Visibility in pilot recruitment

Whether an aspiring pilot is an ab-initio trainee, or a qualified pilot looking for a job, visibility in the recruitment marketplace is better than knocking on doors. But how do you make yourself visible?

The Airline Pilot Club (APC) has now developed a software tool that makes all its candidates for pilot employment or training courses visible to airlines and approved training organisations (ATO).

Airlines’ traditional ways of finding pilots are direct advertising and working with agencies. Advertising is a shot in the dark, but can be effective because those who apply have made a specific choice to do so. The only trouble is the applicants are self-selected and unfiltered. Agencies, meanwhile, can supply lots of names, but the qualifications and experience are self-declared and need checking.

Licensed pilots may reply to advertising, but in the end that’s a passive approach – a waiting game. Meanwhile ab-initio students/wannabes have traditionally had to trawl the flying schools and their promises, and hope.

Imagine joining a forum that brings the three industry components together – pilots, flying schools and airlines. There they meet, in a joint marketplace, where they can all see each other and where all the participants’ claims have been checked for accuracy.

That’s what APC members can do. Having proven themselves worthy of APC membership via indicative assessment, and having trod the pathway to pilot competence, their completed APC profile becomes their shop window to the ATOs and airlines, who can then contact them – direct – with individual proposals.

This smart new APC service takes the leg-work out of finding a training pathway, and makes it easier for airlines to fill crew vacancies.

The RAF goes green

With a 90min Airbus Voyager test flight out of its Brize Norton base, it seems the Royal Air Force has chalked up a world first.

On 16 November the Voyager, the military tanker/transport version of the A330-200, took off with its Rolls-Royce Trent 772B turbofans burning pure, 100% sustainable aviation fuel. Many airlines have operated different types with a mix of standard aviation fuel and SAF – usually less than 50% – but no-one is believed to have used pure SAF before.

On board were an RAF crew supplemented by representatives from the SAF manufacturer BP, Airbus Defence & Space, and engine manufacturer R-R. FlightGlobal has reported a statement by Airbus experimental test pilot Jesus Ruiz, who was the aircraft commander for the test: “From the crew perspective, the SAF operation was ‘transparent’, meaning that no differences were observed operationally. The test plan was exhaustive and robust and has allowed us to compare SAF with JET [A]1.”

RAF Voyager tanker/transport (Crown Copyright)

BP crafted the SAF from used cooking oil. This being a flight operated in British airspace by my alma mater, the RAF, I have an unaccountably earnest desire to learn that the cooking oil came from the deep-fryers of English Fish & Chip bars. Given that Capt Ruiz confirms the flight went without a hitch, it seems BP successfully ensured the fuel was not contaminated with salt and vinegar!

Joking aside, this is a very welcome achievement, as is the RAF’s stated objective for sustainable flight. Chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston says the RAF is committed to achieving net-zero air operations by 2040, a decade ahead of the present global aviation target.

How did that happen?

How did that happen? A Boeing Stearman lands on a Cessna 182.

A Cessna 182 was nearing the end of its landing roll on runway 22 at Dunkeswell aerodrome, Devon, UK, when a Boeing Stearman landed on top of it.

Remarkably, both pilots survived, but the Cessna pilot was badly wounded when propeller blades cut through the top of his cockpit.

The Air Accident Investigation Branch report describes what the Cessna pilot experienced: “With around 100 m to go to the [runway] intersection [where he intended to turn off to the right], the pilot reported that he heard and felt what seemed like an ‘explosion’ and then became aware of propeller blades rotating in front of his face. He recalled that the cockpit was filled with debris from the shattered windshield, shards of metal and splintered wood.”

It was a cloudy day but the visibility was pretty good below the cloud-base, which was 1,200ft above ground level, with a few patches at 600ft to 800ft. The AAIB says Dunkeswell witnesses described the weather as “workable”.

The pilots of both aircraft say they made calls on the Dunkeswell Radio frequency, but only the Cessna pilot received a reply.

Both pilots were alone in their aircraft, and both of them were experienced aviators.

Neither was aware of the other aircraft’s presence in or near the Dunkeswell circuit, and at the point of collision neither had seen the other.

If I were to stop the story here, even experienced general aviation pilots would wonder how this situation could possibly have developed. The answer, as usual, is that lots of factors combined; but even after reading the AAIB’s report, some questions remain unanswered.

The assembled contributory factors – in no particular order – are these: Dunkeswell Radio maintained an imperfect listening watch for its air-ground communication service (not ATC as such), the duty officer having multiple other duties while on watch; the Cessna pilot (G-OMAG) intercepted final approach from the “dead side” without clearing the non-standard arrival; the Stearman pilot (N68427), based at Dunkeswell, states he made several calls to Dunkeswell Radio when returning to the circuit, but received no response; neither pilot heard any calls from the other, both believing they were alone in the circuit; forward visibility from the Stearman’s cockpit is limited, especially directly ahead and below the nose. Finally, the AAIB found that the airport operator was not aware that the main AIP (aviation information publication) entry for Dunkeswell did not contain reference to the requirement for inbound traffic to join the circuit via either the downwind or base legs of the active runway. Accordingly, commercial AIP providers did not do so either.

The sequence on the day (20 August 2021) goes something like this: the Cessna, having obtained prior permission to arrive at Dunkeswell, took off from Bodmin – about half an hour to the west – at 13:00. The Stearman had taken off from Dunkeswell at 13:05 to carry out some flying in the local area to the north, and returned later intending a couple of circuits.

At 13:26 the Cessna passed Exeter to its north, and at the same time the Stearman joined Dunkswell’s left hand circuit for runway 22 from the east, and carried out a touch-and-go at 13:29. The Stearman pilot said he made a radio call indicating his intentions but could not recall getting an acknowledgement. Following his touch-and-go, N68427 flew a left hand circuit (see illustration below), intending to land from a curved base leg into a short final approach, because the wing-down attitude provides better sight of the runway for a Stearman pilot.

At about 13:27 the Cessna pilot called Exeter and said he was continuing with Dunkeswell Radio, then called the latter and was informed runway 22 was active with a QFE of 986hPa.

The AAIB report says that when the Stearman entered the 22 left hand circuit from the touch-and-go, the Cessna was about a mile to the west of the airfield, the dead-side of the circuit. The Cessna pilot decided to turn north (see illustration above), then carry out a right hand loop onto the base leg, continuing the turn onto final approach from the dead side. At that point, says the Cessna pilot, he called “Golf alpha golf final 22”. There was no acknowledgement, and the pilot told the AAIB he thought his aircraft was alone in the circuit.

CCTV images of the two aircraft show the two aircraft on final approach, the Stearman slightly higher, initially curving in from the left of the runway extended centreline, the Cessna on the centreline. As they converged, the Stearman remained higher than the Cessna and slightly ahead of it, the latter overhauling the biplane because of its faster approach airspeed. When the Cessna touched down just beyond the displaced runway threshold, the Stearman was above and close behind it, with the Cessna in the pilot’s blind spot below the biplane’s nose.

As the Cessna slowed toward its intended turn-off, the Stearman “touched down” on top of it. The AAIB report provides the Stearman pilot’s perception of what was happening: “The pilot reported that the landing ‘didn’t feel right’ and that the aircraft was not responding to control inputs. He applied power to correct what he felt was a drift to the left, then reduced power to idle. The aircraft continued to swing further to the left, off the runway and onto the grass.” (see headline picture).

The Cessna pilot could not open his cockpit door, but the Stearman pilot managed to do it and helped him out. The airport fire and rescue service attended rapidly and doused the Cessna with foam because fuel was leaking from the left wing tank.

Because the airfield only provided an air-ground communication service, not ATC as such, communications are not logged, but the pilots and some airport witnesses report calls being made in this case. The mystery is: why didn’t either pilot hear the other’s calls?

The UK Civil Aviation Authority’s Skyway Code provides plenty of apposite advice for this serious incident. One piece is this: “If you believe the circuit is clear but are not sure, there is no harm in asking over the radio whether there is any other traffic – it is not unknown for pilots to stop making position calls if they believe they are alone in the circuit.” Another is to stick rigidly to circuit procedure, which would include not joining from the dead side.

UK aviation: caught in the crossfire

With the destabilizing effects on global aviation of huge fuel price inflation and unprecedented Russian military aggression in Europe, worsened by post-pandemic staffing shortages, it’s amazing that international commercial air transport works at all right now.

International cooperation has never been more crucial. Yet in the UK, an example of how NOT to do aviation – especially right now – has just been highlighted.

UK-based eVTOL developer Vertical Aerospace will be certificated by the UK CAA according to EU rules despite having separated from EASA

The reason international aviation is still working despite global instability is because the world wants it to, and has set up robust systems to enable it. Like commercial shipping, commercial aviation is naturally a global industry.

That’s why both those industries have specific United Nations agencies devoted to overseeing globally agreed standards and operating practices (SARPs). These agencies are the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization. Total regulatory unity doesn’t prevail worldwide, but a high degree of harmonization does.

The world’s two most influential national/regional aviation authorities responsible for turning ICAO SARPS into national law are the European Union Aviation Safety Organisation (EASA) and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). These two have worked together for decades to improve the harmonization of their regulations, making them identical where possible. They still meet regularly. Most of the world’s national aviation authorities (NAAs) more or less copy the regulations of one or the other into their own NAA rules.

All the EU states have always had their own NAAs – and still do. But since the 1980s they have worked together on harmonizing their aviation regulations to make Europe’s aviation industry work better.

In the early 2000s, EASA was born out of its predecessor the European Joint Aviation Authorities, to unify Europe’s interpretation of all those ICAO SARPs.

Back in the early 1980s, believe it or not, Boeing had to build almost as many variants of its 737 series as there were countries in Europe, because some nations insisted on safety systems than the FAA did not require, and some of these specifications were unique to each country. For example, one of the UK’s additional requirements – then – was for a 737 stick-pusher.

Today the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is faced with the consequences of returning to the bad old days because of the UK’s departure from the European Union. Although Theresa May, the UK prime minister preceding Boris Johnson’s election, had instructed the CAA to remain an associate member of EASA following “Brexit”, when Johnson came in his government insisted on ideological purity, thus no CAA association with Europe’s multinational agency.

Meanwhile, right now the CAA has to prepare its reaction to the imminent arrival on the world stage of a new form of commercial air transport: eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing), also known as Urban Air Mobility. Expected to take the air taxi world by storm and make it sustainable, the UK plans to be involved in all aspects of this new industry, including manufacturing.

At a time like this, when the world has agreed to harmonize rules associated with another massive new aviation development – drone operation – it does not make sense for any nation to declare unilateral independence from the world rule-making processes.

The CAA, fully aware of its dilemma, has released a statement pledging that it will follow exactly the EASA rules on certification for eVTOL.  Of course, it has to duplicate the regulation in UK law, and any UK eVTOL products or services will be subject to scrutiny by EASA to ensure that it does just that. Hence the UK’s promising eVTOL manufacturer Vertical Aerospace is having to undergo identical parallel certification by two agencies: the CAA and EASA. You couldn’t make it up, could you?

Meanwhile the bureaucratic burden placed on the UK agency is evident from this script heading pages on the CAA’s website: “UK-EU Transition, and UK Civil Aviation Regulations: To access current UK civil aviation regulations, including AMC and GM, CAA regulatory documents, please use this link to UK regulation. Please note, if you use information and guidance under the Headings below, the references to EU regulations or EU websites in our guidance will not be an accurate description of your obligations under UK law. These pages are undergoing reviews and updates.

Bringing their legacy to Life

On 12 June 2015 I visited the old aerodrome of Saint-Omer in far north-eastern France. The date was the 100th anniversary of my grandfather’s arrival there to join No. 7 Squadron Royal Flying Corps as a new pilot.

This aerodrome was chosen by the First World War Aviation Historical Society to be the site of a memorial to all British military aviators, judging Saint Omer to be “the spiritual home of the RFC”.

My 12 June 2015 visit to Saint-Omer aerodrome

Now airman and film producer Tristan Loraine is to make a film honouring the historic contribution of aviators to our freedom, and he’s inviting people who care about these things to get involved in its creation.

It’ll be a homage to all lost aircrew called Angel Fleet. If you click on the link above you’ll see this:

My grandfather, Major Leonard Learmount RFC, was lucky. He survived, but many in the Squadron he eventually commanded in 1917-18 didn’t.

Until the First World War Aviation Historical Society decided – in 2004 – to erect the memorial at Saint-Omer, there was no single monument to honour all lost military aviators from all conflicts. Until Tristan makes this film there will be no single silver-screen tribute to them all.

China Eastern crew did not reply

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), in an initial briefing on the loss of the China Eastern Boeing 737-800 (B-1791), says air traffic controllers monitoring traffic in the Guangzhou flight information region saw the aircraft enter a steep descent and attempted to make contact, but “received no reply”.

Flight MU5735 was just over an hour into its journey from Kunming to Guangzhou at 29,000ft when the fatal descent began.

At present, says the CAAC, investigators are searching for the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder. The aircraft hit the ground at high speed and wreckage is widely spread. As a precaution the agency has declared all China’s 737s grounded for checks, although it has not been specific about what checks may be required, and a safety review of aviation infrastructure like ATC and maintenance organisations has been ordered.

China is proud of its safety record, and had not seen an airline fatal accident on its territory since August 2010 when a Henan Airlines Embraer EMB190 crashed on approach to land in fog at Yinchun Lindu airport.

China Eastern crash today

Crashes these days are incredibly rare, but a fairly new Boeing 737-800 of China Eastern Airlines has crashed in China on a domestic scheduled flight from Kunming to Guangzhou. It looks as if none of the 132 people on board have survived.

This incident is unusual in the sense that crashes very rarely happen in the cruise – that is, during the en-route section of the flight. This is because the crew has no high workload to deal with at that time, the engines are operating at a gentle cruise power, and the airframe is not under stress from manoeuvring.

According to the FlightRadar 24 tracker, the aircraft stayed on the same heading towards its destination while it descended toward the point of impact with the mountains. If it had broken up in the air because of sabotage or a catastrophic structural failure, it would almost certainly have spiralled down. But this aircraft was quite young, so structural failure can almost be ruled out.

We have no reports of a distress call to ATC, yet the aircraft began a descent. There was no reason for the crew to have adopted a descent profile at that point, because the descent toward its destination airport did not need to begin for another ten minutes.

If the crew had adopted a deliberate emergency descent because of sudden cabin decompression, it would have levelled at 10,000ft or thereabouts, whereas the last height reported by the tracker was 3,325ft.

The last time – indeed the only time – I saw a flight profile like this, the aircraft involved was the Germanwings A320 that crashed in France in March 2015, and the cause of that, according to the official investigation, was the copilot deliberately crashing the aircraft because of his mental state.

At this point, however, there is no direct evidence to support this conclusion regarding China Eastern and flight MU5735.

The most compelling evidence so far, as is often true so soon after a loss, is what did not happen. A Mayday call did not happen, although during a descent from 29,000ft there is plenty of time to make one.

The investigators will be trying to find out why that was.

Post Script on 19 May 2022: The Wall Street Journal has quoted US NTSB officials working with the Chinese authorities on the crash investigation as saying that the cockpit flight controls appear to have been manipulated deliberately with the apparent intention of crashing the aircraft. The NTSB press office will say only that it is for the Chinese authorities, in charge of the investigation, to make any such statements, and so far they have not done so.

Waspish problems at Heathrow

Apparently insect life at London Heathrow airport has vigorously regenerated during the pandemic lockdowns. This has forced the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) to embrace a new science: entomology.

Over about 6 weeks in June and July 2021 two jet crews at Heathrow had to reject take-offs because of unreliable airspeed readings, and several more had to taxi back to their stand because their aircraft’s air data inertial reference unit (ADIRU) had detected anomalies in data from pitot/static sensors. Aircraft involved included Airbus A320 and A330 series, and Boeing 777 and 787 series.

The main reason, of course, is insects (mainly wasps, it seems) nesting in pitot tubes. This is not a new phenomenon, but the summer 2021 burst of particularly intense insect activity raises numerous questions beyond the obvious flight safety ones. As the AAIB puts it: “Proactive habitat management and aircraft monitoring will be required to mitigate the risk. With the move towards ‘greener’ aviation, this may become even more important in the future. ”

In the old days they’d just have sprayed the place with DDT.

The question is, what prompted this “infestation”? The AAIB explains that it appears to be the result of “reduced traffic levels and human activity resulting in a surge of insect breeding during the pandemic lockdowns.

“With less aircraft activity, including less noise and jet efflux to deter the insects, the parked aircraft made an attractive opportunity, with the pitot probes providing an ideal construction site for nests.”

The agency points out that the Heathrow area is an air pollution hot spot not only because of air traffic, but heavy local motorway and urban road traffic also. All of these pollution contributory factors, however, were considerably reduced during the lockdown periods of 2020 and 2021.

Perhaps in 2022, as the pandemic threat recedes and air movements increase, aviation itself will chase the insects away? The AAIB’s recently gained entomological expertise has led it to believe this will not be so – or certainly not this year: “The high level of insect activity in 2021 could lead to a larger number of insects emerging in the spring of 2022. Therefore, even though traffic levels and aircraft utilisation are expected to increase in 2022, the seasonal risk of insects blocking pitot probes could be significant.”

Wasps like pitot tubes

An additional factor encouraging insects to make their nests in aircraft has been simple opportunity: the larger numbers of aircraft parked for longer periods. Pilots and operators of light aircraft operating out of sleepy country airfields have long known that their pre-flight walk-rounds must include inspection of any crevices or hideaways. Even birds have been discovered nesting in engine bays, having found their way in via the cooling air intakes.

Despite the fact that most pilots have suffered a pandemic-induced loss of flying practice, none of this rash of insect-caused unreliable airspeed incidents at Heathrow has led to an accident. To ensure this remains true, the AAIB has recommended an “enhanced use of pitot covers or additional pre-flight inspections.” The airlines and their crews were already doing that!

This issue remains current as far as the AAIB is concerned. It is working with the Natural History Museum to identify the precise wasp species involved in aircraft infestations, their over-winter domiciles, spring nesting, mating and larvae-hatching patterns.

When they have learned all this, they then have to decide what to do about the phenomenon.

Presumably without resorting to blanket pesticide use.

Free airline pilot training? It gets closer…

Airline pilot training free of charge?

Well, not quite. But something promising has emerged on the pilot training market just as the world’s airlines are beginning to slip the surly bonds of earth once more.

The newly created Airline Pilot Club (APC) offers free registration, and a whole range of advice, guidance, professional aptitude assessment, airline pilot standard e-learning course and tech webinars, for all of which there is no charge.

To access this, all that aspiring pilots have to do is join the club.

APC is a kind of marketplace which brings together selected Approved Training Organisations (ATO), airlines and other operators, and aspiring pilots. As at all marketplaces, they are there to eye each-other up.

The downside? There isn’t an obvious one.

But free flying training? Now you’re getting greedy!

No, it doesn’t offer that, but by the time aspiring APC pilots reach the airborne stage of their preparation they will know their own potential, and be as well prepared as they can be to enter an approved training course from which they will almost certainly graduate.

APC doesn’t provide the flying training, but it vets its short-listed ATOs according to a set of strict criteria.

As for financing, next year the Club expects to launch its pilot training funding system. This is designed to enable students who pass their professional aptitude assessment to get financing without having to rely on the bank of mum and dad, which will democratize access to flight training, thus benefiting the entire industry.

The guy who came up with the APC idea is well-known in European pilot training and recruitment circles: Captain Andy O’Shea. He was head of training at Ryanair for 18 years and chairman of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Aircrew Training Policy Group (ATPG). You can learn more about him and the training innovations he pioneered at the ATPG here.

It was O’Shea who shocked the airline and training establishment by revealing a few years ago that more than 50% of fully licensed pilots applying for Ryanair jobs consistently failed flying tests in a simulator session for which they had been given plenty of time to prepare. Other airlines then admitted their experience had been similar.

The author and O’Shea in his days as Ryanair Head of Training

Not many people know this, but there are about 7,000 fully licensed pilots in Europe who have never been able to get a job. Not because they were casualties of the recent pandemic – this phenomenon pre-dates that. They were simply trained to license minima, and passed. It was like someone passing their driving test and looking for a job in Formula One.

So when O’Shea, having introduced several highly innovative recurrent training systems at Ryanair, finally left the carrier, he wanted to set up a system that introduced aptitude-tested, motivated, technically prepared wannabe pilots to ATOs that would then put them through a training programme that prepares them to do more than scrape through their license.

This is the course that would see them pass the acceptance check-ride at his old airline.

There’s more, but you’ll find it at the link I provided earlier, and at APC.

How to win air travellers back

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Air travellers are dreaming nostalgically of the golden age of flying.  

No, not the Pan Am Stratocruisers of the 1950s for which the boarding pass was elegant millinery for the ladies and trilbies for the chaps. The golden era ended two years ago, at the end of 2019. And we’re talking about the whole air travel range from Wizz Air A320s to Emirates A380s.

Guests at hip dinner parties now compete to see who can claim to have gone the longest since they last got airborne. This is not, dear reader, a “who is the greenest” competition. Their agonising anecdotes drip with nostalgia. Even Ryanair customer-service horror stories qualify for full-on “those were the days” treatment. It seems memories of a 17-inch seat-pitch with no seat-back pouch to hold your stuff are recalled fondly.

Anything for a sniff of aviation fuel.

To listen to them, you’d think these intrepid voyagers would kill to get aboard any aircraft given permission to get airborne since the Covid pandemic’s grip slackened last summer. So why don’t they? Why are the winning dinner party anecdotes those that claim the longest grounding?

The long-suffering airlines are doing their best to win passengers back, but the principal barrier preventing them returning to anything like normal service is uncertainty, particularly on international routes. Domestic routes in big markets like the USA are almost normal, since they don’t face differing national rules on how to manage borders in a pandemic.

In the Good Old Days of 2019, business leaders could get on with running their businesses. Now nationalism is in – and treaties/alliances are suddenly uncool – they have to negotiate continually with governments both at home and abroad, to agree ways of meeting the ever-changing rules that limit what they are permitted to do today.

Unfortunately, uncertainty is with us to stay, even when the pandemic is brought under control, because nationalism has been on the rise since the Trump presidency in the USA, Brexit in the UK, and the influence of increasingly belligerent governments in Moscow, Budapest, Warsaw and Beijing.

However hard they try, cabin crew and pilots cannot entirely disguise the stresses they face in this new working environment. And when stressed cabin crew meet stressed passengers who have been juggling for days with Covid tests and providing proof of them on arrival at the airport, the golden age seems far away.

There has been a severe shortage of happy stories about air travel, but a few glints from the golden age may yet be in the offing.

Airlines like Emirates, Singapore Airlines, British Airways and Qantas are wheeling A380s out again, their press offices fondly reminding passengers that this huge machine provides perhaps the best air travel experience available – even in the economy cabin.

Marketing air travel is not easy right now, but one thing is for sure: selling air travel nostalgia is one of the few tactics likely to work.