Who Am I?

My photo
A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

24 March 2008

Being A Commercial Pilot

Within aviation there are many types of pilots. First there are the Private pilots who can only fly for pleasure or personal business. To do it for money you need a Commercial Rating. Then your options open up greatly. Not all Commercial pilots fly for the airlines. There are many ways for pilots to make money in this business. Some pay more than others, some are rewarding in other ways (none have much job-security). The British have a term for it: “Horses for courses.” We Americans just say, “Different strokes for different folks.”

For most of my career I have been what’s called a “charter pilot.” That is, I’ve flown aircraft (helicopters, in my case) that were used for ad hoc charter flights. People need to go from here to there (and sometimes back) so they hire a helicopter. The FAA used to call it an “air-taxi” but that term isn’t used anymore. Charter flying is “on-demand” flying and is quite different from scheduled airline service, which falls under a completely different and more stringent set of rules.

For an aircraft used for charters, the whole reason for its existence is to make money. If the aircraft isn’t flying revenue passengers or cargo it is not being productive. If it’s not being productive then it cannot pay for itself much less make a profit for the company. And you know what generally happens if a corporation cannot make a profit.

So for a charter helicopter pilot, the focus is on completing flights if it at all possible. Many factors conspire against this. There may be no suitable landing sites near their destination. (You can’t just plop down anywhere.) The weather may be too bad. Or the helicopter may develop a small problem that may or may not be a “safety of flight” issue. Perhaps the load that the customer wants to take may be too high for the permissible weight of the aircraft given the amount of fuel required to do the flight.

There are very, very few aircraft in which you can fill all the seats, load up the baggage and then fill the fuel tanks and go. Virtually every aircraft (and by that I mean helicopter *and* fixed-wing) requires a compromise between payload and fuel. In my current helicopter (a Bell 206B) if I fill the fuel tank up with 96 gallons (650 pounds), I can only lift another 500 pounds (plus myself) before hitting the maximum weight. Five-hundred pounds is only two men and a bit of luggage. But I can fly those men for three hours with that much gas.

Conversely, if I fill all five seats with male adults and fifty pounds of baggage in the trunk, that leaves me with only 300 pounds available for fuel. That’s about 45 gallons. It’s enough to fly for about an hour (with the FAA-required reserve). But remember, if I’m not going to drop my passengers at an airport I’d still have to fly to an airport to get more gas. You can’t get very far in a helicopter that only does 120 miles per hour.

We’re limited to about a 75-mile radius with a full load. Luckily, our helicopter is fairly light. I’ve flown some with much more equipment (radios, emergency gear, etc.) that brought the Empty Weight up to a much higher level; however the maximum allowable weight does not change. The higher the Empty Weight, the less total load you can carry.

Charter operators and pilots are always balancing these concerns. During my time as a charter pilot for Petroleum Helicopters Inc. in the Gulf of Mexico, there were many times when the oil company I was assigned to had such a heavy load that we could not carry much fuel at all. So I’d take off with the bare minimum, and then “leapfrog” my way offshore, stopping at various platforms along the way where I could obtain more fuel. Often, it was quite a challenge to keep everything safe and legal and still get the job done. Especially when the weather was bad. Sometimes it was very tempting to say, “No, we just can’t do that.” But when revenue depends on making the flight, as a professional you are obligated to find a way.

Now I am a “corporate pilot.” I fly for a company that owns a chain of mobile home dealerships (among other things). The Boss uses the helicopter primarily for business, but also for pleasure. As a business tool, the helicopter does not have to generate revenue by itself. The way the Boss uses it does that, primarily by given him the luxury of time. Instead of driving around to all these dealerships and job sites, the helicopter allows him to get more done in any given day.

Because the Boss is skittish about weather, we cancel a lot of flights. He simply does not like to fly if it’s raining, period. Or if it’s bumpy. We had a flight scheduled one day after a cold front had passed through the area. The day was beautifully clear, but it was really gusty. I proceeded to get ready as if we were going. Then the Boss called. Of course, we’re not going. ”Of course we’re not going! I don’t want to be up there in that stuff,” he said (he keeps a pretty good eye on the weather and is very knowledgeable). “Do you want to fly today?” he asked. Well…given my druthers…no, I did not.

This happens a lot. If the conditions aren’t perfect he cancels. Or if the weather looks bad way in advance of a flight he’ll cancel, simply because he cannot take the chance of not being able to fly and missing an important meeting. I have learned to take a much more conservative approach to weather decisions. My definition of “bad” has changed.

In the Gulf of Mexico we flew in some really crappy, nasty weather. The FAA allows helicopters to fly in astoundingly bad weather: ceilings as low as 300 feet and visibility as low as ½ mile. Flying in such weather is not comfortable. Our company minimums were slightly higher than that, but not much! There were days when it was “just above” minimums at the departure point and the customer would want to go take a look. Trouble is, if the weather here is “just above” minimums there will generally be areas along the route of flight where the weather will be “just below” minimums. Or not. Sometimes the only way to find out is to go look with the firm and pre-stated conviction that if conditions deteriorate we will turn around. Done that.

That was then. In this job now if there is rain in the forecast anywhere along our planned route, I can be sure that the flight will be canceled. Chance of fog? Fuggedaboudit! The timing of approaching cold fronts can be indefinite, so if there’s one coming I know we won’t be going anywhere prior to its passage. And we generally do not fly at night if there is an overcast (cloud cover) unless we’re flying around a well-lit city. I’ve become a fair-weather flyer.

We cancel flights so often that sometimes I’ll say to him, “You bought a helicopter to use it! I’m sure we can do this flight safely.” And he’ll just say that he doesn’t want to chance it. Which is fine…which is great, actually. It’s odd having a boss and a job where there is so little pressure to fly. It’s very relaxed. And it has been something of a transition for me, switching from the pressure to conduct flights to make money, to having them be more or less optional. I confess to feeling a little guilty sometimes when we cancel a flight that could have been done.

But I’m getting over that.


Redlefty said...

We're in a similar career phase right now. I'm not a pilot but my job is very laid-back and doesn't require as much of me as previous jobs did. It won't last forever, so let's enjoy the time for what it gives us!

We'll probably have another phase coming up that has far more excitement, both good and bad.

Bob Barbanes said...

Michael, bite your tongue! I've worked long and hard to get to this phase of my life and I don't ever want to go back. On the other hand, you never know...