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: Paris – Chez (grand) Papa

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.

“We’ve had a minor explosion back here,” one of the flight attendants, Susan, told us during our preflight.

“There’s orange juice all over 2H and J.”

Selfishly, we all perked up. Those were our crew rest seats. The thought of sitting in a wet seat gave a new urgency to the co-pilot’s voice when calling maintenance to get the cover and cushion replaced.

I was the relief pilot again for this flight. My schedule for June is exclusively for FB trips to Paris, but occasionally I’m able to trade over to the co-pilot seat if it opens up during the month, which leaves my relief pilot position open to someone who’s on reserve or another pilot who’s able to trade into it.
There’s no difference in pay between the relief pilot and the co-pilot positions, but most pilots prefer to fly if they have the chance.

We departed Boston at around 7 p.m., and just ten minutes later I left the cockpit for my crew rest seat, hoping it wasn’t still soaked from the orange juice. Maintenance did replace the cushion and cover of the seat bottom, but the window seat was especially wet on the seat back. So I opted to sit in the aisle seat, where I put a comforter blanket behind my back.

If I’m not tired, I usually try to catch up on a few posts. There’s nothing like flying along in an airplane to put you in the right frame of mind to write about, well, flying in an airplane.

After my two hours were up, I went to the cockpit and the captain went back to our rest seat. Moments later we started to get into a small amount of light ‘chop.’ (Pilot-speak for those little, rhythmic bumps).

Typically it’s up to the captain to turn the seatbelt sign on at this point, but when he’s gone, the other co-pilot and I look at each other with the ‘you think these bumps are going to last?’ look.

“Ding.” I turned the sign on.

Sure enough, it smoothed out almost immediately. I’m starting to wonder if the sign has magical powers.

The flight attendants are required to make a PA, telling the passengers that the captain (who’s now sleeping in row 2…) has turned on the seatbelt sign. If we turn it off two minutes later, we’re sure to hit some bumps requiring the sign again. So we elect to leave it on for a few minutes longer to be sure.

I’m sure my grandpa, an early bush pilot in Alaska, wouldn’t have been annoyed by this minor dilemma. He was more concerned with far more significant issues as he flew passengers year-round in Alaska during the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s.

Ice forming on the fuel vent? Is the radiator leaking again? Does that snow look too deep to land on with these wheels? And most importantly, where can I land if this engine quits?

But we’d be given a challenge of our own from ATC. Shanwick called up using the airplane’s SELCAL system. Controllers have the ability to ring us using a special code on our airplane that sends an alert via HF radio. They usually only call when they need to clarify a position report or to give us a new routing. This time they needed us to slow enough so as to arrive at the next waypoint at or after 0621z.

ATC keeps the airplanes flying at the same altitude and on the same track spaced at least 10 minutes apart which is around 75 miles. So we were likely gaining on someone ahead. I slowed the airplane back to .76 MACH, and the computer figured out our new arrival time at the fix: 0622z.

Perfect. Challenge solved.

We sat back to marvel at the United 777 passing 1000 feet above us on the right, just as the sun was breaking through the horizon in front of us. Contrails were everywhere; most of them drawing a path in the sky that marked where we’d soon be making a right turn.

One of the airplanes 20 miles ahead was 2000 feet above us. The wake of airplanes can cause some bumps, even this far back, since it descends at about 500 feet per minute.

Depending on the winds, you’ll often get these bumps when 12 miles behind an airplane that’s 1000 feet above. Double that number for an airplane that’s 2000 feet above.

To avoid these annoying bumps, we’re allowed to ‘offset’ the airplane either 1NM or 2NM’s to the right. We put in a mile and slid over to the side, avoiding the bumps that were easy to see from the contrails.

Yet another problem solved. Grandpa would be proud.

Truthfully, there are so many other issues that make flying complicated today. I suppose my grandpa might be overwhelmed with many of the legalities, the procedures and the aircraft systems. After one look, he might even prefer to go back to his Tri-Motor Ford. I wouldn’t blame him. But I’m sure glad I don’t have to scrape ice from the wings of the airplane in the morning anymore.

We often chat in the cockpit at altitude about families, previous trips or activities outside work. But a very popular topic of conversation lately has been the state of the industry.

Just like most of the airlines, we’ve announced a reduction of around 10% in our flying for the fall schedule. This has a trickle down effect among the pilot group. Some captains will be bumped to a smaller airplane, or even back to co-pilot, which results in co-pilots either becoming more junior on their same airplane or bumped back to a domestic 737 or maybe even furloughed.

I was furloughed from 1993 to 1996, so I hope to never have to see that again. But we still have pilots on furlough from our 2001 reduction. Some of those were recently called back and I would hate to see them furloughed again. The only thing worse than getting furloughed is getting furloughed twice.

My dad always encouraged my brother and I to think about having a back-up plan in case the flying thing didn’t work out.

“It’s just such an unstable career,” he said in 1983.

How right he was. But I always knew it was the only job for me. Especially after studying accounting and management in college.

We landed in Paris and after the last passenger deplaned, we went down to the bus parked just in front of the nose of the 767. This isn’t usually the case, but in Paris we’re fortunate to jump on the crew bus right at the airplane that takes the twelve of us into the city.

The ride can best be described as excruciating. On the weekdays it’s stop and go, with jolts and surges lasting an hour and forty-five minutes typically. Some people try to sleep, others talk or listen to an iPod. I’ve actually managed to sleep a bit on these rides, but it’s not very easy to get comfortable.

Again we waited a few minutes in the lobby for our room keys. This is always a good time to co-ordinate the days activities. I had mentioned that I wanted to check out the Catacombs of Paris, which is near our hotel. Both pilots were interested, so we planned to meet up at 3 o’clock after a good sleep.

The Catacombs are a series of skull and bone filled tunnels that traverse everywhere under the streets of Paris. Apparently they were running short on land and the only solution was to relocate the grave sites into these tunnels. Obviously, this occurred long before Drew Barrymoore showed us in Poltergeist what a bad idea this was.

I was exci
ted to go down to the Catacombs, since I had read some of your comments suggesting a visit. I studied up, I knew to bring a flashlight, to dress appropriately and I even downloaded a couple of maps.

But there was one thing that I didn’t read up on; they close at 4 p.m.

We arrived a few minutes before 4 and stood in line, hoping they would let those already in line down below. Just as the line moved to the entrance, they cut us off. We’d have to come back another time. At least while waiting in line, I discovered one of the most beautiful statues in Paris:

Wifi available! Yep, this meant I could check my email on the iPhone while standing in line. I have an account with Boingo, a roaming service that allows you to bypass a lot of the fees charged at hotels and airports. Unfortunately, some of the locations are premium, which means you’ll pay about $10 an hour to use them. It turns out the parks in Paris are all in the premium category, but the hotel where we stay isn’t. Apparently, if I elected to go from the $22 a month plan to the $39 plan, there wouldn’t be any premium fees.

Since it was early still, we all split up. Jim the co-pilot worked out, Phil the captain borrowed another captain’s bike that’s parked nearby and went for a ride. One of our captains brought a bike over from the states piece by piece and built up a ten speed bike that no one would ever consider stealing. Of course that was his plan all along. He’s very generous in sharing the bike’s combination lock with the other crew members.

Of course, I’m so far behind blogging these trips, I needed to get some work done back at the hotel. We had previously arranged to meet with one of our flight attendants and two other captains from Miami and New York for dinner a few hours later.

Back at the hotel, I ran into Frenchy, one of my favorite flight attendants who’s now flying out of Miami. He’s recommended some great restaurants for the crew in the past and I wanted to pick his brain again for suggestions for our dinner tonight. He told me about a restaurant located on the grounds of a park near our hotel.

“What kind of price are we talking about?” I asked him, knowing that he generally had good taste in dining (i.e. expensive).

“Twenty to forty Euro.” He said.

Perfect, I thought. I had done a bit of ‘fine dining’ for the last two trips and it’d be nice to eat on a terrace near a park without having to take out a second mortgage on the house.

The six of us met up at the hotel and I told them of my new discovery. Everyone thought this sounded like as good a place as any, so we walked about 20 minutes to the Montsouris park.

As we approached the restaurant, Susan said, “It’s like Tavern on the Green!”

“Yeah, but without the price to go along with it.” I confidently remarked.

At 7 p.m. the place was empty, since most Parisians dine rather late. We managed to get a table without having reservations, but when we sat down and took a look at the menu, the table got a bit quiet.

The prix fix menu price was €52.

“I can’t do this.” One of the pilots said.

Since that worked out to $85 not including any drinks, and both Susan and I had spent a fair amount on dinner during the Les Papilles birthday celebration for Stephanie a few trips earlier, we decided it might be best to go somewhere else.

Jim and Phil wanted to try Chez Papa, a nearby restaurant that’s becoming popular with crews. I was happy to go along in an effort to save some money. I’m starting to realize that I need to alternate between a nice dinner and something more reasonable if I’m going to fly this trip exclusively this summer.

Susan and the two other pilots wanted to trek into the Latin quarter to find something more in between, price-wise, which I completely understood.

Chez Papa turned out to be a great choice. The choices were a bit random, with lots of Duck and Lamb offered in a variety of stews, but I opted for a potato omelette. And for a nice change of pace, this dinner ran at just €11 with a drink.

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The flight home was completely uneventful. I tried to snap a shot of Paris from the air. Unfortunately, we were climbing through 11,000 feet, so the view isn’t the best.

Phil and Jim starting to descend for the arrival into Boston.

With two Paris trips down and one to go in my 9-day in a row marathon, I still felt pretty good.

Little did I know, the next trip would prove to be a bit more troublesome…

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston. For the months of May through July, he’ll focus on Paris almost exclusively. If you have any good suggestions for Parisian activities, feel free to leave your tips in the comments.