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Three Holer Part 3 - Hired!




Three Holer Part 3 - Hired!

By Tony Vallillo (5 August 2014)



The Ancient Romans said Tempus Fugit, but we all know that time passes slowly when you are awaiting important news. When John and I parted company after completing our type rating course, I reluctantly hit the road in the Fiat once again and headed back to Charleston after having spent a delightful summer in the Big D. I was now awaiting word from two airlines - American, now that I had completed the interview process, and Braniff now that I had demonstrated my superior airmanship to them. I was a bit nonplussed that I had yet to hear from Braniff for an interview; but hope springs eternal, and I was certain that once the paperwork from my rating ride crossed the desk of the Vice President of Flight I would be summoned to my reward! (It was in fact extremely unlikely that any paperwork from BESI would ever cross the desk of the VP Flight, but such is hope.)


Meanwhile, of course, life went on, and even in the halcyon '70's that took cash. So I turned to the AF Reserves for some flying to pay the rent. Rent, by the way, was $165/month for an air conditioned two bedroom townhouse in one of the best complexes in Charleston. Those were the days! A nice long European trip in the C-141 would put enough in the coffers to keep the rent collector at bay for a couple of months at least, but such a trip was not on the schedule. So off I went on the first available trip, in command of a flight from Charleston to Andrews AFB near Washington DC, then to Colorado Springs Colorado where we had a layover. The next day we retraced our steps back to Charleston by way of Andrews. That two day trip would pay for a week's worth of the TV dinners that constituted the bulk of my diet at that time. But to really restock the financial larder I went to the squadron schedulers in search of a longer overseas trip. Luck was in my corner, because I was able to latch onto what appeared to be a nice long trip, albeit not in command - I would be the copilot. This was of no concern since the pay in the Air Force was not dependent upon crew position.


We started out from Charleston, in the early evening as nearly always, and flew first to Dover AFB in southern Delaware. Then as now, Dover was the main logistical hub on the east coast for the Military Airlift Command (MAC, now known as the Air Mobility Command or AMC), and just about all Europe bound flights originating at any east coast MAC base transited Dover for cargo and passenger upload. After a 3 1/2 hour stopover, which allowed time to swing by the flight line snack bar and sample Dover's justifiably famous Philly Cheese steak sandwich, we launched into the midnight gloom bound for Ramstein AB in southern Germany. After a layover at Ramstein we embarked upon a long turn around to Dhahran, in eastern Saudi Arabia. By the time we returned to Ramstein almost 4 days had passed since we left Charleston; but fortunately the crew was composed entirely of "reserve bums", reservists who had no other employment and who had essentially unlimited time to devote to AF flying. We all voted to try to stay out as long as possible, since the cash register was ca-chinging merrily whenever we were away from home base.



The author in the left seat of the C-141A, somewhere in the world.




The C-141A, perhaps the finest airlifter ever built, sturdy, relatively easy to fly and reliable, this was the masters degree in flying for a great many Air Force pilots over the years.



So we hounded the command post at Ramstein for additional flying; and, after another day had passed, we were rewarded with a short hop down to Torrejon AB at Madrid Spain. There, after another layover, we talked our way onto another shuttle down to Dhahran and back to Ramstein. At that point our luck ran out, at least as it pertained to cadging additional flying. After a long layover (a shade over 24 hours) we found ourselves headed back to Dover, and thence home. Now it so happened that our navigator on this trip (the C-141's still carried navigators at this point, since they had yet to be fitted with inertial navigation systems) was, in his other life, a ground school instructor at American Airlines. Of course I had related to him the story of my interview and my 727 training at Braniff, and he shared with me some information that proved to be the key to my subsequent airline career. American Airlines, he told me, was of course hiring pilots, so the ground school was in full swing training the new-hires. It so happened that they were also looking for ground school instructors in the 727 program, since that was the entry level into which all the new hire pilots were assigned. Why not, he suggested, try to get on as a ground school instructor. That might provide me some visibility over at AA, and the pay was not bad either.


I gave this considerable thought all the way back to Charleston. By now nearly two months had passed since both the final interview at AA and the completion of the training at Braniff. Clearly my job search could use some extra juice, since neither airline seemed yet to have come to the conclusion that they just could not continue as a going business without my participation. The foot-in-the-door opportunity with AA was just too good to pass up, and the relocation to the Dallas/Ft. Worth area could be nothing but a boost for my Braniff ambitions, since the ride over to Love Field was a short one from anywhere in the Metroplex. By the time I arrived back at my apartment I had made up my mind to call the individual whose name and number Bill, our navigator, had provided.


Lo and behold, upon crossing my threshold and checking my answering machine, I discovered a call from an airline that I had never heard of at that point. This alone was something unusual because due to my long interest in commercial aviation I thought that I had heard of every airline in the entire world! But Air Florida was a new one for me at that time, and even more curiously I had not yet sent them any sort of application. The phone message was to the effect that they would like me to call them as soon as I could. The date/time stamp indicated that the call had come just after I left for the AF trip, so it was nearly two weeks old when I listened to it. Since it was now late at night, I was unable to get in touch with them, so it had to wait until morning.



Perhaps this was one of the 727s I could have started out as Captain on with Air Florida, had I been around Charleston the day they called. All things considered, I'm glad I was out of town!



First thing next morning I called Air Florida, and discovered that they had indeed been looking to bring me down for an immediate interview! I replied that I could be there in a few hours, but the lady told me not to bother - the job in question had already been filled. I did manage to get details on how to actually file an application, and resolved to do so. It was not until a week or two later that I found out just exactly what the job I might have been offered was, and it was well that I didn't know until then, for if I had known that morning I would have gone for a one-way swim in the apartment complex pool, weighted down with cement blocks! Air Florida, it seemed, had just made the jump from smaller airplanes to several Boeing 727's, and they were looking for Captains for them. They had gotten my name, and the names of several others, from the Braniff School's 727 type rating program. They hired a number of pilots right off the street into the left seat, where they undoubtedly stayed until...


This was actually the first of several lucky breaks I got in my airline career, because we all know what happened to Air Florida. After a heady climb up to the rank of major airline, which involved their flying airplanes as big as the DC-10, they floundered back into oblivion, one of the beneficiaries and also one of the early casualties of deregulation. I would obviously have taken the Captain job had I been around the house the day they called, and no doubt I would have stayed until the end. Of course I would probably have been able to secure other airline employment after Air Florida fell, but who knows where and who knows at what level of seniority. Suffice to say that, although I bitterly regretted missing out at the time, it became clear all too soon what a piece of good fortune that AF trip had been.


Immediately after the Air Florida call, as though to assuage my low spirits, I called American Airlines and spoke to the head of the ground school. He invited me out for an interview, and I was on a plane to DFW that very evening. Come the next day, I was introduced to Bob Bisbee, the head of the ground school at AA, and a professional Flight Engineer from way back. You can see pictures of Bob at the panel of the original 707 and 727 acceptance test flights at AA. At this point he had taken over management of the entire ground portion of AA flight training. Joining him at my interview was the head of the 727 ground school. They were looking to hire additional ground instructors, initially on a consultant basis. This was something new to me, although the practice is much more common today. A consultant is essentially a full time part time employee, hired more or less day to day and not a full member of the company in question. I would have none of the benefits that AA offered to its own employees, but on the other hand the pay was better than I was making at the time in the AF and there would be some opportunities for limited jumpseat travel. Most importantly, I would be logging the best possible face time at the airline that was my primary career objective. After satisfying them that I knew the 727 well, I was offered employment on the spot! I got on the next plane back to Charleston to round up some of my things and drive back to Dallas in the Fiat. Remembering the delightful atmosphere at the Marquis the previous summer I decided to make that my home away from home. And so it was that by mid November I was back in the Big D, ensconced once more at the Marquis and now working, sort of, for American Airlines.


I was assigned to watch an experienced ground instructor teach a class of new-hires. Each class at American at that time was composed of four students, so for the next two weeks I was the proverbial 5th wheel. I already knew the systems cold, but I was interested in two things - first, watching the instructor do the teaching, which involved the operation of those large mechanical systems trainer boards that I alluded to in a previous installment; and second, watching the students to see what sort of questions they might ask during the class. At BESI we had asked all sorts of arcane questions, the better to acquire gems of knowledge to impress our instructors and hopefully lead to a job at Braniff. These students, on the other hand, were already hired at AA, and needed to impress no one beyond the requirements of course completion. Then again, most of these AA new-hires were former military pilots, as I was, and already had a good grounding in jet aircraft systems. So the demands upon the instructor for arcane trivia were minimal to non-existent.



Boeing 727 systems trainers, at the FAA Aeronautical Center at Oke City back in the mid 1980s. These were almost identical to the ones I instructed on at American in 1976.



Each day after the classroom session ended I stayed late and familiarized myself with the workings of the trainer boards. These boards were the key to the system of instruction which was in vogue back in those days. Properly manipulated, they brought the operation of each system alive, and allowed the trainees to see just how things worked in real time. The instructor had complete control of what happened on the board, and by flicking the right switches at the right time could illustrate just about every normal and abnormal occurrence both on the replica FE panel and also on the animated schematic diagram. However, unlike today's technology there was no single button on the board labeled, as an example, "#1 generator trip" which would activate all of the appropriate lights, bells and whistles associated with a generator trip. Instead, the instructor had to position a small switch for each light, bell, whistle or other manifestation that he wanted to create on the board. This meant that for every normal or abnormal action that I would want to present to my trainees, I had to write down or memorize the exact sequence of switch movements on the instructor's panel that would create the proper pattern of lights on the FE panel and animations on the schematic. This is what I spent hours, and pages of notes, putting together for myself, so that I would be better able to instruct when it came to be my turn.


My turn in the barrel, so to speak, came in around 2 weeks, as my "class" graduated to the simulator phase and I was assigned to work with another instructor teaching a subsequent class of 4. We instructors alternated systems, and Dick, my partner for this series of classes, took the tougher systems like pneumatics, kindly leaving me with the "simpler" systems such as APU and electrical. I later learned that I wound up impressing Dick by tackling what amounted to a full course load for an experienced instructor - that is to say half of the material - since he expected to have to step in for me and teach much of "my" systems himself. Fortunately for both of us, that was not necessary, since having just completed both Braniff programs I was fully loaded for bear! And doubly fortunate for me, since it turned out that Dick wrote a very nice letter of recommendation for me as a result of our classroom experiences, a letter that played a part in what happened about halfway through this, my first class as an instructor at AA.


The first week had gone very well, and I found that I really enjoyed instructing. The students were attentive and obviously quite motivated, and it was not at all difficult to fill their heads full of 727 knowledge. Working the big boards was easy, once I got the hang of it, and I was having myself a good ol' boy time, quite appropriate considering the location of the Flight Academy midway between Dallas and Fort Worth Texas. I was even becoming quite enamored of the outstanding Tex-Mex cuisine of the area, and overall life was good. A trip to Chicago and back in the jumpseat over the weekend was the icing on the cake, and I could look forward on occasion to more such tidbits of aeronautical enjoyment.


Bright and early on the following Monday morning, as we were just getting started with the intricacies of the hydraulic systems, a knock came on the classroom door and I was summoned out into the hallway. Bob Bisbee, the head of the ground school and my new boss, was there along with Jim Seymour, the head of the 727 program. Together with Dick they solemnly presented me with a sealed envelope. My first thought was that AA had come to the conclusion that they did not need ground instructors as much as they thought they did, and I was to be returned to the streets from whence I had come. But lo and behold this was not the case, for the letter inside turned out to be the holy grail that I had been seeking for what seemed to be all of my life! It was an invitation to join the ranks of the American Airlines pilots. In other words, I was HIRED!



This was the official letter that made dreams come true; the letter that Bob Bisbee handed me that day in December 76.



After I came down from cloud nine, which was not immediately I assure you, the plan for the start of my American Airlines career was laid out. I would continue to teach this class of new hires for the remainder of their ground school program, and following that I would join "my" class, which turned out to be the one immediately preceding this group, in the simulator phase of training. I offered to remain teaching the ground school as long as my instructor services were needed, but was told that I was needed on the line even more than in the school, so it was to the line that I would go!


When we returned to the classroom Dick broke the news to our students, and their enthusiasm and congratulations were genuine and much appreciated. Then we dove headfirst into the intricacies of the hydraulics, and I was immersed in the business at hand. Nonetheless, come the day's end there was another celebration at the Marquis North; and more than one of the BESI students in attendance asked how to go about getting that ground school job at American.


All during the ground school phase, we spent time not only in the classroom but also in the Cockpit Procedures Trainers. American had two of these for the 727, as well as one for the DC-10. They resembled a simulator without motion or visual, and were used for further instruction in the procedures associated with each system, as well as the accomplishment of preflight inspections and the checklists. This instruction I enjoyed immensely, and it was perhaps the highlight of my time spent in the ground school program. The CPT had an instructor console somewhat like the one in the simulator, albeit less sophisticated. From this perch I could conjure up just about every system abnormality and emergency condition that appeared in the abnormal/emergency section of the operating manual, complete with all of the attendant bells and whistles. The thing would not actually "fly", although I could put it "in the air" with a single switch that changed all of the logic and warnings to their airborne equivalents. Some of the abnormals were programmed so that a single switch would trigger the appropriate sequence of indications and warnings, while others had to be created in the proper sequence by the instructor through manipulations of individual switches. I got the hang of it very quickly, and from that moment on my students were assailed by numerous lights, bells, horns and sundry other indications of impending doom! Fortunately, mistakes were not fatal, and they all got the hang of the procedures quickly. When the time came for them to go into the simulator, they were well prepared.



One of the Boeing 727 Cockpit Procedures Trainer (CPT) that I instructed in at the Flight Academy in 1976.




The instructors console for the CPT. This was the original analog control that I used. According to the description for this CPT on Ebay, it has been modified to be controlled from a computer station. Back in the day, each of these switches triggered some kind of light or indication at either the pilot panel, the overhead or the FE panel.




The pilots panels of the CPT. Not everything worked up here -- the flight instruments, for example, did not. This thing didn't "fly", although it could be put "in the air" in terms of how the modeled systems performed.



(Note: in what is certainly one of life's stranger coincidences, one of these very ex-American Airlines CPT's was offered for sale on Ebay just a month or so prior to this being written. At this point it is still there, asking around 16 K. I'm actually surprised that some cockpit builder hasn't snapped this up already, especially since it is completely wired up and working. I imagine that the process of hooking this up to MSFS would be much less involved than doing it with an actual airplane nose section, like Joe Maldonado did at Project 727. Ah, if only Nels paid for these articles, then it could be mine!)


When my guys finished up the ground school, I too went on to the simulator phase of training, paired up with a "classmate" who had gone through the ground school just prior to the class I was teaching. Of course for me it was the third time I had been through a 727 sim program, and the third time was definitely the charm. I was ready to help my partner if need be, but it turned out that he needed no help and he aced the program too! Much of what pressure there might have been was off, since I already possessed the Flight Engineer certificate, which the rest of the new hires acquired via a check ride in the simulator. I took the exact same check ride, but it was "only" for the AA qualification, and was not an FAA rating ride, thus the reduced pressure.


Around the middle of the simulator training program, which lasted, as I recall, around a week and a half, we filled out our "dreamsheet"; that is, our base selection sheet. On these pieces of paper we indicated the crew base(s) that we preferred out on the line. At that time, the possibilities were: BOS, LGA, DCA, BUF, BNA, ORD, DFW, LAX, and SFO. The entire process was merely an exercise in wishful thinking, since the likelihood of a new hire right out of school going someplace like LAX or DFW was akin to the chances of an icicle surviving more than a nanosecond in hell. The reality was that there were only two crew bases realistically available to us - BUF and LGA, the latter of which really meant New York, since it covered flying at all three area airports. (BUF and BNA were literally relics of the days when Ernie Gann was a new hire. They reflected the 1930's route layout at American, with BUF the midpoint on the NY-Chicago run and BNA a linchpin on the original Mercury transcons).


My college roommate was living in Buffalo at the time, so without much real thought I put BUF first on my list. Two days later, the Buffalo area was inundated in snow, even by their arctic standards. The sight of cars buried three feet over their tops on the CBS Evening News was enough to send me racing to the third floor of the Flight Department headquarters building the next morning, with an urgent request to change my number one pick to LGA! The secretary was stunned, to say the least, since this was perhaps the first time in AA history that a new hire changed a base bid to LGA. Such was the allure of the Big Apple in the eyes of all of my fellow American pilots that I had no trouble making the switch, and several days thereafter I learned that I would indeed follow in Gann's footsteps and begin my AA career in New York, albeit at LGA instead of EWR, which was the NY airport when he started out.


After the final check ride in the simulator, the next step was the IOE, or Initial Operating Experience, also known in the vernacular of the peasantry as the line check. In those days this rite was performed at the assigned base, administered by a corps of flight engineer check airmen based locally, and distinct from the group that conducted the simulator checks. (In later years, starting around the mid 1980's, everything was centralized at the schoolhouse and every new hire got his or her IOE at DFW prior to reporting to their actual base of assignment.) I asked for and received a week or so to relocate to New York, and headed first to Charleston to close out my digs there, after which I turned my steps north. By pure serendipity my Air Force friend who had been recalled to Eastern Airlines earlier in 1976 was also headed to New York, and we decided to bunk together in the Big Apple. We secured temporary lodgings in the home of an AA flight engineer on Long Island, and decided to start apartment hunting in Manhattan after our respective line checks.



The American Airlines offices at LGA, which in 1977 housed the Flight Office for LGA. The second floor offices right at the corner just above and to the left of the bus were the Chief Pilot's office and the associated administrative offices. Downstairs at that time were Crew Sked and the Training department, for whom I worked when I was a check engineer. This complex has a storied history - this was once AA headquarters when LGA first opened. C.R. Smith's office was once on the second floor just where there is a rounded projection in the middle of the building. The corner office which was later the Chief Pilot's office was once the office of the Vice President of Flight.



The next day I reported to the Chief Pilot's office at LGA for my introduction to the legendary Captain Dan Weatherbee, and his assistant Captain Dick Wernick*, to say nothing of the many staffers who would play a big part in my first years as an AA pilot. A quick side trip downstairs to the crew qualifications department resulted in my being scheduled for my line check several days hence. (* Dick Wernick and I would spend a good deal of time together in the course of my career after he succeeded Weatherbee as Area Director of Flight - I worked for him as Manager Flying Technical, otherwise known as chief flight engineer, during the heady days of the great hiring cycle starting in 1984, and again in the early 1990's when I was Chief Pilot at JFK. He was, and is, one of the great ones.)


On the appointed day, 19 February 1977, I reported to operations at JFK to earn my final seal of approval. The trip was a two day affair - JFK to DFW the first day, followed by DFW to JFK and a turnaround to PVD on the second day. I was more or less at ease, since I had already performed the FE duties in an airplane back at the Braniff school. Nonetheless, this was different. For one thing, there were four complete flights, instead of merely a portion of one. And this time I was gussied up in a three stripe version of the suit of lights - polyester, to be sure, but still impressive. And there were passengers and also, joy of joys, flight attendants along for the ride as well!



Early morning walk around at ORD - the long shadow in the foreground is yours truly, taking the picture.




Returning from the door check, which was done immediately after engine start early in the taxi out for takeoff. On a short taxi you had to hustle to get back up front for the main event, since on occasion certain Captains were rumored to start down the runway without the FE!



After a frigid walk-around, under the watchful eye of my check engineer, I reported back to the cockpit just in time for the engine start ritual. In the simulator most engine starts involved abnormalities of some sort, but in the airplane I would discover that things went perfectly just about all of the time. Today was no exception, and we had all three running by the time the pushback was complete. In those days American required the FE to go back into the cabin after engine start to verify that all of the doors were properly closed and the slides armed. This took several minutes, and involved running a gauntlet of flight attendants who were in the aisles doing the safety demonstration. After returning to the cockpit the FE had to call the company on the number two radio and receive the "load closeout", which was the final weight and balance calculation. He then filled out the takeoff data card and provided it to the Captain for review. All of this took some time, especially for a new man, and it was fortunate indeed that my first flight was conducted at JFK, where the runways were farther away from the terminal and the taxi-out times correspondingly longer. (There is a certain satisfactory symmetry to the fact that both my first and last flights on the line for American were conducted at JFK.)


I managed to get all of this paperwork done and the before takeoff checklist run with a minimum of flubs, with a little help from the Captain who took pains to taxi slowly enough so that I was not unduly rushed. I would soon discover that this sort of assistance to a newbie was just about universal among the crews on the line, all of whom had been there and done that, albeit perhaps decades ago. And so it was that I was ready when the time came to turn my seat to face forward and slide it up right behind the center console for takeoff. The 727 had no autothrottle, or at least no mechanical or electronic one - it had a biological autothrottle, and I was it! After applying an approximation of takeoff power, the throttles were turned over to the FE momentarily so that he could set the exact power using the EPR gauges. This had to be done prior to reaching 80 knots, otherwise the EPR reading would be affected by the increasing static pressure resulting from the increasing airspeed and this would render the power setting inaccurate. At 80 knots the pilot flying resumed control of the throttles, which in practice merely meant that his hands were placed upon them in the event of the need for a rejected takeoff. Once the airplane became airborne, and the gear and flaps were retracted, the throttles belonged to the FE for much of the remainder of the flight unless the pilot needed to level off or begin a climb.


At American, the FE read all of the checklists, most of them from a card which usually lived in the copilot's seat back pocket. The takeoff and landing checklists were done using a clever mechanical checklist device that was allegedly of AA's own creation, and was eventually copied and improved upon by Boeing for all of their later airplanes such as the 767. The device consisted of a vertical column of sliders that could be moved left or right and covered half of the dual checklist at any given moment. As each item on the takeoff checklist was accomplished, its slider was moved to the opposite side of the stack, confirming its accomplishment and at the same time revealing an item on the landing checklist. When the checklist was complete, all sliders had been moved and the landing check was now ready for review when the time was right.



The FE panel in the last remaining (as of 2008) 727 simulator at AA. The charts are laminated to the FE tabletop for easy consultation, and the mechanical checklist for takeoff and landing can be just barely seen (it is black, against the black curtain that hangs behind the FO seat) immediately to the left of the upper FE panel, just left of the generator controls and lights.



During the climb, the human autothrottle had to reset climb power periodically, although once climb power was set after flap retraction, very little adjustment was typically needed. I quickly learned to check this every 5000 feet or so, which turned out to be sufficient. Most of the performance charts we needed during a flight were conveniently printed on a poster-like affair, shaped and sized to fit the engineer's desktop. This compendium was covered by a Plexiglas sheet, which protected it from many, though not all, of the hazards of flight, such as spilled food or coffee. Some of the FE desktop charts were edged with brown stains from turbulence induced spills, and the maintenance department was kept busy changing these when they got unreadable, or when they were superseded by revisions, which occurred occasionally. A quick glance at the chart for climb power and a look at the EPR gauges was all it took to keep the engines in line, with an occasional adjustment to a single thrust lever if an engine happened to be out of sync. Unlike the big recips of the golden age, we had no synchronizing gear on the airplane; any adjustments needed (the rhythmic hum-hum-hum of engines out of sync was heard and felt mainly in the seats back in steerage between the pod engines) had to be done by educated guess.


The flights to and from DFW were the stretch airplane, the 727-200 (Actually, 727-223 to be exact, the American Airlines version. The Braniff airplanes were -227, or -027 for the shortie; each airline has a unique suffix for every Boeing type.) The turnaround to and from Providence the following day involved a shortie, so I got to see every airplane type we had on this one trip. By sheer coincidence the return from DFW was flown on N6842, which was originally a Trans Caribbean Airlines airplane, and the only airplane in our fleet at that time that had the electronic pressurization system installed. This presented no problem for me, since all of the Braniff stretches had it, and it was covered in the ground school over there. At AA, it was a one-off novelty at that time, and we didn't even operate it the way it should have been operated, a situation that I had tried to point out in the ground school a month previously, when I was teaching. It turned out that AA, always monomaniacal about standardization, had decided to forgo the electronic pressurization system on the -200's in order to standardize the fleet on the pneumatic version. They had to pay extra to have the pneumatics put on the first batch of -200's. When the time came, a year or so after I was hired, to order more 727's Boeing decided that they would not use the pneumatic version regardless of extra money, and our fleet wound up with an eventual majority of electronic pressurization airplanes. By that time, we had learned how to operate the system properly!



The electronic pressurization controls on the FE upper panel.



This flight, however, was my first opportunity to handle the pressurization system on a real flight; the Braniff check ride involved such a short trip that the altitude never got above around 12,000 feet or so, which really did not require any manipulation of the system. Today, though, we were cruising at 35000 feet, and I had to employ the full gamut of my skills, such as they were, with this system. Actually, the pneumatic system was semi-automatic; shortly after takeoff the cruise altitude was dialed in, after which the only attention it needed was an occasional tweak of the knob that controlled the rate of climb or descent of the cabin. There were a few tricks I had yet to learn, though, including how to avoid a pressure bump when the pilot retarded the throttles to idle at the beginning of a descent. A reduction of power often caused the bleed air system to start using air from the high pressure stage of the compressor section of the engine, in order to keep enough pressure in the system. This opening of the 13th stage bleed valve would put a momentary surge of pressure into the cabin, and the best way to control the pressurization outflow valve to dampen the surge was counterintuitive - leaving the cabin altitude dial set on the current altitude, one cranked the cabin rate knob not to full decrease but rather to full increase. This action provided the most pneumatic muscle to allow the cabin outflow valves to move rapidly to handle the surge from the 13th stage air. This (and most of the pressurization system's quirks) was not modeled in the simulator, but had to be passed on by the line check airmen during the IOE.


The flight from JFK to DFW was long enough for a considerable tutelage during cruise, interrupted shortly after level off by the arrival of our lunches. Throughout my long career, the flight crews on AA ate what the first class passengers ate, although not leftovers (except for the Transcon Roast and Caviar) - additional meals were put aboard for us. Typically there were two steaks and one chicken. In theory the two pilots were not supposed to eat the same entree, lest there occur a debacle like the one parodied in the movie Airplane! In practice, however, seniority ruled and unless either the Captain or the First Officer was an aficionado of chicken the fowl migrated to the Engineer's desktop. Fortunately for me, I have always preferred chicken to steak, except in Argentina much later in my career, and I had no problem whatsoever with the various chicken dishes served on American. The tastiest of all was Chicken Kiev, which was an exceptionally rotund breast literally stuffed with butter which, in the process of being cooked, was of course melted and, as I would discover for the first time today, under a not inconsiderable pressure. This delicacy was served with a small stick labeled " Pierce Me", with which the butter could be liberated from within and allowed to run riot over the plate. This had to be done carefully, though, since it occasionally happened that a dairy explosion took place, spraying hot butter all over the hapless crewmember! The special American Airlines napkins, which had a small hole in one corner designed to be buttoned onto the front of the shirt, were likely invented for this very purpose.


All too soon it was time to descend, and it was now that I made my first real world acquaintance with one of the truly annoying features of an otherwise classic airplane. All retractable gear airplanes have some sort of warning to alert the crew when the wheels are not in a useful position. On the 727 this was a horn which blew with little less than the strength of Gabriel's horn. The effect was similar, since both were enough to raise the dead, although the gear horn had the added potential of actually precipitating death by cardiac arrest in anyone not prepared for its strident braying. Long tradition held that the Engineer was wholly responsible for keeping the ill effects of this horn at bay; silencing it by means of a small lever mounted on the aft end of the pedestal between the pilots. Further, tradition demanded that far from merely silencing the horn, the FE must prevent it from sounding in the first place. This was done by anticipating the retarding of any throttle to the idle stop, which was one of the triggers for the horn whenever the landing gear was other than down and locked.



The aft pedestal. The horn cutout is the metal bar just above the stabilizer brake release knob.



A good Engineer soon developed a downright Pavlovian attentiveness to the position of the throttles and the pilots' hands in the later stages of a flight on a 727 (the 707 would also turn out to have the same system), darting quickly to the horn silence lever at the first tremor of movement from up front! Of course, the lever could be held in the silencing position, and some Engineers had small blocks of wood for this purpose. But most Captains would not allow such contrivances, since not only did that spoil one of their principal diversions - the quest to beat the FE and sound the horn (which, after the dollar ride [IOE] usually required the payment of tribute to the pilots in the form of beers on the layover), but it also in essence defeated an important safety device and was thus verboten by both the Company and the FAA.


I later developed a unique system which solved the problem for me - I procured a long leather shoelace, one end of which I tied into a loop that fit around the silencer lever, and the other end of which I knotted into a small ball. This knotted end I placed into the FE desk, which was a catch all for anything and everything that was discarded on the flight deck. The desktop with the performance charts was hinged at the rear, and when it was lowered onto the string the knots kept the whole arrangement secure. Thus deployed, all it would take was a tug on the string to raise the lever, a movement I could make without even turning my seat around. No crew ever got a beer from me after that device was invented!


On this first trip, though, the horn blared again and again, as the pilots took full advantage of the newbie on the panel and drove me to distraction. In between swipes at the lever, I managed to extract the landing data from the charts on the tabletop and copy it all down onto a card devised by the Company for that purpose. Then, I had to call our station operations at DFW for our special altimeter settings, which must also be on the card. In those days American was the last US airline to use what was known as QFE altimetry (Eastern had abandoned it some years earlier). The system was similar to what was in use in Great Britain and a few other places in the world - an altimeter setting was dialed in that resulted in the instrument reading feet above the field level instead of feet above sea level.


An altimeter is nothing more than a specialized barometer; it can be set to display an altitude above (or below) any desired reference pressure. Normally, altimeters are set to a pressure that causes them to display feet above sea level - specifically, they are set to a pressure that is calculated to be the same as the pressure at that location would be if a barometer could be lowered into a hole dug all the way down to sea level. If, instead, the altimeter is set to the actual barometric pressure at a given level (uncorrected for the descent down the hole to sea level) then the altimeter will read feet above that pressure level, which is to say feet above that elevation. If this pressure setting is taken in the vicinity of field elevation then the altimeter will read feet above the field elevation.



The 727-100 cockpit, as it looked back in 1977, and pretty much the entire time I flew it. Note the center altimeter above the standby attitude indicator. This was the altimeter we used to fly assigned altitudes below 10,000 feet, when the Captain and FO altimeters were set to QFE.



In the days before radar altimeters came into common use this was valuable information, and even with the radar altimeter it was an additional and useful bit of information. For example, with this system every ILS approach had a decision height (for us) of 200 feet, as opposed to whatever 200 above ground level equated to in terms of sea level. We set the pilot and copilot altimeters to this QFE, or field level setting, when descending through 10,000 feet on descent (and conversely switched over to QNH, or above sea level going through ten on the climb). Of course, when ATC assigns an altitude, they intend for it to be flown with reference to QNH, not QFE, so there was a third altimeter on the front panels, located just to the left of the engine instruments, which was always kept set to QNH. It was to this altimeter that the pilots referred for routine level-offs, when flying below 10,000 feet.


Once we descended below 10,000 feet, my seat was back facing forward again, and I spent much of the time prior to landing helping with the general outside traffic watch and running the landing checklist. This latter task was done piecemeal, starting as we left 10,000 feet, rather than all at once upon gear extension as was the case in the C-141. Anytime I observed one of the checklist items completed I could call it out and slide the tab. Only the gear and flaps required a challenge and response from the pilots. When everything was completed I became an interested spectator for the final approach and landing. This was a VMC day, but if it had been IMC I would have been monitoring the approach, ready to set power if a go-around was required.


After landing and clearing the runway, I was on the number two radio again to get the gate assignment. DFW, even back then, was more or less a hub for us, and this airplane would be going on to another city farther west. We, after the passengers had all deplaned, would head out to the curb to await the crew limo over to the hotel. The layover would be a short one, and the flight back to JFK was scheduled for early the next morning, so there was no time for merriment. The check engineer and I had dinner together, which was an opportunity for additional instructional time, and all too soon I found myself on another limo headed back to the airport for round two.



When I started flying them in 1977, AA's 727's had this bucolic tapestry on the bulkheads in First Class.



This time I was left pretty much to my own devices as the IOE switched from instruction to evaluation. The check airman was observing my every move, but left everything to me. My previous experiences, particularly as an instructor at the ground school, now paid off handsomely, and I found that I could keep up with the flow of events without too much difficulty. The flight back to JFK was a bit shorter due to the tailwinds, but the real test would be on the next two legs. JFK-PVD was and is a very short flight in a jet - not more than 30 minutes in the air. Almost the entire cruise portion of the flight was truncated and both legs seemed to be little more than climb and descent. The -100 airplane was the type I had flown on all three occasions at the Braniff school, so it was familiar territory. When we parked at the gate at JFK after the last leg, the check airman congratulated me and informed me that I was now officially an AA Flight Engineer. He called Flight Standards to make it official, and Crew Schedule to inform them that they now had another warm body available on reserve for the remainder of the month. So began my AA career.


My first flight on my own came early the next month, after a short stint with the USAF Reserves. The trip was to be the first of a great many out of LGA into ORD, and after that to CVG and SDF. The next day we returned via CLE, LGA, BOS, LGA. Throughout the following year I was on probation, which meant that my every trip was critiqued by the Captain on a form that was turned in to the Chief Pilot's office. At around the 6 month point I was given a no-notice line check with another check engineer, and his report also went directly to Captain Weatherbee's abode. A week or so later I was summoned, as were all probationary crewmembers at this point in their careers, to a review board at the Flight Office, whereupon my record was scrutinized and my progress evaluated. All was found to be in order, and my career continued. I would attend another board at the 11 month point, which was the final thumbs up-or-down event. Since I am writing these memoirs it is obvious what the verdict was!


In the third month of my probation I had been sent back to the schoolhouse to qualify as an FE on the venerable Boeing 707. At first I was a bit taken aback - the 707 was a higher paying airplane than the 727 (although on probation this would not be a factor since all probationary crewmembers were paid a flat salary - in those days the princely sum of $650 per month, which happened to be $25 per month less than a new flight attendant made!). I had not entered a bid for 707 training, nor did I expect to be assigned to it based upon my looks! It turned out to be an artifact of the seniority system - if no one bid for a training assignment, it would be handed to the junior person at the base. That turned out to be yours truly.



The cockpit of the 707-323 sim. Overall, except for the fourth throttle and engine instruments it looks almost identical to the 727.




The FE panel of the Boeing 707-323 simulator. Note that there are four of most things, and it is a bit more complex than the three holer.



The 707 school turned out to be much more laid back than either of the 727 schools I had been involved with. Not because the 707 was a simpler airplane; indeed, it was more complex in some ways. But rather because the 707 program was not, at that time, a new hire program. All of us (there were actually only two of "us" in the class, which was another novelty at the time) were line crewmembers and treated as such. The pace, both in the ground school and in the simulator, was not so frenetic as my earlier experiences had been. In addition the 707, while certainly much different in many ways, was actually the genetic father of the 727 and the ancestry showed clearly in much of the design and operation of the systems. Electrical and Fuel were simply more of the same stuff (four engines instead of three, so four generators and four main fuel tanks instead of three). The air conditioning system did differ significantly, since there were no air cycle machines for cooling; rather, there were Freon systems that worked much like a typical home air conditioner, and were somewhat more complicated to operate than the simpler system in use in the 727. Also, the air for the air conditioning and pressurization came not from engine bleed air, although that was available from each engine, but rather from a pair of turbo-compressors located above the inlets of engines two and three. These were housed in a sort of hump at the front of the pylon, and you can see the small inlet openings above the much larger engine inlets in pictures of the 707. (Airplanes designed for international operations had three turbo-compressors, on all engines except number four. This was for redundancy in the event one of them failed at some offline location without much in the way of maintenance.) These TC's, as we called them, ran off high pressure bleed air from the engine, which turned a compressor which in turn provided compressed air to the air conditioning system. I soon discovered, however, that regardless of its complexity the overall system actually worked better than the one on the three-holer, especially when cooling in hot weather.



An American 707-323 parked at the hangar at JFK, shortly before they were disposed of in 1981. The engines from these birds went to the National Guard KC-135 tankers, and flew on for decades on those old birds.




Walking around the 707. These engines, the JT-3's were noisy but reliable and would still be flying today if fuel were still less than $1 per gallon!



The 707 flying also served to put me in contact with a completely different group of Captains than the coterie that flew the 727. These were more senior men, and some of them had flown as copilot, in the early portion of their careers, with the first generation of airmen who by now had long retired. From these 707 Captains I heard tales originally handed down from the DC-3 days, and thereby acquired a second hand acquaintance with some of the early history of American Airlines. To say nothing of getting to fly one of the truly iconic airplanes of all time! It was a piece of good fortune that I value to this day.


From the time I served as a ground school instructor, prior to actually being hired as a pilot, I realized that I really enjoyed instructing. And so it was that after I got off probation I applied for the position of check engineer on the line. Due in part to my experience in the schoolhouse I was accepted and sent back to school for one of the more unusual of my educational experiences with American. Check Engineer school consisted of a small amount of ground training - more or less a recurrent training session, and several sessions in the simulator which were intended mainly to expose us to some of the errors, minor as well as major, that a new engineer could commit. But the really interesting part of it was what came first. We (there were, again, two of us check engineer candidates) were placed in a Captain's Duties and Responsibilities class, which was the first portion of Captain upgrade, and was intended to be an introduction of sorts to the Corporate Big Picture, as well as an indoctrination into the world of being in charge. It was quite an experience to be exposed to this a mere 15 months into a career, and to top it off the rest of the class, all upgrading Captains, were a great bunch of guys. Beguiled by their soon-to-be-new-found wealth, they were not reluctant to pick up the tab on occasion for those of us who were still firmly ensconced amongst the peasantry!



JT-8 on the 727 - this view is from the aft galley door on the right side. From the ground you couldn't see into the lower part of the inlet, so we sometimes checked it from here, especially if ice might be present.




The number two engine exposed in the hangar while undergoing maintenance.



My career as a Flight Engineer Check Airman, to use the complete term, was one of the highlights of my American career. During that time I operated almost completely outside of the normal seniority system, for in those days the check airmen picked the trips they used to conduct the IOE's. The regular engineer on those trips, however senior, was paid to stay home while I took the newbie out for his introduction to line flying. I wound up sampling some delightful trips in those days, trips far more interesting than those that my humble seniority would allow me to fly on my own. By this time AA was also placing some new hires directly onto the 707, so I had all of those trips to choose from as well. In addition, we administered the 5 month probationary check rides for the new hires. These were conducted on the new hire's own trip, which was probably a junior selection. But since the check ride involved only one or, at most, two legs, I quickly found that I could manufacture layovers pretty much wherever I wanted, including in places where we had no layovers. I could create opportunities to visit friends, many of whom just happened to be female and attractive (this was, of course, in that period of time known to scholars as BS; that is, Before She)! This sublime state of affairs continued throughout the entire hiring cycle of 1977-1981. About midway through this period I was able to upgrade to FO, which turned out to be the least difficult of any of the various trips to the schoolhouse in the course of my career. In the event, I actually ended up flying as FO for but a single month, in December of 1979, but I was able to "buy" a number of individual trips as FO, usually around one every month or so.


The hiring came to an end around the turn of 1981, following one of the various oil crises of the '70's. All too soon, the new hires disappeared from the school house and many disappeared from the line as well when the furloughs began shortly thereafter. Ironically, the work for us check engineers did not stop - we were now in the business of conducting IOE's for pilots who, due to the downsizing, were falling off their perches as FO's, or as FE's on more senior equipment, and re-qualifying on the panel of either the 727 or the 707. This work went on for nearly another year, after which they pretty much closed down the "office" and all of the line check engineers, as well as the two professional engineers who worked full time as what were called Manager Flying Technical, were sent back to line flying in whatever capacity their seniority would allow. Mine allowed for flying both the 707 and 727, which I did until AA retired the last of the 707's. My own last flight as a 707 crewmember was on July 29th 1981 from St Martin to JFK on ship 595 as flight 688. From then until the beginning of the great expansion of the Crandall Growth Plan in early 1984 I flew as a 727 engineer.



The Big Apple seen from the 727 cockpit on the way up the Hudson for the River Approach to 13 at LGA. These are the best corner office views in the world!



The Growth Plan marked the beginning of an amazing time, both at American and in the industry in general. Deregulation had become the law of the land back in 1978 or so, but the full effects were slow in coming, largely because it was and is difficult and somewhat time consuming to start an airline from scratch. By the time that enough new entrant airlines had reached a level of operations that threatened the financial security of the rest of the industry the 1980's were in full swing. Few in airline management had any clear idea of how best to adapt to this new landscape, and at least one legacy airline failed and liquidated as a result of some wrong guesses on the part of its leader. Bob Crandall's approach was, in essence, to expand American Airlines based upon the cost lowering effects of a revolutionary and controversial approach - the so-called B Scale, which involved new compensation levels for employees hired after late 1983. Once contracts were in place with all of the unions that allowed for this sort of thing, American launched what turned out to be the most massive hiring cycle ever experienced in the airline industry. In a matter of months all of the 600 or so furloughed pilots were offered recall and the structure for another round of hiring was put into place.



Aftermath. This is the second incarnation of Braniff, after that airline became the first casualty of deregulation and liquidated. A smaller version was reconstituted by the Pritzger brothers of Hyatt, but this version did not last long.




National Airlines had one of the more attractive liveries out there. This one has had the girl's name removed from the front of the fuselage, a victim of early PC pushback against the "I'm Dorrie, Fly Me!" campaign. Ironically, the names went on the planes in an effort to point out that they were talking about flying the planes, not the flight attendants! The sexy double entendre of the TV ads turned out to be a bit too much in that era.




This is where those National 727's went! Pan Am, frantic for decades to get their mitts on domestic routes to feed their international flights, jumped at the chance to buy National just before deregulation made the whole thing a moot point. This was one of the early nails in Pan Am's coffin, because the money they paid for National would have been better spent setting up their own feeder system after deregulation hit.




LaGuardia around the time I started flying there. This was the concourse next to ours, and little did we know that one day TWA and American would merge.



I had been absent from the company for much of the immediate aftermath of the 1983 pilot contract negotiation, off for another stay at the University of MAC, as we called Altus AFB Oklahoma. This time I was attending the transition training program for the C-5 Galaxy, at that time the largest airplane in the world, and still a Big Magilla even in this day of A380's. I had "retired" from flying the C-141 in 1979, when I originally upgraded to FO at American; but, as it turned out, my hold on the right seat was tenuous and after I returned to the line in 1982 I was unable to sit facing forward. This led to a certain lingering frustration which in turn led me to "un-retire" myself from the Air Force Reserves, the better to get my hands on a yoke once again, a process which led me to the C-5 and the 709th Military Airlift Squadron at Dover AFB Delaware.



The C-5 Galaxy at Altus AFB.



I had asked for and received a military leave of absence from American to go to Altus, which lasted for three months. Upon my return in April of 1984, I received a call from Captain Dick Wernick, who was now the Area Director of Flight for New York following the retirement of Captain Dan Weatherbee (in case the name Weatherbee sounds familiar to many of you who follow aerospace, his son was a Space Shuttle Astronaut and commanded several flights of the orbiter). The good Captain Wernick asked for the pleasure of my company in his office several days hence, while assuring me that I was in no trouble (the usual reason for invitations of this nature). It turned out that with hiring being set up, and many if not all of the new hires coming to the New York base, it seemed appropriate to reconstitute the office of Manager Flying Technical, otherwise known in the ranks as Chief Flight Engineer, an office which had been eliminated in the interest of cost savings back in 1982. His request to me was that I assume that position, and take over the management of the new-hire program at LGA. My first question for him, as you might expect, was "do I have to come in and work in the office every day?" Upon being assured that this was indeed the case, my interest waned considerably, for the drive from my house to LGA in rush hour took around two hours each way. I had, in fact, pursued a pilot career precisely to avoid working 5 days a week like this!


But of course, I had just been the recipient of Captain Wernick's largesse, since it was he who had approved my military leave a few months previously. As an Italian, and an aficionado of The Godfather, I knew a "... call upon you to do me a service..." situation when I saw one! So I acquiesced, thinking silently that I owed AA three months in the office, one for each month of my military leave. But Dick Wernick, always a shrewd judge of men, knew me better than I knew myself; and, as he intended, I found the work fascinating - so much so that when the time came two years hence to log a few hundred hours as an FO (a requirement for Captain upgrade) I just about had to be dragged back to the line!


Captain Wernick and I pretty much set up the new hire program at the base level, an arrangement that was copied all over the system as new hires on probation migrated from LGA to many of the other bases. I personally conducted the orientations for almost all of the first two thousand or so pilots hired starting in 1984, since all but a few of them were sent first to LGA, from whence they emigrated as soon as their nascent seniority allowed. For many of them, this was a matter of mere weeks, and LGA became a vast and merrily spinning squirrel cage of new pilots coming to and leaving the base with a frequency that made keeping track of them and their probationary events such as review boards a real challenge. Meanwhile, we also sought to make them feel valued, which was a task made more than a little challenging due to the pay scale which applied to them, as Dick and I had anticipated. Finally, in addition to conducting indoctrinations for every new class, I found myself sitting as a member of the probationary review boards held each week, in which my role was to conduct a brief oral evaluation of the candidate's systems knowledge.



My office at LGA as Manager Flying Technical, festooned for the occasion of my "retirement" back to the line in late summer 1986



This, too, was an idyllic time as seen from the vantage point of retirement. The level of excitement that existed in those heady days had to be experienced to be believed. American seemed to be doing everything right, and we were buying new airplanes as fast as Douglas and Boeing could turn them out, to say nothing of hiring scores of pilots every month. New cities appeared monthly in the schedules and on the bidsheets, and we found ourselves going to places that had previously been the sole proprietorships of other airlines - places like Atlanta, Denver and Minneapolis, to say nothing of Honolulu. The more optimistic dreamers in the Flight Department talked of hiring that would continue without interruption indefinitely. And indeed that is almost what happened. We did not stop hiring until shortly after Gulf War One, when the economy finally took a tumble and air travel slowed. In that span of 7 or so years, we had hired around 5000 pilots, a number that was considerably larger than the size of the entire seniority list when I was hired in 1977.



The new 727 Captain grins from the left seat just prior to departing on another trip!



The most significant event for me during this period was my upgrade to Captain. By mid 1986 it was obvious that the time was coming when I would be able to ascend to the heights and assume the mantle of command. This was the point at which the Chief Pilots decided that I should leave the office and return to the line, the better to accumulate the 500 hours as an FO that company policy dictated as a prerequisite for the Captain upgrade. And so I did. Finally, in early 1987, I was awarded a Captain Bid at Chicago. Back to school I went, to go through the D&R (Duties and Responsibilities) class again, now shortened from the week long affair it had been in 1978 to a mere single day. After that, off to the simulator for the training and the AA Captain check ride (I didn't need an FAA "rating ride", thanks to Uncle Sam's largesse back in 1976 at the Braniff school). Thereafter I flew the 727 as a Captain in complete contentment until I was again lured back into the office, this time as one of the Chief Pilots.


Throughout this entire phase of my career, which spanned more than a decade, I was always qualified in at least one of the three crew positions on the 727. I ended up flying it in every cockpit crew position possible: Flight Engineer, Flight Engineer Check Airman, First Officer, Captain, and Pilot Check Airman. My logbook shows 4276.9 hours total time in all crew positions, of which 1424 hours are in one of the pilot seats, the majority of which is left seat time as Captain. This is by no means a lot - many pilots for one reason or another logged well in excess of 10,000 pilot hours in the 727, and some spent most if not all of their careers flying it. I could have flown it for a much longer time, of course, but the exigencies of the service in the office dictated that I qualify on the Airbus A300-600R, which was the main mount at the JFK stable when I took over as chief pilot there in 1989. My own 727 qualification expired in 1990.


In the course of my career I have flown 5 different airliners in one crew position or another - the Boeing 727, the 707, the Airbus A300, the 757 and the 767. Of these, my hands down favorite is the 727, because of the nearly perfect flying qualities the type has always possessed. In my experience there has never been as sweet handling a large jet airplane as the 727; and, considering that fly-by-wire is the way of the future, it is likely that there will never be again. If there were one airplane I could choose to go flying in again it would be a real coin toss between the 727 and the T-38! The Three Holer is that good!


Happy Landings!


Tony Vallillo


Three Holer Series

Three Holer Prelude

Three Holer Part 1: Wrench

Three Holer Part 2: Type Rating

Three Holer Part 3: Hired!


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Wow! Thanks again, Nels, for bringing these back (and Tony for writing them). Tony's an excellent writer, and these three posts could almost make a book- great stuff.


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