Monday, October 24, 2005

AIRLINE (CO)PILOT

Firstly, I would like to apologize as this blog was suppose to come out on Monday, but I found out it did not load properly, therefore I had to redo the whole blog. Before anything else, this month has been a pretty relaxing one considering the amount of hours I've done. Today was suppose to be a standby day and one of those sit-at-home days. However, office called in the night before requiring me to operate a daily flight to Sibu and Tawau. Expecting some exciting moments today, I did get one on the way back from Sibu. As usual for this time of the year, Kinabalu was covered in huge CBs (thunderstorm clouds) and 3 aircrafts were already holding 15 miles north of Kinabalu. Being my sector, I decided to head to Kinabalu anyways to attempt an approach. One thing special about the Fokker 50 compared to the Jet Boys is that we come in at a lower approach speed therefore have a slightly longer decision time then the Jet Boys. Anyways, back to the situation. We eventually picked up a hold overhead Labuan Island as my Captain was also trying to decide if it was better to go to Labuan or not. Then, the situation changed giving us an opportunity to shoot and approach on the ILS, while the rest were still holding north of Kinabalu. We decided to go for it. It turn out to be not too bad as we could catch a glimpse of the approach lights from about 5-6 miles out. The full runway lights came into view about 1-2 miles to touchdown about 700ft. For those frequently flying into Europe, this is probably boring for them. Anyways, was pretty exciting and I expect more to come as the monsoon season is here!!

Okay, now here this! I've got a really good topic this week and would like you all, especially pilots, to give some feedback by posting a feedback at the end of this blog. The topic, as you could probably tell from the top, is Airline Co-pilot. As I've not been in the airline for long, I hope that maybe the more experience guys can give some feedback into this topic as well!

Let me start. We've been trained during our flying school days to fly and command our own aircraft. We did a lot of this during our single engine days and for some also during twin engine flying. However, when we get a job with the airline, we are relegated to Second-in-Command, which is also part of the learning chain to build up experience to be a Captain one day. During this long tenure as Second-in-Command (a.k.a. Co-Pilot/First Officer/Second Officer....etc) we fly with a lot of different Captains with different flying style and character. During my first year, I've had my fair share of these experience. Some are really particular about procedures, while at the other end of the stick you'll find those constantly flying like as if they we're in the movie Top Gun.

For a new co-pilot, it can be really confusing. Being used to following procedures and flying by the book, they might find it difficult at first to loosen up. I definately did! However, after months of line flying, you start to loosen up and expend your margin. This generally will dictate which type of co-pilot you will be. Will you fly with high standards always? Or will you second you Captain all the time he makes a decision? Personally, I feel that its better to be in between this two. For one, I can definately tell you that you will not survive if you fly by the book 24/7! The procedures laid out by the company are for guidance to draw a line on certain items on how to operate the aircraft safely. The logic simply is that if they want a person to fly by the book anytime and everytime, they might as well program a robot to fly the aircraft (not autopilot!). This will definately save an airline alot of money because pilots dont come cheap! Anything can happen while flying and sometimes you have to modify or deviate slightly from the standard procedures in the name of safety. At the other end, is the easy go lucky co-pilot, agreeing to the Captain's every move. Yes, you might gain popularity amongs the Captains, but one day you might get caught out and fine yourself in a situation where your Captain has made a mistake in his decision and therefore, by agreeing to it, you will also pay the price. It is good to determine a margin between these two category. Everyone has a different margin or tolerance/acceptance level. For example, I generally fly within the standard procedures, but i do allow for certain tolerance outside of these standard procedures, but not compromising on safety of the passengers, crew and aircraft. I find that this is a nice balance between the two categories.

So what about you? Do you have a margin or tolerance/acceptance level for yourself? Give me some feedback. Till next time. Happy Landings.

Monday, October 17, 2005


IFR = I Follow River?

Flying into Kuala Lumpur last week for our base check, we were given a treat, flying overhead the Malaysian capital. Weather was the best it could be, but being used to Kinabalu weather, looks pretty gloomy! Our descent flight path puts us slightly to the southeastern side of Kuala Lumpur giving us a spectecular view of the whole city. I managed to capture this shot (left) of KLCC Twin Towers. Sure ain't look that big from here which by the way, is NOT the tallest anymore as the Taipei 101 has taken away the title as the tallest in the world. Passing through, we could also catch the whole Petaling Jaya area as well as Subang Jaya and the old Subang Airport before making a left turn for finals Runway 14L. On finals, on our left, another magnificant setting, the country's administrative centre, Putrajaya. Touching down in Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) makes it a spectecle itself. This airport looks really amazing, the only thing lacking being traffic around the apron. But I remembered was only a handful of them 2-3 years back, so I could say there are some improvements going on around here. I've definately been flying too long in East Malaysia.

Anyways, pondering on this issue, I would like to share an equally amazing experience flying into Lahad Datu on the eastern coast of Sabah. Lahad Datu is one of the smaller town among the big four (Kinabalu, Sandakan, Lahad Datu and Tawau). Development rate is very slow here and the runway is only 1371m (4498ft) long, which is pretty short for a Fokker 50. The Twin Otter @ Twotter boys can do better. They can land at runway lengths of only a few hundred meters or about 1500ft! But thats another matter and another story, which we'll hopefully cover next time. Lahad Datu, like all the other big four is a coastal town. Coming in from Kinabalu you basically fly very long finals into Runway 11, which is the standard runway for Lahad Datu. Runway 29 is normally used if IMC or low clouds on finals of Runway 11 which normally happens on the first flight in. Lahad Datu is equiped with one Non Directional Beacon (NDB) navigational aid (navaid) which is a real dinosaur and is normally affected by coastal and mountain refractions giving an unreliable reading. It gets worse when flying into thunderstorm type weather where the needle will point to the nearest storm cell! And that is just the beginning!

We frequently fly into Lahad Datu as no other fleet operates there. (Besides Fokker 50, Sandakan and Tawau are also serviced by 737 from Kinabalu). On average we fly there 9 times daily and sometimes you even do multiple Lahad Datu sectors also known as the "Lahad Datu ding-dong" flights. Starting off from Kinabalu, the journey normally take us over the Crocker Range, flying just above the second highest peak, Mt Trus Madi, which is about 8,500ft high, before continuing outbound over generally flat lands with slight hills and small mountains along the way, as well as the famous Kinabatangan River, which is about where we start our descent into Lahad Datu. That part of the flight is generally simple and easy until the descent phase. Since Lahad Datu uses an NDB for its navaid, which does not tell us how far we are, we will have to use a VHF Omni-directional Range (VOR) navaid from Sandakan. We use the radial from this navaid an apply a simple formula called 1 in 60 rule (associated with trigonometry) to get our distance from Lahad Datu. Imagine, monitoring our descent profile by constantly applying the formula every 1000ft! It sure can be mind boggling especially when coupled with bad weather and poor visibility and flying with inaccurate navaid into an airfield with a short runway. How's that?

Normally on a good weather like most of the time, we use visual points on the ground to judge how far we are and what height we should be over that point. The most promenant mark will be the Quarry, which is situated next to a river. The Quarry (above) should be on the right of the aircraft and you should be around 3,500ft overhead this point (some say 4,500ft and some say 2,500 depending on the person). Sometimes you could already see the airfield from here. If not, the basic rule of thumb is to stay left of the river as the right side would be high terrain and you definately wont wanna descent through that! The next cue will be the bridge at which you should be 2,000ft to the left of the aircraft. Heading straight (below) brings you towards the airfield identified by a green roofed factory which is to the right of the runway end and also the water tank (the small white dot to the right of the green roofed factory) on the finals of Runway 11, where we should be overhead at around 800ft. Once establiashed on finals, its all text book from there onwards. Positive landing gets the brownie points here as you dont really want to float to long on this pretty short runway! Once on the ground, you'll be greeted by a small but effiecient group of ground crew consisting of an aircraft technician (from Kinabalu base, flies in and out of Lahad Datu daily!), a couple of traffic staff to guide passengers to the terminal and unload baggages from the aircraft. It is almost similar to an experience you would encounter while flying into the rural interiors of Sarawak on the Twin Otter, but as I say earlier, their experience is on another level. Every one knows everybody there like a small family or small community. Sometimes you can even see passengers checking in at the last minute or a passenger walking back to his house on foot! There is a road right next to the main apron and you would normally be the local hero when you fly there. Starry eyed kids, big and small, will be seeing off their relatives or family members and when you taxy out, they would wave back at you. A simple wave goodbye normally ends this adventure as its time to go back to Kinabalu. There is a daylight limitation in Lahad Datu because the runway is not lighted. So, we must leave before sunset unless you want to nightstop in Lahad Datu. So if you ever get a chance to fly into Lahad Datu, do remember the landmarks and try to spot them. Alright thats all for now, catch ya next week. Ciao.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Non-Standard...

Armed with an iced coffee and a slice of cheese cake, I try my best to stay awake, despite the constant nodes. For the first time since never, I stroll down to the coffee lounge to complete this important article. Coming up around the corner is my mandatory base check. This is one of the few check rides an airline pilot has to conduct to ensure that high standards are maintained throughout.

Speaking of standards brings me to a very delicated issue on standards. Every person has a different perception on how strongly should he or she follow the standards set by their respective company. Some follow strictly by the book, while some even have their own procedures. But what I found was this. It does not matter if you fly by the book or otherwise. It is how you use your judgement and common sense that matters.

There are a number of pilots who fly by the book, but it does not make them a better pilot or a safer pilot. And yet there are those whom fly by their own rules, but use prudent judgement and common sense and to me, this is the way it should be.

Dont get me wrong as I'm not championing the cause for flying without set standards. I totally support having set standards and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), but there is a limit to it. Even the SOP itself states that it should be use only as a guildline. If used prudently, judgement, common sense and SOP makes the best pilots around. From my one year experience, I have come to this conclusion.

Okay, till next time, I'd better get a move on it. I've been sitting here for almost 4 hours now. See you next monday... till then... Happy Landings...

Monday, October 03, 2005

Eye Of The Storm

Finally managed to squeeze in some time to fill up my blog. If you'd noticed lately, I normally update my blog every 10 days. But, I think now that I can find time to share more stories and topic with you, I would update em' every Monday on every week. Busy flying lately as usual but yesterday's flight was a little bit special. It was a daily flight. Very rare now days with current pattern. Quite miss is sometimes. Anyways, this particular pattern is interestingly challenging as it consist of 6 sectors, all no longer than 40 minutes with a standard 20-30 minutes turnaround (and some people say X airlines can't do 20 minutes turnaround... hehe). Sure does drain you out once your done.

Malaysia's Budget 2006 was released by the Prime Minister last week. Most people weren't expecting any major changes and nothing big eventually came out of it. Didnt affect aviation much either. However, it seems like a good one for the country economy, which will hopefully help the country maintain its growth in current times, in turn help other industries such as aviation.

Typhoon season is almost over, thank God! It must be pretty challenging to fly into affected areas such as Taiwan or Hong Kong (all the 737, Airbus & 777 boys, you know who you are!). That's why we're paid so high (if you're still wondering!). Its not easy making quick decisions in a pressured environment especially with people's life at stake, even though when passenger might not have the same view. My experience with this type of weather only went as fas as the tail of the typhoon. Never the less, we do get plenty of em, and they sure can stir up a storm. Facing a strong storm crosswind especially when coming in to land can be quite challenging. We really got to work our feets and hands off and can get a bit hairy at times. Then comes the landing part. That's also tricky especially when you've got a whole lot of terrified passengers eager for a smooth landing. For your information, we normally don't carry out smooth landings unless the weather is fine and to most pilots, a smooth landing is just a bonus. But for the passengers, a smooth landing normally means a good landing done by the Captain, where as a roller-coaster landing would mark the Co-pilot as the executor, even though it could be other wise. During a storm with a wet and slippery runway, smooth landing is an even bigger no-no as this could easily caused the aircraft to skid off the runway, much like locking the brakes on your ABS-less car while driving on a slippery road. Sometimes I just wonder why passengers are so eager for a smooth landing. I wonder if they have the same level of enthusiasm locking their brakes on a slippery road going straight for the back of another car.

The other special thing about yesterdays flight was the amazing photo opportunities available flying during that time of the day with good weather all the way and a low cruising level. All good ingredients to a great photo ops mission. Flying past Brunei on the way from Miri to Labuan brought just abeam Empire Hotel. It is one of the few luxury hotels in this region with room rates of about RM1000-2000 per night, and yes, thats the cheapest room! Initial we taught it was the Sultan's mansion, which would not be of a surprise to us. But upon proper inspection, it was not. It has a beach and a golf course like any other resort and you could see alot of activities going on around the beach.

Just coming into Labuan, I managed to get a shot of the island with the airfield on the background the the town in the foreground right next to the bay. Labuan, an island just off the South western tip of Sabah, is a Malaysian Federal Territory and it has also been label as a Financial Centre, something like Caymen Islands. (I wonder if any criminals hold accounts here, just like you see in the movies...) Anyways, if you're wondering why the airfield is pretty big, its because thats one of the Royal Malaysian Air Forces (RMAF) Base. It houses the C-130 and S61 Sikorsky 'Nuri' Squadrons and also regular training exercise. About 2 months ago, a Hawk 200 crashed just south of Runway 14, missing the runway by a couple hundred metres. Normally, this is the most famous alternate airfield for aircrafts diverting from Kota Kinabalu or Brunei. Its 20-30 minutes away and has good facilities (especially Duty Free!) I remembered having to divert to Labuan when Kinabalu was covered in thunderstorm for almost 3-4 hours. It was horrible and we had 6 aircrafts (three F50 and B737 each) in Labuan completely jamming up the apron. We we're the last one in and they even hesitated to take us in in the first place. You could normally get crosswinds gusting up to 20-25 knots here in the afternoon. Crunch time all the time!

The Deputy Prime Minister was in Kinabalu yesterday. He came in with the RMAF 737 Boeing Business Jet. Nice looking thing, it was ex-Malaysia Airlines bought by the outstead MD, Tajuddin Ramli. It was one of the first in the region when it was first purchased. Pity we can't get a look inside. Rumoured to be kitted up quite well with a master stateroom at the end of the aircraft complete with shower. The cockpit too is a little different than most of the 737 in the region as it is actually a 737NG. The best part of the aircraft is the winglets. I love em. Makes it look macho.

Something came up when I was trying to complete my blog the day before yesterday. Bali was Bombed again!! Its such a sad and terrible incident which should never have happened. Killing of innocent people is the sickess thing anyone could do and certainly NO religion on the face of this earth condones to killing of innocent people, even Islam. I remembered during cruise talk with one of my captains, he, a muslim, was sad and angry because all these killings and terror done under the pretext of Jihad and Islam. He even said, "... even the worst religion in the world does not support the killing of innocent people!", which I agree without any reservation. Ultimately I really hope this will end soon. It is useless and will not portrait any message to anyone, but only more anger and hate to the wrong community of people. My Condolences to all families and friends who have lost their loved ones in this unruly and sickening act of terror.

(p.s.- a big thanx goes out to my sole commentor for my last posting. without people like you, avaition is just another word. and to answer your question, NO, this rumour has been going on for 5 year or more now and frankly it will never happen, anytime soon that is. thanx again!)

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Good and The Bad

Being an airline pilot is one of the best jobs in the world. Imagine having an office with a perfect view of Mount Kinabalu at 18000feet above sea level. You get to fly multi-million dollar piece of equipments and fly to destinations others only dream of. Once in a while, you even get to rub shoulders with the rich and famous.

Sitting in my office one evening, looking at the spectecular view, I ponder about the other side of the job. The one where critics dont evaluate in a pilot's life. Working with an airline company entails us to work shifts. Nothing unusual about that as many other jobs requires working in shifts too. But add in another factor and it becomes a different kind of ball game. The NIGHTSTOP factor....

The publics perception of an airline pilot is fly, booze, fornicate. There is some truth about it as most in the know can tell you. But before you join the large group of critics out there, you must understand the real scenario behind how it end up like this. As a pilot, the job requires us to fly alot and we're often required to go on nightstop ranging from single night stop to sometimes up to 4-5 nights away. Coming back from a lenghty 5 days trip, most probably will earn us a 2 days off. Sound pretty good. But, imagine the airport being a distance from home. Imagine the jetlag experienced by the widebody crew. Imagine the rest needed and recovery time... 2 days?

Okay, I can hear some critics crying out now saying that it's comes with the job. Fine. Fair enough. But let put in the family factor. Let's now say Pilot X has a family with 2 young kids. Now the situation gets worse. Imagine having to grow up with mommy most of the time as daddy is busy flying and probably only sees daddy 8 days a month, the rest of the days being away on nightstops. Young kids need their parents to be there for them especially when their young. Just imagine the side effects affecting the children and his family life. Just the right recipe needed for a family arguement, which could easily lead to dispute and eventually a break-up, with the children again having to face the consequences. Just imagine that.

Again I still can hear faint cries from critics, saying that its part of the job and thats why we're being paid highly. Again, another good arguement. Fair enough. But! Sometimes money is not everything in life. Sometimes what is more needed is the offdays. The rest periods. The much needed family time. Even if money is a factor, some airlines offer salaries which are below the market value. And normally when pilots demand more out of the company, the critics AGAIN come in and cry out foul as if pilots are being paid too much. I always say that we are paid too much because we have NO LIFE! No weekends, No public holidays, No family time and sometimes Unapproved Annual Leave due crew constrains.

So, now you critics out there, tell me. Is this justified? All a pilot wants is a balanced work and off days and to be paid on par as their counterparts overseas. Thats all. Is that too hard to ask for?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Winds of Change...

Having been flying a lot lately, I was looking forward to a two day break. Wanting to get away from Kota Kinabalu, we decided to go to the Tip of Borneo, nearby Kudat. The journey would take about 3 hours from Kinabalu one way. Initially we wanted to start out as early as possible, but heavy rain almost cancelled our plans! We however decided to go ahead hoping the weather will improve later on. This was not the case but it didn't turn out too bad as well. We reached the Tip at around two in the afternoon. The wind was picking up speed making the swell bigger than usual. We manage to reach the Tip albeit the challenging winds. Standing there looking at the power of Mother Nature, my mind wonders off again towards aviation, this time, the recent Air Mandala crash in Medan, Indonesia.

Just when I said three posts ago that flying was still safe, the latest incident further deepens the wound inflicted by the past four incidents affecting my profession. As a professional pilot, its not unusual to hear of accidents and incidents and we all take it as a possibility and we are all trained for the unexpected. But after five accidents in two months, the stats are starting to look a little bit scary. Lately, rumours on aircraft reliability and maintenance/safety standards of some particular airlines are in question. Authorities believe that some airlines, particularly budget airlines (not to be taken in a negative manner), are not complying with strict maintenance and safety standards. I have seen and heard of airlines operating without any regard for safety, even though their company policy stresses on this matter. For example, old aircrafts aged 10-15 years or more. Its not the age that really matters to a pilot. Its how well the aircraft is serviced and maintained.

Maintenance plays a very important role in ensuring safety standards are kept. Aircraft engineers are responsible for the maintenance of aircraft. However, airline companies sometime dont spend money on important maintenance upgrades such as refurbishing or overhaul. This in turn will pose a safety hazard towards operations of the aircraft. Especially now with the cost-cutting measures some companies are implementing (primarily due to increase in oil prices), the management might overlook the safety aspect of a well maintained aircraft. I hope this will never be the case as we have lost one too many lives in the past two months.

(p.s. - In Memory of Lives lost during the terror attacks of 9/11)

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Misadventures of Alvyn and the Chipmunk!

Lately, I've been assigned as Safety Co-Pilot on a couple of line training flights as new cadets arrive Kinabalu. Whats that you may ask? Basically, its observing the flight so that nothing is missed out, as it could easily happen when the Captain is busy instructing the cadet. And ofcourse if for any reason the cadet is uncapable to fly, the Safety will take over. It may sound easy, and infact it is, because most of the time you just sit and observe. It can also get pretty boring. Some use this opportunity to give back knowledge and experience they have received during their line training as well as line flying. Being a cadet on line training is not a bed of roses. Training has and will always be like that. A cadet needs that support to show him/her the way to improve and understand the concept of flying the particular aircraft.

I've been interested in flying since I was young. Most of my books are aviation related and can normally sit down flying Flight Simulator for hours. Then, along came Alvyn, my classmate during my primary school days. His dad, a Captain on the Fokker 50, is still flying today. We we're so into flying that we even wanted to build our own aircraft. Still it was fun. Finished secondary school, I did my two semesters at a local college. Alvyn was hangin around helping out with family business. Still I'll find time to meet up and talk about stuff. It was good fun.

After my second semester in college, I didnt do that well and was thinking of switching colleges or doing something else even. At that moment, Alvyn was about to enter flying school and ask me to join him. I was hesitant at first, but eventually gave it a try. And the rest is history...
Now we work for the same airline, fly the same fleet and based at the same base. To me its like a second chance to do something I really wanted to do since I was young. The best part was I got to do it with a close friend....