Sunday, January 07, 2007

So Ya Wanna Be an Air Force Pilot?

(The author, Bill Critch, a USAF veteran, lives in Oro Valley, Arizona. Born in California, he and his Australian parents returned to Sydney before the World War ll. His father, a veteran of World War l, died soon after. Orphaned at 13, Bill returned to the United States at age 22.)

It’s 3.00 AM on the Graveyard Shift at United Airlines San Francisco Maintenance Base.

The “Move Crew” is making conversation just to stay awake. We keep one eye on the clock and the other on the foreman, a good guy but a company man. John Blackwell, a tall, quiet, Jimmy Stewart look-alike who has recently left the Benedictine Monastery across the Golden Gate Bridge, is walking on the ramp in the morning chill meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary; Jerry Mukai, an amateur judo wrestler, is leaning back in his chair staring into blue collar airspace; Jack Brown is reading a crumpled Chronicle he found on a DC-6 coming in for overhaul. The shift's half over and there are no more planes outside on the ramp to move into the hangars. It’s the ugly hour when you don't want to be farmed out for some grunt job with another mechanic who's behind on his work and all that's left is his cleanup – lock-wiring nuts, checking clamps, returning unused parts to the storeroom and tools to the crib or even worse, mopping up the hangar floor.

Todd, who has recently joined the crew is an ex-Air force mechanic. He says to me, "Hey Aussie, 'ave ya seen Don?"

"No," I say. "He's probably sleeping in the seat storage room. He was flying with his instructor this afternoon. He looked beat."

"When's ‘e gonna get his Commercial license?"

Don Sather is another ex Air Force mechanic. He has a fiancée and is looking to the future. The Commercial license with an Instrument rating is the key to a flying job.

“Todd, what's Sather have to pay for his flying time?" I ask.

"I think Cessna 140 time's about $14 an hour solo," Todd says.

Like the rest of us, he too would like to be learning to fly.

Brown, his critical eyes just clearing the top of the broadsheet newspaper and who is always ripe for an argument says, "No way. A guy I know only pays $12." Brown always knows a guy.

"Critch," says Todd, "when I was a mechanic in the Air Force they had a program called Aviation Cadets – they’ll teach you to fly. It takes about 18 months and when you're done, ya got yer wings and they make you an officer."

"Oh yeah? Where do you sign up"

"Nah," interrupts Brown, "you'd never qualify, Todd. You gotta have two years of college and they only take the really smart guys." Once again, Brown knows all about it.

"Bullshit, my buddy in the Air Force didn't have any college and ‘e got in! Dunno if ‘e made it all the way, but I do know that only 50% get through. It's tough - the college-level stuff, the military chickenshit. It's a real 'Tiger' program.”

I wonder what a Tiger Program means. “What’s that, Todd?” I ask.

“Ah, it means there’s a lot of hazing and in-your-face yelling, memorizing stupid stuff, studying college level aerodynamics, Air Force history, public speaking and military law. It’s like being a West Point plebe but doesn’t last as long. They only take the top 2% of applicants and then ‘wash out’ half of them before graduation."

I think, “Well that lets me out. I'm no Tiger and I bailed out of school on my sixteenth birthday to earn a living, so the academics might be a problem.”

"Hey, Aussie, wanna go down and check it out?" asks Todd.

"Sure, why not. I’ve got nothing on after the shift's over."

Don't have anything on? I've been in the USA since Christmas last year and my horizon is empty. What are my chances of getting an Airplane & Powerplant License? Go to college? How and where and with what? I don’t have any money saved but perhaps if I joined the Air Force I could get something out of it without shelling out any dough.

Shift over, dead tired, coveralls dirty and sweaty, we hit the morning commute traffic on Bayshore Freeway and head north toward the City in Todd's new Ford Victoria. After a quick breakfast somewhere in the Mission district, we climb the wooden stairs to the Air Force Recruiting Office at the corner of Market and Van Ness Streets.

Todd takes over.

"Good morning sergeant, we'd like to take the exam for Aviation Cadets."

The six striper in razor sharp khakis, condescendingly eyeballs us the way Burt Lancaster eyed Private 1st. Class Prewitt in “From Here To Eternity.” He figures if he can talk us into signing up as enlisted swine, he just might make his weekly quota.

"Aviation cadets? No way," he thinks.

"Well, you have to fill out the detailed application, take a physical and pass the written test. It'll take all morning, do you have the time? Can you two stay awake?”

"You bet," we say.

I look at Todd, he’s half asleep and his eyes are like two pissholes in the snow.

Now, thanks to the good sisters of St. Joseph, I've always been good at tests. All you have to do is figure out what the test writer or the prospective employer wants and give it to him. I always been a quick study and smart enough to stay out of trouble.

I begin filling out the application.

Education: Hmm. My first high school in Australia was called a college, so I fill in the blank: three years at St Ignatius' College Riverview, Gunnedah High with passes in Physics, Chemistry, Math I and II, English, History, Geography and Latin.

Work Experience: Mechanic, Clegg and Tyrrell (well that's stretching it a bit because all I did was pump gas and fetch parts, but they'll never check that out,) QANTAS Sydney, Aero Engineer and Mechanic (another job I talked myself in to but I have a certificate proving that) and finally, my current employer United Airlines – Airplane Overhaul Mechanic.

"Here y'are sergeant."

I hand him the application he is surprised. Perhaps he thinks I’ll enlist as a mechanic.

He hands me a multiple choice test, twists his head and points to a small, wood framed and windowed room nearby.

“O.K. Complete this and bring it back when you’re done.”

The test looks fairly straightforward. It’s mostly general knowledge, basic math and science; identification of small, black silhouettes of recent and historical Air Force airplanes; questions on world geography – what’s the capital of Chile; what’s a magneto and a distributor, ‘How do you drive on a bumpy road.’ There are also some basic arithmetic calculations and a few trigonometry questions on sines and cosines; some elementary algebra; interpretation of graphs; a puzzle in interpreting train schedules. This is really fun stuff and not too hard. I’m sure I could have done it in the 8th grade.

An hour later, I emerge from the test room. Ex Airman 2nd Class Todd is still in there chewing on his scoring pencil.

The sergeant runs the test through the scoring machine. ‘Zip’, and it’s done. He is impressed but tries not to show it. I’m smarter than he thought I was. Perhaps the Aussie accent had him confused.

"Take this paper over to that office across the room and give it to the nurse. We'll give you a physical this morning."

A physical at this hour? I don't know if I can even make water. The white-uniformed Air Force nurse hands me a bottle and I manage to drain my sump. I fill out the medical form: Childhood sickness? The usual. Parents? I'm not sure of the details of their illnesses and cause of death, but I’m truthful about their passing in their fifties. Venereal Disease? No, never.(I’d be embarrassed to tell the Air force that except for a couple of quickies, I'm almost a virgin.) Physical restrictions? Nope. Strip off down to my shorts, see the doctor, turn, cough, get a 'finger wave up the rear. Touch the toes, look left, look right, can you see my fingers? How many? Say aaah!

Back to the Recruiting Sergeant and still no sign of Todd.

"Am I in?" I ask.

"Well, no. Your physical is O.K. but this is just the beginning. You'll have another two day written exam up north of here at Travis Air Force Base and another more extensive physical. You'll get a letter setting it up."

He smiles and wishes me good luck as I head out and to find Todd. He’s in the waiting area sitting in the cheap chrome and leatherette seats.

"How'd you make out?" I ask.

"I didn't pass the written test. Aww. I really didn't want back in the Air Force anyhow. Wanna beer?"

A spur of the moment decision in the early morning hours, a little prompting and your whole life is changed forever. And I never really got to thank him, for when I returned to United Airlines after I was commissioned and flying one of those DC-6s, Todd had left the Move Crew and moved on.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

DITLIP or a Day In The Life of an Instructor Pilot

A Day In the Life of an Instructor Pilot

The instructor pilots in this story are not the usual ones that hang around your local airport trying to build up time to get a ‘real job’ flying for an airline or a corporation. No, these instructors have many thousands of hours and mostly flew in the United States military, or for an airline that went ‘belly-up’. They are true professionals who would look great in a full-page advertisement for an airplane manufacturer. These instructors in this story flew for what was at the time, the Boeing Commercial Airplane Company. The story is set in the mid Nineties and is a composite of many of the situations that they found themselves in: at home, on a foreign ‘Line Assist’ or instructing in the simulator in a non-U.S. country.

To their wives (and girl friends), their supervisor and their stock broker, they are often a will-o-the-wisp frequently seen only at Oh-dark thirty hours. This gives rise to the belief that they are closely related the North American sasquatch.



ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzz Rrrrring!!!!!!

4.00 a.m.

Wife: “Honey, would you catch that alarm before it wakes the baby! Who do you have this morning? Same class? Well, I’ll see you around five. And DON’T FORGET OUR DATE TOMORROW NIGHT. It’s been weeks since we went out together.”

Arrgh! Friday morning, way to go! Nearly finished with this bunch and it’s been an interesting class, or maybe I should say, challenging. First time I’ve had a compressed schedule in a long time and it sure was a short night. Well, Monday they get their check rides. My captain is really sharp but the FO is slow. Hope he improves today. Hmmm. I wonder if he is someone the airline customer wants Boeing to pass judgment on. Just my good fortune to be Program Lead and no one to lean on.


In Flight over the South China Sea

Who was it said that ‘the dawn comes up like thunder out of China ‘cross the bay?’ This dawn is right in my eyeballs and I’ve been fighting sleep all night in the right seat of this little bitty jet. The newly checked-out captain is really catching on fast to the ‘glass cockpit’ and the Flight Management System. He’s using concepts rather than rules. Line Assist can be fun, but sunrise in the eyes is the same the whole world over.

I think I’ll celebrate by rinsing out my mouth with some Vee-Eight. We’ve got a very light load; I hope the airline’s Sales and Marketing Department can drum up some more passengers, then with luck they’ll buy a few more Boeings. Hmm, I’ll better drop a note to Boeing Sales and let them know more about this operation.

Lessee, next stop we’ll have Customs and Immigration. I hope they’ll have the proper forms. The last Line Assist I was on bogged down on arrival because the official form had only shown boxes for three models of the 737. They insisted that the airplane couldn’t be a 737-800; as far as they were concerned if it wasn’t on their form it didn’t exist.

Ahh. The smell of the islands. Salt air, clear skies – not too many contrails in this part of the Pacific. This island looks like a throwback to the Fifties – motor scooters and litter and still relatively undeveloped. Well, not for long. Breakfast! Fresh fruit and what IS that stuff? Better get some ‘tho. It’s going to be a long day.




Boy, sometimes you get lucky. A late sleep-in and a limo pickup. The high tech Orient has some advantages I don’t get at home - a nice room on the fourteenth floor and still fairly quiet at 7.30 AM. Funny but I don’t hear the birds at this elevation but the ‘flavor’ of the Orient surely rises with the humidity. Fruit for breakfast. The Flight Surgeon would definitely approve of that and with the customer picking up the tab - what the hell!

Down to the lobby for pickup. No graffiti in these elevators. Very nice place. (Thanks Boeing Travel Department! Better take them a bottle on the way home.)
And a limo – a Mercedes? Smooothe, and the driver’s taking the scenic route; this must be the tourist road. I wonder where the poor people live? What’s this? The Training Center? The driver opens my door in the training center porte cochere and the students are there to greet their new simulator instructor.

We brief for the lesson and, Omigawd! they are letter perfect – let’s hope they understand the concepts. And that’s my job to make sure they do because there’s several different ways to work a Flight Management System and all of them are correct.

Who are these guys? The captain is just off an older, short-range Boeing with no ‘glass cockpit’ experience. The First Officer is transitioning from the Airbus A-320. Wonder why he’s going on the Boeing? Maybe he likes our airplanes. Did his A-320 have a side stick? Have to watch he doesn’t try to outsmart the captain and show him how clever he is. Crew management is a key concept that is sometimes difficult to get across to Asian crews. Ah well, as long as he can type 40 words a minute on the keypad……..



10.00 a.m. and it looks like my day is just beginning. The First Officer needs more than additional training - the captain has been ‘carrying’ him and saying nothing about it. It’s hard for me to tell when there is a language difference. We do have a Standard Operating Procedure for slow students. Let’s see. What did the boss say?

“Work ‘em, guide ‘em, but don’t baby ‘em. My family may be on their flight someday.”

First the paperwork. Gotta be objective. “The FO could not find the correct page in the Quick Reference Handbook.” Maybe he doesn’t read English as well as he can speak English. That’s unusual, it’s usually the other way round. “FO gets lost in the middle of the Hydraulic Leak or Loss procedure.” Is this language or logic? Or maybe the procedure isn’t clearly written. Y’know, the captain is being very quiet about this guy which may confirm my suspicion that the airline has some doubts and is looking for us to pass judgment. Perhaps he’s politically connected and they can’t pull out the rug?

O.K. Paperwork’s done. Now, let me get a hold of the class leader. One thing’s sure, I’ll miss my day off on Saturday. Let’s check Saturday’s schedule. Gotta time slot for an extra simulator schedule? Yep. Call the leader.

“Hello Captain. I’d like to discuss the FO’s performance today. Can I come to your hotel? Sure. See you in thirty minutes.” Oh boy. Up and down the superslab to his hotel.


Kuala Lumpur




These guys are sharp! Nice contrast to the last program I had. Some classes are just smoother than others. The Captain must’ve burned the midnight oil, or maybe spent time with his buddies. He’s sure got flying experience. All it takes is hangin’ new stuff on the old hooks he has in his head….. and he’s doin’ it! The FO has that great quality I see in so many Asian youth - smart, energetic, coordinated and a mind like a sponge. Guess they aren’t as coddled as many of their U.S. contemporaries.

Nice afternoon. Think I’ll take the captain up on his invitation to play a short nine at his club. Sounds exclusive and very ritzy. Such is life for the rich Asian.

Back to the hotel. Fill out the paperwork. Hmm. Looks like the Ground Training Department back home could use a little help in smoothing out the flight profile. Better redline this puppy. Then I’ve got an article to write for the Ops Review Board. Paper, paper, paper. If I was a real airline pilot, all I’d do is collect a bigger paycheck and the heck with the paperwork!

Life ain’t too bad in the tropics, sometimes!



Well, my guess was correct. The F.O. can’t hack it without extra time. I gotta be a diplomat here, but maybe I’ve got to ‘let him out gracefully’. The airline knew he was a ‘slo mo’ but wanted an outside opinion. Hmmm, I’ll have to find some extra time for him in the simulator tomorrow and see if that helps. If not, I’ll have to let him go. But, who’ll be his simulator captain? It can’t be one of their guys and his real Captain doesn’t need the time nor does he want to miss his weekend off in Seattle. Lessee, what does our Black Book say….. Nada. That’s what I get paid for – decisions that make everybody look good.

Wait a minute, we have some up-and-coming Ground School instructors that are fully qualified in real airplanes and just longing to be upgraded. That new guy is really sharp, I think he is in the Reserve. Maybe he’ll work on Saturday. Better call the ground School Supervisor and get his O.K.

Now the hard part, what am I going to tell the wife about to-morrow night?

Instructor B

At the Hotel.

Well it IS better than the Da Nang BOQ – no bugs, no drugs, less noise and the air conditioning doesn’t smell of cigar smoke. A hurried sleep at best with the 5 AM alert. Well, it’s a short ride to Operations. Breakfast? Oh yeah. Wonder what the in-flight meal will be? Not Asian, I hope. I can handle just about anything but sushi. Still, it’s a no-fat diet.

At the airport.

Lookin’ good, just like we left it and it still SMELLS new. Boy, these cabin attendants are really attentive. I believe that if they had a real kitchen, I could have a real breakfast of steak and eggs.

The captain is very much in command during the briefing. If all their pilots are like him, they’ll make it on the Ops side for sure. This sure is a funny little island. Japanese War graves and still some rusted stuff in the lagoon. No American graves ‘tho. Guess the Commission must’ve moved ‘em after The War. Lots of Japanese tourists ‘tho making offerings at the gravesites. Beautiful beaches. Pity I didn’t have time to swim and snorkel. Guess this is a pretty good Line Assist trip after all.

Not like the one I had in Europe several years ago before the EU spread its influence. The customer airline was assisting in the deportation of two foreign nationals whose travels had originated from a third country, not their homeland. On arrival back at the third country where they were being returned, the Immigration Department wouldn’t let them off the ramp and the guards on the customer airline wouldn’t let ‘em back on my airplane. Impasse!

After lots of hard stares and stiff jaws, the customer airline captain said, “Well, if they return to XXX, there is no food for them to eat and they’ll starve!” This loss of face by the locals was sufficient to satisfy any backpedaling by the officials who replied, “Well, of course they can stay.” I wonder whatever happened to those guys?

In Flight

At least the sun ain’t gonna burn my eyeballs on the way home.

Instructor C.


A typical day in the life of a commercial airplane manufacturer’s IP?

Yep, they’ve got to be diplomats, psychologists, philosophers, proficient pilots and good human beings. And oh yes, have an encyclopedic memory.