I was talking with a flight attendant the other day about changes in the airline business; water cooler talk–or, in Part 121 parlance, “sit-time” talk. We have about an hour between flights to “sit” – if we don’t have to change planes and move thirty or forty gates away, that is. When we keep the same plane, we have time to engage in conversation. The talk is normally about life at home, politics, or complaints from both directions about hotels, pay, or expensive food while traveling. Sometimes it’s about management: “If I were running this airline….” or “that was a bad decision they made about….” Or, the most common: “did you hear they re-interpreted the contract again?” It can get very heated. Other times, it’s about the good-old-days at the airline.
The flight attendant and I reminisced about how our areas of expertise, and the world, has changed. From her perspective, it was the service we used to provide: un-rushed boarding, cloth napkins and silverware, and reasonably tasty food throughout the cabin. Magazines, pillows and blankets, and a rested, knowledgeable and polite staff were the standard. And, from my perspective, it was the way Captains used to be Captains in addition to being the PIC: demonstrating leadership of the crew and command of the vessel, greeting and saying goodbye to the folks, keeping them informed of delays, turbulence, and the geography along the route of flight. By the time the passengers get on the plane these days, they have been beaten down by a long drive to the airport, additional fees at the ticket counter, a strip-search by TSA and a less-than-cheerful gate agent. The flight crew has their work cut out for them before the passengers cross the threshold into the jet.
What brought up the subject of changes in the business was the P.A.’s that I make to the passengers on every leg. The flight attendants hear them, and sometimes they actually h-e-a-r them and make comments. There’s a few things about seat belts, and not hanging around the cockpit door that are mandatory, but except for those, time enroute, and changes in geography, my P.A.’s are pretty much the same words; I could do them in my sleep. I’m told, however, that this type of in-flight oratory is uncommon; that most captains have changed and say very little or nothing at all to the people. Granted, because of communication and navigation satellites, the internet or video screens throughout the cabin of “modern” airliners, most flight information is provided in real-time. Now-a-days, the passengers know as quickly as the pilots about routes, weather and gate changes; so, like this intentionally rambling sentence, the need for a rambling P.A. has disappeared – even become annoying to some; God forbid we interrupt a game on their electronic devices. Annoying unless, that is, you enjoy human interaction or the reassuring, calming voice of the grey-haired Captain.
Most people are annoyed by a rambling sentence or a rambling P.A. So, over the years, I’ve refined my P.A. (and sentence structure) based on input from editors, flight attendants and customer comments. I now talk to the passengers at the top of climb, once every hour and once thirty minutes before landing. I invite kids to the cockpit before and after flight and sometimes hand out Disney “Airplane” coloring books and a five-pack of washable crayons or a junior-pilot logbook. Usually, ten or so of the 140 customers will say something to me on the way out the door after every flight. They mention the P.A.’s or say “nice landing”. They want to shake my hand or take a picture with us – kids give us drawings. I’ve even run into a handful of T&T readers. It’s nice. After 21,000 hours, apparently I’ve developed an acceptable level of people skills and have discovered how to put down a smooth landing. Of course, the company wants its employees to exhibit good public relations skills, so this is all good for business. It helps to offset the times when things don’t go as smoothly as we would all hope.
One frequent-flyer told me that the way I fly was “old-school.” It reminded him of better days; like the ones the flight attendant and I remembered. He missed the way airline flying used to be – without all the electronic gadgetry. When you looked out the windows, had good food, read magazines and talked to your fellow travelers. Passengers used to network with each other before networking was a word, and some even met their spouses-to-be in this way. It was like getting gas at a full-service gas station, fruits and vegetables from the farmer’s market, listening to music with words and a melody, or saying The Pledge of Allegiance in school; flying used to feel more social and “American”. These systemic changes on both sides of the cockpit door have occurred due to a shift in our culture, and for safety, efficiency and economic reasons.
Changes in the flying world are not restricted to Part 121. In the name of modernization, efficiency and security, all of GA is bracing for changes related to NextGen, including ADS-B compliance. Old-school is being replaced once again. The Duke, like a growing percentage of aircraft, is now compliant. Gone are its old Collins Nav/Coms, a first generation King IFR GPS, the ADF, DME, RMI and a handful of even more “antique” components – including a Collins RNAV and two marine radio signal-strength meters. Flying without the RNAV and those marine meters will be challenging, I’m sure. Fellow airport bums had been dispensing grief about the avionics– a bit beyond old-school, they said. “Oh, my God, an RNAV. I haven’t seen one-a-those since the seventies. Where is the loop antenna crank-handle for that ADF? Is that a Narco VOR? It has a crank too, right?” they would chuckle. The explanation was the same one I use as the reason I fly the MD-80 instead of one of the next-gen aircraft available at my carrier: like the old avionics, I’m old-school too. I’ve grown comfortable in the MD-80 and with its avionics. Truthfully, I’d do just about anything to avoid six weeks of training in a new jet at the flight academy in DFW. Teaching old dogs new tricks and all, you know.
The Duke’s Century IV autopilot is also old-school, but it’s coupled to everything, which anyone flying single-pilot in the soup, at night, or over long distances will tell you is very nice – so it gets used a lot. But, I still enjoy staying in touch with the flight control system, the engines and manual navigation, when appropriate, as well. The F-16 is a fly-by-wire airplane, complete with all kinds of classified magic and I have a type in the 737, so it’s not as though I’ve never been exposed to modern technology. I suppose you can compare it to those that fly both a Citation and a Cub: each satisfies a different itch. The workload is considered to be higher in older airplanes or those with legacy avionics, but that’s the itch I’ve enjoyed scratching–the one that made me feel more engaged, more useful – even more needed. Eventually, though, the finicky old avionics began affecting flight planning and aircraft reliability.
The Collins radios needed a mod to prevent frequency bleed-over; a mod that was not available anywhere on the planet. Both transponders (yes, someone installed two, way back when) were intermittent and sometimes transmitted a different code than what was selected. The GPS was non-WAAS and the humor of having Smoky and the Bandit-style radio signal-strength meters was gone. These reasons, and the initial sale price offered by L-3 for its ADS-B line, triggered the upgrade. Newly installed is a Garmin 430W, a King digital flip-flop Nav/Com and a Lynx NGT-9000 ADS-B transponder. The transponder has a polite lady’s voice announcing traffic and its touch-screen is very “iPad” like. The Garmin GPS is four or five generations newer than the old KLN 90B, so the utility and functionality is a pleasing leap forward. I really appreciate coupling an LPV approach and the value of the lower MDA. Almost 20 pounds more useful load was generated from the conversion and a sizable blank spot is now available on the panel.
Timing of the ADS-B conversion for the Duke was due to a growing list of malfunctioning components and not so much the concerns about avionics shop-time availability or the looming deadline. It did take a month to get on the schedule, however, and they say the wait time will become increasingly longer as the deadline nears. It’s becoming more and more difficult to remain old-school – without buying a separate, old-school, itch-scratching flying machine. At the pace that technology changes, it shouldn’t be too long, though, before the current iteration of new-school avionics becomes old-school itself; then, me and the Duke will be back to our