Guppy School (Part Deux)
It’s taken 150 hours, but I’m getting a handle on the 737 Guppy (see “Guppy School,” Twin & Turbine, January 2017). It’s rewarding to once again hear “Great landing, great flight” compliments from the passengers and FA’s, the flight attendants. An observer in the cockpit is well suited to gauge piloting tasks, but an experienced FA can better evaluate the product you deliver to the customers. Senior flight attendants are like an experienced, non-pilot flying partner and are not easily impressed. A career flight attendant will consistently have more time in the back of the plane than a pilot of comparable seniority has in the front. And for those airline frequent flyers proud to have flown a million miles, FA’s are like McDonald’s hamburgers: their miles are in the billions. Thus, their experience-based critiques have legs. But take heed, they can be silky smooth or harsh and hairy.
Having seen it all, FA’s are a good judge of a well-executed flight and are not shy about pointing out the hairy details when it’s not. They know what a good flight and appropriate captain/customer interaction should look like. They understand how each phase of a flight should feel, sound and smell. They know about weather, diverts, scheduling and ATC/company procedures. And they know how to deal with customer issues that would make your pilot even-strain meter peg into the red. When you keep the customers informed, the pressurization and temperature controls where they belong, get smoothly from A to B and then also stick the landing, you may earn the flight attendant “Good Captain” label. It’s the pinnacle of airline pilot success because you’ve shown that not only are you a good pilot, but a good leader and boss. Kinda like the “Good Housekeeping Seal” for pilots, only there’s no sticker.
Old School Conflicts
Most consider me to be an old-school airline pilot. I wear the full uniform including the hat. I button the jacket and snug up the tie. But some old-school ways don’t fit well with the new-generation airliners. I talk to passengers in the terminal, and I try to talk to them as they board. But the cockpit door of the Guppy is so far from the cabin that I can barely glimpse the boarding passengers. And when someone needs to use the forward lav while boarding, the cockpit door is forced closed by the lav door opening. How am I to acknowledge the admiration of women, children and super models? (see “Retire Me Not,” Twin & Turbine September 2016).
Also, I still make old school PA’s. Well again, I make some PA’s. With all the onboard entertainment gadgetry provided in the 737 and those the passengers bring themselves, making a rambling PA to describe our position, route and ETA can be a nuisance to those addicted to all things electronic or internet: social media, movies, games, TV shows, news…I could go on. Unlike the MD-80 which had limited theater beyond my comforting Chuck Yeager voice, I now have an annunciator light on the overhead panel that tells me when the video system in the cabin is engaged: It’s the “Captain, shut up” light. And “thou shalt not block with thy Captain prattle” thine King’s mandatory, recorded announcements, to wit: Royal boarding proclamations, luggage placement decrees nor seat belt edicts. Nor may ye interrupt, while aloft over the realm: free onboard movies, Netflix, YouTube videos or a selfie in progress. Any such infractions being punishable by removal of any previously bestowed Good Captain knighthood. So my PA’s have been caged to a brief welcome aboard greeting, one per hour inflight and then one 30 minutes before landing. My well-honed Ted Baxter delivery, neutered.
Hold On…Just a little bit tighter now, baby
(1970, Alive and Kicking)
The level of turbulence at which I turn on the seat belt signs has also changed from the MD-80. I could go up and down about phugoids, back and forth over center of gravity versus center of pressure, we could get spun around winglets, weighed down over wing loading and all manner of fluid dynamics gobbly-goop. But the bottom line is this: the stretched Guppy-800 is more sensitive, especially in the aft cabin, to disturbances to smooth air. You know, chop. Bumps that the Mad Dog would have plowed through smoothly with a smirk on its radome causes the Guppy’s cabin occupants to wet their pants. So, on comes the seat belt sign. Then off…then on…then off…well, you get it. I haven’t quite smoothed out the on-off thing yet. And it’s a topic from which I sometimes receive one of those hairy critiques.
And speaking of wetting our pants, not that it matters to the ladies, but there is little room to stand straight-up, guy fashion, in the forward lav, the one us folks at the pointy-end use. And since we’re on the topic of size mattering, there is no room for a normal, man-sized kit bag on the flight deck either. Both cockpit seats slide back, then outboard to where the kit bag sits. A standard-size kit bag inhibits the outward portion of the movement and thusly diminishes the room available to the inboard side of the seat needed to stand and exit the cockpit. A new, smaller kitbag was a requirement for my transition to the Guppy. As was the continuous use of an earpiece and the intercom system; the cockpit is louder than the Mad Dog. A positive, however, is that the cockpit has room for a suitcase and my laptop, a spot for my hat and a closet with hangers for jackets. Another plus is that it’s great to look out the window at those beautiful winglets. Unlike the 80, I can see the wing tip from the cockpit. This provides both a beautiful view inflight and a welcome ability during taxi to help avoid obstacles (see “Wintertime Blues,” Twin &Turbine, February 2016).
A Beautiful Mind
It’s rewarding to finally recognize what the wings and the motors like. I’m slowly getting back my “anthropomorphic feel” about altitude and speed versus fuel burn, top of descent planning and deceleration rates for example. Yes, there is all manner of avionics in the Guppy to calculate those things. But they’re often late, abrupt, sloppy and sometimes way off the mark. Especially in the descent. Speed control and altitude restrictions seem to be on a “close enough,” or “sorry, I tried” basis in the not-so-beautiful mind of the FMS. And knowing why it’s doing what it’s doing, and how to make it do what I want instead, is a guard against its laissez-faire defiance; enough so to be ahead of the company’s planned arrival time and fuel burn predictions on occasion. But more importantly, to fly smoothly and to not make the passengers light in their seats or cause them to blackout at the bottom of descent as the FMC pulls 6 g’s. From a pilot’s comfort-level perspective, my work load is decreasing as I get more comfortable in the jet. And this allows me to spend more brain cells on the captain stuff, so long as I monitor the VIDEO ON light and don’t make intrusive PA’s.
What do I enjoy about the Guppy? While others may discuss in detail the airframe, magic avionics and powerplants, I’m not so technically impressed. I’m not so “journalistic” in my feelings about airplanes; I’m more visceral. I like the look of the winglets and the smell of the leather interiors. I like the predictor lines on the N1 gauges when I shove up the throttles. I love the sound of the motors on takeoff and when I throw them into reverse on landing. And the HUD, boy do I love that HUD. Not just the CAT III and single-engine help it provides, but the flight director, the pilot-friendly indications to avoid tail strikes, proper climb and descent angles, when to flare and when to pull the throttles to idle for landing. All things that help to make a smooth flight and to grease the touchdown.
“Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching.”
– Thomas Jefferson
My transition to the Guppy was challenging but fun. It was painful to struggle doing what had been so easy. And it’s been frustrating to feel behind and task-saturated as compared to the Mad Dog. After thousands of hours in the MD-80, flying was intuitive. Every control pressure, switch position, noise and smell was as familiar to me as any person, machine or place could be. I was a Good Captain. I’m slowly getting there again in the Guppy. It’s nice to get a feel for the plane and execute a customer-friendly trip. The passengers and FA’s and are starting to say so, and silky smooth compliments are much better than a hairy critique. It’s great to be called a good pilot by the passengers. It’s even better to be labeled a Good Captain by the crew; even if you don’t get a sticker.
It’s nice to be back in the groove.