A Pilot’s Perspective: Takeoff


This is a Hipmunk guest post from Scott Simko, a U.S. Commercial Airline pilot of over 15 years. His views and opinions are his and his alone and do not represent the airline of his employment or Hipmunk.

Following up on my last post, we are getting ready for push back. Before the door is closed we (the pilots) decide who will be flying. There isn’t much of a procedure — it’s really often just a coin toss or just the preference of one pilot for an airport. If the weather forecast is bad (icing, snow, bad crosswinds, thunderstorms, etc.) we consider the experience levels of each pilot in that aircraft, which sometimes means the first officer flies.

After the flight attendants signal that everyone is in their seats and the cabin is secure, we start our push back checklists. Once completed, we coordinate with air traffic control (ATC) for clearance to push back.

This moment is extremely important, as it’s when we start getting paid. We are hourly workers — if you see a pilot he’s not being paid. Although it’s a joke, it’s fair to say that pilots, like most of you, we have felt the economic squeeze since 9/11 (politically, internally, and from outsourcing).

Once we’ve pushed back, the engines start (typically the first officer does this while the captain is speaking with the crew on the ground). After clearance from ATC, we taxi to a specific runway, often on one engine to save fuel. I’ve often felt like a whirling dervish because I had so many things to get accomplished before takeoff.

Most airlines (not all, but most) are still in the process of closing out the flight. Have you ever seen the customer service representative (CSR) frantically going through ticket stubs once the jetway door is closed? They’re doing that to pass along an accurate passenger count. Baggage handlers are doing the same thing, but with the number of bags and cargo. They send this information to load control, which relays data to the pilots, who use it to compare estimated takeoff weights with actual figures and thus obtain final flap, trim, and thrust settings. Without those numbers, we cannot take off.

Granted, not every airline operates this way — I’m sure you’ve been on a regional flight where people are asked to move to other seats. This is in fact to balance the aircraft, and it even happens with larger jets. What’s the difference? Regional airlines have their own procedures and computer systems, since they are subcontractors and 99% outsourced, it’s tough to accomplish before boarding completes.

Once we’re first in line for takeoff, we make sure everyone is seated, and start our flight.

This is one of the better videos available for showing what that looks like from the cockpit. We have a number of call-outs we go through during takeoff, in this order:

  1. “80 knots” - signifies the beginning of the high speed regime; if we experience a problem from this point forward it needs to be serious for us to stop the aircraft.  It’s a statistically rather unsafe maneuver at high speed, but sometimes necessary.
  2. “V1” - a takeoff decision speed. Here we decide if the aircraft is safe to fly.  If a problem occurs after this call-out, we are committed to take the aircraft airborne. 
  3.  “VR” - signals the flying pilot to pitch the aircraft up. 
  4.  “V2” - the speed at which the aircraft can safely fly on one engine.

Off we go!

The image above is from Airplane.  I hope no one gets mad at me for using it.