Try this combination: (1) learning a new airplane, (2) adapting to a new way of flying, (3) limited ATC and other resources (4) managing crew risk in a pandemic, and (5) navigating through the smoke of massive wildfires. Regional airline training veteran Paul Preidecker describes his new career flying on-call medical missions.
On a recent trip to airports on the West Coast, we were dispatched to Boeing Field (KBFI) in Seattle. Descending through FL240, we could begin to smell the smoke. There was absolutely no forward or vertical visibility. We were eventually cleared for the ILS to runway 14R with the visibility reported barely above the minimums required for the approach.
On that same trip, we had an overnight in San Francisco (KSFO). Upon arriving at the aircraft the next morning, we found that it was covered with a thin but very noticeable coating of ash that we removed before starting the day.
En route from the southwest on another trip, Denver Center told us that all arrival routes from the southwest into KDEN had been shut down due to smoke and the number of TFRs in the area. We were told to anticipate a re-route to the northwest or possibly the northeast. Even though we had planned our flight with extra fuel, the first thing we did was to verify that we had sufficient fuel on board for the re-route as well as any possible delays. Since we were operating as a medevac, we fortunately were able to get a shortcut and move to the head of the line.
This is my new world. I’m the pilot, dispatcher, weatherman, and hotel van arranger.
From Trainer to Trainee
This tale of transition started last October when the age 65 rule obliged me to retire from my 20-year airline career. For the majority of my time at the airline, I was the chief instructor and examiner. Given these responsibilities, I spent most of my time training and checking our pilots and creating procedures for how we expected flight crews to fly our airplanes.
It was always in my mind that I would continue working after retirement. But just making that proclamation did nothing to fill in all the blanks as to what the next step might be. I considered joining another airline as a simulator instructor, possibly making the move to a three-lettered regulatory agency, or maybe doing some flying.
Being an instructor meant that I had spent far more of my time in the back of a simulator than in flying the line. I had made it a point to stay current and qualified in both left and right seats. Nevertheless, I did not accumulate the number of flight hours that a “normal” line pilot would expect to have after 20 years. Still, there was demand for my experience and I was fortunate to have several options for the next chapter. After taking a couple months off to reflect on the past, present, and future, I decided that I wanted to keep flying professionally. I reached out to a colleague who is the director of operations for a part 135 operation and soon found myself back in the schoolhouse to get a Lear 35 type rating.
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Adapting to a New Type of Flying
It turns out that the new airplane was just the beginning. I also transitioned to a new set of regulations and type of flying. My new job is in a part 135 medical transport operation. I did have some pre-airline experience in part 61 training, and with twin Cessnas in part 135. But this is a different level of part 135.
The basic difference is that part 121 is scheduled service and part 135 is on-demand. I now have a week-on/week-off schedule. Except for knowing which days my rotation begins and ends, the schedule is spontaneously random. We typically find out where we are going the night before or the day of a trip. But the differences don’t stop there. In part 121, dispatchers filed our flight plans, determined how much fuel we needed, arranged for fuel, did the performance planning, provided NOTAMs, and generated a weather packet. At the end of the day, the crew desk arranged for the hotel van to take us to and from the overnight hotel.
In my new flying life, it’s on me to calculate performance, fuel, and weight and balance. It’s my job to evaluate weather, find the most suitable routes – including the most suitable airports – and file the flight plans. I am also responsible for making sure the FBO has the proper services available for our arrival and departure. We are fortunate now to have many excellent flight planning apps and tools available. Still, such tools are only as good as the information we provide, and decisions still need to be made.
Here’s an example. When assigning a trip, my company generally picks the airport closest to where the medical team needs to go. That usually works, but the final call on airport suitability is mine. On a recent rotation, the trip sheet listed an airport in coastal Florida as our destination due to its proximity to the hospital where our patient/passenger was located. Landing was not an issue. But when I looked at the fuel load required for the outbound leg, I determined that the runway length was not ideal for our anticipated takeoff weight at the forecast temperatures. We met the legal requirements for takeoff, but there was no room for any variations. I once heard that if you have to use the word “probably” in your flight planning, you definitely need to reconsider. Consequently, we arranged to land at an airport 15 miles from the original destination. This scenario would seldom (if ever) arise in the part 121 world.
After taking a couple months off after “retirement,” the author decided he wanted to keep flying professionally. Image credit: Paul Preidecker.
Managing in a Pandemic
I had been flying the new airplane under a new (to me) regulatory regime for just a few weeks when the Covid-19 pandemic began to disrupt, well, everything. Here’s how it looks from my new perch. The basics of getting around on the ground are different. Limited or uncertain availability of shared-ride services, taxis, hotels, and restaurants has complicated all the once-routine day-to-day considerations. The same is true for FBOs. It’s not wise to make any assumptions about availability of aircraft services (e.g. oxygen service). I learned early on to verify everything from availability of fuel to hours of operation.
Courtesy of Covid-19, I have also acquired real-world experience with what the FAA calls “ATC Zero.” This term means lack of ability to provide essential ATC services in a given facility’s jurisdiction. ATC Zero might be declared for technical difficulties or extreme weather. In the current operating environment, it can arise from personnel shortages.
Such was the case a few months ago when an assigned trip sent us to Chicago Midway airport. MDW is normally a bustling south Chicago airport with heavy commercial and business traffic, but it had gone to ATC Zero. As there was no local control (tower), pilots and controllers operated as they would at any other non-towered airport. Chicago approach handled our flight in their airspace, authorizing only one IFR operation to MDW at a time. From final approach inbound we were on our own, self-announcing position and intentions. To depart, we used the phone to get our clearance and IFR release. In short, Midway was ... different. Very different.
Chicago Midway was not the only facility to operate under ATC Zero. Even as things are slowly returning to some version of “normal”, the operating hours at some ATC facilities have been reduced. Since it’s now my job to keep everything moving, I now check the chart supplement (formerly A/FD) to determine how to get an IFR clearance if the tower is closed. Sometimes we can reach ATC on the radio. In other locations, we need to call ATC or Flight Service via the telephone.
Given that my aviation career started in the part 61 flight instruction environment, I have been very interested in seeing how this community is adapting to the many pandemic-driven transitions. My new job takes me to a wide variety of airports, including smaller facilities without part 121 air carrier service. It also provides opportunities to chat while the medical crew retrieves or drops off our passenger patients. So, I take the opportunity to talk with flight instructors to see how they (and their managers) are handling this unusual and unprecedented situation.
The answers are all over the map. One instructor told me he is back to offering one-on-one instruction. He perceived it as a lower risk to work with just one person at a time. Another instructor told me the opposite: she perceived a much higher level of risk in the close quarters of a typical GA training aircraft. Both viewpoints are valid. With the ever-changing flow of information coming from so many sources, each of us has to manage this risk as best we can. Just as in planning for a flight, we use all available information in the context of the specific pilot(s), plane, and plan to identify hazards, evaluate risk, and develop mitigations.
My part 61 colleagues are also working hard to stay abreast of regulatory and other changes. For instance, the FAA has issued several SFARs to provide temporary relief from certain regulations. Aviation organizations are providing information about location-specific circumstances, as well as advice on maintaining or regaining proficiency in these unusual times.
Having been through multiple adjustments of my own, I have a high level of appreciation for the kind of constant adjustments we face in this new operating environment. Because we already know how to evaluate and mitigate risk for any given flight, I am confident that we can successfully – and safely – manage this one as well.
This article is adapted with permission from the original, which appeared in the Professional Flight Instructor “Mentor,” published by the National Association of Flight Instructors (www.nafinet.org/).
Learning A New Airplane
Any move from one plane type to another, whether “up” in complexity, “down” to simplicity, or “across” to a similarly capable aircraft requires a transition training plan. It’s never wise to assume that because we can fly one, we can fly all. We must master not only the stick-and-rudder skills of a new plane, but also the systems, the avionics, the performance characteristics, and the abnormal/emergency procedures. That applies even if you are transitioning to a plane of the same type, because there are usually subtle (or not so subtle) differences in things like panel layout, avionics, and aircraft configurations (e.g. standard vs long-range tanks).
There is always a temptation to make assumptions about skill set, but it is far better to assess than assume. This means taking advantage of transition training with a qualified instructor. In addition to working with an instructor, there are many other transition training resources online. Type clubs, such as those organized for GA aircraft like Bonanza and Cessna and some experimental aircraft are also a valuable source of information about the aircraft.
Some kinds of transition training require that you complete training for a type rating. A type-rating course is generally administered by a part 142 facility using full-motion simulators rather than an actual airplane. Although there are some differences based on the facility, the operator’s training program, and the aircraft, footprint and expectations are generally well known and covered by a detailed syllabus. A typical course includes one to two weeks of ground school covering aircraft systems, a few days of procedure training, and 8-10 simulator training sessions that include a Line Oriented Flight Training (LOFT) session, and a check ride. The check ride for a type rating is conducted according to standards for the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate and includes both an oral exam and a practical test.
After so many years in the instructor/evaluator role, it was a bit of a shock to find myself on the other side of the fence. I quickly developed a new level of empathy for the many pilots who went through our airline’s training program. Yes, I knew it would be a rigorous program. I did not expect to feel overwhelmed by the challenge of learning a new aircraft. But it was overwhelming. For every hour I spent in class or in the simulator, I spent an equivalent amount of time outside of class studying systems, reviewing profiles and procedures, memorizing emergency items, and aircraft limitations. The pace was fast. The aircraft has complex systems, and its performance and handling characteristics are also very different from what I was accustomed to. But, at the end of it all, I left with a new type rating, anxious to get in the airplane and do some real flying.