May 18, 2013

Boeing 737 Initial Operating Experience - My First Trip

After three weeks of ground school, two weeks of simulator training, two written exams, an FMS evaluation and two back to back check rides in the simulator (one on my birthday), I finally signed in for my first trip this past Wednesday morning…but training wasn't over.  All the instruction I received up to this point had taken place in the classroom, a procedures trainer or the simulator.  In the past, when walking through the departure lounge in uniform, I've felt like people were sizing me up as a they could tell something about my abilities based on my physical appearance (there might actually be something to that). Wednesday was no different, except as I smiled and made eye contact with a few people about to board my aircraft, I couldn't help but wonder how they might feel if they knew this would be my first time to pilot the real thing.

It hasn't been that long since airline pilots were required to receive at least some training on the actual airplane before they were allowed to carry passengers.  Typically, an instructor and two or three students would go out to the airport late in the evening to fly an airplane that had been carrying passengers all day. After a few approaches and landings in the middle of the night, bounces as we often called them, the students were all signed off and legal to fly.

Today, simulator technology has advanced to the point that pilots are routinely trained solely in flight simulation devices. On Wednesday morning, I stepped onto the airplane for the first time and safely transported 150 people who had no idea I wasn't line qualified.  I was, and still am, a little wet behind the ears, but I don’t think anyone could tell.  The training we receive is quite good and prepares us well for flying the line.

My first B737...sitting at the gate at DFW
I got home Friday morning after flying three days of IOE (Initial Operating Experience).  During IOE, the company displaces a regularly scheduled crew member, captain and or first officer, and sends a check airman out to fly with a newly qualified pilot…that’s me!  The only difference between the trip I just flew and any other, is that instead of swapping legs, I got to do most of the flying.   

If you've been following along, then you know that I spent the past 13 years and just over 9,000 flight hours on the MD80.  I was nervous about leaving that plane for what is basically a lateral move within the company, but I needed something different and I needed a challenge.  Ground and flight school certainly met that need and flying the real airplane for the first time was a challenge as well. It will take time to become as proficient on the 737 as I was on the 80…the two are starkly different…but I was immeasurably more comfortable piloting the aircraft as we made our final approach and landing on Friday than I was when we began three days earlier.   

The single biggest adjustment for me has been getting used to hydraulically assisted flight controls.  I've probably said this before, but flying the MD80 is like driving a Mack truck without power steering.  It takes large, heavy handed control inputs to make the aircraft move in the desired direction…the same amount of force or control movement would practically turn the 737 upside down.  I have learned to fly the jet with a light hand and often have only my finger tips on the controls, but old habits are hard to break and I’m still learning.

One thing about the 737 that caught me by surprise was cockpit noise…and I don’t think I’m going where you think with this one.  The airplane isn't anywhere near as loud as I expected.  I was a flight engineer on the 727 for a short time and I can tell you that that airplane was deafeningly loud.  The 737 has the same nose as the 727 and I've always heard that the 737 had one of the loudest cockpits in the industry.  Thankfully, Boeing has made a few physical improvements over the years that reduced some of the noise, but I think the most significant reason behind reduced noise levels is the fact that we don’t fly the 737 as fast as we flew the 727.  Not all airlines or pilots fly the same airplane in the same way, but our procedure is to climb at 300 knots, transition to Mach .78, cruise at FMS ECON speeds and crossover to 290 knots in the descent.  For an airplane with a max speed of 340 knots and .82 Mach, the slower speeds do a lot to keep the noise down.  I was able to use the same ear mold headset that I used on the MD80 and had no difficulty carrying on a normal volume conversation as we flew.

There are a number of features of the next generation 737 that I've learned to love.  One of my favorites is the cockpit instrumentation.  Learning to interpret these screens took some work at first, but now that I've gotten used to them, I hope I never have to go back to an old “six pack” panel.  The radar image in the picture below is also a major advance.  Set in AUTO, the system continually scans not only left and right, but up and down as well, constantly adjusting gain and providing a much more accurate image of the weather.  It even detects climbing radar returns and warns the pilots if a storm will climb into the projected flight path.  Not all our jets have it and I’ll feel naked the next time I fly without it.

ND (Navigation Display) on the left. PFD (Primary Flight Display) on the right.
Another feature I've learned to love is the automatic loading of the Flight Management System (FMS) computers.  With the push of a few buttons, the route, projected winds and even weight and balance data is remotely uploaded into the computer.  It automatically displays V speed bugs, minimum maneuvering speeds and acceleration and cleanup altitudes.  It even retrieves updated weight and balance data during taxi to fine tune the planned information loaded at the gate.  This has significantly reduced my pre-flight work load and gives me time to spend on other important tasks.

Of course, I've had my struggles too.  All that automatic uploading is something that isn't simulated during training, so the first time I did it was on my first flight with people on board.  It’s all pretty simple, but if you push the wrong button at the wrong time or out of sequence, you could end up with bad or duplicate data…and possibly a ticked off captain…neither of which sound appealing to me.

Landing the airplane has also been an adjustment.  I was proud of the fact that I could consistently land the MD80 the way you would expect from someone with so much experience on the jet.  Everyone makes a rough landing every now and then, but mine were few and far between.  Of the four landings I made during IOE this week, I wasn't particularly happy with any of them.  None were terrible, but they didn't encourage many compliments either.  I blame part of that on the fact that my instructor wanted me to experience multiple flap settings (we’re authorized to land with flaps 15, 30 or 40), so the sight picture kept changing.  Also, it's a known fact that flight simulators do not land anything like the real airplane...but as Ben Franklin once said “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” No more excuses from me.

Sporting new paint on a flight from MIA to YYZ
After my last landing on Friday morning, the check airman shook my hand and welcomed me to the fleet.  I am now legally qualified on the airplane and look forward to my first regular trip next week.  I'm also looking forward to a trip to the company store as I've been fighting off the urge to purchase any of the required Boeing swag (model airplane, stickers and the like) until I was fully qualified.  I'm not a superstitious person, but why tempt fate.

I’ll have more to say about this airplane as I gain experience and learn to love it.  While I miss the comfort level I enjoyed after spending so much time on the MD80, I look forward to a time when I’m equally as confident on the 737.  As I've said before, I’m here for the journey...and this one is going to be a lot of fun.  


If you haven't already, please visit "You Have The Airplane,"  a new section of AirlinePilotChatter where I am inviting others to share their stories.

I've also added my bio, entitled "My Story."  Both of these pages can be accessed from the navigation bar on any page of AirlinePilotChatter.

As always, thanks for following along.  Questions and comments are both appreciated and encouraged. 


  1. This has been a great journey so far, certainly from a reader's perspective!

    I hope the IOE continues to go well and I look forward to further posts, thanks for taking us all with you!

    All the best,

    Dave from the UK

    1. Thanks Dave, believe it or not, IOE is over. I was slated to get one three day trip and a minimum of 15 hours flight time. My first trip with a regular line captain begins on Tuesday.

  2. Great write up once again Brad I'm looking forward to hearing more.


  3. wait till u fly the airbus! rumors said airbus is powered by dark magic.. the side stick will give u quite a bit of headache.. lack of 'feel'.. took me several days to understand their control logic just to get more confused d very next day. control column is the best way to fly an aircraft..

    anyway a 9000++ hours copilot like u should have no problem passing IOE with flying colors! good luck thou..

  4. This was a great read! Thanks for sharing! Good job!

  5. Thanks for writing about your first flight in the 737! Glad that you had a good first few flights.

    Can't wait to see where you'll be going and what new experiences you'll have in the 737!

    Should be a great journey,
    -Swayne Martin

  6. Congratulations by accomplishing this new step!

    (from a brazilian reader who is not a pilot, but loves aviation.)

  7. Congrats Dave! Stay out of the midwest this weekend. Gonna be some bumps along the way methinks.
    The first time I flew in a 737 was in 1971 coming home from LAS. The guy backed out of the gate and never, I mean never stopped till he got to the gate at T5 LAX. It was also the first time I saw the cowling fly off the back of the engine as a speed brake. Nearly had a heart attack. Western Airlines did good on that flight. Never flew a 737 again till I started using WN.

    Fair skies and light winds my friend.

  8. Way to go! Congratulations!

    As a quick side, my husband was able to make it to our baby shower since his trip was bought back from him (IOE) about dumb luck! I was just about to get a cardboard cut out made of him, when his schedule changed.

    1. Thank goodness for the little things. Sometimes, although not very often, we get those little surprises when we need them the most. Glad it worked out!

  9. This is an awesome post and I am glad that you are transitioning nicely over to the 737. I am sure that there is a piece of the MD-80 that will always remain with you. I must say that out of all the aircraft that you had to move to, it was the 737. I look forward to seeing you sometime on it especially in the new livery!


  10. Congratulations Brad!! That was a great read,look forward to hearing more.

  11. Congratulations Brad!! I'm sure it must be quite an adjustment - but - one this is a good one!! Thanks for the great read - like others - look forward to hearing more on the future flights!!

    1. Thanks Mark. I'd love to run into you at FLL sometime!

    2. Anytime - let me know - you can get my on my gmail - when you are coming to the area!