Airline captain for a day
What's it like to drink from a fire hose?
The big Boeing 737-300 gently rocks back and forth, a red glow from the anticollision lights pulsing in the clouds. I try to ignore the crimson flashes; fixating on them could cause disorientation.
"Landing gear down, three green. Speed brakes armed. Flaps 30. Final descent checklist complete," announces my first officer.
It's not turbulence causing the nose to dip as much as my overcontrolling the airliner, chasing the flight director as we track inbound on the instrument landing system approach. "Pink in the wings, pink in the wings," I say, chanting the mantra of a new 737 pilot. (The idea behind the flight director is to keep a pink line aligned with the symbolic airplane wings on the instrument's display.)
Passing through 500 feet above ground level, I see the approach lights in the distance. I cross the threshold slightly high, a result of an earlier excursion below the proper altitude that caused the airplane to scold me-"Glideslope, glideslope!" Squeezing the buttons on the outboard sides of the throttle levers to disconnect the autothrottles, I gently pull the power to idle.
Now, in a Piper Cherokee or a Cessna Skyhawk, I'd crank in a little forward slip, but the airlines don't like that technique. It tends to upset the passengers, and I guess that 94-foot, 9-inch wingspan could cause the demise of some runway lights. But the airplane I'm flying today has a maximum gross takeoff weight of 130,000 pounds, 50 times that of the Piper Archer I usually fly. And its approach speed of about 140 knots is faster than the cruise speeds of most of the airplanes I've flown. This definitely is a different kind of flying.
I pull back on the hefty yoke-a bit too much, I immediately realize, when the airplane talks to me again: "Sink rate, sink rate!" But my alignment is good, and Runway 28 Left at San Francisco International Airport is 10,602 feet long, so I push the nose down and land a little flat.
The speed brakes deploy automatically; I lift up on the reverse thrust levers to open the thrust reversers and then pull back to spool up the engines-remembering to stow them as we decelerate through 80 kt to keep any debris on the runway from being blown into the engine air intakes. The whole time my feet are busy on the rudder pedals, keeping us on the centerline and imploring the wheel brakes to help us slow down.
The ground controller clears us to taxi to the gate. Steering the big airliner with the tiller, a steering-wheel-like control below the side window, is so unlike taxiing a general aviation airplane that it's perhaps the most challenging task of the day. After we perform the shutdown checklist I slide my seat back and to the left-the back of my shirt is soaked with perspiration. I open the cockpit door and step...into a simulator bay at the Continental Air Lines training center in Houston.
My damp shirt didn't have epaulets, and I didn't don a cool airline pilot's cap or snazzy jacket. I'm not an airline pilot. But I am a graduate of the Airline Training Orientation Program-ATOP for short-conducted by Wayne Phillips, a flight instructor, aviation safety educator, and author of AOPA Flight Training's "Careers" column. Conveniently, he also holds a type rating in the Boeing 737.
The two-day course is offered a couple times each month at the Continental Air Lines pilot training center in Houston. My class was fairly typical, Phillips said, except for the absence of students in college aviation programs-it included a twin-turboprop captain from Alaska who hopes to get a job flying jets; a construction engineer and part-time flight instructor from California; a student pilot from South Carolina considering an airline career; a certified public accountant, pilot, and fixed-base-operation owner from Texas; and a pilot from Pennsylvania.
But you don't just hop into the simulator and start flying. The ATOP curriculum is intended to give participants a taste of the airline pilot training regimen. The first day and a half of the course consists of ground school in the systems of the "Guppy," a flight crew term of endearment for the ubiquitous Boeing 737, of which there are more flying than any other airliner in the world. Many airline pilots compare ground school to trying to drink from a fire hose, because so much information is presented to you in a short time that learning it is a challenge.
And you'll need that knowledge because, like airline pilots in initial or recurrent training, you will have failures in the sim, tailored to the skill level of the pilot. Mine fell near the middle of our class-an engine fire on the takeoff roll that resulted in an aborted takeoff, and later a hydraulic failure in flight. The turboprop pilot from Alaska had an engine failure in flight and flew a commendable single-engine ILS approach to minimums. Even the student pilot from South Carolina experienced a hydraulic pump failure; she went on to make two very nice landings.
Classroom drills are a part of each lesson. "What do you do if you lose the engine-driven hydraulic pump on the left engine?" Phillips asks. "Can you start the aircraft with ground power alone? What if you lose the generator on the right engine in flight?"
On the afternoon of the first day, students are paired into two-person crews and practice starting procedures in a flight-training device, which is essentially a flight simulator without a motion or visual depiction outside the windshield. Phillips' comment summarizing the procedure-"Basically, you keep flipping switches until no orange lights are lit"-is a bit of an oversimplification, but it does serve as a quick double-check at the end of the process.
Around 2 p.m. on the first day of class, during a discussion of speed brakes and thrust reversers, a round of yawns sweeps the classroom. "Just multiply this by about four weeks, folks, and you'll have an idea of what this is all about," Phillips says. "You all are looking like a bunch of new hires."
"Amen," confirms our classmate, the Beech 1900 captain from Alaska.
While the ATOP systems training is abbreviated-an initial training class would include at least one day on each system, not just an hour-"the intensity level is real," Phillips said. "The instructor introduces the systems and procedures, and then you learn them at night."
Airline pilots in a training class normally form study groups which, after a fast meal, meet in the hotel lobby every night to hit the books. For the ATOP class that's not required, although there are a couple of homework assignments in Continental's sophisticated computer-based training (CBT) classroom. Participants can stay in the CBT lab as late as 10 p.m. and review as much of the material as they wish. Two of the six do.
Much of the second day is spent reviewing the profile-or procedure-that will be flown in the simulator. "Airline flying is highly procedural," Phillips says, with procedures being memorized and performed the same way every time. "I think the toughest job in the cockpit is the pilot not flying. The PNF has to be ahead of the airplane-the pilot [flying] is just flying."
In the simulator, each student gets to fly 30 minutes as the pilot flying and 30 minutes as PNF-and an hour as an observer. Each comes away enthused, having learned a different lesson. "Even if you never go on to fly these, you can sit back and say, 'I flew a Boeing 737,'" Phillips tells them afterward.
Lee Dilley, a pilot from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, said his ATOP experience will help him in his daily flying. "It has reinforced my confidence in my ability to understand complex systems and apply that knowledge to effective problem-solving when the in- evitable glitches develop during flying," he said. "It also provided a very interesting insight into how Boeing solved a number of difficult problems in the design of the 737 relating to managing complexity and effective design of the so-called 'user interface' with the technology available at the time."
"ATOP helped me to see the other side that I thought was unobtainable," said J.D. Redfield, an accountant and pilot from Texas who owns an FBO. "I feel that if I was 20 years old again, I would definitely make the sacrifice to fly professionally. The experience did make me realize that the airplane flies just like a heavy twin. You just think faster, manage more, and handle much greater duties in emergencies." He plans to take the course again. "I will definitely pay better attention to the ground school part next time."
Neither Redfield nor Dilley decided to change careers as a result of the ATOP course, but some students do. Trish Pommrehn had just begun flying lessons when she took the course during the summer of 2002, when it was held at United Airlines' training facility. "I used to work for United Airlines, actually, scheduling pilots at their training center in Denver. Being around pilots all the time, I had gotten curious as to what flying was all about. I was curious-could I really do this?"
It was an experience that changed her life. "The ground school part of it was an eye-opener for me-the fact that I was really interested in the mechanics of it, and how things worked," said Pommrehn, who realized that she could change careers and become a pilot. "I could picture myself sitting in a classroom as a pilot, learning this material. It sparked my interest in a change of careers."
She had taken her first flying lesson out of curiosity, liked it, and took additional lessons, "but I didn't know where it was going. I was not one of those people who always dreamed of being a pilot, and I didn't realize that people of this age could change careers and be a pilot," said Pommrehn, 33. "The ATOP course was one of the things that turned my head to the possibility of doing this."
The course was a good networking opportunity, added Pommrehn, who met an instructor from a Florida flight academy, decided to attend that school, and is now a flight instructor there. "Pilots are from all walks of life, and you never know who you're going to sit next to in that class."
Pommrehn took the ATOP course again in June 2003 at Continental. "I got a lot more out of the flying part of it-the first time, I had not even soloed yet." She was also impressed by the way the course takes complex systems information and explains it so understandably, and with the atmosphere at the training center. "I really liked it at Continental-it was really well done."
The course can help more than those contemplating an airline career, she observed. "If somebody is toying with the idea of going to a flight academy, the [ATOP] experience isn't that different from going through a fast-paced program in general. It really makes you think-can I sit here day after day, and retain this kind of information?"
Kevin Clark was the first ATOP grad to be hired by an airline. "I had just finished my ATP [airline transport pilot certificate] and was on my way to the commuters. I knew when I went to the ATOP class that I had a class date at Frontier but I had no practical experience in anything that burned kerosene," he said. "I signed up for the sim experience-I wanted to see what it would be like to fly a 737, because I'd never done anything like that before."
That was a decade ago. "I was sitting there starry-eyed," he said. "I didn't know what [the instructor] was talking about." But Clark was a quick study. He flew for Frontier for three years, went to Southwest in 1997, and is a captain there now. ATOP is very good for anyone interested in or considering an airline career, he said.
Part of that change was a move from United's training center to Continental's. "It's a really good program-it's enjoyable and it's informative," said John Elwell, manager of flight test and contract training for Continental. "It's been a real pleasure to have Wayne here. It's exciting to see the cross-section of individuals that he brings into the class."
Some of the students just want to find out more about flying with the airlines, "and others are looking for that airline career," Elwell said. "Wayne recently had a deaf student who wants to have a career as a professional pilot-he had a sign interpreter with him.
"It's fun to have these people here," he said. "We like to show off our facility. Not only the facility, but the Continental way of doing things-the atmosphere."
The atmosphere of both Continental's training center and the ATOP experience has influenced quite a few people to pursue airline careers, observed Phillips, clearly pleased with his role in introducing them to the art of drinking from the fire hose.
Mike Collins is editor of AOPA Flight Training magazine.