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: Nearly a near midair collision

“Traffic, Traffic!” Announced the computer voice from the speaker on the ceiling just above me.

This is something we hear frequently enough, perhaps once every three or four flights when an airplane in close proximity is climbing rapidly with a clearance to level off 1,000 feet below us. The TCAS (Traffic Collision and Avoidance System) is just giving us a warning that, should the airplane not level off, we may have to take action.

We were at FL390 (39,000 feet), an altitude where the traffic warning was far less likely. The captain and I looked down at the TCAS screen to get a quick idea where we should be looking for the other airplane. It was 800 feet lower than us and at our 2 o’clock position. It was easy to spot, with huge puffy contrails billowing out and slightly below it. A 737 for sure. We were both satisfied that it would pass behind us, since it was moving from left to right across the windscreen. A stationary position in the sky would mean it was coming right at us.

But before we could discuss this passing airplane, the computer voice came on once again.

“Climb, Climb now!”
Our procedures dictate that we should honor thy TCAS request, known as a Resolution Advisory or RA, by disconnecting the autopilot and following the rate of climb commands computed by the TCAS system.

Since it was my leg, I immediately disconnected the autopilot, while glancing down at the vertical speed indicator to find out just how many feet per minute of a climb would be needed. It wasn’t much, in fact. Just 200 feet per minute, hardly even noticeable to the passengers. It commanded a level off when we were at 39,100 feet and shortly after allowed us to settle back down to our original altitude.

All this was done in a matter of seconds, with no input or guidance from Air Traffic Control. In fifteen years using TCAS, this was only my second resolution advisory-the other one having occurred while on approach just east of Port-Au-Prince Haiti years ago.

“Center, confirm we were cleared from 380 to 400?” The other aircraft asked.

The controller said yes, which made us think this could have been an error on the part of the controller.

“Can you explain then what just happened?” The 737 pilot queried.

There was no answer from the controller.

We let the controller know that we had also just responded to a resolution advisory. The other pilot asked for a phone number of the Air Traffic Control center that he could call. We copied this number down as well.

There was some discussion between the captain and I whether we needed to report this as a near midair collision (NMAC). I pulled my manuals out, now conveniently located on an EFB equipped iPad (Electronic Flight Bag) and searched for the NTSB criteria for a near midair collision. Nothing came up.

But I did find an interesting recent change to our procedures. The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) requires that any flight responding to a TCAS resolution advisory above 18,000 feet must pull the voice recorder circuit breaker after completing the parking checklist. This would allow the NTSB to analyze the tapes from ATC and the aircraft involved in the loss of separation incident.

Just knowing that the NTSB would be listening to our conversation for the next two hours tends to make you aware of every word you’re saying. In fact, I debated with myself about getting into a discussion during our approach briefing about wind and gust additives that we would be applying for the approach.

I recognize that there’s value in allowing the NTSB access to the conversations that led up to an incident. They’ll hopefully study the procedures and policies that could prevent this kind of situation. There’s still a big brother feel to it.

I couldn’t help but feel bad for the controller on duty. While the captain and I were waiting for the employee bus, he phoned the air traffic control center. The controller explained that a clearance was given to the Trans-Siberiana 1701, but that Trans-Siberiana 1790, who had also asked for a climb, had accepted the clearance instead. All airline names have been changed to protect the innocent.

I looked up the FAA definition of a Near Midair Collision:

A near midair collision is defined as an incident associated with the operation of an aircraft in which a possibility of collision occurs as a result of proximity of less than 500 feet to another aircraft, or a report is received from a pilot or a flight crew member stating that a collision hazard existed between two or more aircraft.

It turned out we were just a 100 to 200 feet away from the NMAC definition. So I guess it was “nearly a near midair collision.”

We both filed a report detailing the events. I recently received the response. We did everything by the book and it obviously wasn’t our fault, which meant that the case was closed as far as our involvement.

Someday I hope we’ll have a third layer of safety in addition to the protection offered by ATC and TCAS in the form of a two-lane airway using a half mile offset to the right. Ever since GPS was invented, we have reduced the normally 8-mile wide airways down to just a few feet thanks to the precise nature of the technology. But with that came greater reliance on TCAS to keep us out of trouble. I wrote about an inexpensive offset airway proposal previously and I’d love for the FAA to take another look at it. Adding layers to our safety net is what has made air travel so much more safe than in the early years 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 Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.

Plane Answers: Have turbulence encounters become less common?

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Fellow Gadling writer Mike Barish (author of the hilarious Skymall Mondays asks:

I have a plane answers question of my own for you and thought others might be curious, too.

Not sure if it’s my perception, improvements in technology or changes in flight paths, but it truly seems like I experience less turbulence in general, and less aggressive turbulence when my flights do hit it, than I did back in the 1980s. What’s changed to make flights smoother?

You’re likely right, Mike.

In the past ten years, more of the airplanes flying today have advanced radar, with features such as ‘Predictive Windshear’ and better depiction of turbulence associated with precipitation.

The FAA has also installed weather monitors for Air Traffic Controllers that show the level of intensity for a given cumulonimbus build-up of clouds. It’s comforting to hear “we show a level three thunderstorm along your route of flight, deviations to the right or left are approved” from ATC before the weather even shows up on our radar.

Occasionally these advisories are for storms that are well below us, but the courtesy report is well appreciated, especially since they include the intensity of the weather, which saves us from having to pan and tilt our radar to determine if a cloud could cause significant bumps. Exceedingly wet clouds that climb above 25,000 feet are the best indicator of possible turbulence, and it takes some manipulating of the radar to find those.
Dispatch plays a role in forecasting where the weather may be during our flight and routing us on a different and possibly less direct path to get around the weather.

The other possible explanation for your experience may have to do with where you’ve been sitting lately. The difference between turbulence at the rear of the airplane versus over the wing or in the front is rather significant, especially on stretched versions of airliners like the A340-600, the 757-300 and the 737-900. On your next flight, if you’re sitting in the back, pay attention to how the flight attendants in the front are walking and continuing their service, while those in the back may have to sit down.

So, if turbulence gives you the willies, try getting a seat in the front.

Coincidentally, this post is being written in the business class section of a 757 while I’m on my crew rest break. It’s bumpy enough that the main cabin flight attendants are seated, but our purser is currently serving drinks up front without much difficulty.

In the future, the 787 will have a ‘gust suppression’ capability that is said to improve the rides by adjusting the rudder constantly to compensate for some types of turbulence. I can’t wait to experience that.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr

Cockpit Chronicles: FOQA kept these pilots out of trouble in Panama

I was excited, thrilled really, to fly with one of my favorite captains for five, 4-day trips over the next month and a half. If you had to work with just one captain for so many days in a row, it may as well have be someone you consider a close friend, and Dave fits that description. In fact, two years ago I wrote about my last trip to Panama City, Panama, and the captain on that flight just happened to be Dave.

But this time, on the first day of our trip to Panama we would soon be reminded just how busy flying an airplane can get down there.

First a little background is in order.

Usually we can pull up the latest weather at the airport we’re arriving at either via a print out from our ACARS or by listening to an automated voice report that’s available to us as far as two hundred miles away.

It’s always a good idea to pull up the conditions as soon as possible so you can prepare for the runway and approach that’s in use.

There are a number of options for aligning with the runway and descending low enough to see the airport. There’s the most common ILS approach, which can usually guide you to around 200 feet above the ground before a pilot has to see the runway, or a VOR approach which typically takes you down to 500 feet or the more recent GPS approaches which fall somewhere in between.

I couldn’t hear the ATIS until we were just 60 miles away from the airport for some reason. Surely a weak transmitter, I figured.

The cloud cover was reported at 2000 feet scattered with more than ten kilometers of visibility. A piece of cake, we decided. We’ll surely see the airport when we’re within about 20 miles and then fly visually to land to the south.

Controller Confusion

As it happened, the weather wasn’t exactly as advertised. It soon became clear that the Panama air traffic controllers were going to give us an approach to fly. They wanted us to fly nearly 60 miles south of the airport, before continuing back north of the airport and landing again to the south when we could see the runway.

We were following a ‘company’ 737 which was about ten miles ahead of us. “Company” is how air traffic control describes traffic from the same airline.

We asked if we could fly the GPS approach and land to the south, into the wind of course, which would be far less complicated. They initially agreed.
Our company 737 ahead of us was also equipped to fly a GPS approach, and they seemed to think this was a good idea as well, so they asked for the same. The weekend controllers in Panama seemed to have a hard time understanding the request, and told the 737 that they would have to fly well south of the airport as originally planned.

It was looking like this was going to be our fate as well, since it was unlikely the controllers would have two airplanes approaching from opposite directions. At this point, the 737 pilots wanted to know the current winds at the airport.

“Say your winds.” The pilot asked in the traditional fashion.

The Panama controller didn’t understand and asked him to repeat.

“What are the winds at the airport?” He repeated.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand, sir.” The approach controller responded.

I gave a surprised look over to Dave. How could the controllers not have learned this key phrase. They should have even expected the question, since they were having the pilot approach from the south with a slight wind at the tail and then circle around to land into the wind. If the winds were light enough (less than 15 knots for the 737 and less than 10 knots for our 757), the whole circling maneuver could be eliminated and a straightforward ILS could be accomplished.

Dave and Kent

We try to keep things simple, both in our phraseology and our approach requests with ATC due to the difficulty in communicating in some Central and South American countries.

When it was our turn, we set up for the circling approach and briefed everything that would happen and what we should expect. This approach briefing is done by pilots after determining which approach is in use and the radios and instruments are set up for that specific approach.

But ATC had given us a change in the approaches to be flown three times, requiring a new briefing and set-up for each approach. Just as we were about to start down from 2,000 feet on what was known as a circling approach, the tower controller offered us our fourth change-the straight-in approach and landing.

Dave was flying and so I asked the controller what the winds were. Anything more than ten knots on our tail and we wouldn’t be able to accept the approach, even though it was a long, dry runway.

The tower controller began to tell us what the winds had been, and how they’d fluctuated, and what they now were. Unfortunately, in the timeit took for him to tell us about the winds, we were now too high to begin the approach. The airplane would no longer be stabilized for either approach, since he hadn’t cleared us for anything, and since we weren’t cleared to descend in time, we would no longer be ‘stable’ for the landing.

I turned to Dave and mentioned how late his clearance for the ILS was, and how we would be late in starting our descent.

“We won’t be stable.” I said after the controller offered us the approach choice.

Dave immediately agreed, and by the time the controller was done giving us his weather channel description of the winds, we announced we would have to go around and set up again for another approach. This would give us time to assess the winds, choose the right approach and then brief it. It would also prevent us from exceeding any parameter for a stabilized approach below 1,000 feet.

Dave accelerated and began the climb. I struggled to get a new heading and altitude from the controller, while responding to Dave’s rapid requests for the gear to be brought up, and the flaps retracted one notch at a time. There isn’t a time while flying that’s more busy or critical, and the difficulty in understanding the clearance was adding to the excitement.

Dave turned in the direction of the written missed approach direction, which is a safe bet, but not always what the controllers are asking for. I asked for the heading and altitude three times, each time not understanding what the controller was telling us. For a moment I gave up, and instead focused on what Dave needed to get established for the climb. The weather was good enough that I knew we were safe to fly the published missed approach.

Finally, when things calmed down I was able to ask ATC for just the heading. And then just the altitude. It turns out Dave was flying the missed approach procedure precisely as ATC had requested.


Each of our airplanes we fly is equipped with FOQA, pronounced ‘folk-wa’, or Flight Operations Quality Assurance, a monitoring system that records every parameter for every approach over a two-week period. So if we had been just two knots fast before we extended the flaps or we didn’t have them fully extended by 1,000 feet, or if we were high or fast, the captain would be called and asked to explain, with immunity for the most part, what caused this approach to be out of tolerances.

You may see more go-arounds as a result of FOQA, since pilots would rather not have to explain why they didn’t go around when faced with an approach that was outside of safe parameters.

FOQA has allowed the company to zero in on areas that need improvement through more training and to find ways to prevent the occurrences from happening again. The program was met with resistance initially, but we’ve come to learn that it seems to be improving safety instead of being used as a high tech method to penalize pilots.

We set up for the straight-in landing after the go-around, and the landing was made without incident. While taxiing in, the controller apologized for the late clearance and the many changes that were given.

Dave and I rehashed everything that happened on the arrival while eating dinner. We vowed to try for a much less exciting arrival the next time. As we waited for the bill to come, I mentioned my amazement at the size and amount of birds near the Caracas airport. Dave said that in his view, Panama City had far greater-both in numbers and size-birds. We would soon find out up close just how right he was. Check out next week’s post to hear about that.

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.

Plane Answers: A controller opinion on the JFK kid and a college major for pilots

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

A friend of mine who works as an air traffic controller emailed me with his thoughts on the JFK ‘bring your kid to work’ controversy. Here’s what he had to say:

Each of my 3 kids have talked to planes in Chicago airspace 7-10 years ago. I limited it to a frequency change after advising the pilot “it’s take your daughter to work day, standby for a frequency change.”

I recently mentioned it to some former colleagues who all said they had done something like that also. I believe that any clearances are clearly inappropriate but that there was no danger involved at JFK. The dad certainly would have been in the trainer jack with override capability.

So there you have it. I’m still hopeful that nothing more than a policy memo is sent out and that the controller(s) in question are able to come back to work as soon as possible.

And now a multiple-part question from Ricardo about a university major for a prospective pilot and the best direction he should take afterwards:

Hey Kent,

I have always been interested in flying commercial aircraft ever since I was a child. My ultimate goal is to gain an ATPL. I am currently 16 years old and I’m already looking through colleges. I have found several that offer a Private Pilot minor but I do not know what to major in. Do airlines look for pilots that majored in something in particular? I was thinking of aerospace engineering or aerospace systems technology but I would like to know for sure what I should major in so that I will have better luck with airlines in the future.
I would suggest that you major in the subject that interests you most. Ideally it would be an area that you may be able to fall back on if the airlines aren’t hiring or you’re furloughed for a period of time. So many of the pilots I’m flying with today are doing something else to supplement their income, whether it be managing a trucking company, working as an electrician or managing rental properties.

Airlines absolutely look for a bachelor’s degree, but the subject is far less important during the interview for most companies. So you may as well use the degree to make you well rounded.

Another question I have (bear with me, I have several) is how should I gain my flight hours? People have suggested that I should become an instructor and give flight lessons. What do you think?

I talked a bit about this in a recent Plane Answers here and here. Flight instructing is the most popular way to build flight time as a civilian pilot, although there are some other creative options such as TV/Radio traffic reporting, fish spotting, and banner towing.

You’ll learn a lot during the instructing and it’s a nice rating to keep active throughout your career, as you may end up teaching friends and family to fly someday. But don’t expect to earn much money during your instructing years. $20 an hour may sound livable, but keep in mind that’s $20 per flight hour. At least you’re getting paid as you accrue hours, something that isn’t possible when you’re working on your private pilot’s license or building time toward your commercial ticket.

My advice? Get the flight time any way that comes available. Hanging out at the airport where you learned to fly is the best way to take advantage of the opportunities as they arise. Fortunately, flight instructors spend a lot of time hanging out at airports.

Finally, do you think that I will have a chance at being hired by an airline in the future? I have heard that hardly any airlines are hiring now and I am feeling a bit nervous and cannot help but think that the industry may not improve and that I will be stuck with a license but no job in the future.

Very few airlines are hiring right now, but this is a cyclical business and that drought certainly can’t continue for the next five to ten years, unless the entire airline industry continues to shrink significantly. Pilot retirements will pick up in December of 2012, which is five years after the FAA raised the retirement age by the same number of years. So you may be in a good spot by then, but building time will be key.

Good luck on your quest and be sure to keep in touch!

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr