Monday, 5 November 2012

Sunrise over a sea of Fog

We are coming down at 280 knots indicated airspeed.
Ahead, less than 100 miles, is our destination still fast asleep, laying between two mountains picking at 4000 feet and partially covered in snow.

The ride across Europe was smooth and beautiful. We flew into the night since we took off and the day has only recently starting to get up.

I am pretty sure we can spot the runway in our 12 O'clock, ahead of a low level cloud layer.
We're flying a long straight-in approach and our engines have been at idle thrust since we left our cruise level, we hope to keep it this way up to about 5 miles on final.

We picked up the ATIS a few minutes ago and it was reporting CAVOK with very good weather conditions for the season.
As we get closer, we can clearly see the fog layer slowly but surely moving towards the runway. Over my left shoulder, I can hear the Captain say something like "this could get interesting". He might well be right.

Passing through 15,000 feet, seatbelts ON. My colleague switches from VOR to the ILS in the navaid panels and we check the frequency ident against the airport chart.

Looking straight ahead, it's still hard to tell whether fog will be an issue.
However, this amazing reddish light filling the entire landscape is simply superb. Quite a great remainder of how lucky we are to be seating in the front seats of this Boeing 737.
God, the view from the flightdeck never fails to be awesome! What a sight, once again!

20 miles from touchdown, it's time to earn my money. Click click, clack clack and an oral warning confirms that the autopilot has been disengaged.

Quick glance at the engine gauges, N1 still showing idle thrust. Looking good.
Speed is getting back and the Captain extends the flaps to slow us further down. I'm following the Flight Directors, two cross beams that show the correct pitch and bank angle to stay perfectly centered on the ILS.

As we're getting closer, our shadow takes shape on the flat fog layer.
It is nothing short of breathtaking. Very rare sight as we have the sun in our back, one which I will remember for a while.

Nose up a few degrees to get rid of some excess speed before we pop the gear down.
The Tower controler confirms a half-mile visibility on the runway threshold with an estimated cloudbase of 200ft. Right on the limit.

"Gear down, Flaps 15" and landing checklist. Here we go.

We're only at 600 feet above the ground when we enter the clouds.
I am focused on my instruments while the Captain is looking outside, trying to spot the approach lights that will allow us to continue below the minimums (200 ft).
Small correction to the right, speed is glued to 147 knots, the glide slope is steady.
Quick glance at the engine display, N1 at 48%, marginally below the usual 51-53% for a flaps 30 landing. I can anticipate a slight loss of speed in the next few seconds and decide to add 2% thrust already.

"Plus Hundred" callout from the radio-altimeter and still nothing outside.
I run the go-around procedure in my head. If we are not visual by 200ft, I will hit "TOGA" (go-around thrust) and call "Go Around, Flaps 15" to carry out the missed approach as we briefed during the cruise. Straight ahead initially, climbing to 3000ft, Flaps 5 selected by 400ft with HDG Select engaged. Everything is clear in my mind.
On the PFD, the radalt counts down the remaining height: 260 feet, 250, 240, 230, ... 220 and finally here they are, approach lights in sight! "Minimums!"

We slip beneath the thin fog layer with no runway sight due to the reduced visibility.
I must now resist the temptation to push on the yoke but still get the feeling that we are high. My glide slope indicator is showing "half a dot" low with 3 or 4 knots excess speed. Gentle pull back and I almost immediatly set 700 ft/min on the VSI to keep it going down. At such low altitudes, it is no longer a catch up game with the ILS.

The runway lights finally appear. We're on profile and two Airbus A320 are watching us from the holding point.
145 knots over the threshold and by 20 feet the thrust is brought back to idle.
Firm touchdown just before the 1,000 foot marker. The runway is fairly short so no messing around.
The two reversers are unlocked and the engines spooled up to about 80% N1, delivering the full reverse thrust which slows us down very effectively along with the autobrake system.
"100 knots", "80 knots" and we vacate first right.

As a First Officer, it is my role to complete the taxi-in flow (checklist done by memory).
I mechanically turn the autobrake knob onto the OFF position, check the secondary engine gauges and hydraulic system, disconnect the FD's, reset the speed bug, ...

But to be honest with you, my head is still up there, just above the magnificent fog layer.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Thunderstorms and CB's (photos)

September came in with its lot of CB's, thunderstorms, heavy rainfalls and high winds.
Some rather relaxed days at work can turn and did turn into uncomfortable situations.
It brought a weather diversion, two crosswind landings in 40 knot gusts (one which I did as PF with a Line Training Captain in the left seat), lots of flights surrounded by CB's, St Elmo's fires (too busy to take the camera out on this one, unfortunately), ...

July, August and September were by far the busiest months and I spent the majority of my days off travelling, commuting home and flying gliders, giving me little spare time to update the blog.
I logged 300 hours in 3 months while it took me 8 years to log my first 100 hours ...

Here are a few picture from the 737's flightdeck:

Time to rest on the beach, 5 min walk from my hotel ...

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Faith in a Dream

We're stable at 41000ft, it's deeply dark out there apart from a brighter spot on the horizon in our 9 o'clock. The dimmed flightdeck lets us enjoy an amazing canopy of stars. As I lean forward, I relish the reddish horizon just above the Captain's shoulders.
The view is about to get fantastic. I wish you were here to see this.

"Airline pilot? Come on, stop dreaming! There's no job out there".

Turning left by 10°, the morning light is slowly starting to flood the cockpit. The Alps are taking a sharper shape in the orange darkness as we progress further South. This never fails to be magical, I don't know how to describe it to you but this is truely awesome!

"Get a normal job and fly on your spare time rather, that's the best thing to do".

The Captain is glued to the window, some of the finest landscape is now seating all around us.
A mighty 747 crosses us 1000ft above, leaving miles of bright orange contrails behind.
The sun is cracking the horizon, God this is magnificient!

"Be realistic young boy, this industry is no longer what it used to be, find something else".

The mighty Mont Blanc, standing at some 15,800 ft in our 1 o'clock, is getting a truely amazing golden coat.
I'm speechless, the view from the flightdeck is incredible!
I grab my camera to catch the action, but no picture nor words can describe what we're gaping at.
I can't help but think of those who gave me these wise advice, probably stuck in the traffic at this time of day on their way to some boring job. If I had followed their recommendations, I'd probably be seating at a desk with no window either, wondering why I listened to those who once told me I would never achieve my goal.
Among them, a lot were people who dreamt of becoming pilots themselves but ended up letting the dream go.
Someone once said, people too weak to follow their dream will always try to discourage yours. There might be a clue there...

The Captain invites one by one our four Flight Attendants in the cockpit. They are as amazed as we are. I'm looking down at the approach charts with a smile spreading across my face. At destination I'll be flying a "non-precision approach" (no ILS) with a 30° turn on short final and a steeper than normal approach angle, a very nice procedure to fly. I remember quite well all those who claimed that flying an airliner was all about pushing buttons. They would have loved the ride if they were here today.

After the up-and-downs, the never ending struggle, the hits-and-misses and years of hard work, I'm pondering on how my job is awesome.

For every risk I took, there was someone to tell me I would not make it.
When I was looking for a tow pilot job, I called every single flying club in the country. Lots of them can be quite agressive on the phone, they don't need you, they want you to have such and such licences and ratings that you don't have, they are looking for people already experienced in this area, they expect you to be from the city, you have to be available on the next morning, you must be ok with working for them while earning nothing and having to do the cleaning, paperwork and maintenance, ...
You're never the person they're looking for, and when they do have something to offer, it is miles from what you were hoping for. So you keep looking, you get on a bus, you travel across the country and you do what you are supposed to do: you don't give up.
Then one day comes when fortune favors you, when fortune favors the bold.

The sun is now intensely bright, sunglasses on, time to set up the stunning six-month old 737 for my approach.

Hold on to your dreams,

Hang in there.

Friday, 20 July 2012

A base for a week

One hour drive from home to the nearest airport and another two commuting flights later, I make it to my assigned base for the next few days.
After checking-in at the hotel, a walk in the city centre reveals what looks like the perfect place to enjoy your summer holidays.
No doubt, this is going to be a nice week. I'm on earlies, which leaves me with a lot of spare time in the afternoon.

Day ON 1, 3:20 am, time to get up.
The hotel's jacuzzy would have been much appreciated as a way to wake up but it isn't available up until 9 in the morning.
4:40 am, all the crew meet and the Captain introduces me to the four flight attendants. We review the weather reports, flight plans, notams, airfield charts and fuel calculations.
Time comes to decide who will be flying which leg. I was expecting to be PM (Pilot Monitoring, in charge of the walkaround, radio communications, paperwork, FMC inputs, ..) on the first sector and flying us back home as our destinaton airport uses a narrow (30m / 98ft) runway.
The Captain, in fact an experienced and well rounded LTC (Line Training Captain) gives me the opportunity to do the landing there.

Three hours later and established on final with Flaps 5, I disconnect the Autopilot and Autothrottle as we break through the low level stratus.
The first glance outside immediately makes me feel way too high from where we should be (standard 3° glide path) but this in fact is all down to the optical illusion from the runway's non-standard width. Eyes inside to follow the flight directors and maintain the speed, eyes outside to follow the PAPI's (4 lights on the side of the runway to insure a correct descent angle) and down we go.

'100', '50', '40', '30' gentle back pressure on the yoke, '20' throttles back to idle, '10', touchdown.
'Speedbrakes Up', both reverses to the 2nd detent, 75% N1, 100 knots, 80 knots, idle reverse, 60 knots, override of the autobrake and the Captain takes over control to vacate on the taxiway.
None a glassy smooth landing but enjoyable nonetheless.

By 1pm, we're back home and the paperwork filled-in, I catch a bus to the city centre. Unfortunately, none of today's Flight Attendants are up for a meet-up in town tonight.
After a quick stop at the hotel, it's time for a city tour ... (see photos below).

Day ON 2. Wake-up at 6 am which, on earlies, is surprisingly late.
After an eventless flight into Scandinavia, we're on the ground getting the aircraft ready for the flight back home.
With a temperature of 17°C and a fair headwind, you would normally expect no issue regarding take-off performances. Calculating the Vspeeds (V1, Vr and V2) and take-off thrust setting, you start with lower fixed derates (22K, 24K, ..) and reduce it then further by applying an 'Assumed temperature' (equivalent to Flex on Airbus), depending on the runway length available, climb gradient required, temperature, airport elevation, QNH, wind, and of course aircraft take-off weight.
Now with a rather short runway, 180 passengers, 120 bags and 13 tonnes of fuel, we might indeed be very tight.
We skip the 22K calculations and give it a go with 24K but clearly it won't do it.
With 26K and no assumed temperature (full thrust), we can take-off at 70.0 tonnes on those given conditions.
Today however, our aircraft will weight 70.4 tonnes on take-off (assuming a 150kg fuel burn off during taxi).

Now there's a way to get an extra margin if needed and this is called a Bleeds Off take-off, something we very rarely get a chance to do. 
The bleed air taken from the engines pressurizes the aircraft as soon as the take-off thrust is applied (still on the ground), taking a little bit of thrust off the engines during the take-off roll, which in turns reduces the performances. If we do a Bleeds Off take-off, no more bleed air is taken from the engine and the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) takes over and supplies it up to 17,000 ft.
Checking the performances again, we're now able for a take-off at 70.55 tonnes.

20 minutes later, aligned on the runway and cleared for take-off, we set 70% N1 thrust on the brakes, release them and here comes the maximum thrust. Airspeed increases quickly but what's more noticeable is the closing speed with the runway's end. '80 knots' call, quick look at my PFD and answer 'check'.
I can see we're now reaching 100 knots, the aircraft does feel very heavy. 120 knots, still another 26 to be able to get airborne. We're now in the touchdown markers (yellow blocks on the runway in Nordic countries) of the other end. 'V1' ...... 'Rotate!'. 146 knots as I pull the yoke and lift us off the ground. The main landing gear passes a few feet above the runway's threshold and the mighty pocket rocket starts its 4 hour journey to warmer lands.
Passing 4000 feet, the Captain completes the After take-off checklist specifically adapted for Bleeds Off departures. The main point being to replace the APU bleed air with engine bleed air and then switch off the APU.

8:00 pm, a beer in the hand and a dozen FA and pilots to share it with, a great way to end the day.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Another Day at the Office

Thrust levers advanced to 40% N1, engines stabilized and all gauges in the green, I activate TOGA and the full 52,000 lb blast (about 24 tonnes of engine thrust) shoves us back deep into our seats.
Full power setting today for our heavy aircraft loaded with tanker fuel, 180 adults, 5 babies and 6 crew members. The roar from the engines suddenly appears, the aircraft is shaking down the runway and our velocity is increasing very rapidly, looking for a 147 kt rotation speed and 18° pitch on initial climb. What a feeling of thrust!
Positive rate, gear up, the VSI (vertical speed indicator) pointing at 2500 feet per minute, another day at the office has just started.
To be more correct, it started some 1½ hours ago on the ground with the flight preparation, paperwork, weather and notams study and finally the crew briefing.
With flaps up and 4300 ft/min on the VSI, we're climbing like a homesick angel. After take-off checks complete, ATC gives us a direct and off we go. The climb rate is fantastic. Passing Flight Level 240, I engage the Flight Directors, Autopilot and Autothrottles. Most of our Captains encourage manual departures and arrivals and there's nothing more pleasant than to fly a 70 tonne aircraft in the calm morning air using raw data only. Our day is off to a good start!

I sometimes find it hard to believe this is what we do for a living.
There is no routine whatsoever. I have so far operated to 62 airports in 17 countries, shortest flight time being 25 minutes and longest of just under 5 hours. A third of my approaches were Non Precision Approaches, e.g. Localizer, VOR, NDB, or visual approaches.
I stopped counting how many people try to discourage the wannabe's stating how boring this job really is. The know-it-all's feel the need to talk about matters they know nothing about.
As we near the cloud tops, we can spot glimpses of blue sky overhead, in a few seconds we'll break through into the dusk canopy.
ATC gave us a clearance to FL260 initially and it happens to be just a dozen feet above the flat white layer. Even though close to the horizon, the sun is intensely bright here. The clouds are flowing under our wings and the feeling of speed is nothing short of amazing.
A company trafic is coming towards us 1000ft above in the opposite direction, the wingleted Boeing 737 passes overhead with a closing speed in excess of 1000 mph. The Captain and I are just in time to rush for our cameras and take a shot.

"Nowadays, it's all about managing the flight and watching the automation do the rest". So they said. Some pilots even like to call themselves "flight managers". The rest are pilots and do their job as pilots.
I struggled to get to know how the automatics work, it surely can be a good help at times but it will screw things up very quickly if you don't follow what's happening. When the automatic is turned off, the pocket rocket (737 nickname) reverts to basic Cessna modes and it is in fact a very pleasant aircraft to fly. There's nothing like flying a visual approach and establishing on final just 4nm from touchdown.

Climbing to the thin air at FL360, the flight attendants are getting busy at the back. The sunset is filling our cockpit with orange light. What a sight.

Top of climb,
Mach number : .80
Groundspeed : 520 knots
Altitude : 36,000 ft
Total heads on board : 191
View : Awesome

The Captain is doing the paperwork and the radios while I study the approach charts. On the next leg, we will swap roles. The flight attendants ding the cockpit and at the same time ATC breaks the silent environment and gives us a re-routing. We enter the waypoints and airways in the FMC, select a different arrival procedure (STAR) and activate the new route. The Captain quickly talks to the FA's while I grab the en-route charts to check the route, they have a toilet flush issue and we will have to get an engineer onboard to fix it at destination. I check the handling frequency, dial it in and call operations to have someone meeting us upon landing. I also give them the fuel figures for our next flight so that they can get the paperwork ready.
We have to hurry, this is one of those short flights...

I hand over the controls to the Captain and set up for the approach. He is a sharp guy but very helpful, the cockpit gradient is not steep and we really work as a team.
Low level chart briefed, notams and weather checked, MSA (minimum safe altitude), high spots on the approach, airspace classes, Top of Descend point, QNH and winds at FL300 and FL100 entered in the FMC for descent planning, STAR (arrival routing) briefed and crosschecked in the FMC with altitude and speed restrictions, final approach course in the MCP, ILS frequency, flaps configuration reviewed, navaids backup for the go-around (VOR and NDB), DA (Decision Altitude), land altitude in the pressurisation panel, go around briefing, landing performances, fuel reserves, flaps setting, brakes setting and cooling schedule, taxi-route reviewed, ...
I make a passenger annoucement on the public announce system. We are looking for a 20 min early arrival thanks to generous tailwinds.

Descent checklist complete and back at the controls, I enjoy the last minutes of daylight while the Captain asks for the descent. ATC clears us to FL100, 10,000ft in the Altitude window, LVL CHG (Level Change, autopilot mode) and down we go.
They later inform us that we are number 12 in sequence, it's definitely a busy airport. We dim the cockpit lights as we enter the clouds again, the surroundings darken the deeper we get in the cloud layers. Passing through FL200, I disconnect the autopilot.
We can already see the city lights straight ahead, the darkness magic has just begun.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Friday, 27 April 2012

Gliders and Lenticular Clouds

With some strong Northerly winds at high altitudes over Europe lately, we got the chance to see those massive clouds forming in mountainous areas.
Their impressive shape is the result from high altitude waves and they are a sign of exceptional soaring conditions for glider pilots.

Two weeks ago, a Belgian pilot took off from an airfield situated at the Belgian/Dutch border to land near the Spanish/French border a few hours later, covering over 1050 km (650 mi) without the use of an engine. A dozen flew circuits of up to 800 km in one go.

I was working around that time but got the chance to do a few flights in thermal soaring conditions (using lifts under Cumulus clouds), do a bit of formation flying and get back to stick-and-rudder flying, quite different from flying a swept-wing jet and probably more pleasant as well. 

I hope you will enjoy the video and the photos.

That's how addictive it gets, flying close to 100 hours per month for a living, flying as a passenger every week to commute back home and flying gliders on my days off.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Career Paths

The beauty of this job is that there are almost as many pilots as there are career paths leading to a pilot job.

In Europe, most people think of famous training organisations such as Oxford Aviation Academy (OAA), or Embry Riddle in the US.
But there are many other schools where you can train the modular way and do each step in a different location, and it is usually some two or three times less expensive.
There are hundreds of options for someone willing to become a commercial pilot.
In Europe, the two main ones are integrated training with an airline sponsorship (CTC with easyJet pilot placement for example), or the less expensive modular training, usually with no airline connection.
Doing an integrated training with a school that doesn't offer any kind of airline placement is, to my mind, a huge waste of money. Those schools know how to sell the "dream" job and a lot of people fall in the trap.

It is difficult to give realistic figures, but in average in Europe, for the past few years less than a third of newly qualified pilots have ended up getting a pilot job. In some schools, this figure can be as low as a few percents.

We see an increasing number of young people suddenly deciding they want to become airline pilots. They usually have no interest in aviation in the first place, didn't take any flying lesson or trial flight before, and blindly listened to the schools' misleading commercial talks.
How many of them get a job in the end? A very tiny amount.

A lot of people enroll in pilot training with no post-highschool degree, no fall-back job and a rather low or inexistant level of awareness towards the job market.
Outside of the English-speaking countries, a lot have a very poor English level, resulting in even worse chances of getting employed.
Worse even, most think they will end up flying a big shiny jet straight out of school and don't even consider anything else. Seems like the love for Aviation is long-time gone for a lot of newbies.

So what's the real story like?

I've listed below a number of career paths from different individual with different stories, all from the French aviation forum Aeronet:

  •  PPL, CPL/IR - MCC training, 5 years doing various ground jobs while flying from time to time as a safety pilot, FI (Flight Instructor) Rating, Beech 1900 type rating with a FO contract, a few years later Captain on the B1900, then moved onto the PC12 as Captain and more recently flying the Be350 with 2400 hrs flight time. 
  •  PPL, CPL and IR from 1998 to 2000, dispatcher for three years (until 2003), FI rating, ground handling agent until 2005, flying turboprops from 2006 and flying jets from 2008.
  • PPL in France, CPL, IR and MEP in the US, licenses conversion (FAA to JAA) in France, FI in a flying club, FO job in a small regional airline before working as an Air Traffic Information Operator and dispatcher, and later on being hired as a CL604/605 First Officer.
  •  Gliding license in 1998, glider instructor in 2003, PPL in 2004, glider towing, ATPL theory - CPL/IR/MCC from 2006 to 2008, glider towing in 2009, volonteering pilot in Africa for Aviation Sans Frontiere (NGO) on the Cessna Caravan in 2010 with 700 hrs total.
  • First flight back in 1991, 8 years working in the Air Force, PPL in 1995, commercial pilot training spread over 5 years from 1996 to 2001, MCC in 2003, estate agent for a year, 3 years working in aircraft ground handling, FO Cessna Citation for one year and now on the Global Express.
  • Initial pilot training (PPL and ATPL theory) from 2004 to 2006 while working in computer sciences, successful in the Thomsonfly Cadet sponsorship, sponsorship which was later on cancelled due to the economic crisis. First pilot job as of summer 2009 as a skydiving pilot. 
  •  PPL in 2001, post-graduate degree in 2004, 2 years working in a cloth shop, emigrate to Canada in 2006, CPL/IR training in 2007, from mid-2007 until mid-2008 working as a ground agent uploading and unloading cargo aircraft in Ontario, and from then on FO on the Embraer 110 (turboprop).
  • Graduate degree in 2003, ATPL theory in 2004, 2 years working as a dispatcher, failed Air France pilots' selections, CPL/IR training in 2007, glider towing, moved to the UK and a lot of short-term jobs, first pilot job in 2009 flying the DHC-6 Twin Otter in remote islands.
  • Airline pilot training from 2002 to 2004 in Belgium, first job in 2004 working in Senegal flying the Robin HR100 (small 4 seater), mechanical degree in 2005, back in Africa in 2006 flying the Cessna 207, Piper Seneca and Navajo. Back in Belgium in 2007 but no luck with the job-hunting, other than a few safety pilot flights on a Be90 Kingair. Finally got a job in 2008 working for a cartography company, in 2009 same company but flying the Merlin.
  •  1998 to 2001 : Cabin Crew based in the UK. PPL in America with IMC and night rating, ATPL theory back in the UK, JAA CPL in South Africa (Johannesburg), IR in Coventry (UK) on the Cessna 310Q. In 2003, MCC on the 737-400. Later on this year : cabin crew (CSS). From 2004 to 2007 : dispatcher in the UK, in 2005 self sponsored Type Rating on the ATR42/72, first FO contract in spring 2007, Captain by late 2011.

I hope this gives you a better overall insight.
If all you want is to fly a shiny jet, you get the wrong idea.
Get interested first.
There is a lot to discover: gliding, skydiving, ultralight, tail-wheel, aerobatics, formation flying...
And as an aspiring pilot, there is quite a fair chance you will end up flying single engine propeller aircraft a few years before getting any kind of pilot job. If you don't like this idea, think again.

(Some) schools like their students to wear shiny uniforms with stripes to fly their PA28 ...
Why not after all, but the fact people are doing CPL/IR training doesn't mean they will all become airline pilots.

One advice I was given a few years back was : If you hesitate between pilot and something else, do something else. A bit harsh but it gives the idea.

If you want to get a job, you need to have not one plan but many of them.
More than that, there is no way you will get a job if you don't act to make things happen.
Quite a lot of people go to the US to get FAA licenses and wonder why they don't get hired back in Europe.
It is already very difficult when you have the proper licenses (JAA)...
(Read : Getting a pilot job in Europe)

Before you take any decison, you should ask yourself whether this is the lifestyle you want and what it would imply.
Some people are very satisfied in this industry but a lot do not fit the lifestyle or find drawbacks overcome the positive aspects. This of course depends a lot on the job you get as a pilot.
A freight dawg (cargo pilot) won't have the same life as a business pilot flying Citations. You don't really get to choose but generally, you can expect years of struggle, unstability, financial difficulties (at the biginning at least) and the reccurent necessity to relocate.
Add to that unhealthy working hours with very long and exhausting working periods (often over 12 hrs of duty in a day and easily more than 50 hrs in a busy week).
Many people don't have the motivation to put up with the struggle to get a job. They will send CVs and wait home for that call which will usually never come.
As you can see from the above-listed career profiles, among the lucky ones who fly for a living, a majority have had lots of varied positions before ending up in that right hand seat, and these intermediate jobs may have played a great role in successfully becoming an airline pilot. Whatever you do in between is up to you, that's the beauty of this career, no two pilots share the same story.

Why didn't I choose the "integrated" training? I wanted to get UK licenses, fly in the US, build my hours at my own pace and have a bit of adventure. An integrated school plans everything from your first introduction flight to graduation.
I was told the wait between training completion and flying a commercial aircraft would be demotivating, I certainly was lucky and worked hard to ensure I would enjoy my time and in fact I loved every second of it.

I was inspired by many people and this helped me make up my own career path.
Among them, Danny, a fellow French pilot who made it to the US and now flies for Delta. Two easyJet pilots who shared their adventures on blogspot, Captain Dave ( ) flying the A320 for Delta. Shaun Lunt, a young American bush-flying in Alaska in his Piper Super Cub and taking the best pictures one could find on the internet ( ), sadly he tragically died while flying his Super Cub. Three French PPL pilots flying for a couple of months in the US sharing their wonderful pictures online ( ). Olivier, another friend who completed a JAA training in the UK and now flies the Be200 ( ) ...
Those last two greatly influenced my choice of building my hours in the US and do a CPL/IR training in the UK.

That's your career and you get to choose every step, if you want to.
When you take a decision, make sure this is the right thing for you.


Monday, 20 February 2012


The mixed orange and blue sky is slowly being replaced by darkness as night sets in.
Straight ahead, the lights of Manchester illuminate the surrounding CBs (Cumulo-nimbus, typical thunderstorm clouds).

We temporarily level off at 16000 feet, just above the clouds tops. This evening view is amazing. The shape of the clouds contrasts with the redness of the dusk sky.

Quick fuel check, we will have over 3 tonnes of fuel upon landing, an extra 800 kg on top of the reserves, enough to hold 20 minutes if we need before we have to divert to Liverpool.

Descending into the tops of the frosty clouds, engine anti-ice ON, we enter the turbulent air of the upper layers.
Both the windshield and wipers are already showing signs of severe icing.
I ask the Captain to turn the wings anti-ice ON.
I get a hit of adrenaline from the speed feeling as we punch through the clouds, brightened by our landing lights. We’re doing 280 knots indicated, 350 knots true airspeed.
The whole airframe is shaking under the pressure of the storm.
We constantly request new headings to avoid the worst of the weather, depicted as red on the weather radar.

I notice that the winds are increasing as we descent, this is quite unusual. Add to that the sound of the hail which resonates through the length of the plane, this is really getting exciting!
I ask the Captain to update the FMC by re-entering the next waypoint and putting it on top again. It refreshes the vertical profile with the current wind.
The new VNAV (Vertical Navigation, calculating an ideal descent profile) deviation pointer shows a fly-down indication, direct consequence from stronger tailwinds.
We’re going to get high and fast. My left hand reaches the MCP and engages LVL CHG (Level Change), bring back the thrust levers to idle and pull out the spoilers to the flight detent position. They disrupt the airflow around the wings and help increase the rate of descent.
In a jet, it is very hard to loose altitude and decelerate at the same time. A tailwind makes it worse and the last thing we want is to be too high or too fast on the approach.

ATC asks if we can accept a left turn to establish onto the localizer, I shake my head and the Captain informs them we would like radar vectors for a 10 miles final instead.
We’re still high and fast, I bring back the speed to flaps-up speed and ask for flaps 1. Seconds later, flaps 5 and 190 knots in the speed window with spoilers extended, the aircraft dive to catch up with the descent profile. 

A flashing glow attracts my attention and for the first time, I get to witness St Elmo's Fires. Those are in fact electric arcs across the windshield caused by charged air around the airframe, creating an electric field. I am too busy to grab my camera but this is quite fascinating!

Out of the clouds, we can barely see the airport in our 9 o’clock.
We are all over the place and the turbulences don’t stop whatsoever.

Quick distance versus altitude check, we have 12 track miles to run and 4000ft to loose. It is coming together nicely. I stow the speedbrakes as ATC clears us to establish on the ILS for runway 23R. I arm the approach mode as the Captain tells me to give it a go and fly manually.
Quick check at the instant wind, the MFD is showing 160 at 52 knots. He certainly can see my hesitation here but after all, this is what flying is all about. “Go for it” are the calm words he addresses me once again.
Double-click on the auto-throttle disconnect button, and seconds later I disengage the autopilot, ready to fight against the wind.
The speed trend arrow is varying so quickly that it is pointless to chase it. I try to keep the average around my speed bug and it works out nicely.
I further slow down as the tailwind is going to push us through the centreline.
Localizer capture” and left turn to establish onto final.

The Captain announces “runway in sight”. I look straight ahead, common mistake for new copilots I guess, the runway is in our one O’clock due to the strong crosswind.
This is going to be good!
I do my best to keep the vertical speed between 700 and 800 feet per minute, speed is averaging at 170 knots indicated and we are on the (extended) centreline.
I can clearly feel the turbulences through the controls.


Crosswind is now down to 38 knots from the left. ATC confirms a ground wind of 160 at 19 gusting 26 knots. We still experience moderate turbulences on short final.

The threshold slides beneath us. Right rudder and left aileron to de-crabe the aircraft and line it up with the runway, I gently pull the yoke to start the flare, the nose pitches a few degrees and the main gear touches down surprisingly smoothly. I immediately deploy the reverses as the spoilers automatically extend.
Second detent activated, the reverse thrust kicks in and the plane decelerates quickly. At 80 knots, I override the autobrake by applying a greater pressure on the brakes pedals. The Captain calls “autobrake disarms”. 60 knots, reverses back to idle and I hand over controls to the Captain.

The taxi to the gate is eventless but my head is 5 minutes behind, still on the approach. One of those things from which it is hard to move on.
There is probably nothing more rewarding than flying a good manual approach in difficult weather conditions and strong wind gusts, the kind of approaches you don’t forget. What a feeling!

The passengers disembark the aircraft and as the flight deck door is slightly opened, a few of them pop up at the cockpit’s entry and compliment us.

All the paperwork for the next leg sorted out, it is time to fly back home.

Airborne life at its best!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Winter Operations

Transition from Type Rating to line operations wasn't quite smooth.
The weather we have at the moment is really winterly (if I can say), de-icing on most sectors, freezing conditions (and special checklists for those), CAT II and III approaches, Low vis take-off (LVPs), diversions, ...
However, this environment makes the learning experience very useful.

The worst we had so far was 50 meters reported visibility (and 150m RVR) on take-off, 50 meters VIS / 250 meters RVR on a CAT III approach, 50 kts crosswind on the final approach (but "only" 20 kts on the ground), ...
To give an idea, 50 meters visibility is the equivalent of standing in front of the aircraft and not being able to see the fin or the horizontal stabilizer.

Flying days are very interesting, that's for sure.
I cannot give specific details but I got to fly long sectors (5 hours), short ones (1 hour), I really like the diversity in the flying itself.

On the other hand, the flights can be quite stressful, there is a lot to do especially as I'm learning and very little time to actually enjoy the view or set back, even on longer trips.
Overall, the job is quite a bit different from what I expected, not to say it is not as good as I imagined it but you realise what it is like only when you're actually on the line.
The greatest surprise was the crew-environment, obviously very different from single-pilot flying. The atmosphere in the cockpit does depend a lot on the other pilot, someone you seat next to for 5 to 10 hours on a regular day.
Some flights go by very smoothly and as planned, some other flights don't. Last minute clearance change from ATC, delays, various passenger issues, diversions, anything that doesn't work as expected makes it a lot more stressful and difficult to deal with.
In the end, some days are extremely enjoyable while others seem very long and tiring.

Still, every time I look outside, the view is always outstanding and it's never disappointing.

Is there anything better than eating breakfast on top of the Alps at sunrise?

Sunday, 22 January 2012

A few scenes from the cockpit

I finally bought Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD 11 (the cheapest one), superb software to edit and render 1080p Full HD videos. Camera used is a Sony HX9v (compact camera), soundtracks by Audiomachine. Hope you like it !

Friday, 13 January 2012

View from the Flight Deck

Last few days before first scheduled operations in the right hand seat, I got to observe a dozen flights as a transition from Type Rating to Line Training with the opportunity to do some of the tasks I will be doing on my own thereafter.

In the crewroom, gathering airfields and performances charts, weather and various documents we then use in flight. At the aircraft, walkaround (outside check of the aircraft), FMC and navaids setup and once we're ready to go I take care of the radiocommunications for the remaining part of the flight. I also offer to complete the in-flight reports, which most of the crew appreciate as this is not the fun side of the job.
Hopefully it will all help once I start operating from the right hand seat, as there is a lot of getting used to for a young First Officer, and a lot to do in a very limited time scale.
The jumpseat is probably the best place to take pictures so I didn't miss this opportunity either (all pictures are taken with a compact camera, if you ever wonder. I will take my DSLR someday but this camera does a great job in the meantime).
Some of the crew are very experienced and have great stories to share, it is always a pleasure to learn from them.

Airborne life continues...