The Orchestration of an Airline Departure

One of the most satisfying aspects of being an airline pilot is the feeling you get on arrival when the flight was smooth, the landing perfect, everything ran on time, and all the passengers smiled at you as they stepped off the plane.

For the air crew, a flight is a performance, a finite production with a definite beginning and end and a well-defined script in between. You grab your flight bag and overnight bag, make any necessary entries into the appropriate logs, and leave the aircraft to the next team of pilots and flight attendants as it sets up for the next performance.

But as the flight crew's show comes to an end, a symphony is beginning, full of speed, complexity, challenge, humor and occasional danger; all of it as exquisitely intertwined with changing harmonies (and occasional dissonance) as a symphony by Shoernberg.

As the aircraft noses into the gate, a small army converges with sound and fury signifying an amazing orchestration of people and material. And in most cases, within 45 minutes, the performance ends with the aircraft taxiing away, once again full of people, bags and fuel.

The Best Work Remains Unnoticed

We watch this amazing performance with every airline flight, but it's so routine and usually so harmonious, we don't notice. In fact, when everything comes together precisely as planned, the desired effect really is a form of public invisibility. Of course, the passenger shouldn't notice the activity any more than the playgoer should be aware of the backstage crew working magic between curtains.

In some respects, the symphonic simile works on an interesting level.

From the perspective of the cockpit, the mechanic standing on the ramp (and sometimes on top of a large pushback tractor) as the aircraft approaches seems like a conductor, his or her arms raised as if signaling a touchdown, lighted wands in each hand. At the moment the nosewheel rolls into the right spot, the upheld wands come together in an "X" like a downbeat, and the first, frantic movement of the symphony begins.

Quickly another mechanic shoves wheel chocks in front of and behind the nosewheel as others wrestle a huge black power cord into position to power the aircraft's electrical systems. The power is switched on, checked in the cockpit, and selected as the primary source before the engines or the auxiliary power unit is shutdown (we call them APU's -- small jet engines usually in the tail powering an electrical generator).

At the same moment a gate agent begins moving toward the door of the aircraft with the Jetway, a moveable walkway with a lip nearly three stories above the ramp. The agent snuggles it carefully into place, lowers the accordion-like rain shield, makes sure the automatic emergency slide on the door has been disarmed, and helps to open the aircraft.

Below, baggage handlers driving small tugs trailing baggage carts are already pulling into position as their teammates motor open the cargo doors forward and aft and nudge the rolling conveyor belts up to each compartment.

On aircraft that do not use the modularized containers, someone is already scrambling inside the baggage bin to start bringing the luggage onto the top of the conveyor.

Thousands of pounds of bags begin moving toward the waiting carts as a fueler gingerly nudges a low-slung tanker full of jet fuel beneath the right wing and the single-point refueling intake, being careful to avoid both the baggage handlers and the catering trucks, which are also moving toward the front and rear right-side doors to clean and restock each galley -- even if only with drinks and peanuts. And around it all walks a mechanic, looking carefully with a practiced eye for anything wrong on the aircraft.

Somewhere below on many stops the growing fleet of service equipment and vehicles are joined by a fresh water truck, while on the periphery a restroom servicing truck moves into position to drain and refill the appropriate lavatories with a blue chemical fluid (from whence air crew members derived the inside name for airborne bathrooms: Bluerooms).

Meanwhile, within sight of the aircraft, the gate agents are sorting through hundreds of tickets, solving problems, directing traffic and making announcements in their critical role to orchestrate the next major movement, the insertion of the new passenger load into the aircraft. When it goes smoothly, the boarding works in complete harmony with the quiet but urgently timed activity below, blending even with the flight attendants' dance as they prepare their galleys and make gallons of coffee while prepping the cabin and guiding the new community of travelers aboard.

Playing around the margins of this onboard and exterior complexity, the pilots are typing data into their cockpit computers after one of them has walked around the exterior, checking to make sure nothing is amiss. Like a percussionist waiting for the cue, the predeparture PA announcement will come from the flight crew in the lull before the last coda of the pushback and engine start.

And in the background, unseen, are the dispatcher, operations personnel directing the servicing traffic, the mechanics, reservationists, ticket and front counter agents, curbside check-in, passenger service, and dozens more personnel to make the flight experience as expeditious as possible.

On cue -- the catering trucks gone, the watering and latrine service trucks long since finished -- the baggage carts pull away as the cargo doors are motored closed and the gate agent shuts the door and pulls the Jetway back. The pilots are already getting their clearance from ground control for pushback from the gate as the mechanic takes his position once again within view of the cockpit, signaling the last downbeat by interphone as the brakes are released and the big bird moves away.

It's a thing of beauty when a good plan comes together.