Thursday, April 3, 2014

Flying the Boeing 737-800 Part I

There is a little known program called ATOP. ATOP stands for Airline Training Orientation Program. It is a unique opportunity for pilots of all stripes, from student pilot to professional, to sample what its like to train and fly an actual airline jet simulator at an actual major airline training facility. Both American Airlines and Jet Blue graciously support the program at their training facilities.

I heard about the program at an AOPA seminar on weather flying last year and decided it would be a great birthday present to myself to go and experience what its like to fly a jet. When I contacted the friendly folks at ATOP they said they were booked through June 2014. I expressed my disappointment at having to wait so long. So they offered an option. If I could find 6-8 pilots total, they could schedule another session for my group sometime in March. I put the word out to my flight club and my favorite online aviation forum, grabbed my husband and a couple pilot friends and we had 5 pilots in no time. ATOP provided the other three and we had ourselves a class! I selected training at the American Airlines facility in Dallas with the B737-800 because I thought that would be much more like flying than the fly-by-wire A320 at Jet Blue.

The "A Team" in front of the full motion simulator.
Me, Randy, Chris and Jeff
Our class had three people looking forward to flying careers, myself and two twenty-something young men, Tom and Dan, who were working towards their airline careers. We had one student pilot friend and co-worker, Emanuel, Jeff, my husband, Randy who has become one of my main flying buddies, Chris, from the Cessna 172 forum and David who is an executive at a hospital in Wyoming, multi-engine rated and a CFI. For the purposes of planning simulator time we were split into two groups of four. The "A-Team" and the "Number 1 Team". I picked Chris to be my co-pilot because I had never flown with him before. Chris turned out to be a great choice. Jeff and Randy rounded out the "A-Team".

Day 1 - Drinking from a Fire Hose

The first day was 10 hours of ground school lead by Captain Wayne. This is Wayne Phillips who lead the AOPA Seminar. The same Wayne Phillips who writes in AOPA's flight training magazine about airline careers after an extensive flying career of his own. They've trained over 4000 pilots since ATOP started operations and we were in good hands. Wayne made the torrent of information fun to absorb with a great sense of humor and all kinds of good stories. Since this was a rare occasion with a female in the class we were treated to many repetitions of "Lady and Gentlemen" and "Boys and Girl" as he took us through the basics. I was amused to be recognized in that way. During a break Wayne and I talked briefly about how few women come through the program or fly at all.

We were exposed to, at a high level, what every knob and switch on the B737's many control panels do. We learned about the plane's hydraulics, pneumatics, fuel system, the A/C and pressurization systems.  I found out B737's have three jet engines, not just two. The third engine is the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) that sits in the tail section of the plane. We went through the basic start up flows and safety checks. We learned a bit about the backup systems and how they operate, what happens if one engine fails or the other. How the B737 has mechanical backups to the hydraulics for the flight controls leaving the plane controllable in the case of a full hydraulic failure. We also got exposed to the high altitude decompression and emergency procedures since we all signed up for an optional high altitude endorsement.

That afternoon we sat down at a cockpit training device (I think its called) and walked through the take off, cruise and landing flows. This was basically a three dimensional panel (top panel, front panel and pedestal) with pictures of all of the buttons, knobs and controls where they are physically in the aircraft. We took turns acting as Captain, FO, ATC and Instructor/Observer and went through the motions, literally, of operating the aircraft through the profile we would fly the next day in the simulator.

Then we switched to an actual flight training device (FTD). This was similar to the cockpit training device but this one had touch screens for all of its surfaces. As we needed to move a lever or flip a switch, etc, we touched and moved the item on the screen. We used this device under Wayne's watchful eye to go through a simulated emergency descent from FL350 to FL180. This was the second part of the high altitude endorsement training. I found out a B737 will descend at approx 6000 fpm with the speed brakes deployed at a 300 knot dive.

I think it was 6PM before the day was done and we headed to a pizza joint near the hotel to eat and chat. I got to pick Wayne's brain a bit about career opportunities for me. He told me about a single pilot operation he had in Colorado flying vacationers to Aspen for breakfast. The pizza was fantastic. We went to bed with full bellies and brains and tried to sleep as the next day would start at very early.

Day 2 Simulator Time!

The next day dawned chilly and grey but we didn't care. We were going to fly jets today! Randy, David and I met up early and walked to Starbucks to ensure we had the required equipment for flight, aka coffee. When we were there Wayne came by and David and Wayne got to chat. If you want a chance to talk with an industry expert about flying careers one on one, in addition to the exposure to the training and simulators for an airline industry, this is a great way to get that time.

We were all very excited as Wayne led us through the maze of hallways towards the full motion simulators. The airline obviously has several, from the B737 approximately the size of a small room which we would be "flying" to a sleek looking B787 simulator sitting in a long open simulator bay with several other models. It was early but you could hear and see the simulators moving as sim techs took them through their paces and crews did training and testing.

We were escorted to a briefing room that had a small table, a wall chart of the B737 panels and a window into the simulator bay. The simulator we were scheduled for was in use. We saw it moving on its hydraulics and heard it let out a loud BANG when it bounced on the hydraulics to simulate a hard landing. We were able to get an idea of the large range of motion that simulator could do as we watched its gyrations.

After a quick briefing the "A-Team" headed for the sim. I had the bright idea of letting Jeff and Randy go first so we could see what it was like before diving in. I think Jeff had the opposite idea. Jeff managed to get Chris to go into the simulator first Captain Chris and FO Anissa were first to take the sim through its paces. Wayne was seated behind us at the simulator's control panel, ready to create mayhem at a moment's notice. Jeff and Randy got to observe us from inside the sim as well.

In the following section I'll describe this as flying a jet rather than a simulator. For all intents and purposes, that is what it looked, sounded, felt and smelled like doing. Wayne told us many actual B737 pilots say it is easier to fly the actual jet than the sim. I think part of that might be because you don't have engine failures, fires, flat tires and other various malfunctions thrown at you on a routine basis in the real jet.

Day 2 Flying the B737-800

Captain Chris sat in the left seat and I sat in the right. The seats are set so they move back and away from the center pedestal, making it easier to get into the seat, then they slide forward and in to lock into place with the rudder pedals under your toes. A four point harness is standard equipment in the front of a jet. Chris and I made sure to strap in good. Who knew what would happen on our flight?

Captain Chris and FO Anissa
in the full motion simulator
The plane sat on the end runway 17C at DFW airport ready for take off. It was a dark night with no stars but we could dimly see the horizon beyond the powerful takeoff/landing lights. ATC cleared us for takeoff and I read back the clearance. The captain said SET TAKEOFF POWER and moved the throttles forward about halfway while keeping his eyes outside the airplane. I moved his hand forward further until the N1 compressor gauge read 95% power when I said TAKEOFF POWER SET.

At first it seemed like nothing happened, then we started to hear and feel a low rumble. The rumble became a roar and the jet started to move down the runway, slowly at first and faster and faster and the noise of the engines became louder and we were pushed back into our seats. 80 KNOTS CROSS CHECK I said as we passed 80 knots. 80 KNOTS Chris confirmed. After this point the only thing that would cause an aborted landing would be a fire, engine failure or loss of control. 150 knots, V1, I said. Then immediately 152 knots, ROTATE. V1, ROTATE Chris responded and took his hand off the throttle to raise the nose of the jet to an 18 degree pitch for take off with both hands on the controls. We could hear exclamations of "woah!" "cool" from the observers seats behind us but we had to keep flying this jet.

POSITIVE CLIMB, GEAR UP, Chris said. GEAR UP, I replied and moved the large gear level to the UP position. The sound of the jet changed as the gear retracted. 1000 FT I said. 1000 FT he confirmed and pitched down for 12 degrees as we changed to cruise climb. AFTER TAKEOFF CHECKLIST was the next call out. I went through the checklist and moved the gear into the OFF position. CHECKLIST COMPLETE.

ATC started to pepper us with new headings and altitudes and I read them back and programmed the flight director as directed by our captain. The trim wheels were spinning madly as Chris adjusted the trim to make it easier for him to fly and follow the magenta lines of the flight director. The magic of the flight director, Wayne explained earlier, is all you have to do is keep the wings of the miniature plane on the PFD aligned with the horizontal magenta line and keep the vertical magenta line through the center of the miniature plane. If you did that you would be guided onto the altitude, heading and track programmed into the flight director. So even though we were "hand flying" without the autopilot, the plane was telling us what to do.

The flight was going smoothly as Chris and I got into the grove of flying the jet... too smoothly. The master caution light came on. I scanned the many panels to identify the source of the caution then extinguished the light. I watched for a second to see if a second caution would come on. It didn't. Chris kept flying as I looked up at the panel above my head and turned off the system that had the caution.  Problem resolved.

Chris was making it look easy as ATC had us slow down the jet and turn "base" to intercept the ILS for the final approach. With further speed reductions we were at a speed we could deploy the initial flaps. We were cleared for the approach and I started doing the pre-landing checklists and call outs, deploying more flaps, slowing our speed using the auto-throttles. I watched the MFD (similar to an HSI smaller planes) for the localizer bar to come alive. That would be our trigger to slow further and deploy the gear. GEAR DOWN I called out. GEAR DOWN the captain confirmed. I put the gear down. You could hear the air roar differently as the gear came down. All that remained was for Chris to fly the ILS and then at 200' AGL he would turn off the auto-throttles and bring her in to land.

Chris had the plane well aligned with the localizer and glide slope with the help of the flight director. The plane called out... 1000, 500, 400, 300, 200 click as the auto-throttles are disengaged 100, 50, 10. Wayne guided Chris through the round out to a firm landing.

We weren't done yet though, FLAPS 5 and we did a touch and go, in a jet! at 140 knots we rotated and leveled off at about 500'.  Then Wayne took the plane and reset it on 3 mile final for a second approach. This time with low clouds and low visability to make things a bit more interesting. We set the auto brake on to help us stop the jet after landing. 

Chris and I worked well together and brought the jet in smoothly for the last landing without issue. Once we got it on the runway Chris deployed the reversers to slow down the jet even further. At 80 knots the reversers were stowed and the brakes took over. It was very disorienting when we pulled clear of the runway for some reason, the movement of the simulator didn't quite match what we saw out the window and everyone felt the same disorientation. Chris taxied clear of the runway and we were done with a round of applause from our observers in the back of the simulator.

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