It is 3 a.m., and I am wide awake in my hotel room. The window shades are closed except for a small crack that lets in some of the light that surrounds the outdoor pool. There is a nervous stillness in the room, and in spite of the darkness I can make out the furniture and walls through the shadows. The room should be quiet, but in my head I can hear my heart pounding away at a rate that would probably give a doctor pause. In the bed next to mine is my buddy Jay. I can tell that he, too, is wide awake, fueled by the same rushing adrenaline as my own mind. Still, I don't say anything to him. Instead, I try, with increasing futility, to go back to sleep. I have a little less than two hours to try to get some sleep before the alarm goes off. Besides my pounding heart, I can hear a litany of information running together: level change 210, flaps 25, positive-rate-gear-up, descent-approach checklist. The terminology is correct, but the order is totally illogical. Everything I need to know about the Boeing 737-300 is in my head, but instead of resembling the orderly construct it should, it looks like a plate of spaghetti.
I am in Grand Prairie, Texas, just south of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, holed up in the Comfort Suites. Along with Jay, a friend of mine from work, I am attending Higher Power Aviation's (HPA's) Boeing 737 type rating course. We've been here for almost two weeks, and neither of us has slept more than four hours in any one night—and it isn't because we were out partying. Far from it.
Higher Power Aviation was founded in 1994 by Mark Stearns and Joe Poore as a school that would specialize in providing type-rating training on the Boeing 737 and 727, and McDonnell-Douglas DC-9/MD-80 series of aircraft. They also provide similar training on the Boeing 757 and 747 when needed. The school, which started with a single class of one student 13 years ago, is now thriving, filling classes with 20 or more students. "We never turn anyone away," says Poore. "We welcome everyone and make room for them." Today, the school has contracts to train pilots from several small airline and cargo carriers, as well as contracts with the U.S. military. But the majority of its customers are those pursuing a rating on the venerable 737. Why? Drive to the east, and you'll see a steady stream of orange and purple 737s taking off and landing at Love Field. Most of the customers are looking to get hired by Southwest Airlines.
I've always had a love affair with the 737. The way the nose is designed, with the oddly shaped main windows and the little eyebrow windows above them, it looks like a determined bulldog, an airplane not to be denied. To the airlines, it has been a workhorse, capable of filling all manner of mission profiles from short-haul to long haul, using both short runways and long. Major passenger carriers in the United States (except Northwest and JetBlue) currently fly, or at one time did fly, the Seven-Three. It is the only airplane that Southwest operates (it operates the 737-300, -500, and -700 models), and it is the backbone of the domestic fleet for Continental Airlines. Delta, United, and American also operate sizeable Seven-Three fleets. It is the second most-produced airplane in the world, trailing only the Cessna 172 (which happens to be my all-time favorite airplane). Given how successful the airplane has been for airlines all over the world, for Boeing, building 737s has been like getting permission to print its own sheets of money.
The ground school course that HPA teaches is based on the systems of the earliest model, the 737-200 (military and airline customers receive training based on the model operated by their company or service branch). The upside to this is that you get to see what the basic skeletal structure of the systems was years ago, sort of like looking at the early blueprints for a century-old building that has been restored and rebuilt over the years. The downside is that you are also forced to go along with the old -school "build me an airplane" philosophy, which means learning which busses from the electrical system power each system and why, even when there is nothing you can do to change the outcome. It also means that if you fly the -200 model you will be working with an antiquated autopilot that is not as intuitive to learn as modern ones. As Katrina Marks (she would become known as "Hurricane Katrina" for the sheer quantity of information she would send our way), our ground school instructor, said, "This airplane was built when the pilots were supposed to be smarter than the airplane." This statement made me feel like an idiot right off the bat. There are several scenarios in which a system or function in the airplane would fail but would not produce an indication. It was our job to be able to know when this could happen.
The ground school always starts on Monday and ends on Saturday. The same systems are taught on the same days each week, so if students need to leave on a Wednesday, they can come back on another Thursday and pick up right where they left off and not miss anything; orals are administered on Saturdays and Sundays. Students also have the flexibility to finish up ground school, leave, and come back for simulator training when their schedule permits.
The first impression of HPA on Monday morning, besides the size of the facility, is two-fold: This place is so well organized it's almost scary, and the people who work here are so helpful and friendly you want to kidnap them and take them home. Tina Harris was the first one we met. A beautiful lady with a smile and the bubbly personality to match, Harris welcomed us to class, gave us our name tags and training folders (each level of pilot certificate is a different color), and wasted no time getting down to the administrative work. She collected our logbooks, pilot and medical certificates, and passports, (and probably a DNA sample) to make copies. She also had us fill in our FAA form 8710 (pilot application), which she would use as a template for filling in later on her computer, and got copies of our résumés. Harris also gave us a rundown of our schedule for the week: Class was held every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., we couldn't leave until our training folder had been signed each day, free lunch would be provided on Monday (pizza) and Thursday (at a restaurant in The Ballpark at Arlington), and we would enjoy Krispy Kreme doughnuts on Friday. Southwest Airlines also would pay a visit during the week to answer any questions. The building is available 24 hours a day for students to use the cockpit procedures trainers (CPTs). Somewhere in all this information, Harris told us about the student lounge, which was equipped with comfortable sectional sofas, a flat screen TV, and several of the dozen or more computers spread throughout the building that students could use, including high-speed Internet access.
After Harris had collected all our items to go to the copy machine, she administered what I call our admissions test. When I first called HPA to express my interest, Sandy Sirkel, the director of admissions (and another incredibly friendly and easy-going person of Texas origin), answered all of my questions. Right away she told me that she would be sending my training manuals via FedEx, and that I was to call her when I got them. Sirkel patiently and methodically talked me through everything in my box. The FAA requires 60 hours of home-based study for the course, and to ensure that you comply, you are tested on your arrival. Sirkel tells you what to study and how: memory-item checklists and limitations of the airplane, the preflight cockpit flow, the systems manual, and more. It's a daunting amount of work, but Jay and I had given ourselves three months to get ready. It was doable, but we needed all of that time. On our first day, we took the test; we must have passed because they let us stay.
After Harris left, Mark Stearns entered. Tall, lanky, and very outgoing, Stearns personally greeted each of us. The first thing he wanted to discuss was the core values of the company, the writing of which was the first act of business for HPA. Two of those values are joy (work hard, but enjoy life) and relationships (treasure them). The positive impression was immediate. He also gave us a tour of the facility.
The rest of the week would pass in a blur. The teaching is fast and furious. Our class was made up of 19 people, 12 military and seven from the regional airlines, and we were all having trouble keeping up with the course. Not just because it was hard (it was), but also because it was so condensed and fast paced. What is taught is what you need to know, plain and simple. Studying before you come is not just an FAA requirement, but a key to survival. The systems that gave me the most fits were the electrical (a full day) and hydraulic systems. Jay, an Embry-Riddle graduate, had taken a 727 course in college, and much of what he had learned then was exactly what we were learning, and I leaned on him heavily to get through those two systems. By the end of the week, I was not nearly as confident as I would have liked to be going into the oral on Sunday. I knew that I knew enough to pass, but my own personal standards are pretty high, and I wasn't where I wanted to be. I took comfort in the fact that everyone in the class was having trouble sleeping at night. All of us were averaging four hours or less, and this after eight hours of class and three hours or more of studying each day.
Finally, we started talking about the simulators. I had spent some time talking to friends who had been through the course before, and all of them recommended (as did the instructors) taking the sim training in the 737-300 model. I did it for two reasons. First, the autopilot and flight director on the -200 don't talk to each other, so you have to program each separately, whereas the -300 autopilot uses the same logic as the one on the CRJ that I fly for my airline. Second, the -300 has auto-throttles, which I was dying to try, and which would be one less thing to worry about. The -300 also requires a four-hour class of differences training. Another little tidbit was that the -300 sim is in the old Braniff Airlines headquarters, and the nostalgia of that kind of history was appealing to both Jay and me.
Our sim instructors were Darrell Abby, a retired Delta pilot, and Rick Secord, a retired US Airways pilot, and while the four-hour simulator block was a welcome respite from the eight hours in the classroom, it was no time to slouch. The sim sessions are jammed with things to cover (HPA uses Memphis International Airport in the sim), and there is plenty to do in your off time. You need to learn the flows and procedures, and have the call-outs down cold, which means temporarily brain-dumping your current equipment. More than once, Jay and I inadvertently reverted to our CRJ calls, which we both understood. Unfortunately, we knew we would not be flying with each other during our checkride, so we had to get out of that habit. There are only five sim sessions before the checkride (HPA calls it an evaluation). There are no pre-simulator flight training device or CPT sessions with your instructor, and the fifth sim is a mock checkride, so there are really three sim sessions in which you can learn new material, which means time is of the essence. Right off the bat you go into stalls, steep turns, ILS approaches, and V1 cuts. Ironically, we had less trouble with the single-engine work than anything else. For the first three days, the airplane flew us more than we flew the airplane. But three hours of chair-flying in our hotel room every night paid huge dividends. Fortunately, we each had a ton of flight management system (FMS) experience, which saved a lot of time, and we knew how to work the autopilot, which avoided crashes and dumb mistakes. What we missed was our moving map, which led to a lot of "where in the world are we?" comments. The best part of the sim training? One of the maneuvers you must execute is an ILS to Runway 27, circle to land to 18R. Pure fun, my friends.
I had hoped that the second week would be smoother and more enjoyable than the first, and for the most part it was. However, learning new calls and procedures is not easy, and right up until the last day, we continued to make little, frustrating mistakes. We kept hearing that the checkride was going to be based on the "big picture" of our performance. We could only hope so.
Turns out it was. We each made a couple of minor boo-boos, but in my case, after I was finished with the steep turns and stalls in the early part of my checkride, I knew it was mine to lose. I was flying the airplane now, the airplane wasn't flying me, and I was in a groove. Afterward, I was overwhelmed with relief that I'd made it through in one piece. The crowning moment comes when the examiner gives you an "HPA 737 Type Rated" hat, which is called the "Hat Seen 'Round the World" because its picture has been taken everywhere. The joke is that The Hat costs $7,500, but the type rating is free. Some joke.
HPA is a first-class, professional organization run by a dedicated support staff and terrific instructors who put the needs of the customers first. The 737 type rating is, without a doubt, the most intense learning experience that I've ever gone through, but in the end it was worth it. I learned to fly an airplane I've always admired, and while we may never get to fly the airplane itself, Jay and I walked out of there with a huge sense of accomplishment and pride. Not to mention two new hats.
Chip Wright, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a captain on a regional airline.