DALLAS – Welcome to a new episode of the Airways Profile. Our guest today is an old Airways acquaintance, triple-seven Pilot and writer, Eric Auxier.
Eric, thanks for being here. I’ve already said your name, but for the sake of this interview: what’s your name, and what’s your role in aviation?
My name is Eric Auxier, and I’m a Boeing 777 Captain for a major US airline. I often go by the nickname “Cap’n Aux,” both here at Airways Magazine, and also on my own blog, at capnaux.com
You are now a captain on the “Triple-seven”, but how did you become a pilot? What’s the story behind this?
Ask any pilot how they started flying, and you will hear a love story. One much like mine.
From age five, I dreamed of flying. With my first-grade friend, Alan, I doodled airplanes in class. Every noise in the sky made me stop everything and look skyward. Now, to this day, after 40+ years and 24,000+ flight hours in the airline business, I still look up, my eyes in wonderment!
I was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. At age 17, I soloed, and at 18, received my Private Pilot license. I got the rest of my ratings through CFI at a great aviation school, Cochise Community College, in southern Arizona. From there, I transferred to ASU (Arizona State University) and began flight instructing while working on my BS degree in Aeronautical Engineering. I graduated in 1986.
Life’s an adventure, and life in the sky, exponentially so. After a few years of building time flight instructing and flying local charters out of Phoenix, I made a leap out of my comfort zone and hit Alaska. What a magical land! I only flew one summer season there, in 1987, but it changed my life. I came back from that experience ten times the pilot I was.
That experience was so rich, it became the foundation for my most popular novel, “The Last Bush Pilots.” I’m proud to say that when “The Last Bush Pilots” first came out, Amazon awarded it a Top 100 slot in its annual Breakthrough Novels Awards, Mainstream category.
Alaska really opened the door to my flying career. From there, I got a job over the phone in the Caribbean. After a few months, however, I walked away from that job after several incidents of poor maintenance. It was the only job I ever flat-out quit. So, “There I Wuz!” stranded in Paradise, penniless! (“There I Wuz!” is the title of my nonfiction aviation anthology series.)
Then, my luck rebounded, and I found myself flying my first Captain’s position, in a Twin Otter, for the Virgin Island Seaplane Shuttle. My story, “Pilots of the Caribbean,” published right here at Airways, chronicled this crazy experience.
In 1990, I was hired by what eventually became my current airline (a major US airline.) I spent a year in the right seat of a DhC Dash 8, then a year in the left seat, and then a year on furlough! However, when I was recalled, my career finally started moving forward for good. In 2000, I upgraded to Airbus A321 Captain, and held that position, until my switch to Boeing 777 Captain last year.
I wrote about my experience in Airways Magazine’s article, “Going Boeing,” out next month in the March/April 2022 edition.
Okay, that was the second question, and I am already overwhelmed by your story. So, unravel your love story with aviation. The first question that pops into my mind is: how can you possibly recall what happened when you were five?
I distinctly remember very vivid dreams from my childhood of flying, floating, that sort of thing. When I was 8, I took a flight from PHX to LAX to visit my cousins. I remember looking in awe at the cockpit, and exclaiming to the pilots, “I’m gonna be a pilot!” Out of the mouths of babes!
That actually makes sense! Moving on, you graduated in 1986. What are the steps to becoming a pilot?
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? I can only talk in generalities because each pilot has to find their own path. And, things have changed drastically since I came up in the ranks. But, in general, get good grades, keep your nose clean, get a degree if you can, and never, ever give up on your dream!
Looking back, I had a singular, dogged, and determined focus to make it to the airlines, and I think that that, more than anything, is what it takes. A singular drive, and a little luck.
What would you say to a 17-year old who tells you, “I want to be a pilot.” “What should I do? What’s important?”
One of my all-time most popular blog posts is entitled, “The Airline Cockpit: 7 ‘Simple’ Steps,” and it talks about exactly that. I go into more detail, but basically, you’ve got three options: go the civilian route and pay for your flight training, then build time as a CFI; go to the military as a pilot; or go to the military as something else, but fund your flight training with the GI Bill. For those without the means to pay for their own training, the military is a very viable option.
A fourth path that has been opening up of late is one that I’m not very familiar with, but seems to be the trend for the future. That is, ab-initio training. Basically, getting hired by an airline with zero flight hours under your belt. Then, they pay for your training, in exchange for a multi-year contract. This is more common in other countries, but it seems to be the trend for us here in the States as well. It’s certainly worth looking into!
Part of becoming a pilot is, of course, flying. How was your first solo flight?
LOL this is crazy, but my very first solo was actually in a hang glider at age 15! I announced to my dad that I wanted to hang glide. He said, “Son, if you can pay for a hang glider, you can fly a hang glider.” He didn’t realize that I’d already been saving up three years of lawn mowing money for just that! Bless his heart, he had to stand by his words, and silently pray while his little bird stretched his teenage wings and leaped out of the nest for the first time!
As for the flight, it was magical. I think that moment hooked me on flying more than any dream or experience before or since.
As for my first solo in an airplane, that was a lifetime memory as well, of course, for anyone who does it. I was 17 by then and was taking lessons out of PHX Sky Harbor with Sawyer Aviation with my Instructor, John Puzel (who later became a Southwest Airlines [WN] Captain).
The main thing I remember was that I misunderstood the pattern elevation, and wound up flying 300 feet low, which threw off all my approaches! I bounced the first one, but did ok after that. In any case, I’m sure I gave Instructor John a heart attack, flying so low!
You went to Alaska shortly after your graduation, and you said that you came back “ten times the pilot you were.” What do you mean by that?
Well, up to that point, all my flying experience had been in sunny, CAVU (Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited) Arizona. Suddenly, I was plunged into the deep end, head first, as it were, in a completely alien world! I mean, what was all this grey, wet stuff falling from the skies? Seriously, though, the Alaska bush pilot lives or dies by the weather. And, the greenhorn pilot must learn to sink or swim.
You’re typically flying a single-engine Cessna on wheels, or maybe a De Havilland Beaver on floats. You’re always flying visually below the cloud deck, which is nearly always low and solid. If the engine fails, your choices are to land in the freezing ocean, a rocky shore, or a dense pine forest.
A one-degree temperature/dew point spread is a good day. And, anything above three miles visibility and 1,000 ceiling is a good day. The colloquial term for it is “scud running,” though that is discouraged in general aviation, and for good reason. Nevertheless, it’s the only way to get the job done in Southeast Alaska.
While it may sound scary, I’ve never felt more alive in my life. You fly by the seat of your pants, which is always on the edge of your seat. What’s more, you’ve got a front-row seat to spectacular scenery and amazing wildlife. And, the colorful characters you meet in Alaska make for a truly memorable experience. I think I captured that vivid experience in my novel, “The Last Bush Pilots.”
That’s incredible. Let’s recap a couple of things. Once you start flying as a First Officer, what are the steps that a young pilot needs to take to become a Captain?
Once you’re in that position—flying as a junior First Officer for an airline—the road is pretty much set. Everything is based on seniority, which is basically “date of hire.” As your longevity with the company increases, options open up. You can move to another, bigger plane—say, an international widebody—as a First Officer, or stay the course and upgrade to Captain on a domestic narrow body.
In the past, the road from FO to Captain at any given airline would be about 5–10 years on average. However, since the days of 9/11 and COVID, that’s thrown a monkey wrench into the system. Until recently, I used to fly with First Officers who were stuck in the right seat for nearly 20 years.
In the future, I believe things will move much faster for the upcoming pilot. There are massive retirements coming for all major airlines in the coming years. At my airline alone, we’ve got about 1,000 retirements a year for the next several years!
That’s an impressive number.
And so, you ended up flying the Boeing 777, which in the US is used both on domestic flights and international ones. I still smile when I think that, for the US, a six-hour flight is considered domestic. You can cross four European countries in that time. OK, the aircraft is the same, but the route is not. Where is the difference?
There are a lot more differences than I realized. Due to the logistics of my career, I didn’t get the opportunity to fly international widebodies until I was senior enough to hold the title of Captain. So, it was a lot to bite off and chew all at once.
When flying overseas on a twin-engine plane, you’ve got to be super-cognizant of your situation at all times. Flying domestically in the States, you’ve always got a decent airport within range. Over the Atlantic, not so much!
You have to constantly verify your position, and always update your contingency plans—do I divert to Keflavik, Iceland? Goose Bay, Canada? What happens if we have a rapid depressurization event several hours from land? All this comes into play in ETOPS (Extended-range Twin-engine Operations Performance Standards) aircraft.
Speaking about emergencies, have you ever faced one?
I’ve had two inflight engine failures. The first one was as a young flight trainee when I ran a fuel tank dry in my Grumman Cheetah. I immediately switched tanks, and the engine kicked right back to life, but the adrenaline rush lasted the rest of the day!
The second was going through severe turbulence over the Front Range of the Rockies in a DeHavilland Dash 7, often referred to as a “Quad Otter.” We lost the Number 3 engine, but with four engines, we hardly noticed it! It happened to be a ferry flight, so no passengers or flight attendants to worry about. We simply restarted the engine and went on our merry way!
I’ve had other mechanical, medical, and passenger issues over the years, but nothing that wasn’t taken care of by a checklist or a diversion. I suppose my most harrowing experience was flying up in Alaska when “The Sky Fell”—the ceiling and visibility dropped to virtually nothing while flying beneath the clouds. I wrote about that in our May 2014 issue, and a fictional version of the incident serves as the climax of “The Last Bush Pilots.”
In your career, at a certain point, you switched from Airbus to Boeing. Sidestick versus Yoke: what’s the biggest challenge there?
As I mentioned in my Airways article, “Going Boeing” (March/April 22 edition), the toughest part for me, and for many pilots I’ve talked to, is learning the Boeing “box” (CDU—Control Display Unit) and unlearning the Airbus box (MCDU—Multipurpose Control and Display Unit). Those are the onboard flight computers, which you use to program and operate the flight.
Nearly the entire flight can be flown simply by punching buttons on either box. At first glance, they look the same, but are completely different. And, a different bit of mentality in the design and use of the CDU as well.
As for the controls, going from a sidestick back to conventional controls was a no-brainer. Every other airplane I’ve ever flown was with conventional controls, so I didn’t even think twice about it; it just came naturally back to me. It is truly like riding a bicycle. The controls themselves are heavier and more broad, as opposed to the subtle finesse of the Airbus sidestick. The same goes for the tiller taxiing on the ground.
Our readers can learn more about Airbus/Boeing flight controls in our latest issue of Airways Magazine, now available online (printed and digitally).
Moving on, what do you think is the correct mindset for being a pilot? And especially in case of an emergency, what do you think can be one of the best qualities?
I think in general, pilots tend to be Type A personalities—prone to wanting to be in charge, and solving problems. In that regard, it’s very rewarding. Pilots also tend to be very focused as well, which helps get them through the long, winding road to the cockpit to begin with. It’s a very “left-brained” job; there’s almost no creativity at all. That’s one reason I so enjoy the outlet of creative writing!
Straight question: what is the most rewarding aspect of being a pilot?
As Confucius said (or some say Mark Twain), “Find a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life.” I’ve yet to work a day in my life! It’s just a simple love for the job. I’ve loved it from the first day I stepped into a cockpit for my first introductory flight. And as your career moves forward, they give you bigger and better toys to play with—er, I mean, equipment to fly!
I don’t believe there aren’t any bad sides. Maybe the answer is going to be “nothing,” but what is an aspect of your job that you don’t like?
Oh, it’s far from “nothing.” Part of why I write my blog is to show the reality of the airline pilot career, warts and all. I love the job, but the career itself can be brutal. It tends to be extremely volatile—the first to crash in a crisis, and the last to recover.
A pilot’s career is all about timing and luck. While I’ve been very lucky in my career, many pilots I know have not. As mentioned, I’ve flown with 20-year FOs. That shouldn’t happen, at least not by choice. (There are some who chose to remain FOs in order to have a better bidding position, and thus better schedules and lifestyle.)
Post-9/11, these pilots were furloughed (laid off), and when they were finally recalled, they were still stuck on the bottom for a long time. Just when things started moving forward once again—here comes Covid, throwing yet another monkey wrench into the industry.
Day to day, delays, irate passengers, and mechanicals can stretch your scheduled duty period to exhausting levels. There’s safety nets built in, of course, and legal limits to your duty day. But, any disruption to your schedule can mess up the rest of your trip.
As a long-haul pilot, I assume you have to deal with jet lag every time you fly. Do you have any advice for people who always have problems with jet lag? How do you manage it?
It’s always a challenge. A big part of each trip is planning your rest. The long-haul pilot has to learn to take cat naps. On each long-haul flight, every flight deck crew member will get a rest in the crew bunk. The longer the flight, the longer the rest.
Then, when you reach your destination, you have to plan your sleep timing to be well-rested for your next showtime for the flight home. To me, the hardest part of this planning is that, often, you have to wake up in mid-sleep cycle the day before, in order to get a good night’s sleep before checking in. But, that makes you fatigued for the rest of your overnight.
As for general jet lag advice for the passenger, sleep as much as you can, when you can. And wherever you are, that’s what time it is. Don’t keep figuring out what time it is back home; it’ll screw you up!
You mentioned 9/11 in one of your answers. Where were you, and how did that day change your aviation world?
Compared to many, I was relatively unscathed. I was off duty that day, at home. I was dropping my kids off at school when we found out.
As the airline industry imploded, and thousands got furloughed, I was slated for a downgrade from Airbus Captain to First Officer. However, we recovered in time, and I was able to avoid that. So, I kept my left seat. But, the fallout did keep the Copilots I was flying with stuck in the right seat abnormally long. Ironically, it helped me; for a long time, I got to fly with very experienced First Officers.
2020 came with the pandemic. How did COVID-19 impact your life as a pilot? What’s your opinion about the aviation world now, and where do you think it’s going to be in five years?
I just published an Op-Ed in Airways about the impact of COVID on flight crew staffing planning. Basically, it’s reduced staffing predictions to the level of reading Tarot cards or tea leaves; it’s almost impossible to predict!
Of course, in the middle of the battle, it’s always hard to tell. However, it does appear that we are coming out the backside of this, finally. That is, we’re morphing from pandemic to endemic; something seasonal we have to live with, like the flu.
I’m certainly looking forward to relieving the mask mandates on planes. It’s become such a lightning rod on flights. Like a cop, I didn’t make the rules, but I’m the one who has to enforce the rules. But, it’s more than that.
It’s a federal offense to disobey a crew member’s instructions or interfere with a crew member’s duty. If you’re not complying with the mask requirement, then you’re disobeying a crew member’s instructions. For now, like it or not, masks will continue to be required on flights.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Retired! Well, to be precise, 5-1/2 years from now. You can do the math based on my age! I do expect the age 65 rule to be increased, maybe to 67, by then. But, I think I’ll be ready at 65.
I also plan to retire from the 787. I may switch to that plane from the 777 in a couple of years.
Why am I imagining you sitting on St. Merteen’s beach, drinking mojito, writing a book? How did you discover that you also like writing?
Oh, did I mention I love to write, too?
Yes, you did!
I’ve been putting pen to paper for nearly as long as I’ve been looking to the skies. My first “novel,” “Little Froggy and the Golden Transmitter,” was 12 pages long and fully illustrated, written when I was all of six years old—I found it in my mother’s baby book! Later, in college, I wrote for the school newspaper. I even had my own aviation-oriented op-ed column.
More recently, this year marks the 10th anniversary of my aviation blog, “Adventures of Cap’n Aux” (capnaux.com.) In that time, I’ve written no less than nine books, nearly all aviation-oriented. My blog came about because I was simply busting at the seams with stories to tell about all the aeronautical adventures I’d had over the years. It was a natural fit for me, and I quickly found an enthusiastic online audience as well.
The stories I wrote for the blog, for Airways, and other publications, eventually found their way into my four-volume nonfiction book series, “There I Wuz! Adventures From Three Decades in the Sky.” Each volume also has other contributing pilot-writers as well, which give the books a nice variety.
My other book series is a four-mission “Fly-Spy” series, which is by far my favorite story. The main character is 14-year-old New York street orphan Justin Reed, who tells his story first hand. There’s a lot of spying, a lot of action, and a lot of flying. Mission 3 in fact, takes place on a hijacked A321! The Online Book Club gave the entire series a perfect 4 out of 4-star rating, and called Mission 4 “One of the best books we’ve ever read, right up there with Harry Potter!”
You can’t get better accolades than that!
We are almost at the end of this interview. I will ask you a few quick questions, and I want to see if you can give me a straight answer.
What is your favorite airline?
Haha, I guess I’d have to say the one I’m flying for!
By the way, I don’t think you are allowed to say that.
In history, perhaps my old airline, the Virgin Islands Seaplane Shuttle, comes to mind. While I flew land-based Twin Otters for them, their main fleet was the Grumman Mallard seaplane. This is just the coolest plane ever, in which to fly around the Caribbean!
Lots of people remember Chalk’s Airline, based in MIA, which had a very similar fleet. They also had Mallards. It is so sad to see them fold as well!
What is your favorite plane?
P-51D Mustang, hands down! Never flown one; it’s on the bucket list!
Airbus or Boeing?
Oh, come on Eric (smile)!
Now that I’ve flown each, I can see the difference. Both are designed for their specific markets, so in that regard, both do the job just fine. I can say that Boeing is more “hands-on.” While you’re often flying with the autopilot on, you can always override or intervene, without turning it off.
The Airbus is either all on or all off. Also, the Boeing controls are more direct feedback, vs. the Airbus artificial, spring-loaded feel in the joystick. In that regard, it tends to be more of a “pilot’s plane.”
Narrow or wide body?
I’m really enjoying the wide body! I’m not sure I’d want to do it for my entire career, but it’s great for now.
Long or short-haul?
It’s a tradeoff. Typically, a short-haul schedule is filled with multiple legs and long days. The more flying there is, the more likely you’ll have delays. It can be exhausting.
While the long haul has its own challenges, there’s typically only one flight per duty period, and the company pays special attention to getting you moving on time.
Flying East or West?
Haha as long as you’re flying to an interesting city, I’m good either way!
A plane that you would have liked to fly at least once in your life:
In addition to the Mustang, I’d say the Queen, the 747. I never quite got the chance to fly it before it was retired from passenger flying in the US. Of course, it’s still out there in cargo circles.
A young man I know, (Kareem Elsammak, who has written for Airways), is currently flying one as a First Officer. I have to say I’m jealous, but also impressed that he was able to finagle his way into a 747 cockpit!
Your favorite airport:
PHX—Home! Telluride is also a fun one, and a big challenge. Spectacular scenery, if the weather’s nice.
Your least favorite airport:
Probably LaGuardia (LGA), just because it’s got short runways, is congested, and has a confusing layout. You’ve always got to be on your game and move quickly. A lot of stress, even on good days. Then again, challenges like that are always satisfying to pull off as well!
An airport where you would have liked to land:
Tokyo, either airport. Just because I love Japan so much. I’ll eventually get there, but lots of our flights are still shut down due to Covid. Also, most of our Asia flights are out of LAX, and I’m currently based in DFW (though plan to move to LAX base eventually.)
The highest number of planes in front of you before takeoff:
Oh wow, hard to say. Most likely happened in either PHL or JFK. Probably well over 50!
The highest number of holding patterns before landing:
Well, I was never up there counting the circuits. I’ve held for 30–45 min and either got in by the skin of our teeth or had to divert to our alternate when we ran out of our holding fuel.
Your longest flight:
The longest leg on my 777 at the moment is JFK-DEL; I haven’t flown that yet, but I plan to at least once. The longest I’ve personally been so far is around 11.5 hours.
Your shortest flight:
Probably Juneau, AK to Hoonah, in my Cessna 207. About 20 minutes or less, runway to dirt strip. In good weather, that is!
Eric, we are at the end of our interview. Thank you for your time, for this amazing interview, and for all the smiles I get when I think about your answers.
And thanks to everyone for reading up to this point. Until our next episode of the Airways Profile, take care of yourselves and each other!
Eric, is there anyone you want to say hi before we finish?
I’d love to say hi to my wife, Bunny. She’s a flight attendant, so she understands my lifestyle. Also, she’s been instrumental in my “Cap’n Aux” endeavors. Her background is in marketing for the Philippine movie industry. So, she always has great ideas and advice and helps me formulate what I want to say in a more, eh, “diplomatic” way!
Don’t forget to visit my blog at capnaux.com. Lots of free, fun stuff there! And, as I like to say on the blog:
This is Cap’n Aux…
Featured and all images: Eric Auxer