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Interview: Corey Heiser

“I could work a 16-hour duty day and get paid for an hour’s worth of work. That happened quite a bit.”
heiser

Heiser was a pilot with Colgan Air from 2005 to 2009. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 30, 2009.

Prior to connecting with Colgan, did you know much about the airline?

Nope. ... I knew what they flew, and that was it.

... What was the reputation of the company?

They had an older reputation of that they used to hire people that maybe didn't make it at other airlines, had struggled a little bit, but that's all I really knew. ... I wanted a job. They were the first ones that called ... and offered me a job. ...

What was the company like when you got there?

Very friendly. Wasn't the most organized thing I've ever seen, but that seems to be fairly common for most airlines.

... What do you mean about not organized? Give me some examples.

Thirty people ... were there to interview that day, trying to schedule slots for simulators and testing and one-on-one interviews. It was just a lot of disorganization, but that seems to be the standard.

[Of] course, the airline was in the midst of some pretty rapid expansion at that time, right? ... Describe how quickly it was growing.

Well, ... they went from approximately 250 pilots; then they started the expansion in Houston about six months prior to when I interviewed, so they were seeing mass amounts of people coming through, being hired, trying to gear up and to keep staffed for the levels [of] Houston fly[ing].

How many pilots were they adding at the time you came out?

I think approximately 100 to 150.

So they went from 250 to 400 in a matter of a very short period of time?

Right. ...

Do you know much about the history of the company and how it all came to be?

I know they've been in business for well over 30 years. They started in the late '70s, I think, flying various airplanes for -- they used to fly out of Newark. They flew shorts. I'm not sure who the code shares were, who they flew them for.

And as the time evolved -- I think it was the early '90s, late '80s, early '90s -- the company was sold off. I'm not sure who that was to. But at that point, a few years later, Chuck Colgan Sr. acquired the company again. And at that point is when they really started to see the rapid expansion, flying Beech 99s, 1900s and Saabs.

And what was happening then, they were getting all kinds of contracts from the big players to do flying for them, code sharing? ... Explain how important all those contracts were from Continental and USAir and so forth.

Well, that's the only way they made their money, having those contracts and fulfilling the obligations of those contracts. And if they didn't fulfill those, they didn't make their money. And so they would go out on a limb, like with the initial Continental contract in Houston to fly Saabs. That was a big contract for us, because I think it moved into a fee-for-departure type, where Continental was responsible for all costs. We just literally had to staff the airplanes and do the maintenance on it. Other than that, all costs were covered.

So make sure the airplane gets from point A to point B at the appointed time, staff it, make sure the airplane works, and the rest is up to Continental. Makes up the tickets. They buy the fuel.

Yup.

They do all that stuff.

And that was the same contract that the [Bombardier DHC8-402] Q400 operated under as well.

A pretty good deal.

Very good deal for Colgan.

Were they making a lot of money, do you think?

I'm not sure what the operating profits were on the airplane. I know the Q was profitable aircraft.

Yeah. If it weren't for those deals, those code-share deals, those contracts with the big players, Colgan would be what?

Colgan would probably be almost nonexistent in today's market. I can't see there being a huge -- seems like today, with the startup airlines, without some sort of financial backing from a major player or contract, [they] just don't seem to survive.

So these contracts are lucrative?

... Yeah.

You got there, you said 2005, right? ... Was it exciting?

Oh, it was very exciting. It was my first airline job, you know? I was [in my] early 20s. It was exciting, was fun, was chaotic, a little unorganized, a little unorthodox style of training. But it was fun. ...

... How was it chaotic?

It was chaotic in the sense we were always needing to shuffle from someplace to somewhere else, and it never seemed like the plans were totally thought out. And I understand it's an airline; it's dynamic. We may need to go do drills training, but there might not be an airplane available.

I sort of get the sense, talking to you and others, that this company was in a little bit over its head. Would that be accurate to say?

I would say so, because, I mean, it was a rapid expansion. ... This was the first really big contract, ... [the] initial Continental one, in Houston. They had almost doubled the size of the company, and I don't think they were totally ready for it, had the staffing or the manpower to deal with all the training needs. ...

Tell me a little bit about your deal. How were you paid? How much were you paid? And what was your typical week like?

When I started on the 1900 as a first officer, $20 an hour was what I started out with.

Flight time.

Yeah, flight time. So I could work a 16-hour duty day and get paid for an hour's worth of work. That happened quite a bit. There were a lot of days that that would happen. ... Sometimes that could be because flights were canceled, maintenance issues, whatnot. But a typical week, I'd usually work five days a week. We'd do six, seven legs a day, if not eight sometimes; fly seven and a half, right at eight hours.

So, eight hours being the maximum allowed per day, ... what did you make that first year? Do you remember?

My first year I made a little over $22,000 gross. ... And then you put into the fact that you have mortgages and rent for a crash pad, student loan payments, car insurance and whatnot. By the time it all got said and done, we were literally starving at the end of the day. ...

The working conditions -- help people understand who work a typical 40-hour week. They go in, and they get paid for every hour they're at the office. [That's] not how it is for an airline person, for a pilot. Explain how that works.

We are only paid when the door is closed and the engines are running. As soon as we block out of the gate, we close that door, that's when we start. All the time we're walking through airports, eating lunch, reading a book while we wait for an airplane standing at the gate, we're not paid for that time. We may be on duty for 80 hours a week and get paid for 20 of it if we're lucky.

Why is that system that way anyway? Do you know the history of that?

I don't know why the history of that is. I mean, we all know that the FAA mandates we can't [fly] more than eight hours a day, more than 30 hours in seven days. We're required ... one 24-hour period off every seven days. ...

Did the company push you to get right to the edge of the limits, or even perhaps go beyond those work rules?

There were a couple of times when you would go to bed at night, you would see your schedule for the next morning. You may be blocked for six and a half hours, seven hours. ... And then you wake up that morning, check your schedule again, and there's been two legs added to your schedule, and you may notice that your first flight from, say, Albany to Boston was blocked in an hour and five minutes; and now all of a sudden it's blocked for 50 minutes. They start shaving time off legs so they can make it legal, so it shows you're scheduled for less than eight hours of work that day. ...

... That's not legal, is it?

... If you got up that morning, and you're scheduled to fly seven hours and 59 minutes, and they made no adjustments to your schedule throughout the entire day, and it took you eight and a half hours to complete your day, that was considered legal.

But is there nobody there saying, "Actually, that flight from Albany to Boston will always take longer"?

That's a dispatch manager call. ... The companies oversee [this]. ... Every six months they make an adjustment to ... what the block averages are.

But the companies make that decision.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

The FAA's not there saying, "Wait a minute."

Nope.

"That's actually an hour flight, not 45 minutes."

Right.

So you had a lot of schedules that in the real world would well exceed ... what the FAA maximums for a day would be.

Right. And we had no legs to stand on. There was no recourse, and we could not go to the company and say, "This isn't right." They would just turn a blind eye and say, "Well, fly it." ...

Why were they pushing?

Because if we didn't move those airplanes, they didn't make any money. For every day the airplane sat on the ground, or for every hour it sat on the ground, it cost them money.

[Of] course, the same goes for you, too. If you don't spool up those engines, you don't get paid, either.

Exactly. So it's kind of a double-edged sword. Company wants to make money, and we want to make money, too. ...

You're making $22,000 a year. You've got all your expenses, and that's got to be in the back of your mind as you're making your decisions.

Well, very much so. ... We may only be scheduled to fly, say, 70 hours in a month, so our credit for the month when we'd get paid, it would be 75, and we would pick time up on our days off to fly extra so we could make extra money.

Everybody does it, but it adds to fatigue, because instead of maybe working four days a week, now you're working five days a week, maybe six.

So you're flying overtime if you could do it and still be legal, even though you're probably dog-tired.

Exactly. And on the 1900, we were allowed to fly 34 hours in seven days, as opposed to most bigger airplanes; they're restricted to 30 hours in seven days.

What about the 1900 allows you to get four extra hours? Do you know?

It's because of the way it was certified by the FAA, because it's certified as a Part 25 aircraft, I think. ...

I assume you were a part of the crash-pad world. Explain that. Describe where you had crash pads and what they were like.

I had a crash pad in Albany, N.Y. We had nine people living in a small two-bedroom apartment. We had guys ... sleeping on the couch. They rented a couch. Guys rented a closet -- a big walk-in closet. And then you'd have three or four guys crammed in a little, itty-bitty 10-by-10 room, hardly bigger than jail cells, it seemed like, sleeping on air mattresses.

A lot of the drive behind that: There were a few of us that couldn't afford to rent our own apartment. We just did not make enough money to be able to pay for that, so that's why we'd live in a crash pad. And other guys used crash pads as just exactly that -- someplace they go when they're working, and as soon as they're done working, they commute home to wherever it may be.

Where did you commute from? What was home for you the whole time?

At that time, I was commuting to Charlotte, N.C. ... And then, on occasion, toward the end of my tenure on the Beech, I was commuting to Idaho.

All the way from Idaho. That must have been --

That was brutal.

So when people say commuting is just a lifestyle decision by pilots, is that accurate?

It is. ... It is a lifestyle choice.

It is?

That is a choice the pilots make, to commute.

But it's also a financial choice, isn't it?

And it is, because if you're based in Albany, N.Y., or Newark, N.J., [the] cost of living there is high. It's very hard to find a safe place to live that's affordable. So it is kind of driven economically that you need to live someplace where it's cheaper and commute.

Give me a sense of how tired you would be, just the rigors of going through a week of flying.

Typically, by a week of flying, when my day off would come around, I would usually not do anything on my day off. If I had flown close to the legal max of 34 hours, ran some long duty days of maybe, say, 14 to 16 hours, by the time my day off rolled around, I might sleep in until 2:00 in the afternoon and not have any motivation to get up and commute home because I was so tired. ...

... Can you think of any specifics when you felt like, "This is not safe"? "I'm way too tired to be doing this"?

There were times when we would be -- it would be the end of a night. An airplane would break down somewhere, and they called it a Part 91. And we could fly eight hours in a day, and then they could Part 91 us to fly to go rescue broke airplanes.

So what they're doing is saying you can fly the plane without passengers under a different set of rules -- [the] same set of rules that [are] used for general aviation.

Right.

And then you can throw away all those work and duty rules so you can fly even longer.

Yeah. And the company knew this, and they used this to their advantage. There was one occasion there was a broken airplane in Bar Harbor, Maine, and we were in Albany, N.Y., and we had just gotten done. I think we'd flown maybe six and a half, seven hours that day, at least drawing close to a 14-hour duty day.

Albany, N.Y., was ... the main maintenance base for the company. They had us fly from Albany, N.Y., to Hyannis, Mass., to pick up two mechanics and then fly up to Bar Harbor, Maine. And we're talking 2:00 in the morning, not horrible weather, probably marginal weather after we had just run a long day.

Did you think about saying no?

At the time I was the first officer. I didn't want to do it, but I almost didn't have a say. And we all get the undue pressure of you're a first officer. We all want to upgrade, because you want to make more money and you want to get your time so you can eventually move on to a major.

So heaven forbid you raise your hand and say, "This is too much." ... You've got a black mark.

Exactly. And then time for upgrade, which can be very subjective -- it's not totally seniority-based at the company -- [that] could make it a little bit harder for you to get that upgrade.

Would they say that to you specifically, or was it kind of just an undercurrent?

It was just an underlying tone. There was never anything that was ever said to your face, but you knew that was the case.

How about when you called in sick? Did you call in sick?

I called in sick a couple of times. It was kind of a hassle. They always wanted to know why you called in sick, what your ailment was. And I didn't agree with that, because I felt that if I'm sick, I'm sick; it's none of your business. I would be asked on several occasions, "Well, are you sure you're sick?," maybe get a guilt trip. "Well, we don't have anybody on reserve. We're not going to be able to cover this one. Have to cancel the flight." Kind of make you feel like it's your fault for being sick.

And then at that point, you'd have to speak with the chief pilot and again go through a million questions to explain why you have a head cold or an ear infection.

In a situation like that, there is every incentive to just fly sick, which is not good, right?

It's not good at all. You're not focused on your job at that point. You're not aware. You're not alert, but you don't want to catch the backlash for calling in sick. You don't want that black mark that you're a troublemaker.

So did you fly sick on occasion?

There was a time or two I may have had the lingering ends of a head cold, ... the stomach may have been a little upset from something I ate. ...

Take me through a day from wakeup to bed to how much rest you'd get.

Typically, our schedule is you either worked a morning schedule or you worked an afternoon schedule. The morning schedules were nice because you'd usually have a 5:30-, 6:00-in-the-morning show. Typically, when I was on the 1900, you'd fly one roundtrip to Boston and back, be done by 10:00 in the morning. ...

However, if you were the afternoon crew, you would show at 10:00, 11:00 in the morning, and you'd fly eight legs. You'd usually get back in Albany, weather permitting, maintenance permitting, 9:00, 9:30 at night ... -- so at that point, you'd get about 12 hours of rest. But then if you threw weather into the mix, and you ran a full 16-hour duty day, they're supposed to give you nine hours of rest, and they can reduce you down to eight hours of rest. And sometimes that would come into play.

If it was 2:00 in the morning when you got done, whenever it may be, if they needed you back out that next day at your original show, you may be on reduced rest. And then eight hours -- and that's from the time you block in until the time you show up. So the time it takes to get out of the airplane, pack your bags, get to your car, drive to the crash pad, ... go to sleep, I mean you've lost two and a half hours at that point.

So really, when people say eight hours of rest, that's not eight hours of rest.

No. ... Because most likely, by the time you get to the crash pad, wind down, fall asleep, maybe four hours of sleep; and then you'd be back up again to get ready to go to work. ... And you would do that three days a week, if the weather was bad. I mean, this is the Northeast. The weather's not always conducive out there.

It's hard flying, isn't it, the kind of flying you did?

The 1900, it wasn't hard flying. It was challenging in a sense that the Northeast is -- the weather always changes. And then 1900, we did not have an autopilot, so we hand-flew everything all day long, and that added to the fatigue. ...

That's a lot of flying. ... What you have is very hard duty, with some of the most inexperienced pilots. ...

Right. We're all young, low-time pilots, relatively speaking. When I was hired there, I had 800 hours flying the 1900, flying with captains that maybe had 1,800, 1,900 hours' total time. So between the two of us, we didn't even break 3,000 hours. So that added to the inexperience level, topped with the fatigue, topped with some pressures from the company. ...

How would you describe the company's stance on safety? Was safety number one?

Safety was number one. That ... was the main practice that they wanted to achieve was safety. It was always the top priority. However, the tools to achieve, to make sure safety was always the number one priority were sometimes not always readily available. ...

They talked a safety game, but did they play the game? ...

If the weather was nice and planes were not breaking, and things were operating smoothly, they played the safety game top notch.

But it was times when planes broke, crews called in sick, the weather went down, that the safety issues would start to arise in the sense that we would be fatigued; we were tired and we could not get the rest. And if we tried to call in fatigue or thought about calling in fatigue, [we] then opened up a can of worms that a lot of us did not want to open up, because then again, we're focused on potential upgrades, or we don't want to be a troublemaker. And there was never an issue or a time that I ever had personally where I felt ... I was too fatigued to fly. ...

Did you feel pressure to fly airplanes that you felt were too broken to fly safely?

I can't say there was ever any time when I was really pushed hard to fly an aircraft that was unsafe. There was an issue that arose when I was a first officer: The captain wanted to fly the airplane with an MEL that was very restrictive.

[I] want you to explain that, when you say "MEL [minimum equipment list] that's very restrictive." He wanted to fly with a lot of things that were broken?

It was one particular item that was broken, and it was allowed to be broken by the FAA, by company policy. It had to do with the pitot heat; [it] was inop[erable] on the captain's side.

Were you flying into icing conditions?

The restriction on the MEL is that you could not operate as a passenger-carrying, nor could you fly into IMC conditions -- instrument [meteorological] conditions. At the time, at the airport, the ceilings were 200, overcast, and it's the middle of January. It didn't take a no-brainer [sic] to figure that one out.

OK. So on the face of it, that's an icing situation, and so this pitot tube, which measures airspeed, if it freezes up, can be a big problem.

Right. ...

And did you say, "We shouldn't go"?

Yeah, I put my foot down and said, "We can't go," and my basis for that is it said in the MEL that we could not go. We could not operate the aircraft. ...

So you see that this device, which is very important -- there are two of them, right? -- ... one of them was working, but you're supposed to have the redundancy, right?

Right. ...

And so by the rules, you could still fly it or not?

By the rules, we could still operate, provided we stayed in severe clear conditions.

Right. But on that night, you didn't have severe clear [conditions].

No.

So what happened?

We -- the captain and myself -- I wouldn't say we got into an argument. I'd say it was a heated discussion, trying to have a clear understanding of exactly what the rule was regarding having the pitot heat inoperative that day. Dispatch and maintenance said we could fly. He thought we could fly, but it clearly stated we could not fly. But it took an hour of convincing the captain until we finally agreed we weren't going to go and finally could get [the] company to realize that we could not go. ...

Were you worried about holding your ground at this point? Did you say: "Oh my God, I'm going to have a black mark on my file. I'll never get upgraded, never get a little more money," whatever?

That was not in the back of my mind that day, because in the back of my mind it was, you know, "I want to stay safe; I want to stay alive." That was what was my main drive, and as well as not receiving certificate action from the FAA, because that would have been a blatant violation right there.

... What was the captain's counterpoint?

That he was unable to make the distinction between what visual conditions were and what instrument conditions were. He seemed to be having trouble with making that distinction. The minimum equipment list, as far as the restriction to operate that flight, it was kind of cumbersome. It took a little bit to read it. It was fairly lengthy and confusing, and I think that's where he got twisted up a little bit. ...

What does that incident tell you about the company and a lot of the people who work there?

It just told me that they wanted to get the aircraft moved. The saying around the company was always, "Move the rig." And that just kind of told me that they were willing to kind of push the bounds in order to make money.

"Move the rig."

"Move the rig" was always a common theme you would hear. "Just move the rig."

Move the rig at all costs?

I wouldn't say at all costs, but make a decision and use your judgment -- and move the rig. Almost an "ask questions later"-type scenario. ...

OK. So the pushing that was going on, is that just -- we were talking about the contracts. Was it simply to meet those contracts, keep Continental and US Airways happy?

In a sense. The contracts -- to my understanding; I could be wrong -- but there's completion. A certain amount of flights have to be completed on a daily, monthly, weekly style basis. And that was part of it, because the more flights they canceled, the lower the completion rate would go. So there would be pressure, from the company down to the crews, to get the airplane moved so they could maintain that completion standard, so when the contract came for renewal they could still get it.

I'm curious. How many times would you have a check airman, kind of an overseer pilot, ride in the jump seat and check you guys out? And did you have the sense that they were interested in making sure that operations went safely?

On the Q400 in August of last year [2008], they did a safety audit, where they put check airmen in everybody's jump seats and made sure everybody was operating correctly and efficiently, and that seemed like that was one of the very first steps that I'd ever seen [in] the company, in three and a half years, to make sure we operated right.

Prior to that?

Prior to that, ... very rarely you would see a check airman in the jump seat, almost only when it was required as far as the captain being checked every 12 months. ...

The [airplane] manuals. We were talking to Chris Monteleon, the FAA POI [principal operations inspector] at one time [and FAA whistleblower]. ... He was talking about how much disarray there was with the manuals, and his sense of it was if a company can't even get manuals done properly, that reflects something more deep-seated. Did you notice that, where the manual is a mess?

The manuals were very cumbersome; you would find many typos; things would not be clearly stated. They would almost go back on themselves. They would state something, and then later on there would be another statement that may contradict what was just said. They were very, very confusing at times. ...

Not a lot of thought went into these manuals.

Very, very little thought. They were in the process, when I left Colgan, of coming out with new manuals, ... and it was to bring all the manuals up to a certain compliance standard. And it takes time to get those manuals up to date and to make sure they all comply and they all make sense, but that had been in the process as far as the Q400 was concerned for a year and a half. It was very slow.

And help people understand, for somebody who stashes their car manual in their glove box and never looks at it, ... a manual for flying an airplane is a big deal.

It is, because it tells us how to operate it in varying conditions, tells us how to operate it when abnormalities and emergencies happen --

Like when there's ice.

Well, yes, when there's ice; when engines fail; or [if] we have a system issue arise during flight. Tells us how we fly the airplane in normal conditions as far as how we are going to land the airplane, or the profiles to landing and taking off for the aircraft. ...

The training, in general, you received -- how would you rate it?

I would say it met the FAA standards, and that is it.

Is that enough?

Not in today's day and age, it's not enough. Training today needs to meet and exceed the standards that the FAA sets. The FAA sets the standards. That's the bar. That's the lowest bar, and the training there, it met the bar, but it did not exceed the bar. And if it did, it was by very little.

So this airline, in your view, was just skating by, right there at the bottom.

Mm-hmm.

I guess you could ask the question, why doesn't the FAA raise the bar? Do other airlines, though, exceed the minimums?

From my understanding in talking to the other crews from other airlines, they do, you know. There are a fair number of airlines out there that operate the same way, where they meet the bar that the FAA has set, and that's how they operate. Then there's other companies out there that meet and exceed that level that the FAA sets. ...

So when you look at the regionals, you're flying airplanes that mostly had "Continental" painted on them, probably a little bit of "US Airways," right?

Right.

... If a passenger gets on the plane, they think they're flying Continental. ... Is it Continental?

It's not. Continental was very good in the sense that they did have their hand in the pot a lot more [with] ramp operations and making sure we were safe on the ramp. They made sure, from my understanding, they had a little bit of oversight on us, but it wasn't a lot. They leave it up to Colgan to operate the airplane.

So it wasn't like you were seeing Continental check airmen or senior pilots coming around, saying, "Hey, let me sit down with you and talk to you about how to fly in these conditions."

No, because ... that's Continental's; that's their pilots. That's their pilot group, and then we have Colgan, and there's a clear distinction. It's split there.

So as long as you show up when you're supposed to show up for Continental, they didn't get in your business.

Right. ... As long as we arrived and departed and there was no issues, Continental, as far as my knowledge, never had any involvement with Colgan. I mean, they signed the contract and said, "You will fly these routes," and Colgan was responsible for the crew training and everything else. Continental is Continental. They have their own company, and Colgan is Colgan. There's no mesh between the two.

I don't think passengers understand that, though.

They don't. Nope.

And in a way, ... I think, really, the airplanes are being a little bit disingenuous with passengers by making them have this perception that they're getting Continental levels of service.

Right. And it does state on your airline ticket, it does state on the side of the aircraft that the flight is operated by Colgan or Express Jet or whoever it may be, but it's in very small letters, and how many people really pay attention to it?

It's the fine print.

But what people see is they see how the aircraft is painted -- you know, whose logo, whose trademarks are on the airplane. That's what they see, and so that's just what they assume they're getting.

So they're getting duped a little bit.

In a way, yeah, because the operating principles of one airline may not be well above the operating principles of another airline. ...

So what about the FAA? How much was the FAA part of your life when you were at Colgan? Were they around a lot? Were they flying in the jump seat? Were they in Colgan's business like they should be?

When I was on the 1900, I never dealt with the FAA. When I was on the Q400, I never dealt with the FAA. I never ran into them at all.

However, we did have a few issuances of mandatory compliance by the FAA. April of 2008, the FAA came down. There was an instance where the FAA was in the jump seat of crew. [The crew] over-sped the airframe, and the FAA came down with a mandatory compliance, ... pretty much stating that, for the next two weeks, Colgan will have an observer in the jump seat of every Q400 flight to make sure that limitations aren't being exceeded. ...

Where were they flying into?

If I remember correctly, it was Newark to Baltimore. ...

What were the implications? Did that crew get --

There was a training after they got back to Newark, they were removed from flying duty, and I think there was some additional sim[ulated] training that was done afterward. ...

The FAA could have lowered the boom on them.

[They] easily could have. There [was] some misunderstanding or I guess some confusion and things that I don't understand. This crew just blatantly violated several limitations on the aircraft, and they were allowed to still operate back to Newark.

So there's a couple lessons here. First of all, they obviously were not on top of that airplane. ... Was that a function of training and the fact that there was such a rush to put those airplanes into service?

I don't think it was a function of that. What I think it was a function of [was], it was just a new airframe to the entire company. Nobody really had an understanding. I mean, we had an understanding [of] how to operate the airplane, but it was a steep learning curve. Everybody was trying to learn. And we were all used to flying airplanes that were a lot slower and had less capabilities than this aircraft did.

So in the realm of turboprops, this was a Ferrari, right?

Exactly.

So you've been driving around the Yukon XL or whatever, the SUV, and all of a sudden you're driving this hot rod, and you had a very limited time to make that transition, right?

It was the normal training that was set forth and approved by the FAA. The company said, "This is how we're going to train these pilots, to these standards," and the FAA approved it. And that's how the company did it.

My training from the Q400 was a seven-day ground school, followed by 10 sim sessions.

Was that enough? Did you feel like you were ready to fly that airplane?

... I felt like I was comfortable in the sense of having zero time in that airframe. I was not 100 percent comfortable operating that aircraft until I had well over 500 hours in the airframe.

So after this incident, the FAA insists that everybody fly with, I guess, a check airman. You got thrown into this, right?

I did get pulled into this, because I happened to be in Manassas, [Va.], and I was asked to observe the jump seat to make sure that the crews were not over-speeding the airplane.

You got asked, but were you on the Q400 at that time?

No. I'd just finished ... two days of ACARS [Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System] training for the Q400. ...

You were in the middle of training for the Q400. How far along were you?

Two days. ... And that was for ACARS. We hadn't even started systems training or limitations training on the aircraft, so not even sim training. So I really had no idea how this airplane would be operated.

Did you feel qualified to sit in the jump seat and evaluate another Q400 crew?

I did not feel like I should have been in that jump seat. … I'm not type-rated in the aircraft. I'm not qualified in the aircraft. I had never flown the aircraft, and I didn't even know what the limitations of the aircraft were -- let alone it was very unclear as to exactly what we were supposed to be doing. …

Did you have the sense they just wanted a warm body in that seat?

Yes. …

Did you say something to management?

I did not.

Why not?

I guess I didn't want to ruffle feathers.

I assume there were others like you that were put in that position, that they were not qualified to evaluate whether these crews were flying safely this airplane.

There were three other people that were there with me that day that got asked to do the same thing.

And they were at the same stage of Q400 training.

Exactly. ...

What does that tell you about the company?

It tells me that they just want to get the job done at all costs. You know, this bringing on the Q400 for the company was a major milestone, and it was allowing us to become very competitive in the regional market with a very efficient aircraft. So it just told me that management was willing to do whatever it took to operate this aircraft, and at that point, it felt like safety may have not been the number one priority.

Do you have the sense that the FAA was kind of asleep at the switch on this? ... I mean, did they ever follow up and ask for the qualifications of the people that were sitting in those jump seats? Presumably not, right?

I would presume no. You know, I have no idea. That's a company thing that we're never privy to, so I don't know. ...

When did you finally get on with the Q400 then? When did you finish your training and so forth?

I was line qualified on the Q [the] first week of June of '08.

OK. And did you fly as a first officer the whole time, or did you upgrade to captain?

No, I was a captain.

Oh, you started as a captain on the Q400.

Yes.

What was your impression of the way it was being operated? ... Did you get the sense that everybody was a bit overwhelmed by this airplane?

Yes, because there was a lot of growth. It was almost the same thing that was faced with the 2005 expansion with this 2008 expansion of the Qs. ... None of us had ever operated this airplane before, and a lot of the first officers that were being hired for this airframe had very little time, you know, in the sense that I flew with first officers that had 300 hours, 350 hours.

I myself, I'm type-rated in the aircraft, but I'm new on the aircraft. And there's a steep learning cure for me as well as the first officer, and the experience levels are lower. ...

Did you ride with [Continental Flight 3407 Capt. Marvin] Renslow at all? I mean, he was a captain as well, but did you ever encounter him?

I ran into him in the crew room a few times, and he was required to do his observation rides with me, where he would sit in my jump seat and observe me operate the aircraft for four legs the day he was with me.

So before he came on as a captain, you were the person that he was learning from, essentially.

Yeah, he just watched how we operated the aircraft. It was more so for them to become familiar with the flight management system, the use of ACARS, as well as some of the automation. ...

What was your impression of him?

I thought he was he was a nice, easygoing, relaxed gentleman. You know, he didn't strike me as weak or outstanding. He just seemed like an everyday pilot, just like I was. ...

When you heard that he was in that crash and that subsequently you read the transcript, what were your thoughts on that one?

When we heard that he was involved in the crash, ... I didn't think to myself, like, oh, if anybody's was going to crash, it would have been him. I didn't think that, but I guess I really don't know what my thoughts were when I heard that he was the captain in the crash.

What was your impre[ssion], as a flight instructor and Q400 pilot and Colgan guy, when you read the transcript of that cockpit voice recorder? What went through your mind?

I guess disappointment that that's how they conducted themselves that night. That night in Newark, that Feb. 12, it was probably not the worst day as far as weather's concerned that I've ever seen in the Northeast, but I would say it was probably in one of the top five. It was a weird weather day, a lot of anomalies happening between weather, ice, wind. The winds were very strong that day. ... And then to hear those [and] read those transcripts, it was disheartening to see how they conducted themselves.

Were you flying that day?

I did fly that day.

Out of Newark?

Mm-hmm.

Did you go up to Buffalo?

I don't recall if I did go up there that day or not. ...

Were some pilots saying, "It's not a good night to fly"?

Oh, we all talked. I mean, you'd hear people -- there were flights being canceled that day, and, you know, you would hear [this]. There would be chatter in the crew rooms about, you know, "Wow, the weather's really bad out there," but it was nothing that any of us felt that we couldn't deal with, you know. And on nights like that, you just have to step up. You have to raise your standard and really pay attention, be sharp.

It was a night to be sharp, ... not a night to be tired or sick or inexperienced, or all of the above.

Right.

Which, sadly, is what we saw.

Unfortunately, yes. ...

So when you read that transcript, was that just kind of everything about Colgan kind of coming into one event, in a sense?

I wouldn't say all crews operated like that, nor was it pressure by the company to operate like that. There was a very good understanding among the crews, and it was made very clear by the company that, you know, below 10,000 feet, you maintained a sterile cockpit. That was company policy and company practice.

You did it?

I did it.

Most crews did it, you think?

I think most crews complied with that. And on a night like that, that is especially when it needs to be complied with.

Got to watch your airspeed at the very least, right?

At a very minimum. That's ... one of their [pilot's] primary functions, to monitor the aircraft, airspeed being one of the biggest key factors.

In a sense, were you not surprised when it happened, given what you saw as they pushed this airplane into service?

In a way, part of me thought you could almost see it coming. You could almost see the light at the end of the tunnel, that something bad is going to happen the way this is operated.

A lot of that stemmed from the fact that it was always very reactive to situations as the company handled them. It was never proactive. They never came out and said, "Hey, guys, in light of the winter coming, we need to switch gears here and start thinking about this," or, "Let's reiterate this policy or this point." They were always just, they kind of waited until: "Oh! It's snowing outside. We'd better issue a memo that talks about how we tell the ACARS that we have certain systems operating and how we need to make an adjustment for ice on the aircraft." ...

Why did you leave the airline?

Felt uncomfortable after the accident. I didn't like the trend of how things were going, and especially after the incident that happened in Burlington, Vt., that was almost exactly the same as what happened in Buffalo.

I'm unfamiliar with Burlington. What's that?

The Burlington incident, the crew was on approach, just like the crew was into Buffalo, same situation. They got too slow, stalled the airplane. However, they recovered. They continued, and they landed.

When did that happen?

Sometime around March 10, sometime around that timeframe, 2009.

A month after the crash?

Mm-hmm. ...

... And the crew did what?

They were in a similar situation to Buffalo, where they were in icing conditions, from my understanding, or had been in icing conditions; and as a result, they configured the aircraft for that. Therefore, they [thought] their stall protection speed had been increased 20 knots, and they did not make the adjustment for that into the ACARS. They did not tell the ACARS that they had this configuration of the airplane. Therefore, when they got the performance data to land, their numbers were too slow. And so as they slowed for the approach and were configuring the airplane, they eventually got into the low-speed regime of flight, set the shaker off. However, the captain recovered the aircraft, and the airplane landed without further incident. ...

Kind of haunting.

It was very haunting. And it was hard. That event there was one of the final events, I guess I would say, that almost solidified my decision to leave the company, because I realized that we had the Buffalo incident; now, a month later, we have the same incident again. Where is this company going? And to me, that did not appear that the company was going in the correct direction.

And all the memos that they were putting out -- almost rapid-fire memos on us, that [they were] trying to make it safer -- in a way, they were making it more unsafe. They were confusing us. They're coming out with cumbersome memos of how we should now operate the airplane that were very cryptic, in a way, to try to understand; and no one had a full understanding of what these memos meant.

And then there would be people there that didn't want to operate that way, because they felt that it was unnecessary, or it was too cumbersome. I remember particularly the last flight I had for Colgan. I had a check airman in my jump seat that told me: "Wow. You're the only one that does that by the book. But let me tell you why I and some others don't operate that way." And I heard this routinely over the course of two days. ...

And that did not sit well with me. That was the last flight I had at Colgan Air, and that was kind of the straw that broke the [camel's] back. ...

So are you done with the airlines now?

Eventually, at some point in time, I'd like to go back. ...

What's your sense about Colgan right now? Now that it's with Pinnacle, is it fine? Is it better? ...

I still do communicate with some people I know, and they [Colgan] are, from what my understanding is, they are finally starting to take the steps in the right direction. They're baby steps, but they are moving in the right direction. It's a very slow process, but they're attempting to become a safer, more efficient airline.

So, what's the lesson of Colgan? ... Is there something to be said about the economy of the airline business, the training, the way the FAA gets involved? ... Does that mean the FAA needs to raise the bar?

I think the FAA needs to raise the bar, and there needs to be more oversight by the FAA, not to just certify aircraft and certify companies and just let them operate with very minimal oversight. The FAA needs to step up. I don't think they've listened very well to the recommendations made by the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] as far as crew scheduling is concerned, fatigue issues. The FAA has kind of turned a blind [eye].

And I think a lot of that is driven by the economics of the airlines, because if the NTSB and the FAA crack down on fatigue and rest periods and make duty days shorter and rest periods longer, the company is going to have to increase the number of crews, possibly. It's going to increase their operating costs significantly.

They might be safer, too.

They could be, but airlines operate on economics, you know? They want to make money, and they want to do it as cheaply as possible.

But you still would take a job on one?

It would have to be the right one. If I only knew what I knew now when I got hired four years ago.

posted february 9, 2010

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