Monday, 1 April 2013

Sitting up the front

When I last wrote, just a few weeks ago we were enjoying a short break after our phase one finals. Now as I write now we have just completed the phase two mid-term tests. The pace is blistering.

The character of the phase two subjects are noticably different from the first. There are only two 'memory' subjects — air law and operational procedures — though these require mind-bending quantity of technical detail to be retained.

The remaining subjects are far more practical. We are looking at general navigation, a course that Marco Polo would find familiar, and radio navigation, its slightly more modern cousin.

Aircraft performance takes the principles of flight that we learned in phase one and applies it to practical situations such as take-off distances, climb rates and optimum altitudes. Flight planning is even more hands-on, being based largely around a massive set of technical graphs and tables that require a sharp eye and an sharper pencil.

Finally there is mass and balance, which is essentially about making sure the aeroplane is not too heavy to take off, and once it is flying will remain stable and controllable. If the term 'centre of gravity' means anything to you, that's pretty much the whole story.

There is a lot of common ground between the subjects, and overlap with phase one subjects, making the whole thing less daunting. Certainly it feels like we are on the home straight now.

In the jump seat

That's enough boring stuff, now for the exciting bit. As part of our programme, we are invited to take a familiarisation flight — shadowing the crew of a short-haul flight from start to finish and sitting in the cockpit 'jumpseat' — the little fold-down chair behind the pilots' thrones.

I was fortunate enough to bag a place on a return flight from Heathrow to Milan — a route that not only promised plenty of time in the cockpit and amazing mountain views, but didn't even require getting up early.

First I met up with one of our liaison pilots who was to be the first officer on the flight — let's call him Sid. Sid was showing me around the very plush crew facilities in terminal 5 when we bumped into our captain for the day — let's call him Bob.

G-EUYN - our ride for the day (Photo Tony Woof)
In large airlines it is rare for a flight crew to work together regularly, often they will not even have met before. This may seem strange, but has proven to be the safest way to operate. The pilots have only the standard company procedures and terminology in common and don't develop the shortcuts or shorthand that over-familiarity can foster.

The first task was to log in to the dispatch computers and print out all the documents needed for the flight. Currently these are done on paper, but will be moved to electronic versions accessed via ipads soon.

Included are the weather forecasts including the high level winds, details of the route and all the waypoints, notices about any airspace or other problems (notams), fuel calculations, mass and balance, any dangerous goods and more. We sat down with a coffee to review them together.

Most simply need to be checked over and approved by Bob (in aviation, the captain is responsible for everything). But there are judgement calls to be made; in our case an unusually high 130 knot tailwind was forecast and Bob elected to carry a little extra fuel over the calculated figure just in case it did not materialise.

The other thing that did not materialise was our plane, which had been held up in Amsterdam and was running late. We waited poised at the gate for its arrival, the crew keen to make up some of the lost time. Soon enough G-EUYN appeared, an shiny one-year-old Airbus A320.

We boarded as soon as we could (several people challenged me on the way, which was reassuring) and the pilots set about their tasks and checklists. Bob headed out to do the 'walkaround' — a quick check of the outside of the aircraft which is done before every flight, while Sid gave me the legally-required safety briefing. Apparently, the way to escape from the cockpit in an emergency is to jump out of the window while holding on to a sort of strap device which is supposed to lower you gently to the ground. Hmm.

Cockpit of a typical A320 (actually judging by those seat covers
this may be the deluxe version...) Much to my own amazement, I can now
tell you what at least 90% of those knobs, levers and gauges is for.

 This is a busy time in the flight deck — the pilots are programming the flight management computer with the route, fuel and payload information; talking to the ground controller; dealing with various visitors to the cockpit such as the fuelling guy, cabin crew and the cargo handlers. But it all went like clockwork and in no time we were being pushed back from the stand, starting engines and taxiing off to the runway.

As we queued on the taxiway, I watched one of the new A380s line up and take off. They are absolute monsters, some can seat 800 people. Perhaps not the prettiest aircraft ever designed, but an engineering marvel all the same.

Our turn came, and Sid taxiied onto the runway, lined up and opened the throttles. You can feel the awsome power of the jet engines as they wind up to full thrust, but it is oddly quiet up here and you feel quite detached from the maelstrom in the engines way behind you. I tried to follow the various calls made during the take off, but it does all happen very quickly. Sid lifted the nosewheel off the tarmac and in seconds were were climbing at an astonishing rate. Seconds after that, the auto pilot is engaged and the pilots watch critically as it executes the planned departure track perfectly.

Except for critical parts of the take off and landing, passenger jets are flown with reference to the flight instruments and not the outside world. Still I found it a bit of a shock when we vanished into a wall of cloud and could see precisely nothing. The clouds bumped us around for a few minutes before the jet climbed free from the English murk and into the bright sunshine above.

Gorgeous views of the Alps are a perk of the job

The undercast stayed with us most of the way, but thankfully gave way for some beautiful views of the Alps as we passed over. Although I know them well, I could not identify any of the peaks from this unique view point but it was stunning all the same. Mont Blanc was one of our waypoints, so we flew directly overhead the peak of Western Europe.

The powerful tailwind appeared as promised giving us ground speeds well over 600 mph, rapidly winning back the earlier delays. I watched what the pilots were doing and tried to ask intellegent questions, but kept talking over air traffic control on the radio. To be honest there was so much to take in I was happy to just watch and listen. After months of rather abstract study in the classroom, it was great to see it all happening right in front of me.

Top of descent point came along incredibly quickly, the engines rolled back and we started the gradual drift down. Milan is a quiet airport, and gave us a straight-in clearance, which means a constant slope is flown all the way from the cruise to the landing.

Milan Malpensa magically appears out of the valley murk
Helpfully, the clouds below petered out a few miles from the airport, and I could see the runway in the far far distance, already perfectly lined up and 'on glide' — two white and two red lights either side of the touchdown indicating we are already on the correct three degree slope.

British Airways have developed a way of sharing the workload between the pilots that I think is quite unusual and also very insightful. One pilot, not necessarily the captain will be nominated 'pilot flying' for a particular leg and will fly the take off and landing, and make any inputs required during the cruise. The other is 'pilot monitoring', and acts as a backup to spot any errors or problems, and deals with the radios. This is the normal practice.

However, with BA the pilot monitoring will fly the approach — this is the section from about 25 miles from the destination to 1000' above the runway. The idea is to keep both pilots involved and alert, and make them both 'stakeholders'. The pilot not flying has to be 'in the loop' in order to fly the approach properly. The pilot flying is certainly going to want the approach flown correctly and accurately, as they have to land from it.

So Bob flew the approach and handed over to Sid for the landing. This is one phase of flight that remains entirely manual and quite demanding. I watched him juggling the side stick, dealing with a little turbulence and cross wind, to bring us neatly on to the centre line for a good positive touchdown.

Textbook stuff as you would expect from the Queen's finest

It's a common misconception that a super-smooth touchdown means a 'good' landing. This may be appropriate if you have a long and dry runway, but it is far more important to get the plane down onto the tarmac in the right place and get weight on the wheels as soon as possible. Until this happens, neither the brakes or the reverse thrust can be used.

Pilots will aim for a 'positive' touchdown with no 'float', especially if it is wet, about 1000' from the runway threshold. This puts them in the best position for getting rid of all that energy and getting the plane slowed down with plenty of room to spare.

As we rolled off the taxiway towards our gate, now just a few minutes behind schedule, there were no signs of life - they have a relaxed attitude to timekeeping here. With the help of an electronic gizmo on the terminal wall, Sid parked the beast inch-perfectly and shut down the engines.

Time to do it all again — paperwork, walkaround, checklists, computer programing and ATC — for the next leg. Bob and Sid calmly and efficiently got the job done for the flight back. They would fly two more legs after that as well. To me, with my brain already aching from information overload, that seemed like marathon. But for the crew, with all their training and experience, it's all in a day's work.


  1. ...and I thought all BA pilots were called Nigel

  2. Aaaah, didn't they even let you do the funny announcements?

  3. Pleased to hear all your latest 'BA' news.

  4. Hi,

    I am currently awaiting the result of the final stage of FPP selection and I must say your blog is very inspiring! Thank you for sharing it all.

    It sounds like you're having a fantastic time, the thought of having my own familiarisation flight really sends shivers down my spine. It looks amazing! I wish you all the best with your training, and congratulations on getting a place on the FPP - I know first hand how tough the selection process is.


    1. The very best of luck to you, Tom.

    2. Thank you - and I got the good news today!!

      Maybe we will cross paths in a few years time. Best of luck with the rest of your training, I will be following your blog.



Comments are very welcome, but please no names!