Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Air Cadets

On Monday night I gave a talk to a local Air Cadet Squadron about becoming a pilot in Canada. Over all I think it went pretty well. While there were some poor cadets who had no interest whatsoever in becoming a pilot (and hence probably didn't find the talk that interesting) it was refreshing to see the enthusiasm that a number of the cadets had about flying. The Squadron's Warrant Officer (highest ranking cadet) had recently been accepted for a Power Course (getting his Private Pilot's Licence) and you could tell how excited he was. Mixed in with the excitement, I was very pleased to see that most of the cadets were very level headed and realistic about the realities of a career as a pilot. You can tell that they are going to be successful with whatever they decide to do with their lives.

It's been called one of Canada's best kept secrets and I have to agree. The Royal Canadian Air Cadets is a really interesting organization that I think all young teenagers should look into if they have even the slightest interest in aviation. When I was growing up, I unfortunately didn't have any friends in Air Cadets and didn't really hear about them until I was in my mid to late teens by which time it would have been very difficult to earn a flying scholarship.

The Schweizer 2-33 Glider used for the Royal Canadian Air Cadets gliding program

From a flying perspective, the biggest draw to the Air Cadets is the opportunity to be selected for a Power and/or Glider Course. The Cadets who are accepted for these courses are able to earn their Glider or Private Pilot (Aeroplane) Licence paid for by the cadets organization. This is a great deal.

Not only do cadets get the opportunity to earn their licences, there are also many other courses and skills camps that they can go to in the summer and chances for international exchanges - all generally free of cost.

Best of all is the networking opportunities that will be there for you later in your life. When I lived in Thompson, I lived in a house with 4 other pilots, all of whom had been Air Cadets. They had known a lot of the same people and it definitely helped them in the job hunt.

Air Cadets is not all fun and games though. The Air Cadets are a branch of the Department of National Defence. While there isn't really any pressure for cadets to join the Armed Forces when they get older, military ideals for discipline are taught. Uniforms must be ironed and boots have to be shined. There are drills and parade where cadets have to march in step and follow commands. While I feel that this type of discpline is helpful to learn, it is not for everybody.

Although cadets are open to young adults from the ages fo 12 to 18 years old, it may be difficult to be selected to get your glider or Private Licence if you join later. I would highly recommend that anybody between the ages of 12 and 16 who is thinking about being a pilot, look into the Royal Canadian Air Cadets.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

To Go, or Not to Go - That is the Question

I returned from a much needed vacation on the weekend to find that my most recent issue of Flying Magazine had arrived in the mail. I quite enjoy reading Flying. Although it is an American publication, most of the articles are very interesting and relevant to non-US aviators. As well, being able to briefly ignore the fact that I owe lots of student loans, their aircraft reviews allow me to dream about what aircraft I'll purchase when I'm independently wealthy - whenever that happens. It's funny, I'm not that into buying 'stuff', but I sure would love to own an airplane.

One of the articles this month was No, No, I Won't Go by Tom Benson. It outlines Tom's decision of whether or not to make a trip in his own personal aircraft to have some scheduled maintenance work done. Tom makes some really interesting points on how to determine whether to go or not.

He states: The go/no go decision is an easy one to make when the conditions are so ominous that the choice is obvious. The hardest decisions occur when things "aren't that bad," "might improve" or "this isn't that much worse than the time I did it before." This quote hits the nail right on the head. When I was flying the C206 and C207 VFR doing charter work it was the days that were just on the cusp on being bad weather days that I hated the most. Especially when you have paying passengers who need to get to an important meeting, simiply deciding not to go because the weather is borderline is not always a good solution.

There is an oft used saying in Aviation "The hardest part about flying is knowing when to say 'No'"

So, when do you say 'No'?

In his article, Tom outlines some ways in which he decides if he wants to go or not - flipping a coin but then examining if that was the answer he wanted. Different things work for different people. I had a couple of different methods for deciding when to go or not (in a VFR scenario). If you're an experienced pilot and have other strategies I'd be interested to hear them in the comments section.

For me, the first thing I would do, if possible, would be to talk to the passengers. Let them know that the weather is so/so and there may be the possibility that we'd have to turn back, or it'll be really bumpy etc. Sometimes the passengers were fairly nervous flyers, so they'd decide that they didn't want to go.

As an aside, I once had a flight instructor who was flying corporate charters. He had a passenger that really really wanted to get to a meeting. Along the flight path however, there were some thunderstorms building up and the whole flight looked to be very turbulent. The passenger wanted to go anyways and threatened to take his business somewhere else if my instructor didn't do the flight. Right near the departure airport, the turbulence wasn't too bad. So, my instructor took off and then after leveling off, created some turbulence of his own by osillating the controls causing a very unpleasant ride for the passenger. After a couple of minutes, the passenger called to the pilot "you were right, this turbulence is really bad - let's go back!" While I don't necessarily recommend purposely trying to make your passengers sick, sometimes being a pilot requires you to find creative ways to say 'No'.

After checking with the passengers, I'd then go and look at my back up plans. The thing about flying is to always have 'an Ace up your sleeve'. I'd always be thinking about what my options were once I was in the air. If the weather got crappy at a particular point, what would I have to do to make it safely to the ground? Were there alternate airports near by? What's the terrain like? What's my way out? If I wasn't comfortable with those answers, that's when I'd say No.

There have unfortunately been many young pilots who didn't say No when they should have and they and their passengers paid the ultimate price.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Owning Up

In early November 2002, I had just found out that after working on the 'ramp' for 15 months loading bags, cargo, setting up seats and cleaning, that I would finally be moving up to a flying position as a First Officer on one of my airline's medevac Cessna Conquest II's. I was excited!

Working the ramp was a challenge and was hard work, but it was not what I spent 3 years in College training towards. I was training towards being a pilot. I still tried to do a good job though.

At my airline, cargo was a separate department. I was technically responsible for baggage, not the cargo. Although I did try and help the cargo guys load, there was often a lack of communication between departments.

One evening, after cargo had gone home, I was checking the aircraft to make sure they were empty. I noticed that there was still a big tool bag on the plane. "Hmmm, that's not right" I thought. There were no more scheduled departures that I knew about so I unloaded the bag and placed it in the cargo warehouse.

The next day I was chatting with a colleague on MSN Messenger. He mentioned that the other night there was an emergency charter flight by some workers from the Hydro company to a remote reserve that had lost all it's power. There were only two passengers and a bag of tools, but when they arrived at the destination, the bag of tools wasn't there. This was a very expensive charter and made the company look really bad. According to my colleague, 'heads were going to roll in cargo'.

After the conversation, I was thinking.
"Wow, that's not good, I thought ...... wait a second..... oh no..... oh CRAP!....I was the one who unloaded the bag!"

Now I had to figure out what to do. Although I had been the cause of the screw up, I didn't technically do anything wrong. The cargo and charter division did not tell me about another flight and I was supposed to check the planes before I left. But still, being just a week away from starting as a pilot, I didn't want to risk being fired. At the same time, I didn't want to risk having one of my friends fired.

I called the Charter Supervisor. I explained that I was the one that took the tools out of the aircraft. I approached it as simply explaining what I had been doing. I didn't try to make excuses, but at the same time I made it clear that no one had told me about this extra flight. Although she was upset, she knew that I was a good worker and that I wasn't being careless in doing what I did.

In the end, I made the right choice to explain what happened. In this situation it was going to be trouble if the proper explanation didn't get out. In many situations, covering things up will usually make the consequences worse. But still, in an industry like aviation, it can be tough to admit your mistakes when you screw up. It might not be necessary to try and recount every mistake you've ever made to someone else - Aviation is all about learning from your mistakes. But as a pilot, when something goes wrong, it is your duty to take responsibility for it.

Monday, May 5, 2008


A couple of days ago I was lying on the beach at Platis Gialos in Mykonos, Greece. (Also the reason why I haven't blogged in a while)

While there, by fluke, we ran into another law student from Dalhousie. She was mentioning that earlier that day she had met some people on the beach who were corporate pilots based in Italy. They flew a private jet for the owner of a popular retail clothing line and they were currently relaxing on the beach waiting to fly him back. Must be nice!

The ability to travel and see interesting places is one of the biggest perks of being a pilot. Often, this travel takes place while you're essentially still working - a layover. To save money, airlines are generally reducing the amount of layovers pilots get, however, pilots still get to travel and spend a lot more time in distance places than the average person.

In his book, From The Flightdeck: Plane Talk and Sky Science, Doug Morris talks about a few of the interesting layovers that he's had. The most exciting of which is his trip to the Taj Mahal. These trips can be interesting and a great way to go exploring.

The pilot's life isn't all fun travel though. There are downsides to having layovers. You're often not able to travel with your signifcant other, your timeisn't necessarily your own, you're away from home and in reality, most layovers involve a lot of waiting around at various airport hotels not close to the action.

But still, getting paid to lay on the beach would be nice!