Columnists

November 19, 2006

Flying Blind

Photo by Mario J. Craig O.D.
Photo by Mario J. Craig O.D.
Photo by Mario J. Craig O.D.

Photo by Mario J. Craig O.D.

We’ve just landed, picked up the car, and after a short drive, we turn toward a huge looming sign that says “DC Jets, Home of the 717.” Sadly the statement is now historical fact.

Yes, we are here to do a bit of flight simulator training in the 717. Our instructor today is Elden. I am invited to sit in the Captain’s seat and my 6 month pregnant wife, Highheels, sits in the co-pilot seat. The 717 only requires a crew of 2. However, we joke that Highheels is carrying a flight engineer in her cargo bay. (Boy did that baby kick after the flight simming!)

This is my office space for the next few hours.

Photo by Mario J. Craig O.D.

Photo by Mario J. Craig O.D.

With the flick if a few switches, the simulator comes to life and we are situated at the end of runway 4R at JFK.

I take flying the sims as seriously as I would a real aircraft but nonetheless I did have a bit of fun. The main bit of advice I was first given was to keep my eyes situated on the horizon. With that in mind, I held my feet up on the brakes and advanced the throttles forward. I saw the digital gauges redline and let go of the brakes. Following a momentary feeling of lightheadedness as the nose popped up, we were racing up the runway. I called for autothrottle and Highheels obliged. V1, then rotate was called by the instructor. I pulled back and we were aloft. “Gear up please” and HH was on it. Then she dialed in a course change. As she did, I turned east and prepared to do a fly past near Shea Stadium. After all, the Mets [were] doing well and deserve that much. I dipped the nose down the bit and fleeted across at 1,500 feet with home plate in my portside window.

I did a bit of free flying around NYC in the 717 and our instructor dialed in an ILS approach into LGA 4. I was concentrating on finessing my free flight so I did not catch the localizer at first and instead used the PAPI lights. First coming in a bit high, high, high, then I dropped like a rock over the GCP and floated over the runway.

We touched down at the midpoint of the runway and my instructor reminded me there was water at the other end of the runway. That said, I was slowing down as best I could, reserve throttles now open, and I was near standing on the brakes. “I don’t think we are going to make it.” Not on my watch. It was brilliant! We came to rest 50 feet from the end of the runway turnoff.

Now using the tiller, we made a left-handed 180 turn and now positioned us for the 22 departure. I used to believe 22 departures were the norm but I read elsewhere that these are so RARE! And to add to the challenge, our instructor turned the day into night in a snap. The rest of our flying was under night time flight.

Standing on the brakes once more, we advanced the throttles and I called for autothrottle. Our virtual passengers held on as I rotated just past V1 and shot skyward at a 30 degree angle. Passing 2500 feet I lessened our rate of ascent and called for gear up and flaps retract. Don’t know if I pulled any G’s but it certainly felt like it.

Photo by Mario J. Craig O.D.

Photo by Mario J. Craig O.D.

We now headed back to JFK for a touch and go on 4R. The various small islands in Jamaica Bay as well as Floyd Bennett Field were clearly visible. We did a visual approach. Again, using the PAPI lights as my guide, I approached the runway, this time with good accuracy, and touched down. I allowed the nose gear to come down and then we initiated the go around. We accelerated and climbed back into the air towards Shea Stadium once more. Once positive rate of climb was established, we were gears up, flaps retracted and free flying again.

He set up the ILS approach onto LGA 22 and I intersected the localizer and concentrated on the flight director. Meanwhile, HH set the flaps and lowered the gear… 3 green lights. I was busy managing a bit of turbulence on the approach.

We touched down with relative precision and I kept the nose up for a moment as we continued to bleed off speed. I noted that I tend to keep the nose high on most landings as soon as I touch down. I don’t immediately drop the nose. Got to work on that.

Photo by Mario J. Craig O.D.

Photo by Mario J. Craig O.D.

I used the tiller to turn us around for another takeoff on runway 4. Our instructor now wanted us to do some steep banking turns as well as stall recoveries. I insisted that my co-pilot take over. Now she was giving me the commands (back to reality, yes, I know). She advanced the throttles and we began to roll down the runway. I was told to engage the auto throttle while our instructor called out V speeds. At Vr, we rotated up and ascended to 4500 feet.

Highheels now was instructed through the maneuver and started to roll the aircraft to the left and kept us at a steep bank while pulling the yoke. Then she rolled us right and repeated the maneuver. She did great but don’t forget, she had the help of a fetal flight engineer on board!

Now I was told to repeat the maneuver and I did well. But when it came to the stall recoveries, Highheels passed with flying colors! What a great bit of flying we’ve done thus far!

Our few hours in the simulator were drawing to a close and so I was given a final challenge. I continued to fly around New York, at 5000 ft, up near Shea Stadium and down toward Floyd Bennett while the instructor programmed a few surprises. Suddenly the screen went gray and all I could see was our lights in the clouds. We were now flying in minimum visibility. A bit of turbulence also began to buffet our vessel as we soared through the murk. A localizer failure was also programmed in. In essence, I was flying to land at JFK 31R with nothing to look at but my instruments and the headings.

Photo by Mario J. Craig O.D.

Photo by Mario J. Craig O.D.

Our instructor had the approach all keyed in and all I had to do was follow the flight director. Sounds a bit easier than it sounds. For about 2-3 minutes, all I did was fix my eyes on that LCD screen and keep the nose of the aircraft on the marking. All the other cockpit settings were set. Gear was down. HH set the flaps and the Fasten Seatbelt sign.

For what seemed like forever, I muscled the aircraft on the descent, following the heading and occasionally glancing at the altitude. Honestly, for the unseasoned pilot, it was a bit nerve racking. The computer then started calling out the altitudes, “500……400,……300,….200,…” And I suddenly went deaf as the runway threshold and lights suddenly loomed into view from out of nowhere and it seemed I was heading down and to the left of the centerline. Just have a look at this photo: Once second, grey screen, the next second, this scene literally pops into view!

I instinctively pulled up and to the right and re-aligned us properly. It happened so quick, 6 seconds from the point that the runway was in sight to touchdown. With a pair of thuds we touched down and reversed the thrust. In the words of Phil Rizzuto, “HOLY COW!”

I am still, to this day, in complete disbelief as to how fast it happens. One moment, a dull grey fog screen and nothing to focus on, the next, you are finagling the plane in the final few seconds in order to land in that runway. That was insane. I have always held pilots in such high regard for their skill but that level of regard tripled when I carried out the maneuver.

We slowed to a meager 20 knots and I used the tiller to taxi around and take us to park. Fittingly, I parked just behind the Post Office building where my father worked.
We thanked our instructor and the excellent crew at Boeing Alteon for the brilliant experience. If you are ever in Long Beach or near LAX, you can’t afford not to stop in and say hello. What a great ride!