Thursday, September 15, 2005

Flying the 737

Last weekend, I went to Houston with a bunch of my flying buddies (Jim, Dave, Dad, Donn, and Norm) to attend the ATOP course at Continental. ATOP (Airline Training Orientation Program) was created by Wayne Phillips to give pilots an intro to what it's like to train for and fly an airliner. This was the third time Dad and I have attended, the second for Jim and Dave, and the first for Donn and Norm. Our steed for the weekend was the 737-300.

We met Wayne for breakfast/orientation around 9am and started ground school about 10am. Ask any airline pilot about training and they'll say the same thing: "It's like drinking from a fire hose." We were in the classroom from 10am to 5pm with several short breaks. We learned electrics, pneumatics, hydraulics, pressurization, and startup flows (steps to start the engines). To give you an idea of what we covered, a common question might be, “what items are affected by a loss of A hydraulic system pressure?” Incredibly boring for most, but strangely fun for 737 fans! By the end of class, our brains were turning to jelly but we had learned a lot. After class, we still had to hit the computer lab for more training and then the CPT (cockpit procedures trainer) to practice for the next day’s flight. Here’s us in the classroom and CPT trying to stay awake:

After CPT time, we headed to the hotel bar and had some dinner. Our sim time was 6am the next morning.

We arrived at the training center ready to fly at 6am. Our first job was to go from a “cold” airplane to engines started in the FBS (fixed-base simulator). We also all did our high-altitude signoff, in case we ever get the chance to fly something pressurized. Getting the airplane started is half the fun; we all did a good job and had fun. Here’s us in the FBS:

After FBS sessions were done, Wayne gave us good/bad news. Our sim (the 737-300) had broken, so our sim time had been moved to 4am tomorrow. Yes that’s right, 4am! We grumbled until he told us we would get to fly the 737-800! The -800 is one of the newest airplanes Continental flies and has an all-glass cockpit. This made the 4am sim session worth it. Wayne turned us loose for the day and told us to meet him at the training center at 3:50am tomorrow. We then got some lunch and visited NASA (see post below). Most of us hit the sack early (9pm for me) but some were out late with a Continental crew coming off duty for the week (you know who you are).

The alarm went off at 3am and we were up and going, although somewhat slowly. We arrived at the training center on-time and went to the sim bay. Dave and I had chosen to go first and I would fly as Captain first. No pressure!

We strapped into our seats, got takeoff clearance and took off. Having flown the sim before, I didn’t have much trouble keeping everything where it should be. Wayne knew that so he gave me continuous turbulence which made things more challenging. While I flew he threw several systems failures at Dave; Dave handling everything great. I was now setup on my first approach. On short final, I lowered the nose a bit much, but got things together and got a good landing and touch-and-go (you can do things like touch-and-gos in the sim!). For my second approach, Wayne set the weather low (400 feet ceiling and 1 mile visibility). I flew a good approach and made another good landing. The 737 is an easy airplane the fly and I really felt at home in it. Dave and I even managed to work some good jokes in as well. If the flight attendant ever asks for someone to fly the plane since the crew had the fish, I’ll be ready!

After I flew, Dad and Jim flew, then Dave flew as Captain and I flew as his First Officer. While FO, Wayne threw 5-6 different failures at me, which Dave and I figured out and fixed. The biggest was total hydraulic failure, which left us with cables to move the flight controls. It was doable, but like lifting weights just to turn! Dave did a great job flying and flew some nice approaches. Lastly, Dad and Jim flew again. They both did very well, as did Donn and Norm in the other session.

After our sim session ended at 6am, we thanked Wayne and went to get breakfast. After that, we checked out of the hotel and flew back to STL. I got home around 2pm and slept until 6pm and went to bed at 9pm. Our ATOP weekend was very tiring but very rewarding. We all had a great time together, learned a lot, and told more flying stories than I can count!

ATOP allows pilots to experience the airline pilot life for a weekend and see if it fits them. I love flying the 737 but hate staying in hotels and making virtually no money for five years. Right now, I am much happier working my day job and instructing on the weekends. It’s very rewarding and lets me enjoy flying as a serious hobby instead of a job. Maybe someday, that will change and I’ll make the move to jets and “the show”. Until then, I’ll keep practicing my Captain’s cabin announcement and drink for the fire hose every few years.

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