Monday, October 02, 2006

Perched on the flight deck

We got our first chance to visit the new Boeing 727 that the A&P school received from FedEx (who apparently names their airplanes - ours is named 'Kira') over the summer. I had been looking forward to it for quite awhile - the 727 is an example of the early Boeing jets from a time before all of the flight instruments and engine management systems got computerized. The 727 was one of the last jets that required a third crew member to manage all of the aircraft systems while the captain and first officer concentrated on flying. What with all of the mechanical "steam gauges" and the row after row of switches, circuit breakers, etc., the cockpit is more reminiscent of a locomotive than a modern airliner.

It was getting dark out by the time we got out to the plane, so we had a flashlight tour of the exterior while the teacher "pre-flighted" the APU. The APU (auxiliary power unit) is a small jet engine completely housed within the airframe, and is used to provide the copious electrical power needed to run the electrical systems prior to engine start. It also provides the power to start the main engines. Pre-flight took the form of walking out onto the wing (it has been quite a few years since I actually walked on an airplane) to make sure the APU exhaust was clear of debris and/or water. We also got up into the landing gear wheel wells to check for a clear air inlet and to ensure that the exhaust ducts were in good shape.

Once that was done, we climbed the 20' or so up to the main door, and from there I made a beeline for the Captain's seat. The teacher took the flight engineer's seat and started the APU. Once there was power on the plane, he pointed out the appropriate knobs to turn up the instrument lights. I spent the next half hour trying to soak in the feeling of being perched way up there on the flight deck, visualizing what it must have been like to fly the old bird.

My first impression was how crowded it was on the flight deck. Being up at the pointy end of the airplane, there's less room than you might imagine from sitting back in the wider part of the plane. It's quite a convoluted operation just getting into the pilot's seat. I'm sure you get used to that pretty quickly, in much the same way that I had to get used to climbing down into the RV, or up out of the Miata. There's a specific order for the crew to get to their respective seats, I imagine. At a minimum, I would guess that it was normal for the flight engineer to come in last, since his seat pretty much blocks access to the two front seats. There's also a jump seat snugged up behind the captain, more than likely used for FAA examiners and dead-heading pilots.

The second impression was just how many gauges, switches, knobs, bells, whistles, warning lights, and circuit breakers there were. It was very Willy Wonka-ish compared to the newer planes that look like nothing more than sophisticated home theaters, having panels comprised primarily of flat screens and a switch here and there. The primary flight instruments were the standard attitude indicator and HSI, and weren't much fancier than what could be found in a medium-sized piston twin. There was no sign of a flight management system (I think it was probably removed by FedEx prior to donation - see photo below) with display screen and keyboard, nor was there a glareshield mounted set of autopilot controls. In fact, no matter how hard I looked I couldn't find anything that looked like a simple altitude preselect control. I was looking for that specifically as I was trying to drive the flight director bars into a higher pitch. One of the other students had asked recently how a flight director worked, and without having easy access to Microsoft flight sim to show him, it was hard to describe. The teacher showed me where the heading hold switch on the autopilot was located, so I was able to demonstrate turn commands simply by moving the heading bug on the HSI, but couldn't find anything to drive the pitch. No matter, he got the picture once he saw the flight director bars respond to the turn command.

We played with lots of other things like landing lights, the amazingly energetic pitch trim (watch your fingers!!), various built-in-test functions (TCAS.not.functioning...this.that.and.the.other.thing.not.functioning - all in a bland robotic monotone), and the stall warning stick shaker.

The third impression was how damned uncomfortable the yoke was. It was way too big for my hands, leading me to believe that those few entrusted with flying these big birds are bigger than life. Well, it's that or accept the fact that I have small, girly hands. I'm not ready to go there with my ongoing self-realization just yet, so I'm sticking with my "Paul Bunyon as FedEx pilot" theory. Seriously, though, it's as if Boeing designed the yokes with massive pilot egos in mind, rather than any realistic ergonomic considerations. I imagine the autopilot did the lion's share of the flying anyway, so long periods of uncomfortable hand-flying probably weren't the norm.

While I truly enjoyed the Walter Mitty-ish button pushing and knob turning, I was ultimately left with a mild regret that we couldn't take her up for a few turns around the airport. Ah well, I probably would have been disappointed in the feel of the controls after bonding so nicely with my perfectly responsive RV. Yeah, that's the ticket.

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