October 19, 2013

Why I hate the Boeing 737

Boeing 737-800 cockpit.
 Ok, so sue me...the title of this post is a gross exaggeration. The truth is that I don't hate the 737 at all, but with a few hundred hours under my belt, the honeymoon is officially over and my eyes have been opened to a few of this jet's shortcomings.

This isn't an Airbus vs. Boeing post, so I'll leave my feelings about Airbus philosophy to your imagination. I won't comment on "plastic jets" and computers that isolate pilots from the decision making process. I won't even hint at the common assertion that Airbus planes are designed for the lowest common denominator of pilot skill. Forget about the tail that snapped off an A300 over New York or known pitot tube failures on the A330. 

Ok, one more.  I recently overheard a newly minted Airbus pilot refer to the A319 as a "proffer jet." The pilot doesn't actually fly the aircraft.  He proffers what he wants and the computers determine whether or not to award the request.  Sorry...I couldn't resist.  These subjects are completely off limits. My lips are sealed!

After all, talking badly about a man's airplane is a little like taking badly about his children. My kids may be rotten to the core (I promise they aren't...most of the time anyway), but while I'm allowed to say so you, most assuredly, are not. My airplane is no different. I have no tolerance for an Airbus guy talkin' smack about my Boeing and choose to respect my fellow bus buddies by holding my tongue on the subject of their precious Fifi

All you bus lovers can put your pens down and save your angry letters for another day, this post is intentionally sarcastic. If I can poke a little fun at my own ride then I'm going to take a few pot shots at the Airbus too. Oddly enough, most of the Boeing hater's complaints about my airplane are related to the things I value most. One of my favorite bus pilots recently told me that he could "always turn the magic off and have a basic, 737 dinosaur."  I took his comment the way I think it was intended, tongue-in-cheek, but again, his complaint is exactly what I love about the 737.

There's a huge philosophical difference between the way these two companies design airplanes. Boeing airplanes are designed to defer to the knowledge, skill and experience of the pilot (sometimes to a fault), while Airbus relies heavily on computer systems (sometimes to a fault) that can override actions taken by the pilots...which is clearly a valuable safety system to protect against pilot error (think Asiana 214).  The problem in my mind is the old computer adage "garbage in garbage out" (think AF447 and iced over pitot tubes).

Up until now, I've basically stood on the side lines of this debate as I spent most of my airline career at the controls of an MD80...another airplane people either love or love to hate. I believe I've mentioned this before, but my father, a long time Boeing guy, warned me not to spend too much time on the 80. "You might decide you like it" he used to tell me. Well apparently, I stayed too long, because after 13 years and 9,000 hours I grew to love flying the MD80, which flies the way I suspect a 40 year old Mack truck might drive...heavy on the controls, manual everything and loud enough to wake the dead. What's not to love?

Good ole dad was pleased with my decision to ditch the Douglas and I have to admit, I've become quite comfortable at the controls of the Boeing 737 and will avoid going back to the 80 if at all possible. (Currently, MD80 captain looks like it will be my first opportunity to shed my twitter name: @AAFO4Ever). But as much as I enjoy flying the 737, I have identified a short list of the items that could have been done much better.

An overhead panel only it's 100 year old creator could love.

The overhead panel on the 737 is, in my humble opinion, the most egregious design deficiency on the whole airplane and it's the obvious answer to the question "What do you hate about the airplane?" I got my 737 type rating in 1996 in an almost 30 year old 737-200 flight simulator. The airplane was equipped with round dials and steam gauges galore. In the 1980's, Boeing introduced the 737-300, 400 and 500, commonly known as the Boeing Classic Series, that came with advancements in engine and wing design while the overhead panel remained basically unchanged.  Then came the "Next Generation" airplanes, the 737-600, 700, 800 and 900, with a new wing, updated engine and a glass cockpit. Why they chose to keep the old overhead panel is a question that boggles my mind and ticks me off. The top of my bald head is marred by dents, scratches and bruises left by an overhead panel that is virtually identical to that old -200 I flew in 1996...a design from the late 1960's.


There's a familiar old rumor that the 737 overhead panel remained unchanged at the insistence of a well known Texas based low cost carrier...use your imagination...who even programmed their flat panel instrument screens to approximate the look of an old "six pack" arrangement. All this done in an attempt to keep its fleet of Boeing 737 cockpits looking as similar as possible. I've never been able to officially confirm that as fact, so take it with a grain of salt.

Boeing 737-700 instrument panel set up to look "classic"

That infernal trim wheel.

Most small airplanes have them. Most large airplanes don't. I hate it when bad or unnecessary design elements of older jets find their way into the cockpits of their modern counterparts. The 737 trim wheel is a prime example. A direct carry over from the 707 that ushered in the jet age in the 1950's, the maddening, knee cap busting, noisy and hyperactive trim wheel on the 737 should have departed the cockpit long ago. I suppose there is someone out there who has actually used it in an emergency, but there are plenty of examples of great jets...the Boeing 757,767, 777, 747 and 787 to name a few...flying around without them.




Did I mention knee cap busting?  The handle pictured above is used in the event of a failure of the electric trim system.  It serves an obvious purpose, but if you make the colossal mistake of extending the handle and consequently forget to stow it after electric trim is restored, a visit to the emergency room may be in order.

Go around!  Wait...where are the TOGA buttons?!?

As if go-arounds weren't confusing enough, Boeing decided to have a little fun at the expense of the pilots and hid the TOGA buttons on the 737. Basically speaking, there are two opportunities to push the TOGA buttons on every flight. First, during takeoff and second, in the unlikely event of a go-around.

When cleared for takeoff, the pilot will push the thrust levers up far enough to stabilize the engines at about 40% N1, then push either or both TOGA buttons to automatically advance the engines to the takeoff limit and engage the Automatic Flight Director System (AFDS) in takeoff mode. Once airborne, pushing either of the TOGA buttons will advance engine power to the go-around limit and engage the AFDS in the go-around mode.

Only one visible in this picture...the small black button
hidden underneath the throttle knobs.
In either case, finding and pushing the TOGA buttons is important and must be accomplished while the pilot is distracted by other tasks. On the MD80, the buttons were located in clear view and within easy reach. The pilot would simply move his wrist down and push the TOGA buttons with the palm of his hand. I was especially fond of this design because my hand was always in a position to both manipulate the throttles as necessary and to have quick access to the TOGA buttons. On the 737, these buttons are located in an unnatural location that I find hard to see and difficult to reach.  During a typical approach and landing, the natural position of my hand does not lend itself to quickly engaging TOGA.

Is your FMS smarter than a 5th grader?

I could write a lengthy how-to book explaining the ins and outs of the Boeing 737 FMS and I could write an equally long book on the pitfalls of this "box" and how it could have been better. You have to watch it like a hawk or it will bite you in the butt. The FMS is an integral part of the 737, containing the various functions of ACARS, departure, en-route, arrival, approach and navigation data in addition to weight and balance, altitude capability and engine performance information. There's more, but those are the biggies.

One of my chief complaints is that the FMS is slow...like Commodore 64 slow. I constantly find myself pushing a button and counting to three so the darn thing has time to think before I ask it to do something else. Most of the boxes I've used in the past would allow the pilot to get ahead of the FMS. There are certain processes we do all the time...we get used to the sequence of buttons to be pushed and can get ahead of the box pushing buttons that aren't yet prompted.  The 737 FMS won't allow you to do this.  Push a button...count to three...let it think...let it respond...push another button.  It's like molasses in the winter...thick and slow.

 I suppose I shouldn't complain.  At least I have an FMS, but I spend a fair amount of time in the cockpit with pilots who used to fly airplanes like the Boeing 757, 767 and 777.  All those pilots would like to know why the 737 FMS is so much different than the rest.  It get's overly confused in the descent if any changes are made to the profile after the Top Of Descent. It has a tendency to change or ignore climb and descent speeds.  And there is simply too much slop when it comes to airspeed in general.  If I command a 300 knot descent then that's what I want...not 290...not 315...300!  It tends to do the same thing in straight and level flight as well.  ATP standards require me to maintain airspeed within 10 knots and I expect the automatic systems of the jet that are supposed to make me look good and simplify my job to do much better than barely meet the minimums.

An autopilot disconnect warning heard from the aft lav!

Oh my goodness, what were they thinking?  Every other airplane I've ever flown had an autopilot disconnect warning that consisted of a red or yellow flashing light and or a reasonable sound to get the pilot's attention. The warning sound on the 737 seems to be designed to wake you from a deep sleep...while seated somewhere deep inside the coach cabin. It is unnecessarily loud and sounds much longer than needed or desired. On most planes, one push of the autopilot disconnect button disconnects the autopilot while the second push of the same button cancels any and all warnings. On the 737, that infernal noise continues through three cycles no matter how fast you push the disconnect button.  It's so loud, that I usually warn the other pilot that it's about to sound and do my best to time the disconnect so that it doesn't interfere with any expected radio transmissions.


video


Kit bag storage

This one has been mitigated by advances in Electronic Flight Bag technology, but I still need to get into my flight bag every now and then and would prefer not to wrench my back trying to reach it. Next to my seat, where my kit bag should reside, is an oxygen mask, a cup holder and a lot of wasted space. Plain and simple, this is a poor design.  See if you can find a place for your bag in the pic below.


Approach speed...will this thing ever stop?!?

Some 737's are worse than others. I fly the 800...the 900 would be even worse. With an extended fuselage on an airplane that already sits fairly close to the ground, approach speeds have to be much faster to prevent the tail from contacting the runway during flare. As you might imagine, this is also a significant concern during takeoff.

When tail meets runway.
As an MD80 pilot, approach speeds were typically in the neighborhood of 135 knots. On the 737, I regularly see approach speeds around 150. The airplane has excellent brakes and ground spoilers help it stay on the ground after landing, but that extra 15 knots is not a good thing when landing on short, wet runways.

A good airplane that could have been better.

I grew up in a house that lived by the motto "If it ain't Boeing, I ain't going."  So after 13+ years flying McDonnell Douglas planes around the US, Canada and Mexico, I'm happy to be living by the family creed. I wish the 737 was a better plane, but I'm a firm believer in the philosophical design choices made by Boeing and I'm happy to be flying around with something between my legs.  Still...it could have been better.  Even so, I choose Boeing over Airbus any day.

Let the hate mail flow!


32 comments:

  1. A wonderful rant! More like this, please. (As a longstanding member of the self-loading cargo, I hate the 737 too.)

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    1. Thanks Geoff,

      Self-loading cargo. Haha, I love it! I'm glad you enjoyed this one. It was fun to write.

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  2. Didn't your pops fly and love the L1011 too?

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    1. As a matter of fact he did. You've been paying attention! He spent 6 months as an L1011 FO and loved it. He also spent a very short time on the DC-9...but I don't think he likes to talk about it in public.

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    2. haha..great reply!

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    3. L1011 great aircraft built like the proverbial brick S...house. I was ground engineer on this aircraft, love lockheed...

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  3. Having flown both the 737 and Airbus, let me sum it up for you: Combine the comfort of the 320 cockpit with the ruggedness and flying "feel" of the 737 and you'd have the perfect jet.

    You are correct... Both have their plusses and minusses. I just wish everyone could be typed and have experience in both before stating which one is superior.

    Loved the post... Even the sarcastic parts that clearly dog the bus while claiming to not dog the bus. :)

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    1. Thanks Brian. I thought of you while writing this one. I got the idea while flying with a guy on his last 737 trip. He hates everything about the 737 and views the A319 as his personal savior...that was a little much. Personally, I see strengths and faults with both and would like to experience the bus some day. A320 CA is in my bid list...right under 737 CA:)

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    2. Years ago, I flew a month with a new captain who had flown Boeings his whole career. He bitched and moaned about the 320 from the first leg.

      About mid-month, we were descending in the Buffalo. He said, ”See? This POS just doesn't descend like the Boeing. The Boeing is superior on a 3 to 1 profile. This sucks... I hate it."

      I just looked at him, smiled and said, ”You've got it in 'vertical speed' mode. I'm pretty sure the Boeing would go descending at 1000fpm too."

      At that moment, he realized he might have been a little blinded by his brand loyalty.

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  4. Whatever AA and their pilots may have thought about the AB6 after AA 587, I will say that from a passenger's perspective it was a pleasant aircraft -- particularly in the front cabin, where 6-abreast was more spacious than 6-abreast on the 76x.

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  5. I hate the 737 because I asked my husband what a trim wheel was...oh Lord I wasn't prepared for that answer!

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    1. Ha! Did you get the same glazed over look my wife gets when I get started on an aviation subject? I can see it on her face. That moment when she REALLY wishes she hadn't asked!

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    2. yes, I am sure it was the same glaze! LOL

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  6. Great read, always a fan of your blogs. Keep them coming, I will keep on reading............

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  7. Awesome post and very informative. As 'self loading freight' I find the A320 family to be a little more comfortable. As a flight dispatcher, I'd rather dispatch the B737 family all day long!

    YYC Dispatcher

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  8. Wonderful read Brad!!! Talk about laying it out on the line! And - I mean the article - not the flying :)

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  9. Thanks. A fun and most interesting post. No hate mail from here! I'm a Boeing fan but for other reasons. One of the best comments about airplanes that I've ever seen goes something like this: "Boeing and MD airplanes require pilots; Airbus 'things' require Systems Operators." Your B737 may not be perfect, but at least you can FLY it when necessary.

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  10. It is amazing seeing and riding jumpseat on the various ships that the majors operate then coming back to the regional jet that I fly. One can get very spoiled using the Rockwell Collins suite in the Bombardier product but nonetheless, your'e flying heavier =) Great write up!

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  11. Great post! Just embrace the diversity and uniqueness of the 737 :) . BTW, have you ever used/tried PMDG 737 ngx?

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  12. And then you have the nice feature that Mr. Autopilot decides to jump ship when you press TO/GA during single-engine approaches as well as not being available during single engine (we don't have fail-operational) two situations when the workload is greater than usual. Nice post as always

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    1. And I meant single-channel approaches of course =)

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  13. I enjoyed this post Brad, and it's good to see a real pilot, not that I'm a fake one, but lets say Airline Pilot actually spoke on the A vs B debate and I like the twist you added with sarcasm. Until this past summer I'd never been a passenger on the bus, I have a serious case of brand loyalty, but my last few trips have been on the 319, 320 and 321s. As a passenger I actually preferred the airbus, the aisle is wider and it was remarkably quiet.

    I also poked a little fun at Eric because every single landing was a complete greaser, and I've had some that made you wonder did we crash on the 737 (also my least favorite boeing, love the 757). I asked him if it was some button they press during landing that comes with all that fancy automation.

    Keep the post coming

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    1. Hey Justin, nice to hear from you. This post was a lot of fun to write and honestly, I have little against either airplane. Brian made a good point that I commented on below...it would be nice if they could take the best of both planes and make something amazing!

      Regarding the landings...you haven't flow with me;)

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  14. BTW...My buddy Brian at "The Renewed Pilot" (http://renewedpilot.com) makes a good point. First, the best person to make the comparison between Boeing and Airbus airplanes is a person who has flown both. Brian has flown both the B737 and the A320. Second, there are good and bad aspects of both planes. It sure would be nice if they could take the best from both and put them together in one amazing airliner.

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  15. Had my first ride in an AA 737 last week after an all MadDog summer, and noticed that the takeoff roll is significantly longer in the 737 - 35 seconds vs. 25. Is that a product of the higher approach speed you wrote about ?

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    1. It could be a number of things. Obviously, things like weight and density altitude have a lot to do with the length of a takeoff roll, but the MD80 typically takes off with flaps set to 11 degrees. The company I work for generally plans 737 takeoffs at 1 degree...which results in a longer takeoff roll but better climb performance. At equal weights, altitudes and flap settings, the 737 should get off the ground sooner. Lots of variables.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  16. 737 has a Smiths FMC, the bigger Boeings are Honeywell, very similar in most respects..

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  17. From the passenger side of thing I much prefer airbus and the increased space.

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  18. I don't fly either craft. But I fly IN either craft. Objectively speaking, from a pure comfort standpoint both in the air and on the ground, Airbus get my nod.

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  19. As a musician and a simple private pilot with IFR, all my airline buddies say to me - God I wish I could be like a musician or something and fly planes just for fun.. Is it really NOT FUN to fly B737 or MD80's??
    I won't mention busses bc it's clear that it would be boring as hell.. LOL

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    1. Hi Mika...Actually, flying the airplane is a lot of fun. It's all the other stuff that goes along with the job that pilots could do without. Personally, I love the job and can't imagine doing anything else.

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  20. I know this is like a year away. I am a couch pilot... aka Simulation fan with childhood dreams of being a pilot. I will say this... my personal impressions as I've flown around a bit.

    Airbus A320 family, the one I used the most feels like being in a luxury sedan, for a passenger. I have tried the A320 in a simulator and it felt... smooth to fly. Very intuitive.

    Boeing 737-800, only flown in a simulator. I feel like flying a mixture of a modern car with some old features. It climbs faster, the engines have a bit more spunk in them. However while I am no pilot I felt more like I was flying in the 737 than the Airbus. Now I prefer the 737.

    My third choice of plane is the L-1011-100, simulator used only. It feels like maneuvering a responsive but ... well gentle bird. I realize it is old, no longer in use except a few of them flying around. On the L-1011 and 737-800 I was least bored compared to the Airbus.

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