From Sea Level to 737 Captain: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.


[Note: this is part of a continuing series describing what it’s like to become an airline captain on a brand new jet. Want to start at the beginning? Click here.]

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Midway through the simulator phase and there’s plenty good, some bad and a lot of ugly.

But the latter stuff, that’s just your perspective as a pilot. What the hell do you know?

Overall, it’s good to be handling hardware rather than clicking a mouse and watching animation. But there are rough patches. You can’t find anything. Reflex guides your hands to the wrong place: need a wider Nav display range? That’s not where it is. Looking for a map light? Uh-uh, it’s over there, not here, and it can’t exactly reach anyway.

And the HUD: a thousand bits of information before your eyes. But it’s all displayed in lime green, largely negating the symbol sorting aide provided by colors (red, warning, yellow, caution, green okay, blue, advisory) on all other displays. Plus, what doesn’t fit on the display is converted into a number: the all important radio altimeter hides in among a cash crop of abstract digits rather than as a moving display. But half of what you need to call for is based on its countdown–or up.

Here’s you on the controls: take it easy . . . what is this with the power steering? You’re flying with hamfists and pork brains, or at least that’s how it will feel in the back of the plane.

From the movie Airplane:

Gunderson: “He’s all over the place! Nine hundred feet up to 1300 feet. What an asshole!”

Ever fly a plane before? Well, yeah–the last 19 years on the MD-80 which handles like a pig in both pitch–especially pitch, being a long tube, and with un-powered ailerons. The 737 is a Maseratti by comparison. So you feel like a klutz, wing-rocking down final because it’s so sensitive–and you’re not. Which brings out your inner teacher:

Maddog jocks, you know the drill: put some smash on the jet, aim it at the runway. Cross the  threshold at fifty feet with a plus-five knots (I always did; admit it, you do too) over V-Ref  speed then snatch off all the power. But not in the Boeing.

And you’re your own worst critic. The real teacher? The Simulator Instructor? She’s great; real laid back, very calming demeanor in the briefing and in The Box (which is what we call the simulator). You learn better that way, the way she is: confident, knowledgeable yet very easy-going.

Cleared for the approach, read the fine print.

Still, need a conversion course for MD-80 “steam jet” pilots. But you’re figuring it out: LNAV VNAV is smart box stuff–FMC driven.  Where’s the IAS and vertical speed? Ah, there’s the magic.

But practically speaking, the hours in The Box are beginning to add up. Here’s what week one of the sims reveals:

1. You’ve become lazy as a pilot because there was no challenge to the same old Flintstone (do I really need to spell this out? PREHISTORIC Douglas jet) flight deck for too many years. Time to update and rethink the concepts such as Category III approaches hand-flown to a 50′ decision height (YGTBSM), 600 RVR, vertical navigation, and how twenty-first century technology has changed flying.

Simulator instructor's station. Right behind us; pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain.

2. Boeing has made a stable hand-flying jet. That’s a good wing, a dependable airfoil. Feels substantial both in the flare and on rotation. Not so much lion taming with a whip and a chair like the MD-80. Plus power to spare, on the wing.

3. With the state-of-the art technology comes the challenge of lawyers and liability. Now procedures are driven by what just happened in court regarding some type of aircraft accident.

Anyone can fly like a pilot, but now you need to fly like an attorney. So many new restrictions and procedures that you can tell stem mostly from legal considerations and absolutely not from good flight practices. But that’s just the twenty-first century, right?

Still, so much to absorb, especially in the left seat: you’re going to sign for this jet and everyone on board in about ten days. You have to get this right, not just to pass a check, but for what you know is coming: that dark and stormy night when things start going to “the top of the pyramid:” options narrow, no way out, it’s up to you to out think and outdo whatever nasty situation that will–not might, will–test you in the air sooner or later.

Funny thing: flashback.

Pilot survival, from so many years ago. Back then, a “double-bang:” fly two sorties, back-to-back; formation, aerobatics–you name it. In between, a Coke and a bag of peanuts for you. The Coke had both caffeine and sugar to pep you up. Same deal now, at midpoint in every simulator session, in the Iron Kitchen now, in the Squadron Snack Bar back then, face still showing the outline of an oxygen mask, hair matted from a helmet.

Now, the Iron Kitchen is just an alleyway between simulator building, filled with vending machines and a few tables. It’s the crossroads of airline pilots all somewhere in sim world, whether on the break between sim periods on a check or like you, between training sim sessions. It’s the company of pilots at once lost in their own reverie about their sim check or like you, the right steps into a new jet, shooting the breeze, hangar flying, griping, laughing but regardless, it’s the folks who fly.

Just like back in the Air Force, the peanuts good and salty to put something on your stomach quick, then back to the struggle with an unruly jet that wants to get the better of you.

It didn’t then, and won’t now either. That I promise; I promise me, promise you. Believe it.

Coming next–and in the next installment of this blog: final preparation, the the FAA rating checkride. Stay tuned . . .

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4 Responses to “From Sea Level to 737 Captain: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

  1. My favorite cockpit poet writes again. Someday, you need to write the great american novel, Chris.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by minburi_bkk, Airplane News. Airplane News said: Jethead Says: From Sea Level to 737 Captain: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. http://bit.ly/azkdl8 […]

  3. blackwatertown Says:

    Still enjoying your journey.

  4. The end is in sight – get the sims done, get the check flight done, and then it’s off once more into the blue yonder!

    Great series Chris, lovin’ the journey!

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