I crawled into the cockpit, ducked my head to avoid scraping my bald head on the minefield that is the overhead panel and set my kitbag in the space designed for it next to my seat. As I sunk into my sheep-skin covered seat and began building my “nest”, I looked up at the instrument panel and couldn’t help noticing how everything looked, felt and smelled normal. Just another flight. We were on the ground in Memphis, Tennessee and the terminal was clearly in view out the window. The large, back-lit sign on the jetbridge read C12…news to me since I had entered the cockpit by way of the Flight Training Center, not the airport terminal.
Flight 611 from Memphis to Dallas was actually going to take place in a simulator on day four of my recurrent training assignment. I return to the Flight Academy once every nine months to get one of two different training routines. Nine months ago, while completing a three day training event, I got one full day in the classroom followed by two days in the sim. The first, a day of training with one of our instructors. The second, a checkride during which a check-airman thoroughly probed my abilities as an aviator.
Nine months ago, I was tested on my ability to fly every type of approach I’m qualified to perform and refreshed my skills at handling a number of emergencies as well. Time and distance were not factors as the instructor could place me outside the outer marker for the ILS approach to runway 28 in Chicago and five minutes later set me up to intercept the final approach course for an RNAV approach in Dallas. The seasons could be changed faster than anything in real life allowing us to fly a heavy weight departure out of Denver at 100 degrees Fahrenheit followed by an icy winter approach and landing in New York a few minutes later.
This month’s training event took one day longer than the routine I completed nine months ago, adding a day of classroom study to the schedule. This time around the classes were designed to refresh my memory of aircraft systems, flight manuals, regulations, safety, security and human factors. Day three took place in the simulator and looked remarkably similar to my first day in the sim 9 months ago with a thorough review of normal and abnormal procedures.
Today, day four of my current training cycle, was different than anything I did nine months ago. Flight 611 was going to take place in real time. Commonly referred to as a LOFT, or Line Oriented Flight Training, the purpose of today’s flight was to observe a real flight, in real time, with no outside help or influence not normally available to the flight crew. Something was going to go wrong. I didn’t know what and I didn’t know when, but I knew it was coming. I would have to handle the situation as I would in real life and I would be graded on my performance and held responsible for the outcome.
As I got comfortable, the check-airman sitting behind me took on the role the world outside the cockpit. He would be the gate agent, flight attendant, push crew, ramp controller, ground, tower, departure and en-route controller and anyone else we needed to be in contact with during our flight. What he would not be was an instructor. During a normal training exercise in the simulator, it isn’t at all uncommon for the instructor to hit pause and carry on a conversation with the pilots as the aircraft is suspended in a moment of time. Finish teaching, hit play, and let things start where they left off. There would be none of that today.
The normal pressures of an every-day flight started about 5 minutes in as the instructor…excuse me…as the gate agent began pushing for an on-time departure that had been intentionally and unreasonably set by the instructor. This really was going to feel real. The Captain and I had to make a conscious effort to slow things down and do things right the first time. You rarely get an opportunity for a do-over in aviation.
With the cockpit prepped and ready for departure and the simulator door closed behind us, I heard a high pitched beep from outside the sim warning anyone within a few hundred feet that the simulator’s draw-bridge style walkway was about to raise. Shortly thereafter I felt the sim begin to move as the motion system was engaged. From here on, everything would look and feel real.
The interphone crackled as the Crew Chief advised the Captain that the walk around and FOD check (Foreign Object Debris) was complete and gave him clearance to release brakes and call for push-back. “Memphis Ground, American 611, C12, Push-back.”
We pushed back from the gate, started both engines and began our taxi to runway 18C with visibility reported at 2400 RVR (Runway Visual Range). Honestly, I was a little surprised it wasn’t lower. Anything less than 1800 RVR and we would need a takeoff alternate, since we would need at least that much to return to Memphis in the event of an engine failure. Instructors like to set the visibility below single engine minimums to see if you will pick up on the fact that you are legally required to have a take-off alternate. It's a common gotcha, but as I said, would not be a factor today.
As we approached runway 18C, the tower controller cleared us to “Line up and wait” but I was not ready for takeoff. Given the visibility, I didn’t want to be “heads down” while taxiing around a relatively unfamiliar airport and had gotten behind on the Taxi and Before Takeoff checklists. I still needed to compare our final closeout weight and balance information against the planned numbers and had a few checklist items to complete before we would be ready to depart. Once I was finished, I advised the tower that we were ready and we promptly received clearance for takeoff. “Fly runway heading, Runway 18C…cleared for takeoff.”
The Captain had elected to fly the leg, which most likely meant I would be running the checklists and solving problems as they arose. We accelerated down the runway, rotated and climbed into the cloud filled night sky. We were almost instantly inside the clouds with two white beams of light emanating from each wing tip illuminating the dense cloud cover ahead.
The departure controller turned us to the west, and as we climbed through 10,000 feet, handed us off to Memphis Center. Soon thereafter we were cleared on course direct to the Little Rock VOR where we would pick up the arrival into Dallas.
As I mentioned before, one thing that set this flight off as different from most others was that I knew something bad was coming. Again, I didn’t know what or when, but I knew it was coming. I scanned the engine instruments and the overhead panel with much more frequency than normal in hopes of catching some sign of what was to come. Nothing seemed out of place. Everything was working perfectly.
We leveled off at FL 320 (32,000 ft.) and completed the Cruise checklist, sent a position report to our company dispatcher (who was still seated 2 feet behind me) and started planning our descent and arrival into Dallas. The weather in Dallas was worse than it was in Memphis with RVR 800/600/400 (touchdown, mid, rollout) reported on runway 17C. Visibility this low would necessitate a CAT III approach and an autopilot flown landing known as an autoland.
The MD80, as old as it is, does a respectable job landing itself on the centerline and coming to a complete stop without any assistance from the pilot except the manual inputs it took to set up the procedure. 300 – 200 – 100 – the jet announces 50 feet as the throttles retard on their own and the control yoke pulls back to raise the nose. 40 – 30 – 20 – 10 – and the jet settles onto the runway. The landing isn’t always the type that encourages the pilot to stand in the doorway and take bows, but all things considered, especially the jet’s 1960’s heritage, it’s impressive to watch.
Still level at FL 320, I had just requested an ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information System) for Dallas and sent a request for gate arrival and connecting gate information when a yellow “CAUTION” light illuminated on the glare shield. “Here we go” I thought. I looked up to see the “L CSD OIL PRESS LOW” light illuminated on the anunciator panel. No other light accompanied this lone warning light. I was surprised by that and expected the left generator to fail at any moment. At the Captain’s command, I retrieved my QRH (Quick Reference Handbook) and found the appropriate checklist. About two minutes later as I was working my way through the checklist, the “CAUTION” light again caught my attention. I looked up and noticed that the “L GEN OFF” light had also illuminated.
With the Captain’s consent, I reached for the APU start switch and hoped that the good ole Auxiliary Power Unit would spool up in this cold thin air. I was a little surprised to see it come to life and even more surprised to see a blue power available light shortly thereafter. This was shaping up to be much easier than I expected.
A little explanation may be in order here…Each engine-driven generator is driven through a constant-speed drive known as a CSD. The CSD converts the variable speed output of the engine driven generator to a constant speed. The output of the generator is variable because it is connected to the engine and changes speed as the speed of the engine is adjusted by the pilot. The CSD is lubricated by oil and is monitored by a fault protection system in each generator control circuit that automatically removes the generator from its bus and de-energize the generator in the event of certain malfunctions.
We continued with the checklist and disconnected the CSD to prevent any damage to the engine or generator.
The question at this point, and another gotcha, was the legality of flying a CAT III approach and an autoland with a compromised electrical system. I looked up a chart in the Aircraft Flight Manual that listed all equipment required to fly the approach. Under electrical system, the chart simply read “Normal**” Hmm…what do the two stars mean? At the bottom of the page in small print it read ”**APU may be used in lieu of one engine generator.” So in our case, a disconnected CSD and an inoperative engine driven generator was normal as long as the APU generator was operating normally.
The rest was simple and quite routine. I checked and rechecked the book a few times just to make sure I was reading it correctly since illegally flying a CAT III approach would most definitely end the ride with a pink slip, but we were in fact legal.
After we landed, we were given taxi instructions to the terminal where we shut down and completed the Parking checklist. “Nice job gentlemen, ride’s over.” Those were nice words to hear…except it wasn’t really over.
The LOFT part of the checkride is what we call a “jeopardy” ride. Although it rarely happens, you can fail the ride. If you don’t pass, you come back for more training and do it all over again on another day. The rest of the ride would be “train to proficiency.” During a “train to proficiency” event, you are permitted to re-attempt a maneuver if you screw it up the first time. The only limiting factor is that there are a number of items that must be demonstrated and if you run out of time because you did everything twice, then you won’t be able to finish in the allotted time and another day of training would be in order.
...if you don't think you have time to do it right the first time, what makes you think you have time to do it twice?
After a short break in the “iron kitchen” we climbed back into the simulator and took a beating from the check-airman. Wind shear on takeoff…twice. Wind shear during the landing phase…twice. Twice, not because we didn’t do it right the first time, but because the instructor wanted us to see the outcome of using different techniques for escape. High and low speed aborts…engine failures at critical speeds…several engine fires...a cargo fire…several approaches…unusual attitude recovery...RNAV procedures and some raw data time in the pattern.
Raw data? That means we flew around in the clouds with no autopilot and no flight director. Sounds simple enough, but if you rely too much on the autopilot as many do, it can be surprisingly difficult. We flew around for a while getting climbs, descents and turns then flew a raw data ILS to minimums with a direct crosswind at 18 knots gusting to 23. It wasn’t the prettiest approach I’d ever flown, but I was pleased to have kept everything within the required standards.
Day four of my training consisted of a two hour oral exam and pre-flight brief followed by four hours in the simulator. I walked away feeling refreshed and confident in my skills. There’s nothing quite like the feeling a pilot has while walking away from the school house after a successful checkride. Back to guilt free TV, good books and long walks on layovers.
I’ll be back for more in another nine months.