A Day in the Life of Flight Deck Crew
What happens from arrival at the airport to when the passengers disembark the aircraft. A full day as a pilot described.
An Airline Pilot’s Typical Day
Ever wondered what it would be like to walk in the shoes of a short haul airline pilot for the day? We take you through what a pilot does during a typical day at ‘work’.
For short haul operations, the flight crew usually arrive in the ‘crew room’ approximately one hour before departure. Here they meet and introduce ourselves to the other crew members and sign in on the airline’s system to verify they have arrived on time for the duty and are acknowledging they are fit, well rested and up to date with all the latest revisions to company manuals and notices. The pilots will then download the flight plans, weather information and notices to airman (NOTAMS) for the flights they will be operating.
Crew carefully evaluate if the weather is suitable at the departure and destination airports, whilst also looking at airports around the destination in case the flight needs to divert. Weather conditions that require special attention include strong winds, low cloud, fog or thunderstorms. Any of these factors may require changes to the flight plan or an increase to the amount of fuel to be loaded. En-route weather is also reviewed to spot areas of potential turbulence or icing. This gives flight crew a good overview of the day and builds their ‘Situational Awareness’.
The fuel figure is decided on between the two pilots and passed this onto the dispatch team.
The crew will look to find out what stand the aircraft is parked on.
The pilots and cabin crew then get together to conduct a quick briefing. This is where formal introductions between the crew take place. You may have flown with some or all of the crew members many times before and therefore be well acquainted but at some larger airlines, you may not have flown with or met any of the other crew before.
During the joint briefing, the Captain or First Officer will double check that the Cabin Crew are well rested and will highlight a few points which are important to the Cabin Crew such as the flight times and potential areas of turbulence.
Pilot vs Co-Pilot
There is a common misconception with regards to who does what on the flight deck. There is a Captain and a First Officer (or called a Second Officer depending on experience) which are often referred to as the Pilot and Co-Pilot. Whilst the Captain has overall responsibility for the decisions and ultimately the passengers and aircraft, most of the duties are split evenly with the co-pilot doing just as much flying as the pilot.
In the briefing room, the pilots would usually decide who is going to do the flying for each flight at the start of the day. For example, if they are flying 4 flights that day, the Captain may choose to fly the first and last flight, whilst the First Officer fly’s the middle two.
Head to the Aircraft
As with all passengers, all the crew have to pass through a security check at some point before arriving at the aircraft.
The pilots and cabin crew will then head to the aircraft, with the aim to be onboard about 30 – 35 minutes before the departure time. It’s worth noting that the departure time is the time that the aircraft’s parking brake is released to commence push back from the stand. Many people are under the impression that the scheduled departure time is when the aircraft gets airborne but this is incorrect.
One pilot will do the “walk around” to check the outside of the aircraft. The walkaround serves to check that there is no obvious damage or issues with the exterior of the aircraft.
The Captain will also check the aircraft’s technical log to ensure the aircraft is fully serviceable, or identify any defects. An aircraft defect doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t depart as it depends on how critical that system is and what redundancy is in place. There are complex documents which provide pilots with high specific guidance as to what can and can’t be defective. For example, if a windscreen wiper wasn’t working, the aircraft could still depart, but couldn’t land in thick fog.
Flight Deck Setup
Whilst one crew member is completing the walkaround, other crew member starts to ready the flight deck for departure. This includes running system checks, configuring the aircraft systems, inputting the route for the flight into the Flight Management Computer and checking the take-off performance. The pilot flying will also plan how they intend to fly the Standard Instrument Departure (SID).
The take-off performance varies on a daily basis and is a safety critical function. The pilots need to calculate various take-off speeds such as the speed they initiate the rotation of the aircraft and the minimum speed to maintain if an engine fails during or just after take-off. These speeds depend on runway length, aircraft weight, temperature and pressure. The take-off performance has to be double checked very carefully by both crew members.
Once the walkaround is complete and the flight deck initially set up, the crew will conduct a pre-departure briefing. This covers a range of points such as the initial taxi and departure routing, potential threats or errors that could occur (for example heavy rain showers that may be present on the climb out), high terrain, as well as looking at contingency plans should an emergency situation occur. The passengers are usually boarding whilst this is taking place.
Once all the passengers and their bags are onboard and the correct amount of fuel has been loaded, the dispatcher will hand over the final paperwork confirming how many people are onboard and the final weight of the aircraft for take-off. At this point the Pilot Flying will call for a pre-departure checklist (the names differ between aircraft types).
Once the main doors are closed the Senior Cabin Crew member will confirm to the pilots that the doors are closed and number of passengers onboard. Another very quick mini briefing will be given to the Cabin Crew member to reiterate the expected taxi time (this gives the Cabin Crew an idea of how long they have to conduct their safety briefing), expected flight time, anticipated turbulence and any other important information.
One of the pilots will then complete a PA to the passengers. During this time, the ground crew outside remove the steps, loading machinery etc. and complete a final walkaround as a final check.
Pushback and Start
The pilots will then liaise with the ground pushback team to make sure that the tug is connected and they are ready to push back the aircraft. The pilots then speak to ATC to request to push back and engine start. Assuming permission is given, the pilots reconfigure some of the aircraft systems and then complete a ‘before start checklist’.
The pushback then commences and the engines are started, usually the right engine first then the left. The pilots carefully monitor the engine indications and this is supported by the ground crew visually observing the engine start; they would report any excess smoke, noise or anything unusual.
Once the engines have been successfully started, the pilots tell the ground crew to disconnect from the aircraft. Some of the aircraft’s systems, such as the flight controls are then checked to make sure there are no technical issues. The after-start checklist is then completed.
The pilots will then request permission to taxy to the runway from ATC.
Taxiing the aircraft is one of the most critical phases of flight and therefore both crew members will be concentrating on maintaining the correct taxi routing whilst looking out for other aircraft and ground traffic. Airports can be extremely busy which is why it is so important to keep a good look out. During the taxy phase, the crew will run a number of checklists to ensure the aircraft is correctly configured and setup for departure.
When cleared to line up on the runway, the pilots will double check to make sure both the runway and final approach is clear. The flight crew turn on the strobe and landing lights and send a signal to the Cabin Crew that the take-off is about to start (this is usually either signalled by a few ‘ding-dongs’ or the seat-belt sign quickly being turned off and then on again.
Once lined up on the runway, and cleared to take-off by air traffic control, the pilot flying for that sector advances the thrust leavers and sets take-off thrust. As the aircraft accelerates down the runway, the Pilot Flying (PF) controls the aircraft direction with the rudder pedals. The PM is verifying that the take-off thrust has been set correctly, checking the aircraft’s speed monitoring any abnormalities or failures of the aircraft systems.
At the correct calculated speed, the pilot flying carefully pulls back on the control column to “rotate” the aircraft and allowing it to climb away. Pulling back to quickly can result in the tail coming into contact with the ground so using the correct technique is very important.
Once safely climbing away and a positive rate of climb is observed, the landing gear is raised. The pilots will usually have discussed at what point they intend to engage the autopilot on the departure which could be anywhere from about 1,0000 to 20,000ft depending on the airspace, terrain and weather. Engaging the autopilot above around 2,000ft should really have been discussed as part of the briefing.
Even when the autopilot is activated, the pilot’s workload at this stage of flight is still quite intense. The crew are managing the aircraft’s configuration, speed, altitude and heading through manipulating the autopilot controls whilst communicating with air traffic control.
At around 1,000ft (although it can vary), the aircraft’s nose is slightly lowered and power reduced from take-off power to climb power. The aircraft continues to accelerate which allows the flaps on the wing to be retracted stage by stage.
Once the flaps are up, the crew complete the after-take-off checklist and continue climbing the aircraft towards cruising altitude. During the climb, various checks are completed and certain systems may need to be reconfigured depending on aircraft type.
The crew will be making initial fuel checks and verifying performance considerations like the maximum altitude the aircraft could climb to depending on the weight and temperature.
Once it is safe to do so the pilots will indicate to the Cabin Crew that it is safe to move around the cabin and will also turn off the fasten seat belt sign at an appropriate point.
Having had approximately one and a half hours of a very intense workload, the pace and intensity of the operation starts to reduce. Once established in the climb and throughout the cruise, the pilots are monitoring the aircrafts systems, navigating the aircraft, communicating with air traffic control, carrying out fuel checks and getting the weather for airports along the flight path and destination in case an en-route diversion is required. In the cruise, the pilots normally get the chance to have a meal, a cup of coffee and a chat with our colleagues, depending on how long the flight is.
Most airlines have what is referred to as a “sterile flight deck”. This means the crew should not talk about anything that is not related to the operation of the aircraft below around 20,000ft as their focus should be exclusively on the operation.
Around half an hour before the descent commences, the crew brief for the descent, approach, landing and taxy in at the destination airport. This requires a review of what autopilots modes will be used to manage the descent, the expected profile, configuration and landing performance.
A PA will then usually be given to the passengers with an update on the flight progress and expected landing time.
The approach phase is one of the busiest phases of flight. The pilots are carefully managing the ‘energy’ of the aircraft ensuring that the correct rate of descent is being flown at the correct speed. The speed of the aircraft will typically need to be reduced from over 400 mph to around 150 mph whilst reducing the altitude from around 36,000ft to 0ft. This is not always straight forward and needs to be carefully actioned and monitored.
As the aircraft approaches its destination, the flaps are gradually extended to help slow the aircraft down to its landing speed. With the help of ATC, the pilots steer the aircraft towards the final approach and intercept the ILS, usually around 10 – 15 miles from the runway.
At about 5 miles from landing the pilots select the landing gear down, final flap setting and establish the landing speed. They also complete the landing checklist.
The autopilot is disconnected at around 1,000ft although it can be taken out much earlier on the approach, or left in until a later point.
At about 30 – 50ft, the aircraft’s nose is raised very slightly to reduce the rate of descent, allowing the aircraft to touchdown on the runway. In calm conditions this might be relatively straight forward but in windy and turbulent conditions, it requires considerable skills and hand to eye co-ordination.
A good landing is considered to be one that is on the centreline, within the touchdown zone and at the correct speed. A smooth landing isn’t necessarily a good one if it doesn’t meet the above criteria. Equally a firm landing is recommended on some aircraft types if the runway is wet or it’s windy.
As the aircraft leaves the runway, it is again reconfigured and the after landing checklist is complete. The taxy in remains a very critical phase of flight and requires a high level of concentration.
Once the aircraft has come to a stop on the parking stand, the engines are shut down and the shutdown checklist is completed.
The doors are opened and the passengers start to disembark.
The turnaround then starts where the aircraft is prepared for the next flight. The turnaround can be as quick 25 minutes at some airlines. If you are flying 4 flights in a day, which is quite typical at short-haul airlines, you will be doing one initial setup and 3 turnarounds every day as well as doing just about everything spoken about above (after initial check-in) 4 times.
This article assumes that everything goes without a hiccup and there are no issues. However, the reality is that there is very rarely a ‘standard day out’ which runs seamlessly. The reality is, technical issues, poor weather, passenger issues, ATC delays etc. (or a combination of all them). occur quite frequently and they all have to be managed appropriately by the flight crew.
The check-in, planning, aircraft setup, aircraft operation and flight management described has been toned down significantly to help a person with little or no knowledge about commercial aviation to understand what a pilot does on a daily basis. However, the reality is that all of these areas are far more complex than this brief overview describes and it take years of training and experience to become fully proficient at.
Anyone that tells you that pilots don’t work hard or the job is easy don’t really understand what the job entails.
This article is based on a typical day as a short haul pilot. If you are interested in reading about a typical day as a long-haul pilot check out our article on it.