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Interview: Chris Wiken

“How can it be fixed? You have a flying public that is only willing to pay so much for an airline ticket.”
wiken

Wiken was a pilot with Colgan Air from 2004 to 2008. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 30, 2009.

You are one of those guys that always wanted to be a pilot and fly for the airlines.

Sure. As a teenager starting to fly ... and I flight-instructed for a couple of years and then had that opportunity to get hired on at Colgan at a time when not a lot of other airlines were hiring. It was like a dream come true to be called an airline pilot and to have that opportunity. I'm very thankful for it. I learned a lot. ...

And what did you know about Colgan in advance of this? ... I assume you did some due diligence. What was the Colgan reputation?

Well, honestly, it was a good place to get experience, and that's pretty much what I heard about it. It was a good place to put in your time to get the experience of a [Part] 121 airline operation [U.S. registered regularly scheduled carrier], build your time and move on to a bigger and better things. ...

So you get to Colgan. What was your impression of the place?

I got hired and went right into training. My impression right off then was it had a lot of great people. I made a lot of great friends there from back in that initial class that I still have today. The one thing that I remember about training, they have it in a trailer in a field with no air conditioning in the middle of summer in Washington, D.C., area. And it was hot, and they had fans everywhere to keep you cool, so the first impression was, "What the heck did I get myself involved in here?"

But after that ground school experience and moving on to the simulator, the instruction was professional. It was thorough. But I had not [had] other experience to compare it to, and you figure everybody goes through this. ...

So it was obviously growing quickly. You show up in Manassas, [Va.], and they've got temporary trailers. You get the sense that this place was a busy place.

Absolutely. They were growing at that time. They were getting more and more Saab aircrafts; they were even still getting more Beech 1900 aircrafts. They were on a kind of a hiring frenzy at that point, putting a lot of people through class very quickly.

This was an airline that was on the go.

They were.

It's a hard thing to control, though, isn't it?

It is. I think controlled growth is probably the best way to do it. But they had the experience of doing it. It seemed to work at the time.

Now, it's a family business. ... Were the Colgans around? Was it like a mom-and-pop shop?

Oh, absolutely. We met everybody. You met [state] Sen. [Charles J.] Colgan [D-Manassas]; [he] came to talk to us. His son Mike Colgan came to talk to us. Mike's son, Mike Jr., and the senator's kids, they were all there. They were omnipresent. They were everywhere. ...

Someone I spoke with said whenever they needed another executive, somebody in the Colgan family just had a baby. ...

That's pretty true. In just about at any level in that office from dispatch down to scheduling to you name it, there was a Colgan in every department.

... I don't think of any airlines being run by a family like this.

That's true. It was truly a family business, and I give them great credit for that. They started out with literally just one airplane, and they grew it into what it is today. ... It's the American dream. ...

What was fueling all this growth at this time [you were hired]? ...

More and more demand for regional airlines. ... The major airlines were giving more and more of those short-haul routes to the regionals. Much better to fly a full 19-seat airplane than a half-empty or three-quarters-empty 100-seat airplane. ...

They wanted to contract out their flying.

Exactly.

And Colgan kind of stuck to the turboprop, which actually was a nice little niche for that company, wasn't it?

It was. They were doing that when a lot of other companies were getting away from that. [Other companies] were getting rid of airplanes and moving up to the jets. And then when fuel prices go up, the turboprops are much more fuel-efficient airplanes. They are much more cost-efficient, especially on those short routes, because you stay low; you don't need to go up high in order to get that extra air speed and all the mathematics that go along with that. So yeah, they found that niche, and they exploited it. And they did well at it.

I almost have the sense that the big airlines were just kind of beating down their doors saying, "Would you please do some flying for us?" Was it like that?

That pretty much [was] the sense that I got. That is what management was telling us, is that ... if you have friends that are pilots, if you have friends that have the time, please send us their résumés. We need pilots badly. We're growing, and we're growing fast, so this is going to be a place to be in the future.

... What kinds of deals were they cutting?

Obviously I wasn't involved in the negotiations of that, but they were adding a lot of airplanes quickly, flying a lot more routes in the East Coast. I wasn't there very long, and they were out of Houston and Continental as a base for the Saab 340. They were hiring a lot of pilots for that operation. ...

Sounds like it was kind of exciting.

Oh, it was. ... It's very fun flying. You fly a lot, a lot of takeoffs and a lot of landings, a lot of different weather, busy airports, small airports. It's challenging, and, from a pilot's perspective, it's fun.

All those Colgans in all those positions, did you have the sense it was truly a professional operation?

Well, in a family-owned business sometimes -- I don't want to call it less than professional, but it's just the layers of the family that you have to go through in order to have those decisions made. ... But who am I to criticize a family that was very successful at doing what they did?

True, but the son or the cousin or the grandson or granddaughter may not always be the best person.

The best choice for that job, and I fully agree with that. And I think since the sale to Pinnacle and the consolidation of Colgan with Pinnacle, you have seen those Colgans kind of fade away. ...

It affected, I assume, the operation. It almost seems it was crazy busy, hiring pilots; it almost seems like it was a bit haphazard.

Oh, there is no doubt. And if you wanted to get things done, it might not happen the most efficiently, most professionally, or the best way that you saw fit, but it got done somehow some way.

It would not be unusual for you to call in to scheduling -- and the senator's daughter was the head of scheduling; Mike Colgan Jr. was the head of dispatch. So it would not be unusual to call in, talk to scheduling, and you have Dot Chaplin, the senator's daughter, on the phone. Call in to dispatch and you'd have Mike Colgan Jr. on the phone, and "What do you mean you're not going? What do you mean you can't do this? What do you mean? We've got a business to run. You've got to do this."

What I always found interesting about all of those Colgans in all those positions, none of them were pilots.. None of them ever flew, so sometimes you'd have a discussion about the weather or about the airplane, and granted, I'm sure growing up in the business, they know something about all of those things, but they have never actually sat in that seat. ...

Did you have the sense that safety was the number one priority?

They said safety was a priority a lot. In my experience, however, on a day-to-day basis, being on time and completing the flight was much more important, much more important, getting those passengers where they needed to [get]. Especially in the Northeast, they have lot of government routes that [they] fly, that are provided for by the federal government to these small airports from larger hubs. And a lot of what Colgan was, their success was getting these routes from the government, and they did not get paid unless that route got flown, unless the specified number of flights went per day.

So you oftentimes got the sense that sure, you always have to be concerned that safety is a priority. And they would say it a lot, like I said, but you never got the sense sitting in that seat that that really was the number one concern all the time. ...

As long as we're on that point, tell me a little bit about life as a regional pilot for a place like Colgan and life in general as a regional pilot.

At the same time as I describe it as being fun, it's also tiring -- a lot of short routes, a lot of takeoffs, a lot of landings, and going in and out of bad weather, being down low. Especially at Colgan, flying the turboprops, you're not flying above the weather; you're flying in the weather; you're flying through the weather; you are flying around the weather. So a bad-weather day, doing eight, nine, 10 legs, you know, eight, nine, 10 flights a day, it gets to be a very long day, you know, shooting a lot of approaches down minimums on a regular basis into large and small airports, middle of winter, middle of summer, thunderstorms, snowstorms, icy runways -- you name it. I had every one of those experiences.

Not necessarily the best airplanes -- maybe something is wrong with them. Continually fighting every little aspect of aviation, from faulty equipment to bad weather to gate agents to the ramp agents. And it makes for long days.

And I was one of those people that commuted, and I commuted from my home in Milwaukee to East Coast sometimes. I was based in Shenandoah Valley, Va. ... There's not direct flights there from Milwaukee, Wis., so it was a two- or three-leg flight, ... back and forth, commuting out or commuting in on your day off, a lot of your time spent in airports on your days off. Trying to get back home to your family, trying to get there on time for your scheduled flight day -- it's challenging. It's very challenging. It's not exactly what I think anybody from the outside looking in would call fun. But it's aviation; it's flying; it's what you love to do. I guess you weigh out the pluses and minuses of it, and you say, "Well, it's worth it." ...

But it doesn't sound very glamorous.

No, by far it's not glamorous. You would talk to friends and family and: "Oh, to be an airline pilot, it must be fantastic. What a life. You're making a ton of money, and you can fly anywhere you want, anytime you want, get on any airplane and just go wherever you want." If there is that aspect to it, ... [it's] not at the regional level certainly.

Just because I put on a uniform that has four stripes on it on my shoulders and they call me a captain, I'm flying a 19-passenger Beech 1900 or a 34-passenger Saab 340. ... It's not the glamorous life, you know. I'm not jetting off to Paris or London or New York or L.A. You know, it's Shenandoah Valley, Va., and all those little towns all up and down the East Coast and down in Texas. So it's by far not what a lot of people think it is.

And the money. What was your starting [salary]? Do you remember?

Yep. I started at $20 an hour, and that was on a 75-hour-a-month guarantee, so you were paid for 75 hours a month at $20 an hour. If you flew over those 75 hours a month, which they tried to make sure that you didn't get, then you'd make an extra over and above. They were like, if you could get 75 hours for the month, they did their job, because they are paying you the absolute minimum that you can make.

Help people who work a 40-hour week understand why 75 hours a month is a hard job.

... First of all, the FAA requires that you fly no more than 100 hours a month. And now, those 75 hours are spent -- that's actual in-the-airplane time. ... Engines running from takeoff to touchdown, not necessarily even gate to gate, from basically takeoff to touchdown. From the moment you start those engines to the moment you shut them down at the gate, that's what we're talking about in that 75 hours.

In addition to all of that, you're looking at the weather. You're dealing with weight and balance. You're dealing with the rest of the crew, your first officer, your flight attendants. You are dealing with the gate agents and the ramp agents. You're dealing with dispatch and scheduling. And then as a commuter, you are flying back and forth to home either on the days that you work or on your days off.

That's all part of it. Even in a regular work week, you know you're going to be gone for at least three, four, five days of that away from your family. ...

So it's a long day.

It's a very long day.

Even though the time you're actually paid for, the time that the engines are [on], is some fraction of that.

... They talk about a 16-hour duty day. That is the maximum that's required by the FAA at this time, 16-hour duty.

But that's a long day, 16 hours. People understand that. And would you typically be on duty for the full 16 hours?

Oftentimes yes. Oftentimes at Colgan, yes. I mean, not necessarily going all the way to that 16, but it certainly wasn't unheard of to do 12, 14, 15 hours a day, and then eight hours maximum flight time a day. ... Again, you are doing those short routes that are half an hour, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour in order to get there to get to that time. But you're out there for 12, 14, 16 hours in that day. ...

And yet despite the fact that it's this very challenging flying, you have the least experienced pilots generally flying the routes.

Generally true. ... That's the way the system is.

Should that be fixed?

There's no doubt it should be, but it comes down to basic economic principle: ... How can it be fixed? You have a flying public that is only willing to pay so much for an airline ticket, and it is what it is. ...

Why didn't you just move to [the] location where your base was?

Well, my family, friends and everything [was] in Milwaukee.

Yeah, but people move for jobs all the time.

Sure they do, and I know a lot of guys that did. They packed up, and they moved their families. ... A lot of single guys and gals that could do that, and to make their life easier, they did. And hats off to them. I was one of them that didn't choose to do that.

Do you have kids, family?

I do.

And so that at that time when you were flying, you had kids, too. Moving them around didn't seem like the thing to do.

Exactly. Because when you look at somewhere like Colgan or any small regional like that, you figure you're going to put in your time for a couple or few years. You are going to move on to that big, glamorous airline job for the big major carrier, and, you know, then you can move then. And instead of moving to some small town in Pennsylvania or Virginia or wherever, you can move wherever you want to move. And it certainly makes it a lot easier then. ...

Did you use crash pads?

Sure did.

What's that like? Describe that.

Well, if you want to describe the very unglamorous side of being an airline pilot, yeah, I mean, you can picture a one- and two-bedroom apartment with eight, 10, 12, 14 guys in it, on roll-out mattresses and sleeping on the floor, sleeping on the couch, sleeping in bunk beds, air mattresses -- you name it, you name it -- waiting in line for the shower and so on and so forth.

Doesn't sound like a lot of rest.

No, not necessarily, because you have guys that are in there that have all different schedules. Some are getting up early in the morning to go fly the morning shift; some are coming home late at night when the other guys are trying to sleep. So there's constant activity in places like that, especially at Colgan, where a lot of the flying is done out of these small, small towns. So you have crash pads in these small little towns where everybody is home pretty much every day. You are leaving in the morning, you are coming back at night, or vice versa. ...

The fact that you're paid to turn the engines and fly the airplane, ultimately there's a safety issue that's at the root of that, I would think. ... The bottom line is, for the money you were making and the lifestyle that you were leading, that the demands of the job, crash pads are what people do.

Oh, yeah. It was an absolutely necessity. I think the most I ever paid was $150 a month to basically have this apartment with several other guys. ...

There were plenty of guys that would say: "Well, how about I just give you $90 and I just sleep on the floor? I don't get a bed; I'll just sleep on the floor with a blanket and a pillow, and I'll just leave that in a closet so I won't take up space." ...

Discounted rates for non-snorers, that kind of thing.

Right, exactly. We would invest heavily in earplugs. ...

So let's go back and do some math here: $20 an hour; for flight hours, 75 hours a month was what they would aim for. First of all, your annual salary was about what?

Eighteen thousand, $20,000 a year for that first year. If you were fortunate enough to upgrade, then it multiplied from there. But then that first year it's very, very difficult. ...

You are only being paid for that time from engine startup to engine shutdown. You're not being paid during that time where you are doing the planning, that you are flying back and forth from your home to your base, looking at the weather, doing the walk-around of the airplane, taking care of all that paperwork that goes along with launching a flight in the airline world. So when you actually break it down to number of hours actually spent, it's probably a couple of bucks an hour in reality for the time that you are actually on the job.

Why is the pay done that way? Every airline does this.

Every airline does this, and one of the reasons that they always tell you is that they invest thousands of dollars on you in hiring you and in training you to do the job, so that first year you're kind of paying it back, ... because it's not cheap to train somebody in that environment, especially when you're first hired. ...

At Colgan, I upgraded ... from first officer to captain very quickly, so my salary went up accordingly. I went from making that $20, $21,[000] the first year to making I think at the time it was like $38,[000], almost double that within my first year. I upgraded in about nine months if I remember right.

... What's happening now over there, however, and at a lot of places is, you're spending a lot more time as a first officer two, three, four years, so that hourly doesn't go up as much staying a first officer as it does going to captain. ...

So nine months, you were a captain?

Yeah.

That's quick.

Almost scary, isn't it? ...

This is not quite Sully [Capt. Chesley Sullenberger] -- nine months and you're a captain.

Exactly. My story wasn't unique at that time. Because of that great, rapid expansion that was going on at Colgan at that time, a lot of my classmates were upgrading. If they got hired with about the amount of time that I had -- I think I got hired at about 1,500 hours' total time -- and upgraded right around 2,000 hours. I had 500 hours in the airplane as a first officer before I upgraded to captain. And they actually wanted to upgrade me before that. I went and took ground school and did simulator training, if I remember right, then went back and flew the line as a first officer and then upgraded to captain right as I hit 500 hours, went back for training, and completed my training as captain. ...

But there were friends of mine that I was in training with in the initial class that were hired with about the same amount of time that I had, and once they got those 500 hours they were upgraded; they were upgrading. They were becoming captains, and some of them did it even faster than I did because they were based in a place that flew more, so they built up their time more quickly. They got to 500 hours in seven, eight months instead of my nine months. So that was happening pretty regularly.

So what you have in some cases was a captain and a first officer, the only difference between the two is about 500 hours.

Yeah. ... There's not a very deep well to draw from in terms of experience and knowledge. Absolutely true. One of the first officers that flew with me when I became captain was actually a guy that I was in ground school with in my initial new-hire class. So I have 500-and-some hours. He had 400 and was soon going to upgrade in that airplane. ...

A couple of relatively new guys.

Yeah, we were brand new to the airline game. Nine months in.

I don't think passengers know this, do they?

I'm sure they have absolutely no clue. I'm sure they have absolutely no idea.

Do you think it's a wise way to go?

Well, the training is pretty standardized, but ... if I were to look at it as a passenger that has never been involved in aviation myself, it would certainly give me pause and say, "Wow, I'm getting on this airplane with that little-experienced pilots."

Looking back at it now, I was excited for the opportunity, and I'm still here [in the airline business], so obviously it's worked out to some extent. But what you learn very quickly is what you're comfortable with and what you're not. And I think the difference really just comes in decision making. Yeah, you can be taught knowledge and you can be given knowledge, but there is really nothing that replaces that experience. And there's nothing that replaces just that feeling that you get from experience, like, "Hey I've been here before; I know what to do."

So I think as a new captain thrust into that position, a lot of what I made my daily decisions on were: "Am I comfortable or not? Am I comfortable with taking this airplane in the condition that it's in with the weather I'm going to be taking it into with a first officer that I'm flying with? Can I make this a successful trip from A to B, or can I not?" You have to make that decision whether to go or not go.

But that decision is not made in a vacuum.

No, it's not. It's made out there on the ramp; it's made out there with pressure from the company, with pressure from your gate agents, your ramp agents, absolutely.

And when you are getting that kind of pressure and you're new, it's a little harder to say no, isn't it?

It certainly is, and a lot of guys that I knew that had upgraded to captain made a very good point of telling me they're going to try to push you, and you need to stick to your guns. You need to make sure that you are comfortable with what you are doing before you do it. Don't let them rush you; don't let them push you. And that is something that I was not only told by captains. That is something that I was told by FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] inspectors, by FAA examiners: Take your time; make the right decision.

And that's something that I never forgot every day, so oftentimes I would get that phone call: "What do you mean you're not going? What do you mean you have a problem with this?" "I do." "Well, we'll get somebody else to do it then." "OK, go right ahead; get somebody else to do it then."

So you were pushed.

Oh, often, very often, with what I believed was either an airplane that I didn't feel could do the trip, going into weather that I didn't feel I should have to deal with or put passengers through to try to get around that weather. ...

Do you have any specific stories you remember that stand out?

I [was] a very new captain. I know I was within my first couple of days of coming off of IOE, initial operating experience, where you fly with a seasoned captain and they kind of show you the ropes, what's going on. Brand-new captain, first couple of days.

I don't remember exactly where I was flying to or from. I know it was in the Northeast, and we were going from, let's say, I think it was LaGuardia to upstate New York somewhere -- Buffalo, Albany, somewhere like that -- and [there was a] huge line of thunderstorms, 200, 300 miles long, 20, 30, 40 miles wide. Can't go really through it, really can't go around it, and the company was pushing me to go, pushing me to go: "So you'll find a line out there somewhere. You'll find a break in it somewhere. If not, you can go around it."

It's 300 miles long. I'm not going to go around it. Why don't we just wait for it to pass? Give it a couple of hours and take another look at it. ... And that's what I ended up doing. I ended up waiting and not going, waiting for the cell to pass and waiting for the line to pass and waiting until it dissipated, and then went, because I remembered in the back of my head a lot of people telling me, "They're going to push you, and don't let it be pushed; don't let them do that to you."

What happened if you were tired or sick, or both -- sick and tired -- and you called in and said, "I can't do this trip"? What happened then?

... Honestly, there were consequences. First of all, they made you describe what exactly was your illness, and I was told by friends that I had in scheduling, ... they would put that into your notes describing your illness no matter how descriptive it may be. And then you have to talk to the chief pilot and do that all over again, and the response that I often got, and I know that a lot of other pilots got, was, "This is the kind of thing that we're going to look at when we're looking to move you up to a new airplane and we're looking to upgrade you from first officer to captain," and, "Oh, you had three sick calls last year. You had two sick calls in one month," and so on and so forth. So there always seemed to be some retribution for that.

It never really seemed to matter to them that you might actually be sick and not in a good position to fly the airplane.

It never really seemed that. I mean, you had to basically say: "Listen, I am absolutely refusing to fly. I am absolutely refusing to fly." ...

It wouldn't just naturally be, "Hey, listen, I'm sick today." "OK. Have a good day. Hope you feel better. Do you think you're going to be able to make your flight tomorrow?" It was never that response. It was generally: "Wow, OK. You know, we're going to have to get somebody off of reserve; we're going to have to find another pilot. We're going to have delayed flights" -- on and on and on, the guilt trip.

A lot of pressure.

A lot of pressure, a lot of pressure. And on the tired side of it, I was actually one of them that claimed fatigue at one point. I had a number of 16-hour duty days in a row and --

Full 16-hour --

Full 16-hour days, and I swear to God that this is true. Our vice president of operations got on the phone with me and said: "Well, you know, you're going to be stuck in Hyannisport, [Mass.] You're going to be stuck in Hyannis for the night if you claim fatigue right now. Wouldn't you like to get home? Wouldn't you like to get back home? You know, we can shorten your duty day for you. Instead of saying you showed up at 5:40 this morning, you can say you showed up at 6:00, and that would give you that extra 20 minutes to take that flight back to Albany." ...

So to be clear, he was offering to falsify the records so that you would appear to have flown a legal FAA-sanctioned day when you didn't, or weren't.

Correct. It is amazing, right? ...

I don't think your body can get the 20 minutes back.

You can't. ... And I simply refused. I filled out a fatigue form, and I claimed fatigue. ...

I said: "I'm going to get the FAA involved if you start pushing me to do this. I am calling the FAA, because It's really bordering on insanity.... Look at my duty for the last couple of days. ... Now you are asking me, in bad weather, [a] maintenance-challenged airplane, to take this one last flight of the day and I'm telling you I cannot do it, I cannot do it. Will I be able to get there safely? Probably. Do I want to push it? Not really." And then at that point they backed down.

But I can tell you that every time there was ever an issue with me, whether it be a sick call or an opportunity to move up to another airplane or go to another base, if I wanted a favor, basically that would always be brought up: "Remember the time you claimed fatigue? Remember that time you called in sick?" ...

What should the response be when you call in and say, "I'm too tired to fly"?

The response should be -- it should be a very, very quick phone call --"Thanks for letting us know. Go get some sleep. We're going to get you a hotel." ...

I guess it's gotten better now. And now they have union representation over there and everything else. But back then it was a battle. You were constantly dealing with that pressure, constantly, constantly, on a nearly near-daily basis. ...

And when I was explaining to him on the phone about that fatigue call, and he's like: "Well, you know, look at your day. I mean, you only flew seven hours this day and six hours that day and seven and a half hours that day. You're not pushing, you know, any regulation limit." ... But I was on duty from 6:00 a.m. until it's now 9:00 p.m. I'm tired. I'm tired, you know, and I got minimum rest last night. You are supposed to have minimum eight, nine, 10 hours of rest depending on your duty day. ...

[The time] I clocked off duty when I parked that airplane until the time I showed up to the airport the next morning may, in fact, be exactly eight hours, but from the time I left the airport, I had to wait for the hotel van or go to the crash pad. Now you are dealing with either the crash pad and all the guys and the noise and whatever it may be, or you are dealing with a hotel, and now you're trying to wind down for the night, and by the time you ... get up, take a shower, get dressed, get ready for work, you're talking maybe five hours of sleep at best in that eight hours. I mean, that's just the functionality of it. ...

It's hard to go on that minimum amount of sleep and feel that you are going to be functional and be able to concentrate and be clear-eyed for 16 hours.

That's legal.

It's legal. and I know a lot of it is being looked at now by the FAA and the Air Line Pilots Association [ALPA]. ... And obviously it's an outdated system, and it needs to be changed. ...

Was there other evidence along the way that they might be messing with these duty times?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Many people that I talked to, they would say that. Or, you know, magically you could go into the system the next day or right when you got back on the ground, and instead of having what should have been a 16-plus-hour duty day, all of a sudden it's 15 hours and 58 minutes or whatever it might be.

So they were shaving minutes to make it look legal.

I know it was happening. I know it was going on. And that happened with approaching the maximum eight hours of flight time, where all of a sudden you'd fly a trip from point A to point B on one day, and it was, say, 45 minutes, and the next day it was 35 minutes. And then the next day it was back to 45 minutes again, you know, in order to stay within that eight hours.

And I brought that up to the chief pilot once, and he said: "Oh, they can't be doing that. There's no way they're doing that." Like, "We'll look into it."

They would massage the length of the legs to make sure it was tailored to meet this --

To make sure that you would come within that eight hours. ... If you fly over because of weather or delays or whatever, that's legal, but it has to be blocked at eight hours or less.

Even if the flight would routinely take longer.

Correct. ...

Let's talk a little bit about maintenance. ... How well were the planes maintained, and how did they react if you had a problem with an airplane?

Much in the same way as the sick call or the fatigue call or anything like that. When I first became a captain, it was very difficult to do that without being challenged: "Well, what's wrong with the airplane? Well, have you done this? Have you tried that? Can it be MEL?" That's the minimum equipment list that you need in order to fly that airplane legally, and if you can MEL it, it basically means you can defer the maintenance item until you get to a maintenance base for three days or for however long. And they would look at doing that.

The way that I always looked at it is they would always rather delay something than fix it. ... They'd rather put a Band-Aid on it than fix it right, and a lot of people complained about that. A lot of guys were very uncomfortable with that, and oftentimes we had to do ferry flights to a maintenance base. We couldn't fly passengers on it, because it wasn't legal to fly passengers on it, but it was legal to put two pilots on an airplane and fly to a maintenance base. ...

And one of the things that we always joked about it as pilots on the line was they would test it, and they would ... sign it off. Next flight, wouldn't you know, the same thing goes wrong again ... because you didn't fix it. Somebody told me once, one of the mechanics that I used to get along with really well, he told me their approach to maintenance was they would rather have a fire extinguisher than a smoke detector. In other words, wait until it's a really big problem and then fix it rather than see that there's a problem coming down the road that's only getting worse, and let's catch it now. ...

If you really wanted to get something done and you wanted to be comfortable and feel safe in that airplane that you were being given, you had to make sure that you are going to stick to your guns. You had to say: "I'm not flying it until this is fixed. If you want to get somebody else, get somebody else. If you want to put a little black mark on my record, by all means go right ahead."

That's asking a lot, though, of particularly the younger pilots, trying to make a career, worried about having that black mark on their file, right?

Absolutely. And really one of the greatest examples I have told you that a lot of people from the FAA and other captains told me when I upgraded to captain, you have to draw that line. And one of them that we have been talking about [is] [FAA whistleblower] Chris Monteleon.

There were some issues that I had with the company, ... [and] they brought me in for questioning, [to] talk about that incident and others. He pulled me aside when we were done with that meeting and said: "We are looking at them for a lot of these maintenance issues that we're talking about here today, and you are probably going to be upgraded soon, so you make sure that you draw that line, and you don't let them cross it. If you're not comfortable with whatever it is -- the weather, the airplane, your schedule, your duty time, your rest time -- just refuse to do it."

This is what Chris said.

This is what he said. And that just stuck with me forever, and I can remember it like it was yesterday. And that's something that in all the flying I've ever done since then comes into my mind, because, you know, it's that whole accident chain. It's one little link that breaks that causes that accident. Whether it be the maintenance of the airplane, the weather, the weight and balance -- I mean, all those factors that come into a flight. If one of those things goes wrong and then just follows down the rest of the chain -- ...

What about when there were paying passengers in the mix? Was there a plane that was in particularly bad shape they asked you to fly?

One could say, especially on the Beech 1900s, that almost every day most airplanes were like that. There was always a question of how many things could be wrong with that airplane before it could still be legal to fly, how many things could be written up on the airplane and postponed for maintenance and still be legal to fly. One of the things we lawyers said: "You know, those MELs strive for five. Here at Colgan you've got to strive for five MELs on your airplane."

Explain that.

Five things have to be wrong on that airplane before they are going to start saying, "Well, maybe we need to put it into maintenance for a while." And I'm not necessarily talking big things here. I'm talking maybe little things -- a gauge is out that you really don't need; a light is out; a warning light is out; a caution light is out -- little things like that.

But again, their approach to maintenance was put duct tape on it; put a Band-Aid on it; fix it until we can get it to a maintenance base. And oftentimes -- you know, then the FAA really did start looking at Colgan and start clamping down on a lot of those things. And then all of a sudden things started changing.

We had a couple pilots that got busted for flying airplanes, writing things up at the end of the day rather than during the day because they knew that they were going to be back at their base at night which was a maintenance base. So they would kind of keep note of all the things that they saw wrong with the airplane during the day and then at the end write it all up. And the FAA came onto a couple of airplanes. That was kind of standard practice at Colgan. You're going to be at a maintenance base tonight; write it up when you get there, ... but don't do it while you're flying. ...

At what point did you get a little fed up with this whole culture?

It didn't take very long. I became that squeaky wheel. I often complained, and I often caused a lot of internal strife, I'm sure, among the family and among the operations at the airline, because I just stopped taking it. I just stopped taking it, and I did not want to push the airplane or myself or my crew beyond what we could reasonably do. ... That's when I started looking to the Air Line Pilots Association to try to unionize us so we had a collective voice as pilots. I became very involved in that effort. ...

I would assume that if you're the squeaky wheel in a place like that, you're going to hear from management. ... Did they haul you in and say --?

I was hauled in often. I was brought into Manassas on a couple of occasions for a couple of different issues, whether it be complaining about flight time and duty time or maintenance. I always got the sense that they wanted to try to find something wrong with how I was doing it, and I always approached them with: "Hey, you trained me to fly it by the book. You told me that safety was the number one priority. You trained me that way, and you trained me to believe that, and that's the way I run my airplane. So I'm sorry if you have a problem with that, but that's the way I'm going to run the airplane. I'm going to run it by the book." ...

In general, was the FAA a constant presence there [at Colgan]? Was it having some impact on how the airline did its business?

Early on and early in my career I hardly would ever see them. ... As I got more time there, in my second and third and going into my fourth year, they were an ever-present force, always around. When I was based in [the] Northeast, it was very routine in the later part of that to have ramp checks by the FAA. They would just come up to your plane and say: "Hey, show me your maintenance log. Show me your certificates. Mind if I do a walk-around of the airplane take a look and see if I can find anything wrong and by law?"

You have to let them do that, obviously. They're the FAA after all, but it happened more and more often, and then it just kind of stopped.

Did you have any idea what was going on, why it was not a big deal at first? Suddenly they were on the case, and then it stopped?

Had no idea. And then, right around that time I moved from the Northeast flying the Beech 1900 and moved up to flying the Saab 340 down in Houston, and the operation in Houston was so far removed from Manassas they just kind of left us alone, and we just kind of did our own thing. ...

What about Continental? That was the paint job on the plane that you were flying mostly?

Down in Houston, yes.

US Airways up in the Northeast.

US Airways.

Let's talk about Continental specifically. How much were they a part of your daily business at Colgan? Were they around?

Continental specifically? No. No, not at all.

They weren't auditing; they weren't kicking the tires; they weren't seeing how you run the business?

Absolutely not. We would hear occasionally that if we had, say, a string of maintenance issues or a string of delays, it would come down through a memo or something like that, that we need to watch our delays or we need to watch our on-time performance and things like that. That was more from a management perspective. That was Continental getting on management to run a tighter ship and to run a better operation.

So Continental was concerned if the plane didn't show up on time.

Oh, absolutely. Their on-time performance was important as it is for any airline: on-time performance and completion of flights.

But their seasoned pilots, their check airmen, they weren't in there flying with you.

Oh, no. All we had was the paint on the airplane. That's the only tie that we had to them whatsoever.

It's kind of interesting, and I think most people would be surprised that an airline would do that, to paint their logo on it and not even ask a few questions about how someone is flying.

It's just contract services, and then it is within that airline's management to manage that airline and to make sure that training standards are followed and maintenance is followed and on-time performance is reached and all of those kind of things.

Well, it certainly would be well put it this way: You had "Continental" on the planes you flew, but you were a long way from Continental.

Yeah, absolutely. Just happened to be flying out of the same airport.

They talk about this one level of safety that is ensured by the FAA regulations. Is that really true? Is there one level of safety?

One would like to think so, yes, I think if it really all comes down to the professionalism of the pilots. In my opinion, either you are going to perform to that level or not, and even from the unglamorous side of being a regional airline pilot, believe me, there's a lot of great pilots out there in those regional airlines. There's great pilots out there. There are few and far between that are not.

And it really comes down to how they are going to run that airplane. There is the same regulations we follow as the guy that flies the Triple Seven [Boeing 777] Continental. It's the same regulations; it's the same everything. [What] is obviously different, ... you're talking about from up here to somewhere down here in terms of what we do on a daily basis. ...

The industry says ... it's still incredibly safe.

Oh, absolutely.

But are the absence of accidents indicative of safety, or is the system kind of coming apart at the seams?

Oh, that's a tough question. ... Overall it's inherently safe. It's inherently safe. I love [to] tell people that are afraid to fly, the most dangerous part of flying is the drive to the airport. It really is true. ... And I don't think in spite of it -- I think because of our current system that it is inherently safe.

Obviously there are some things that are outdated and that need to be changed in terms of regulation and duty time and rest and all of those things. But that's going to be forever. There's constantly going to be things that need to be updated and changed as we go on in time. Technology changes, and the airplanes change and things like that. But I think it's inherently safe because of what we have in place.

Of course, the last six fatal accidents in this country [were] regionals. What does that tell you?

Well, there's a lot more regional airplanes out there flying, first of all. The regional airlines have grown incredibly, in numbers, in size, in numbers of airplanes that are flying, the amount of flights they're doing on a daily basis. So that's just the law of averages, I think, kicking in to a certain extent.

On the other side of it, [there can] be some questions as far as training go and regulation following go and all of that. Absolutely, ... you have to question it. You have to, especially when you throw a statistic like that. ...

So do they need more scrutiny? There's no doubt they need more scrutiny. There's no doubt they do, and I think a lot of that is under way.

Is that the FAA's job or the big carriers' job or both?

It's both. It's obviously the big carriers' job to decide who they want flying those routes for them. So before they pick those companies to do that, they should really know what's going on at that company and what the training procedures are or what everything is, what happens from that first-day pilot to that captain and anywhere in between. So it's both. The FAA needs to be more stringent on it, and certainly the larger major carriers need to become more involved as well. ...

You flew with [Capt.] Marvin Renslow, [the captain of Flight 3407, which crashed in Buffalo in February 2009]. Tell me about that.

Well, Marvin was one of my first officers when I was based in Houston flying the Saab 340. He and I were about the same age, the same family situation -- married, kids -- which, when we were flying together, a lot of the people that he and I flew with didn't have that. You know, they were the single guys, the single girls. ... They were much younger. So we kind of hit it off. We flew together almost the entire summer; it would have been 2007, I believe. ... We flew maybe about 150 hours or so together in that time. Very nice man, very nice man. He was somebody that after I left Colgan I actually kept in touch with. ...

And when I look back at it now, and as a former flight instructor, too, you kind of go, could there have been something that I could have done or something that I could have said that might have prevented that from happening? ... I don't know if there's anything that I could have. Believe me, I've thought about it. It's kept me up at night, and I've thought about it often.

He seemed to be a very competent pilot. It was something that he always wanted to do as well. He was in search of that dream. He was very, very happy to have it. Went through a lot of similar sacrifices like I did. He was commuting from the Tampa, [Fla.], area to Houston. We would often talk about our commutes and talk about our families, our interests. And there was never any example that I can honestly point out that I would say I could have said something to him or done something that would have changed anything happened that day. Nor did I see anything that would make me think he wasn't qualified to be where he was.

He was a good pilot.

Very conscientious.

Now, we found out subsequent to the crash that there were a bunch of flunked check rides. Did that surprise you?

It did. You know, they happen. A failed check ride is not necessarily a big deal.

A failed check ride, but there were --

But there were multiple. From what I understand, ... there were multiple airline failed check rides. That's where there's a problem. If you're a private pilot and you fail your private pilot check ride, OK, you go out, you do the maneuver again. The examiner says you're good, you get your license. But when you get to that level commercial and you're airline transport pilot level, I think the room for error should be pretty much razor-thin. Either you can cut it or you can't. And that's the way I think it needs to be run. And that was always my impression of the way things were run when it came to airline flying. If you failed a check ride at the airline you're pretty summarily let go, because obviously you can't cut it.

To find that out after the fact, that was very surprising and shocking.

How did you find out about the crash? What was your reaction to it?

A friend of mine called and said, "Hey, a Colgan airplane crashed," and I turned on the news channels and started watching it and started calling everybody I know. And when I heard it was a Q400, then I started calling everybody that I knew that was flying a Q400 and trying to get through to anybody, hoping that when I got voicemail, it [meant] that they were just not available, not that they were on that airplane. And finally I got through to somebody that told me it was Marvin and a first officer [Rebecca Shaw] that I didn't know. I was devastated, honestly. I was devastated. ...

When you read that transcript [of] what went on in that cockpit, what went through your mind?

First of all, chilling. And it's hard to judge not being in that seat not knowing what was happening. It's hard to Monday-morning quarterback it and say should have, could have, would have. But you read it, and there's obviously glaring deficiencies.

Given the flight regime that they were in, below 10,000 feet on approach, obviously things should have been done better ... and done differently. Is having conversation in the airplane while you're flying abnormal? No, no, it's not. But given a situation like that, at night, building up ice, a couple thousand feet above the ground, you should be concentrating on flying that airplane. ...

Was [Buffalo] an accident waiting to happen?

That would be the question. And I think if you really look at it -- and I'm sure the investigators are looking at every aspect and every facet of that crash, going back to training, going back to safety regulations, proper procedure in -- there are problems with all of those down the line. So in a lot of senses, yes, just waiting to happen. ...

So what's the lesson of that crash, and have we learned that lesson?

Aviation has a way of only learning things when something goes wrong, and that has been throughout the history of aviation. You test it; you try it. If it works, great; if it doesn't, we'll fix it later. There are no small fixes in aviation. When you get to that level, you're talking about millions of dollars when you start imposing and enforcing regulations and different changes to either airplanes or maintenance or training and so on down the line.

So one of the reasons I'm here doing this interview is that I hope that out of it and out of that crash that something positive evolves from it, whether it be a change in training to make pilots overall better, not only at the regionals but everywhere. Whether it be a change in procedure, a change in duty time, a change in rest time, a change in flight-time regulations -- whatever it might be that we can learn from that crash, that would be my goal; that would be my hope. ...

posted february 9, 2010

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