Taking Wing: Three Years at Horizon Air

A pilot reminisces on his time spent flying for the regional airline.

Horizon Air Q400
A Horizon Q400 taxies in after landing at Kalispell, Montana's Glacier Park International Airport.Courtesy Sam Weigel

As the Boeing 737 descends through 25,000 feet, we break through a thin overcast layer over the Columbia River and a stunning Cascades panorama appears before our eyes. It’s an unusually clear day for early spring, and from my jumpseat perch there are incredible views from Glacier Peak all the way south to the Three Sisters. The pilots are Atlanta-based bubbas who don’t get out this way much; for their benefit, I name the various snowbound peaks, verdant valleys and historic Oregon Trail settlements spread before us. I once lived, worked and flew in this enchanted corner of the country, and on periodic returns to visit friends, I am reminded just how much I love and miss it. Sometimes I wonder why I ever left.

Moving On

In early 2004, I was a 22-year-old, newly married "freight dog" living in bustling Southern California. Career ambition and a pair of puzzling accidents at my Part 135 employer had convinced me that a move to the regional airlines was in order, and in my mind there was only one worth flying for: Horizon Airlines of Portland, Oregon. The company flew interesting airplanes to interesting places, paid well compared to most regionals and was known as a well-run airline. I had several friends at Horizon; they all loved it there. When I finally scored an interview after nine long months of trying and was subsequently hired, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

Horizon Air is a wholly owned subsidiary of Alaska Airlines and has been since it was a tiny commuter outfit in the mid-80s. When I was hired, it was Alaska’s only regional feeder and — unique among modern regional airlines — maintained its own separate brand identity, sales and marketing departments, and reservations system. It also had a new contract to fly for Frontier Airlines as Frontier JetExpress. The routes spanned the western United States and southwestern Canada, with pilot bases in Portland, Seattle and Denver. Over the years, Horizon has operated many unique fleet types, including the Fairchild Metroliner, Dornier 328 and Fokker F-28 jet, but by 2004 had consolidated to an all-Bombardier fleet of about 85 aircraft: DHC-8-200 and -400 turboprops and CRJ-700 regional jets.

I was assigned to fly the DHC-8-400, commonly known as the Q400. A late-90s redesign of the venerable de Havilland Dash 8, the Q400 was and is a rather odd bird, a next-gen turboprop in an increasingly jet-dominated world. It seats up to 78 passengers in a long, skinny fuselage slung beneath a high wing; two big Pratt & Whitney PW150A engines swing massive six-blade composite propellers. It has a modern glass cockpit with dual FMS and a head-up display that permits hand-flown Category IIIA ILS approaches. Many of its systems are automated, but to retain a common type rating with earlier Dash 8s, it kept many of the old controls and features.

Dogged by maintenance issues since its introduction, the Q400 received several well-publicized groundings for engine and landing-gear problems. Horizon's in-house mechanics were quite adept at dealing with its quirky nature, but dispatch reliability remained less than optimal during my tenure. From a pilot standpoint too, the Q400 is a relatively demanding airplane; the Colgan 3407 tragedy aptly demonstrated its intolerance of inattention and mishandling. Horizon knew this and devoted considerable resources to pilot training. The simulator program was lengthy, and new hires could expect nearly 50 hours of initial operating experience (IOE). Colgan skimped to save money, and its training program's deficiencies were noted in the final NTSB report.

None of which is to say I disliked flying the Q400; in fact, I rather enjoyed it, though I didn’t have any previous airliner to compare it to. At 64,500 pounds max takeoff weight, it was eight times heavier than the Piper Chieftains I had been flying. With 10,200 shaft horsepower and ungodly amounts of torque on command, the Q400 enjoys absolutely monstrous climb performance and a good turn of speed at cruise — around 365 knots true — all while sipping far less fuel than jets of comparable size. Like most turboprops, there’s virtually no such thing as being “too hot and high” on approach. The controls are heavy but reasonably responsive, thanks to the use of roll spoilers. You do have to be careful of tail strikes because that long fuselage can scrape the runway at only 8 degrees pitch. Consequently, landings require a unique technique: You barely flare while slightly increasing power to arrest the descent rate. With its long, stiff gear legs, the Q400 is a difficult airplane to land well.

A Lifer’s Airline

The flying at Horizon was interesting and challenging. We operated out of a few moderately busy hubs, like Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles, but mostly served small to medium cities down the coast and across the intermountain west. The flights tended to be short with plenty of takeoffs and landings; I’d occasionally fly up to eight legs a day. We constantly traversed the Cascade, Sierra and northern Rocky mountain ranges, which made for truly scenic flying. Going in and out of Portland and Seattle, we’d often obtain a VFR-on-top clearance and give “mountain tours” of the surrounding peaks, which the passengers loved. Some of the airports we served were fairly demanding — Butte, Montana, and Sun Valley, Idaho, come to mind — with high, close-in terrain and unpredictable mountain weather. Sudden snowstorms, frequent turbulence and heavy icing encounters were all regular features of a winter on the line. During the springtime, thick fog would envelop Seattle, Spokane and Boise for weeks at a time. Many professional pilots go a year or more 
between honest-to-gosh Cat III ILS approaches in less than 1,000 feet of visibility. My record was five in a 
single day.

Horizon Air
Even while maintaining the required altitude of 2,000 feet above terrain within 4 miles, Mount Rainier looms large on a VFR-on-top "mountain tour" on departure from Seattle.Courtesy Sam Weigel

The captains I flew with were all old salts from the Metroliner days; they knew these mountains like the backs of their hands, and I learned a great deal from them. Many of these guys were old enough to be my father, and inflight conversations occasionally centered on the misadventures of “children” my age or older. Every pilot group has its own unique culture, and Horizon’s reflected the fact that it was a “lifer’s airline.” Unlike most regionals, few Horizon captains had much ambition to move on to a major airline. They were well-paid, drove to work, had good seniority at a stable company, and both the post-9/11 environment and scarcity of West Coast airlines meant they were unlikely to find such a good gig elsewhere. Most captains on the Q400 and the CRJ were lifers. Thus, upgrade opportunities for first officers were mostly dependent on growth. When I was hired, Horizon was growing, both within the Alaska Airlines network and via the contract with Frontier. The growth didn’t last though, and my prospects of upgrading to captain became increasingly distant.

Starting Over

In retrospect, the three-and-a-half years at Horizon Airlines were some of the most pleasant of my life. I loved the flying, the scenery, the places we flew and the people I flew with. Dawn and I enjoyed living in Portland. I skied and hiked on reserve, and biked and paddled on layovers. The company treated me very well. But like many young pilots, I didn't fully appreciate it at the time; I was ambitious and restless to move on with my career, and the creeping stagnation grated on me. First, Horizon announced a plan to sell its DHC-8-200s and replace them with a lesser number of Q400s; then it unexpectedly lost the Frontier contract, and it became increasingly clear Horizon would sell its CRJs as well. I resolved to get out while the getting was good and, after a few interesting turns best left to another column, resigned my position in September 2007. Horizon subsequently shrunk to an all-Q400 fleet, lost its separate branding and status as Alaska's sole regional feeder, furloughed a number of pilots and, for a while, even faced the possibility of liquidation. Had I stayed, it would have taken 11 long years to upgrade.

Instead I started over with a brand new, lower-paid regional, rode its explosive growth to a quick upgrade and eventually lucked my way into my dream job with a major airline. As much as I miss the Pacific Northwest, leaving was the right move. I suppose one could even say that I wasted three years of my life at Horizon — but during those years, I gained many wonderful friends and memories that I would have missed out on. I have no regrets.

These days, most of my Horizon friends have scattered to the four corners of the aviation world; the instability prompted a lot of erstwhile lifers to update their resumes and jump ship. Lately, though, things are looking up at QX. It’s getting jets again, upgrade time has fallen drastically, and those friends who stayed are enjoying life as Horizon captains. Aviation is a crazy, cyclical industry, and you never really know what’s going to happen.

If I’ve learned anything over 15 years in this business, it’s this: When you find yourself with a good gig, enjoy the hell out of it because chances are it won’t last forever. When the going gets tough, concentrate on the enjoyable aspects of your job or you’ll drive yourself and everyone around you nuts. And when you experience those fleeting, majestic moments of serene beauty, like that sublime mountain view from the 737 descending into Portland, remember them and cherish them in your heart. From a lifetime of such transcendental moments aloft, shared by a fortunate few, a long and satisfying aviation career is made.