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Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein says a pilot shortage, compounded by an aging aircraft fleet, affects readiness and that ultimately means more airman will die in combat. “I will tell you that the cost of not having the right level of readiness is it will take longer to win — we will win, but it will take longer, and less airmen will come home,” Goldfein told the San Antonio News Express. “And we just need to be sure we’re clear-eyed as a nation. That ought to be unacceptable, and it’s certainly unacceptable to me as a chief to ever send an airman in harm’s way without being fully ready. But the reality is, if the nation calls on its Air Force to go, we’ll go, just like those who’ve gone before us.” Just throwing money at the problems won’t be a complete solution. We’re not going to buy our way out of this,” Goldfein said. “You’ve got airlines that are hiring at a rate that we haven’t actually seen in the past and offering significant salaries,” he said. “But that’s compounded with a force that’s increasingly stressed coming out of 26 years of continuous conflict.” 

Congress recently increased the annual retention bonus for Air Force pilots from $25,000 to $35,000. Last year less than half of eligible pilots accepted the bonus but money wasn’t the only reason they want to leave the service. Goldfein said the Air Force demands a lot of new pilots and piles on duties most intensely dislike, leaving them little “white space on the calendar” for family and friends. The extra money isn’t enough to compensate for that and the result is a shortage of 1,500 pilots that’s expected to grow. “Clearly, we appreciate Congress’ support to up the bonus; we haven’t done that in years, and so if we can take financial burdens off a family, help with school, do those things, then clearly that, I think, is an incentive. So it’s not insignificant that we are actually raising the bonus, but that’s not going to do it by itself,” he said.

A Skywest CRJ700 was evacuated on a taxiway at Denver International Airport Sunday after an engine caught fire as it was taxiing to the gate. "After landing safely at Denver, SkyWest Flight 5869, a CRJ700 operating as United Express from Aspen to Denver, experienced engine issues," Skywest said in a statement. ”All 59 passengers safely deplaned the aircraft and were transported to the terminal," the statement said. Twitter photos show flames in the front and rear of the engine but the fire was extinguished quickly and damage seemed to be isolated to the engine.

The airport was closed briefly but flights resumed within 10 minutes of the incident, which occurred about 2:15 p.m. There were no injuries.

American pilot Kirby Chambliss took first place in the Red Bull Air Race in Budapest on Sunday, edging Canadian Pete McLeod by a tenth of a second on the spectacular course that includes flying under the famed Chain Bridge. It was Chambliss’ first win since 2008 and he credited solid advice from his team members for the fast but penalty-free run after a series of races in which he was knocked out of the running because of various violations. “I had started to forget what the Champagne tastes like, so I’m excited,” Chambliss said. “Winning is easy when you’re winning – it’s not when you’re not.” Fellow American Michael Goulian finished 12th.

The Budapest race substantially rearranged the overall standings for the series. The 15 points earned in the race vaulted Chambliss from the bottom half of the pack of 14 pilots to fourth place overall and McLeod’s 12 points put him in third. Japan’s Yoshihide Muroya’s third-place finish was enough to keep him in first place overall. He won the previous two races. There are four races left in the series, which wraps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Oct. 14-15.

A French company has received EASA and Canadian certification for an aftermarket exhaust system that could substantially reduce noise complaints at training airports. Epagny-based Chabord has developed exhaust systems for Cessna 150, 152 and 172 aircraft it says cut the noise from them by at least half. It has “certified silent exhaust systems” for other small aircraft more common in Europe than in North America, like Jodels and Robins, but it was the small Cessna fleet applications that caught the eye of Michel Beaudoin, the manager of Saint-Hubert Airport in densely populated suburban Montreal. There are four busy flight schools based at his airport and noise complaints are common. “We have had a lot of problems,” he told COPA eFlight.

Armed with pledges from all four schools that they would install the systems, Beaudoin and the City of Longueuil worked with Transport Canada to obtain Canadian certification of the exhausts within a few weeks of EASA approving them. The initial certification is for the ubiquitous 152 and approval for the 150s and 172s is expected to follow. Meanwhile, the company is clearly targeting the U.S. market and certification is expected soon. It will have a booth at AirVenture 2017 in Oshkosh to show the systems, which will sell for about $3,900 U.S.

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The Senate’s Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) will almost certainly include authorization for $1.2 billion to buy a fleet of light attack aircraft. Support for the OA-X project has been steadily gaining traction since Senator John McCain proposed that the Air Force acquire 300 low-cost, off-the-shelf observation and attack aircraft early this year. The Senate's proposed NDAA, drafted by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which includes the OA-X authorization, is unlikely to be changed before it's put to a vote. The aircraft would be used to provide battlefield observation and close air support in permissive environments—a mission currently performed by the A-10 (among others), many of which will likely need to be retired as airframe structural components reach the end of their service lives in the next decade.

Inclusion of the OA-X in the Senate’s 2018 NDAA is mostly a symbolic act at this stage. The House version of the bill does not include authorization for the program, and even if it did, the NDAA only authorizes spending of funds received by the Air Force. Congress would still have to appropriate funds for the project. The Air Force, for its part, is only at the beginning stages of an evaluation program to determine whether it wants an OA-X aircraft. A demonstration for Air Force officials will take place this summer, with Embraer and Sierra Nevada likely presenting the A-29 Super Tucano and Textron flying the AT-6 Wolverine and Scorpion Jet.

Both occupants of a twin Cessna survived a crash on the 405 freeway shortly after departure from John Wayne Airport. The pilot reported to the tower that they had lost the right engine and were trying to circle back to the airport (recording from LiveATC.com available below). The tower offered the Cessna right traffic for 20R shortly before the plane crashed northeast of the airport—either on a left base for 20R or right base having overshot the centerline. In the recording, the tower can be heard telling the pilot that his gear is up, and the pilot reports that he’s delaying gear extension to try to gain or maintain altitude.

The condition of the pilot and passenger are unknown, but presumed to be serious. The Los Angeles Times reports that Orange County Global Medical Center confirmed receiving multiple trauma patients from the crash. No one on the ground was injured.

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It all started a few decades ago in a place 8500 miles away. Walt Fricke was in the copilot’s seat of an Army helo in the midst of the chaos of a combat assault in Vietnam. When the crew fired the air-to-ground rockets, one exploded leaving the tube. Shrapnel blasted into one of Walt’s legs, “I grabbed my knee and my foot flipped around and landed backwards on my lap.”

By the 1970s, medical technology had leapt forward to the point that not only could Fricke be saved, but he wouldn’t lose his leg. However, while treatment had advanced dramatically, Fricke’s had to take place in a hospital 700 miles from his family and fiancé. They weren’t wealthy and it took them some months to save up the money to travel the distance to visit him. Walt told us that he lay in the hospital wondering whether he’d live and, if so, whether he’d lose his leg, dealing as best he could with what was probably PTSD. Finally, his family was able to visit and, as Walt put it, “That’s when the healing started.”

Walt Fricke’s experience with the pain, shock, disorientation and trauma of being wounded in combat and being treated in a place strange to him, away from family stayed with him—an integral part of his life. When he retired from the business world, he decided to do something to help other wounded combat veterans using tools he had at hand, his pilot certificate, a general aviation airplane and experience in the world of charities created to help others.

Fricke founded the Veterans Airlift Command (VAC) (www.veteransairlift.org), a nonprofit public benefit flying organization dedicated to the sole purpose of providing free air transportation for military veterans wounded after the 9/11 attacks and their families for medical and other compassionate services. Since its inception in 2006, Fricke’s brainchild has transported some 14,000 passengers and has 500 volunteer pilots in 45 states.

As with all other public benefit flying organizations, VAC is able to provide its free flights through the unselfish actions of pilots and aircraft owners who make the flights and pay for each one out of their own pockets.

Volunteer

To become a volunteer pilot for VAC, it’s a matter of going to the website and filling out an application. The required qualifications for volunteer pilots are straightforward—an instrument rating and no history of certificate suspension or revocation. The website notes that due to the length of many of the needed flights, most require turbine or high-performance piston aircraft and the VAC requests that flights be made with two pilots to increase the level of safety.

The VAC is serious about flight safety and was one of the major contributors to the creation of the AOPA online course that is directed at pilots volunteering in the public benefit flying (PBF) world, Public Benefit Flying: Balancing Safety and Compassion. It is also actively involved with other volunteer pilot organizations through the Air Care Alliance, the umbrella organization that exists to support all public benefit flying organizations through such efforts as helping volunteer pilots find the right organization to fly for, match persons who need the services provided by PBF organizations get the help they need and serve as a networking and clearinghouse for information PBF organizations need to perform their missions.

Once a pilot has joined the VAC, he or she will start receiving emails regarding requests from a mission coordinator at the VAC with details of trips that have been requested by wounded vets. The pilot can then volunteer for flights she or he can make—always recognizing that safety of flight is the first consideration and any flight can be postponed or canceled.

Veterans Airlift Command asks that wounded veterans (and their families and close friends) needing transportation contact the VAC as early as possible and fill out an online Travel Request Form—the more notice the VAC has, the higher the probability that it can match a vet with a pilot for a flight. In general, those requesting transport must be able to sit upright for three hours at a time and be physically able to make the trip—the VAC has carried some 14,000 passengers and will work with each vet to discuss his or her physical ability and needs to smooth the transportation process. As we researched this article, we were told of volunteer pilots and aircraft owners who had the ability (and determination) to go to amazing lengths to transport severely wounded vets.

VAC volunteer pilot Doug Abney has been flying wounded vets in a Pilatus PC-12 for over four years. He told us that he’s observed that the Veterans Administration has some excellent specialized treatment facilities for wounded vets and that it pays for treatment at those facilities. However, it has no funds available to pay to get vets to and from the specialized care facilities. As a result, for vets who cannot afford to travel for treatment, “I can use my ability to fly to help someone who needs special assistance and care.” He told us about his most recent flight in which he transported a Marine who had lost both legs at the pelvis as the result of an enemy bomb. The vet required a motorized scooter to get around. Abney explained that with a little ingenuity, volunteers used a modified ramp designed originally for getting motorcycles on and off pickup trucks and a forklift to get the Marine and his scooter in and out of the PC-12—which has a large cargo door. Abney said that the ramp could be folded up and stored in the airplane and that most FBOs have access to forklifts if one calls ahead. He praised the Deming, New Mexico airport where he landed for a rest stop. The employees at the city-owned airport scrambled over to the city transport yard and were able to come up with a forklift on short notice.

Abney also had very kind words for the Signature FBOs he’d stopped at when flying for VAC as the managers at each one had the authority and were willing to waive their steep ramp fees when he was transporting wounded vets.

Personally Rewarding

Abney told us that he loves to fly and is glad to be able to use his skills and time to help our country’s veterans rather than just getting a $100 hamburger. Each flight he makes to help a vet is intensely satisfying. In a very quiet voice, he told us how it hurts to look at a list of flights needed for vets and to be unable to volunteer to fly more flights, knowing that there aren’t enough volunteer pilots and some vets will not get needed transportation.

Walt Fricke said that he’d like to have 10,000 volunteer pilots so that VAC could connect every vet who needed transportation with a pilot. He said that between 10 and 20 percent of the time it is able to buy an airline ticket for the wounded vet to assure needed transportation. However, that is not always an ideal solution as vets that are physically able to get in and out of general aviation airplanes with assistance may not be able to do so given the narrow aisles of some airliners.

Both Abney and Fricke told us the flights they’ve made in conjunction with VAC have been the most personally rewarding flying they’d ever done. While we may support our troops with ribbons and posters, volunteering to fly our veterans through the VAC is a way to personally engage with and be involved in our country’s mission and write a very personal thank you to those who serve.

We were moved by one veteran who’d been wounded by a bomb and had been struggling during his recovery. After being flown for treatment by a VAC volunteer said, “Not everyone is trying to blow you up—the world is good.”

To volunteer to fly for VAC or to make a donation to help it conduct its mission, go to www.vetransairlift.org. For more information about how you can use your skills and aircraft to help others through public benefit flying, go to the Air Care Alliance’s website: www.aircarealliance.org.

Rick Durden is a CFII and ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation, has been a volunteer pilot for public benefit flying organizations for over 25 years and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.

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I’m wondering if we’re seeing a canary in the mineshaft moment here.

This week, with the news that Seattle-based Horizon Air is cancelling more than 6 percent of its flights due to lack of pilots, the supposed true-or-not-true pilot shortage seems to be coming to a head. Actually, I think the canary has been dead so long that its desiccated bones have long since been trampled into dust by the boots of a remorseless market.

Low pay and work conditions may be part of the problem, but I think the industry struggles with the same reality that general aviation does: Piloting has just lost its allure. What used to be a torrent of people burning to fly is now just a trickle. It’s a demographic thing. To be sure, there will always be people passionate about flying, both to populate airline cockpits and to buy and fly GA airplanes. It’s just that there are enough fewer of them of make GA growth and airline pilot hiring a challenge.

The Seattle Times reports that for the month of August, it canceled 6.2 percent of its flights, automatically rebooking the passengers on other flights or on its parent, Alaska Air. The company’s chief executive, Dave Campbell, told employees that the airline’s sharp growth and the shortage of qualified pilots “created a perfect storm.” Perhaps. But it’s hard to see how this isn’t a storm of the industry’s own making.

Although starting salaries at the regionals have inched up recently, an ALPA sampling of starting salaries for first officers revealed ranges between $20,183 and $29,484. The average is about $23,000. Coincidentally, that’s what I was offered for an entry-level magazine job in 1981. Equivalent buying power today: $8500. That’s not even survival wages. Desperate for pilots, some airlines are offering signing bonuses of up to $20,000. While advancement can be rapid when labor is in short supply, a starting pilot can expect several years of barely subsistence pay. Who can blame would-be younger pilots for taking a pass?

ALPA has long maintained that the pilot shortage is really a pay and benefits shortage. As recently as last year, it said there were 141,542 ATP-rated pilots under the age of 65 who held a first-class medical. Another 100,000 held commercial and instrument ratings and could have obtained ATPs. Complicating this is the rule Congress passed requiring 1500 hours of total time for the ATP certificate. When that rule was passed, many in the industry predicted it would chill pilot hiring and I suspect Horizon Air’s shortfall is proving that claim to be well founded.

But I think the issue is deeper than just pay. At a conference on pilot hiring ALPA sponsored three years ago, Nicole Barrette, a training and licensing specialist with the International Civil Aviation Organization, said members of so-called Gen Z (born after 1995) are more cognizant of environmental issues and sensitive to return on investment for educational costs. At the same conference, an Embry-Riddle executive said a large number of students never start flight training and many drop out because of the cost.

They understand that they’ll be spending a mountain of money for ratings that won’t be useful even when they graduate because they’ll lack the 1500 hours for the ATP. And even then, a starting job at under $30,000 won’t make the slightest dent in student loans. While these students will catch up on pay over the course of a piloting career, perhaps they’re not quite so passionate about flying to endure that rather than picking another career entirely.

Embry-Riddle says more students are opting for the aeronautical engineering track, which has much higher starting salaries. Career earnings catch up for the pilots, but it takes 27 years to equal and exceed earnings. That assumes pay rates remain where they are, which isn’t assured.

That timeline strikes me as significant not just because a would-be airline pilot might not wish to wait that long, but also because my view is that autonomous aircraft operation will begin to impact the industry in unpredictable ways by then. That’s getting into the 2040 to 2045 time frame. Gonna be a different world.

For the shorter term, the piloting jobs will be there for people who want them and many will. But unless something is done with salaries, I’m guessing what happened to Horizon will be chronic. Aggravating this, according to Forbes, is the perverse relationship between the major carriers and regionals that caps what the regionals earn from tickets sold on their behalf by the majors. The contracts often require any surplus margin to go to the majors, forcing the regionals to cut costs however they can, and downward pressure on salaries is usually the result.  One company I read about offered its applicants a $500 a month housing stipend during training, but it had to be refunded if the deal didn’t work out. Who would want such a relationship with a potential employer who’s already paying beat-down wages?   

Horizon’s experience may be just a short-term blip, but it’s still a business failure when you can’t service customer demand because of a lack of labor. It shows poor planning and perhaps a lack of understanding of market dynamics. Is it the leading edge of chronic trend? Who knows? We’ll see how many more such stories we see. This isn’t the first.

Equally unknown is whether raising starting salaries would help. My guess is it wouldn’t help much because even doubling them doesn’t make the job sound much more attractive. Long term, I think two things should happen. One is to get rid of the inane 1500-hour ATP rule, which appears to be having real negative impact on the industry with no meaningful improvement in system safety.

And second, military and even GA channels are already drying up, so in conjunction with revising that 1500-hour rule, airlines could help themselves by more aggressive ab initio programs. As we’ve reported, Boeing has already started such a program, but the 1500-hour requirement stunts its effectiveness. JetBlue also has a small program of its own. Graduates still have to figure out ways to build the required hours. Ab initio is more common for European and Asian airlines.

In this sense, I think experience is overrated. As those who argued against the 1500-hour rule said, rightly I think, hours in a logbook are not necessarily any indication of a pilot’s skill. It’s just a measure of having sat in a seat for that many hours. Doesn’t it make just as much sense to train a pilot for the job he or she has to do right from the ground up, rather than relying on peripheral activities such as instructing or banner towing that might or might not inform the process of flying passengers in jet aircraft? In aviation in general but especially in the U.S., we’re unable to disabuse ourselves of the idea that a captain in the seat for, say, 5000 hours, is automatically a steely-eyed aviator. But anyone in the business who’s honest will tell you that some are, and some definitely aren’t.

Ken Dravis was inspired to pursue both music and aviation careers by superstar John Denver. Among his early compositions was a catchy tune called Go Around. Dravis is a NetJets captain who continues to record music and front a John Denver tribute band called Eagle River.

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Heard from a foreign student turning off after landing at a strange airport.
Tower: What are your intentions?
Student: Returning to China as soon as possible!


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