4. Phases of a flight

Flying Phases

Image courtesy of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) 4.1 Taxi

Taxiing refers to the movement of an aircraft on the ground, under its own power. The aircraft moves on wheels. An airplane uses taxiways to taxi from one place on an airport to another; for example, when moving from a terminal to the runway.


The aircrafts always moves on the ground following the yellow lines, to avoid any collision with the surrounding buildings, vehicles or other aircrafts. The taxiing motion has a speed limit. Before making a turn, the pilot reduces the speed further to prevent tire skids. Just like cars, there is a certain list of priorities during taxiing. The aircrafts that are landing or taking off have higher priority. The other aircrafts have to wait for these aircrafts before they start or continue taxiing.

The thrust to propel the aircraft forward comes from its propellers or jet engines. Steering is achieved by turning a nose wheel or tail wheel/rudder; the pilot controlling the direction travelled with their feet. The use of engine thrust near terminals is restricted due to the possibility of jet blast damage. This is why the aircrafts are pushed back from the buildings by a vehicle before they can start their own engines for taxiing.

4.2 Take-off

Takeoff is the phase of flight in which an aircraft goes through a transition from moving along the ground (taxiing) to flying in the air, usually starting on a runway. Usually the engines are run at full power during takeoff. Following the taxi motion, the aircraft stops at the starting line of the runway. Before takeoff, the engines, particularly piston engines, are routinely run up at high power to check for engine-related problems. This makes a consid- erable noise. When the pilot releases the brakes, the aircraft starts accelerating rapidly until the necessary speed for take-off is achieved.

The takeoff speed required varies with air den- sity, aircraft weight, and aircraft configuration (flap and/or slat position, as applicable). Air density is affected by factors such as field ele- vation and air temperature.

Operations with transport category aircraft employ the concept of the takeoff V-Speeds, V1 and V2. These speeds are determined not only by the above factors affecting takeoff perform- ance, but also by the length and slope of the runway. Below V1, in case of critical failures, the takeoff should be aborted; above V1 the pilot continues the takeoff and returns for land- ing. After the co-pilot calls V1, Then, V2 (the safe takeoff speed) is called. This speed must be maintained after an engine failure to meet per- formance targets for rate of climb and angle of climb.

The speeds needed for takeoff are relative to the motion of the air (indicated airspeed). A head wind will reduce the ground speed needed for takeoff, as there is a greater flow of air over the wings. This is why the aircrafts always take off against the wind. Side wind is not preferred as it would disturb the stability of the aircraft. Typical takeoff air speeds for jetliners are in the 130–155 knot range (150–180 mph, 240–285 km/h). For a given aircraft, the takeoff speed is usually directly proportional to the aircraft weight; the heavier the weight, the greater the speed needed. Some aircraft have difficulty generating enough lift at the low speeds encountered during takeoff. These are therefore fitted with high-lift devices, often including slats and usually flaps, which increase the camber of the wing, making it more effective at low speed, thus creating more lift. These have to be deployed from the wing before performing any maneuver.

At the beginning of the climb phase, the wheels are retracted into the aircraft and the undercarriage doors are closed. This operation is audible by the passengers as a noise coming from below the floor.

4.3 Climb

Following take-off, the aircraft has to climb to a certain altitude (typically 30,000 ft or 10 km) before it can cruise at this altitude in a safe and economic way. A climb is carried out by increasing the lift of wings supporting the aircraft until their lifting force exceeds the weight of the aircraft. Once this occurs, the aircraft will climb to a higher altitude until the lifting force and weight are again in balance. The increase in lift may be accomplished by increasing the angle of attack of the wings, by increasing the thrust of the engines to increase speed (thereby increasing lift), by increasing the surface area or shape of the wing to produce greater lift, or by some combination of these techniques. In most cases, engine thrust and angle of attack are simultaneously increased to produce a climb.

Because lift diminishes with decreasing air density, a climb, once initiated, will end by itself when the diminishing lift with increasing altitude drops to a point that equals the weight of the aircraft. At that point, the aircraft will return to level flight at a constant altitude. During climb phase, it is normal that the engine noise diminishes. This is because the engines are operated at a lower power level after the take-off. It is also possible to hear a whirring noise or a change in the tone of the noise during climb. This is the sound of the flaps that are retracting. A wing with retracted flap produces less noise.

4.4 Cruise

Cruise is the level portion of aircraft travel where flight is most fuel efficient. It occurs between ascent and descent phases and is usually the majority of a journey. Technically, cruising consists of heading (direction of flight) changes only at a constant airspeed and altitude. It ends as the aircraft approaches the destination where the descent phase of flight commences in preparation for landing.

For most commercial passenger aircraft, the cruise phase of flight consumes the majority of fuel. As this lightens the aircraft considerably, higher altitudes are more efficient for additional fuel economy. However, for operational and air traffic control reasons it is necessary to stay at the cleared flight level. Typical cruising speed for long-distance commercial passenger flights is 475-500 knots (878-926 km/h; 547-578 mph).

Commercial or passenger aircraft are usually designed for optimum performance at their cruise speed. There is also an optimum cruise altitude for a particular aircraft type and conditions including payload weight, center of gravity, air temperature, humidity, and speed. This altitude is usually where the drag is minimum and the lift is maximum. As in any phase of the flight, the aircraft in cruise mode is always in communication with an Air Traffic Control (ATC) station. Although the general tendency is to follow a straight line towards the destination, there may be some deviations from the flight plan for weather, turbulence or air traffic rea- sons, after receiving clearance from ATC.

4.5 Descent

A descent during air travel is any portion where an aircraft decreases altitude. Descents are an essential component of an approach to landing. Other partial descents might be to avoid traffic, poor flight conditions (turbulence or bad weather), clouds (particularly under visual flight rules), to see something lower, to enter warmer air (in the case of extreme cold), or to take advantage of wind direction of a different altitude. Normal descents take place at a con- stant airspeed and constant angle of descent (3 degree final approach at most airports). The pilot controls the angle of descent by varying engine power and pitch angle (lowering the nose) to keep the airspeed constant.

At the beginning of and during the descent phase, the engine noise diminishes further as the engines are operated at low power settings. However, towards the end of the descent phase, the passenger can feel further accelerations and an increase in the noise. This is to realize the “final approach” before taking “landing posi- tion”.

4.6 Landing

Landing is the last part of a flight, where the aircraft returns to the ground. Aircraft usually land at an airport on a firm runway, generally constructed of asphalt concrete, concrete, gravel or grass. To land, the airspeed and the rate of descent are reduced to where the object descends at a slow enough rate to allow for a gentle touch down. Landing is accomplished by slowing down and descending to the runway. This speed reduction is accomplished by reducing thrust and/or inducing a greater amount of drag using flaps, landing gear or speed brakes. As the plane approaches the ground, the pilot will execute a flare (roundout) to induce a gentle landing. Although the pilots are trained to perform the landing operation, there are “Instrument Landing Systems” in most of the airports to help pilots land the aircrafts. An instrument landing system (ILS) is a ground-based instrument approach system that provides precision guid- ance to an aircraft approaching and landing on a runway, using a combination of radio signals and, in many cases, high-intensity lighting arrays to enable a safe landing during instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), such as low ceilings or reduced visibility due to fog, rain, or blowing snow.

At the beginning of the landing phase, the pas- sengers will hear the opening of the doors of the landing gears. As the landing gears are deployed, they will create an additional drag and an additional noise. Immediately after touch-down, the passengers can hear a blowing sound, sometimes with increasing engine sound. This is the engine’s thrust reverses, helping the aircraft to slow down to taxi speeds by redirecting the airflow of the engines for- ward. Once the aircraft is decelerated to low speed, it can taxi to the terminal building.

Contact coordinator

Dr. Corieri Patricia

von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics
Chaussée de Waterloo 72
BE 1640 Rhode-Saint-Genèse

Tel: +32 (0)2 359 96 55
Fax: +32 (0)2 359 96 00


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