All because of that dumb little ant

As I stood in the dark at the KSC Press Site and gazed out at the Ares I-X, in the distance, poised on Pad 39B, bathed in crossed spotlights, and then looked behind me to see the big observation building marked "CBS" and "NBC" as well as the satellite dished broadcast trucks, one thought haunted me...

"How is it that I get to be here, and get to do this?"

How does someone who grew up as a rabid spacebuff witnessing spaceflight history only through the living room TV as it was broadcast from those same buildings end up here? How is it that the person who was the weirdest kid on his block and used to stuff ants into balsa spacecraft and launch their helpless butts atop model rockets end up here, now, a first hand observer of spaceflight history? Certainly it is not by way of formal journalistic training- because I have none. Surely it is not because of my career as a professional aviator, because there are lots of them out there- and none of them are here with me. And definitely it is not because I have any skill or technical training that NASA could use in this event- because I absolutely have nothing in that portfolio.

Additionally, I'm far from being a veteran space reporter. In fact, when I attended the roll-out of the Ares I-X a week earlier, I got my badge and lanyard and I asked the lady when the buses were going to take us out to the press site. "What buses?" she replied looking a bit puzzled. After I explained that I'd not been to the press site since I was on my college newspaper, the lady snickered and told me that all I had to do was to put on that badge and drive to the gate, show the guard the badge and then drive my car to the press site. Drive my car into KSC!?! Ooooookay. As the guard waved me through the gate and I headed toward the VAB, I began to giggle out loud... Suddenly I was 15 years old again.... "This is soooooo cool." Most teenage boys have fantasies about naked girls and winning the big game, space buffs, however, have fantasies about driving into KSC. Thus I was living out one of my wildest dreams (besides, I'd experienced the naked girls in my college days- so what's left? I don't think that winning "the big game" is in the cards for me). Of course this dream come true was tempered by the thought of accidentaly making the wrong turn and getting machine gunned by the KSC Security SWAT Team.

So how is it that a slob like me, gets to be here?

The short answer is, of course, that I wrote some articles on the Ares I-X for the Aero-News Network and because of them I asked to be credentialed for the roll-out and the launch. Yet, the short answer is not good enough- if I looked a bit deeper into my life I found that a common thread runs through a lot of the cool stuff I've done. It is all because of that dumb little ant that I draw.

From the time that the Klyde Morris cartoon began appearing in the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Avion newspaper, my entire path in life has been altered by that simple bit of artwork. I went from being the generic freshman that no one noticed to the person that every frat. wanted to pledge and every person throwing aparty tossed an invitation to- all in just one trimester. I was lucky enough to realize very early on that it was not me that was popular, it was not me that they wanted to hang out with- it was the cartoon character.

Way back in 1982 my dad suggested that I should consider being a cartoonist who can fly rather than a pilot who draws cartoons- but I thought flying would be more fun. Dad was actually right- it just took 3 airlines, one corporate gig and 3 furloughs for me to figure that out. I'm amazed that the popularity of that little cartoon ant is a sort of "E ticket" to all sorts of things from free trips to airshows, to witnessing stuff like X-Prize and the Ares I-X. Likewise, I'm also amazed when stuff like that comes along and I stand there feeling very much like a 15 year old again, grinning and saying to myself "Not bad for the weirdest kid on Lexington Dr." and it is all because of that little cartoon ant.


Ares I-X... an arrow pointing toward the future

As the Ares I-X lifted majestically from Pad 39B, it became the world's largest eraser. What it effectively erased were all of the outlandish claims made by the nutcake Ares I haters that have been splashed all over the Internet.

Some of the more outlandish claims were that the Ares I-X would hit the Fixed Service Structure on liftoff, or that it would become uncontrolled and cartwheel, or that it would buckle in half and explode, or that it would have to be destroyed by Range Safety shortly after liftoff and would cause heavy damage to to the space shuttle sitting on Pad 39A. It did none of that. Perhaps the most tasteless came from the paranoid camp of the "Direct"proponents when one of their lead guys claimed, shortly after roll out, that he'd "heard" that officers at the Range Safety Office were refusing to sign off on the vehicle so the launch would not go. Considering that these "Direct" guys already made fools of themselves in front of the Augustine commission by stating that dark forces within NASA were somehow out to get them- this new claim, posted without sourcing, put them solidly into the tinfoil hat/alien abduction crowd. All of these claims were argued on the Internet with near religious vigor and far beyond the point of sensibility.

On October 28, 2009 at 11:30 a.m. the Ares I-X lifted off of the pad and in just over 2 minutes, it erased the soapbox upon which all of the Ares I haters were standing and shouting their nonsense. The flight has been successful and the Ares I haters are left attempting to rebuild their snowfort of nonsense.

Like an arrow pointing toward the future, the Ares I-X demonstrated that the vehicle configuration is completely sound. It did not hit the tower, it did not cartwheel out of control, it did not fold in half and explode, it did not damage the nearby space shuttle and very obviously- the range safety officers did indeed sign off on the launch.

People who were sucked in to the nonsense presented by the fanatical Ares I haters should learn a lesson from this mission. Be careful what you read and believe that has come from the Internet. Think for yourself and use hard engineering facts instead of buying into hysterics.


Dealing with aviation management

As a pilot- when dealing with management I always used a simple formula- which is probably why every company that ever hired me regretted it shortly there after...

When it comes to management, you can either spend your time kissing their ass or kicking their ass- in the end they're always gonna screw you anyhow- so at least if you spent your time kicking their ass, you got your shots in while you had the chance.


How to get hired by an airline

When up-start pilots find out you've been hired by several airlines and corporate operations, they always ask "Well how do you get hired by an airline anyhow?"

I always take that as "Well how'd (some jerk like) you get hired by an airline?" In that context it's a fair question and it deserves an honest answer. Before giving that, however, I'm obligated to tell you, the readers and airline pilot wannabes, what it is really like to get hired by an airline.

Most wide-eyed up-starts see airlines as big, clean aircraft, the smell of jet exhaust, your ID clipped to your pocket, a uniform on and walking around out there on the ramp pre-flighting. Here's a dose of reality... often the only good part about walking out on that ramp is the fact that there is so much noise that you can fart as loud as you want and no one can possibly hear it.

Cold truth be said, getting hired by most airlines is a lot like (from a guy's perspective mind you...) hooking up with a girlfriend who has supermodel looks and the mind of a psychopathic killer. Everyone thinks you've got it made, but after a few months she's trying to kill you over and over. Within a year your life is in shambles, she's constantly hounding you on the phone demanding to know your every move, treating you like property and you can't leave because if you do all of your relatives will think you're gay. In the end she sends you off to the funny farm, drooling but comforted in the fact that you'll soon be drown in Thorazine and lost in remembrance of the good old days when you were a flight instructor new-hire at some tiny FBO.

That said... actually getting hired is, in my own experience, largely a matter of luck (good or bad- depending on your perspective). In my case, it seemed as if the harder I tried to get hired, the more I got passed over, or... "got The Letter" that says "thanks but no thanks." Yet. when I wasn't really trying was when I got hired. Take my career disaster at TWA for example. I didn't want to go there, but I got the interview and decided to go through it just for practice. I actually wore an Alfred E. Newman, Mad Magazine tie to the interview (HONEST!). That's how much I did not want to get hired there... the bastards hired me anyway... at the end of the interview they told me they liked my tie.

Back in 1992 as I was trying to escape the CFI, bug-smasher role, I did my very first airline interview. It was a point in time when pilot hiring was actually somewhat worse than it is today and Continental Express announced they were actually hiring and- to everyone's amazement- was not requiring Pay-for-Training! I sent in my paperwork and I got invited for an interview! I spent 2 weeks flying the flight school's Frasca multi engine simulator as I intensely prepared for the interview- I studied the AIM and FARs- especially part 121. I was gonna be as ready as I could be. Finally, I took the ticket they sent me and non-rev'ed out to Texas, took my room in the crew hotel and spent the evening rehearsing my "answers to common airline interview questions" in the mirror. I was sure that I had a chance to go in there and really impress them with my 1,200 odd hours, no ATP but plenty of charm and new suit. When I reported to the big... BIG meeting room the following morning I saw that it was packed with others of my ilk or better... way better. Tons of former airline pilots were on furlough in those days and they all seemed to be in that room... I felt like a six year old. One of the other guys and I got talking and he had the skinny on what was going on. They were looking for 12, count 'em, 12 pilots to fly their ATRs. This new found pal of mine had been counting the heads and I was number 43 to come into the room... he and I stopped counting around number 57. And, it got worse. When the guy from the hiring board came to the front to speak he told us that there were just 3 positions remaining because they had already interviewed 3 groups of similar size to ours. He then made a joke that obviously most of us did not have a chance, unless we had a space shuttle mission under our belts- and one guy raised his hand... and he was serious. My "in the interview room" session lasted about 9 minutes. No technical questions, no common airline questions, just "briefly tell me about yourself" and it was over. The hiring board guy then mercifully sent me back to the big room to finish filling out my paper work and told me that when I was done I could just come back to the interview room and shove the packet under the door... which I did. I got "The Letter" a week or so later.

After almost a year of similar interview nightmares I decided to get my ATP and shortly there after was invited down to interview at Paradise Island Airlines in FLL. I went down there with a "Aww what the hell" disposition. The HR part of the interview was so basic the lady doing it could have been interviewing me to work at K-mart again. The technical part was done one-on-one with the Director of Ops. He asked a few simple IFR questions and then came across the place in my logbook where my Beech 18 time resides. He asked about it and I told him it was just poor-man's autopilot, night IFR, dead of winter- I flew while the real pilot slept and then the same guy signed it off as dual given. He asked if I'd gotten anything out of it. I said "hell yeah" that "I actually learned to fly instruments in the 18 and although it's like spinning a plate on a stick while standing on one foot on a bowling ball on a moving escalator, it really made it a lot more easy when I got back to college and went into the T303 Crusaders." We laughed. He then got sly and asked what was unique about the brakes in the 18. I told him that when one guy is on the breaks the other guy's breaks are useless because of the shuttle valve between the two. He asked how you lean the engines- I described the color of the exhaust flame. He asked about the tail wheel retraction and I answered about the bicycle chain and keeping it well oiled. He smiled and told me he used to fly the Beech 18. He shook my hand and said he'd like me to go wait in the hallway for a bit as he had a few other people to talk to. I asked how many and he told me they had 21 candidates for 3 seats and I was the first one to interview so far. I sat outside as about six other guys were escorted in and out. Then the HR lady came out and asked me if I wanted to come to work for them.

Oddly, after all of the formal training, the degree in Aeronautical Science, the ATP and all of the hours spent sitting next to students- what got me that first job was simply the time I'd spent playing autopilot in the middle of the night in a ratty, old radial engine, widow making, oil throwing Beech 18 in the coldest winter of my life. Those flights didn't cost me a cent. My first airline job was gotten by pure happenstance- the D.O. of that carrier and I just happened to have that one experience that clicked.

Of course- my first airline job could easily be defined by what I said earlier... ya' know... that stuff about the supermodel psychopathic... oh yeah.


Check the box.

Recently regional airline pilots have come under fire, yet again, in the 24 hour media. The snip that caught my attention was spewed by Fox News' morning show court jester, Brian Kilmeade. Ya' know, the sports reporter who can talk about any sport, except hockey... which to Kilmeade, apparently does not exist. While watching the Fox morning show "Fox and Friends," I was treated to Kilmead's rambling and scatter-brained comments on, what he referred to as a "law" about pilots talking below 10,000 feet. This tid-bit apparently fed to the meat puppet through his ear piece by an equally clueless producer in the booth, was supposed to refer to the "below 10 rule." a.k.a. the Sterile Cockpit Rule.

Somewhere in Kilmead's ramble was the accusation that pilots... especially regional pilots... according to "the NTSB" are prone to violating the "law" by conversing below 10,000 feet. Reality check: Please- can someone find ANY airline pilot who has not violated the below 10 rule in their career? Of course you cannot- although everyone does their best to follow the rule, in aircraft such as regional turboprops that spend almost half of their time below 10,000 feet, strict adherence to the rule can lead to serious breakdowns in both CRM and moral of the crew. Of course, Kilmead has NEVER spent any time flying in the cockpit of a regional turboprop, so he has all of the qualifications to spout a story about the subject to millions of viewers.

The story that the meat puppet and his producers were referring to was from "The Buffalo News" and had little to do with the NTSB. In fact the subject was largely about some posturing of FAA administrator Randy Babbitt who was speaking in front of some "aviation safety officials" and trying to contrast the US Airways Hudson River ditching to the Continental Connection Flight 3407 Colgan Air crash. I'd like to know when the last time was that ol' Randy flew a month of trips in the cockpit of a Saab 340... in January... in the northern states.

This news story, however, goes way beyond some inter-crew chatter and directly into Babbit land.

Thus, we'll give Kilmead a pass here- because, like nearly all TV media people, his personal knowledge of professional aviation extends about as far as finding the proper seat on his next flight and stowing his carry-on... with the help of a flight attendant, of course. We'll also give a pass to his producer, who is equally aviation clueless. The person most irresponsible here is Randy Babbitt.

In one portion of his "talk" to these aviation safety 'officials" (whatever that is), Administrator Babbitt rants "Properly trained people will do the right thing the right way, and do it at the right time," as he went off to point the finger at the crew of Colgan 3407 far more intensely than at Colgan itself. Yet, he never really directed any finger pointing at FAA itself. The real issue of training, you see, resides at length with the FAA.

Airlines train the same way that they do everything else, to the minimum standards required by... the FAA. And as much as Regionals are to blame for minimal training, the FAA is to blame for setting the standards that make up those minimums. Areas such as I.O.E. are so flawed, even in many of the major airlines, that a new hire can easily be swamped. For those of you reading who are not airline pilots, I.O.E. (Initial Operating Experience) is the flying that you do directly out of training- revenue flights, with passengers... and it is mandated to NOT be training. That's right- you come to a new airline, fly the sim until you drop and once out of training, you go directly onto the line... and that flying cannot be training. Someone should find the idiot who came up with that concept and kick 'em straight in the nuts. Also, training in safety enhancing areas such as C.R.M. is often brushed over because the time and budget do not allow for in-depth activity. If the Regional airlines have any great flaw it is in this area. Did I hear Administrator Babbitt mention raising that standard? No. Why- because it would cost airlines money.

In Babbitt's "Call to Action" he says "Training has got to be more than just checking the box." Sounds really good... sounds really good... but where is the new, published, FAA required standard for that action? No place. It does not now exist, nor will it ever exist. The last thing that the airlines want to spend a single extra dollar on is training. Training does not generate revenue and if the FAA publishes an increased standard- such as an expanded, mandatory C.R.M. training section, the airlines will have to pull pilots off the line to meet the new standard, plus pay for them to stay in a hotel, plus pay for instructors, materials and non-rev travel. If the pilot's are in the classroom, the airline is not making any revenue through the use of them and even worse yet- they're having to put out expenses to accomplish the new standard. GADS! We can't have that... screw safety, get Babbitt on the phone... Suddenly Administrator Babbitt's illusion of increased safety- in a practical sense- becomes a burden on the airlines and at that moment it becomes something better treated with lip service than by the classroom. The airlines will continue to train to the current minimum standard, check off that box and move along.

Babbitt may desire to have everyone think he's imposing higher "beyond just checking the box" standards, but in fact all he is doing is generating a sound bite. He knows FULL WELL that the airlines will never go farther than checking the box for the minimum required because there is zero incentive for them to instead do the maximum possible. "Well what about avoiding another accident- isn't that an incentive?" you may ask. Get real... the airlines can always point the finger at the dead flightcrew, insurance pays, the FAA provides lip service and only the next of kin will remember the horror- that's how airline management thinks and the FAA is only too glad to go along. The FAA cannot expect airlines to change as long as the FAA is talking tough over top of the table while playing footsie with the airlines under the table.

And since Administrator Babbitt has pointed his finger toward the regional airlines and their training, let us throw a rock back toward his own glass house. You see, I was in the regional airlines in the days when Captain Babbitt was leading ALPA. The days when new pilots trying to break into the regional airlines were required to pay for their own, substandard- but good enough to just check the box, training. ALPA was in the position to stop or highly restrict this by placing a restriction against pay-for-training into the contracts of every ALPA regional. They never even tried. Instead, they told their members to simply tell hopeful new hires "not to do it." Yeah- that's real effective when said to some CFI who has spend three or four years going around the pattern in bug-smashers and spending 14 hour days at some crummy airport six days a week... real effective. Why it's almost as effective as this "call to action" nonsense.

The bottom line is that Brian Kilmead and Randy Babbitt should get together and talk about hockey- the impact on aviation safety will be the same as Kilmead's report and Babbitt's "call to action."