JUNE 2010 — WITH A SUBTLETY BORNE through years of experience, the captain pushed the power levers forward on the Super 80. Other than the occasional rattle and the whirring of the nosewheel below our feet, the cockpit was absent the typical sounds of a jet airplane accelerating. Engines mounted at the far end of the fuselage had some definite advantages. As the nose lifted from the runway, I scanned my interior surroundings.
Because of passenger loads, the only seat available was the jumpseat. I was perched in the required position with my back against the cockpit door, the soles of my shoes resting on the fold-out foot pads at the aft end of the center console. Prior to our departure from the gate, the captain had made the customary request to see my license and registration. With a smile and a twinkle in my eye, I apologized. The only license in my possession was a temporary certificate. The ink was barely dry from an hour earlier. I had just passed my final check ride that qualified me for a type rating on the 777. (For those of you who may have missed the May Jumpseat, I lost my 767 check airman position due to a reduction in overall airline schedules, a reduction in attrition and the resulting reduction in new training cycles. As per a contractual option, I returned to regular line flying on the 777.)
Despite the satisfaction of passing another milestone in my career, I was saddened. Before me was an array of prior-generation technology. Circuit breakers. Analog gauges. Switches. Levers. Rotary knobs. LED lights. Video-generated flight displays. In contrast to the 777, the technology was almost primitive. But the pilots that were operating the MD-80 were flying an airplane. They were manipulating the controls of a machine that responded directly to their inputs.
Although hand-flying a 777 is not a difficult task by any means, it is not the same. Rather than cables and pulleys connected to hydraulic actuators that respond to pilot commands, control movement is translated by a network of sophisticated computers that work in harmony to manage all of the airplane systems. In essence, the pilot becomes a systems manager. The realization that I am merely the operator of a 650,000-pound computer is almost insulting. Understanding how the computer works does require some effort however. A traditional ground school is essential.
The transition to the 777 has been relatively painless. A background of 13 years on the 757/767 was a big help. Much of the FMS (flight management system) operation and even some of the systems' designs are similar. That being said, 14-hour days with my head buried in a manual or fixated on a computer screen were not uncommon. I'll blame some of those long days on the fact that my brain wasn't assimilating information like it did in my 20s and 30s.
I admired my partner, Steve Perry. Steve and I were paired together for the entire training process from ground school through simulator. Steve had long ago accepted the fact that grasping new information happened at a slower pace. Rather than try to stuff more material into his cerebrum than he could possibly hope to remember, he usually called it a day after eight hours. Steve was also very methodical. Where I would sometimes move forward at mach speeds and make some mistakes along the way, Steve would not proceed without a clear understanding of the task at hand.
Steve had been a 737 captain just prior to beginning his training with me as a 777 copilot. His seniority on the 737 was such that schedules were unpredictable. The commute from his home in Portland, Oregon, made life that much more difficult. Because of better seniority as a 777 copilot, he would have a more manageable quality of life.
Steve had become part of my airline's seniority list through an acquisition of another carrier back in the late '80s. With a smirk and a twinkle in his eye, he would say, "I don't deserve to be here." His humor and ability to make light of the intensity involved with our training made us play well together.
As ground school progressed toward the day of reckoning when we would take our oral exam, it was becoming apparent that I would never know every aspect of the 777. I would have to be satisfied with acquiring only enough knowledge to keep 250 passengers safe. The rest I would learn over time. I'm not sure that even the Boeing engineers know exactly what they created.
The axiom heard frequently about the 777 is that "they fixed everything that was wrong with the 767." (I almost would have agreed with that statement if it weren't for the fact that Boeing hasn't yet found a way to conveniently illuminate my Jeppesen binder from the side of the cockpit. I still struggle with an overhead adjustable map light despite the addition of other sidelights.) In general terms, the airplane not only knows when something is wrong with itself but also tells you how to fix it.
Any system that has an issue will be displayed as a message on the EICAS (Engine Instrument and Crew Alerting System) screen. If the message is serious enough, an associated aural warning in the form of a bell or electronic siren will activate. The message will be displayed in red, amber or white depending upon the severity of the problem. For example, an engine fire will be displayed in red, while a minor fault or crew alert message will be displayed in white.
If a problem results in an EICAS message, a checklist for that problem will automatically be generated. Although some checklist items require that an action be completed and then checked off through a cursor and touch-pad system, other items indicate that action has been taken. The airplane knows the position of switches and controls. If a switch or control has been activated appropriate to the situation, the checklist item is displayed in green. For instance, once the flaps, gear and speed-brake handle are selected to their proper positions, the landing checklist items display green. The checklist even states that it is complete.
If an understanding of a particular major airplane system is desired, pressing the appropriate synoptic button will display a schematic diagram. As an example, a hydraulic problem can be diagnosed through the indications of pump operation and fluid movement.
Every glass screen on the instrument panel has the ability to be displayed in other positions. Although the failure of a screen or a video generator is rare, the 777 has the ability to move information elsewhere. Even the selection of altitudes and bug speeds can be done remotely from other display control units. And, of course, most of the switching for display failures is done automatically.
The FMS computer is the foreman for many airplane functions. Airspeed bugs are set by the FMS. Cabin pressurization is scheduled through the FMS. Localizer and VOR frequencies are automatically tuned through the FMS. Phase of flight power settings are governed by the FMS. The list continues.
The airplane has the ability to start both engines at once with little input from the pilot. In addition, many start faults are automatically corrected. Let's say that one of the engines experiences a hung start. The system will motor the engine for 30 seconds and then automatically make another attempt. Under most circumstances with an in-flight engine failure, the system will attempt relights indefinitely until they're successful.
On the subject of engine failures, that's another area where the airplane shines. A thrust asymmetry compensator, or TAC, automatically applies the appropriate rudder pressure with the loss of an engine. The only pressure remaining for the pilot to apply is for the purpose of determining which engine has failed. With 90,000 pounds of thrust on each side of the wing, the TAC is a major bonus.
The entire airplane can become a glider with no engines operating and still have enough electrical power and hydraulics available for the crew to get it on the ground in one piece. Boeing builds backup systems for its backup systems. The 777 is one of its best examples.
It's hard not to sound like a one-man PR firm for Boeing, but the airplane manufacturer has always built an incredible product. Once the bugs disappear from the 787 program, I can only imagine the leap forward in technology. Making the project a consortium of parts from various vendors might have caused quality control to suffer, but the innovation behind the jet is still industry-leading. The rumor is that the 787 will require only differences training if a pilot holds a 777 type rating. If the rumor is true, I'll have material for a future discussion.
In the meantime, I'll continue to offer my best efforts while I get comfortable with the new airplane. As of this writing, I have completed the first IOE (initial operating experience) trip to London. My next IOE trip is to Tokyo, boldly going where I have never gone before.
My touch-pad point and click skills have made tremendous strides. And so far, I have disconnected the autopilot without any adverse effects on my flying skills. Systems manager? Well, yeah, but I'd still like to call myself a pilot too.