A Day in the Life of an Airline Pilot
Take a lesson from this commercial airline pilot’s travel habits.
My job as a pilot affords me an unusual lifestyle, and people I meet often ask what my trips are like. For the past 10 years, I have been flying the 747-440 and 777, lately from Los Angeles to Shanghai, Tokyo and London. Because most international flights are so long, I’m restricted to flying three or four trips each month, depending on the hours flown.
The way I get ready for a flight will greatly depend on the time of departure and whether we’ll have one or two extra pilots on board. Time of day is important, too. If I’m a relief pilot (as in the scenario below), I will adjust my schedule at home so I show up tired, because I’ll be going to the bunk first. If I’m the flying pilot, I’ll take the opposite approach and show up rested and ready to go. Unfortunately, all of this sleep planning can go out the window if we fly across extended areas of turbulence.
In all cases, I will think about hydration the day before and try my best to drink as much water as I can. I have also found that sticking to habits when packing has often kept me out of trouble. I try to place things in the same location each time so I know where to find them when I need them. For example: iPad charger in the front outside pocket, keys in the upper side pocket, etc. I have several sets of uniforms and will start with a fresh one from the cleaners at the beginning of the trip. If it’s a multiday trip, I’ll take an extra shirt and have the other cleaned on a layover.
Running a mental checklist one last time is critical as I pull out of the garage. Three items are essential for me to carry when I fly: my airline identification and security badge, my passport and my pilot’s license. I’ve heard stories about pilots who have forgotten their passport, only to realize it when they land. In extreme cases, they haven’t been allowed to enter the country and have had to sleep on the plane or leave on the next flight back to the states.
I’m required to report to operations an hour and a half before departure to meet the other pilots and review the flight plans, maintenance history and weather forecasts. Once we’ve all agreed on the plan and signed the official copy, we head up to the jet. The flight attendants are usually on the plane when we board, so we’ll introduce ourselves and make our way to the cockpit while the captain briefs the flight attendants about en route and destination weather. If turbulence is forecast for our route, he or she will brief them on when to expect it and to adjust their service accordingly. In the meantime, the other pilots and I are getting situated in the cockpit by turning on components, aligning the inertial navigation systems and entering data into the flight management computers.
In the Air
Once airborne, the relief pilots will tally the segment times to make sure the total flight time matches the plan, then depart for the bunk room as the aircraft climbs through a specific altitude. From then until wake-up time, I’m sleeping (hopefully).
When it finally comes time to change crews, I’ll grab a cup of coffee with a meal and head up to the cockpit. Once inside, I’ll get a quick brief from one of the other pilots about our position, who we’re talking to, fuel status, en route and destination forecast weather, if we’re on time and anything out of the ordinary. For the next six or seven hours, the other pilot and I will likely climb to higher altitudes as we burn fuel and become lighter. We’ll also compare our progress with the master flight plan and plot our position on a plotting chart.
As we approach our destination, we’ll make the final crew change as the flying pilots prepare for the approach and landing. As before, we’ll brief them on our status and anything out of the ordinary. From then on the relief pilots are monitoring the radios and advising the flying pilots.
The Layover and Back
Once we land, park at the gate and complete the shutdown checklist, we’re done. We do have to process through Customs and Immigration but usually breeze through in the Crew Only line. Once outside, we’ll board the bus or crew van and head to the layover hotel. I am fairly beat by the time we arrive but will usually have enough energy to enjoy one drink with my fellow pilots. After that, it’s lights out.
I will usually wake up after a few hours. If I’m really tired, I’ll try to go back to sleep, but when I just can’t, I’ll head to the gym. (I have found that keeping my body on Pacific time works best during my typical three-day trips. That way, I’m not constantly fighting jet lag when I get home.) We have agreements with most of our hotels that allow crew members 24-hour access to the fitness facilities. I’ll often see other weary-eyed crew members in there at all hours of the night. Most layovers are 22–30 hours, so there’s not a lot of time to see the sights. If I’m on a longer layover, I’ll spend the hours sightseeing or choosing a place to eat.
Our pickup time from the hotel is arranged so we arrive at the airport an hour and a half before departure, just as before. All flight preparation is exactly as I described earlier with the exception that we’re all a little more eager to get home and get on with our lives.
Once we finally land back at our home base and set the parking brake one last time, we’re done, and most of us won’t think about flying until it’s time to head back to the airport and do it again.
Did You Know?
The new Lufthansa Boeing 747-8 features a crew lavatory within the cockpit/crew rest area, eliminating the need for flight attendants to secure the cockpit door when the pilot exits to use the lav—a major interruption of service.
On Your Mind
Readers pose their questions on air travel.
Q: I’ve read that people have been arrested for directing handheld lasers at planes. How do these lights jeopardize airline pilots? —Sarabeth Johnston, Orlando, Fla.
A: The laser’s beam is concentrated and focused to a very small point. Most aviation laser incidents happen at night because that’s when the operator can see where the beam is pointed. At night a pilot’s pupils will be open more, making them more likely to be overwhelmed by light and temporarily flash-blinded. Blindness is the last thing you’d want your pilot to experience when an aircraft is in its most critical phase of flight—taking off or landing.
Chris Cooke has been a pilot with a major domestic carrier for 20 years and currently flies long-haul routes on the 777. He began his career with the U.S. Marine Corps, received Navy flight training and was a Top Gun graduate. In 2012 he will log more than 300,000 miles, all in a window seat. Have a question you’d like Chris Cooke to answer in a future issue? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.