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.

Cruise ship simulator is key to avoiding future disasters

cruise ship simulatorsImages of cruise ships grounded and on fire are fresh in our minds. Still, we know that a cruise vacation is one of the safest travel options available. This week, safety is in the spotlight as never before with the opening of a new training facility that offers the latest electronic tools available. But while a keen focus on the latest technology is employed, the ongoing program highlights the need for top quality people that can often make the difference between a near miss and a disaster.

Officers and crew members from Royal Caribbean, along with sister-brands Celebrity and Azamara Cruises, now have the advantage of being a part of new simulator training center at Resolve Maritime Academy in Fort Lauderdale. Signaling a renewed focus on safety, staff of the $6.5 million facility cut the grand opening ribbon Monday as journalists in town for the annual Cruise Shipping Miami conference watched a demonstration of the system. It’s all part of an ongoing safety program but timing surely looked to address current concerns of the cruising public.

“This was not a knee-jerk reaction to recent events,” Captain William Wright, senior vice president of marine operations for Royal Caribbean International and Azamara Club Cruises said of the two year process to get the facility to opening day.

Using simulator training since 1999, Royal Caribbean has contracted with other such facilities in the past but none compare to the Resolve facility, which offers both detail and commitment from the staff to provide a safe marine environment.

Resolve Marine Group, primarily a salvage operation, built bridge simulators to Royal Caribbean’s specifications, allowing for multiple ships to be included in navigation, firefighting, search and rescue, and other emergency training. The facility is part of a clear answer to questions that came from the grounding of Costa Concordia, the fire of Costa Allegra and other recent events.

Still, while simulations can take into account a variety of factors that can go wrong, staff members at the Resolve training facility quickly note that it is the human element that can often make the difference in avoiding disaster at sea.

“The intention is to create situations that truly test the individual, how they deal with unpredictable situations and handle stress,” said Wright. “They are put into situations that are completely realistic.”

[Photo by Chris Owen]

How to destroy V Australia’s $23M flight simulator

I thought that I was the luckiest person in the world when Ken Pascoe and Marty Khoury, two pilots from V Australia invited me, a lowly blogger, out to visit them and their flight simulator out in Australia last week. Sure, I edit a travel blog and I do run Linux, but that usually can only get me so far.

So I was thrilled to accept the invitation and join the crew out in Silverwater, just outside of Sydney, last Monday. As I detailed last week, Ken picked me up at the train station and showed me around the CAE facility and cockpit, then the safety briefing started.

“Should we lose power and the gangway not extend to the sim, the escape hatch and rope are just outside of the cockpit,” Ken explained.

“Furthermore, if anything goes wrong during the flight, emergency stop buttons are here, here and here.” He pointed to a spot next to each seat and to two on the wall of the cockpit. “But you won’t have to hit those — I’ll have probably already reset the system once you realize something has gone wrong. Now, grab a seat.”

Pulling my SLR camera out of its bag and stepping towards the left seat, I paused, and turned to my companion, thinking that it would be best for me to film part of the experience before taking my turn. And that’s when the lights turned off and everything ground to a halt. Think of the noise you hear when a subway or train shuts down, it’s eerily quiet and something doesn’t sound right. Or the sound of broken dreams. That’s the one. I had pressed the emergency stop button with my shoulder when I turned around.
Note, that there are two emergency stop buttons on the wall of the cockpit: there’s the “turn off the movement and relax” stop and then there’s the “pull the plug on thirty computers, rip the circuit boards from the machine and stomp on them” stop. That second one is the one that I pressed.

“No worries,” said Ken, “this has happened before.” And as we left the cockpit, he gave a nervous chuckle. “We’ll be up in no time.”

Ah, but we weren’t. After an hour of pulling circuit boards out of the machine, two techs determined that they might have to order another board. My session and a later, real pilot’s session were definitely canceled.

Later that evening I got a text message from Ken saying that they figured out the problem after replacing two circuit boards, and that I should swing back as soon as I could. But by that point I was already headed towards Auckland.

Maybe next time, V Australia.

Inside V Australia’s Boeing 777 flight simulator

When I was invited out to visit V Australia‘s 777 on it’s maiden voyage from Seattle – Los AngelesSydney earlier this year, poor Amanda Bolger from public relations had no idea what she was signing up for. Sitting in the cockpit with Ken Pascoe, the pater familias of VA pilots, we took a couple of photos and he casually mentioned “Hey, if you come out to Sydney we should take out the simulator.”

Oh, but I was coming to Sydney, Ken, and after a few pestering emails, he finally gave in and invited us to come out to Silverwater, just outside of the city to take the simulator out for a spin.

Meeting Ken out at the Strathfield station earlier this week, we drove up to CAE, where V Australia had a small suite of offices and a simulator installed in a rear, cavernous room. This is where all VA pilots train, both in instrumentation at a computer console and in actual flight operation, inside of the 23 million dollar simulator.

The front of the cockpit is replicated in exact detail to a “white tail” aircraft, a generic 777 that still hasn’t got the exact installed features of VA equipment. A little bit later next month, they’ll be making those upgrades. Behind the pilot and co-pilot seats are an additional three seats where an instructor and observers can curate the flight.

As far as operation, Marty Khoury, another V Australia pilot on hand explained that the graphics and performance are so lifelike, even to the bump of every light in the runway, that sometimes the pilots forget that they’re even inside of the simulator.

So how did Gadling’s flight experience go? Disasterously. But I’ll tell you about that next week.

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Cockpit Chronicles: Back to the simulator

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

“You have training!” read the message at the top of our company website.

Unlike our vacation or monthly schedule, we have no choice in the timing of our training. So every nine months, plus or minus a month, we know that we’ll be called back to the flight academy for four or five days of what we call “recurrent.”

Ground School

The first two days consist of classroom training that covers subjects such as performance, (which mostly deals with takeoff performance calculations), emergency equipment, federal regulations, security and finally a review of the aircraft’s systems, such as the electrical, hydraulic and flight controls of both the 757 and the 767.

At times, these courses can be tedious. Watching a video on the proper way to set up a 56-man life raft every nine months can test your abilities to stay alert. In fact, it’s torturous.

This year, however, we had a redesigned human factors class. Human factors training covers some of the common mistakes discovered through a pilot self-disclosing program known as “ASAP.”

Often these mistakes are re-created in a simulator and filmed for use as a training aid. This year, one of my flights was featured in the class.

Usually this isn’t something anyone would be proud of. Fortunately it was a video I made for entertainment purposes only. It showed a typical three-day trip from Boston to Paris and it’s now used to lighten things up a bit in the class before diving into more serious topics.

A Shiny New Toy

The other new experience came during the simulator training. The company is in the process of retrofitting all their 757 and 767’s with a new type of cockpit display. These LCD screens are much larger and they replace many of the round dial instruments that are common in the older Boeings.

Currently only one of our airplanes is flying with these new panels, but two of the simulators have been modified, allowing us to get some training in the new layout before flying one for real.


The LCD screens are larger and they display more information without having to switch pages as we’ve had to do in the original design. It’s bright and clear, and it makes flying an approach a little easier, eliminating the requirement for one pilot to display a raw data page while the other displays their map page during certain approaches.

I know there are some people out there who prefer the round dials and old ‘steam gauge’ cockpits, but these people probably would prefer we did away with enclosed cockpits, too. At some point, you have to embrace new technology.

Eventually these screens will include satellite weather and Jeppesen approach plates with airport diagrams built in, an upgrade called the Class 3 electronic flight bag. This will allow us to shed a couple of heavy books from our kit bags.

Since I’m a gadget nut, I’m always in favor of any new technology we can get in the Boeing. Small, general aviation aircraft have had some of these features available to them for years and it’s about time we caught up.

The Simulator

This time I’d be going through the class by myself, which meant that instead of being paired up with another captain, I’d fly with an instructor who would play the role of captain for the scenario. After a two-hour briefing, the instructor, also known as a “sim-P,” or simulator pilot, put me in the box to practice a few maneuvers while getting used to the gorgeous new displays.

The two sim-Ps were retired from Braniff and Eastern Airlines. I’ve always been impressed with these former line pilots. They know what they’re doing and they approach their jobs with surprising enthusiasm, even though they’ve been flying or instructing for quite a few decades.


George and Gary, both former pilots of now defunct airlines, get the simulator ready.

The FAA requires the training of certain maneuvers. You can expect to see aborted takeoffs, an engine failure during the critical phase of flight [like just after lifting off the ground] and a windshear scenario. We also fly a variety of approaches–ILS’s, VOR, RNAV and visual approaches–often times with only one engine operating.

After the required maneuvers are completed, they often give you a chance to see or try something you could never do in the actual airplane. I asked to do a no-flaps takeoff, since that had been in the news lately as well as a landing where I attempted to fly slow enough to touch the aft fuselage at touchdown.

The flaps-up takeoff went surprisingly well. I suspect the 757 has the wing design and the added thrust to handle that situation better than the DC-9 or MD-80’s that have had problems. Of course, there would never be a situation that you’d want to be in this predicament, but it’s nice to know more about what the airplane can do?

The intentional tail strike turned out to be much more difficult than I expected. Even though I was 15 knots slower than the normal approach speed for our weight, we still didn’t touch the aft part of the fuselage to the ground. After touchdown, I pulled back and I was surprised to see how much of an angle was required to finally get a strike. This 757 was much less prone to a tail strike than the 767-300 or even the 737-800.

We continued down the runway dragging the rear end. I imagined huge sparks flying from our tail section. This would have been an expensive lesson in the real airplane that would have resulted in a visit to the chief pilot’s office followed by some remedial training.

After 4 hours in the simulator, George was confident I’d pass my checkride with a check airman the next day.

Fortunately, I’d have Gary, the former Eastern pilot who acted as my captain during the training session, with me in the left seat for the checkride.

The next day from 6 to 8 p.m., I answered the questions the check airman asked about the airplane’s systems and then we discussed some of the problems pilots have seen on the line.

At 8:15, Gary and I jumped in the simulator and flew a variety of maneuvers and dealt with some equipment failures and fires for two hours, and then we took a short break before coming back to the 757 simulator for the official checkride.

For the next two hours, we operated as a normal flight from Reno to San Francisco. We discussed the unusual two-eng
ine and single-engine departures from Reno, that require a variety of turns to avoid the high terrain in the area, and we also looked at the arrival into San Francisco.

We made sure to discuss the procedure for a one-engine go-around at SFO and how its path differed from the two-engine go-around. Had we not briefed this difference, the check airman would have almost certainly given us an engine failure followed by a go-around.

With just a push of a button, our instructor could have created one of literally hundreds of problems for us to contend with. But this flight was to simulate a more normal scenario with a single mechanical problem, which is more realistic.

After taxiing out and taking off, the check airman gave us a small air-conditioning problem that was resolved quickly. The issue, a ‘pack trip,’ was small enough that we could continue the simulated flight to San Francisco.

Compared to the day before and the first two hours of the checkride, this was a rather simple task. We landed, pulled up to the gate and finished the parking checklist before the walkway was lowered to the hydraulically-actuated simulator for our ‘deplaning.’

The check airman gave a short debrief. His only issue for me that night was that I hadn’t annunciated “Autopilot Off” loud enough when I clicked the button on the yoke to hand-fly the approach. A legitimate gripe that I’ll happily take after four-hours in the simulator.

While I enjoyed the initial training that lasts four to six weeks and the excitement that comes with learning a new airplane, no one ever looks forward to recurrent training. And even though I managed to crack a smile and have a few laughs with some great instructors this week, it was an exhilarating feeling to leave the flight academy knowing I was good for another 9 months.

After training, I had to fly a four-day trip over Thanksgiving, but you might want to hold off with any sympathy for me until after you see where I’ll be going. Stay tuned!

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston.