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What do pilots do during a flight?

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Flying to Moscow: This blog article is about a three-hour flight of SWISS International Airlines. I will give you an insight into how pilots spend their time in the cockpit of an A321 airplane during one specific flight. Welcome to the flight deck!

Three hours to go: 
Moscow is quite a long flight for a short-haul pilot. On the ground we conduct the flight preparation before entering the plane. Weather consultation, fuel planning, take-off speed calculations, outside aircraft check, cockpit preparation and emergency briefings for safety are just a few aspects of ground duties of airline pilots.
It’s true that a few minutes after take-off, we engage the autopilot. This, however, is not the end of our work day and only crew of the aircraft is working! Our airplane’s autopilot is unable to think, to see, to be creative, to react promptly or to talk to the air traffic controllers while flying. That is the work of us pilots. And the autopilot must be managed while it is flying the airplane. It might be like handling twenty different cruise controls in a car. For instance, we talk to the controllers and are instructed to climb to 20,000 feet. At the same time we have to avoid a thundercloud and decrease speed due to traffic. We then turn different knobs that command the autopilot that steers the aircraft. The autopilot would not be able to react to these challenges independently. Those knobs tell the autopilot how high we want to fly, how fast we want to climb, which direction we want to go and at what speed we want to let plane fly. So, we tell it during the whole way what we want to do.

Two hours to go:
Once at cruising altitude, it is possible that our workload decreases a bit in the cockpit. This is the time to get the latest weather information of the en-route and destination airports. We reconsider any specialities we might expect while flying. The instruments of the cockpit have to be checked periodically and a fuel check of the plane must be done to determine if we have lost any fuel. And of course, we do have time to eat some “SWISS”-Airlines-chocolate or a small meal. We often drink a lot of coffee and talk about all possible topics – be it the new flight procedures, new planes, world politics or holiday plans. The cabin crew is also of utmost importance to us airline pilots during work. We want to know how they’re doing in the cabin of the plane. How passenger-crew relations are developing and if they have noticed anything unusual and safety-related while flying (either passenger behaviour or technical matters).

The last hour:
Moscow is known to be an airport with unforeseeable arrival routes. Many airlines fly to Moscow. At many airports, we know more or less what we can expect. Not in Moscow though. Therefore, it is worth looking at the arrival charts early enough. We talk about all the different options. But usually we don’t know which arrival route and runway we will be given until the very end of the flight. So we try to stay as flexible as possible. We expect the unexpected. Again, we get the latest weather information. Twenty minutes before landing, the pilot informs passengers about the remaining flight time and current weather conditions in Moscow. Now starts another considerably stressful phase of the flight – 15 minutes to go. We constantly calculate our vertical profile (too high? too low?) and talk to many different air traffic controllers. Finally, we are guided by them to a runway where the ILS (Instrument Landing System) has to be intercepted at the right altitude and heading. The flaps (on the wing) and the landing gear are extended. We disengage the autopilot. One of us airline pilots (either the Commander or the First Officer) then lands the 74-ton Airbus A321 manually. Pedal breaking and reverse thrust slow down the aircraft. We taxi to the gate and say goodbye to our passengers together with the crew. Our work day is not over yet. The return flight to Zurich departs 40 minutes later!