As you walk down the jet way you wonder to yourself, “Is this going to be a smooth flight?” You get to the end of the jet way and step across the threshold of the entrance to the aircraft. You glance to your left and sneak a peek into the cockpit where the pilot and co-pilot are already seated and working. “What are they doing with all those instruments?” you wonder to yourself. “What do they all mean?”
Pilots go through many, many hours of instruction to learn how to fly an airplane and read all those instruments. But let’s back up to the point where the flight crew comes to airplane and starts to get ready for the flight. The co-pilot, who is second in command, does the walk-around outside. What exactly is that? The walk-around consists of making a complete circuit around the airplane inspecting various parts, such as the landing gear. He is looking for anything unusual such as a fuel leak or hydraulic leak or even a bent or broken piece of metal. Any of these items when found, if not corrected before the flight could spell problems for you and the flight crew.
The co-pilot has completed his walk-around, found everything outside to be in order and is now settling into his seat in the cockpit. The co-pilot always sits on the right side or “right seat” as it’s referred to. Now both the pilot and co-pilot go through a series of checklists which outline for them the various things to check inside the cockpit before they start the engines. Prior to ever getting on the airplane, the flight crew in their operations area, look at the weather and file a flight plan (route the aircraft will fly) with FAA. Now that they are in the cockpit, the co-pilot calls “Clearance Delivery” to get authorization to fly the route they filed earlier. If everything is alright then Clearance Delivery will issue a “Cleared As Filed” instruction. Now that the flight crew has received their clearance they must request permission to back out of their parking space and taxi to the active runway.
In order to move the airplane the flight crew must talk to “Ground Control” to receive clearance to taxi. Ground control will issue instructions to the flight crew as to what taxi ways to use to get to the active runway. The flight crew reads back the information to the Ground Controller to make sure they heard them correctly. If they did, then they are given permission to taxi. The pilot now talks to the Ground Handler outside the airplane and tells him/her that they have permission to taxi. The ground handler moves the tug, which is a small motorized vehicle with a device on the front that attaches to the nose gear of the aircraft, into position. Even though the tug is small and the airplane big, the tug is very strong and capable of moving very large aircraft. The ground handler pushes the airplane back away from the terminal building so the flight crew can taxi out to the runway. While the aircraft is taxiing to the runway, the flight crew is still in contact with ground control. Ground control handles or directs all the traffic on the ground at the airport. They’re like the police directing traffic.
During the taxi to the active runway (the runway used for takeoff and landing), the flight crew is going through more checklists to make sure that all of the systems and instruments on the aircraft are working properly. The pilot (Captain) of the aircraft will not take any chance with the safety of the passengers. Even when the smallest irregularity happens, the Captain is charged with making the decision, “Is it safe to fly?” In 100% of the cases, if there is the slightest chance a problem could occur, the Captain will return the aircraft to the terminal to be fixed. As a pilot myself, I would rather spend time on the ground getting an item fixed and then take off knowing that all is well. Some passengers get upset at the idea of being delayed by a malfunction with the airplane. But, it’s the Captain’s responsibility overall to make sure that all passengers arrive safely at their destination, even if it means being late.
The aircraft has arrived at the active runway and is ready for takeoff. All systems check out. At this point, the flight crew switches their radios over to a frequency so they can talk to the Tower Controller. The tower controller is responsible for issuing clearance to takeoff or land to all aircraft operating on or near the runway. They are also responsible for all the aircraft operating around the tower in what is known as the “Airport Traffic Area”. Now the tower controller issues a takeoff clearance to the flight crew. The captain pushes the throttles forward just enough so the airplane moves and he can position the aircraft on the centerline of the runway. Once again the flight crew goes through a quick check list before takeoff. The captain pushes the throttles all the way forward so the aircraft can produce maximum thrust to get the aircraft airborne.
Each aircraft, depending on what type it is, has an airspeed that when reached the pilot can pull back on the “stick” and the aircraft will safely start to fly off the runway. As the aircraft continues to climb out, the flight crew is monitoring all of the instruments to insure everything is working properly. At a certain point in the climb out the tower controller will inform the flight crew to contact a radar controller known as the Departure Controller. This individual has a radar scope that gives him a picture of all the aircraft around the airport that are leaving and going somewhere else. Once the flight you’re on reaches the departure controller’s airspace limits, he will “hand off” your flight to another controller known as the Air Route Traffic Control Center controller. This individual talks to the flight crew during a major portion of your flight. What are they talking about? Basically, a couple of things. They are talking about the weather along the route of flight and also any other airplanes in the general vicinity that could pose a hazard to your aircraft.
This is the part of the flight you recognize when the captain turns off the seat belt sign and the flight attendants start to pass out drinks and snacks. In the mean time the flight crew continues to work. They are busy monitoring their instruments, talking on the radios and reviewing aeronautical charts. Additionally, the pilot is always looking at his instruments to see where the nearest airport is that he could land in case of an emergency. Back and forth. Back and forth. The pilot and co-pilot are constantly scanning their instruments and looking outside for other aircraft. During the entire flight, the flight crew is busy doing something in the cockpit.
You might be wondering to yourself, “Why would anyone want to become a pilot if they have so much work to do on the ground and in the cockpit?” Anyone who is a pilot knows personally the answer to that question. For the uninitiated, being a pilot is a very thrilling and satisfying experience. There’s an overwhelming degree of excitement every time you get into your seat in the cockpit, strap yourself in and look at all those instruments. You know that in a short time you will be in the air looking around and taking it all in. It really goes beyond that. As a pilot you can have so many feelings while flying that they hard to describe. Suffice it to say that being a pilot is the greatest job in the world.