Plane Answers: What preparation does a pilot do prior to a flight?

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

John asks:

Hey, I was wondering what pilots do before a flight. How much time before a flight do you need to be at the airport and other than flight planning and aircraft inspection, what do you do? Do you inspect the airplane then come back to the terminal and grab a bite to eat? Do you file your flight plan then hangout in the boarding area if (for example) the plane you’re flying hasn’t arrived yet?

We’re required to ‘sign in’ at least an hour before the flight. We stop in operations (an office with computers and a bunch of mailboxes) to check for any revisions to our manuals, print out depictions of weather along our route of flight as well as the paperwork required for the leg. If we have any revisions, we’ll do them. A few revisions can involve changing out a few hundred pages in our manuals, so it’s helpful to show up a bit earlier to work in that case.

Once both pilots are ready, we’ll go through security and then to the gate. Occasionally the inbound flight may be late or passengers are still deplaning, in which case there’s really nothing else to do than to wait around, just as the passengers are doing.

Assuming the airplane is at the gate, the captain will talk to the flight attendants about anything that might be unusual for the flight, including the ride reports, any cabin items that might be inoperative such as an oven or coffee maker, and then he may grab a coffee in the terminal before setting up his side of the cockpit.

The co-pilot does the walk-around, looks at the tire pressures and condition, checks the status of the oxygen bottles for the cockpit, inspects the wear on the brakes to see if they’re within tolerances, looks over the engine fan blades for any nicks and eyes the entire airplane for fuel, oil or hydraulic leaks.

Inside, either pilot will program the flight plan into a computer much like a GPS, set a few markers or ‘bugs’ on the airspeed indicator denoting the speed at which we’ll decide to continue the takeoff or stop on the runway if we have an engine failure or fire, as well as the point at which we’ll rotate the airplane during a normal takeoff, pulling the nose up to lift off the ground.

Both pilots test their oxygen masks, and the co-pilot will look over the other emergency equipment and inspect all the electrical circuit breakers to be sure they’re in place. Engine fire detections systems are tested which results in a bell sound that you may have heard while boarding the airplane on the first flight of the day.

We then initialize a second computer called the ACARS which essentially allows us to ‘text message’ our company to receives weather reports, our flight plan, records the time we push back, take off, land and arrive at the gate and automatically sends some of this information to the company. The ACARS also allows us to receive a print out of our ATC clearance. It’s a handy device, and many of us are would rather have an engine fail than lose this little box. Well, almost.

If we have a jumpseater-a pilot from our company or another airline or an FAA inspector-riding in the cockpit with us, we’ll brief them on the use of oxygen masks, life preserver locations and the use of emergency exits (such as the cockpit windows).

Flight attendants arrive at the airport an hour early as well, and they also ‘build their nest’ in the galley just as we do in the cockpit for the hour prior to the flight. They check their emergency equipment, over wing and door slides and raft pressures in addition to organizing their catering.

Interestingly, this period before a flight is never included in our hourly pay. Crew member pay is calculated only for the time the airplane has pushed back from the gate to the moment it has arrived at the destination gate, or ‘block time’ so named for the wooden chocks or ‘blocks’ put between the wheels to keep them from rolling while the airplane is parked at the gate.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monday’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.