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.
We would usually arrive in the crew room approximately one hour before departure. Here we will meet the other crew members and download the flight plans, weather and notices to airman (NOTAMS) for the routes we’ll be flying today. As a crew, we would evaluate if the weather was suitable at our departure and destination airports, whilst also looking at airports around our destination incase we needed to divert the flight. Weather conditions that would get our attention are strong winds, low cloud, fog or thunderstorms. We would then decide on a fuel figure and pass this onto our dispatch team.
There is a common misconception with regards to who does what on the flight deck. There is a Captain and a First Officer (sometimes referred to as 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 duties are split evenly – the co-pilot does just as much flying as the pilot! In the briefing room, we would usually decide who is going to fly each flight. For example if you were scheduled to fly 4 flights that day, the Captain my choose to fly the first and last flight, whilst the First Officer was the pilot flying for the middle two.
The pilots and cabin crew will then head to the aircraft, with the aim to be onboard about 35 minutes before the departure time. One pilot will do the “walk around” to check the outside of the aircraft, whilst the other crew member starts to ready the flight deck for departure. This includes running system checks, setting up the routing to our destination and checking the take-off performance. The take-off performance varies on a daily basis – we need to calculate what speed we need to lift off at, which depends on runway length, aircraft weight, temperature and pressure.
The Captain will also check the aircraft’s technical log to ensure the aircraft is fully serviceable, or identify any defects. A defect doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t depart – it depends on how critical that system is and what redundancy is in place. There are complex documents which provide us with some guidance as to what we can and can’t fly without. For example, if a windscreen wiper wasn’t working, we could still depart, but couldn’t land in thick fog.
As the passengers are boarding the crew will usually be briefing the departure. This covers 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.
Once all the passengers and their bags are onboard and the correct fuel is in the tanks, the dispatcher will give us the final paperwork confirming how many people are onboard and the final weight of the aircraft for take-off. The main doors will be closed and the crew will request to push back and start the engines with air traffic control.
Taxiing the aircraft is one of the 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. Before getting airborne, the crew will run a number of checklists to ensure the aircraft is correctly configured and setup for departure.
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, one pilot is checking the aircrafts speed and whilst ensuring that any failure of the aircrafts systems are quickly identified and communicated. The other pilot is steering the aircraft with their feet to keep the plane in the middle of the runway.
At the correct calculated speed, the pilot flying pulls back on the control column to “rotate” the aircraft and allowing it to climb away. The landing gear is raised once airborne, and the autopilot is normally engaged at around 1000ft. Even when the autopilot goes in, the pilots workload at this stage of flight is still quite intense. The crew are managing the aircrafts configuration, speed, altitude and heading through manipulating the autopilot whilst communicating with air traffic control.
The pilots may choose to continue manually flying the aircraft until a higher altitude in order to maintain their hands on flying skill levels. This is usually discussed before departure taking into account a number of factors such as weather conditions and how busy the airspace is likely to be.
Once the flaps are up, the crew complete the after takeoff checklist and continue climbing the aircraft to it’s cruise altitude. Flaps are the devices on the wings which are extended for take-off and landing in order to allow the aircraft to fly at low speeds.
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 incase an en-route diversion is required. In the cruise, we’d normally get the chance to have a meal and a cup of coffee and a chat with our colleagues, depending on how long the flight is.
Most airline’s 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 100% of their focus should be on the aircraft.