Thursday, March 16, 2006

Nothing Much

Another four days of simulator duty. It's worth noting that a premium is paid to any sucker (like me) who is assigned simulator support (that is, occupying one's regular flying seat in support of someone else's training) for two consecutive days. Because it's not fun. And it's even less fun four days in a row.

I have long felt that operating an airplane in a crisis situation plays at the limit of at least some human capacities. If the job were any more difficult at these moments it would be simply beyond the abilities of most people to do. It's arguably already so for a great majority of people, due not so much to capacity as to a want of years of training and immersion in a complex subject matter. And while it is exhilarating to know what's out there at the ragged edge, it's a tiring--exhausting, even--place to have to spend much time. We spend a fair amount of each simulator session fighting against a gut feeling that we're about to get sucked under water. We move from one crisis to another to another, and before we can triumph over a crisis we must first and above all hold on. Failure--the inability to rise to meet the challenge before you--looms large always, as it naturally would at the edge. And when it's your career that hangs in the balance, or at the very least a hell of a lot of hassle and scrutiny and stress, then what might be considered a fun little personal experiment becomes an ugly monster in mid-swat. The only thing making extra simulator duty tolerable is that I'm not usually the guy who is being closely watched (though we can be damn sure that any significant fuck-up on my part would be duly noted). Well, that and the premium pay.

Today I supported the regular, yearly recurrent training of a couple of veterans. The captain was a few years older than me, a guy who has been on the airplane for near to 20 years. And the engineer was what we call a "retread," a guy who has passed the age of 60, the age at which by regulation you can no longer occupy a pilot's seat. But there is no age limit on being an engineer, so many of these guys, instead of just retiring (as they would have to do at most airlines), move from the captain's seat back to the engineer's seat for a few more years. (It's ironic that the most junior and the most senior people at the company occupy this seat.) And in the DC-8, the engineer works his or her ass off in emergency situations.

All these impressions of simulator service are a recurring theme for me (and for the blog, I know). But in my defense there's a lot of the experience that's really extraordinary and even profound in a certain way. It goes back to that probing of human limitations, I suppose. What I thought about during today's duty, though, was the slightly sad shift these retreads go thru after their 60th birthday. The engineer today had been a captain in the DC-8 for a long time, and had been in the back seat now for a year or two. They take a significant pay cut, and find themselves, after finishing a long stint of commanding a crew and many millions of dollars of machinery and cargo, now having to follow the lead of someone perhaps half their age and experience. Maybe we should all be happy that they aren't forced to retire if they're not ready to do so; there are very few airlines left flying three-seat airplanes, so in that sense they're really lucky. But I can see the difficulty of being a hale and hearty 60 years of age and being told that you've suddenly passed an arbitrary point and are no longer able to do something. And where this guy had until recently been in a situation in life where, like a senior doctor or lawyer, he was earning his best salary while having his easiest schedule, where everyone he meets in the industry accords him a certain deference, now he is the chore-monkey of the airplane, finding himself at the end of his career sorely abused and overworked for his reduced salary.

I felt for the guy. He didn't seem to be enjoying himself--I couldn't blame him there--and he seemed to have an attitude where he might be one emergency scenario away from unstrapping himself from the seat and declaring himself gone. Today was for practice. Tomorrow I get to assist in their actual checkouts. Ah well, he's seen a lot more checkrides in his 62 years than I have in my 43. I'm sure he'll do fine.


Unsane said...

fascinating stuff.

Anonymous said...

You'd think that in an industry like yours, where there is so much testing going on, there would be no need for an arbitrary age limit. I am sure that many pilots would function well after age 60, their experience should more than make up for any lack of reaction time, and it would seem that memory problems would be readily apparent.

Do you think retreads keep going because they need the money, or do they just want to stay in an airplane as long as they can?

- Jeffy

wunelle said...

I think you hit it right on the head. There are a lot of 60-year-olds who are in better physical shape than I am, and I agree that it's not really about reaction time after a point. It's about the letter of the law, and it's a law that has stood for whatever reason for 80 years.

I think a lot of these guys choose to go to the back rather than retire because we're on the verge of getting a new contract with, it is hoped, a considerably better retirement clause. The company could save a good $100K per retread per year by offering a standing "me too" clause that would guarantee them whatever improvements come along later on. Some of them keep working because they like the airline life and don't want to retire. But for most of them, the danger, daring and romance that is the promise of the job is a distant illusion and they're ready to play golf.

One of the great benefits of this job historically is that you retire at 60 and that's still young enough to do challenging stuff. I think with all the turmoil those days may be coming to an end. I think we'll see the age pushed up to 65 before long (which, many fear, will then REQUIRE people to do this job until 65. Many, like my F/E in this post, would be much better off without this).

Esbee said...

Comment function is quirky today.

Out of curiosity, what might be a private company's mandatory retirement age for pilots, if there is one? And or pilots tested more frequently as they get older?

I am all for more frequent checks of older drivers.

wunelle said...

The retirement age is a function of regulation, and different types of operations are run under different books of the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations). A private company would likely be what we call a "part 91" concern, and there is no required age limit there, whereas airlines are regulated by part 121, wherein retirement is mandated at age 60. But in all cases, some general recency of experience requirements apply, and annual checkouts (more or less) are a part of both parts.

Older pilots are not more checked than younger ones, but we all are scrutinized a hell of a lot. I agree that drivers, old and younger, need some kind of oversight. I've not been checked out by a professional (apart from my bus driving) since I got my license a buzillion years ago.

CrustyCaptain said...

I agree that is damned wierd sometimes with the 'retread' in the back seat. And I too feel for them, especially the ones who so recently went back. Now there is this younger captain just recently upgraded giving the commands and the retread who has 20 years on the plane, used to giving the commands, now having to take them. That can be hard to swallow, especially with our gigantic pilot egos.
For the most part, the captains value most of the retreads for their knowledge and experience and treat them accordingly. However there are some retreads who go to the back seat and are just waiting for the new contract and you have to light a fire under their ass to get them to do anything.
I believe that some of them just love aviation too much to let it go. I am glad that they have a position to go to that allows them to 'stay in the game' even after the dreaded age 60. It makes the forced retirement seem less sad somehow knowing that you can still participate and are not just turned out into the cold. Of course being able to retire early down into the Florida warmth can also be a great thing - especially for the ones ready to settle down to some serious golf. So it has its advantages and disadvantages.
Of course there are the ones just waiting out the new contract, but I think that more of them simply can not afford to retire now, even with a new contract. They spent too much of their captain's pay on toys - planes, boats, and automobiles - instead of saving for retirement. Then there are those that believe - wrongly - that if they change the age rule they will be able to go back to flying. There is, from my understanding, a 'cut off' clause. If you have already passed age 60 it is too late.
Either way it does make for some interesting dynamics in the cockpit. Of course I believe that our professional pilot standards make this transition a safe one and not an unpleasant one.