Varrin’s Aviation Story – World Airways

Note: This was originally written in 2003. I made major updates in May, 2014 which cover the completion of my time at World in June, 2013. World ceased operations March 26th, 2014.

MD-11 freighter in Brussels

In Brussels, on my first trip at World, May, 2001

Transition to World

While I was working at Comair, many of my friends (coworkers) went on to other airlines.  We had a significant number who went to Delta and American, several went to Northwest and USAirways, and a few went to Continental and United.  Then there were the ones that went to ‘other’ places.

One guy went to work for a little airline called World Airways that flew big airplanes.  One of the things I loved about Comair was flying the RJ. If I went someplace else, I knew I wouldn’t really enjoy it as much if I had to fly an older ‘analog’ airplane (or so I thought at the time).  Well, of the ‘other’ airlines (World, Atlas, Polar, Airborne, UPS, FedEx, Jet Blue, AirTran and lots of others), there was a mix of equipment, but certainly plenty of the older stuff hanging around.  World, though, had a fleet of MD-11’s, which is a newer, all glass airplane.

Some time after this friend went to work for World, I got an email or two telling about his trips.  Though, at the time, I wasn’t looking for a job, I was intrigued by the fact that he was doing the kind of flying he was and that he was in the MD-11.  When I began to think about other places to work, World quickly floated to the top of my list.  For me, going to a major was unlikely, and a crap shoot at best.  Looking back, it’s a good thing I didn’t go to a major then, but that’s another story.  In the mean time, a second coworker of mine followed the lead and went to work for World.  I talked to him after the interview, but before he left and learned a lot about the interview process.

World / Aer Lingus MD-11 in Belfast

In Belfast operating service for Aer Lingus, Summer 2001

After talking at length with those two people, and looking into some other options that I thought would provide a reasonable shot at getting a job quickly, I decided to pursue World as my first choice of places to go work. I wound up getting an interview fairly quickly in December of 2000 and getting the job. I was put in a January, 2001 class and did my training in Long Beach. This worked out well because, also in January, my wife and I had our first child and we were all able to spend some time together while I was in training. I was given an MD-11 slot, which I was quite happy with.

Interior of the Aer Lingus MD-11

Aer Lingus business class

MD-11 First Officer (2001-2007)

The MD-11 is a big airplane (fairly comparable in size to the 777-200).  Compared to the Canadair Regional Jet, it carries 8 times as many people, weighs 12 times as much, carries 20 times as much fuel, can fly 5 times as many hours on a tank of gas, and has (depending on the staffing levels) 8-12 times as many flight attendants.

The cockpits, however, have some things in common.  They are both 6-tube side-by-side EFIS/EICAS, have FMS’s, are two-pilot airplanes, and are very automated.  The MD-11, however, has an awful lot of DC-10 stuff underneath the pretty skin and, as a result, is way more complex than the Canadair Regional Jet.  The training was much more difficult than RJ school, partly because of the complexity of the airplane and partly because of World’s procedures.  Also, it was initial training for a type rating. My RJ First Officer training was basically identical to a Captain course, but there was no type rating issued.  For some reason, making it a type rating right off the bat adds a little pressure.

Varrin in the pit

Operating as a First Officer on the MD-11

Flying the MD-11 isn’t really as fun as flying the RJ.  It is big and doesn’t hand fly particularly well.  It does climb much better, especially up high, and can certainly do things the RJ couldn’t do (get out 12 hours later 1/2 way around the world).  It’s also, believe it or not, a little more automated.  Though getting things set up takes longer (partly because of the mountain of paperwork involved), the systems pretty much run themselves and the airplane can even land itself (it has autothrottles, of course). If the automation tanks, there’s a lot more to manage than with the RJ, but the automatic system controllers are required for dispatch and rarely failed. I suppose if the engineers could have started from scratch with a clean sheet of paper, they probably could have made it much simpler, but they didn’t do that.

In the cowling

Sitting in the MD-11 engine cowling

The lifestyle at World was definitely different from a regional or a major airline.  At Comair, 5 day trips were the longest we ever did. At World, 5 day trips were about the shortest (I did a 3 day once, but that’s very unusual).  Typically, instead of doing several short trips each month, we would do one or two longer trips.  I’ve been out as long as 4 weeks at a time, which gets to be a long time away from home.  Some months I worked a lot (a couple times as many as 25 days, which included lots of overtime) and some months I didn’t work at all.  The normal pattern was to work a couple of weeks out of the month and be home the rest of the time.

At Comair, almost all of the flying was scheduled passenger service (there was a little passenger charter work).  It was all domestic plus Canada, Mexico and the Bahamas.  At World, we had ad-hoc and “scheduled” passenger and freight business that spanned the entire globe. I put scheduled in quotes because the schedules were the customer’s, not World’s.  Sometimes we worked for the military, sometimes for freight companies, sometimes for tour operators, sometimes for other airlines, and sometimes for private charters. It was an interesting mix of business. That kept life on the line interesting.

MD-11 World - Air Canada

Shanghai, operating for Air Canada, mid-2005

While I loved the variety, some of my most enjoyable times flying for World flying mostly scheduled cargo trips. From 2004 through 2007, World had quite a bit of that kind of work, and that’s most of what I did. Most it was flying Pacific freight through Anchorage. The flying typically consisted of round trips from Anchorage to the far east (eg. Taipei, Seoul, and Shanghai), and to various places in North America (eg. Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Atlanta and occasionally New York). We operated those trips for China Airlines, Eva Airways, Air Canada, Asiana, Emery, and others. In addition to the Pacific freight, we did some regular Atlantic freight off and on (eg. Dayton – Brussels for Emery and Chicago – Frankfurt for Lufthansa). I thoroughly enjoyed all of that work. On many occasions, I thought if I had to get a ‘real’ job, I could be quite happy flying scheduled cargo, mostly or entirely on Pacific – North America routes. More on that later…

DC-10 Captain (2008-2010)

DC-10 in Barcelona

DC-10 tail with MD-11 in the background in Barcelona, June 2009

By the end of 2007, I had enough seniority to upgrade to Captain. I passed up an opportunity or two, which wound up working in my favor due to some bidding idiosyncrasies. Despite my preference for flying glass jets, I took a Captain position on the DC-10, starting training in early 2008. I had never flown a non-glass jet before, nor had I worked with a flight engineer. One of the reasons I came to work for World was to avoid old analog airplanes. Yet, here I was bidding to fly one. There was a steep learning curve during and immediately following training. I was able to figure it all out and get through training.

World was not shy about sending crews to places nobody on the crew had ever been to before. Combine that with non-glass navigation systems and occasionally crews with very little 3-man cockpit experience, and it kept things quite interesting. Fortunately, by that time, I had quite a bit of experience flying big airplanes all over the world, so at least I knew how to do that much.

v-dc-10-crop

In Indianapolis, before my last trip on the DC-10, July 2010

I was able to stay on the DC-10 until near the end of its life with World. World started operating DC-10s in the late 1970s and parked their last DC-10 in early 2011. As far as I can tell, World operated the DC-10 continuously for that time, resulting in ~32 years of continuous operation. That’s longer than every other DC-10 operator except Northwest, who operated the type starting in the early 1970s for around 34 years. The last passenger DC-10 flight anywhere in the world occurred in 2014. There are still many DC-10 Freighters operating, including a fairly large fleet with FedEx.

The flying on the DC-10 (the routes and schedules) was not as enjoyable for me as much of what I had done on the MD-11. I wound up flying less commercial cargo and more military passenger. By the end of my time on the DC-10, we only had three airplanes left and they were all passenger. Almost all of the flying was for the military, which did result in seeing some interesting destinations, even if it wasn’t my first choice in flying.

The experience, though, was incredible. Even though I preferred glass (and still do), I’m very glad I got a chance to fly the DC-10, and to do it for World. It was historically significant in so many ways, and I actually enjoyed the work more than I thought I would. The airplane hand flies much nicer than the MD-11. It’s actually the most pleasant airliner to hand fly that I’ve ever flown. Some of the airplanes we had were as old as me. Though they had some maintenance issues due to their age, they still flew great, even with as much as 120,000 hours on them. And even though things broke from time to time, if you could get the airplane off the ground, nothing ever went wrong that would keep you from making it to the destination. There may have been the occasional beating on a panel with a flashlight, or putting up with something just not working, but the airframe and engines were solid.

MD-11 Captain (2010-2012)

v-md-11-crop

On my last MD-11 trips, March 2012

In mid 2010, as World wound down its DC-10 operation, I was displaced off the DC-10 and could then hold a Captain seat on the MD-11. Though I wound up enjoying the DC-10, I was happy to get back to the MD-11, this time in the left seat. I missed the automation, and several other small details that made a noticeable difference in quality of life (seats that went a little further back, an even quieter cockpit, the scribe seat and bunks for taking breaks, and vacuum lavs on the passenger airplanes, for example). I had to go through the ‘long program’ because I had been on the DC-10 just long enough that I didn’t qualify to do the short course. The training took up mid to late 2010.

The contracts we had flying across the Pacific were mostly gone by that time. We did do a lot of Asia flying, but mostly going the other direction from of Abu Dhabi (service for Etihad), or, for a short time, from Helsinki (Finnair). We had also picked up a lot of Africa work for both Etihad and a freight forwarder in Oostende, Belgium, which wasn’t as enjoyable but did give me the opportunity to go on a nice safari and see parts of the world I had never seen before.

The fun was short lived, though. By the end of 2011, significant trouble was brewing at World. Though I enjoyed my time back in the MD-11, it was cut short by what would wind up being the ultimate demise of World.

Bankruptcy, the 747-400, and the end of World (2012-2013)

Backing up a bit, in 2007, World’s parent (which was then public) was bought out by a Wall St. hedge fund. The buyout was heavily leveraged and resulted in three airlines being under the same umbrella: World Airways, North American Airlines, and American Trans Air (ATA). ATA went out of business shortly thereafter and World and North American soldiered on. The debt load was crushing and a round of renegotiation occurred maybe in 2009 or 2010.

In late 2011, business dropped off a little bit (really not much). World started parking airplanes and furloughing pilots and thus began the end. February 5th, 2012, World Airways filed for bankruptcy for the first time ever. World had been near extinction before. Losses incurred as a result of an entry into scheduled service in the 1980s left World near the brink of extinction, but World came back. Then, World’s former parent (Worldcorp) mismanaged and raided the company, filing for bankruptcy immediately after shedding World in the late-1990s. World itself remained out of bankruptcy and was still trying to start its recovery when I joined at the beginning of 2001. World recovered through the 2000s, but the 2007 leveraged buyout wound up being the end of World.

World had already shed a few aircraft. When World filed for bankruptcy, the management cut the fleet in half basically overnight. World furloughed about half of the pilots and I was displaced back to First Officer after having been a Captain since 2008. World began operating 747-400 freighters a few years earlier and though I was not senior enough to keep my Captain seat, I was still senior enough to choose my airplane when I was downgraded to First Officer. So I decided to go to the 747 to get the type rating and time on the airplane. It looked as though World might actually not recover this time, and I already had plenty of MD-11 time.

747 at McClellan near Sacramento

747 at McClellan near Sacramento

I went through 747 training starting mid-2012 and went back to school at the same time to finish up my college degree, which I had worked on sporadically for many years. By the time I was checked out on the 747, there were only two left. I flew those two airplanes around the world as a First Officer. I still enjoyed my job, but it was bitter sweet knowing there was a good chance World might not survive.

I submitted a letter to the bankruptcy court outlining what I thought were necessary steps to secure a real recovery. Those recommendations were ignored, which did not surprise me. World exited bankruptcy on February 13th 2013 without competent management, with too much debt, and with no provision for long-term employees to veto big (potentially bad) business decisions. At that point, I was very certain that World, as I had come to know it, would not survive. Indeed, on November 12th, 2013, just 9 months later, World was back in bankruptcy. World operated its last flight on March 26th, 2014, just a few days shy of its 66th birthday.

Fortunately, I was able to continue working for World until I left in June, 2013. My 2012 move to the 747 opened the door for the next job. I also finished my degree in January of 2013. I’m saddened by the destruction caused by the corporate raiders and incompetent managers who worked hard to sink World, but I’m happy for all the great experiences I had working there.

It was a wonderful job working with wonderful people. In any given month we normally served at least 4 continents, sometimes 5 or even all 6 (populated ones).  Over the course of my career at World, I went to over 60 different countries and territories around the world, sometimes seeing 20 or 30 in a year. I went the whole way around the world several times. Some of the layovers were quite long, so we occasionally had a chance to see the sights, which was quite enjoyable. And we got to share those experiences with a rag tag band of professional gypsies whose lives are really only understood by others cut out of the same mold and with similar experience. It was a life changing odyssey I’m glad I had.

 

Intro – Document history, purpose, and introduction
History – How I got started – the story before the story
Comair Aviation Academy – Details about my time as a student and instructor at Comair Aviation Academy, now Delta Connection Academy
Comair Airlines – Information about flying for Comair Airlines
World Airways – Information about flying for World Airways (Updated May 27th, 2014)
Nippon Cargo Airlines – Information about flying for Nippon Cargo Airlines
Conclusion – A wrap up of the whole story

Updated: 5-27-2014

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