How often do you make a mistake and wish you had a chance to do it all over again? Well I had that chance through this reader's situation. Perhaps it can come in handy the next time you need to make a course correction when it seems you have little or no control.
— James Albright
There is an old joke about a pompous US Navy aircraft carrier captain getting into a radio dispute with a light house to decide who should change course to avoid a collision. In fact, there are YouTube videos of it: Aircraft Carrier vs Lighthouse. As realistic as that video may seem, it is not true. The story has been around since the 1940s.
My point here, and I do have one, is that changing the course of a very large organization is difficult if you aren't the captain. Even offering a small course correction can be a challenge for the newest member of a flight department when "we've always done it this way" is the answer. Here are a series of emails about just this. I had experienced the exact same situation from a different location in Texas flying to the same locations in Asia and Europe. I got the organization to stop doing what they were doing but it got pretty ugly for a while. So, when offering advice, I finally figured out how to get it done without the loss of political capital.
Top Speed: 30+ knots
Range: Unlimited (nuclear power fuel good for 20 - 25 years)
Crew: 6,012 sailors, marines, and others
Top Speed: Mach 0.85
Range: 4,000 nm
Crew: 2 pilots, 1 flight attendant
Jumping into the Status Quo Ante
Historians like to look at wars with a view to how things were "ante," meaning before. When we move to a new job we are entering a field of battle where the status quo ante is known as "how we've always done it." When faced with such a situation, it is often best to hold your fire and observe. It could be that what seems to be something wrong and different is actually better and different. But what if it is just wrong?
A few years after I wrote my answers to this pilot I came up with a few more thoughts on the subject: B&CA: Paid to Say 'No'
I am having one of those moral/ethical/economic issues with a new job and was hoping you might have some advice that makes everything better. I was a Part 135 Learjet pilot for fifteen years flying just ten minutes from where I grew up when the company went Chapter 11. Then a great deal fell into my lap. The guys in the hangar next door typed me in a brand new Falcon 2000, and almost doubled my pay. They have 12 pilots on 4 airplanes, and all of it Part 91. It was like I won the lottery. But now that I am international qualified, I am seeing things from a different angle.
Last week we flew to London, stayed at a hotel right next to the London Bridge, and had two days to see all the sights. It was great. Then we flew to Munich and it was even better! But then it was time to come home and that's where the problem begins. We flew back in one day! We showed up at the airport at 0500L (0300Z), took off an hour later than planned at 0800L (0600Z), made it to Gander 6.2 hours later 0820L (1220Z), off the ground in 40 minutes and back to Dallas at 1320L (1820Z). So it was a 15-plus hour day. Our rulebook says 14 hours is the limit for a basic crew (2 pilots and a flight attendant) so we busted that big time. I was exhausted. I noticed the captain nod off a few times. I might have too.
I asked the Chief Pilot about this and he said the trip was planned for 14 hours and the only reason we exceeded the duty day limit was the pax showed up an hour late and our turn at Gander wasn't as quick as it could be. He said don't worry about it. Now keep in mind I'm the newest, youngest international pilot they have. I want to be an international captain and am worried that complaining could jeopardize that. But I don't want to do these long days and I sure don't want to be caught falling asleep at the controls! What should I do?
Signed: An Exhausted Fan of Code7700
I had a similar problem with my first civilian job flying Challenger 604s out of Houston (KIAH). I was flying for Compaq Computer and we often flew to Munich where they had a regional headquarters. They had been flying to Munich long before I ever showed up and everyone just accepted it as one of those things we do. The Chief Pilot said he was on my side, but he couldn't very well go to Compaq and say we couldn't do it anymore when we had been doing it for years. I thought about going to our management company with the violation but the CEO resigned and we stopped going to Munich. (It turns out the only reason we were going there was that CEO was from Germany and had family in Munich.) So I never had to pull the trigger, but you might consider that as an option.
Of course that's not going to work if you guys are self-managed. Are you? Another angle is through your Safety Management System program.
We don't have a management company and we don't have an SMS program. Nobody here wants SMS, even though everything I hear is that you have to have one. One of our international captains tells me the company will probably stop going to Munich if we double the crew costs. He said they talk about using the airlines instead for these long trips. As you know, the sooner our passengers get used to first class on the airlines the closer we are to losing the flight department. I think I am getting to be known as a troublemaker. That ain't good.
Signed: Still Exhausted
You might be surprised just how much of a non-event "doubling the crew cost" might be. But even if it is an event to worry about, sometimes the right answer to a situation is the word "no."
But I don't think you are there yet. It could very well be that your Munich trip was an exception. I would document the occurrence, your conversations with leadership, and give them the benefit of the doubt for now. But keep an eye on the schedule for trips planned to the limit. As they say in the Army: no plan survives the enemy.
Six Months Later
I write about having to do 20 hour days and longer when in the Air Force where the rules were often written around some of the units that I flew for. I did one 20-hour day while flying for Compaq Computer and threatened to send my flight logs to the management company. The chief pilot issued new instructions to our dispatchers and pilots to start staging crews on these longer trips. But I was confident I could find another job so it wasn't an act of supreme bravery. I know there are pilots out there who aren't so fortunate.
I write to this pilot about NASA ASRS reports. I no longer think they are the "cure all" we were told to believe they are. I write about that here: B&CA: Absolute Discretion
I remember you said to be patient and that seemed to pay off for a while. We didn't do any more trips that pushed the limits for quite a while. In fact, I got several Asia trips where it seems our normal practice is to preposition crews either in Hawaii or Alaska. And those trips were great! But then I got sent to the lovely island of Santorini, Greece via several overnight stops in Boston, London, and Paris. We had a four days off in Santorini, which were great. Then the lead passenger decided he needed to be back in Dallas as soon as possible. The captain was our chief pilot. You can guess his answer.
Let's see, here is how my day was. We left the hotel at 0600L (0400Z), what the boss calls "butts in the bus time." We took off on time two hours later for our short hop to Athens. Fueling and customs took us two more hours and we finally made it off the ground at 1040L (0840Z). The flight to Ireland was 4+25, we got a quick turn, and were headed oceanic at 1345L (1345Z). Boston took 7+30, customs made us drag bags to the airline terminal and we didn't make it airborne again until 1830L (2230Z). The flight to Dallas was just 3 hours and change so we made it to the chocks at 2040L (0140Z). Yes, that was a 20 hour day by the time we got the airplane into the hangar! I read that you did that a few times in the Air Force when you were "young and stupid." I'm no longer young but I am trying not to be stupid.
Oh yes, I almost forgot. During our Shannon to Boston flight, the boss said "I'm gonna rest my eyes for a bit" and the proceeded to saw logs for two hours. I asked the flight attendant to close the door to the cockpit, just in case the passengers heard. Then I asked her to tap me on the shoulder every few minutes. Next thing I knew she was sleeping on the jump seat!
The chief pilot says this was an example of how we go above and beyond in our jobs and is the reason our jobs exist in the first place. I am thinking about quitting. As you know the job market isn't so good out there, especially if you can't move. We've lived in the same house for fifteen years now. I just don't know what to do. Help!
Signed: More Exhausted Than Ever
Wow. Believe it or not, I flew almost exactly the same start and end points about ten years ago in a single day, was so upset that I threatened to turn the Chief Pilot into our company, the FAA, and the Pope. He backed down and for a time it seemed like I won the battle. The rest of the pilots thought I was a hero. But my relationship with the Chief Pilot was forever damaged and things only got worse. I realize now that a better plan was to somehow get him to realize just how risky his actions were. Maybe you can do better than I did. So I've given this a lot of thought.
I was thinking that the first thing to do was to fill out a NASA ASRS report. That at least gets into "the record" your role in all this. But then I was thinking about ways to get your chief pilot's "mind right." I think you should consider writing the ASRS report in a way that says you both got caught up in the need to hack the mission and the delays along the way were unexpected. Then include that by the time you realized "you both" had made a mistake, you were already en route on the final leg of the trip. You both feel awful that it happened and are trying to come up with ways to keep it from happening again. Then send that in. Then drop a copy with a note in the Chief Pilot's in box. Don't do this in person. If you are face to face his first reaction could be defensive. But if your note says something that indicates you are a team player, he may look at this another way. Something like this: "Hey boss, I was thinking that our passengers might brag to someone how they got back from Greece in 20 hours because they have better pilots than most and they can count on us for this kind of thing. If the wrong people get wind of this, it could get us into trouble. I think we should both fill out ASRS reports to protect us. In any case, I've already done this so that might be good enough for us both." He might react negatively but I bet if he thinks about it, it might just be a way for him to save face and rethink his duty time philosophy. Worth a shot, eh?
And Finally . . .
I don't always hear back from readers about advice given and taken, but sometimes I do . . .
I know it has been a while since I wrote, I've been so busy flying and things have been going pretty well that I just forgot. My bad.
Long story short: your advice worked (I think). I wrote the ASRS report and the note and left that on the Chief Pilot's desk. He never responded. In fact, to this day he has never mentioned it. But in the five months since our Santorini trip, we've never again had a trip anywhere close to the limits. We have been prepositioning crews to Boston or Bedford, Massachusetts routinely. But the real test came last week. We had a crew in Italy scheduled to fly to London, spend the night, and then back home the next day. The passengers canceled the London stop a day before the return flight. The Chief Pilot had me and another pilot airline to Bedford with minimum notice, so we could have enough crew rest to take the second leg from the original crew.
It would have been a long day for the first crew if the Chief Pilot didn't get us to Bedford in time. The pilot I was paired with thinks of himself as the assistant chief pilot, even though we don't have that position formally in our manual. But he was worried that the passenger, our company CEO, might think we were wasting company resources. But when we both showed up the CEO said he was happy to see us, because he wanted to be sure his pilots were well rested. In fact, he said "safety first, that's our motto." I'm loving this job.
Signed: No Longer Exhausted