STORIES FROM THE HORROR BOX
By John Laming
*** Updated 14 Nov 2021 ***
I became gun shy of flight simulators while undergoing a type rating on the Boeing 737-100. The instructor was an irritable pedantic who had risen to the God like status of check captain purely through seniority in the airline rather than any ability to instruct. I had survived over 10,000 hours of varied flying from Tiger Moth to Mustangs to Viscounts, yet my very first session with this buffoon made me feel like an incompetent student pilot. Hardly had I strapped in when he was barking at me to move the heading knob with my left hand and the course indicator with my right hand. Don’t look up at the pressurisation panel while flying on instruments less we crash and burn. Always trust the co-pilot to make any radio panel changes less you lose concentration from intercepting the ILS on one engine. Double-checking of navigation aid selection was not part of his vocabulary. The copilot has a rating – trust him. Trust the Flight Director – it has magic powers beyond your ken and will signal changes of flight path before the human brain can react. This nonsense was pounded into our heads from a character that had spent his entire flying career flying between the North and South Islands of New Zealand. No wonder the poor old flight simulator was called The Horror Box. Fortunately a real gentleman conducted my final assessment session in the simulator and I prize his signature in my logbook.
For two years I flew the real thing without going back for simulator checks. Our proficiency and instrument rating checks were flown in the Boeing 737-200 at Avalon near Melbourne and occasionally at Hong Kong. Rarely did pilots fail their check rides probably because there are obvious flight safety limitations to in-flight simulated emergencies. Taking an aircraft out of service just for training is expensive in terms of lost revenue and fuel costs and my company was already losing millions of dollars on unprofitable routes. The decision was made to return to flight simulators for proficiency and upgrade to command training. The particular simulator we used was extraordinarily sensitive and it was easy to crash inverted while handling an engine failure just on lift off. Later we found out that the spoiler controls on the wings were twice as effective as those on the real aircraft. This meant that an engine failure in the real aircraft was much easier to control than in this particular simulator. Nevertheless a few instructors criticized pilots for having difficulty in handling engine failures on this simulator and failed to make due allowance for the peculiarities of this machine. It was, after all, a computer – not a bloody aeroplane.
During my type rating training another crew were undergoing a parallel course to ours. They had a former Boeing flight instructor pilot as their simulator instructor. An American called Joe, he was of the old military school of hard knocks where verbal abuse and sarcasm appeared to be the accepted method of teaching. While Joe’s technical knowledge was superb, he lacked both social graces and instructional ability. One of the students on the conversion was unable to cope with Joe’s heavy-handed methods and was failed on his final simulator-handling test. Some months later, the same pilot returned to the simulator and paid up front to fly with another instructor employed by a major international airline. After several sessions the pilot regained his shattered confidence and finally passed his Boeing 737 command endorsement. Over the years when pilots of my former airline meet at the bar, the subject of Joe and the simulator invariably arises. Like veterans of Gallipoli and D-Day they talk of the battles with Joe.
Personalities and company politics are a fact of life in every flying job. But when politics and job security become an issue in the simulator, one’s career can well be at stake. Because of this real enemies can be made in the simulator. Once locked into the “ Box” and the drawbridge is up it is easy to forget that the simulator is just another sophisticated computer. The battle commences with an engine failure with fire warning a second before V1. The captain decides to continue the take-off, lift off the ground and sort out the fire once he has the aircraft safely under control and climbing. If on the other hand he had decided to abort the take-off, there was a strong possibility that the aircraft would have over-run the runway. The decision is a critical one, either way. The instructor who had “arranged” the emergency knew exactly when the fire would occur and had his own fixed view on what he perceived as the best course of action by the pilot. At the subsequent debrief the pilot would be criticized from differing from the “umpires” decision and his training records duly annotated. Repeat similar scenarios for pressurization emergencies, failure of flight controls, hydraulic systems and a host of other possible situations and by the end of the simulator session the pilot has been put in his place. The instructors personal attitude has a marked bearing on whether the crew walk out into the sunny day feeling confident that all emergencies were handled safely – or whether they made so many “ mistakes” that their continuing employment is at doubt pending management discussions. I began to be wary of simulator instructors a species. This opinion was reinforced many times in my career as an airline pilot. Unpleasant office politics had resulted in pilots being dismissed and I was in the firing line. The simulator session provided the ideal ammunition for dismissal by reason of failure to make the “required” standard on a proficiency check. The instructor set the scene and introduced an engine fire at lift off while at the same time selecting the severe turbulence programme. It was bad enough to cope with the adverse characteristics of this particular computer (simulator) at point of engine failure let alone fly a rocking and rolling 737 on single engine in cloud down the ILS. With the help of a good copilot I coped and survived. A few weeks later another session was “arranged.” This instructor was a panic merchant who would resort to verbal abuse at the top of his voice. Providing that you took his tirades in respectful silence and nod wisely at the right times, you would survive the session. Bite back or attempt to reason with him would cause him to scrawl red marks all over your report sheet. Simulator instructors with that particular airline were selected purely on the basis on how well you got on with the chief pilot and his drinking crowd.
Runaway Rudder Trim
Not long after the Boeing 737-400 came into airline service, reports began of unexplained movement of the electrically operated rudder trim system. One aircraft aborted at high speed following difficulties with directional control during the take-off run, and two passengers were drowned when the aircraft over-ran into a river. The rudder trim was found to be in the hard over position. The pilots were adamant that the trim indicator was set correctly before take-off. Other reports described unsolicited rudder trim operation in flight causing the aircraft to roll sharply. Some were explained away such as the report that a flight attendant on the flight deck inadvertently touched the rudder trim switch when resting her foot on the pedestal. On another occasion a flight manual on the pedestal jammed against the trim switch which moved, causing the aircraft to yaw and roll. Boeing issued a crew alert which stated that until the problem was solved pilots should double check the trim position as the last item on the checklist before take-off.
I was aware of these reports at the time that I converted from the Boeing 737-200 (which had a manually operated rudder trim) to the Boeing 737-400. My instructor then, was a British check captain with a reputation for being pedantic. He was fond of the drink and after the end of a 0300 simulator session would hurry back to his hotel room for a wee dram or two. By strange coincidence his surname was that of a well-known English pub beer.
During an engine failure after take-off which involved an instrument departure from London Heathrow (in the simulator), I experienced difficulty in trimming the rudder accurately. Join the club I hear you say! The aircraft was wallowing around and to make things worse the instructor had a hangover, which made him more irritable than usual. I asked the first officer to re-centralize the rudder trim to neutral while I flew on instruments. That done, I again moved the rudder trim in order to balance the foot load. Immediately the aircraft rolled sharply causing a series of caustic remarks from our instructor. I felt that I was over-controlling and making things worse. His jibes grew more strident until I could take his sarcasm no longer. I asked him to “freeze” the simulator so that we could have a coffee break in order to get my feelings under control. The instructor reluctantly agreed and while we stepped from the simulator into sanity, he disappeared into the corridors of power to discuss my future.
Over coffee I discussed immediate past events with the first officer. An unflappable type, he cautioned me not to let the instructor’s attitude get up my nose. He also mentioned that when I had asked him to centralize the rudder trim following the first bout of crazy flying, he had noticed the trim was already hard over to one side. This was unusual since I knew that I had only made minor adjustments to the switch during the engine failure. We returned to the simulator before the instructor and operated the rudder trim. To our amazement the indicator continued to move hard over after the switch was released. This explained why I had experienced difficulty in trimming accurately after the engine failure. We tried the switch several times and on most occasions the trim ran away to full scale.
While the instructor conceded that the runaway trim control could make it difficult to fly accurately, he seemed more concerned that I had found a foolproof excuse for my rough flying. He disagreed with my suggestion that a report on the incident should be sent to the British CAA for dissemination to the aircraft manufacturer and other 737 operators. Instead he made a brief note in the simulator technical log. Previous reports that I had seen on runaway rudder trims seemed relevant to our incident and that evening I wrote a detailed report and sent it to the British CAA. They were most interested and thanked me for contacting them. Some weeks later I was flying the real thing – in this case a Boeing 737–300. We had landed in Melbourne and awaiting more passengers. On that occasion we carried a ground engineer who normally sat in the jump seat for take-off. It was nighttime and the cockpit lights were dim. I had just adjusted my seat in preparation for start up checks, when the engineer made a comment, which made my blood run cold. Looking down at the electric rudder trim indicator he had noticed that it was full scale hard right. We had not touched it at any time during the previous flight.
Simulator instructors can be grounded retired pilots, technical lecturers or full time airline flight instructors. Either way, some undergo an apparent personality change once they are in the simulator. One with a pleasant classroom manner may change his attitude to that of impatient intolerance in the confines of the simulator. The slightest error on a checklist response by the crew evokes sarcastic remarks and finger stabbing. Tension builds up as the pilots try to play their part in the theatre imagined by the instructor. He may act the part of an air traffic controller, a ground engineer, or a flight attendant. He will press the buttons that make the runway short, long, icy or bumpy. He plays God with the weather buttons, invoking gusty winds rain, hail or shine. Few pilots are gifted actors and find it faintly ridiculous talking into the public address system to a crowd of mythical cabin crew and holiday passengers that the aircraft is on fire and that they should all evacuate (the aircraft, that is!) asap. The name of the game is simulation, but in the hands of a bad instructor or worse still, a career buster – the flight simulator earns it grim reputation as the “ Horror Box”.
This was evident with the introduction of the early flight simulators, which did not have the superb technical fidelity evident in modern machines. The Australian Federation of Air Pilots (AFAP) was rightfully suspicious of early simulators and contracts annotated that no pilot could be dismissed solely on flight simulator results. Because it was easier to fly the real aircraft than the simulator, there was an industrial agreement that anyone failing a simulator check should be afforded the opportunity to prove his skills in the air. This was expensive in terms of aircraft utilization and fuel costs but in those days the pilots union was militant and the airlines had little say in the matter. Few pilots failed the flight check mainly because there was a limit to the type of emergencies that could be safely simulated when airborne. With swift technological advances in simulator design, the excellent fidelity of modern simulators means that regulatory authorities may issue type ratings without the pilot having flown the real thing.
In Australia there is no CAA requirement that airline check pilots or simulator instructors have completed a formal flight instructor rating. The status and extra pay attract some, while others volunteer or are promoted into the job in order of seniority. There are no aptitude or psychological tests for the job. On the other hand, check pilots in the RAAF are not only required to be graduates of the Flying Instructors Course at RAAF Central Flying School, but must have served at least one posting as a qualified flying instructor at one of the various RAAF flying schools. After two or more years as a flying instructor at a basic or advanced flying
school teaching cadet pilots the instructor may then be posted back to his original squadron as the unit QFI – or in civil context a check captain. This has the advantage of being an experienced instructor pilot before being let loose on an Orion, Boeing 707 or Hornet as a check pilot and simulator instructor.
The same attributes may not necessarily apply to a simulator instructor who may be hired from technical ranks simply because he is a whizz on the engineering aspects of the aircraft or an airline captain with great seniority. Some turn out to be fine fellows and excellent instructors. Others lack the good manners and instructional skills, relying on brutalizing as a method of getting the point across.
Either way, a good simulator instructor can be worth his weight in gold to the operation, and the secret of success is good humour. The majority of pilots faced with a simulator session are keen to do well and should have already studied the sequences to be flown and have a sound knowledge of the various manuals required to competently operate the aircraft. Any schoolteacher knows that forty-five minutes of lecture time is about the maximum that students can absorb without losing interest. Beyond that the learning curve flattens and clock-watching sets in. Yet I have often attended simulator sessions where two hours of “briefings” precede the four hours in the simulator, followed often by a one hour “de-brief”. During the simulator flying it is not uncommon to have the pilots carry out numerous what is curiously termed “Non-Normal” situations in the one period. Five engine failures, three in-flight fires, various hydraulic failures, several high speed aborted take off, and a host of minor annoyances such as generator failures, pressurization failure followed by a rapid descent from high altitude (delightfully termed a Dirty Dive) - and all these scenarios during flight in cloud at night and some during an instrument approach. Is it any wonder that the simulator is seen by some pilots as a Horror Box?
Perhaps the most frequent phrase used by incompetent instructors is “What the hell are you doing now?” On these occasions I was tempted to retort “If you can’t see what I am doing, you must be blind”..But I always refrained simply because one can never win the war against these characters, and in any case I had mouths to feed at home. Paradoxically, I learnt one good thing from these tyrants and that was how not to instruct.
Earlier I mentioned good humour as a vital attribute for an instructor. I was once doing a Boeing 737 type rating on two Chinese students. Both had barely attained a basic Commercial Pilot Licence and arrived at the simulator with 200 flight hours in their logbooks. Their English was quite good and both were very keen to learn. With loss of face hang-ups being part of their Asian culture, I was anxious not to even mildly criticize one in front of the other. During briefing I had explained to them that although respect for the elderly was an admirable part of their culture, they should not be over-awed by the seniority status of the captain to the point of accepting all of his words and actions as inviolate.
I then proceeded to demonstrate the dangers of an unstable approach in the 737 and was successful in collapsing the landing gear after a heavy landing. They listened with grave expressions and I exhorted them to seriously consider taking over control from a wayward captain if they saw a similar situation developing in flight. My advice was to warn the captain twice and if no response to take over and carry out a go-around before handing back control with an apology. I pointed out that as first officers they were second-in-commands of a large jet transport and with that went the responsibility for a safe operation.
Some time later, the cadet in the left seat was carrying out an ILS (simulator) and making a hash of it. He was about to drift off the runway and land on the grass when his colleague acting as co-pilot demanded that he go-around. It was a good call but for reasons of loss of face, was ignored by the cadet in the captain’s seat who seemed intent in plastering the 737 on the deck regardless. A brief altercation in the Chinese language ensued – which translated into the words “ Fuck-off, who do you think is flying this thing?”
Undeterred, the co-pilot took over control after a brief wrestle for control and commenced a go-around from five feet above the grass. The 737 pitched up under full thrust and the co-pilot forgot to retract the flaps to 15 (half flap). As briefed he then dutifully handed back control to the left seat pilot with the aircraft still pitching up to an impossible angle and hopelessly out of trim. He did however remember to apologize to his colleague, who shortly after lost control of the aircraft after it stalled at 800 feet above the runway. Far from the action in the back of the simulator I nearly wet myself with laughter. Neither pilot saw the humour behind the situation and were prepared to knife each other for causing loss of face to each other. I quickly “froze” the simulator to prevent it crashing and causing more “shame”, and congratulated both pilots on a job well done. Their surprise at this remark turned to broad smiles as they realized I was not going to “bollock” them.
They of course realized that a stuff-up had occurred, but I congratulated the left seat pilot for a well flown ILS (well, it wasn’t too bad except for the last few seconds when he lost the plot) and then conveyed a similar accolade to the co-pilot for his speedy reaction to the attempted landing on the grass. Loss of face having been avoided it was high time for a coffee break and both cadets again became friends.
In later simulator sessions I noticed that they began to laugh with each other as minor mistakes occurred and the sessions became notably relaxed. Years later, both are experienced 737 pilots and keep in touch with me from China by regular emails.
I was fortunate that the foreign pilots that I have taught in the 737 simulator have spoken good English, although regional accents sometimes make it hard to understand. I sympathized with instructors that teach non-English speaking crews and who require the services of an interpreter. Imagine telling a new pilot to the 737 to “Round-out NOW!” By the time the interpreter absorbs this call then translates into Chinese, the aircraft has buried itself into the runway and the simulator has sagged on its hydraulic jacks requiring a re-boot.
A colleague of mine was training a crew from a Chinese airline. The interpreter was Chinese check captain who spoke excellent English. The pilot under training spoke enough English to understand basic aviation terminology such as “clear for take-off”, but that’s about all. The interpreter sat in the back of the simulator reading a newspaper, and told my colleague that if there was any language difficulty, to let him know – otherwise he would not interfere in the course of the session.
After the first landing the instructor told the Chinese captain in the left seat to reset the flaps from their landing position to the take-off setting. Meanwhile he pressed the buttons to reset the simulator at the take-off point rather than waste five minutes of backtracking after the landing. The captain under training refused to do as bid, stating that the after-landing checklist called for flaps to be full retracted. The instructor explained that the simulator was just a computer and to save time and costs the Chinese captain should cooperate. The captain refused and so the instructor cleared him for take-off. With the flaps up, the aircraft crashed after lifting off the runway. All the time, the interpreter stayed engrossed in his newspaper at the back of the simulator.
Exasperated after the Chinese captain had crashed three times through not following the instructor’s advice, my colleague turned around to the interpreter and with gritted teeth asked the interpreter to get the message across to the captain that he was wasting time by being so obstructive. Without a word, the interpreter carefully folded his newspaper and leaning over, smashed it over the head of the recalcitrant captain. “Try him, now”, he said in perfect English. The remainder of the session went off without a hitch. Such is the power of persuasion!
Despite the high experience level of some Asian pilots, it was apparent that their cultural mores dictated the cockpit atmosphere. I saw first officers who simply ignored out-of –tolerance flying by the captain to the extent that they would have rather let the aircraft crash rather than interfere with or correct the captain’s course of action. While I had no qualms about firmly commenting on this attitude and receiving impassive head-nods in reply, I had little doubt that my views would not change two thousand years of culture and that moreover even if I could get them to see the light, they would be forcibly reminded of their position in the world once they returned home.
During training of a crew from Indonesia, I gave the captain a turn towards a radio beacon while flying at 5000 ft and 250 knots. The visual display was switched off giving the impression of total blackness outside the windows. As the turn progressed, I selected on the instructor panel a fault in the captain’s artificial horizon which effectively caused the instrument indications to freeze. Simultaneously I asked the captain to reverse the turn and head to a radio beacon nearby. He did not detect that his artificial horizon had frozen and proceeded to apply more angle of bank until eventually the aircraft was beyond the vertical. Even then, a competent pilot could have recovered from the now rapidly diving aircraft.
He seemed mesmorized by the failed artificial horizon and as the aircraft became inverted I watched the reaction of the young co-pilot hoping that he would call that the standard angle of bank tolerances had been exceeded and take over control before the aircraft was lost. But he just watched his own instruments in passive silence as they indicated a high-speed inverted dive. By the time the captain realized that his artificial horizon had failed, it was too late and the aircraft would have eventually gone in at high speed. This was a deadly serious game and no time for flippancy. I froze the simulator and carefully discussed the situation with both pilots before repeating the exercise. This time the failure was quickly detected, but I pondered the fate of the poor passengers and crew if that defect in the artificial horizon had occurred in actual flight in cloud or at night.
As a simulator instructor, I have “flown” with pilots from many airlines both European and Asian operators. Their standards varied widely reflecting I suppose on their previous training culture. German pilots had a teutonic thoroughness in their cockpit drills and could prove exasperating because of their absolutely rigid attitude. There was no humour on the flight deck. Israeli pilots were different in their approach to flying. All those with whom I associated were current week-end military pilots who flew F16’s and similar hot ships. It was common to see captain and co-pilot arguing in the cockpit – but it was healthy dissension invariably ending in laughter and an agreement to disagree. Indian pilots were grave with characteristic sideways head waving in discussions. The co-pilots were careful not to talk back to the captain and made no suggestions that could be conceived as rocking the boat. I had numerous concerns about the general competency of crews from India. I trained cadets destined for Garuda Indonesia airline. These had only 200 hours and understandably had difficulty in transitioning from a Seminole light twin to the 737. One cadet frequently appeared to nod off during the briefings and during a simulator session. He lacked enthusiasm and I got the impression that he was not interested in flying. While talking to him privately, I was taken aback when he started to weep quietly and saying that he never wanted to be a pilot but had been pressured into it by his parents who saw him a future bread-winner. His love was computers and he wanted to be a computer engineer. I reported this back to his training school in New Zealand, recommending that he be sent home. I was told to continue his training regardless of his feelings and that it was up to the student to sort out his problems when he returned to Indonesia. The problem solved itself when he failed the 737 course.
Left Seat Hero
Few pilots travelling passenger down the back of a 747 will admit to have occasionally engaged in the fantasy of hearing the urgent call on the PA of “Will anyone with pilot qualifications please make yourself known to the cabin crew”. You press the overhead button and a beautiful flight attendant with a set of gorgeous knockers appears. She explains that both pilots have gone down with food poisoning and are completely incapacitated and that you are the only one aboard that can save the day. You casually volunteer to be the hero and the self loading cargo down the back clap, cheer, and pass around the hat. It is soon filled with coin and green-backs. You stand up and bow to the applause then go to the flight deck and order the flight attendants to move the slumped captain from your seat and while they at it get rid of the first officers body. You don’t want him coming awake and stealing your thunder.
You strap in and the flight continues with you in the left seat single pilot IFR in a jumbo. Prolonging the final approach to put more hours in your log book you grease the 747 finishing with a triumphant burst of reverse and ever so gentle braking. As the chocks are inserted in front of a hundred television cameras you cut the engines and there are screams down the back as all the lights go out. Too late, you had forgotten to put the bloody APU generator on line. A minor lapse of judgement of course which can be excused in view of your unfamiliarity with the aircraft.
To that end, I have always wondered what it is like to land a 747 – just in case one day I might need to. So I sidled up to a simulator instructor friend of mine and asked him if I could watch a 747 simulator session and maybe cadge a couple of touch and goes during the coffee break (fixed base, of course!). No sooner said, than done. And I turned up for an 0600 start at the simulator. I must have been crazy of course, but the early session was the only one available at the time.
It was to be a recurrent training session for the 747 pilots. The simulated flight was from Auckland in New Zealand to Sydney, Australia. Once airborne, a few faults would be inserted into the simulator and the crew would choose to return to Auckland and land. The captain was highly experienced and the first officer was no slouch with 12,000 hours. I watched from the back of the simulator as the 747 was cleared for take off by the instructor who was also acting the part of ATC, ground engineer, and hairy senior flight attendant. It was the first time that I had been in the cockpit of a 747 and I was amazed at the height off the ground.
As the 747 trundled down the runway, I watched fascinated as the captain gently rotated at VR and the monster rose into the air. Inside one minute the automatic pilot was engaged and the aircraft slowly turned westbound toward Sydney. So far, there were no emergencies and no drama. The first officer looked bored, the captain monitored the computer screens and I thought that this is money for old rope. The seat belt signs went off and I suppose in real life it was time for the beautiful flight attendant (I have always preferred the more glamorous name Air Hostess) to serve coffee and caviar to the pilots.
Instead, as the aircraft passed 12,000 feet or so, there was a faint chime from somewhere in the roof and a caution light appeared indicating (I think) an overheat in the wing duct system. The instructor had struck the first blow of the session. Ever so casually, a checklist was produced and in quiet casual tones, words were muttered by the first officer with accompanying nods and measured gestures by the captain. The 747 continued in its stately climb on invisible rails to Sydney. A minute or so later, there was another chime, then more quiet conversation between captain and first officer. The captain made the decision to return to Auckland. The simulator instructor did his air traffic controller bit and with judicious punching (or caressing) of computer buttons, the captain told the automatic pilot to take them home. The hairy-armed flight attendant – none other than the multi-skilled simulator instructor- was advised of the RTB (return to base) and now the aircraft was led by radar vectors towards the ILS. All the time, the aircraft was on full automatics with four thrust levers moving themselves gently up and down accompanied by the audible whine of the big fans.
More checklists were read by the first officer and an ever-so-relaxed captain gave an unhurried briefing on how he intended to conduct the approach to land. Over thirty minutes had elapsed since we had first entered the runway for take-off and the automatic pilot had been engaged for most of the time. The instructor wearing his air traffic controllers hat, gave the crew headings to steer and heights to fly until after seemingly ages, the 747 was slowly brought around by easy winding of the heading knob on the mode control panel, and aligned on the ILS. More buttons were touched and various green lights indicated that the big bird was locked on to the ILS glide slope and localizer.
I was getting sleepy and a trifle bored – after all I had been up since 0400. Nearing the outer marker there was slightly increased activity by the flight crew and I saw the first officer reading a checklist. It was then that I realised that one engine had run-down and the three other auto throttles were slowly taking up the slack – the autopilot adjusting to this without fuss. As the 747 approached the runway, the captain casually disengaged the autopilot and flared. There was a distinct loud rumble from the wheels and slowly the huge nose lowered itself to the runway. Reverse thrust came in and I felt the retardation. After a 10,000 feet ground roll, the captain slowly turned the aircraft towards the taxiway. At that stage the instructor froze the simulator and re-positioned the 747 on the holding point for another departure.
I thought, Christ! – this lot made it look so easy and I thought that I would have no problem landing one of these beasts if called upon by the beautiful hostie with gorgeous knockers. In your dreams JL!
Looking at his watch, the instructor told me to take the right hand seat. I had hoped for the left seat as I hadn’t flown a 737 from the right seat for a decade, let alone a 747. The captain had street cred and I hadn’t and no way was he going to allow me in his chair. It was dark in the cockpit and as I tried to adjust my tri-focals to this unfamiliar instrument panel, the captain gesticulated impatiently for me to taxy and line up. I zig-zagged the steering tiller trying to find a happy medium and lined up – with the right bogeys off the runway and on the grass. There was silence from God in the left seat but I persisted with tiller and a million pounds of thrust, finally lining up on the centre line around the touch-down zone. The instructor kindly hit the re-position button and suddenly I was dead centre lined up on the threshold. The runway seemed to have changed to 14 metres wide and I was worried that I might drift off it during take off. It was an illusion due to the height of the cockpit off the ground, of course.
I asked to be able to take-off raw data and manual throttles as I wanted to get the feel of this thing as an aeroplane rather than a flying computer. This was curtly refused by the captain and so I blindly groped for the TOGA buttons and off we went. The inertia of the 747 had me tossed and I arrived at VR having sine-curved the centre line without really knowing what I was doing. I rotated on the call and tried to focus on the flight director needles. Blundering on to down-wind I found myself way behind the aircraft and became increasingly concerned that I was looking like a fool. The stabilizer trim switches caused me angst and the FD needles never did get centred and I again asked for permission to disconnect the automatics and hand fly the lot. No way was this allowed and I was vectored on to base and final. The captain put down the flaps and wound in 165 knots or thereabouts, on the MCP while I tried to visually pin the centre line. I was surprised to see that the ILS showed the aircraft to be half scale off centre line yet it seemed to me that I was just a smidgeon off visually. The radar altimeter voice called out heights to touch-down and I had barely thought about flaring when we hit with a thunderous crash. The nose seemed to rise in the air and for a moment I was sure we had bounced 100 feet high and that I should go around. It was another illusion caused by the nose high attitude at touch-down.
I grasped a hand-full of levers to pull reverse thrust and applied brakes. Nothing much happened except we seemed to be eating up a lot of runway and the airspeed seemed to hang around the 140 knots during the slow-down. Nothing was said from either the captain, the simulator instructor, or the first officer who I was sure was smirking somewhere down the back Although I felt a right fool, I hoped that the simulator instructor would give me one more go to redeem myself. He did, bless his cotton socks – even though I sensed the captain was getting irritated at this waste of simulator time.
The next circuit wasn’t bad and I could now hold height plus or minus a hundred or so. Again I asked for permission to fly raw data Sir? The captain ignored my request until I made it clear on final that I was a bit pissed off. I groped for the auto-throttle disconnect button, but I think on the 747 it was a lever attached to one of the throttles.
I pressed hard on this lever only to find that the aircraft began to roll ponderously left. At 800 feet I was having difficulty keeping the wings level until I realised after looking down and sideways at the throttles that the No 4 throttle was well in advance of the others. In trying to disconnect the auto-throttle I had mistakenly pushed the No 4 thrust lever way up and given myself an unhealthy bout of asymmetric roll.
That sorted, I flared at what I guessed was the right height and to my relief greased it albeit with one set of bogeys almost off the runway. I was thankful when the simulator instructor called it a day and after thanking the captain for his time, I slunk away from the simulator. Safely on dry land, I turned to watch the drawbridge raise and thought to myself; “Bring on the hostie with gorgeous knockers – I’m ready to take control…”.
Later I discussed the trip with my friend the simulator instructor and told him that I was surprised at the lack of activity during the session that I had observed. In particular that it was scarcely a testing time for the crew in view of the almost total use of automation. His reply was that the simulator sessions of this nature were designed to replicate exactly what the crew would do in real life if faced with a duct heat problem – and that is use automation until touch-down. There would always be radar vectors available and full ATC monitoring. He saw little need to practice raw data and non-automatics flying skills due to the high reliability of the automatics.
He had a point, of course. Particularly as the crew were highly experienced and could presumably fall back on long forgotten hand flying skills if absolutely necessary. But I could not help but recall the appallingly low standard of competence at raw data hand-flying that I had frequently witnessed of experienced pilots from some Asian airlines where company policy was full automation was used from take-off to landing. These pilots had simply forgotten how to fly an aeroplane. Surely, then, the simulator is the ideal vehicle for which to practice raw data hand flying skills?
A Dangerous Attitude.
During simulator instruction I often saw airline pilots who had no previous experience at recoveries from an unusual attitude. Former military pilots were generally proficient at recovery action, but flying school graduates seem to lack this training. In the RAAF, trainee pilots were trained on aerobatics soon after first solo. So being upside down was no big deal. But inverted in a big jet is a big deal and it is one thing to barrel roll a Cessna 150, and an altogether different situation to get out of control at night and in cloud in a Boeing 737.
I began to take a serious interest in unusual attitude recovery training after a Lauda Air B767 crashed around 1989. During climb-out from Bangkok a thrust reverser deployed and within seconds the aircraft had rolled inverted at 28,000 feet and broke up. In a letter to Flight International a few months later, I wrote that few airlines trained their pilots on unusual attitude recoveries in the simulator. I also wrote to the British CAA expressing my concern at this lack of vital training. As I half-expected, I received a negative reply from a senior CAA flight inspector. He said that it was not necessary to train for unusual attitude recoveries because the accent in training should be on how not to get into that position in the first place. I wrote back to him saying that by his contention it is a waste of time teaching people how to swim in order to avoid drowning accidents – but that it is better to teach them how not to go near the water in the first place. He did not reply.
I also wrote to the chief pilot of Boeing suggesting that unusual attitude recovery training should be included in any type rating and was delighted to discover that he agreed with me. Later when I took up instructor work on flight simulators, I made sure that each pilot was competent at recoveries from inverted, nose high and nose low attitudes in IMC. Despite this training, some airline pilots who had never previously been taught aerobatics, got quite disorientated and I was certain that if they had found themselves in an unusual attitude in a real aircraft, there was no way that they could have recovered successfully. Even now, it is apparent that some simulator programmes that are designed to place the aircraft into an unusual attitude are too docile and rarely go beyond 50 degrees angle of bank.
During the introduction to unusual attitude recoveries, I found it useful to invert the aircraft then freeze the simulator. Then at leisure, we could look at the flight instruments – particularly the position of the sky pointer on the ADI. By alternate switching from VMC to IMC scenes while the simulator remained frozen, I found it helped the pilot remain orientated. It was gratifying to see pilots gaining more confidence as the training progressed. I also met simulator instructors who felt the training was too dramatic and a waste of simulator time. They based their opinion on the very remote possibility of an airline pilot getting into an unusual attitude during his career. Discussions usually proved spirited!
To be continued. 2 Dec 2001.