Monday, August 25, 2008

Phoenix - Los Angeles / Boeing 767-300ER / IFR

After practicing and reading and watching video tutorials for endless hours, I finally decided to fly the Level-D 767-300ER online with ATC. For my first flight, I chose a route I can fly blindfolded: Phoenix Sky Harbor to Los Angeles International.

I boarded the aircraft at B2, which is kind of squished into a corner. The ramp keeps flickering, which is a bug in the Simflyer KPHX scenery; I tried lots of things to make it stop, but without success—it can be distracting.

Anyway, preflight and boarding was routine. No ATC available in KPHX (as usual, the ATC that had been there when I started planning the flight was gone by the time I boarded the aircraft), but Los Angeles Center was online, which would carry me from outside Blythe into Los Angeles.

I have reason to be nervous, as there are significant differences between the 767-300 and the 747-400 and 747-800, the other two airliners I fly. I know the 747-400 very well, and the 737-800 quite well also, although I usually fly the heavy. The 767 is somewhat different. To complicate things, the airliners I know best are modeled by PMDG, whereas the 767 is modeled by Level-D, and there are always differences between models, even for the same aircraft. It takes a while to get used to the aircraft itself, and it takes a while to get used to the different philosophy applied to the model by different software companies.

I had previously discovered during my training that the FMC on the 767 isn't terribly reliable when it comes to following descent profiles beyond the first altitude constraint, and apparently the real thing has a similar problem. In the 747, I can trust the FMC to meet the constraints in many cases; in the 767, it hardly ever meets them. So, on the advice of other pilots, I've started using FLCH or V/S to meet the constraints on the 767. As long as you know that you have to do this and you anticipate, it works okay.

Another problem is the FMS database. The PORTE3 departure out of KSFO was all messed up, and it's not the only one. I ended up laboriously recoding it via the CDU; now it works well. Whoever is coming up with the procedures isn't getting things right a lot of the time. It's especially not fun when you get your runway assignment late in the game and you discover that the FMS procedure for the runway is messed up.

Anyway, finally got pax on board, very light load (I like light loads). I elected to start from the APU after pushback. It was a tight spot at this gate and I had to be pushed way back so that I could turn left directly; the tug couldn't turn me. Anyway, with nice but extremely hot weather at dusk, I taxied out to runway 08 for departure.

While I was coasting along towards my runway (the 767 seems to roll even with engines idle), I watched another arrival on 08 flickering all over the place. When aircraft behave like alien spacecraft in simulation, it's usually a problem with the communication between sims over the network; irregular updates cause the aircraft to bounce around in the air. However, it can also be a pilot cheating, if he discovers that he's way off the mark on landing and decides to slew the aircraft to cover his tracks. Anyway, this one came bouncing in and proceeded to plow beneath the runway (but that's also sim idiosyncrasy in most cases). By the time I reached the runway, I was glad to see that he had cleared the runway and moved towards the terminal.

Take-off was uneventful. I set 70% power, watched the engines spool up, then let the autothrottle set take-off power. I flew the aircraft by hand for only a few seconds, until the flight director indicated a turn. I started the turn and handed control over to the computers.

The sky and the city looked nice as I climbed out of Phoenix. Phoenix is a dump, but its one strong point is that it looks beautiful from the air at night. And of course it's always a happy occasion to be leaving the city instead of arriving. Soon the 108° temperature outside had fallen to a pleasant 56°, although it would later go much lower at altitude. My lightly loaded 767 climbed like the proverbial bat out of the underworld, and we were at cruise altitude in no time (with no ATC online, I deleted the 7000 constraint to Buckeye shortly after leaving the Class B).

Approaching MESSI on J4, I called in to Los Angeles Center, since I knew from memory that the Center boundary was right about there. All went smoothly. Before I reached Twentynine Palms, I got my crossing constraint for 17000 at KONZL. Now the fun began, because I figured the FMC would not descend me correctly. I started the descent early and watched the FMC. Nope, it wasn't descending fast enough, so I resorted to FLCH instead, and then V/S, so that I could set the green arc where I wanted. I also lowered the cruise and descent speeds in the FMC, since, with the cost indices I use, I'm always at redline on speed, and sometimes I overspeed at the top of descent (on the 767 specifically).

I crossed KONZL at my altitude and was cleared to descend via the SEAVU1 arrival. I used V/S to meet the constraints on the arrival. Surprisingly, I was assigned 25L for arrival (usually I get 24R, but maybe this was because I was flying as Delta and their gates are on the south side). This required some FMC manipulation, as I had assumed 24R. Unfortunately, the approach for 25L was missing a truckload of waypoints, and had waypoints that were not on the plate. I inserted LUVYN (which I have to do on the 737 and 747, too) to get my turn right, and by then I was cleared for the ILS approach, so I just flew in the direction of the runway and eased the aircraft down without trying to look up the altitude constraints—there just wasn't time.

A big surprise awaited me as I was handed off to the tower: I was asked to sidestep to 25R instead of 25L, apparently because some big iron was hot on my tail. I'm conservative on approaches and I tend to slow down early so that I can be right on the money for the approach, but I know that many heavy pilots on VATSIM come blazing down out of the flight levels at full speed, leaving them scrambling to slow and descend before they flash past their destination airport. I had received and executed a speed reduction to 250 upon reaching 17000, and once that was lifted I continued to slow, down to about 170-180 by the time the localizer came alive. Thus, I probably had traffic breathing down my neck from behind.

Normally changing runways would be surprise enough, but this was my first time online with ATC in the 767, and I've had very little practice hand-flying this beast. Tower gave me the ILS frequency, but since I was flying alone, there was no time to set up the ILS (in real life, there would be a copilot who could do this). So I bit the bullet and pulled the autopilot to fly the approach by hand. Shortly thereafter I pulled the autothrottle as well.

I turned right to line up with 25R, overshot a bit, and came back. Soon I was nicely lined up, but a bit low. For a visual approach I like to have the instrument panel out of the way, but that made it hard to track my airspeed and altitude. I came in beneath the glide slope but still at a safe altitude. By the time I reached the threshold I was aligned and on the glide slope. I flared much better than I had expected and touchdown was very gentle. Rollout was fine and I had stopped in no time. It went a lot better than I had been expecting, but it made me pretty nervous.

Switching to ground, I was still preoccupied and misunderstood my taxi instructions. I finally got it straight that I was to take Bravo (no surprise there) to C9 and then to the terminal, because that's where Delta parks. Once I knew which way Ground wanted me to go, I got there with no problem, and lined up nicely at the gate (53B). Shut everything down, connected power and air, engines off and opened the doors, and I was done.

Quite a fun flight.