29 January 2010

Forty-Two Years of Pulling Pitch

In three days I will have been a helicopter pilot 42 years.
I'm now approaching 18,000 hours in my logbook. About 95% of that total is in an aircraft with a wing I can see through as it rotates overhead. Almost all of that time is VFR, and because of the nature of my job, a majority of my flying is done at night.

I was scanning an Airline Pilot's blog the other day and saw his
"2009 Wrap-up"...

There was little detail in the post, other than to say he flew 805 hours last year, a number he said was down 40 hours from 2008. If he continues to fly 805 hours/yr. he'll eclipse my total time in about half the time I've been flying. Amazing.

It set me to thinking about the differences in our jobs. How does his day differ from mine?
I am dual-rated, meaning I can fly both airplanes and helicopters.
But I have just enough time in airplanes to be dangerous... I'm not all that comfortable flying something that reaches the ground still going 60 miles per hour (or more). Admittedly, my ideas about what this guy's job entails may be wrong, wrong, wrong, and if they are, please correct me. He flies some pretty big iron, so I suspect he shows up for work in uniform and has much of the before-flying stuff done for him...

Weather checked. Flightplan filed. Maintenance logs laid out for his perusal. I have no idea how you preflight something like a 757... I've seen videos of pilots walking around the aircraft checking it out...
"Yeah, the wing is still attached to the fuselage, and the engine is attached to the wing."
Does he also look at the engine and think "Wow, that's a big ol' hole in the front of that sucka!"?
I would.

Like me, I know he has a checklist to follow and make sure all the equipment works as it should...
All the switches are in place and all the buttons that needed pushing have been pushed. But when he has made the decision that it's safe to commit aviation his job differs from mine a lot.
He'll coordinate with his company dispatcher to make sure all is well. He (or his company dispatcher) will call clearance delivery to make sure his flight plan is in place. He'll then call ground control for instructions on how to taxi to the runway that is actively being used, push away from the terminal, and taxi as instructed. Checking to insure everything is "in the green", he'll call tower and let them know he's ready to go when they're ready for him to go. When tower gives him permission to takeoff, he'll take the runway, push the throttles forward, and use up a mile or so of pavement to get airborne. He'll climb like a homesick angel to altitude that would require the use of oxygen if he and his passengers weren't in an aluminum balloon, and will have ATC looking over his shoulder to help keep him out of trouble for the entire flight. I suspect his average flight is MUCH longer than mine.

When he reaches his destination, ATC will likely give him instructions to help line him up with the runway he needs to plunk his big machine on, pointing out other aircraft they see that might come close to his flight path all along the way. Once on the ground, the procedure is a modified version of the process he used above to taxi to the runway. Like me, his number of takeoffs should equal his number of landings.

The telephone rings. The dispatcher on the other end of the line asks "Can you...?" I have to make the yes/no "is it safe?" decision before they'll even tell me the nature of my flight... scene, hospital to hospital, or specialty flight/baby transport. I quickly check weather and make the go/no go decision. If it is "go", the dispatcher then tells me where I'm going and a brief description of what's ailin' the patient to relay to my medcrew. I briskly move to the aircraft, do a quick walk-around to make sure the cowlings and fuel cap are secure and all shorelines are detached, then climb in and use my checklist to start the machine and do a quick systems check.

I lift the collective and hover, then point the aircraft into the wind and take off. When I've climbed enough for the company radio to work I call our dispatch and let them know we are on our way and our approximate time enroute. They then give us more detailed information about the patient, and in the case of a scene flight, contact information for the folks we'll be working with on the ground. At this point, knowing I have my mount pointed generally in the correct direction, I'll program the GPS with my destination waypoint.

Let's review my flying yesterday, which, when weather permits, is pretty routine:
I started my shift at 0700. My first flight, a scene flight to pick up a guy who caught and crushed his arm in a machine at work was at 11:27 A.M.. We completed that flight at 2:01 P.M. and I logged 1.5 hours of VFR/day with three takeoffs and landings. One of the landings was to a dust covered parking lot between two rows of cars with powerlines on two sides of my LZ, in a 16 knot quartering crosswind.

Takeoff for flight#2 was at exactly 3:00 P.M., a hospital to hospital flight to pick up an elderly gentleman that was found unresponsive and unconscious in his kitchen. We landed at the receiving hospital with him at 3:56 P.M. after 21 minutes of VFR/day flying... one takeoff and two landings to hospital helipads.
On takeoff to come back to our base from this flight dispatch called and asked, "Can you...", I checked my fuel status and I answered yes. We made a 120 degree turn to the heading for our new destination and I plugged in the GPS waypoint while my crew listened to patient information. My takeoff for this flight was at 4:33 P.M. and our flight-completed landing was at 7:14 P.M.. I logged 1.3 hours total time, .8 VFR/day, .5 VFR night, two day takeoffs and landings and two each after sunset.

Totals for the day-
3.1 hours. 9 takeoffs and landings, one each to a very confined unimproved landing site, and two each at nighttime. By the time I finished filling out the paperwork I left work an hour later than shift-change time.

How do you compare the two jobs?
The fixed wing guy flies a machine that, set up properly and left undisturbed, will pretty much fly unaided until it exhausts its fuel supply. If I release my controls, the helicopter will crash... I must be continuously on or near all of the controls.
I suspect if he was logging 3.1 hours, he'd also be logging one takeoff and one landing. That takeoff and landing would be to a relatively flat, unobstructed, lighted ribbon of pavement, aided by ATC...
No parking lots.
I may, or may not talk with ATC during my entire day.

Which job would you prefer?
We both fly, but he's paid much, much more than me.
Would I trade places with him?
You've been reading here long enough to know the answer to that question, haven't you?


ddf said...

Interesting post, but be careful when you use one metric (he's paid much, much more) to compare the value of the job. Why are congressmen paid more than soldiers, they are both in public service? Instead we define value by what it is worth to our employers and what it is worth to us.

John Ruberry said...

42 years...amazing. By the way, I'm not afraid to be flown...but I'm terrified to fly.

camerapilot said...

For your sake I hope the answer is somewhere within those 42 years of yours and it's positive.
I have 30 years behind the motion picture camera. It all passes quickly. But oh what we have seen!
Money was secondary, still is.
The journey continues!

Bloviating Zeppelin said...

Here's what I think the difference is:

You're still flying.

He's predominantly detached. It's aluminum flying aluminum. Yes, of course, dangerous and complicated. But he's detached by many levels. On the other hand, it's something he must enjoy or he wouldn't be doing it, yes?

I submit you're still in a bit of the leather helmet and rippling scarf days. The ground is RIGHT THERE and always will be. You have an instant respect for its hardness. You can see the ground and you can smell it. You can see its colors. The air has its own smell as well; its breezes move you. You have to read its temper, judge its clouds, understand its mien from not just day to day, but hour to hour and, literally, minute to minute.

I don't fly. My Dad did. He was an 8th AF B-17G command pilot in England.

That's my take.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100%...it's not the hours that make a pilot...it's the piloting.

I drive heavy metal to the tune of 800 or so hours a year, and although there are some moments of exhilaration where I earn every penny, I spend a lot of time turning the LNAV dial and worrying about fuel savings.

I only accumulated 1800 hours or so in 9 years of USAF flying in A-10's...but nearly every hour was stick and rudder time. Best flying of my career.

Enjoy what you've got. Fair skies!