Behind the scenes Part 2
We have now made our way to and through our staff security. Larger airports like Arlanda have the staff security completely separate, but it's not uncommon to see crew security lanes among the passengers at many airports. We have our own crew bus service to get SAS crews to the aircraft. If time permits, despite the convenience of a bus ride, I much prefer a walk to the gate. The pilot job is very sedentary so any short walk is better than none. I take all the free exercise I can get, plus I get a chance to see the passengers, represent the airline as I walk among them.
Today, I'll be Pilot Flying first so I'm going to set most of the flight deck up for departure. Arriving in the cockpit I find it "cold and dark", i.e. black screens, no lights, everything switched off. With a ground power cable connected, only the blue "GRD POWER AVAILABLE" light is illuminated. Step one is to switch on the battery and in a split second most of the flight deck springs to life. A few screens start to power up, lights come on and miscellaneous sounds can be heard in the background. Then I connect to the ground power so the battery isn't discharged. Immediately following the ground power, I power up and align the IRSs (Inertial Reference System). Looking in a Boeing manual they are usually further down the start-up process but they can take about 10-15 minutes to align so I do it in the beginning of my flow.
Ok the aircraft has power, now what? Setting up all the panels by flipping switches is actually not my first priority because I have some general checks to do on the flight deck first; emergency equipment like life vests, oxygen, the crash-axe, fire gloves, extinguisher etc. You also have to check all the circuit breakers and that the manuals we still have printed and regulatory documents are onboard. The aircraft log with possible remarks and MEL items are also part of this.
Now onto the switch flicking! The 737 follows a very old design. Looking at the panels with an untrained eye can be overwhelming indeed. The reason even new 737s look like this is a debate in itself but it has to do with too large changes to an aircraft renders it to require a completely new type rating (which is expensive). Southwest airlines in the US own most 737 in the world and thereby have the largest, indirect effect on how much change the 737 will have... But as I said, that’s a different topic entirely.
The overhead panel though, cluttered and messy as it seems, does actually have a very logical column-like design which, of course with a trained eye, makes perfect sense. Starting from the top left part downwards and then next "column", eventually reaching the bottom right part you set up the various systems to their pre-departure state. In a whiz (referring to the picture), those panels contain system switches for flight controls and displays, fuel, electrical, emergency exit lights, anti-ice, hydraulics, air conditioning and pressurisation, and exterior lights.
The flow then moves to the panels immediately in front of and around the pilot, like the MCP (Mode Control Panel), auto brakes, screen settings, radio frequencies and another important emergency equipment check: the fire tests for the engine and APU as well as cargo holds.
The rest of the setup involves typing on the CDU (Control Display Unit), i.e. the Flight Management System (FMS). The FMS can be regarded as the brain in this highly automated aircraft. Basically everything we do is manipulated by or through these computers. Navigation, performance and even some communications. At SAS we use ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) which makes the majority of the CDU pre-flight tasks go much quicker. It imports the flight plan route so we don’t have to type it manually, we get our weather reports and clearances through the computer which we then print onto small printouts (yes we have a small printer on board). The rest is about entering performance data, altitudes and weights so the aircraft can calculate take-off speeds. This is then compared to a Boeing performance app on our iPads during briefing.
We have now reached a point where it’s time to brief each other, read some checklists and get ready for push back and departure. Next week I will talk you through all that, including some behind-the-scenes of how boarding, loading and refueling works. There are a lot of people involved to get the aircraft to depart on time. Hopefully I can give you a clear picture of what’s required to succeed.
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