How long does it take pilots to prepare for a flight, and what goes into that prep?

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At my airline, sign-in time for domestic flights is sixty minutes prior to departure. For flights overseas, it’s ninety minutes. That’s pretty standard. When the flight is headed overseas, things start off in the crew lounge. After introducing ourselves, we tend to gather up the work and move to a cubicle to review it all. The paperwork contains the full flight plan (see below), all necessary weather reports and forecasts, and a slew of supplemental information. There are dozens of pages in total, covering everything from taxiway closures to the phone number of the layover hotel. (Some of this material is laser-printed on standard-size office paper, but most of it comes rolling off in splendorous dot matrix.) For transoceanic flights the route needs to be manually plotted, old school, on a chart.

Once you’re at the plane, your gear (headsets, manuals, clipboards, etc.) needs to be stowed and assembled, and the interior and exterior inspections completed.The cockpit systems and instruments got to be checked; the record book has got to be reviewed; and every one of the route, wind, and performance data have to be loaded into the plane’s flight management system (FMS). And don’t forget the most important task of all: looking over the menu and deciding which entree you want for dinner.

Somewhere in there, the pilots and flight attendants will huddle up for a pre-departure crew briefing.Sometimes this meeting takes place in an exceedingly selected informing area before heading to the aircraft; otherwise it happens on the jet before boarding.It starts with an exchange of names. The captain then speaks for three or four minutes, going over the flight time, anticipated turbulence, arrival weather, and anything else pertinent or peculiar. Long-haul crews are sometimes together for a week or more.Aside from the sensible aspects, the briefing is, if nothing else, an introduction to the people you’ll be spending the next several days with.

On domestic flights all of this is quicker and more casual. The majority of the prep takes place in the cockpit, and the paperwork packet is much lighter. The gate agent will run most of it off the podium printer and hand it to the captain or first officer. The crew briefing is little more than the captain calling aside the lead flight attendant and going over the flight time, turbulence, and weather. Sixty minutes is more than ample time to prepare. There are no menus.

Airline pilots do not file flight plans—or plan their flights for that matter. Almost everything that needs to be researched, filed, or requested, from the flight plan itself to foreign overflight permissions, is taken care of backstage, so to speak, by teams of licensed dispatchers and planners working in the airline’s operational control center, a sprawling facility that looks like the old mission control room at NASA. We shouldn’t give dispatchers short shrift; their job is a critical one. Officially, responsibility for a flight is shared fifty-fifty between the captain and the dispatcher. From pushback to touchdown, a flight remains in constant contact with its dispatcher via radio or datalink.

And maybe you’re wondering: what’s a flight set up, anyway? Technically it’s a document filed with air traffic control listing the operational vitals of a flight, such as aircraft type and registration, requested routing and altitudes, and flying time. The crew never sees this document, or even a copy of it, usually. What we do see and carry with us, however, as part of that great big paperwork packet, is a comprehensive printout, several pages long, containing not only these vitals but a highly detailed, waypoint-by-waypoint breakdown of the flight, start to finish, including everything from anticipated fuel burn figures to wind and temperature analyses to aircraft performance data. We call this document the flight plan. Really it’s not, but in practice it is.

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