Rub Belly. Pat Head. Repeat.

The month of August was not typical. Carol and I normally spend the summer enjoying our home in Connecticut. But on this particular occasion, we had filled part of the calendar with out of town excursions. One of the excursions was a week on Lake Powell with a handful of airline friends. The other event was our annual trip to Wisconsin for a family fly-in on a farm airstrip. In addition, we included a very brief side visit with some of Carol’s family in Minnesota.

Our good fortune in being afforded these opportunities translated into me paying for it when I came back to work. This meant that my schedule was full at the end of the month. I had to make the dreaded transition from play mode to pay mode. The rigors of recreation can take its toll …

In that regard, when John and I shook hands in JFK Operations, I was still in transition. Fortunately, John helped make it a gradual process.

John had been a DCA-based 737 captain and had transferred to the international division on the 767/757 based in New York. As part of the OE (operating experience), I was the check airman for the domestic portion of his qualification requirements. John had finished his simulator training a week or two prior. We were scheduled to fly a 1555 departure to Los Angeles and return the next day.

This particular OE was different from a couple of aspects. John had more seniority than me. He had been hired four years prior to my employment. In the early ’80s, he had experienced an involuntary vacation in the form of a three-year furlough and had been recalled just before my arrival on the property. He was a well-seasoned veteran of the airline world. In addition, John had been a check airman on the 727.

All of the OE pilots I had flown with up to this point had been my junior. Although I was technically in charge, a certain amount of diplomatic protocol was in order.

As my time with John progressed, it became apparent that he had no seniority barriers. He valued my experience and was receptive to recommendations and suggestions. It was obvious that his additional years of professionalism were an asset to his abilities. Translation: John was doing a helluva job. We arrived in Los Angeles as though John had been flying the 767 most of his career.

As we stood on the curb of the infamous LAX red zone awaiting the arrival of the hotel jitney bus, I twisted my earpiece in and began to retrieve messages on my cell phone voice mail. I wouldn’t realize it until later, but one message heralded the complete end of what remained of my relaxation mode. Soon, circumstances would require me to rub my belly and pat my head at the same time.

Bill, the copilot I was to fly with on the next trip, had called. The first leg of his OE would begin on a 757 flight to Las Vegas from JFK the day after I returned from Los Angeles. Normally, I’m the one that initiates the call to my next victim in an effort to reduce any check ride anxiety. But Bill was an obvious overachiever. The enthusiastic tone of his message gave me pause to grin.

I returned Bill’s call, but got his voice mail. Bill had been a domestic 737 copilot based in Los Angeles. He was 42 years old with an Air Force background flying C-141s and other heavy equipment. He was still active in the Reserves and had an interesting assignment. Bill was teaching Air Force Academy cadets to fly gliders near his home in Colorado Springs. I’m a glider guy, so we immediately had something in common.

The exuberance Bill displayed when we greeted each other in JFK Operations was infectious. His attitude proved conducive to absorbing information like a dry sponge. After a few minutes of light conversation, I showed him some aspects of WSI weather products that would be helpful for his transition to international flying. With the flight plan paperwork in Bill’s hands, we straightened our ties, grabbed our bags and walked out of Operations toward the gate.

I had hoped to arrive at the airplane with plenty of time to guide Bill through a walk-around inspection of our 757. Unfortunately, the circumstances of a late arrival did not allow us the opportunity until 45 minutes prior to our scheduled departure. Ordinarily that was plenty of time, but this day would require a little extra because of my instruction. And as I got to know Bill, he was never lacking for questions — a quality not to be discouraged by a check airman. However, my job can be a difficult balance between providing a learning experience and providing timely transportation to our customers. That being stated, we didn’t return to the cockpit until 20 minutes prior to departure.

In the interest of both a prompt departure and training, I often instruct the new pilot to concern himself or herself with preflight duties related to the FMC and the ACARS computer. I perform the basic cockpit preparations. Why?

The nuances of the computer are usually unfamiliar territory. It can be the most time-consuming part of the preflight. A pilot new to the airplane learns more by pushing buttons on their own with a little guidance from me. Professional pilots know how to follow checklists, so I’m never concerned that the new guy or gal will require much supervision in the way of determining whether a switch is in the right position. Besides, their ground school and simulator training provided the background for such things. As comfort level increases, all of the preparation tasks will be accomplished within a normal time frame, usually by the very next leg.

Before I could offer Bill relief, he had already taken the initiative to begin the entire cockpit preflight via his checklist card. Interrupting his flow would have been counterproductive. Instead, I tended to duties that I could perform on my side of the cockpit.

The unfortunate aspect of Bill’s enthusiasm meant that we would have a delayed departure. No big deal. If my copilot wasn’t ready, than neither was the airplane. The safety of 188 passengers depended on it. In the midst of my earnest attempt at providing guidance, my efficient pace was often interrupted by routine requests from flight attendants, gate agents and ground personnel. The requests came with the territory. “We’re short on first-class meals.” “It’s too cold in the middle of coach.” “Can I close the door, now?” “Can I remove ground power?” “How hot is it in Vegas?” Etc., etc. Rub belly. Pat head. Repeat. We began our pushback 11 minutes tardy. In the scheme of airline life, that still wasn’t a bad performance.

The takeoff from Runway 31 Left put a smile on Bill’s face. Other than a hesitation during rotation that caused a slight lack of pitch attitude, he did a fine job. Once level at cruise altitude, I launched into check airman mode. We discussed various operational facets of the 757 that are not normally covered in the simulator training environment.

Bill’s inquiring mind had him asking questions before I was finished with the subject. He soon discovered that despite the outward impression that my ramblings appeared haphazard, I actually had an agenda. He grinned with the realization.

It had been some time since I had last flown into Las Vegas. My guidance for the arrival nuances was somewhat limited. Despite the lack of assistance in that area, Bill was having no difficulty. Las Vegas Tracon was doing their best to keep the experience interesting by making rapid-fire requests for altitudes, headings and speeds. I was doing my best to keep up. Bill was caught in the balancing act of trying to learn the disposition of a new airplane and complying with ATC. If his arrival and touchdown were any reflection, he was having no problems; both were smooth.

Once parked at the gate, I offered Bill a handshake for a good performance on his first flight in the widebody world. (The 757 is technically a narrow-body airplane, but Bill would also be flying 767s. It’s the same type rating.) The entire crew boarded the hotel van and we literally drove off into the sunset. Bill and I convened later for a quick beverage. We performed the obligatory toast, celebrating Bill’s transition to the new airplane.

Our departure from Las Vegas was on time despite Bill’s eagerness to complete the walk-around inspection without my supervision. The return trip to JFK was uneventful. Bill’s performance was equal to his first.

We were scheduled to fly a turnaround to Miami on a 767 from JFK the following morning in order to complete the required 15 hours of OE time. The next morning would prove taxing to my check airman skills.

Bill arrived at the departure gate with the same enthusiasm he had displayed two days earlier. He attacked the cockpit preparation checklist with the zest of a teenage boy opening up the first pages of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Bill proved to be observant. He found the unfortunate first of many maintenance issues. A quick check of the FMC database display indicated that the 757 program had been mistakenly loaded into our 767. I instructed Bill to advise maintenance on the company radio frequency.

I attempted to pry my new copilot away from the cockpit in order to guide him through the nuances of a 767 walk-around inspection. This time I had only to point out the differences between the 757 and the 767. And once again, Bill deserves credit for finding another maintenance issue. After leaning over to peer at the right nosewheel tire gauge, Bill discovered that the pressure was low. We would have to call maintenance again.

Our return to the cockpit found two avionics mechanics beginning the process of loading the correct database into the FMC. I was left to stand and watch the painful 20-minute process of loading a database via a floppy disc. (Yes, I did say ‘floppy.’) Most of what remained of the cockpit preflight involved the FMC. With the computer tethered to the transfer machine, there wasn’t much I could do to guide Bill. Instead, I took the opportunity to resolve a procedural problem regarding an unrelated maintenance issue.

Earlier, we had discovered inoperative stickers placed over two indicator lights on the overhead panel related to audio and visual operation in the cabin. Corresponding documentation explaining the stickers was nowhere to be found in the maintenance logbook or the special equipment list. The avionics mechanics believed the issue involved the installation of the new passenger entertainment system, but they weren’t about to sign their A&P licenses on the dotted line. The mechanics did agree that the current documentation was not sufficient.

And just in case two inop stickers didn’t prove to be problematic, a third was discovered. This one involved an override switch for the ground proximity warning system (GPWS). For the most part, the switch is used to prevent nuisance warnings in the event an abnormal or emergency procedure dictates an unusual flap configuration. So what now?

This was a crisis for our specialists to handle. One of the avionics mechanics stepped out of the cockpit to confer with our 767 technical department in Tulsa via the jet bridge phone. The technician that spoke with our mechanic indicated the stickers were related to the entertainment system, but offered no documentation solution.

My signature was on the flight plan release. I was reasonably certain that the FAA would not be satisfied with stickers no matter how official they appeared, so I called our technical department myself in the hope of resolving the issue. And of course, a recorded message promptly put me on hold. I glanced at my watch. Our scheduled departure time had ticked right on by.

When the technician finally clicked on the line, I didn’t waste time with small talk. The technician understood the dilemma, but indicated it was not his responsibility to determine how the system was documented. Much to my surprise, his solution had nothing to do with solving the problem.

“You can refuse the airplane, Captain,” the technician said with the emotion of Mr. Spock.

I paused to recover from his seemingly flippant attitude and then compelled him to work with me on a solution that didn’t involve alienating 188 passengers. As I listened to the technician explain the situation to the supervisor, Bill appeared on the jet bridge. He held the flight plan in one hand and a slightly anguished expression on his face.

“Les, the FMC loaded a different route from our flight plan.”

I slid the phone away from my mouth and said, “ATC probably recleared us over a different route. Dispatch must already be aware of it. Just request another clearance through ACARS and … “

I was interrupted by the voice of the supervisor. I raised an index finger, indicating to Bill that I needed a moment. Bill nodded, shuffling his feet.

As the supervisor began to talk, I covered the mouthpiece and gestured to Bill. He was waiting to ask a question. “Do I need to pull up another flight plan?”

“No … “

The intended explanation was cut short. My attention was diverted to the dialog on the phone. Bill marched back onto the airplane. Rub belly. Pat head. Repeat. The agreed upon solution was to simply render the entertainment system inoperative with the stroke of a pen until “research” discovered the proper documentation procedure. Eliminating amenities seemed better than taking an airworthy airplane out of service because of paperwork. I didn’t want to have to make that PA anyhow.

With inop stickers number one and number two solved, I moved on to inop sticker number three — the GPWS override switch. As I began to explain the problem to the men on the phone, the avionics mechanic waved his hand to get my attention. The mechanic said, “I tested the GPWS system and the override switch. No problems.”

“Thanks,” I said nodding my head with a sigh.

I relayed the information to Tulsa. The sticker was now a nonissue. It would be removed without ceremony. If the system worked, I had no concerns.

“We’re going … finally,” I said to the gate agent standing in the jet bridge who had waited out the drama in silent resignation. Slithering into my seat, I found Bill eager but still slightly perplexed. The paperwork that was strewn about the center pedestal indicated that he hadn’t quite solved the flight plan issue. Bill began to fire out questions.

I put my check airman hat back on and smiled. Things were back to normal. All I had left to accomplish was to fly our passengers safely to Miami and ensure Bill’s OE was a valuable lesson. No problem.

Rub belly. Pat head. Repeat. Or was it pat head first and then … ?


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