Apr 21, 2008

Flight Deck Culture - email chat

A blog reader, Louis Berlan and I recently exchanged some interesting Q & A's via email. With Louis' permission I've edited them into a post. I thought some of y'all might like to join in. We got to talking about how different airlines each develop their own way of working - their own culture.

Just noticed you talked about the Vickers Vanguard cockpit being bigger - Airliners.net comes to the rescue with this photo: Vickers Vanguard flight deck. Look at the space! You can definitely get into the seats from the outboard side!

Thanks for the Vanguard photo. I can see how, with that flight engineers chair installed, you'd have to get into the front seats from the outside. There'd be more room along the outside wall too with the pilot seats slid way back on the rails.

To be perfectly honest, I don't understand what that FE's chair is doing there. Maybe it's on a track and it swivels in and out of the FE's panel, because I don't know what his role would be right there - surely they can't have a guy there just to man the pedestal and the overhead? Never flown an airliner, but I bet he'd get in the way more than anything else.
Most of the pics of Vanguards are from museums/mockups, so they might have moved the chairs around a bit...

That forward center spot would be for the takeoff and landing phase. Procedures vary by airline, but the FE would be monitoring the engine parameters on the front panels during these critical phases of flight, as well as watching outside for traffic around congested airports. On some airlines the FE also does the final tweaking of the power levers during the takeoff roll and if an engine suddenly fails and needs to be secured, he'd be involved in moving/confirming the appropriate levers etc..

During less critical phases of flight the chair then slides back to the FE panel where he can twiddle the fuel system and all the other goodies.

Aha! Thanks for the indication. For some reason I've always been very surprised to hear that different airlines had different SOPs on a same type of aircraft. I can understand some of the differences on minutiae, but who does what during takeoff seems like a biggie to me (then again I'm only a lowly PPL, so...). I thought SOPs for an aircraft would be developed at launch by a group of pilots/airlines/manufacturers...

This is actually a point of contention any time a new airliner is added to the mix. You wouldn't believe the problems we had mixing Boeings (which use Thrust Levers) and MD (Douglas) planes that still called them Throttles (though on jet engines that was an anachronism). At an airline the key is to keep the procedures as common as possible to reduce training complexities/time/money when transitioning pilots to a new machine.

There are also some safety concerns because as you probably realize, when under duress, we will often revert to earlier drills or reactions we once learned. So to avoid difficulties like this the airlines each have their own culture they superimpose upon each new type of aircraft.

An old story tells how one day, during a reduced thrust takeoff, at an airline where the FE handled the throttles, the Captain saw a sudden need to go to full power on his engines. So he calls out: "Take-Off Power!"

The flight engineer, hears "Take off (the) power." And promptly closes the throttles.

Now, at most airlines the Captain or Pilot Flying are the only ones who handle the throttle/thrust levers during the takeoff and landings. I don't know if that's actually a true story or an airport legend but it illustrates the point.

I'm just trying to imagine the SOP landscape in a US airline with different mergers/acquisitions resulting in different planes, company habits, etc. That matrix is looking awfully complicated right now :)

This clash of airline cultures is one of the first things Flight Operations departments have to face after mergers. Happily the variations are limited by the fact that the physical layout of the flight deck is the largely same in all airlines*. And there are key certification items that must be accomplished in a specific manner, no matter who does them or whether they be done by a checklist or by memory.

So, if I walked onto a different company's A320 flight deck, I'd still be able to recognize what the flight crew were doing even if they do it differently than my company.

Do you mind if I turn this e-mail exchange we've been having into a blog?

I can just imagine the hell of Delta going to Airbus and configuring the cockpit their way, and NW doing it another way. Some companies I won't mention would probably stick the thrust levers in the lavatory...

Oh and I thought the first argument after a merger was the seniority list :)

I have absolutely no problem with the exchange becoming a blog post

Thanks Louis,
Aluwings, out.


Louis said...

Thanks for the answers Aluwings! I learned quite a bit, and keep up the good work.

Except maybe the typo on my last name, but that's not a major concern :)

Aluwings said...

Oops - sorry Louis. Now corrected.