Jumpseat: Cockpit Administration 777-Style

Les on cockpit management.

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December 2010 — A diverse gathering of aviators from all age groups could probably debate for hours the first airline airplane that required administrative thinking to manage the cockpit. If alcohol were included in this debate, days rather than hours would pass before a collective agreement occurred, if at all. For my purposes, and the fact that we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of its birth, my money is on the DC-3.

Regardless, all airplanes dictate a given level of cockpit management for any given phase of flight. That fact is not news for most readers of this magazine. What defines us as competent pilots is our ability to establish a priority for each management task. That ability keeps the proverbial blue side up, especially when non-normal circumstances occur. Such was the case for one of my flights from London back to JFK.

Nothing along the lines of stark terror that included bells, whistles, sirens or Dean Martin wrestling the controls occurred. (You have to be old enough to remember the original movie, Airport.) Our issues were simply a matter of managing a handful of glitches that had the potential to distract us away from the task at hand. The task at hand was safely navigating the airplane across the North Atlantic.

As is typical of departures from Heathrow Airport, we were given a series of flight test maneuvers in the form of turns and climbs. Many of us believe that the London controllers are paid by the number of vectors provided and the intermediate level-offs required. It was my copilot's leg, and he was doing an admirable job with his flight test.

As the climb progressed into flight levels, the ACARS paper was giving the warning sign of the dreaded purple stripe on the side. The paper roll was soon to be exhausted. Only a few feet remained. It may seem rather trite, but the automation of the 777 requires that it generate information onto paper — weather, flight plan data, etc. And the airplane generates a lot of paper. …

Apparently the vendor of the paper roll had not imprinted a long enough warning stripe, notwithstanding the fact that the priority of the inbound crew was its ride to the hotel and not changing the ACARS printer paper; the message on the EICAS screen announced, "Printer Inop." Crap! I had already requested our oceanic clearance electronically. Shanwick Oceanic would be sending the confirmation at any moment.

In the midst of the paper crisis, the controller had issued a climb clearance that conflicted with the altitude stated on the SID. I needed a simple verification, but frequency congestion prevented me from making that request. It wasn't until we were rapidly approaching the altitude in question that I was able to get the verification. Of course, the flight director automation had already initiated the altitude capture mode.

Meanwhile, back at the paper roll crisis, a break in the action allowed me to shift priorities. I retrieved a new roll and proceeded to begin the process of loading. We had only one obstacle to overcome. My copilot had a little more than 300 hours on the airplane and never had the opportunity to experience the loading task. I, on the other hand, had only seen the task demonstrated. And who has time to read the instructions on the back side of the feeder lid? When the roll wouldn't fit despite my animated persistence, I realized that the plastic spindle had been pushed too far to one side. An adjustment later, all was well — except for one problem. I had loaded the paper to feed from the wrong direction. The correct direction made the process far too simple.

With the paper roll crisis averted, I realized that my next step was to select the message that restored the operative status to the printer. This step became problematic. No matter how often I sent the operative status, the EICAS screen displayed an indication that the message hadn't been received via a "comm" annunciation. Big deal, right? Well, the result was that the comm annunciation was making us think that an electronic game of crying wolf was occurring, when in fact we had other messages. One of the messages just happened to be our oceanic clearance.

We had already suspected this because ATC informed us that our North Atlantic track would be changed. And as luck would have it, weather deviations were required. A new track meant a new oceanic entry point — which hadn't been entered because our clearance hadn't been received via the normal means of an ACARS printout. When the light bulb illuminated in my head, I scrambled my finger to the mouse pad. Yup, on the ATC selection of the comm page was our oceanic clearance … the updated version.

Just as I began to assimilate the change from the original flight plan, ATC decided to test us. It requested an estimate to the new oceanic entry point. No big deal — except that I hadn't been given breathing opportunity to enter the point into the FMC. And we were still deviating around weather.

As my copilot kept to the business of flying the airplane, I methodically began to type entries onto the keyboard. A change in North Atlantic tracks may not sound like an arduous situation on an airplane as sophisticated as a 777, but the consequences of not entering the data properly have the potential to lead to a gross navigation violation at best, and a catastrophe at worst. My airline has systematic procedures for reviewing, entering, verifying and flying the route. Although the procedures reek of busy work, they do reflect a method developed from bad experiences.

While entering the data, I was rewarded with a call from the cabin. Of course, flight attendants have no idea of the workload level occurring. But they do have an uncanny timing ability. Not wanting to dismiss a potential problem, I gestured for my copilot to take over ATC communication while I put the intercom handset to my ear.

Of course the problem from the cabin was that a passenger needed an answer as to our location. I gritted my teeth through a thin veneer of a smile and offered a very specific answer: "Ireland." The answer seemed to suffice.

Once the chore of redirecting our navigation was complete, I informed dispatch of the new route via a free text message. I requested flight plan data that reflected the change. The data are needed in order to verify that the change in tracks can still be completed without altering the fuel required because of a potential difference in traveled distance. In addition, headings and distances between waypoints over the ocean require verification upon passage.

Time marched on without a word from dispatch. At 100 miles from our oceanic entry point, the moment had come to use satcom. The voice of the dispatcher was heard through my headset as though he was standing behind me. He apologized for the tardiness of the data and explained that it had to be entered manually. No problem. We could wait.

It wasn't until after disconnecting with the dispatcher that I realized yet another message had been masked by the EICAS "comm" display. I selected the print option via the mouse pad. Our new flight plan data rolled out in a long curled sheet. Unfortunately, because of the format, the information required extra effort to interpret. At least it was available.

Soon, ATC dismissed us to check in with Shanwick Oceanic via an HF radio, SelCal (Selective Calling). It was then that I realized that, in the heat of the battle, we hadn't logged on with our CPDLC (Controller Pilot Data Link Communication) system. The CPDLC system is a scripted version of airborne texting. It eliminates the need to verbally contact ATC with position reports. The computers make the reports automatically. I rushed to make the appropriate entries. The EICAS screen displayed a message that indicated our log-on was successful.

While completing the required SelCal check and verbal confirmation of our CPDLC status, the cabin interphone chimed. My copilot nodded and picked up the intercom handset. A flight attendant was requesting our all-important meal selection request. Priorities …

Despite my frustrated efforts in trying to eliminate the never-ending loop of sending our operative printer status, the comm display remained. During the satcom call, our dispatcher had connected us with maintenance in an attempt to remedy the problem. Maintenance offered that the only solution was to reset the circuit breaker, but it couldn't recommend it because the procedure was an in-flight no-no. Besides, the circuit breaker was located within the scary depths of the E&E (electronics and engineering) compartment below the first-class cabin. (Later in the flight, I would stumble on the solution. The solution wasn't in the manuals, and it didn't involve pulling circuit breakers.)

At some point after we passed our oceanic entry point, the EICAS screen indicated that we had two mechanical status messages. A status message is a statement of a system problem that is not classified as an emergency. Apparently, our APU starter and a valve that regulates warm air to the passenger cabin had issues. No checklist procedure was required.

When we caught up with our navigation procedures and paperwork, I reflected on the very quick first hour. Had we not established priorities and delegated duties, a real crisis may not have been manageable.

I'm thankful for my training and the cockpit administration systems that are an integral part of the 777. The systems always help to keep the blue side up. Certainly, nothing else really matters in the midst of an actual crisis.