Day in the life of a PSA pilot

Office in the sky

DC-9 flight simulator; simulator in motion
  • DC-9 flight simulator; simulator in motion
  • Image by Craig Carlson

In the dark hour before dawn one recent Tuesday morning, Jim Owens was thinking about the fog. Stars shone clearly overhead here in San Diego, obscured only by a ragtag army of cloud fragments scurrying eastward, remnants of a storm that had drenched the county the previous day. But Owens was heading for the airport and PSA's flight number 471 to Oakland. If fog forced closure of the East Bay airport, most of the passengers on the San Diego-Oakland flight would be an hour or two behind their busy schedules.

Jim Owens. He points out the Spruce Goose and the Queen Mary in Long Beach, Edwards Air Force Base, the San Joaquin Valley, the beginnings of the Sierra Nevada.

Jim Owens. He points out the Spruce Goose and the Queen Mary in Long Beach, Edwards Air Force Base, the San Joaquin Valley, the beginnings of the Sierra Nevada.

For Owens, however, who would be piloting the DC-9 northward, and who was then supposed to fly back to San Diego, then on to Phoenix, then back to San Diego again, then up to Oakland again, then down to Los Angeles, before catching a final ride back to San Diego — for Owens, a foggy delay could sabotage his whole day.

As a final back-up, the plane would carry enough fuel to be able to return to Los Angeles.

As a final back-up, the plane would carry enough fuel to be able to return to Los Angeles.

Not that Owens seemed particularly worried as he drove from his home on Mount Soledad over damp streets toward the airport; he is used to the intricate schedules and the slip-ups that can disrupt those schedules in the modern commercial aviation business. More than most pilots, Owens has had insight into aspects of this business. He started out eighteen years ago loading baggage for PSA in San Diego and worked his way up to ticket agent, then to director of passenger services before graduating into the cockpit, first as flight engineer, then copilot, and now captain. Along the way he met and married one of PSAs stewardesses.

Masley and Owens. Masley:  “I once flew with this guy for a month straight, and he blocked out so much of the sun I lost my tan.”

Masley and Owens. Masley: “I once flew with this guy for a month straight, and he blocked out so much of the sun I lost my tan.”

The thirty-nine-year-old pilot is not a fretful fellow by nature. He’s six feet seven inches tall, and if any man that large can be described as happy-go-lucky, Owens can. On this recent morning, he was particularly jubilant over the news that his copilot for the day would be an Air Force veteran, Dave Masley.

Most of his experience dealing with dangerous situations has come from  the PSA’s DC-9 simulator at the training center in Scripps Ranch.

Most of his experience dealing with dangerous situations has come from the PSA’s DC-9 simulator at the training center in Scripps Ranch.

Masley started flying as copilot on one of PSA’s DC-9s about five years ago, right around the time that Owens advanced to DC-9 captain. “He’s just the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. I absolutely love this guy!” Owens exclaimed.

Loading luggage. “For a normal day’s flight... may be we are overpaid.”

Loading luggage. “For a normal day’s flight... may be we are overpaid.”

By a few minutes before 5:30 a.m., he had parked his car, a gigantic Cadillac, in a lot next to PSA's Harbor Drive facilities. He collected his navy jacket and captain’s cap from the trunk, then popped a clip-on tie under his collar tabs. “This is the most important piece of gear of all.... Soon as you get in the cockpit, it comes off!”

His first stop this morning would be PSA’s flight department, where a half-dozen sleepy flight attendants gathered in the glass-walled lobby. Striding into a large inner chamber, Owens greeted his copilot, Masley, a trim-looking man in his midthirties who stands a full foot shorter than the captain. “I once flew with this guy for a month straight, and he blocked out so much of the sun I lost my tan,” Masley cracked. As Owens consulted computer print-outs reporting on the weather, Masley busied himself with noting down departure times, fuel requirements, and alternate landing sites for all the flights he and Owens would command today. Across the room, a team of crew schedulers juggled phones and sheets of paper; they would keep track of each pilot and flight attendant assigned to work that day, finding last-minute replacements for every absentee. Closer to the center of the room, three “flight dispatchers” would serve as the nerve center for the network of 406 flights PSA had scheduled on this day; an intricate electronic communications system would keep them informed as to where every aircraft was at every minute. The dispatchers simultaneously would monitor weather patterns throughout the system, computing the minimum amount of fuel each plane would need before each flight and calculating how the mix of planes and passengers could be altered if bad weather or mechanical difficulties occurred.

This day the dispatchers alerted Owens that his alternate destinations for the first flight would be San Jose and Los Angeles. If fog did close the Oakland airport, Owens would be able to look to San Jose as a landing spot. If San Jose closed, he could check to see if San Francisco or Sacramento or any other northern California airport used by PSA was open and could ask to land at one of them. But as a final back-up, the plane would carry enough fuel to be able to return to Los Angeles, where the weather forecast was good. The Federal Aviation Administration requires each airplane to carry enough fuel to enable it to fly to its destination, try to land, fly to an alternate landing site, land there, and still have enough fuel to fly for forty-five minutes longer. “There’s no guesswork in it,” Owens said. Although he normally would carry maybe 13,000 pounds of fuel for the San Diego-Oakland flight, because of the uncertain weather this morning, he would take some 26,000 pounds.

By a few minutes before six, Owens, Masley, another captain, and the flight attendants had climbed aboard a shuttle bus that carried them the short distance to where PSA’s planes stood parked outside the Lindbergh Field terminal. Stepping down from the bus, Owens peered through the gloom, searching for the DC-9 he would fly to Oakland. He identified it by a number painted on the fuselage, then hastened up the staircase leading into the plane and somehow eased his outsized frame into the cramped cockpit. Although he and Masley would recite a brief litany to check the controls before every flight, Owens now scrutinized every instrument in the cockpit more thoroughly than he would any other check all day, seeing if switches were set in the right position, if warning lights were functioning correctly. “This airplane is so automated. You’ve got all these lights to tell you what’s going on. And most of the systems will automatically take care of their own problems.” He took particular delight in touching one control that immediately flooded the cockpit with the sound of a computer-synthesized woman’s voice. “Stall! Stall!” the electronic voice intoned. Owens explained, “This lady [the vocal warning system] talks to you!” He provoked similar warnings for “Slats!” “Brakes!” “Landing gear!” then said, “What she’s doing is telling you something is not in the right configuration for takeoff.” His copilot chimed in. “It’s like you never left home. ‘Dear, I think you shouldn’t have gone through that intersection.’ ”

At 6:15, ten minutes before flight 471 is scheduled to roll away from the gate, word comes that San Francisco International Airport already has been engulfed by fog. Oakland, on the other hand, still has 6000 feet of forward visibility on the runway. That’s a perfectly acceptable landing condition, but Owens is sure that as the sun comes up, the fog in Oakland will thicken. He and the flight dispatchers nonetheless concur that the plane should depart on time. It takes only a few moments for the attendants to usher in the three dozen or so passengers, almost all of whom are business commuters. As a tow tractor pushes the jet away from its gate, Owens flips a switch and points to a moving needle on his instrument panel; it tells him the right jet engine has begun to spin. The pilot shoves forward a lever that starts fuel flowing into the engine and at the same time ignites it. “We’ve got an engine started,” he murmurs as a familiar whine rises from somewhere far behind him. He starts the left engine, then receives permission from the ground controller to taxi to the runway. Moments later, the plane is hurtling down the concrete, Owens is pulling back on the control wheel, and all the windows that wrap around him become filled with the luminescent blue gray of the brightening sky.

Back when Owens first began flying for PSA, the airline used Boeing 727s, a plane that must be flown by a three-person crew: captain, copilot, and flight engineer. The DC-9 cockpit, on the other hand, only accommodates two people, the captain and copilot. (A jump seat also folds down for visiting FAA inspectors, but no non-airline visitors are allowed to ride in the cockpit during flight.) Though two pilots always work the DC-9 cockpit, it seems as if there’s hardly need for both of them; the second person does little more than talk over the radio and watch out for other air traffic. To alleviate the monotony, it’s standard practice for pilots and copilots to take turns flying the airplane. On this day, for example, Masley will take the controls on the return trip from Oakland and on two of the other four legs.

But even for the man who’s flying the aircraft, the chores can be amazingly limited. Owens explains that the acting pilot can opt to engage the DC-9's automatic controls as soon as the aircraft has climbed just 500 feet off the ground. Aided by the autopilot, all the human pilot has to do is to turn a few knobs from time to time, dialing in coordinates as the plane reaches certain points along its route. PSA pilots currently must retake control of the plane in the last stages of landing — but soon that too will change. Already, all of the airline’s DC-9-80s have been outfitted with a sophisticated piece of equipment known as the HUD (for “heads-up display”), a system that when used in conjunction with the autopilot will be able to direct all of the plane’s descent, down to and beyond the moment of touchdown. PSA is the first airline in the United States to install this technology, Owens says, and now the pilots are completing their training in how to use it. The major benefit it will offer is that the FAA will allow HUD-equipped planes to descend through clouds and fog to a much lower elevation than planes controlled by hand. On this particular flight to Oakland, for example, since Owens (rather than the machine) will be manning the controls, he will have to be able to see the ground by the time the plane is 200 feet above it, and he will need some 1600 feet of visibility along the runway; lacking those conditions, he will have to pull up and abort the landing. But with the HUD system, Owens says, “We'll be able to go down to fifty feet, with only 700 feet forward visibility.... When you break out at fifty feet, you don't see approach lights in front of you — you see runway lights! This little tool here is going to be great for mornings like this morning. When everyone else is there holding, PSA will be going in there and landing. It’s expensive, but it’ll pay for itself in the foggy weather.” All this automation draws high praise from Owens; the technology has freed pilots to spend more time keeping their eyes on what’s going on outside the airplane, just one more thing that tends to make flying safer. He concedes that constant reliance on the autopilot could dull one’s flying skills, but in practice he says most pilots choose to spend at least some time “hand flying” their planes to avoid this problem. Owens also can’t imagine a day when we won’t need human pilots to fly commercial airliners. “It’ll never be an E-coupon-type ride,’’ he says complacently.

Flight 471 is scheduled to land at Oakland at 7:49 a.m. But as the plane flies over Bakersfield, Owens and Masley receive word that their fears have materialized; the fog has indeed descended upon Oakland Airport, blanketing it so heavily that the plane wouldn’t be able to land even if the HUD system were functioning. (Though the electronic system can guide the plane all the way to the runway, the FAA requires that pilots nonetheless be able to confirm at fifty feet that the runway is indeed under the plane.)

This confronts Owens and the dispatchers back in San Diego with a dilemma: the plane can “hold’’ for a while in the air in the hope that the fog in Oakland will dissipate sufficiently to enable a landing. Or Owens can head for the San Francisco airport (which already has opened) and land there — a move that will disrupt all the schedules severely. Hoping to avoid such disruption, the team decides to gamble on an imminent improvement in the Oakland weather. About 115 miles from the Oakland Airport. Owens brings the plane to 28,000 feet, where he begins flying a racetrack-shaped pattern that involves making a 180-degree right turn every twenty miles.

From the standpoint of scenery, it's not a bad place to pass some time.

Every time the plane flies north or south, the snowy spectacle of the Sierra Nevada comes into view, illuminated by the brilliant wash of early-morning sun. The wait creates an idyllic respite for the three flight attendants, who already have offered the handful of business passengers several helpings of coffee and juices. While one of the three young women flips through the pages of a magazine, the senior flight attendant, Judi Bishop, confides that when she started flying with PSA she figured she would work for just a year, then move on to something else.

That was sixteen years ago, the perky blonde says today with a laugh. She now earns about $32,000 per year working a schedule that usually gives her four days off every week. Bishop also takes liberal advantage of the travel benefits. She did all her Christmas shopping in October during a three-day jaunt to Seoul, South Korea, for example; she also mentions how in 1984 she flew to France and back for thirty dollars. She tends to favor schedules that require her to spend the night in Seattle, which has good art and seafood. “Santa Ana’s also nice because the hotel where they put us up — the Irvine Marriott — is really nice, and right in the area there’s wonderful sushi, great shopping, great theater and film.” In Burbank, on the other hand, “the Holiday Inn where we stay is in a pitty area, and there aren’t very many things you can do.”

After almost a full hour of flying back and forth. Owens finally is able to announce that the weather in Oakland seems to have improved.

Another fifteen minutes pass, however, before the plane begins to sink into the dense gray clouds, and by then the weather once again is worsening. Owens is just seconds away from pulling back on the control wheel when Masley finally discerns the glimmer of approach lights through the dark mist. When the wheels hit the runway, the flight is already more than fifty minutes late, but Owens announces to the passengers that they’re lucky to have arrived at all. “We’ve just got word that the airport’s going to close again in about two seconds, because the fog bank is moving back in. We’re happy we were able to offer you same-day service,” he deadpans.

With the plane parked outside the Oakland terminal, Owens seems unrattled by the extent to which he has fallen behind schedule. “There are some ways to make up the time,” he says. For example, the ground crews will know that the plane is running late. “They’ll hustle a little more. They’ll try to cut the normal twenty- to twenty-five-minute turnaround time to ten or fifteen minutes.”

Owens has already climbed down a set of stairs and is walking around the aircraft, searching for signs of any hydraulic or fuel leaks, or for signs of collision with a bird. Under the wing, he runs his fingers over a delicate frosting of ice but says it’s not the sort that poses any danger. “You always want to walk around your airplane. Make sure all the parts are there.” He barely finishes this task when a ground crew worker yells to alert him that the plane is ready for departure. Oakland Airport is still closed for landings, but planes can take off. The fog is still so thick that Owens jokes over the loudspeaker, “We’re lucky we found the end of the runway.” Seconds later, the DC-9 rockets upward into the cottony fog again, this time with Masley in charge of the controls.

To regain more lost time, Masley will fly faster than normal, pushing the plane up to around 545 miles per hour. That’s a speed the DC-9 achieves easily, a speed that was commonly flown a few years ago. Like automobiles, however, jet engines use fuel most efficiently when cruising at somewhat slower than their maximum speeds. Since fuel prices (currently eighty-six cents a gallon) account for about a quarter of U.S. airlines’ operating costs, economy measures throughout the industry have become commonplace. Although PSA hasn’t gone to the extremes of some airlines (installing thinner seat cushions and cutting down on the amount of reading material carried for passengers, to reduce the plane’s overall weight), it has adopted a number of fuel-saving measures. The airline’s planes now climb and descend more steeply than they once did, in part to spend as much time as possible at altitudes above 20,000 feet, where the engines work most efficiently. The planes carry no more fuel than is necessary (to lighten their weight). Cruising altitudes are carefully chosen to avoid headwinds whenever possible. And normally the pilots try to fly at an energy-efficient 510 miles per hour — except when the schedule exerts a contrary pressure.

So when the DC-9’s wheels touch, down again at Lindbergh Field, the plane is only forty minutes behind schedule, instead of the more than fifty minutes it was when it arrived in Oakland, and Owens retains some hope that eventually he’ll catch up the rest of the time. The skies over San Diego are clear, and the weather report in Phoenix also looks excellent. “If the weather’s bad at both ends, you can never catch up,” he says.

Had the weather been bad in San Diego, had the plane’s delay stretched significantly longer, rather than shrinking, Owens says the dispatchers might have opted to cancel Owens’s flight to Phoenix altogether, transferring passengers to the next scheduled outbound flight. They might have decided to call out a back-up crew and another jet at the last moment.

More often than not, Owens himself acts as such a “reserve” crew member, hardly the most desirable status for a pilot. Owens explains that when he’s on reserve, he is guaranteed ten days off in every twenty-eight-day period, but for the remaining eighteen days he must be prepared to report for duty in either San Diego or Los Angeles with only three and a half hours’ notice. Frequently this means that Owens finds himself driving up to Los Angeles at three or four in the morning to start a sequence of flights that won’t bring him home again for two or three (or even four) days. It’s impossible to understand why, after eighteen years of working for PSA, Owens would be stuck with such a burdensome schedule — unless you know something about the seniority system.

In an airline, seniority affects virtually every aspect of one’s working life — how much choice a pilot has over when and where he flies, when he takes his vacations, whether he’s affected by layoffs. Unlike most pilots, however, Owens’s seniority does not date back to when he first began working for PSA, because of the fact that he didn’t start out as a pilot.

While growing up in La Jolla, Owens says he got a fair amount of exposure to flying because his parents traveled a lot. He never took any extraordinary interest in an air career, however, until one day when the family flew from Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands, and Owens, then about fourteen, got to sit next to the pilot of the twin-engine Beechcraft. “I just fell in love with it,” he recalls today. When he was sixteen he started taking lessons at the Crown Air flight school at Montgomery Field. By the age of twenty, he had earned his private, commercial, multi-engine, and instrument ratings and had leapt at the chance to work for the San Diego airline — even though it meant starting out by loading baggage. Around 1968 Owens took a leave of absence from the airline to work as a pilot and air traffic reporter for KFMB radio, but he soon returned to PSA, this time working with passenger services. From the very beginning of his tenure with the airline, however, Owens says he “bugged and bugged” the pilots with his ambition to join their ranks. In 1970 he finally got a job as one of the “flight engineers” on the 727s; at last the seniority clock started ticking.

“Once you get a [seniority] number with an airline, it’s like gold in your pocket,” Owens says. But there’s another quirk to airlines’ seniority systems: since every pilot’s job is not exactly the same, every time a pilot moves from one type of flying assignment to another, his status within that subgroup shifts. Thus Owens was at the bottom of the list when he first started working in the 727 cockpit, but after five or so years, Owens had become one of the most senior flight engineers, given priority in his preferences for when and where to fly. Then he was promoted to 727 copilot, where once again he found himself subordinate to all the other 727 copilots. Again, five years passed, and Owens had risen through the ranks once again — when he was offered what is today PSA’s top piloting job, DC-9 captain. Of course he accepted the position — which again made him the most junior of that particular set of pilots.

One other thing further complicates this mandarin hierarchy — the fact that PSA pilots can be based out of one of two places, either San Francisco or Los Angeles/San Diego. Where a pilot is based has nothing to do with where he lives; a few of the PSA pilots in fact live as far away as Texas, St. Louis, even Maine, commuting to their jobs here in California. To say that a pilot is based in San Francisco merely means that all his flight sequences begin there. But the fact that PSA has two bases means that it has two subgroups of DC-9 captains, those based in San Francisco and those based in L.A./San Diego. Owens says if he were based up in San Francisco, his seniority among those pilots would be pretty good, about fiftieth out of seventy-three. But since he has chosen to be based in L.A./San Diego, he’s second from the very bottom of that list, in ninety-seventh position.

Although seniority affects every aspect of a pilot’s life, it has its most unrelenting impact upon the apportioning of flying assignments. Every twenty-eight days PSA’s scheduling department produces a thick book containing assignments for the next twenty-eight-day period. There’s one assignment for each pilot within his or her subgroup, and every pilot — theoretically — is supposed to bid for the assignments he or she wants. But since the assignments are awarded on the basis of seniority, the most senior pilots have the most incentive to spend time pondering their choices. “They’re going to be picky,” Owens says; they might spend hours deciding which combinations of flights they want to command that month. The fifteenth most senior DC-9 pilot based in L.A./San Diego would list his top fifteen choices for flight assignments — and would be guaranteed of getting one of those choices. The number-one pilot would only bid once, assured as he is of receiving whatever he wants. At the other end of the seniority scale, Owens says even if he does bid for flights, in practice he gets “whatever is left over” after assignments have been doled out to all the more senior DC-9 captains. So he chooses to fly on reserve.

Owens commands the controls on the trip to Phoenix, with passengers filling fifty-seven of the plane’s 150 seats. Masley takes the helm back to San Diego, with a load of sixty people. By the time those sixty have disembarked at Lindbergh Field and another 116 bound for Oakland have boarded, the nature of the passengers has changed completely from this morning’s businesslike commuters. This second batch of San Diego-to-Oakland travelers includes a large number of elderly people toting packages for their grandchildren; it’s easy to spot the infrequent fliers, laden with bulky parcels and confused about how to stow them or where to sit.

Yet by the time the tractor pushes the DC-9 away from the Lindbergh Field terminal and Owens once again starts the jet engines, the flight is running just about on time, and Owens seems in high spirits. Shortly before the plane begins to taxi, his voice comes over the loudspeaker, welcoming the passengers.

" “All abooaard!” he concludes his announcement, then treats the passengers to the unmistakable sound of an old-fashioned train whistle. The passengers love it.

A few minutes later, once airborne, he's on the loudspeaker again, launching into a tall tale about how Judi Bishop, the senior (light attendant, has just been named the 1985 Roller Derby Queen in El Centro. “Judi started with PSA twenty-two years ago, and she’s been skating on the job ever since!” Owens declares. Though the roller derby story is completely fabricated, Owens isn't kidding when he announces that for this flight, he’s proclaimed that drinks are free. As the plane makes its way northward, he also interrupts the chatter in the cabin to point out the Spruce Goose and the Queen Mary in Long Beach, Edwards Air Force Base, the San Joaquin Valley, the beginnings of the Sierra Nevada.

“You can’t do a comedy show on every flight,” Owens says after landing the plane in Oakland and bidding goodbye to this group of passengers. “You’ve got your businessman in the middle of the week. He doesn’t care if we’re over the Tehachapis. But on every flight, you always have somebody who doesn’t fly that much. So you have to kind of get a feel for the group, for what they’re looking for when they get on the airplane. When the holidays come, people are in a particularly festive mood. They care what’s going on. And if you can throw ’em a little bit of fun, it’s all P.R. for the airline.”

By 2:40 p.m. Owens and Masley are strapped into their cockpit seats once again, ready for the last flight of the day to Los Angeles. In contrast to the fog-plagued trip from San Diego to Oakland this morning, on which they carried 26,000 pounds of fuel, this time they’ll take only 14,000 pounds, less than half of which they expect to bum. As usual, the pilots have received from the local air traffic controllers a code name that refers to the path the controllers want the plane to follow on the upcoming departure. From a thick book of charts, Masley extracts a five-by-eight-inch page that corresponds to the code name. It contains a simple diagram that shows precisely where the DC-9 should be at every point as it climbs away from the airport and makes its way out of the Bay Area. “It’s like a road map,” Owens says.

Once away from the urban sprawl, other air traffic controllers track and guide the plane as it races south down the spine of the state. Maybe twenty minutes out of Los Angeles, Owens radios the Los Angeles approach controllers to ask which of the eight routes into that city the controller wants the PSA plane to follow; out comes another chart. Despite its heavy traffic, the Los Angeles airport wins high reviews from both Owens and his copilot for the competence and proficiency of the air traffic controllers there. The fact that LAX has four runways also tends to cut down on the incidence of snarl-ups there. “Some of the airports you like better than others,” Owens says. “Some of ’em have more traffic that’s not controlled.” Among his favorite airports, he counts Seattle for the prettiness of its scenery.

Despite the fact that San Diego’s airport is known for being disliked by pilots, Owens and Masley both say they enjoy landing there. Owens concedes that the approach over downtown San Diego into Lindbergh Field is somewhat steeper than the normal descent rate of between 500 and 700 feet per second; to land in San Diego, planes must descend at 1000 feet per second. So Owens says pilots for other airlines who don’t land here very often may be somewhat startled by the difference. But 300 feet per second shouldn't daunt any professional pilot, he says. And PSA pilots, who often land at Lindbergh several times a day, barely notice the steeper angle.

Questions of air safety generally don’t set off any alarm sirens from Owens. For one thing, he expresses tremendous confidence in PSA’s training program. He says, for example, that throughout the last five years PSA has given pilots extensive training in dealing with wind shear (the phenomenon believed responsible for the crash of a Delta Airlines plane in Dallas last year). Not all the training is technical; although he says he can t disclose any details, Owens says PSA pilots receive instructions in dealing with hijackings. (Several years ago, the local airline did suffer several hijackings — to Cuba, Tijuana, and San Francisco.)

“I think the airline industry is safe,” Owens states. “I think it’s as safe as it was years ago.” He compares flying, where thousands of feet typically separate planes, with traveling on the freeways, where drivers going sixty miles per hour commonly face oncoming cars just six feet away. “I feel so much better in an airplane than I do in a car driving to work,” he says.

While Masley concentrates on following the course into Los Angeles, Owens attends to one final piece of business: filling out the maintenance logbook that accompanies this airplane at all times. One of the first things Owens did this morning was to check to see what yesterday’s captain wrote in the log. He found a note indicating that the right reverse thruster (used in landing) had been slow to close. Across the page, Owens also saw a message from one of the mechanics who had noted that in response to the problem, thrusters in both engines had been lubricated and inspected. “It's a doublecheck system,” Owens says. “That's how you keep up on maintenance.” Both Owens and Masley say that on many other airlines it’s common to see a variety of “Inoperative” stickers attached to various controls in the cockpit. “They’re things you can go without. They’re not essential to the flight. But still, you come on our airplanes and you very rarely see an ‘Inoperative’ sticker up for more than two days.”

By the time Owens walks away from his airplane and enters the Los Angeles terminal, the light from the day has already begun to fade. Another flight crew will take over the plane, which will fly several more hours before the end of the evening, but Owens’s working day is almost over. He’ll get home by “dead-heading” on the 4:37 p.m. flight back to San Diego. After almost twelve hours on the job, he looks content to leave the flying to someone else.

There’s only minor administrative paperwork to be done when he finally reaches PSA's flight operations center at Lindbergh Field once again. Most important, Owens jokes, is filling out his timecard. Today he’s racked up seven and three-quarter hours of actual flying time, for which he’ll be paid at the rate of $105 an hour. Since all PSA pilots are guaranteed pay for at least seventy hours of flying per month, that means Owens can count on a base pay of at least $95,550 per year; in addition, pilots also get a per diem cash reimbursement to cover the meals they have to purchase while away from home.

“A pilot gets zero sympathy from the general public when we go out on strike — because of the money,” Owens says. What the public doesn’t understand, he adds, is that pilots don’t just work seventy hours per month for that money. A typical sequence of flights will take a pilot away from home at least 225 hours in a twenty-eight-day period, sometimes up to 270 hours. “Take today, for example,” Owens says. “To get the seven hours and forty-five minutes (of flight time), we put in twelve hours and twenty minutes. The crew didn't get paid for twelve hours and twenty minutes.”

He does concede, however, that “for a normal day’s flight... may be we are overpaid.” On a normal day, the work is straightforward. “Basically, your job is to get people from point A to point B... And you trust the airplane. You trust the equipment...you know what it does. You know the way in which it operates, and you tend to get a rough idea of when something might go wrong. You learn to look for things.... You know that if you’re five miles in the trail of a heavy airplane, like a 747, and the winds are calm, you know the chance is there of getting a jolt from his wake turbulence, so you think about compensating for it. Maybe you're going to stay a little high on the glide slope to stay out of it, to prevent having to have your passengers sit through something like that.”

Normally the job consists of concentrating on such details, but Owens sees another reason for the high salaries commanded by pilots. “When you stop and think about what we're really paid to do, we’re not overpaid. We're paid to be up there to handle the emergency.” Emergencies don't develop often. In fifteen years of flying, the most harrowing thing Owens has ever encountered in the air has been to shut down an engine on two occasions — both times, as it turned out, because of faulty warning indications. Apart from that, most of his experience dealing with dangerous situations has come from “flying” PSA’s DC-9 simulator at the training center in Scripps Ranch. Every six months, captains must climb into its cockpit — realistic in every detail — and confront computer-generated problems ranging from engine fires to landing gear failing to descend. Even if they seldom arise, real emergencies can come up at any time, Owens says. “Like a decision about a go-around in an approach to a landing. Or another airplane. You make a wrong move there and you can cause an accident.... You can earn your year’s salary in a matter of fifteen seconds in that airplane.”

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader