“On Speed, On Glidepath”

As parents to three wonderful children (now three amazing adults), one of our mantras attempting to guide them through the teenage jungle, were three simple words, “find a balance”. Too many extra-curricular activities meant too little time spent with the family. Too much time spent in the company of friends meant not enough time learning to be comfortable being by oneself. Too much schoolwork meant not enough time spent just being a happy teen. ….balance. It’s an easy thing to say, it’s a very difficult thing to accomplish.

The science of piloting a flying machine, much like life itself, is best accomplished in the realm of stability…its version of finding a balance. There’s an age-old saying in aviation, “a good landing begins with a stable approach”. At my initial (major) airline, Northwest Orient Airlines, their brand of flying was like nothing I had ever experienced before. At first blush, it seemed very rigid, very complicated; almost draconian in its implementation. As I discovered, after spending copious amounts of brain-power to decipher, learn, and finally embrace their methods…it turned out to be truly brilliant.

In the year 1983, Northwest Orient’s 3-phase employment interview process was common for the airlines, and it was nothing short of grueling. Phase 1 began the torture, and it consisted of being interviewed by a trio of their upper echelon management types. The first was an “HR” person (in my case, the TOP Human Resources person…Ms.Eva E…I’ll never forget her, that’s a story unto itself), followed by the Assistant Chief Pilot for the Minneapolis base (a rather intimidating person), and lastly, by a third management-type person. It was a bit strange, for this dude seemed to be a random mid-level, manager and was in charge of something called “pilot flying assignments”. I had the distinct impression that the “real” third person in the rotation wasn’t available that day, so they simply chose this worker-bee type guy and dumped me in his lap. They marched me into his cramped, little office (during his lunch break no less), plopped my paperwork in front of him, and instructed him to interview me. The look on his face showed that he was as shocked as I was, but in the end, we just had a nice chat and he sent me on my way. That entire day was pretty awful, and truth be told, it deserves to be the subject of an entire “Logbook” story in itself, but I’ll shelve that yarn for another day.

(A Northwest Orient Airlines Boeing 747-251 landing “on speed, on glidepath” at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. I was fortunate to fly this amazing machine for four years in the early phase of my career as an airline pilot. This beautiful photo is courtesy of Erik Simonsen.)

If you made it through “Round 1”, the next phase was to report to the NWA Training Center in Minneapolis/St. Paul (their corporate home base), and essentially demonstrate your piloting skills. You would be tasked with taking a test in one of their multi-million dollar, full-motion simulators (in the aviation world, it’s known as a “check ride”). I was a bit concerned, for of the roughly 5000+ flight hours I had logged at this time in my career, exactly none of it was spent in jet aircraft…and that’s the only brand of airliners they operated. The vast majority of my flight time was spent flying turbo-prop airplanes (for the small “commuter” airline I was working for at the time), with the rest being in your run-of-the-mill aviation gasoline engine type airplanes. The rumor was that all pilot interviewees would be doing their “sim check” in one of the airline’s Boeing 747 simulators, and this added greatly to my consternation. I would not only be flying a jet for the first time (albeit in a simulator), but I would be doing it in the world’s largest passenger airliner! As I walked down the hallway at the Training Center, I knew that any chance of having a career at a “real” airline would hinge on the next few hours of my life. If I gave less than a stellar performance, I would not be called back for the third, and final, phase of the interview process…the extensive medical exam at the Mayo Clinic.

The Check Airman was actually a very nice guy, for as we did our small-talk thing, he quickly put me at ease, He knew two things. First, I was a nervous 27-year old that probably had little (or in my case no) experience flying a jet airliner and was brutally aware that the next few hours of my life would go a long way toward writing the story of said life, and second, (as I mentioned above) their entire program of how they expected their pilots to fly, would be something I would be hearing for the very first time. He was very patient, thoroughly explaining (and diagraming on the whiteboard) all the different things he would need to see me demonstrate during the check ride. It would basically be the airline version of an “Instrument Check Ride” (of which I had taken many times in many different propeller aircraft over the years). He then began to break down the language of their flying philosophy. They called it: “SOPA” and “SMAC” (Standard Operating Procedures-Amplified”, and “Standard Maneuvers and Configurations”). His dizzying explanation of their procedures was akin to taking a sip from a raging fire hydrant, but after a few minutes, just enough began to seep into my brain that it started to make a modicum of sense. The briefing was proceeding nicely, and he casually mentioned that we would not be using the 747, but one of the “smaller” Boeing 727 simulators. For some reason, this seemed to put me a bit more at ease. So far, so good.

(A Boeing 727-100…the original “short” version of the venerable tri-jet. I flew the simulator representation of this machine for my interview check ride, and I was to find out later that the real airplane was a joy to fly. Photo courtesy of Erik Simonsen.)

So, “SOPA”? “SMAC”? What the hell was this alphabet soup all about? The first (“SOPA”) outlined essentially, “who did what, and when”, and it was very rigid in its implementation. The Captain did their “things” (such as asking for the engines to be started, turning on the exterior lighting, etc) only at a certain time, and only THEY did these things. The First Officer did their “things” only at a certain time in the flight, and again, only HE/SHE accomplished these items. It was a very strict division of duties as it were, and it resulted in a superbly choreographed flow of how the cockpit operated during each and every flight. While riding on other airlines’ jumpseats (TWA, American, United, USAir, FedEx and Southwest), I had witnessed that the duties that each pilot was responsible for (again, things like starting the engines), might change on each leg. For instance, at TWA when the Captain was flying the leg, he started the engines, but when the F/O would be flying the next segment, the roles would “reverse”, and he then would start the motors. This was VERY contrary to the philosophy at Northwest Orient, for again, each pilot only did “his/her” duties, and it never reversed, it never changed. The beauty of this rigid way of doing things is that I could literally fly with 3-4 different Captains in one day (or First Officers later when I became the Boss), and every one of them did exactly the same thing, at exactly the same moment in each flight. “Standardization” in the realm of flight is a wonderful thing (one NEVER wants to wonder what the other pilot is doing, and when they might do it…lol).

The second piece of the puzzle (“SMAC”) was just as rigid in its application and just as brilliant in its philosophy. It outlined the WHEN and the HOW in terms of the actual operation of the big airliners. The following examples might be a good way to explain how this works; on each and every flight, the flaps were configured for take-off (or landing) at the same time in the flight, or the landing gear was raised at the same time (or in the case of extending the wheels, at the same distance from the landing runway). Essentially, the rigidity of how the cockpit interactions flowed, was paralleled by the operation of the systems on this large, complicated piece of flying machinery. Every airline has a version of “SMAC”, but (as I’ve seen in the cockpits of other airlines, and later in my career after the merger with another carrier) this philosophy of physically flying the jet is allowed to be “massaged” without consequences. The very idea of not adamantly adhering to SOPA and SMAC at Northwest Orient was blasphemy indeed. When both of these programs were learned and followed, our cockpits were in sync, were flown “stabilized”…in essence, we found our “balance” as aviators.

The third leg of this incredible 3-legged stool of aviation brilliance, is how we break down our actual “pilot duties” during the flight. The person flying the machine (called the “PF” or Pilot Flying) does just that…fly the machine. If they would like something accomplished with the computerized part of the machine (the Flight Director system, the FMC or Flight Management Computer system), they simply ask the other pilot to do that for them. That is, until the “PF” engages the autoflight system…then they now run the “whizbang” stuff themselves (the autopilot essentially) from the MCP (mode control panel…located on the forward glare-shield on most jets). At this point the “PM” (Pilot Monitoring) does that…monitors what’s going on with the jet (and runs the radios, makes inputs into the FMC, and takes care of the paperwork like entries on the flight plan, in the Maintenance Logbook, etc. needless to say, sometimes the “PM” job can get VERY busy). Realize those last 100 or so words are but a grain of sand in the vast beach of explaining the intricacies of what happens between two pilots in a modern jet aircraft. Volumes have been written about such, and each and every airline pilot has logged countless hours learning (and teaching) such. Now couple that with our NWA world of “SOPA” and “SMAC”, and you have one amazing aerial ballet to be sure.

The simulator testing during the interview went quite well. Again, these were maneuvers I had performed many times in the past, but never in a jet aircraft. Here’s a laundry list of the things he required me to execute; 1) a “normal” take-off, 2) a demonstration of rudimentary hand flying skills (turns, climbs, descents, straight and level flight, etc), 3) how to correctly enter and exit a holding pattern, 4) a “normal landing”, 5) a take-off with an engine failure, followed by, 6) a landing after an engine failure. He was very helpful as he essentially talked me through most of the maneuvers, giving me lots of helpful suggestions and advice. However, no matter how many suggestions he offered, I knew that sometime during this test, I would have to complete that one task that all pilots are judged by (at least in the eyes of the traveling public)…the landing.

(A modern airline full-motion simulator. The one I flew for my interview in 1983 was the “grandfather” version of this technology. Not as many “bells and whistles”, but it still got the job done.)

I had learned years before from some outstanding Instructors Pilots that a great landing ALWAYS begins with a great (read STABLE) approach to that landing. (side note: I’ve mentioned two of them in previous “Logbook” pieces…my first flight instructor; John Dittmeyer, and one of my college I.P.’s; Gordon Shattles…both, sadly deceased) In the world of large airplanes, this means that one must be established at the correct speed, at the correct altitude, in the correct landing configuration, and finally, at the correct distance from the runway to keep this “stable” flight profile active long enough to end in a nice, smooth touchdown on the (you guessed it…lol) correct spot on the runway itself. During the simulator check ride, this Check Airman preached the very same thing, and as I was to learn in the next 27 years flying at Northwest Airlines, the idea of flying a “stable approach” is a mantra that all airlines live by (well, most…one notable exception comes to mind…more on that in a bit).

(A diagram of the FAA markings used on a runway with a “precision instrument” approach…called an “ILS”. I circled the spot where the “touchdown zone” begins…it’s the spot on the runway where we would like to introduce the wheels on the jet to the pavement of the runway.)

He talked me through the landings, and both were quite acceptable. We exited the simulator, did our de-brief, and after he mentioned that I “had done a nice job”, he wished me luck and bid me farewell. The next few weeks were a blur of anxiety awaiting the notice of my status in the interview process. Eventually, it happened, I was called back for the third phase of the program, and within a week, I would find myself spending a few “interesting days” under the medical microscopes (to include psychiatric) of the Mayo Clinic professionals. Actually, I penned a piece about that very event (titled, “You Want Me to Do What?”), and it might serve as a nice follow-up piece to this entry.

Back to the subject of stability in the realm of flight. Allow me to relate a tale to suggest how it looks (or in our case, sounds) when an aircraft is not flown in that condition. One bright, sunny day, my First Officer and I found ourselves just a few minutes before landing in Las Vegas, thus calling an end to our workday. The flight from Detroit was completely uneventful, sans dodging a few thunderstorms over Kansas, but all in all, it had been a smooth journey across the heartland of America. The weather in “Sin City” was exceptionally nice, with clear skies and calm winds, and the air traffic control system was functioning well, with a “westerly operation” working at the airport. The two parallel east/west runways (25L and 25R) are pretty much the normal “go-to” swaths of pavement, with typically the right runway being used for departures and the left for arrivals.

We knew from the ATIS broadcast (Automatic Terminal Information Service…basically a recording of the hourly weather, that also lets you know pertinent things like which runways are in use) that we could expect to be assigned a specific STAR (Standard Terminal Arrivals) as we descended out of our cruising altitude of 38,000’and transitioned to conduct a visual approach to RWY 25L. This was all pretty “boilerplate” type stuff for Las Vegas, and the co-pilot and I had done this hundreds of times in our airline pilot lives. As mentioned above, our SOPA/SMAC program (and the ATC system) required us to be at certain altitudes and airspeeds at particular points along the route while slowing the jet making it ready for landing. Again, we learned and preached flying a “stable” approach profile, and we practiced what we preached.

This story begins for us at what is known as the Outer Marker for RWY 25L (or “Final Approach Fix”…essentially 5 miles from the approach end of the runway). I was flying the jet, and as we slowed past certain computed airspeeds, I commanded the F/O to extend our wing flaps (and the leading edge devices called “slats”) as per our SMAC procedures. As we passed over the FAF, I commanded him to extend the landing gear, and to position the flaps (and slats) to their landing positions. As per our procedures, I armed the Speed Brakes (the panels on the top of the wings that extend after touchdown), and called for the “Landing Checklist”. We were now in a stabilized approach profile, flying the electronic beam of the centerline of the runway, and descending on the sloping electronic path toward the spot known as the “aiming point in the touchdown zone”. In pilot-speak, we were “on speed, on glidepath”…the recipe for a nice landing.

(This “ILS” diagram shows the electronic path that we used on 99% of our landings in the big jets.)

During our descent, as we monitored the ATC radio frequencies, we were able to build a “mental picture” in terms of which other airlines were either ahead (or behind) us on this arrival routing…it’s something pilots do on every flight and the fancy term for it is “situational awareness”. It’s a great thing to have (not only in aviation but in everyday life), for it tends to keep surprises to a minimum. In aviation, “S.A.” allows you a bit of peek into the future of your flight as it were. Here are some examples; if the flight ahead of you reports turbulence at your altitude, you can anticipate feeling it also and slow down if you need to. Or, if ATC slows down the aircraft in front, the odds are that you’ll be getting the same clearance soon and plan accordingly. In the realm of flight safety, it plays a huge role. I’ve actually abandoned landing approaches due to the proceeding aircraft reporting wind shear during their landing attempt. We call them “PIREPS” (Pilot Reports), and they enhance your S.A. by about a million percent.

On this day, the flight directly behind us was a Boeing 737 that belonged to an airline that is universally known by pilots to fly (and taxi) faster than the rest of the airline industry. Why do they do this? I’m not exactly sure, but It’s been a part of their culture for a long time. Each time I’ve ridden on their cockpit jumpseat, I’ve marveled at just how much of a hurry they always seem to be in… and this day was no different. Several minutes earlier, as we were descending through 20,000′, the ATC folks had given this flight a clearance to slow down the airspeed they were flying. In fact, it happened more than once. The folks staring at the big radar screens are required to have a certain amount of horizontal (and vertical) separation between flights, and at their blistering airspeed, they were obviously gaining on us, thus encroaching on that distance. Each time they were instructed to slow down, they calmly acknowledged the clearance, and the happy little parade of jetliners continued toward Las Vegas.

(When following a “wide-body” like the DC-10 [ATC terms them “Heavies”], the distance allowed behind increases due to the possibility of encountering their wake turbulence. I was fortunate to fly as a First Officer on this beautiful machine for five years in the early ’90s. Photo courtesy of Erik Simonsen.)

So we now find ourselves a few minutes from landing, just inside of that magical 5 nautical mile spot on the approach for RWY 25L, sitting in our big, shiny Boeing 757, “on speed and on glidepath”. Shortly after clearing us to land, the ATC Tower controller transmitted the following statement to the “Love Airline” jet directly behind us: “LoveAirline 1234, slow to your approach speed, you have a 90 knot overtake on the Northwest aircraft ahead of you.” Allow me to help build this picture; that flight is essentially 5 miles behind us and is flying over 100 miles per hour faster than we are! I don’t recall our exact airspeed, but at a normal landing weight on that length of flight, it would typically be about 135 knots (meaning roughly 155 miles per hour). So again, they were approximately 10 miles from the runway flying at somewhere around 250 miles per hour! Wow….talk about being in a hurry! They must’ve been feeling the call of craps table in a big way!

I will offer that in the 40 some odd years I’ve spent in various cockpits, I’ve heard the Control Tower folks issue clearances regarding the speed of an aircraft relative to the speed of the aircraft it’s following (or preceding), but I’ll admit it’s never been more than a dozen knots. Wow…90 knots? That was one I had never heard before…might even be a “personal best” for that crew! After the F/O and I exchanged the expected “WTF?” glances, we waited to hear that flight respond with something to the effect of, “Roger, we’re slowing to our approach speed at this time.”, but that is most certainly NOT what we heard. What came across our headsets in the next few seconds was the following statement (delivered with the voice booming one of THE BEST “good ‘ol boy name Billy Bob right off the ranch” type Texas drawls): “Why those Northwest boys sure do fly slow…don’t they?” This elicited our second “WTF?” glances at each other, and a “what the hell did he say?” comment from the First Officer. The sound of silence from the Control Tower was deafening.

(A Boeing 737 landing [NOT the airline in the story..lol]).

What was my response? Nothing…not a thing. The F/O grabbed his microphone and looked at me for approval to make some sort of snarky comment on the radio, but I just shook my head. As my dear father used to say, “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and have people wonder if you’re an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” LOL… Did I increase my speed to keep this plane from maybe having to execute a missed approach behind us? Nope…I was “stabilized” (read balanced), and was not about to change such. If they approached too close to us, and the Control Tower made them “go-around” due to their LACK of a stabilized flight regime; well that would be their issue, not mine. I guess the craps table would have to wait.

In the end, they somehow “wrangled and hog-tied” their little 737 into slowing down enough to maintain the required distance behind us, and I can only imagine what that “airshow” must’ve looked and/or felt like from the passenger cabin. I naturally looked behind us as we exited the runway, and could see that they were pretty much at the minimum distance that the Control Tower would allow. They put the little jet firmly on the pavement, slammed on the brakes (they’re kind of known for that too), and turned off the runway at an exit far sooner than the one we used. I’ve often said that I’d love to be reincarnated as the tire and brakes salesperson to this particular airline…I’m sure they purchase a lot of both.

Our workday was now complete, and as we climbed aboard the hotel van headed for a hot dinner and a cold beer, we were still chuckling about the comment “Captain Billy Bob” made to the Tower Controller. To this day, I wonder what went through that controller’s head when he was asked that infamous question. I’m guessing he thought something on the order of; “What’s the right answer? Yes, No, I don’t know! Do they fly slow?” LOL. In our world, we didn’t “fly slow” …we had flown our jet that day as required by our Flight Operations standardization policies. We adhered to our “SOPA/SMAC” program, and we did it stabilized (and in “balance”). In the end, the airliner that came smoking in behind us, did not have to circle the field and attempt another landing, so I guess it was truly a “no harm, no foul” result.

One last comment. As we sped along on the highway headed toward our layover hotel on The Strip, I found myself squirming in the seat wondering if I should ask the driver to slow down a bit. To my trained eye, it looked like he had about a 3 mile per hour “overtake” on the van in front of us…I wonder what his “SOPA/SMAC” said about such?

’till next time.


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