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.

Blogger Kent Wien

Introducing the newest member of the Gadling team… Kent Wien

Since air travel is such a significant part of most of our lives, we’re bringing on Kent to share his experiences as a commercial pilot with Gadling. Kent will be writing about each of his trips, giving you an idea of what life is like at the pointy end of an airliner. Keep an eye out for his “Cockpit Chronicles” feature, and follow along with him in the air and on the ground.

1. Where was your photo taken:
38,000 feet, on the way back from San Juan to Boston in a Boeing 757.

2. Where do you live now: Exeter, New Hampshire

3. Scariest airline flown: I was once a flight engineer (3rd pilot who sits sideways) on a 727 for a small charter/freight company that operated out of Dallas. We were contracted to fly within Alaska for a summer to haul fish and cargo throughout the state. Due to what was later blamed on improper maintenance, we landed in Kotzebue with all main tires locked up. The tires never moved while we skidded down the runway. That got my attention. I left shortly after and a few weeks after my departure the FAA shut the airline down for a month due to maintenance violations.

4. Favorite city/country/place: I suppose most people have a soft spot in their heart for their hometown. I was lucky enough to grow up in Anchorage, Alaska.

5. Most remote corner of the globe visited: A Soviet ice camp 160 miles north of Barrow, Alaska. We brought two Norwegian scientists to this huge floating complex complete with temporary buildings that had telephones between them, a cafeteria and dozens of Russians who traded with us relentlessly. I suppose I’ll have to post a feature on that experience — just in case anyone else happens to find themselves floating on a Russian ice camp.

6. Favorite guidebook series: Since I occasionally get called out at the last minute on a trip somewhere that I’ve never visited, I like to load up the page of that city on my laptop or iPhone and take it with me. I’ve found that Wikitravel cuts right to the important points of a city and it’s a good start when looking for something to do.

7. Worst hotel experience: During training in Texas I once found nearly 20 cockroaches in a florescent light fixture above my bed. I took the light apart and dumped them into the toilet. The next day there were 20 more. I did this ritual every day for the entire month I was there. We stay in some pretty nice hotels while on trips, but for some reason our training hotels rate at the bottom of the scale.

8. Leeches or mosquitoes: Mosquitoes have a new talent. They’re killing people. Even when I was living on a lake as a kid, I would’ve preferred leaches over mosquitos any day.

9. Worst place to catch a stomach bug: In the cockpit on a flight from Las Vegas to Dallas with the above mentioned charter airline. It was my one and only experience with food poisoning. I doubt it was fun for the other two pilots.

10. How did you get started traveling? I was fortunate enough to have a dad who was also an airline pilot when I was growing up. One day he got a call to deliver a 737 from Seattle to London. My sister and I convinced him to take the trip, since we knew it was our opportunity to fly in an empty jet and even get a chance to ride in the cockpit. We spent a few days in London, saw some plays and really enjoyed our first taste of international travel. I later went to France for summer exchange student program and it was these two experiences that inspired me to fly internationally for a living.