Following on from our ‘A day in the life of a short haul First Officer’, here we look at the role of a long haul First Officer. It’s an equally varied role, but with some distinct differences!
It is unusual to fly long haul for a first job, but it can happen. Airlines generally ask for a certain amount of experience when recruiting long haul First Officers. Long haul flights are longer distance, meaning you’re away from home for several days at a time, so you’ll only go to work a few times a month. Longer flights mean reaching your maximum hours in around 4 to 6 trips per month, and because you are travelling to the airport less frequently, it’s possible to live away from your base and commute. Time zone changes and night flights are a challenge of long haul life, but there are benefits too; flying wide-bodied jets, time down route in interesting places and, sometimes, better remuneration.
Sunday – The day before
Every trip begins with preparation beforehand. As a long haul pilot, you don’t fly so often, so it’s important to refresh your knowledge before report. Tomorrow I’m going to San Francisco, so to help me prepare, I download the briefing material from today’s flight, including the weather and relevant NOTAMS (notices). I’m looking at things like the arrival routing, which runway has been in use, North Atlantic procedures, suitable en-route emergency diverts, terrain issues and weather forecasts for airfields along the way.
The idea is to brief yourself before the briefing. All three flight crew will be doing this too, so between us, when we meet up at report time, we’ll be up to speed with what’s needed for a safe and efficient flight to SFO.
Monday – 11:00 Report Time
I arrive at the crew room 30 minutes before report to review the briefing pack for our flight today. I meet up with the Captain and the other First Officer, and we go through the briefing material, talk about any potential issues and decide on a fuel figure. Then we’ll meet up with the cabin crew. I won’t have met many of them before, so we all take a few minutes to introduce ourselves. One of the flight crew will brief the cabin crew about the flight, and any technical issues, and the senior cabin crew member will share information like special passengers or new crew members on board.
11:40 Arrive at the aircraft
Today the Captain is the operating pilot on the outbound leg, so she does much of the aircraft set up. While that’s going on, I collate the charts for the departure and do my pre-flight procedures, and check what the Captain has set up – there are always two independent checks of the programmed flight plan. Meanwhile, the third pilot (sometimes known as the ‘heavy’) will do the walk-around, liaise with cabin crew and dispatcher and complete some of the paperwork while the Captain completes the rest.
Once everything is set up, all three pilots do a departure brief together. Even though the Heavy will be on the jumpseat, they are an important flight crew member. They have the most capacity and have a vital monitoring role.
12:45 Take Off
Shortly after getting airborne, we engage the autopilot to reduce workload. After about 20 minutes we reach our cruising altitude, and although SFO is still ten hours away, there are quite a few jobs to do in the cruise.
The Captain will nominate rest times, and the heavy will usually go for their rest straight away. Our aircraft has a rest area with bunks and a separate washroom for the flight crew. When it’s time for rest, we change out of our uniform and try to nap. Although we may not be tired at this point in the day, it’s essential to be as well-rested as possible for the most critical stage of the flight; the approach and landing.
I fill out the navigation log, calculating our time of arrival for each waypoint and electronically request an oceanic clearance from Shanwick. When we receive the clearance, we follow a strict process to ensure the received clearance is correctly programmed in the FMS (Flight Computer).
Other jobs in the cruise include contingency planning as the flight progresses, like getting the latest weather reports for en route airfields. We also briefly rehearse procedures in the event of emergency situations such as decompression or engine failure.
The cabin crew will bring us a meal, and we’ll take it in turns to go and stretch our legs. The rest rotation continues, and during a quiet moment, we begin to set up the charts for San Francisco. We look at the arrival, reread the briefing material and chat as a crew about what to expect. Then we set up the FMS for landing.
23:15 (UK time) Arrival in San Fransisco
After parking, we complete our checks and welcome the passengers to their destination. We hand the aircraft over to the engineer and let them know about any technical issues. The flight and cabin crew head off to immigration, we collect our bags and jump in the crew bus to our hotel. My body thinks it’s 1am, but it’s 5pm local time, so after we’ve checked in, we meet up with the rest of the crew for a bite to eat and a chance to see something of the city.
I wake up early because of the time difference and do some exercise. I usually have some ideas about things to do when I’m down route, and there will often be a few different places the crew will want to visit, so we’ll go together. Today some of us are visiting Alcatraz.
I’m still waking early because of the time difference, but because I’ll be working tonight, I plan to have a few hours rest before pick up. This morning though, I meet up with a few of the crew, and we head out for some sight-seeing and lunch.
18:00 (local time) Pick Up
The cabin and flight crew meet in the hotel foyer, and we board to crew bus back to the airport. I look at the briefing pack and chat about the flight with the other pilots.
20:00 (local time) Push back
On the way home, I’m the heavy. We set up for the flight as before, except we have changed roles. I go out to do the walk-around and will have first rest after departure.
Thursday – 15:00 (UK time) Home
I arrive home feeling tired, so I say hello to the family and take a quick nap. I unpack my bag and enjoy three days at home before my next trip; a 5 day trip to Capetown.
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Read about a day in the life of a short haul First Officer