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The Art of Flying Smoothly: an Airline Captain’s Love for Flying

What makes a job a job? I’ve often been asked, heard of, or read from people claiming that being a pilot seems like a boring job. After all, they ask, don’t you just turn on the autopilot and stare out of the window?

While the answer is an emphatic yes, at least at times, there’s so much more nuance to the job that truly makes it special. It’s unlike any other in existence. In any case, why would staring out the window at 35,000 feet be a bad thing?

A flight to remember – for no particular reason at all

I just completed a 7-and-a-half hour flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Blaise Diagne International Airport (DSS) in Senegal, my first flight in a couple weeks.

One thing I have realized recently is that not flying often enables you to truly savor the job. During the Covid-19 pandemic, I lost my job for several months, and since returning have kept my flying schedule to a minimum.

But why? Well, I think not getting burnt out allows you to forget and forgive the rough hours, incessant delays, mechanical issues, and long commutes, and really focus on the thing that got you doing this job in the first place: the love you have for flying.

I write this from a couch at the crew hotel just south of the ex-Portugese trading town of Saly, Senegal. It’s been just over 24 hours since I arrived and I am already ready for the next flight. Senegal is a lovely place to spend time, but there’s something magical about making a 200-ton metal tube soar into the air.

As I reminisce on the flight here (yes I do that sometimes), I recall that each flight is special, unique, and different from one another. It’s a lot like how no two sunsets are exactly the same.

A love for flying: why this flight (and each other one) is special

Prepare for a love story, one that shows how much pleasure one can derive from what others might think a ‘boring’ job.

Maybe they’ll even reconsider after reading this. If not, I definitely need to go sit at their windowless desk and see from their perspective – but I’m afraid there’s not much of a view from there. 

What it’s like for pilots preparing for an overnight transatlantic flight

Preflight before crossing the Atlantic with a fellow FIT graduate last year when I was a F/O on the 767-400ER.

I don’t fly much, so I savor each opportunity I get to. It was my first time operating a flight to Dakar, and first time flying through Santa Maria’s airspace. But most importantly, it was my first time flying with Joe, an incredible, friendly, and awesome F/O from The Gambia. He made the trip special, as you’ll read about shortly.

Every transatlantic flight starts with a crew briefing in the basement of the airport, where our crew lounge is located. This gives us a chance to meet each other and immediately start building rapport, which is super important for good Crew Resource Management (CRM). And it’s a Captain’s best opportunity to begin fostering a welcoming, team spirited environment. This is where I met Joe and David.

Joe is the aforementioned F/O from The Gambia, and David is a brand-new pilot for Delta. This was David’s first flight off of training. In spite of this, thanks to years of training and hard work, both F/Os were amongst the sharpest I have ever had the pleasure of working with, right from the beginning.

Planning, paperwork, and playful banter

Recurrent training earlier this year – where I worked with an amazing F/O and the legendary Cal Flanigan as our instructor. This was an awesome memory I’ll always cherish, and a wonderful learning experience.

During the briefing, we normally review weather, maintenance items, and the flight plan. But we also make sure to throw in some playful banter to start the trip. If you’re going to be stuck together in a metal tube for hours, you might as well have fun while you’re at it.

One thing is for sure: - the best part of this job is the camaraderie we share as we manage to overcome obstacles after obstacles and spend hours together inside a metal tube.

We made our way across the terminal, to the gate, then onto the airplane. Our ride was a beautiful 26 year old Boeing 767-300ER, N196DN, older than many of our newer pilots. As we entered, we were greeted by energetic, lovely, and right-off-the-bat fun flight attendants of all ages. Joe knew many of them as he regularly flies this route, so we had already fostered a great relationship from the beginning.

Flight deck preparations mean everyone has clearcut roles and tasks to complete. As Pilot Flying for this leg, I was tasked with loading the Flight Management System (FMS). The FMS can be summed up as the computer that runs our navigation, fuel calculations, and performance data. David, the Pilot Monitoring, set up every panel from the overhead down to the pedestal. And Joe, our relief pilot, completed both the interior and exterior (walk around) inspections alongside other important work.

But the best surprise was this: Joe making stupendous announcements in English, French, and even Wollof, the most spoken local language in Senegambia. He got raving reviews from both the passengers and the flight attendants, and truly made this flight special.

Taxiing a widebody aircraft: how pilots can actually enjoy being on the ground too

A gorgeous BCRF painted Boeing 767-400ER in the corner of the ramp at London Heathrow Airport on a beautiful day. Taxiing these giant beasts takes delicateness and a lot of awareness.

The next part of the story is about my love for flying. So please forgive me if it sounds self-centered. Trust me, I am a work in progress and any claims or statements that sound like I think I’m perfect are absolutely wrong.

To begin, I truly love both the Boeing 757 and especially the 767, the plane we flew to Dakar. Both are a joy to fly, well-balanced, powerful, and smooth at the controls. Both reward for you for staying ahead, being familiar with their behaviorisms and feel, and for treating them well. Might sound like I’m talking about riding horses, and perhaps horseback riders feel exactly the same way as I do. 

But what might surprise you is that even taxiing the aircraft around the tight aprons, taxiways, and maze of airport surfaces can be an art in itself too.

Driving a bus, driving a plane: same same but different

Parked at Cyril E. King Airport in St. Thomas, one of the most difficult airports to taxi around due to taxiway closures and having to make a complete 180 degree turn of a somewhat narrow runway.

Sure, taxiing a plane is kind of like driving a bus. Except you have nothing but thrust from the engines to push you forward, hundreds of feet of wings sticking out, no rear view mirror or cameras to assist you, and lots and lots of turns to take with a gear that sits almost a hundred feet behind you.

For some, that is enough. They focus on getting the plane from pushback to the runway, not hitting anything, stopping as directed, and getting there in one piece. I think that’s great.

But I also think you can do better than that. Flight attendants are up and walking, some passengers are easily motion sick, and some people are on their first flight. Rough movements and jolting isn’t good for any of these people.

So I believe there’s a way to put just a little more effort into making the ride to the runway smooth – even before you start flying. By taking turns slow and deliberately and coming to stops smoothly, you can hopefully make at least one person feel more comfortable onboard.

Finesse: it starts on the ground

A gorgeous 767 on a stormy day out of Atlanta, headed to Amsterdam.

The best way to make the taxi as pleasant as possible is to engage the brakes as lightly as possible, paying close attention to when the aircraft is nearing a stop – when you release just enough brake pressure so that you don’t even know the aircraft has stopped unless you’re looking outside. I know it sounds silly. But I love it.

Modulating taxi speed is also super important as it can reduce the number of times stopped, making the movement as fluid and continuous at all times as possible. I think I’m one of the few who take pleasure in such things. It’s really not necessary but it makes the job much more entertaining and rewarding, even if nobody else notices.

But the best part is turning onto the runway. Each time is a little different – different angles, runway widths and surfaces, weight of the aircraft, time to wait, and even inclines and declines. There’s quite a bit of strategy to lining up a massive aircraft just right, reading your energy and surrounding traffic to gauge how quickly you need to get lined up. 

On our flight to Dakar, I underestimated the length of the aircraft, so we lined up on runway 13R in JFK a little bit crooked. Maybe better next time!

The take-off and climb: a pilot’s opportunity to truly hone his/her flying skills

A Delta B767-300ER takes off from Zurich, Switzerland. I’m doing my next trip there next week, and looking forward to the notoriously difficult departure! Photo: flybyeigenheer (CC BY-2.0)

As I push the thrust levers forward, hearing the gorgeous spool from our Pratt and Whitney PW4000 engines, I feel the increasing tug of an aircraft that’s ready to lurch forward as fast as it can down the runway. As pilot monitoring, David is in charge of monitoring this acceleration, calling out 80 knots, the point we enter the high speed regime (where we can only cancel the takeoff for major failures), V1 (when we must take the aircraft airborne unless it truly cannot fly), and rotation speed (where we must gently nudge the nose off the ground and start soaring up into the air).

Even during takeoff, there are ways to make the sensations smoother – from a continuous initial power increase to takeoff power, anticipation of crosswinds sucking the aircraft into the wind (by pushing on the tail), and muscle memory of just how much you want to pull the nose off the ground and take flight. Disclaimer: no takeoff is perfect.

Once in the air, it becomes a fun game to try keep the forces tugging you in your seat as light as possible, all while keeping the pitch of the plane as slight (nose up/down) as possible. Through turns of up 25 degrees of bank, changes in the center of lift as the flaps are raised, large power changes during level offs and subsequent re-accelerations, it’s very important to fly by anticipating the future flight path. Knowing the approximate pitch angles and power settings for each scenario, then calibrating from there, is vital to smoothness. 

On this flight, I end up hand flying this heavy 767 all the way up to level cruise at 33,000 feet. At our weight, nearly pushing the maximum takeoff weight of this aircraft at 400,000 pounds, it takes about 25 minutes.

Cruise: the best kind of boring there is

Absolutely incredible view over Greenland from cruise. You don’t get these from an office, no matter how high a floor you’re on.

We cruise across the Atlantic, navigating between three tropical cyclones and doing our best to find the best altitudes for winds, turbulence, and efficiency. Luckily, our dispatch team has already done 99% of the planning, and all that’s left for us is some real-time fine tuning with the latest weather reports and information from other aircraft flying around us in the area.

As we make our way across the pond at 600 miles per hour, we stare at a canvas of millions of stars. Up at 33,000 feet in the middle of the ocean, there isn’t a lot of light pollution.

Our flight path was extra long as we went around 3 tropical cyclones in the Atlantic.

Shooting stars, planets, and constellations greet us and even wave at us at times. We don’t see the aurora borealis this time as we’re tracking a bit too far south, but I know that will come another time.

We’re served delicious catered meals cooked delightfully by our wonderful flight attendants. I dine on delicious gambas shrimp as David enjoys a hearty chicken thigh with jollof rice, and we learn more about each other’s histories and mutual appreciation for this awesome job.

At no point of our flight do I wonder if sitting at a desk would be more fun than this.

The descent, arrival, and landing

A Delta Boeing 767-300ER lands in Las Vegas (Photo: Tomás Del Coro, CC BY-2.0)

Descent planning takes a little bit of work. The computer does a pretty good job calculating and anticipating, but it can only go so far as the information you feed it – assuming the information you get is correct.

As we approach Dakar, air traffic control assigns us the southbound runway – highly unusual there. Joe tells me that this is the first time he’s ever seen that.

This suddenly shortens our route dramatically, giving us much less time to prepare and descend. It’s not much of a problem for us, but this really puts the flight attendants in a rush. They’re still out with carts in the galley, and the clock is ticking much more quickly now.

On our side, this meant re-briefing the descent and approach, reconfiguring the computer and instrumentation, and working with the controllers to optimize our descent.

A problem, a solution, and a steep arrangement

You can see our descent profile into Dakar, Senegal, continuous and quite steep.

The main issue was our descent was now much steeper, requiring the use of speed brakes. Speed brakes do as the name implies, though they are actually primarily a disrupter of lift. You can see them if you look out at the wings, they are the flat panels that lift up and add turbulence to disrupt smooth air flowing over the wings. When they come up, you can feel the rumble of the disrupted airflow.

But there is a way that even this can be done with a bit more finesse. While you can yank the speed brakes out, this makes for a sudden loss of lift and pitch change that can feel disconcerting to more sensitive people (like me!). So when lifting the speed brake handle in the cockpit, it’s best to deploy them as minimally and smoothly as possible so you don’t feel them coming out. 

As for the approach, proper planning can make a massive difference in the perceived smoothness from the back of the aircraft. 

Deploying the flaps at comfortable speeds, not too fast, helps to reduce sudden pitch movements, and speed conservation and energy planning can help to minimize throttle bursts/increases and speed changes. Plus, proper descent planning can prevent unnecessary level offs when possible, making the descent as continuous as possible.

The fun part: landing a 200-ton jet after a nearly 8 hour flight

A Delta Boeing 767-300ER lands in Dusseldorf after a 8 hour flight from Atlanta. Photo: Nabil Molinar (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

As we make it to our final approach, I click off the autopilot and auto-throttles, guiding the aircraft down the runway’s glide path as gently as possible. It’s important to realize that sudden movements back and forth do nothing to actually change the flight path of the aircraft, and smoothness and patience with the utmost focus truly pays off. The goal here is to make it impossible to know when the autopilot was turned off.

I click off the autothrottles off early on the approach and do my best to set and forget them. It’s much easier in my opinion to anticipate the needed power settings and fine tune them just right so you don’t hear engines roar up and down all the way to landing (unless it’s gusty). It’s so much fun to maximize, scrutinize, and optimize all of these factors to make the flight as ultimately smooth as I can do it.

And of course, the most rewarding part? You guessed it. The landing.

All of the above, all the nuance and detail and effort, it all gets washed away by a bad landing. But if you can get everything right, the flare, the power reduction, the crosswind correction, the last second adjustments, and you can touch down at the right place, right time, and right vertical rate, you can be rewarded for all of this hard work – especially if you don’t jam on the brakes after and ruin it!

A great flight, and always a work in progress

I’m far from perfect and I’m always trying to improve, plus I don’t fly super often. This means I really have to focus and try and absorb as much of the variations in the different weights, flap settings, and aircraft models we fly (757-200, 757-300, 767-300ER) to be as adaptable and comfortable maximizing the smooth potential of each.

It’s a lot of fun and a really good challenge. If you can maximize the potential of that flight and feel like you made a difference, it’s a nice feeling. You can always tell if you’ve done a good job or not, but you will never fly a perfect flight. It’s not possible.

On our flight to Dakar, I’m pretty happy with the results. It felt rewarding and vindicating when our flight attendants and passengers remarked on how smooth the flight was on deplaning. It’s just nice to know someone appreciates all the effort.

Why does any of this matter 

Happy to spend time in Amsterdam after a long flight from Atlanta last year.

It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. As long as you are safe, you’re fine.

It’s just that fine isn’t really good enough for me.

I want it to be so if I was in sitting in the back judging, I’d be like “damn that’s good”.

I hope that if one enthusiastic aviation nerd (like me) reads this, he or she will enjoy it. Or perhaps even a curious member of the public who wonders what we actually do up there behind a closed door.

Maybe they, too, will one day write an article about the nuance of their job, perhaps from a windowless office, and I will read it with the utmost sincerity, and smile at how we can all make any job a great one with just a little bit of perspective.

Keep Exploring the World

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