Monday, March 26, 2012

The OE Phase (Operating Experience)

Looks like I'll have a few new things to write about. Just this morning, 4/5/12, crew sched assigned me a ten day trip with layovers in Narita, Taipei, Manila and JFK. Should be fun, I look forward to it.

I'd like to thank Chad Griffin for writing and reminding me of the name of our retired captain who flew the Miramar buzz scene in TOPGUN. His name is Lloyd "BOZO" Abel and he was a Lieutenant Commander at the time. To see Lloyd speak of the experience and to see the footage, CLICK HERE.  Once again, thanks Chad!

This is how I started my OE last year with captain Gene Peterson, by leaving BOS in the jumpseat of this A-320. Do you remember the scene in Top Gun when Maverick flies an unauthorized low pass by the carrier (USS Enterprise) and the Air Boss spills his coffee? Well, the captain here in this shot (I can't remember his name, he recently retired) was the guy flying that F14. If you know it, please respond via my comment section. Thanks.

Taxiing out to 22L in BOS to depart for DTW

I flew my 747-400 OE (Operating Experience) nearly a year ago with Gene Peterson and we really had a wonderful time. Now what does that tell you about this mans ability to instruct? OE is usually one of those events that you tolerate but would rather be done with and on your own. I've suffered through some OE's and line checks where the instructor just never seems to stop talking and chatters on and on about all sorts of stuff. Your first thought is, "when will this ever end?" I can only absorb so much information and much of it served up in the middle of the night over a vast ocean is just too much.

But not in this case, where I even enjoyed Gene's company after hours for dinner. The conversation was stimulating, varied and friendly. To be fair though, I've enjoyed OE with others as well; Ted Williams in the DC-9, Bruce Brock in the 727 and Paul Aust in the 757. They were experienced, which is key and knew what to bring to the students attention and what to leave for him to discover on his own. Checking out in a jet airliner is much like receiving your private pilots license, it's a license to learn.

Gene and me in the cockpit of ship 6315 (built 13 March 02) preparing to fly flight 173 from JFK to Tokyo Narita. OK, I can't help myself, here are some numbers. Our ramp weight is 871,094 pounds carrying 360,500 pounds of fuel. We even carry fuel in the horizontal stabilizer of this airplane! We'll fly nearly 400 passengers, 6,045 nautical miles in 13 hours and 1 minute and fly as far north as 75 degrees north latitude.  

Gene's son Cord, who just recently earned his Private Pilots License, joined us for the first few legs of the trip. Cord works the MSP ramp for DAL and NWA before that and was a pleasure to have on the trip. Would it surprise you to learn that he plans to follow in his fathers footsteps and fly commercially? I know a little about that goal myself.

My OE schedule is 11 days long and flies JFK-NRT-MNL-NRT-JFK-NRT-DTW. With the exception of the NRT-MNL legs every leg is double crewed, but with everyones cooperation I received both the takeoff and landing on all legs. This is tough on the other pilots as we all fight for takeoffs and landings to maintain recency. Thanks everyone!

A couple of days later after a 30 hour layover in NRT, we taxi into Manila in the Philippines at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

The next day we're taxiing out to depart from Manila back to NRT. This is a relatively short three and a half hour flight so we have no augmented crew on board. I didn't save the numbers from this flight but we were very light by -400 standards and the airplane leaps off the ground. Landing a light 747 is interesting too, it just never wants to stop flying.

We're number two here for departure at Manila behind Hong Kong Airlines.

Let me address landing a normally loaded -400 for just a moment though. This airplane is so stable, like every other Boeing I've flown, that once trimmed and configured with gear down and landing flaps in position, you can practically take your hands of the controls and watch it fly to the ground. For those who consider us little more than bus drivers, maybe I should eliminate this sentence, but the Boeing engineers, led by Joe Sutter, father of the 747 did a fabulous job. 

Here's the drill:  When near the ground and configured, you'll hear three tones. Ignore the first one... do nothing, really. Moments later when you hear the second tone, pitch the nose up a degree or degree and a half or so. Moments later when you hear the third tone, smoothly bring the throttles to idle... that's it! Now wait. In a few moments your 747 rolls onto the ground, decelerating as more and more rubber hits the road and your nose now starts to descend. Now fly your nose wheel onto the runway to complete a perfect landing. As the airplane slows below 20 knots, the body gear unlocks. Continue to slow to 10 knots or slower and you're at an ideal speed to make turns. 

This is one of those airplanes that is easy to make turns and bring to a stop without your passengers even noticing it. You can do this in most any airplane (or should at least try) but it takes some effort in most... but not this one. That's it.. now go out and find a 747 to land, it's simple.

We're standing on the upper deck with our back to the galley looking forward towards the cockpit and down the stairs to the main passenger deck. The -400 has 403 passenger seats, 24 of which are up here on the upper deck. It's a great place to to pass 13 hours as you're far removed from the general crowd in your own "little airplane." Business Class is in the process of morphing into something special with lie flat seats with even fewer seats up here. There are two lavatory's forward and your own private galley in the rear providing great service. 

I've received many questions about this little room, called the "crew bunk room" located on the upper deck, left side, just behind the cockpit. Here you see the two bunks, upper and lower, outfitted with pillows, blankets and sheets. Each bunk has it's own reading light, air vent and sliding curtain to close you in. On a 13 hour flight with two cockpit crews, each crew spends about six hours resting in here. Some crews choose to spend a part of that time in a business class seat if available  before retiring to the bunk room.

Not me. I hang up my uniform, climb into the bunk with a book, read for an hour and then I'm out cold for the next five hours. Some guys don't seem to sleep well in here, but to me it's cool, dark and quiet, perfect for sleeping.

Gene talking with someone.

This is our release for flight 172 from NRT back to JFK. If you compare this with flight 172 you'll notice that this flight is 366 miles longer but one hour and five minutes shorter. Of course we're eastbound today flying with the aid of a significant tailwind. And with todays fuel prices based on $125/barrel oil, dispatchers seek these winds out. 

Westbound from JFK to NRT we flew as far north as 75 degrees north latitude to avoid headwinds, spending much of our time in very remote Russian airspace. Eastbound, depicted by the yellow line here on our orientation chart, we remain well south of Russian airspace, remaining over the North Pacific between 43 and 48 degrees north. We're well south of Alaska's Aleutian Island Chain on a random track and go feet dry in Canadian airspace just northwest of Seattle, WA.

What's a random track you may be thinking? Just out of view on the orientation chart above there are solid blue lines labeled A590, R220, G344 and many others that signify permanent or fixed tracks across the North Pacific from Alaska, south of Russia into Japanese airspace. When assigned one of these tracks, it will appear on your release and flight plan as labeled. But today, in order to take full advantage of jet stream winds we'll fly south of these tracks on a "made up" track. This will appear on your release and flight plan as lat/long coordinates that we'll enter individually into the FMC and look like this; 43/170E, 45/180, and 45/170W. You've no doubt noticed that there is no East or West designation at the 45/180 coordinate. That's because this is the International Date Line located on the opposite side of the globe from the Prime Meridian that runs through Greenwich, England. These two lines divide the globe into eastern and western hemispheres. 

At 75 degrees north, we're nearly 10 degrees north of the Arctic Circle which is located at 66 degrees 33 minutes. At or north of this latitude, the sun will be continuously above and below the horizon for a full 24 hours at least once a year. This is where the term land of the midnight sun derives. The area south of the Arctic Circle is known as the Northern Temperate Zone. 

For me, with a keystoke or two I can immediately retrieve my LAT/LONGS and then consult my orientation chart to determine my exact spot over our globe. The FMC will also give me an ETA, fuel burn, fuel remaining, winds aloft and OAT. But my hats off to the guys who flew these routes in DC-7's, Connies and Stratocruisers, taking sun shots or searching the sky for certain stars to triangulate their position with a sexton.

Do you see the pink line running perpendicular to our route line labeled SEA and CDB? This identifies  that sectors diversion airports and where that point changes should we suffer a catastrophic failure of some sort. In this case Cold Bay in Alaska and Seattle, Washington. Because we're a four engine airplane, we're not restricted by ETOPS rules, but do note places to divert to for quick reference.

Just some of the paperwork generated by DAL 172 on 29 May 2011

This is the nice part of being the "flying pilot." Gene is completing "non-flying pilot" duties by entering in the winds aloft data. This is tedious and time consuming, but please note that I offered to do it myself. Gene wouldn't hear of it! Time permitting we complete this procedure on the ground before takeoff, but when other factors such as fuel, maintenance or catering require our attention and time, we'll enter the winds for the first hour or so of flight and return to this task once level at our first cruise altitude of FL310. Sounds low doesn't it? But we're so heavy that it will take many hours of fuel burn to allow a climb to higher, more efficient altitudes.

When I flew the B-767, winds aloft were "uploaded" with a few keystrokes saving all sorts of time, but our computer on the 747-400 doesn't feature that software.  

Here's a closer look as Gene enters the information found in the flight plan. He's entering numbers for FL's 310, 350 and eventually 370. For each fix, he'll enter wind direction, speed and temperature at the appropriate altitude, which the computer will use to maintain speed and calculate fuel burn and ETA. Just to clarify, the FMC can determine the wind at its present location, but can't predict anything beyond that point; therefore we help it out with this procedure. Note the numbers by Gene's right thumb. These are the descent forecast winds that the computer uses to determines top of descent and the best, most efficient descent profile.

You'll also notice from this picture which system page we normally leave up for continuous reference. The fuel page. We have 280,200 pounds remaining among the eight fuel tanks, but have exhausted our stabilizer fuel. At a predetermined center tank fuel weight, we'll receive a message to reconfigure our fuel pumps to drain the stab tank contents into the center tank. We'll receive another message when this task is complete to reconfigure the pumps back again. The stab tank is unable to feed an engine or engines directly, but simply moves its fuel to a tank that can. 

We're back in New York and the weather is nice so Gene has taken me outside to teach me what to look for during a walk-around inspection. Normally we don't climb up into an engine for inspection purposes, but we thought that this pic might look good on my office wall. These are Pratt & Whitney PW4056 high bypass turbofans that produce 57,000 pounds of thrust. Outwardly, by todays standards they actually look small when compared to the engines on a B-777 or A-330, but we have four of them versus their two.

Where's Waldo?

Here are two shots that put the immensity of this empennage into perspective. Gene beneath the tail and then closer to me with the tail and JFK tower in the background. This is ship 6308 built in July of 1990.

Preparing to leave for Narita again.

Number four engine. When we start these engines we start them two at a time. Really! Normally we start engines 3 and 4 simultaneously and when they've stabilized proceed to start numbers 1 and 2. I've explained in previous posts why the white stripe is painted across the nose dome. Do you remember?

How many tires do you see here? Yes, that's correct 18. Don't forget the two nosewheel tires flanked by the body gear doors. The two outward gear are called main gear and the two inboard gear are called body gear and are articulating or steerable. Have you ever wondered how a 747 can make a 90 degree turn on a taxiway that a DC-9 or 737 can? It's because the bodygear is steerable and turns in the opposite direction to the nosewheel allowing for tight turns. Without this feature a much larger radius would be required. The body gear lock and unlock during taxi as a result of speed, 15 knots if I remember.

Release for flight 173, JFK to NRT (from another date)

We're getting ready to leave JFK to NRT. We've finished OE so Gene will administer a line check on this leg and determine if he'll release me to the line. Once in NRT I deadhead back to DTW and Gene to MSP, so I better get it right! I have to admit though at this stage of my career I just don't sweat checks anymore. I prepare as best I can and historically that preparation has always yielded good results. I wish that I'd figured this out years ago! And the check airman has much to do with it too. Gene has created a very comfortable, learning atmosphere, has been complimentary of my performance thus far and placed me at ease. 

We've completed a before start checklist, started our pushback and have been cleared to start our engines. What I'm still unaccustomed to is how high we sit above the ground. I think that it's 34 feet and we can actually see the top of the MD88's stabilizer at the gate straight ahead.

Our engines are running, the after start checklist complete and we've received a taxi clearance to runway 31L via Kilo Kilo, Alpha, Juliet and Zulu taxiways behind this DAL 767-400. At 14,572 feet, 31L is the second longest runway in North America behind Denver's 16,000 foot runway 16R/34L. 31L was also designated as a space shuttle alternate landing runway, like the reef runway in Honolulu which I've written about before.

A full load of fuel, 324,000 pounds with 19,600 pounds in the stab tank. The stab fuel doesn't represent that much gas, but we'll need it considering headwinds and all legal requirements.

I love this airplane. The screens are large and easy to read, the seats comfortable and I have four engines. 

We're deep into Russian airspace with not much going on as we comminicate with Russian controllers via both VHF and HF. The panel layout is much the same as I was accustomed to on the 757 and 767 and the FMC is the same as well making the learning curve considerably less sharp. One noticible difference between this and all other Boeings that I've flown is that my side widow is fixed and doesn't open. On those other Boeings the sliding cockpit windows serve as an emergency egress. On the -400 though we have an emergency exit through the top of the roof, located in the center of the cockpit ceiling. On your way out you grab an emergency inertial reel and click it into position before jumping off the roof. I'm sure you know how an inertial reel works... I just hope I never have to try it.

This reminds me of a funny story. Years ago, flying a 727 between Miami and MSP, I opened the emergency rope access door above my head. This is the rope that you toss out the window and use to lower yourself to the ground in case of an emergency, hopefully avoiding the hot pitot tube on your way down.  Somebody had written on the inside of the door flap: "Not to be used above 25,000 feet."

Evergreen Airlines passes beneath us in a 747 out in the middle of no where.

This is only the second jet that I've flown that I can see my wingtips. In this case I can also see my outboard engine as well. Can you see the curvature of the earth in this photo? It looks as though you can doesn't it, but we're a long way from that altitude. I've never been any higher than 41,000 feet but understand that to see the earths curvature we must be somewhere  near 80,000 feet. 

The pictures above and below were taken in Russian airspace and show the desolation of our route. Interesting glacial activity in both shots.

We're not too awfully far from our top of descent into NRT and as you can see by my expression, things have gone smoothly; I anticipate being released to line duty shortly. This has been a wonderful experience, the only drawback to my position as a reserve pilot is that I fly infrequently and travel to MSP every 90 days to maintain recency in the simulator. The airline is in the process of closing down NATCO and moving the NWA sims to ATL, so my destination for this activity will change shortly. 

The simulator guys are great too; once we've completed what is legally necessary, they ask what I'd like to do for my own comfort level. After practicing a high speed abort, an engine failure after rotation, and a non precision approach or two I'm on my way home and feeling good.

OK, I'm done, Gene signed me off and I'm deadheading back to DTW while these guys fly the airplane. Remember those comfortable seats that I showed you earlier on the upper deck? Well, one of them has my name on it, allowing me a comfortable spot to pass the next 12 hours. I don't care too much for movies, so will crank up my macbook pro occasionally between chapters of Road to Serfdom.

Back in DTW

I'm sorry that it took me so long to get this out, but once again, as usual, thanks for joining me across the Pacific a couple of times to complete my OE.



  1. You write the most amazing posts. Thanks for sharing all of this! I enjoy it very much!

  2. Rand, your posts always put me there in the cockpit. Well done!

  3. Thank YOU, Rand. I have had the privilege of riding up front in a C-17 and a KC-135R a few times. There is nothing like seeing a fist moving four throttles. As I will never get to ride in a B-52, four seems like a lot. Thanks again for sharing this with us.

  4. It's good to have you back! I, for one, really missed your tales. You just made my day today with this tale. I always feel as though I am right there with you. Your pics add so much to the story. Please don't let us wait so long again.

  5. Regardless of when or how much you post the reading is always very enjoyable. The wait for another post is worth while. Thank you

  6. Ed Cough Delta 757/767 captainMarch 28, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    Hi Rand!! You're a great story teller and aviator. I enjoyed your OE recap. I certainly appreciate you sharing your talents with me over the years. My first DC9 captain checkout with you and my OE on the 727 in 2001. I hope to have an opportunity to fly the 747 before retirement!

  7. Thanks everyone for taking the time to write, it's much appreciated. I enjoy writing this stuff and it's nice to know that it's actually being read. Capt Schmoe good to hear from you. Also thanks to my good friend Ed Cough for his comments. But let me say a word or two about Ed... he's the type aviator who makes instructing very easy and is an excellent example to young aviators seeking an airline career. Work hard, show up prepared and keep on learning.



    1. Why does the stabilizer have fuel, if it doesn't directly feed the engines?

    2. Regarding the picture of the retired captain, his name is Lloyd Abel, call sign "Bozo." I don't know him personally but a good friend of mine who is a 757/767 captain at Delta knows him. Funny story on how he got his call sign. Shoot me an email if you would like any more information and I can put in touch with my friend. Chad

  8. Tim,

    The stab tank doesn't store an enormous amount of fuel, but what it stores is important for 13 and 14 hour flights. I suspect that the plumbing necessary to feed its contents to the engines was cumbersome, heavy and superfluous, so they simply designed its contents to be pumped into the Center Main Tank where it could then be distributed to the engines with existing plumbing and pumps. It really is a very nice design. When the main tank drops below a certain volume, we get a computer message telling us to activate the stab tank pumps allowing that fuel to be transferred to the main tank.


    1. Is the flight release given to the gate agent? I also noticed that the release said acars use, so I am assuming that the release came to the cockpit printer.

    2. Hi Rand - It is a distinct pleasure to read your posts. As an aviation enthusiast you provide the inside access that I crave!
      I had the pleasure of riding 6308 (N668US) and 6310 (N670US) yesterday (3/28/12) on a GUM-NRT-LAX routing. Ship 6310 has the new lie flats and I agree with your assessment that they’re a special way to travel.
      Whenever I get a chance to ride the -400 I try to peek in the cockpit in case you’re at the controls.
      Thank you again for the well crafted and thoughtful posts. Looking forward to the next.
      Best - Christian

  9. Tim,
    The release is included in our paperwork folder that we pick up in the flight planning room. It includes many documents such as the flightplan, winds aloft and NOTAMS. I keep this document and refer to it often en route, but we do have another document that I sign and leave with the gate agent just before the aircraft door is closed.

    I just returned from NRT yesterday, 3/31/12 and missed you by a couple of days as I flew the GUM NRT leg in 6310 on 3/30/12 with the new lie flat seats. I'll write about this shortly. This is a vast improvement over the old seats. Next time you're on one of our airplanes don't sneak a peek, go right in, say hello and ask for the tour. Unless it's minutes from pushback or there's a problem that we're dealing with, most of us enjoy those who show interest and come up to visit.


  10. I was wondering about the 9858 number you have there
    its been quite a few times that the Delta jets (the 767 as well when it came here a few years ago. Im in Tel Aviv)that got stuck here departed with that flight number (or similar to it)
    Is that a ferry flight number? (seems weird to fly it ferry all the way to the US but who knows..)

    And glad to read you as always, what are the chances youll have a TLV trip anytime soon? im a ramp supervisor at TLV and it would be great to meet up with you


  11. Hello Jordan,
    9858 is one of those flight numbers used for a variety of circumstances. I've seen it used for ferry flights, extra sections and for delayed flights. I've visited TLV just once since I've been on the 747 and had a wonderful time. My copilot on that flight grew up in Israel and was the perfect tour-guide. Being a reserve pilot I never know where I'll end up, so keep an eye out for a red head and come on up to say hello. And thanks for reading my blog.

  12. Was the copilot named Mike by any chance?


  13. I can only echo everyone else's compliments on a very very fine post. Thanks, Rand, and keep up the great work.

  14. Hi Rand - You arrived in NRT on 3/30. Wasn't that the day with vicious cross-winds and many diversions to HND and KIX? Where you affected by that? I think the peak was around 15:30 and I think DL97 from GUM arrived around 13:20 (probably earlier on the -400 !) so perhaps you dodged them.

    Congrats on the 10 day trip. Looking reading about your experiences!
    Best - Christian