Friday, December 28, 2007

Spirit of Ham

John and I jumped through another hoop yesterday: the Procedures Validation (PV). That was the last session in the FBT, which is a cockpit that doesn't move, yet all its instruments and computers work normally. The PV tests your ability to run flows and checklists, and to fly profiles. A “flow” is the way your hands move across and around the panels and consoles testing and setting instruments and switches. You've got to do it by memory. Checklists are read by one pilot and executed by one or both with verbal responses that have to be exact. Example: “Airspeed bugs, gross weight 220,000 lbs, flaps 5, 135, 140, 155, set.” And, “FMCs, runway 28 right, Shoreline one departure, Red Bluff transition, set.” And so on. 

“Profiles” are the procedures for flying takeoffs, climbs, descents, instrument approaches and missed approaches.

There's a ton of things to do and there is no tolerance for improvising your own ways. Anyway, John and I passed easily with a few “debrief items.” Sorry to disappoint you but my performance was not flawless. Tonight the pressure ramps up a notch as we begin preparation in a real simulator for the Maneuvers Validation next week. The MV will test our mettle at handling fires, failures, decompressions, etc.

The background to all this is a little noticed event here at the training academy a year or so ago. A very cherished photograph that had hung in the cafeteria for many years disappeared. It was a portrait of one of United's pioneer pilots, Captain Hamilton “Ham” Lee. Ham was an airmail pilot in the 1920s who got national attention when he was fired from the postal service for refusing to fly in the fog. He said he wasn't going to lay his life on the line for a postage stamp. 

Other pilots took his side and struck. The postal service gave in, rehired him and allowed station managers to cancel flights if the weather got too bad. Later Ham hired on with one of the first companies to fly people, Varney Airlines. Eventually this morphed into my airline of today. He retired the year I was born, 1949.

The picture you see here of Ham is not the one that hung in the cafeteria. I couldn't find that one on line. That portrait was huge, about 6 feet tall, and it depicted Ham in the cockpit of a DC-3. He was looking back over his right shoulder. His hat was crushed under his radio headphones.
I'll never forget that menacing little grin and that thin little
Captain Ham Lee
mustache. He looked like Clark Gable. He seemed to be saying, “Get your *&^% picture and get the &^$# out of my cockpit. I got an airline to run.”

Many of us would never sit in the cafeteria with our backs to Captain Lee. It was our way of honoring him and his kind. Luck had something to do with it for some guys. I was among those who would never sit with my back to him, especially on checkride day.

Now Ham is gone, stolen from us to whom he belonged. We don't have him there anymore staring out at us challenging us to be as good as he was. They took him, just like they took our pensions and 40% of our paychecks. They probably put him in a museum.

Some day museums will be full of airline pilot relics and families will walk through them and parents will point at pictures of guys like Ham and me and and tell the kids,

"Look. A pilot!" The kid will stare and the parent will say,

"That was back when real people flew airplanes."

I'll never stop sitting in the cafeteria facing that place on the wall where he was. He's still there for me.

I gotta go. Got an airline to run.

Monday, December 24, 2007

SKV Whipped

The dreaded SKV (Systems Knowledge Validation) is behind me and there will be no retake. I crammed like a teenage nerd in a pie-eating contest for a week and walked into the test center with four hours sleep. I finished the 100 questions in about an hour and a half and wobbled out. And, I suppose you want to know what I made. It's somewhere on the page. 

You'll have to find it. Maybe you're wondering what a sample question would be:

When the RESERVE BRAKES switch is activated, fluid trapped below the standpipe in the ___ hydraulic system reservoir is made available to the ___ system electric hydraulic pump.
a) center, center No. 1
b) center, center No. 2
c) left, left
d) right, right

Okay, so it's not rocket science. But I'm getting too old to memorize so much stuff. And I suppose you want to know the answer. It's on the page somewhere, but I'm not guaranteeing it's correct. Anyway I walked out of there feeling ready to suit up and take on a brace of Migs.

In Evacuation/Ditching class (which followed the test, and through most of which I snooozed) they showed us a picture of the new United first class seats in the 777s and 747s.

Check it out, dude! Your very own office, theater and bedroom! I looked up the ticket fare for this seat on a non-stop trip from San Francisco to Tokyo. I won't make you search for that. $10,785.80. But fret not! If you opt for a 1-stop you can save.... It's on the page.

I'm off for Christmas and about to head to the airport. Got a ticket to ride. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007


I feel like the poor dumb slob of a pilot in this cartoon, except that my "plane" never leaves the second floor of the training center, the woman with the bullhorn is my instructor (Terry), and all I can hear after the first three hours is wa wa wa wa wa..., like Charlie Brown listening to his teacher. Thanks to T. McCraken for the cartoon. Hope doesn't mind me using it. His great website is:

I'm about to go out for the last day of aircraft systems ground school. There will be a big review. Questions will fly like miniballs at Shilo and I will look dumb and say, "Ahhh..." and shrug. My stick partner, John, will do the same, and after it's over Terry will fold up his teaching guide, look frustrated and say, "You guys will do fine."

He'll be talking about the "SKV." That means Systems Knowledge Validation. It's the 100 question written test you have to pass before they let you fly the big simulators. They used to give that test orally while actually inside the training simulator. The examiner would point at a switch, button, or instrument and ask what it was, what powered it, what it indicated and what you would do under various failure modes. That was good stuff--pilot stuff. But United has replaced it now with a multiple choice test you take on a computer. Why? To save money of course. Any way, I'm scheduled to take the *&$!*^# thing Friday, the day after my days off--of course. Sounds like college, doesn't it.

Reminds me of the call I got from Rusty at Troy a few weeks ago. He said he had a big bad exam next day and was lost in the course and there was no way he would pass. I asked if this call was a course failure warning. He said yeah. Figured he'd get a softer landing if I was forewarned. I told him to cram like he never had in his life and try his best. The boy did, and passed. Guess I've got to take my own advice now.

Yes, Brad this is the place where you turn left. I can see the "Marrow of the Earth" from the training center during those precious few seconds a day I get to look.

T-Boy out.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Day 3 at TK

I've been at the place United pilots dispassionately call "TK" for three days. TK is the inter-company mail address for the Denver flight training center. Down at American they call their Dallas training center the "school house." If it's anything like TK it's a house of horrors.

I'm in the Boeing 757/767 transition course. It's day 3 of 20 and I'm lost already. They turn a fire hose of information on you here and expect you to drink every drop. I'm in a class of four. I'm paired with a first officer trainee who, incredibly, is older than I am by a half year. He started at United rather late and doesn't have the seniority to hold a captain's vacancy. Good guy, though. The other two are a separate crew and we rarely see them.
The first day started with a meeting with a beady-eyed mustachioed guy who told us that we would likely not pass the written test five days hence if we did not bare down with the studying at every opportunity. That was about all there was to our welcome to TK. After that we sat in front of a computer for 6 hours and listened to a guy with a lisp talk about the Boeing 757 and 767. Next day we had a live instructor who is very good. But the info comes too fast. 

Despite the fact that I took a week off without pay to study up at home before coming here, my brain is jumbled beyond salvage.

The days are split between lectures and sessions in the fixed based trainer (FPT). Tt's not a simulator--that comes later--but a cockpit with instruments that work. There are no visual effects and the FBT does not move. The instructor uses it to demonstrate principles he covered in class and directs us through normal and emergency checklists.

I gotta hit the books. Over.