Pilot Report: 737-Next Gen Heads Up Display.

hud aaFirst Officers love to derisively grumble about the captain being a HUD cripple–meaning he can’t make a decent landing without the “HUD”–Heads Up Display.” Fine–count me in: I swear by the device.

HUDs are standard now on the Boeing 787 and I’ll bet there’s less grumbling from F/O’s for one good reason: now there’s a HUD on their side as well in the 787. On the 737-800, the HUD is only on the captain’s side.

I’ll admit that I had my doubts too when I first started the transition from MD-80 captain to 737 captain. How could Flight Management computers, ILS antennas GPS and symbol generators reliably synthesize a runway display before my eyes despite clouds and weather obscuration? Worse, without any ground-based approach aids, how could the jet’s computers and satellite receivers pinpoint our position close enough to allow for safe descent and approach–completely in the blind?

I’ll also admit, like everyone else learning to use the HUD, I was swimming in symbology and information at first. Add to that the transition from traditional round dial displays on the MD-80 to the more advanced flat-panel displays on the Boeing Next Gen jets and you have a real spaghetti bowl of information swirling in front of you and in the case of the HUD, it’s all in ghostly monochromatic green, compared to the color-sorted original display on the instrument panel that is reproduced in the HUD:


But eventually, two things happen. First, you stop swimming in the symbology. Second, you learn after dozens of approaches in the clear as well as in the blind in weather that the system is reliable.

The first part, stopping the swimming is not as easy as it sounds but the trick is this: you have to embrace the theory of the flat panel display above that gives you a symmetry of information: airspeed tape on the left side, altitude tape on the right. Compare the two readouts between the photo of the information on the photo above, then on the HUD display above that. Note the markers indicating speed limits–we call it the “chain,” showing max speeds for configuration. That shifts as you change configuration–say, add or remove flaps.

night cockpit

On the instrument panel, you see the chain in a different color–up top on the HUD, it’s all ghostly green. So two things have to happen. First, you stop looking at colors and discipline yourself to see and heed shapes–but that’s not all. Second, you learn to not look at the side  displays, but rather, incorporate shapes into your peripheral awareness. That is key: peripheral sense. keep both tapes, airspeed and altitude in your indirect awareness, alert for the shapes on each giving you cues to the restrictions. In the case of speed, it’s minimums and maximums (the “chains” counterpart on the low end is the “hook,” or stick shaker limit). In the case of altitude, same thing: level off or descent minimums, or climb level off points, or clean-up altitudes.

You don’t look “at” the HUD information, you look through it but incorporate the information as you go. I once counted all of the possible display symbology and counted nearly 60 pieces of information displayed. You could get lost trying to follow every piece of information, but the key is to just absorb whatever you can from the periphery as things change. Let’s put this into motion on an approach:

(note: the above is an embedded YouTube video. If your browser won’t animate it, just click here to watch)

Notice the slowly decreasing altitude on the righthand tape while the airspeed on the left remains stable. The radio altitude  is counting down near the center–obviously that’s important and so that information is near center of your focus and incidentally, near the touchdown point. The compass rose below the display shows the course track, but the only thing you care about is alignment–again, you’re simply maintaining symmetry by keeping that peripheral information lined up.

This video is slightly different from the 737-800 I fly in that there’s no “flare” cue in this depiction: that’s simply the word “flare” that anunciate above a line that appears indicating where to put the nose for a smooth touchdown. Also, the word “idle” annunciates to suggest when to remove power as the autothrottles pull back for touchdown.

The Flight Management System data-links in the runway data so the HUD target the touchdown accurately.

The Flight Management System data-links in the runway data so the HUD target the touchdown accurately.

The dot in the center of the aircraft symbol is the desired path, the symbol surrounding it–if you’re successful at keeping them aligned–is the “flight path vector,” a symbol indicating where the aircraft is aimed despite the apparent orientation. That is, in a crosswind, you may be canted 20 to 30 degrees to one side or the other, but the FPV shows where you’re actually headed.

This video stops at touchdown, but the HUD does not: when you select detail level 2 or 3 and the ILS antenna supports it, the HUD gives you a runway remaining countdown and centerline steering information–which can be very useful in low-visibility landings and take-offs :


At my airline, we fly the HUD to the lowest minimum certified, as opposed to other Cat 3 certified aircraft that “autoland.” We never autoland–rather, with the aid of the HUD, the captain hand-flys every minimum visibility approach. Now that I have over a thousand hours in the 737-800 left seat, yes, I’m a “HUD cripple”–and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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21 Responses to “Pilot Report: 737-Next Gen Heads Up Display.”

  1. Shikhar Joshi Says:

    Haha! Nice post….F/O’s :D…And congratulations on the 200th one 🙂

  2. Tim Perkins Says:

    You referenced a video twice, but there’s not really a video, correct? Maybe just a couple of images from a video?

    Congrats on 200! Can’t wait for 200 more.

  3. Chris, excellent explanation ! At this moment I start wondering how I managed those 10,000 approaches without a HUD…And i can also understand your ‘swimming in info’ feeling at first.

  4. I’m not sure exactly what you said but the idea of you flying the plane as opposed to “autoland” is very appealing.

    • I’m the same way: would much rather hand-fly than autoland. In the latter, you’re basically looking for reasons NOT to land, then intervene manually. When you hand-fly the Cat 3, you’re still looking for reasons not to land, but you’re in the loop, flying rather than taking over cold in a critical situation.

      You’ve given me a good idea for a future post, comparing the pros and cons of autoland versus manual. All fleets besides the 737 either autoland in Cat 3 mins or divert.

  5. […] heads up display, huds, pilot, pilot report. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  6. I just have a general question for you. Do you ever fly to st marteen? I’ve seen countless of videos where AA 737s are landing there. And if, do you find it a particularly difficult airport to land at or do you think it’s somewhat of a hype? Either way it would be very interesting to hear your thoughts about it.

    • I’ve flown in and out as a DC-10 pilot. Every airport has its challenges, but they all also have the correct procedures and standards. I don’t think St. Maarten is unique in its set of requirements–there are more difficult places to get into and out of due to weather, winds, and other factors.

      That’s what the professional pilot biz is about: get the details, know the procedures, accomplish the flight.

  7. Tim Miller Says:

    I have 2 questions:

    First Did your HGS in the 737 no AIII Approach fashion?
    Second Did your 737 no Vertical Situation Display?

    Thank you for your great overview here!

  8. Tim Miller Says:

    Sorry.. Iphone.. 😦

    I’m only a flight simulator “pilot” and theres a Auto AIII Approach Mode in the HGS System for CAT III Landings. Looks like the IMC Mode, but more informations. But your pictures are only shows PRI Mode. Are you doing CAT III only in PRI Mode?

    The second question was about this: https://www.google.de/search?q=737+vertical+situation+display&hl=de&client=safari&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=fDtFUe66CM3esgaO0oDIDA&ved=0CAgQ_AUoAQ&biw=480&bih=268#i=8

    Do you have a VSD in your 737?

    Sorry, but I’m very interested on such details.

    • I don’t know anything about recreational flight simulator software, nor do we refer to anything in the aircraft as “PRI Mode” or “VSD.” So I guess I can’t answer that.

      • Tim Miller Says:

        Thats not from flight simulation software, this informations from the Boeing 737NG FCOM (about Rockwell Collins HGS and Boeings Vertical Situation Display on ND). Very sad that you can’t say more about the customer options in your 737. Keep going, your Blog is great!

        Thank you anyway!

      • I think the terminology is the problem–we have the 737-800 with the Next Gen displays–but in the actual aircraft we just don’t use any of the terms from whatever manual you’re referencing.

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  10. On non HUD aircraft, in autoland, the autopilot computers are coupled for the approach. In this case, with the HUD, I assume that the autopilots are off and you are using flight director inputs to the HUD. Is this correct? Great write up. Thanks

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