Skyhawk Aviation

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Hell finally freezes over

In total, 23 years, 3 months and 29 days to be precise. That’s the time it took from when I first sat in the left seat of that Cessna C150, ZS-JKK, for my first introductory flight, to when I was signed out as Commander on the A320, ZS-SZZ.

Of those 8521 intervening days, 561 of them were spent in the air, and the balance was spent on all the supporting nonsense that appears to be mandatory to satisfy one’s bizarre fixation with all things aeronautical and make reasonable advancement of one’s career. I suppose a bit of normal life transpired in that period as well, as a wife and kids seem to feature fairly prominently. However, their lives, much like mine, have been lived around the disruptive lifestyle that is the lot of the professional pilot.

After sixty-eight hours in the Level D simulator, I was declared safe enough to be allowed near the real aeroplane. The training is comprehensive enough and realistic enough that the first time I got to strap the thing to my backside, I had around 120 trusting souls behind me, quietly oblivious to the fact that this was my very first takeoff in the actual aircraft. As fate would have it, on that very first rotation, Mother Nature decided to remind me who was actually in control, and positioned a large-ish bird exactly at my eye-level as the wheels left the tarmac of runway 03 left.

The resultant splat accompanied us to Ndola, Zambia. Due to the fact that we have no ground technicians stationed there, and the Captain is required to sign out the aircraft for the return sector, I found myself hanging out the front left window scrubbing away with a business-class serviette to remove the evidence. I was surprised at how it stank. I don’t know what its final meal was – but it couldn’t have been Vegan. After an external check to see if that bird had any similarly suicidal-minded accomplices, I assured myself with my own signature that the aircraft was fit to return to service.

It literally snowed – in no small measure – on the day of my management check, which was the culmination of my 16 training sectors. In fact, at times, it appeared to be a full-blown blizzard, and I found myself assessing conditions that are not normally your average Highveld winter CAVOK weather phenomena. Mentally, I was suddenly back in Europe, discussing the current snowfall with the knowledgeable Lufthansa ground technicians.

“Zis iss no problem – see, it iss wet – melting, und ze airframe is not cold soaked. Ve vill not call ze de-ice trucks today.”

Had I needed to make that call, it would have taken a while for those trucks to arrive from Munich, as Johannesburg has never had any ground de-ice facilities, as they simply have never been needed. I discussed this with my ‘co-pilot’, (read Check Captain), and he seemed duly convinced of my assuredness of operating in these conditions, and he called for push and start from ATC.

We some how managed to run on time that whole day over the four sectors that are mandatory for assessing a new Captain, despite taxiing in Low Visibility Procedure (LVP) conditions, and having to shoot a Cat 2 approach in anger on runway 21 Right, with visibility of 400 meters. The Automated Terminal Information Service (ATIS) dryly described the conditions as “heavy snow showers”.

Walking alone to my car that night after the de-briefing and reams of paperwork, my uniform jacket felt incredibly thin in the freezing wind and errant gusts sent cold air up my trouser-legs, but my mind was elsewhere. I recalled commenting to friends of mine, many years ago, that it would be a cold day in hell when I finally got command. How apt. What a journey it had been to get to this point.

What is the big deal about command in an airline? And how long should one expect to wait for such a promotion?

Well, both of the above have to be asked in context of the airline in question. After my first aviation jobs of instructing and chartering for six-odd years, I managed to join a small (tiny?) airline based in Nelspruit, operating at the time five Let 410s, with a total pilot compliment of 16 male pilots. The female CEO of the company, interestingly, refused point blank to even offer an interview to any female pilot, saying she could not put up with ‘their issues’, whatever that meant…

Anyway, I was hired as a DEC (Direct Entry Captain) despite not having any turbine time at all to my credit – just 3000 hours, of which around a thousand were on piston twins – and an ATPL. After fifty hours in the right-hand seat (about three week’s worth of flying), I found myself doing the left seat and instructor’s conversion simultaneously, and I had to suddenly go out and buy a set of four-stripe epaulettes.

Time to command – three weeks.

Grasp of the intricacies of being an effective captain – zero.

But, what the heck – we worked hard and partied harder. We even had a hostie to bring us warm cokes from the onboard cooler box. We did, however, have two uncompromising taskmasters: the mountainous terrain of the Nelspruit / Swaziland area and the hugely changeable weather. Despite the lack of command training, we all seemed to survive the odds, and move onto bigger things.

Since joining my current employer, I have taken 14 years, 9 months and 5 days as well as an additional 10 544 flying hours to achieve a similar move from right to left in the cockpit. Slow? Yes, but the reality is that a legacy airline – with legacy systems and seniority, coupled with a change in the retirement age as well as a complete lack of expansion – is a slow place to move up the ladder.

The upside is that I have at least twenty years to retirement – probably twenty-two, with the next looming change in retirement age, (which now suits me as I’m on the ‘right’ side of the seniority list). Also, I did my final check flight in a brand-spanking new Airbus A320, with around 700 hours total time on the hobbs meter. Nice aeroplane to be entrusted with, considering that up until my route training commenced, I had zero jet command hours in my logbook.

Getting back to the original question of ‘what’s the big deal’– I can say it actually is a big deal, best appreciated when one has been through the system for so long as ‘just’ a copilot. I must have been a pain in the arse at times as the right-hand man – full of suggestions and distractions and occasionally having to be told to wind my neck in. The all-encompassing responsibilities that the captain assumes are huge, of which the theoretical perspectives were explored in a previous article.

From a practical angle, the possibility of ending up on the chief pilot’s carpet for a cup of cold tea exist every time one pitches up for work – for a multitude of potential issues. We know that we all play the consummate professional when we are being observed, and certainly while the engines are running, we are under constant electronic surveillance. Thus any lapses of professionalism are available for microscopic dissection by various software programs and then by the human management element, which expects us to confess to any potential transgressions before being caught out.

That aspect – the actual operation of the aircraft – is so tightly defined that there is no wriggle-room for excuses. The best one can achieve, after the board of enquiry, is mitigation of sentence. Therefore, the most split-arsed of arrivals and descents, orchestrated by my right-hand man (or lady) are perfectly acceptable to me – but then, at 1000’ above ground level, we do it my way. Or more specifically, as per the prescribed parameters in the Book. Otherwise we go-around.

I’ve already got nervous (which I’m told is a healthy emotion in a new commander) while monitoring a night landing on a short runway. Short being 2000 meters or less. I intervened and stomped on the brakes. I now take the sectors I consider critical until I get to know the personalities and abilities of the person I’m sharing the cockpit with.

Developing a ‘reputation’ as a captain is part of the process of becoming one, and I hope I can emulate the elements of the many great captains I have flown with in the past, and shelve the tendencies of the less popular ones. This career is a long term work-in-progress, and I will try to become a better person as I develop the finer art of practicing CRM from the left-hand seat, which is hugely different to the CRM practiced from the right-hand seat.

This sort of touch-feely stuff can land one in as much dwang as the defined technical stuff, but becomes opinion and situation-based, and any issues are certainly best to be diffused instantly, on the spot. “Always maintain the moral high ground” was good advice given to me on my route training.
I shall certainly try.

First blood for me in the A319