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"As 727s retire, so do their flight engineers"

Wednesday, March 6, 2002

As 727s retire, so do their flight engineers 
Once crucial, they're being phased out 
The Dallas (TX) Morning News 

Rich Royals remembers the days when it took several fuel stops for an
airliner to reach its destination, airports had no security, and water
lines froze on unheated planes. 

Over 47 years at American Airlines Inc., he watched the airline industry
change and monitored aircraft systems from a third seat in the cockpit
on seven types of planes. Soon, though, American will retire the last
aircraft in its fleet that holds a spot for him. 
So, the 70-year-old professional flight engineer said he thinks he'll be
retiring himself when American parks its Boeing 727s on April 30. 

"Time moves on," said Mr. Royals. 

He and other professional flight engineers are quickly becoming symbols
of a bygone era - nonpilots flying in the cockpit. 

In the old days, the flight engineer was often an airplane and
power-plant mechanic who would perform maintenance on aircraft when they
landed in small cities and far-flung locales. 

"You were dealing with a different breed that [knew] the guts of the
aircraft," said Allen Brock, one of the last 727 captains for American.
"They were always the first person you saw, and they were tremendous
people to work with, with great attitudes." 

Today, flight engineers keep an eye on aircraft systems, including
pressurization and hydraulics. But on newer aircraft, technology and
automated equipment handle such tasks. 

The trend toward using machines to do the flight engineer's job began in
the 1970s when flight computers were introduced. Since then, they have
taken over many of the duties that had traditionally fallen to the
flight engineer. 

Shrinking numbers 

Airlines saw savings on weight and salary costs if they bought aircraft
with only a two-person pilot crew and no flight engineer. Before long
"three-holer" aircraft were no longer purchased. 

"What it amounts to is economics. It is considerably cheaper to operate
with two people instead of three," said David Dean, a senior career
counselor at AIR Inc., an Atlanta-based company that specializes in
pilot career consulting. 

Now that older aircraft with three seats in the cockpit are rapidly
being retired, flight engineers are bordering on becoming anachronisms. 

About 20 years ago, flight engineers made up about 25 percent of the
flight crews, while pilots were the remaining 75 percent. 

The number of flight engineers dropped to about 6 percent the last time
a study was done, said Kit Darby, AIR's president. 

Retiring planes, people 

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought a steep decline in passenger
traffic. Many carriers downsized their fleets, reducing the number of
older jets and flight engineers even further. 

"Now it's 1 or 2 percent," Mr. Darby said. 

Executives at Continental Airlines Inc. and United Airlines Inc. phased
out their three-seat aircraft in October. United saw a number of flight
engineers retire then. 

About 250 to 350 flight engineers with pilot credentials had to retire
because they were too old to work as captain or first officer, Mr. Darby

"They're all gone. All those pilots were retired as other pilots were
furloughed," he said. 

Northwest Airlines Inc. also no longer has any professional flight
engineers on its rolls. "We ... haven't had for some time," said
spokeswoman Kathy Peach. 

At Delta Air Lines Inc., professional flight engineers will have seats
in 727 cockpits until the end of next year, when the Atlanta-based
carrier retires the last of the aircraft. 

Spokesman Anthony Black said there are fewer than 100 professional
flight engineers and "most are above the age of retirement." 

At American, only three professional flight engineers remain. Mr. Royals
is 70 years old, and his two peers are 75. 

Professional flight engineers have been able to fly for so long because
the Federal Aviation Administration does not require retirement at age
60, as it does for pilots. Instead, professional flight engineers are
allowed to fly as long as they pass their physicals and the company has
jobs for them. 

This is not the first time that the cockpit crew has been downsized.
Navigators once were needed for long-haul flights, but progress
eliminated those jobs as well. 

"For years they said, 'You can't do without us. You'd get lost without
us.' But of course, automation moved on," said Mr. Dean, who flew with
professional flight engineers at United Parcel Service Inc. "The
engineers are in the same boat. We'll see the engineers all gone at some

As one person after another loses a seat in cockpits, some pilots joke
that they, too, are in danger of seeing their ranks decline. 

Some day, instead of two pilots in the cockpit, they say, there will be
a pilot and a dog. The pilot's assignment will be feeding the dog. 

And the dog? Well, it's there to bite the pilot if he or she dares to
touch the controls. 

The departure of flight engineers and navigators shows that anything is
possible. Only a few scattered passenger, charter and cargo airlines
continue to fly with professional flight engineers. 

"It's already very few," said Mr. Darby. "It's going to go away sometime


Flight engineers monitor electrical, hydraulics, pressurization,
air-conditioning systems and engine indicators. They also keep an eye on
engine performance while managing fuel burn and keeping log sheets.
Airlines' flight engineers:

Airline Flight engineers
Alaska 0
American 3
Continental 0
Delta {lt}100*
Northwest 0
Southwest 0
United 0
US Airways 0
*Airline was not more specific
SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research 


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