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February 9, 2011

I arrived at the airport early since all the flights to San Francisco were full.  With full flights, I am limited to the jump-seat in the cockpit.  Most aircraft have two, but United 757s only have one.  If I were the only one commuting from DEN to SFO, that wouldn’t be a problem… but, often there is competition.

All looked good a few minutes before boarding the United flight.  Since I was the first one there, only a United pilot could bump me out of the seat.  Then, the phone rang.  It was crew scheduling.  I just assumed I was being assigned a flying trip for later that day.

“Hi.. this is (scheduler) from CSS.  I just wanted to let you know we’re giving you next week’s reserve period off.  I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, but you’ll get to spend Valentine’s Day with your wife.”

When I hung up the phone, I was thrilled.  Then, I pondered it for a second and paranoia swept over me.

As nice and well-intentioned as my employer was being, there is only one reason to give reserves some extra time off: there are too many reserves.  If you’ve read my career history, or know the ups and downs of the airline business, you know why that scares the heck out of me.  A week earlier, I was notified by a friend that his interview was postponed until May.  What’s going on?

From what I’ve been able to piece together, aircraft deliveries are coming a little slower than anticipated.  They hired a bunch of extra people who need to fly, so there is a temporary surplus of pilots.  We have been assured that the aircraft are still coming and we still plan to grow.  (Insert temporary sigh of relief here.)

It’s funny how this business will make a normally sane person paranoid.  Before United went to an all electronic expense system, they used to pay training per-diem in cash.  Every week in training, we would fill out expense reports.  The next week, they would give us a bunch of cash to stuff in our wallets.  Once, when we went to pick up our reimbursement, we were informed they couldn’t get to the bank and we would have to wait until the next day.  Right in front of me, I watched grown men almost panic.  No cash?  Is the bank-trip just an excuse?  Are we filing bankruptcy?  I thought they were crazy.  Now, I understand.

This trip to SFO also posed another unique challenge.  It was the first time I’d traveled since starting the weight loss competition.  Being at home, I was able to eat healthy food and exercise.  I was actually a little worried about continuing my routine on the road.  Burgers and fries are cheap, easy, and taste so so good.

Thankfully, this is a team competition.  When I arrived, one of the other pilots on my team was at the airport.  Another teammate picked us up and brought us back to her apartment.  We bought food at Subway and Safeway.  I worked out for sixty minutes on the elliptical machine in their apartment complex’s beautiful gym. (Californian’s know what people need when it comes to exercise!)  It was like being at home.

I spent the night at the Red Roof.  The next day, I still hadn’t been assigned any flying.  With nothing close to cheap and healthy near the hotel, I set out on the 22 minute walk into Burlingame.  There, I bought a foot-long sandwich at Subway.  I ate half, and saved the other half for dinner at the hotel.  I also bought some fruit at the farmer’s market before walking back to the hotel.  Staying at the Red Roof allows me to use the gym at the DoubleTree across the street.  With 45 minutes of walking, a healthy lunch, a workout at the DoubleTree and a healthy meal chilling in my room, I realized this probably wasn’t going to be as hard as I thought.  With a little creativity, I could do this.

Later that evening, I was assigned a two-day trip to Toronto.  This competition is truly changing the way I think.  My first thought?  “Oh no… we stay right at the airport in Toronto.  It is Superbowl Sunday.  The crew is going to want to go out and watch the game.  How am I going to pull this off?”  I was also glad I didn’t buy four days worth of fresh fruit.  They wouldn’t let me take it over the border.

There’s a great verse in a song on Zac Brown’s new CD:

“It’s strange, how I’m taken and guided, where I end up right I’m needed to be.” – Zac Brown

When I first heard it a few months ago, I noted how it summed up exactly what I believe.  On the morning of the Toronto trip, it was affirmed for the umpteenth time in my life.  Turns out, the captain on the trip is an iron-man triathlete, fitness coach for trainingpeaks.com, and coach of one of the “other” Biggest Loser teams.  Even though he’s coaching another team, he was very gracious with tons of enthusiastic advice on how to eat healthy, train, and record progress.  He’s also got a great blog:  You can visit it at www.captainchas.com.

I found plenty of decent food and some fresh fruit on the layover in Toronto.  But, I’m guessing your getting sick of reading about my weight struggle.  You come here to read about aviation, right?

So, let’s talk about Toronto.  We weren’t leaving until late afternoon.  It snowed all day.  Since there was already snow on the aircraft and it continued to snow right up until our takeoff, we needed to get de-iced and anti-iced.

Waiting at the gate before pushback

Waiting at the gate before pushback

Ever have that happen to you on a flight?  You taxi out, sit and wait while a few big trucks spray a stinky fluid all over the outside of the aircraft?  Some airports have good systems, and some have bad.  Toronto is the best.

With so many snowy days, they’ve really streamlined their system.  Approaching the de-icing area, we radioed “Pad Control” for a lane assignment.  We were assigned and pulled into lane number five.  From there, we contacted “Ice Man” on a different frequency.  We received verbal and visual instructions from big signs to configure the airplane for de-icing and requested Type I and Type IV fluid.

Type I fluid is a DE-icing fluid.  It is often heated and used to clear ice and snow from the aircraft.

Type IV fluid is an ANTI-icing fluid.  It is applied cold to protect the aircraft surfaces from accumulating more snow.

Whatever time the start of the last fluid application occurs is the beginning of the “holdover” time.  We have charts that cross-reference fluid type, temperature, and type of precipitation to calculate how long the fluid “should” protect.  (We always do a visual check to make sure.)  With light snow, Type IV fluid often provides up to an hour worth of protection.

With the de/anti-icing process complete, “Pad Control” cleared us out of the pad and back to “Ground Control.”  We taxiied out to runway 06L.  It was my leg to fly, and the aircraft uneventfully lifted off for LAX.  The flight took five hours.  After landing at LAX, we prepared quickly for the flight to SFO.  Since this was a three flight trip, there were an odd amount of segments.  So, due to Chas feeling generous, I also flew the leg to SFO.

The next morning, I headed back out to the airport to play the “find a ride home” game.  I was able to get on the next flight, although I was in the jump-seat next to another commuting pilot.  The A320 has two jump-seats, which makes for a cozy ride with four people in the cockpit.

When I arrived in Denver, it was snowing AGAIN.  I made my way home on the snow and ice to start my mini-vacation.  Next week, I’m sure I’ll find something to babble about on this blog.  But, it won’t be a current flying story.  I’ll be off!

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About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There are 2 comments

  • Mike says:

    Boy you hit the nail on the head. I’m the paranoia poster child after having been furloughed several times and watching colleagues get furloughed even at my current employer. Any slight hiccup in the expected results in panic. We’ve delayed buying houses, avoided spending money on toys (I’ve wanted a popup camper and a small boat for a long time but too scared to spend money!) all as we wait for elusive “Stability”.

    I assume that most of your readers are young pilots just getting started in aviation. Having another source of income (even if it is a wife whose job is not reliant upon aviation) and living on only ONE income can take much of the burden off. Having a marketable skill unrelated to aviation is another way.

    A good friend of mine from US Airways (now at NetJets after his own furlough) started a bar and grill … this guy is truly living the dream.

    Don’t fall under the assumption that it will never happen for you. Our profession is littered with broken careers of pilots who at one time or another had the brass ring. You can’t control what airline management will do.. but you must control that which you’re able to. The boy scout motto applies: Be prepared.

  • John says:

    Hi Brian

    I can so relate on the weight struggle. It’s a challenge, one I am going through myself, and doing lots of business travel, I too find myself worrying about where am I going to eat. Here in the US and Canada, it’s pretty doable, but try finding a Subway in Nairobi, or Addis Ababa. Not so easy. Good luck to you on your challenge!

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