The Annual Pilot Beating
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.
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.
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.