Compartmentalization and Your Family, Part 2

A United Airlines Boeing 747 departs San Francisco International Airport. Photo: Phillip Capper

The first part of this article series talks about talking about risk with your family.

After several years of accident-free flying, passed check rides, and yet another type rating, your family may normalize the fact you defy gravity for a living and think that you have it all mastered. Modesty is a fine trait, and your family probably admires the humility you display even while doing something everyone else considers one step removed from magic. However, it may not hurt to reveal what goes on behind the curtain every now and then.

The Air Force decided in 1986 that I needed to be a Boeing 747 captain, so I was sent to United Airlines with instructions to earn an Airline Transport Pilot certificate with a 747 type rating.  At the time I held a commercial license with Boeing 707 and 720 type ratings. How hard could it be? I heard that the airplane check ride was easy, but you couldn’t experience that until you passed the simulator check, which was known for a high bust rate. Our last Air Force pilot failed the sim check because he couldn’t clear the obstacles departing Runway 28L at San Francisco International Airport, California (KSFO) following an engine failure at V1. My first attempts ended with simulated crash trucks and an actual “Unsat” on my grade reports. “Don’t worry, you’ll get it,” I was told. The simulated aircraft was at maximum gross weight and the conditions required a very gentle 3-deg. per second rotation to a very precise angle. Rotate too quickly or too high and you stalled. Rotate too slowly or too low and you didn’t clear the hills just north of the airport.

With each failed training session, I became more and more frustrated. I was also consumed with studying for the four-hr. oral exam. We were moving from Hawaii to the mainland and our plan was for me to go solo for the first two weeks and for my wife to join me for the last two weeks so we could enjoy the Denver area together. I started to think that was a mistake because I just didn’t have the time for anything but my studies.

As the check ride neared it became apparent that I was under a level of stress my wife had never witnessed before, so she finally asked. I admitted that the V1 cut could do me in. Her perfect pilot husband, she learned, was not so perfect.

With just one simulator session to go before the sim check, the pressure was on. The engineer in me took over and analyzed my previous failures. I wasn’t rotating too quickly or not quickly enough. My rotation angle was always on target. Always. So, what was causing enough drag to prevent the jumbo jet from climbing as Boeing had intended? That’s when the light came on.  My sloppy rudder technique was causing the rudder to hang out in the wind and that was robbing us of acceleration. 

During the last training simulator session, I managed to be smooth while applying enough rudder pressure to keep the aircraft flying straight, even with an outboard engine failure. We cleared the hills as the performance charts predicted. I repeated that for the simulator check and after the flight check was awarded the ATP with 747 type.

Years later, for another type rating, I overheard my wife chase our children away from the study. “Give daddy his space,” she said. “His mind will be somewhere else for a while until he memorizes another airplane.” As it turned out, my struggles with her as a witness paid dividends beyond the new license and type rating. I believe my family understands the flight compartment has a special place in my life. I owe them something special in return.

James Albright

James is a retired U.S. Air Force pilot with time in the T-37B, T-38A, KC-135A, EC-135J (Boeing 707), E-4B (Boeing 747) and C-20A/B/C (Gulfstream III…


1 Comment
For a real world demonstration of the 747 departing KSFO, United 863 just missed that hill in 1998 for exactly the reason stated above. See: