School is in session

The first captains are brought up to speed on the “Triple Seven”

They have to follow a daily timetable. They are taught in class. And there is also a teacher, of course. When Manfred Schridde gives his wife in Germany a quick ring in the mornings, he’ll often sign off by saying: “I have to hang up now, I’ve got to get to school.”

Manfred Schridde and his colleague Reinhart Stuhlmacher, both 47 years old, are experienced flight captains – but have still had to go back to school. The school in question is the Boeing Training & Flight Services Center, located in Crawley’s industrial area, ten minutes by car from London’s Gatwick Airport. The teacher, John Fitch, is a picture-book English gentleman and former British Airways pilot. Over six weeks, Fitch sends his students through fog and cloudbursts and has one of two engines go up in flames or two tyres in the main undercarriage go flat. The students must then show how they would tackle the situation in the new aircraft.

Although Schridde and Stuhlmacher have more than 20 years of piloting experience and both have captained the MD-11F for the last 13 of those, the machines are so fundamentally different that it’s not possible to make a change “on the fly” from one cockpit to the other. Manfred Schridde explains, “It’s like switching from an Audi to a Mercedes. Both cars have a steering wheel in front of the driver’s seat and the accelerator below on the right, but everything else is completely different – where the window controls are and how the navigation system, air-conditioning and heated rear window work.” Training starts in the simulator. It can reproduce almost all conceivable scenarios. “We don’t have to be really flying the plane to get a feeling for it”, says Captain Stuhlmacher. Training in the simulator is more environmentally friendly as there is no fuel consumption. It’s more economical because an aircraft doesn’t have to be taken from the production process. And it allows the students to experience extreme situations that they wouldn’t like to imagine happening in a real flight.

It’s 11:30 a.m. this Wednesday morning. John Fitch has been giving his students a series of new hazards to cope with for four hours. Two main topics were common to all training units – a sudden drop in cockpit pressure with immediate rapid descent and landings in side winds, some coming frontally from left or right, then diagonally from the front or as a gust from behind.

When John Fitch turns the simulator off after four hours, Manfred Schridde is bathed in sweat. The effort is also etched on Reinhart Stuhlmacher’s face. “We each did six landings in this simulator shift”, says Schridde. “That takes it out of you mentally and physically.” But both are happy: “That went quite well today.”

But the day isn’t over yet. The work often continues back in the hotel room. Schridde and Stuhlmacher are doing pioneering work. As they are some of the first Lufthansa Cargo pilots to be trained on the “Triple Seven” and will go on to become instructor pilots, they are also revising the original Boeing versions of the operating and training manuals to meet the specific requirements of the Lufthansa subsidiary. This means having to comb through 3,000 pages, deleting a lot, rewriting some and adding information to others. No wonder then that rooms 7303 and 7305 of the airport hotel look like a small specialist library, complemented by a collection of laptops.

Why would well-experienced captains want to do this again? Reinhart Stuhlmacher speaks of the “appeal of pioneering work to build up a fleet.” For Manfred Schridde, it’s “a challenge to do something different after flying the MD-11F for 13 years. I needed the change of scene.” Neither found it easy to bid farewell to the “Eleven” as “it’s a fantastic plane.” But Stuhlmacher also says, “Training to become an instructor for the 777F is even more exciting than continuing to fly a beloved aircraft.” And Manfred Schridde hopes that what pilot colleagues say about the “Triple Seven” will be proven true: “It’s a lovely airplane.”