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.

Plane Answers: Fear of flying, aging aircraft and more on those ‘dings.’

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!

Brian asks:

I would like to know if I have the option of knowing what kind of plane I’m in and how old it is at the time of making my reservation?

Specific airplanes are usually chosen the night before a trip, so it’s impossible to know the age of your jet when you’re making your reservations. You can look up the average fleet age for each airline though.

I’m more concerned with the experience level of a cockpit crew than the age of the aircraft, but neither of these factors are published before your flight. Sometimes you just have to trust that the maintenance program and training at a given airline are adequate.

U.S. carriers are setting new safety records each year in what may end up being the safest decade of flying in the U.S. yet. and more specifically for the past six years, a period with very few new airplanes ordered.

David asks:

I travel often internationally on various airlines and I’ve noticed that on some carriers, there’s a ping or ding at intervals during the climb and sometimes also during the descent. I’d wondered whether it is the pilot’s way of notifying the cabin crew of the altitude cleared or that it is safe for them to move around––or is it something automatic to an aircraft engine system. I’m curious because sometimes the seatbelt sign is still on but you see flight attendants moving around; this is especially true on United long-hauls.
Each carrier is slightly different, but as I touched on in a previous post, these ‘dings’ are usually done during the climb and descent through 10,000 feet. This lets the flight attendants know that the sterile period, has ended.

The cockpit is considered ‘sterile’ below 10,000 feet, and unnecessary communications between the cockpit and the flight attendants or even between the pilots is discouraged.

Flight attendants are free to decide when it’s safe for them to begin their service. If we know of the potential for some significant turbulence ahead, the captain will advise the flight attendants that they should remain seated until we’re through that particular area.

Ashley asks:

I would just like to know if there is anything you could recommend to someone deathly afraid of flying. I’m going to Puerto Rico next month and I don’t do so well on planes. I hyper-ventilate on take-off and all throughout I constantly worry the plane will crash. Any advice would be great!

This is by far the most frequent question I’ve received on Plane Answers. I struggle with it every time, because while I can understand how scary air travel must seem to many passengers, I can’t get past the sheer statistics involved.

At my airline, we have over 2,500 departures every day. There are more than 10,000 departures in the U.S. daily. Airlines are reluctant to mention safety records, but there have been no fatalities in the past two years for domestic U.S. carriers.

A quick comparison to the more than 40,000 fatalities every year in automobiles might make you consider chartering a helicopter to get to the airport for your next trip.

I think much of the fear associated with flying comes from not being in control. If passengers could at least see out the front window while flying, I know they’d feel much more secure. Imagine how nerve racking it would be to sit in a taxicab with only a one square foot window to see out the side.

So when this question comes up, these numbers go through my mind. But I realize that all the statistics in the world won’t eliminate anxiety. So there are a couple of companies such as SOAR and the free service at that specialize in helping people overcome their fear of flying. I’ve mentioned these two in the past, although I don’t have any experience or feedback from any of the people who’ve participated in their courses. Anyone else out there who has some experience with fear of flying courses, let me know in the comments below what has helped you.

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

What strange things have been found on planes?

Plane Answers: Customs, hurricanes and those annoying ‘dings.’

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!

Michael asks:

How are customs and immigration inspections handled for air crew? Is there a separate set of rules, since you won’t (usually) be staying for long. And if you do vacation perhaps, then what?

Some countries require a work visa for crew members, since part of the job involves working in their country.

There are usually separate lines for crew members, but other than that, there aren’t many differences during the customs inspection. There may be more restrictions for tax free imports for crew members than someone vacationing.

And when a crew member goes on vacation, they’re just like everyone else.

Guillermo asked:

On flights between North and South America, how are your flight plans affected by the presence of a hurricane in the Caribbean or Gulf? Do you fly over or around them?

This has been a difficult week to fly on the east coast of the U.S. and the Caribbean. Flights are dispatched only if they can avoid these hurricanes. Occasionally, deviations that add hundreds of miles to a flight plan may be necessary since we can’t fly over the tops of these storms safely.

I was flying to the Caribbean during Ike and Hanna and we were able to navigate well around both storms and enjoyed a rather smooth ride each time. My next Cockpit Chronicles entry will detail the path that we took around both Hanna and Ike complete with radar views and of course, pictures.

Michelle ‘chimes’ in:

The “dings” that go off over the cabin speakers on take off, landing, and during the flight – what do they mean? – I know that most people probably associate them with the seat belt sign or the electronic devices sign.

But on my last flight I really paid attention to them. It seems like they ding at certain altitudes maybe? I noticed that a little while after takeoff while we were still climbing the ding went off, but nothing really happened. The attendants were still in their jump seats and it wasn’t time for everyone to pull out their iPods yet.

This is just one other thing that knowing might help calm my nerves on each flight.

I’ve had a couple of people ask this question this week. These ‘dings’ fall into five different categories at my airline. I can’t speak to the procedures elsewhere, but I’m sure they’re similar.

  1. During the FAA required sterile cockpit period, any calls from the flight attendant can only pertain to a safety issue. This prevents distractions while we’re flying the departure or on the approach to land. So the moment the airplane has climbed above 10,000 feet, or descended below 10,000 feet, the no smoking sign is cycled to mark the end or beginning of the sterile period.
  2. Anytime the pilots turn on or off the fasten seatbelt sign or the no smoking sign.
  3. Anytime a passenger presses the fight attendant call button.
  4. Anytime a flight attendant or pilot calls on the interphone to another flight attendant in the front, mid or aft cabin, you’ll hear a double-ding.
  5. Finally, a repetitive ding signifies that someone is smoking in the lavatory. Don’t panic though–I’ve been on two airplanes where this repetitive ding was just a problem with the system that could only be reset on the ground, making for a rather annoying few hours for passengers.

If you think all those dings could get confusing or annoying, I wish you could experience what we live with in the cockpit. Boeing has seen fit to use the same ‘ding’ for just about every kind of alert up there. We have the flight attendant call ding, the SELCAL ding from ATC, the ground crew call ding, the seatbelt sign/no smoking sign ding, and on some airplanes we’re alerted when just about any new data is uploaded from the company including the winds, weights, weather or a new routing.

I had the opportunity to discuss this with two of the people at Boeing who were responsible for these alerts while I was sitting next to them while deadheading from Miami to Dallas one day.

When I complained about the single type of ‘ding’ for so many different types of events, they said they had studies that showed that people can differentiate between 6 or 7 different types of sounds.

They also pointed out that a message pops up on the EICAS (one of the front displays) when the ding comes on to let us know what the alert is. That’s only true on 30% of our 757/767’s. The older versions don’t have that text alert to supplement the dings.

Lately, we’ve had a couple of random airplanes that ding every time an ATIS (the airport weather) is printed up, even though we asked for this print out seconds earlier.

Boeing tends to get the cockpit and systems design elements right 99% of the time, but there are still some annoyances that pop up after we operate these airplanes for five, ten or even twenty years.

I guess there’s always hope that they’ll fix this issue on the 787. And maybe they’ll come up with a method to reduce the cabin dings as well.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Friday’s Plane Answers feature.