So in late November 2014 I got word from the admin side of the flight ops department that I would be upgrading to First Officer on the Boeing 777. My first thougts were its too bad I won’t get to really fly the 747, but at least I was a second officer on it for almost 3 years. In a time when heavy 4 engine jets are not as efficient as the competition, I was lucky enough to get the time on it I did. The second thought I had, was excitement in getting to fly the 777. Not only would the transition to fly a newer Boeing be easy, but the FO schedule on that fleet was, and still is the best in the compmnay. Most rosters can be managed to 3 long haul trips a month, with 18 days or so at home away from work, with family. That is pretty ideal to most pilots. What I have learned over the last 3 years is that despite having lots of time off, the actual flying has become for a lack of a better term, boring. We do indeed get to see various parts of the world, Europe, North America, South Africa, but when you only get one or two PF (pilot fying) sectors a month, you start to yearn for the multi sector days bashing around Northern Manitoba in a Metro! This would eventually factor into my recent decision to bid for the Airbus fleet trasnfer and fly the A330 regionally for a year or more.
Anyways, more on that upcoming transition later, for now, back to the 777 upgrade. The first thing I did once I realised the amount of work I had in front of me, was log onto the company website and begin downloading the multitude of manuals that I would need to familiarise myself with over the coming months (and years really, these manuals often change and are updated). Cathay Pacific, like many airlines has multiple variants of the 777. We have 5 777-200’s, including the very first Boeing 777 ever built, B-HNL. This would aly be the airframe I would do my circuits in after I completed simulator training. For all initial P1 Aircraft ratings, the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department requires pilots to complete at least 5 takeoff’s and landings to a satisfactory standard before beginning line training on regular revenue flights. In addition to the five 200’s, Cathay also has 12 777-300’s fitted for regional flying, and 53 777-300 ER’s for our long haul and ultra long haul flying. So with manuals, ground school slides, system exams, performance workbooks, and a handful of other manuals and documents downloaded, the work began.
My first plan of attack was to answer the 500 some odd questions in our systems study guide. These questions are organized in groups based on the various aircraft systems (Fire Protection, Hydraulics, etc) so with a fmailiar working knowledge of Boeing flight manuals, I knew this would be the best way to dig into the systems. So on subsequent days off, and layovers, my notebook, questions, and iPad full of manuals came with me every where I went. I probably completed the most amount of questions in a Tim Hortons in Richmond BC on Vancouver layovers. Often in North America on a layover I find myself awake on Hong Kong time, so the 24 hour coffee shop would do nicely in the middle of the night. Hotel rooms with cable TV are too distracting for my feable mind.
The next best thing for home study (which actually appears on our schedule as it is mandatory) was to get my hands on the Computer Based Training and complete the automated ground school. This was also a tad time consuming, and not particularly exciting, somehow a computer generated voice explaining aircraft systems just isn’t as interesting as flying. Nebvertheless, several dozens of hours later, that was complete, and all well before my official start date for the training program. All part of the plan as I would rather be done most of the work before the work had to happen. All that was left was more then enough time to review and do some more reading for the upcoming in person ground school. I also made great use of the IPT (instrument procedures trainer) as this would be an important part of the technical ground school before simulator training. The IPT gives a pilot the best chance at leanring flow’s, SOP’s, and checklist/switch familiarity before getting into the simulator when 4 hour sessions dissapear quickly as the fire hose of new knowledge is sprayed in ones face.
So finally groundschool week begins in February of 2015. Day one was all the easy things, Aircraft Emergency Briefing, with fellow cockpit crew, the annual refresher course on how to use emerhgency exits, where all the fire extinghuishers are, and how to dy the emergency rafts. Overall this is the least interesting day of the new training, but it is necessary nonetheless and hopefully never needed. We complete the exact same day long training course once every year no matter which aircraft we fly. On to the good stuff. The next five days of groundschool cover all the aircraft systems. Each day consists of a morning of classroom instruction (3-4 hours) followed by IPT sessions after a lunch break. The IPT sessions are used to consolidate the information we learned during the morning lecture/slideshow sessions. For example, if Hydraulics were covered in the morning, then we do take a lootk at several of the Hydraulic system failures in the IPT and the subsequent electronic checklists. By the way the electronic checklists might be my favourite part of the 777, a feature that only the newer 747-8 aircraft were equipped with. There’s no need to go into any detail about each day, the systems are complicated but presneted well enough to get a good understadning of them in short order. I will say that for a twin engine airplane, the triple redundancy in almost every major system is quite impressive. The systems are also presented in the cokpit in a much simpler format then the 747 was. Primarily this is due to the simple fact that the 777 newer then the mid 80’s designed 747-400, so for example, when it comes to fuel pump management, there is very little to do in the 777 compared to the 747. In the 777, we drain the centre tanks first, and then when prompted, turn those two pumps off. That’s all we do between engine start up and engine shut down. The 747-400 on the other hand, we would pressurize all fuel tanks, takeoff on the centre tank, then drain the HST tank in the horizontal stabilisers, then back to the mains to drain them, move onto the two out wing tanks, and then main tanks 2 and 3 on the inboard of each wing. Turning off each relevant pump when the tank’s were emptied. Probably 5 times as much pump switching as the 777. Simpler, is better!
Following the 5 days of technical groundschool we have a 100 question systems exam to complete. These questions are based on the 500 or so questions I completed a few months prior and subsequently had reviewed probably well over a dozen times to this point. Thirty minutes of so after logging onto the computer based testing program, complete, passed, time to move on to the next part of the course. A performance briefing. Despite a multitude of options to calculate takeoff, and landing data, and just about everything in between, we have to be shown how to do calculations manually bassed on the performance manual. All I can say is, thankfully, we almost never have to consult these manuals as we have multiple automated methods to make such calculations. Including sendind an SMS to a company number with relevant data to get our takeoff speeds.
OK, the classroom work is over. Time to figure out how to actually fly this airplane. We made use of the IPT and simulator together in two sections, normal procedures, and non normal procedures. Four sessions in the IPT learning all the basics of flows, normal checklist, a few simple non normal checklists. Next into the simulator for 4 full flight simulator sessions of similar nature. For these however, due to our extensive training in the Hong Kong simulators, we would be in Singapore for a week to complete the 4 sessions. Back to Hong Kong following that for three non normal IPT sessions, once again followed by 3 sims in SIngapore. If you ever have the desire to enjoy 30 degree weather and a chance of thunderstorms, then SIngapore is for you. Any day of the year. Its a very nice, clean city, with relatively good weather. With the exception of the odd torrential downpour from an ITCZ afternoon thunderstorm, its generally hot and mostly sunny.
Check ride time. For an initital conversion course we are required to do an aircraft type rating and instrument rating in tow different sessions. Subsequent bi-annual check rides can accomplish both of these in one session. Once these were completed, it was a few sims of strictly circuits, followed by what every pilot has thought about at one time or another, touch ang go’s in an empty airliner. I was lucky enough to be sccheduled my circuits in B-HNL, the first Boeing 777 every built. If you google Boeing 777 test flight videos, those crazy crosswind landings in the desert are done in the airplane I was about to fly that day. Soon we will be retiring our 777-200’s and rumour has it HNL will end up in the Smithsonian Museum. I have to say, circuits were more then fun. Especially with an empty airplane and a Vref (final approach speed) of 125 knots. Considering some of the old Metro 23’s I used to fly would ref at 119 knots at max landing weight, this seemed like the fun of flying a small plane, while handling a large jet… perfection. Not only was the airplane perfect, the weather was basically ideal, just the hint of a crosswind, and sunny skies in Zuhai, China. Not too far from Hong Kong, we zipped over to Zuhai and made the most of our jet for the day. After my circuits, I hopped in the jump seat and watched my sim partner have a turn. We both felt pretty pleased with oursleves. The culmination of months of stng, weeks of intensive training, and a few middle of the night sims, had resulted in 777 licensed pilots. Now for the hard part, landing smoothly with 398 judges in the back.
Line flying would begin in 10 days.
With 10 days off before line flying was to commence I decided to head home to Canada to visit some family for a week. Unfortunately with it being eeaster weekend, the only way I could get to Winnipeg on staff travel tickets was Hong Kong to Paris, 6 hours later on to Toronto, and about 4 hours later, then it was into Winnipeg after a lot of miles travelled. By the time I returned to Hong Kong via Vancouver, I had circled the globe. But enough about that, it was time to get to the real work. Line flying. The first two patterns I had were a Bangkok turnaround, and a Cebu turn around. On the Cebu trip the safety pilot in the jumpseat was a fellow Canadian. In fact, in 1998 I fueled his Piper Cherokee that he was time building in while I was working the ramp at the Winnipeg Flying Club. Being a fellow aviation nerd, he made sure to take advantage of the down time on the Cebu turn to boost me into the giant 11 foot intake of the GE90-115B engine of our 777-300 ER. I can’t confirm if a photo was taken, but you get the idea.
I am currently sitting in a coffee shop in Nanaimo BC waiting for my Harbour Air DHC-3 Turbine Otter ride back to Vancouver. I took this time on this layover to finally visit Vancouver Island. And as I sit here, I cannot remember where my next sectors were, other then I know at some point in the first few weeks I did a Narita turnaround, on which we suffered and ENG OIL FILT message on the way to Narita (a problem with the engine oil filter which will likely lead to an engine failure or shutdown, althouogh today it didnt). On the return sector to Hong Kong (a 4.5 hour flight back into the jet stream) we flew into ice crystal icing conditions. Modern high bypass ratio engines can be susceptable in the right meteorlogical conditions (warmer air just below 0 C and high moisture content) to ice crystal icing. Basically a condition where small particles of ice form on the interior of the engine including components and probes used to calculate Engine Pressure Ratio readings. The result of which is the loss of FMC commanded thrust, an auto throttle failure, and basically two engines that have reverted to a degraded manual mode of thrust. This in and of itself does not generally pose a significant risk, however the idea is to exit those conditions sooner then later to avoid excessive ice buildup. In this instance based on the weather radar returns and the sig wx charts, continuing straight ahead on our flight plan route provided the quickest exit. So after about 20 minutes, the ice sublimates once we returned to colder dryer air, and all systems are back to normal. My first significant events while flying the 777 and I’m not even 10 days into it! Oh well, these planes are designed to handle tough conditions, and with a quick run of a checklist, most of the threat is mitigated right away for such events.
The first 10 sectors of line flying are done with a safety pilot in the jumpseat. The idea is while the training Captain is monitoring someone who has never flown a large airliner, they might miss something, and that something might be significant. So the extra set of eyes is there to help catch any such miss. After 10 sectors, as long as the new FO is showing progression to a particular standard, the safety pilot is released and the new FO can now fly with more junior training captains (still quite senior in the airline). The training syllabus consists of 40 sectors in total with a progress report at the mid way point. My progress report was HKG-NRT-TPE for an overnight, and then the reverse on day two. The only thing I knew of the training Captain who would be performing the check was that he lived in my neighbourhood. So when I was up before dawn to walk my dogs I figured the likelihood of me running into anyone was low. So I let the dogs off leash for some fun, only to be surprised by a morning jogger, who my dogs decided to chases away. Now my dogs don’t have a mean bone in their body, but when they think they are alone, and get startled, they will let said startler know they do not appreciate the surprise. Now from across a park in the dark I couldn’t tell you who this jogger was, but given my training captain lived nearby, I “forgot” to mention during the cruise get to know you conversation that I had three white dogs.
I don’t know if leaving that out helped my progress review, but I managed to get a good report, and was moving on to the next 20 sectors. After seeing a lot of Japan, Bangkok, Taipei, and Manilla, I was going to see San Francisco, as part of the next 20 sectors. Doing at least one long haul during line training is required, I was fortunate enough to see Paris in the first 20 sectors, and then SFO. Other then a polar route to the east coast of North America, I would basically get a little taste of everything during line training.
After the required 40 sectors, and an approval from the final traning Captain, it was time for the line check. I asked around about this check captain and heard nothing but good things. And after finding out we shared a common past time in playing tennis, the final 4 sectors HKG-TPE-KIX and return were uneventful and a good report followed. I was now cut loose as a JFO (Junior First Officer) and able to fly with all but our newest Captains on the 777. In 6 months I would do another 4 sector line check and officially become a 3 stripe First Officer (JFO’s wear two, how degrading ;).
People say you will never feel more current then after your 40 sectors of line training at Cathay, and in many ways this was true. Once training is completed most FO’s end up on the usual 3 long haul trips per month schedule. Given a Captain and two FO’s operate each long haul, there are only two landings available for 3 pilots. So in many months, CX pilots will only do two takeoffs and landings. Given I used to do 6-8 a day for 16 days a month or more, my hands and feet were about to take a lesson in short and long term muscle memory.
In an attmept to mitigate the memory loss, I try as best I can to bid for regional flying (2 pilots, 2 sectors, everyone gets a turn). Sometimes that wasn’t always available because almost all the regional flying was being used for training. But in many months pilots would often get rid of regional split duties or turnarounds. It’s a win win really, make some extra cash (in some cases a lot) and get an extra sector to keep my hands and feet going.