It’s a question a lot of people probably have thought about on occasion: What do airline pilots actually do upfront during a flight? And the related, Isn’t the autopilot doing all of the work? Well, not really. All flights can be broken down into phases, but the big ones are taxi, takeoff and initial climb, cruise climb, cruise, initial descent, final approach, and the taxi to the gate.
During the taxi, it seems to be a world of feast or famine. At small Class D airports the taxi to the runway is pretty uneventful. The captain always “drives” the plane, and the FO will do a lot of pre-departure checks. Some will be done in conjunction with the captain, others will be done on his own. Depending on the circumstances, the crew may start with a single-engine taxi, and the other engine will need to be started.
If the flight is departing a major hub, this can be one of the most stressful times of the flight as the crew must balance their duties in the plane with monitoring and/or talking to ground control. At some airports, there may be a number of ground frequencies in use, and others may only have one or two, but they will be so busy it is hard to get a word in edgewise. And some, like O’Hare, are just very confusing to navigate, and a runway incursion is just a missed turn away.
Once airborne, the initial climb to ten thousand feet passes fairly quickly, and can again be a fairly busy time as the plane is reconfigured from the departure configuration to a clean bird. Several turns, altitude changes, and navigational changes usually take place.
Once out of 10,000 feet, things tend to slow down. The sterile cockpit environment is over. A cruise climb is established at a speed that is usually at least 290 knots or more, and the chatter on the radio tends to settle down. It is in this phase that the crew can start to relax. The conversation usually reverts to whatever the topic was before leaving the gate. Contrary to what some may think, the crew does not plot their location on maps and charts. Nor we do write down the fuel burn at every fix. We do, however, talk shop, sports, politics, you name it. At times the conversation can get fairly heated, and while missed radio calls are rare, they do happen. Most airlines specifically forbid the use of MP3 players and personal reading material, but conversation is going to happen.
During the cruise portion, the crew will check and monitor fuel (the actual procedure varies from airline to airline). Weather is always on the mind, and the windows provide the best tool for monitoring what is going on. During the spring and summer months, the on board weather radar seems to be on for the majority of flights; in the winter, the anti-icing system gets a workout. If there is a deferral, the minimum equipment list might require some specific in-flight procedure or monitoring to be done, and this will be tended to as well.
The initial descent is the last chance for the crew to argue politics or whether Cliff Lee will get the Phillies past the Yankees in October. The radio gets busier, and the approach and landing must be planned and reviewed. The final approach and landing may be a non-event, but it may be a race against a line of weather. If windshear has been reported, the crew must discuss their options and decide whether or not to continue the approach. If it is snowing, it may be necessary to determine if the landing can be conducted safely, or if a diversion will be necessary.
Most crews are professional and follow the rules, but not all. The most recent example of a crew that threw professionalism to the wind was the Northwest crew that overflew Minneapolis because they were both on their laptops discussing the new bidding system they would be using following the merger with Delta. Some have questioned whether that was the case or if they had just fallen asleep. I’m convinced they admitted the truth. It would be very easy to check the laptops to see if they had been on during the flight. Second, had they just fallen asleep, chances are they would have been suspended or put through a medical exam for a fitness-for-duty evaluation, but they would likely not have been fired.
Most of the time, the crew is just chatting. While the autopilot is indeed on for the majority of the flight, it isn’t always on. Some pilots like to hand-fly all the way to cruise, and others like to turn it on as soon as they can. For me, it depends on how tired I am and the weather—there is no point in fighting the turbulence if I don’t have to. Obviously, the workload is determined by a number of factors, such as weather, mechanical problems, disruptions in the cabin, and phone calls from the company.
But it also isn’t unusual to spend some time doing what is immediately available. Sometimes we just enjoy the view out the window.