The preparation of an aircraft for departure is an important aspect of a pilot’s job. This is to ensure the safety of the aircraft, crew, and passengers onboard. It is probably the most critical part of the job.
It all starts at home
The dispatch officers in the airline generally prepare flight documentation. This includes journey logs, flight plans, weather reports, NOTAMs (Notice to Air Missions), the latest aircraft maintenance reports and more. Airlines will usually send these documents to pilots via mail about 2-3 hours before a flight. This way, the pilots can review the documents even before they leave home.
This is quite helpful because, once at the airport, things can get a bit hectic. So, having a chance to review important things, such as the weather, in the comfort of their home makes life a lot easier. Pilots also use personal applications to get an idea of the enroute weather. There are many helpful third-party applications such as the Windy app, which gives very accurate weather and wind data.
The flight plan is also a very important document that needs to be thoroughly reviewed. It contains the estimated weights and, most importantly, the route to be flown and the possible diversion airports. These days, flight plans are computer generated, and thus they are very accurate. They also include the spot winds and temperature at each waypoint that will be flown during the flight. Essentially, the flight plan includes the minimum fuel required for the flight. This is the regulatory minimum and, depending on the final weight and weather, the captain of the flight can decide to take more fuel than that specified in the flight plan.
There are times when flight preparation begins a day before the flight. This is where basic airmanship comes in. If you, the pilot, are scheduled to go to an airport that you have never been to before, or it has been quite some sometime since you have been to a particular airport, it is paramount that you go through the airport charts and other relevant documentation. This allows you to get familiar with the airport procedures, runways, taxiways, parking stands, approach, arrival, and departure procedures. Being unprepared can make life very difficult once you arrive at a new airport, especially if the airport is a busy one where the controllers expect you to have a certain level of familiarity.
In the briefing room
When going for a flight at a base of the airline, the pilots will go to the airline’s briefing room before they head for the aircraft. When at outstations, the briefing is done mostly at a quiet place at the airport or inside the aircraft. It is during the briefing that all the crew members meet each other.
During the briefing, the assigned captain and first officer of the flight go through the flight documentation to ensure that they are correct. As mentioned earlier, this process is quickened if the crew gets the documentation ahead of time. This is also the time when the final fuel figure is decided. How much fuel is to be carried is at the discretion of the captain. Extra fuel may be necessary (beyond what is required for the flight) due to bad weather, route changes/closures, or any other relevant reasoning.
It is also at the briefing where the condition and the status of the aircraft that is scheduled to fly are discussed. This includes checking if any of the equipment in the aircraft has been deferred by maintenance. For example, if the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) is inoperative, the aircraft will require a Ground Power Unit (GPU) to be hooked up to it to get it powered. It may also require an air cart, to provide air for the air conditioning system while on the ground. Ensuring all of this is available before going to the aircraft is partially the responsibility of the flight crew. Once both pilots are happy with everything, the captain signs off the flight plans and the dispatch release.
Heading to the aircraft
When approaching the aircraft, it is important to get an overview of what is happening around it. This includes checking if the wheel chocks are in place, if the refueling process has begun and if engineers are doing any last-minute work on the aircraft. It is not rare to find the engineers changing a wheel or something similar while you arrive at the aircraft. Doing this pre-inspection of the aircraft surrounding gives a good situational awareness and improves the safety of the operations.
Once inside the aircraft, the role of the pilots for the sector is defined. Even though there is a captain and a first officer, during the flight, there is a Pilot Flying (PF) and a Pilot Monitoring (PM). The roles are decided by the captain. Some airports and weather conditions require captains to fly in and out of it. In this case, the captain will fly it, but in other cases, the pilot flying will alternate. That means, that if one sector is flown by the captain, the next is flown by the first officer.
The most important thing to check inside the aircraft is its Technical Log Book. This book contains all the technical and maintenance data of the aircraft. It records fuel consumption, oil consumption, the quantity of hydraulic fluid, and other important data. The tech log also lists out the deferred items, the signature of the engineer who released the aircraft, and a place for the captain to sign confirming his/her acceptance of the aircraft for the flight.
The cockpit preparation is done by the PF while the PM does everything else. It is the job of the PM to check if all the emergency equipment in the cockpit is present. This includes life jackets, flashlights, fire extinguisher(s), crash axe, fire gloves, etc. The PM also must check if the aircraft has all its documents up to date and onboard. The documents to be checked are the aircraft registration, airworthiness certificate, insurance, radio station license, airworthiness review certificate, noise certificate, and any other documents that need to be carried as per the regulations. The PM must also verify if the oil quantity and the hydraulic fluid quantity in the aircraft are within the limits.
The PF, in the meantime, operates the necessary switches to prepare the cockpit. The main part of the job is to prepare the flight management system. This includes entering the necessary data, such as the flight plan, aircraft weights, and fuel, into the system.
The walkaround (or the exterior inspection)
The walkaround or the aircraft exterior inspection is carried out by the pilots to make sure that it is in sound condition before the flight. The walkaround is done by the PM. During the walkaround, the overall structure of the aircraft is checked for surface damage, such as dents. The sensors, including the pitot tubes, static ports, and total air temperature probes, must be checked for any damage, and they must remain clear of any obstructions.
The landing gear must be checked to ensure that the gear oleos are within their range and free of any damage. The tires should be checked for wear and cuts. This is also when the wheel brakes are checked. In almost all large aircraft, brake wear is indicated by brake wear pins. As the brakes get used, the pins retract, signaling the amount of wear. In normal conditions, the pilots must be able to always see or feel the pin when touched.
The flight controls must be checked for their correct positioning. For example, with the flap lever at zero in the cockpit, the flaps must be fully retracted when seen from outside. The fan blades of the engines and the exhaust area must also be checked for any abnormalities, and all the access doors must be properly closed. During the walkaround, it is critical to also check for leaks from hydraulic lines and to check for any oil leaks.
If something suspicious is found during the walkaround, the pilots must immediately consult the engineers and attend to the problem. There is nothing wrong with finding a problem. The whole purpose of the exterior inspection is to find any possible problems.
The takeoff performance calculation and the final preparations for the flight
The performance calculation for takeoff is done independently by both pilots. To do so, the latest weather must be noted down. In almost all airports, the weather can be found by tuning into the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) frequency. The ATIS contains the latest winds, runway, temperature, pressure, and more. With this information, the takeoff performance can be calculated.
These days, sophisticated performance software is used to do such calculations through an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB). The EFB in most airlines is a controlled iPad. The data such as temperature, runway, pressure, winds, and weight of the aircraft can be input into the software, and it can calculate the speeds and runway length requirements automatically. In the past and even with some airlines today, paper charts are used to manually do these calculations.
Once both pilots compute their performance, the data is compared. This way, errors in calculations can be found easily. Typically, the first performance calculation is done using preliminary data based on the weight data in the flight plan. This is subject to change as there may be extra passengers or cargo that gets loaded on the aircraft at the last minute. The opposite can also happen where the load gets decreased due to no-shows.
Once happy with the performance, the PF briefs the PM on the takeoff procedures where NOTAMS, aircraft status, runway conditions and risk factors are discussed. The aim of the briefing is to ensure that both pilots are on the same page when it comes to the procedures that will be followed during the takeoff. It also aims to mitigate any possible risks associated with the takeoff.
The final weight data comes to pilots in the form of a load sheet. The load sheet contains the number of passengers, their weights, the cargo and baggage data, and their weight. It also has information on how the weights are distributed in the aircraft and the aircraft trim data. The load sheet is checked by the pilots for any errors, and once satisfied with the data, the captain signs it off. A copy of the signed load sheet is retained by the ground staff while the original is taken for the flight. So, with the load sheet, the weights are updated in the flight management system if there are any changes, and the performance for the takeoff is re-calculated.
This is usually the very last action from the pilot’s side. Then, once the cabin is ready, the lead cabin crew or the Purser reports to the captain the number of passengers onboard and asks for permission to close the aircraft door. With the thumbs up given to close the door, the aircraft is officially ready for pushback and departure.