As I mentioned in a previous post, my current internship with United Airlines has given me plenty of opportunities to get hands on experience with their fleet, on the flight deck and for engineering tasks. This week, I had the opportunity to finally cross another item off my bucket list: fly a Boeing 747-400. Well, that’s a half-true statement. In fact, I flew a Boeing 747-400 simulator at the company training center in Denver, CO. It’s not quite the real thing, but its flight characteristics are so accurate and realistic that the FAA allows the time in the “sim” to count towards actual flying time and can go in a logbook (see below).
I didn’t take any video during this session, but here’s a video from when I visited the American Airlines training center a couple of years ago to give you an idea of what the sims are like:
It may just look like a lousy box, but it’s an $8 million box (about the price of a used, low-end Cessna Citation business jet) that costs $10,000 per hour to operate due to the maintenance required on the hydraulic jacks and systems. It also simulates all the forces and motions to make you feel like you’re in the real thing. You get pushed back into your seat when you advance the throttles and you get thrown forward when you slam on the brakes. Behind the two pilot seats is the instructor station, where he can control the conditions of the flight and throw any new scenario at you (the instructors I flew with were gracious enough to give me a heads up).
So what did we do? Well, we started out easy at first. We did a normal takeoff out of virtual San Francisco and climbed out towards the ocean. The instructor then told me to fly in between the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Sounded like fun, so I turned towards it. However, I was still too high and fast that I couldn’t get low enough to get in between the towers, but I was probably no more than 100ft above the top of the towers when I buzzed the bridge. We then did a fly-by of Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge before returning to SFO for a normal landing (all my landings were actually good, with stable approaches and I stayed on the runway centerline).
The next few scenarios were more interesting. We did a light-weight takeoff (about 500,000lb gross weight) and then the instructor failed the #4 engine (outermost engine on the right side) immediately after becoming airborne. The plane immediately kicked right, and I pushed down so hard on the left rudder that my leg became sore. After putting in the rudder though, the airplane climbed out normally and you wouldn’t think one of the engines had failed.
Then, however, the instructor had me fly the same scenario, except at the maximum gross takeoff weight of 875,000lb. I lifted the nose off the ground, wheels came up, and the #4 engine failed again. The plane kicked right, but this time you could definitely tell an engine failed since the plane was barely climbing. Normally, we would climb out at about 1500-2000 feet per minute at that weight, but I was only managing 600-800 feet per minute, about the normal climb rate of the 4-seat Cessna that I typically fly in the real world. Once we gained speed, however, our climb rate picked up. Just when I thought I was in the clear, the instructor failed the #3 engine on me as well. Now I’m flying an 875,000lb beast on just two of the four engines. Surprisingly, the airplane was still incredibly forgiving and, while it definitely took more effort on my part to fly the plane, I was able to return to SFO for a safe landing.
The verdict? The Boeing 747-400 is a pleasure to fly. The amount of knowledge required for all the redundant systems is vast, but when it comes to “stick and rudder” skills, the plane is a joy and is very stable in all phases of flight. To put it into perspective, it’s like driving a Cadillac over a Ferrari (or at least I imagine that’s what it’s like). In a Cadillac, or any luxury car for that matter, you can feel the weight, power, and stability in your hands, whereas a sports car is more jumpy and can get ahead of you if you don’t keep a close eye on it.