It’s always funny when it happens to somebody else, but it isn’t so funny when it happens to me. And it’s especially not funny when I watch it happen to someone else and swear it won’t happen to me, only to find that it does.
Sometimes it seems like half of learning to fly a new airplane is just figuring out how to get in, get out, and plug in your headsets. Cars are built with certain standardization requirements that we can all count on: the gas pedal is on the right, the key goes on the right, and the gear shift on an automatic follows the same order of P, R, N, et cetera. The intention is that a person can easily transition from one car to another. Even when there are noticeable differences, it’s easy to navigate them.
Airplanes, on the other hand, do not always have such luxuries. I am currently going through training on my second new airliner in the past six months. In both cases, my training partners and I ran into some frustrations and difficulty with something as simple as getting the seats and rudder pedals situated. In a car, you can bet that the seat adjustment tools will either be a handle on the side or under the front of the seat. The handles are immediately recognizable, even if the seat is electric.
Worse still for pilots is the battle with muscle memory fighting not just the novelty of a new airplane, but often of a different seat, which might be left versus right, or an altogether new seat design. Years ago Bombardier introduced new cockpit seats for the CRJ series, and even with memos and photographs, pilots who had flown the aircraft for thousands of hours struggled at times to remember the location of the new handles. There we were: two pilots fumbling around, wiggling in place like we had ants in our pants, charged with flying a $20-million-plus airplane, equipped with two new seats that cost more than $15,000, with some of the best training money could buy, and we couldn’t even move the seats. We looked like idiots.
Every time I get in a new airplane, I vow that this isn’t going to be a problem. And every time, it is—at least just a little.
In my most recent adventures, the problem hasn’t been the airplane, but the training devices, one of which is a fixed-base, non-motion simulator with actual cockpit seats. The other is just a seat on rails, but each is different. Plus, we are taking turns flying left seat (normal for all of us) and right seat (not so much). Various manufacturers put the levers in different spots, and they don’t all work the same. Some have plunger handles and some don’t. Some have both. Some have lumbar supports. Some have lumbar supports that actually work. Some have switches—under the seat, of course—that adjust the flex in the front of the seat where your leg bends.
And it isn’t just the seats. I’ve run into the same problem with the headset jacks. Sometimes, if you don’t know where the jacks are, it feels like a scavenger hunt. Once you find them, their location seems obvious, but deep down you know it isn’t.
Even the rudder pedals are different. Some are electric, but most are manual. But some of the manual ones are a simple turn device. Some, like my new one, have a spring-loaded doohickey that you pull to release the turning thingy. It took me several lessons to figure that out, and it’s important information for me because I’m just barely tall enough to reach the ground.
I often think that the first lesson of any new airplane should be a 15-minute session just on getting in and out. It’s a simple task, but when you can’t do the simplest things, and you are already overwhelmed with what you need to learn, your frustrations are just compounded.
And then there are the different designs for the cockpit doors…—Chip Wright