Cockpit Chronicles: Boeing vs Boeing. Pilots weigh in on the flight qualities of each type

We talked last week about identifying the various Boeing airplanes from their external characteristics. But to Boeing pilots who have been fortunate to fly most of them, each airplane has its own personality. I thought I’d share some different opinions of a few pilots who have flown them.

To accomplish this, I chose a select group of ‘friends of Kent that also fly Boeings.’ And by select, I mean John Steinbeck of UPS and Chris Countryman, formerly with Cathay Pacific Cargo and United Airlines. It’s not exactly a scientific survey, but they filled me in on the Boeings they have time in, including the 747.

I’ve also asked a Boeing test pilot to give his impressions on the new 747-8 and the 787.

Rest assured, no two pilots can agree if a cockpit is relatively small or large, or if an airplane is heavy or sensitive on the controls, so I’m sure we’ll see some dissenting opinions in the comments below. I welcome any observations from other pilots.

We’ll break them down by type:707:

My only experience with the 707 was in the simulator that American used for the pilot interview process. It’s impossible to know just exactly how an airplane flies when piloting a simulator, so I’ll have to skip this airplane. But it did seem to have a heavier feel than the newer jets. I remember thinking it was a rather macho beast that I would have loved to fly.

717:

I flew the MD-80 for a year, which Boeing adopted through their merger with McDonnell Douglas, and eventually produced an updated version called the 717. This is by far the least similar to the other Boeing types, but if the 717 is anything like the MD-80, it’s also the quietest for the pilots. The 717 has far more performance than the MD-80, and a redesigned and more modern cockpit. But let’s face it: the 717 is a brother from a different mother, really.

727:

Talk to any pilot and they all seem to LOVE the 727. My brother talks about the airplane like it was a long since deceased best friend. Unfortunately, after first spending 4 ½ years at the flight engineer panel of this classic airliner, I don’t have a fondness for the airplane at all. In fact, I still wake up from nightmares where crew scheduling calls and assigns me a 727 FE trip even though I haven’t touched the panel in 15 years.

But John’s experience in the 727 is far more typical among pilots. He says:

The 727-200 takes a lot of hours to figure out how to “grease on,” and is by far the most difficult Boeing to master on landings. It has humbled many pilots in its years! “Rolling it on” is usually done by stopping the descent a few feet above the runway, and then gently easing the yolk forward. But the reward is just so satisfying.

I remember my dad telling me of the forward push technique that he used to salvage a flare that had a high sink rate. Pushing forward when you’re still airborne is counter intuitive on most jets, but the 727s wheels are well behind the center of lift and actually pivot up slightly as the nose is initially lowered. Trying this technique when too high above the runway wouldn’t be pretty, though. John went on to mention that the 727 cockpit was rather cramped, but no worse than the 747 or 757.

737-200:

Before landing my current job, I worked to build my resume by picking up a 737 type rating. The ’70s vintage Class “C” simulator wasn’t very advanced, so the check ride had to be done with the FAA in an actual airplane. For this we used a Continental 737-200 in Dallas at 2 a.m. one night. I was shocked at how much better it flew than the sim. It was the only checkride where I couldn’t stop smiling. I loved it, probably because up to that point I had no jet time, so it felt like a rocket to me. Other more experienced 737-200 pilots have told me they thought it was like flying a LearJet; hot and sporty.

737-800:

Years later, I bid the 737-800 as soon as it came to AA. Being in one of the first groups of pilots to fly the airplane was fun, and the new technology, as compared to the MD-80 that I had previously been flying, was a welcomed improvement. The iPad sized displays were full of useful information for descent planning, crosswind intensity for landing, and navigation and traffic data. The flight director, two needles that help guide you along your path while hand flying the airplane, are much more precise than any other previous generation of Boeing.

At the end of training, the first 50 crews had to do takeoff and landing practice in an actual empty 737-800. I filmed the other pilot’s landings. You might enjoy seeing how we worked to get the hang of landing the airplane:

While many complain about the tight cockpit, the airplane did include two cup holders, which came in handy when storing a half opened soda can on the left and the ice filled cup on the right. It’s the little things that leave an impression, I guess.

The airplane does have a few drawbacks though. The noise in the front is probably worse than the 727. That pointy nose, the same used on the 707 and 727 was never designed to reduce cockpit noise. Some airlines use noise canceling headsets in their 737 cockpits. Unfortunately, we don’t.

My next complaint is the autopilot. Most pilots hand flew the climb and descent for a much longer time than any other airplane I’ve flown, simply because it was possible to be smoother than the autopilot. The other, newer Boeings can out fly a pilot, climbing and descending without the slow porpoise exhibited in the -800.

The final issue is the approach speed. I wrote a Plane Answers post a few years ago that compared all the recent airliner approach speeds and the 737 stood out at the top of the group. It’s a full 16 knots faster than a 757 at max landing weight and it has only four main tires to slow down, compared to eight on the 757. The 737 brakes also took more pedal force to slow, adding to the excitement when landing on a short runway.

When flying the new 737-800 at Flight Level 410 doing Mach .81, a controller asked us if we were really in a 737. I turned to the captain and said, “This isn’t my dad’s 737″ in a nod to the Oldsmobile ad and the fact that my dad flew the 737-200 for so many years.

747:

Oh, how I would love to fly the 747. Unfortunately that won’t happen, so I’ll leave it to John and Chris to describe the 747-400.

John explains: The 747 handles very similarly to the 727-200, despite being two completely different airframes in both size and shape. One difference between the two is in the landing techniques. The 747-400 is the easiest aircraft to land, as it has four trucks to disperse the landing forces, and is so massive that even a runway can’t “slap” the jet back into the air.

Surprisingly the cockpit is extremely cramped for a widebody jet, and can barely hold a flight case between the pilot’s seats and the aircraft sidewall.

Chris, from Cathay Pacific Cargo adds:

The 747-400 is a gentle giant. It flew like a dream, and was light on the controls. However, I went from the DC-8 to the -400, so perhaps anything would be light compared to the 8.

Its massiveness was remarkable. At max gross weight during takeoff, the muted roar of the engines belied how slow the initial acceleration would be. In the air while straight and level, the astounding momentum relinquished an imperceptible airspeed change when the throttles were closed to slow down. Careful to not get too slow, because it takes a fist full of throttle to get that speed back again.

Landings were mechanical for me, as my line of sight was so high. The gentle prod of the radar altimeter’s voice “100, 50, 40, 30, 10″ cued a check before the flare, throttles closed and flare.

I loved her and I miss her!

757:

The airplane that I have the most time in by far, the 757 is sexy even sitting on the ground with its long legs and big… engines. The nose is unlike any other Boeing, leading many to wish the 737 could have acquired this advancement. Blunt noses create a shock wave around the cockpit and reduce the air noise. The 757 and 767 are the quietest Boeings so far (save the MD-80 and 717), but the 757 can get noisy both on the ground and inflight when the packs (air conditioning and pressurization systems) go into a high flow mode creating a tornado of internal wind noise.

Many considered the seven-five harder to land than average, but in the hands of a seasoned 757 driver who isn’t constantly hopping back and forth between it and the 767 (which is allowed by the FAA) the airplane can be ‘squeaked’ on consistently.

After landing, the nose wheel is rather difficult to lower smoothly. The spoilers come up, which drives the nose back up, and the reversers open, pulling down. I’ve finally figured it out, but early on, I remember at least once where the nose wheel bounced.

The 757 approach speed is so slow (I’ve seen 115 knots when extremely light) that the airplane can get in and out of airports designed for Cessnas. This is probably why a 737 just won’t ever be a perfect 757 replacement.

John adds:

The 757 has a slightly more rounded yolk than the 747 and 727 and handles the best of all the Boeings. It’s like flying a sports car-very responsive, but it still requires some muscle input to get the airplane to move. During landings, the 757-200 takes a lot of effort to keep from making its (normal) firm touchdown, even with a next-to-nothing descent rate. Smooth roll-ons are rare! (No two pilots can agree on anything and here is the first difference in our observations).

John goes on to describe the 757 ergonomics:

The 757 cockpit is cramped. If you’re the jump seater behind the captain, hopefully your trip is short.

767:

The 767-300 is a sweet flying airplane. Compared to the 757, the controls require about the same force but are more responsive, giving it the impression of being lighter on the controls when it really isn’t. It’s just more sensitive.

But this is why it’s so nice to fly, I suppose. That and the big trucks that make it possible to ‘feel’ the runway when touching down smoothly enough add up to a nice handling airplane. And the takeoff performance is stellar, similar to the 757, although the shorter 767-200 is a little lacking in get-up-and-go.

The cockpit is rather spacious as well, although it still only has one cup holder and the approach chart mount next to the window is tiny, making it hard to find a place for your charts.

John explains: The 767 flies like a Cadillac-it’s almost too easy to handle, especially in the pitch axis. Landing it is straightforward, almost like a Cessna 172; but you have to watch for the nose pitch-up upon main wheel touchdown and speedbrake deployment.

777:

I have only 19 hours in the 777 and it’s a good thing. Had I stayed on the airplane any longer, I would have been completely spoiled and unwilling to go back to fly any other jet. A great deal of thought was put into making the 777 exceptional. Every other airplane has a design quirk that can get annoying, such as the 31 dimmer switches on the 757 to lower the lights in the cockpit, which may be the subject of a future Cockpit Chronicles video. On the 777, everything is well thought out, including the single knob to reduce the cockpit lighting level.

Interestingly, there’s a touch pad that allows you to move a mouse around when calling out the mechanical checklist items and cycling through the systems displays. This took a little getting used to in training. But one cool feature is that the checklist wouldn’t ask you an item you’ve already accomplished, such as the landing lights while on approach. The checklist knows if you’ve accomplished these items, leaving you with just a few call outs during the Before Takeoff and the Before Landing checklists.

Another slick feature: Both engines are started at the same time. I nearly fell off my chair when told about this in ground school.

My only disappointment was that it seemed to fly exactly like the 767-300. After six weeks of training I was hoping to fly something that felt completely different, perhaps just for the variety, but alas, Boeing chose to make their first fly-by-wire jet mimic the 767-300 in its handling.

787 and 747-8:

To get a feel for what Boeing’s newest jets fly like, I asked Tom Imrich, a former Senior Engineering Test Pilot at Boeing to share his thoughts:

If you liked the 777, you’ll love the 787.

It kept the terrific features of the triple seven (to assure flight deck and handling commonality), and then added some new twists too, like big displays and one of my favorite features called “Pick Waypoint” on the ND (Navigation Display) via the cursor device that will allow pilots to eventually define precise multi-segment paths, such as around thunderstorms, and then easily coordinate them with ATS (direct text messages to ATC).

While I flew the 787, and helped some with its development and certification (and loved every minute of it), I’ve primarily been a B747-8 flyer the past 4 years.

From my vantage point, I’m prejudiced. The 747-8 is one terrific airplane to fly, equal to the triple seven, if not even now my favorite, at least for some missions.

Just as an example, I did 48 kts of crosswind with it in Keflavik (both all engine and with an outboard engine out) and it could have easily done more!

So that’s just a sampling of pilot thoughts on the various Boeings. Each of us have differing opinions and I’m sure others will contribute a few in the comments section below.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.