Friday, September 2, 2005

Flying Stuff

I have been an airline pilot now for 11 years, at three different companies. I’ve been at my current job (and what I fully intend to be my last airline job) for four years. I’m currently flying a DC-8, a magnificent design and one of the first major jet airplanes. It is a testament to the quality of the design and construction of this airplane that substantial numbers are still plying their trade almost 50 years after the initial design. (It’s worth noting that the engineers who first designed this airplane would have commuted to work on trains pulled by steam locomotives!) My company’s DC-8s are among the last built, making them 30 or so years old, and have been wonderfully maintained and updated.

Early airliners required a third crewmember in the cockpit in addition to the two pilots. The Flight Engineer, who sits behind the co-pilot or First Officer (the right-hand pilot seat, where I now sit) is responsible for operating the airplane’s systems--the fuel and electrics, hydraulics, heating / air conditioning, and pressurization, etc.--since the systems had not yet attained any degree of automation and the two pilots had their hands full flying the airplane safely.

When I got hired at my present job, the Engineer position was the junior position, and I duly spent just over three and a half years “plumbing” (as it is called) before recently moving back up to a pilot’s seat. This post is a lengthy email to my family & friends about my first couple of days back in a window seat. (Apologies to those of you who have already read this material, to those pilot friends who will find this like a Sesame Street lesson, and lastly to those of you who don’t give a damn about airplanes!)

I'm in Ontario CA (about 40 miles ENE of Los Angeles and in the LA Basin) after two days of my IOE [Initial Operating Experience, a phase of training], and thought I'd send along a little play-by-play.

I flew an airplane yesterday for the first time in four years (unless you count the simulator, then we go back about 6 weeks) and accomplished a lot of firsts in my flying career: my first flight as a pilot in a jet aircraft; my first flight in a heavy aircraft (technically, above 255,000 lbs); my highest flight with me at the controls--36,000 feet; my longest flight with me at the controls--3 hours, 15 minutes; the highest speed I've flown as a pilot--Mach .84. It's a lot to absorb, and one is generally so busy remembering one's duties, few of which come readily to hand in so new an environment, that it's tough to be appreciative. I'll try to remember some highlights.

The route that I'm flying these three days, Ontario to Des Moines and back, is peculiar in that for a number of reasons Air Traffic Control keeps the airplane up very high until quite close to both of these airports, making a reasonable descent problematic (OK, impossible). This brings into play one of the biggest differences from my past airplanes to the DC-8: conservation of energy. My last airplane, the Dornier 328, had propellers with an 11 foot diameter, and if one put the engines at idle in flight the airplane would come down almost as though you stomped on the brake pedal in your car (we'd say we were "hanging the passengers from their seat belts"). Indeed, in all three turboprops I flew, steep descent profiles were not problematic in any way.

But a big jet like the DC-8 makes descents an issue for a number of reasons. First, the airplane is very, very heavy--nearly 10 times as heavy as my old Dornier--and that makes for a great deal of energy when it is pointed downhill. Second, the drag management on a big jet is very efficient, and the airframes are very slippery; this is how they attain such high speeds in cruise flight. But if you point them downhill, they tend to pick up speed very quickly. Third, a jet typically flies quite a bit higher than a turboprop--middle- to upper-thirty thousands, versus teens to twenties--and so descents are often begun in one state and finished in another. This all requires rather more planning than I'm accustomed to. Lastly, the DC-8 does not have any deployable drag devices--speed brakes or drag spoilers or whatever--or at least none intended for casual use.

What the DC-8 does have is the ability for us to deploy the two inboard thrust reversers in flight. This is really quite extraordinary. Virtually all transport category jets have thrust reversers on the jet engines to help the airplanes decelerate after landing. The landing speeds are quite high and with a heavy airplane it's simply too much work for the brakes to take care of entirely on their own. But no other airplane I'm aware of can use its reversers in flight! But the DC-8 can, and it makes the airplane descend much quicker, but it shakes the occupants (and indeed, the whole airplane) around pretty good in the process. We freight dogs don't much mind that, but it's a violent enough sensation that one wouldn't do it with passengers on board without a long announcement and a damn good reason. The company discourages the use of reversers in flight unless they're necessary since it causes wear and tear on the airplane. But on this particular flight we usually find ourselves right on top of the airport with about 10,000 feet to lose.

Well, we've used the reversers on three of our four legs so far, so each approach has been a bit of a nail-biter! It might have been nice to see some more normal approaches first, but the rest of the flight is quite normal and, after all, it's valuable to see what the airplane is capable of in a pinch. Anyway, all has come out well, and it's good experience to become accustomed to what is, in real life, a bit of a rare occurrence. The inflight use of the reversers is generally accompanied with some rather aggressive maneuvering and fairly rapid configuration changes, all quite close to the airport, and it feels a bit odd flying a 250,000 pound airplane like I used to fly my little Beech 1900. My instructor is a splendid fellow who keeps me out of trouble but lets me make and learn from my mistakes.

Today's flight from Des Moines back to Ontario took us over Omaha, Colorado Springs, directly over the center of the Grand Canyon (which is much larger than one might think and absolutely spectacular from five miles up!), just to the South of Las Vegas and Lake Meade and the Hoover Dam, and into Ontario. We had an amazingly clear day for summer (especially a HOT summer) and the views were spectacular. Much of the time we're simply flying too high to see much detail, but it brings a different and fascinating perspective to see stuff from so high up. In so much of Nebraska and Eastern Colorado one can see the herculean efforts put forth by people to make a living off of desert land. A million perfect circles (actual "crop circles" as opposed to those 2X4-created hoaxes that conspiracy theorists and fans of alien abduction are so fond of) are visible where the arc of irrigation booms make agriculture possible.

The country is stunningly HUGE, mile after mile, with uncountable acres of land as far as you can see (from six miles up!) in every direction, all owned by somebody. From so high up it's not apparent that we're travelling over the ground at 450-600 knots (which is 500-650 mph), but if you look at your window sill and trace it along a roadway you can see that you pass a square-mile block in about six seconds. (An aside: I refer to our height above the earth as five or six miles, but we flew the whole time at 36,000 feet above sea level. How high we are above ground varies, depending on how high the ground is above sea level. The high parts of the Rockies were only 20,000 feet below us while Omaha was over 35,000 feet below us.) The Rockies are a whole different kind of spectacular. We discussed today: who OWNs the Rockies? Is it all state or national park? If you wanted to, say, start a ski hill, who would you talk to?

Anyway. The DC-8 is the first airplane I've flown with hydraulically-assisted flight controls. Donald Douglas was not a trusting soul concerning hydraulics, and the DC-8 will operate very well without them, but something other than human muscle power is needed to move flight controls this large. So the airplane FEELS different than what I'm used to. It's larger and more, well, industrial-feeling. The controls are heavier and need a more forceful input than anything I've flown before (and I'm told from people who have flown other jets that the DC-8 is particularly heavy on the controls). The control yoke is made of iron and is large like a tractor steering wheel. One does not fly with one's fingertips (pinkies extended!): a firm grip with both hands is called for, and while the airplane is not unresponsive it's still a slow, deliberative process to maneuver it around. This is in contrast to its great straight-line speed capability (it's the only transport jet to have exceed Mach One in flight testing).

Flying in a straight line or making turns while enroute is not appreciably different from other airplanes. But the aforementioned descent and the landing are a different matter. The DC-8 was certified initially with much smaller-diameter engines on it. When sitting on the ground, the old engines were much further from the pavement than the new (new in the '80s) high-bypass engines are. Now one has to be careful on takeoff and landing not to let any hard parts of the airplane come in contact with the ground. This was never a concern with airplanes I flew before! On takeoff you must be careful to raise the nose slowly and only so far until you're off the ground or the tail will hit; and landing in a crosswind is a pretty hair-raising experience! I won't bore you with a description of how crosswind landings are typically done, but suffice it to say that they're probably the most physically difficult thing to do in any airplane, and in the DC-8 you kind of have to take everything it took you years to learn and intuit and throw it out the window.

Much of the time there is nothing to indicate to you that the airplane extends 180 feet behind your seat. The view out the window is just like any airplane, and the controls, however they feel, do what any airplane's controls do (just as a dump truck's steering wheel does what a Miata's does). But the subtleties are where we live, and the small differences become big things when you live with them day in and day out. There are subtle reminders that there's just a hell of a lot more MASS involved here, and that's kind of scary at times (like when you're hurtling toward a landing at 175 mph!).

I'll save the discussion about navigation for another email. Time for a shower and off to bed in time for my 4:am wakeup call!



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