The Annual Pilot Beating

awful house

Awful House, 4:30 am.

Try to decide which is worse–the two roaches scurrying around the condiments, or the lame-brained guy in the paper hat, prattling on about his guts while you try to eat.

“You ever get that real sharp gut pain,” he asks, “where all of a sudden you really have to go to the bathroom super bad?”

Must be cancer, I want to say but don’t. You should get it checked out.

What I really don’t want to do is chat here at the buttcrack of dawn while I’m trying to cram one last run-through of the memory items I’ll be expected to recite for the oral exam prior to the simulator exam: “Passenger switches–on.”

What the hell is a “passenger switch?” Actually, that should read “fasten belts switch,” because that’s what you need in a rapid depressurization. Boeing obviously misprinted the step, but since Boeing published the procedure, if you don’t recite it their wrong way–it’s wrong.

awful 2

And there are pages and pages of numbers, stats, limits, operating procedures and legalities, all fair game for the oral exam. Experience proves that the best defense is a good offense:

Question: what’s the crosswind limit for a Category 3 approach?
Answer: 15, but that may be further reduced by the runway condition to 10 if the RCR is less than good, which brings the requirement for an Autobrakes setting of 3 or MAX.

Answer more questions before he can ask them.

And pay with cash here: the guy at the register is either an ex-con or a heroin addict; the neck tattoos and shaved head could go with either.

The 05:30 “Stump the Dummy” (me) session goes as planned: two hours that are part instruction, passing along new or revised procedures, as well as asking questions–and me over-answering as a defense. That worked, because now we’re on to the simulator check. Today we have one of the new, most advanced “boxes,” with all-electric motors (no hydraulic carnival ride) and the most advanced digital visual with Google Earth displays.

And for me, a windfall: there was no line first officer scheduled for my sim–so I get a “seat filler.” That means an instructor, and today it’s Bev. She knows the aircraft systems and procedures inside and out–because she teaches them every day.


This first part, planned for around two hours, is termed by the FAA a “jeopardy event.” That is, if you don’t handle everything correctly, you lose your flight qualification. No pressure–just your ability to make a living at stake.

We start with a low-visibility take-off: fog and a visibility of 500 meters. Brief all the usual stuff, plus the extras: Localizer frequency tuned and identified, specified usable within the threshold, HUD set NP with correct runway length, runway heading set. Of course, a question before takeoff:

Evaluator: what’s the limit for the take-off alternate?

Me: 330 miles or the lowest minimum at the departure field for a single-engine return, which is 300 feet, and the present viz is 500.

Over answer–good defense.

Once “aloft,” we return to set up for a Category 3 landing, which is through weather to the lowest limit of my qualification, which is 50′ and a visibility 300 feet.

“Take the airplane,” I tell Bev, “I have to make the new FAA-ordered PA about electronic devices.”


“Good job,” says the evaluator. Maybe he thought I’d forget–the change only came out this week–but I didn’t. We hit all of the marks to set up the approach, then fly it carefully to a landing under an indefinite ceiling and 1/8 mile of visibility.


Then, through the magic of flight simulators, the computer slingshots us back out on final to fly the approach again, this time to a low-altitude missed approach. That’s a two-part test: you have to prove that you can do the maneuver, no easy task at 50′ and marginal visibility, and you have to prove that you can discern when to go-around and when to land.

Hand-flying the approach, near the ground, at 50 feet: nada. I punch the go-around power toggle on the throttles and we pitch up aggressively, away from the runway.

“Flaps 15 . . . positive rate (means we’re climbing) gear up.”

We’re climbing like a scalded cat, I’m watching the speed increase so I can safely call for configuration changes and NOT overspeed the flaps as we rocket skyward.

cockpit night

All is well through flaps fifteen, flaps five, flaps two; Bev, ever the excellent First Officer, warns me: Houston, we have a problem.

A glance above my head to the flaps display panel shows a trailing edge flap segment stuck extended. The jet wants to roll, I won’t let it.

In Cat 3 conditions, especially below 100 agl, a go-around can mean ground touchdown regardless, so naturally it’s done with full TOGA power and pitch.

That compresses the procedure, and split flaps disrupts the cleanup, yet the power (and thus over speed and altitude bust potential) remains high. Throw in the fact that by design, all 737-800 go-arounds are hand flown, and the missed approach was deliberately chosen because it has a 2-step level off, first at 3,000, then a turn and a climb to 4,000.


Will you remember the 3,000′ hold down, especially at max power, with cleanup disrupted?

Again, you slow down and prioritize: I’m thinking level off and speed control. We’re forced out of our normal litany for cleanup, but we’ll claim the time and space we need–not rushing–to accomplish everything. I tell Bev “Declare an emergency, tell tower we’re going straight ahead at 4,000.” Why fight the 3,000′ level off? She concurs.

Then we have to set up an RNAV LOC which must be flown with LNAV VNAV, but you have to recognize that VNAV doesn’t sense a flaps 2 landing and will put you below the 168 KIAS Vref for flaps 2.

Also, with  a runway visual range less than 4,000 feet, the runway is technically wet (better not miss that) and landing distance with a 168 KIAS Vref will be critical.

Which leads to the ATC controller trying to induce us to take a pattern turn to crosswind, I refuse because we have too many checklists to do. That leads to the instructions to hold present position, left turns, which I could also refuse, but I do know that’s a test too: can you set up holding on the fly? And will you remember that “present position hold” sets up right hand turns, which must be changed or you end up in the wrong airspace.

In holding, Bev and I work through all abnormal flaps and emergency landing checklists; I go to school on the adverse roll moment the autopilot is obviously fighting to be ready for the hand flown final, recall from experience that a flaps 2 landing will be at high speed and power must go to idle uncomfortably early or you will float and the wet landing distance will eat you alive.

And don’t forget to modify the standard LNAV-VNAV procedure with “speed intervene;” some might try flying it with autothrottles off, but that’s flirting with the Asiana screwup in San Francisco, with the added challenge of marginal weather with an abnormal configuration. Think that might be distracting?

Throttles idle over the fence, decent touchdown, reverse and ABS. Bev counts down the airspeed as we roll out. Final question: “Would you taxi clear?”

Me: “No. The runway’s already closed for the emergency.” And it will need to be checked by the airport managers before reopening anyway.

Check Airman: “Well done, jeopardy part is complete. Take ten minutes, I’ll set up for the second half.”

Done. The next two hours will be advanced training: stalls, engine failures, tailwinds into short fields, engine failures with high flap settings on short runways, double engine failures; all just good training. The Check Airman is one of the best and I lucked out getting him for an evaluator and Bev as a seat filler.

And when the advanced training is complete, back to the real world and the real jet. Good for another nine months or ten thousand miles–whichever comes last. I think a cup of coffee is in order, maybe something to eat–I will find both, my better judgment dictates, anywhere but the Awful House.

throttle bugeye

39 Responses to “The Annual Pilot Beating”

  1. Maybe the airline’s motto should be “We Sweat the Details…So You Don’t Have To”, but I bet the marketing people would not approve.

    And the coffee cup pic gave me a flashback to all the meals in the Waffle House near ATL when I was putting a sim in at Delta…seemed like it was the only place open sometimes.

  2. Makes us – the passengers – feel that we are in good hands with such pilots! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Randy Sohn Says:

    Chuckle, were the centerline lights working?

  4. Rockwall Tim Says:

    Mercy, you guys (and gals) are good.

  5. Shikhar Joshi Says:

    Great Post!
    But isn’t it harsh?? One shot wrong and you lose your bread n butter? They dont give you a warning or something?

    • Yes, it’s a harsh business, necessarily so. If time permits, you might get a chance to redo one thing. Or not, and likely not more than one thing. No such thing as a warning.

      The next step is, your qualifications are suspended. You’ll get some retraining, then another check, if the FAA agrees. Or, the FAA can administer the check ride themselves and if they see fit, revoke your flying certificate.

      Would you really like to see the process of quality control relaxed? I wouldn’t.

      • Alex Jevdic Says:

        Would they revoke EVERYTHING as in you can’t even take a Cessna up or just your commercial stuff?

      • As an airline pilot, you have flight qualifications which are renewed or suspended depending on the every nine months check.

        The FAA at any point can decide, based on a poor performance, to revoke any or all of your pilot certificates. Without those certificates and the qualifications, you are not employable.

  6. Great post in horrible conditions, Chris. I think I’d pass the breakfast and opt for coffee with. You were fortunate with Bev, but most cope with the hand offered. I do not understand why the works was not hand-flown, esp. with a great/functional FO, but SOP governs. I don’t for get your 20+ years wearing four and how may PIC hours on the B73? If you don’t know this stuff and can fly through it, who can? Maybe your experience bought you a few extra challenges. That modest flap imbalance or the potential altitude game with ATC seem to be a stretch. Have I ever heard other pilots under a declared emergency remind others that you just bought major ownership in ATC’s functions? Perhaps not a fun read, but a very good one and thank you, Chris. As I’ve noted before, there is a reason that they address you as ‘Captain,’ and now ‘Doctor Captain.’ I’d be happy flying when you are driving. Happy Holiday, -C.
    Addendum: Does that new stimulator have a galley? Even without one, the most serious missed call might have been: “Forward galley, two black coffees, strong, please – ASAP.” And in six or nine months, you get to do it again. If the training department is sharp, perhaps they should ask you to help write some of these scenarios. Are experienced line staff ever asked to contribute? Enough! -C.

    • Actually, I was a Check Airman for two years. Lots of work, but you’ll never know an aircraft as well as you do when you’re teaching someone how to fly it. But now with the seniority to hold the high time turns, minimum days at work and home every night, I’m not willing to trade my 12-14 days a month of simple flying for their 16-18 of training and flying.

      Still, as much as recurrent puts you under the gun–under the microscope, really–every nine months, it’s a positive motivator: makes you really read, learn, and absorb the tons of limits, systems knowledge, procedures and regulations involved with flying airliners.

      You can’t get too slack in any of those areas, because you know the next beating is just around the corner. If doctors, lawyers, elected officials, law enforcement officers, professors, and even teachers all had such a rigorous everything-on-the-line practical exam every nine months, imagine how productive, professional and safe this country would be.

  7. Do you get paid for any of the time spent cramming for the sim checks? It must take tons of hours to get it all committed to memory!

    (love your blog btw! Even as just a poor simmer, I love hearing the minutia of the procedures and the pilot’s life. Too bad my health means I’ll never pass the medical to get my license.)

  8. Great post. Thank you. The one-mistake-out sounds brutal at first blush but I take your point.

    “If doctors, lawyers, elected officials, law enforcement officers, professors, and even teachers all had such a rigorous everything-on-the-line practical exam every nine months….”

    Yeah. I have, and once, long ago and far away, proposed just that at a city council meeting. I was asked to leave, my betters having judged me a “disruptive influence.” And so it goes.

    Smooth skies.

  9. Lego Spaceman Says:

    I had the chance to “ride along” with a pilot friend of mine when he went in for his semi-annual beating. It was a fun experience.

    And the Boeing manual isn’t misprinted. If it says passenger switches, it means passenger switches. That’s the first thing they teach you when you work for the Boeing Company; Boeing makes up words to suit its own purposes. I’m trying to work the word “thermodjicator” into one of the documents that I have influence over.

    • How strange that Boeing would intentionally use “passenger switches” on the checklist, but label the switch in the cockpit “fasten belt switch.”

      • It’s Boeing’s plane, we just fly in it.

        Thanks for yet another fascinating story. Speaking of which, I am SURE there is a publisher and a market for a BOOK at some point in the future. How would you like to be Dr Captain Author?

      • I’m perfectly fine with Chris.

      • Alex Jevdic Says:

        I’m guessing some airlines have the no electronics sign instead of no smoking which requires crews to manipulate both switches, and to cut down on the wording they typed passenger switches to cover both items at once. Hence the plural switch(es)

      • So, you’re thinking Boeing published an emergency procedure that uses an abstract term that isn’t even in the cockpit to refer to a vital step, “to cut down on wording?” Crafty, those engineers.

        Still, I’m thinking they screwed up and we’re stuck with it till they fix the procedure and reissue the publication.

      • My copy of the manuals (and the extract from yours, too, in the photo) says “Passenger signs,” not “Passenger switches.” I don’t think that’s a misprint, since it’s used consistently in all the checklists and procedures, and the term is defined, more or less, in the Airplane General chapter in Volume 2 of the FCOM.

        Perhaps it was written that way for fleet commonality with other Boeing commercial airplanes, many of which do have a “PASS SIGNS” caption above the switches.

      • In the photo you see a study guide, and the problem remains: there are no “passenger signs” or “passenger switches” in the cockpit–just a “seatbelt sign.”

        We also have EECS rather than EICAS like the 757/767, but it would be equally useless for Boeing to call them “engine switches” which aren’t in either aircraft.

        It’s kind of funny that you and others are trying to rationalize what actually makes no sense in the protocol of checklists and litanies.

  10. Alex Jevdic Says:

    Aww c’mon the waffle house isn’t that bad but you must have ran into a poorly run location, the one by IND is pretty good that is well cleaned and run by great staff.

    • Well I guess it’s really not “that bad,” once you get beyond the roaches and the village idiot behind the counter talking about how bad he needs to take a dump.

  11. Chris, great blog as usual. Always look forward to them. Hate to ask, but is it a typo in “reduced by the runway condition to 10 if the RCR is less than good, ” ? Might it be ‘RVR’, not RCR? If I’m mistaken could you explain the term? Thanks !

    • No, it’s RCR, Runway Condition Reading. That could be three ratings: good, fair or poor. If it’s fair or poor, the crosswind limit goes down to 10, due to the reduced effectiveness of nose wheel steering.

  12. Hope your not headed to KBNA right now. It’s bad weather here.

  13. Surgeon here- we are tested and retested in order to keep our skills sharp, much similar to pilots. As a professor, I read upwards of 40 journals per week in order to keep up with the latest in my profession. You see, a surgeon has to know both medicine and surgery to be competent in my book. To those who would believe that physicians are not checked and rechecked, don’t buy into that.

    • I won’t “buy into it”–if you can tell me when your last recurring drug and alcohol test was, plus your last every-6-months physical (with the EKG electronically sent to your licensing body in real time), and the date of your last recurring oral and written exams.

      Standing by …

  14. Michael A. Says:

    One of the items I was looking at when the FAA said they would allow electronic devices below 10,000 ft was whether they would allow it with CAT II or CAT III approaches. I couldn’t find any information on that. It seemed to me that they were giving a blanket OK to use devices. Do you know if this is an airline policy or a new regulation that went into effect?

  15. Why not taxi off the runway? Company procedure? Also, are you allowed to return to the previous flap setting to try to correct the split condition? Are there wing tip brakes in play?

    • Why not? The real question is”why?” The runway is closed and will stay closed until it’s inspected, and we need to be sure there are no collateral hydraulic problems.

      The split flaps procedure is long and had many steps depending on variables.

      I’m not sure what “wingtip brakes” refers to, but there are none on the Boeing jet.

  16. Wonderfully written, as always, Chris. I hold a CASEL, decided against pursuing flying professionally…but your description of the sim ride put me right back in the head space of some of my check rides, which felt awfully intimidating, at the time.

    I completely agree, they need to be that way. If TSHTF, in the real world, there is no second chance.

    I’m a dentist. Mandatory recurrent training is a joke. Many of us do much study, but the requirements are feeble, and where they are in place, the have to do with sitting through, or reading, courses, and taking (usually) trivial quizzes to prove you were not asleep. There is no actual performance testing.

  17. james aydelott Says:

    Dr. Manno,

    Professional pilots are the cream of the crop and are usually meticulous about preparing for their nine month checks. What percentage do you think fail their “jeopardy event?” I would think a very small number.

    As always, love the blog, thanks again professor.

    James Aydelott, Tulsa

    • James– In my experience as an evaluator giving simulator and aircraft line checks for two years, I always said about 90% do an excellent job, 7% do a decent job, and 2-3% just don’t do the job. About half of those, I believe, we’re just a “bad day,” so overall, I’d agree with you that most pilots prepare well and perform with precision and discipline.

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