A Pilot’s Eye View Part 1: The Way I See It.


If you’re a pilot, you probably see things about flying differently.  And it starts first thing in the morning.

Not so much looking at what’s in the local area, because you’re not spending any time there, right? It’s what’s happening across your route of flight that matters. There are other jets in the air transiting the route now, and their reports will affect the route, altitude and speed of your flight a couple hours from now, so you at least want to know what’s up and what the route planning for your flight is based on.

Okay, NOW you pay attention to more than just the road: which way is the prevailing surface wind? There are cues everywhere, but the most obvious and the most significant is, which way are the planes taking off?

And you’re headed north; they’re taking off south, means a longer departure with a big turnaround, so a longer outbound flight, right? Bad news?

Actually, no, it’s good news: you’re coming BACK from the north, so landing south will save you a few minutes on the go-home leg. That’s key.

Double check your gate. Of course, the smart pilot (or smart passenger) has even more current gate and flight information on a smart phone:

Just getting around the giant DFW Airport (the entire island of Manhattan could fit within the airfield boundary) takes time, but the payoff is in the sight of your jet from the Skylink train. I never get tired of spotting “my jet” from afar.

It’s a good feeling, knowing the jet’s fueled and ready to do your bidding for a day, to cross a few thousand miles and return to earth a workday later.

Now, I’m not a big “outside guy,” meaning I’m not a First Officer so the aircraft external inspection–we call it “the walkaround”–is not my preflight duty. But I’ll take you downstairs just this once.

You’ve got your head in the nose gear well–tow bar’s hooked up, ready for pushback. The red streamer is the pin in the steering bypass valve: the power to the tiller in the cockpit is disabled during pushback because with the cockpit nosewheel steering powered, any rudder movement will be transmitted to the nose wheel at about 3,000 psi of hydraulic pressure. They’ll show you that pin right before you taxi so you know your steering is enabled once again.

Now here’s a really cool feature that ought to make anyone who ever flies anywhere stand up and say, “I love Boeing jets.”  Seriously, this is amazing:

Your head’s now in the main wheel well, in the center of the fuselage–just look at the green light: that’s Boeing’s pure genius at work, it’s a nitrogen generator that fills the fuel tanks as they empty with inert, non-flammable nitrogen gas. Will not burn or explode no matter what happens in or to the fuel tank. How smart is that? And what a safety feature.

Okay, below, that’s the “vacuum zone” marked out in red: if that engine is running, you don’t want to be anywhere near the red zone, as it will literally suck you off your feet and into the engine. I’ve seen these CFM-56 engines create such a vacuum ahead of the intake that moisture from the concrete swirls up off the tarmac in a swirl and into the engines.

Here’s one main gear strut:

This is the main set of “sneakers” for the jet: they’re inflated to 200 psi and will roll up to 190 mph on some take-offs.

Really got to love the fat Boeing wing. And it sits higher off the ground than the MD-80’s spindly wing–after 10,000+ flight hours in the MD-80, this thing looks huge. Stay heads-up on the ramp: there’s ground traffic zipping every which way around your aircraft, and with hearing protection in use, you won’t hear them coming.

And watch out for jet blast from other aircraft adding breakaway power to start their taxi or pivot. See why I don’t come down here that often?

And back around the left wing . . .

Okay, satisfied? But while the exterior inspection is going on, here’s the captain’s biz you need to attend to. The flight plan, which, as you were already thinking about, will have a lot of assumptions based on the early flyers–which may or may not be valid now.

So you think fuel numbers based on your best instincts: winds? Ride? Weather enroute?

It’s all about creating and preserving options, and that’s all about fuel. Trust your instincts–if you think you need more, you do. Get it.

There’s the info sheet for the cabin crew–they’ll program that into the Boeing system that makes the PA’s with the video of the safety demo.

Seems impossibly calm and quiet when the jet’s empty, doesn’t it?

But it won’t been empty for long. The caterers have been here . . .

All’s well below and in back, so now it’s at last time for you to head into the flight deck.

First thing, get the dual Inertial Reference Units cooking. They’re just about at eye level when you step into the cockpit.

Next, stow your suitcase in the cubbyhole behind your seat:

Kitbag slides in beside the seat–no, there’s not much room, but it is what it is.

Now sit yourself down:

Get the instrument lights up:

Time to fire up your side of the cockpit: lights, displays; IRUs to align, comm cords, headset, pertinent paperwork; get the official weather off of the printer and make sure it agrees with the take-off performance planning–if not, adjust the plan. Consider the wind and the power setting.

A glance around the cockpit, scanning panels and at once you know every switch is where it should be or if not, you set it where it needs to be:

Now, you’re ready to go. Once the First Officer is settled in, we’ll check all of the navigation and performance data in the Flight Management System, verify the flight route clearance and waypoints, then run the checklists to get this 170,000 pound machine with 166 people on board into the air.

That story will be part two, coming soon.

What’s it like to be a flight attendant at a major airline?

What kind of lifestyle and career comes with a position as a flight attendant?

We get first person answers from a career flight attendant: the ups and downs, the joys and pains.

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21 Responses to “A Pilot’s Eye View Part 1: The Way I See It.”

  1. Frank Ch. Eigler Says:

    Great little travelogue.

  2. Cedarglen Says:

    Thanks for another great post, Capt. Chris. I just have to ask…In the rush of so many things in a busy airport, have you ever boarded and begun your pre-flight routine (or walk around), only to discover that you’re at the wrong gate/on the wrong airplane? Captains are always honest about everyting, right? Has it ever happened to you? If so, that moment of discovery might be worked into an amusing post. Best wishes, sir. -C.

    • Oh yeah, I have . . . took me some searching (DAMN there are a lot of posts here) but I found the story for you.

      I was just a new engineer in those days; lots of new things to sort out. Enjoy!

      • Alex Jevdic Says:

        If it makes you feel any better I started a 777 galley carpet change………..on the wrong 777. Turns out the correct bird was next door and its the two gates that I constantly screw up even after working there for almost 5 years now.

  3. Excellent write up, Captain. If I’m not mistaken, that overhead is from the PMDG 737 overhead, yes? ;)

  4. The pilot wife in me is hoping you didn’t get any wheel grease on your shirt back when you popped in there for a picture. I am still trying to get that damn grease spot out of my husband’s shirt…

  5. Excellent post :)

  6. Thanks for another great post, Capt. Chris! Can’t for part 2!

  7. Is the ground walk-around by one of the pilots required by the FAA?

    If you got too close to the engine when it was running (idle) would you feel it tugging on you, or is it the case that by the time you feel it, it’s too late.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • Yes, it’s required and at American, pilots–usually the First Officer–do the walk-around. I believe mechanics do it at Southwest.

      I wouldn’t stand anywhere near one of those engines when it was running. Not sure what it would feel like and I see ground crewmembers being careless around them, but I remember from my time as an Air Force pilot seeing crated jet engines with “Contains Human Remains” stenciled on them: casualties sucked into jet engines in the close confines of aircraft carrier operations.

  8. Captain, what weather app do you use? Also, include any other cool apps that you use as a pilot. Great blog!

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