737 Typed! — A GA Pilot Goes for a Boeing 737 Type Rating

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How difficult would it be for a GA pilot with no turbine experience and precious little multiengine time to earn a Boeing 737 type rating? How long would it take? What would it cost? Is it even possible? Well, AVweb's Wayne Phillips recently did exactly that, and now has the heavy-iron type rating to show for it! Wayne explains why, where, how long, how much, what was involved, what aspects he found toughest, and which were the most exciting.

737 undersideTrainingThe Continental Airlines flight is en route back to my home outside of Denver. The B-737/300 is climbing through FL 280. My six-foot-five frame is packed into seat 5D and there still appears to be blood circulation to the extremities. The ride is going well, but I harbor a secret wish. If only the flight attendant would announce calmly, but with just hint of tension: "Ladies and gentlemen. I regret to inform you that the pilot crew has passed out. It seems they ate the bad fish. Can anybody fly this airplane?"

With a certain amount of feigned modesty, I would look up from my laptop where I was perusing the latest edition of AVweb, push the call button, and calmly say, "May I be of some assistance?" You see, as these very words are being pecked into my laptop confuser, tucked into my wallet is a brand new Temporary Airman Certificate with these words: Type Ratings: B-737.

It was just last night that my proficiency with the 100,000-pound Boeing staple was demonstrated to the FAA. Grandly, I paraded the ship all dressed up in Continental Airlines livery through the Nebraska skies near Omaha. For nearly an hour as we strutted the approach courses into KOMA and neighboring airports, I WAS Captain Phillips. With first two, and then one, and then two of the engines humming, a permanently postponed dream of flying for the majors was briefly realized.

What am I doing here?

737 LandingWhat is so remarkable about this journey to the heavy iron? With nearly 7,000 flight hours, the logbook tallies less than 50 hours of multiengine pilot-in-command time. At that, the heaviest twin flown was the beefy little Piper Seneca. What was it like for a straight-ahead general aviation type to make that quantum leap from piston to turbojet? And why?

A good story always includes the terminology, "One day...."

One day, a colleague who sells and coordinates training for a major airline's contract customers asked, "How would you like to teach our clients to fly Boeing 737s? The pay is good. You can instruct on your own schedule. You can teach until you're dead (no age 60 limit). Best of all, you might have some fun. All you need is a 737 type rating."

The idea of instructing at but not flying for an airline as a career path is not far-fetched. With hiring at an all-time high and with about 15,000 pilots finding jobs in the airline industry last year, training demands by both large and small carriers are stretched. Some airlines will hire contract instructors to teach systems, procedures, and some simulator sessions. To conduct simulator training, a B-737 type rating is required.

Of course, another reason someone would contemplate investing in the "type" is to bolster personal flying credentials and make oneself more marketable in the hunt for an airline cockpit job. A notable example is Southwest Airlines, which requires a Boeing 737 type rating before extending an offer of employment.

Imagine sitting at the table that night with a life mate of 22 years (which, if you do the math, puts me well past the average hiring age of airline pilots) and asking, "Honey! You know that basement remodeling job we've been saving for and, uh, what do you think about me spending the better part of that $10,000 for me to learn how to fly a Boeing 737? Pass the chicken. And how was your day?"

With support uncommon to most aviators' spouses, Cindy said, "Go for it." Thus, with the official green light, the research began.

What are my options, and what's it gonna cost?

737 closeupAt the time of my training, two basic programs were available to an airman looking to add the coveted B-737 make and model to the list of flying skills. The path to pursue and the expense were dictated by certain requirements contained within the Federal Aviation Regulations.

Presume that you are an experienced professional who has spent some time flying in the military or have a real job driving a kerosene-powered airplane. In this instance, you have probably qualified for the economy route to the rating. It was possible under the FARs to earn a B-737 rating and forego any practical test in the actual airplane (at $55 per MINUTE!) and demonstrate proficiency solely in an FAA approved B-737 simulator. Such a device is not your basic Microsoft PC-based simulator software program but a mega-million-dollar box that moves and shakes through the entire range of flight. The most sophisticated of these magic marvels is termed a "Level C or D" simulator and must be landing approved. These contraptions are so realistic that it is possible to log landings in the "sim" ... including teeth-rattling "arrivals."

With no previous turbine experience, I was not qualified for the simulator-only track. I resigned myself to the fact that I would need to ante up for and fly the honest-to-goodness airplane ... oh, darn! I then commenced burning the phone lines to training resources.

I quickly discovered that the magic inscription "B-737 Type Rating" on a pilot certificate can vary dramatically in price.

Do you want to do it at United Airlines just like the pros? According to UAL Flight Training Services, an investment in the neighborhood of $25,000 will take you through about three to four weeks of training conducted by United pilots and instructors. The trainee will experience a similar regimen that a United Airlines Flight Officer does, with the exception of the airline's two-week basic indoctrination track. The United program offers additional training in evacuation and ditching, Cockpit Resource Management (CRM), and Line-Oriented Flight Training (LOFT). Airplane not included.

Flight Safety International's Long Beach training center also offered 737 type ratings in a month-long format but the cost can be as high as the mid-teens if there is only one pilot in the class. Additionally, the company required a minimum of 3000 hours of total flight time to enroll.

Not able to swing either thirty days off or the equivalent cost of a 95 Chevy, I began to peruse the aviation trade journals oriented to the future airline pilot. I found a half dozen or so display ads by a number of "type shops" each advertising 737 type ratings in the $7,000 range for those qualified for for the simulator-only path to about $9,000 to $10,000 for individuals who would be required to take a portion of the practical test in the airplane.

There are some very important things to look for when talking to the representatives at type rating schools. Prices may or may not include lodging and examiner fees. Courtesy ground transportation could be unavailable. A school might cancel a class in the event a minimum number of students are not recruited for a given start date. There is a possibility hefty surcharges will be assessed in the event you are the only student in a class. Deposits may be non-refundable in any circumstance. Some companies simply do not welcome low-time pilots and set high entrance qualifications. A few sources offer only a "restricted" B-737 type rating to a piston pilot like myself, wherein there is no airplane flight test option available. (Such schools typically cite "liability" and "insurance" as an issue.) A restriction is placed on the pilot certificate which can be removed once "Initial Operating Experience" at an airline is completed.

Okay sign me up!

737 in-flightWhen all was said and done, I settled on Jet Tech International in Phoenix (800-FLY-JETS). The company, founded over eight years ago by US Airways pilot Shane LoSasso, has earned an industry reputation as having trained more pilots for the 737 type rating than any other similar organization. I figured that the school must have it "right" by now.

A call to Jet Tech revealed that the two-week course, including 50 minutes piloting the real airplane, costs $8,995. Yes, you are welcomed with only a commercial/instrument rating but you should have advanced instrument skills .... no other time requirement. Yes, lodging at a brand-new motel is included. Yes, the hotel provides courtesy transportation to both the airport and the school. Yes, examiners' fees are part of the package. Yes, the school begins a class weekly with even one student ... and there are no additional fees if you are the only person in class. The refund policy is more than fair.

In addition, Jet Tech is just about the only type-rating company in its price range which has its own simulator right on the property, thus making training time more efficient and cost effective. However, since the Jet Tech "sim" is not landing certified, final preparation and the simulator evaluation is normally conducted at America West's or US Airways' training centers.

I then contacted graduates of the program and even the local FAA Flight Standards District Office. You see, type-rating schools are under the supervision of FAA Operations Inspectors who monitor a program's content and quality. In fact, I learned that Jet Tech is even under closer FAA scrutiny than the run-of-the-mill "type shop" because the company trains pilots from airlines around the world. I did eventually meet a crew from the old Russian airline Aeroflot who came to Jet Tech for B-737/300 transition training as they tooled up to fly for a new carrier in the Ukraine.

With nothing but commendable reports, I said, "Sign me up, Shane!" With a $1,500 deposit, I ventured into 737 school, which includes over 50 hours of systems ground instruction, four hours of cockpit procedures training, 22 hours of simulator experience, and 50 minutes in a genuine, big-as-a-boat 737!

Homework

737-500 cockpitOh! There is one hitch. Within 48 hours of sign-up, an express delivery box comes to the door with no less than thirteen pounds of Boeing manuals and checklists covering every system and procedure to be learned. In addition, Shane LoSasso himself has authored and edited a mega-manual entitled "The Straight Word" which does a superb job of translating Boeing jargon and keys in on "the meat."

With the box of books comes a syllabus. Be prepared to spend a minimum of eighty hours of home study BEFORE showing up for class! This requirement, which runs from a two-hour junket on "Air Conditioning and Pressurization" to eight hours understanding and memorizing "Procedures," is absolutely essential to surviving the on-campus ground school. Do not call up today to enroll in a class next week. From my perspective, it just cannot be done.

For two months, every free moment was wrapped up in the @$##* manuals! On the bus to mom's? Reading the manuals. Instead of watching the tube with the family after dinner? Reading the manuals. In the porcelain library? Reading the manuals. Lots of memory items, too. "Don't extend the airstair with winds in excess of forty knots." "Don't exceed 420C degrees EGT during engine start when outside temperature is above 15C degrees." "Don't use the autopilot roll channel above FL 300 with the yaw damper inoperative."

Finally, after weeks of cramming information into the brain and hoping it will not fall out, it is time to show up for class at 8:00 a.m. on a Thursday morning.

Let me relive the adventure with you.

"Welcome to Jet Tech," says every staffer. Each team member is so very friendly and goes out of the way to make the student comfortable. Why, even donuts and bagels are served up for the recruits on that first day. That's because the "Tech-ees" know that you will need the energy. Shortly after the "hello's," the office manager plops a test on the table before you with it's eighty questions and a variety of "memory item" scenarios to probe the success of your home study efforts.

The missed episodes of "Fraser" were worth it. I manage to get through the examination in great shape.

Mastering the systems

737 in Boeing demo paintFor five days, Jet Tech Instructor Jim Milton pumps more and more and more information into the heads of his two charges: myself and Anne, a Federal Express Caravan pilot looking to break into the "majors." Diagrams, memory aids, trivia, minutia, more diagrams, facts, figures. Why, did you know that the forward lavatory flush motor is powered by the #1 AC Main Electric Bus and takes less than ten seconds to flush? Arghh!!!!

From 8 AM to 5 PM every day including the weekend, Jim pours it on, all for the dreaded "orals" the following Tuesday. It did not end at 5 PM either. Each night back in the very comfortable Sleep Inn, I pass on the hotel hot tub and work the 50-question take-home test along with more study.

Finally, after the better portion of the B-737 is reviewed, diagrammed and dissected ... including a pre-flight inspection of a Southwest Airlines B-737 parked at PHX ... it is time for the oral section of the practical test.

For two hours, the FAA Examiner probes, cajoles, picks, prods, and pokes into the inner recesses of my overloaded grey matter. "What items are powered by the A' Hydraulic System? What happens when you arm the alternate flaps switch? Is this takeoff field or climb limited? What conditions must be met to deploy the thrust reversers and how do they operate on both the basic and the advanced airplane? Can you take the extra 2000 pounds of lobster that the airline's best customer wants to take with him?" Huh?

By noon, the hurdle is hurdled. Pass!

Fortunately, Jet Tech's customer-focused approach and systematic schedule allows me some time off between Tuesday's "orals" and the following Monday to conduct some business back home. But, at 1 PM on Tuesday afternoon, I am back at it. This time, ex-America West pilot and training guru Carl Wobser is the taskmaster.

Learning to fly the thing

737 test flightFor six days including six hour simulator sessions daily plus two hours of briefings, Carl mercilessly piles on normal procedures, abnormals, fires, engine start aborts, V-1 cut after V-1 cut, rapid depressurization scenarios, overheats, emergency descents, APU fires, two-engine approaches, single-engine go arounds, landing gear malfunctions, asymmetrical flaps, jammed stabilizer, runaway trim, and on and on and on. Uncle!!!!

But, it finally gels. In those five days, my crewmates and I (Dan, a Saab 340 Captain for American Eagle and Don, an F-16 test pilot for the Air Force) cope with more problems and emergencies than any airline pilot would in a lifetime of flying.

The time has come! The flying portion of the practical test is conducted in two phases.

It is Tuesday night and the heavy-duty emergency procedures and flying proficiency demonstrations are evaluated in a Level C simulator at America West Airlines. For two hours, the heat is turned up by the FAA Examiner. Stalls, steep turns, and every approach in the book with two engines, one engine, and engines flaming are flown to minimums. Throw in a half-dozen or so system failures and glitches to keep it interesting. The "Right Guard" gives up about 23 minutes into the session.

Made it! Despite every curve ball thrown in that simulator, this ol' boy bats into base hits: maybe not home runs, but definitely in the game.

Next, the final phase of the practical test means it is AIRPLANE TIME!!!

I'm due to have a date with the Boeing in Omaha a week later. At the courtesy of Continental Airlines and Jet Tech, I am flown into Eppley Airport for my checkride.

It is 10 p.m.. Ohmygawd! It is sitting there at the ramp, and I'm going to get into this giant aluminum can and actually fly it! After the extensive pre-flight under the watchful eye of the FAA Designee and a Continental Airlines representative, I slip into the cockpit ... and it is home. I've been here before. Other than the view out the window, it is the familiar environs of the 737 simulators I have been flying all along.

737 engineI fire it up .... the CFM-56 engines come alive .... ahhh ... this is a 737-500! No screamy little "Pratts" on this beauty. Outstanding!

Blast off down the runway .... this ain't my ol' 182, momma!!!

At 135 knots, pull the wheel up to 15 degrees pitch. We are smokin'!!!! "Positive rate ... gear up!" I'm looking straight up into the stars at a 16-degree angle that would have rendered my little Skylane flightless.

I desperately attempt to keep the outward appearance of a cool airline Captain, but I'm revved up inside. Not since the first solo has anything been so electrifying and exhilarating. It's almost as good as ... well ... uh, ya know!!

Despite my initial rush, I settle down to business ... and it is serious business. We do the checkride drill. All too soon, though, the 50 minutes flash by and I nudge the machine back to the jetway. It's done: three B-737 landings along with a few instrument approaches and maneuvers to boot.

Everybody was right. It IS easier to fly than the simulator. The Boeing 737 is nothing more than that fine Piper Seneca on steroids. I loved it. I want one!!

Damn ... I did it!

Now that it is all over, there is most certainly a sense of accomplishment. Of course, in my case, this new achievement will be put to some commercial use in a training environment which will in the long term (hopefully!!) justify the expense. But if I never earned a dollar from the investment, it was a heckuva trip!

In retrospect, the most challenging aspects of this endeavor were these.

I admittedly had difficulty juggling the tasks of flying the beast and also coordinating the crew and calling for the proper procedures and checklists at the appropriate time. For example: An engine out occurs on an IFR approach to minimums. At Decision Height there is no airport in sight. Now, in addition to preventing the airplane from smacking the turf, the pilot must have the presence of mind to call in sequence: "Set go-around thrust .... flaps one .... positive climb .... gear up." At 1,000 feet, announce: "set max continuous thrust ... set flaps up .... engine failure checklist .... after takeoff checklist .... engine restart checklist." Meanwhile, you are bathing in your own sweat.

The B-737 is extremely pitch sensitive. In straight and level, the nose attitude is about five degrees up. Vary from that three degrees one way or another, and the airplane is either climbing into orbit or getting cozy with the terrain. In roll, though, it is an elephant. The secret is to shepherd the airplane ... to coax and lead it gently. Manhandle this 100,000 pound assemblage of aerospace parts and the pilot will be plowing a giant slice of sky trying to keep up.

Committing to the 80 hours of home study is brutal if you have a life. There is so much detail to digest. Naturally, you forget the fact that the duct overheat light comes on at 190F degrees which will trigger a PACK trip-off at 250F degrees when you start reading about generators three days later. So, it is necessary to review constantly. Just retaining it all is an immense mental juggling act.

By the way: There is no prohibition against earning a type rating as even a private pilot provided he or she has an instrument rating. However, during the practical test in both the simulator and aircraft, the applicant must fly the checkride to Airline Transport Pilot standards. Thus, if an aspiring 737 pilot is contemplating this investment, it would be the wise course of action to wait until all of the requirements for the ATP certificate are met, including passing the knowledge test. In many cases, BOTH the 737 type rating AND the ATP certificate are earned during the same practical test! If as a private or commercial pilot you pass the 737 type rating practical test then take the ATP knowledge test sometime later, there is no "grandfathering." In other words, even though you demonstrated ATP proficiency during the 737 checkride, you were not qualified for the ATP certificate at the time of the practical test.

Despite all of the stumbling and fumbling along the way, the good people at Jet Tech smoothed out the rough spots and made me a 737 pilot duly certificated by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly as a Captain. And it's a good thing, too. I see that the lead flight attendant is about ready to make an announcement .... and she looks awfully worried about something!!!!!