Learning the line

Published 1:25 pm Saturday, March 14, 2015

by James D. Harrell

Orals are done; licensing is done. It’s time to prepare for line operations. “The Line” is slang for daily operations at an airline. There are aircraft checklists, preflight inspections, enroute procedures and other not so prevalent happenings to add to the storehouse of knowledge necessary before actually beginning flight operations. The surefire, tried and true method is to do the job, learn from your mistakes and move on. That process is too expensive and too risky for this particular job.

This part will also have an exam at the end called a “Line Check,” done by a designated “Check Airman” for the particular model aircraft. It’s just a continuing part of qualification.

We begin with procedures and checklist training in a mockup within the training building. My cohorts and I also work with the printed diagrams of all cockpit control panels that have been part of our experience since the beginning. Our daily commute now becomes recitations of emergency procedures and proper responses to checklists.

We learn inspections and procedures for when we approach the aircraft until we exit the door after the flight. Yes, there is practically a checklist for exiting the door. Before the first flight, we are expected to be able to inspect the aircraft and complete our part of crew duties. Refinements and practical measures will come with actual flights, under the supervision of a flight instructor.

During this time, I am also scheduled to fly as an observer on at least 10 flight hours of routine line operations, some in my aircraft and some in other aircraft. I take day trips to Phoenix, El Paso, Houston and Chicago. I do enjoy looking out the window and the time passes quickly.

I am scheduled for line training; I show up at the briefing area and meet my crew along with my instructor. Its normally the weather room, where all flight dispatches are read and signed, and the enroute and destination weather is briefed. My crew are veterans and warmly welcome me to the flight. From here we take a bus to the flight line at the passenger terminal. Here at LAX, it’s about a mile.

My instructor takes over at the aircraft and we begin what will become routine procedures for me in the future: a walk around the aircraft, with stops at designated points to inspect for signs of wear or breakage or anything out of place. I run my hands along edges and sheet metal to detect warpage, visually check for fluid leaks and drips, open and close some doors, and make sure others are closed and latched. These airplanes are fairly new and things are expected to be in very good condition. They are, and we enter the aircraft.

Inside, there are fire extinguisher bottles and portable oxygen bottles to be checked for proper filling. The inside is a beehive of activity. Cabin cleaners, catering personnel, maintenance and flight attendants are doing their specialty jobs, also. Working around other people is normal. We move to the cockpit.

My instructor leads me through the procedure and checklists. He tells me to just observe him for the first leg of the flight; I will start my work during the second and successive legs. It seems a little familiar and a little foreign all at the same time. What I learn is that I have to do my job quickly. Speed and accuracy are hallmarks of a good flight engineer. It is necessary to anticipate, and prepare for, rather than react to onboard activity. I can tell that things operate much faster here than in my military background.

I also learn little items, not mentioned elsewhere. I’m responsible for the trash bag to be hung on the back of the center console, and for its replacement, should that be required during flight.

The “throttles” name is carried over, from conventional aircraft, to the power levers of turbojet aircraft, although there are no throttle valves on jet engines. There are several aural warning horns on jet aircraft that have to do with configuration. One of these is that a warning horn will sound when the throttles are retarded below a certain point and the landing gear is not down. Many in-flight changes require that the throttles be completely retarded, bringing about a nuisance warning. A warning horn shutoff lever is installed to silence this horn. It’s the engineers job to anticipate the horn and to silence it before it sounds. It’s sometimes something of a game between the Captain and the Engineer.

The trips progress and I am judged satisfactory to join the ranks of line pilots. Another threshold crossed; another sigh of relief.

Aug. 1, 1968, I begin to fly with different eagles.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at archiepix@kingwoodcable.com