Erika Armstrong (The life of a pilot)

In this episode of the Judgment Call Podcast Erika Armstrong and I talk about:

  • Why becoming a pilot is hard and why it may still be a great endeavour despite COVID”
  • Why operating a modern airliner is such a great example for the work that will see in many places in the future.
  • What are exciting new developments past the COVID crisis?
  • What are the secrets of planes landing in ‘zero visibility’?
  • Is the ‘first landing attempt’ always free? And what impact do passengers have on pilot decisions in business aviation?
  • My personal ‘scariest flying story’ ever.
  • Erika’s personal ‘conspiracy theory’ about MH370.
  • How common are drone strikes and laser strikes really?

You can watch this episode on Youtube – The Judgment Call Podcast Episode #42 – Erika Armstrong (The life of a pilot).

Erika Armstrong  is a commercial pilot and aviation professor at MSU Denver. She is also the author of “A chick in the cockpit”.


Welcome to the Judgment Call Podcast, a podcast where I bring together some of the most curious minds on the planet. Risk takers, adventurers, travelers, investors, entrepreneurs and simply mindbogglers. To find all episodes of this show, simply go to Spotify, iTunes or YouTube or go to our website If you like this show, please consider leaving a review on iTunes or subscribe to us on YouTube. This episode of the Judgment Call Podcast is sponsored by Mighty Travels Premium. Full disclosure, this is my business. We do at Mighty Travels Premium is to find the airfare deals that you really want. Thousands of subscribers have saved up to 95% in the airfare. Those include $150 round trip tickets to Hawaii for many cities in the US or $600 life let tickets in business class from the US to Asia or $100 business class life let tickets from Africa round trip all the way to Asia. In case you didn’t know, about half the world is open for business again and accepts travelers. Most of those countries are in South America, Africa and Eastern Europe. To try out Mighty Travels Premium, go to slash mtp or if that’s too many letters for you, simply go to mtp, the number four and the letter to sign up for your 30 day free trial. That was a little more about how you got into general navigation and how you became a pilot eventually. That seems like a very unique story from what I’ve read. I kind of became a pilot by accident. I was in college and still not quite sure what I wanted to do. My entire childhood never once thinking about becoming a pilot. I had never met another woman pilot. I very rarely even heard of a woman flying an airplane. I was looking for a job. I had two jobs already and I still didn’t have enough money to pay my rent and tuition. I was just looking for a job that had really crappy hours. The airport had all these flexible hours available. They’re looking for someone to answer the phones at the front desk. It’s called FPO, which is a fixed space operator. It’s a facility where all the corporate aircraft come in and fuel up. They get their catering, service the aircraft. We also did charter at that company. They also serviced mechanically avionics and maintenance. I got this job never thinking that it would become anything more than just a little bit of side income. I started learning the business on the other side and meeting the people in the industry and learning about maintenance and avionics. The simple language of aviation, all the sights and smells. In the evenings, it would get really quiet. We were required to do paperwork. The line guys were all learning how to fly. I would go back there and help them study and start asking questions out of their books. After a little while, I found that I was actually answering the questions for them and explaining it to them. That was the tipping point where all of a sudden I realized, wait a second, this is actually really interesting. Maybe it’s not as hard as I think it is. I took a lesson next door. From that moment on, I was hooked. Because of that experience, one of my goals is to try to introduce aviation to students a little bit younger. Start them thinking about it all the way back in elementary school. They can keep that in the back of their heads as they’re going through school, maybe a possibility outside of getting out of high school and going into college, maybe taking aviation. There’s so many niches, not even just being a pilot, but there’s so many jobs available in the industry. Try to encourage kids to think about it even younger. There’s something about aviation that seems to be really fascinating to people. I think it’s primarily boys, but we don’t want to exclude the girls. It’s something that really happens at a young age. I see this with my son, who is really mesmerized by the big machines in the air. I don’t know if you ever thought about what is at the core of this natural attraction to aviation. This seems to be at a young age, this idea about the big machines, the frontier. It seems to be like a wild west frontier, still more to kids than it seems to adults because then we realize it’s so regulated. What do you think is at the core of that? Yeah, so after being an industry for so long, I’ve noticed that there is definitely a personality type that is drawn towards it. You hate to lump people into big categories, but generally what I see out there is you see that tendency of everybody in aviation, especially pilots, have a certain level of ego. We always tag that maybe with something negative, but in this regard it’s that self assurance, knowing that no matter what happens in that airplane, that you can deal with the emergency, you’re confident with that, having an internal confidence. It’s almost a little bit of hyperactivity. You want that constant change in motion. The idea of sitting behind a desk for your entire life, you just know that you would never thrive under those conditions. There’s a big gap between wanting to become a pilot and then putting in the time and the effort to actually become a pilot. I’m teaching at the university level aviation. I hate seeing that gap of people coming in enthusiastic and then hitting a certain barrier and then stepping out of the industry. If you look at the numbers of pilots in general over the last 20 years, the numbers are dwindling. I know there’s so many different options out there for people now, even with the pilot personality, but we could spend a whole day just talking about the reasons why that’s happening. There’s a certain personality type that will thrive in aviation and then trying to get the right balance of having that enthusiasm with that self discipline to get through all the paperwork because flying is the easy part. It’s taking all the written exams and dealing with all the paperwork and all the boring stuff that comes with it is where the disconnect comes into play. Yeah, it seems like you try to combine both. From what I’ve read and correct me if that is wrong, you’re certified to fly on plane types like the 727, which is an older plane, and I guess there’s a bunch of more planes you’re certified to fly, but you combine it and just being a pilot seems to be too boring for you. You’re very active on social media, you have your own log, you wrote two books now, I think. How did that happen? What is it with aviation where you feel like you have to go beyond being a pilot and why it was being a pilot not enough? Yeah, well, so for me and for one of the other reasons why there’s only 5% of airline transport pilots are women, that’s still a very low number after all these years. So for me, those gyrations in my career were actually having to deal with family and alter what I was doing, but when I launched off into the world out of high school, my intention was to be a journalist. So I was able to kind of branch out into those different aspects and give back to the aviation community. I think one of the reasons why we don’t have pilots entering into the industry is that there’s been such negative media and even within our own ranks, there’s a lot of pilots who won’t recommend the profession to their younger cohorts coming up and through the industry. So pilots were treated badly for many, many years. They truly were low paid. You could qualify for food stamps being a first officer at most of the regionals. It’s still pretty tough on that entry market. And so you try to rationalize why you would spend $100,000 to get a job where you’re only making $40,000. So you really have to have that deep down passion to drive through that because the rewards are much better once you get past that point. And we’ve seen over the last years, especially even over the last 10 years, the business aviation market has been expanding. The schedules are better. The pay is much better, a lot of benefits. So there’s a whole niche that’s been opening up wider and wider and drawing in a little bit more possibility for pilots. Yeah. Well, a lot of people would make that argument that it’s about supply and demand, right? So AFD pay is so low, then there’s a lot of supply and airlines get away with that when paying so little because I think a lot of people don’t know that and that something was surprising to me too that regional airline pilots basically earn nothing. But once you go up to the main line and go to bigger planes, things could get pretty nice in terms of lifestyle, in terms of pay, but it takes a number of years, it takes seniority to get there, which it seems to me more of an outcome of too much regulation, right? It seems to be too much of a Soviet Union problem that you basically just focus and maybe I’m wrong with that, but there’s so much regulation out there and you don’t care about the certain merit that someone brings to the table. You really only care about seniority, about an experience level, about flying hours, but there seems to be no difference between how good are you or what’s the measurement of how good are you or a pilot, how well do you function within an organization? That seems to be taken off the table for pilots, correcting if that’s wrong. No, you’re absolutely correct. The industry changed significantly over after the Colgan Air crash, so they raised the limits of the minimum amount of hours that you needed to comply for regional airline, although the accident itself, both pilots had doubled the minimum, so I don’t think ours had anything to do with it. So the industry has struggled with correlating pilot hours with abilities and experience. So I can take a military pilot with 500 hours and they’ll be just as good if not better than somebody with 3,000 hours. So it kind of depends on their background and experience and yeah, you’re right. We benchmark pilots just based strictly on the hours, but I can take somebody who’s just been bombing around in their own airplane and building time and take that same person who’s been out there flying air ambulance in all the weather, nighttime hours, bring them at the same table with the same amount of hours to get through that barrier. So it’s something that, especially in business aviation, they look further into as the quality of those hours and then once you get up to the number of hours you need to get to the airlines, hopefully by then you’ve had a variety of experiences, but it’s that entry into it is what’s so hard. Most of the pilot dropout rate is happens about 5 to 800 hours. They’ve got a lot of time and money invested in it, but you can’t quite get that first job. So for me, when I was coming through the ranks, I was able to get into the right seat of a king air at an air ambulance company. In the big scheme of things, I didn’t have that many hours I had about just under 500 hours. So you don’t see that very often getting a job at 500 hours. You’re looking at 1500 hours down to get a decent paying job and not even decent necessarily could be at the regionals in the right seat. So the big paper then comes when you can upgrade into that left seat and then, of course, getting out of there into the majors. What I learned is that the Middle East has no unionization of flight attendants as well as pilots and what they’ve been starting to do and again correct me if that is wrong, they recruit pilots, especially from India, but all over Asia, especially when there was a huge pilot shortage. I think this is not a problem anymore, unfortunately, maybe. So they recruited pilots just very low hours from what I’ve read. It’s somewhere around a thousand hours for a 777 for instance. So they had a lot of really young pilots that is pretty unusual for the industry. Yeah, some companies have even done an ab initio, which means they’ll take somebody with zero hours and they train them through all that time. But we’re finding the industry is experiencing that. So now they’ve got somebody with a lot of hours and you put them in the right seat of a highly complex aircraft and then those basic raw reflex pilot skills are lacking because they haven’t had that wide variety of experiences. It depends on each person too, but I can even just think of like the Air France flight where it was a simple systems failure. They had a pitot tube get blocked, something that your private pilot should understand for systems knowledge, but that airplane was in the ocean with all systems operating normally. It was just a pilot error interpretation of their automation systems. So it’s a fine line and a balance and the aviation industry is having to pay attention to how we train the quality of training. How do we create a pilot who can handle any type of emergency? Because there’s an infinite number of variables out there. So how do you train somebody from the very beginning? So it’s definitely a gyration of forward and backward of balancing the hours with experience and variety. And I know right now it looks like we do not have a pilot shortage because COVID has definitely thrown us all off track. If you pull back and look at the big picture of the industry itself, in about 18 months we’re going to be hurting the pilot. And it’s not like a regular job where you can train somebody in a couple weeks. Here is to build and train a pilot. So, you know, thinking ahead and looking at where we are, we had so many pilots take early retirement that all of our attrition charts are out the window and which is great for my student pilots that are coming into my classroom right now because in less than two years, they’ll be looking at an accelerated pace of upgrade and getting hired. I hope so. I hope so. I’m fully with you. So I hope that the travel industry comes back finally and people will kind of come out of their COVID depression, so to speak. I think what you mentioned earlier, maybe it’s time to pause. And I find that a really twisted problem. So on one side, we have this high level of automation. So we noted that newer airplanes especially, they are basically flying computers and they would have basically no problem doing seemingly, correct me again if that’s wrong. But 99% of anything that needs to be done can be done by the computer and is actually currently being evaluated. The input by the pilot is run through algorithms and then kind of approved by the computer. So they could fly by themselves. Obviously, that wouldn’t be something that passengers want right now. So the pilot is really there to figure out what’s going wrong if something goes wrong and then prevent these crashes, right? And I think what you just mentioned is a real difficult optimization problem because these things are really rare. When they happen, there isn’t a lot of time and there’s a lot of emotions involved. So even for pilots, I think they’re still human beings and emotional beings. The emotion, the Olympic brain will react first. And what was really stunning about that aircraft accident that you mentioned, this plane was flying fine, right? It just didn’t work. The autopilot didn’t work anymore. But 30 seconds, you only have 30 to 60 seconds to making the right input or not making anything wrong, right? This was probably more the problem there. So there is a very short amount of time that you can react and it’s something you haven’t done in years, right? You can do in a simulator, but you actually haven’t done in a plane in years. And I don’t know if there’s a lot of, there’s more research or more psychological analysis. I think this is a very similar problem we now face with AI in general, right? So we have a lot of AI that makes a lot of good decisions when everything goes right. But if something goes wrong and human reaction is required, it’s really difficult for the human to react because it’s something you haven’t done in such a long time. Right. You cannot program a computer for all the variables out there and there’s an infinite number and that’s where the problem comes in. So the way I view automation, the way that it should be, automation means it should be there to guide and to inform and to notify pilots of their aircraft and their systems. That’s the way to communicate with that airplane. But it should never make the final decision for the pilot. The Air France flight is a good example where we need to train pilots to focus on what’s working. When we have all this automation, we have all these bells and whistles going on, multiple layers of warnings telling you what we need to do is start getting pilots to rethink the pattern and say, okay, let’s start with what is working on that particular aircraft. 99% of that aircraft is working just fine. They had two engines. All they were lacking is the airspeed indicator, which is a huge issue, not knowing your airspeed. But all they had to do was just take a look at the engine parameters and say, okay, nothing else has changed here. Because I teach aircraft systems, my belief is that everything comes down to a system’s misunderstanding and that’s basically what it was. They just had no idea what was happening. So a lot of that has to do with their experience. It was two o clock in the morning, middle of the night over the ocean. The captain had left the cockpit. It’s just one example of a misunderstanding with automation and then they wonder, how do we fix that in training? And does that come with just hours or does that come with a variety of experiences? It sounds like you’re a fan of that TV show, the air crash investigation as well. That’s a wonderful show. I really like it. And what it delivers is really a behind the scenes view into these really horrible crashes sometimes. But what it does is it outlines really well how much of a long chain of events there needs to be in order for something to go wrong. So on one side it scares me, but on the other side it makes me feel much safer because I know the probability of so many things that have to go wrong. Like there’s literally like a chain of a dozen events that only happened this one single time and if any of those would have been in a better shape, would have been fixed before, things would have never gotten so wrong. And what do you think? I understand your argument that the final decision should rest with the human, but I think this is a good concept, but very, very difficult to do in practice because so much of the information that we get and all the instruments that we look at, they are run by machines, right? So we can say, oh, it’s just a sensor, but the sensor feeds into another system and that system uses another system. So there is 20 layers of automation on top of it. And for a pilot to the bucket in 60 seconds, I think for any human to do the bucket in 60 seconds is impossible. Even for the person who basically wrote that software, they wouldn’t know in 60 seconds what’s going on. So the final decision, the problem with that is, is that these layers get more and more complex. And yeah, as to make a final decision that’s correct, you would have to look through all the layers in a heartbeat. Yeah, let’s see. I think just by you explaining that, that defined the problem right there because what do you need to fly an airplane? You need airspeed. You need, you need, even if you don’t have any engines going, there’s only, we have to go back to that raw, basic element of what is making this airplane fly. We add automation there for safety, right? But at the moment where we don’t understand what system has failed, pilots should be able to go back to that raw, basic, back in your training airplane. What do you need to do to keep this airplane in the air? You need airspeed. You need, you know, your attitude and that’s it, need a ball and airspeed. Give it of all the automation layers just like that. You know, that’s, that’s what happened with MCAS. You know, as pilots, we aren’t really trained to know what an airplane feels like when we are trying to manually trim an airplane at 500 knots. You know, we don’t, we forget that there are those, those aerodynamic loads on the patrol services will make it feel like the trim is jammed. So at that particular moment, the pilots, they, they kind of had the right instinct on the second crash. They actually turned off the MCAS. They turned off the electric trim. So they were on the right pattern, but because we hadn’t trained for all those variables. But yeah, once that autopilot is clicked off, I still believe fully that pilots should have complete command and authority over that aircraft, but the aircraft should continue informing the pilot. Information might be wrong. That’s what problem is when you allow automation to make the decision. But the pilots should have full control and that, that instinct should take over and you go back to your basic, the first thing you learn that the first 10 hours of flying, because that’s all you need. The same, whether they’re half a million pounds or 10,000 pounds. Do you think there is the aviation industry is headed that way when, when I look at the industry, and that is also, that is certainly a pre COVID assessment. We’ve got more and more automation. We got the, the airplane manufacturers. And I think they were in cohorts, so to speak, with the airlines who really wanted an extreme amount of, of automation, kind of because I felt they don’t have to worry so much about the pilots. They don’t have to worry so much about pilot error, human error, which seems to be the, the number one source of crashes in the last 20 years at least. So I felt like we’re going the other way, full speed. Yeah, it’s, you know, it depends on where you’re looking. So I think all of across the board aircraft manufacturers, of course, are trying to automate things for safety. And as the pilot who’s having to operate these systems, we see some of the systems that get automated and you wonder why it is so. Part of the reason, I mean, every system that we work with on airplanes have, you know, backup systems, two and three backup systems. And it’s when one of those maybe comes out of the sequence that the computer is not expecting, you know, at what point does that, that computer just inform the pilot as opposed to control it. But yeah, I mean, if you look at our accident rate and our numbers, my goodness, 2017, in all of the, the entire world of aviation, we didn’t have a civil commercial airline fatality. You know, the next year was just an anomaly. How powerful engine couldn’t contain its failure that it’s actually the shroud that failed, you know, at the Southwest flight where the fuselage was punctured with some shrapnel. And so the numbers speak for themselves as far as safety. And everything we look at is, it really is some an anomaly. And once again, it’s those variables that we just can’t anticipate is causing the continued issues. Yeah, well, I said that was in another episode. We, it’s it’s common, like a common delusion that we basically, we sit on this fireball of old dinosaurs a couple of months up in the sky, and we talk about safety the whole time, right? It’s basically, it’s 90% of the weight, it’s fuel and it’s highly flammable. And it’s right beneath us, like, like a few inches from us. And still we think it’s safe. Like it’s like saying, you go on a rocket, but you don’t want it, you don’t want to think about the risk of dying. Like it’s, it’s, I know this is what happened when you think of it, I always felt feel it’s strange, right? So there is, there’s a lot of joy to aviation. There’s a lot of things you couldn’t do without planes and without the, the, the, the invention of that particular technology. I never felt safety should be number one, right? That should be a number five, maybe, maybe it’s definitely safer than driving. But it’s not something I would think of. But that’s what it has become, right? Safety has become a hallmark of the aviation industry. That’s kind of odd to me, to be honest. Oh yeah. I mean, I have people that are afraid to fly and I, I can lay off the numbers for them and show them how extraordinarily safe it is. And, you know, I have to kind of chuckle because the United flight that just had the engine failure last week, you know, when the cowl was missing, we, passengers forget that the engine being on fire is normal. That’s how a turbine works, right? You just don’t normally get to see what it looks like without the cowling on there. Flying is extraordinarily safe, astronomically safe, you know, driving to the airport is the most dangerous part. And it can only get better from here. So I think our goal in aviation is we, we have to admit that mistakes are going to happen, right? We’re going to have errors and misjudgments. So the intent of what automation does and our training does is to allow us to create a large circle of safety so that we can make errors within that circle without going outside that boundary. So I think aviation, that’s our goal. The reality is you can’t not ever have a mistake. You can’t have automation fail. You can’t have a system not fail. So that’s, we’re getting so close. And part of that is anticipating all the variables, you know, what other variables for every system that we’ve got on the airplane, what could possibly go wrong? And if that system fails, how does that affect all the other systems? And then, of course, you know, training in that human factor, crew resource management, that’s come such a long way, even in the last 10, 15 years, you know, that ability to work through an emergency with another person makes that automation that much safer. What do you think of the new generation of electric aircraft and electric when we talk about in that, that, that sphere usually, and we talk about it for cars. And whenever we talk about electric, the second thought is usually, well, 99% of this will be autonomous driving, because once they’re on an electric system, it seems to be so much easier to add a little bit of CPU power to it. And Joby has big contract now. I think United invested a lot of money to do a small aircraft. I think they go up to 15, 20 people in the first generation that fly electric. Do you think it will be much more automated? Unfortunately, I do. I think that I really do. I mean, to be realistic, yes, I think that eventually we will have aircraft that has no pilots on board. I think what it means to be a pilot and positions for pilots is going to change. I’m excited to see the electric aircraft industry. I think it’ll revolutionize aircraft training if we can get our costs down to a reasonable level. That’ll be huge. I know we have a local company where I live called by aerospace and they’re right on the edge. And it’s exciting to see the numbers. I know initially the cost of aircraft is expensive. But as we learn how to deal with battery storage and the usage of that, that’ll change. I see Boeing even trying to change their design. Like the Boeing 787 has kind of gone to an electric foundation of systems, taking away the bleed air because they pull air off of the engines to pressurize the aircraft and do other systems. But changing that over to electric architecture, there’s so many different avenues that we’re taking, all the different kinds of fuel that they’re using. It’s exciting to see. For my students, what I see exciting is the scram jets and the ram jets that are being looked at for supersonic flight, for business aviation. So what it means to be a pilot will change. And the reality is, yes, I do believe that at some point they’re going to have automated aircraft. It’ll be a long time from now. But as far as having positions for pilots, when we start heading off into space, we’re still going to need pilots. Just what it means will change. I hope it’s going to be quicker than this. And I’ve been talking about Peter Thielts saying, it’s kind of flippant when he said, we expected flying cars and we got 140 characters on Twitter. And that was in the 70s, it looked like it’s around the corner. And there’s a lot of people here in Silicon Valley who feel very strongly that things will accelerate in the next 20 years quite much more than we had in the last 50 years simply because the power of making good decisions will be so much better by intelligent systems. And on the other hand, we will bring the cost spaces down quite a bit. So that sounds really exciting if you can go to space finally and it can be around the earth in like an hour or two and we don’t have to sit in the plane for 24 hours and France is going to South Africa from the West Coast. Right, exactly. Look exponentially how much just in the last 15, 20 years the technology has changed. You know, there’s such a large fleet of aircraft in the world that our need for pilots will be there for many, many years to come. But you can see that back end of what’s changing and definitely automation and autonomy is going to change. When I go to airports right now, all I see is part planes. It seems to be 90% of the fleet depending on which airport you go like I went to Istanbul and it was a number of planes that still park. Although Turkish Airlines has resumed a lot of their flights, but they don’t have the frequency anymore. So instead of flying every day or twice a day or twice a week, what do you think happens to all these planes that are parked now? There seems to be these places in the desert in the brand new A380s and brand new planes that were only delivered a couple of years ago. Do you think they ever will come back or they’re written off and we basically paid for this in the taxpayer money? That seems to be an enormous amount of money because these planes cost a minimum, I don’t know, two, three hundred million dollars. Oh yeah. They’re put into storage under certain guidelines and we take them out of storage with certain inspections and guidelines. Yeah, I mean pilots are well aware that airplanes develop personalities and quirks and when those systems haven’t been operated and flown for a while, but that’s what all the levels of automation are for. So pilots are confident those airplanes will come out. They’ll have a little, you know, growing pains to get them back in the air again, but truly, you know, I’m watching the United States with their immunizations and we’ve got about, in the state I live, we’ve only got about 20% of the people immunized, but that’s going to go exponentially faster and further. So I come back to me in July. I guarantee that most of those parked airplanes will start moving. When we start opening up our international routes again, you’ll see the wind fall. I know most of the airlines here have already called back their pilots, their flight attendants, they’re getting them trained now. That’s going to be the hardest part is everybody needs to get recurrent again, but you’ll have pilots that are freshly trained coming out of the simulators, they’re able to handle anything that comes ahead of them. And yeah, I think you’re going to see international travel by the end of July, beginning of August. And once that happens, everything’s going to change significantly. Yeah. Do you think we go back to the old route networks? Do you think they will change quite a bit because now they’ve changed a lot, right? So we have domestic flights, but different routes for domestic flights who basically back to normal in many places in the US. And then we have the international routes who seem to be very different, right? So you seem to be only to places where you can actually go. A lot of Asia is very difficult to get through immigration. Do you think we go back to basically the same route network or will it be a different route out there? That’s a good question. They alter the nat tracks over the North Atlantic. And to be able to just fly to Retina is a huge fuel savings, cost time. Over the years, we got ourselves with our BSM. The spacing between aircraft is smaller and smaller. And that comes with that is cost savings, which has then passed on to the passengers. So I hope that some good has come out of us learning about a pandemic and changing travel. And the nat tracks, I know it will be because it was such a significant change. I’m hoping that they find a way to allow those flights to fly direct without having to follow the tracks. So that’s a good question. What’s the nat tracks? You have to explain that to me and maybe to the audience too. Yeah, so just basically it’s just like a highway in the sky. They kind of just for the winds that they have a loft up there, but it’s all the aircraft are required to be on these highways to allow for spacing. And the only airplane that never had to do that was the Concorde, because it would just take off and fly over all that airspace and then fly direct over to New York. So because there hasn’t been travel over the Atlantic air traffic control said, okay, because it’s so light, you guys just pick your route, you go the way you want to, you know, they still make sure spacing is there. But that’s one of the changes I’ve seen just, you know, for pandemic purposes, but maybe we’ll learn something out of it on how it could be a little bit more efficient with our time and energy. Yeah, when I check the Great Circle Mapper, I always go there. A pilot gave me that URL like, I don’t know, 15 years ago. And since then, I always, I’m addicted to that website, which is a really simple website, but it shows you at least in a simple geographic, so not including any wind speeds. It shows you the path that the aircraft will go. Well, most likely will follow because it’s the shortest route. That’s what it actually shows. Well, from when I checked the Atlantic routes, it was usually very close. Maybe it was maybe 15 miles or 100 miles longer compared to what I saw the calculation there. It doesn’t have the waypoints it doesn’t have. So it’s basically just the shortest calculated route, but it seemed pretty close over the Atlantic already. Yeah, it is by design. You know, for some of the more southern routes coming out of Florida, trying to come up to England or something like that, you might see a much better change. But the majority of the international routes do come in through Upper East Coast into New York. So those routes by design are as close to the Great Circle route as possible, factoring in some of the crazy winds aloft. Yeah, it’s kind of a seasonal thing right now. And, you know, I live in Colorado, we’re expecting a giant snowstorm with two to four feet of snow. So the jet stream definitely changes when storms like that come in. So those routes are changed based on that. But yeah, but it is one of the things that we hopefully will learn out of the changing airspace travel. Well, talking about weather and I want to go into that a little further because my own flying experiences, I’ve been to 130 countries and I’ve been literally hundreds of airlines that I’ve flown and had the luck to fly on. I’m really, really fortunate, really, really happy and thankful about that. What there are situations it seems were, and I’m never really sure enough where weather seems to be a big factor for modern airplanes, but then and so airports get closed, right? So I was a couple of years ago, there was a major snowstorm in Chicago, it rained pretty heavily and then it froze over and then it started snowing really heavily. And they basically said no airplane can take off, this is it. And also none can come in. But I was looking at the runway and there were a bunch of big planes coming in and landing just fine. I’m like, holy smokes, how is that even possible? So how is this tradeoff being done? And as a pilot, I guess you don’t know what’s going on on the runway, right? So there’s other people telling you, but in the end the decision is yours, what to do. And it seemed to be from from what I’ve seen at that particular incident, the pilots could make up their mind and some felt this is going to be fine enough and there was zero visibility and there was a lot of snow, the runway wasn’t clear of snow, but they were still fine. That seemed pretty spectacular to me. So every airplane that you see out there is operating under a certain guideline. What you’re seeing out there is they’re operating under part 121 and like business aviation operates under 135 and they all have limitations for weather, for what you’re allowed to shoot and approach in. There are limitations that you just can’t override. And in addition to that, your company operating specifications may have a limitation. So when you are relying like you gave the example of Chicago, that airport is going to be giving indications as to the conditions of the runways and the taxiways and they’ll be giving it on a scale code. So if that airport is saying, okay, we’ve got a runway condition code of which means it’s marginal, that company that you work for may have in their operating specifications, we’re not allowed to land on a runway that has a condition code of two. So even if the runway is plowed, it doesn’t necessarily mean the taxiways are perfect. We just saw a commuter aircraft slip off a taxiway, just slip sideways. The runways might be fine, but you still have to get all the way back to the airport. And once again, everything goes back to that safety. We might be able to shoot an approach down lower than that, but when you’ve got 173 passengers relying on those decisions, it takes a whole village to make sure everybody’s safe. So yeah, there’s definitely limitations on the approach. But if your aircraft has a category three autopilot landing system, there’s lots of variables here, but it depends on the airplane, the airline, what you’re obviously going to say. And then the airport itself, Dallas experienced a snowstorm a couple of weeks ago. The whole state was pretty much shut down because they just don’t have the equipment to prepare the runways or DIs and anti IS the aircraft. That’s a whole giant procedure. And they just did not have the equipment to keep that airport open. From my personal observation, and that’s very crude, obviously, I think there’s lots more framework behind that. I always feel the first landing attempt is kind of free. So you give it a go. If it doesn’t work out, you go to another airport and you divert. Is that like a pilot philosophy or is it just not true? No, there’s rules. So for the majority of them, you have to have a 200 foot ceiling. You’re allowed to continue on to that approach a little bit lower, but you’re looking for indications. You need lead in light, certain visual cues to continue below that. But you can’t even shoot the approach if it’s below your minimum visibility or ceiling. But you don’t know that, right? You don’t know that before you make the approach. I mean, there might be numbers say 300 feet visibility, but by the time you get there might be zero because these conditions change in like seconds. Right, exactly. So every pilot listens to ATIS. There’s an automated weather system all major airports have. So you listen to that and right away, if the weather conditions are below your minimums, you don’t even shoot the approach. If they are, you go ahead and shoot set up the approach and hope for the best. So yeah, pilot’s final decision is based on their visibility and what they can see on the cockpit window. How hesitant do you think are airline pilots and airlines probably pressure airline pilots a lot? We’ve seen this accident a couple of years ago when one of the Polish Prime Minister’s died in that crash and it seemed like, I don’t know if it was fully confirmed that the Prime Minister himself and instead the pressure to pilot the land due to the airport was heavily fogged in. How much of a pressure is on the pilot to actually execute an approach, even though it doesn’t seem very safe to the pilot, right? How much influence does have the airline conditioning and his job prospects on diverting, which obviously costs a lot of money to bring the pilot in a position where he feels it’s barely safe? How much is that an impact on modern airlines? Alright, so that’s a really good question. You’re the first person that has ever asked it because for especially in business aviation, it’s one of the primary pressures put on pilots. When you have your CEO sitting just a few feet behind you and they’re telling you, I have a board meeting that I have got to get to. It’s definitely a factor and many NTSP reports, if you trace back all the pressures on the pilot, that one element is making these decisions for the pilot. So it definitely is an issue and the industry has been working on it and empowering that pilot to be able to say no, even though that’s your boss, they’re writing your paycheck, making it clear to your passengers exactly what’s coming up ahead. Here’s all the possibilities of what’s going to happen. If you can’t get into your airport, we’ll do the best we can. I look at the Kobe Bryant crash just recently and I know that that pilot had pressures on him. He was trying to decide between the company operating specifications and rules versus the FAA because he and the aircraft were instrument rated, but his company had agreed with the FAA that would only operate via FAA, which means they have to remain clear of clouds. So when they departed, it was fine, but the weather kind of closed in on them and I’m sure the pressure to continue on to that flight complete the mission was part of the decision making process. Yeah, that seems to be very difficult for the passengers, I think just simply because they don’t have a lot of education about that. So the idea that how much of a role weather plays in flying, it seems to be intentionally hidden by the by the airlines sometimes. So there’s a lot of data that they have, right? And there’s a lot of information they know about the flight path. But typically you get into an aircraft and they will tell you, oh, we might expect some light turbulence, so stay in your seat. And then I was on the flight two weeks ago, we basically fell out of the sky over Texas. And that the forecast was there’s not going to be any turbulence, right? And it was massive. I was clear turbulence, it was certainly hard to predict, but it was massive. So we all had to like, like try not to fly out of our seats for like 20, 30 minutes. But I always feel the airlines would have the and the pilots would have a lot more information, but they hold it back intentionally, even to high profile passengers who definitely exert their pressure. But if they would know more, they would say, oh my gosh, this is really dangerous. We are not doing it. Yeah. And that’s how I dealt with the issue myself is I was very upfront with my passengers. And just so you know, pilots, we love turbulence. We don’t mind at all. The only reason why we go to change altitude is to make you guys comfortable in the back. So you know, but you know, and that’s how I dealt with it. Anytime I would depart knowing that my destination airport may have weather lower than my minimums, I would tell them that, you know, we will go in, we’ll tempt the approach if it’s not good. Here’s our alternate. Here’s where we’re going. Here’s how I will get you on on the ground over to your destination. I flew into mountain airports quite a bit. And so I would always explain to them what our backup plan is and just tell them, here’s my limitations. Here’s what we’re looking at. And, you know, at some point, you have to tell your passengers too bad. So yeah, you’re a rare breed. I was I had a personal experience that I don’t really know what to make of it. I’ve asked a couple of people, and it’s hard for me to understand enough about it. What happened is we were outside of Hong Kong, and Hong Kong gets these massive thunderstorm fields. There’s like thousands of little cells of thunderstorms and constant flashes. And what they did, and I thought this quite interesting, is they slowed down the approach for the moment. And what they basically gave everyone a little space out in the ocean to basically a loop around. But the looping around was basically the middle of this massive cell. So there wasn’t just one lightning. There were dozens at any second. So there were thousands over relatively short time frame. And our plane was right in the middle of it. And there were flashes everywhere. We got hit by it. I couldn’t find out was that a pilot issue. So he didn’t ask for a different space. Or maybe he did, right? He never talked to us for a different space to being on hold. Was that a failure of ATC because they never really checked for the weather in that particular place where they parked the airplanes? Because the approach was eventually really easy and fine. Is that even something to blame for or being in the middle of a huge thunderstorm cell isn’t even a problem anymore, even if you get hit multiple times? Yeah. So the pilots are having a coordinate with air traffic control to pick up. They’ll assign you a holding pattern. But the pilots should be interactive as to where they’re holding. The problem is if they’re holding, that means there’s a whole bunch of airplanes in that airspace that are holding. So trying to pick out a place that you can hold laterally, but also vertically, there’s probably an airplane holding above you as well. And especially on those scattered thunderstorms like you’re talking about, there’s not a whole lot of places to go high, especially when you’re getting ready for the approach. But just don’t forget that your airplane is like a fair day cage. I’ve been hit by lightning before. They say on average an airplane will get hit by lightning once a year. Not a big deal better that that lightning will pass right on through. The aircraft has some systems to design to with static wigs to shed that extra electrical load. But yeah, I mean, if it was an uncomfortable ride for you, you know, the pilots can do something lightning is crazy. You can see the storm, but lightning could actually stand well beyond that. So maybe that’s what happens. And when your airplane flies near convective activity, the fuselage itself will build up electrical charges. So even then you get hit by lightning, but you can still have a flash of lightning, like even within the aircraft itself, as it tries to expel that energy all at once. Yeah, well, the ride wasn’t uncomfortable at all. So that was a strange part. It was just the amount of different hundreds of little lightning flashes all the time. And you could see it out there. We were in the middle of it. So it was, it was a strange thunderstorm. You know, usually you kind of want them easily. And there’s like a few massive flashes and that’s it. But those were really distributed. And obviously, probably that created the problem that it was very big and stretched several hundred miles. So it was difficult to avoid. I just thought it couldn’t be handled better by the pilot because he didn’t say what. And it wasn’t actually, it wasn’t scary. He wouldn’t wouldn’t even look out the window, right? You just, there wasn’t a lot of rattling or anything. You just, you could see all these flashes. That was the only problem, so to speak. Maybe, maybe I overreacted. It’s hard to be a passenger. I’m sure those pilots up front, maybe even give it a second thought. They knew it was a non event and, you know, operating in the summertime. That’s, that’s quite common to see that heat lightning just constantly just fluttering out there. And for the pilots, they’re keeping you safe and not going into those cells as primary key. And at the same time, trying to coordinate, they’re sequencing into that airport. So I feel for the pilots, but I feel for you guys too, sitting back there, it’s hard to not know what’s going on and looking out the window and seeing that. Well, this is one, one thing I saw on your blog. And that, that makes me wonder, the airline obviously, who operates that flight, they certainly have a certain pressure to not take too much fuel over that, right? So Ryanair was very well known for this, that they were heavily restricting the extra fuel you take, you can take or you’re supposed to take on your flight. But how, how difficult is it, the decision and how much fuel actually is there? I know there is one for diversion airport, but these can be quite far away, right? Yeah. So we, we plan on getting to our destination, going to a far alternate airport, plus having 45 minutes of fuel on board. So there is quite a buffer in there. Especially when I was flying routes, I would always fly like Las Vegas to Tulsa and there was always thunderstorms. They could be massive walls of thunderstorms. So I would always bring on extra fuel so that I, you know, we have that buffer. But it’s a fine line. When you’re carrying extra fuel, you can climb up to higher altitudes. You can’t get over some of the weather. So it’s, it’s a balance back and forth, you know, as far as what you believe is going to be at your destination. But there’s usually a good buffer in there. But it is part of the decision making for the pilots at a certain point after holding, they’ll have to decide if they can continue holding or if they need to go ahead and go to their alternate airport, which was already filed. How often did you actually have to divert in your flying career? You know, the reality is, pilots have to divert very rarely. I’ve had to divert, I’ve seen nighttime air ambulance. So that was more often. But, you know, just for an example, I was flying for Minneapolis down to Cancun. And Cancun only has one runway. And as we were coming a little closer, we heard an aircraft landed, but their gear collapsed. And so the runway was closed. And there’s several aircraft ahead of us. And so they put us all in a holding pattern. But I’m in a 177 really low. And so my fuel burn is exponential. And they put us in a holding pattern. And I truly couldn’t hold for about more than 15 minutes before I had to make the decision to go to my alternate. Because I was hearing that all the other aircraft were going to cause the valve as well. So knowing that they were all ahead of me as well, factors into that thinking backwards into how much fuel you need and getting back in another sequence. So that’s just one example. But, you know, there once again is a variable you aren’t anticipating. And part of the decision making that the pilot has to at that point, it’s not up to the airplane, it’s up to the pilot to decide what to do next. Yeah. Cancun is maybe not such a good example because there’s so many airports and close vicinity where I feel like there’s some airports I flew in. And I know there is the next airport is a thousand miles away. So hopefully these calculations were right. Right. Yeah, exactly. But maybe you don’t know as a passenger or any other airport. So some of them are military bases and they’re not officially disclosed. And you could literally land there in an emergency, but otherwise they don’t really exist on the maps. Yeah, well, we see them on the maps, but you’re right. As anytime you say that you’ve got an emergency, all those airports become available to you. Yeah. What is your personal conspiracy theory? What happened to two Malaysia Airlines 370, right, that mystery, that flight that disappeared a couple of years ago? And this seems to be all over the place. There was some wreckage that was found in Riyan Yolk, as far as I remember. What is your personal theory? What actually happened? Well, something I happen to see almost a year after the disappearance was that I noticed that it was carrying a large load of lithium batteries. I know that maybe sounds insignificant, but if that particular load of batteries was placed underneath the cockpit area down in the cargo bay and it had a thermal runaway, it’s quite possible that that heat, that quick intense heat, could have melted some of the communication abilities of that aircraft. You know, that aircraft made a turn to the left, maybe like it was going back towards another airport. You know, those lithium fires are so quick and so intense, it’s amazing. So, I think it’s one of those things we’re never going to find out. I do believe the aircraft parts that they found were part of that aircraft. And, you know, it’ll be one of those things along with Amelia Earhart, I don’t think we’re ever going to know. Yeah. Well, the Titanic wasn’t known where it sank, right, for the longest time. They couldn’t find it, and then eventually they found it, right. So, I’m still hopeful that that day will come and we will solve the mystery. It seems very coincidental, right, that it skirted, it might be total coincidence, but it skirted a lot of usual radar points, so nobody really contacted it early and then it was too far out that people didn’t worry about it and there was no coverage. So, that seems like a strange coincidence if it’s just like a fire that incapacitated the pilots. Yeah, it could be. You know, if it was an intense fire, you know, if the pilots tried to dump the cabin and all of a sudden they had a depressurization issue, that would explain how it would continue operating. I believe that, you know, it just kept going until it ran out of fuel. And then I also believe that because of where the altitude it was and that if it did hit the ocean, it would have broken up into many, many pieces and that’s why I think we just probably won’t find it because it’s, you know, it’s not like the Titanic where it’s kind of intact. I think that it has scattered across the ocean and into the, you know, various riptides and, you know, water streams out there that they got carried away, but I wish we knew. It is a sad story, but obviously it’s one of those mysteries that kept us entertained. I’m going to another thing that keeps us entertained and I’m always curious if it seems overblown to me, but maybe it isn’t. There’s always talk about drone strikes and the ability for aircraft to be seriously damaged by drones and also laser strikes. To me, they feel a little bit overdone. It feels more like a press story than a real risk given the amount of probability that it actually does serious damage. What is the real picture there? Oh, the real picture is actually terrifying. I just saw they released numbers for laser strikes. They had 6,500 laser strikes in the United States last year during a pandemic. I had the opportunity of meeting a pilot who had lost his medical because of a laser strike. I didn’t realize it was such a big issue. You know, I’ve been kind of paying attention to it, but I saw those numbers come out last week and that’s horrifying. I’m not sure how they can trace these people doing it, but it’s definitely something we need to alert the industry to. Is that a technical solution for both? It seems like they just need one antenna or like a better windshield to solve this for good. That’s a good question. The lasers I’m not sure about. Drones, their frequency is increasing, which is a bad trend. It could be that when drones first were out, there weren’t a lot of rules and restrictions for them. You were hoping that people had common sense to not operate near an airport, but we found that it’s not happening and too many pilots are calling in close calls. If you look at the airspace out there, it’s ginormous. There’s no reason why a drone should be in any similar airspace as an airplane. I think educating the public, making sure that kids understand how horrific it could be, engine damage, leading edge damage. It’s not a reason to bring down an airplane, but the damage, although if it came in through a windscreen, yeah, it could be pretty terrifying. There’s a lot of variables that could happen, but regulation, and yeah, I think it would be easy enough to start tracking these. I know the drone world doesn’t want to have that type of regulation, so hopefully they’ll find… I don’t know if this is technically feasible, but instead of adding more regulation layers, it seems like we could just jam the signal. There’s a relatively simple frequency and the airplane just carries a jammer and that’s the end of the drone. It will fall out of the sky at that second or, well, depending on the drone, probably it doesn’t immediately fall out of the sky. Probably how it’s there, but it doesn’t come any closer. Yeah, if you can see it, that’s the problem. It’s just like a bird strike. By the time you see it, it’s too late. It should always be jammed. The jamming should be automatic whenever the airplane takes off. Oh, that’s a good idea. Yeah, like the antennas, you know, like antennas we develop for getting a WiFi now. I think you can do a similar thing that you just have a certain spectrum that you jam, but maybe it’s similar to what WiFi runs on. Maybe that’s what makes it so hard. Yeah, that’s a good question. I’m not sure what frequency they operate on, but that’s a really good question. Yeah, this laser strike, the thing is a real issue and I think a lot of people, we saw that with the riots in Portland. It seems so easy. I mean, these laser pointers only cost a few dollars, right? And you can do some serious damage with this. Maybe someone comes up with some glasses or some way to actually filter this out, because it seems to be impossible to hunt down everyone on the ground, right? Because every kid can do it knowing or not knowing what they’re doing. Yeah, you’re right. Some sort of a filter we can put on the windscreen and the aircraft, you think would be a solution. Yeah, definitely something we need to look into. Yeah. In your observations, what do you think is in terms of what’s happening in every day flying? What’s the biggest security risk that maybe most people don’t really know about? Good question. I think that we still have challenges out there. I think it’s still fairly easy to gain access onto an airport, unfortunately, depending on where you are in the world. I think that we still would just need to maintain vigilance. Somebody always sees something. So thankfully, we don’t hear a whole lot in the news about it. But yeah, the pandemic has kind of thrown everything off track just for the mere fact that we have been traveling. But I think the cockpit door security still kind of needs to be addressed. I know there’s a company out there that is doing a good job of explaining some of the risks that are still out there. But we continue to train pilots on it and remaining vigilant still is key. A lot of people say, I don’t know what you think about that, that the actual security screening that happens at the airport is basically pure psychological. It’s a theater because the perceived risk needs psychological mediation. But we would actually have the same amount of terror attacks or the same amount of security incidents if we even get rid of the complete security scanning that’s done at the airport. Do you agree with that? In the past, I might have, but I do believe that it does work a certain level. I think that some of the common sense has gone out. I know even personally myself, I have been experienced just some absurdity. I still remember the day I came in off of, I had flown a flight in to the Las Vegas airport shortly after 9.11. So still didn’t have procedures in effect yet. But I captained an airplane in. The security agents were right at the gate. They saw me fly the airplane in and then I was going to jump seat on another flight home and it was just two gates down. I got off the airplane. I had to do a security check and this gentleman emptied everything I had in every single bag, my entire flight bag, every little thing. And I had just got done captaining an airplane in. So I think some of the common sense still needs to be taught. But I think that if we move all the security we’re just asking for, that would be detrimental to the whole entire industry of aviation. We still need some sort of security screening before getting on board. Like private airplanes, they don’t have it, right? Private airports. And it’s not that they’re being hijacked and flown into buildings every two days. But it would be easy because there is no security really to speak of. And even the airports are basically not secure. The runways are easily accessible with a wire cutter. There’s no cameras or anything. And we guess they would have a smaller impact, but there’s still a lot of fuel, right? So they could still use it as a weapon basically on an everyday basis, but it’s not happening because 99.99999% of people are not the security risk. Yeah, so there’s still a security at all of business aviation airports. But you’re right, there’s not big TSA checkpoints like we have at the majors. Terrorism generally, they go for the larger targets. But you’re right, it’s something that we discuss in the business aviation industry. We still train all of our pilots as a requirement every year that they take a TSA security training. It’s part of the whole community aviation making sure that we’re safe. But you’re right, it is definitely a concern and we talk about it. And I hopefully just talking about it is enough. Yeah. This is probably not very related, but people keep saying if we would put a lot of money into the Middle East and make peace with everyone there, then maybe this problem of terrorism solves itself and we can stop doing the security theater. Would that be nice? That would be great, right? If people actually get along and we can park all these military aircraft for quite some time. Well, come on Torsten, go up there and solve the Middle East issue and get rid of the security. I’m working on it. I’m working on it. You know what, we actually made a lot of progress. Do I felt like those were the low hanging fruits, those were countries that, you know, we said that we made a peace deal, but they were never in war, right? So they were kind of not the best France, but they were never really countries that would go to war in the next 20, 30 years. So they never looked that way. But there’s all these hard countries there still to do. So maybe the new administration can do that. Yeah, I’ll help. Straight. If you give me a private jet and let me fly everywhere and I’ll meet everyone. It’s a deal. Okay, here we go, here we go. Excellent, Erika. We really got to something here. We did some real problem solving. Absolutely. Hey, thanks for doing this. It was awesome. I learned a lot. Good person. I’m glad to be here. And yeah, you have an amazing resume and that you are going around the world and interacting with the rest of the world. So you’re a good advocate for aviation out there. Thanks for saying this. I try my best. Well, you’re doing it. Erika, thanks for doing this one more time. And I hope you will see you back again here on the podcast one day. That sounds good. Anytime you let me know. All right, Erika. All right, thank you. Thank you. Bye bye.

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