On Becoming An Aviatrix: From Jumpseat to Left Seat (Part IV)

16 07 2010

At the end of my last post, Making My Way to the Front , I found myself in awe at an altitude of 24,000 feet in the flight deck for the first time. Who knew delivering a cup of coffee could be so life changing? As I walked back into the cabin and sat in my flight attendant jumpseat I could not get the experience of being in the flight deck out of my head. It played like a movie, and would continue to do so repeatedly. To this day I remember it clearly. A seed had germinated, and was about to go through its first rapid growth spurt.

What was the short term result of my experience in the flight deck? I became an excellent flight attendant of course! Not only is it in my nature to try and do whatever it is I do well (which I will add I accomplish to varying degrees), but I had one important extra incentive to do a good job and to do it quickly. Back in the pre-9/11 days, flight attendants were permitted to enter the flight deck during flights, unlike post-9/11 which allows them to enter the flight deck only under very few specific circumstances. So I learned to accomplish my flight attendant duties very quickly and efficiently, the reward being a short break up in the flight deck. This was no small feat. At American Eagle, being a regional airline, the flights were brief, most often under an hour and some as short as 20 minutes. It became like a game – literally.

One flight crew I was flying with for a month actually used to bet on how long it would take me to complete my inflight service and make my routine interphone call: “Anything needed in the flight deck?” That was their cue to ask me for something…anything. Even if they didn’t need anything my answer was always “Right away.”

That is how almost every flight possible I ended up in the flight deck jumpseat for about 5 to 10 minutes at a time. That was a lot of time considering our schedules included up to 7 flights each day, and our lines probably averaged about 70 hours per month. I did that for 2-1/2 years. Sometimes I would just sit and observe. Other times I would ask questions. Many of the pilots were very encouraging about my desire to learn to fly, and gave me short “lessons.” They let me shadow them on their pre- and post-flight aircraft inspections while explaining what they were doing and answering any questions I may have had.

Later on, after I had begun formal flight training, I even called in for the preflight ATIS (automated terminal information system, i.e. weather, airport notes, etc.) and IFR (instrument flight rules) clearance on the ground while at LAX.

It was June 4, 1998, just a little over three months after I had become a flight attendant that I took my introductory flight at San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport (SBP) on the California Central Coast. A good friend of my husband who was a private pilot highly recommended to me his CFI (certified flight instructor). I trusted this particular friend’s judgment, so I went with his recommendation and scheduled my first flight. I showed up to the airport having no idea what to expect.

No one that I was very close to was a pilot, so I was “green” in the true sense of the term. I remember thinking that he would probably do most or all of the flying while explaining to me what he was doing. How wrong I was! From preflight to postflight and everything in between he had me do everything.

The first of many surprises was how small the airplane was. It was two-place, Cessna 152. While sitting inside it felt smaller than any car in which I had ever been! But first things first: we would begin by inspecting the plane, simply called the preflight. I actually questioned whether or not he was pulling my leg when he told me to climb up on the strut to inspect the wing and then take off the gas caps and smell the gasoline…”Really?!,” I said. “Yes, really,” he said. That particular dialog happened repeatedly throughout the flight as he talked me through the whole experience, step-by-step. “I’m going to take off??? …..You want me to stall the plane?!?….Turn this steeply??? …..Do you really think I can land this?!?!” YES, I could do it, and I did it. When it was all over, I was back on the ground, but still in the clouds! Every pilot remembers their first flight, which is always a magical moment in one’s life.

For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return. — Leonardo Da Vinci

Next blog post: The logistics & challenges of learning to fly while juggling home life and working as a full time flight crew member.

Previously published July 7, 2010 at Forbes.com “Wheels Up”

On Becoming An Aviatrix: Making My Way to the Front (Part III)

29 06 2010

At the end of my last post, Earning My Wings (Part II), I had just been hired as a flight attendant at American Eagle, the regional carrier for American Airlines. I graduated from my training class at the American Airlines Flight Academy in Dallas February 1998. I had “Earned my wings” as a flight crew member, however, it wouldn’t be long before I would be yearning to be seated at the front end of the aircraft. The following is the story of how it happened.

While I was at the flight academy I was very curious each time I passed the pilots who were in training in both a class room setting as well as small rooms with just two students, a pilot instructor and an aircraft panel which simulated the flight deck. Most impressive were the huge hydraulic simulators. The tension surrounding the pilots entering those simulators was always palpable as passing a check ride was necessary for keeping their job.

Having been what people jokingly refer to as a “Professional student” a good part of my young life, I was attracted to what appeared to be a very intense level of learning that was experienced by the pilots. On breaks during my flight attendant training I lingered in the hallways and observed the pilot training. I was more interested in what the pilots were learning then finding my perfect shade of red lipstick. (Those that are flight attendants know I’m not just making fun, but makeup is a real part of the training! Also, I am not intending to belittle the very important role flight attendants play as a vital part of the safety and smooth operation of a flight. I loved being a flight attendant; I was just more intrigued with being a pilot.)

The last part of my flight attendant training, before I was signed off to “Work the line” on my own, was my initial operating experience, a.k.a. “I.O.E. training.” This is when an I.O.E. instructor flies a first trip with a new flight attendant, and makes sure that they are ready to take charge of a flight on their own (pilots also go through I.O.E. training).

So at last, after weeks of training, I was finally working my first (I.O.E.) flight out of my home base, LAX. My earliest memory as a working flight attendant also happened to be the turning point where I really envisioned myself as a pilot. We had just reached cruising altitude of 24,000 feet when I got a ding from now retired Captain Jan Dungan. I picked up the interphone, and she asked me if I would please bring a cup of coffee to her. Of course I complied, and when I opened the flight deck door I think I must have gasped aloud. That view — I think it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen! Before me were big puffy clouds and an endless sea of blue. To say it was so beautiful would be an understatement. It’s hard to believe unless one has seen it, but the view from the flight deck is vastly different than the view one sees out a little side window as a passenger in the cabin of an aircraft. I think when one is in the front of an airplane it’s not merely a view, but an experience. No doubt the mind-boggling panel of instruments, gauges, navigational displays and radios enhance that particular experience. To me, flying is a marriage of nature and technology – right up my alley! The aviation bug bit hard & quickly. This is where I wanted to be!

Next blog post: Making the transition into the flight deck and my first flight.

Previously published June 28, 2010 at Forbes.com Wheels Up

NOTE: If you just started reading this story, please see the previous posts:

On Becoming An Aviatrix: Introduction: https://mctorresgrant.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/on-becoming-an-aviatrix-introduction/

On Becoming An Aviatrix:  The Seed Is Planted (Part I): https://mctorresgrant.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/on-becoming-an-aviatrix-the-seed-is-planted-part-i/

On Becoming An Aviatrix:  Earning My Wings (Part II): https://mctorresgrant.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/on-becoming-an-aviatrix-earning-my-wings-part-ii/

On Becoming An Aviatrix: Earning My Wings (Part II)

21 06 2010

At the end of my last post, The Seed Is Planted (Part I), my husband and I, after much deliberation decided that we were going to set down our roots on the California Central Coast with the aim of establishing an architecture firm. A big reason I was okay with the decision even though I was a little reluctant about living on the Central Coast was I had decided that as soon as we were financially able I would take up flying as a hobby,  and that would alleviate any negative feelings I might have about living in a small town. Besides visiting friends and family in both southern and northern California, I had dreamed of having fun adventures. Having inherited the travel bug through my parents, the idea of becoming a pilot was becoming increasingly appealing. There were other aspects of piloting that aligned with my interests besides traveling.

Since I was a young child I was always fascinated with maps. Growing up in a middle class family of eight people, finances dictated that there would be more road trips than flying trips. Because of my interest in maps, even though I was the third child, I actually ended up being the family navigator and trip planner.  My trip planning method is still the same today as it was back then: select a primary destination; study the map; plot out the best route taking into consideration available time and resources, terrain,  plus research places of interest along the way.

Hand-in-hand with my love of maps was the fact that I’m what you would call “a big planner.” All my family and friends know this about me. I’m all about keeping a calendar and making lists. Some people (the ones who are not planners) think that being a planner is restrictive when, in my opinion, the opposite is true. To me planning is about organizing one’s time to achieve goals. It’s also about setting priorities and allocating resources. My friends are often amazed at the sheer quantity of things I do, and yet I still find free time for hobbies, travel and other leisure pursuits. The irony of it is I actually block out time in my calendar for such activities. In other words, I plan when not to plan!

So while contemplating and thinking about my love of maps, travel, and planning, learning to fly started to become more than just a dream. It became a goal. How cool would it be to have a hobby that incorporated multiple interests and aspects of my own personality? But there were some major obstacles. The first major obstacle was money. Fact #1: flying is expensive, any way you slice it. Fact #2: We were recent college grads with very little income. I realized that during that time learning to fly was not meant to be. It would have to wait until a later time. Who knew when that would be? It would turn out to be a huge exercise in patience.

Fast forward 7 years to 1998: After struggling through the early post grad years and slowly emerging out of the recession, my husband finally was able to earn his architect’s license and start up our firm, LGA Architecture in Pismo Beach in 1997. I had been a housewife, the primary caregiver of our two small children. I was working at Pismo Beach Athletic Club as both a group fitness instructor and personal trainer. Why is this important to my story about becoming an aviatrix? Well, it just so happened that the head of flight attendants for Wings West was also a group fitness instructor and her name was Nanette. Wings West, which was based at San Luis Obispo (KSBP), was the regional carrier that was contracted by American Eagle, the regional airline for American Airlines.

One day, on a break during a staff meeting, I overheard Nanette talking about how she was recruiting a local girl to be a flight attendant, and that she would be flying out to DFW soon for training. That piqued my interest, and I began to ask Nanette about what it was like to be a flight attendant. Everything she told me sounded wonderful! She said, “Why don’t you apply?” I don’t remember thinking about it for very long before I decided I would do it! The next thing I knew I was flying out to Dallas to interview at the  headquarters of AMR (the parent company for American Airlines & American Eagle). In a blink of an eye I was hired, went home, and in a few weeks would return to Dallas for flight attendant training at the American Airlines Flight Academy. Soon I would have my wings, but I would still not be a pilot.

Next blog post: How I moved from the cabin to the flight deck.

Previously published June 21, 2010 at Forbes.com “Wheels Up”

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