Silver Wings, Then Other Things: Part 2.
This is part 2 of a multi-part series putting you in the captain’s seat. Want to start with Part 1? Click here.
Flight plan? Got it. Fuel load? Fine. Take-off data? Got that too. The ten-yard-long printout of notices and info and weather affecting our flight and route? Folded accordian style. Cup of McDonald’s coffee, black? In the cupholder by your right knee.
Something about that: a simple pleasure, that black coffee, plus an opportunity to make a donation to the Ronald McDonald House at the counter every time. I like the idea of doing something good for kids every time I pass by McD’s in the airport.
But also, in “the bubble,” it’s a cool luxury: taxiing out, steering with feet on the rudder pedals, minimal and exact responses to the required challenge-and-response checklist read by the First Officer–and sipping my coffee. The jet feels loaded up; weighty. You can feel the 112 feet of wing out there, the 40 foot tall rudder buffeted by gusts. Definitely an airship lumbering on the ground. Radios and official responses; taxi clearances and I say “okay” as soon as they’re given so my F/O knows I heard and understand.
Other than that and the radio chatter, silence. Because I don’t want anything on the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) except for official, flight-related verbiage. There’s too much that could get screwed up, too much that needs to be checked before take-off to allow a layer of distraction. Plus, it’s the official policy: “sterile cockpit” below 10,000 feet. That is, no non-flight related talk, period. Saves the bubble, the concentration, for important stuff.
Because here’s the problem with advanced flight automation: an input error, left undetected, can have disastrous consequences. A keystroke error can lead to faulty flight guidance commands, from the basics of pitch and bank to the routing errors. The only hedge against the hazard is diligent checking of all input. We did the route check at the gate, remember? Now we verify that the data-linked upload and our own inputs are valid: gross weight, center of gravity, fuel weight, take-off and abort speeds, climb speeds, every number associated with performance. That’s as we’re rolling, and as I’m ensuring we don’t violate anyone’s taxiway or runway space, steering with my feet–sipping my coffee, of course.
Several numbers you must see, every time, before take-off–it’s not enough to have the First Officer read them aloud (“We planned 155,000 pounds, we’re actually 156,500 pounds . . .”). I will physically view the data-linked final weight numbers, I’ve already written the planned weight on my side panel clipboard as a reference, and I HAVE to see the correct number on the Control Display Unit screen. And at the same time, not taxi into the dirt or worse, any other jet. Not so easy at night.
But no worries–if it gets too hectic, timeout: “Let’s hold on the checklist here till we’re stopped.” Ever wonder why there’s a delay before take-off? While other jets are coming and going? Often, this is why. After leaving the gate, I’m completely detached from schedule constraints–we’ll get airborne as soon as all checks are thoroughly and correctly performed. As I tell F/Os when the tendency to rush starts to rear its ugly head, “We don’t get paid to rush. And if anything goes wrong as a result of rushing, no one’s going to be there to bail your ass out.”
Here’s where I like the silence, the bubble: no extraneous concerns beyond this flight. A departure path clear of weather and traffic. Verified speeds and weights in the flight guidance system, so the pitch and bank commands will be valid. But if they’re not, a mental review of what I know are the limits: greater than nine degrees of pitch up will drag the tail on the runway. Doesn’t matter what the flight guidance commands, my hands will not exceed a limit.
Waiting. Quick mental review of high-speed abort items: fire, failure, fear or shear. That is, after 80 knots, only an engine fire or failure, or my split-second judgment that I “fear” the aircraft is structurally not airworthy, or a detected windshear will cause me to abort the take-off before max abort speed, and after that–we’re flying with whatever we have.
I have options a hundred miles down the road, but also for liftoff: best single-engine climb angle, if we need it; left downwind to land south if we do. McChord 20 miles south with lots of runway. Fire and failure litanies. Mt. Ranier, all 14,410 feet of her, and where she is at all times.
Got it? 165 others are assuming that you do–so you’d better.
“American 116, line up and wait.” The tower’s direction. Real quiet now. Last minute runway checklist items. Ease in the power–there may be smaller jets behind us. Swing wide, line up on the center stripe; hold the brakes. Fire, failure, fear or shear. Minimum safe altitude. Engine failure profile. Initial level off altitude. No other thoughts. And no worries–this is gonna be fun.
Departure path is clear. “American 1116, cleared for take-off, runway one-six, wind one-five-zero at ten.”
“Rolling on one-six, American 1116.” All exterior lights on. Another swig of java–we’ll get back to it on climb out–stand the throttles up; gages spring forward, then toggle take-off power on the autothrottles, hack the elapsed time button on the chronometer.
Both engines growl to take-off power–love that feel as they bite the air, compress it, mix in jet fuel and burn it, shoving us forward. Fifteen hundred miles to DFW–let’s get airborne.
Next Post: Part 3, enroute, and the landing.