Ever fantasize about what it might be
like to fly heavy iron for a major airline? Got a spare $475?
Well then, have we got a treat for you! There's a little-known
weekend program that offers pilots of any experience level the
opportunity to go through a grueling 10-hour cram course on Boeing
737 systems and procedures, plus two hours in a 737 cockpit procedures
trainer and two more hours flying a full-motion 737 simulator.
AVweb reader Erik Sundquist, a low-time non-instrument-rated
private pilot, took the course and actually lived to write about
It's a cold November Friday evening.
I am standing in the baggage area after deplaning a Boeing 737 at
Denver's International Airport. Could it be that I can actually learn
the basics of flying Boeing's most prolific jet in just two days?
I am asking myself why I had abandoned my wife,
pregnant with our soon to arrive twin boys, to attend a relatively
low-profile program known as Airline Training Orientation Program
(ATOP). For some curious reason, when I saw the ATOP ad
in a pilot magazine, I felt "the calling." It was as if
I were being summoned like the character in "Close Encounters
of the Third Kind" who embarked on a pilgrimage to Devil's Mountain
for some mysterious and unknown reason.
A man with a vision
ATOP is an independently operated company
which has the cooperation and support of United Airlines for the primary
purpose of introducing prospective candidates to the world of the
professional airline pilot. The concept was presented to UAL in 1993
by a chap named Wayne Phillips. Aside from being an ATP, B737-rated,
FAA Pilot Examiner, and a contractor at the United Airlines Flight
Center in Denver, Phillips is very active in aviation career education.
His career-oriented writings have been featured in many national magazines
and his aviation career workshops have been hosted by the nation's
finest aviation colleges and flight schools.
Years ago, Phillips had a vision. He reasoned
it would make sense for aspiring career aviators to experience what
it is like to train and fly just like a major airline pilot before
investing thousands of dollars and many years of their lives. He likes
to say that the ATOP allows a prospective airline pilot to
"test drive" his or her career before making that substantial
commitment of time and finances. United Airlines seems to agree with
With the ATOP concept in mind -- wherein
anybody, regardless of pilot certificates, ratings, or experience
level could spend a few days of total immersion in the world's largest
aircrew training facility -- Phillips made the pitch to Captain Bill
Traub, UAL's Vice President of Flight Standards and Training at the
time. Captain Traub said, "Go for it."
ATOP is technically not a United Airlines
program, since the airline is not in the business of conducting schools
for low-time pilots looking toward a cockpit career, nor is ATOP
officially endorsed by the company. However, much of the brass at
the United Airlines Flight Center informally acknowledges ATOP
and its mission to educate. Periodically, UAL managers and standards
Captains will "drop in" to welcome ATOP students
and explain the real world of hiring and flying at United.
Located at the United Airlines Flight Center
(UAL-TK) adjacent to the decommissioned Stapleton Airport in Denver,
ATOP is a two day immersion into the B-737-200, the Cessna
150 of the worldwide airline fleet. For a $435 course fee the student
will learn the normal operation of every system in the cockpit, be
trained in start-up flows and techniques, receive flight procedures
indoctrination, and spend two hours in the full-motion 737 simulator.
The student will fly thirty minutes from the left seat as Pilot Flying
(PF), 30 minutes in the right seat as Pilot Not Flying (PNF), and
spend one hour as observer. Courses are normally conducted two to
three times monthly over select weekends for eight to ten pilots maximum.
Drinking from a fire hose
It is 8:30 AM on day one. My nine other classmates
and I are greeted by host, tour guide, lecturer, entertainment committee,
and back-seat driver extraordinaire, Wayne Phillips. Introductions
and a tour start the day, followed by ground school training on 737-200
systems which lasts from 10:00 AM until 4:30 PM.
With large charts and an activity board known
as a Cockpit Management Trainer, the class is guided through electrical,
hydraulic, pneumatic, fuel, and control systems just to name a few.
I felt like an undergraduate student again furiously scribbling notes
attempting to learn in a few hours what professionals require years
to master. Talk with anyone training at United -- there is plenty
of time to meet with old-timer Captains and fresh new-hires -- and
you will hear this time and time again: "Training at United is
like taking a drink of water from a fire hose." And, believe
me, we were doused!
From 4:30-6:30 PM on the first day, we all
alternated into a 737-200 simulator for start-up flows and techniques.
Then, there's homework to keep it all together.
It's easy to get caught up in the atmosphere
of United Airlines. The Flight Center, which feels like a cross between
a college campus and a professional building, is filled with people
who make their livings in the aviation business. To the others in
my class and myself, this is "Aviation Mecca."
Walking the halls on short breaks for meals
and "defueling", we browse the United Airlines artifacts
which have been collected over the years. The place serves as a museum
to the carrier. Vintage photographs of DC-3's and the pioneers who
piloted them, old wooden propellers, and one vintage Link trainer
are just part of the collection.
An equal-opportunity experience
Those of us who sign up for this dose of airline
reality each have varying degrees of piloting experience. Four colleagues
are relatively low-time CFIs plying their trade at various flight
schools around the country, two pilots have more than 2,000 hours
of flight time, two have some turbo-prop time, and finally two (including
myself) have less than 100 hours total time.
ATOP classes are generally composed
of pilots in these experience levels; about 60% have accumulated between
100-1000 hours of flight experience and are on the very first rungs
of the career ladder; about 35% are working professionals, including
military instructors and commuter pilots; about 5% take the course
just "for kicks." They want to play "Walter Mitty"
for the weekend.
Pilots are matched as closely as possible according
to experience. I am paired with a 98-hour private pilot currently
enrolled in a "private to MEI" program in Norman, Oklahoma.
Unlike myself, who enrolled in the ATOP to develop a sense
of career direction, my partner-in-crime knows precisely why he is
there. He has no doubt flying for the majors is his ultimate career
After a full day of cramming on Boeing 737-200
systems and a late night study session with the cockpit trainer to
review the flight profile and procedures, both as Captain and First
Officer, it is back to the hotel for a short night of sleep in preparation
for our 7:00 AM sim session.
The 737-200 is the basic airplane in the Boeing
737 family. Of the more than 3,000 737s flying today, about a third
are 737-200 models. United Airlines still has 25 in the fleet and
expect to keep them until the year 2005.
The model we are flying weighs in at 92,000
pounds, a far cry from the tiny 160 HP Piper Cherokee I usually fly.
It will cruise at about 435 knots TAS thanks to two Pratt & Whitney
JT8D-7 turbofan engines. Fuel burn for a typical mission is about
(gulp) 6,000 pounds per hour as a "round number" from takeoff
It is surreal to think that I am about to make
the jump from a single-engine runabout to a full-blown megaton airliner
in one leap. But, I am about to do just that...and realize a lifelong
dream at last.
My partner and I meet Wayne at the simulator
lobby brimming with anticipation. As we settle in United's SIM #3
as attentive observers, we watch the CFIs in our group fly first.
This was great since we had the opportunity to benefit from their
The first CFI to captain the Guppy (as it is
affectionately referred to in the industry) performs quite well flying
the flight profile. It includes a takeoff, vectors in the Denver terminal
airspace, a visual ILS to a touch-and-go, followed by a second ILS
in IMC to a full-stop landing. In all, an hour's worth of 737 time,
two ILS approaches, and two landings can be logged (ATOP uses
United's "landing certified" Level D simulators).
I'm up next! Like a kid getting on Space Mountain
at Disneyland, I slip into the left seat and adjust myself into position.
I think to myself as I slither between the seat and the yoke, "this
is definitely not Microsoft Flight Simulator '98!"
With the engines already started (the class
performs start procedures on the first day), I push my toes hard on
the top of the rudder pedals to release the brakes. As I slide the
right and left engine throttles to the straight up, I watch the Engine
Pressure Ratio (EPR), N1 and N2, EGT, and fuel-flow gauges carefully
for normal indications. I call out to the FO, "Set takeoff thrust."
My flying partner grabs my hand and moves the throttle with hand combination
to 2.01 EPR for takeoff power.
I cannot believe the realism. This IS the airplane!
I feel the acceleration force and the bumps in the runway as we scream
down runway 35L at DEN.
"80 knots" calls the FO.
"80 knots cross-check" I reply.
Lights and bells
As I anticipate the V1 speed callout at 134
knots, the "go/no-go" decision point on the takeoff roll,
the takeoff is rudely interrupted by a master caution, a bell, and
a red engine fire light from engine number two. For a moment I freeze,
contemplating my options while commandeering the giant hunk of aerospace
parts down the runway.
Suddenly, I remember that the V1 call was not
made by the FO so I quickly shut down power and press my toes as hard
as I can into the top of the pedals for a timely stop. There is no
need to worry about skidding as we are taught that these birds have
the aviation equivalent of antilock brakes. Not much use for 99.9%
of your flight, but real handy in a ground emergency requiring a quick
stop such as an engine failure or runway obstruction ... like that
Beech 1900 that just crossed the active runway ahead without a clearance.
After taking a deep breath and hearing something
from Wayne in the back about the use of the speed brake to assist
stopping in an aborted takeoff situation, we are once again lined
up for departure on 35L thanks to some simulator wizardry called "repositioning."
This time V1 comes followed by the rotation
speed of 136 knots. I coax the yoke towards me and pitch for 16 degrees
on the attitude indicator. We lift off the runway with ease and begin
to climb rapidly at 2500 feet per minute.
I somehow remember my first call-out. "Positive
Climb. Gear Up." My First Officer dutifully complies.
At 1000 feet, I pitch to 9 degrees for the
cruise climb attitude and begin to pick-up airspeed.
"OK for flaps up" calls the FO.
"Set flaps up" What else am I supposed
to remember here? Uh, oh yeah! "Set climb thrust and complete
after takeoff checklist."
At this point I am flying in more ways than
one! The adrenaline is pumping, my hands are getting sweaty, it is
like a first date with someone you have a crush on. This was
my first date ... with a Boeing!
I level off at 8000 MSL and have the FO set
fuel flow to 2300 pounds per hour, which uncannily results in an IAS
of 230 knots. (Hey, it really does work the way Wayne said it would!)
If I want 250 knots, I will set 2500 pounds of fuel flow. But, hey
... we are at 8000 MSL in the Class B Denver Airspace, and I do not
want to bust the 250-knot speed limit.
"United 456, radar contact. Make right
turn heading 090 and maintain 8000," comes the call from ATC
"Roger, United 456. Right turn heading
090 and maintain 8000," replies the FO.
I am learning the value of Cockpit Resource
Management since my FO not only manages radio communications, but
looks for traffic, deals with some of the systems glitches Wayne throws
at us just to keep things interesting, and initiates most of the callouts.
This leaves me with the ability to totally concentrate on my primary
duty, to fly. This is just how the big boys do it.
After the initial jitters begin to evaporate,
I settle in and feel pretty good. I am actually flying a B-737 and
not breaking too many FARs in the process! Heck, this machine is nothing
but a Cherokee on steroids! I maintain pitch at about 4 degrees nose
up to keep level. This animal is very pitch-sensitive but sluggish
in roll, just as advertised in class.
On the downwind now, ATC calls out, "United
456. Reduce speed to 160 knots and maintain 8000."
I pull the throttles to idle and begin to slow
down. When the airspeed indicator displays 175 knots, I call out to
my FO who has already set flaps 5, "Set 2800 pounds fuel flow."
And, there it is by the numbers: 160 knots IAS.
Shooting the ILS
The moment of truth arrives as I psyche myself
up for the approach and my first-ever landing in a multi-engine airplane.
I feel the eyes of the two CFIs sitting behind me.
My preparation for this moment came just three
days before. I am a VFR-only private pilot, so prior to coming to
United for the ATOP, I did exactly what Wayne had encouraged
me to do when I phoned to register -- I called my flight instructor
and begged for a crash course (pardon the expression) in ILS approaches.
We flew three ILS's on a PC simulator. This is a tad different!
"Localizer alive," proclaims the
"Roger." I switch on the flight director
and toggle on the altitude-hold function. Then I simply fit the orange
delta triangle under the yellow wings of the flight director over
and over again as the flight director and I guide the 737 down the
electronic pathway toward the runway.
Slowing to the approach speed of 134 knots,
I make call-outs based on glide slope intercept.
1 1/2 dots. "Gear down."
1 dot. "Set flaps 15."
1/2 dot. "Set flaps 30."
The FO scans the radar altimeter and announces,
"1000 feet ... 500 feet ... 50 ... 40 ... 30 ... 20 ... 10 ..."
At 30 feet, I start pulling back power and
the yoke concurrently to flare. It is just about 20 feet too late.
CRUNCH! It is a carrier landing, but we survive! This Boeing 737 is
on the runway in one piece, I complete my very first ILS and multi-engine
landing in a jet!
For the touch-and-go, my FO retracts the speed
brake, sets flaps to 15, trims for takeoff, sets takeoff thrust, and
we launch again. We fly the procedure a second time. This time, though,
I choose an ILS approach in instrument weather conditions to 200 and
a half, sky obscured. The second approach is either VFR or IMC, depending
on the pilot's wishes. I say to myself, "No Pain, No Gain!"
and opt for the approach in IMC.
My peripheral vision picks up the approach
lights about two miles from the threshold. Stay on the gauges. Got
100 feet to go, transition outside. Lead the flare a little bit earlier
this time. Hang on. Keep it flat. Let it settle. Made it ... greased
er on! Reversers now to 1.8 EPR. Turn left. Ground point niner.
Piece of cake!
The toughest job in the cockpit
After an hour break, my partner and I switch
seats for the second mission where I experience the workload of the
First Officer. I learn quickly that the FO -- or more accurately,
the Pilot Not Flying (PNF) -- really manages the flight. It is a lot
tougher than I ever anticipated. Thankfully, a script is provided
that gives all of the essential FO callouts and duties.
My limited knowledge of the electrical systems
is tested when the generator on engine #2 goes offline because of
a Constant Speed Drive (CSD) disconnect. Fortunately, Wayne helps
me solve the outage via the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) backup generator.
I wish my wife could have seen me toggling all of those switches ...
I must have looked great!
We taxi in and shut down. Done! We did it!
All of us in that class accomplish something that only a relative
handful on this planet have ever done: fly and land a Boeing airliner.
Granted, we have only the most rudimentary knowledge of the airplane
when compared to someone with a B-737 type rating or who has endured
the eight weeks of training that a United Airlines new-hire goes through.
Yet, there is a tremendous feeling of satisfaction seeing the entry
in my logbook: "1 hr. B-737, 2 B-737 ILS approaches, 2 B-737
landings." I know that I can do this!
All of this is followed by a ninety-minute
career briefing detailing the state of airline hiring and, in particular,
what it really takes to get hired by a company like United.
Time to go
I relive these moments constantly. Like so
many aviators, I have toyed with the idea of flying for the majors.
For two days, I was able to live the dream...and maybe, just maybe,
I'll do it.
I do think anyone even remotely interested
in a career with the airlines should take advantage of this unique
and once in a lifetime opportunity for that "test drive."
However, any aviation enthusiast searching for new experiences will
also benefit from this training if for no other reason than to understand
what goes on up front in one of those gleaming airliners.
The two days fly by all too quickly. I am now
seated in a United DC-10 poised for takeoff and the return flight
to San Francisco. I visualize the crew completing the flows and checklists.
I now realize fully why I had come to ATOP. It is the same
reason I purchase "United Airlines Future Pilot" pajamas
at the UAL-TK company store for my twin boys. Aviation is a passion.
It can take us to new and exciting places. Thanks to a simple idea
to allow us common folk to taste the fantasy and a major airline that
continues to support it, I was ATOP the aviation world!