Cockpit Chronicles: What’s not to like about the 757? I’ll show you. (Video)

Powerful engines providing stellar performance and short field capabilities are just some of the features that set the Boeing 757 apart from the rest. But there has to be something that pilots dislike on the airplane, right?

Well, there are two features in particular that I don’t care for.

I dream that someday someone from Boeing or Airbus will call me for advice on cockpit ergonomics. Each company does their best to lay out a cockpit to please the end user – the pilot. But sometimes there are just a few quirks that slip through. An item, which an engineer may spend only a day or two thinking about, can have a lasting impact on the pilots that fly the airplane for thousands of hours.

Generally speaking, Boeing takes pilot input into account when designing the pointy-end of their airplanes. The following two items that pertain to the 757 and 767 may seem nit-picky, but I thought I’d share them here anyway, even including a video to highlight my second personal peeve.

To be fair, these airplanes were designed in the late ’70s and went into service in the ’80s. And Boeing has, to some extent, fixed these issues in the 777. But here are my minor gripes, with a video to demonstrate the second annoyance.Chimes

You know the chime that accompanies the seatbelt sign when it cycles on or off? It happens to be my text message alert tone right now-appropriate, I suppose. Well, there’s a slightly more annoying sound in the cockpit that is supposed to represent various different alerts such as:

HF and VHF SELCAL – When air traffic control needs to get a hold of us, they have the option of sending a SELCAL (selective calling) ding that alerts us. Upon hearing the ding, we need to look either on the forward EICAS screen where the engine information is displayed for a clue as to what the ding was, or overhead to see if the SELCAL light is on. Unfortunately, some earlier airplanes didn’t have that EICAS notification feature, so we only have the overhead to differentiate the sounds.

Flight Attendant Call – We aren’t immediately sure if it’s ATC calling with a flight level change or if a flight attendant is checking to see if we need a bathroom break. The look around the cockpit for the various clues to the source can be amusing to someone riding in the jumpseat.

During the preflight, it’s a regular ding-fest. As we request the flight plan data to be uploaded to the airplane, dings come in rapidly (I’ve lost count at eight dings in less than a minute) for these items and more:

Forecasted winds at altitude uplink
Route uplink
Takeoff performance data uplink

Unfortunately, this is a time when the crew-chief on the ground calls us through a headset plugged in at our nose wheel. We may easily think it’s another nuisance ding and not answer him as these flight plan items are coming in.

As we taxi out, we could also miss a flight attendant call when the latest ATIS information is delivered or we get our load closeout information, which includes the number of people on board, the weight of the airplane and our stabilizer trim setting.

Inflight, these dings create a Pavlovian response. Around an hour after takeoff, flight attendants usually call with meal choices for us. Just as your mouth starts to water after hearing the ding, it’s always a letdown to discover that it was just the other guy updating the winds in the FMC.

Years ago, I met two Boeing engineers while I was riding in the back of an MD-80 to Dallas. On my left was an engineer who was the liaison for Boeing to the FAA as they made changes to the cockpit flight computer known as the FMC and to my right was an engineer who did the actual programing of any new features in the box.

They were excited to tell me about the new CPDLC or Controller Pilot Data Link Communication feature they were testing out on one of our 757s. The idea was that an Air Traffic Controller could send us a text message that would tell us to climb, descend, turn or change our speed. The test program would only be for Miami and a few of our 757s. Later this innovative concept expanded to other air traffic facilities for use primarily with the 777 and some newer Airbuses. After the test period, it was deactivated on the 757.

I couldn’t believe my luck. Finally I could give them some input about the ding issue.

“When ATC contacts you via this CPDLC thing, I would imagine there would be a ding?” I asked.

“Yes!” one of them said proudly.

I then prodded them on how we were supposed to differentiate the different dings for different functions, all sounding exactly the same, as they came in.

The engineer asked why we didn’t just look at the EICAS screen as it would either say, CPDLC, FMC, Ground Call, or Flight Attendant.

I explained that this was nice, but that more than half of our 757s didn’t have this EICAS ‘ding alert’ feature.

His partner jumped in, describing the studies Boeing had done that indicated that humans could only differentiate between five different sounds in a cockpit.

I sighed and pleaded for a simple telephone ring for the flight attendant call that comes in on the handset, and then for a few different tones for the rest. If I were to mistake the FMC alert for the HF radio call with these new sounds, how would that be different to what we have now?

I felt bad for them. Pilots love Boeing products so I think they were a bit taken aback. I dropped the subject and stretched out in the middle seat of the MD-80. I certainly wasn’t going to mention my second peeve to them. That is:

Dim and Dimmer

Depending on the airplane and configuration, there are between 32 and 34 different dimming switches and knobs to change the lighting intensity on the 757 and 767 cockpit lights. Of course, I knew you’d think I was exaggerating, so I made a quick video showing each light and dimming knob from a recent flight.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve written earlier about how much I love the 757 and these annoyances are amusingly minor in the grand scheme of airplane design. Maybe flying the MD-80 for a while will give me a new level of appreciation for this grand airplane.

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.

American Airlines flight makes emergency landing in Las Vegas

An American Airlines flight made and emergency landing in Las Vegas todayAn American Airlines Boeing 757 was forced to make an emergency landing at Las VegasMcCarran International Airport earlier today after pilots detected smoke in the cockpit.

AA Flight 431 was traveling from Miami to San Francisco, and was over Utah, when the crew diverted from their course to make the landing. They touched down at 11:10 AM Pacific time and were met by emergency crews who assisted with the evacuation of the plane. All 159 passengers and six crew, exited without incident or injury.

A spokesperson for American Airlines said that the emergency landing is standard procedure for pilots after smoke is detected on a plane, and that the crew was just acting properly to ensure the safety of all those on board.

At this time, it is unclear as to the cause of the smoke, but investigations by AA flight mechanics and the FAA are ongoing. In the meantime the company is working to re-book all the stranded passengers and get them back on their way to San Francisco.

Cockpit Chronicles: Frank’s final flight

It was time for Frank to go. Not because of a federally mandated retirement age, or because of a change in pension laws or fluctuations in the stock market. No, Frank had long ago decided that he was going to retire at the age of sixty. And he was sure of it.

Even when the retirement age was raised from sixty to sixty-five in 2007, Frank was still adamant that he’d be leaving at sixty. I’ve flown with this captain for more than a decade, on the MD-80, 737, 757 and the 767. We trained for six weeks together on the 737 when it first arrived in Boston and we even had the opportunity to take an empty seven-three out for a few ‘bounces’ in Sacramento for some take-off and landing practice that our company mandated for the first fifty crews flying the 737-800.

Over those years, I’ve listened to Frank discuss his upcoming retirement. He planned to drive his immaculately restored Morgan around New England and enjoy his grandkids. Maybe start another Morgan project or volunteer at the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum in Maine.

But once the retirement age increased to sixty-five, I honestly had my doubts Frank would actually go. He wasn’t the kind of pilot that complained incessantly about the job, or management, or his lack of seniority that resulted in fewer Paris trips and more Caracas layovers. So I had a hard time believing he’d retire at sixty.

Two years ago, Frank mentioned to me that he’d like me to fly with him on his last flight.

%Gallery-85512%”Keep your schedule open in October of ’09.” He said.

“Yeah, OK, Frank.” I replied.

It’s quite an honor to be asked to fly someone’s retirement flight-something I’ve been lucky to do once before with a dear friend. I gladly accepted.

I suspect my honorable position had something to do with my video and photography skills, since it’s always nice to have such a flight documented for posterity. I mean, there are plenty of co-pilots in Boston that are funnier, more entertaining and far better looking than me.

Alas, that October day finally arrived. But I wasn’t on the schedule with him. After Frank let me know which Paris trip he’d be flying, I scrambled to trade away two Caribbean one-day trips to fly on his trip. Frank suggested I try to pick up the relief pilot (FB) position since I’d be in a better position to take a few pictures of the event.

Captain Frank wasn’t normally senior enough to hold Paris, but the flight office managed to ‘displace’ another, more senior captain to make room for him to have a memorable Paris trip. A classy move, for sure, and the displaced pilot was only too happy to receive a paid trip off.

It’s customary to bring along family members for a retirement flight, so the captain brought his wife, son and daughter-in-law. The daughter-in-law was also an accomplished photographer, so that could have been her ticket aboard this flight-although, she actually did turn out to be funny and entertaining as well.

While driving to work, I called the chief pilot. Was there a chance we could see the traditional fire truck salute upon arriving back in Boston, I wondered? He promised to look into it. On the previous retirement flight I flew we didn’t get the water treatment in JFK. At the time, we were told there had been an emergency on the field that had them tied up, but I’ve also heard rumors that the fire hose retirement salute wasn’t happening anymore.

But maybe something could be arranged. I was successful in convincing the Paine Field airport fire department to give my retiring dad a water salute on his retirement flight almost ten years ago, so how much could have changed since then?

In operations, I met Frank and his wife Meredith, his son Drew and daughter-in-law Christine. The other co-pilot, Mark, was pulling up paperwork. Having two pilots on this over eight hour flight would allow all three pilots to take a staggered, two-hour break on each leg.

Frank’s wife, Meredith looked proud and excited about her husband’s final voyage. I think she was excited to be flying with her husband to Paris, a perfect place to celebrate such a transitional moment for them.

Frank’s son Drew is a pilot in the National Guard, flying KC-135s, the aerial tanker version of the Boeing 707. His wife Christine had an easy-going demeanor and I enjoyed talking photography with her. I knew we’d all have a good time.

I promised Frank I’d take a few pictures while we were at the gate and again above 10,000 feet. I also planned to shoot some video of his family when I was back on my crew rest break during the flight. In Paris the entire crew would celebrate the conclusion of his airline career at one of his favorite Parisian restaurants, “Le petit Prince.” Quite appropriate, since Antoine Saint-Exupéry, the famous French pilot, was the author of The Little Prince.

The flight over went smoothly and I invited Drew and Meredith to sit next to me when I was back for my crew rest break. I asked them a few questions and they shed a little more insight into Frank and his career while I had the camera rolling.

At the end of my two-hour break, I exchanged places with Frank in the left seat as he went back for his break and to visit with his wife.

The early morning arrival into Paris was smooth, and with the pressure on, Frank managed to kiss the ground, rolling just the first two front wheels of the main landing gear onto the pavement before the whole airplane gently settled to the ground. I’d have been tempted to quit there, and let the co-pilot fly the airplane home two days later, but all the landings-the icing on the cake, as I call it-were to be Frank’s on this trip.

It took a few minutes for the bus to show up, a fortunate thing, since I was able to take a few portrait type pictures of Frank next to the airplane just as the sun was coming up.

And now, the only painful part of the trip; the bus ride to the hotel in Paris. During the week, this ride can take an hour and fifty minutes, and this day was no exception. We all tried to sleep in the bus to make the time go by.

Our main celebration would have to start in the early-evening during our layover in the city. The crew bus arrived at the hotel before 9 a.m.-plenty of time to allow for a long nap. We agreed to meet up at 6 p.m. in the lobby before heading to dinner.

Frank and his family took a shorter nap and thus managed to get out to visit a few Museums in Paris. After crossing the Atlantic at night, sleep can be an irresistible activity despite the rock hard bed and wildly fluctuating temperature at our hotel. This time, I chose sleep over viewing “Whistler’s Mother” at the Musé d’Orsay. It wasn’t even close.

Downstairs at 6, we planned to take over the lounge the hotel provides us for the meeting before dinner. Unfortunately a New York crew had already moved in with an impressive spread of Monoprix-purchased cheese, wine and baguette, a staple diet of Paris-flying crews, and the reason most international pilots are 10 to 15 pounds heavier than their domestic counterparts.

Like a group of ducklings following their mother, we lined up behind Diane, the purser who bought the Champagne and two beautiful flutes to serve them in before heading downstairs to a lounge next to the lobby. The hotel was nice enough to let us use this room and Diane presented the Champagne glasses to Frank and his wife. The hotel let everyone borrow some restaurant wine glasses and we drank a toast to Frank and his family to a flawless 23-year career.

The eleven of us made our way over to Le Petit Prince for dinner. I sat next to Drew and we talked a while about the state of the industry and who might be hiring when he is ready to get out of the military.

Most of us ordered a salmon fillet that was scrumptious and relatively reasonably priced, not that Frank would let any of us pay for the dinner. Meredith ordered a creme brûlée and the chef lit a bit of alcohol on the top to caramelize the dessert. It made for a nice picture.

During dinner, I convinced Drew and Christine to hold off on dessert so they could pick up a ‘crepe Nutella’ on the way back to the hotel. I’m convinced it just isn’t a proper layover in Paris without this three euro scalding-hot chocolate dessert. So the two of them skipped desert and decided to make a run for the Eiffel Tower before it closed, since this might be one of the few times they get to Paris together.

After dinner, just outside the restaurant, I gathered the the crew and Frank and Meredith for a shot with the Pantheon visible in the background.

Not everyone had desert at the restaurant, so we found a perfect little street and enjoyed a crepe while a few other flight attendants had an italian-style ice cream.

Could this be the way I celebrate my retirement flight? I can only hope so.

On the way back to the hotel, Mark and I stopped off at the ‘water store,’ a grocery store that is frequented by everyone on their way back to their hotel rooms. Our pickup time wasn’t for another 14 hours, and since the rooms seem to get exceedingly warm in the middle of the night, savvy crews usually pick up a bottle of water and maybe something to eat for the next morning.

The next afternoon, as we checked in with security, Frank was asked if it was true that this was his last flight. “It is,” he responded, and the co-pilot, Mark didn’t miss a beat as she checked his I.D.

“It’s my first flight,” he said.

Frank elected to do the last walk-around, something normally reserved for the co-pilot, but I think he wanted to get one last trip around the airplane in before the flight. Not to mention it was a good photo opportunity.

After checking on his wife and family, Frank gave his window a quick wash by hanging out his side window and then briefed us on the departure. Mark gave Frank the next leg as well, meaning that he’d give up the flying duties to operate the radio on the return flight since it was Frank’s last trip. It was the least Mark could do, especially since this was also Frank’s 60th birthday.

We departed on-time, just after 1:30 p.m. from Paris and Frank flew a beautiful departure. Things were going smoothly, as they should. He even commented on just how well trimmed (true and straight) the airplane felt.

After my break, Frank again went back to sit with his wife.

In between listening to the other co-pilot, Mark, make his position report and a PA announcing the captain’s retirement to the passengers, I wondered how I would ‘celebrate’ my last flight.

I’m sure for me, as it was for Frank and my friend/flight instructor Mike, the retirement flight won’t have that ‘last day of school’ celebratory feel to it.

Of course you want to enjoy the trip, and hopefully make it memorable for your crew and your family, but in the back of your mind, there’s a dramatic voice saying, “Don’t screw up your accident-free career on the final flight!”

Case in point:

I know of a pilot at another airline who decided to do a fly-by in the form of a modified ‘go-around’ and cruise above the runway before coming back for his final retirement landing. I’m sure the phrase “what are they going to do, fire me?” ran through his mind.

To do a low pass in a jet isn’t as serene inside the cockpit as you might expect. As the airplane approaches the ground with the gear and flaps up, the enhanced ground proximity warning computers loudly announce “Too Low, Gear!” and a flap warning horn squeals.

But the three pilots in the cockpit that day had already thought of that, so they disabled the warning horns for their celebratory buzz-job. (To be fair, they were probably a few hundred feet above the ground, but how often do you get to write ‘celebratory buzz-job?’)

At any rate, the company wasn’t happy at all with this crew. The terms of the punishment for each pilot wasn’t disclosed, but I heard the FAA became involved, which is one way to make it a memorable last flight.

After the three of us had our breaks, it was time to begin the descent.

Frank knew there was a chance for a water-cannon salute from the Boston fire department. And since the secret planning was out, I offered him a tip before we left Paris.

“Whatever you do,” I said, “don’t stop midway under the water.”

I then showed him the video from the Virgin America inaugural flight to Orange County where the pilots did just that.

“You’ve got to keep going,” I implored. Co-pilots are like that. Always trying to make the captain look good.

After we were switched over to the Boston approach control frequency, we were offered a new arrival to runway 33 left. The lighthouse visual to 33L involved flying visually by hanging a right at Minot’s Ledge lighthouse, descending to 1,800 feet and then turning left at the Boston Lighthouse where you can then go down to 1,000 feet before aligning with the runway over Fort Warren.

This was the first time any of us had been offered that arrival and I was impressed Frank jumped at the opportunity. What better way to go out than to fly a brand-new, scenic arrival into Boston. The “Boston Light” lighthouse was the last thing the British burned before exiting the colonies, and the Minot Ledge lighthouse sat on a rock with crashing waves below. It couldn’t have made for a more perfect ending to a career for Frank and I suspect he’ll remember that arrival for some time-it’s not likely to get mixed up among the hundreds of other approaches he’s flown into Boston.

As we taxied past terminal E to the far corner of the building and into gate 8B-a gate with very little room-my heart sank a bit when it became clear there would be no water salute for Frank.

Apparently they really aren’t doing this anymore for retiring pilots in Boston.

After saying goodbye to the passengers, many of whom congratulated Frank personally, we made our way back to the Boston operations, where our Chief Pilot, Rich, was waiting with a cake and Frank’s personnel file. The other pilots in ops as well as Frank’s family and I enjoyed a few pieces of cake and then said our goodbyes.

But in the eyes of the airline, Frank’s story wasn’t exactly over. No, he wasn’t to be reprimanded for buzzing two lighthouses and a fort.

You see, on the 17th of every month, pilots eagerly look up their schedule to see where they’d be flying, on what days and with which captain or co-pilot.

I did a double-take the next day when I saw which captain was on my schedule. Frank was to fly with me to London next month!

I gave him a call. Since he had bid ‘reserve’ for his retirement month, he was required to answer his phone and fly whatever trips the company had for him for the first two-weeks until he retired. But somehow the word hadn’t reached the company that Frank was officially retired.

“They’ve called me for two trips this morning,” he said.

It was Frank’s one last chance to come back to work, act like nothing happened and fly for another five years.

But he turned down the chance.

I put together a video for Frank, which is why this Cockpit Chronicles has been so delayed. I wanted to share it with you as well. Come along with us on Frank’s last trip. Think of it as the video version of everything you’ve just read. Still interested? Well then, here you go:

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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 Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.

Cockpit Chronicles: Back to the simulator

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston.

“You have training!” read the message at the top of our company website.

Unlike our vacation or monthly schedule, we have no choice in the timing of our training. So every nine months, plus or minus a month, we know that we’ll be called back to the flight academy for four or five days of what we call “recurrent.”

Ground School

The first two days consist of classroom training that covers subjects such as performance, (which mostly deals with takeoff performance calculations), emergency equipment, federal regulations, security and finally a review of the aircraft’s systems, such as the electrical, hydraulic and flight controls of both the 757 and the 767.

At times, these courses can be tedious. Watching a video on the proper way to set up a 56-man life raft every nine months can test your abilities to stay alert. In fact, it’s torturous.

This year, however, we had a redesigned human factors class. Human factors training covers some of the common mistakes discovered through a pilot self-disclosing program known as “ASAP.”

Often these mistakes are re-created in a simulator and filmed for use as a training aid. This year, one of my flights was featured in the class.

Usually this isn’t something anyone would be proud of. Fortunately it was a video I made for entertainment purposes only. It showed a typical three-day trip from Boston to Paris and it’s now used to lighten things up a bit in the class before diving into more serious topics.

A Shiny New Toy

The other new experience came during the simulator training. The company is in the process of retrofitting all their 757 and 767′s with a new type of cockpit display. These LCD screens are much larger and they replace many of the round dial instruments that are common in the older Boeings.

Currently only one of our airplanes is flying with these new panels, but two of the simulators have been modified, allowing us to get some training in the new layout before flying one for real.


The LCD screens are larger and they display more information without having to switch pages as we’ve had to do in the original design. It’s bright and clear, and it makes flying an approach a little easier, eliminating the requirement for one pilot to display a raw data page while the other displays their map page during certain approaches.

I know there are some people out there who prefer the round dials and old ‘steam gauge’ cockpits, but these people probably would prefer we did away with enclosed cockpits, too. At some point, you have to embrace new technology.

Eventually these screens will include satellite weather and Jeppesen approach plates with airport diagrams built in, an upgrade called the Class 3 electronic flight bag. This will allow us to shed a couple of heavy books from our kit bags.

Since I’m a gadget nut, I’m always in favor of any new technology we can get in the Boeing. Small, general aviation aircraft have had some of these features available to them for years and it’s about time we caught up.

The Simulator

This time I’d be going through the class by myself, which meant that instead of being paired up with another captain, I’d fly with an instructor who would play the role of captain for the scenario. After a two-hour briefing, the instructor, also known as a “sim-P,” or simulator pilot, put me in the box to practice a few maneuvers while getting used to the gorgeous new displays.

The two sim-Ps were retired from Braniff and Eastern Airlines. I’ve always been impressed with these former line pilots. They know what they’re doing and they approach their jobs with surprising enthusiasm, even though they’ve been flying or instructing for quite a few decades.


George and Gary, both former pilots of now defunct airlines, get the simulator ready.

The FAA requires the training of certain maneuvers. You can expect to see aborted takeoffs, an engine failure during the critical phase of flight [like just after lifting off the ground] and a windshear scenario. We also fly a variety of approaches–ILS’s, VOR, RNAV and visual approaches–often times with only one engine operating.

After the required maneuvers are completed, they often give you a chance to see or try something you could never do in the actual airplane. I asked to do a no-flaps takeoff, since that had been in the news lately as well as a landing where I attempted to fly slow enough to touch the aft fuselage at touchdown.

The flaps-up takeoff went surprisingly well. I suspect the 757 has the wing design and the added thrust to handle that situation better than the DC-9 or MD-80′s that have had problems. Of course, there would never be a situation that you’d want to be in this predicament, but it’s nice to know more about what the airplane can do?

The intentional tail strike turned out to be much more difficult than I expected. Even though I was 15 knots slower than the normal approach speed for our weight, we still didn’t touch the aft part of the fuselage to the ground. After touchdown, I pulled back and I was surprised to see how much of an angle was required to finally get a strike. This 757 was much less prone to a tail strike than the 767-300 or even the 737-800.

We continued down the runway dragging the rear end. I imagined huge sparks flying from our tail section. This would have been an expensive lesson in the real airplane that would have resulted in a visit to the chief pilot’s office followed by some remedial training.

After 4 hours in the simulator, George was confident I’d pass my checkride with a check airman the next day.

Fortunately, I’d have Gary, the former Eastern pilot who acted as my captain during the training session, with me in the left seat for the checkride.

The next day from 6 to 8 p.m., I answered the questions the check airman asked about the airplane’s systems and then we discussed some of the problems pilots have seen on the line.

At 8:15, Gary and I jumped in the simulator and flew a variety of maneuvers and dealt with some equipment failures and fires for two hours, and then we took a short break before coming back to the 757 simulator for the official checkride.

For the next two hours, we operated as a normal flight from Reno to San Francisco. We discussed the unusual two-eng
ine and single-engine departures from Reno, that require a variety of turns to avoid the high terrain in the area, and we also looked at the arrival into San Francisco.

We made sure to discuss the procedure for a one-engine go-around at SFO and how its path differed from the two-engine go-around. Had we not briefed this difference, the check airman would have almost certainly given us an engine failure followed by a go-around.

With just a push of a button, our instructor could have created one of literally hundreds of problems for us to contend with. But this flight was to simulate a more normal scenario with a single mechanical problem, which is more realistic.

After taxiing out and taking off, the check airman gave us a small air-conditioning problem that was resolved quickly. The issue, a ‘pack trip,’ was small enough that we could continue the simulated flight to San Francisco.

Compared to the day before and the first two hours of the checkride, this was a rather simple task. We landed, pulled up to the gate and finished the parking checklist before the walkway was lowered to the hydraulically-actuated simulator for our ‘deplaning.’

The check airman gave a short debrief. His only issue for me that night was that I hadn’t annunciated “Autopilot Off” loud enough when I clicked the button on the yoke to hand-fly the approach. A legitimate gripe that I’ll happily take after four-hours in the simulator.

While I enjoyed the initial training that lasts four to six weeks and the excitement that comes with learning a new airplane, no one ever looks forward to recurrent training. And even though I managed to crack a smile and have a few laughs with some great instructors this week, it was an exhilarating feeling to leave the flight academy knowing I was good for another 9 months.

After training, I had to fly a four-day trip over Thanksgiving, but you might want to hold off with any sympathy for me until after you see where I’ll be going. Stay tuned!

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston.