Flying the 747-8

When the taxi instructions come down to us from the tower, I release the parking break. Even at just over 985,000 lbs, we start to roll forward; the mighty GEnx-2B67 engines are hungry to pull us forward and eager to power us into the dark and brooding Hong Kong night. I take my time in the turns and make them extra deep so that our 250 foot long frame will carefully round the corners of the taxiways. The cockpit is dark, still smelling like brand new leather and carpet, with just the dim glow of the LED screens in front of us showing the engine instruments and the flight path on departure. As I call for the before takeoff checklist, the captain reads from the front computer screen and ticks off the items one by one.

Huge and heavy, this machine of precision and power is easy to guide onto the runway. The clearance comes in over our headsets: “Cleared for takeoff.” I glance at my instruments, seeing the terrain display depicting the mountains off to our right as they sit unseen out the front windows in the darkness. The engine indications are all normal and the weight indicator shows that we are right at max takeoff weight: 985.0. With everything on the level, it is time to ride this rocket into the sky. I call for takeoff thrust and the captain “stands up” the thrust levers and then pushes the auto thrust switch to engage full power. Seconds pass with nothing; no changes, no sounds. The enormous and powerful, yet eerily quiet GE engines slowly come to life before calmly producing nearly 67,000 lbs of thrust each at max power. This mighty beast we sit atop charges down the runway for takeoff with the ease of a Sunday afternoon stroll, even when it is fully laden with cargo.

Passing our decision speed of 130 knots, the computer calls out “V1”. The captain removes his hands from the thrust levers as there is no aborting this now. Roughly ten seconds later, he calls “Rotate” and I guide the control column back into my lap as the nose starts to rise. Keeping the wings level, I pitch the nose for 12 degrees and wait — she’ll fly when she’s ready. We lift off the runway at a V2 speed of 180 knots as the lights of Hong Kong International blur past us in a hurry. Slowly and steadily, the lights of the airport melt away beneath us as we pull our way into the darkness. Gliding gracefully through the moonless dark air, we climb out at 350 knots all the way to our cruise altitude of 31,000 feet. Aboard Cathay Pacific’s newest 747 variant, the “-8,” it’s nine hours and fifteen minutes to Anchorage, and I’m looking forward to every minute of it . . .

Only a handful of the new 747-8’s are flying around the world and Cathay is one of the launch customers, along with Cargo Lux and Lufthansa Cargo. I was both nervous and excited to fly it for the first time. Boeing has done an outstanding job making the new fly-by-wire flight controls feel like the older controls of the 747-400 series that all of us Cathay guys are used to. I lost my initial jitters when I felt how nicely it handles. Honestly, the hardest part to flying the new -8 is the automation system management. So much of today’s flying, especially when flying the newest plane off Boeing’s assembly line, is not the stick and rudder part that we do for the last 30 seconds of a flight during landing, it’s the monumental task of monitoring all the computerized systems. Flight management, not “flying” is the skill set we need hone today. -8 pilots can all fly, and fly well, as that is expected. We just have to add computer and monitoring tasks to our skill set.

For example, the new vertical navigation system, known as VNAV, is very smart and highly complex. It can calculate descent paths from cruise altitude all the way to landing so that we can maintain near idle thrust all the way down for fuel savings. We can increase or decrease our speed while maintaining this “path” on descent and it will tell us when we can expect to add flap settings so as to be configured prior to touchdown. This is wonderful for fuel savings, but in a way, it can be more challenging for me as a pilot, because I have to keep my mental model of what should happen ahead of an even more complex aircraft. After flying all night, it can be tricky to stay ahead of smarter and smarter aircraft.

The electronic checklist, or ECL, is a nice feature to have, but it too has some kinks in the system. For normal conditions, it’s nice to have the before start checklist right in front of us on a screen. Items on the checklist that are already accomplished are automatically ticked off and colored green, while items we have not accomplished are magenta. The aircraft knows when we’ve done items and when we haven’t. However, in the simulator, when running multiple checklists for multiple problems, I’ve heard it is nice to revert back to a paper checklist — that out dated thing that has worked for over 100 years.

The -8 has better fire suppression in the cargo hold, it has a nitrogen generation system that helps prevent sparks in the fuel tanks (TWA 800), and it can carry more cargo than a -400 over a longer distance, and do it 25% more efficiently. The aircraft has power to spare and it’s amazing to climb up to cruise altitude at 350 knots and 1,500 feet per minute, all the way up. The onboard weather radar has an auto setting that never needs to be touched. It knows where it is on the globe and thus knows what type of weather to look out for — tropical or northern climate storms, as each vary in their appearance on radar. It also uses an onboard terrain map to de-clutter the screen of ground returns so that only weather appears, and nothing else. It’s awesome.

Interestingly enough, the galley is as bad as the new airplane is good. The oven door opens in such a way that the door wants to swing closed onto one’s arm for a burn hazard. The sink drain is in the very bottom of the sink. Problem? Yes. We fly “level” at 2.5 degrees nose up, so water remains stuck in the bottom of the sink and won’t drain until it is again level on the ground. Also, the food storage is nearly impossible to get to, but at my weight, that might actually be a pro, not a con.

Overall, the new -8 is a dream to fly, and when it is heavy, it’s easy to just roll it onto the runway for a smooth landing. Any -400 pilot can fly the -8 and our conversion course was only one day. Boeing added a lot of new bells and whistles, but in the end, the best improvement is its fuel efficiency. The passenger variant of the -8, known as the -8i (for intercontinental) will probably not be on Cathay’s horizon, even with the fuel savings, because management is in love with two engined aircraft. The 777 twin engine burns even less fuel, but carries fewer people, too. I hope Cathay will one day buy the -8i because the Queen of the Skies, the 747, is truly the best aircraft in the world to fly.

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