Cecil Ewell

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Cecil Ewell's counting the days until next Christmas. Thet's when he'll celebrate his 60th birthday by retiring as Chief Pilot for American Airlines, a job he's held since 1993. In this month's Profile, AVweb's Joe Godfrey talks with Captain Ewell about his naval career, 25 years flying the line, the pilot sick-out in February, and advice to pilots looking for a job with a major carrier.

Capt. Cecil EwellCecil Ewell was born December 25, 1939, in Los Angeles, Calif. After graduating from high school in Nashville, Tenn., he earned a football scholarship to the University of Florida. He finished the pre-med program with a Bachelor's Degree in Chemistry and was accepted to medical school. Those plans changed one weekend when he and some friends went to Jacksonville for some beach R&R and saw the Blue Angels. He ran over to the office at NAS JAX and enlisted while still in his swimming trunks.

After two combat cruises in his five years in the Navy, he joined American Airlines. He spent the next 25 years flying the line and worked as a check airman/instructor pilot on the Boeing 727, Airbus A300, and Boeing 757/767. He was named Fleet Supervisor and Manager of the B767 at American's Flight Academy and became Chief Pilot in 1993. As Chief Pilot, he supervises more than 9,500 pilots and 1,000 ground employees, all aspects of flight training, ten crew bases, 2,200-plus trips a day, and a budget of $3.5 billion. As Chief Pilot, he's also in the hotseat between management and pilots. Last February, the hotseat got hotter when many of American's pilots staged a "sickout" to protest American's consolidation of Reno Air. After 31 years at American, he'll spend the last three months of the year training his replacement and retire on his 60th birthday.

How did you get interested in flying?

Just before my senior year of college, I was home with my parents in the Chicago area. One day I was driving down a road and passed a little airport, and some guy was out flying a J-3 Cub. I stopped and talked to him, and wound up selling everything I owned and took flying lessons. I got my private ticket and flew about a hundred hours in that J-3 before I went into the navy. It was time well spent. The T-34 was a snap after flying that taildragger. If I were going to own an airplane today, the J-3 is what I'd own.

Capt. Cecil EwellWhere did the Navy send you?

We were still living in southern California, so I joined at Los Alamitos. From there I went to Pensacola, then Meridian, Miss., and I got my wings in the summer of '65 in Beeville, Texas and went right to Miramar for F-4 training. When I got out of that, I walked to the next hangar and joined my squadron which was VF-154. I flew two combat cruises on the USS Coral Sea and the USS Ranger, and flew about 150 missions over southeast Asia.

How did you wind up at American?

I almost didn't. My wife was a flight attendant for American, so that was my first choice. I hadn't heard from American and I was going to fly for Western Airlines up in L.A. About two weeks before I got out of the Navy I got a telegram from American. I got out of the Navy on the first of November, 1968, and started at American three days later as a flight engineer on the 727. I spent ten years as an engineer and six more years as a copilot, and made captain in 1984. I've flown almost everything American flies: the 707, the 727, the MD-80, the A-300, the 757, the 767, the MD-11 — and I'm not going to triple-seven school but I flew it for about an hour and a half at Boeing before we decided to buy the airplane.

I wanted to fly for American, but I'd advise anybody that's looking for an airline job to hit all the majors. The guys I was in the Navy with have all ended up in about the same place whether it's Delta or American or United or Northwest. We've all become wide-body international captains. So I'd say the opportunities are there no matter where you decide you want to work.

Did you have a particular route or airplane you liked to fly?

I liked Paris and London. There's just so much to do there in your time off. I still try to fly once a week. I don't go to Paris and London once a week because I can't afford three days away, but when I fly international that's where I like to go.

I've always liked every airplane I've flown. I loved the MD-11, loved the 727, and everything in between. My favorite always seemed to be the one I was flying. Modern airplanes are much more overpowered and much more responsive — and the bigger they are, the easier they fly.

I got to fly a fun airplane last year. They flew me out to El Centro and I got to fly with the Blue Angels. I logged about an hour and a half of stick time.

Capt. Cecil EwellHow do you spend your day?

I usually get here between 5:30 and 6:00 in the morning and I'll get home by 6:00 or 6:30, but at least two days a week I don't get home until after 11:00 at night. Normally on Saturdays and Sundays I don't come to the office, but the phone rings incessantly. We have 2,200-plus trips a day, worldwide, around the clock, and with that many operations there's always something going on. I move from operational problems to labor to training to planning budgets for next year to hiring. We have a $3.5 billion budget next year, so that alone is a lot of work.

And I give a lot of speeches. I never write them, I do it all off the top of my head. After six years of doing this, I never would have dreamed that it would present the challenges that it has, but I'm amazed at the things I'm able to do now that I couldn't do before. But I'm not sure I'd ever do this again if I had to make the choice. It's an enormous amount of work and the financial return doesn't really justify the time spent.

What's your favorite part of the job?

Hiring. I call each and every applicant we decide to hire and offer them a job. I give them the class date and invite the wives or husbands down for the first few days of new-hire training just to give them a flavor for the way the company operates. That's the best part of the job.

What's your least favorite part of the job?

I hate the labor part. I'm in the middle between management and pilots. I've been in our union, APA [Allied Pilots Association], for 31 years. I think — and [American Airlines CEO] Don Carty and [Vice President of Operations] Bob Baker would agree with me — that having the union is important. But I heartily disagree with the way business is being conducted there right now. I'll admit that the company, American, isn't perfect. But it's an absurd thought that there's some plot going on to break the union.

First, I would know it if there was. There aren't any secrets. Both American and the union leak like a sieve, so it's pretty easy to see what's going on at both places. Secondly, nobody around here has the time to develop a plan like that.

Unfortunately, I think American is now suffering from ... I hesitate to use the word "mistakes" ... but let's say some past ideas that weren't so wonderful. But, I think the pendulum will swing back and things will be okay. Don Carty has had a lot of inherited baggage, and they've been taking him on since he walked in the door. I'm not the leader of his fan club, but I know he wants to change this place and so far he hasn't had a chance.

February was a tragedy. We've got a very small percentage of people that will never be happy, but that's their problem. We can't make rules and procedures that treat everybody else unfairly just because of those few. We have the finest pilots in the world here and I think it caused a lot of them to rethink what goes on and how it affects them. It's a shame that it happened, but maybe something good will come out of it. I've gotten a lot more involved in this than I wanted to, but at some point in time you have to be willing to stand up and say "that's not the truth."

Capt. Cecil EwellHow is the current crop of pilots different from when you joined American?

The flight time is much higher, specifically the military flight time. That's because the airlines — all of them — haven't been hiring. So they've spent more time at the regionals or in the military building time. The military time is higher, too, because the committment now is 10 or 11 years, and when I came up it was just five. I came to work with 1,200 hours. I had 400 carrier landings, so it was pretty high-quality time, but not a lot of it.

Our average new-hire today has between 3,500 and 4,000 hours, and a lot of it is multiengine time. A lot of that time is pilot-in-command time, but that's not a requirement. And type ratings ... I don't put a lot of stock in people running out and spending $10,000 for a type rating. I'd never recommend that to anybody. If they're ready for a type rating, we'll give them one.

How have American's hiring procedures changed since you've been here?

About two and a half years ago, even though we were still calling back furloughees, I knew that we were going to have to hire new pilots. In the past, the human resources department had hired pilots, which I thought was a real bad idea. My boss, Bob Baker, and I had a few intense conversations on this with different areas of the company, but eventually I got the hiring program. So we decided that there would be some basic pilot requirements, but number of hours was not going to be one of them. A pilot can have 10,000 hours, but if it's all in a 172 it's not as valuable to me as a 1,500-hour F-16 pilot. So that's why our time requirement says "commensurate with experience" instead of a number.

My big concern is what's in their heart and what's in their heads. We spent about a year developing a new-hire program which is now working like clockwork. We base a lot of initial call-ins on recommendations and family members. Where can you get a better employee than a son or daughter of someone that's worked here for awhile? Better than 80% of the people that get through the door here get a job, versus about 30% at United.

We charge applicants $100. We're not making any money on that deal, it's just to cover the background checks and the Records Act that the government requires us to do. We've hired 802 people since the program began, and I think we've lost five who didn't make it through school, and those were all flight engineers. I'd say that while today's pilots generally have a better grasp of computer skills, the flight engineer position is a more mechanical position, and I think we were a little more mechanically inclined when I came up.

We've seen no difference in proficiency between men, women, and minority groups. I have no quota set by either the company or by the government. That's because we're fair. As long as we're fair, we won't have the government in here telling me what to do.

Are you hiring now?

We'll hire almost a thousand people this year and I see no end to the hiring in sight.

How has cockpit resource management changed since you've been with American?

It has evolved from what I call the "feel-good" system to realizing that in any crew there's a captain and he or she is in command. At American we don't call it "CRM," we call it "Human Factors," and it's a more realistic, operationally-oriented approach that has evolved from the "I'm-okay-you're-okay" attitude of the past. Somebody is in command. That doesn't mean he or she has to be a jerk. We try to train our people to deal with other people, with the acklowledgement that there is a captain that will have the final authority on how the aircraft is operated.

Human factors have also changed along with the automation of the cockpit. The captain must be able to select the level of automation that's best for the situation. Flying the airplane fully automated — or with no automation — is probably not the answer. There's a middle ground, and in our training we focus on different levels of automation. For instance, an engine-out is a different level of automation than a Category III approach, and those are different from a non-precision approach. We've taken advantage of technology as it has evolved, but my philosophy is that the day you allow the computer to do all your thinking for you, you're on your way to restland.

Do you get along with the FAA?

Our normal everyday contact is with our Principal Operations Inspector (POI) that holds the certificate. I deal with the POI or the Pricipal Maintenance Inspector (PMI) almost on a daily basis, but someone that works for me deals with them every single day on one thing or another. Every airline has a different POI and PMI, and each one of them is an individual. So we argue a lot about a level playing field. If our guy makes me do certain things, then I want everybody to have to do them.

I'm very straight-up with our POI. We hide nothing from him. If something happens, I call him immediately, even if it's something he'd never know about, because I think it's important to keep that relationship up-front. Then when things come up, we work through them and fix them. If I see something that needs fixing, I fix it and tell them I've done it. I don't wait for them to tell me to fix it. If discipline is needed, I do it.

The worst thing about the FAA is the legal stuff. I'll give you an example. We have a program called ASAP—American Airlines Safety Action Program. I flew the line for 25 years before I took this job, so I know what goes on in the world. I also know that I probably only know about 10% of what's going on. We encourage pilots to self-disclose, like "I had an altitude bust and the controller said 'no problem'" ... well, we want that guy to tell us about it, without fear of ending up with two weeks off.

It's not a certificate protection program. If you do anything intentionally, you're out of the program. But we've made some dramatic changes in our operations based on the information we've gathered from the cockpit. Every week, the event review team — made up of the union, the company, and the FAA — meets to go over these reports. We thought it was such a good idea that everybody else ought to be doing this, too. Well, for two years, we've been fighting FAA legal who are afraid that by doing this they'll be accused of abrogating their right to enforcement. We think they're wrong about that. In no way does the ASAP program affect the FAA's ability to take corrective action if they deem it neccessary. And I will never support a program that limits my — not the FAA's — ability to discipline somebody that needs it.

My understanding is that they've recently loosened up on this, and we may see this kind of program industry-wide. If that happens, I'll host a get-together here at DFW and we'll show them what to do and how to do it. And that'll be free. My philosophy is that anything having to do with safety is not for sale, we just give that away.

This sounds a little bit like an airline version of NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting Program.

It is, and we participate in that, too. It's similar, but it's a few steps forward, since we review every single one of them with an eye to operational changes. We changed our procedures on the Super 80's altitude set-and-hold knob based on ASAP reports. We finally discovered what was causing the altitude busts, and fixed it.

The legal issues are that this is information that you want in-house, but not necessarily to the public. Let's say that we report fifty altitude busts for last year and Delta, for instance, says, "well, we didn't have any." That could be because they didn't know about them. So we want the information so we can improve operations, but we don't want it used against us by the competition.

Capt. Cecil EwellYou're planing to retire at the end of the year. What's next?

I'll probably take about six months and do nothing for awhile. I won't miss getting up at 4:00 a.m. and going to bed at midnight. I've had a lot of lawyers asking me to be a consultant and expert witness, so I'm not going to work for a living, but I'm not going to just go sit in a rocking chair, either. Pilots at American have a tremendous retirement program, the best in the industry. I've been very fortunate, so I'd like to do something to help others. I don't know what that is yet, but it'll show up.

Is there a J-3 Cub in your future?

Oh, maybe if I found one, I might do it. We do a lot of 707 training here for the third world, and KC-135 training for the Air Force. The guys that do that are retired 707 captains, and they're very, very good at it. One of those captains is based at a little field just west of here, has a J-3 Cub, and wants me to come down there and fly it. So we'll see how that turns out.

I'll play some golf. Spend some time with my granddaughter. I'll miss the flying, but mostly I'll miss the people.

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