Photo © K.M. / V.S. - Avioradar: Author in his younger days
I woke up the other day and, according to my standard operating procedure, had a good look around while still lying to figure out where I am. Furniture looks familiar and that leads me to realization I'm at my home(base), rather than in some downroute hotel. Next item on the checklist is recalling what is on today's roster. Somehow I mange to remember it was an afternoon flight so no need to get up yet. It is still pretty dark outside, as expected when it's not even 7AM, so I keep snoozing.
“Ping!” my tablet goes off cheerfully.
“Must be some mistake, no one is messaging so early in the morning” is my conclusion as I decide to keep on napping and to check out who and why they want to communicate so early in the morning. “Pingpingping!”. Well, whoever this is, he' s not discouraged by my lack of response. Now the notion 'it has to be something serious' gets amplified by the discovery of messages' origin. It's Croatia, two time zones west of my current location, and it's Monday morning, not quite usual time to receive envy-inducing party selfies. I open the messenger app and discover that my potential editor is asking me to start writing “an educational column” for Avioradar in order to explain (in some simple terms) some basics about aviation, being focused on the part I'm most involved with; airline flying. Riiight... now, Croatian wedding receptions are evening events that tend to stretch to the wee hours of the morning, traditionally taking place on Saturday, but I'm starting to suspect that it got so crowded so someone got their term on Sunday and my attending friend got just optimally stimulated at half pas four in the morning to conceive such a plan. However, quick check of the internet shows that Kansas City Chiefs have just won Superbowl by making quite a comeback in the last quarter so the enthusiasm is not cheap vine induced. So, after a brief negotiation, I agree.
Oh dear me, what in the world did I get myself into!?!
Two pretty massive problems with the project are immediately crossing my mind: 1) being distinctively non-creative, I was very averse towards composing essays, even while in the primary school, so I'm pretty inept when the time comes to put the pen to paper... or better: to do my two fingered typing routine. 2) I've read a plenty of advice in “Cosmopolitan” for the boys and “Men's Health” for the girls how to respond to typical job interview question: “Describe your current line of the work” yet I have found it useless; such a question is simply never asked at the ordinary line-pilot job interview if the candidate is not already aspiring towards the management role. All the pilots' job descriptions are contained in the megabytes of .pdf, .html or .xml, the operation manuals are made of. There is not much discussion about them nor they differ signifficantly between different airlines. I just can't copypaste these as they are written in aeronautical lingo and it takes a lot of time and effort to understand it.
Oh well, encouraged by the immortal worlds of general Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett: “If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through.“ I start my struggle with word processor.
Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of very modest wealth and quite dubious taste. I've been around for long, long years, about twenty three in aviation, counting from the day I made my first flight. For the last two decades, flying has been an almost exclusive income source for me. I used to fly for certain flag carrier in regional and medium-range operations. Currently I fly as a Boeing 737-800 captain in low cost carrier. What I write here or anywhere is not representative of my former or current employer's opinions, attitudes, policies, ideas, stances or anything similar. My employers, former or current, shall not be named. It's easy to find a lot today about anyone with some internet presence, so if someone makes a comment such as: “I know you! You worked here and now you work here”, my only comment would be invoking the fifth, despite not having the USA citizenship or, for that matter, ever visiting the US.
So. Should I start with cliched “A day in a life of LCC captain”? Nay, it's going to bee to long, I+ll just write about a part of it. Officially, it begins one and a half hours before the scheduled time of departure and unofficially, I download the flight plans at home to company tablet doubling as an electronic flight bag at home and check the general outlook. At the office I meet the assigned first officer and then together we check: the weather situation, the NOTAMS- notices to airmen which tell us about short term changes such as closures of runways or airspace, check if the aeroplane has some minor allowable technical defects, the number of passengers and if there are some that need special treatment, like people in wheelchairs and if there is some special cargo. Our flight has already been planned by our dispatch service and our dispatcher has already made minimum fuel suggestion. We recheck the calculation and decide if we need more fuel. Then we arrange the division of the duties: who will take which flight as a Pilot Flying – the one that physically manipulates the primary flight controls. i.e. steers the aeroplane around the sky and who as a Pilot Monitoring – the one who will talk on the radio, insert the data in the navigation log, and operate the ancillary systems like landing gear, flaps, landing lights and similar. Usually we perform four flights, two trips there and back per day and I tend to split duties evenly; I fly two legs and assist on the other two.
After the electronic (self) briefing, we meet our four cabin attendants. Chief stewardess (purser) has already completed her briefing with her crew, checked their documents, uniforms etc. We brief them on: the expected flight times, the forecasted weather enroute, with the special respect paid to the most common enemy of the in-flight service; turbulence, technical state of the aeroplane and eventually about some special info we received from our airline or the ground handling company. This being finished, we finally move to the airport in search of our aeroplane.
Finally, we make it htorough security checks and onto the apron and there is our assigned aeroplane. Our mechanic and ramp agent are waiting for us with the latest info and hopefully the ordered fuel is already being uplifted, our aeroplane doesn't need repairs and passenger figures haven't changed a lot since we left the office. We climb into the cockpit and then first officer and I settle our company tablets in the cockpit cradles on the cockpit sides: during flight we will use them to display our navigation charts, to check our flight plan, to read our flight manuals and to perform performance calculations. We check the aeroplane documents and security equipment. As we made a deal that the first officer is going to act as a pilot flying on this flight, I leave him in the cockpit to enter the data in the Flight Management System – the computer that will take care of our navigational needs, as I take a trip around the aeroplane, to check if everything looks all right, that all the hatches are in their places, there are no unexplained scratches, that tyres look usable etc. I am glad I can report to my F/O that the aeroplane looks airworthy, as far as I am concerned. By this time, the catering has delivered our and passengers' meals, our cabin crew has performed safety and security checks in the passenger cabin so the boarding can commence. While the passengers are boarding, we receive the Air traffic control clearance – the approval for the flight as planned. Loadsheet - the list that shows the weight and distribution of the passengers and cargo is coming and we insert its data into the performance calculation app. When we figure out the needed take-off thrust and characteristic take-off safety speed, wee feed our FMS with the data. In the era of digitally controlled engines, take-offs are performed with the least needed thrust and there are not many circumstances under which “full throttle” takeoffs need to be performed. It sounds a bit tricky but as the explanation of how it works would consume too much timespace, for the time being you'll just have to believe on this. As a pilot flying on this leg, my F/O gives me the departure briefing – the planned taxi and flight route and what are we supposed to do if something untoward happen, such as an engine falling off. Finally, all the passengers are on board, all the baggage is in the cargo compatmens, doors are getting closed and cabin crew arms the evacuation slides – prepares them to be automatically inflated when the doors are opened. We are ready to go.
Nowadays it is usual to park aeroplanes with their noses pointing towards the terminal building so they can reach their parking positions on their own. However, to get them going again, they first need to be pushed back using a special tug. After our ramp agent informs us via intercom that he performed the final check, that all doors and hatches are closed and that the tug is ready, my F/O asks the ATC permission for pushback. Luckily, no one is blocking our way so we receive immediate pushback clearance. Now it's the time to start the engines. Our CFM-56 turbofans are equipped with pneumatic starters and the air supply is provided by the APU (auxiliary power unit) situated in the tip of our tail. The engines have started smoothly, we are now positioned so we can taxi out on our own, I set the parking brake, electrical feed has been switched from APU to engine driven generators, we extend our flaps and slats and check our flight controls. I tell the ramp agent that aeroplane seems to be fine, so he can prepare us for taxiing. He moves to the side, casts last glance at the our aeroplane (to check if everything still looks fine e.g. no fuel leaks) and gives us thumbs up: you are good to taxi. As our Boeing 737 has nosewheel steering tiller (a device resembling one third of a small steering wheel) on the left side only, I always control the aeroplane on the groud while F/O is checking I don't hit anything, especially with the right wingtip that I can't see, or get lost on the airport.
As I try to find our way to the assigned take-off runway, purser informs me that all passengers are safely tied down and that the cabin is ready for take-off. We re-check that the flaps and horizontal stabilizer are in the proper take-off position and now we are fully ready for flight. Ground control hands us over to tower. We confirm that we are ready and the tower clears us to enter the runway behind the aeroplane just landing. As the airport is quite busy, we get on the runway as soon as the landing traffic passes in front of us and wait for the take-off clearance aligned with the runway centerline. As soon as the aeroplane that has just landed is off the runway, we get our take-off clearance. I manage to perform visual check if everything looks clear on and near the runway and that's the last thing I'll see outsidre the cockpit until the liftoff. I hand over the controls to my F/O and I set the fan RPM (N1) to approximately 40%. After the engines have stabilized and all indications are normal, one click on the thrust lever mounted TOGA button gives us the necessary thrust. My callout is “THRUST SET” as I continue to only check the instruments while my first officer is looking out and keeping the aeroplane aligned with the middle of the runway, Next callout is “EIGHTY”, obivously at 80 knots indicated airspeed. It serves three purposes: 1. to check that both airspeed indicators are functional 2. to denote the passage from low energy to high energy part of the take off, rejecting the takeoff now gets a bit riskier 3. to check that the pilot flying is still conscious. As my F/O replies with “CHECKED”, the take off is continued. We are reaching the speed after which the take off abort can not be performed safely. My callout is “VEE ONE”. I move my hand away from the trust levers and manage to sneak a quick glance outside. The speed at which the nose has to be risen is next to V1. At my command “ROTATE”, F/O pulls the yoke. We have a liftoff. We climb. My colleague asks for the gear to be retracted. We are flying.
After take off I contact the terminal ATC. The reply we get is “IDENTIFIED”, meaning we'll be radar tracked. 800 feet above the aerodrome, F/O drops the nose slightly and our aeroplane accelerates. As the speed is rising, we retract the flaps and after that, they are completely retracted (wing is “clean”). I perform the after take off checklist: gear is up and locked, gear handle is off position (1950s relic, more modern aeroplanes have no off, just up and down) and that we configured our pneumatic and air conditioning system in a way that allows us to pressurize the cabin. F/O switches his autopilot on. First ATC sector we called is very busy and hands us over to the next one. By the time we reach our cruising altitude, we'll talk to 6-7 different air traffic controllers. As we pass 10.000 feet in climb, I switch off the landing lights and, since there's no turbulence, I switch off the “fasten the seat belts sign”. Now we can relax a bit so we release our shoulder harnesses and keep our three-point seat belts fastened.
Soon after reaching our cruise latitude, purser informs me that my breakfast is ready. F/O takes over the radio and keeps PF duties. Passenger aeroplanes are designed to be safely operated by a single pilot in all phases of flight, except in two: take off and low visibility landing. When there is not much maneuvering and talking to ATC, which is quite regular occurrence in cruise, one pilot taking on both PF and PM duties won't have hard time at all. I finish my breakfast and take over controls and radio while my F/O does his “Dear passengers” routine, making announcement about our remaining flight time and current weather at the destination. I fill out the flight plan, check that aeroplane is working properly, if our fuel consumption sticks to the plan and check the latest weather reports from any airport that we might find useful.
A couple of minutes before it is our time to commence descend towards our destination, we receive ATIS- automatic terminal information containing weather report, type of approach in use and landing runway at the airport we intend to land at. Today we have quite nice weather and ILS is in use. ILS means “instrumental landing system”. It is a radionavigation approach aid with radio guidance in the horizontal and the vertical plains. For us, it is usual and one of the simplest approaches. As a pilot monitoring I set up the radio navigation frequencies, check if the arrival route in the FMS is in accordance with our and ATC expectations and calculate the landing performance. As our destination is pretty high, the flight is pretty full and we are heavy, performance app suggest we should prevent our brakes from getting too hot by using reverse thrust. F/O briefs me about his approach plan, which seems acceptable to me. Time to descend.
Fifteen minutes before touchdown, I switch on the “fasten seat belts” sign. As our passengers are cooperative, five minutes later we receive info form the purser that the cabin is secured for landing. Meanwhile the area control centre hands us over to terminal ATC. We receive further descent clearance and as there are no other aeroplanes around, the approach clearance. En route and arrival portions of our flight are flown in LNAV navigation mode. It's the computer guidance, theoretically constantly calculating the aeroplane position based on the data received from the ground based nav aids, inertial reference system and GPS but most of the time it ends up just using GPS as the most precise and most reliable. We are slowing down and before lining up with the runway, some 12 miles from the landing threshold, we start extending flaps and slats. It will enable us to fly and land slower than with the
“clean” wing and additional drag will help us slow down the aeroplane to normal landing speed. So we end up on ILS guidance beams, on extended runway centerline and three-degreel glideslope and I report that we are established on final. Terminal ATC hands us over to tower. At the first contact we get cleared to land. All goes according to plan, we can see the runway already. At approximately six miles before the runway we drop the gear and keep extending or flaps towards the final landing position. At a thousand feet above landing runway we check each other that we are fully conscious and then check the aeroplane is fully configured for the approach. F/O switches off the autopilot and aotothrottle. Approach goes smoothly. We cross the landing runway threshold at 50 feet above ground. F/O flares the aeroplane – meaning he closes the throttles smoothly and rises the nose. Touchdown is quite neat. I chack that the speedbrakes have popped out automatically from the top of the wings to increase drag and kill the lift, thus giving our brakes more bite. I check the green reversers indications and duly inform the F/O so he can use reverse thrust i.e. braking with the engines. I take over as our speed on the runway drops below sixty knots. Aeroplane slows down to about ten knots as I turn it off the runway and towards the apron. My flying buddy retracts the flaps and starts the APU. Soon we spot our friendly marshaller, guiding us towards our parking spot. As we are coming towards our stand, we perform last visual inspection, checking that everyone and everything is well clear of where we will place our aeroplane. By the time the marshaller stops waving and starts rising his hands, we are already taxiing at quite slow pace, so when he crosses his hands above his head, just a small dab on the brakes stops us. Parking brake is set. Three minutes sins high trust has been used have passed so engines have cooled enough for shutdown. Fuel supply to engines is cut off. We have arrived.
...and we'll repeat it all, with minor variations, three times that day.
Looking back at my writing, it doesn't seem to be short or simple. When I see how the media is treating aviation, I start to suspect that some of the terms I have used here and find self-explanatory, e.g. “first officer”, are not actually so. Anyway, I'm getting tired of writing a bit, if my editor and Avioradar public finds this text satisfactory, I might give a bit more datailed explanation in the future.
Till some future reading, stay beautiful.