A day in the life of a commercial pilot
Captain Dave Fielding, BALPA National Executive Committee, looks at the different career roles available for a short-haul and long-haul airline pilot.
What does a day in the life of the best job in the world look like?Hmmm, not an easy one to answer. There are so many different types of commercial flying and different operators do things in their own style. However, the basic cake remains the same even if the icing looks different, so I”ll try to give a generic overview of what you might expect flying either short-haul or long-haul, because that is what I have been lucky enough to have experience of throughout my career.
It is more than likely that your first job will be flying short-haul within Europe. Pilots are usually the employee group with the highest wage bill in an airline and as a result the company wants the maximum return on its outlay. In short-haul this means a lot of trips, or ‘sectors’, every working day. Not many British airlines nightstop in Europe, so a typical flying day will consist of either two long sectors, or four short or medium sectors. Some regional carriers in the UK will fly as many as six sectors in a day.
This is high-intensity and high-workload stuff. Generally you do ‘earlies’ or ‘lates’, with the former reporting for work from around 0500 onwards and the latter finishing any time up to midnight. Blocks of work are usually between four and six days, with a couple of days or so off before starting again. There are legal limits to the amount of duty and flying hours you can perform in certain periods. Rest assured that whatever job you manage to get, you will be flying up to these limits. There are moves afoot to increase them at European level, but that is an area BALPA (the British Airline Pilots Association – the union for the UK’s commercial pilots) is resisting fiercely.
Modern short-haul demands stamina, especially when you first start. Repetitive early morning alarm calls are followed by long, intensive days. There are often few opportunities to relax as turnarounds are as short as possible, often as little as 25 minutes. So throw in adelay for whatever reason and you spend the rest of the day playing an impossible game of catch-up. Eating? A furious whirlwind of cutlery at random times of the day followed by a Bisodol an hour later is par for the course. Welcome to short-haul.
The day starts off with a briefing, which may or may not be with the cabin crew, depending on which airline you work for. We study the weather at destination, alternate, en-route alternate and find suitable bolt-holes along the way. Then a whole host of other parameters such as weights, loads, flight times, slot delays, technical defects with the aircraft… Based on all that, we make a fuel decision and it’s time to go.If the aircraft is off-stand, we are bussed to it. More often, however, we walk through the terminal. This has two advantages you won’t find listed in a recruitment brochure. Firstly, there is usually an excellent coffee shop on the way. Secondly, the passengers tend to stare at you as you walk by with the crew. After 17 years in this business, I confess that this still gives me a surge of pride. It’s not a vanity thing (OK, maybe a little), but the impressive uniform and appearance is designed to reassure the public and satisfy them that they are in the hands of safe professionals.
Once on board, we set about the extensive pre-flight checks. If something crops up like a complicated defect which requires some careful modification to the standard operation – for example one of the thrust reversers is unservicable – then you need to be very organised to make sure that everything gets done in time for that sacred Standard Time of Departure. A commercial pilot’s primary function is to make every flight a safe flight, but we are also in the customer service business. If, as a team, we don’t deliver a punctual and outstanding customer experience then passengers will travel with somebody else, simple as that.
Airlines go bust with frightening frequency and flight crew have a crucial part to play in the image of the airline in the public’s eye. We are rightly perceived as the guardians of the travelling public’s safety and today’s commercial pilot must demonstrate leadership, commercial awareness and excellent communication & team skills, as well as the obligatory high level of technical proficiency.
Flying in Europe is intense but ultimately very satisfying. Air Traffic Control is almost universally of a high standard, the airports are well-equipped and the cities and cultures are fabulous, should you be lucky enough to get the chance of a nightstop. The changing weather is suitably challenging, with thick fog in the winter, gales in the spring and autumn, and towering continental thunderstorms in a hot summer all giving lots of exposure to very varied flying conditions. Many pilots have no desire to do anything other than stay on pretty much the same time zone and be a ‘flat-earther’ all their careers. Others view short-haul flying as an ideal springboard into a wholly different flying discipline – long-haul.
Although the basic sequence involved in flying an aircraft from A to B is the same as in short-haul, it is the pace of long-haul flying which is very different. Everything takes longer. The briefings have to take into account far more weathers for en-route diversions or the strict requirements of ETOPS (Extended Twin Operations). Loading passengers and freight takes longer because there’s more of both. Loading the flightplan route into the computer takes forever as each point has to be checked carefully, especially when it comes to transatlantic oceanic waypoints.
What still takes me by surprise is the length of the take-off roll. When a widebodied aircraft is at its maximum take-off weight, it can be over a minute roaring down the runway at near full power. Amazing and definitely one of those ‘this is why I do the job’ moments.
Of course, the flights themselves are longer too. Once airborne, the first hour and a half is generally pretty busy, loading all the ancillary data which there wasn’t time to do on the ground, such as wind speeds and directions; getting oceanic clearance if you are heading that way; and checking the tracks and distances on the route. Then once established on your way, the flight settles down to periodic checks of the route, timings and fuel quantities and temperatures. On longer flights we carry an extra pilot, which allows the operating crew a chance to get some rest to make sure that we are as fresh as possible for the approach and landing into destination. This is crucial, as going into a busy, crowded airfield such as Chicago or New York, or some of the more challenging African fields, requires full concentration.
Fatigue is a big issue in long-haul flying. Our clear, legal responsibility is to report for work fit and rested, so managing our rest is a vital skill. This takes planning and care, as a typical pattern is to go to work when everyone else is thinking of going home, for a flight which lands sometime after midnight. The alarm then goes off in the hotel room 24 hours later and we fly through the night to finish when everyone else is starting.
Alternatively, a 48-hour slip (as it is known) in a time zone eight hours different from the UK is extremely tough on the body. The ability to sleep anywhere at any time for any length of time is essential. It is not uncommon for some guys never to crack this particular aspect of long-haul and to go back to short-haul for nights in a bed instead of a cockpit.
Yet the rewards of long-haul are plentiful. Your office is the world and the view out of the window is incredible. I remember doing a flight to western Canada and we flew near the top of the globe, catching the daylight up. We saw the sun set, then rise, and then set again on the same flight. All the stuff you learn in geography at school and meteorology at flying college comes to life before your very eyes.
You also get time off in some truly amazing places, and by becoming a regular visitor to them you slowly get to know their cultures and ways of living. You read the newspapers, follow the progress of an adopted sports team, find your favourite cafés and restaurants like a local. It’s nice and a genuinely rewarding experience.
Cargo and executive jets
Away from the short-haul and long-haul options, there are two other major areas of commercial flying – cargo and executive jets. While these aren’t within my area of expertise, they do still offer rewarding career paths for commercial pilots. Certainly the guys I know who fly these operations enjoy it and say that it brings different challenges.
Cargo flying, for example, doesn’t involve all those passenger-related issues which form a major part of my day. This can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, freight containers don’t have the occasional habit of getting lost in the terminal building with bags on board leading to a slot being missed. But on the other hand, cargo pilots don’t get the wonderful interaction you can get with our fare-paying (salary-paying!) passengers. By that I mean sometimes at the end of the day when you end up right back where you started, you can wonder what you have achieved for your hard day’s work. Yet when you talk to the passengers and share their joy in visiting friends and relatives across the globe, or excitement in visiting somewhere new, and you got them there safely, then your day really does take on a meaning.Executive jet pilots, I believe, constantly need and use those flight planning skills taught at flying school. They are a one (or two) man operation for the whole, including weight & balance, fuelling, airport and nav charges… you name it, you get involved in it. The down side for life as an executive jet pilot is that they need a Kindle or a good iPhone share-dealing app to wile away the long hours spent in terminals waiting for clients to finish meetings.
You’ve read this article because you are interested in becoming a pilot. Good on you, but a word of warning before you start out on the road to a commercial licence. The best things in life are the things you have to work the hardest for, and this is undoubtedly true in the case of the modern-day commercial pilot. Be under no illusions as to the sacrifices and work that the training will require, and what awaits you at the end of it. Should this put you off? Not at all. Keep your eyes firmly open to the reality of the industry, use the resources that are available to help and go for it! I look forward to flying with you someday…
Beyond the flight deckIt is also worth saying that the aviation industry is a big one and the job of a commercial pilot involves many disciplines, not all of them relating directly to piloting an aircraft. Once you have some experience and are interested, becoming a trainer is an obvious choice, but there are also many areas of technical work and management which require pilot input. Then there is the union, BALPA, which is the path I chose. I’ve been a union rep for more years than I care to remember now and it offers a real variety to my working life, exercising my brain in different ways to flying. BALPA looks after the terms and conditions of our pilots, as well as offering advice and help on a range of issues from scheduling to paternity leave to pensions. A particular speciality of mine is helping out pilots who get into difficulties, either personally or professionally. It is a hugely satisfying part of my job, as is sharing expertise with fellow pilots around the world. We really are a global community, with safety at the heart of it.
Join today and enjoy the benefits of being part of Europe’s most advanced specialist Aviation Association. Contact the BALPA Reps’ & Members’ Services on 020 8476 4000 or visit www.balpa.org