A vastly different world exists when transitioning from flying small planes to understanding how to fly a commercial plane.

Vern Weiss

You’ve been grinding away making yourself marketable to large jet companies. Until now, your sphere has been light planes weighing only a few thousand pounds. The phone rings. You’ve been selected for an upcoming class of new-hire pilots flying “heavy iron.” “Flying is flying, right? How different can it be, right?” This new world is not dissimilar from that of someone who has driven only automobiles then transitions to 18-wheelers. Welcome to “The Big Time.”

By “heavy iron” we are talking about aircraft substantially larger than small corporate jets and turboprops. In the simplest of terms, the kinds of aircraft I am referring to are those in which you don’t have to bend to enter or walk through the passenger cabin or into the flight deck. Notice I said, “flight deck?” On larger airplanes, the cockpit is customarily called the flight deck. Behind the flight deck is the “cabin.” The place where the coffee pot and food preparation equipment is called the galley and the john/potty is commonly called, “the lav” (shortened form of “lavatory”). The men and women who supervise passengers in the cabin are called “flight attendants.” The “head” flight attendant is either called the purser, lead or in some cases “A” attendant. Obviously, the big cheese in the front end is called the captain and the second-cheese, first officer. “Co-pilot?”- nuh…not used so much.

How to Fly a Commercial Plane –  The Flight Deck

As a first officer, what’s the first thing you’ll probably think about when entering the flight deck? Preflight? Computations? No. Garbage! In light plane flying, the most garbage you probably accumulated on flights was the wrapper from a Snickers bar. On large aircraft, you’ll likely fly multiple legs that are longer and the garbage mounts up. You and the captain will toss out the equivalent of a kitchen-sized garbage bag full of used coffee cups, scrap paper, TOLD cards1, weather/release packages, wadded-up Kleenex, pop cans etc. As such, your first order of “housekeeping” will be to obtain a small garbage bag and hang it on one of the pilot seat levers.
Depending on the company’s policies, as first officer, you might start the auxiliary power unit (APU) if it’s a “dark” airplane. This gets electricity flowing in the aircraft and provides heat if it’s cold or air conditioning if it’s hot.

How to Fly a Commercial Plane –  Preflight

Your company may consider the first officer the designated preflight-doer. This means you do a cockpit preflight by checking switch and control settings and doing a walk-around inspection outside. There are some items on these checklists that will be only accomplished on the first flight of the day and not redone on subsequent legs. FAA Part 121 and 125 companies require an external pre-flight and post-flight “walk-around,” regardless of how hard it’s raining outside.
When both crew members are present on the flight deck, the entire checklist is verbalized. Some items only the captain responds to and other items are reserved only for the first officer’s response. Depending on the aircraft, this verbal checklist recitation is recorded on the cockpit voice recorder (CVR). Ordinarily the CVR begins recording as soon as power is applied to the aircraft either via APU, ground power unit or the battery switch selected ON. While older CVRs only record the last 30 minutes of radio and pilot conversation, newer Flight Data Recorders (FDRs) typically store the last 2 hours of ambient noise and conversation.

Pilots waiting to start taxiing Boeing 757
Photo by: Kent Wien

Once the flight crew receives its load manifest (passenger count, baggage) and has obtained the final “numbers” on fuel load (either through dispatch release or from crew member computations), the engine power settings, V-speeds and minimum needed runway lengths are figured out. This task is usually the first officers. Both pilots electronically or mechanically move little colored markers around on their airspeed indicators to denote important speeds. These are called “bugs.” Glass cockpit screens will “bug” the speeds graphically. It is different from light planes where take-off power amounts to just pushing the throttle(s) all the way to their limits. Because you are dealing with a variety of critical engine limitations, you need to factor in variables like weight, air temperature, and wind speed. Maximum power settings may be required due to available runway length. Use of anti-icing equipment needed for take-off also reduces the available take-off power. Crew computations are necessary to protect against over-torque and over-temp on engines. Noise abatement climbs and “flex” power settings will also require consideration. A “flex” power setting is used at the captain’s discretion when the runways are long enough to use reduced power for takeoff. This reduces noise, engine wear, and maintenance cost. After the “housekeeping” duties are done and you’re within 30 minutes of the flight plan’s proposed departure time, you can radio Clearance Delivery for the instrument clearance.

How to Fly a Commercial Plane –  Taxiing and Takeoff

The flight actually starts with the captain setting the parking brake and calling for the engine start checklist. It is common for the first officer to start the engines. Once the after engine start checklist is complete it’s time to taxi. In large commercial aircraft operations, taxiing is permitted only when all passengers are seated. (There’s always some clod that feels he must stand up to get a roll of Certs out of his carry-on luggage so he can hit on the girl seated next to him.) In Part 121 operations, the flight attendants are required to notify the captain and the aircraft has to stop moving. Obviously, this boogers things up for ground controllers and all aircraft waiting behind you.

In the taxi check list, you set the flaps and trim and the flying pilot will verbalize a takeoff briefing. This briefing is vitally important and delineates who’s flying the leg, confirmation of power settings, climb profile and standard departure procedures to be used. Additionally, planned action in the event of an emergency is included. (“In the event we lose an engine after V1 we’ll continue the takeoff but since we’ll be above maximum landing weight we’ll advise ATC we need to burn off fuel or dump fuel prior to returning to this airport,” or whatever is prudent.)

A Boeing 767 taking off at sunet
Photo by: Paul Nelhams

Let’s say this is going to be your leg to fly. Even so, typically the captain generally taxis the aircraft and lines up the aircraft on the runway prior to takeoff, after which you’re advised to hold the brakes, then, “it’s your airplane.” Once cleared for takeoff, you will increase thrust, attentive to ensure both engines are accelerating equally until you’re close to the target power setting. You may hold full forward pressure on the yoke to place as much weight as possible on the wheels for traction. As you begin to move you will find the rudder/brake peddles are sluggish and won’t become effective until you’re beyond 40 or 50 knots. Meanwhile, believing that you’ve got the power set close to what it should be, you say something like, “SET POWER” and the non-flying pilot (the captain) refines the power settings as you concentrate on the takeoff.

Several call-outs are pretty standard on large aircraft: One is “80 knots” and you respond with “Cross checked.” You’re just confirming that your and the captain’s airspeed indicators agree. Next, the non-flying pilot calls out, “V1.” This is the point of no return: you’re goin’ flying regardless of what happens! High-speed aborts are often disastrous. Even if you blow an engine after V1, you’ll continue the takeoff roll. Shortly afterward, you hear, “Rotate.” You’ll pitch the nose up to the desired attitude and hold it while you wait for the wheels to clear the pavement. Once airborne the non-flying pilot says, “positive rate” (meaning you’ve got a positive rate of climb and not sinking back to the ground) and you’ll respond, “Gear Up.” The captain reaches over and retracts the landing gear. The first time you do this it may surprise you how noisy the hydraulic pumps are and how loud the “ker-thunk” is when the nose gear slams against its uplocks. Depending on aircraft profile, around 400′ AGL you’ll call for the flaps up. Some aircraft momentarily level out around 1,000′ AGL to accelerate at what’s called the acceleration altitude; then resume the climb.

How to Fly a Commercial Plane –  In Flight
Two Pilots in the flight deck of a commercial plane
Photo by: Condor

Use of the autopilot is encouraged after the configuration changes but especially passing through 10,000 feet. Reduced separation requirements mandate that autopilot use is required between FL290 to FL410 (29,000 to 41,000 feet).

You’ll climb to the cruise altitude using your familiar airspeed indicator but at a point called the cross-over altitude2 will transition to flying by Mach number. The reason for this is that, at altitude, the Mach number is limiting whereas your indicated airspeed will be lower than you’re used to seeing and be of little value.

Control responses are slower and take more muscle. The payoff is more stability. Standard rate turns (on which instrument flying is predicated) are no longer are used. Because you’re moving faster you’ll only use half standard rate in turns. In light planes, standard rate requires 15 to 20 degrees of bank angle. In large planes, producing a 3° per second standard rate turn would require a bank angle of 50°. The Aeronautical Information Manual states that turns in a holding pattern should be at 3° per second to a maximum of 30 degrees of bank, whichever results in the lesser bank angle. “Standard rate” in large aircraft typically is no more than 1.5° per second.

How to Fly a Commercial Plane –  Approach and Landing
A boeing commercial airliner landing
Photo by: Roy

As you approach your destination a new TOLD card is needed containing runway length at your weight, speeds and go-around power settings. Landing speeds are “bugged” and ATIS information, approach procedures, and techniques for special conditions such as wet/slick runways and LAHSO3 are reviewed and briefed. The approach may seem to move pretty fast at first. The difference is flying approaches in light planes at 100 knots compared to 120 to 160 knots is conspicuous. But after you get accustomed to it, light plane approaches will seem to take forever.

“Grease job landings do not a pilot make.” In large aircraft, you’re interested only in stabilized approaches and touching down at the desired touchdown zone. It may seem awkward how high you are when landing. Depending on aircraft you’ll actually be sitting anywhere from 20 to 100 feet above the ground when touching down. Good positive runway wheel contact and minimal “wing-wagging” trumps a grease job. Yep, in large airplanes, you pretty much wanna “fly ’em on.”

Thrust reversers are maybe new to you.4 Before using them, it is important to ensure both reversers are equally deployed otherwise you’ll spin around faster than that guy with the Certs does when checking out good looking women after arriving in Ft. Lauderdale.

On landing roll-out, the non-flying pilot may call out “80 knots” which is your cue to begin stowing the thrust reverser levers. At 40-50 knots the captain will say something like, “I got it” or “my airplane” and take over control, taxiing to parking. You’re done with all flying pilot’s duties at that point and resume radio work and the “clean-up,” retracting the flaps, re-setting the trim and performing the after landing checklist.

One thing that is sometimes hard for first officers to understand is that the airplane is the captain’s airplane. It is the captain who is responsible for that airplane and you are there only to
assist. Although it is customary to alternate flying legs, it is at the captain’s discretion only. Privilege in a multi-crew setting is not a 50/50 proposition.

In Conclusion

The difference between small and large plane flying is “bigness.” Its numbers and speeds are higher. Pilots sit two or more feet apart. Its weight is computed with index numbers such as 100.3 instead of 100,300 pounds. There’s at least one extra fold out seat on the flight deck for jump seaters. Center of gravity is a location measured in percent within the wing’s aerodynamic chord instead of inches after of a datum line. But there is one thing that makes learning how to fly a commercial plane worth it over smaller planes, besides the freedom to stretch your legs and walk around, and that is the salary is usually much better and who can find fault with that?

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1 – “TOLD” cards are take-off and landing distance data cards and prepared for each leg and generally include ATIS information for the airport from which you’re leaving and approaching. Once the leg is complete the TOLD card gets discarded. Sophisticated multi-function displays are also being used that present this information.

2 – Crossover Altitude is the altitude at which a specified CAS (Calibrated airspeed) and Mach value represent the same TAS (True airspeed) value. Above this altitude, the Mach number is used to reference speeds.

3 – LAHSO – Land and Hold Short Operations is landing on one of two intersecting runways requiring precise planning. Pilots are not required to accept a LAHSO clearance to land but it can expedite your landing at busy airports.

4 – In turboprops, deceleration is handled with a propeller reversal called “beta” which also slows the aircraft by reversing thrust.

Featured Image: Wilco737

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