First Time Flyer – what to expect during take-off

Take-off is an exhilarating experience which can give you a small adrenaline rush.  It is like zooming along a very wide road in a sports-car.  If you are unfamiliar with it you may initially be apprehensive.

Photographed by Adrian Pingstone in August 2002 and released to the public domain

Before take-off

Once you’ve been welcomed aboard the flight by one of the cabin crew and located your seat, you can stow your luggage either in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of you.  (The disadvantage of putting it under the seat is that it can reduce your available leg-room.)

Once all the passengers are boarded and seated, the cabin crew will start the safety briefing. They will show you how to do up and unbuckle your seatbelt, indicate where the exits are and show you how to inflate and deflate your lifejacket.  They will also show you how to operate the oxygen masks that will drop down from the ceiling if there is a sudden decompression.  (Decompression is very rare and few travellers have ever actually experienced it.)  They will do a final check down the aisles to make sure everyone has their safety belts on.  (The correct way is snug, and low down, across the hips.)

After being pushed back by a “tug” the aircraft will taxi to the runway under its own power.  It is customary for the captain to introduce himself and his team.  He will then make the announcement, “cabin crew, prepare cabin for departure”.  At this point you are just about set for take-off.

The cabin crew will “arm” the doors and check on each other to make sure that this has been done, before seating themselves.  The doors cannot be opened when the aeroplane is under way.  The “arming” is to ready the mechanisms that will operate the slides that will automatically deploy upon opening the doors when the airplane is on the surface.  (If the take-off is aborted, for instance, the doors will be opened, the slides will deploy, and everyone will be evacuated from the aircraft.)


The pilot will line up the plane neatly on the runway.  The engines tone will rise as they push out maximum thrust.  The aircraft will leap forward eagerly and then gather speed quickly in order to get lift for take-off.  The acceleration will push you gently into your seat.  At a given speed (on a signal from the co-pilot) the pilot lifts the nose gently off the ground and the acceleration continues with the plane balanced on the main wheels, kept in place by the lift on the wings.  (You will usually not notice this).  For technically-minded readers, this phase of the takeoff is called “rotation”.)  Once the craft reaches take-off speed the pilot will pull back on the controls and lift the front of the plane into the air.  You may sometimes hear a faint thump as the wheels leave the ground.

From there the plane will climb sharply, gaining speed and altitude as it goes.  The rate of climb will gradually decrease and the plane will adjust to a move horizontal angle as it approaches cruising altitude.

Why the sharp angle after takeoff?  Once take-off has been achieved then the plane will fly an optimal route to get up to cruising altitude as soon as practically possible.  Quickly achieving altitude gives room for manoeuvre in case of any problems, and also gets the plane out of the immediate vicinity of the airport, reducing the crowding of the controlled airspace.  The aircraft becomes more efficient to run as it gets to the designed cruising speed and altitude.

Take-off noises

Shortly after takeoff the wheels and landing gear will be retracted into the aircraft fuselage, which can cause a slight thump, and the wheel-bay doors shut.  Once in the air, you will hear an assortment of sometimes quite loud noises.  These are normal.  The pilot’s actions are supported by hydraulic power, which ensures that he can control the rudder and other flight control surfaces, which would otherwise require inhuman strength.

Slats and flaps

It can be very disconcerting for first time flyers sitting at the window to see gaps appear in the wings before and during take-off, as shown in the picture accompanying this article.  The structures at the front of the wings are called slats.  The hinged ones at the back of the wing are called flaps.  A number of modern jets fly at a cruising speed of over 800 km/h (500 mph).  Without slats and flaps the takeoff speed would need to be a significant proportion of that speed!  By using slats and flaps the lift of the wing is significantly increased, essentially by increasing the curvature of the wing, which sharply reduces the speed necessary for flight.

After takeoff, once the speed has increased, sufficient lift is generated by the wings without the slats and flaps, due to the increased airspeed.  The devices are then progressively “packed away”.  This is also done using hydraulic power and the changing of the wing to its sleek cruising shape, without holes in it, will usually be accompanied by (sometimes loud) noises from the hydraulic system of the aircraft.

Now that you’re in the air, you should enjoy your flight.  This is one of the safest modes of public transport in the world today.

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