Monday, May 12, 2014

Flying the Boeing 737-800 Part II

"I'll bet you fly like a girl," the CFI said jokingly. "She flies like a professional," my friend corrected him. I laughed and told them both, "I fly like a professional girl, of course!" I was taking the captain's seat in a full sized Boeing 737-800 simulator at American Airlines training facility in Dallas, TX. My husband, some friend pilots and I were spending the weekend at ATOP, Airline Training Orientation Program. ATOP is a program that gives pilots of all stripes the chance to experience what it is like to train on and fly a real airline jet at a real airline training facility. This was my birthday present to myself and I was having the time of my life.

The characters 17C were illuminated in front of us on the empty runway as the sky lightened slightly on the horizon.
American 456, DFW Tower. Climb and maintain 3000. Maintain runway heading. Runway 17 Center. Cleared for take off. - broke the silence.
Climb and maintain 3000. Maintain runway heading. Runway 17 Center Cleared for take off. American 456. said First Officer Chris.

Me in the left seat of the B737 simulator
I looked at my First Officer and nodded with a grin. Time to go. I released the brakes and put my hand on the throttles, moving them forward. SET TAKE OFF THRUST. Chris put his hand over mine and advanced my hand and the throttles forward further until N-1 on both engines read 95% as I kept my gaze outside the aircraft. TAKE OFF THRUST SET.

Nothing seemed to happen at first, then we started to hear a rumble, the plane started the vibrate, the rumble became a roar as we felt ourselves pushed forward by the twin jet engines. Chris monitored the airspeeds and called out 80 KNOTS when we passed through 80 knots. 80 KNOT CROSS CHECK, I confirmed as I kept the plane on the center line and prepared myself to pitch up at rotate speed. Suddenly alarms started to sound and the master caution and fire lights illuminated in front of both of us.

I heard my own CFI's voice speaking calmly in my head from a multi-engine captain's briefing, "In event of fire, failure, or loss of control…" I thought, "Fire! 80 knots, not to V1 yet. Abort." I pulled the throttles to idle and said, "Abort!" as I stepped hard on the brakes to stop the plane. The plane stopped quicker than I thought it would. Once stopped my FO and I both started to move our hands towards the fire suppression systems.

"That's OK, I'll put the fire out," the CFI said. "Good job on that. Do you know it took 5 seconds for you to abort the take off after the alarms went off?" I didn't know if 5 seconds was considered fast or slow for an airline pilot. On one hand it seemed like those 5 seconds were more like 5 minutes, on the other hand, they went by in milliseconds. In any case, we handled the simulated emergency well.

The B737-800 simulator was reset to normal conditions and we took off normally on our next attempt. We reached our designated altitude and I level off. I was "hand flying" the plane using only auto-thrust and the flight director to guide, not fly, the plane. The trim wheels were spinning wildly as I set the electric trim to reduce control pressure needed to maintain level flight. ATC gave us another heading and airspeed. The FO set it in the flight director and I got used to using the magenta lines on the flight display to guide our flight. I had to adjust to not "leading" a turn in or turn out when getting close to lining up on the flight director. You have to lead your turns when using a traditional CDI in instrument flying but the flight director actually leads the turns for you so all you have to do is fly the magenta lines and you will turn precisely and smoothly onto the heading and at the altitude the FO sets. My FO and I quickly got into a rhythm of flying and working together and we were starting to relax.

"How would you like to experience what a total hydraulic failure feels like?" said the CFI. Before we could answer we heard a click of a keyboard and the hydraulic warning lights all came on. My FO started going through the checklist to attempt to resolve the problem while I suddenly had my hands full with 174,000 pounds of simulated jet and no "power steering". Unlike older jets, this plane has backups for the hydraulic systems. The plane, while difficult, was controllable and the electric trim still worked. The most difficult part was not exceeding a reasonable bank in turns without the hydraulic assist. After it was obvious I was getting the hang of it, the CFI had me hand the controls to my FO so he could see what its like. I gave him the controls and took over the radio work. Chris wrestled with the plane and kept it reasonably on course and on altitude.

We were turning towards the final approach course when the hydraulics healed themselves with another keyboard click. I took the controls and ATC cleared us for the approach. Chris read back the clearances, set our airspeeds and headings on the flight director and we were cleared for the approach. I "hand flew" the ILS 17C approach into Dallas Ft. Worth. The runway lights led us forward and I got to follow the bright fireball towards the runway in the dim light. Ever since my first night cross-country flight I've wanted to fly a night approach like this. The flight director made it much easier to fly a beautiful ILS approach than I expected for my first time at the controls of a Boeing 737-800. We cruised down the glide slope and the plane started to count down the altitude over the terrain… 500, 300, 200 … I turned off the auto-thrusters, I'm really flying now. 100, 50. The CFI told me to round out just as I slowly bring the nose up to what I guessed was a good landing attitude. 10, thunk, we felt a slight jolt as we touched down and rolled down the runway. I spared myself a half second to think, "Not bad", then I called for flaps and take off thrust. Yes! A touch and go in a 737!

The engines spooled up much quicker this time and we were at rotate speed and climbing again in no time it seems, POSITIVE CLIMB, GEAR UP. When we got to 500 feet we hear, "My airplane in 3, 2, 1." click The plane sat frozen in space and time on 3 mile final on the glide slope for the same ILS approach. "What would you like?" he asked. "How about low visibility and a storm?" I said. I wouldn't want to fly one in real life, but in a simulator this could be fun. We reconfigured the plane and turned on the auto-brake assist for this approach. This time we'd be landing.

click, click 

The sky outside became pitch black except for flashes of lightning and we're flying again. ATC cleared us for the approach. A voice in the back said "Oh look! There goes Dorothy!" Flying this approach seemed no more difficult than the one before. At 500 feet we could see the runway lights and the "rabbit" lined up perfectly. "Nice approach, nice approach" said the CFI quietly. We do the pre-landing checklist and the count down starts. …500, 300, 200, 100… click - oops I forgot to turn off auto thrust at 200, so I turned it off at 100. …50… I started to round out just before the CFI said to …10… gently I raised the nose and kept the plane over the center line. Don't let it land, I thought as I tried to keep it just off the runway with thrusters at idle. Scrrch... the tires made that lovely chirping noise as we touched down gently. I let the nose down smoothly and put on the reversers to slow the plane. We got below 80 knots and I stowed the reversers and put the plane back exactly on the center line as I had allowed it to drift slightly. "Show off," said the CFI. I smiled. "A professional is always on the center line," I think. "See if you can make this high speed taxiway." I added more brakes, steered for the taxiway and brought the plane to a stop at what I thought was all the way over the runway hold lines.


The lights come on in the cockpit and the simulation is over. "Nice work," said the CFI. My FO and I shook hands and our two friends congratulated us enthusiastically. "Not bad at all for someone who flies like a girl," I think. A professional girl.

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