A Complete Guide to Flight Phases

Pilots · 12 min read · Dec 23, 2022
flight phases

Whether you are an aviation professional or just curious about the process of flying, it is important to understand the different flight phases.

There are critical flight phases that help guarantee flight safety. Moreover, each phase requires its own set of procedures and tasks that must be completed before the aircraft can move on to the next stage.

If you want to learn all about it, then you should keep on reading since this comprehensive guide will outline each phase and provide the most important details of them all.

Pre-Flight Planning

The first of the flight phases is preparing for the entire journey. The pre-flight planning or flight plan phase requires thorough research, organization, and communication with other pilots and air traffic control (ATC). A pilot must understand the route they are taking and any potential obstacles that could arise during the flight. This includes researching weather conditions, airspace restrictions, airports, and more.

Additionally, they should create a written plan detailing their route, estimated time en route (ETE), fuel requirements, and arrival destination.

Flight phases: an Emirates aircraft preparing for flight in a pre-flight planning phase.

Aircraft weight

The aircraft weight is an essential factor to consider during pre-flight planning. It has a direct impact on the aircraft’s performance, and it is important to account for its effect on the flight plan. For example, a heavier plane will require more fuel to reach its destination, and thus, will have higher operating costs.

Additionally, a heavier aircraft may also cause slower speeds and increased climb rates to reach cruise altitude, so it is important for pilots to take into consideration the overall weight of their aircraft before departure.

Furthermore, the aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight must be known in order to ensure that all passengers and cargo are accounted for when computing the total load of the aircraft. Exceeding this limit will affect the aircraft’s performance, especially during the takeoff phase, and can lead to dangerous situations such as loss of control or engine failure.

The aircraft’s weight must also be compared with its critical performance data such as its climb speed capability, cruise altitude efficiency, range at full fuel capacity, stall speed margin, among others, in order to make sure that there is enough power available in all flight phases to handle any unexpected events or deviations from the standard flight plan.

Taxi phase

Sometimes disregarded from the flight phases, we have the taxi phase. Once all pre-flight preparations are complete, it is time to taxi. During the taxi phase, aircraft engines are started and tested before departure.

While taxiing to the runway or take-off area, pilots should be continuously communicating with ATC as well as monitoring their instruments to ensure everything is functioning properly. Pilots must also check that all aircraft doors have been securely closed before departing on their journey.

Flight phases: Delta aircraft in a taxi phase being towed by a tow truck.

Taxi speed

When taxiing on the ground, aircraft pilots must maintain a safe speed and adhere to the regulations set forth in their local operations manual. Depending on the size of the aircraft, taxi speeds may vary between 10 and 15 knots.

However, taxi speed should never exceed 20 knots while there are other aircraft or vehicles present in the area. Pilots must be aware of any special instructions issued by Air Traffic Control (ATC) regarding speed limits or other restrictions when operating in congested areas.

Additionally, it is important for pilots to maintain situational awareness during taxi operations due to the potential presence of other aircraft or personnel on the airport surface.

In order to ensure safety throughout the taxi phase of a flight, pilots must be mindful of their speed and make sure that they do not exceed 20 knots at any time while on the ground. It is also important for pilots to remain aware of their surroundings and look out for any obstacles such as parked airplanes, personnel working near runways, and wildlife that could potentially cause an accident if not avoided.

When exiting a runway onto a taxiway or ramp area, pilots should reduce their speed as quickly as possible in order to avoid any potential hazards which may exist in those areas. Furthermore, pilots should always refer to their local operations manual for specific instructions regarding permissible taxi speeds within different types of airports or airspace classifications.

Crew training

Finally, it is essential for aircraft operators to ensure that their crews are properly trained in proper taxi procedures as part of their company’s standard operating procedures (SOP). Proper training will ensure that all crew members have an understanding of applicable laws and regulations pertaining to ground movement as well as appropriate protocols for ATC communication during pre-flight preparations and post-flight debriefings.

Additionally, having clear rules and procedures surrounding airfield operations will help prevent dangerous incidents from occurring due to improper ground maneuvering or excessive speed while taxiing on an active runway or ramp area.

Takeoff Phase

Next in the flight phases, we have takeoff. Takeoff is an exciting phase of flight, full of anticipation and energy. The takeoff phase starts immediately after the pilot or pilots finish taxiing and arrive to the assigned runway. At this point, final safety checks will be carried out in communication with ATC until getting the clearance for takeoff.

When the pilot increases power to the engines, the plane begins its journey into the sky. The ground crew will often times rush around, ensuring that all safety procedures have been followed and that no barriers stand in the way of a successful takeoff.

As the plane moves down the runway, it accelerates with increasing speed until it reaches a certain point known as “V1” or “rotation speed” – this is when the pilot pulls back gently on the control column and tilts the nose upwards slightly. This causes the leading edge of each wing to generate lift, allowing for further acceleration and eventually enabling the plane to leave the ground and become airborne.

Flight phases: An aircraft taking off from the runway.

As soon as enough airspeed has been achieved, typically between 145 to 165 knots (depending on aircraft type) depending on weather conditions and payload weight, the nose of the plane is raised further towards a predetermined pitch attitude in order to reach a safe climb gradient.

At this point, passengers and crew alike may now experience what it feels like to be in flight – an incredible sensation accompanying stunning views if flying during daylight hours. Whilst soaring through clouds or seeing vast landscapes below can be breathtakingly beautiful experiences for many people, pilots must remain focused on maintaining control of their aircraft at all times as well as complying with any air traffic control instructions they might receive along their journey.

The pilot also has to take into account wind conditions which may vary from one day to another; providing an ever-changing set of variables which could affect how smoothly or quickly they can ascend into their intended altitude without issue.

Climb phase

Continuing with the flight phases, we get to the climb phase. The climb phase of a flight is an especially important part of the journey as it marks the transition from the takeoff phase to cruise altitude.

During this stage, the airplane gains significant altitude and speed while continuing to accelerate at a steady rate. As pilots prepare for cruise flight, they must make sure that their aircraft is configured correctly and that all systems are functioning properly.

This includes retracting the landing gear, activating autopilot, setting altitude restraints, engaging speed brakes, and increasing the engines’ thrust to achieve desired climb rates and vertical speeds.

At the beginning of this phase, aircrafts will typically climb at a shallower angle than their ultimate cruise altitude due to fuel weight considerations or other factors related to aerodynamics and engine performance.

As the plane ascends into thinner air it needs more power from its engines in order to maintain lift and acceleration; as such, pilots will often adjust settings mid-climb in order to increase thrust output or reduce drag.

In addition to maintaining optimal airspeed throughout the ascent, pilots need to pay close attention to any possible indications of turbulence so that they can adjust the aircraft’s attitude and heading accordingly.

Flight phases: Alaska airlines aircraft climbing to cruise altitude.

Monitoring energy consumption and instruments

In order for an aircraft to reach its intended cruising altitude it must ascend rapidly while preserving energy efficiency. Throughout this process pilots must factor in various external conditions such as wind speeds, temperature levels, pressure systems etc., which can all affect fuel consumption rates and overall performance capabilities during climb phases.

Aircraft instrumentation is used to determine the best speed and angle of attack to maintain during this process. Depending on the type and size of aircraft, climb speeds can range from approximately 100 knots for smaller, regional aircraft to 200 knots for large commercial airliners.

Maintaining accurate weight and balance calculations is especially important during climb out as incorrect readings could lead to inaccurate performance expectations being met by an airplane’s systems due to incorrect calculations resulting in unsafe flight conditions potentially being experienced by passengers onboard.

The crew must also remain vigilant in monitoring engine temperatures as increased power output leads to a higher chance of overheating occurring if not properly monitored throughout this section of a flight

Moreover, ATC will typically provide vectors or specific heading instructions to help guide the aircraft safely away from other air traffic at lower altitudes. In order to maximize efficiency and conserve fuel.

Once reaching its cruising altitude an aircraft will level off so that passengers can enjoy a more comfortable ride before descent begins again later on in their journey.

Flight phases: An aircraft flying at cruise altitude over a mountain range.

En Route Phase or Cruise Phase

Following in the list of flight phases is the cruise phase. Here, pilots must constantly monitor their instruments for signs of possible damage or malfunction in addition to performing navigational calculations for adjusting course if needed.

Also, the cruise phase requires pilots to remain in contact with ATC throughout the entire flight via radio communication systems so both parties know where the aircraft is located at all times. They will also monitor other aircraft in their vicinity, communicate with air traffic control when necessary, and perform any additional tasks required by regulations or company policy.

Furthermore, pilots should regularly review their plan to be sure they know how long they have until they reach their destination as well as key points along the way such as refueling stops or clearance changes from ATC.

An aircraft at a cruise altitude.

Cruise altitude

During the cruise phase of a flight, pilots must maintain a specific altitude that allows them to fly efficiently while still providing an adequate safety margin to avoid potential hazards. This altitude is known as the cruise altitude and is typically determined based on factors such as aircraft performance, weather conditions, airspace restrictions, fuel economy, and optimal wind direction. Cruise altitudes can range anywhere from 6,000 feet to 40,000 feet depending on these parameters.

At low altitudes (less than 10,000 feet), aircraft are usually limited by clouds or obstructions in mountainous areas. Pilots may also need to be aware of airspace regulations and other traffic within their vicinity at lower altitudes.

As a result, it is often wise for pilots to remain above 10,000 feet during the cruise phase. For single-engine piston aircraft flying in relatively flat terrain without instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), an altitude of 5500 feet AGL (above ground level) may be sufficient for efficient cruising.

Turbulence, weather conditions and terrain

In cases where turbulence or icing are expected en-route at a higher cruise altitude, a lower cruise altitude should be selected instead. This will provide more stable air masses although there may be reduced fuel efficiency at lower levels. This cruise altitude selection applies only if no other adverse effects are present such as thunderstorms or icing conditions at lower levels.

When flying through mountainous regions it is recommended that pilots stay 500–1000 feet away from peaks and ridges in order to ensure adequate margins around obstacles even if they have obtained prior clearances from Air Traffic Control (ATC).

Air traffic controller at work.

Air traffic controllers

ATC operators play an invaluable role in the cruise phase of a flight by ensuring safe separation between airplanes and other objects in the airspace at cruise altitude.

During this phase, ATCs are responsible for monitoring the progress and trajectory of each aircraft to ensure they stay on course and all safety protocols are followed.

They provide pilots with clearances or instructions to alter their trajectory if needed. They also monitor weather conditions and alert pilots to any danger signs that could pose a threat to the aircraft.

All radio communication services

Additionally, ATCs manage all commercial radio communications between aircraft and their ground stations. In order to do that, ATCs must have a good understanding of aviation rules, codes, regulations and communication procedures in order to direct each pilot safely through their route at cruise altitude. As such, ATCs must remain vigilant at all times during the cruise phase as any miscalculation made by them could have disastrous consequences for those on board.

As part of their job responsibilities during this phase, ATCs must also maintain detailed records of flight data including altitude changes, arrival times and departure times so they can accurately calculate routes for future flights.

Flight attendant during a cruising flight phase serving passengers on board.

Flight attendants

Flight attendants are also an essential part of the crew during the cruise phase. The role of flight attendants at this point is extremely important in helping passengers feel comfortable and secure as well as ensuring the safety of everyone on board.

Flight attendants perform regular walk-throughs throughout the cabin to ensure that all passengers are following protocols, such as keeping their seatbelts fastened while seated and refraining from movement during turbulence.

An additional set of eyes behind the cockpit door

Flight attendants also take this time to check for any potential hazards or emergencies that need addressing, such as blocked lavatories or medical requests from passengers. Additionally, they provide assistance in the form of food service and general assistance with anything that may be needed throughout the flight.

During the cruise phase, flight attendants also act as an extra set of eyes for the pilots. While in the air, they look out for changes in weather conditions or other signs of aircraft damage or malfunction which can help alert pilots before it becomes a serious issue.

This is especially important if there is no radar coverage or if technical malfunctions occur inside cabins during longer flights. Meanwhile, flight attendants monitor cabin pressure levels to ensure everyone is breathing comfortably and adjust oxygen levels accordingly, if necessary. They must also make sure bins are properly stored and secured according to safety regulations.

Furthermore, flight attendants have an incredibly important role in calming passenger nerves during more turbulent phases of a flight – this includes speaking with each passenger individually while providing reassurance over any concerns they may have about the journey ahead.

An aircraft in a descent phase.

Descent phase

Next is the descent phase, a very critical part of any flight and one that is similar to the climb phase in terms of the technical aspects that must be considered.

The descent phase of a flight begins when the aircraft is headed towards its destination and the altitude begins to decrease. During the descent phase, the pilot will begin the process of stabilizing and preparing the aircraft for landing. This includes reducing airspeed, adjusting power settings, turning on navigation lights, and lowering the landing gear.

As the aircraft continues its descent, it will usually be pointed towards either a specific heading or runway if at an airport with ATC support or according to the flight plan.

Once under 10,000 feet in altitude, pilots usually begin their checklist for landing preparations including maneuvers such as decreasing power and deploying flaps to their descent setting.

At this point, the aircraft should approach its targeted airspeed and altitudes which are typically determined by ATC. The aircraft will then continue its approach while maintaining a stabilized rate of descent until it reaches 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL) where regulated turns may also be necessary in order to align with the desired runway path depending on local procedures.

Final approach phase and landing phase

This is the moment when decent phase finishes and an approach phase starts. At this point most modern autopilot technologies may take over control of certain flight parameters such as pitch, bank angles, flight path angle (FPA) and speed during the final moments of descent to ensure that they remain within acceptable limits.

Additionally, if equipped with a Flight Management System (FMS), the pilot can enter details such as distance-to-go or waypoints into the system which help guide them along their final approach trajectory.

Once within 500 feet AGL pilots are often required to contact ATC for further clearance if necessary before configuring their aircraft for landing with flaps full down and gear extended at about 200 ft AGL or lower depending on regulations.

Below 50 ft AGL if conditions permit pilots can then flare using inputs from rudder pedals which allows them to transition from level flight into a gentle glide towards their touchdown point on the runway surface.

After touching down safely at their destination, they will taxi to the parking spot before powering off engines completely.

A Lufthansa aircraft landing on a runway.

Landing speed

The landing phase of a flight is generally marked by significant changes in the aircraft’s airspeed. The speed required for landing depends largely on the type of aircraft and the configuration of its wings and landing gear, as well as the density of the air during the descent phase.

To ensure a safe landing, pilots must reduce their landing speed to below Vref (reference velocity), typically between 1.3 and 1.5 times the stall speed of their particular aircraft model. This means that when approaching an airport, pilots will reduce their approach speed incrementally until they reach Vref or lower.

To do so, they often use techniques such as thrust reduction or flare (sudden nose up) to slow down while simultaneously adjusting their pitch attitude at appropriate moments. Once they are close enough to touch down, they may also deploy spoilers or flaps to further increase drag and decrease airspeed until touchdown occurs.

Finally, once an aircraft is on the ground it must decelerate from its initial touchdown velocity until it reaches a safe taxi speed for disembarkation of passengers and crew members. As part of this process, pilots may apply reverse thrust or brakes which use friction between tires and runway surface as well as aerodynamic drag created by flaps and spoilers to bring the plane to a complete stop before exiting the runway safely.

An aircraft touching down on the runway.

Post Flight Procedures

This is the final of the flight phases. After reaching its final destination, there are still several steps left in a successful flight plan. Pilots must complete post-flight procedures such as shutting down engines and completing paperwork related to their trip such as filing reports on any issues encountered during the flight or submitting invoices for services rendered along the way if applicable. Other tasks include cleaning out any waste from passengers during long flights or refueling prior to returning back home again if necessary.

Final words on flight phases

Flying can seem overwhelming at times but understanding each of these phases can help make it easier for aviation professionals or anyone curious about flying planes. By following this guide closely and doing your research beforehand you will be able to navigate each phase successfully from pre-flight planning through post-flight procedures with ease.

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Jet pilot @NASA

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