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: The iPad Flight Bag Is Finally Here (Video)

The long awaited, previously announced iPad Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) has finally been approved for most of our airplanes at the company. In fact, we’re the first U.S. airline to receive FAA approval for the use of the iPad as a replacement for all of our paper Jeppesen approach plates.

The process started in 2007 when we were allowed to use laptops to hold our company manuals. This meant we could leave three to four manuals at home that weighed about ten pounds. When the iPad came on the scene, we were allowed to use it as an alternative to the laptop. That left only our “Jepps,” two to three large manuals that weighed even more than the company books, for us to lug around.

Some airlines went a different route, investing in a built-in laptop solution called a Class II EFB that included Jepp support. This 2009 cockpit video by Gadling shows how Virgin America deployed that solution.

Later, our company worked with Jeppesen and the FAA to offer an iPad that would be provided to every pilot and a RAM mount that stays in the aircraft. In addition, the company also provided us with a Hypermac backup battery that’s capable of extending the life of the iPad for an additional 24 hours.

Since both pilots will be carrying an iPad, coupled with the extended batteries, the FAA feels this is as redundant as the regular manuals.

A few weeks ago we saw our first mounts in our MD-80, so I felt a video tour might explain how the setup works and just what it replaces.

So far American has approval for the 777, 737, MD-80 and is just awaiting approval for the 757/767 fleet. Hopefully, this will be just in time for my return to that airplane, as once you use this setup, you won’t want to go back to the paper.

To get that approval, American had to have the iPad tested in a hypobaric chamber to simulate how the device would handle during a rapid decompression. They also had to arrange for mount testing with the FAA, which is ironic since our manuals weigh far more than the iPad and aren’t secured in place. Many takeoffs have resulted in a book or two sliding off the side table and onto the floor.

Next up on the list are the reams of dot matrix printed paperwork we take with us on the flights that I covered in a previous video. Once that is accomplished, and weather is incorporated into the iPad, we can finally claim to be flying in the seemingly mythical “paperless cockpit” that has long been the goal since sometime just after the Wright Brothers took to the air and discovered how difficult it was to fold up their maps in the open cockpit.

[Photo/Video credit: Kent Wien]

Related: “Cockpit Chronicles: Paper Makes an Airplane Fly”

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: A Landing Fit For A King

Harriet Baskas from StuckatTheAirport.com asked a few of us to identify the “scariest airports” as seen through the eyes of pilots. I gave her a list of “challenging” airports instead. I told her about New York’s LaGuardia and Washington, D.C.’s Reagan airports but I wondered if I should have mentioned Eek or Nightmute, two of my personal favorites from flying in Alaska, that attract only a few local travelers.

In the end, LaGuardia, Reagan and Orange County, in Santa Ana, California, made the cut in her article. I couldn’t really disagree with the choices. All three are short runways and each one has at least one unique departure or arrival procedure that requires a bit of piloting skill.

But do pilots worry, or get scared when flying into these places? I haven’t seen any evidence to support that. Do we feel some pressure? Sure.

A recent LaGuardia landing is a good example. Since finishing my initial operating experience (IOE) as a new captain on the MD-80, I hadn’t flown into LaGuardia for over a month. I managed to get two or three landings there with the instructor giving me the IOE training, but most of my subsequent trips had been out of Newark, another airport that’s part of my home base.

Finally, after finishing a three-day trip with layovers in Cleveland and Albuquerque, I’d get my first landing back at the USS LaGuardia. We joke about its short length, but it really isn’t much worse than the shortest runway in Boston, Chicago or San Diego. And as a co-pilot, I had flown into LGA many times. So why the pressure?

It might come as a surprise to some, but most pilots don’t constantly think about the responsibility that comes with flying a planeload of passengers while they’re flying. I suppose it’s because, in a selfish way, a passenger’s safety is no more important than my own, and this tends to be enough to ensure that the airplane and its occupants are flown in a safe way.

But I do have one recurring thought that goes through my mind during the more challenging times. Because of the hundreds of accident reports we’ve read that never fail to leave an impression, a little voice in my head can often be heard critiquing every decision or action.

And especially when things begin to go wrong on a flight, either mechanically, or because of weather or poor decision-making, that little voice in your head begins to craft your own accident report. And when you start hearing excerpts in your head, such as “captain elected to take off from the shorter, ice-covered runway to save time as the flight had been delayed” you tend to step back and re-think your decisions.

During my first LaGuardia landing as a captain, these type of thoughts were going through my head. Nothing was out of the ordinary – the weather was clear and while it was dark, the visibility was excellent.

But this time, it wasn’t an NTSB accident report that I was hearing; it was a newspaper headline because that night I had royalty aboard the flight.Jerry Lewis was flying in seat 2F. I could already hear not only the accident report, but the newspaper headlines. “The King of Comedy, involved in airline accident – new captain making his first landing into short New York runway.”

A double-blink and a glance over at my co-pilot, Mark, quickly brought me back into the present situation. I had briefed Mark on the turn-off point I intended to use, the approach we’d be flying, and the final flaps we’d select (all of them, or 40 degrees). In my mind the touchdown point was visualized, and we were now slowed to our approach speed. Really, what could go wrong?

“Lewis, who was returning from a performance in Las Vegas, had connected in Chicago for the doomed flight back to LaGuardia.”

Oh, stop it. This is just another landing. OK, so yes, there was a bit of a crosswind at 14 knots, but that’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

“50, 40, 30, 20, 10 …” The electronic radio altimeter called out as we crossed over from water to runway, punctuated by a nice ‘thunk.’ It wasn’t a roll-it-on-greaser, but the landing was on speed and right at the touchdown point at about 1,000 feet down the 7,000-foot runway, leaving more than a mile to slow down smoothly.

After the flight, I smiled at how easy it was to think up dreadful headlines on the approach, which was especially ironic, since I struggle to put a title on my “Cockpit Chronicles” posts for Gadling.

As we were finishing up the parking checklist, Mr. Lewis poked his head inside the door and said, “Thanks for the great flight, guys.”

Some landings you’ll never forget, and this was just one of them.

[Photo credit: Kent Wien]

Related: Kent’s favorite and least favorite runways.

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a captain on the MD-80 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.