The Day I Flew For The Airlines

When we were living in Black Forest, Colorado, I saw a notice in the local newspaper, "Pilots wanted. All levels of experience and ratings." and gave a 1-800 phone number to call. I figured it was someone wanting to sell something and pilots would be good prospects but decided to call anyway. The lady who answered the phone said they wanted people with flying experience for a project but wasn't forthcoming with more than that. I answered all her questions about the types of aircraft I'd flown, my licenses and ratings and number of hours. She said I fit their needs and could I to come to Denver for one day for which I would be paid $125 plus travel expense. I was told to bring my logbooks and ask for a certain person at the United Training Center at 9:00am.

The lady who met me asked for my logbooks, looked at my licenses and filled out a form of basic information on me. Then took me to a waiting room where she said to help myself to coffee, juice and rolls which were on a table, then she left saying someone would be with me in a few minutes. I still couldn't figure out what they wanted with me. Perhaps ten minutes later another woman came in and asked me to come with her. We walked down several halls to a door which she opened and we stepped into the cockpit of airliner. She told me, "You are on United Flight 123 from Denver to St. Louis and the entire flight crew has been incapacitated. Would you see what you can do." She closed the door and was gone.

737 instrument panelIt was a typical airliner cockpit with steam gauges. Flight instruments on the left and duplicated on the right, engine instruments and throttle quadrant in the middle and the radios just below them. Big handle sticking out of the panel to the right of the engine instruments. Flap controls next to the throttle quadrant and trim wheels on either side. A Jep case on the floor behind the pilot's seat. Looked very similar to a Piper Turbo Aztec I'd been flying except much larger and with a few more bells and whistles. Everything was up and running. I realized that I was in a simulator cockpit.

I slid into the left seat and automatically clicked the seatbelt. I picked up the microphone, pressed the button and said, "This is United Flight 123 with you, who am I talking to."

"United 123, this is Kansas City Center, we have you at Flight Level Three One Zero over Salina, Kansas. What do you need."

"The flight crew is incapacitated, I'm a pilot and I'm going to have to land this thing. What's the weather in St. Louis and Denver?"

"United 123, current weather St. Louis is five hundred feet with a quarter mile visibility in rain. Denver is clear with one hundred miles visibility."

"Kansas City Center, I want to turn around and go back to Denver."

United 123, you are cleared to make a one-eighty turn to the left and descend to Flight Level Two Eight Zero.

I figured the smart thing to do at this point was let the auto pilot keep flying the ship so I turned the heading bug about thirty degrees to the left and moved the altitude hold down to 30500. The ship banked left and began to descend. I did that a couple more times until I was level at 28,000 and flying a heading the opposite of what it had been. I called Kansas City Center and reported level at FL 280. I also told them that I'd like a frequency so I could talk to a United Training Captain.

Kansas City Center told me to contact Denver Center and gave me a frequency and they would handle me from there. I switched to the frequency I had been given and Denver Center answered. I explained the situation, told them that I was declaring an emergency, I'd like radar following and a United Training Captain to talk me through the approach.

Fortunately I'd been in and out of Denver Stapleton a number of times and knew the airport layout so I asked for a fifty mile final to runway one seven left. I clicked the auto pilot off so I could hand-fly the airplane a bit to get the feel of the controls. I made a few shallow banked turns and reduced the power slightly which required a change of trim to hold altitude. I was also busy finding things like the flaps, spoilers and landing gear handles.

They kept giving me heading changes and lower altitudes until I was down to 16,000 feet and slowed to about 250 knots. Then another voice came on. He said he was a United Training Captain and would talk me through the approach. He told me to begin a turn to the left to a heading of one seven zero which was the runway heading. I hadn't bothered with navigation as I had enough to do without adding that to the mix.

He told me to lower the landing gear and where the handle was located. He also gave me flap settings and said I'd have to make a change in the trim settings. When I was down to about 10,000 feet, suddenly the skyline of Denver popped up in the windscreen and I could see Stapleton straight ahead.

As I got closer and closer, he told me that I'd get a warning horn when I was just off the end of the runway but it was just the ground proximity warning. He's also instructed me on using the thrust reversers and brakes.

I saw the runway numbers pass under me, raised the nose, eased the throttles to idle and waited for the sound of the wheels touching down. The nose rocked down and he said, "Reverse thrusters and bring the power up about half way on the throttles. Use the brakes to keep lined up with the center line."

"OK close the throttles, close the reversers and brake to a stop." I heard the door behind me open. It was only then that I realized that my shirt was soaked with sweat. "Want to taxi to the ramp?" He asked.

"No, I'm happy where I am," I looked up, expecting to see a United Captain standing there but was disappointed to find a short bald guy in an open collar shirt. "Congratulations on a good landing," he told me.

We went to his office where he explained that I had been part of a research program to see what the chances were for an average pilot to land an airliner in an emergency. Since roughly three percent of the people in the US had some flying experience, there are five or six pilots on most any flight. He said they had tried to get a cross section of pilots to test. I asked him how much help they gave people in the research, he said "Only what they ask for."

Then he asked me why I had requested a fifty mile final and specifically the left runway. I told him to give me all the time possible to do the approach and I asked for the left runway because the end of the right one is a mile further south which would give me that much more time and distance if I needed to move over to it.

I got a letter a few months later with a breakdown of the pilots tested and how they scored. Out of 112 people tested, 9 had landed successfully with no damage to the airplane. another 12 had landed with damage but no fatalities and it quickly went down hill from there with half of them unable to do anything.

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Copyright 2008 by Jim Foreman