I’m barely on the desired side of a thin line between asleep and awake. I’m aware enough to know that I’m in bed but asleep enough to lose at least an hour between restless turns in bed. It’s dark, quiet and cool…just the way I like it. “Don’t open your eyes or look at the clock,” I keep telling myself.
Somewhere just below the surface I’m barely conscious enough to allow some procedure, checklist or memory item to creep into my mind. I’m fighting the temptation and try to focus on some distant relaxing place, but resistance is futile. “Go-around, flaps fifteen, positive rate, gear up, set missed approach altitude…” Damn!
The alarm is probably about to go off anyway. A quick one-eyed peek…crap…3:30 am. Alarm won’t sound for another 2 hours. I desperately need to sleep. Long days and short nights have been piling up for weeks. Sleep deprivation is cumulative and the fruit of all my labor hinges on today’s performance in the simulator.
The last two months have been a crescendo building up to one, all-important evaluation of my abilities. It all started almost two months ago when I decided, after 13 years on the MD80, that it was time for change. With a few key strokes on the company web site, my preferences were official. 737 First Officer wasn't on the top of the list, but it was the one I knew I would get.
I immediately began preparing for class. I was issued books, manuals, checklists and a paper mock-up of the cockpit. I wanted to show up on the first day of class knowing the airplane well enough to pass an oral exam. It took a lot of work, but preparation reduced the stress level to a manageable level and made it possible for me to extract much more from the program than if I had shown up on the first day with manuals still protected by shrink wrap.
I gave up around 4:45 this morning, stumbled downstairs and pushed the button on a coffee maker that wasn't programmed to brew for another hour. This is how check-ride day usually goes for me. I wouldn't say that I get a severe case of check-ride-itis; more like the sniffles as opposed to a full blown case of the flu. It’s only natural with so much on the line, but the jitters can be counter-productive and I go to great lengths to ward them off.
I had two check-rides this week, one yesterday and one today. Yesterday, my sim partner and I successfully passed what we call a Maneuvers Validation…MV for short. The MV is designed to test just about every maneuver we've been taught during the past two weeks of flight training. We took off and flew a handful of maneuvers designed to get us comfortable and warmed-up before jumping right into low visibility CATIII, RNAV and other non-precision approaches. Throw an engine fire, a complete loss of one of the hydraulic systems and a few electrical and air conditioning faults on top for good measure and four hours later we were all signed off for today.
This morning, my partner and I parted paths. We were both training to be first officers and we've been together since the first day of ground school. Once we made it to the simulator phase of training, I occupied the left seat and performed the captain’s duties while he received his training and he did the same for me. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s how we were expected to perform. In the end, I’ll probably have a better understanding of what the captain is thinking and doing. But today, we flew a LOFT (Line Oriented Flight Training), which requires the left seat to be occupied by a current and qualified captain.
A LOFT is flown just like a real flight, in real time, typically with realistic scenarios designed to get the student back into the mind set of flying the airplane from point A to point B. Up until now, every time we booted up the simulator, we could be anywhere in the world we wanted. High temperature and high altitude operations in Denver one minute followed by freezing drizzle and a stiff crosswind at New York LaGuardia a few minutes later. With the push of a button the instructor could place us at any airport, with any weather condition or even specify a location somewhere on a particular approach. If, for any reason, he didn't like something we did, he had the ability to push a button or two and put us right back at the outer marker for another attempt. That’s not the idea behind a LOFT.
Today, we started out at the gate in Albuquerque, New Mexico for a short flight to DFW. We loaded the FMS and prepared the cockpit just as we would for any revenue flight. The instructor acted as ATC, ground personnel, flight attendants, gate agents, dispatch and anyone else we might need to contact. Everything happened in real time and since I was the one being evaluated, it would be my turn to fly. Everything was normal. Taxi, takeoff, cruise and descent went the way 99.999% of all flights go…normal. I knew, at some point, that all hell would break loose. It always does.
We were vectored in for a VOR approach to runway 13R at DFW, so I set us up for an RNAV overlay approach. With the LNAV/VNAV capabilities of this and many other modern aircraft, a non-precision approach is anything but non-precise. As a matter of fact, we call them non-ILS approaches now instead of non-precision, since they are actually quite accurate and provide both lateral and vertical guidance all the way down to the runway.
The approach went normally. We broke out of the clouds at about 200 feet above minimums with ample visibility, but as I maneuvered the aircraft to land, another aircraft taxied out onto the runway in front of us and forced a go-around. I recited the line I woke to five hours earlier…”Go-around, flaps fifteen, positive rate, gear up, set missed approach altitude.” The go-around procedure required a hard right hand turn and a climb to 3,000 feet. With the aircraft banked into a 30 degree turn, the fire warning light lit up on the glare shield and the fire-warning bell sounded in the cockpit. I feel sure passengers sitting in the last row of coach would have heard that bell if there had actually been anyone back there.
The captain took over flying duties and left me to the checklist. It really wasn't a big deal. I found the FWD Cargo light illuminated and followed the procedure to extinguish the fire as the captain set up for an ILS to runway 17C. I finished the emergency procedure and completed the remaining normal checklist items just in time to watch the captain fly a perfect approach and landing.
By the time we landed, the fire was extinguished; Crash Fire Rescue teams assessed the situation and confirmed the fire was out before we taxied to the gate as if nothing had happened. Taxi in, shut down, run the checklists and go home. That’s all she wrote.
I haven't had a normal night’s sleep since early March. I think I’ll rectify that tonight. That fuzzy, uncomfortable feeling in my stomach has been replaced by hunger and a need for something cold to drink. I think I'll rectify that tonight as well. As for procedures and memory items interrupting my slumber, it may take a while for that to fade, but at least the stress is gone…until I return for recurrent training in 9 months.