Cockpit Chronicles: How I Fell In Love With An Airplane (Video)

The MD-80 just might be the Rodney Dangerfield of the airline world. It just can’t seem to get any respect. But for those who really get to know the airplane, it offers some features, and admittedly a number of quirks, that has made it near and dear to many pilots. Against all odds, this Boeing pilot has fallen in love with the Mad Dog.

Passengers either love the airplane or hate it. And much of those feelings depend on where you’re sitting. A perch up in first class offers one of the quietest cabins in the air. Conversely, finding yourself in the back row between the engines and across from the lav would only be appealing to the truest aviation geek who somehow enjoys the noise.

Compared to a Boeing, there are so many sounds, levers and quirky features in the cockpit of an MD-80 that I can only do justice by video. So on my last week of flying the airplane back in February, I decided to document a few of the features that have made me fall in love with the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 or the “Super 80” as we call it.

For all the quirks, as I mention in the video, it has an enviable safety record.

But let’s face it; the reason I’ll miss the MD-80 the most might have more to do with which seat I sat in. Bumping back from captain to co-pilot as these airplanes are retired means that I won’t find myself taxiing around La Guardia or Chicago, or any place for that matter as the captain does all the taxiing.

And the co-pilots I flew with were the hardest working aviators at the company. I will absolutely miss them as some became good friends along the way.

You never know, with the flood of A319s, A321s and new Boeing 737-800 and -900s coming at my company, I could be back in the Super 80 left seat soon, or in one of those shiny new jets. Either way, I’m glad I had the opportunity to fly the airplane before it’s gone.

[Photo credit: Kent Wien]

Related: “Captain on the MD-80? Why?” and “A Captain No More.”

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a captain co-pilot on the MD-80 757 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: Ten tips for the new co-pilot

Copilot talking on the radio over FranceDespite the fact that our airline is parking older and less efficient airplanes, senior co-pilots have been upgrading to captain at a pretty good clip. I thought the recent events would have put a stop to all that, but I was ecstatic to learn that I had finally reached the seniority needed to fly the MD-80 as a captain. This was due to the wave of pilot retirements we saw last fall.

So as I reached my 20th year of flying as a co-pilot, I figured I might be able to offer some unsolicited advice for any new co-pilots coming into this job. There are plenty of tips on how to get a flying job, but very little talk about what to do when you finally arrive at a major airline.

I didn’t always embrace the following recommendations, and I’ve marked those needing further explanation with an asterisk. Often the best advice comes from the mistakes of others.

10. Don’t fall in love with a co-worker. *

You might not have to worry too much about this one. It seems flight attendants are taught during their initial training that all pilots are evil and should be avoided like the H1N1 virus. Dating a flight attendant can be extremely convenient – think of the layover possibilities – but any nasty break-ups reverberate through the company, which could be awkward. Working with your ex-girlfriend’s best friend, for example, might not be very pleasant.

* Technically, I was married to a flight attendant, but not in the traditional fashion. My wife and I were married for a couple of years before she went to work for a different airline. My siblings have both dated within their respective airlines with varied results.

9. Collect all the good techniques you find in the captains you fly with. And take note of the worst.

Do you like how a captain flies? Appreciate his professionalism and demeanor? Emulate it when you’re a captain. Think of the top five captains you’ve flown with. What do they share in common? Chances are, everyone else likes flying with them too, and a cockpit that’s less stressful is a safer cockpit.

On the other hand, you know that captain that shows up in the cockpit five minutes before departure? You didn’t like it when you were his co-pilot, so hopefully you’ll go out of your way to avoid that kind of behavior when you upgrade. Think of the five worst captains you flew with and do your best not to operate like they do.
8. Face it you’re a chameleon.

In hopes of not annoying the captain you’re flying with, you’ve probably become good at conforming to his way of doing things. Watch how the captain flies the airplane and try out their method. You may or may not adopt his style as your own someday, but for now, he seems pleased. But don’t disregard your influence as well. If they’re too laid back, you may need to step it up a bit, be alert and set a different vibe. And if they’re a nervous Nellie, show them that you’re also paying attention to their concerns and not discounting them. They may start to relax more.

As an example of how not to annoy your captain; if he’s flying and you’re talking on the radio, when he asks you to request 20 degrees right for weather to air traffic control, try to repeat it just like he said – not, “We need to come right a bit for weather.” Chances are, the way he phrased it is how he wants it said over the radio.

7. Try not to commute. *

Pilot sleeping in business classMy brother used to say that commuting turns a good deal into an ordeal. If you can find a place that’s good for raising a family near your base – which are usually near big cities – move there. Your family will appreciate that you’re home, and you won’t be afraid of bidding reserve where you’ll have to be available on short notice. If you can live within an hour of the airport, that’d be perfect.

* When I was first hired as a 727 Flight Engineer, I kept getting bumped out of New York, where we were living, to Miami. I went back and forth four times in six months, and moving just wasn’t practical with one-year leases (the norm in New York). So I picked what I thought the junior base was and stuck with it, that is until the first co-pilot opening came available in Boston.

After twelve years of living an hour north of my base at Boston, I’m now going back and forth between New York and Germany, which may be the mother of all commutes. But I tell myself that it’s a great opportunity for my kids, and for that, I think it’s worth it. In other words, you’ve gotta do, what you’ve gotta do.

6. Study before recurrent training and assume it’ll be tough. *

This seems pretty obvious. I mean, who’s not petrified of an oral and check ride every six months (or year) during recurrent? But after a few thousand hours on the plane, you’ll start to think you have things nailed. This is when you’re most vulnerable. Don’t get complacent. Study more than just the emergency items and the limitations. Know the changes since your last recurrent session because they’re going to use that to see if you’ve been paying attention.

* As an experienced 727 Flight Engineer, I thought I knew every nut and bolt on the plane. And I probably did, but I found recurrent was especially challenging if I went in confident and assured. On the other hand, when I was most paranoid and panicked, I studied harder and subsequently performed better.

5. Make sure your chief pilot has no idea who you are. *

I’ve heard many pilots say that their career goal is to retire and have the chief pilot say, “So now, who are you?”

Chief pilots like to say that it’s the 2 percent of the pilots that occupy 90 percent of their time, and so it should be your goal to stay out of that group. Do your job professionally and by the book and you’ll succeed.

* In order to write for Gadling and create photos and videos to share here, I’ve had to get permission from my base chief pilot and later the vice president of flight operations at our company. I also had the notoriety to be the last pilot hired after nine years of rapid growth in the ’80s and ’90s. So I was subsequently at the bottom of the company for the next five years with pilots marking their position from the end of that list by saying, “I’m Wien plus 470.”

4. New Equipment coming to your airline? Jump on it!

In 1998, I was flying as a co-pilot on the MD-80 and enjoying the window seat that I had worked so hard to reach. But the movement was slow and I was on reserve for the first year with no real control over my schedule. I figured I’d have little to lose by bidding the 737-800 that was coming to Boston.

What happened was a surprise. I went from having just 10 percent of the MD-80 co-pilots behind me to being in the middle of the 737 list and flying coveted non-stop “trans-con” flights to Seattle that allowed me to visit family.

The lesson: pilots didn’t like to take chances on the unknown. They wanted to wait and see what the trips looked like, how the training was and if the airplane had any negative traits. Some just didn’t want to go to school and be away from their families for five weeks. But they ended up going in the end as the MD-80 was pulled out of the base eventually.

3. Don’t buy a “captain’s house” – even if you’re a captain. *

The tendency for anyone is to buy the most home you can afford. But affording the house doesn’t mean housing should end up being your only priority. You’ll need a buffer, and the bigger reserve the better, to save for college for the kids, go places with the family and put away during the downturns, which WILL happen.

* Crusty old captains used to tell me to buy the biggest house I could, as they only go up in value. So after a few years on the 737, I felt like life was finally moving forward. Furloughs were a thing of the past I thought, having done my time from 1993 to 1996, and it was time to get a house and think about filling the rooms with critters in the form of kids.

So why not buy the biggest house possible? Because you work in the airline industry. It’s always been a turbulent occupation, and never more volatile than after 2001, around the time we bought our “captain’s house.” Hey, I was to be a captain in a year or so anyway, right?

It took us another eight years while I was flying as a co-pilot before we grew tired of not having furniture, vacations or even the ability to get ahead. So when the company announced the possibility of more shrinkage a few years ago, we sold the house and bought a smaller place. Fortunately, for once, our timing was pretty good.

2. Fly out of a small base. *

Smaller bases are like smaller airlines. They’re more like working with family. When you fly out of a “master base” like DFW for American or Atlanta with Delta, you may never see the same captain or flight attendants again, or if you do, you may not even remember working with them years before. A base with 200 pilots is ideal if your company has one. It’s always more fun to fly with people you consider your friends.

* I’ve enjoyed being based in Boston for 13 years, but the opportunities in New York are much greater and my seniority is a whole lot better. I would never have been able to do the commute from Boston and the upgrade to captain would have happened years later if I had stayed there.

1. Stay Positive

Remember how excited you were when you were hired at a major airline? Well, keep that in mind when the going gets tough or movement slows down or even goes backwards. This is what you wanted to do. The company isn’t out to deliberately make your life miserable. In fact, I don’t even think of upper management as “the company.” The company is really the employees who are married to it for life because starting over at the bottom of a seniority list at another airline isn’t very appealing.

Volunteer with your union and try to give something back. Pilot unions serve a role in guiding airline safety that the public may not realize. But don’t get too worked up during contract negotiations. You’ll likely be negotiating for half your career, and if you’re on edge and bitter, you’re going to be miserable.

No one wants to hear a fellow pilot complain (for proof of that, just read the comments on my post on the 757). For the most part, your co-workers are going through similar issues that you are, and ranting in the cockpit isn’t going to make it better. Try to remember just how excited you were when you found out you were hired.

happy pilot with leather helmet

So take the above advice for what it’s worth. And listen to those you’re flying with. They’ve been through some of what you’re dealing with and they’re often full of great tips, mostly because they’ve made some big mistakes along the way. (See asterisks above).

Good luck and tailwinds!

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 a junior domestic captain based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Cockpit Chronicles: Captain on the MD-80? Why?

MD-80 sunset LAX jet airlinerCaptain on the MD-80? Are you crazy?

I received a comment from a reader recently to that effect. What was I thinking, bidding to an airplane that my company was rapidly retiring and choosing to go back on reserve, ready to fly at a moment’s notice to places like Kansas City and Tulsa instead of Rome and Paris? And what about the commute to Germany?

“Why would you do this?” He asked.

I suppose I should explain my thinking, or perhaps justify this because I have to admit there are times when I’ve wondered if it’s the right move.

I didn’t do it for the money, especially since going from flying a full schedule as a 757/767 co-pilot to an MD-80 captain that flies less often while on reserve doesn’t mean there will be much, if any, extra money. To understand how pilots “upgrade” to captain, read “How do pilots move up to captain?”

Captain Kent

I did it because I needed the change in scenery, the challenge of doing a new job well, and in this unstable industry, it certainly doesn’t hurt to get some more captain experience just in case things go south. Furthermore, the MD-80 is the only type rating that I don’t have of the airplanes we currently fly.

A year or two ago, I would peek into the simulator of an MD-80 and just shake my head. I was happy that I wasn’t flying that dinosaur, I told myself. But a funny thing happens when a few hundred pilots retire suddenly and you find yourself able to fly it as a captain. It quickly becomes a rather sexy jet.

It hasn’t been until the beginning of my 20th year flying as a co-pilot that I’ve even had the seniority to hold a captain position, and even that is only at the New York base and only on the MD-80. At the rate we’re going, I could hold the 737 as a captain in a few years perhaps, and if I wanted to be based in Boston, it would likely take longer than that. So New York on the MD-80 was my only choice if I wanted a left seat.
I recently had the opportunity to ask our vice-president of flight operations, a self-described optimist, if the MD-80 was going to be retired so soon that I may lose my left seat award after finishing training. He acknowledged that this was a definite possibility, but added that if it did happen, he thought I’d be a captain again within a couple of months, since the A319 and A321s were going to be coming to the airline rapidly.


Captain Wayne on my last co-pilot trip presented me with a set of four-striped epaulets.

Germany Commute

I’ve had a lot of people ask me how the commute was going. The traveling has been easier than I thought it would be. Granted, I’m flying multiple trips in a row so I can be over there for one to two weeks at a time, which has made the commute less frequent and more affordable. I have a great place to stay in New York City and it’s rapidly feeling like a second home.

I had promised a full review of the efforts involved in making the commute, and I hope to put out a post on that in the future, but I’d like to wait a bit to be able to describe just how it works while being very junior again on the MD-80. Our reserve lines have one block of four days off a month, a block of three days off and two groups of two days off. Obviously I won’t be able to go to Germany on the two, 2-day blocks of days off.

For the readers here, this will likely give me some new topics to discuss. After nearly five years of writing for Gadling about international flying as a co-pilot, it will be fun to see the different perspective that flying as a junior domestic captain will bring to my posts. In the meantime, for the next month, I’ll be studying what all these switches do, an appropriate fate after ‘complaining’ about the 32 dimmer switches on the 757, an airplane I will miss dearly.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 a junior domestic captain based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

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: Fly Rio!

Occasionally the airline will offer pilots the chance to fly for a month out of another base when they’re short a few pilots at that city. I remember flying with one of these temporary duty (TDY) pilots who came up to Boston from Miami. I asked him what trips he usually flew out of Miami and he began to tell me all about Rio de Janeiro.

The conversation included some good pointers about the hazards of flying in Brazil.

He pointed out that there’s a note in our manuals that talks about celebratory balloons near the city. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for Brazilians to put together huge balloons especially at night, attach them to a pallet or some other structure and light a fire under the canopy. The Miami pilot even claimed that a propane tank has been known to be the fuel source.

After nearly hitting them on two different occasions, he sought out to warn other pilots of these inflight obstacles.

He said he had even seen one while climbing through the clouds.

A quick look at YouTube shows the launching of a few of these balloons such as this one:

The Miami co-pilot went on to describe the difficult radio reception over the country as well and we talked about the midair collision between a 737 and a corporate jet down there.

After struggling to close my jaw from shock, I had to ask him, “Why do you bid those trips?”

He claimed it was for the inexpensive (at the time) and abundant beef dinners, although since he was single and rather shiny, I suspected the women in Rio were a big part of the attraction.

Now that I’m flying out of New York, I’ve had the opportunity to fly a handful of Rio de Janeiro trips-enough to at least describe some of the challenges and benefits of this long-haul flying.

My first trip to Brazil almost didn’t happen. The inbound airplane had been struck by lightning and we were initially told to wait until the early hours of the morning for a replacement. Fortunately it was decided that we should go back home and sleep overnight before continuing the next morning at 9 a.m., twelve hours after the original departure time. While the passengers were accommodated in hotels, there was no provision in our contract to put up the pilots and flight attendants. Some of the commuting flight attendants spent the night in operations and the other pilot and I went back to sleep in our rented apartments in the area (i.e. the “Crash Pad.”)

The rare daytime flight the next day made it possible to glimpse much of the Amazon rain forest along the way and to appreciate just how massive this country is. To give you an idea of just how big Brazil is, our typical crew rest break on the 9 hour and 15 minute flight from New York is about 3 hours. On the way home, it’s possible for the first pilot to finish their break before ever leaving the Brazilian airspace.

I’ve flown in some areas with poor ATC reception, most notably Piarco radio in the Caribbean, but nothing has been more challenging for me than Brazil. The VHF transmitters are spread out over vast areas. Often two transmitters will be operating at the same time which causes a distracting echo over the speaker. The HF radios we use when flying across the Atlantic would be an improvement from this system.

Traditionally they’ll give you two VHF frequencies at a time, a primary and a back up and we find ourselves choosing the least annoying one as the flight progresses. It’s possible to fly for hours while talking to the same controller on a variety of different frequencies spread out every 200 miles. I suppose, to be fair, it’s not easy to install more transmitters in the dense Amazon jungle.

As we arrived early in the morning at the hotel, I was startled to see a massively vertical mountain shooting up from the side of our hotel building. The waves below the mountain were more powerful than any I’d ever seen, and I stayed awake for a while to watch them hit the rocks and shoot up over spectators perched at lookout points along the road.

There’s plenty to see and do in Rio, but alas, we’re usually asleep for much of the first day there and unable to enjoy the sun.

Ever since the exchange rates for the Real were changed, the dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to. It’s not quite as expensive as some European destinations, such as Zurich and Paris, but it’s close. Dinner at an inexpensive cafe three blocks inland from the Ipanema beach ran about $30 with drinks.

I’ve recently become interested in paragliding (watch for a future Cockpit Chronicles on that) so I hitched a ride to the top of a local mountain to watch the hang gliding and paragliding pilots takeoff on tandem flights for tourists to Rio. I elected to save my money and enjoy the spectacular launches from the platform instead of flying as a passenger. Besides, hopefully I’ll get the chance to fly my own paraglider from the hill someday.

Even though it was only 72 degrees, I managed to get rather sunburned while filming all day, but the footage was worth it:

In order to see more of the city, I knew I’d have to get a longer layover there. Fortunately, once a week during the summer we’ve had a six-day trip that includes four days there instead of just a day and a half. I managed to snag one of these in early October much to my delight.

The captain and his flight attendant fiancée on this long trip, happened to be friends of mine who were formerly based in Boston, so we made plans to see the Christ Redeemer statue that overlooks the city. They also wanted to try a tandem hang gliding flight, and of course I knew just where to take them.

A shuttle bus takes you up to the top of the Christ Redeemer platform and it was probably more scary and dangerous than the hang gliding flight for Susan and John. The expansive 360 degree views of Rio from the top of this mountain made it worth the risk.

Our flight home was delayed due to another late inbound aircraft, so we had plenty of opportunity to take a long nap before leaving the hotel. These daytime naps are critical as the flight time is well over ten hours on the leg home to New York and that extra sleep comes in handy when you’re working your way through the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone, an area of thunderstorms that have parked themselves near the equator while lighting up the sky.

Since Susan was working the galley, I had her explain how our crew meals are prepared and served for a video used in last week’s Cockpit Chronicles during Gadling’s week-long focus on food and travel.

I managed to snap a few pictures of these storms that lit up the clouds around them like a built-in long range flash for my camera.

After the first few trips I was surprised at how wide-awake I was during the flight. But it was a different story the next day. It was hard to recover sleep from the all-nighters but I have to admit, Rio de Janeiro is a welcome change from the European flying I’ve become accustomed to.

And that’s probably the best part about working for a major airline. If you get tired of flying in one area, you can switch to a different base permanently like I did in May of this year or for as little as a month just to try a whole new type 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 New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.