From Sea Level to 737 Captain: Judgment Day.

NOTE: This is part of a series that examines firsthand what it’s like for an airline pilot

to transition to a new airliner. Want to start at the beginning? Click here.


Judgment Day: this is what it all leads up to: the FAA rating ride. That is, another aircraft “type” rating–that means that the FAA grants you the privilege of flying a specific aircraft type.

It’s mainly a captain thing. First Officers usually don’t get the Type Rating, although on our 737 fleet they do. Our airline decided that since the 737 fleet flies internationally –including south America and the Caribbean–they’d type all the F/Os to have complete versatility manning both the International and Domestic divisions.

And a rating ride is usually done by a designated airline examiner, meaning an airline pilot Check Airman (you were one yourself on the MD-80 fleet) is designated as the FAA certifying official. But for you? Sorry, it’s not your lucky day.

The Check Airman giving you your “polish work”–endless landings with ever increasing crosswinds, engine failures at lift off–casually mentioned, “By the way, the FAA Principal Operations Inspector will be observing you on your  rating ride.

Say what?!!

Like a rating ride isn’t enough: let’s add the feds, the guy who can revoke your pilot certificate with the stroke of a pen based solely on what he observes in your check.

“But don’t worry,” he added quickly, “he’s a really nice guy.” Yeah, with small fingers, right? And a set of beady little eyes watching everything you do for four hours, judging you. Judgment day.

Your luck is really lousy, isn’t it? You are so screwed.

But you’re getting ahead of yourself. Let’s revisit the last week. Here’s the plan:

Simulator Day 1 through Day 5 are with a simulator instructor: procedures, basic maneuvers, procedural flows. The sim instructor spends about two hours before each sim period going over the complex computer work we’ll doing with the Flight Management Computers (FMCs) in order to effect the performance and navigation we need to accomplish.

And it’s truly Byzantine in the complexity and layering of systems interaction that must be managed while flying the jet at the same time. The FMCs manage both vertical and lateral navigation, but there’s a catch: you have to program it properly and command the correct mode. Not so easy.

The hands-on is better, being something you can understand. And the neighborhood is becoming more familiar, too. You can find the switches and knobs and grouped systems you need to operate the jet.

But it’s one thing to DO the programming, and quite another to call for it while you’re hand flying. Kind of like patting your head and rubbing your stomach. The process is, programming the FMC, commanding change through one of six modes, monitoring the implementation of  the change on the Mode Control Panel lights, verify that with the proper annunciation on the primary flight display then the performance instruments, and then ultimately, the seat of the pants: is that enough power? Pitch? Roll?

Now see how that plays out on the Nav display: are we intercepting the lateral course? Will the wind shift the lead point past a mandatory fly-over  point? And vertically, will we make the assigned crossing restriction at the correct speed?

For you, the answers must be squared away with your cyborg-vision: the trick of the HUD, besides deciphering all of the data, is looking THROUGH it. Meaning, seeing the target through the HUD while gathering the data peripherally, not fixating on the ghostly green  glowing data stream itself.

When you’re rocketing down the runway, near take-off speed you’re traveling at over 200 feet PER SECOND. You cover a football field in the blink of an eye in the nosecone of a seventy ton missile of metal, fuel, bone and blood. You have a nanosecond to decide from the data before you–aural, visual and tactile–not only should we stop, but can we?

So we practice constantly in the simulator. Blasting down a wet runway, you keep the diamond shaped speed bug at 80 knots in your awareness. Any abort after that is only for the big four: fire, failure, fear or shear.

Two of these bad boys slung under the wings put out a combined 54,000 pounds of thrust.

That is, engine fire, engine failure, “fear” or your split second judgment that something has made the jet un-air worthy, or “shear,” which is wind shear. And that’s always the captain’s decision, and he’d better get it right because on the line, no “do overs.” It’s for keeps.

So rolling down the runway, near max abort speed, yellow caution light comes on; “continue” you announce correctly. Another time, at 120 knots, a fire bell. “Abort!” and you grab the controls, yank both engines into full reverse then through the most accurate gage–the seat of your pants–determine if the Autobrake system is handling the deceleration properly. If not–you must.

Actually, face it: every day, every flight, is judgment day. And you’d better be right.

Which is why everything’s accompanied by a specific and often tedious litany, but that’s what it takes to get the complex job done exactly every time. If it was easy, anyone could do it, right? And oh by the way, the FAA will decide if you’re doing it right.

. . . and do all this--perfectly--at over a hundred miles an hour in thick fog.

Anyway, you move on to the final simulator phase, and the Check Airman takes over. You did that job yourself for years on the MD-80 so you know the drill: now we marry up the instruction with real-world scenarios and applications.

Finally getting good, solid line-oriented advice fro a guy with a couple thousand hours in the jet: hold the power in till thirty feet, don’t float, a little opposite rudder and wing low. Ah, flying stuff–now THAT makes sense.

The hours are wearying: two hour brief, four hour sim; sometimes coming out of the box at midnight; sometimes going in at 5:30 am. Still, that’s just like the airline pilot job: some nights a tough approach in Seattle after midnight body time, often it’s a buttcrack of dawn take-off on the east coast.

Now, though, as we near the end of the syllabus, like the runway end rushing up at us, you have to make a judgment: are you ready? Are we as a crew ready? Like every decision you must correctly make in flight, there’s no easy answer.

But like in flight, you make the call. “You guys ready for your check?” he asks on the last training day.

That’s every bit as much a judgment call as you’ll ever make on the end of a runway or at decision height on an approach. No easy answer. Some things still feel rough. Most is okay, with a herculean effort. The First Officer? Solid as a rock, excellent pilot. But we’re both in the “new jet” phase with this beast. And the FAA will be in the front row, on board, second guessing you every step of the way. With the authority to ground you if you fail.

“Yes,” I assure the Check Airman. “Bring it on.”

Judgment Day? Yeah, every single one of ’em is that.  But if it was easy, everyone would do it, right?

Coming up next, the final hurdle: the maneuvers validation check (MV) and the line check (LOE). An eight hour four axis, full-visual simulator examination of everything from single engine approaches to minimum ceiling and visibility to complex navigation.

And the payoff for all of the work . . . the first flight in the real aircraft.


7 Responses to “From Sea Level to 737 Captain: Judgment Day.”

  1. Way to go, Chris. And way to write about it, too…thanks for showing such pride!

    • Thanks, Nathan. The rating ride was yesterday. This entry got so long I thought I’d better end it and go on to the next. I’ll have that one out in the next day or two and this series will be complete.

      BTW, I enjoyed your blog and put the address on my site’s links list.

  2. superb writing

  3. Giulia DeRosa Says:

    I really look forward to reading about each phase of your journey. 🙂

    I wish you all the best…

    from Ottawa, Canada 🙂

  4. Giulia DeRosa Says:

    Have fun today!!!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

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