Inside the cockpit

Most airplane passengers often wonder what goes on inside a plane's cockpit before and after takeoff. The only time you seem to hear from a pilot is during takeoff, when landing or when experiencing turbulence. However, the flight deck is quite a busy place. It is a small compartment where the pilots' seats are surrounded by a daunting array of instruments and controls to help them fly the plane. A door separates the flight deck from the passenger cabin, although this may not be the case in smaller planes.

A typical flight requires two pilots, the captain and the co-pilot or first officer. The captain generally sits on the left inside the cockpit and is in charge while the co-pilot assists him. In earlier days, there used to be a flight engineer whose work was to monitor the plane's instruments. This role has been replaced by sophisticated on-board computers in most aircraft.

Before takeoff, there are certain cockpit procedures to be followed. The captain has to ensure he has all the details of the flight including the destination and the flight path, the weather, aircraft weight, the number of passengers on board the plane, and the crew. The first officer has to carry out a general inspection of the plane to ensure everything is in good working order. The pilots then check that the controls and flight instruments are all working. After this, the captain signs a flight release document attesting that he has received the flight information and that the crew is fit to fly. Once this information is verified by the air traffic control tower the plane is cleared to push back from the gate and get ready for takeoff.

There are many controls inside the cockpit. There is usually an overhead panel on the ceiling containing instruments which monitor the airplane's electrical, hydraulic, fuel and pressure systems. In front of the pilot's seat is the instrument panel. It consists of the flight management system which contains the flight plan, speed control and navigation details. There is also the flight control unit which shows the plane's heading, altitude and rate of climb and descent. The control wheel or yoke, found directly in front of the pilot, allows him to steer the plane in different directions. Some aircraft utilize fly-by-wire joysticks (like the A320).

Other controls give the pilot the wind speed and direction as well as the fuel temperature and flow plus the cabin and cockpit pressure and temperature. The airplane's autopilot control is found on the instrument panel just below the windscreen. Most planes have a set of backup flight instruments to provide basic flight information in case the main ones fail.

There are radios inside the flight deck which facilitate communication between the pilots and the air traffic control towers or airfields. Several planes are fitted with radar transponders to help the control towers to monitor their location, altitude and speed. Some also have GPS satellite navigation systems to assist the pilots to plot the flight course, locate airports and calculate distance and time to any destination worldwide. Once airborne, the autopilot does most of the flying and navigating in the cockpit while the pilots monitor and analyze the controls to ensure nothing goes awry during the flight.

Passengers used to be allowed into the cockpit during a flight. Unfortunately, most airlines discontinued this practice.