Boeing 737 Transition: Week 2, 3 and 4

A few weeks ago I gave my initial insights into the 737 type rating process (after migrating from our 777 fleet). I intended to post quite regularly on the specifics of training, but the nature of the course content was quite intense leaving me with little option other than neglect everything outside the little 737 bubble I lived in.

The 737 transition course content comprises of the following elements:

  • CBT ? Computer Based Training
  • Fixed Base simulator training (10 two-hour sessions)
  • Engineering exam (3-hours, 80-questions)
  • Boeing performance/weight & balance ground school
  • Online courses: ILS/PRM, Low Vis Ops (LVO), GNSS Approaches and LAHSO.
  • Full motion simulator (8 four-hour sessions)
  • 5 hour Boeing flight test
  • Company OPC (Operator Proficiency Check) & Instrument Rating Renewal
  • Company Line Training & Check to Line (around 50 sectors).

The Boeing check ride and company proficiency flight is followed by a further 3-week company induction program that includes typical elements such as emergency procedures, crew resource management , performance courses and about a dozen other subjects. It’s expected that the classroom components will last around three weeks and terminate a few days before commencement of (Sydney based) line training.

I’m writing this after enjoying the last of two days “off” after having just completed six 4-hour full flight simulator sessions (it’s likely I won’t post it until my 737 hell is over). The nature of the roster has me flying four hours a day in three day blocks – so course completion is expected around the 18th of March.

Fixed Base Training

I didn’t have overly high expectations of the 737 training after my 777 experience. At the risk of upsetting my Alteon instructor at the time (which is okay, I’m pretty sure he’ll never read this), he bordered on hopeless. He’d come from a line flying background in early Boeing types and apparently took the instructor job to supplement his new life working in a post office. Despite having an accomplished career, he simply didn’t have the instructional background necessary to effectively impart the necessary knowledge to fully understand the aircraft; nor did he have a passion for teaching. For that reason, the 777 training wasn’t much fun. At the same time, my simulator partner took on an aggressive captain persona because, in his own words, he wanted to “show command potential”. There are a massive number of elements that go into effective training and if any of those elements are sub-par, it can seriously compromise on the end result.

When we trained on the Boeing 777, we conducted our fixed base syllabus in the full motion simulator with motion activated from day one. Although it was perceived as an advantage at the time, I think that this type of introduction to the aircraft stole focus from the elementary instruction that was scheduled to take place (or at least it detracted our instructor from the primary focus). There was an overwhelming emphasis on flying the aircraft when, in reality, the emphasis during fixed base training should have been on flows, automation and systems. If the early instruction is deficient in any way it obviously devalues from the full flight sessions. However, the Brisbane Boeing facility treats fixed base instruction as it is intended – as training. The maturity of the organisation was evident from the first day.

The instructor allocated to us for training on the 737 was nothing shy of outstanding. In my entire flying career I’m yet to come across somebody that has a better understanding of the dynamics of learning than Yan. Yan’s flown for American Airlines, KLM and a few other operators in Europe and the United States. He’s accrued thousands of hours in various Boeing types – including over 6,000 in command on the Boeing 737. He’s a former Check Captain (TRE examiner) that was guided into simulator instruction after medical issues saw him grounded. Yan had us come in early for comprehensive classroom briefings that he delivered with a passion and enthusiasm that is completely uncommon from most simulator instructors. There simply wasn’t anything he couldn’t tell us or find in record time. I simply can’t speak highly enough of our fixed based tuition.

Our fixed based training was generally conducted between Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra. All flights included a series of structured failures that progressively introduced us to the operation of various systems. All flights commenced and terminated at an airport gate for the purpose of emulating a real line flight.

Full Flight Instruction

The only difference between our fixed base trainer and the full motion simulator is the lack of motion in the former. Of course, there are other tools at the facility that includes basic posters, standalone FMC’s and computer trainers that are all designed to aid us in our own time. The cardboard frame pictured (the “brown bomber”) was something I laughed at on day one… and came to admire by day two.

The Brown Bomber, Scan Trainer

The instructor that was allocated to us for full motion instruction can only be described as “old school”. Coming from a TAA background, he has a much greater emphasis on checking than on training – and he wasn’t shy about letting us know from day one that proficiency was required in every session (despite not having flown programmed sequences). His instructional techniques were a little questionable at times (for reasons I’ll explain later). The class before us had nothing nice to say of the gentleman so we were less than impressed when we saw his name on our schedule. He’s a very nice guy… but his 1960’s captain personality wasn’t overly compatible with a modern training environment. If I were paying for my own training, I would have certainly requested another instructor after our first session.

This week we are due to complete the Boeing component of the course with another instructor that is well regarded by all that have flown with him. I’m looking forward to the change.

The full flight sessions are rather intense. So intense at times that it feels like we were tickling that fine line that borders on the region of negative learning. Since Boeing schedules everything in what essentially amounts to 10-minute increments, there’s no time to revisit areas of weakness once we’ve flown a programmed sequence. Company oversight during our 777 training meant that we often had additional time (and the resources) to explore our areas of weakness without the pressure of a rigid time schedule.

Boeing 777 versus the Boeing 737

It’s really not fair to compare the two aircraft… but I’ll do so anyway.

The 737 and 777 were designed well over 35 years apart – with the 777 designed almost exclusively using computer aided design. They’re completely different aircraft that reflect the available technology from the era in which they were built. It’s clear now (more than ever before) that the tripler also had a heavy emphasis on human factors in design. The most fascinating thing about transitioning between the two types is getting an insight into how design has evolved over the last couple of generations. It’s been over 20 years now since the 777 was first conceived… so my 737 MAX expectations are high!

The 737 isn’t a hard aircraft to fly (despite what I was told by many). It’s just that we ? as the biological dump in the pilot seat ? tend to inherit the many jobs that are allocated to more advanced and automated systems in newer types. Simply turning on the APU is a little bit of an ‘exercise’ in the 737 (attaching generators to the bus and re-routing air to the packs by closing valves etc). In the 777, it was a matter of turning the switch. This kind of manual intervention tends to repeat itself regardless of what system we’re dealing with. The philosophy that drove the design of the two aircraft are diametrically opposed – there’s simply no fair comparison.

As an example of the 737’s “complexity” – or lack of integrated automation – consider the simple question: “is the PFD annunciation  DISPLAY SOURCE  accompanied by a master caution light?” First, and just to add unnecessary confusion to the failure, the fault is only displayed as above in the air. On the ground, the same failure is indicated by a  CDU FAULT , and it is managed differently. The answer isn’t nearly as important as the understanding of why or how it happens (and the consequences). The  DISPLAYS SOURCE  failure indicates a failure of a DEU unit (which is manually identified, it’s not notified) meaning that it’s accompanied by an EEC failure at the same time (for engineering reasons that still confuse me ? why force an EEC into a soft alternate mode when the live default mode seemingly provides more accurate data?). So, yes, a master warning (ENG) will accompany the failure; but it’s only because of the domino effect of failures and fall-back into a “safe mode” that takes place. The 777 is far more advanced, and the failure could be managed quickly and easily with brainpower left over from an active game of angry birds. Again, it’s an isolated example but one that bothered me when I first read it.

The driftdown procedure (after the loss of an engine) in the 737 is a little archaic compared to the 777’s automated VNAV procedure. Again, this is an isolated procedure simply to illustrate the differences. In the 777, from the FMC CRZ page, you can command and execute a VNAV descent based on optimum altitudes and speeds. The driftdown is then flown in VNAV with autothrottle engaged (since, unlike the 737, the 777 has two autothrottles with one remaining functional after the loss of an engine). In the 737 however, it’s necessary to select altitude hold (which will open the MCP speed window and give us an MCP SPD FMA annunciation) before selecting the maximum altitude and manually selecting speed. The crew can then select LVL CHG to commence the descent in semi-basic modes. Of course, the 737’s thrust lever must be manually set to max continuous N1 since the thrust lever isn’t commanded by executed FMC values (the 737’s single autothrottle is disengaged in any engine shutdown checklist or memory item). The 737 speed reduction is a lot slower than the 777 (in level flight) so where I previously had seconds to program the same procedure in the 777, you’d almost be able to accomplish the same end result in the 737 while enjoying an in-flight meal. This fallback into basic modes repeats itself in most non-normal situations.

I certainly miss the TAC (Thrust Asymmetry Compensator). The technique we apply when handling the 737 on a single engine is virtually no different to the procedure we apply in general aviation multi-engine type. There are obviously distinct differences — the most notable being the controllability issues associated with aileron in any position other than completely wings level. Not unlike the 777, the effectiveness of spoilers seriously compromises on handling and performance. For reasons that still baffle me, we’re discouraged from using the rudder trim because, and I quote, we’ll “forget which engine has failed“… hmmm. A Boeing instructor was quick to tell us of the 777 pilots that had developed a reliance on TAC were prone to rolling the aircraft into a world of hurt after V1 cuts. With the favourable engine failed and an unwanted crosswind, full rudder and aileron is often initially required to maintain directional control. It’s in situations like these that you appreciate the damage automation has does to flying skills.

As a systems manager, the most notable absence from the front of the 737 cockpit compared to the 777 (I won’t start on the overhead jungle) is the advanced EICAS (Engine Indicating Crew Alerting System) and the ECL (Electronic Checklist). The management of failures is (more) easily accomplished in the 777 and leaves the crew free to manage other operational considerations. The EICAS in the 777 will generate various alerts on the Upper Display and list them by way of priority. The ECL will render each checklist in the order in which Boeing believes they should be completed. In the 737, we’re still using a Quick Reference Handbook (paper checklist) to manage all non-normal situations. Using the paper book seems to consume a lot of time that could be better spent managing whatever abnormality we’re carrying around the sky (again, a reflection of the aircraft’s age… and my lack inability to let go of the tripler). The Master Caution lights on the forward panel of the 737 is designed to simply make the pilot ‘look up’; It won’t alert the crew to indications Boeing considers is in your field of vision.

The 777 is very much a VNAV machine. Speed intervention (VNAV speed) is often used where – thus far, anyhow – the default mode on the 737 seems to be Level Change (I’m yet to start line training so this observation may be limited to simulator training). Far more time is spent punching numbers in the CDU chatting away with the FMC… while virtually any descent in the 777 can be made via the Mode Control Panel. This doesn’t make the 737 harder to fly… but it does make you appreciate the 777’s awesome operational ergonomics and automation.

Thus far, we haven’t engaged VNAV until after flap retraction (I’m familiar with using VNAV to command the vertical profile through latter climb segments). Instead, with a N1 FMA annunciation (commanded by programmed acceleration/thrust reduction altitudes), we manually “bug up” to the flaps up manoeuvring speed with the speed control on the MCP. I’m told VNAV can be engaged on the ground with the FMC Block 10.8 update that is installed on line aircraft (I guess I’ll find out soon), but it feels strange flying the aircraft in modes that don’t derive best performance from the aircraft (in fact, the acceleration values can be altered on Take-off Page 2). TOGA also behaves vastly different to its bigger stablemate… and it’s not uncommon for the aircraft to command fairly basic modes in manoeuvres such as the go-around – particularly at acceleration and flap retraction altitudes (more on this later).

The autopilot will disconnect in a go-around since we only engage one channel of autopilot (two channels – or both CMD A and CMD B – is discouraged). Why? This isn’t something I’ve figured out yet.

Standard Operating Procedures

There’s always been the (very valid) internal argument that SOP’s should be rationalised between various fleets. When our long haul operation was started, the organisation was very fractionalised… so, sadly, the necessary communication between long haul and short haul managers was lacking. For that reason, we’ve had to learn entirely new mouth-music to accompany operation of the aeroplane for the very same condition of flight. There was always the issue of the correct thrust-handover technique that should be applied in the 777 and, after at least 12 months of internal discussion, it’s still different to the 737.

What do I miss?

So, what do I miss most about the 777 thus far? The ECL (Electronic Checklist), speed intervention on the MCP (to easily fly VNAV SPD profiles without digging into the FMC), EICAS (Engine Indication Crew Alerting System), TAC (Thrust Asymmetry Compensator) and the simplicity of the automation – I could go on. I’m guessing a lot of the 777’s features (and, perhaps, some from the 787) will make their way into the 737 MAX. All of a sudden, the crew rest doesn’t seem so important.

As a means of ensuring I maintain a commitment to learning the aircraft and its systems, we’re considering yet another website at website that’ll consolidate all available information on the machine. We’ll see how we go.

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