iFly Blog

 

Once the passengers are loaded, the paperwork is completed, and the plane is preflighted it’s time to leave the gate. At this point, many passengers just want to get in the air. For the curious bunch, some important steps actually occur between the gate and the runway. With this post, we’ll examine what’s going on up front just prior to takeoff.

A Concrete Maze

Most passengers who’ve flown into a major airport have probably noticed that an astonishing amount of confusion can be crammed onto the airport’s real estate. Besides the enormous terminals and the runways, an awful lot of additional items are cluttering up the airport. There are taxiways, signs, lights, navigation & weather equipment, ground vehicles, maintenance materials, and other airplanes between the gate and the departure runway. Ever wondered how pilots manage to get where they need to be? Follow me.

A Method to the Madness

Despite the frequently ridiculous layouts of massive airports, there is a systematic method in place to sort through the chaos. For starters, runways are numbered in reference to their magnetic direction. With this system, pilots have the benefit of the compass to aid with orientation. In addition, this numbering method is universal, meaning international crews won’t have to learn a new system. As airplanes always want to take off into the wind, flight crews can often anticipate the departure runway based on current wind conditions.

Getting Directions

Unlike some macho motorists, pilots have no trouble asking for directions. Let’s look at some of the options at their disposal.

Taxi Diagrams: These incredibly useful charts give a bird’s eye view of the airport property. All runways, taxiways, terminals, and other noteworthy structures are labeled for easy reference. These diagrams are available in paper & electronic form and are a must for large airport operations.

Signs: Navigating an airport is a lot like navigating the interstate. Airports contain a plethora of signage to assist aviators in maneuvering on the surface area. Signs denote runway & taxiway locations/directions, provide information relevant to the airfield, identify areas to avoid/ exercise caution, and even reveal runway length. These signs and their characteristics are universal, and they provide a wealth of pertinent information to pilots.

Pavement Markings: Pavement markings provide additional info to pilots and help supplement airport signs. These markings are also universal and denote runways, taxiways, areas to avoid, locations to exercise caution, and loads of other useful info. As these identifiers are painted onto the airport surfaces, they are most visible/helpful during daylight hours.

Lights: While hub airports can be confusing during the day, the possibility of disorientation magnifies after sunset. To minimize the potential for chaos, all airport lights are standardized based on color. If you’ve never seen a commercial airport at night, it’s quite comparable to the Vegas strip. The slew of colorful lights helps pilots identify runways (and sometimes their lengths), taxiways, thresholds, and even their approach angle to the runway. Based on color alone, a string of airport lights can tell flight crews a lot about their position/status at the aerodrome.

The Human Element

As immensely helpful as visual aids and magnetic orientation can be, the most valuable assistance comes from air traffic control (ATC). In fact, one segment of the ATC workforce deals exclusively with aircraft (and some vehicles) moving on the airport’s surface. This division, called ground control, is the ATC entity airplanes call at pushback. Ground control then provides taxi instructions to the appropriate departure runway. Ground also monitors potential surface traffic conflicts and issues alerts when necessary. If an airplane becomes lost or disoriented during taxi, ground can provide progressive taxi instructions, which consist of turn-by-turn guidance to the plane’s destination. After arriving aircraft land and exit the runway, ground provides them with taxi instructions to their terminal, gate, or other destination on the airport.

Though ground maneuvering comprises a small percentage of each flight, it can be a confusing segment with a large potential for error. By effectively utilizing the resources outlined above, pilots minimize potential risks and streamline the journey to the departure runway.

 

Thus far, most of our posts have looked at the steps leading up to takeoff. Today we’ll examine what happens once the plane departs terra firma. While the takeoff and climb legs might appear simple and self-explanatory, both involve important steps that greatly contribute to the safety of each flight.

V1:  A Critical Airspeed

Although we previously reviewed the need to calculate speeds & power settings (see The Paperwork Pile of a Puddle Jumper Pilot), one speed in particular deserves special attention. V1 is defined as “the critical engine failure recognition speed or takeoff decision speed.” Whenever you fly, it’s a sure bet your pilots are discussing V1 while they taxi towards the runway. Attaining V1 is a top priority during takeoff. Any abnormal developments below this speed mean the crew will abort the takeoff. At or above V1 the issue will be handled in the air, whether or not the plane has actually become airborne yet. Due to a variety of factors, it’s actually safer to continue the takeoff run (once at or above V1) than to try to stop the aircraft. Pilots are keenly aware of this, and thus place special emphasis on monitoring airspeed during takeoff.

Alternates and Contingency Plans

Another discussion pilots have before takeoff involves alternate plans of action. These plans address issues that arise immediately after takeoff, while enroute, upon approach to the destination airport, and any other situation that might require an alternate airport/landing site. In some instances, mainly due to low ceilings/visibility or geographical restrictions (i.e. high terrain), airplanes are unable to return to their departure airport following takeoff. In these instances, pilots & dispatchers choose a departure alternate, a (relatively) nearby airport the plane can divert to following an abnormal occurrence. In extreme instances, the crew might have to choose an off-airport landing site. Remember Capt. Chesley Sullenberger and US Airways Flight 1549? While the outcome was indeed miraculous following the flight’s double engine failure, the happy ending was largely due to the contingencies developed by Capt. Sullenberger and his crew.

Noteworthy Climb Altitudes

Throughout the climb to cruise altitude, pilots monitor a few key altitudes. These altitudes serve as milestones the crew uses to perform essential tasks.

400 ft:  After liftoff, the crew’s immediate priority is to reach an altitude of 400 feet. This altitude is widely used to transition from max performance climb to cruise climb. Why 400? This number is used because, by 400 ft, the plane will have climbed above most nearby obstacles. With a little altitude between the plane and the surface, the crew transitions to a cruise climb, at which a higher airspeed and slightly shallower climb angle are adopted. Any flaps used during takeoff will be retracted once reaching 400’ and accessory items (like pressurization), which slightly decrease engine power output, are activated.

10,000 ft: Think your pilots are discussing last night’s ballgame during climb? Absolutely not. Below 10,000 ft, sterile cockpit rules apply, meaning only essential communication is permitted. At lower altitudes, the crew is busy performing after-takeoff & climb checklists, communicating with air traffic control (ATC), monitoring instruments, and configuring the airplane. Additionally, airspace below 10,000’ frequently contains a large amount of air traffic, particularly near airports. Above 10,000; things tend to settle down and traffic usually thins a bit. At this point, idle chatter is permitted and items like landing lights (used to increase the plane’s visibility) are turned off.

18,000 ft: This altitude marks the lower limit of Class A airspace. Class A is off-limits to visual traffic and is the realm of airliners and business jets. At 18,000 ft, all aircraft set their altimeters to 29.92 in. Hg (atmospheric pressure), which allows for a uniform standard for high-altitude operations. Below 18,000 ft, aircraft utilize local airports’ pressure readings.

Throughout takeoff and climb, pilots are busy planning, monitoring, anticipating, and adapting to both expected and unexpected occurrences. This thorough dedication to safety has made airline travel the safest transportation system in the world. The next time you fly, rest assured your crew is prepared for and capable of handling nearly any possible situation.

 

Prior to this post, we’ve highlighted airline pilots’ duties from pre-takeoff to leveling at cruise altitude. In this installment, we’ll examine a major component of the cruise leg: navigating from Point A to Point B. Unlike with ground-bound modes of transport, flight crews can’t rely on a solid network of roads or rails. However, vast as the wild blue yonder might be; the national airspace system offers several types of navigational assistance.

Methods of Navigation

Air Traffic Control (ATC)

The best-known method of navigational aid, ATC provides radar & communication services to all instrument flight rules (IFR) aircraft, which includes all airline traffic. Through transponder and/or ADS-B signals (see Avoiding Other Aircraft Part II), ATC can easily identify aircraft and provide navigational assistance. Many times, controllers instruct aircraft to fly to a known point using onboard navigation. At other times, they’ll provide pilots with directional headings to fly, a method known as vectoring traffic.

Electronic Systems

VOR: The VHF omnidirectional range (VOR) network has been the backbone of America’s air navigation system since the 1960s. This network consists of hundreds of VHF stations scattered across the country (and abroad). Each VOR emits a signal that can be used to navigate to/from the station on any of the 360 (1̊ each) radials surrounding the unit. Many VORs are also equipped with distance measuring equipment (DME), and thus provide mileage as well as bearing to/from the station.

While VORs are multifunctional and easy to use, this antiquated network is not without its drawbacks. Chief among its limitations is the finite range of VOR signals. Of the three classes of VORs, the maximum guaranteed range (with certain exceptions) is 130 nautical miles. While that might sound like a significant range, many airliners can cover that distance in about 15 minutes. The second major drawback is the need to operate directly to/from VOR stations (in most cases). While such navigation is simple, navigating by VORs rarely results in a direct course from departure to destination. Despite these shortcomings, VORs have reliably upheld the national airspace system for more than half a century.

GPS: Since the mid 1990s, the global positioning system (GPS) has significantly modernized aerial navigation practices. GPS lacks the range limitations associated with VORs while also allowing point-to-point (i.e. direct) navigation to virtually anywhere on earth. Additionally, after continual improvements over the years, the GPS network now permits pilots to fly instrument approaches without the aid of
any secondary navigation systems. In fact, aircraft can now navigate from takeoff to touchdown entirely by GPS. As future upgrades continue to enhance the system, additional GPS benefits will undoubtedly refine air navigation practices.

Although GPS permits “direct-to” navigation with the push of a button, ATC procedures and air traffic congestion usually prevent aircraft from flying directly from their departure airports to their destinations. Instead, airplanes are often instructed to fly to waypoints, points in space that can be determined through navigation systems. Often these waypoints mark the beginning of a standard terminal arrival route (STAR, see Avoiding Other Aircraft) into the destination airport. Though not as efficient at “direct-to” flight, waypoints often shave off many air miles that would otherwise be flown with VOR navigation.

INS: Limited mainly to airliners, the inertial navigation system (INS) is unique in that it is a completely self-sufficient system. Through the use of a computer and motion-sensing components (chiefly accelerometers and gyroscopes), the INS is capable of calculating its own speed, location, and orientation without external reference. As such, INS is great for supplementing other systems or for backup navigation. The system does, however, require an external source of position & velocity data (pilot, GPS, etc.) during initialization. In addition, small calculation errors will, with time, lead to increasingly greater speed/position errors (known as integration drift). However, INS’s shortcomings are generally minor and unlikely to affect flight safety.

Although pilots still carry maps (aeronautical charts), most modern navigation is done through a combination of electronic sources and ATC. As technology continues to advance, future navigation procedures will likely become more efficient and reliable, further increasing the safety of the national airspace system.

 

Regardless of the distance traveled or the time spent aloft, all airplanes must eventually return to earth. For passengers, the descent leg means the flight is almost over. For the crew, the descent phase involves communication, coordination, planning, and even math. Let’s examine some of the highlights your pilots deal with after leaving cruise altitude.

Econ Descent

In Selecting the Best Cruise Altitude, we discussed how fuel consumption decreases as altitude increases. For airlines, reducing fuel consumption whenever it’s safely possible is a major goal. As it happens, the descent phase is the most fuel-efficient airborne leg. To maximize fuel savings, the aviation industry has developed procedures for what’s called economy descent. Economy descent, or econ descent, is the practice by which airplanes descend at idle power. At idle, the engines consume the least possible amount of fuel, which the airlines love. The goals of econ descent are to: 1. Remain at the fuel-efficient cruise altitude as long as possible 2. Descend at idle power for the entire descent (if possible). Ideally, the descent leg would be one continuous glide down from cruise altitude to the runway. Due to air traffic constraints, this is rarely feasible. However, industry authorities continue to evaluate possible procedural updates to accommodate econ descent improvements.

Noise Abatement

As you know, airports are noisy places. Airplanes create an incredible amount of noise, which is a significant source for complaints from airport neighbors. In many areas, noise abatement procedures have been established to enforce against unwanted sound. To avoid unnecessary disruption, pilots try to minimize the noise impact of their aircraft. The major techniques to reduce engine noise are to: 1. Gain/maintain extra altitude after takeoff/before landing 2. Reduce engine power settings/rpm. 3. Alter course to avoid populated/noise sensitive areas. As you can see, econ descent procedures incorporate noise abatement tactics. In addition, some approach courses and arrival routes are tailored to avoid noise sensitive areas.

Coordination with Support Teams

Another important pilot task prior to arrival is to report in range. The “In Range” notification, which can be completed via radio or electronic message (or a combination), notifies gate personnel and company ops of assistance the arriving flight will need at the gate. The in range call relays fuel status, unique passenger needs (wheelchair, interpreter, etc.), maintenance/equipment needs, and any other relevant information. This call is often made 10-20 minutes before the estimated arrival time, which allows supporting staff to line up necessary personnel, equipment, and/or fuel. At times, when the plane will be departing soon after arrival, the crew can arrange for a “quick turn” procedure to speed up the requisite gate tasks.

Approach & Landing Prep

Professional flight crews also use descent time to prepare for the approach & landing phases. These flight stages are often high-workload situations that require advance planning to ensure safety requirements are met. During the approach briefing, the crew will set up navigation equipment, tune radios, and analyze the characteristics of the destination airport. They also review the expected instrument approach procedure and calculate approach & landing speeds. By preparing ahead of time, the pilots are then able to concentrate once entering the terminal environment.

Traffic and Clearance

The closer to the airport the plane gets, the more congested the airspace becomes. Flight crews maintain extra vigilance near the airport, which involves watching for potential traffic conflicts and visually locating planes they’re to follow to the runway (“sequence behind”). During this phase, you’ve probably heard your pilots advise “flight attendants prepare for landing” over the cabin speakers. An important final step is to receive clearance to land. While this might seem obvious, it can be easy to overlook amid the activities in the cockpit and the traffic out the window. Each aircraft must receive a landing clearance for the appropriate runway before touching down. Failure to receive clearance can potentially compromise safety. For ALL tasks required during descent, crewmembers refer to the appropriate checklists and company procedures. In the future, we’ll cover some of the specifics for configuring the plane for landing. Until then, please fasten your seatbelts and stow your tray tables.

 

In Avoiding Other Aircraft, we highlighted the cruise altitudes available to pilots depending on the type (VFR/IFR) and direction of flight. With this post, we’ll take cruising altitudes a step further and examine how to choose the best altitude for existing circumstances. As you might imagine, a variety of factors affect the altitudes pilots and dispatchers ultimately decide on. Let’s get started.

The Tropopause: Finding the Sweet Spot

Have you noticed how so many airliners tend to level off near 35,000 ft (“F[light] L[evel] 350” in aviation parlance)? This popular flight level is far from coincidence. The most congested altitudes for enroute airliners result from the performance advantages associated with the Tropopause.

The Tropopause is the boundary between the Troposphere, the lowest atmospheric layer, and the Stratosphere. Its height varies with the earth’s curvature, ranging from around 24,000 ft at the poles to approximately 56,000 ft near the equator. In the Contiguous 48 US States, the average Tropopause height is roughly 36,000 ft. A few benefits of operating near this altitude include lack of general aviation (slow) traffic and the ability to summit most weather. However, the performance advantages of Tropopause-area flight are the primary reasons for the deluge of jets at these heights.

Atmospheric Pressure: As you probably know, atmospheric pressure decreases as altitude increases. This decrease in pressure diminishes engine performance, but results in two significant advantages:  1. Total aerodynamic drag on the aircraft decreases, and  2. The lower the air density, the less fuel is required by the engines. Operating in these fuel-efficient altitudes saves airlines several million dollars each year in fuel expenses alone.

Temperature: While I’ve stated that decreased atmospheric pressure does diminish aircraft performance, this engine-robbing reduction in pressure is partially offset by the cooler temperatures aloft. Cold air, with its relatively low energy, tends to condense. As temperatures decrease with increases in altitude, the natural tendency of this cool air to compress helps counteract the overall rate of decreasing atmospheric pressure. This cooling of air with increases in altitude is a significant benefit for jets, but is only an option up to the Tropopause.

The Game Changer: Besides marking the top of virtually all weather, the Tropopause also denotes the end of decreasing temperatures with increases in altitude. Above the Tropopause, temperature actually increases with altitude, which rapidly diminishes aircraft/engine performance. Above the Tropopause, significant performance reductions eliminate virtually all benefits to be found at higher altitudes.

Overall, the Tropopause is the sweet spot for airline operations. Reduced aerodynamic drag, low fuel consumption, minimal (if any) weather, and the absence of slow aircraft all increase the efficiency of flight at this level. With this many benefits, it should come as no surprise when your captain announces, “We’ll be cruising along today at 35,000 ft.”

Additional Considerations

While the Tropopause usually offers the best overall conditions for airliner flight, at times it’s impractical/unwise to climb to the altitudes around FL 350. Let’s look at some reasons why it’s occasionally better to choose altitudes not in the neighborhood of the Tropopause.

Winds:  Winds have a general tendency to increase with altitude. Depending on the direction of flight, this can be a huge blessing or a significant curse. As a tailwind, performance and speed work in the flight’s favor. As headwinds, Jet streams (often in excess of 100 knots) lengthen flight time and burn significantly more fuel. With strong headwinds aloft, it’s often better to seek a lower altitude without the gales.

Length of Flight: Short flights often negate the advantages of going high. For instance, airplane engines burn more fuel while climbing than in cruise. It doesn’t make sense to spend 30 minutes at climb power to spend 10 minutes in cruise. In many cases, the lengthy climb easily erases any performance savings of the short cruise. For passenger comfort, a period of level flight will also be more tolerable than a flight profile that resembles an inverted V.

Pilots and airline dispatchers usually have many options when deciding on a cruise altitude. For the reasons outlined above, the Tropopause if often a good choice. However, at times conditions make flight at lower levels much more practical.

 

If you’ve spent much time as a commercial airline passenger, you’ve no doubt noticed the large number of airplanes that operate into and out of each hub airport. Perhaps you’ve wondered just how all those airliners avoid each other, as well as all other forms of air traffic, when airborne. With this post, we’ll explore some of the procedural safeguards in place that help keep aircraft a safe distance apart.

SIDs and STARs

In busy terminal airspace areas, air traffic controllers (ATC) utilize standard instrument departures (SIDs, also known as departure procedures {DPs}) and standard terminal arrival routes (STARs) to streamline the flow of departing and arriving traffic, respectively. Unlike ground-based vehicles, which are largely limited to following roads, aircraft can arrive at a given point from any of the 360̊ around the location. Such chaos would certainly compromise safety and make for an ATC nightmare. With SIDs and STARS, controllers are able to funnel traffic flow in a logical and safety-enhancing manner.

Virtually all hub airports have several SIDs and STARs available to arriving and departing traffic. SIDs/STARs are published in textual (and often graphical too) form and instruct pilots of the headings, courses, & altitudes to fly when operating to/from each hub airport. Depending on the general direction the aircraft is departing to/arriving from, ATC will give that plane a SID/STAR to/from that direction. These procedures also contain transition routes, which allow aircraft to transition over a wider directional range when a safe distance from the airport (and the most congested airspace).

As SIDs/STARs are published, ATC need only inform pilots to “fly               departure/arrival,                     transition.” Pilots then know exactly which headings, courses, & altitudes to fly along their route. By following these routes, aircraft “get in line” behind other traffic, allowing an orderly flow in the most crowded areas.

Preferred IFR Routes

Preferred IFR Routes (IFR meaning instrument flight rules, under which ALL commercial airline flights operate) are very similar to SIDs and STARs. In fact, Preferred IFR Routes are essentially a SID, a STAR, and the cruise portion of a flight all rolled into one. These procedures are common when the departure and arrival airports are located relatively close to one another, as well as for air traffic that transits congested airspace. These routes are, as the name implies, preferred because they streamline traffic and permit an orderly flow of aircraft within that airspace. If you’ve ever flown in the New England region, you’ve almost certainly flown on a Preferred IFR Route.

IFR/VFR Cruising Altitudes

For the cruise stage of flight, when not otherwise directed by ATC, aircraft utilize VFR & IFR cruising altitudes. VFR stands for visual flight rules, and refers to traffic that navigates primarily by visual reference (mainly personal, general aviation aircraft). Cruising altitudes are determined by the magnetic course each aircraft is flying, as well as whether it’s operating under IFR or VFR. For eastbound traffic (0̊ through 179̊) IFR aircraft operate at odd, thousand foot intervals (7000, 9000, etc.) and VFR traffic fly at odd thousand foot intervals + 500 feet (7500, 9500, etc.). For westbound aircraft (180̊ through 359̊), even numbered altitudes are flown (6000, 8000, etc for IFR; and 6500, 8500, etc. for VFR).  This method insures all aircraft will be vertically separated by at least 500 feet while in cruise.

As you can see, the national airspace system has several procedural safeguards in place to keep air traffic safely separated from other aircraft. Bear in mind that these are just the basic, operational methods pilots and ATC use for traffic separation. In a future post, we’ll discuss additional safeguards built into the airspace system. These include ATC separation standards, airspace classes and the associated entry requirements, and the multitude of electronic equipment aircraft use to detect and avoid each other. Until then, breathe easy and know that whenever you fly, numerous safety procedures are working to keep your plane a safe distance from other aircraft.

 

In a previous post, we highlighted some of the procedural safeguards used to provide adequate separation between airborne aircraft. With this post, we’ll examine other methods to ensure aircraft remain safely separated from each other. All these procedures, methods, and equipment work together to maximize the safety of the national airspace system.

Electronic Equipment

Transponder:  The most basic form of electronic collision avoidance equipment is the transponder. This device emits an electronic signal that allows air traffic control (ATC) to locate an aircraft’s position with radar. For the past several years, transponders have been capable of providing aircraft altitude as well (known as Mode C, or altitude encoding). If aircraft get too close to one another, ATC receives an audiovisual warning. Controllers can then relay a traffic alert to the aircraft involved. Over time, transponders have continued to evolve and have paved the way for newer forms of electronic traffic avoidance.

TCAS:  Additionally, all large aircraft are required to possess a traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS). TCAS is a form of “portable radar,” which works independently of ATC’s ground-based radar. TCAS detects the transponder signals of other aircraft and, when traffic is nearby, issues alerts. These alerts may include traffic advisories (TAs) and/or resolution advisories (RAs). TAs are a kind of “heads up” to advise aircraft of a possible conflict. RAs announce when a conflict is imminent and evasive action is required. RAs even tell aircraft what type of maneuver to execute and, when received, supersede all ATC directives. Though established ATC procedures are usually sufficient to maintain separation, TCAS is great for “belt and suspenders” reinforcement.

ADS-B:  Automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) is the latest technological marvel for air traffic separation. ADS-B, through its use of both a highly accurate GPS receiver and a datalink, allows an equipped aircraft’s position, speed, and altitude to be broadcast to other ADS-B equipped aircraft, as well as to ATC, in real time. Think of ADS-B as a highly accurate version of TCAS and radar combined. In fact, ADS-B is slated to replace traditional ATC radar. Though the technology is available now, future mandates will further enhance the safety potential of this system.

Airspace Requirements

The national airspace system is itself designed to promote aircraft separation. All controlled airspace requires all IFR (instrument flight rules, which includes ALL airline traffic) flights to maintain radio contact with ATC. This enables controllers to notify aircraft of potential traffic conflicts. Additionally, airports with operating control towers require EVERY aircraft to establish radio communication in order to operate in their terminal airspace. The larger/busier the airport, the more traffic separation rules are in place.

Class D airports, the smallest tower-controlled fields, require all aircraft in their airspace to establish radio communications. This requirement permits ATC to supervise all types of flight operations in the airspace, as well as to issue traffic advisories/alerts.

Medium size airports, located in Class C airspace, require both radio communications and an operable Mode C (position + altitude reporting) transponder in order to enter the airspace. As these airports generally have more traffic than Class D, the transponder requirement adds another layer of traffic separation safety. Additionally, the Class C airspace is larger than Class D, which keeps unqualified/non-participating aircraft farther from the airport.

The nation’s busiest airports are surrounded by Class B airspace. In addition to the requirements for radio communications and a transponder, all aircraft must have a specific clearance to operate within Class B. This keeps many small, private aircraft from transiting the area near the major airport. Class B has even larger dimensions than Class C, which ensures more maneuvering space for the greater amount of traffic.

While we’ve just glossed over the basics of the airspace & equipment characteristics, additional details further enhance the safety procedures for air traffic separation. In addition, ATC can and does address issues that the equipment, airspace, and procedures we’ve discussed cannot. Though we’ve spent two posts covering numerous traffic avoidance issues, the national airspace system still contains additional safeguards. If you’ve ever heard that it’s safer to fly than to ride in a car, there’s a lot of truth to that.

 

In the post-9/11 world of commercial aviation, security is no doubt at the forefront of air travelers’ minds. From invasive body checks to restrictions on liquid carryons and constant reminders about prohibited items, air travelers have come to accept security as an ever-present reality of airline flying. In addition, these security measures don’t end after passing the metal detectors. Once aboard, Federal Air Marshals and reinforced cockpit doors serve as additional reminders of Uncle Sam’s dedication to necessary safeguards. However, not all commercial aircraft shut passengers off from the world of the pilots. On some smaller commuter aircraft, the cockpit door consists of nothing more than a curtain.

Before you ask, the aircraft in question are not from half a century ago. Curtain-equipped commuters have continued to operate in the post-9/11 skies of American commercial aviation. Why just a curtain? Well, one such aircraft, the British Aerospace Jetstream 32, is very small. Containing just 19 passenger seats, the Jetstream 32 is among the smallest of the puddle jumpers an air traveler is likely to come across. This aircraft’s small size makes the installation of a cockpit door a burdensome and unrealistic expectation. As such, the aircraft achieved certification with the curtain approved as an adequate divider between the cockpit and passenger cabin.

While company Operation Specifications (OPS Specs) usually state that the curtain should remain closed for all “critical phases of flight,” pilots usually have the option to fly with the curtain open to facilitate passenger cabin supervision and communication. For these reasons, many Jetstream 32 crews fly with the curtain open. This open curtain policy allows passengers a glimpse into the cockpit operations that very few airline travelers get to see.

Problems with the Curtain Door

With such an unrestricted boundary between the cockpit and passenger cabin, many of you are probably wondering what sort of problems pilots have with passengers coming up to the cockpit. Thankfully,  such instances appear to be VERY rare and usually quite minor. In fact, during their preflight briefing, Jetstream crews even encourage passengers to let them know if the cabin temperature becomes uncomfortable or if any developments require crewmember attention (with just 19 seats, Jetstream 32s don’t require a flight attendant). On occasion, passengers tend to come forward and ask for a temperature adjustment. After such a request, most passengers promptly return to their seats, content to observe the crew fly the aircraft and manipulate the multitude of flight deck equipment.

For night flights, closing the curtain is a prudent choice, particularly during the descent and landing phases. The cabin lights, when reflected off the windscreen, can be distracting and sometimes temporarily blind the pilots. To deal with this, the best strategy is simply to close the curtain. In some instances, crewmembers opt to shut off the passengers’ reading lights using the overhead cockpit switch. These tactics prove useful to combat night glare and preserve night vision, but are usually unnecessary for daytime flights.

On a humorous note, passengers have been known to assist the flight crew with “inoperable engine” problems. You see, the Jetstream 32 is a turboprop aircraft. As such, passengers can tell when the engines are running by simply noting whether or not the propeller is turning. For lengthy taxis or the occasional ground delay, crews often taxi out with only one engine running, both to conserve fuel and reduce noise. When operating this way, a frantic passenger will invariably rush up to the cabin and ask, “Did you notice that engine’s not running?!”. As a rule of thumb, if more than one passenger informs the crew about the “engine problem,” they’ll make an announcement informing the whole cabin about the reason for the inoperable engine.

While news headlines occasionally scream of uncontrollable passengers and crazy crewmembers, the vast majority of air travelers are well-behaved and responsible individuals. While researching this post, not a single Jetstream 32 pilot reported having to deal with an unruly passenger. For certain aircraft, a curtain appears sufficient for security and permits passengers a view into the world of commuter pilots.

 

Many members of the general public share a common view of an airline pilot’s workday. This stereotype often involves a pair of pilots relaxing in the cockpit, sipping coffee, and occasionally monitoring the flight instruments while the autopilot does the rest. The average layperson might believe pilots enjoy this relaxing environment for 2-3 hours at a time before arriving at their destination. While this might be true in some instances, for many pilots such a description varies greatly from reality. For countless commuter pilots, the opportunity to relax in cruise is nothing more than a distant dream.

For many regional airline pilots, those who fly the “puddle jumper” routes, the cruise leg of a given flight is often not much longer than most other phases of flight. As regional airlines often operate to smaller cities surrounding their carrier’s hub, flight legs can be as short as 100 miles, sometimes even less. As a result, cruise legs sometimes last no longer than a few minutes. During this time, as well as all other phases of flight, pilots remain busy attending to a multitude of tasks. More often than not, these duties involve some form of paperwork.

Checklists

All pilots, regardless of experience level or the type of aircraft they operate, refer to checklists for EVERY phase of flight. Checklists begin with the pilots’ preflight inspection(s) and cover each segment of their operational duties until the aircraft is secured at its destination. For each phase, the pilots refer to the appropriate checklist and jointly verify that every requisite task has been completed. The shorter the flight, the more quickly the pilots must cover each checklist. The more legs a pilot flies in a given day, the more times (s)he’s required to run checklists. For many regional pilots, “flying” the plane is a continuous exercise in completing checklists.

Weight & Balance

All aircraft are certified to operate within specific weight and center of gravity (c.g.) parameters. For every flight leg, the pilots must determine that the plane is operated within the appropriate weight and balance limitations. This means calculating the effects of fuel, passenger weights, baggage & cargo, and the aircraft’s weight itself for EVERY single flight leg. In addition, weight limitations can be further restricted due to certain runway, atmospheric, and operational limitations. At times, pilots will need to offload weight or rearrange passengers/cargo in order to obtain a satisfactory weight/c.g. combination. For commuter pilots, math skills are a must.

Takeoff & Landing Distances

Like weight & balance, takeoff & landing distances must be calculated for every single takeoff and landing. These distances are affected by aircraft weight, temperature, atmospheric pressure, runway length, runway slope, and terrain/obstacles near the airport. With so many variables to consider, the same runway might be perfectly fine for one takeoff/landing but unsuitable for the next. Additionally, snow/ice/rain on the runway affect performance and must be carefully considered. In extreme instances, flight crews must delay takeoff and/or reduce aircraft weight in order to takeoff/land at a particular airport.

Speeds & Power Settings

Like other performance data, power settings and target airspeeds (commonly referred to as V-speeds) vary with weight and temperature/pressure. Though many modern aircraft computer systems can calculate several of these numbers, crews of older aircraft must manually determine the appropriate settings to use. In some instances, particularly on hot days and/or at high elevation airports, the aircraft engines can be incapable of producing the necessary speed/power required for takeoff. When this happens, pilots must reduce weight and/or wait for cooler temperatures in order to depart. Regardless of airplane type, all pilots must verify the speed & power requirements to determine whether a given flight is feasible.

For commuter pilots, every flight leg requires near-constant attention to numerous sources of paperwork. Besides the requisite data listed above, pilots must consult weather reports/forecasts, navigational charts, airport diagrams, and company manuals. On short flights, getting through the sheer volume of necessary documents can be a daunting task. In addition, pilots must fly their aircraft and ensure the safety of their passengers. For regional pilots, a day at the office can be anything but a carefree experience.

 

Continuing our Preparing to Launch series, we’ll take another look at the duties airline pilots perform prior to takeoff. When you board an airliner, you’ve probably glanced into the cockpit and noticed the pilots intently engaged in some activity. If you’ve wondered what exactly they’re doing up there, we’ll demystify the process by highlighting some of these tasks.

The preflight inspection consists of two major parts: the internal preflight and the external walkaround. While both are vitally important parts of the pilots’ preparation, we’ll concentrate on the internal portion for this post. Prior to pushback, airline crews must complete several steps to ensure the aircraft is safe and legal for the upcoming flight.

Aircraft/Maintenance & Flight Logs

After reading through the Flight Release (see previous post), pilots will refer to the Aircraft Log (sometimes referred to as the Maintenance Log) and the Flight Log. In the Aircraft Log, the crew is checking to ensure that all required inspections are up-to-date and properly documented. Additionally, they’ll verify that any inoperative equipment complies with the Minimum Equipment List (MEL; details in previous post) and is properly placarded. If everything appears satisfactory, the captain will sign the Aircraft Log to accept the aircraft. If anything requires attention, (s)he’ll coordinate with the airline’s maintenance department to address the issue(s).

The Flight Log maintains a record of the aircraft’s utilization. In this document, the flight crewmembers record their names & positions, as well as the duration of all legs they fly. This log also keeps track of aircraft & engine cycles (number of engine starts and number of landings). On many modern aircraft, some of this information might be entered and stored electronically. As with the Aircraft Log, the captain will sign the Flight Log when accepting the aircraft.

Panel Scans and Checklists

If you’ve noticed pilots actively pushing buttons, flipping switches, and moving levers as you’ve boarded an airplane, you’ve seen them running their panel scans and checklists. Before each leg, both pilots complete a checklist to verify the position and operation of the plane’s systems. Each pilot has his own cockpit flow, a type of memorized checking procedure, he performs to review the systems he’s responsible for. For the first flight of the day and/or each crew’s first leg in a particular aircraft, the panel scans are especially thorough. For subsequent legs, certain items may be abbreviated.

When these scans/flows are complete, the crew will refer to a checklist to verify they’ve covered all necessary items. Any faulty equipment will be rechecked for proper operation. If maintenance is required, the crew will notify company mechanics. Occasionally, the flight will be delayed or a new plane will be assigned. For minor issues, it’s often possible to MEL the item and continue the flight.

Weather and Clearance

Shortly before pushback, the crew will obtain the departure airport’s latest weather observation. This info may be manually recorded or generated automatically, depending on the airport’s weather reporting system. Pilots use this data to supplement/update the weather information in the Flight Release and to verify the legality & performance parameters of the upcoming takeoff. When they contact Air Traffic Control (ATC) for taxi instructions, they’ll let the controller know they have the latest weather info by stating the phonetic identification (Alpha, Bravo, etc.) of the most recent broadcast.

After obtaining the latest weather report, crews will contact ATC to receive their clearance. The clearance is a game plan for the flight leg. It includes the initial altitude to climb to after takeoff, the subsequent altitude to expect, the route of flight/heading to fly, the radio frequency to use after takeoff, the transponder identification code, and any other pertinent information. The clearance is obtained before pushback to allow the crew to set up their radios and navigational equipment prior to departure. Doing so minimizes workload during taxi and takeoff, which helps enhance safety.

As you can see, airline pilots have a significant workload to prepare their aircraft for each flight. In a future post, we’ll examine additional crew responsibilities and how each contributes to the safety and comfort of the flight. We’ll also cover the external aircraft preflight. Stay tuned!