The Flight of a Lifetime

Dick gets the right seat on the delivery flight of a 737-700 from Seattle to Southwest's Phoenix base.

FL0904_GearUp_DickKarl

FL0904_GearUp_DickKarl

A few things in this life are so fundamentally compelling that despite months of planning and anticipation the event itself is so overwhelming, so captivating, that memories become a blended blur of the real and the imagined. Having a child is such an experience. So is taking off in a brand new Boeing 737-700.

Last month, you may remember leaving me and my wife, Cathy, three Southwest Airline captains and three charming ladies from the airline's Flight Ops in Chicago on the tarmac at Boeing Field in Seattle. Our assignment was to deliver a new airplane to the airline's Phoenix base. Incredibly, some of the assembled crowd even got paid to do this.

After a lengthy preflight, much picture taking and some good-natured ribbing, we all piled into that spanking new airplane, locked the door and set about taking it off the new airplane lot and into airline service. Thanks to our designation as a Part 91 flight, I got the right seat, Captain Tony Dorsch got the left, Check Airman Bob Blankenship got the jump seat between us, and Cathy got the second jump seat behind Tony.

Windows closed and locked, I read the checklist. When we got to the APU start, I reached to the forward overhead panel and hit the start switch. The rest was automatic. With generators online, we set about entering the flight plan to Phoenix into the flight management system, aligning the inertial reference system and getting the cabin comfortable. Tony turned to me and said, "Want to get our clearance?" Fumbling for the mic switch, I announced to Boeing Clearance Delivery, "Boeing Clearance, Southwest five thousand one to Phoenix with Papa," in my best airline captain voice. The response was quick: "Cleared Kent Four Departure, J5 SUMMA, (garbled), direct Kimberly, as filed, maintain two, expect Flight Level 370 10 minutes after departure, squawk 3545."

I got almost all of it but had to ask for the fix after SUMMA, which turned out to be Klickitat (KLT). "Read back correct," was the laconic reply. Didn't he know this was the maiden voyage for 454 Whiskey November, serial number 29851? Bob led me through the engine starts. Simple enough, fuel pumps on, starter switch to "Ground," when N2 reached 25 percent and N1 started up, Tony lifted the start lever over its detent to idle and the brand new (five hours on it) GE-Snecma engine capable of 24,000 lbs of thrust spun up, rolled back and stabilized. Same with engine number two.

We had fiddled long enough with enough new things that the lineman in charge of directing us out of the parking spot had parked himself on a truck awaiting some sign of purposeful intent on our part. Once convinced that we intended to leave, he displayed the landing gear locking pins (these belonged to Boeing, he pointed out on our walk-around) and waved us toward Runway 13R. Tony ran the tiller.

Position and hold. The sky was a clear soft blue, Mount Rainier's snow-covered crest shimmered straight ahead. The airplane smelled like a new car. The winds were negligible and the takeoff was mine. "Southwest 5001 cleared for takeoff." Tony responded and I grabbed the throttles. There was a moment's hesitation as Tony put his hands up there, too, as if we were going steady. Realizing that Tony was the real captain here, I took my hands off those big gray handles and concentrated on keeping the airplane on the centerline. "Power set," said Bob. Very little pressure was required on the rudder pedals, and I wondered if Tony was really flying this thing. Was I just sitting there like some sort of innocent ingénue? Next he called V1, V rotate, and I pulled back on the yoke. "Positive rate, gear up," said Tony. Just like thousands of other flights, only this time I was flying a commercial airliner and fast approaching that 2,000-foot assigned altitude. "Flaps one," said Tony. An instant later we were all cleaned up and cleared to 6,000.

Somewhere around 4,000 feet, I took a breath. Tony, Bob and by now Chief Pilot Rob Haynes (standing in the cockpit doorway) were acting like everything was cool. I didn't see her, but apparently Cathy was white as a sheet, being unused to seeing the end of the runway approach at such an alarming rate and fully aware of my limitations as a pilot. Some really big and impressive mountains whistled by. I could just see them out of the corner of my eye as I sought 250 knots indicated, which produced a comfortable 2,500 feet per minute climb. Tony showed me how to engage the autopilot and I took a look around. Majestic is about all that could be said. How could anybody really tell you what this is like?

Seattle Departure called traffic at two o'clock and all five heads swiveled to the right in unison, like some sort of cartoon. The target was soon spotted and we continued on up to 370, now cleared direct to BERYL and then into Phoenix. Tony showed me all the autopilot gadgets, and we experimented with the moving maps and guidance systems. It was quiet, but not too quiet. On the autopilot, I sought to retrim our rate of climb and, without thinking, I toggled the trim switch on the yoke. Of course, this disconnected the autopilot, just like on the airplanes some of us fly. A warning sound captured Tony's attention, and he looked over at me with a schoolteacher's frown. "You touched the trim," he said. "Yes, I am sorry," I replied meekly. Turns out that you can change the autopilot's pitch attitude just by pulling or pushing on the yoke and it will reset to the new attitude. This is not a feature of my airplane.

"Go ahead, make the PA announcement," Tony said as we conversed with Seattle Center. Think of all those times on commercial flights when you thought that you could do a better job of making an announcement that was at once folksy, pithy, funny and informative. It isn't that simple. My audience was a select and knowledgeable one, and I did not want to sound foolish. "Well folks, this is your First Officer Karl speaking. Captain Tony Dorsch is seeking some smooth air, and I am guessing he'll find it because he trained with Chief Pilot Rob Haynes. Our route of flight today takes us over a number of fixes I've never heard of, but I'll bet we can see some gorgeous scenery if we're lucky. Thank you." How lame.

After an hour or so and level at 370, Tony and I took a break, letting Chief Pilot Rob sit in the right seat so that some of the others could feel what it is like to sit in the left seat of a new jetliner. At one point, Mike Taylor, an intern at Southwest during one of his semesters at St. Louis University, got to make a few shallow turns, which prompted all of us in the back to complain about high G forces. The back of the airplane was a unique sight in itself. How often do you see a new interior in an empty commercial airplane in flight? We wandered about, sitting in various parts of the airplane, looking out the window at the desert and picking at the box lunches provided by Boeing. The boxes all had an embossed silver picture of a jet taking off toward Mount Rainier with the words "Congratulations on your Boeing Aircraft" printed underneath.

I couldn't eat, though. This was just too much for a man who had always wanted to be an airline pilot. I had a cookie and waited for the visitors to get done so that Tony and I could get back in the drivers' seats and take this baby into Phoenix. I reviewed our dispatch release form. It said we needed 20,500 pounds of gas, but we had 46,000 pounds on board, thanks to a fill up at Boeing. Our time en route was calculated to be two hours and 18 minutes, nowhere near long enough. "Come on, Tony, let's get back up there," I said, worrying that this whole thing would be over before I could capture the sense of it.

We tossed everybody out of the cockpit and resumed our takeoff seating arrangement. We were cleared to descend to 12,000 feet and I reached up to set the new altitude and our rate of descent. "I'll break your arm," hollered Tony. "We've got 19 miles before the TOD." He was pointing to the flight management system, which had calculated the most efficient point for us to descend to a lower altitude, called the top of descent. He did not make the obvious point that jet engines and the airplanes to which they are firmly bolted are more efficient up high. This is true in our Cheyenne, which burns 400 pounds per hour at Flight Level 230, but 600 pounds an hour at 15,000 feet. In this airplane, the fuel burn at Flight Level 370 was now down to 2,300 pounds an hour per side.

Think about that number for a minute. A nice small turboprop like ours can transport six people at 240 knots for the price of 62 gallons of gas per hour. This brand-new Boeing can move 24 times as many people (140 of them) at close to twice the speed (we were planned for 447 knots) and yet burn only 10 times the gas. Amazing.

And so was the view as we slid on down towards the Drake VOR and our arrival. Bob kept us up to date on the ATIS, and I struggled with the flap settings at Tony's commands. Runway 8 loomed large out the front window, and I called out our radar altitude at 100-foot intervals until 100 feet, then, after 50 feet, at 10-foot intervals.

We touched down, Tony said "Hello" and applied the reverse. We easily exited at a taxiway two-thirds down the runway. I was limp with excited exhaustion. As we taxied up to the maintenance hangar, some bored appearing mechanics looked up indifferently and waved us to a stop. We shut down. I read the after-shutdown checklist, which was surprisingly short. Everybody was in continued high spirits, but I was just sitting there, trying to drink this all in. Tony got up, so did Bob. Everybody collected a souvenir lunch box and then struggled down the rickety maintenance steps that had been rolled up to the right forward door. It was hot.

I was the last to leave. Never again will I experience a flight like this one. I'm going to wrap up these images and memories individually and store them very carefully, for they are treasures few men will ever know.