On a recent weekday afternoon, Wingtips had the great privilege of seeing how an airplane is operated, by going for a ride in the cockpit of a Boeing 757. The experience not only taught us about what pilots really do up there in the cockpit, but also gave us the chance to enjoy the stunning wraparound view out the front windows—a panoramic masterpiece that would make for a truly amazing watercolor painting, if the ride were smooth enough to allow an artist to keep his brush steady. But most of all, our ride in the cockpit of a Boeing 757 reinforced our reverence for the work performed by airBaltic’s skilled pilots, as well as emphasized just how incredibly safe and secure modern air travel has become, thanks to advances in technology, navigation, and communication.
Big Man on Campus
Though the interiors of most airplanes seem to look the same—varying only in details noticed only by the most discerning eyes—each of the five types of aircraft in the airBaltic fleet is actually very different. The largest plane in the club, the Boeing 757 (or “seven-five,” in pilot’s jargon), is what is known as the “second generation” of Boeing planes, the first being the smaller Boeing 737, or “seven-three.” The seven-five was originally developed by the U.S.-based Boeing company in the 1980s, and was designed to fly the four-hour stretch from Los Angeles to New York. This optimal flight time makes the aircraft perfect for flights from Riga to major European capitals like Paris, London, and Barcelona. And the plane’s 200 seats mean that airBaltic can transport a high number of passengers to these popular destinations, greatly reducing the amount of fuel consumption per passenger.
The Heaviest Passenger On Board
In fact, one of the most important things that our ride in the seven-five taught us was the supreme importance of fuel and fuel consumption to the operation of a commercial aircraft. This is something you don’t hear about anywhere else but in the cockpit (or in the airline’s revenue department); after all, passengers are understandably more concerned with things like ticket prices, inflight comforts, and onboard meals and entertainment than fuel and its consumption, and many younger passengers perhaps go so far as to assume that airplanes are run by a force like electricity—just plug it in, turn it on, charge it up, and off you go! However, we are still far from electrical planes (even electrical cars are yet to gain in widespread popularity), and planes still need to drink copious amounts of jet fuel to get the energy to transport two hundred people through the atmosphere.
In order for the Boeing 757 to fly from Riga to Paris and back again, the aircraft will burn more than twenty tons of jet fuel. This effectively makes fuel the heaviest passenger on the flight. (Passengers only weigh a total of 16,000 kg., calculated at an average of 80 kg. per passenger.) But unlike the passengers on board, the fuel load grows steadily lighter during the course of the flight, as it is burned up by the engines (though some passengers would surely love to experience this phenomenon of inflight weight loss). Fuel is burned at an incredibly rapid rate by the hungry engines, though pilots must sure that the land with at least 4-5 tons of extra fuel, in case they have to make an emergency landing at an alternate airport; if the amount of fuel upon landing is below 1.5 tons, then the captain must fill out addition paperwork to explain the reasons for coming so close to an empty tank.
Of course, this almost never happens, as pilots take great pains to make sure they bring enough fuel for the entire flight, and meticulously monitor fuel consumption along the way. The price of fuel also plays a role: if fuel is more expensive at the end destination, then the pilots must bring extra fuel for the return flight (this is called “tankering”) so they don’t have to fill up during the turnaround. Think of it as eating extra helpings at the breakfast buffet, so you don’t have to pay for an expensive lunch—surely something that any visitor to Paris, London, or Barcelona has experienced at least once before.
On Wingtips’ flight to Paris, tankering was one of the many issues discussed at the pre-flight briefing, ninety minutes before takeoff, when the two pilots—the captain and the first officer—met at airBaltic’s Briefing Room to prepare for their upcoming flight. During the briefing, the pilots entered all the information for their flight into airBaltic’s computer system, so that it was available to the operations control center as well as air traffic control. They also ordered the required amounts of fuel, so the technicians could begin fueling the plane. Next they viewed a set of documents with complex weather forecasts, which included information like wind speeds, clouds, and visibility, as well as maps indicating jet streams and areas of turbulence. The briefing sheets also encompassed information about runway closures, construction activity, and cranes presence at the destination airport, as well as for several alternate destinations in case the aircraft had to make an alternate landing along the way—a rare occurrence, but nonetheless something pilots must always prepare for in advance.
Fortunately, the day of our trip to Paris was clear and sunny, or, to employ another bit of fancy aviation terminology, CAVOK (kav-okay), standing for “Ceiling and Visibility Okay,” indicating few clouds and clear sight lines straight to the horizon. There were also no special warnings in the briefing’s NOTAM, or “Notice to Airmen,” section, which notify about any changes in airspace such as military exercise along the route. The entire pre-flight briefing process reiterated just how important math skills are to aviation—without good mathematical skills or the ability to read complex charts of numbers and codes, one shouldn’t even dream of becoming a commercial pilot. (So if there are any kids out there reading this who want to become a pilot, turn off the computer right now and go finish your calculus homework!)
Cabin Crew Briefing
After the pilots were done filling out the necessary forms for their trip and entering the information into the computers, they met with the cabin crew for another pre-flight briefing. Here the two pilots explained the details for the trip and familiarized the crew with all the information for the upcoming flight, such as the number of passengers, expected weather forecasts, possible turbulence areas, and the approximate time of arrival. As the pilots later explained, this briefing is meant to facilitate collaboration between the cabin crews and the pilots—to help them get to know one another and exchange information, sort of like an orientation session. As Wingtips has pointed on in previous blog posts (see Cabin Crews 101), collaboration and communication between the cabin crews and the pilots is of supreme importance. Flight attendants are responsible for the comfort and safety of all the passengers, because the pilots certainly have their hands full up front in the cockpit, where they have their eyes peeled on the road and sky ahead of them.
Short History of a Crowded Room
The precise extent of the pilots’ business would quickly become apparent to the Wingtips team, who eventually took their seats behind the pilots in the 757’s roomy cockpit, which turned out to be larger than your average “single” hotel room in Spain (if you’ve ever been to Madrid, then you know what we’re talking about). Inside were a total of four seats—two in front for the pilots, and two seats behind them. The pilots explained that, in the not-so-distant past, aircraft were operated by several individuals; in addition to the two captains, there was also a flight engineer (for more about flight engineers, see our interview with Edgars Abolins), a technician in charge of navigation, and a radio man in charge of dialing up the correct frequencies and communicating with air traffic control.
Over time, the functions of the flight engineer, navigator, and radio operator were fully automated and integrated into the cockpit’s mechanisms; therefore the jobs became obsolete. The navigator, who in the earliest aircraft would guide the plane’s path by tracking the stars, was replaced by the IRS system, which uses a set of three gyroscopes to determine the aircraft’s positioning, and, later, the more advanced GPS systems, which rely on satellites to determine a plane’s precise location. The radio man, in turn, was supplanted by advances in communication technology; today, both pilots wear headphones to listen and speak with air traffic control. In referring to their aircraft, they use the flight’s unique code, always ending in a word from the phonetic alphabet, such as “Romeo” for the letter “R.” (Not surprisingly, pilots use the phonetic alphabet in everyday situation as well: when Wingtips asked which gate the plane was leaving from, the captain immediately answered “Bravo 7”—B7, in layman’s terms).
Since the advent of modern aviation technology, information in the cockpit can be transmitted and received in a range of different forms. Weather forecasts can be instantly requested from an international data link system by the mere touch of a button, and are printed out on waxy paper from a sort of miniature onboard “fax machine.” Similarly, an Automated Terminal Information System, or ATIS, runs a constant loop of information about the air space; all the captain needs to do is plug in to the system and listen to the available information. Likewise, each airplane in the sky automatically sends a signal (its unique four-digit Squawk number) to other aircraft announcing its presence; there is therefore no threat of collision, as each plane will automatically increase or decrease its altitude, or change its course, if another aircraft even remotely begins to approach its flight path. The days of a radio man hollering “Bombay! Bombay!” into a portable radio device and furiously sending out codes by toggling a switch are long behind us.
But this consolidation of duties does not mean that the pilots can just lounge around in their Spanish-hotel-room-sized cockpit. The fact that the tasks of navigation and communication have largely been automated does not mean that the plane can fly on its own. Actually, for the Wingtips team, there was no time to enjoy the roomy atmosphere: the pilots were busy preparing documents for takeoff, and offered their guests a short introductory course in Flight Documentation 101. As Wingtips was to learn, much of a pilot’s time is occupied with filling out and signing forms and documents—entering codes, writing numbers, initialing entries, and doing quick calculations. And the most important documents are, as you might have expected, related to fueling. To this end, the captain supervises the entire pre-flight fueling process, making sure that the plane has as much fuel as it will need for the outgoing flight and, if tankering is called for, the return flight as well.
But once the captain signs off on the final technical forms, releasing the plane into his command, the aircraft is ready to roll. The pilot releases the parking brakes, starts the engines, and requests that the plane be pushed away from its parking spot. The pilots finalizes this stage by giving the grounds crew the universal “thumbs up” sign—which can be understood at any airport in the world. Sitting up inside the cockpit, a visitor can easily forget about all the other business going on back in the cabin area: the jostling for seats, cramming of bags into overhead bins, requests for extra blankets and pillows, and requisite safety announcements. All of this goes on the other side of the door, leaving the pilots free to concentrate on the matter at hand: getting the plane up into the air. (For more about takeoff, see the previous blog post, Flying Lessons: Takeoff!) Of all the two hundreds individuals in the plane, only two of them can make the plane take off, and they therefore need all the concentration they can muster.
The Art of Communication
The takeoff process reveals another essential aspect of the pilot’s duties: communication. In order to get the plane off the ground, both pilots must constantly communicate with one another, cross-checking each other’s activities and procedures with a series of checklists, reiterating every step verbally. This was certainly apparent in the moments before the Wingtips team lifted off to Paris. After double checking that everything in the pre-flight stage has been completed, the pilots taxied out onto the runway and spoke to local air traffic control to get clearance for takeoff. After talking through yet another series of checklists, confirming the preparation of all flight systems—pumps, anti-ice, anti-skid, flaps, etc.— the captain pushed the throttle forward and gave the engines the necessary speed for takeoff. As the plane shot down the runway, the first officer called “Rotate!” at the moment when the plane had reached its required takeoff speed; at the same time, he pulled back on the control column (the plane’s steering wheel), lifting the plane into the air. To an outside observer, it seemed as if the plane had lifted off into the air not through physics, but through the art of communication—indeed, through the very magic of words.
to be continued…
Tags: boeing 757