They pay me to captain a $20 million-plus jet, complete with a glass cockpit, flight management system, GPS, even an outlet to charge my cell phone. Some operators even have a head-up display (HUD), although we don’t, and in the last couple of years my company completed certification for Category II ILS approaches, of which I’ve done two in actual conditions (and I don’t have the enthusiasm for a third, thank you). The airline spends a small fortune on things such as chart revisions, updates for our manuals, and spare parts (some of which cost more than my house, so make that a big fortune for spare parts), and I don’t want to know how much it spends on jet fuel. The airplane is reliable, rugged, and a joy to fly. Built like a tank, the CRJ has been a mainstay of the regional fleet for more than 12 years.
However, in any airplane, no matter how much it has in the way of gadgets and gizmos, pilots will always find something to bellyache about. This one is no exception.
Take, for instance, the V-speed cards. Unlike the typical general aviation airplane, the bigger and heavier airplanes have a wider range of speeds for normal takeoffs and landings. For every departure, our crew takes into account the ambient temperature, the airport elevation, the takeoff weight, and a few other measurements to determine the correct speeds to use for takeoff. For normal landings, we use only the weight to determine our final approach speed. All this data has been compressed and reduced to a series of about a dozen or so flip cards called V-speed cards. The V-speed cards, for lack of a better place, are kept on the center console under one of the display screens, which places them right next to the first officer’s leg.
The flaw here is that the cards have a habit of falling onto the floor next to the FO, where first they hit the FO’s leg, and then always manage to get under his or her foot. Once in a blue moon, in the FO’s effort to move the cards into reach, they inadvertently get kicked under the rudder pedals, a major inconvenience to say the least, not to mention a possible safety hazard. Some years ago, pilots started placing stick-on hooks on the panel to hold the cards, but over time, those hooks usually have been removed, fallen off, or broken off.
Fortunately, the panel where the cards are placed has a crease between two adjoining pieces of metal— enough space for a hotel key card, in fact. Those key cards probably don’t cost a nickel, given that they are bought in such huge quantities, but they are the perfect tool for keeping the cards from falling on the floor. It’s a bachelor-pad, Sanford and Son solution, but this five-cent solution works, and it doesn’t require an engineering order to put in place.
Another problem crops up when flying into the sun. If you’ve ever driven into the sun, you’ve had the same experience: There comes a point where the sun visor just isn’t going to help you no matter how you twist either it or yourself. Sunglasses help, but you still can’t look directly at the sun without getting teary eyes and possibly a headache, not to mention stars in your field of view.
Another five-cent tool is our flight release, which is printed on enough paper to plant another forest. Our sun visors slide on a rail that wraps around the ceiling of the cockpit. By placing the paper over the rail and resting the other end on the glareshield, you can create a very effective—and cheap—sun blocker. What about seeing traffic, you say? In this case, the sun is going to prevent you from seeing much of anything, which actually makes looking for traffic not in the sun easier, because you don’t have to worry about looking into the sun by accident and temporarily blinding yourself. I’ve tried those stick-on sun blockers, but the angle of the windows is too steep for them to stick. Besides, this meth-od is better than using a chart, which is what I used to have to use. (Did I just say that?)
Speaking of charts, they have other uses, too. In the Piper Cherokee series, with only one door, it isn’t unusual to find a door that doesn’t seal perfectly along the bottom. The result is a stream of air coming into the airplane, which is great in the summer, but darn cold in the winter. If you have a sectional or en route chart you aren’t using, you can sit on part of it and stuff the rest of it into that crack to keep some of the air out. It’s crude, and fairly effective (sometimes). Don’t try this trick without being able to hold onto the chart. If you just shove the chart into the crack, you’re going to lose it. A buddy of mine did that once. When the chart flew out, he stared at the crack in disbelief, and then, as if he didn’t think lightning could strike twice, he used another chart, and the same thing happened.
“Huh.” That was all he had to say. The third time, however, was the charm, when he sat on part of the chart, and the trick worked. He even got one of the charts back that he lost because it wrapped around the horizontal stabilator. A built-in chart catcher. How about that? Costs more than five cents, but what the hey.
And how about those old wing vents in the Cessna series of singles? Fly Cessnas in the rain enough, and eventually you are going to have one leak. A lot. The nickel-and-dime fix to that is to shove an oil rag or paper towel in there to catch the water.
Here’s one for the CFI crowd, especially in the summer. Flying around in the summer in a fleet of trainers can test the best of us. Do it all day without a break and you can find yourself sweating profusely, wishing for something to cool you off. For some temporary relief, put your headset (or just the gel seals that go around your ears) in the refrigerator between flights. Cool the gel seals enough, and put them on your head, and you’ll get some relief for a while, maybe as long as 30 minutes.
Last, but not least, going back to the CRJ, two more doodads that work: First is the cup holder in the cockpit.
I don’t know what kind of cups the engineers were planning on, but the cup holders are way too deep. You can drop a water bottle or a soda can or Styrofoam cup in there, and then you have to dig to get it out. Too much work. The solution? Put a plastic drinking cup in there. It props your drink very nicely, and it can be used for as long as you want. Second, the engineers obviously do all their work on computers, with no paper waste. Nowhere in the cockpit was any consideration given for hanging garbage bags to collect old paperwork, food wrappings, or empty cups. The seats, however, have stops on them to prevent the back of the seat from slamming into the circuit breaker panels…and they hold a plastic grocery bag perfectly.
What’s your five-cent tool?
Chip Wright of Hebron, Kentucky, is a captain for a regional airline.