On Monday night, Carlo and I once again strapped ourselves into the Flight Experience B737-800 simulator, turned on the cockpit DVR and commenced a process of ritual humiliation and embarrassment that reinforced to me how much we need to learn about flight systems, nav computers and CRM. While my flight planning was significantly improved over our previous sessions, once we were in the cockpit and trying to operate with more realism than before, we quickly got behind the aircraft, had failures in our situational awareness and the most common phrase of the evening was “What the **** is it doing now???”
This flight was our third “let’s get real” session in the sim, having already done a Hawaiian Island tour and visited some Mountain airports. This time we decided to do some flying around Europe so I was able to make use of a great site of European airport charts to get all the information I needed for planning. I had all the approach plates, SIDs and STARs sorted out and our course planned and even loaded onto a Google Map. I didn’t have the way points between the end of a SID and the start of the STAR though, so I just had us fly direct between them. Not brilliant, but certainly much better than some of the planning I’d done previously.
Sadly, my preflight planning did not extend to bringing my camera, so there will be no photos from this session – DOH!
Despite being a bit delayed in getting started due to some “house keeping” work in the shop itself, we had everything programmed for Graz (LOWG) to Milan (LIML) and ready to go without too much hassle (even though I was a little rusty having not done any FMC programming since last session). We made our first major mistake when we headed off down the taxiway relying on my memory of the Graz layout (from looking at the sheet earlier). I had assumed that the taxiway we were on would take us to the end of the runway – bzzzt – no – it actually took us to the parallel grass runway instead. We should have turned right earlier, crossed over the end of the grass runway, crossed the real runway and then proceeded to the end of the runway via a taxiway on the other side. DOH!
Every gone “off road” in a 737? I certainly don’t recommend it!
So, after fixing that little mistake, we lined up at the end of Rwy 35 with all our checks completed. I ran the throttles up, verified all was looking good, released the brakes and hit the TOGA buttons. Vroom – a rather nice take off and switch over to let “Otto” fly the aircraft.
NOTE: “Otto” is the name we use when referring to the autopilot and is based on the name of the inflatable pilot from the movie “Flying High” (“Airplane” in the USA).
We had programmed the system to fly the DOLSKO 1U SID but for some strange reason the computer’s flight path wound up doing a 180 to the left instead of to the right as per the SID. Odd – our first “What’s it doing now?” moment for the session.
The flight to Milan was good and we enjoyed the views of the mountains (at least until we changed the weather on the sim to be low clouds, a bit of fog and reduced visibility to make the CAT III landing a bit more realistic). We slotted into the LUSIL 1A arrival quite nicely and were heading towards the intercept point for the Rwy 36 ILS when we noticed the damned thing wouldn’t go into autoland mode. We started mucking about with the systems as we headed towards the intercept and had some more “What the frak is it doing now?” moments. We also noticed that it wasn’t descending as necessary and was, in fact, holding level at about 8,000′ – oops.
At this point, I should have called “No Joy” and aborted the approach until we could sort out the problem. But no, I wind up thinking that this is just the sim so lets keep going. Hmmmmm. We eventually get what Carlo calls the “banana” to appear on the pink line – that’s the green arc on the flight path line in the Nav display – it shows where you’ll be when you reach the altitude you’ve set on the MCP. Once we got that sorted out, we managed to get it into autoland mode just before the intercept at which point Otto takes over and we start dropping like a brick. This was the second point that I should have called for a go-around as we were certainly not on a stable approach. We finally get down below 200′ and still can’t see a thing. Carlo had said he’d set the cloud to thin out below 200′ but it certainly wasn’t the case so I think he got something mixed up with the sim’s weather settings.
When the voice called out “100 feet” we had reached the third point where I should have been calling out “Go Around! Go Around!” but I was in the sim so I let it ride. Well, at 50′ we were still at zero viz and wondering “What do we do now?” – just as I was about to say “Ummm – flare?” we started to see runway markings and thumped onto the ground. Wow. We ran down to the end of the runway in near zero viz and I was watching the taxiway line markings heading off, counting each one until it was time to call “That’s it!” to take the one we needed (the last one available, too). Sadly, my call wasn’t definite enough and we overshot – oh well, a quick 180 later we were back where we were supposed to be and picking our way through the fog to a gate that didn’t have something vaguely aircraft shaped already in it.
We shut down and started reviewing the whole thing. I mentioned how there were multiple points where I was tempted to call “Abort” and Carlo said I should have done it. Just ‘cos we’re in the sim doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing it as close to “real” as we can get. OK – I’ll definitely keep that in mind for future sessions.
Carlo reset the sim’s weather and suddenly we could see outside – very handy. We had some puffy cumulus clouds around and a slight haze, but otherwise it was great viz (certainly a lot better than it had been). We departed Milan on the SRN 5D departure then transitioned to OMETO 8A for an uneventful flight towards Saint Exupery airfield in Lyon (LFLY).
Despite a good entry into the AMVAR 1 arrival, we again had problems with the computer systems and more “What’s it doing now?” moments. This time, Otto was taking us all over the place and not following the flight path line, instead he was making turns and chasing his nose around the place. I told Carlo to shut Otto off and we’d fly the landing manually – visibility was OK and the puffy cumulus clouds around the place just made it fun, not nasty. Carlo reckoned he had it sorted and we managed to get autoland engaged once again (after some dicking around with CMD buttons and such). As we were hunting around for a visual fix on the runway (damned clouds) we realised that while we were descending and on the right heading, we were going to be way to high – in fact, we were at 1,000′ with less than a mile to go. Ooops. At this point, I called abort and Carlo agreed. He called out “Full Manual, you’ve got her” and gave me a course & altitude to fly with the Course Director lines. Sadly, I fixated on the lines and started pulling up and turning as they directed, forgetting one VERY important thing: “Fully Manual” means throttles as well – oops. With the nose coming up to follow the lines, our speed bled off and I started to get all sorts of alarms going off. As I’m saying “Huh? Wozzup?” Carlo is yelling “Power, dude! Power!” Fortunately he pushes the throttles forward and we’re able to fly out of the impending stall-spin-splat that I was setting us up for. Major oops.
Now that we’ve recovered from that stupid lapse, we head back out to start the approach all over again. Sadly, Otto is still in a very confused state – we’ve requested straight and level at 5,000′ and he’s trying to power climb us to 8,000’ – like, major WTF moment. Carlo spends a bit of time getting the computers cleaned up and settling everything down then we get a TCAS alert. Oh great. We sort that out, get relaxed again, stabilise the systems and then head back to intercept the ILS once again.
This time we get Otto sorted out and autoland mode is engaged smoothly, leading to a beautiful intercept, descent and landing into LFLY. It’s a short runway so we have auto-brake on max and wow, does that make a difference or what? We taxi into the airport and shut down but want to be on our way quickly as it’s getting late (in real time).
I start programming the FMC while Carlo resets the time of day and weather for the run to Innsbruck. I’m racing through things as he powers us up and taxis out to the runway but something’s not working right. The FMC seems to have the right route legs but stepping through isn’t working and the displayed route is really weird. We wind up holding short for a while and discover there’s something still hanging around in the FMC from our last flight. DOH! Once that’s cleared and the route is reloaded, all systems are GO and we’re looking good to depart.
Carlo lines us up on the runway, runs up the engines, we check everything and he hits the TOGA buttons then releases the brakes. Vroom – we’re off like a startled thing – gotta love a short field take off. We’re quickly into the MABES 2P departure and then heading smoothly out towards Innsbruck (LOWI). On the way there we spend a bit of time fully briefing the approach into Innsbruck, checking what waypoints we can code into the FMC to help navigate what is an amazingly tricky approach down ino the valley and then turning over 180 degrees to head back onto the runway.
We finish up doing perhaps the best briefing/review we’ve ever done and it’s just in time for the top of descent. Sure enough, Otto starts taking us down but once again I’m saying “Where’s my bloody banana?” – it seems that Otto was descending but not rapidly enough to be at the right altitude over the ALGOI VOR. Bloody hell! We get that sorted out quickly and everything proceeds as expected to the start of the Special LOC DME West approach into Innsbruck. We switch over to manual and I hand fly us onto the start point and then down into the valley, passing over the top of the airport and heading beyond it while staying as close to the left hand side of the valley as we dare.
Once again those damned cumulus clouds were still around – I probably should have hassled Carlo about turning them off before we left Lyon but it was too late now.
As we crossed the final fix point past the airport, I threw the aircraft into a solid right hand turn, generating a few “Bank Angle” warnings. Between these, Carlo saying “watch your altitude” and the very close looking terrain outside, I didn’t descend properly as I rounded out onto the runway heading and started hunting for a visual fix on it (those same damned clouds that blocked our view at Lyon had come here too – doh!). When we did get visual we were a bit high so we popped the speed brakes up and dropped back into the right approach path (albeit with a few “Sink Rate” warnings – oops).
I came in a little fast and flared a bit too quickly & high so we floated, dropped in and bounced a bit, but between reverse thrust and auto brakes set to max, we were down and slowed in time for the final exit. Once off the runway we cleaned up the aircraft and taxied into a bay, shutting down and finally taking a deep, relaxing breath.
What a rush!
While we had a great time, this session was certainly frustrating but definitely very educational and I’m looking forward to taking all that I’ve learned and applying it again in the next session. I feel a little better about my performance when I consider that I have very little time with the sim (systems, handling, etc) while Carlo’s been flying 737s in MS Flight Simulator for ages. Certainly he knows more about this sim and the 737 than I do, but even he got confused & frustrated with it on this trip.
So, what has been learned from this session? Oh, the list is enormous, not the least of which are:
- I need to do a lot more study of 737 systems
- I need some practice flying without the autothrottle
- I need to work on my situational awareness
- Carlo and I definitely need to work on our CRM
- I will not hesitate to call a go around (or switch to manual) if there’s anything that’s not working correctly and isn’t resolved quickly
There’s certainly more that needs to be done, but these are the big ones for now.
We’ve been talking about doing some flights around New Zealand (beautiful scenery, tricky approaches in the mountains, etc) but have decided instead that we’ll repeat this set of flights as soon as our schedules (and families) will allow. I really want to nail this one and do it right and I think the next session will be a whole lot better than this one.