I had the opportunity to ride the jumpseat on one of our 727s recently. Watching the Flight Engineer go about his job, I was reminded of just how busy that job could be.
Flight Engineers are a rare breed these days and won't be around much longer. Flying as a passenger, you probably haven't seen one in 10 years or so. The passenger airlines retired their three-person aircraft years ago and even the freight carriers are phasing out their 727s, DC-8s and 747 "Classics". When we retire the last of our 727s that will be it for our Engineers.
Many in the airline business started out their careers as Flight Engineers, also called Second Officers (a holdover from back when airliners had larger crews).
I am no exception, my first introduction to airline life was as an Engineer on the 727.
So what exactly does a Flight Engineer do? The systems on today's airliners are highly automated. The systems on earlier aircraft required a great deal of manual operation. The Engineer handles the engines (duh), fuel, electrics, hydraulics and pneumatics. They keep the lights on, the fuel flowing and the heat blowing.
It's a bit of a thankless job. Since it's traditionally been the entry-level position for an airline pilot there's a bit of a "hazing program" or "right of passage" aspect to it.
I knew this going in, but I didn't expect the training to be as difficult as it was.
I plan on dedicating an entire diary to the 727, but for now let's just say it's an old Boeing and if there's one thing I know it's old Boeings.
The problem is, while I'd been flying them for 20 years I hadn't been plumbing them. I felt like I was learning how to build one in my garage.
There were tons of numbers to memorize. We had both 727-100s and 727-200s. Each had its own set of ops limits. There were procedures that had to be memorized.
The airlines run checklists differently from the Air Force. In the Air Force we would read a step, flip a switch, read a step, flip another switch etc.
In the airlines you do a "flow" where you flip all the switches and then read the checklist to confirm what you just did.
We had little memory jogs to help us remember our flows. The "after start" flow on a 727 was "Power (Essential), Power (Generators), Pumps (Fuel), Pumps (Hydraulics), Panel (Oil), Packs (AC), Pressure (Pressurization)".
Emergency procedures were called "Phase Ones" and also had to be recited and performed from memory. This one is for the dreaded "9 light trip":
Loss of All Generators
1. Essential Power Selector - Standby
2. Battery Switch - Check On
3. Field Switches - Close
If all Field Lights Remain Illuminated
A. Battery Switch - Off, Immediately On
B. Field Switches - Close
4. AC Meters - Check Volts/Frequency
5. Essential Power Selector - Operating Generator (3, 1, 2)
6. Fuel Crossfeed Selectors - All Open
A couple things were drilled into me:
"Mr Boeing likes a dark cockpit" - which means, for the most part, a light only comes on if it needs your attention. If the panel is dark, all is well.
"Mr Boeing doesn't like a single point of failure" - everything has at least one backup and maybe two. This is a good thing.
The first hurdle is what used to be called the "oral exam" (stop snickering). Today they call it a "systems validation". It's three hours of sitting in a room with a
cruel sadist check airman while he tries to prove how much smarter than you he is tests your knowledge of the aircraft systems.
He might point to a picture of the cockpit and ask "Which instruments will work on battery power?" or "What valves move when I throw this switch?" or "Which electrical bus powers this instrument?"
Get one wrong (you will) and the examiner will start digging to see how much you really know about that particular subject.
The generators have to be brought on line manually and manually paralleled. Screw it up and you could shear the drive-shaft on one. Forget to turn the APU off and you'll have a fire in the wheel well 10 minutes after takeoff. Neglect the Air Conditioning Pack temperatures and they may overheat and trip off.
Neglect the temperature in the cargo compartment and the chickens may arrive frozen.
A Captain once asked me what temperature was best for the chickens. I said "350 degrees for about 45 minutes should do it".
At the end of simulator training is a check-ride. Pretty much 3 hours of one disaster after another being thrown at you. Engines fail to start, generators drop off line, hydraulic systems leak. You know, the usual stuff. This culminates with a two engine out approach while frantically trying to dump fuel and manually crank the landing gear down and run the checklist. Yikes!
Once the simulator training is done it's time to go out for your Initial Operational Experience or IOE. This was a week long trip with an instructor to watch over me. Every once in a while a hand would reach out of the darkness and flip a switch on my panel, but for the most part I did OK.
The second to last leg of IOE was my "line check". An 18 minute leg from Winnipeg to Grand Forks. Now there's plenty of work to keep you busy on a 1 hour flight. I was flailing to get it all done in 18 minutes. When I got out to do my preflight in Grand Forks the instructor followed me out and walked up to me. "This is it, I thought, he's going to bust me." Instead he shook my hand, told me I'd passed and took the last leg for me.
There was one moment while preflighting the airplane, in Grand Forks, in January, with snow blowing sideways, that I questioned the wisdom of my career choice.
The worst part was being a hostage in the back seat without a set of flight controls. This was obviously karmic payback for all the Navigators I'd scared over the years.
My greatest fear was that something important would break at 4:00 AM on the third leg of the night when I'm too tired to think straight. I imagined I'd be staring at the panel like Homer Simpson going "Oooooh pretty. It's the red one."
I was told of an American Airlines 727 that was flying out of Miami on a stormy night and took a lightning strike. All three generators tripped off and it went very dark in the cockpit.
The Captain turned to the Engineer and yelled "Do something! Even if it's WRONG do something!"
Fortunately my career as a Flight Engineer was short lived. After a mere six months I found myself upgrading to First Officer on the 727. Let's see. More money, less work and I get to fly it? Sounds good to me.
I didn't want to sit back there any longer than I had to, but I'm still glad I got to be a Flight Engineer. They won't be around much longer.