The Continental Airlines 737-500 squats on the Houston ramp, stuffed full of passengers and fuel for the trip to Baltimore. We are in the penalty box, awaiting takeoff clearance as ATC sorts out 30-mile in-trail spacing for aircraft headed east because of heavy thunderstorms. Predictably, the cabin becomes increasingly stuffy. As a flight attendant walks by, I so much want to stop her and ask, “Would you mind calling the first officer and asking him to reach up to the right side of the overhead panel and rotate the Air Temp knob to the aft passenger cabin setting? In doing so, he’ll note that it’s rather warm back here and he can then turn the Aft Cab temperature knob to the left a little to cool the cabin. Thanks so much!”
But then I think that might sound a little too pretentious. About then I hear the engines shut down as the auxiliary power unit picks up the environmental and electrical load. Across the aisle, AOPA Pilot and AOPA Flight Training Editor Mike Collins gives me a knowing look—we’re going to be here awhile.
Only a couple of hours earlier, we had the beefy pedestal of a 737-800 cockpit separating our seats rather than an aisle. First Officer Collins was calling out checklist items while Captain Haines responded in his most authoritative voice. Out the windshield was San Francisco’s Runway 28R. The Boeing, weighing 150,000 pounds including fuel and people, was well below our maximum takeoff weight of 174,200 pounds. I advanced the thrust levers to arm’s length and called for the FO to set takeoff thrust; 95 percent N1 today. Those thousands of Boeing parts lurched forward in unison as the runway stripes passed underneath. “Eighty knots,” the FO called. “Eighty-knot cross-check,” I replied.
As the 150-knot bug rolls by on the airspeed indicator, the FO called out, “V1,” and then almost immediately “VR,” which was 152 knots. My right hand moved from the thrust levers to the yoke and I tugged the nose skyward—up to 18 degrees on the electronic attitude directional indicator (EADI). “Positive rate, gear up.”
Collins pulled out and up on the massive gear lever, moving it first to the Up position and later during the after-takeoff checklist to the middle Off position. The gear rumbled into place, quieting the cockpit considerably.
Things were going swimmingly until suddenly the Master Caution light in front of me started flashing as the airplane yawed. I stomped the rudder pedal toward the working engine, but seconds later all was well again as the auto-relight did its trick, restoring engine power automatically. I turned toward Seattle and said a small thank-you prayer to the Boeing engineers. But then all of the hydraulics failed—yes, both the engine-driven pumps and the two backup electric pumps. Bummer of a day.
Suddenly, instead of slipping through the air, guiding my airliner with a couple of fingers on the yoke, I’m driving an 18-wheeler with no power steering. The pig of an airplane is all over the place as I use both hands to tug on the yoke while the massive trim wheel beside my thigh spins wildly. I call for help from the FO. He’s already checking the four hydraulic switches on the overhead—they’re all on, but still no pressure. I call for the quick reference handbook, but then gradually pressure is restored and we’re flying along deftly again. Behind me, Wayne Phillips is giggling at my wimpy physique as he touches the computer screen at the instructor station, giving me an “all normal” airplane again.
The $26 million CAE full-motion simulator in the Continental Airlines Training Center is breathtakingly real and I’ve had a workout—and we’re not even on downwind yet! Did I mention the engine failure just short of V1 on an earlier takeoff?
Collins and I, along with six other pilots, are immersed in an aviation weekend, learning the nuances of the ubiquitous 737 in Phillips’ Airline Training Orientation Program (ATOP). Phillips, a longtime instructor, former airline pilot, and AOPA Flight Training contributor, launched the ATOP program in 1993 at the United Air Lines training center in Denver, buying available simulator time and packaging it with a weekend ground school to introduce college students to what it might be like to fly a 737. Since 2002, the program has operated about one weekend a month from the Continental training center in Houston. Continental management recognizes the importance of introducing young pilots to the possibility of an airline career.
Over the past 15 years, Phillips has provided the course to more than 3,000 pilots. Attendees must at least hold a student pilot certificate with 15 hours of instruction. The program complies with Transportation Security Administration requirements for citizenship verification.
While our class was made up of 30- and 40-year-old professionals from every corner of the country, most classes are about evenly split between such pilots wanting to satisfy a curiosity—or fulfill a fantasy—and those who are either considering an airline career or are looking to move up from a regional airline to a major and want an introduction to the 737. Frequently, when he’s in an airport somewhere, Phillips will run into one of his former students, now wearing an airline uniform. “They always remember their introduction to the 737. It’s very rewarding,” he said.
The course consists of a daylong ground school where Phillips uses his irreverent sense of humor and dynamic disc-jockey voice to step the students through the 737’s complex systems. Although it’s a tornado of information, the day breezes by under Phillips’ masterful instruction. Students spend a couple of hours in a flight training device learning cockpit flows, engine starts, and switchology. The next morning’s sim experience includes two instrument approaches and an hour of flight time for each student—half in the left seat as captain and the rest in the right seat as first officer—and another hour as an observer. The simulator is so realistic that Continental pilots can earn a type rating without ever flying the real airplane. Especially given the sim time, the ATOP experience costs what seems like a very reasonable $475; $450 each if two pilots come together.
Meanwhile, back on the ramp, we’re cued up for takeoff and soon climbing away from Houston for Baltimore. I look across the aisle at Collins and say, “Feels like about 186 knots. Flaps ought to be coming up soon.” About then we hear the grinding of the actuator as the flaps draw back up into the trailing edge of the wing.
A little knowledge—a dangerous, but amusing, thing.