Could you land a 737? I had to find out

Remember the movie Flight 93? Remember the scene when the passengers realize that their only chance of survival is to come up with a plan, and that plan has to include landing the plane? A call goes out to ask if there are any pilots on board, and a guy in the back responds “I’m a pilot… well, single engine!” Admit it… how many of you thought, if only for a moment, “I bet I could have landed it!”

Graf Hilgenhurst with Litchfield
The author (right) with “First Officer” Dave Litchfield.

Not that I would wish that scenario on anyone, but after watching the movie (again), I decided that I had to find out, at least theoretically, if I could have successfully landed an airliner. Enter the 737 flight simulator at the Delta Flight Museum in Atlanta, at Hartsfield International Airport. It’s the only full motion sim in the US that is open to the public, and for $425 you can hone your skills for an hour (you can split this among several pilots, as I did).

This is the cockpit of the 737-200, an early variant that first flew in 1967. The airplanes have all been retired now (last flown by Delta in 2006, although they are still in active service in other parts of the world), and hence this is obsolete as a pilot training simulator (along with its analog “steam gauge” instruments), but is every bit as realistic as the current generation of sims.

ATL final in sim
Setting up for an easy landing on Runway 9 at ATL.

Our instructor, Paul Talbott, is a retired Delta A&P mechanic, who clearly enjoys his new job, instructing wannabe airline pilots. After a preflight briefing, and signing the inevitable waivers (really now… how could you hurt yourself in a simulator?), we went to work. I won’t say I felt right at home, as I am not used to jet engine gauges (% power, “EPR” which determines the pressure ratio between the front and the back of the engine, and “flight director,” which is sort of an analog version of a glass cockpit attitude indicator, with additional information about where you are, and where you want to be). Best advice is to keep the flight director “batwing” inside the wedges, and remember that the little white triangle on the right is the glideslope, so if it’s high of center you are below the glideslope).

Radios in 737 sim
The radios in the sim are not that intuitive.

Also, the radios are in the center console, and their use is far from intuitive. We quickly found out that the auto-throttle was our best friend. It’s part of the autopilot, which is top center on the console, and by setting the speed for something reasonable, like 145 knots, our workload went down considerably. The few times we decided to jockey the throttles by hand we felt the stick shaker, along with audible warnings like “glideslope! pull-up! terrain!” to remind us of just how precarious our nose high slow flight had become.

Paul first set us up for an easy landing at Hartsfield on a calm day with good visibility. Things happen quickly in an airliner, and we discovered that sometimes the best option is to go around. We finally got the hang of it, and managed some decent landings, not unlike landing a Cessna at warp speed, where tiny inputs are needed well ahead of time, with much smaller margins for error. It’s pretty much the way I felt the first time I tried to land a Bonanza.

Once we got good at that, he stepped it up a notch, and by the end of our session, we were shooting the approach to Reagan National by following the Potomac, and making a hard right turn over the 14th Street Bridge, trying to stay just to the right of the Lincoln Monument, and then diving at the runway. Just remember to disengage the auto-throttles as you fly over the numbers, and gently retard the throttles, while maintaining a gentle 1 degree nose up attitude (no big flare). Now that was a challenge!

Night landing in sim
A tougher night landing, in poor visibility.

By then end of the hour, I was ready for a break, as I found it shockingly realistic, and very intense. Paul pulled a fast one on us when he dropped the ceiling down to 100 feet, and I saw to my horror a wind sock appearing in my windshield. On an almost subconscious level, I was shouting “Go around!” unlocking the auto-throttles, slamming the throttles forward, waiting a sickening two seconds for the engines to spool up, and then saying “positive rate of climb, retracting the gear, moving the flaps from 30 degrees to 15 degrees” through the push in, then pull up detent, and then hearing Paul say “Congratulations—you made it!”

So the next time I fantasize that my services might be needed in landing an airliner, I will think to myself, “Of course I can do it… if someone will just show me how to work the radios!”

1 Comment

  • I loved this one. Reminded me of the KC-135 simulator I got to fly. One of my bosses, was a retired USAF tanker pilot instructor, and he knew how much I wanted that opportunity, before I finally got my PPL. He knew I worked on the very first ones to come to the (now closed) USAF base, 30 years earlier, and thought it might be fun for me. Full motion simulator being removed and sent to another base for continued use. Had me doing take offs and landings at that base, and others overseas. Wild.

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