Cockpit Chronicles: Captain Steve Jobs

How a pilot handles the controls, or their ‘stick and rudder’ skills so to speak, is a small part of what makes a great aviator. Recently, on a flight from New York to Zurich, I watched some decision making that typifies the traits of a great captain.

As Captain Bredow (rhymes with ‘Play-Doh’) and I crossed over Nova Scotia on our way out over the Atlantic, we began to enter an area of light to moderate turbulence. Moncton center told us that some flights ahead had climbed to 37,000 feet in an attempt to get out of the rough ride.

We were established at our ‘crossing altitude’ or the flight level that we’d be maintaining for the next three hours or so while over the non-radar controlled North Atlantic. Climbing to 37,000 would mean that we’d have to descend again shortly to our assigned flight level for the crossing.

I could tell the captain’s gears were turning.
“Looking at the forecasted winds, it seems like the strongest part of the jet stream is at 33,000 feet. Climbing to 37,000 would just put us in the edge of those 180 knot winds. That’s where the bumps are coming from,” said Captain Bredow as I reached for the flight plan to look at the forecasted winds.

“What do you think?” he asked me.

I’ve flown with Dave many times and I’ve culled his best ideas to use when I upgrade to the left seat in the near future. I’ve recounted a few of our flights together on this blog (See “A Gallon Saved” and “FOQA kept these pilots out of trouble in Panama“) and I’ve learned much of what it takes to be a good captain from him.

Dave engages his co-pilots enough to make them think about their own decisions and how they could improve the ride, the efficiency or on-time performance.


Captain Dave deep in thought

Operationally, he has a way of seeing things clearly, with ideas that are outside the box and yet make so much sense; he’s the aviation equivalent of Steve Jobs. He’ll say something that goes against conventional wisdom, like “there’s far less chance of blowing something over while taxiing on one engine than two.” I tell other copilots that when he says something like this, just start the stopwatch on the airplane clock and within fifteen minutes, you’ll be agreeing with him.

After explaining that a pilot accomplishing a single-engine taxi is actually more careful than a heavy fisted captain on two engines who is confident that the jet blast behind him is weaker since less power is needed when operating on two engines. Sure enough, Dave always uses less thrust on one engine than many pilots on two when breaking away for their initial taxi.

Back to the bumps. Attempting to avoid the rough ride we were getting that night by getting out of the weaker winds and descending into the stronger winds of the jet stream left me a little skeptical. But his reasoning was sound.

“Sure, let’s give it a try,” I said skeptically, and with ATC concurrence, we descended from 35,000 feet to 33,000. Moments later, Dave clicked off the seatbelt sign.

And then we listened for the next hour as airplane after airplane tried to climb above the jet stream and complained about their ride. Occasionally, I’d mention over the frequency that the ride was smooth at FL330, but we didn’t get any takers.

Our airline is continually striving to innovate, and so I can’t help think that Dave’s talents are being wasted in the cockpit. At the very least, he should be a check airman, imparting some of his best practices on others who can choose to do with them as they please. Given 15 minutes, he’ll have them all convinced of the logic behind his technique.

He’s not afraid to speak his mind and the clarity of his thought is such that he’s capable of bringing some innovative ideas to our flight department. I’ll do my part to make sure they know what they may be missing.

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.

Cockpit Chronicles: Fly Rio!

Occasionally the airline will offer pilots the chance to fly for a month out of another base when they’re short a few pilots at that city. I remember flying with one of these temporary duty (TDY) pilots who came up to Boston from Miami. I asked him what trips he usually flew out of Miami and he began to tell me all about Rio de Janeiro.

The conversation included some good pointers about the hazards of flying in Brazil.

He pointed out that there’s a note in our manuals that talks about celebratory balloons near the city. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for Brazilians to put together huge balloons especially at night, attach them to a pallet or some other structure and light a fire under the canopy. The Miami pilot even claimed that a propane tank has been known to be the fuel source.

After nearly hitting them on two different occasions, he sought out to warn other pilots of these inflight obstacles.

He said he had even seen one while climbing through the clouds.

A quick look at YouTube shows the launching of a few of these balloons such as this one:

The Miami co-pilot went on to describe the difficult radio reception over the country as well and we talked about the midair collision between a 737 and a corporate jet down there.

After struggling to close my jaw from shock, I had to ask him, “Why do you bid those trips?”

He claimed it was for the inexpensive (at the time) and abundant beef dinners, although since he was single and rather shiny, I suspected the women in Rio were a big part of the attraction.

Now that I’m flying out of New York, I’ve had the opportunity to fly a handful of Rio de Janeiro trips-enough to at least describe some of the challenges and benefits of this long-haul flying.

My first trip to Brazil almost didn’t happen. The inbound airplane had been struck by lightning and we were initially told to wait until the early hours of the morning for a replacement. Fortunately it was decided that we should go back home and sleep overnight before continuing the next morning at 9 a.m., twelve hours after the original departure time. While the passengers were accommodated in hotels, there was no provision in our contract to put up the pilots and flight attendants. Some of the commuting flight attendants spent the night in operations and the other pilot and I went back to sleep in our rented apartments in the area (i.e. the “Crash Pad.”)

The rare daytime flight the next day made it possible to glimpse much of the Amazon rain forest along the way and to appreciate just how massive this country is. To give you an idea of just how big Brazil is, our typical crew rest break on the 9 hour and 15 minute flight from New York is about 3 hours. On the way home, it’s possible for the first pilot to finish their break before ever leaving the Brazilian airspace.

I’ve flown in some areas with poor ATC reception, most notably Piarco radio in the Caribbean, but nothing has been more challenging for me than Brazil. The VHF transmitters are spread out over vast areas. Often two transmitters will be operating at the same time which causes a distracting echo over the speaker. The HF radios we use when flying across the Atlantic would be an improvement from this system.

Traditionally they’ll give you two VHF frequencies at a time, a primary and a back up and we find ourselves choosing the least annoying one as the flight progresses. It’s possible to fly for hours while talking to the same controller on a variety of different frequencies spread out every 200 miles. I suppose, to be fair, it’s not easy to install more transmitters in the dense Amazon jungle.

As we arrived early in the morning at the hotel, I was startled to see a massively vertical mountain shooting up from the side of our hotel building. The waves below the mountain were more powerful than any I’d ever seen, and I stayed awake for a while to watch them hit the rocks and shoot up over spectators perched at lookout points along the road.

There’s plenty to see and do in Rio, but alas, we’re usually asleep for much of the first day there and unable to enjoy the sun.

Ever since the exchange rates for the Real were changed, the dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to. It’s not quite as expensive as some European destinations, such as Zurich and Paris, but it’s close. Dinner at an inexpensive cafe three blocks inland from the Ipanema beach ran about $30 with drinks.

I’ve recently become interested in paragliding (watch for a future Cockpit Chronicles on that) so I hitched a ride to the top of a local mountain to watch the hang gliding and paragliding pilots takeoff on tandem flights for tourists to Rio. I elected to save my money and enjoy the spectacular launches from the platform instead of flying as a passenger. Besides, hopefully I’ll get the chance to fly my own paraglider from the hill someday.

Even though it was only 72 degrees, I managed to get rather sunburned while filming all day, but the footage was worth it:

In order to see more of the city, I knew I’d have to get a longer layover there. Fortunately, once a week during the summer we’ve had a six-day trip that includes four days there instead of just a day and a half. I managed to snag one of these in early October much to my delight.

The captain and his flight attendant fiancée on this long trip, happened to be friends of mine who were formerly based in Boston, so we made plans to see the Christ Redeemer statue that overlooks the city. They also wanted to try a tandem hang gliding flight, and of course I knew just where to take them.

A shuttle bus takes you up to the top of the Christ Redeemer platform and it was probably more scary and dangerous than the hang gliding flight for Susan and John. The expansive 360 degree views of Rio from the top of this mountain made it worth the risk.

Our flight home was delayed due to another late inbound aircraft, so we had plenty of opportunity to take a long nap before leaving the hotel. These daytime naps are critical as the flight time is well over ten hours on the leg home to New York and that extra sleep comes in handy when you’re working your way through the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone, an area of thunderstorms that have parked themselves near the equator while lighting up the sky.

Since Susan was working the galley, I had her explain how our crew meals are prepared and served for a video used in last week’s Cockpit Chronicles during Gadling’s week-long focus on food and travel.

I managed to snap a few pictures of these storms that lit up the clouds around them like a built-in long range flash for my camera.

After the first few trips I was surprised at how wide-awake I was during the flight. But it was a different story the next day. It was hard to recover sleep from the all-nighters but I have to admit, Rio de Janeiro is a welcome change from the European flying I’ve become accustomed to.

And that’s probably the best part about working for a major airline. If you get tired of flying in one area, you can switch to a different base permanently like I did in May of this year or for as little as a month just to try a whole new type of flying.

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.

Cockpit Chronicles: Video—Food in the cockpit. How it’s prepared and what is served

“I’m getting kind of tired of these chicken Caesar salads.”

I said those words just a few months into my career at American. The statement resonated loudly after I was furloughed and flying for a freight airline with barely a bottle of water on board, so I vowed that I would never complain about a crew meal again.

In fact, when I came back to AA I nearly cried when a flight attendant entered the 727 cockpit and asked us what we wanted to drink.

Now, after ten years of international flying, mostly to Europe, I’ve enjoyed more crew meals than I probably should have. Warm dishes on an airline flight might be foreign to today’s passengers and even some of our domestic pilots, but on the international side we still enjoy food just as it was in the earlier days of airline flying.

The usual transatlantic daytime flight might include appetizers, such as nuts and cheese, salads, a main course with an overabundance of bread and a slice of cheesecake perhaps, followed later by a Sundae or cookies. Before landing in the afternoon, there’s often a cheese plate or fruit dish, followed by a pizza or steak sandwich.

Honestly, it’s too much. But if you’re paying for a business class experience, over indulging every now and then isn’t bad. For pilots however, these crew meals can add more pounds in the first year of international flying than during a freshman year in college.

I limit myself to just the nuts as a starter followed by the salad. Later, if there’s any fruit available, I’ll have some of that, or if it’s morning in Europe, the cold cereal is a good choice. Anything more and I begin to feel overly tired during the overnight flight across the pond. Since I’ve cut back I’ve noticed a definite slackening of my uniform pants.

Typically three meals are put on for the three-pilot cockpit crew, two items the same, often chicken or steak and the third perhaps being a pasta dish.

Most co-pilots give the choice of meal to the captain, and the captain often defers back to the co-pilot. It can become comical at times; neither pilot wanting to make what is probably the least important decision of the flight. Alas, it’s typically decided that whoever is flying the plane for that leg should choose.

I’ve enlisted the help of our flight attendant Susan, who made a brief appearance in my Boston to Paris video seven years ago, to appear again in front of the camera to show how she manages the cockpit and passenger meals for a 10½ hour flight from Rio to New York.

Notice just how busy Susan is before boarding. As the “number five” flight attendant out of nine aboard our 767, she’s ‘the cook’ up front, responsible for not only preparing and cooking the meals, but setting up the galley on the ground.

Passengers in the back also enjoy a hot meal, and there’s another flight attendant with three ovens getting ready to prepare that food as well.

Every month the meal types and even the kind of cheese in the appetizer change. Some plates are exceptional-a white chocolate glazed chicken dish sounded terrible but turned out to be fantastic-and some I’ve avoided after just one bite, such as the foie gras stuffed chicken.

The ‘insert’ shown in the video is mostly an international custom. It keeps the pilots from having to call back every time they’re ready for more water or soda. It’s brought to the cockpit only after takeoff to prevent anything loose from bouncing around the flight deck.

The sundaes and baked cookies aren’t normally part of our meals, but some of the nicer flight attendants will still offer them.

In the past, no two pilots could eat the same meal, and they had to be served at different times. At my airline, these restrictions have been relaxed, however.

For the past year or so, I’ve taken to capturing some of the crew meals with a camera. Apparently I fall into the crowd that likes taking food pictures. The gallery below shows some of my favorite crew meals of all time:

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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.

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.

Cockpit Chronicles: Know your Boeings

One of the first things any aviation enthusiast or pilot learns is how to tell one airplane from another. Usually, those of us aviation obsessed types pick this up as kids.

But a few frequent fliers, airline employees and maybe even some pilots may not be able to catch all the nuances that separate the various types of jets. We’ve broken down the differences between the various Boeings to make you a better spotter. So the next time you fly, see if you can spot the differences.

707: Let’s face it. If you see the 4-engine narrow body Boeing 707 flying around, it’s probably painted in Qantas colors and it’s owned by John Travolta. There aren’t many 707s still flying. There are, however, a number of military KC-135 tankers flying that supply fighters and transport aircraft with fuel. This airplane is a re-engined 707 that has been in use for decades.


Boeing 707

The 707 is somewhat easy to confuse with the Douglas DC-8 that’s still widely in use by freight operators. But the DC-8 has two scoops on the nose that drive a turbo compressor which pressurizes the airplane. The 707 also had a long pitot tube HF radio antenna mounted to the top of the vertical stabilizer.717: This is the oddball of the Boeing fleet. Inherited when Boeing purchased McDonnell Douglas, the 717 is essentially a re-engined MD-80. Unlike the MD-80, however, the 717 features a larger engine made by Rolls-Royce and the vertical stabilizer is squared off at the top, and especial toward back. Airtran (soon absorbed by Southwest) and Midwest are the two main operators of the 717 in the U.S. These are the only Boeings with two engines mounted at the rear.


Boeing 717

727: This is an easy one. The T-tail and three engines mounted at the rear of the airplane give it away. The only other non-Russian tri-engined airplanes are widebodies that don’t have the horizontal stabilizer mounted on the top.

FedEx and other cargo operators such as Amerijet still operate the 727. There were two types of 727s made, the -100 and the -200, with the more rare and shorter -100 featuring a slightly oval shaped number two engine inlet.


Boeing 727-200

737: Offered in the late ’60s as a more fuel efficient airplane than the 727 it is by far the most popular Boeing. This type has so many variants that we’ll use the engines, tail skids (or lack thereof) and over-wing exits to tell them all apart, starting with the…

737-100: Since only 30 -100s were built, and none are actually flying since 2005, we’ll go ahead and skip the slightly shorter 737 that was initially delivered to Lufthansa.

737-200: The easiest way to spot a 737-200 is to look at the engines. If they look like long and narrow tubes below the wing, then you know they’re the late ’60s to early ’80s 737 that many of us grew up with. They were also much louder on takeoff. Today a number of Central and South American countries still fly the 737-200. The airport in Caracas is filled with them, in fact.


Boeing 737-200

737-300, -400 and -500: These 737s, now called the ‘classic’ at Boeing, were easy to spot from the -200. The engines are much larger, and in many ways similar to the ‘New Generation’ engines on the most recent 737s. The easiest way to tell them apart, however, is the flatter lower cowling on the classic 737s. The -500 is the shortest, followed by the -300 and then the -400, which seats enough passengers to require two over-wing exits like the -800 and -900 below.


Boeing 737-400

737-600, -700, -800 and -900: The ‘next generation’ 737 as Boeing calls them, are the most popular 737s in the sky today. They’re much more fuel efficient than their predecessors, and most are now fitted with winglets that increase their efficiency a further 5%. Some of the classic 737s have also been retrofitted with winglets just to throw you off. In fact, the 737-500 can be fitted with winglets, but so far, the newer 737-600 which is the same length, can not.


Boeing 737-800

737 Max: Boeing has recently announced the 737 “Max” which will follow the same shape as the -700 through the -900, with the name 737-9 “Max” used to differentiate these updated narrow-body Boeings. So far the only way I can tell them apart is with the engines which are differently shaped and include v-shaped cutouts at the trailing edge of the cowling called chevrons. But truthfully, we don’t know what the final look of the 737 Max will be. It’s scheduled to go into service in 2017.

747: With it’s bulging upper deck, the 747 is by far the easiest Boeing to spot. The -100 to -300s didn’t have winglets, while the newer two-pilot cockpit -400 has abrupt winglets at its tips. The new 747-8 has a completely new wing design that doesn’t need winglets to eek out maximum efficiency. It has the chevrons that are featured on the 737 max and the 787.


Boeing 747-400

757: Some say it’s the prettiest Boeing, with it’s long legs and tall stance. The nose on the 757 was completely redesigned when compared to the more traditional 707, 727 and 737 front ends to reduce the drag and noise inside. In Boeing airliners, the pointier the nose, the noisier the cockpit. The blunt nose 767 is one of the quietest.

It’s sometimes easy to confuse the 757 for the 767, but if you look closely at the bottom of the aft fuselage, the 767-300 has a tail skid. The 757 and the short and stubby looking 767-200 don’t have this tail skid as they’re less prone to tail strikes on takeoff and landing.


767: The 767 is a widebody airplane that shares the same cockpit features and layout as the 757, which means that pilots can fly both airplanes, even switching between the two in the same day or same trip. On landing, the 767 wheel ‘trucks’ hang down, while the 757 trucks hang at an upward angle.


777: The quickest way to tell the 777 from the 767 or any other Boeing is to look at the tail ‘cone’ at the end of the fuselage. It’s flattened into a wedge which gives it a unique look. Taking a hint from some Russian airplanes, the main landing gear features three trucks of wheels compared to the two sets on the 757 and 767.


787: One look at the upward bending wing and swooping rudder on the 787 and you know it’s not like any other Boeing. The cockpit has gone from six to four large windows. And as mentioned before, the back side of the engine cowlings feature ‘chevrons.’


While this post wasn’t meant for the super spotter or seasoned pilot, it just might help people who are casual flyers pay attention to what model or type of Boeing they prefer to fly aboard.

Next week I’ll talk a little about how pilots of each of these Boeings have discovered their different personalities, both good and bad.

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.