After a year and a half of concerted effort, I’ve finally completed my initial training and earned my private pilot certificate in early November. It’s a great feeling!
For those who’ve been following along on my adventures at Galvin Flying, it’s been a long process of successes and setbacks, many of which were weather related because I live in the Pacific Northwest, where the local joke says that it only rains once a year — it starts raining in late October and stops raining on July 5 (it always seems to rain on July 4).
In case you ever wondered what the track of a checkride looks like, here you go. Screen capture courtesy FlightRadar24
Anyway, I did several mock checkrides in the weeks leading up to the actual FAA one, and had to complete Galvin’s end-of-course checkride before that. The end-of-course checks are designed to be more difficult than the actual checkride to ensure that pilot candidates are as prepared as possible.
The FAA examiner, also known as a designated pilot examiner or DPE, selects from a long list of information and flight maneuvers for the actual checkride known as the Airman Certification Standards. The check airman who oversees the end-of-course checks runs through the entire list to be sure you’re ready.
Both checks consist of a lengthy ground session to review the rules, regulations, and related information found in the federal FAR/AIM manual, plus aviation decision making, route finding, and so on. Then a flight to be sure you can fly all the required maneuvers to standards. The evaluations also require a very thorough flight plan to a randomly-assigned airport.
My FAA checkride assignment was to do a detailed VFR flight plan for the 200+ miles from Boeing Field in Seattle to Felts Field in Spokane, a route which included mountain flying. You don’t actually fly the whole route on the checkride; the planning is done primarily to assess your route-finding, weather assessment, and planning skills, although you do fly the first couple of legs of your plan on the checkrides.
My assigned aircraft for the checkride was this fine C172SP
If successful in the classroom, then it’s off to the flightline, where you’re evaluated on everything from how well you perform the pre-flighting of the aircraft, to your decision as to whether it’s safe to fly that day. Once that’s done and you’ve received taxi clearance and completed the pre-takeoff run-up and checklists, it’s off to fly the first couple of legs of your assigned flight plan. That went well, so I was asked to divert to a randomly-selected local airport, in this case Paine Field (KPAE) in Everett, Wash., which is designed to test your ability to create a new flight plan while in the air, along with being able to pinpoint your current location on the paper chart.
A Seattle sectional chart, the paper flight logs, and the first page of the briefing I wrote up for my checkride
Candidates are allowed to use any technology available for planning, so I roughed out the route in ForeFlight, which is a most excellent flight-planning tool for pilots. Examiners are notorious for “failing” any technology a pilot candidate is using, which means they’ll tell you, typically at a crucial moment during the flight, that whatever tech you were using just broke and disallow you from continuing to use it, which sends you scrambling for your paper charts and paper flight plan.
So, it’s safest to primarily use the paper charts and use the tech as the backup for the checkride, as you are also responsible for being able to competently use whatever equipment happens to be installed in your particular aircraft.
This was my proposed route from Seattle to Spokane for my checkride. Screenshot is from ForeFlight
The DPE asked me to perform several maneuvers, including slow flight, power-off and power-on stalls, turns around a point, and steep turns. After that, I had to put on a hood that restricted my vision such that I couldn’t see out the windows and could only see the instruments, then I was asked to perform several accurate course and altitude changes using only the instruments while maintaining proper control of the aircraft.
We then returned to Boeing Field, where I had to perform several different types of landings and takeoffs – short field, soft field, and normal.
A checkride is not considered to be complete until the aircraft is properly parked on the ramp and the engine-shutdown checklist is complete. It was at that point the examiner turned to me and said, “congratulations – your checkride was successful and you’re now a pilot.”
So, I’ve already started getting checked out in the Diamond DA-40 with the G1000 glass cockpit; next step will be to begin instrument training after the first of the year
Less than a week after that, I started training to fly the Diamond DA-40, a plane I’ve been admiring all through training. Weather and schedule conflicts had conspired such that I’ve still not gone flying on my own as a certificated pilot, but that’s gonna happen soon, not to worry, … once this rain lets up.
EDITOR-AT-LARGE – SEATTLE, WA Francis Zera is a Seattle-based architectural, aerial, aviation, and commercial photographer, a freelance photojournalist, and a confirmed AvGeek.
MOSTLY, this has been an exercise in stress. I suppose that’s an ambiguous term, so constituently we’re talking about fear, dread, and uncertainty. Not a fear of the virus. Coming down with COVID-19 isn’t what scares me. What scares me is what the airline business might look like by the time things settle out — whenever that might be.
Particularly astonishing was the speed at which things went to hell. In February, three friends and I were relaxing around a swimming pool in the Philippines talking about the size of our profit sharing checks and contemplating which aircraft we might bid in the months ahead. Within days — days! — the entire industry would be avalanched by panic and brought to a virtual halt.
The first three months were the worst. March, April, and May. Scant few flights were operating, and nobody had the slightest idea what lay ahead. These were some of the most stressful days of my life. Since then, things have settled into a certain routine. It’s not a happy routine by any stretch, and little about it feels normal. It’s just a routine.
If nothing else, I’ve kept busy. You might be surprised to hear that I’ve been spending more time aloft than ever. I’ve flown more in the past four months than in any four-month period of my entire career. Since June I’ve been to Europe twice, Africa five times, and back and forth across the country more times than I can count.
Normally I’m not the most ambitious pilot. The ancillary hassles of the job encourage me to keep my schedule light: the delays, the hellishness of airports, and the enormous stress of commuting between the city I fly from (New York) and the city where I live (Boston). Because of all this, I might be on the road for only eleven or twelve days in a month. That’s good for 60 or 70 pay-hours; the average pilot aims closer to 80. But these aren’t normal times. Suddenly airports are quiet, delays are nonexistent, commuting is a breeze. It’d be perverse to say that flying is “better” than ever, but certainly it’s easier. Easier for all the wrong reasons, but it’s a way to keep my head up and maintain a sense of normalcy. So I’ve been doing it as much as I can.
Besides, there’s little else to do. What is life now but a morass of masks and placards and hysterical protocols. I’ve come to dread the most innocuous of tasks and errands, like a trip to Trader Joe’s or a walk to the Post Office. And the extent to which the American public seems to have acquiesced to all of this leaves me fearful of the future. Hence, I’m happier on the job, where I feel engaged and useful, than I am at home, where I’m apt to stew and wallow.
Though here too, the damage is visible at every turn: the empty planes, the desolate concourses and shuttered shops. A stroll through an airport in the COVID era is, on the one hand, a relaxing one, free of the usual ruckuses and long lines. On the other hand it’s a way of beholding just how massively this crisis has impacted commercial aviation. There’s a fine line between peaceful and haunting. It’s nice to be free of the noise and crowds. But for an airline employee, it’s also a little terrifying.
Then we have the small things, annoyances are at once petty and aggravating. Like the endless stream of COVID-related public address announcements. Or the fact that every hotel room amenity now comes wrapped in plastic (because this somehow “saves lives,” and because if the world needs one thing it’s more plastic waste). Or needing to strategize over how to score food during layovers in locked-down cities.
There’s little to feel optimistic about, though at least I’m busy.
Not all pilots have this opportunity. Huge swaths of the pilot ranks have been sitting idle. Seniority is everything at an airline, and I’m high enough on the roster to avoid this fate, but many of my colleagues haven’t set foot in a cockpit in weeks or even months. Airlines are utilizing different fleets at different rates; at a given carrier, 767 crews might be busier than A320 crews, for example, or vice-versa. Some airlines have been operating long-haul cargo charters, which is keeping their biggest planes — and their pilots — surprisingly busy. Other fleets, meanwhile, have been shut down almost entirely, meaning those pilots are doing nothing.
The job itself is little different, but now has the added challenge of keeping focused in a time of angst and worry. Before every takeoff is a crew briefing, where we talk through any threats or difficulties that might lie ahead. Most of these spiels now include a line or two about concentration. “We’re all a little distracted, so let’s remember to follow procedures and stay disciplined…”
My take on this whole mess is no doubt tempered by earlier career hardships. I’ve been through two airline bankruptcies, one of which resulted in the company liquidating, and in the wake of the terror attacks of 2001 I spent five years on furlough. That’s airline talk for being laid off. I was in my mid-thirties at the time, in the middle of what customarily would be a pilot’s “prime-earning years.” Instead of saving money and making a good living, I scraped by as a freelance writer. This was, in a sense, an adventurous and successful half-decade; had I not lost my flying job, it’s unlikely the “Ask the Pilot” enterprise, or my book along with it, would ever have come to be. But despite the accolades, the book tour to Rome, the TV crews that often came to visit and the satisfaction of having used my improvisational talents to spin a little gold from a rotten situation, this was a long and financially bleak hiatus.
And when a pilot is out of work, for whatever reason, he or she cannot simply slide over to another airline and pick up where they left off. The way airline seniority systems work, there is no sideways transfer of benefits or salary. If you move to a different company, you begin again at the bottom, at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of how much experience you have. You lose everything. So any threats to our jobs or companies make us very nervous.
Five years on the street left me in a career no-man’s land, and upended my whole sense of self as a professional. Was I even a pilot any more? When I finally was called back, early in 2007, all I knew for sure is that I never wanted to live through that again.
And I didn’t expect to. Oh, sure, for any airline worker who endures a crisis — a furlough, a merger, a bankruptcy — nothing is ever again certain or taken for granted. No matter how rosy things are the moment, there’s always a hum of dread, a shoe waiting to drop, in the back of your mind. But this? This? Nobody foresaw a cataclysm of such speed or magnitude.
I have my ways of dealing with it. Others have theirs. On and on it goes.
I’m never sure how to answer that question. I had my private pilot’s license at nineteen, but is that the proper benchmark? For a number of years after that, building time as an instructor, I flew nothing bigger than a single-engine four-seater. Define “pilot,” I guess.
What most people are getting at, I think, is how long I’ve been an airline pilot. And the answer to that one is easy: thirty years. Thirty years to the day, in fact.
I vividly remember “the call.” Nowadays it’s more likely to be a letter, or an email, but in those days it was always a call. It was the summer of 1990, and I remember the phone ringing. I remember standing in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, where I still lived at the time, and picking up the receiver, hoping it was the airline at the other end. And I can recall, pretty much verbatim, the entire conversation between me and a secretary named Vanessa Higgins, as she told me I’d been selected for class. I should report for training on Monday, August 28th, Vanessa explained. The adrenaline rush almost knocked me to the floor.
I date my 30th anniversary not to the moment of that phone call, or to the day, a few months later, when I lifted off the runway with passengers for the first time. To me, it’s the day that I showed up for classroom training, in a rented schoolroom in downtown Bangor, Maine. That was the day I became an employee. Our instructor was a young pilot named Ubi Garcez, who today is a captain for Delta Air Lines. He welcomed us, allowed us to dispense with our neckties, and issued our ID badges, which in those days were little more than pieces of laminated cardboard on which Vanessa had hand-typed our names. My employee number was 421. And typed across the bottom was my date of hire: August 28, 1990 — probably the most significant day of my life, save for my birthday.
The company was an upstart outfit called Northeast Express Regional Airlines. We were one of the feeder affiliates for Northwest. Our planes, painted in red, said “Northwest Airlink” on the side. The company had been started in Maine, and kept its offices there, but its hub was in Boston, where our small turboprops would bring passengers in from outlying cities and connect them to Northwest’s Boeings and Douglases headed around the country and overseas.
This was the shittiest of shitty airlines. The planes were old and working conditions dismal. My starting salary was $850 per month, gross, and my first aircraft, the Beech-99, was a relic from the 1960s. It had no pressurization or autopilot, and most of its instruments and radios were the same ones I’d seen in the cockpits of the Pipers and Cessnas I’d flown as a novice. But none of that mattered. Salary, working conditions — those things meant nothing to me. All that mattered was to be sitting in that room, with that stupid-looking ID clipped to my pocket.
Pilot jobs in those days were exceptionally competitive. At twenty-four I was the third-youngest in our class of about a dozen. And with 1,600 or so flight hours I was one of the least experienced. I was fortunate to be there at all. I would study the others, wondering where and how I fit in. To this day I remember most of their names and can still hear their accents. One guy had flown business jets, another had flown 727s at Eastern. No, this wasn’t the major leagues. To make a baseball analogy, it was like getting to play for a last-place team at Triple-A in front of about 35 fans. But it was pro ball, so to speak. I’d made it. I was an airline pilot now.
Page from the author’s logbook, 1991.
My first “revenue flight,” to use a common if charmless aviation term, didn’t come for another three months. It would take place on October 21, 1990, a date promptly immortalized in yellow highlighter in my logbook. This cherished day involved, among other misfortunes, a drive to Sears at 9:30 in the morning, an hour before my sign-in time, because I’d already lost my tie. (And then the clerk’s face when I told him, “plain black” and “polyester, not silk.”). Then the big moment, in a thickening overcast just before noon, when I would depart on the prestigious Manchester, New Hampshire, to Boston route — a fifteen-minute run frequented, as you’d expect, by Hollywood stars, sheikhs, and dignitaries.
The plane was too tiny for a flight attendant, and I had to close the cabin door myself. Performing this maneuver on my inaugural morning, I turned the handle to secure the latches as trained, deftly and quickly in one smooth motion. What I didn’t see was the popped screw beneath the fitting, across which I would drag all five of my knuckles, cutting myself badly. The door was in the very back, and so I came hobbling up the aisle, stooping to avoid the low ceiling, with my hand wrapped in a bloody napkin.
It was oddly and improbably apropos that my inaugural flight would touch down at Logan International. Airline pilots, especially those new at the game, tend to be migrants, moving from city to city as the tectonics of a seniority list dictate. It’s a rare thing to find yourself operating your very first flight into the airport you grew up with. And I mean that — “grew up with” — in a way that only an airplane nut will understand. As I maneuvered the past the Tobin Bridge and along the approach to runway 15R, I squinted toward the parking lot rooftops and the observation deck from which, as a kid, I’d spent so many hours with binoculars. Looking down, I was watching me watch myself, in a sense, celebrating this weird, deeply emotional culmination of nostalgia and accomplishment. If only my hand wasn’t bleeding so much.
View of New York City from a Beech-99, circa 1991. Author’s photo.
Noisy and slow, the Beech-99 was a ridiculous anachronism kept in service by a bottom-feeder airline and its tightfisted owner. It had rectangular cabin windows that gave it a vintage, almost antique look, like the windows in a 19th-Century railroad car. Passengers at Logan would show up planeside in a red bus about twice the size of the plane. Expecting a 757, they were dumped at the foot of a fifteen-passenger wagon built during the Age of Aquarius. I’d be stuffing paper towels into the cockpit window frames to keep out the rainwater while businessmen came up the stairs cursing their travel agents. They’d sit, seething, refusing to fasten their seat belts and hollering up to cockpit.
“Let’s go! What are you guys doing?”
“I’m preparing the weight and balance manifest, sir.”
“We’re only going to goddamn Newark! What the hell do you need a manifest for?”
And so on. But this was my dream job, so I could only be so embarrassed. Besides, the twelve grand a year was more than I’d been making as a flight instructor.
In addition to just enough money for groceries and car insurance, my job provided the vicarious thrill of our nominal affiliation with Northwest. Our twenty-five or so little planes, like Northwest’s 747s and DC-10s, were done up handsomely in gray and red. Alas, the association ran no deeper — important later, when the paychecks started bouncing — but for now I would code-share my way to glory. When girls asked which airline I flew for, I would answer “Northwest,” with a borderline degree of honesty.
Our uniforms were surplus from the old Bar Harbor Airlines. The owner, Mr. Caruso, had also been the owner at Bar Harbor, and I suspect he had a garage full of remainders. Bar Harbor had been something of a legendary commuter airline in a parochial, New England sort of way, before finally it was eaten by Lorenzo’s Continental. As a kid in the late ’70s I would sit in the backyard and watch those Bar Harbor turboprops going by, one after another, whirring up over the hills of Eastie and Revere. A dozen years later I was handed a vintage Bar Harbor suit, threadbare at the knees and elbows. The lining of my jacket was safety-pinned in place and looked as if a squirrel had chewed the lapels. Some poor Bar Harbor copilot had worn the thing to shreds, tearing the pockets and getting the shoulders soaked with oil and jet fuel. I’m fairly sure it had never been laundered. Standing with my fellow new-hires in our new (old) outfits for a group picture, we looked like crewmembers you might see stepping from a Bulgarian cargo plane on the apron at Entebbe.
A Metroliner of Northeast Express, 1994. Author’s photo.
My second plane was the Fairchild Metroliner, a faster and somewhat more sophisticated machine. It was a long, skinny turboprop that resembled a dragonfly, known for its tight quarters and annoying idiosyncrasies. At the Fairchild factory down in San Antonio, the guys with the pocket protectors had faced a challenge: how to take nineteen passengers and make them as uncomfortable as possible. Answer: stuff them side by side into a 6-foot-diameter tube. Attach a pair of the loudest turbine engines ever made, the Garrett TPE-331, and go easy on the soundproofing. All of this for a mere $2.5 million a copy. As captain of this beastly machine, it was my duty not only to safely deliver passengers to their destinations, but also to hide in shame from those chortling and spewing insults: “Does this thing really fly?” and “Man, who did you piss off?”
The answer to that first question was sort of. The Metroliner was equipped with a pair of minimally functioning ailerons and a control wheel in need of a placard marking it “for decorative purposes only.” It was sluggish and unresponsive, is what I’m saying. Somewhere out there is a retired Fairchild engineer feeling very insulted. He deserves it.
Like the 99, the Metro was too small for a cockpit door, allowing for nineteen backseat drivers whose gazes spent more time glued to the instruments than ours did. One particular pilot, whose identity I’ll leave you to guess, had doctored up one of his chart binders with these prying eyes in mind. On the front cover, in oversized stick-on letters, he’d put the words HOW TO FLY, and would stow the book on the floor in full view of the first few rows. During flight he’d pick it up and flip through the pages, eliciting some hearty laughs — or shrieks.
In the spring of 1993 I graduated from the Metro to the De Havilland Dash-8. The Dash was a boxy, thirty-seven-passenger turboprop and the biggest thing I’d ever laid my hands on. A new one cost $20 million, and it even had a flight attendant. Only thirteen pilots in the entire company were senior enough to hold a captain’s slot. I was number thirteen. I went for my checkride on July 7th, shortly after my twenty-sixth birthday. For the rest of the summer, I would call the schedulers every morning, begging for overtime. Getting to fly the Dash was a watershed. This was the real thing, an “airliner” in the way the Metro or the 99 could never be, and of all the planes I’ve flown, large or small, it remains my sentimental favorite.
I flew the Dash only briefly, and Northeast Express would be around only for another year. Things began to sour in the spring of ’94. Northwest, unhappy with our reliability, would not renew our contract. We were in bankruptcy by May, and a month later the airline collapsed outright.
The end came on a Monday. I remember that day as vividly as I remember my bloody-knuckle inaugural in New Hampshire four years earlier. No, this wasn’t the collapse of Eastern or Braniff or Pan Am, and I was only twenty-seven, with a whole career ahead of me; still it was heartbreaking — the sight of police cruisers circling our planes, flight attendants crying, and apron workers flinging suitcases into heaps on the tarmac. Thus the bookends of my first airline job were, each in their own way, emotional and unforgettable. That second one, though, I could have done without.
Dash-8 at Kennedy Airport, 1993. Author’s photo.
I have only a few mementos from that job. A few scraps of paper, a set of wings, a coffee mug, and a tiny number of poor-quality photos, not one of which, for better or worse, shows the Beech-99.
From that final day at Northeast Express through today, it’s been both an uphill and downhill journey. Many years and five airlines later, I finally made it to the major leagues — to the New York Yankees, as it were, to revisit my baseball analogy. Along the way I’ve endured bankruptcies, multi-year furloughs, and now the COVID-19 debacle that, for all I know at this point, could end the game completely. Highlights, lowlights, life-defining thrills and crushing disappointments, it’s all packed in there.
And it continues. I judge my career as a successful one — I made it further than most pilots do — and it remains a work in progress. However and whenever it reaches its conclusion, at the beginning of it all — and really at the heart of it all — is that first day of class in 1990. Thirty years ago today.
A beautiful Qantas Boeing 747-400 – Photo: Owen Zupp
This is a guest post written by Owen Zupp, who has previously written a few great stories on AirlineReporter. Zupp’s background ranges from charter work and flight instruction to ferry flights, flight testing, and he has served as both a Chief Pilot and Chief Flying Instructor. With over 25 years in airline operations, Owen has flown both domestically and across the globe from his Australian base. He holds a Masters Degree in Aviation Management and his writings on aviation have been published around the world and received various accolades and awards. He is also just a cool guy! -Editor
When it comes to the QANTAS Boeing 747, as the Beatles famously sang, “I heard the news, today. Oh boy!” …. although not officially. There may be life in the old girl yet.
The news broadcasts were showing footage of the “Queen of the Skies” making a flypast of Sydney Harbour, proclaiming that it was the final commercial service for the 747 in QANTAS colors. Meanwhile, my website and phone were bombarded with a common theme, “Is it true?” To be honest, I believe that it is highly likely, although I am yet to see an official announcement.
Since the commencement of the Stand Down, I have doubted whether the QANTAS 747 would return into commercial operations when the pandemic has passed. It has been a fine servant to the airways and all that it has safely conveyed, however, its planned retirement was well underway, before Covid-19 ever took its vile grip on the world. Still, there is no official statement to say that the 747 has retired from commercial service with QANTAS. Even so, it seems an opportune time to reflect on ‘the Queen”, as she is set to be on the ground for the time being.
The second best seats are in the nose – Photo: Owen Zupp
Personally, I had never intended to fly internationally – let alone on the 747. I had only ever wanted to be a domestic airline pilot and fly short-haul routes in something like a 737. In fact, not long before I started training on the 747, I parked at Darwin after a 5-hour flight in the Baby Boeing and wondered how the long haul pilots did it – sitting up all night, dragging their butts across the Pacific. And then Ansett collapsed, and I found myself in that very role. That being said, the “Queen of the Skies”, literally took me to places that I could only ever have dreamed of in my two stints on her flight deck.
I’ve flown the corridor through Afghanistan as the war raged beneath, liaising with US military’s “Early Warning” aircraft and their operator with the long Texan drawl. I’ve descended over the English Channel in the pre-dawn darkness having crossed Western Europe. As we slid past the Thames, I couldn’t help but think of the young bomber crews limping home through the same airspace in the dark days of World War Two. East of Honolulu, I’ve witnessed a rocket launch from Vandenburg and south of 60 degrees, marveled at the “magnificent desolation” of Antarctica.
A Qantas Boeing 747-200 photographed in 1982 in Manchester – Photo: Ken Fielding
On the ground, I have regularly cycled the Golden Gate Bridge and swum in the waters of Waikiki. Alcatraz, the Statue of Liberty, the Tower of London, the Japanese Imperial Palace and every type of museum you can imagine. I have lunched by the Rhine River in Germany and dined at Sunset as the collection of rare, antique aircraft swept past to orchestral accompaniment at Old Warden in the UK. I have flown over Pearl Harbor in a warbird and hovered over San Francisco in a helicopter. And I have travelled with Kirrily to many of these destinations. We have watched fireworks burst over San Francisco Bay on New Year’s Eve and stayed in a 13th Century German castle. We have landed on lakes and traversed a small glacier near Vancouver and taken in the view from Diamond Head.
For both of us, life has never been about the “stuff” – the material things. It has been about the experiences and even better, the shared experiences.
In a way that I never could have imagined, flying the Boeing 747 has made my life’s journey so rich. The memories that have been created through the sights, the places and the people are so many that I strain to squeeze in even a small portion into these words.
So, if the Boeing 747 has indeed flown its last flight as the “Queen of the Skies” for QANTAS, then a chapter of our lives has certainly closed and Kirrily and I will find ourselves once again looking to the future and a new aircraft. However, wherever we finally land, our memories of the 747 and what it brought to our lives will be with us forever.
Farewell, old girl? Let’s wait and see.
Longreach, a Qantas 747-400 gets towed into the sunset – Photo: Neuwieser | FlickrCC
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short approach – short video 😉
climb into the cockpit of this Cessna 172 and enjoy this short approach 😉
on downwind for runway 28 in Nuremberg (EDDN) we were advised to do a short approach. Always exciting with a sharper turn into the final. The landing wasn't one of my smoothest though… 😉
for information on how to obtain your own privat pilot license check out: www.eddn.de
How to become a pilot can be done in different ways. To become a privat pilot with a private pilot license is often the best way to start. You can then take extra courses if you would like to become ie. an airline pilot. For a private pilot license you must pass a theoretical and practical test. Enerything explained if you follow the link up here. Want to see more flying videos go here