What's a typical day flying in an Airbus and how does it start and end?
Every month, as Pilot's we receive our schedule for the next periodic month in advance. We know in advance which destinations and what crew we will be operating with more or less! On the actual day of flight operations, here is what occurs from check inn to arriving at the gate of our destination.
Pre-Flight check-inn - We usually arrive to work an hour before the scheduled departure. Both Pilot's meet and greet, maybe grab a coffee for sure if the clock is still asleep! and find the rest of the flying cabin crew that will operate with us. In the ground office, we usually have about 10 minutes or so to print or load the required flight plans, go through them ensuring all looks correct and valid and based on weather and operational requirements, decide how much fuel to uplift and which Pilot to fly that sector. One pilot becomes the PF (Pilot Flying) for that sector whilst the other becomes the PM (Pilot Monitoring). We then meet the cabin crew and give them also a short brief in regards to flight times, weather at destination and en-route, technical problems in aircraft affecting their role and/or safety and any other information that we feel maybe useful to them. From here on, we head to the gate where our aircraft is parked.
In the aircraft - Cabin crew split up into their different safety and security roles and the Pilot's jump into the flight deck. The first most important thing we check in the aircraft is the technical logbook. Here we can check the MSN number specific to the aircraft and ensure we have the correct documentations on board, e.g. Flight Plans, QRH, etc. We then check the technical condition of the aircraft (up-to-date version always in the tech log!) and ensure we both understand if any defect has an implication or effect on the days flight procedures and/or safety. Once we are satisfied with the tech log, the PF starts his/her preliminary flight deck preparation whilst the PM goes outside for a visual external aircraft inspection. (Read the blog on 'Aircraft walk-around' to know more on this inspection). Once this is done, PM heads back into the aircraft to obtain latest weather reports, starts computing the load sheet (given by dispatcher) and performance calculations for the planned departure runway and the PF, after having completed the cockpit set-up, programs the flight into the flight computer (an MCDU in the Airbus). During this phase, the cabin crew will be dealing with the passenger boarding and the ground crew will also be running through their checklist of items needed prior to push-back, e.g. push back tow truck, fueler, water servicing, baggage loading, etc.
Once both Pilot's have completed their relevant tasks, they will input all the necessary performance data together in order to cross-check and start their departure briefing. The departure briefing will include the weather conditions, aircrafts status (e.g. MEL items, tech log, etc), relevant NOTAM's, threats possible and any other items deemed useful to brief for that particular flight. The briefing will then concentrate on the emergency procedures during the takeoff roll in terms of failures on ground, prior to V1 decision speed and what actions the crews must do after V1 for a safe operation. Read the blog, 'Engine failures in jets' if you want to know more! At the end of this phase is where we do the first part of the Airbus checklist,- 'Before start checklist'.
Boarding completed and ready to go - Once everyone is on board and the crew/dispatch team are satisfied, it is time to close the doors. The PM will call up ATC or use the digital clearance ACARS system to obtain the departure clearance from delivery. In terms of radio, here is how we make this radio call (assuming we are callsign 'FlightCopilot123' flying to London Heathrow).
"Good Morning delivery, This is FlightCopilot 123 on stand/gate 1, Airbus A320 with information 'A' (ATIS weather code), requesting clearance to London Heathrow." The ATC will then respond provided we have an active and valid flight plan in the system with our departure SID routing, initial flight level/altitude and the SQUAWK Transponder code for our flight. After this we will call the ground frequency for push-back provided our ground dispatcher confirms his/her check are completed and they are ready. Once cleared, we commence the push-back, start the engines and disconnect with the ground crew and complete the after start checklist. WE then request taxi clearance and during this phase we will complete a number of checks, e.g. flight controls check, PM will run through his/her scan to activate certain push buttons required prior to takeoff, e.g. setting weather radar to ON, auto-braking system, take-off configuration test, etc. The pilots will then run through a quick summarising brief in order to ensure nothing has been missed out or forgotten. This brief typically includes a review of performance, engine failure procedures after V1, cleared departure routing and altitude. If both Pilot's remain satisfied, the 'Before takeoff checklist' is complete up to the line up.
Line-Up and takeoff - Once the cabin is ready and we are cleared for line-up on the runway for takeoff, the PM will run through the last parts of his/her scan, e.g. all lights go ON. The Pilot's will confirm the runway and/or intersection is correct as per the performance calculation and run through the last parts of the takeoff checklist. The thrust is set for takeoff, the engines spool up and the aircraft starts rolling down that multi-mile highway for takeoff. Up to V1, we stay ready to abort the takeoff for any malfunctions, but once the call "V1" is made, we have to go up into the air.
At rotation speed (VR), the PF will start to pullback on the side-stick to unstick the aircraft nose and start the rotation.
Climb phase - Once the aircraft starts climbing away, the landing gear is retracted and at some convenient point, the PF will engage the Autopilot to assist us in the flying. During the climb, it is important to stay alert for things like crossing traffic, weather developments, icing conditions, etc. It transitions into more of a management role as the autopilot flies the aircraft. When it is safe, we release the cabin crew from their seats so they can start preparing for their work and after crossing 10,000 feet, if safe, we switch off the landing lights and seat belt sign so passengers can move freely as necessary. We normally cruise between Fl350 -390, depending on the flight and aircraft requirements.
In cruise - Both Pilot's have their various managing roles. The PF will go through the various systems to ensure all is running smoothly and well, whilst the PM will start by completing the flight plan log and doing an initial fuel check. This fuel check is mainly to ensure we do not have any sort of fuel leak as this can become a serious emergency. Once such tasks are completed, the rest of the cruise involves dealing with ATC requirements, avoiding bad weather and turbulence (if possible), and doing the mentioned checks at regular intervals (around once per hour). Prior to starting our final descent towards destination, the PM will get an update of the latest weather conditions at the destination including any alternate airports. The PF will set up the flight computer with the required arrival routing and planned approach. Once this is done, both pilots will do an approach briefing covering again weather conditions, aircraft status, performance requirements, affecting NOTAM's, threat and error management and how the PF intends to fly the approach (i.e. aircraft configuration schedule, speed management, use of automation, etc.). It is also a good time after the briefing to give passengers a last goodbye PA with an update on arrival time and weather conditions.
Descent phase - Upon reaching the top of descent, we will ask ATC for descent clearance. During the descent, just like similar to the climb phase, we will ensure to monitor the weather ahead, other traffic, respect minimum safety altitudes, icing conditions, and on certain days with marginal weather conditions, keep obtaining updates in case we need a plan B and C for arrival. In such cases we will pay more attention to fuel requirements also, for e.g. is holding expected, can the approach be flown, is the weather challenging, are the alternate airports better and if so, which alternate is our ideal one? Such thinking plays an important part of flying during challenging days out. Approaching 10,000 feet or at least 10-15 minutes before landing, we will ask the cabin crew to start securing the cabin for landing and put the seat-belt signs to ON. From here on, the full descent continues, the approach is flown either using the approach chart procedure or through radar vectors by ATC. In the approach we start to reduce the speed towards our approach speed and configure the aircraft flaps and slats accordingly. The idea is to be fully configured with the landing gear down by at least 1000 feet above the ground. This gate allows for the approach to be stable. If all goes to plan, another successful landing is completed.
After landing - Once we exit the runway after landing, ATC tower will switch us to the ground controller frequency who will give us the necessary taxi instructions to our designated gate or stand. Believe it or not, in some big hub airports, taxi navigating the aircraft on the ground is more challenging than the flying itself! Upon reaching our gate, the parking brake is set, the engines are shut-down and the aircraft flight plan and technical log is completed. This marks the end of what we call one sector. If in a turn-.around, the whole process is repeated and amazingly enough, within the next one hour we might be airborne again on a complete new flight and routing!