Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be at the controls of a jet aircraft? Ever wondered what goes on beyond that bullet proof door? Ever wondered what all those strange noises are during take off and landing? Ever fantasised about hearing that classic movie line 'is there a pilot onboard?!' If so, then read on while I outline a typical flight and try to explain some of the noises and lunges which strike fear in the hearts of the more nervous passengers, lovingly branded by pilots as the 'white knuckle brigade'. Please note, whilst there is a smattering of technical explanations, this is but a light hearted overview of a typical flight.
Things You Will Need
Also, an Airline Transport Pilot Licence and associated Boeing 737 rating on aforementioned licence would be useful. Available from all good flight schools for a small fortune.
Adorn pilot uniform. Add coffee and newspaper. Walk smugly to the front of the security line at the airport terminal.
Locate your sparkly Boeing 737 and apply fuel generously.
Complete pre flight checks externally and internally as quickly as possible to be sure when the passengers board you can sit back, relax and make lewd comments about 'the talent' with your co-pilot.
Chocks away. Once everybody is on board, bags loaded, aircraft in balance and pilots briefed it's time to push back. This is done by a tug attached to the front nose wheel. Main thing to remember here is to take off the park brake. As if you'd ever forget to do that...
As the plane is being pushed back this is the usual time to fire up those engines. Normally this process is initiated by redirecting air from the turbine at the very rear of the aircraft to the starter motors of the engines. In the cabin the air conditioning will momentary stop as all air is routed to the engines to set them spinning. First fire up the number 2 engine (on the right) and secondly the number 1 engine (on the left). This is a lot simpler than you might think and usually just involves flicking a switch and monitoring the engine start in case something abnormal happens (i.e. a fire)
Check your brakes work. Best to know they're broken now rather than when you're hurtling down the runway.
Lining up on the runway you'll cycle the fasten seatbelt sign. This lets the cabin crew know take off is imminent. Anybody who stands up now will be subject to the wrath of the cabin crew.
Check your compass heading when lined up on the runway to ensure you are actually pointing in the correct direction and you are on the correct runway. For example, at London Heathrow runway '27 left' your heading should be around 270 degrees (adding a '0' to the runway designator will give you the approximate heading to look out for)
Push the thrust levers forward. Engines work on the theory of "suck, squeeze, bang, blow" (imagine the associated jokes). They suck in air, compress it, explode it with fuel vapour and blow it violently rearwards. As Newton would tell us, this rearward propulsion of air has an equal and opposite reaction which pushes the aircraft forward. When you push those thrust levers forward, you're essentially throwing more fuel into the fire and producing more thrust. Don't be stingy either, you need to get around 60 tonnes of metal from stationary up to around 140 knots (160 mph) before you can fly off the runway.
As you pick up speed use your feet (not hands) to keep the aircraft heading straight down the runway. When your trusty co-pilot sees you have reached a speed at which the wings are producing sufficient lift to get you off the runway, she will call "VR" which stands for velocity of rotation.
Now the magical part. The lift off. Slowly, firmly and smoothly pull back on the controls. This isn't a frenzied tug like in the movies, otherwise the tail of the plane will hit the runway. Also known as a tailstrike. A career limiting move. Keep the nose of the aircraft rising to around 15 degrees above the horizon. That's it, you're flying.
As soon as the aircraft is climbing away from the ground the co-pilot will raise the landing gear for you using a small lever. Whilst the landing gear and wheels make the landings a lot smoother, in the air they cause a lot of drag and are therefore raised into the body of the aircraft as soon as possible. This will cause a series of clunking noses in the passenger cabin as the gear raises but there's no cause for alarm.
Typically at around 1000 feet above the ground, you should lower the nose of the aircraft (to around 10 degrees above the horizon). This allows the aircraft to accelerate. The flaps (large panels at the rear of the wings) which produce extra lift at slower speeds to enable the aircraft to get airborne are no longer needed. Ask the co-pilot to be so kind as to get rid of them for you using the flap selector lever.
You've worked hard enough for one morning, so engage the autopilot, sit back and marvel at your perfect take off.
Usually at around 10,000' above the ground, the passenger seat belts are turned off and someone will inevitably dash to the toilet despite only being in the air for 5 minutes. Also at 10,000' you can accelerate a little bit more as the airspace is less congested and there is less risk of hitting any birds.
Up you pop to around 40,000' watching your instruments continuously to make sure the autopilot doesn't do anything silly. It is just a computer after all. Sit back, browse the paper and slurp on your coffee in a satisfied manner. Should the cabin crew come in, be sure to hide the paper and look extremely busy.
Plan your descent. Here's where the 3x table comes in handy. As a rough guide, for every 1000' above the ground you are, you will need 3 nm (nautical miles) on the ground to get down. So at 40,000' you will need to start descending around 40 x 3nm =120 nm before your destination. Would be terribly embarrassing if you were to miss the airport wouldn't it. You'll be descending at something between 2000 -3000 feet per minute which is fairly comfortable.
On the way down, don't forget to pop on the seat belt signs, have a chat with the rabble down the back about the weather at destination and the expected arrival time. Sounding somewhat distant and bored seems to be the preferred tone of delivery.
The Approach. The most common method of flying an approach is to use what is called an Instrument Landing System (ILS). Essentially two radio beacons guide you towards the runway. One is responsible to line you up laterally with the runway, the other to guide you on how you should descend vertically towards the runway. In the picture the ILS indications are circled and it's these you should monitor closely and follow as accurately as possible to ensure a safe approach. Typical decent rates at this stage will be around 800 feet per minute.
As you get closer to the runway you'll need to slow down, so once again beckon your trusty co pilot to start extending your flaps to enable the aircraft to slow down but still produce enough lift to stay flying.
Around 2000' above the ground, hassle your co-pilot again to select the landing gear down and select landing flaps for you. Again this will cause all kinds of funny noises in the cabin as the gear and flaps are driven into place but all is well. This will now enable you to reduce your speed down to the target landing speed, somewhere around 130 knots (150 mph). Check your landing gear really is down using the 3 green light indicators (pictured).
You'll need to juggle your attention between flying the ILS by making very small movements on the controls and using the thrust levers to control your speed.
Around 30' above the ground start to look towards the end of the runway which will help you judge how fast you are sinking towards the ground. Slow this down by gently and very slightly pulling back on the controls.
Begin to pull the thrust levers rearwards and aim for them to be fully back as the two main wheels (at the back of the aircraft) touchdown first, then ease the front nose wheel down also.
Apply the brakes using your toes to push forward at the top of the pedals whilst listening to the rapturous applause emanating from the passenger cabin behind at your glorious landing. Maintain firm brake pressure until the aircraft is certain to stop on the runway. Running over onto the grass is very much frowned upon.
Congratulations, you have completed a successful flight in a jet aircraft!
Disclaimer: To close I would like to say I am a pilot myself and do not mean to belittle the profession in anyway whatsoever. It's a fantastic job which I do not take for granted and am blessed to experience. My aim was to enlighten, put to rest any fears of flying and maintain interest without getting too bogged down with technicalities. I hope I achieved it!
Tips & Warnings
Acquiring the appropriate licence to fly a jet is expensive and requires a certain amount of determination, stubbornness and rich Uncles.
Not recommended for those afraid of heights or the claustrophobic. You are, essentially, going to be cooped up in a small metal tube about 7 miles above the ground.