Monday, September 30, 2013

The Last PC—Day 1

It's been twenty-four years since I first walked into that simulator building. I was new and apprehensive then. The whirl of the cooling fans, the “whooshing” sound of the hydraulics and the ozone smell of a zillion volts racing through a thousand miles of cable had a way of intimidating you even before you mounted that high ladder to the tower of Boeing. You couldn't fathom how much money they were spending on those machines to train you, and you really didn't care. You just knew that serious eyes were watching to see if you could hack the program. And if you couldn't, you would walk away with a slap on your back and a wish of good luck in your future employment, ever remembering what a chance you had and you blew it.

I've been back time and again—once a year and steadily the intimidation monster has retreated into a dark corner and pouted. He has no sway over me anymore and hasn't had for years, or so I thought. This was my last visit before next year's retirement. You'd think there would be a little emotion involved, but it just seemed like another harried PC (Proficiency Check).

I had lunch in the cafeteria. Nothing much has changed there either. As usual I sat facing the empty wall where DC-3 Captain Ham Lee's portrait once hung. No one knows where it went. I miss him. His image's mysterious departure seemed to signify that the old ways don't cut it anymore. It's a new world in this airline business. Ham and I are dinosaurs. (Click here if you missed that story.)

Then it was off to the assigned briefing room. That smell, those halls and walkways with their historic displays along the walls encased in glass have never changed. The hall is always quiet and peaceful, like the calm before the proverbial storm. 

Year after year you pass ghosts. You see their pictures and their belongings—hats, gloves, uniform articles, their ancient E6-B “computers,” models of the planes they flew,  and an array of other paraphernalia that would befit a fine aviation museum. You pass a painting of a captain from the 1960s. His eyes seem to follow you. You’ve passed him so many times he remembers you. Then you reach one of those tiny briefing rooms with their dry eraser boards and their bland safety posters that haven't changed a bit in nearly 25 years. 

There I met my First Officer, Travis. It always starts the same. Like this: You sit down with your stick partner and chat idly until the PI (Pilot Instructor) sweeps in, shakes your hand and opens his materials. He exchanges pleasantries then looks at his watch. He says “[Inject a name here of one of his PI peers] is in Sim 6 with a crew now, but he should be finishing up soon. So we can get in early if you guys want to.”

Of course we vigorously nod. In early is out early, most of the time.

But on this, the final PC, at least one thing has changed that I never expected. I was assigned a simulator I had never before in all those years flown. It was 767 Sim-6, newer than the others, with better visuals. I thought, “This might be fun.” Wrong again.

Travis was an ex-USN Hornet driver. Very brainy. Knew everything in the books. I used to be intimidated by those types, but now I just shrug them off. I doubt Ham was much of a book man. Besides, I thought, I'll show this kid his book smarts can't hold a candle to my stick and rudder skills.

Travis chattered on during the small talk minutes while we waited with our PI for Sim-6 to disgorge its current victims so we could get on and begin our four hours of torture. He had just gotten back from vacation in Hawaii where he snorkeled. He surfaced for a breather and a surf boarder invited him to hang on and rest. After twenty minutes of chatting with the guy he realized he was talking to Tom Cruise. How novel—naval aviator meets Maverick on surf board. I think I'd prefer meeting Goose though. I’d ask him to talk to me.

We waited longer than our PI had expected. In fact the crew that was in Sim-6 went overtime. That usually meant some of their maneuvers needed to be repeated. That always gives you a queasy feeling.

Finally we weaved through the bowels of the simulator
building and found Sim-6. The PI stayed at the bottom filling out forms while Travis and I climbed the long ladder to the top. It was about as tall as a real 767. We went inside and made our nests. The PI arrived and began punching buttons on his side panel behind us. Then he got to immediate business. We had to work fast now, to finish on time.

Travis wanted to go first, so he took the controls. We launched off San Diego (SAN) runway 27 and turned north toward LAX. Almost immediately we got an engine fuel filter bypass caution light. We got out the checklist. The corrective action was simple—land at the nearest suitable airport. Our fuel was contaminated and the engine could quit at any moment. The entire Los Angeles basin was fogged in. The only logical choice was to turn back to SAN. We knew what the IP wanted us to do—he wanted to see a VNAV approach, which is a non-precision approach flown with an on-board computer generated glide path.

When we broke out of the fog that gargantuan and much loathed obstacle known so well to pilots who frequent SAN—the parking garage—raced at us getting bigger. I didn’t see any approach lights beyond it. (The parking garage is the reason there is not a precision approach to runway 27 at SAN and we have wondered in amazement for years why the city allowed it to be built there.) Travis hit the Go-Around button on the throttle, disconnected the autopilot and ordered flaps to 20. We got out of there and back into the safety of the fog. Back around again and the visibility was a bit better. We saw the approach lights, then the runway and Travis prepared to land.  


He slammed it on hard. “Nice 3-wire you got there,” I cracked. He shook his head. The IP then re-initialized us outside the final approach fix and let me take a turn at the VNAV approach.

I marveled over the realness of the visuals as we approached the virtual runway thinking this was going to be fun. I relaxed, remembering those early years when this place made me nervous. I heard the aircraft-generated voice calling height above the runway: “FIFTY, THIRTY, TEN.”

I began the flare at the usual 30 feet and retarded power. The nose jumped up and we ballooned. An imprecation that I don't normally use in polite conversation fell from my lips as I adjusted power and pitch to re-establish the flare. But the landing zone, identified by the last pair of white parallel stripes was rapidly coming. I knew if I tried to salvage the balloon into a nice landing I would go beyond the landing zone, which is not acceptable. So I “de-rotated” (“rolling it on” to the 727 and MD-88 crowd), decreased the pitch and hoped the impact would be tolerable.


The giant hydraulic actuators beneath the sim cab kicked us in the butts so hard it felt like vengeance. It was worse than Travis’ landing.

I have never had trouble landing a 767. I’ve had great landings and some that were a little firm—never really bad. But Sim-6’s landing logic surely had been programmed by a madman who had been rejected by the airlines and hated pilots with a devilish passion.

I stopped the sim and turned to the IP, mouth agape. His dispassionate comment as he punched more buttons preparing for the next event was, “Yeah, this sim is really pitch sensitive on landing.”

If you had the resolution to read all seven installments of my learning to land my RV-6, (the Seven Sierra Whiskey series) this is deja vu stuff.  Alan still has not learned to land a plane after 41 years doing it, and that’s exactly what I thought.

Next we practiced a suite of V1 cuts (engine blows up on runway after the take-off committment speed is reached) and single-engine approaches. Travis finally began to get the hang of landing the beast, but every time I tried it—BAM!!!! I started to lose confidence. I turned to the PI. “Hey, Man, I don't do this out on the line. I assure you I know how to land a 767.” He just nodded and grunted as he punched buttons to set us up for our next ration of chaos and terror.

When it was over I came down that long ladder scratching my head. Couldn't figure that thing out. If you didn't flare it you pranged it. If you did flare it—even ever so slightly—you ballooned, which inevitably resulted in an even worse prang.

But today was practice. Tomorrow would be validation day. Our PI would change hats from instructor to evaluator. We needed to iron out today’s mistakes. I had confidence in performing the maneuvers. As to the landings, things would be better tomorrow, I reckoned. I just need a good night's rest. Certainly I would have the hang of it tomorrow.

A shadowy Ham Lee stands in the corner lighting a cigarette, snickering. 

View from 41,000 over Hattiesburg, Mississippi looking toward Gulf Shores, Alabama, a distance of 115 miles. The arrow shows the location of high rise condos on the beach. We could see them clearly from such a distance. Taken yesterday on a ferry flight (no passengers or flight attendants) from Houston to Washington.