Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Adventures in Flight: Penguin in the Left Seat

The sun had set and a dark purple curtain of darkness had fallen. There wasn't enough light to be illuminating, yet it wasn't quite dark enough to say it was night time. I could still see the features of landscape in the distance, but only as darkened objects against the lighter colored sky. I sat in the left seat of a 747 cockpit, the one normally reserved for the plane’s captain. I’m no captain. I’m not even a pilot. I would like to be, but I’m not. But there I was, sitting in the left seat; the engines turning and the lights at the forward landing gear lighting up the centerline of the runway.

In front of me was runway 28-right, the longest of the four runways at San Francisco’s International Airport. A real captain was in the right seat next to me and he hit a switch, turning on the plane's landing lights, thus illuminating the runway from one side to the other. Past the runway I could see San Bruno Mountain with its antenna towers blinking on and off. I looked to my left and could see the headlights of the cars moving along highway 101 and was happy to not be sitting in the backup of traffic. To my right was the company's large maintenance hangar and the San Francisco bay was beyond that.

Captain Henry was more than my co-pilot today. He was guiding me through the step by step process of our mission. He finished inputting data into the plane’s computer and we were ready to roll. But first he wanted me to experience taxiing this behemoth. At his instruction, I pushed the throttles forward just over an inch. I heard the engines rev up, felt the vibration and then the plane slowly started to move. With my left hand on the tiller, I began to control the direction the plane went. As we lurched forward, the wheels began to run across the centerline lights and I could feel the plane vibrate over them.
A747 photo by Penguin Scott

I felt like this was a dream. I've longed to ride in a 747 cockpit for a very long time. I remember taking a small Cessna from Maryland to New Jersey back in 1999; I was so excited. After we landed, I spoke to my pilot friend about how great it would be to fly in the cockpit of a commercial jetliner. He agreed, and I've since done that. But here I was, in the cockpit- the left seat at that- at the controls. It was no dream.

I was instructed to turn right, off of runway 28R, and return the plane to its takeoff position at the start of the long runway. Capt. Henry gave me a stern warning- I was turning too soon. “Don’t forget, the wheels are behind you. You have to pass the center line and then make the turn.” While saying this, he assisted me with the tiller on his side of the cockpit and corrected my mistake. It was a hard thing for me to learn as I did it again on my next turn, for which I was rewarded with another stern warning.

Steering a plane is nothing like steering a car. It doesn’t respond well to small corrections made often. Basically, what I needed to do was put the tiller in one position and let it go. Constant corrections only make the plane continually zig-zag down the taxiway. By the time I learned this, my taxi was complete.

Back at the start of runway 28R, we were now ready for take off. I was buckled in and ready for the task of letting this 747 loose, to tear down the runway and lift off into the night sky. Capt. Henry instructed me to push the throttles forward. There were four; one for each engine, and they all moved in sync. It took a second and then the power hit the engines and the plane lurched forward, gaining speed down the runway. I asked the captain when to rotate. He seemed impressed with my knowledge of this.

When I was in flight attendant initial training, nine years previous, I had the opportunity to sit in a cockpit for the duration of a flight, from push back to block-in. After taking off, I had the chance to ask questions. This is when I learned that the point at which the pilot pulls back on the stick to make the plane take off is the point at which one of the pilots say, "Rotate." And now, in the 747 cockpit, not sure if he'd state that point of the takeoff roll or not, Capt. Henry said he’d tell me when to do so.

About half way down the runway, he told me to pull back. I did and the plane lifted up. Capt. Henry pushed a lever and the wheels retracted. I could hear them do so and could feel them take their place in the wheel well somewhere below me, just as I had felt so many times before from inside the airplane cabin. He pointed to an artificial horizon (or the attitude indicator) on a screen in front of me and showed me at what point to keep the nose on the screen to keep our current rate of climb. If the plane started to sink below this line, I pulled back a bit. If it started to get too high, I pushed down. Then I was instructed to make a left turn.

As I began to turn the stick, and as the plane began to bank to the left, I noticed that I was losing my rate of climb, so I pulled back on the stick. It was difficult and took a bit of strength. I was concentrating so hard on keeping the rate of climb, that I ignored the turn. I got another stern warning from the right seat, “Watch your turn or you’ll end up in the drink,” which was slang for water, or in this case, the Pacific Ocean.

We were now over the water just off the coast of Pacifica, which was my home. I looked up and out of the cockpit window and we were in a very steep bank. He grabbed the wheel in front of him and corrected it back to a normal left turn. It was a good thing the cockpit has two sets of throttles so he could make the flight corrections we needed.

His warnings reminded me a lot of my grandfather teaching me to drive. I spent my summers visiting my grandparents in the Texas Panhandle. Once I had my learner's permit, he went with me on a short drive. He had a tendency to sound a bit more stern than I'm sure he meant to, but he made his point and was concerned about me wrapping his nice car around a pole, or worse, another car. And like my grandfather, Capt. Henry was concerned about our safety, not to mention that of our flight.

The turn was completed and we were now flying steady at about eight thousand feet just off the coast of California. I could see the car lights on Hwy. 1. Capt. Henry instructed the woman in the jump seat directly behind me to hit a switch and suddenly the windows went blank; nothing to see but a gray screen. Another switch was hit and the windows came back to life. Suddenly, the view changed to about five miles south of the airport. We were now over the bay, frozen in time, suspended as if in a video game.

But this was no ordinary video game. This was a multi million dollar simulator, used by the best pilots of the company for training purposes. My captain in the right seat was a flight instructor. And I had just taxied and taken off a 747 airplane. Not a real one, of course. But you can’t get any closer to the real thing than one of these simulators. From the traffic on highway 101 and the blinking lights of the towers on San Bruno Mountain, to the wheels crossing the lights on the runway and the feel of the wheels retracting after takeoff, everything was as real as the real thing itself.

From the outside, I was in a contraption supported by numerous jacks that control a motion platform. On the inside, I was in a 747 cockpit just like any other in our fleet. Inputs made from inside controlled the motion platform, which was calibrated in such a manner that even the slightest motion, like the wheel going over the center line, made a movement noticeable in the cockpit.

A flight simulator

We were now ready to land, and with the hit of another switch we were again moving. The lights of the city below were angled as the nose of the plane was pointed at the beginning of the runway we were about to land on. As we crossed the San Mateo Bridge, he lowered the landing gear. As they locked into place, they added drag on the plane's flight, and we could feel that in the cockpit as slight vibrations. Looking at the attitude indicator, I kept the box on the artificial horizon where it was supposed to be for our landing. I thought Capt. Henry did most of the flying on the approach, but he swears it was all me. I know this plane can land itself, and it really did seem to fly quite easily.

The plane came to a stop. I had landed. The switches were hit and the screens went blank again. When they came back on, we were at the start of runway 28R once more. I got out of the left seat and Sandy, the flight attendant seated behind me climbed in. Now it was her turn to fly and mine to observe.

I was at our main training facility for my annual recurrent emergency training (RET) to refresh my skills of being a flight attendant. Once a year, we are required to practice opening and closing airplane doors, drill emergency procedures, recertify our AED and CPR skills, and get hands on experience using emergency equipment, such as fire extinguishers. I normally do this at my home base in the Bay Area, where I also live. But for some reason, this year I was sent to the facility where the pilots also train. And after a few of us in class expressed interest in a tour of one of the huge simulators, our instructor was able to arrange for Capt. Henry to meet us early the next day. I had no idea he’d actually let us “fly”, but it was the thrill of a lifetime!

After we completed our takeoff and landing, we went to class, a bit later than planned. I was so excited that I was actually still shaky from the experience. The instructor had informed the class as to why we were late and he asked me how I liked it. I told him that I felt much the same way after my first time sky diving. It was a thrill, exhilarating, and a dream come true. I was on a high like none other! Every nerve tingled. Every sense was alive. I had just taxied, taken off and landed a 747. Not a real one, but the realest I’ll ever get. It was an amazing experience that I'll not soon forget!

A 747 landing at LAX

1 comment:

  1. Loved it...The surprise that you were in a simulator made me smile...A pleasure to read.