I have been flying the DHC-8 for Mesa Airlines for two years now. Mesa Air Group currently operates 181 aircraft with over 1,100 daily system departures to over 165 cities, 45 states, the District of Columbia, Canada, and Mexico. Mesa operates as America West Express, Delta Connection, US Airways Express and United Express. Their fleet consist of 109 CRJ 200/700/900, 36 ERJ 145, 16 DHC-8-202, and 20 BE-1900D. Mesa operates the DHC-8 from three domiciles: Denver for United Express, Phoenix for US Air/America West Express, and Grand Junction, CO as a mixed base and maintenance facility.
The DHC-8-202 is a composite of the 100 and 300 model: The airframe of the 100 series coupled with the engines of the 300 series, the PW123D rated @ 2150 SHP. It is a pretty amazing aircraft to fly, especially in the Colorado Rocky Mountain Region. It beats flying a 21,000 hrs Chieftain, fully loaded, in clear icing at night in the mountains with the engines revved-up at max, airspeed at Vyse and barely maintaining altitude below MVA.
I was hired by Mesa in 2004 as a DHC-8 Captain. I had no previous experience on any turbine aircraft, nor had I flown anything bigger that a Cessna 404 or Piper Chieftain. Let alone being Captain on a bird with 40 souls on board. The reason for that is because most of their F/O's, having come from a special aviation program that gets you in at Mesa with 250 hours total, did not have the time requirement to be PIC. Mesa has adopted the ICAO time requirement for ATPL since they fly to Canada and Mexico, Which means that only 50% of co-pilot time is credited towards the 1500 hrs total required. Just like in Canada. So Mesa had hundreds of F/O's, some with over 2500 hrs of CRJ or Dash right seat that did not qualify to be PIC. So this is where I came in, mind you I had over 3000 Pic on twins and an intimate knowledge of the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest as a freight-dog (see previous posting "PA31 Navajo Captain" in the "Pilots in USA" section).
I mentioned the fact that I had copious amount of Rocky Mountain time and Twin IFR PIC for a reason. After ground school, during the Oral and the Type ride, it came in handy. Here's why: some of the check airmen were a little reluctant, understandably so, to sign off Dash Captain with just enough hours for an ATP and no previous Part 121 experience (FAA's equivalent to CAR 705) like most of the other 19 candidates in my class. So at Oral time, and once again at check ride time, rumor has it that it was already decided who would make it through. For those who had the bare minimums, even though they did very well in their Oral and Type ride, there was only a pink slip at the end (FAA's failed ride document, not necessarily a lay-off). I remember being interviewed by the check airman just before my Oral to see if I had what it took. I guess they decided I did. The Mesa DHC-8 training program has the reputation of being one of the toughest in the country. Out of 20 candidates in my class, only 13 made it through, and only 4 of us passed the Type ride. One furloughed Northwest guy, one German Luftwaffe Tornado/Phantom pilot, one Part 121 Metroliner guy, and myself. So here I was from the left seat of a PA-31 to the left seat of a DHC-8. Life was good...
The only problem with being the most junior Captain is that every time there is an upgrade, that upgrade comes in ahead of you because the F/O upgrading was hired before you. So you stay at the bottom of the seniority list on the Captain side in a given domicile.
However the upside at Mesa is that once you are in the left seat, you can only upgrade to the left seat (thanks to our ALPA collective agreement). Which means that once you are Captain, you will always be, no matter what equipment you upgrade to. By now, with two years' seniority, I can already hold a CRJ or ERJ Captain position, but it would have to be in Chicago, Houston or Orlando. And I couldn't hold anything but reserve. Not very convenient when living on the West Coast.
Line holders get from 11 to 17 days-off/bid (28 days/bid) depending on seniority and domicile. Reserve line holders get only 8. A senior Captain in Denver will get about 13 days-off/bid with 80 hrs of flying, while a junior line holder Captain in Grand Junction gets up to 17 days-off with 85 hrs of flying.
A 2-year Captain gets $44/hr with a guaranty of 70 hrs/bid. If you play your cards right, you can bill the company for over 110hrs/bid by picking up open time which pays time and a half. F/O pay is pretty meager: $20/hr. US Dollars of course.
The reason the pay is so low is that three years ago the pilot signed a collective bargaining agreement allowing for lower pay while allowing the company to take over the Regional market in the US (which they are doing at an alarming rate) and guarantying job security. In the light of all the lay-offs and furloughs at the Majors and other Regionals after 9/11, it was a no-brainer. And it worked. Contract is up for renegotiation next year and pay should go up.
From the United Express Denver base, I flew to some of the coolest airport in the country: Aspen, Eagle/Vail, Steamboat Springs, Durango, and Gunnison/Crested Butte, all in Colorado. Also Jackson Hole and Cody, Wyoming. Aspen and Eagle deserve a special mention. They are just about the toughest airport to fly into because of the terrain, they both require a descent rate of 3000'/minute on the instrument approach. Going missed in those two is quite the workload. The Dash is the perfect aircraft for these airports. Most of our Colorado destinations require special qualification and familiarization as per FAA. They even have color pictures with the approach charts for orientation.
Denver Airport itself deserves a special mention as it is battered by mega-thunderstorms during the summer months and gets to close daily during lightning storms and tornadoes blasting through. The summer can be so hot, that we have to ground the Dash and the CRJ for a few hours when the temperature reaches 39 Celsius (limitation for 5400' ASL). The snowstorms, which can happen anytime from September all the way to June (no kidding), can be quite memorable too.
As far as activities while on overnights, we can ski/board (we stay at a ski resort in Jackson Hole and Aspen), fly-fish (most of our hotels are two steps away from Gold Medal Trout streams), kayak (same rivers), hike, mountain bike (hotel provided), or just plain go out and party in most ski towns (on long overnights of course). Keep in mind our "bottle to throttle" policy is extended to 12 hours and 0.002ppv (Mesa policy).
Out of the US Air/America West Phoenix base, the destination are: Flagstaff, AZ (Grand Canyon), Telluride CO, Carlsbad, CA, Palm Springs, Yuma, AZ, Guaymas and Hermosillo, Mex.
As far as Grand Junction is concerned, it is a combined base with maintenance facilities. So we fly in both systems through either Denver or Phoenix. We also do a lot of maintenance flights like prop balance, flight control test flights, etc… That's where the fun comes in; flying the Dash empty under Part 91 VFR (general aviation). That's when you can really test the bird to the limits of the envelope. A lot of fun...
The big news:
We are expecting to get the Q400 series anytime soon. It is still unknown how many since they are hard to come by, but they are coming.
The future: Well most pilot get their 1000 PIC turbine and move on to Continental, FedEx, Southwest, Miami Air, some to the Fractionals, and some just to better paying Regionals. Some are United furloughs that are slowly being recalled. UA is coming out of bankruptcy in February.
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