plane in Seattle just after sunset.

I was at the airport, through security, and sitting in the waiting area by 4:45. That’s less than 90 minutes after getting the call. At 6:07 PM, I stepped off the plane from Wenatchee onto the tarmac at SeaTac. This is one of the best things about living in a small town with airline service: it’s so damn quick and easy to catch a flight out of town when you need to.

I grabbed dinner at SeaTac’s Terminal C before catching my flight to Sacramento.

It was an amazing flight. The moon had risen and was almost full. The land beneath us was illuminated with moonlight. I sat at the window on the A side of the plane and watched as we passed Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood. Our flight path took us down the Cascade range in Oregon, over the Three Sisters and other mountains there. I could clearly identify the towns I knew on Route 97 from the location of their airport beacons in relation to the town’s lights. The moon’s bright orb reflected back up at me from streams, marshes, and lakes. The flight couldn’t have been any smoother, either.

We touched down in Sacramento fifteen minutes early. I was out of the terminal waiting for the rental car shuttle bus by 9:30 PM. Later, I’d settle down in a Best Western for the night. I slept like a log until 5 AM.

Although a call to fly never came, I don’t mind making the trip. I will be well compensated for my time and the inconvenience of dropping everything to spend a few days in California. My client is satisfied, glad he can count on me to come when called. It’s all good.

I’ll kill some time here today and catch a flight home either tonight or tomorrow morning. I’m flexible and it’s a beautiful day.

Communication Failure

Someone’s communication skills need work.

This morning, while going through my email, I found two messages sent three minutes apart by the same person using the contact form on the Flying M Air website.

4:50 PM:

I have 3000 hours helicopters and airplanes. Loving opportunity to meet with someone

4:53 PM:

I have 3000 hours and helicopters and fixed wing I would love an opportunity to speak with someone.

The form offers a place for the person trying to contact me to include his name and phone number, which he did.

My questions:

  • If he wanted to talk to someone and it was within normal business hours, why didn’t he just pick up the damn phone and call? “Speaking” means either using the phone or arranging a face-to-face meeting. It doesn’t mean sending an email message. The contact form page includes both of Flying M Air’s phone numbers, right at the top under the heading “By Phone.” It seems to me that although he said he would “love an opportunity to speak to someone,” he had that opportunity then and still has it right now. In fact, anyone with a phone has that opportunity when the phone number is right there in front of their face. Maybe his phone doesn’t dial out?
  • What did he want to talk about? He’s a pilot — probably not a potential client. What would motivate me to call him? He never said what he wanted to talk about. And no, I’m not interested in calling pilots I don’t know to chat about flying and careers with them. Read this blog. Don’t you think I’m a little busy with other things? Don’t you think I’m entitled to spend my time on things that are important to me and my business?
  • By Email
    This paragraph appears right above the contact form this person used to email me.

    Did he want to talk to someone about a job? If so, he also managed to miss the Help Wanted link right above the email form. If he had clicked that, he would see that Flying M Air is not hiring pilots unless those pilots can come to Washington with a helicopter for a month starting in June to dry cherries. And if he had a helicopter, why wouldn’t he mention that?

So what am I supposed to do? He says he’d like the opportunity to speak to someone. He has it. He didn’t ask me to call. He didn’t tell me what it was about. He didn’t give me any reason to get in touch with him. I’m not even motivated to answer his email message.

And yes, I’m ranting. How could I not rant when I’m faced with such bullshit?

There I Was…

My first contribution to Vertical Magazine.

Vertical is a high quality helicopter magazine out of Canada. Beautifully designed and laid out and stuffed to the gills with quality writing and photography, it’s a real pleasure to read.

I’ve been wanting to write for Vertical for a long time, but never found a way to get my foot in the door. Until a month or two ago. I’d exchanged a few messages with one of the editors there and was passed on to another editor. He was looking for short articles for the magazine’s “There I Was…” column. This column, which is similar to AOPA’s “Never Again” column, showcases first person accounts of pilots in dangerous and/or stupid situations.

Any pilot who claims he’s never done anything stupid or dangerous is either lying or doesn’t fly very much. We all do dumb things once in a while. Those of us who are lucky, live to tell about it — and hopefully learn from it. Others don’t.

Vertical CoverThe cover of the March 2014 issue of Vertical Magazine, their largest issue ever. You can get your copy of the print edition at HeliExpo for free.

By the way, one of the reasons I occasionally read NTSB accident reports for helicopters is to learn from other pilot’s mistakes. Contrary to what the general public believes, at least 90% of aviation accidents are due to pilot error.

Anyway, I thought long and hard about what I could share with Vertical readers and decided to tell about the time I nearly killed myself trying to get over the Cascade Mountains in low visibility. I submitted it and it was accepted. It appeared in the March 2015 issue of Vertical on page 226, with the title “Scud Running in the Cascades.”

If you attend Heli Expo next month, I hope you’ll visit the Vertical booth and pick up a free copy of the magazine. Maybe one of you can send me a copy for my clip file?