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Old 10-11-2019, 06:21 AM   #1  
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Joined APC: Mar 2007
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Default PSA (not the airline) on AB Jets in Memphis

Hello! I recently completed my tenure (read: left) at a Part 135 operator based out of Memphis, Tennessee called Andrew Bettis Aviation, LLC, more commonly known as AB Jets. When I started there back in late summer 2016 there was a dearth of information online about this operator, and to this date there are still very few details available on popular aviation forum sites like PPW and APC. The point of this post is to remedy that by providing an up-to-date, detailed, and objective account of my own personal experience at AB Jets.

Background:
I came to AB from working as a Citation Encore captain for a Part 135 operator based out of Goshen, Indiana by the name of Aircraft Charter Services, Inc. (ACS) and started at AB as a first officer in the Lear 60 (Classic) at the end of August 2016. I worked as a first officer for a little over a year, upgrading to captain in the 60 in November 2017. I served as a captain until the day before yesterday when I left the company on good terms.
As of this writing AB Jets operates several Lear 31s on mainly air ambulance flights and a growing fleet of Lear 60 Classics that go all over the country on a 16-on, 12-off schedule. The Lear 31s are flying on a 13-on, 7-off schedule and usually end up at home each night. The 31s are also usually first up for an air ambulance/organ run and are on a 24/7 on-call schedule if they don’t already have a previously-scheduled trip. It’s not uncommon at all for the 60s to get those trips as well if all the 31s and/or their crews are busy. Flying cargo-only legs occasionally was not uncommon either in either airframe.

The official chief pilot of the company is Andrew Bettis (the “AB” in "AB Jets").

The Good:

The Lear 60: it was a hoot to fly. Sure, the brakes, wheels and tires are pretty much after-thoughts, the amount of baggage space is a joke compared to other similarly-sized aircraft, and the wing could be another couple feet longer on each side, but man getting to cruise altitude in around 12 minutes give or take never got old. The controls are responsive, and the airplane can be a handful to stay ahead of, but when you get the knack to it all it really is a solid airplane to buzz around in. It’s one of those airplanes that looks like it’s going fast even while it’s sitting still on the ramp waiting for its brakes to cool. And as much as we were flying these airframes (700+ flight hours a year, easy) I never really had a “show-stopper” of a mechanical issue.

Salary: I started at $35k/year for my first year as a first officer and $45k/year for my second year. In late 2017 the company announced roughly a 40 percent salary bump across the board. When I started as a baby captain on the 60 in November 2017 I was at $85k/year. One year after that I was automatically given a raise to $110k, and when I hit 500 hours of PIC time in the 60 I was given another raise to $125k. After that there was a 1.5 percent raise given every year for the rest of your duration as a captain at the company.

When I left, first officers on the Lear 60 were starting at anywhere between $40 to $60k/year, commiserate with experience. I’m not sure what Lear 31 first officers and captains were starting at.

The Schedule: at first the 16-on, 12-day off schedule was definitely a boon, and the idea of coming home and having (almost) two weeks straight off with no work obligations whatsoever was awesome. As I got older I began noticing that it was hard for me to build (let alone maintain) much of a social life as I was on the road more than I was home every month. And when I was home, the first 3-5 days were usually spent catching up on sleep and getting out of that “on-the-road” mindset. But the schedule was still one of the (overall) “good” and positive things about my time here at AB.

The Callsign: somewhere around the middle of last year the company adopted the “Fortitude” callsign, so if you ever hear “Fortitude Five-Oh-[Number]” that’s an AB airplane. This was my first time ever flying for a company that used a callsign, and I thought it was neat (and still do). Granted, we got called “Foothills” or “FTD” a lot (and on rare, wonderful occasions we would get the “Freedom Eagle” moniker, which was amazing), but it was still cool buzzing around with a callsign of any sorts.

The Bad:

Benefits: outside of health insurances (dental, health, vision, etc) and a 401(k) program, there aren’t any other things like paid time off, vacation time, sick leave, etc. at AB Jets. You’re either home and off for the time/holidays that you want off, or you ain’t. It was feasible to look several months ahead on your calendar, find some days off you wanted and then try to find another first officer or captain to swap rotations with you so you had those days off. But doing so entailed coordination with management, working an extra-long rotation (three weeks) and then going home for an extra-long period of time off (three weeks) in order to get you on the other side of rotation schedule so that you had off for the days you wanted. I had to do that once or twice, and while the three weeks home was nice the three weeks on was brutal.

Safety Culture: if there was one thing I could change at AB Jets it would’ve been the company’s stance toward safety, particularly in the areas of crew rest, aircraft limitations and just good ol’ common sense. When I was starting out as a first officer at the company I spent about nine to eleven rotation in a row with the company safety officer, an experienced ex-Delta airline pilot now in his early 70s with years of F-100 and A-10 time from back in the late 60s and most of the 70s. I’ll never forget sitting in the right seat of a 60 as we rocketed down the runway at Palm Springs International and watching him reach down into the side pocket on his side, find his ringing phone and proceed to answer and actively engage in a voice phone-call as we were approaching V1. He proceeded to (poorly) fly the airplane as we passed VR, V2, and other pertinent speeds altitudes and continued his voice phone call for the next two minutes before finally ending it. The phone call was completely non-pertinent and was not regarding anything of a dire nature or some sort of emergency. I remember expecting him to at least provide an excuse for the phone call or apologize, but he never so much as acknowledged the call even happened and continued the flight as if everything was completely normal.

This pilot was also known, all the way up to the time that I left, to do this kind of stuff with other first officers, but management always seemed to look the other way and even condone it sometimes. Taking off significantly overweight was also not uncommon at all, landing or departing with tailwinds that exceeded the airplane’s limits, and other shenanigans were not uncommon either with this person.

Regarding aircraft limitations, I still can remember sitting in a briefing room at CAE Dallas for recurrent training and listening to Andrew Bettis, our owner, founder, chief pilot and company check airman, adamantly telling myself and another pilot how things like zero fuel weight, maximum landing weight, maximum gross takeoff weight, etc. “just don’t matter” and how it’s fine to “totally go several hundred pounds over those and you’ll be fine.” I remember waiting for the “…psych, gotcha! Don’t ever do that haha” but it never came, and Andrew was apparently dead serious.

On other occasions, right up until the time I left, myself and other captains would be pressured into pushing and exceeding various limits of the airplane, mainly maximum gross takeoff weight and center of gravity (C.G.) limits. Just last week I was tasked with the challenge of planning two legs, PDK-MEM-PDK, with eight adult males and no information other than their first and last names. I remember struggling to make things even remotely work with on our APG iPad app for weight and balance, and a long phone call with the company hiring manager/standards/Lear 60 guru/pseudo-chief pilot where I was repeatedly told to “not worry at all about zero fuel weight and here’s why…” In the end we ended up getting actual passenger weights the next morning and it ended up only being seven passengers instead of eight, but still. It was nerve-wracking to say the least.

Being told to “just fudge it” on fuel loads when you were doing a long leg with a lot of passengers and/or your destination was forecast to be IFR was also unfortunately common. Getting the company to build in a fuel stop even when it was going to be clearly necessary often involved several phone calls with Andrew and management and included much gnashing of teeth.

The Ugly:

Rolling Rest: the rest policy that AB Jets utilizes is the epitome of the “rolling rest” method of abusing/misinterpreting the Part 135 rest regulations, particularly the concept that being on-call is not on rest as the FAA’s legal department has ruled several times over the last 15 years. Rest at AB Jets works as follows:

Once we've gotten our 10 hours of rest on the road, we're on-call 24/7 from then on. If we do get an "ASAP" call/text, we're expected to be wheels-up in 2 hours at the latest. I've been up for 30+ hours straight several times during my time at AB, e.g.: wake up normally at the hotel in the morning at 7am, go about your day hanging out at the hotel while on call, and then get called out for a trip at 10pm that same day, fly all night, duty off at 12pm the next afternoon, check in at the hotel and crash (or at least try to) at 1pm. We then go back on call at 10pm later that day and are eligible to get called/texted any time after that for another trip. That exact scenario doesn't happen all the time, but it can, has, and is always a possibility.

I remember asking our standards and training guy (Andrew Bettis was our chief pilot but lord knows you never went to him for anything that you would normally go to your chief pilot about) if our POI at the Memphis FSDO knew we were operating the way we were with rest, and he just giggled and said that, according to our POI, “…as long as we didn’t ball up any airplanes we were good.” On a related note, the POI for AB Jets is a former AB Jets captain from recent years. Don’t even ask me how that’s safe/legit.

This is a company that thinks “circadian rhythm” is something found on page 69 of the “Kama Sutra.” I lost count of the number of times I would get called out on an ASAP trip, fly all or half the night, crawl into bed at a hotel on the road somewhere at around 5am central, sleep for 4 to 5 hours, wake up, be a zombie the rest of the day, and then go to bed again that night just praying to Wilbur and Orville that we didn’t happen to get called out again that night for another all-nighter. Every time I woke up on my time the next morning, having just happened to have gotten a full night’s rest, I was thankful.

Contracts: at AB Jets there was frankly no such thing as not being under contract. New-hire captains would usually be asked to sign two-year, non-pro-rated contracts that would be for however much the company would be spending on them for their initial and recurrent training events. New-hire first officers would be asked to sign two- and three-year contracts (three-year contracts would usually include the cost of getting an ATP at the company’s expense). After this initial contract was completed, everyone would still be asked to sign one-year contracts for the rest of their tenure at the company. We had one captain who had been with the company for almost eight years and was still signing one-year contracts every year.

Pilots who left before their contracts were completed would be fired and subpoenaed on the spot, sued by the company for whatever dollar amount that they still owed on their contract. I watched this happen to everyone from young, first-jet-job first officers with barely 700 hours total time to seasoned newly-ex-FedEx captains. You can take a look at the Chancery Court records for Shelby County, Tennessee and run a search for “Andrew Bettis Aviation LLC,” you’ll see that he’s involved in around 10-15 breach of contract or similar lawsuits against former employees within the last year or two alone. Use the "Search by person name, business name or case type" link from the main Court Connect page.

Other lawsuit information can be found by doing similar case information searches for Shelby County's Circuit and General Sessions courts.

It’s also worth noting that these contracts included clauses that provided for immediate employee termination for losing either their medical or their PIC privileges due to a violation, and “non-compete” clauses that prohibited them from working for a competitor of AB Jets for one year after the contract was complete within a 250 or 500 mile radius around Nashville or Memphis for one year after their contract had already expired.

The Ugly:

Hiring Practices: standing right by the entrance of Signature West at Teterboro, stone-cold sober and in company uniform, with our standards and training guy on IOE for my captain upgrade in fall 2017, listening to him calmly but fully explain how he will never hire “non-whites, women, or gays.” He had thorough explanations for not hiring non-whites and women, but he didn’t provide much if any explanation for not hiring homosexuals. Assumedly because he thought he didn’t really need to explain that one, I guess. I remember smiling and nodding in mild shock, amazed that this kind of crap still was even A Thing in late 2017.

So What’s Next:

I’ve been doing the Part 135 thing for almost nine years, and I’m happy to say that I’m going to be making the leap to the Part 121 side of the aviation world via Republic Airways, and training starts at the end of this month. I plan on dipping my toe(s) into the 121 pool at the regionals at first, and then hopefully making a leap to a major airline after two or three years at Republic provided I sufficiently dig the airline life. Southwest would be fun, but we’ll see where I end up. Thanks for reading, and I hope this post helps someone else out who’s looking for an honest look at the state of AB Jets at the time I left it yesterday morning. Please feel free to PM me for any additional info or details, I’ll be happy to help.
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