On the first day of Christmas I fly from Amsterdam to Hong Kong. I am flying to a new adventure, a new home, and a new job. My last flight on the Boeing 737 is already two months behind me now. I remember the emotions during the last approach into Barcelona airport. So many times I flew the ILS to runway 25R, with the beautiful skyline of Barcelona on the righthand side. Now is my last approach and final landing with a cabin full of passengers. Turning off the engines seemed to symbolize closing a whole chapter. ‘Goodbye, thank you for flying with us. Adios, gracias.’ It did made me feel melancholic, despite the excitement of the new job. Now I’m off to ‘the dark side’ of freight. To join the worldwide Boeing 747 cargo operations is something I have been much anticipating. Now the moment has arrived: let the training begin!
For the conversion course I am teamed up with a Dutch guy who previously flew the Boeing 787 in the Middle East. He is just as excited as I am to now join the Boeing 747 fleet. It turns out we get along very well and make a good team training together. We tackle the first hurdle the next day: despite a proper jet lag we pass the Performance and Air Law ATPL exams. This is a requirement to get a Hong Kong license later. Both of us are not sure what the ‘747 conversion course’ will look like, as we will not get a full type rating but a condensed program. But we are soon to find out on the company introduction day.
The fire hose
In my previous airline I never got to see the head office or any of the operational departments. But the new airline has all of its departments, including the simulators and management, at one location. During the introduction we get an overload of information. We shake countless hands, and visit many floors and office buildings. In the weeks to come I will find myself many times on the wrong floor, or if I am on the right floor, then at least in the wrong building. There is a whole lot to fill in, to arrange, to register, to prepare, to obtain, to email, scan, copy, sign and choose. We sit through many briefings and presentations, take notes, and make appointments. We receive our schedule for the first two weeks of training. It’s packed. ‘Welcome to the company. This will be like nothing you have experienced before. We will put the fire hose straight at you for these coming weeks. You will have to hit the ground running. Work very hard guys.’
During another briefing, we get similar guidance from the instructing captain: ‘We put the fire hose at your mouth.’ (Are they all volunteer firefighters in their free time..?) ‘It is up to you to drink or drown.’ The instructor looks at me and says: ‘You seem so enthusiastic the whole time. There is nothing to be excited about. In a few weeks you will look like a white ghost, wondering what you got yourself into. This is very hard, and not fun.’ With training yet to start, I do feel a bit nervous now. Especially when I hear that several people have failed the course recently, including people that ‘just could not handle the 747.’
The 747 ground school consists of lots of CBT (Computer Based Training), classroom briefings with an engineer, and practicing systems and procedures on an IPT trainer (basically a Boeing 747-8 flight deck made from touch screens). The class consists of just me and my training partner. The technical exam is scheduled only 10 days after the start of ground school. So after the long ground school days I study all evening, every evening, cramping limitations and system facts into my head. We are lucky that we both flew Boeing before, this makes all systems familiar. The Boeing 747-8 has a lot of great (to me) new features, such as autostart, autotuning of navigation aids, and automatic anti-ice: a lot of things that make a pilot’s life easier. There are also new systems and procedures I did not work with before: ACARS, fuel jettisoning, cargo temperature control, electronic checklists, Cat 3B and IAN approaches amongst many other things.
The ground school is intense, mostly because it is set up so short, and exam day is coming closer. It is a closed book technical exam of 100 questions, on all of the Boeing 747 systems. The trainer was right about one thing: within no time my skin looks bad, I have bags under my eyes, but I enjoy it and know exactly why I am here. I study the best I can, going through the manuals till late, making notes, drawing systems, and trying to become a 747 expert in just 10 days. It seems to work out: we pass and the reward comes the next day with a ‘handling session’ in the Boeing 747-8 simulator. It is a 4 hour raw data sim session, designed to make you feel comfortable handling the 747, from normal to (very) unusual attitudes. How do you recover when you soar down with the nose 20 degrees below the horizon, or when you are pitched up to almost vertical flight and stall? Our trainer, a former military and aerobatics pilot, teaches us. Who said this was not fun…?
The next of the simulator sessions are more ‘serious’. The program consists, besides training in the IPT trainer, of 9 4-hour sessions: 4 normal sessions, 4 non-normal sessions and 1 low visibility session, all conducted in the Boeing 747-8F full flight simulator. We now really have to learn the new company procedures, and unlearn all our old procedures. The program is very doable with our previous Boeing experience, and we make an effort to forget and replace our ‘previous life’ procedures and callouts. I learn to taxi for the first time as well: I now have a tiller on my side to steer for taxiing (did not have that on the Boeing 737!) After making my instructor and training partner very nauseous during my first taxi attempt, I get the hang of it. Every session we tick off training elements, from basics like steep turns and approach to stall recovery, TCAS RA, to engine failures, fires, evacuations, crosswind landings. We also train loss of pressurization, and a volcanic ash encounter, which in the end makes that we lose all four engines for some time. I really enjoy the simulator phase a lot. The new flight deck feels comfortable very fast, and you get used to the handling differences quickly. It’s not so different from one Boeing to another Boeing, and the simulator phase is definitely enjoyable.
However, the last training session we have to handle ‘two engines inoperative’, this means to make an approach with only 2 engines (on the same wing) running. This is hard work, especially at maximum landing weight (346.090 kg). I struggle to fly a nice approach, coordinating my rudder and thrust. I am not pleased with my performance. Unfortunately this is the only practice I get: next up are the exams, in which I have to demonstrate the approach on two engines again. I cannot hide my frustration well, in my head I hear a voice telling me that I might be one of those who ‘just could not handle the 747’. The instructor is a nice but very strict trainer who really got us up to the right standard. ‘I told you guys it’s normal when we see a dip halfway through training. You did not have one, till today.’ He tells me I’m ready, and I’ll be fine.
Type rated on the Boeing 747
In exactly one month we have completed the simulator training phase, and now we are up for a full weekend of simulator exams during the Chinese New Year weekend. Day 1 is the skill test, and day 2 the Instrument Rating exam. During the skill test my training partner goes first as pilot flying, and he does a flawless job. ‘Well, if you do the same, that will be very nice!’ I am next, and I repeat all the different exercises. All goes well, but the last exercise is the ‘dreaded’ two engines inoperative approach. But I feel highly focused, and now I nail the approach. Lights on, motion off, exam done!
The next day we have the Instrument Rating exam. I don’t feel so nervous anymore after yesterday. Just kidding, of course I am nervous! The IR is the last step in the Type Rating process, it contains the standard elements like a rejected take-off in low visibility, engine failure during take-off (V1 cut), a non-precision approach, go-arounds etc. I am first up as pilot flying, and both me and my training partner fly a very good check. This concludes the type rating! It went so fast!
After the exams we did a quick 2-day differences course for the Boeing 747-400 ERF. Up next are several simulator sessions to prepare us for ‘base training’ and then the actual base training. We will take an empty Boeing 747 with us (most probably to Clark airport) to practice 3 landings each. Can you imagine doing touch-and-go’s in a Boeing 747?! It is a mandatory requirement by the Hong Kong aviation department. Soon after that I will have an observation flight and then start line training flights. This means finally joining the 747 cargo operations. March promises to be an exciting month. So stay tuned for more, on flying the Boeing 747 and also on life in Hong Kong, and thank you for all your amazing support!