Taking a Big Swig from a Firehose

by Paul Kinzelman, 15-April-2000

Didja ever wonder what it'd be like to fly the big aluminum, instead of being stuck in a 'real job', enviously looking at the sky all the time? Be honest. Sure you have.

Well, folks, here's your opportunity. United Airlines has contracted with Wayne Phillips (an FAA examiner, Beech 1900 pilot, and AOPA seminar lecturer) since 1993, to manage a program called ATOP (Airline Training Orientation Program). The program gives pilots the opportunity to spend two days of training on the Boeing 737-200 jet. The course includes an hour of full motion simulator time which you can log, so be sure to bring it and cameras. Video is OK too, although the cockpits are a bit dark and cramped, so setup might be difficult. Details are at http://www.b737.com.

The stated purpose of the program is to give pilots a taste of what flying the big-iron is like, to encourage more people to become pilots. In fact, the program is for pilots to be able to have a blast at a reasonable price ($375). Real type-training takes about two months, so our two-day program abbreviates a lot.

And there's no restriction on who can take the program. Wayne likes for people to hold at least a student pilot certificate. And having some instrument training will enable you to get a lot more out of the program.

Wayne says that in 1993 or so, the aviation industry was in a slump. Today, however, business is booming and the industry is desperate for qualified people.

And Wayne 'messes with your head' pretty effectively getting pilots with 'real jobs' thinking about a career change and getting paid for what we love to do. What a concept!

If you're a pilot, you've got the bug and probably have thought about it at some point. Here's the opportunity to find out more and have a blast, especially if you are not unacquainted with being near 'the edge', peering over the cliff of flying for a living.

Wayne also said that the more modern liners (Airbus, 777, etc.) are so complex, that the pilot is a 'systems-manager'. He asked a 777-driver once how he liked his gig, and he said that when he transitioned to the 777, he gave up flying. On the other hand, piloting the 737 is real flying.

We seven (one was no-show) pilots met for the first time, but after a few minutes, it felt like we were old friends visiting together. We were (among other things) a bonds-broker, a gaggle of engineers, an ex-product manager turned professional flight instructor, and to round things out, an OB/GYN intern.

The first day is spent entirely on aircraft systems. Wayne is an enormously entertaining lecturer - the Jay Leno of aviation. He does a really great job at simplifying the aircraft systems so that everybody understands the basics of all the systems - electrical, pneumatics (pressurization and engine starting), hydraulics, and fuel. He covers all the bazillion knobs and levers strewn randomly about the cockpit, and a bit about emergency procedures. He goes fast, and he's too good of a lecturer (and tall storyteller) for any of it to be boring. Clearly, Wayne has one of the world's funnest gigs.

At the end of the day, we have the opportunity to practice finding switches and dials on a full-size mock-up (using picture posters of the panels) of the cockpit.

Now, where's that "Gasper" switch? And, let's see, the 'yaw damper' is next to the 'mach trim' test switch. The panel must have been designed by a committee.

Food? What's that?

Time spent at the mock-up will pay off when Dr. Wayne becomes Mr. Hyde in the simulator making Hydraulic #2 pump overheat. You want to shut it off real soon. And then #1 overheats. And the RVR just went down to double-digits. Did I mention the V1 cut and engine fire? And...

In addition, during any free time (24-hrs a day), we could make use of the library of video-tapes and PC-based (lecture) information on the 737. You want to know why the engine-driven hydraulic pump can power the nosewheel steering but the electrically-driven pump can't? Or which switches were off which caused the Air Florida flight to crash into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington? Like the X-Files, the answer is out there in that forest of information which is at your fingertips for 48 hours.

Sleep? What's that?

The morning of the second day is spent on procedures - engine start, throttle settings, speed callouts, etc. The book each participant receives includes a scripted (with ATC communications) profile of the flight we will fly in the simulator.

Then team 'A' goes to the simulator for 2 hrs (each person in each seat for 1/2 hour). Team 'B' goes up to the mock-up to practice the script.

Team 'B' definitely has the home-team advantage being able to 'chair-fly' the flight profile and ATC communication script before strapping on the simulator. Dave and I were on team 'B', although when we got to the simulator, things happened much faster than we expected.

I unlock the brakes and throttle up half way, check the guages. Dave put his hand over mine, and throttles up to max EPR (2.01) for these conditions (temperature, etc.). I focused on S-turning down the runway trying to keep from knocking out the runway lights until we got to flying speed.

Dave, my first officer, was supposed to call the speeds instead of marveling at my tap-dance on the rudder. By the time he thought about the first speed-call "Ah...", we were in the air, heading toward the sky seemingly in a flash. The experience is intense and intimidating. The key is to just 'think' about rotating or else you'll pitch up way too high for the climb. Trust me on that one.

The controls are quite heavy and not very responsive because of the mass (our takeoff weight was 92,000 lbs). Power pilots transitioning to gliders or helicopters overcontrol the same way.

I can't get the thing to level out properly. I've got it right where he said to put the horizon - about 3 degrees above horizontal, but at climb power, the airspeed heads toward mach 1 as we hurtle toward the Golden Gate Bridge at night. I don't have the feel yet to know what's wrong. The good doctor figures out that somehow the simulator horizon pitch indicator is off by about 5 degrees.

He says, "I'll have to get maintenance to look at it - later. Just add the offset." Easy for him to say. If I push that fact in one side of my brain, some other necessary fact (like reverse thrust max EPR is 1.8 until we slow to 80 knots) pops out of the other side, lost forever.

I have to pitch up to 8 degrees positive to get the airspeed in level flight. There, that works much better. Initial climb pitch should be 16 degrees (now 21 degrees), and enroute climb pitch should be 9 degrees (now 14 degrees). More numbers. At least we weren't upside down. The first flight has been known to humble many a small airplane driver.

I don't usually like electric trim, but in this case, manual trim would be difficult because of all the cranking. And the electric trim is very determined. You don't want your hand on the wheel when the trim motor spins the wheel. It's easy to see how a runaway trim could be a big problem in one of these.

Dr. Wayne played the part of ATC and vectored us around, first a right 90, then a left 270 to put us on a downwind for a landing. I got the plane pretty much under control.

I lined up for the ILS for runway 28R at SFO, and Dr. Wayne suggested using the flight director. Following the command bars really helps a lot. The localizer tells the command bars what to do. The command bars tell me what to do. I tell the plane and Dave what to do. You could replace me with a telephone.

The plan was to do a touch-and-go, then come around and land. To touch down, reduce power slightly and gently arrest the descent. Again, all you need to do is *think* about flaring, don't actually flare as you would in a glider or small plane. But, as I said, that was 'The Plan'.

Unfortunately, I didn't trust my psychokinetic abilities so I flared a bit much and balooned way up so I commanded gear up and went around. Just like my first solo in that poor Grumman Trainer, I bounced and went around to try again.

Dr. Wayne pushed some PFM (Powerful... ah... Fantastic Magic) buttons and there I was 10 miles out on the ILS again. I again followed the command bars, and this time I just thought about flaring and I did OK. I thought we were going to hit harder because the cockpit is so far above the runway. Spoilers come out, reverse thrust, Dave watch for 1.8 max EPR, stow at 80 knots, and tromp on the brakes. Whew!

Then we swapped and I as first officer was more ready with the speed calls after seeing how fast things go. 80 knots crosscheck, V1 (decision point), VR (rotate), V2 (climb speed), positive climb, gear up... so fast that you can say it in one breath.

Fortunately for me, Dr. Wayne's medication held out for my flight, but it quit on Dave's flight as Dr. Wayne was transformed into Mr. Hyde, as he failed a hydraulic pump. As I turned the switch off, the second one failed, I turned that one off too. Without the hydraulic assist, moving the yoke becomes like stirring a jug of molasses in January. Or try turning the steering wheel of a car whose engine is not running. You can turn it but you have to turn really hard. And you're likely to want to pull over to the curb at the side of the road soon. Real soon. But curbs are not typically found in the air.

We watched as Mr. Hyde's personality became more unglued, with a V1 cut on another guy, and complete electric failure (this is night-time remember). But it was just temporary. Wayne's insufferable humor just made it so much more fun.

It's clear that 80% of flying the big-guys is emergency procedures. Like the Indians say, the antidote of a poison is always near the source of the poison. Similarly, for most problems, you're surrounded with the items necessary to solve the problem. But finding the right switch to throw or knob to crank when things are on the rocks is difficult, not to mention that 100-odd people in the back are depending on you for their life.

But that's why the real training takes 2 months. And I can easily see at some level how it can become boring to practice the same thing over and over, but that's how flying is as safe as it is. Flying is a major theatrical performance, with countless rehearsals. As I recall, The shuttle astronauts who repaired the Hubble telescope practiced constantly for 2 years before being sent into space to do the real thing.

Pilots need to have the attitude that they're playing a game of chess. The plane is planning some agressive move - someday. What moves could it possibly make? How best could we defend against all possible moves our opponent could make? What switch-pawns should we move to what position to best counter the attack? A successful flight is where we checkmate the gremlins.

Gee, I almost forgot the question on everybody's mind... Picture yourself on a 737 trip in the back, and the PA system comes on, and a harried steward/esse comes on and says the two pilots are incapacitated. Could a pilot land the 737?

After checking with my lawyer and the political polls, I have been instructed by the spin-doctors that I can give you a completely unqualified 'maybe'. The plane is just very different-handling from the small trainers. Those of you who have transitioned from a light trainer to a complex retractable (like a Bonanza or Mooney) know how much trouble it is. Take that trouble and multiply by 10. But at very least, the fill-in pilot would be able to locate the scene of the crash in a place convenient for rescue workers.

A further problem with this course is that the visuals were all at night, and so many landing cues are visual. So it's really hard to tell what a day landing would be like. But now having experienced the pitch-sensitivity, I think I could get it down in a way that the plane could be used again without extensive maintenance being required. It's somewhat likely I could have done it before the course. But I have serious doubts that I could have done it when I had 100 hours of experience.

I also recommend staying over another day because there's interesting stuff in Boulder.

First, we went to NIST, which does materials research, and is the keeper of the standards of the country. You can see the atomic clock (and really set your watch right). They have a tour available which includes playing with liquid nitrogen and super conductors. What was really ironic though, was that the tour conductor showed up to guide the tour 15 minutes late. But it's OK, he was a contractor. He made up for it by taking us around even though there was nobody else on the tour. He had some great stories.

Then there is NOAA which collects weather data from all over the country. They have a scale model of the device developed to determine the winds and temperature aloft. It looks a bit like a gigantic bedspring. I think it'll probably replace baloons currently used for that task.

And lastly, we visited NCAR, which houses the super computers used for weather research. They now have a basement full of square IBM RS/6000 boxes instead of the old rounded Cray machines.

May all your flights checkmate the gremlins.