Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Left Seat

It was a strange feeling, to be entering the flight deck as I had many times before but then to turn left instead of right and to sling my flight bag beside the captain's seat. I took off my blazer, fourth stripe newly attached, and hung it up on the jumpseat folded along the cockpit wall. Then I reached across the seat to press the lateral tracking lever so I could get the seat out of the way enough to sit down. It didn't budge. I tried again. Nothing. I finally just climbed across the center pedestal and awkwardly plopped into the seat. Egh! How was I going to pass captain OE if I couldn't even work the danged seat!?

At most airlines, upgrading to captain is a fairly long process that involves classroom training, an oral exam, simulator training, a checkride or two, and then operational experience, or OE. This last step involves flying the line, with paying passengers on board, under the supervision of a check airman. At NewCo, I did all the previous steps as a newhire; most training and checking was done with me in the left seat, acting as Captain. Because I'd passed my checkride within the previous six months, the FAA allowed NewCo to upgrade me by sending me straight to Captain OE. It's an unusual situation at the airlines.

I'd been studying for the last several weeks. Most OE candidates have the benefit of having come straight out of training, so everything is fresh in their mind. For me it had been nearly six months since I did Captain flows in the sim, and I'd flown the line for 300 hours - more than enough time to gain some bad habits. Mindful of this, I spent hours in cruise flight reading the AOM and FOM. I started studying harder when I found out that a string of OE candidates had been washing out and getting sent back to the right seat. The night before my OE started I stayed up late, feverishly studying my flows. I still worried that I'd seem unprepared to the check airman.

Now, seated at last, I realized that the Captain's seat levers were reversed from the FO's, so the tracking levers were on the right rather than the left. That mystery solved, I set about doing the Captain's duties and flows I'd seared into my brain over the last few weeks. First, I read the dispatch release and flight paperwork, checking critical items, separating and folding the individual parts. Then I reached down for the aircraft logbook ("the can"); I verified that the required servicing had been completed, that the few items deferred had been done so correctly, that there were no open write ups, and any recurring write ups noted. I launched into the Captain's preflight flow, starting with the overhead panel and flowing down across the glareshield, main panel, and center pedestal. I initialized the FMS, entered the flight plan, and set up the performance parameters. I listened in while the check airman copied the ATIS and clearance, and then called for a clearance brief and preflight check. The flight attendants brought the passenger count and the rampers brought up the bag count; the check airman added up the weights as I worked the balance computer to figure our mean aerodynamic chord (MAC) and trim setting. That complete, we handed the paperwork to the gate agent, she shut the cabin door, the flight attendant closed the cockpit door, and I ran my before start flows and called for the before start check. The inbound flight had arrived late, so I had about 20 minutes to do all this; we blocked out on time.

After we pushed back and started up, the check airman called for taxi clearance. Moment of truth! Other than a few flights in light aircraft, I haven't taxied an airplane in years. The reason is that most airliners only have a steering tiller on the Captain's side. I pressed down the tiller and gingerly added power. To my surprise, the tiller was fairly smooth and easy to use (I was later to discover that the first several planes we took delivery of have extremely sensitive, jerky tillers). The main difficulty in taxiing was switching between the tiller and the rudder pedals. The pedals are easier to use on straightaways, whereas tiller use is necessary around turns. The tiller is active only when pressed down, and the pedals are only active when the tiller is released. It's one or the other. You get jerked around when you try to switch between them when they're not aligned with each other. Also, I found that you need to slow below 10 kts to make a smooth turn.

I discovered midway through the taxi that I hadn't turned on the taxi light. It is required during aircraft movement on the ground, even during the day. The switch is on the overhead panel and is easy to miss if you're not in the habit of flipping it every time you start or stop taxiing. I forgot it again several times on subsequent flights until I got used to doing it.

I'd been chair-flying the takeoff run the last several days because I really wanted to nail it. At most airlines, the Captain takes the thrust levers during the takeoff run regardless of who is flying. The philosophy is that it's the Captain's decision to abort or not and therefore he should have his hand in a position to do so. When the FO is the pilot flying, they set takeoff power but then withdraw their hand to allow the captain to guard the thrust levers. By now it's such a force of habit for me that I knew I'd have to consciously choose to keep my hand on the thrust levers after setting takeoff power, and take my hands off when the check airman called V1. The chair-flying paid off; the takeoff run went flawlessly.

Once airborne, the pilot flying and pilot not flying duties are the same regardless of which seat you occupy. Everything looks different from the other seat so you need to be conscious of exactly which buttons and knobs you're reaching for, but reprogramming your hands doesn't take that long. Likewise, flying the plane with my left hand felt awkward at first but the novelty wore off after a few legs.

My first landing in the left seat was embarrassingly hard; I pretty much just failed to flare. I don't think being in the left seat had anything to do with it, I just didn't pull back aggressively enough. It happens. Bad landings in the JungleBus are still a whole lot nicer than bad landings in the Q400. My taxi in to the gate at Dulles was smoother than my taxi out at MSP.

I got smoother and more comfortable over the next several days of OE. Day three, on my birthday, was a 13.5 hr duty day with 5 legs. Our auto-throttles were inoperative that day, which doesn't sound like a big deal unless you've flown with them - then you know how you miss them when you don't have them. I try to do at least one approach per trip without auto-throttles so I don't get dependent on them, and that paid off on the long day. After the four day trip, I had two day trips: one to Vancouver yesterday, and one to Salt Lake City later today. That will bring me up to the required 25 hours; my line check and "fed ride" is scheduled for Monday. Assuming I pass, at that point I'll be a fully qualified Captain.


Louis said...

Great job, both on the flying and writing! Love these posts - keep it up!

Tom said...

Good luck Sam!! It'll be interesting to hear how the check ride goes.

Paradise Driver said...

Now that you have the four stripes, remember to turn off the intercom after your greeting announcement. We all know the stories about that error.

Congratulations! You'll do just great.

Tim said...

Congratulations on the fourth stripe and the left seat from a reader who enjoys this wonderful blog!

Dave said...

A great post, and congratulations that your OE is going so well. I'm really hoping you get this Sam, good luck!


Anonymous said...

Awesome man! Sounds like a whole new adventure for you. I'll bet that it was odd getting used to the flipped controls!

Pilot said...

Anyone can fly a jet ok ... even a 300 hours CPL rated pilot with the right training. The hard part is flying the airplane safely when the sh*t hits the fan. When that emergency happens and you have to make the critical decisions.

Are you ready for that?

Aluwings said...

Congrats! Any "27 year old" (i.e from your profile) who's holding a left seat on an airline jet is doing okay!

WRT: "The tiller is active only when pressed down, and the pedals are only active when the tiller is released. It's one or the other."

Sounds kind of awkward... The Airbus has a center switch you have to push to disengage the rudder pedals for rudder control checks. Otherwise you can just use one or the other without problem.

GC said...

Gotta get past the high-mins stage to be a "fully qualified Captain."


Congrats and best of luck!

tracy said...

Congratulations on the start of your OE! You'll have no problem sleeping Monday night.

A lot of the bigger planes have tillers on both sides. It lets the CA transfer taxi control when he/she is heads-down checking data for the takeoff. Of course, they usually only do that on straight taxiways.

Now you'll always get to fly with your favorite Captain!

Anonymous said...

To the "anyone can fly a jet"--no need to be offended by another's accomplishments! Sam--everything in your career has prepared you for this next step. I have no doubt you'll be great. Great posts, too.

Pilot said...

My comment was not supposed to be offensive. I just saw that he only talked about the actual flying differences ... but not the change in mentality and the extra responsibility that comes with that. I just wanted to point out that the changes in flying the airplane are minimal ... the change in mentality is the main difference. In my opinion no Training Dept. actually teaches you to be a good captain ... it's all about experience.

Btw ... I think I know you from UND :)

Anonymous said...

Congrats man, great news!

Sam said...

No offense taken, pilot, your point is quite valid. Honestly, I wouldn't have accepted the upgrade if I didn't think I was ready to be a Captain (as opposed to simply a left-seat pilot).

I have
written before
about what makes a good Captain, and am planning a future post about the mentality shift that is required with the change in positions. This post was pretty narrow in scope, just retelling what my first day of OE was like.

Anonymous said...

well done Sam, you will do fine I'm sure

Paradise Driver said...

You might get a smile out of this.

"The times, they are a-changing."

siouxpilot said...

Sam, this is my first comment and I just wanted to say I've enjoyed reading your blogs over the past few months. I'm a aviation student at the University of North Dakota who is from the MSP area. I would really like to get in touch with you and I'm not sure how to but to leave you my email address here. If you could delete it after you have it that would be great also. Thanks a

Anonymous said...


Looks like you got out of Horizon at a good time too.

Grant said...

Great post Sam. I enjoy the blog!

Good luck on your fed ride.