While short-haul flights of less than three hours are run-of-the-mill for passengers and pilots, long-haul flights are another kettle of fish entirely. For most passengers, long-haul flights are a matter of endurance aided by a few drinks, a movie, TV shows, and trying to get some sleep between meal services.
It is an entirely different matter for the people flying the plane because there are still plenty of things to do even after takeoff. When the aircraft reaches cruising altitude, even with the autopilot engaged, the plane is still traveling at more than 500 mph with an outside air temperature of between minus forty and seventy degrees Fahrenheit. Plus, the air is so thin that should, for some reason, the cabin lose pressure; the pilots have to be ready to take the plane down to 8,000 feet in a matter of seconds so that there is enough oxygen for passengers to breathe normally.
The pilots constantly monitor the weather
Even though flight paths are decided upon before departure, pilots have to decide whether or not to alter them during the flight. On long-haul flights, the weather conditions change, with aircraft often encountering three or four weather systems. These systems can vary in intensity from slight turbulence to dangerous thunderstorms. When flying at over 500 miles per hour, a change of weather can happen very quickly, which means pilots must be prepared at all times to alter the flight path if necessary. If, for example, they see a thunderstorm on the radar, they must first get the OK from air traffic control (ATC) to change their route.
Clear air turbulence (CAT) is another worry, and because it cannot be seen on the radar, pilots rely on the information provided by pilots flying the same route ahead of them. When flying across oceans such as the Atlantic, one pilot’s job is to communicate with the ATC while the other monitors a common air-to-air frequency that pilots use to communicate with each other.
The captain of the aircraft has the final word
Once all the passengers are on board and the doors are closed, the captain of the flight is responsible for everything that takes place aboard the aircraft. While there are complicated rules regarding who has jurisdiction, numerous international agreements back the captain’s decision. The captain must decide where to divert if there is an unruly passenger or a medical emergency.
The entire time a flight is in the air, the pilots monitor all kinds of gauges to ensure that the plane performs as it is supposed to. Fuel is a significant concern for all pilots as they do not want to have more fuel on board than is necessary for the flight.
Making sure that the temperature of the fuel is not too cold is another thing pilots must monitor. If the fuel cools down too much, its flow can be restricted due to waxing. If this happens, pilots can rectify the situation by descending, or by increasing the aircraft’s speed (and, thus, its skin temperature). However, this isn’t a particularly frequent occurrence, as engine oil helps fuel retain heat.
Don’t forget the paperwork
While one of the pilots monitors all the gauges, the other will be busy taking care of the paperwork. Before the flight, the pilots are given a written flight plan. Anything that deviates from this must be written down as notes. From the flight plan and notes, you should be able to recreate the flight as it occurred.
Regarding meals, the pilots wait until the passengers have been served and then eat separately. They do this so that there is always one person at the controls. For long flights over twelve hours, there are one or two relief pilots onboard so that the two pilots who performed the takeoff can take a break and get some sleep or relax. There are just two pilots on short long-haul flights of eight or nine hours. The only opportunity they get to leave their seats and stretch their legs is when they go to the bathroom. While the middle part of the flight is less eventful, the workload increases as the plane approaches its destination in preparation for landing.