Monday, December 14, 2015

The Last Tour

I was originally awarded the 757/767 back in February, but this came on a fairly open-ended bid that allowed the company to converted awarded pilots more or less when they pleased (though always in seniority order). At the time the thinking was that they needed us on the line yesterday, and I assumed I'd be trained and on the line by July. As it turned out, I was dead wrong and got to enjoy another sweaty summer on the Mad Dog. I then would have been placed in training in October, except that was when I had two weeks of vacation, and in the bid preferences I had asked for the vacation to be honored. After all, that was when I was heading down to the BVI for my fourth year of sailing in the Interline Regatta. Because of the vacation, PBS only assigned me six days of flying in October, a four-day trip before the regatta and a two-day to end the month. I was subsequently assigned a 6 Nov class date, and despite my best efforts to get 1-5Nov off, PBS assigned a two-day trip on the 1st and 2nd.

I caught a lucky break and had my early October trip pulled for newhire OE, since I was paired up with a line check airman. This left me with only four days of flying to finish up my stint on the Mad Dog, 30Oct-2Nov. Coming back to any airplane after a full month off is a little uncomfortable, but once you've been on it a while it only takes a leg or two to get back into the swing of things. Of course I'd already been hard at work studying for my new airplane for a few weeks, and I had a couple minor screwups due to the negative transfer (on one takeoff roll I accidentally called "80 knots, throttle hold, thrust normal" instead of "Clamp, 80 knots, thrust normal" - which the captain thought was hilarious). Overall, though, I didn't make too many "short-timer's" mistakes.

Lord knows there was plenty of opportunity to screw the pooch. The first three days were a hilariously bad compendium of the assorted and well-known ravages of Mad Dog flying that keep senior FOs on widebody fleets long after they can hold MD captain. The weather was dogshit all up and down the east coast - low ceilings, wind, and rain - with the attendant flow programs and major delays going in and out of hub airports. We seemed to have maintenance issues on nearly every leg: a bunch of MELs, or unusual ones that required extra study, or open writeups from prior crew, breakages during preflight, and glitches enroute. We had the exact same malfunction I wrote about in my column earlier this year: the FMS spontaneously dumped all route and performance data, apparently due to a momentary power interruption. This time it happened while descending at night on a complex RNAV arrival (and getting the snot kicked out of us in heavy rain); I saw the problem right away and immediately reverted to lower automation levels while the captain coaxed a simpler clearance out of the clearly-displeased controller. That was on leg three of a long four-leg day - with two plane swaps - in and out of our largest hub. The next leg (different airplane) saw me hand-flying a no-kidding ILS approach into mountainous Asheville, NC, after the autopilot did a decidedly unsatisfactory job of tracking the localizer. We broke out about a hundred feet above minimums. Despite our late-night arrival and the driving rain, the captain accompanied me to one of my favorite Asheville watering holes for a nightcap. The brew went down easy on my last Mad Dog layover.

The last day started the same as the first three, with rain and low ceilings prompting flow delays into "Mecca." Our last leg to Minneapolis, thankfully, was blissfully smooth once we got past Nashville. The weather was decent in Minnesota, we broke out of the high overcast to see the lights of the Twin Cities stretched before us, and ATC cleared us for the visual approach quite early. I clicked off the autopilot and autothrottles at 8000 feet and enjoyed my last time handflying the old gal around the pattern to Runway 12R. My last landing wasn't perfect, but it wasn't horrible either; I'll take it. It was a little surreal to think I may have landed that plane for the last time, though I rather suspect I'll have another crack at Mad Dog wrangling at some point in my career. In the meantime, I've been advised that any misplaced nostalgia for the Mad Dog will likely disappear right about when I land the Boeing 757 for the first time!

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Ode to Mad Dog

Long before I was assigned the Mad Dog, I knew I was destined to fly her. My company assigns seniority within new-hire classes according to the last four digits of your social security number, and with a sub-0300 SSN I was guaranteed to be one of the most junior in my class and assigned by default to the most junior seat at the airline: New York Mad Dog FO. I was at peace with that, and after six plus years of the stultifyingly automated JungleBus I was honestly ready for a challenge and a change of pace. The Mad Dog’s rugged design and old-school cockpit held a certain attraction for me, and my only real regret was that I never got a chance to fly the DC-9 before it was retired.

That said, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how busy the Mad Dog is, particularly in the right seat during ground operations. The preflight, pushback, after engine start, taxi, before takeoff, after takeoff, descent, approach, before landing, after landing, and shutdown flow patterns and checklists are all considerably longer than on the JungleBus (a couple of those nearly three times as long). Engine starts just about require three hands. Quite a few switches on the right side of the cockpit belong to the FO even while Pilot Flying with the autopilot off. The airplane has VNAV and autothrottles, but both are glitchy enough to require close attention and frequent intervention to smooth out their operation and ensure compliance with restrictions. The relatively small wing means that very careful attention must be paid to speed and maneuvering margins both after takeoff and at cruise altitude, which seldom exceeds FL330. The brakes are by turns pitifully weak and unpredictably grabby, and it’s nigh impossible to symmetrically deploy and spool up the thrust reversers. This is an airplane with a fairly steep learning curve; I did well in training only by studying my ass off (it also helped to have a sharp training partner with experience on the airplane).

Coming to the line as a brand new FO was an eye-opening workout. Many of the captains I initially flew with on reserve had been on the airplane for years and were used to an experienced FO’s pace of operations. I sometimes had to remind them that I was new and needed a little more time. Every trip I made mistakes, found more gotchas, learned new tips and tricks, and saw more unfamiliar glitches and failure modes. There’s a lot of tribal knowledge among Mad Dog drivers, much of it not written down anywhere. And then, after a couple months, I was able to hold a junior line and often flew with captains who were themselves brand new to both the airplane and the left seat. With only a couple hundred hours in the airplane, I was occasionally the “experienced guy” passing on my scant slice of the tribal knowledge.

I passed the magic 400-hour mark, releasing me from probation, after only five months of line flying. Remarkably, I found myself getting comfortable with the airplane. Actually, that’s not exactly the right way to put it, because I continued watching the Mad Dog as closely as ever, if not more so. Perhaps it is better to say that I got comfortable with being uncomfortable. Relaxed preflights, clean uncluttered cockpits, flawlessly smooth autopilots and autothrottles, and trying to stay awake as we blithely cruised across the country at FL370 all faded from memory until they seemed like distant, fanciful dreams. I came to simply accept the Mad Dog’s flaws and quirks as just the way life is. I didn’t pine for a more relaxed, more sophisticated airplane. The hardest part of coming to the Mad Dog is coming to the Mad Dog, and that was already done.

And in fact, once I accepted the plane’s busyness and quirkiness, I actually found quite a few things about it that I really liked. For starters, it’s built like a brick shithouse. The systems are simple and robust, and while there’s not a great deal of redundancy the plane doesn’t really need it as it’s not horribly dependent on hydraulics, electric, etc. The primary flight controls are all manual, with control cables driving servo tabs. It hand flies pretty well for being a notorious truck; though control forces are fairly high, it’s easy to put the plane right where you want it and keep it there. Near-centerline thrust makes single-engine work a cakewalk. The extension speeds on the very draggy flaps are ridiculously high (starting at 280 kts) so it’s easy to get down when you find yourself high. The pilots are so far forward of the engines that even on the JT8D model it’s really quiet, and though the cockpit looks like the bridge of a Russian submarine, it's actually laid out pretty logically. The Flight Mode Annunciator may look like a 1980s football scoreboard but it’s large and visible in any lighting conditions. And once you figure out the myriad controls for the cockpit lighting, it’s almost infinitely customizable which makes for a very comfortable nighttime environment.

I found myself growing downright fond of the airplane. More than one friend suggested that my newfound appreciation for the Mad Dog was nothing more than Stockholm Syndrome. Perhaps. The reality is that, much like taildraggers, a certain amount of the Mad Dog’s cachet comes not despite its flaws but because of them. It’s frequently stated to be a “real man’s airplane” (though I hasten to add that several female friends have flown it for years and claim to love it). Airbus pilots, like Cherokee drivers, are considered perhaps a little suspect for no other reason than that their airplanes can camouflage weak flying skills, while Mad Dog wranglers, like tailwheel pilots, get a (sometimes undeserved!) presumption of competence. In 757/767 training, each instructor has asked what fleet I’m coming from and, informed of my Mad Dog status, to a man they’ve given a relieved little wave and assured me I’d do great on the Boeing.

Given all this, I wasn’t planning on leaving the Mad Dog anytime soon. I enjoyed the fruits of its juniority, spending a mere six weeks on reserve in New York, soon thereafter holding weekends-off regular lines, and then getting back to Minneapolis after eight months of commuting. Of the other aircraft in my base, the Airbus has remained improbably senior (nobody wants to leave it!) and the 757/767 category was slowly shrinking. But then pending aircraft retirements were cancelled, the category got additional flying, there was movement from senior FOs upgrading to captain, and suddenly there was a bid out for fifty (!) MSP 757/767 FOs. I ran the numbers and concluded I’d have about the same seniority in either airplane. The Boeing paid more and had better trips, though I might not be able to hold international flying. I was still undecided when I had lunch with (now-former) Flying editor Robert Goyer on an Austin layover. I mentioned the possibility of bidding the Boeing but noted I’d have to spend a month at training. “Don’t you like training for new airplanes?” prodded Goyer. He had a point, I actually do, and I've wanted to fly the 757 since I was ten years old. That decided it; I put the bid in that night.

I was awarded the Boeing in February and didn’t start training until November 5th, so I had plenty of extra time to appreciate the Mad Dog. The last four days on the plane were so hilariously Maddogish that they merit their own separate post. Meanwhile I wrap up training on the Boeing in a couple days and will be enjoying some paid time off over the holidays while I wait to be assigned OE/TOE.