Maverick pilot

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A bid opened for DC-10 first officers; I thought it a good idea to add the big wide-body to my resume should the company fold. I was one of three copilots and three captains who reported to the American Airlines training center in Arlington, Texas for the two-week course. It was the first time I’d ever experienced airline training outside the supplemental environment; what a difference it was. The instructors were pleasant, the training positive and relaxed. There was no shouting, or brow-beating; it was assumed we’d all pass. The cadre was there just to show us how easy it was to fly the three-engine, five-hundred-thousand pound, 350-passenger Douglas beauty. Classroom work was a joy. Our instructor explained the facility was open 24 hours a day, so if there were those who felt better studying at night or wanted to use the library, there would be someone on premises to help them. The written quizzes were designed to confirm the student was absorbing the material; not the pass-fail-do-or-die atmosphere provided by ONA.

The simulator was fully-visual, which meant you began the session at the gate by starting the APU before push back. This was followed by the engine-start once the plane was ready to taxi and the ground-tug disconnected. Everything was real; screens gave the impression through the windows you were traveling on the taxiway of the airport. It was important to check your ground speed with the INS since you sat so high off the ground it was easy to go too fast. Making turns were tricky as the nose wheel was quite a distance behind the cockpit and the main landing gear was much wider than the DC-8 we were all used to.

The instructors wanted us to use the auto-systems far more than we were accustomed to on the ‘8s. Auto-throttle, auto-speed, auto-climb and descent, auto-approach and landings, all tended to confuse us, who never trusted autopilots and had always relied on our ability to hand-fly the plane in tight situations. However, little by little, we learned a new way of doing things; this was what the future was going to be, so we’d better buckle down and change our ways. After the initial shock of learning to rely on the auto features, I soared through the training.

As we neared the end of the program Rod Mims, one of the other copilots and I approached our instructor with a proposition; if we could get the government to approve the course under the GI Bill of Rights, would American Airlines type-rate us as captains in the plane? Normally, a copilot was not rated in the plane until he was ready to fly as a captain. Rod and I both thought if we had the rating, and an opening came up, we’d be all set to slide into the left seat. In the event ONA ceased operations, a DC-10 type rating would look that much better on our resumes.

Rod was a retired major from the Air Force, he’d never used the GI government program that provided money to those who’d served during World War II and the Korean conflict. So, he was fairly sure he’d have no problem getting the funds. I, on the other hand, had just made the tail-end cut when I served as an enlisted man in the Air Force, and had used some of the money to get my Instrument rating back in 1958. I wasn’t sure there was anything remaining in the program when I phoned the Veterans Administration for help. A few anxious days later they said I’d just gotten in under the wire, they were going to close down the program at the end of the month and there was still twelve thousand dollars available.

Our instructor got back to us after checking with his boss; American would provide each of us with three hours in the left seat of the simulator (all our time to date had been in the right seat) and three bounces in the real plane with the FAA on board for the rating. Two hours in the simulator was training; the third hour became the check ride. The only time we saw the actual airplane was when we did the three takeoffs and landings. It would be tight, with no room for mistakes but we both felt confident, deciding to go for it.

When we told the company of our decision, they were less than pleased; they didn’t want the copilots rated because historically a qualified first officer might seek employment elsewhere as a captain. I’m not sure management realized there was no other supplemental airline operating the DC-10, that was not an option for us at that time. If I remember correctly, Rod and I both came down with colds (at least that’s what we told ONA Scheduling) that lasted about a week right after we’d completed our company provided two-week training. Those cold-bugs gave us just enough time to get our captain’s qualification under the GI Bill.

Douglas Aircraft and ONA provided a very-welcome factory instructor by the name of Miller, to ride the line with all of us until we got comfortable in the new plane. Miller was a nice guy, very low-key. He made his comments and suggestions from the jumpseat without interfering with the flight.

I was struggling with the different philosophy of operation that applied to the ’10; everything was by the numbers and used auto-systems. Up to this point in my aviation career it was a matter of learning how to fly the aircraft using hand-eye co-ordination and manual inputs. With this plane it was all about planning ahead using the two autopilots, coupled with various other automatic features. The pilot was more a manager, than an operator. At first it was very disconcerting. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in my frustration; the captains were suffering the same problems and insecurities.

When things got confusing both the captain and I were more at ease reverting to flying the plane in the same manner we operated the DC-8. When this happened Miller would comment; “There’s no doubt you guys can fly the plane manually, but Douglas wants you to learn to use all the fancy gadgets they’ve installed for your convenience and comfort.”

“Convenience, Hell – those infernal doo-das are driving me nuts!” the captain replied. “We’ll hand-fly her until we get out of ten-thousand and have some space. The last time I engaged the autopilot the damn thing was on the copilot’s side and we damn-near headed out across I-don’t-now-where.”

“That’s why you’ve got to always check to make sure the plane is properly configured before you do anything.”

“To hell with that, I never had this problem on the ‘8; I’ll hand fly it until we get out of the high-density area.”

I understood Miller and his desire to bring us up to speed, but I agreed with the captain; there were just too many switches and knobs to lead one down primrose path on the ‘10. Better to hand-fly it until we settled down and got comfortable with all the additional devices. Miller did provide us with two items of value; a gold tie tack I still have, and his business card.

I was in the right seat when senior-Captain Frank got his a route check by the FAA. The flight was scheduled to operate from Frankfurt to Majorca in Spain. The weather was overcast with light rain at our departure point, improving to sunny and warm on the island playground. I’d settled down and gotten comfortable to the unique operating features of the plane, but Captain Frank was a nervous wreck. I’d never flown with him before so I didn’t know whether or not it was the plane or “checkitus.”

We went through the checklist together and as we got closer to starting the engines Captain Frank became more hyper. By the time we closed the doors, activated the INSs (Inertial Navigation Systems), and pushed-back for engine-start there was a film of sweat on his brow. I tried to help him all I could; the departure required several course changes and altitude restrictions making it especially difficult with the high-density traffic flow. We discussed how he wanted the navigation radios set for the initial course intercepts and which auto-pilot was going to do what. I handled all the communication, as he wasn’t comfortable talking to the controllers with their heavy accents.

Fortunately, the examiner was a very pleasant person we all knew from flying the ‘8s. He wasn’t out to bust anyone; he knew Captain Frank was an experienced international captain with thousands of hours under his belt. He just wanted to make sure Frank had a handle on flying this new piece of complex machinery.

After the engines were started, the tug disconnected, the correct portion of the checklist completed, and at Frank’s direction I called for taxi clearance. We were cleared to runway two-five left, airport information Foxtrot was current, and advised to follow a Lufthansa 747.

“What did he say?” Frank asked.

I repeated the clearance and checked Foxtrot; Frank’s glasses had slipped down his nose and his face was wet with sweat. We were operating under a new FAA concept, sterile-cockpit, which meant no extraneous conversation. I would have liked to have made some comment to put him at ease, but it would have only exacerbated his self-induced suffering. “The new altimeter is two-nine-nine-nine, set right.” Out of the corner of my eye the examiner appeared relaxed; I hoped he remained that way.

“Set left.”

We were number five for take-off, Flow-Control was in effect. The morning in-bound traffic was heavy, which meant we could plan on about ten minutes before it was our turn. The cabin door opened up and the Senior walked in, she smiled at the examiner as she squeezed past him and the engineer to address Frank, “The cabin’s secure; you guys want any coffee after take-off?”

“No; wait until I turn-off the Seat Belt sign before bringing us a cup.” Frank responded.

“Right; I hope this rain stops before we get to Majorca, I brought my bikini.” When none of us responded, she got the hint and exited with a “Bye.”

“A pretty girl,” the examiner commented.

“This is a sterile cockpit,” Frank retorted.

“Oh, right – sorry.”

In America most departure procedures are fairly straightforward; you are cleared for take-off, switched to departure control, and given a heading to intercept the airway that will start you on your trip. Not-so in Europe, and particularly Frankfurt; the designers of the SID (Standard Instrument Departure) seem to take delight in burdening the flight crew with all-sorts of altitude and speed restrictions. This complicates the pilots’ already-high workload during the initial phase of the flight. We were assigned the Nombo Four Golf SID which for illustration I’ll describe as follows: Climb on runway track to FRANKFURT VOR 4.5 DME/FRED VOR 1.5 DME or 800’, whichever is later, turn LEFT towards RIED VOR, at RIED VOR 12 DME turn LEFT, intercept 118° bearing to KONIG NDB, turn LEFT, 103° bearing to AKONI, turn RIGHT, intercept FRANKFURT VOR R-130 to HAREM, turn RIGHT, 148° track to LAMPU, turn LEFT, 134° track to NOMBO. In addition, the SID required altitude and speed restrictions, further compounding the pilot’s workload. Frank and I had gone over all of this prior to pushback, agreeing it would take a team effort with me feeding him the headings, speeds, altitudes and courses while tuning the various VORs for him to follow.

It was finally our turn, “Overseas National Zero-Three-Three you are cleared for takeoff runway 2-5 left. Contact Langen radar 1-3-6 decimal 1-2 when airborne. Tag.”

“Roger, Overseas National Zero-three-three, Langen 1-3-6 point 1-2, good day.”

“Runway heading checks left.”

“Checks right.”

“Checklist complete,” this from Jack, the engineer; “Let’s get outa here.”

Frank advanced the power levers with Jack’s hand following to trim the power.

“Set max power,” Frank commanded.

“Power set,” Jack acknowledged.

“Eighty knots,” we were loaded with three-hundred-fifty passengers and their baggage, but light on fuel because of the short trip and the fact fuel was cheaper in Spain. The ‘10 was a rocket at that weight.

“Elevator checks,” Frank confirmed as he rocked the control column back-and-forth assuring freedom of movement. (This was mandatory after a passenger jet crashed on takeoff from Kennedy when it had picked up a rock, jamming the elevators.)

“Vee-one, rotate,” I called. Frank pulled back on the control column, the big bird leaped into the sky.

“Vee-two, positive rate,” I continued.

“Gear Up, hold the after takeoff checklist until we clean up the flaps,” Frank ordered.

I reached forward and rapidly moved the landing-gear handle to the ‘Up’ position. We were out of a thousand feet at the end of the runway. “Cleared direct Ried, set on your side,” I advised as I switched communication radios. “Langen radar, Overseas National Zero-Three-Three out of one thousand for three.”

“Roger, Ona Zero-Three-Three, maintain three thousand until further advised.”

“Roger Langen, Zero-Three-Three.”

The plane started to rapidly accelerate with the drag from the landing gear removed. “Target two-ten knots, Frank.”


“Two for three, turn left to intercept the one-one-eight bearing to Konig; it’s on your ADF,” I advised.

“God damned ADF – I hate ADFs.”

“Gear check?” The engineer interrupted, as he accomplished the After Takeoff Checklist.

I moved the landing gear handle to the neutral position, thus assuring the gear would not accidentally fall out of its well, then back to its ‘Up’ lock. “Gear checks, Frank, three thousand, we can accelerate to two-fifty when you turn onto the one-one-eight bearing.”

He had to pull the power way back to maintain three thousand feet and our speed; the flaps were still extended for safety at the lower speed. “Okay, I show the one-one-eight bearing. Flaps, up; do the checklist now. I’m pushing up to two fifty and engaging the autopilot.” Frank reached up to the glareshield where the auto-controls were located and flipped a couple of mini-levers; suddenly the throttles retracted to idle and the plane lost power. All of us in the cockpit came bolt upright.

“What the fuck…” Frank exclaimed.

Everything looked normal on my side, I didn’t have a clue what went wrong, but I had an idea, “Flip the autopilot off,” I said.

Frank hit the autopilot disconnect button on his control column and advanced the power levers back to their proper setting.

“Ona zero-three-three you are cleared to flight-level one-two-zero, contact Rhein Radar on 1-3-4 decimal eight – gutentag.”

“Roger, Overseas National zero-three-three leaving three for flight level one-two-zero; Rheim Radar on 1-3-4 point 8.”

Frank advanced the throttles, ordering Jack to set climb power. I wound up the Altitude Alert device to twelve thousand feet as we left three thousand for our new assigned altitude. We all looked at each other; what was wrong with the plane? “What the hell went wrong, all I did was engage the auto pilot.”

Jack said everything on his panel looked normal; I agreed that mine was as it should be. From the jumpseat the examiner checked both of our instrument panels; “Frank, is your inner airspeed bug at Vee-two?

“Yeah, I normally squeeze all the bugs together after takeoff so I won’t screw-up and use the takeoff settings for the landing bugs; it’s an old habit.”

“And a good idea on the ‘8; but this is the ‘10, set your inner bug at the speed you want to maintain and let the auto-throttle take care of the rest. I think what you did was engage the auto-throttle when you flipped on the autopilot telling the plane to slow to Vee-two. Set the bug at two-fifty and re-engage the autopilot; let’s see what happens, okay?”

Frank cranked in the proper speed, cautiously engaging the autopilot; everything remained normal. We all breathed a sigh of relief; this plane had a whole bunch of features that could lead a pilot astray.

“Out of five for twelve, two-nine-nine-two set right. Heading one-zero-three from overhead Konig to the one-thirty radial from Frankfurt. Do you want it on your side?” I could see Frank was struggling; he was an excellent pilot, it was just this plane, and getting checked that was giving him fits.

“Yeah, thanks. Let’s get some coffee? Ding the stew, will you?”

I pushed the call-button on the overhead, signaling a stewardess was wanted in the cockpit. We each gave her our orders as Frank and I continued to monitor the departure instructions. Things settled down after she came in with the steaming brew.

The examiner took a sip of his and leaned forward to give us some pearls; “You know they didn’t tell you this in training; this is something I figured out on my own. The DC-10 is the first generation of a new philosophy we’re going to all have to learn. Heretofore, pilots flew their planes; they sat in a seat and handled controls that by-way-of cables actually moved the rudder, ailerons and elevator. A pilot was an integral part of the plane. With the ‘10 the pilot becomes more a flight-manager; he doesn’t so much fly the plane as he manages the various auto-systems, they control the plane. In the ‘10 your job is to program and observe the systems are doing their job. From takeoff to landing the whole thing will become automatic.

“That may be true, but I don’t like it,” Frank said, “I like flying my planes; I don’t like having some computer deciding to shut off my power or thinking for me.” I understood what he was saying and agreed with him. However, I also saw the logic to what the examiner was saying.

“Over in Europe they’re working on a plane that flies by computer; the pilot has no direct control over the plane. He addresses the computer, if the computer likes what he does, it follows his commands; if it doesn’t like what he orders, it does its own thing. Supposedly, to keep the plane safe.”

“Supposedly. I can’t believe a computer can operate a plane better than I can; it can’t think!” Frank and I both were thinking we may be going the way of the dinosaurs.

“Nevertheless, that’s the way it’s going; it’s called, Fly By Wire.”

Jack leaned forward, “Yeah, they got rid of the navigators, they’re trying to fire the engineers – the pilots will be the next to be replaced by some pimply-faced geek sitting behind a computer in a cubby-hole in Milpitas.”

Frank took a slug of coffee, “I’m glad I’m getting near retirement – this ain’t fun no-more.”

I didn’t say anything but I did think about all the pilots I’ve known that have slipped under the radar. Would this ever happen to me?

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