Jumpseat: Making It Real

Boeing 757-200 Chris Hepburn

I always look forward to flying with pilots new to the 767/757. These individuals are usually fresh from simulator training at our flight academy. They have suffered the lacerations of being whipped to proficiency. They have spent over a month in the stale and frigid climate of our classrooms and simulators. They are eager to partake of the real world and the real airplane. Part of my job as a check airman is to make it real. But on some occasions, the reality goes beyond my script. Such was the case on my trip with Rich.

Rich had been off flying status for 14 months due to a medical condition that required time to rectify with the FAA. Prior to his absence, Rich had been a Super 80 first officer. He was doubly anxious to get back into the cockpit. We were scheduled to fly his first IOE (Initial Operating Experience). The trip was an afternoon departure from LaGuardia to Miami with a return in the evening.

On that day, the joys of New York traffic caught me by surprise. Even my normal escape routes had their own issues. My arrival was later than the hour and a half prior to departure that I had discussed with Rich on the phone the day prior.

After munching down a particularly tasteless slice of interesting-looking chicken-something pizza in the food court, I hurried into Operations. I was greeted by my friend and base chief pilot, Mark Cronin. Mark was surrounded by a crowd of eager fresh-faced interns from various aviation universities. He was conducting a tour. My entrance prompted an embarrassing introduction regarding my check airman status and the fact that I was that airline guy who wrote for that magazine. We bantered for a few minutes.

Of course, all of this activity delayed my IOE with Rich. Rich was gracious enough to understand. He had been standing off to the side, away from the flurry of conversations. If my entrance had given him pause to wonder what kind of check airman he was about to face, at least he didn't have to guess who I was.

Once the flight plan had completed its printing, we reviewed the format and the changes that might have occurred during Rich's 14-month absence. We marched out the door of Operations toward our gate.

We deposited our bags in the cockpit. I briefed the flight attendants while Rich organized his nest from the right seat. We donned our glow-in-the-dark lime green, hit-me-with-a-moving-vehicle safety vests and walked outside the jet bridge to the ramp. It was the first time Rich would touch and feel a 757 from the outside. He had viewed a walk-around inspection only from the vantage point of a computer screen. We completed the inspection without issues.

The first daunting challenge that faced Rich was the FMC (Flight Management Computer). The FMC was the more sophisticated Pegasus version. Although the simulator training environment provided some exposure to the idiosyncrasies, it is never enough for actual line operations. Fortunately, Rich was proving to be a sharp and well-prepared guy. The cockpit preparation process continued with relatively few instructional nudges on my part. Other than a handful of minor computer-entry glitches and some understandable awkwardness, we began our taxi to the approach end of Runway 31. It was just after parking the brakes while waiting for our takeoff sequence that I departed from my script for the first time.

I glanced at the wind sock. Were my eyes playing tricks or was that big, old orange tube indicating a tailwind? The tower controller reported 190 degrees at 15 knots to a Super 80 that was holding in position. Yup, it was a tailwind. I didn't need the crosswind component chart for that calculation. Our takeoff was probably just within the 10-knot tailwind restriction, but I didn't care. It was LaGuardia. Short runways. I wasn't going to risk using my marginal swimming abilities in an aborted takeoff consuming more than the calculated concrete available.

The Super 80 was given a takeoff clearance. As it rolled away from our vantage point, the tower instructed us to taxi into position. I keyed the mic switch on my yoke.

"Unable Runway 31 due to a tailwind," I said.


"Say your request," the tower replied.

"Runway 13," I responded.

Within a short period of time, all taxi activity ceased. And then, almost as quickly as we had refused our clearance, taxi instructions were given to other airplanes for Runway 13. As soon as traffic permitted, we were given our instructions. We had become the lemming that just said no.

Of course, the departure change created the need for some FMC updating, but Rich handled it without major issues. My improvisation of the make-it-real script was progressing well.

Typical for pilots transitioning from the Super 80 to the 757, the takeoff in the actual airplane is an eye-opener. The airplane is capable of rapid acceleration and uncharacteristic rates of climb. In an effort to be smooth, Rich raised the nose to only a 12-degree deck angle. The brief hesitation caused us to accelerate toward the flap retraction speeds quicker than anticipated. He corrected the problem with a little coaxing from me and a deck angle nearing 20 degrees. But that's usually in my script anyway.

As we progressed through the en route phase, Rich demonstrated good situational awareness skills. In addition to safely deviating around numerous thunderstorm areas with unfamiliar airborne radar equipment, he had begun the planning stages of his descent and arrival into Miami.

Miami approach control descended us quickly toward the airport at high altitude and vectored us toward the runway via a tight traffic pattern. Despite some fumbling with the autopilot and the mode control panel, Rich kept ahead of the airplane. Much to his credit, flare height was begun at the proper time, at approximately 50 feet. I always prepare for a former Super 80 pilot to fly the wheels into the runway. Sometimes intervention is necessary. Other times I am simply provided with entertainment.

The touchdown itself was accomplished as though Rich had made the same performance a thousand times prior. The only issue was that a 757 nose behaves like a Twin Comanche's. It wants to be on the ground immediately, especially after the automatic speedbrakes deploy. The secret to success becomes a balancing act of maintaining enough back pressure on the yoke to prevent the inevitable crash but at the same time not allowing the airplane to pitch up enough to strike the tail. Unfortunately, the crash arrived on schedule, much to Rich's dismay. I had warned him, but it has to be experienced before it can be believed.

En route, our ACARS paperwork had indicated a gate change. Instead of conveniently using the same airplane for our return to LaGuardia as we had expected, our equipment was now located in a part of the terminal that had a different ZIP code. In the interest of adding physical exercise to the IOE, I elected not to follow the advice that I had offered our flight attendants. I failed to confirm our gate with the display monitors. It wasn't until we were within spitting distance of the new gate assignment that I had the revelation to check the video screens. Our second gate change was now in close proximity to where we had just parked the airplane. Great.

After we retraced our jog, I sent Rich on his way to begin the preflight while I obtained the flight-plan paperwork. But for some unknown reason, our dispatcher hadn't released the data. A phone call revealed that maintenance problems were the culprit. Two items were missing from the airplane. One involved a fairing behind the right, main gear door. The other involved a static wick on the very top of the vertical stabilizer.

Both items were allowed by our FAA-approved CDL (Configuration Deviation List), but they required review in order to determine whether crew action was required. The missing fairing imposed a weight penalty. It wouldn't be a factor for our flight. The CDL was stored on my laptop computer in the form of an FAA-approved EFB (Electronic Flight Bag). Once I entered the cockpit and retrieved my laptop, it would be only a matter of pressing the start button and waiting for the Windows operating system to come alive. If only I had a Mac …

I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes prior to departure time. Passengers were beginning to board. I rolled my bags toward the escalator and the jet bridge. The pace would get lively.

The airplane was equipped with the older-model FMC computers and ACARS. Rich was doing his best, but he was struggling. No problem. This was part of the original IOE script. I distributed my bags to the appropriate places near my seat and began to assist my copilot with the nuances of different computer-entry procedures.

Knowing that Rich would need time for cockpit preparation regardless of the computer type, I had told him earlier that I would perform the walk-around inspection. I did as promised. Unfortunately, departure time was rapidly approaching.

During the walk-around, I explained the delay to the ground crew. When I mentioned that training was in progress, I got a wide grin and a fist bump. Cool.

Despite our obstacles, we departed only 30 minutes late and arrived at LaGuardia tardy by only 15 minutes. I was pleased with Rich's above-average performance. I shook his hand and welcomed him to the new fleet and the new fraternity. It was a successful IOE.

And, of course, neither one of us had any doubts about the experience. It was all about making it real.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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