Airline Departure Formalities pre-9-11

An unending saga of trust

The crew transport was usually at your residence two hours and thirty minutes before the scheduled departure time of the flight. You were supposed to be ready when it came, since the driver on getting no response, could then pick up the standby. The pick-up used to be arranged in order of seniority, the captain being the last to be picked up, but in a city like Karachi, two transports would complete the job for a flight due to the distances involved. On way to the airport, the crew got to know each other, and the captain could through diplomatic questioning gauge the experience of the first officer to ascertain the level of reliance that could be placed on him during the flight.

On arrival at the airport, the crew porter collected and handled the baggage; usually a crew bag or plus a suitcase (if a layover at outstation was involved) once the transport dropped you. The crew bag contained the headset and Jeppesen Manual with the instrument arrival and departure charts for the route to be flown, airport surface movement diagrams, and airway high and low altitude route maps, plus personal items such as a flashlight etc. At outstations where you had to place the baggage outside the room while going below to check out, it didn’t give a good feeling because the baggage was there for anybody with mischief in mind. I also had at times left my bags locked in the room while going down and informing the desk about this.

It is pertinent here to point out that the sky above us comprises invisible low and high altitude airways which are flown just as motor cars are driven on the roads. They even have the holding areas; stop signs. The routes are flown these days with the help of GPS /inertial navigation or via the victor airways, which are radio stations on the ground to which an aircraft homes into on an assigned track. The cops are the air traffic control (ATC) both on the ground and in the air.
 In bygone days, pilotage and dead reckoning used to be the techniques used in navigation. This was estimating the winds aloft and positioning aircraft heading to track correctly on the ground for the wind effect. A calculation of the ground speed was interpolated from the indicated airspeed in front on the dial through a correction for temperature and density at altitude procedure. By identifying a ground feature in relation to the track flown on the ground, and if off course, a correction could be applied for the wind drift in the next stage of the flight to counter that. The off course distance had to be estimated on the map after the visual observation from the air. The ETA over a reporting point was important in identifying one’s position on the ground.

The cockpit crew assigned for a flight reported one hour before for an international flight or 45 minutes for a domestic departure at the airline’s flight operations office at the airport for the check-in. A register known as final crew position and listing the names for the flight is signed. The flight engineer is picked up separately by the transport since he is due earlier than the pilots or navigators. Usually you never saw him at the flight operations office when you reached because he had already departed for the parked aircraft.

At opposite sides of a raised elongated desk/platform after signing the register the crew are met by the flight dispatcher who briefed them through a series of latest weather charts downloaded electronically.  It contained information:

  • About the weather to be encountered on the route, at destination and alternate airfields at estimated arrival time (forecast);
  • The actual weather prevailing at the time;
  • High altitude winds and temperature observations and icing level predictions;
  • Significant weather positions through radar and forecast.

The Flight dispatcher also covered:

  • Any anomalies in the system at the departure and destination airports such as detours, taxiway restrictions, missing or non functioning airport aids, runway and taxiway lights not functioning etc;
  • The instrument departure procedure likely to be flown, (SID 1A,  means Standard Instrument Departure 1 Alpha) the instrument arrival at the destination, the expected flight level sought on the flight plan filed an hour earlier with the ATC  keeping the aircraft’s weight is the picture;
  • A notice to airmen (NOTAM) usually spells out everything out which is not normal at the airport, on the route, or at destination or alternate airports;
  • The relevant technical release by the engineer is checked and any defects which can be accepted through the minimum equipment list (MEL) outlined. The inoperative part(s) affected and outlined have to be placarded by law with a cautionary flag as inoperative on the aircraft.

The particular assigned aircraft (AP-AXG for example) for the flight immediately registered in the mind, okay so these quirks present in it etc., like your own motor car.

In the early years when I flew the Fokker F-27 Friendship (1969-1976) the weather briefing  function was done by going to the Meteorological Office at the Airport (old terminal at Star Gate ) and going through the same motions with the weather forecaster with a pencil in his hand.

The flight release form is signed by the captain accepting the flight and the crew could then depart for the aircraft via the immigration and customs channel if this was an international departure.

There is yet another form to be signed once the crew is on the aircraft before it can depart. This is the weight and balance load sheet, the trim sheet as it is popularly known. This outlines the passenger seating, the fuel carried and distribution of the passenger baggage and cargo in the aft and forward compartments in the belly of the aircraft. The fuel has to be loaded correctly by weight in the tanks and there are a number of them including the centre wing tank in the body below the passenger level and between the wings. The fuel usage has to be correct so that the centre of gravity remains within permissible limits as it is consumed, and a  dangerous situation does not develop in the air,  or on takeoff; an aircraft lifting off before reaching the required speed being tail heavy, losing airspeed as a result and coming in contact violently with the surface. An aircraft struggling to get airborne but being unable as the nose is too heavy and the runway is finishing ahead. Let your imagination run here because the speed is around 200 miles per hour at this time near lift off (170Kt).

The figure derived from the loading gives a setting for the stabilizer to be set for takeoff, the stab trim in percentage of mean aerodynamic chord of the wing (MAC). The stabilizer is the control surface at the rear of the aircraft and part of the forward structure of the elevator. It is electrically controlled from a pickle switch on the cockpit flight control column and its leading edge moves up or down. The setting will enable effective control of the elevator on take off for a proper lift off. The lift from the wings will be generated correctly by its setting, neither nose or tail heavy. In the air also the stabilizer has to be kept trimmed so that the control forces load is reasonable through the elevator if flying manually, otherwise the autopilot handles everything. On a few 707s I flew, the weight and balance also came electronically just as we lined up for takeoff. It was called a Stan Check (Sum Total and Nose Gear). The electronic readings gave us the total weight on the individual gears and the centre of gravity, in other words the stabilizer trim setting read within plus and minus errors.

So, in reality the captain accepts the trim sheet and signs it on trust. He has checked nothing of the load on board. The captain and first officer have individually, prior to boarding the aircraft, done their walk around to ensure no glaring fault has been overlooked. Also, the flight engineer,  has also done his round more thoroughly. They have checked the two fire extinguisher seals are intact for each engine, checked the fire extinguisher bottles pressure, looked into each landing gear wheel well after checking the red handle is in the slot for safety, checked the landing struts and oleos for shock extension, seen all flags have been removed from the airspeed indicators and the static ports are free of dirt. The airspeed readings result from these ports, inspected the small airfoil pieces on top of the wings (vortex generators) which aid in high speed flight, checked the lightning static dischargers, looked inside each engine intake at the inlet guide vanes. The list is never ending , yet it happens at every departure in about ten minutes of individual time. This is external, inside,  the cabin has to be inspected, the cockpit checked out, before the start of even the basic checklist.

Like the trust of a serviceable aircraft given by the engineer, who has signed the maintenance release and the trust taken for granted that no hijacker would be on board or a bomb detonate on the aircraft in the air, the trust in airline handling staff and the security agencies.


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