The Annual Pilot Beating: A Love-Hate Thing.

On take-off roll, a few knots past (of course!) maximum stopping speed, the left engine started to surge and compressor stall. I knew it as much from feel as from the engine instrument stack, although I glanced at it anyway. Trip the autothrottles off–don’t want them screwing with the power setting, chasing the N1– “Continue” I say to the First Officer who is making the take-off.

Without a word, he continues the climbout profile, even as I tell him, based on the gages, “Left engine failure.” We wait; no rushing, although I did call the tower, “Flight 914 declaring an emergency, we’re going straight ahead and will need a downwind at 4,000 feet.”

“Climb and maintain 8,000 feet if you can,” comes the answer. Shrug. Why eight? I think I know.

Sure enough, just prior to the base turn, lights flicker out, then emergency power shows a Christmas tree of warnings. Double engine failure. Flight 914 is now a 139,000 pound metal glider.

I’d started the Auxiliary Power Unit right after the first failure–kind of a reflex–having it ready to cover the lost generator once we reached a safe altitude. Good fortune; I connected both electrical distribution buses to the spun-up APU, then executed the rote memory items for double engine failure.

But what’s not a memory item is hard to forget: a windmill start is not likely at pattern speed. Descending at best glide angle means a slow speed and shallow descent, windmilling start requires more smash and a steep descent–not really comfortable at eight thousand–but necessary to get at least one engine running. Do it.

Sure, the APU is running, but what are the chances of pulling off that bleed configuration switcheroo correctly while attempting the double restart (hack the clock each time, remember?) and watching the ground come up to meet us?

My F/O is a Marine–you can always count on them, solid in every situation, and he’s no different–and it’s clear he doesn’t like trading the altitude for restart speed. I don’t either, but I’m doing the three dimensional geometry just as I know he is: about three times the altitude is the glide range. We’re good for way more than we need and in fact, gauging the distance and altitude I bet we’ll need some drag to get down to the runway. But trading off the altitude for restart leaves you no options. The Boeing is an energy miser–flies all day with that big wingleted wing and only grudgingly slows or descends.

“Give me at least 250,” I say, going through the restart procedure on both engines. Sure, the left one failed and might have internal damage, but it’s better than nothing. F/O lowers the nose a little more. Rotation on the dead engines picks up.

Over my left shoulder I’ve got the runway in sight. I want to say screw the restart, I’ll take it and deadstick it in. I have great faith in this excellent Boeing wing, with or without engines.

“I’m getting some N2 on two,” I say. Grudgingly, it’s coming back to life. Anything’s better than nothing.

Minutes later, we touch down and I brake us to a stop. “Excellent,” says the evaluator, one of two on board in the full motion simulator.

Yes, I know it’s a sim; but I also want to know how the jet flies under all conditions and what the timing, control feel and workload is like. Nobody’s willing–me included–to try this in the $60-million dollar jet, so we practice in the $5-million dollar simulator.

This is the second half of my every nine month beating. The first half is an evaluation: a line flight with various problems (mechanical, weather, legality, performance) thrown in. Prior to the two hour sim is a two hour “briefing,” which is one part information and two parts oral exam for you–and don’t stumble on any of the three full pages of memory items, never mind the hundreds of operating limitations numbers. Do it all  correctly and the two hours the flight examination portion is complete–then on to the second half, advanced flight maneuvers. In total, it’s a very slow-creeping six hour oral and flight exam.

The Inquisition: the oral exam before the simulator checkride.

And if you screw it up–which is to say, below standard in any area of standard procedure, emergency procedure or regulation; botch any maneuver, and your license is suspended.

We progress on to the final two hours of vital practice with windshear escape, mountainous terrain escape, inflight upset (pitch up, invert, recover without ripping any parts off the jet) and various fires and failures.

Every nine months, an airline pilot’s license and virtually, his career, is on the line. Every six months, the flight physical adds more jeopardy: beyond just the physical exam itself there’s the EKG that is data-linked directly to FAA Headquarters for analysis–they’ll make a determination as to whether you retain your medical certificate or not for another year.

Can’t worry about that stuff. Can’t do anything but dread the every nine month simulator beating and exam–but also, you have to welcome the opportunity: I want to practice the emergency procedures in real time, sharpen my reactions, test my judgment under pressure, my ability to problem-solve with complex and multiple problems. It’s a confidence builder, a necessary beating in order to lift an eighty-ton jet off the runway with 167 souls on board with complete confidence in my ability to get the jet and the folks back on the ground safely come whatever challenge.

That’s the price and the privilege of being an airline pilot. The smart pilots know you can’t have the latter without the former and though it never makes the ordeal easier, it does make the privilege all the better in every way.

9 Responses to “The Annual Pilot Beating: A Love-Hate Thing.”

  1. AAAUUGH! Don’t do this to your readers, Chris! I was horrified as the situation got worse and worse … and it turns out you were in a *simulator*? I was relieved, of course — and very glad to know that (once again) you’ve passed the test. But yikes. Thanks for a great read.

    • See? The sim is bad news for everyone. Always dread it, always learn something.

      Always better when it’s over.

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

  2. Hahaha, I just read a story similar to it so I kind of expected it. Nevertheless an interesting read! Congratulations!

  3. This is the bit most of the travelling public don’t know about.
    But hey, it’s good for them not to see the flailing feet of the graceful swan beneath the water.
    You’re dead right. Better to know all you can and make any mistakes on the ground.

  4. Enjoyable read as usual…… Chris if you would , could you explain the concept of the “coffin corner” ?

    • It’s the spread between max operating speed (Vmo, Mmo) and clean minimum maneuvering speed. The difference at low altitude is around 100 knots, but at max altitude and weight, it’s more like 10 to 12 knots. Exceed the limit and you get Mach buffet and possible nose tuck; go under it and you will get the stall buffet.

  5. My friend, a pilot for a regional airline, invited me to go on a ride along during his annual sim beat down. I got to sit behind the captain and f.o. along side the guy doing the check out. It was interesting to watch him put the pilots through the wringer. He had an evil grin on his face the whole time knowing that he was making these guys really sweat.

    • I guess it’s different at commuters (different FAR section) because at my airline, you can’t get into an active simulator without a significant amount of screening and written approvals.

      I did the job of Check Airman on our MD80 fleet for two years, doing the sim checks as well as in-aircraft flight training and evaluations.

      There was never anything personal nor any pleasure in making anyone sweat–rather, it was a very complex and scripted syllabus of required objectives from the FAA to be accomplished successfully in order for the pilots to retain their license and to emerge from the recurrent training competent and capable.

      Ditto when I’m on the receiving end, like last week. The guys operating the sim are simply building the evaluation and training events efficiently and effectively. They too get their turn in The Box every 9 months.

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: