CEO of the Cockpit #31: Goodbye, B727

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Boeing's ancient three-hole jet is still around, although you're more likely to see it hauling cargo and mail than actual passengers, at least in North America. But AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit spent many a noisy hour in the front end of the 727, and has some advice for any pilots jumping into that seat.

I am having trouble believing that the 727 is ancient history, I said to my tennis-club bartender.

"What is a 727 and why are you sitting at my bar if all you are going to drink is Diet Coke?" asked Fred. Fred has been the bartender at my tennis club for over 10 years, and this is the first time he hadn't heard me order copious amounts of beer after my weekly "old-man doubles" tennis event.

I've given up on drinking, at least for a while. That sleep apnea problem that grounded me for a few months a few months back led to quite a few lifestyle changes for this old captain. Among them was cutting back, almost totally, on alcohol. According to my sleep doc, drinking the usual couple of beers before bed may have worked to help me sleep when I was a callow, 20-ish pilot with brown hair, but now that I was being offered the senior discount at KFC it was time to sip cola instead.

I don't feel left out. I've drunk enough beer to last a lifetime. Also gone are the caffeine-laced drinks I used to slog down and anything else that appears to be fun to eat and drink a few hours before I hit the rack. I still can't give up on a couple of strong coffees when I get up in the morning and refuse to do so. It is pathetic, in a way, that I am hanging on to that last vice, but there you go.

Katie, a fellow captain and tennis maven, sidled up to the bar just in time to hear my 727 comment.

"What makes you think that the 727 is ancient history?" she asked. "I flew engineer on it and did six months as a first officer before we got rid of them."

I am basing what I told Fred on this message on the ALPA BBS. I showed her the printout. It was a plea from a furloughed guy for some information on how to fly a 727. He had just gotten a gig flying one for a trash hauler and needed a heads-up on how to operate it. Apparently, he had told his employer that he knew how to fly a seven-two but had really never even set foot in one. I think he mentioned that he would get the bare minimum of training from this company so he'd be legal, but he wanted more info so he wouldn't screw up.

I wanted to help this guy out because -- coming from a general aviation background where I had to teach myself a lot of different airplanes -- I knew how he felt. There were lots of times in my pre-airline days, when I was trying to earn a living as a CFI, that the first time I flew some kinds of airplanes was when I was trying to instruct somebody else in it. Have I flown a Beechcraft Duke and could I do a little multi-engine, instrument instruction in it for a local lawyer? Sure, no problemo!

The plea for three-holer information came to me on my last trip, and with the help of Jeff, a classmate of mine, we sat down at the bar in San Francisco and -- while he guzzled local beer and I sipped on a diet cola -- we wrote the following crash course in 727 flying and lore.


Dear Prospective 727 Flier:

Here are a few things we've learned over a combined 20 years of flying the 727. We hope the following clues, hints, innuendoes and outright lies help you fly that hunk of junk to and from South America. Our clues come in no particular order, and keep in mind that we haven't flown a 727 in quite a while, although we did fly all three positions on it during our careers.

The Power of a Flight Engineer

First, as a 727 copilot, you have to get it in your mind that whatever comes up that is busy work, the flight engineer is supposed to do it. You were probably a 737 copilot before the airline decided to shrink itself into a big profit and furloughed you. This means that you are used to doing walk-arounds, weight and balance stuff, adjusting the cabin temp and all sorts of aviation grunt work.

Now that you are going to be a 727 right seater, your only call-out after engine start and before taxi is: "Clear right, I'll have the chicken." Be sure to tell your engineer that there are four seats on the 727 that sit sideways: three of them are toilets and one is the engineer seat. It is an old joke that got funnier every time I told it.

One more very important note about flight engineers: Remember that they are right behind you. This means that you ought to tell the engineer before you slam your seat back into his knees. Also, it wouldn't hurt to warn the engineer of any impending fart attacks on your part. Give him a chance to get on oxygen. If you piss off your engineer, there are dozens of ways he can put you in a world of hurt. One time when I was an engineer, I got so mad at a copilot for slamming my knees and farting up my world that I took a cigarette lighter and heated up the metal ends of his shoulder harness just before he grabbed them. Remember that scene from Indiana Jones when the Nazi gets his hands sizzle-seared by the metal medallion from the fire? It was a lot like that except there was no metal medallion, no Nazi, and no fire.

This is important so we'll mention it again. Don't you dare piss off your engineer!

Earplugs and Oxy Masks

The 727 cockpit is extremely noisy in flight. Carry some of those sponge-rubber earplugs and use them. Once you get above 300 knots, there is nothing you can say that can be heard by anybody unless you shout it. This is why, when you talk to a former 727 pilot, you need to speak very loudly. Your conversation will go something like this:

You: So, you flew the 727, huh?

Them: Huh?

The seriously experienced pilots on the 727 used to have earpieces for their headsets made up of a molded piece of plastic so there would be no noise leaks. In their other ear they had something made up of molded plastic called a "noise attenuator." I don't think anybody sells them anymore.

There is another piece of plastic you may need to get for your 727 flying, especially if it is an older bird. That would be an oxygen mask. Ours used to be a removable, personal piece of equipment, much like an athletic cup, which they resembled. Getting off of the jet, we always yelled at each other (see the noise note above) to "remember your mask and headset!" If you forgot your mask there was a 50-50 chance you'd never see it again because the next pilot to sit in your seat would keep it as a spare for when he lost his. I did this too, and always kept a spare in my bag because it was required for dispatch and I didn't want to be the guy that caused us to be late for our Las Vegas layover.

Only Three Airspeeds

There are three airspeeds you need to know in order to fly the 727: 140 knots, 250 knots, and really, really fast.

The 250-knot speed is self explanatory, at least to those who sometimes fly below 10,000 feet.

Really, really fast means just a gnat's whisker below barber pole. The 727 can easily do .84 Mach, although most operators fly them around .78 to .80. Now that they are getting older and a little more aerodynamically beat up with dings on the wings, loose seals, and the like, if you get one above .81, expect it to shake, rattle and roll a little bit. A little mach buffet isn't totally out of the question, either.

You can't go wrong with 140 knots on short final at any weight. It is a very comfortable speed that you'll be able to nail without thinking, although if you are thinking, about 3,000 pounds on the fuel flow with flaps 30 will get you there. Other 727 pilots might remind you that bug speed for a particular approach is something like 120 knots. These people are the ones that will make very bad landings in a 727.

If the captain you are flying with bothers you about being too fast on final, you are allowed to use a saying that I used more than once when I was a copilot: "Hey, I'll land it -- you stop it!"

A Few More Flight Hints ...

If you pop partial speed brakes and then enter a bank, expect a humongous roll rate. The speed-brake/aileron combination makes for a very sporty yank and bank situation. Speaking of speed brakes: How you manually deploy them on landing will have a lot to do with whether or not you make a good one. Too early and you drop the last 10 feet to the runway like a sack of crap; too late and you can bounce back into the air and float.

When the autopilot is engaged, the rudder trim will work but the aileron trim is locked out. If you put in a butt-load of aileron trim and then later disengage the autopilot, you get all that trim right friggin now. This was another trick I learned as an engineer. After hours upon hours of hearing two Zoomies talk about how cool the Air Force Academy was and how low-class other pilots (read me) were, I had enough and leaning in like I was in rapt attention to their stories, I slowly fed in two units of aileron trim. Nothing catastrophic, but it got their ring-knocking attention when they clicked the autopilot off.

Remember 3,000 pounds of fuel flow. It works great but I can't remember what it works great for. You'll probably recognize it as it comes around. Also remember these EPR values: 1.95, 1.98 & 1.95. They work for most takeoff power settings if your engineer is too lazy to look them up. The climb power settings should be on a placard near the gear handle. Don't bother the engineer by asking for climb power -- it makes you look like a rube. If he is going to look them up he'll tell you what the settings are before you ask for them.

If the captain is reading or asleep, it is OK to set his OBS and heading bugs for him. Your left foot should do this quite easily. In a perfect world in a three-man crew two of you should stay awake. If both you and the captain nod off you can expect some sort of very loud wake up call from the engineer. My favorite was reaching up on the overhead and hitting the stall-warning shaker.

Don't be real formal about who answers what radio call. It is so noisy in the cockpit that whoever hears it first ought to answer it and then tell the others. Use your headset and keep your overhead speaker turned down. There is no way you'll be able to understand what is coming out of that speaker, but your engineer will get blasted by it if you have your volume turned up enough for you to hear it.

This is a very important point: Keep your left knee very close to the control column. This is because the elevator trim wheel is right next to the outside of that knee and when you or the captain hit the high speed trim that wheel will spin like a power saw. When you test the manual feature of this trim and do that thing where you test the trim brake by pushing the column one way and pulling the trim wheel the other way, don't pull out the little handle on the wheel that is there to help you. You are going to forget that the handle is out and bust your knee the first time you apply electric trim.

The porn pictures, if there are any, can be found behind your overhead escape rope doors. I don't approve of in-flight porn and am just telling you this so you can look for it and save everybody's souls by throwing it away.

One last hint. Bring a sweater or sweatshirt to wear on those long legs. There is no sidewall heating in the cockpit and you're going to get colder the longer the flight lasts.

Enjoy your 727 time, I sure did. It flies great and you are really going to enjoy it.


Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.