Sea level to 737 Captain: Back Into The Blue.

NOTE: This is the final entry in a series tracing firsthand what it’s like

for an airline pilot to transition to a new aircraft. Want to start at the beginning? Click here.


Jitters about the two-part simulator check? With the FAA? Only a fool wouldn’t worry.

But, you learned a long time ago to set that aside. Whether it was before skydiving, or military flying, or even starting a marathon, you’ve always been good about acknowledging fear–then leaving it behind. Because it doesn’t help help going forward, and often that road ahead was full of problems. Worked best with full concentration.

The last hurdles between you and the real jet in the blue sky is the Maneuvers Validation, then the Rating ride. The “Maneuvers Val” as everyone calls it is  a four hour test involving all of the most important performance standards: precision and non-precision (what a pain in the ass) approaches, Category 3 (300 yards visibility) hand flown, single engine and dual; systems failures and how you handle not only malfunctions, but also the crew. You’re the captain remember?

Then the rating ride will be with an evaluator, plus at no additional charge, the FAA Principal Operations Inspector for the 737 fleet at our airline. That will be a two-leg enroute sequence with surprises, technical and mechanical “gotchas.” No problem–you wouldn’t want to be turned loose with a full jet without competence in every facet. Yes, they’ll throw the gauntlet at you, then judge how you handle it.

Doesn’t mean you don’t worry about the one shot deal facing you. Twenty-five years with the airline and never a busted check. But everything only gets more complex and challenging as time goes on–you can’t even imagine how anyone comes off the street into this career field–so there’s no slack even after 17,000 flight hours.

Maneuvers Val: Just one of those days. Slow, careful, methodical–it just came together piece by painstaking piece. Easy start with a min viz take-off. That’s with 300 feet of forward visibility in heavy fog, which requires centerline guidance through the Heads Up Display (HUD) for me to keep on the straight and narrow till liftoff.

CONCENTRATE! You know The Dead Zone between 80 knots and rotate speed at 143. You don’t bite on the wrong abort: you have a split second to decide and correctly announce “continue” despite the angry yellow master caution light glaring through the bottom of the HUD.

Airborne, then a warmup with some navigation intercepts, some holding. That’s just three dimensional thinking and then correct radial layout and execution of point-bearing-distance and intercept. Cake.

First engine fails on a missed approach; carefully, smoothly, just enough rudder; recite the litany (pat your head, rub your stomach) while keeping on course and an climbing vector: “Flaps fifteen–positive rate, gear up; throttle (confirm) close, start lever (confirm) cutoff, fire switch pull and rotate; heading select runway heading . . .” and so it goes.

And so it went: slow, careful, deliberate. You’ve been a captain for over nineteen years–you take it slow and methodical; as your old CRM former fighter pilot bud used to say, “First and always, take a deep breath and say can you believe this son-of-bitch is still flying?

The Rating ride too: careful, methodical, taking your time–they even try to rush you, but like in real life when that happens, you slow down even more: no one pays you to rush and they’ll hang you for a mistake.

Before you could even think about it, mired in concentration, it was over. Thank god. And thank god for the rock-solid F/O that Bill is.

Then the verdict. In a briefing room cold enough to hang meat, seated across from us, FAA sitting to the side, the evaluator speaks: “This is the good stuff, guys–congratulations, and welcome to the fleet.”

Then there was more paper. Here’s the whole, arm’s length training schedule

heading for the trash. Because the only piece of paper that really matters is in hand:

The ticket: type rated as captain in the Boeing-737-800. The end of hours of study, classes, computer based training, manuals, systems trainers and full motion simulators. All of them, and every bit of the considerable effort it took to thread the needle through yet another aircraft qualification were all to put you on the doorstep of yet another flying opportunity.

That day, the first flight, is best seen in pictures, and here they are.

The day starts early, but somehow you don’t mind. It’s like Christmas morning, and there’s a new jet under the tree. The eyes just pop open.

Check out your new ship. From the terminal? The jetbridge? Heck no–you go downstairs and meet her where she’s waiting patiently, already loaded up with fifteen tons of jet fuel, ready to leap off to the coast.

Couple of these bad boys slung under the wing will be needing about 20,000 pounds of that jet fuel to hurl us across the country.

Nice lines, the wing noticeably higher above the ground with a greater dihedral angle than the old Douglas flat wing. Something for you to keep in mind: if you evacuate the people onto the wing, it’s a long way to the tarmac. And that’s a seven foot tall winglet out there–looks like a toy from the ground, but it’s large and graceful.

You’re seldom out here at this hour of the morning, and that’s by choice–and seniority. But it’s almost like returning to your roots, back to earlier days when you weren’t senior but were glad nonetheless for any flying schedule. When you appreciated how many people wished they had the job of climbing into the cockpit and not just riding, but actually making it happen.

It’s a new day, isn’t it, both literally and figuratively? And there’s nothing like the feeling of anticipation on a ramp with loaded jets like a team of horses ready to break loose and gallop away. You need to saddle up.

There you go: best seat in the house. And humbling, isn’t it? You’re just damn lucky to sit there. Yeah, there were many years of scrambling and sweating for it–many gave up along the way–but no one really deserves the great privilege of the captain’s seat on a cool jet.

But since no one really does–it might as well be you. Just stay humble, and be grateful, and pass that along.You’ll share the flying with more good F/Os along the way.

And she really does hand fly well: stable, a solid wing. That winglet seems to make her ride a little tighter through chop; not sure that’s a good thing, at least for passengers. But you can feel the power in those two CFM-56 engines, feel the stability and lift of that wing climbing out.

And the seat of the pants feeling: it’s all different now. It’s like you were married to the MD-80 for twenty-plus years, but now you’re sleeping with someone else. You knew every move she made in her sleep, her breathing; now it’s all different: the shudder of the wing in chop, the movement of the throttles and the rumble of her pressurization. Cues mean something new, you’re still trying to read her.

Takes time. While, you’re learning, don’t forget to appreciate the view

as seven miles below, dawnlight drenches the canyons of Utah like spilled paint.

Appreciate the fact that half of the First officers on the property have been gagging in the right seat for fifteen to twenty years, waiting to move up to the captain’s ranks. Half of the F/Os at the base are on suicide watch, the other half have lost interest and just come to work because it’s the only job they’re qualified to do–or are paying most of their attention to a side job.

Enjoy that cup of coffee at the top of descent, then go do what you do best. With thankfulness for the good fortune to, as you will next month, every Tuesday fly this shiny new jet to Toronto; spend the night downtown, then on Wednesday, Chicago, then on to Seattle; stay downtown. Then on Thursday afternoon, one leg home.

After the sound and the fury of struggling, striving, learning, surviving, it all comes down once again to this:

Back into the blue.

It’s what you do.


Coming up next week:

Yeah, this one might get my ass whipped, but the story should be told.

Subscribe! You don’t want to miss this one . . .


20 Responses to “Sea level to 737 Captain: Back Into The Blue.”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Airplane News and Ryan, Chris Manno. Chris Manno said: Sea level to 737 Captain: Back Into The Blue.: […]

  2. I really loved flying and particularly the feeling of four CFM 56 engines on the R model tanker. I still say you should incorporate your words and pictures into a book for those not as fortunate to see out the front windows!

    • Skeeter– We share quite a bit of commonality in our flying backgrounds. I can’t imagine what a rocket it would be with 4 CFM-56’s. Our J-models in Hawaii had JT8Ds and it was overpowered–the R must be quite a bronco!

  3. Hello Chris,
    congratulations on passing the test!
    And I agree, a nice airplane to fly.

  4. Well, waiting for your cartoons…
    But you were making yourself busy by converting to a Boeing.
    No, I have about 65% of the book, but am awaiting further cartoons by cartoonists. Trying to keep up the quality so i am rejecting quite a bit. My original idea was publication a few weeks ago, but am now moving to a 2011 target.
    My other project, a book with stories by Dutch fighter pilots, is highly successfull. It was published 3 weeks ago and now 3500 sold and looking at second printing. It is in Dutch, so you can’t understand, I fear.
    So, bottom line: how many cartoons do you have? The checkride debief is a nice one…
    Keep the redside up!

  5. So your first flight on a new type is as a Captain? Would logic say that you would tag along as a temporary-F/O for a few weeks to get settled in with the type with an experienced captain?

    • No, I’ll be in the left seat as I have been for the last 19+ years. I have an instructor in the right seat for 2 days–thank god–but after that, I’m on my own (also thank god).

  6. Congratulations! Be proud but stay humble…I like it.

    Your new “girl” sure is a looker. 🙂
    Enjoy your new journey…and please keep writing to us about it.

    All the best from Ottawa,

  7. All the way through… You kept your cool. Congrats on your achievement. I can’t wait to hear how your first flight went.

    All the way from Montreal.


    • The pictures are in this latest blog entry–it was a blast! BTW, Montreal is one of my favorite cities on the planet–it’s like a trip to Europe with the charm of Old Town; excellent food and bevs too.

  8. Jock Bethune Says:

    Wow! I have so enjoyed your accounts of your 737 training, Chris! Even though I spent my entire career at the Flight Academy, i learned a lot reading your blog. Thank you so much for sharing!
    You have an excellent way with words and with visuals! Like me, you’re an audio visual guy!!
    I have learned a lot from many of your other articles here! Thank you, Chris!!

    • Jock– You were and are the centerpoint of any training experience for a whole generation of American Airlines pilots. It’s a touchstone to hear your voice in the training–kind of sews everything together in a pilot’s career and it’s like having a friend on your side when in the throes of the struggle of tests and checkrides, there’s your friendly, reassuring voice. Many thanks to you for that!

      • Chris,
        Thank you for your kind comments about my voice over work above.
        That has become my legacy with the pilots at American Airlines and one which I am genuinely and sincerely proud. It means I “made a difference”…a positive difference….in the careers of all of you.
        in addition (now that phrase sounds like a training program), all of you are family to me! Some I know well…some are acquaintances…some i don’t know at all….but you are all family to me…and that warms my heart! Thank you!
        With your kind permission, I’d like to post your comments above verbatim on my voice over website! Please let me know!!

      • Absolutely, Jock! Cut and paste at will.

  9. Congratulations Chris! Your posts have been a tremendous in-site into the pilot conversion process and have really enabled us pilot wannabe’s to share the experience.

    All the way from Perth, Australia,


  10. AA Retired Says:

    Wow Chris, not only does Jock read your blog, but you got a response from him. Almost as good as the ink on the new certificate. Jock if you happen to read this, thanks from one of your “unseen students.” You did make a positive difference, and I sometimes still hear your voice. Sometimes that’s if I want to or not (just kidding).

    • AA Retired,
      Thanks for your kind comments above. Much appreciated!!
      Nw….can you possibly move from the “unseen student” category and let me know who you actually might be? “AA Retired” covers a lot of possibilities!!!

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