Cutting Grass With the Boeing 727
By Mike Benton
(Editor's Note: In Mark Benton's Pitts story in the June issue of Sport Aerobatics, he revealed his former occupation as a flight engineer on a Boeing 727, and the following story ensued. This is just a sampling of his article slated for the July issue.)
Reggie (Paulk), you mentioned to me that when you were 15 years old, you took off as a passenger from the Denver airport on a hot summer day, and it seemed you barely got airborne as the aircraft ran out of runway. You stated, "I was a passenger on a UAL 727 out of Denver Stapleton when I was about 15 years old. I was sitting in the window and swear we were low enough to set the grass on fire at the departure end of the runway. That beast took forever to climb out of there that day!"
I remember Denver quite well as I was based there in the 1980s. Your departure experience from Denver as a young man was probably either on Runway 17 or 35 at the old Denver Stapleton airport. On a hot summer day and at max gross weight - which was around 174,000 on our B-727s - that takeoff was a breathtaker even for the pilots.
Back then the numbers for the takeoff were compiled by the flight engineer (FE) who was usually a new hire or at least a very junior pilot at our airline. The FE received a weight and balance sheet from the company telling him how much that particular aircraft weighed empty, how much fuel and cargo was on board, and how many passengers they had. It was not unusual on a light aircraft to have passengers move to different seats to keep the weight and balance within limits.
The FE went to these two huge beat-up books that were stored on the flight deck and decided which power and flap setting would be used based on the length of the runway, the pressure altitude, and the temperature outside. This information would be entered onto several graphs and charts, and the resultant data was handed to the pilots up front on a small 6-by-8-inch piece of paper complete with the exhaust pressure ratio (EPR) power setting, flap setting, and V-speeds.
The pilots would then set these speeds on their airspeed indicators manually, using plastic markers called "bugs." If the FE screwed up, the results could be catastrophic...and they sometimes were. (Read more in the July issue of Sport Aerobatics magazine.)