Insider Series: A Day in the Life of a Pilot — During the Flight

Oct 1, 2017

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TPG Insider “Marty McFly” is a pilot for a major US-based airline. Today, he gives us a little insight into what an average day is like on the job. 

In a previous article, I explained everything the cockpit crew does to make sure your plane is ready for an on-time departure — ensuring everything is functioning properly and the flight is planned correctly goes a long way in reducing workload down the road. By now, the cabin door is closed, the flight attendants tell us everyone is seated and the overhead bins are closed. Finally, our focus can change to actually flying the airplane.

Taking Off

As you’re settling in your seat and listening to the safety presentation, we’re busy getting clearance to push back and taxi from whoever owns the tarmac around your departure gate, whether it’s the airline or the airport ground controllers (it depends on the airport). Because we don’t have rearview mirrors, we have to rely on the ramp controller and our tug driver to make sure we don’t back into any other planes heading in and out of the adjacent gates. If you’re ever wondering why we haven’t pushed back for several minutes after the door closes, it’s probably because there’s traffic behind us. Once clearance is given, we can push back from the gate and start the engines. The tug driver will then disconnect, confirm the aircraft is ready to taxi and indicate the area around the plane is clear. At this point, we’ll call either the ramp controller or the airport ground controller for official taxi clearance.

At most major airports, the ground controller is very busy and sometimes, like at Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD), there are separate frequencies for inbound and outbound aircraft to help cut down on radio congestion. Taxi clearance tends to be rattled off faster than an auctioneer’s cadence, so it’s very important for pilots to be ready to copy it and have a rough idea of what it’ll be. Taxiways are generally named after letters of the alphabet and finding your way around an unfamiliar airport can be the most challenging part of the flight. Finding the right ones can be confusing, particularly at night, so this requires the full attention of all of the pilots — especially at international airports, where ground controllers can sometimes be hard to understand. Fortunately, airport signage has improved significantly over the last 20 years and many new planes have moving map displays to help pilots navigate.

As we approach the runway, we prep the aircraft for takeoff, enter any last-minute weight changes into the flight computer, assess any wind shifts from the original plan, adjust takeoff speeds based on those changes, set the final flaps and complete the takeoff checklist. The ground controller then hands us off to the tower controller, who gives us one last wind report, takeoff clearance, initial altitude and heading instructions for the climb. The pilot then pushes the throttles up to the takeoff setting, while another confirms everything is correct.

Delta A350 takeoff
There’s a lot going on in the cockpit by the time the plane actually takes off.

Because engines produce more power than necessary to get the plane off the ground, pilots will use a reduced power setting if weight allows it, essentially prolonging the engine life, decreasing the likelihood of failure, burning less fuel and providing a quieter takeoff. The aircraft can still take off and climb to a safe altitude even if half its engines stopped working.

Once the power is set, the nonflying pilot calls out speeds that denote different phases of the takeoff roll — the first is typically between 80 and 100 knots. This is considered the high-speed regime of the takeoff and the pilots will usually only reject it if there are serious malfunctions. The next callout will be V1. At this speed, we are committed to take off because we no longer have sufficient runway space left to safely stop the plane. This speed varies with each takeoff because it’s calculated specifically for that airplane at the exact takeoff weight for that flight on the specific runway being used — with the Boeing 777, for instance, that speed is usually above 150 knots, or about 172 mph. Shortly after, V1 VR will be announced, which is the speed at which the flying pilot will begin the takeoff rotation. Finally, V2 will be announced. In the unlikely event the pilots experience an engine failure, the pilots will climb out at V2 to attain the best climb rate with an engine failure.

Up in the Air

As the plane climbs, we raise the gear and begin accelerating. Most international destinations require the crew to reach 3,000 feet at their initial climb speed, with flaps extended all the way to reduce noise impact around the airport. At most US airports, however, that altitude is 800 feet. As the plane accelerates, we raise the flaps, complete the after-takeoff checklists and eventually turn on the autopilot to allow us to better scan for other aircraft. If the workload permits, most pilots prefer to hand-fly and get in some “stick and rudder” time to help us stay proficient.

Shortly after takeoff, the tower hands us off to the departure controller, who gives us vectors to join our filed departure route. As we pass 18,000 feet, we set our altimeters to standard pressure and turn off the landing lights. On takeoff and landing, we set our altimeters to the barometric pressure for the airport we’re operating at so they’ll read the correct altitude. Because we transit many weather fronts as we fly from airport to airport, pilots set standard pressure above 18,000 feet so all aircraft operating in the high altitude structure has a common barometric baseline. Once we near cruising altitude, we ask the high-altitude controller if anyone flying in front of us has experienced turbulence. If we’re confident the ride will be a smooth one, we’ll turn off the seat-belt sign.

At this point, we can start to relax since cruise-altitude tasks are not time-critical and we can take our time monitoring the fuel burn and watching various weather forecasts. On transatlantic flights, we get oceanic clearance from Gander or Shanwick Oceanic Control, and once that happens, we reconfirm that the route is programmed correctly and coordinate with the domestic controller to get clearance to our coast-out fix and final cruise altitude. As we coast out over the ocean, we perform final navigation checks to make sure the aircraft is accurately tracking our position because soon we won’t have any ground-based navigation facilities to rely on. While flying over the either the Pacific or Atlantic, we do periodic position checks to confirm we are where we are supposed to be at the time we are supposed to be there with the fuel we calculated we would have.

Just relax and enjoy the view. We've got everything under control. Image by Barry Thomas / EyeEm / Getty Images.
Just relax and enjoy the view. We’ve got everything under control. Image by Barry Thomas / EyeEm / Getty Images.

Prepping for Landing

As we get closer to where we’re going, we receive the weather report for landing, which includes the expected runway and approach, before setting up the aircraft navigation and setting up the speeds and flap settings in the flight computer. After everything is put in, the pilots will discuss the planned turnoff point from the runway and the initial routing we can expect — we also go over what the plan would be if we have to go around for any reason.

Right about now, the en-route controllers will start handing us off to the lower-altitude controllers, who clear us to ever-lower altitudes and give us clearance to our arrival procedure, and eventually, from the en route airspace to the approach procedure. Then, we end up with the approach controller, who will vector us from the arrival to the approach for the runway, slow us to approach speeds and vector us to sequence with other aircraft going to the same runway. Once we are lined up and have our spacing set, we’re cleared for approach and handed off to the tower, which gives us a last-minute wind check and clears us to land.

Unless the visibility is too low, autopilot is disengaged and we set the final flaps, lower the gear and slow to the final approach speed. In the final moments before landing, the pilot will make final corrections to the aircraft controls to compensate for last-minute wind shifts and changes to the descent rate to hopefully perform a smooth landing. I often joke that I can provide a safe and smooth flight for 12 hours, but all the passengers will remember is the last few seconds if I muck up the landing. The landing maneuver is the culmination of our experience and training for every flight, so we all take pride in a nice touchdown.

As we taxi away from the runway, we raise the flaps and reset the flight controls and aircraft systems for parking. The tower controller hands us off to ground control, which in turn hands us off to the ramp, which eventually assigns us a gate and clears us to park. We look for the marshalers who will help us watch for equipment around the gate to make sure we don’t bend any metal as we travel the last few feet to park. Once we are parked, the ramp personnel hook up ground power and we shut down the engines, reset the aircraft controls for the next flight and complete the parking checklist. Of course, if we had a good landing, we’ll quickly move to the cockpit door to say goodbye — if it wasn’t our best, we’ll probably just take our time.

Do you have any questions for Marty McFly, our TPG Pilot Insider? Sound off, below.

Featured image by Jimin Lai / Getty Images.

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