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I attended the ATOP program (Airline Training Orientation Program) in January 2002. ATOP consists of two days in the baddest toy heaven where you get the opportunity to be a Boeing 737 pilot for two days and try the most advanced commercial airplane simulator available. It is so realistic that flying and landing this thing counts as real-life flying in your pilot logbook.

Day one:

We met and got introduced at 8:30am. I had expected FBI to be there to check my passport and background and blame me for that candybar that I nicked when I was 6 year old kid. There was no additional checking, so they probably didn't discover the candybar issue while digging through my history. We got our pictures taken for the ID cards (early morning pictures are always great fun) and started the class. The agenda was easy enough:

- Introduction to the B-737/200 systems. Big picture introduction

- Electrical systems. How to power up the "guppy" and no, there is no key. How to start the electrical systems, how to switch to fail-over systems etc.

- Caution systems. Short version: blue lights are good, amber lights are bad, red lights are really, really bad.

- Fuel Systems. Capacity and location of the three fuel tanks, feeding and cross-feeding.

- Engine Gages. How you can tell if everything is ok or if you have to go for an unscheduled off-airport landing (i.e. crash).

- Power Management

Sounds easy right? Well, that was the pre-lunch agenda. After lunch and a well-deserved brain cool-off time it was back to the classroom for more systems and procedures:

- Pneumatics & anti-ice systems. The pneumatic system delivers air for air conditioning, pressurization, engine startup, wing anti-ice and most importantly: toilet flush.

- Engines & start procedures. How to spool up the engine - left engine first then right engine.

- Hydraulics and flight controls. How they works and how they are connected? What do you do when they fail.

- Airport operations

- Performance

As this point in time we went to the first simulator, the B-737 FBS (Fixed Base Simulator). It's a funny dog-looking thing that doesn't move about and doesn't have outside-screens, but it has everything else built into it. We practiced cockpit management; checklists and flows; system and engine start up procedures. It's very easy. First: connect battery to get cockpit light and power up cockpit systems. Second: connect gallery so the flight attendants get light and can brew coffee. Third: Press the Trixie button and ask for coffee... (That's slang for the flight attendant button, but sometimes Biff answers instead of Trixie).

Around dinnertime we were done with the simulator, but the evening was not over yet. The UAL training center is open 24/7 (and yes, people are there all night). I had signed up for the high altitude endorsement option, so the evening was spent studying Aviation Physiology, High Altitude Aerodynamics, Oxygen mask usage and emergency descent procedures in the UAL library. On the door to the library is the following sign: "The library might be closed for maintenance Tuesday between 2:00am and 4:00am. During this timeframe the computers may be unavailable. Please plan accordingly". Talk about commitment.

You know when you run too many programs on your computer and it runs really, really, REALLY slow, and every time you do something, anything, it takes ages and more ages before anything happens?. Well, that was precisely how my brain felt like late Sunday evening.

Day two:

As if meeting 8:30am on a Sunday morning wasn't early enough, Monday got even worse. We started at 6:45am to hear about airline careers. The major airliners might not be doing to well right now, but the business jet and fractional jet industry seems to be doing ok. Very interesting session if you are considering a pilot career. Hmm....

Fourty-five minutes later it was back to the classroom for performance review and cockpit procedures before we were admitted to the coolest toy at the training center - The full-flight Simulator. This is not your uncle's PC with Microsoft Flight Simulator and your uncle's brother shaking the chair to make it feel like turbulence. No, this is the real thing complete with computer generated landscapes outside the windows and hydraulics that make the whole cockpit move as if you were flying the real thing. The simulator is so authentic that some pilots go directly from the simulator to the final checkride in the real airplane.

So how does it work up there in the cockpit? As you probably have noticed on your way to 39B (the nice middleseat with two 400 pound guys and no friggin' service because it takes Trixie & Biff hours and hours to get the peanut cart rolled down there), there are always two pilots in the cockpit. Well, there should be two. Always ask for a ticket refund or reduction if one or both of the pilots are missing when the plane is pushed back from the gate. It's amazing what the airliners do to cut costs these days.

One of the pilots is the flying pilot and the other is the non-flying pilot. The flying pilot controls the stick and throttle. The non-flying pilot does everything else, and that's actually quite a bit. Martin got to be the flying pilot for the first two flights over San Francisco airport by night. Already when you apply takeoff trust and the aircraft starts rolling down the runway you notice how realistic this thing is. You're being pushed back in the seat. The engine noise is there. And when you raise the nose you're being pushed even further back in the seat. While circling over the bay, I couldn't help being fascinated about the quality of this simulator. It even had the small chops from air turbulence built in.

After a couple of good flights, one being in fog, they finally dragged me out of the captain's seat (my nail marks in the leather will be visible forever) and put me in the first officer's seat. Another guy was the captain for a bit. I don't think that he was as comfortable with the flight controls as the rest of us, and after a quite interesting trip we crashed. That's the good thing about simulators, you can always push the reset button. Because it's a simulator we also experienced all kinds of problems like engine fire, loosing an engine, loosing all hydraulic systems, blocked toilets and running out of coffee. Yes, we tried it all.

After two days it was all over, but what an experience. Oh well. For those of you who want to know more about flying big jets - it's worth the trip. ATOP will stop their operations in Denver later this year but will probably resume operations in Houston.

Best experience: Doing the smoothest landing on runway 28R at San Francisco International Airport

Most interesting knowledge: The design of the airplane systems. They are so cleverly designed with so much redundancy built in, it is simply amazing that anything ever goes wrong.

Most dubious sentence: "Tush to the cush" instead of "flight attendants, please be seated". There is another, even more dubious version, but I don't want my ISP to close my site so you'll have to hear that version another day.


In the classroom

737 Systems

Flight Simulator

In the flight simulator

Full-motion flight simluators

737 Simulator cockpit

Preparing for takeoff in the simulator

Full-motion simulator in action

Down on the ground!

B737 handbook - How to do steep turns