Ask A Pilot – Airports, Take-offs and Landings

Toby A - Where is your favourite place to land?

I find each airport has its appealing aspects and interesting challenges, and I couldn’t narrow it down to just one. A couple of my favourites are Sydney because of the scenery and landmarks like the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, Adelaide over the rolling hills and looking over the ocean on approach, and my home town of Melbourne. It’s great to recognise all the major roads, and seeing the MCG lit up at night is a pretty special view.

Melissa S - What’s the hardest airport in Australia to land in and why?

Regional airports tend to be more challenging, due to the types of on-ground navigation systems. At major capital city airports, we have instrument landing aids, which often aren’t available at regional ports. Our training as pilots however allows us a great deal of expertise and knowledge of managing air space at regional airports. And the great thing about all this is that my job remains really interesting and challenging with so many different factors to consider, based on the airports you’re flying into. So in many ways, the more challenging airports can be just as enjoyable because you are able to use different skills during take-off and landing.

Jayne S - Can you actually take off or land a plane on automatic pilot or any other system?

The short answer here is no. At Virgin Australia, all take-offs are manually flown by pilots. We have systems that allow for automatic landings if necessary, however it’s rare to use these. The main reason why these may be used occasionally is to assist if we’re landing in heavy fog or other very tricky conditions. We are trained and tested on these systems regularly, but for the vast majority of flights, pilots will land the aircraft manually.

Peter F - Why is that sometimes when you are descending the whole process is quite smooth, whereas other times you are appear to descend much faster?

Also is it true that when you are descending, you switch the engines off? When we begin a descent, the engines remain running at idle. This is similar to being at traffic lights in your car. The engine is still running, but no power is being applied to the accelerator. In an aircraft, this is the same with thrust in the engines. When engines are at idle and the nose of the aircraft is tilted down slightly, the aircraft will begin its decent. During the last 20-30 minutes of a flight, most manoeuvres are done to position the aircraft into a landing sequence that is managed by air traffic controllers. To do this, some aircraft might be sped up slightly to get into sequence, and other times they might need to be slowed down slightly. This is why passengers might feel a decent is slightly quicker or very gradual, as it’s all a matter of getting into sequence for landing.

Peter C - Why do you have your headlights on when landing in the daytime?

Having lights on during the day is just another way to improve visibility between aircraft and air traffic control.

Alice A - How do you remember everything?

All the switches, all the buttons. It might look like a random panel of switches, but all controls are split into sections. You’ll have a fuel panel, electrical panel, or the air-conditioning panel for example, and all of these are checked prior to take-off. A lot of the switches are only used if the pilots need to override an automated system. So while we need to know the location and actions of every switch, they are only used if needed.

John M - How do you land and stop those aircraft from that speed and weight?

There’s several ways that we slow the aircraft down. During flight, the wing is streamlined to be a high-speed flying wing, but we can slow ourselves down by extending the flaps on the wing to create the same amount of lift, but at a lower speed. This is the main way we slow the aircraft down in the air. When the aircraft touches down on the ground, the majority of the weight in the landing is taken by the main wheels. Then, quite a lot of things happen in an automated sequence. Once we’re on the ground, we want to stay there, so you’ll notice the wing spoilers lift up, which removes the amount of lift from the wing. An auto-brake system can be set to the length of runway, aircraft weight and conditions, and this will kick in after 2 seconds of landing. These procedures used to be activated by pilots, but the automated process means they can be activated much quicker than human reaction times, and that’s important when you’re landing at 280km p/hour! Although the systems are automated, pilots will have a discussion about the settings used based on the current conditions, to ensure the landing is as smooth and efficient as possible.

We hope this was a helpful insight into the life of a pilot and how aspiring aviators can follow their dreams. Stay tuned for more of your questions answered by our pilots!

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