Commercial Pilot Life
Being a pilot is a role like no other; it’s varied, exciting, and carries an enormous responsibility to deliver passengers safely to their destination.
Every duty will have high points and challenges; tricky approaches, busy airports, passengers with connections to make, and possibly a different crew every trip. You’ll travel the globe, see spectacular sights, and be expected to report for each duty fully rested and prepared for your flights – despite changing shift patterns and early alarm calls.
Does this sound like the best career in the world? We think so. Imagine your future self in the right hand seat and read on to discover a typical day in the life of an airline pilot.
Short haul flying is varied, depending on the airline you fly for. Some have regular roster patterns, such as 4 days on then 3 days off, but most have a variable roster pattern each month. Some short haul flying involves night stops, other airlines only do day trips, but many short haul pilots will have a day something like this:
21:00 The night before
Every shift begins with preparation beforehand. I get an overview of the weather and the expected type of approach at my destination for tomorrow: Corfu. There are several possible approaches at CFU – some are a little tricky, particularly when the weather is bad. I also prepare my flight bag and uniform ready for a quick departure in the morning.
04:45 Wake Up
My alarm goes off and I’m up and out by 5:20am. Half an hour later I’ve parked in the staff car park, been through staff security and I’m grabbing a coffee in the crew room.
06:15 Report Time
I print and download the flight plan, weather reports and NOTAMS and meet up with the Captain. We discuss the day ahead and make a fuel decision – one of the most important decisions of the day. The flight plan includes a ‘minimum required fuel’ amount; is it enough? Today we notice the fuel plan is based on an approach to the southerly runway at Corfu (CFU) but the weather forecast indicates a landing on the northerly runway is more likely. We choose to carry an additional ten minutes worth of fuel to allow for this.
We meet up with the cabin crew and give them an overview of the day ahead: 3hrs 10mins flight out, smooth flying conditions expected, 45 min turnaround and 3hrs 20min flight back. The Senior Cabin Crew Member briefs us on things like special passengers or new crew members on board and we walk out to the aircraft.
06:35 Arrive at the aircraft
We board the aircraft and meet the Dispatcher. While the Captain does the walk-around, I set up the aircraft for departure. I check the fire systems, oxygen and pull up the correct charts.
CFU is a busy destination, so it’s important we depart on time to meet our arrival slot. This involves coordination with loaders, tug-drivers and passenger boarding staff. Happily, most of the ground coordinating is done by our Dispatcher. The passengers have boarded, and the doors are closed five minutes before the scheduled departure time.
When the checks are complete, we call ATC for pushback and start up clearance. We liaise with the tug driver for the pushback and when the tug is disconnected and After Start checklist is complete, call ATC to request taxi. We follow the taxi instructions to the departure runway. There will usually be a new ATC controller to contact before departure to give us our take off clearance.
07:25 Take Off
Shortly after getting airborne, we engage the autopilot which helps us manage the high workload during departure. Throughout the flight there are radio frequency changes from one ATC area to the next and in the cruise we conduct fuel checks and consider contingencies. Before commencing descent, we carefully plan for a successful approach and landing into CFU.
10:40 Arrival in Corfu
After parking, we complete our checks and welcome the passengers to their destination. We then have 45 minutes to get ready for the flight home; we plan the departure, liaise with the Dispatcher in CFU for fuel uplift and what time to board the passengers. Meanwhile, the cabin is being cleaned, waste emptied and potable water uplifted.
11:30 Return flight
We depart CFU and land at LHR at 15:00, eating lunch during a quiet period of the cruise. Once we have parked, we conduct our final checks and the passengers disembark. The next crew arrive onboard to prepare for their flight to Paris. We leave the aircraft at 15:30, I hand in our post flight paperwork at the crew room, and head back to the staff car park.
I have dinner, look at weather forecast and think about tomorrow’s flying. It’s a 06:45 report for a four sector day: Amsterdam and back, followed by Prague and back. I’ll iron a shirt, spend time with the family, and get to bed early so the alarm doesn’t feel too painful in the morning!
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.
Here is the third in our ‘A day in the life of’ series where we look at the varied, exciting and unpredictable life of pilots who fly corporate (or ‘business’) jets.
Flying a corporate jet could be classed as long or short haul, depending on the range of the aircraft. You could be flying a Gulfstream to Los Angeles, or a Learjet taking skiers to Chambray for the weekend. Whichever aircraft type you’re employed to fly, your roster is likely to be very changeable and you’ll regularly be on standby.
Corporate contracts often require pilots to be at the airport, ready to fly anywhere, within a short time frame. Sometimes there will be lots of waiting around, and other times you may be called in to work immediately. As a corporate jet pilot, you’ll fly to all sorts of airports, from quiet airstrips to major cities, often at very short notice. Private jet pilots often enjoy the huge variety of flying experience available in this sector, and the chance to be really involved in the operation. As well as always being ready to go somewhere new, meeting the customer’s high expectations is another important part of the job. You’ll probably clean the cabin yourself after a flight and may even find yourself searching an unfamiliar town for the customer’s favourite brand of champagne for the flight home while they’re in their meeting. A typical day might be:
Yesterday we flew into Le Bourget, Paris (LBG) with 6 business people. There’s no Parisian glamour for us on this trip though – we are staying at an airport hotel – but we did find time to visit the excellent air museum at the other end of the airport. Today, over breakfast, the Captain and I plan today’s trip. We’re scheduled for an 11:00 departure from LBG with 2 passengers: a well-known singer, plus her Personal Assistant. We’re taking them to Trollhättan–Vänersborg, a small airport 50 miles north of Gothenburg in Sweden. We download the flight briefing onto our work iPads and the Captain phones the handling agent at the airport to arrange coffee, newspapers and lunch for the passengers.
10:00 Handling Agent
We prepare everything before the passengers even get to the airport. The Captain powers up the aircraft, checks the systems and loads the flight computer with the route. I get the cabin ready; we cleaned it last night, but I check everything is perfect, stow the catering in the small galley and arrange the fuel uplift. Finally, we brief how we’ll fly the departure, and the Captain goes back to the handling agent to pay the bill and await the passengers.
10:45 Passengers Arrive
I load their bags into the hold and deliver the pre-flight safety briefing. They’ve heard it before, of course, but it’s a regulatory requirement. I close the door, get into my seat, and the Captain immediately calls for the Before Start Checklist.
11:00 Start Up and Taxi for Departure
Our aim is to get going within minutes of the door being closed. Ideally, the passengers can be through security, onboard and taxiing within 15 minutes of their arrival at the airport. We often fly to LBG as it’s the main Paris airport for corporate aircraft, so we are familiar with the airport taxiways and departure routes. Even so, the Captain engages the autopilot after take-off to help with the high workload in the busy Paris airspace. We’ve never been to THN before; it’s a small airfield with a short runway in uncontrolled airspace and has no precision approaches. The arrival will need careful planning.
At the top of the climb, I go back to serve drinks and lunch. They have a few questions about the flight, and we chat for a while. I return to my seat, and we conduct fuel and navigation checks and consider contingencies. I use the satphone to call the handling agent at our destination for a taxi to meet the passengers on arrival. Then we plan the approach. As it’s a nice day, the Captain suggests a visual approach – it will save us a few minutes and avoids having to fly a complicated procedural NDB approach. One of the joys of corporate work is the vast variety of flying we get to do.
13:30 Arrival at THN
We park at the General Aviation Apron and complete our checks. I open the door while the Captain assists the passengers. The taxi pulls up next to the aircraft, and I load the bags straight into the car, while the Captain says goodbye. Our day is not over though. We shut the aircraft down, clean the cabin again and check in with the company. We were expecting to fly home today, but instead they tell us they have another job for us: we now need to stay the night and fly the passengers back early tomorrow morning. So we talk to handling agent who arranges us a hotel. We also set up the fuelling, catering and passenger handling ready for tomorrow.
14:30 Head to the hotel
Once everything is prepared for tomorrow, we get a taxi to our hotel. I call home to let them know I’ll be back tomorrow instead of tonight. They’re used to my unpredictable work pattern but know that I will have a few rostered days off after tomorrow’s shift. We go into town to stretch our legs and sample the local cuisine. After dinner, I prepare my uniform and flight bag and request a 06:00 alarm call for tomorrow’s flight home.
What do you know about life as a cargo pilot? Flying cargo requires the same qualifications as flying passengers, but it’s a less well-known career path for a commercial pilot. Freight is a significant part of the aviation industry so the fourth in our ‘day in the life’ series looks at a typical day in the life of a cargo airline First Officer.
Like the business aviation work described in the previous article, cargo flights can be short or long haul depending on the aircraft type. Short haul cargo pilots may have multi-sector shifts, typically at night, whereas long haul cargo pilots will tend to do just one or two flights. As in the passenger world, long haul cargo pilots may cross several time zones in one shift, and have the opportunity for some bunk rest during the flight.
It’s common for regular passenger flights to also carry cargo, along with baggage in the hold, but there’s a huge range of cargo-only operations too. As a freight pilot you could be flying for a major logistics company in a heavy jet, or delivering post to the Scottish islands in a small turboprop.
Cargo flights often happen at night, when the airport is quieter. Working while others sleep is not for everyone, but some people enjoy the peace and quiet. There’s a chance to focus on flying the aeroplane without the challenges that sometimes come with passengers. Punctuality requirements are stringent in the freight world though, and tiredness is a constant challenge, so cargo pilots experience their own set of pressures.
Many airports have a separate freight apron for handling cargo aircraft, and you’ll discover a new side of airport life that springs into action after dark. Many cargo operations involve staying away from home for a few days at a time, so a typical shift for a short haul First Officer flying freight might be something like this:
Having had a (not very successful) nap before setting off for the airport, I arrive at the freight terminal at East Midlands Airport and go through staff security. I meet up with the captain in the crew room and pick up the flight paperwork. We look at the weather and NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen) for the three flights we’ll be doing tonight. The captain calls through the fuel figure to the ground crew and we head out to the aircraft.
It’s common practice to carry extra fuel over and above the legal minimum amount, so we always take enough for an additional hours’ flying. If the weather’s going to be bad, we’ll take more. This is because, in the event of a problem, it’s usually better that the freight returns to the original airport rather than get stuck at an alternate airport where there may be no way of processing it. If the cargo goes back to where it came from there’s a chance it can be rerouted onto another flight and still get to its destination on time.
Our first flight tonight is to Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG). The captain is ‘Pilot Flying’ so will do the walkaround while I complete the cockpit preparation. Even though the apron is well lit, everything is harder to see in the dark so a good torch is needed to thoroughly inspect the aircraft. The aircraft’s daily checks are usually completed by the engineers earlier in the day, but an engineer may still be on board when we arrive at the aircraft, which is always good news as it means there will already be power connected.
Meanwhile, the apron is a hive of activity. There are probably more people involved in preparing cargo flights than for passenger flights. Trollies full of freight containers are whizzing around, and the aircraft fueller is busy. No catering goes on though, we bring our own sandwiches for the night ahead.
The cargo is brought to the aircraft. The high-lift raises it up to our cargo door and bangs up against the 50-tonne aircraft, which judders as it makes contact. The cargo door has a protective seal around it to protect the aircraft during this process, and the load is pushed into the hold along runners. This process takes about an hour, although sometimes it’s already done before we arrive. The ground crew take care of everything for the freight, making sure it’s loaded and secured correctly.
The captain checks and signs off the loading paperwork. If there are dangerous goods onboard (for example, dry ice or corrosive materials) there will be a dangerous goods notice called a NOTOC. The NOTOC contains information about the different types of dangerous goods and how to respond in an emergency.
For freight operations, punctuality is extremely important. Anything less than 98% on time departures (within 3 minutes of scheduled departure time) could result in the loss of a contract, so we are always mindful of the time.
In terms of operating the flight, it’s just the same as operating a passenger flight. Of course, we don’t need to make PAs and there are no passenger issues. From about midnight to 5am, the skies are quiet and ATC gives us lots of direct routings. There are also fewer ATC frequency changes than on a daytime flight, and our approaches to land are usually pretty direct.
23:55 Land at CDG
We land at Charles de Gaulle and park up on stand at the freight apron. CDG is a complex airport to get in and out of, but it’s easier with fewer aircraft about. The darkness makes things like finding the correct taxiway more tricky though, so we’re always extra cautious. But the captain knows the airport well, and the Pilot Flying will be looking out of the window while the Pilot Monitoring is following the taxi chart.
We have an hour and a half turnaround while the freight’s unloaded and the new load goes on. I’m Pilot Flying for the next sector to Bergamo (BGY) so I do the walkaround. The orange sodium lights on the apron are bright, the temperature is dropping and I’m beginning to feel tired. We’re not rushed during the turnarounds, so there’s time to plan the next flight, have a coffee and eat some dark chocolate to help us stay alert!
It’s a short flight to Bergamo and we push back – on time – at 01:35. We don’t get the benefit of a great view of the Alps from the flight deck, but if there are any thunderstorms in the distance they’re absolutely spectacular at night and it feels like we have our very own flashing firework display.
02:35 Land at BGY
We park up at 02:40 and now have 3.5 hours before our next flight. We use the time to get some rest. Sometimes there’s a crew room where we can get some bunk rest, or if not, we put the seats back and try to catch forty winks. With an hour to go, loading begins for our final sector to Naples.
06:10 Pushback for NAP
The sun’s coming up as we head towards Naples and there’s a beautiful view of Mount Vesuvius. We park at the end of the airport at 07:20 and shut down. The freight is unloaded and we hand the aircraft over to the engineer, reporting any technical issues with the aircraft.
07:50 Taxi to Hotel
We arrive at our hotel, check-in and go straight to breakfast before it finishes! There’s not much conversation as we’re pretty tired by this point. After breakfast, the priority is sleep. I close the blackout blinds in my room, put up the Do Not Disturb sign, set an alarm, put the fan on for some white noise and put in my earplugs. I manage about 6 hours, then head out for some fresh air, daylight and exercise.
The captain and I go to the passenger terminal to find something to eat and get to the crew room for our official report time of 20:30. Tonight we’ll be flying to Naples, Bergamo and finally to Brussels, landing at 07:00 tomorrow. We’ll have a day off down route, three more nights of work, and then it’s back home for a week off.