Confessions of a Flight Engineer
Flashlights, timers, and breath mints required.
- By Andrea Eldridge
- Air & Space magazine, November 2011
(Page 2 of 2)
The flight engineer’s normal-procedures checklist was only two pages. Some parts you did silently, some you said out loud. I had my own seat, a desk with drawer, and a panel with triple redundancy for each of the L-1011’s engines. I started by testing systems: electrical, pressurization, fire detection, air conditioning, warning lights, and fuel, and confirming quantities of fuel, oil, oxygen, and hydraulic fluids. Usually I was the first one on the flight deck, responsible for setting it up before the pilots arrived, as well as getting power to the airplane via the auxiliary power unit so the flight attendants could begin their own before-start checklists. Most important, the temperature in the cabin had to be regulated and coffee brewed.
During the taxi for takeoff, I called the dispatcher with the final calculated weights of the aircraft, including fuel, passengers, and cargo, and received the takeoff data and performance information the pilots were waiting for. During cruise, I managed the fuel and crossfeeds and searched for leftover girly pictures, which soon, under orders, disappeared altogether, which was a shame. It was like an Easter egg hunt: The better you knew the flight deck, the better your chances of finding a pin-up inside a visor or on the back of a knob cover.
During descent, I monitored cabin pressurization. The temperatures in four zones—cockpit, first class, mid, and aft—were controlled largely by airflow, which pressurization changes during ascent, cruise, and particularly descent kept in constant flux. To minimize passenger discomfort, I had to plan ahead when selecting the rate of pressure change—too high a rate would result in pain in Eustachian tubes and screaming babies; too low a rate and you couldn’t open the doors after landing. On approach and landing, I called for the data to calculate speed settings and get a gate assignment.
We were told that during the one-year probation, you didn’t want anyone to learn your name. That meant: Don’t haggle with the schedulers or crews, wear your hat, don’t drink in the airport bar while in uniform, and don’t bust Federal Aviation Regulations by flying low over Grandma’s house. No one wanted to do the rug dance in the chief pilot’s office: shuffling your feet from side to side while getting hollered at, displaying a contrite expression, and swearing you’d learned your lesson and would never do that again.
After 10 months, we were able to brag that we had served as flight engineers on the L-1011, which TWA retired in 1997. I upgraded to first officer on the McDonnell Douglas MD-80. It all happened in my first year at TWA—a glorious introduction to an aviation career.