About 2 years ago, I submitted my “first drive” review of the 747-400. My aim then, was to give my first impressions of the legendary airplane and offer an accessible perspective to both pilots and non-pilots alike. Now it’s been just over 2 years and about 1500 hours of flight time and my perspective has shifted a bit. I have a more comprehensive experience with the airplane, and I’ve recently been promoted to the left seat. This then will be a review of the past 2 years of flying the 747 around the world, as well as a peek into the largely unseen world of ACMI cargo flying.
One thing that certainly has not changed is my awe of the airplane. Although it doesn’t seem as gigantic as it first did, it still inspires admiration and satisfaction to fly this airplane. Accelerate down the runway at maximum takeoff weight and the sensation of power and control transmitted to the pilot during the initial climb is one of the most gratifying sensations an airline pilot can experience. With only a few exceptions, this remains one of the biggest and most powerful airplanes to fly.
What has changed in the past 24 months is my confidence in the airplane’s capabilities as well as a refined awareness of its limitations. Generally speaking, the airplane has a massive operational envelope. As mentioned, we regularly fly it at or near maximum gross weight and it doesn’t reveal much in the way of strain or being at the edge of its performance capabilities. The biggest difference you notice from the cockpit during these takeoffs is that you don’t rotate until very near the end of most runways. While that’s certainly an eye-opening experience the first time you see it, decision speed (v1) has happened much further back on the runway. So no matter what happens after that point, you’re taking the airplane flying and you have to trust that the good folks at Boeing got their performance data correct, which I absolutely do.
We also have occasion to fly the airplane at very low weights and on very short flights. In most of these cases, we use a heavily reduced takeoff thrust setting. This has the advantage of reigning in any excess thrust that might otherwise speed the takeoff sequence up to an uncomfortably rapid set of tasks, and also reduces wear on the engines which are incidentally the most valuable part of the airplane. But sometimes a confluence of factors puts us in a low takeoff weight scenario where we actually have to use maximum thrust.
This happened during my first Christmas with the company. We were flying a contract for another cargo airline in Kentucky. The mission was to take the airplane with only a few thousand pounds of empty pallets from Louisville down to Miami and then pick up cargo there and Orlando before returning to the hub in Louisville. Regional flying in a 747! The 747 is using only a tiny fraction of it’s fuel capacity to fly that distance so we were at or near our minimum dispatch fuel (72,000lbs) which is a limitation that considers our center of gravity envelope on light weight flights.
So: minimum fuel, almost no cargo. A very light 747. An added factor on this day is that we were flying the ERF model which has the highest takeoff weight limitation (910,000lbs) and the more powerful B5F engines which produce about 4,000 lbs of extra thrust (each) compared to the normal engines which are rated at 57,900 lbs a piece. Again, normally this situation would warrant a heavily derated thrust setting, but on this day the Louisville airport was reporting Low Level Windshear. Our procedures require us to select maximum thrust during this weather so that there is no delay in available performance should the airplane encounter a microburst during the critical first segment of climb.
Yet another layer to this unique situation was that the pilot flying was a new hire who had come from a regional airline like myself. The instructor captain gave him the briefing that this would be a very fast takeoff. And indeed it was! The acceleration and initial climb angle were unlike anything I can recall in my airline experience. I was in the relief pilot seat for takeoff and our new guy did an excellent job of handling the airplane. It was a fun and valuable experience for both of us.
Other memorable flights include my longest and my shortest. The longest flight happened last year when we ferried an empty airplane from Kuwait to northern California. The route rang in at 7,259NM (8,359SM/13,452km). We stuffed about 343,600lbs of gas into the airplane which is almost fully topped off. Final block time (including taxi time) was 16 hours and 46 minutes, shutting down with 30,900lbs of gas remaining on the airplane.
Not long after that flight, we did a short re-position flight between 2 airports in Sacramento. Straight line distance: 34NM. About 12 minutes of actual flying time during which I hand flew the airplane at a maximum altitude of 4000′ and a relaxed speed of 200 knots. It was an absolute joy to fly this giant bird like a Cessna from my training days.
That’s the recurring theme of this airplane: Heavy or light, crossing continents and oceans or just taking it for a short jaunt down the road, it’s simply a wonderful airplane to fly manually. A pilot’s airplane in the truest sense of the term. Honest and forgiving handling with extremely positive control authority, and of course no shortage of power when you ask for it. In fact, the biggest challenge in flying this airplane is going down and slowing down. This occasionally creates conflict with ATC instructions when they need a speed and altitude restriction during an arrival, but we can usually accommodate them. Most ATC facilities understand the limitations of heavy jets like this and usually refrain from putting us in tight spots on our performance.
Promotion to Office Manager
Somewhat unexpectedly last year, my company put out a captain vacancy bid. Upgrading from First Officer (co-pilot) to Captain is based on seniority and company need. You can bid for the upgrade if you choose, and they award slots in order of company longevity (seniority). I was slightly conflicted about bidding because it seemed very quick and I wasn’t sure I was 100% ready make the move. But the general rule in this industry is to take the upgrade when it’s offered because you don’t know when it might come around again. My bid was placed with the kind encouragement of several captains I had flown with plus the probability that my seniority wouldn’t likely get me into award group anyway. Well, I got an award.
The training program was a brisk 10 days of classroom and simulator. I was lucky to have my sim-partner from when I was a new-hire, who happens to be a very smart guy and a great pilot. We have an excellent rapport and we prepped together a few days before the training began. It ended up being a fairly painless experience. After the simulator, I spent about 25 hours with an instructor captain doing normal line flying and was suddenly signed off to take the airplane with my own crew as captain.
Normal day to day operations end up being surprisingly mundane compared to sitting in the right seat. Ultimately, you have a few more responsibilities, but it’s not as big of a change as I was imagining. The important thing to remember is that as captain, any issues, problems, errors or anomalies are going to come back and land squarely in your lap. It can occasionally feel like a game of trying to find the mistake that might kill you or get you violated by the FAA, but I’ve been very fortunate in these first hundred hours to be supported by competent co-workers from the cockpit all the way back to our company HQ.
One of the biggest challenges has been taxiing the airplane when it’s heavy. At nominal weights, and on level surfaces, the 747 can start rolling only with idle thrust. That’s nice because all you have to do is manage the speed with regular brake applications. But I’ve already had a few situations where I’ve had to get the airplane rolling from a stop (including a few times on a slight uphill slope) when it was heavy, which required an unnerving amount thrust. Using excessive thrust on airport ramps is a concern for any airplane, but especially on heavy jets like the 747. You can do a lot of damage or even get someone killed if you’re not careful with your thrust, as Mythbusters demonstrated several years ago.
The Cargo Life
Since the 747 was born back in 1969, it has traditionally resided at the top of airline fleets as the flagship and the preferred aircraft for most senior pilots. The fact that I’m now a 747 captain at the relatively young age of 37 is an indication of the 747’s recent transition from passenger Queen to freight dog.
In an interesting fulfillment of an old prophecy, the 747 is being retired from passenger fleets and some of those aircraft are being converted into freighters. Part of the 747’s original design philosophy is that it would merely serve as a stop-gap between the early jet age and the supersonic era. Therefore it was intended to continue its service life primarily as cargo jet. As we saw, the supersonic dream never came to a meaningful fruition and the 747 really democratized air travel.
In the 21st Century, however, the 747 has outlived its useful life as an efficient passenger jet. The reliability and economy of the new generation of twin engine long haul jets has signaled the end of the Queen’s reign in the passenger airlines. Only a few international airlines continue to operate them, and even the updated -8 model couldn’t attract enough customers. But the freighter version continues to keep the production line open in Washington, albeit at very low output and for an uncertain amount of time.
Cargo airlines have embraced the 747 in the ever expanding global trade economy. The used aircraft are relatively cheap to acquire and can move large volumes of cargo at the right price point. Although dedicated freighter versions are still dominant, converted passenger planes can accomplish nearly identical performance and efficiency. If you’re wondering about the nose cargo door (which the converted passenger jets do not have), we hardly ever use it. 99% of the main deck cargo is loaded through the side door in the back because it provides a wider and taller opening than the nose door. That said, it does remain a useful alternative for oddly shaped cargo (usually very long items).
I’ll wrap it up with a summary of the cargo lifestyle that my airline, which operates a great deal of charter and on-demand flights, provides. I’d reckon it’s probably one of the last vestiges of real adventure flying you can get while still working for a reputable company in America. There are certainly wilder flying jobs in the far flung jungles and forests of the southern hemisphere, but this has to be as interesting as it gets while still laying over in nice hotels and getting decent catering on the airplane.
We get to fly one of the coolest airplanes in history all over the planet. I’ve circumnavigated the Earth in both directions multiple times. We fly to every continent (except Antarctica) regularly. We can end up in just about any country in the world with a runway long enough for a 747 with 24 hours notice. It’s really a lot of fun if you can embrace the occasional chaos of the schedule, and I truly do love it. Although I don’t anticipate retiring here, I fully expect this to be the best flying of my career and I’m truly happy to wait here until the next airline calls.
The opportunity to fly this amazing airplane and call myself a 747 captain is not lost on me at all.
[Images copyright 2018 Stephen Rubke/Hooniverse]