Airline Pilot for a Day

By Dan Masys
EAA #300410

Does there exist an aviator anywhere in the land of general aviation who has not wondered what it would be like to fly an airliner? Well, probably, but I’m not one of them, and my natural inquisitiveness about this was rewarded by an opportunity to participate in the Airline Training Orientation Program (ATOP) conducted at what was then Continental Airlines’ corporate flight training center in Houston. For $495 (plus you getting yourself to Houston and supporting your own lodging) you can get an intense day of ground school in the systems of the Boeing 737, and spend an hour in a 737-800 full motion simulator guided by a CFII instructor pilot as you play the role of both Captain and First Officer (more properly known as Pilot Flying and Pilot Monitoring these days). And an additional hour riding up and down in the simulator watching another two person crew do the same.

My compatriots in this exercise made up four crews of two persons each. One was an aspiring young man of 27 who was on the road to become an airline pilot and wanted to experience the pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow. The rest of us were GA pilots in our 40’s and 50’s who, in the words of program originator and grand poobah Wayne Phillips, were in “Walter Mitty mode,” living our dream of guiding 150,000 pounds of advanced technology turbojet heavy iron around the skies. Most of the attendees were relatively low time pilots with 100-200 hours, and it seemed only about half had instrument ratings, which had to have made the vocabulary and procedures of the all-IFR world of the airlines seem even more of an information overload.

Being the proud papa of an RV-7A and EFIS equipped RV-10, I had a special interest in Boeing’s approach to systems design and user interfaces. This kept me keenly engaged even late on the afternoon of the first day, when some of the participants were glazing over a bit on the intricacies of electrical systems, hydraulics, engines, heating & cooling, pressurization and fire detection and control. My -10 seems robust with its dual alternators, battery backup and dual electrical bus design, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the triple layer redundancies for flight critical systems in the 737, all powered by four independent sources of electrical power. There is no doubt in my mind why these puppies cost $45 million each. For almost every system in the Boeing, there is a control panel with a switch labeled “Auto” that lets the smarts of the airplane manage things, but it all gets very interesting when things begin to head south. As soon as systems begin to fail, knowing how the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone informs what options the flight crew has to continue the flight or make a new plan.

A long day in the classroom and sitting in the static flight deck mockups just reaching for switches and levers was rewarded bright and early on the second day with a chance to fly the full motion simulator. I was the first one into the left seat of our simulator (since my First Officer coyly observed that my 2000 hours of PIC was 20 times more flight experience than he had!) and was the first one to experience the magical moment when they throw the switches and the dark simulator is instantly transformed into a living breathing whale of an aircraft sitting on runway 28R at San Francisco International. I was amazed as I looked out the window to the left and right, and saw the Bay and Oakland to the right and the hills south of SFO ahead and to the left. And looking down it seemed I was much too high off the runway. When the time came to advance the throttles, we were all pushed back in our seats. Rotation speed at our weight of 150K pounds was 152kts, and initial climb-out at 170kts, and at those speeds the 737 eats up a 12,000 foot runway with alarming rapidity! An 18 degree initial bank angle seems impossibly steep but the bird leaps off the runway and once in the clear blue skies of California, it’s not much different than a nose heavy single like a C182 or Cherokee Six. Just takes a few seconds to respond to anything one does.

After a VFR lap around the Bay I was cleared for the approach back into SFO and set the big fella up on an ILS to 28R that quite remarkably resulted in a smooth squeeker of a landing. This caused my instructor pilot, Jim Caine, to remark that in “Sim Land” the penalty for doing things well is that the next time ain’t going to be so easy.
So as my first officer cleaned up the flaps, set the power to 95% and we climbed out on a touch n’ go, it wasn’t long before the emergencies started piling up. The EFIS heading indicator failed and we had to fly by the whiskey compass. Then a blaring horn and a bright red light announced that we had a fire in the Auxiliary Power Unit. Once we got that fire extinguished and were cleared for a second approach, the master-of-the-skies at the sim control panel announced there was low level wind sheer, a fog bank and the visibility was dropping to less than a mile. My smooth approach on a sunny day was instantly transformed into a bucking bronco, hang on to your seatbelts IMC experience in pitch black conditions that only revealed the strobe lights of the runway ‘rabbit’ as we were at the last 300 feet of the descent. The second landing was not so glassy as the first, and looking around in the fog the terminal building was nowhere to be seen. But no metal was bent, no FARS were knowingly busted, and there was a great rush of joy knowing I had met the mighty Boeing on its own terms and come away with a great piloting experience, new knowledge, and a cool logbook entry of 1.4 hrs of B737-800 dual received.

We also experienced flight-crew team bonding in a remarkably short period of time, and learned a lot about the division of responsibilities between the Pilot Flying and Pilot Monitoring, where everything important is verbalized and agreed upon before pushing the button that commits 75 tons of aluminum, wiring and jet fuel to head in a new direction. Crew Resource Management is the term for the approach to flying that maximizes the engagement and decision making power of two brains instead of one, and it is as important as any understanding of technical systems and flight characteristics. The full motion simulator is an amazing sensory experience, and if I had a spare $22 million burning a hole in my pocket there would definitely be one in the garage (if I had a garage with an 80 foot ceiling!) This intense “Disneyland for Pilots” experience makes my Top Five Ever aviation list, and if there is a Walter Mitty airline pilot lurking inside you, I highly recommend it as worth the price of admission. See for details. Now, flaps one, power to 95%, engage autothrottles, call rotation speed and let’s get outta here!