Last week during Spring Break I was able to take part in an exciting road trip with other students from the College of Aviation. This three-day trip was organized by Career Services to provide us with the opportunity to learn about several different airlines, and to better understand the career possibilities at each company.
I went with a group of five other Western students, who were a mix of freshmen, juniors, and seniors, with several different aviation-related majors. It was a fun group of people, and we got to know each other well by the end of the trip. We were also accompanied by the Career and Development Specialist for our college, and another doctoral student from the Department of Counselor Education. The two of them were the ones who really organized the trip, and they did all the driving!
We started the trip very early, and everyone was awake before 6am. We met outside Henry Hall (the aviation hall) and loaded everything into the van provided to us by the Lee Honors College. Our first stop, Republic Airline, was just under four hours away in Indianapolis, IN. Most of us fell asleep for the first several hours, but as we got closer everyone woke up and reviewed the research we had compiled about Republic before the trip. Later on it was helpful already having some questions ready to ask the recruiters and pilots we talked with.
When we arrived at the airport our group was met by two of the recruiters for Republic, Lauren and Sarah, as well as one of the pilots who had graduated from Western Michigan University a few years earlier. Our tour started with a presentation by one of the lead technicians from the maintenance department. He went over many interesting facts about how the airline history, fleet upgrades, and general maintenance practices. I enjoyed getting to look at several turbine blades that were passed around as example of damage that can occur to engines on a regular basis. Each of the blades were either bent out of shape, or had large dents and cuts in them.
Once we finished there, we proceeded to walk into the main hangar area where two Embraer ERJ-175’s were parked. We did a full walk-around, and afterwards sat inside the cockpit and first-class cabin. Of all the regional jets I’ve flown on as a passenger, ERJ’s are my favorite, so I especially enjoyed becoming more familiar with the systems and control layout. Even for such an advanced aircraft, all the switches and instruments looked very concise and straight-forward. With the spacious layout and well-designed FMS, all the systems can be easily monitored, and the navigation data can be entered very quickly.
Another place we visited was the training center for new flight crew. They were using a brand-new cabin trainer device, that simulates a cabin environment for the flight attendants. It’s helpful for practicing passenger announcements, meal services, security procedures, and emergency evacuations. It was even able to simulate a fire in one of the overhead luggage compartments, with flashing lights and clouds of thick smoke quickly filling the room before a flight attendant rushed over and extinguished it.
The last half of the day involved touring the main company headquarters, and meeting with a panel including the Maintenance Training Instructor, Director of Safety, and the Manager of Crew Scheduling for Republic. They talked about their various experiences with the company, and then opened the floor to any questions we had for them. Personally, I was most interested in the cadet program they started, which allows pilots with their instrument rating enrolled in a Part 141 school to complete a preliminary interview with the company. After joining the program, cadets are provided with a variety of resources, and are also paired with a mentor to help check up on their training status.
The whole day went by very quickly, and by the end, we were quite ready for dinner and some sleep. We picked a restaurant in downtown Indianapolis, but made the mistake of not calling ahead to make a reservation. Even though we had to split into two groups, the food was exceptional, and I ate almost a whole barbecued chicken. We stayed at the Hyatt Place that night, and our group met in the lobby before going to bed to debrief our first day.
The second day began with our group driving two hours to get to Dayton, OH. There we began our tour of PSA Airlines and their operations center. Two of their pilots gave us a short presentation about the company and growth outlook. One of the main advantages that we were told PSA offers is a direct flow through program with American Airlines. Once you’re hired by PSA, you don’t even have to interview a second time. Fast upgrade times also seemed to be a focus, and many of the people that we spoke with had been working with the company for less than two years. On one hand I felt hesitant about an organization that had such a high turnover rate, but on the bright side it is a great indicator of the strong growth that is present all across the industry.
As we walked around the main building and training center, we looked into several different classrooms that each had groups of around twenty flight crew. I heard from one of the captains that PSA had three new training classes starting just in the last month. When we walked into the main dispatch and scheduling center, it was easy to feel the change in pace. Everyone was busy talking on phones, monitoring several computer screens, or checking maintenance handbooks. There was a buzz of activity all around that had an exciting feel to it.
We were able to walk around and talk to people working at each department individually. Each person there had a unique responsibility, but they also had some connection to everyone else that required regular communication. Anytime that a maintenance technician diagnosed a problem that needed to be repaired, he had to coordinate with dispatch to arrange for a standby aircraft to be used. With the new aircraft, dispatch had to check with scheduling to see which flight crews were available to take an extra leg. The excellent coordination between everyone working together to ensure seamless and efficient airline operation impressed me.
The last part of the tour was around one of the Bombardier CRJ-900’s that was sitting on the ramp. We got to do a full exterior walk-around with one of the pilots, and we checked everything from the static ports to the landing gear and baggage compartment doors. Afterwards we also got to sit in the cockpit, and scroll through menus and system pages on the digital displays and flight management system. It was an amazing experience getting to do all of that ourselves, rather than just hearing someone talk about it.
As we finished up the afternoon and got ready to head out, we made sure to thank everyone there for having us. After that, we drove over to the Fairfield Inn, where we had an hour to rest before meeting back for dinner. We ate at the Corner Kitchen, a casual dining restaurant downtown that had excellent reviews. This time we were smarter and made sure to call ahead and make a reservation. After dinner, some of our group went back to the hotel, while myself and three other friends went out to the Scene 75 Entertainment Center. We had a great time there go-kart racing each other, and teaming up to take on another group of people in a laser tag battle. It was a fun way to end the day.
The third and final day of our trip took us back to Michigan again. We were visiting the main operations center for Kalitta Air in Ypsilanti. We ended up having to detour around the airport on the back roads, because the plane that went off the runway with the Michigan Basketball Team was still blocking the main highway. We could actually see it across the tarmac, with plenty of emergency vehicles and a few news helicopters still loitering around the scene.
When we finally arrived, we met with the Director of Public Relations and one of the managers in Human Resources. We had a short presentation on the company, which especially focused on the history and founding of Kalitta Air. I found it remarkable that it has remained a family-run business for so long.
From there we split into two smaller groups to walk around on our tour. It was mostly just office buildings and training rooms, since most of Kalitta’s planes are based out of Oscoda, MI, or other locations. The dispatch room felt very similar to PSA’s, with a high energy level and plenty of people moving around and talking to each other. We stopped a few times to ask questions, and also answered some about ourselves. We met several different Western graduates, and we had a good time talking about the same classes that everyone had taken before. The main aspect of the company that I was interested in was their widebody aircraft fleet. I also liked that they primarily flew to international destinations, which is something that is definitely on my list of career goals. We heard several stories about the exotic destinations Kalitta Air has flown to. Some of these included countries in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak, when they flew in a 747 to deliver medical supplies. They also do contract flights for DHL and the Department of Defense.
Once we switched back with the other group, we ended up at the Boeing 747-200 full motion simulator. I was thrilled that we actually got to fly in it! Compared to the other regional jet cockpits, the 747 was gigantic! Four crew members comfortably fit in the two front seats, flight engineer’s seat, and jump seat. It was completely different from what I had been expecting. Once we actually sat down and got strapped in, however, my instrument scan habits started coming back. It definitely didn’t feel “natural”, but I did recognize all the basic six pack instruments, as well as the ILS and VOR receivers. I really enjoyed flying around at 300kts, and trying to push the four, heavy throttle controls forward was immensely satisfying. With the full motion rig and 3D screens, it felt completely realistic like a real plane. Turbulence and engine noise added to the authentic experience.
We finished up the 90 minute flight with an autopilot-coupled CAT III ILS Approach at night, with visibility set to RVR600. The instructor who was helping us out was an amazing person to talk to also. He had been flying as a captain on DC-8’s and 747’s all the way back from 1997, and it was easy to see just how proficient and experienced he was in the plane. Every control he touched looked completely natural, as if he didn’t even have to think about what he was doing.
After we finished up with the sims, we went back to the conference room for some lunch that Kalitta had provided. We finished up the road trip with a Q&A session with several WMU alumni, who all talked about their career paths and what they did after graduating. They were very positive and encouraging, and I greatly appreciated some of the advice they gave us. Several of them recommended getting an Aircraft Dispatcher License, which could be very useful for any dispatch or scheduling job outside of the cockpit. I’m going to try to get mine sometime before I graduate from Western!
That was basically the end of the trip, and it was just a short drive back to Kalamazoo. Overall it was a great Spring Break, and I thought it was one of the best trips I’ve been on. It was well-planned, and it covered many different aspects of the aviation industry. I appreciated seeing the differences between company cultures, training styles, and aircraft fleets. I feel like I have a better understanding of career opportunities at the three different companies, and hopefully that will help me as I try to pick a job in two years when I graduate.
I would 100% recommend anyone else to go on the trip next year!