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From a Cessna 172 to a Boeing 737: Trying My Hand at Flying a Jet As a Student Pilot
When boarding a plane, one can usually spot out the aviation enthusiasts quite easily as they’ll often peek in the cockpit before heading to their seat for even just a slight glimpse at the controls up front. For pilots and non-pilot enthusiasts alike, the dream is to one day sit up there with a plane full of people behind you.
While not everybody will have that dream come true, full-motion flight simulators allow budding pilots and enthusiasts to have the experience of flying their dream aircraft. Across the country, full-motion simulator operators and training courses allow enthusiasts to experience what it’s like to sit up front, even with as little as 15 hours at the controls.
Last month, I traveled to the American Airlines Flight Academy in Fort Worth, Texas for the Airline Training Orientation Program (ATOP) jet orientation course to try my hand at flying a Boeing 737-800 as a mere student pilot with around 30 hours.
ATOP’s orientation courses allow (almost) any FAA certificated pilot to “test drive” their dreams of flying a commercial jet and get a taste of what airline training is like. In order to attend the course, you must hold at least a Student Pilot Certificate, have at least 15 hours of flight time, and have an elementary understanding of ILS approaches.
The course isn’t for those looking to merely fly a simulator and includes an in-depth look at aircraft systems and what airline life is like. Participants can select either the Boeing 737-800 course held at the American Airlines Flight Academy in Fort Worth, Texas or the Airbus A320 course held at JetBlue University in Orlando, Fla.
The course is taught by Captain Wayne Phillips, an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Designated Pilot Examiner with a Boeing 737 type rating. Despite his stature in the aviation industry, having written articles in national aviation magazines and hosted workshops at some of the nation’s top-tier aviation colleges and flight schools, you’ll no doubt be referring to him as “Uncle Wayne” by the time the course ends.
The course includes a comprehensive tour of the pilot training center where the course is held, 10 hours of systems and procedures familiarization; two hours of cockpit management procedures using cockpit mockups and an ATOP “Mini-Manual” for either the 737 or A320 (depending on which course you select). Before you even step foot in the simulator, you will ideally have a general understanding of the systems and procedures regarding the aircraft you’ll be flying.
There are also some valuable takeaways for prospective airline pilots including an hour of loggable simulator time and an optional airline career and interview briefing. ATOP also gives the option to earn the FAR 61.31(g) “High Altitude Endorsement” depending on flight training device (FTD) availability when you take the course.
Signing up in September 2018 for the April 2019 ATOP course, I gave myself plenty of time to book travel and study up on the Boeing 737-800.
Preparing for My Jet Set
About 45 days before the course date, I received an email from Captain Wayne that included the Mini-Manual. Don’t let the name fool you, the manual is quite comprehensive and provides a great deal of information about the aircraft’s systems and procedures. You’ll also get an “ATOP Profile” which outlines what you’ll experience in the simulator both in the left and right seat to prepare you for your visit.
While most pilots spend weeks learning about aircraft systems, we had two days, meaning prior knowledge was key to ensuring I hit the ground running in Dallas and didn’t waste any time. My preparation included reviewing the checklists included with the ATOP materials, researching the 737-800, and viewing some cockpit videos of 737-800 takeoffs and landings.
I also used the mobile flight simulator app Infinite Flight in conjunction with the ATOP Profile and checklists to try and get some familiarity with the workflow I would experience in the simulator. Desktop simulators such as Microsoft Flight Simulator X and Lockheed Martin Prepar3D also offer some insight into what to expect from the cockpit of a jet airliner, especially with highly-detailed paid software.
After months of anticipation, ATOP weekend finally arrived. We started bright and early on a Saturday and arrived at the American Airlines Flight Academy at 7:30 a.m. As we entered the flight academy, we passed under a sign that really set the tone for the rest of the weekend.
The first task of the day was to get to know our classmates. While Captain Wayne set up the classroom, the 8 of us enjoyed breakfast together at the academy’s café. My class had a wide variety of pilots. Some had years of flight experience with hundreds of hours and some had just recently obtained their private pilot certificate. And then there was me, the student pilot with around 30 hours of flight time.
We finished breakfast and walked over to our classroom to get started with learning the Boeing 737-800, one of the most widely used single-aisle aircraft in the world, inside and out. For the next 6 hours, Captain Wayne taught us a wealth of information about the 737’s systems and procedures. We learned about the airplane’s electrical, hydraulic, engine, air conditioning, fire protection, anti-ice and pressurization systems.
While at times it felt like drinking from a fire hose, Captain Wayne did a great job of presenting the information in an upbeat, clear, and concise manner that makes it really sink in. This was clearly not going to be just hopping in the sim and going for a ride but the information was genuinely fascinating.
Once we finished getting to know the “Guppy,” our full-motion simulator, we broke into two groups of four. Four of us stayed in the classroom to do some “chair flying” on the classroom’s static cockpit display in preparation for the simulator while the other four headed to another room with a 737-800 flight training device to receive their high altitude endorsement training.
One of the great features of the ATOP course is the ability to earn your FAR 61.31(g) High Altitude Endorsement on a 737 FTD. The high altitude endorsement requires additional ground school time, which is completed on day two. The FTD is an impressive piece of equipment with a functioning mode control panel and the overhead panel, pedestal, and forward panels being displayed using touch screens.
Captain Wayne set up the FTD for straight and level flight at Flight Level 350 or 35,000 feet for what appeared to be a smooth flight at cruising altitude. The calm didn’t last long. Suddenly, the cabin altitude audible warning came on along with the master caution light. At this point, we started the cabin altitude warning/rapid depressurization checklist. After we got our simulated oxygen masks on, I disengaged the audible warning and made sure that we had clear crew communication.
Following the checking, we ensured the engine bleed switches were on, set the pack switches to high and closed the pressurization outflow valve. We then ran the emergency descent checklist and safely arrived at Flight Level 180 or 18,000 feet. Our rapid depressurization and descent simulation on the FTD was complete.
We wrapped up day one around 4:30 p.m. and headed back to the hotel to study up for day two.
We, once again, arrived bright and early at the American Airlines Flight Academy at 7:15 a.m. The excitement and anticipation among the class was palpable. Soon, we would all be at the controls of a Boeing 737-800 Level-D full-motion simulator.
We arrived at simulator number 5 and Captain Wayne began to “wake up” the Guppy. In no time at all, Captain Wayne had us set up at the hold short line of Runway 17C at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport where it was time to put everything we learned to use.
I started out in the right seat, where the first officer typically sits, and soon we received the instruction to line up and wait on the runway, obtaining our takeoff clearance shortly thereafter. I read back the clearance and we were off, barreling down Runway 17C as countless Boeing 737 pilots do on a daily basis.
As the pilot monitoring, my duties during takeoff included confirming takeoff thrust was normal, the 80-knot callout, and the v-speed callouts. Before long, we were in a positive climb and I brought the gear up using the landing gear lever.
We were initially cleared to 4,000 feet by Captain Wayne. On the way up, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the simulator’s strikingly real visuals and motion. It was not a huge stretch of the imagination to think there was a plane full of vacationers in the back since one could hardly tell the difference between the simulator and the real thing.
Soaring above Dallas, Captain Wayne had us set up with clear skies in the early evening, which made for some great scenery. We knew that wouldn’t last long.
Just as I was getting comfortable taking in the visuals, the fire bell sounded. Instinctively, I made an “engine fire” call but then quickly realized we were dealing with a wheel well fire, not an engine fire. We lowered the gear to put the fire out and my first challenge of the day was handled.
Soon after, we were on final and touched back down on Runway 17C. Captain Wayne had us do a touch and go, and then set us up for an Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach to Runway 17C. After we completed the ILS approach, we switched seats and it was time for me to test my student pilot skillset flying the Boeing 737-800.
After a quick restart of the simulator, we were back at the hold short line for Runway 17C. Firmly at the controls, I released the brakes and taxied out to the runway. Upon hearing the magic words “cleared for takeoff,” I lined up on the centerline and set the takeoff power of 91 percent N1.
As I listened to the engines spool up, I definitely had to remind myself that even though I was in the “big iron,” it’s still just an airplane like the Cessna 172 I’m learning to fly in. Even though there’s much more power and much more airplane, it was satisfying to see that the basic principles of flying stay pretty much the same.
Just like in the Cessna 172, you use your feet to control the rudder and keep the aircraft on the centerline as you takeoff. However, things happen much faster in a jet. Before I knew it, we were at V1 speed of 150 knots. As a student pilot, it felt a bit unusual pitching the aircraft up to 18 degrees on takeoff but we lifted off smoothly from the runway and headed up to 4,000 feet once again.
Sure enough, just as we were starting to enjoy the Dallas evening scenery, the ominous “I’m bored” emanated from Captain Wayne. We heard those words and knew something was coming. It wasn’t long before the master caution light came on and we had a generator failure. I continued to fly the airplane while my first officer skillfully dealt with the failure and resolved it.
We arrived on the downwind for Runway 17C, descended to 2,500 feet and I got ready to land the airplane. With barely 30 hours of flight time, I thought for sure I would “thump it on” but I surprised myself and actually put it down smoothly. Captain Wayne once again had us do a touch and go and then set us up for an ILS approach to Runway 17C for one last landing in the simulator.
The ILS approach was definitely more challenging. I ended up slightly left of the runway, a little high and had to make some “spirited” last minute corrections, much to the dismay of the fictional passengers in the back. I think Captain Wayne put it best when he said “That first one was a keeper. This one…not so much.”
We finished up our simulator time and headed back to the café for logbook signing and goodbyes. Overall, the ATOP jet course was one of the greatest aviation experiences I have ever had. Whether you’re considering a career with the airlines or just want to know what it’s like to fly the 737, flying in a full-motion simulator with the likes of Captain Wayne is a veritable must.
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