Cockpit Chronicles: A captain’s line check

Once every two years a captain is required to be observed by a check airman. And captains over sixty must be checked every six months.

I touched on the line check in the last Cockpit Chronicles, and I’ve had yet another trip with a check airman performing a line check, making it two in the last eight days. Both of the captains I was flying with were over sixty. As a result of the change in retirement age from sixty to sixty-five in 2007, a line check has been mandated every six months for those sixty and older.

I’ve spotted some of the items that check airman are looking for during these checks. Consider this a guide on how to make a check airman happy. I know my demographic here at Gadling will be thrilled to come across this information.

It’s important not to fly any differently when you’re not being checked. You won’t be able to fool these pilots by ‘stepping up your game’ only when they’re around. There are so many rules, procedures and techniques you’ll need to adhere to, that it’ll be obvious to the instructor that you haven’t been paying attention to your training if you try to ‘step up your game’ only when the management pilot is around.

The ‘Check Airman’

At my company, check airmen are captains that are chosen, usually by the base chief pilot, to fill the instructor positions. Some are exclusively ‘line’ check airman, who only perform line checks and the ‘initial operating experience’ for new pilots to the aircraft. Others are qualified to fly the line and also perform simulator checks.

What they want to see.

The following are some examples of what a pilot will be tested on during a six month or two-year line check.Licenses and medicals

The first thing they’re likely interested in seeing are a pilot’s license and medicals. They’re checking to see the medical hasn’t expired and that the license includes an ‘English Language’ endorsement. It may sound silly, but the international organization overseeing many of the rules governing air carriers worldwide, ICAO, requires all licenses to include this endorsement. If it’s not there, you can’t fly, no matter how eloquent a pilot is while trying to talk their way out of the problem.


A check airman will be watching to see that a captain conducts a thorough briefing with the flight attendants regarding any security changes, the expected ride conditions and to re-iterate how an evacuation may be handled.


In order for 10,000 pilots to fly well together, there has to be a set of procedures and call outs that everyone is familiar with, obviously. So check airmen pay particular attention to these procedures and will often comment if something is done differently. For example, if a pilot were to check the flight controls on the ramp instead of the taxiway, something may be said. Interestingly, in that example, other aircraft in our fleet allow for the flight controls to be checked on the ramp after the pushback crew has departed, so not everything is consistent from one fleet to the next.


While it might seem to be nit-picking, check airmen will say something if the response to a checklist item is read back as “closed” when it should be “cutoff” instead. This can especially be an issue for pilots coming from a different brand of airplane that uses different terminology. Old habits are hard to break.


Check airmen are tasked with encouraging fuel saving techniques and they might make mention of this during a line check. Recently a comment was made to me when I opted to use the Econ mode of our FMS to set the climb speed since it was 298 knots, which was very close to the company’s procedure of using 300 knots at that weight. The check airman probably just wanted to be sure that I knew the speed usually set for a given weight. Interestingly, they rarely mention when a pilot brings the flaps out early when flying level at the minimum clean (no flaps) airspeed for twenty miles before starting the approach; a technique that could also save some serious dinosaurs.


Recently we’ve had some changes in the regulations regarding delays on international flights. You’re going to hear a lot more updates should a delay occur, and there are specific rules regarding just how often captains must update passengers, even if we don’t know the cause for the delay or how much longer we may have to wait. Since the penalties from the Department of Transportation, DOT, for non-compliance are steep, this will be an example of a new policy that will be checked as well.

Systems knowledge

Even though we go through an oral exam during our simulator check rides every nine months, check airmen will be looking for signs of weak areas in the knowledge of the systems of the airplane. These systems can include the hydraulics, electrical, flight controls, FMS computers, autopilot, fuel system, pneumatics and flight instruments among other things. But there’s no oral quizzing during line checks fortunately. The instructors are quick to say they’re just there to observe.

So while pilots rarely have management looking over their shoulders, they are checked often by check airmen.

These check rides usually result in something being learned and are a good way to ensure that every pilot is working in the most standardized way while flying the line. The vast majority of check airmen are helpful and friendly, although I can’t say that most pilots are truly happy to have them aboard. And knowing that fact probably makes the check airmen job all that more difficult.

As a first officer, I’m not eligible to work as a check airman and I’ve vowed to stay away from the job for the rest of my career. At our company, there really isn’t a significant pay premium to work as an instructor, and you give up most landings and opportunities to actually fly the airplane while you’re performing a line check or IOE training. And your schedule is often dictated by whatever the pilot you’re checking can hold. While I appreciate those who choose to step into these roles, I know my place in life is as a line pilot. There’s nothing better. Except perhaps as a line captain, but that will have to wait for a future Cockpit Chronicles.

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: A ‘new’ pilot’s first trip on the line

To say it’s been a long time since we’ve seen any newly hired pilots at our airline is an understatement. Up until now, the junior most pilots have been here for more than ten years.

As I was riding in to work on the JFK Airtrain a few weeks ago, I looked up the crew list again on my phone. I was surprised to see that the co-pilot (I was the relief pilot this day) was listed as ‘open.’ That meant that crew scheduling was likely scrambling to find a pilot to cover the trip after someone must have called in sick.

When I arrived at operations, I found the captain giving directions over the phone to the other co-pilot to the employee parking lot, so we both assumed we’d be flying with someone new to the base. It hadn’t occurred to us that he may also be new to the airline.

Back in 1998 an agreement was signed that brought pilots over from the affiliated regional and gave them slots at the major airline. But the agreement required them to wait for two years before coming over, and when the downturn occurred after 2001, some of these pilots were withheld from the ‘mainline’ for the next decade.

Now that we’re recalling pilots from furlough at a pretty good clip, with hopefully all of them back to work early next year, some of the senior most captains from the regional airline are starting to come over again.

As I was setting up the cockpit for departure, the other co-pilot introduced himself and explained that he was one of these flow through pilots and had just finished training.Regardless of your experience level when you come to a new airline, there’s so much to learn-a new airplane, procedures, rules, checklist responses and computer entries-that it’s comparable to taking a drink from a fire hose.

Now imagine getting called out for a trip, being told that the airplane and passengers are waiting for you and not knowing who you’re flying with or anything about the city you’re going to. After twenty years of flying to Des Moines, you’d certainly be out of your comfort zone.

Because of the late notice, Dan (not his real name) showed up in the cockpit a minute or two before our scheduled departure time. I had prepared his side of the airplane as much as possible for him, something I would have done for anyone who happened to be running late. In this case, his late call wouldn’t be the reason for our late departure, since we were also waiting for a mechanic to fix a minor problem found during the preflight.

The biggest challenge of flying the 757 and 767, as opposed to pilots who fly a single type of airplane like the 777 or 737, are the different configurations of instruments and flight management systems (FMS) that we have. Dan had already flown a few trips with a check airman in the 757, 767-200 and 767-300, and had been exposed to the three different display layouts, two types of FMS (Flight Management System) computers and three different versions of the device we use to send text messages to the company called the ACARS.

Much of his time in simulator training was spent getting up to speed with our normal procedures, approaches and emergencies before flying with an instructor for his IOE, or Initial Operating Experience.

He had spent six weeks learning the intricacies of the hydraulics, electrical and pressurization systems, among many other things, so it’s normal not to be as familiar with the normal, day-to-day things that occur on ‘the line.’

Since this would be his first trip with line pilots, we were determined to make it enjoyable. We welcomed him aboard and tried to put him at ease. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had shown up in tears given his harried drive to the airport and short call out. But he handled it well and managed to joke about the situation.

I showed him my favorite trick to request the FMS flight plan information with a single push of a button and the captain went over some ACARS entries while offering to have Dan do the majority of the computer inputs if he wanted to get more comfortable.

He took everything in stride and frankly, it seemed like he had been here for years.

Midway through the flight, he shared with me a funny story about his first trip with an instructor. When the relief pilot came back after her nap, the captain told Dan to take his two hour break. So he stepped out of his seat and went into the cabin. Unsure of where to sit, he scanned business class, and noticed it was rather full. One seat was open, but it had a blanket neatly laid across it and a Bose headset sitting in the seat.

So he went back to coach and found a seat in the exit row and sat down. A few minutes later, one of the flight attendants approached him.

“What are you doing?” She asked.

“I’m taking a break.” He sheepishly responded.

“Do you know anyone back here?” She asked, puzzled.

“Uh, no.”

“Get back up there!” She said, motioning to the front of the airplane.

When you fly with people who have been doing the same thing for so long, it’s easy to forget what it was like to be new. The flight attendant was likely unaware that this was the first time Dan had ever taken a break on an airplane before, and he certainly had no idea where the designated crew rest seat was located.

For the record, in case you ever find yourself in this situation; it’s seat 2J on the 767.

What Dan lacked in crew rest etiquette was well made up in his ability on the radio. He handled the accents of the Spanish controllers very well, even after flying through the night. After a smooth approach and landing at Barcelona by the captain, it was time for a few hours of sleep at the hotel before we’d get out to see the city.

A week before, another co-pilot told me about a jazz-themed catamaran cruise in Barcelona, so I thought I’d drag along as many of the crew as possible. What better way for us to welcome the new guy, I thought.

It’s hard to say which was better; the weather or the sangria. As the jazz saxophone player moved about the boat, playing a new-age type of jazz, three of the flight attendants and I sat out at the front of the boat, while Dan and the captain were in the back steering the large catamaran across the Mediterranean for a few minutes at a time. Some layovers are just better than others and I knew that this one would probably be memorable for Dan.

The six of us had enjoyed some bread and cheese by the marina before setting out for an early dinner by Barcelona standards, where it’s not uncommon to eat at 10 p.m.

We went to La Fonda, which I’ve been told is a cooking school that serves as a restaurant, although I couldn’t find anything about the school online.

The dollar to euro exchange rate takes some getting used to and I explained to Dan that it’s easily possible to spend $50 a person on dinner at many of our destinations. La Fonda looks like you’d need to take out a loan to eat there, but it’s actually quite reasonable, with dishes running around €9 to €12. Most of us had the “Grilled salmon with honey and mustard crispy with avocado and tomato” at €9.55 or about $14.

On the flight home to New York, I figured we should mark the occasion. You have to understand that for the past ten years, we haven’t worked with any new employees at the airline. In fact, this was probably more of a monumental event for us than it was for Dan.

So we presented him with a menu full of well wishes from all of us on the flight. I jokingly asked if we should have each of the 220 passengers aboard sign it as well, before remembering that we did have a celebrity in business class.

Placido Domingo, one of the famous ‘Three Tenors’ was flying with us. Graciously he signed the front cover of Dan’s menu and congratulated him on his new position flying internationally.

I couldn’t think of a more poetic way to celebrate such a career change. Welcome aboard, Dan. We’re glad you could finally make it.

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 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:


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.