What is it like to be a Pilot?

pilots in the cockpit

To become a pilot is no mean feat. It takes a lifetime of dedication, starting with flight school, hours of flight training and discipline. There is also the challenge of obtaining your first job in the industry which may sound easier said than done. So what is it like to be a Pilot?

Many cadet pilots work in rural and remote locations with small aviation businesses to continue their learning and keeping up flight hours. It’s certainly not glamorous but forms a path for many to become a commercial airline Pilot.

Pilots spend hours training and achieving certifications across various aircraft and new models coming into service. This ensures they are always at the peak of their game.

With such dedication to the profession, the question is, what is it like to be a pilot?

We are very fortunate to have had an opportunity to ask a commercial airline pilot with 10 years of experience a little about their career. They are not able to be identified for privacy and confidentiality reasons, however happy to shed some light on what it’s like to be a pilot.

How much preparation goes into one flight?

It really depends on the specific flight and how recently you have flown that route. For example, some pilots fly the same route every day and they require little preparation. Our operation and our rosters are so varied that every flight requires at least a couple of hours of route preparation.

We are normally rostered 1 hour prior to departure however, most pilots would familiarise themselves with the specific flight details prior to signing on over a cup of coffee at home. At my company, we are very fortunate to have access to all flight details on our company-assigned Ipads. These are normally released around 2-3 hours prior to the flight. This information will normally include the flight plan, weather forecasts, notices for each airport, airspace and estimated weights for passengers and cargo.

Interestingly, our preparation has taken a more digital role. We now have a variety of required apps on our Ipad that need to be updated and functioning correctly to ensure validity. Checks of the app versions are now a part of our dispatch discussions and a legal requirement. For this reason, it is usually best to check any pending updates at home. It is helpful to have a good wifi connection as these can sometimes take 20-30 minutes and would delay the flight.

In summary, every pilot has a different way of preparing and it is definitely not as simple as just turning up.

What’s the most stressful part of the flight?

If everything goes to plan, there is nothing too stressful about a flight. This is fundamentally due to the high procedure nature of airline flying. Everyone knows their role and it’s all straightforward.

Difficulties and stress tend to come from uncontrollable events that are thrown at us in the real world. This includes unforecast bad weather, issues with passengers, luggage, aircraft defects that require a return and delays due to air traffic control. Normally the smallest issues cause the most stress because they have a knock-on effect. Everything is highly regulated in the interest of maximum safety.

Do you get to sleep on long-haul flights?

Yes, every long-haul flight allows the crew to rest or sleep. At any one time, there will be two pilots working in the cockpit and the others will rest. Most long-haul aircraft have dedicated bunks for the crew, which provide a segregated area to rest and sleep.

Long-haul flights are normally crewed with four pilots and at any time two will be working in the cockpit. For this reason, the flight will generally be broken up into segments, pending the Captain’s preference. If the flight is around 10-12 hours the captain may split the work in half. Two pilots working for 5-6 hours first and then swapping.

If the flight is longer and around 16 hrs, it may be beneficial to split the flight into four parts.  At the end of the day, every flight is different, starting and ending in different time zones. The main consideration regarding the rest plan is that everyone is given the best possibility to be sufficiently rested. Rest is especially important for the pilots that will be performing the approach and landing.

Regarding the sleeping quarters, we call this the Flight Crew Rest Compartment (FCRC). This is a small room behind the cockpit with facilities that include a lay flatbed with lighting, temperature control, noise cancellation, and even our own in-flight entertainment screen. Sleeping on an aircraft is never an easy thing however the manufacturers of these aircraft have gone to great effort to make it as comfortable as possible.

How many training hours do you need to do every year to keep your certifications?

This is normally country and company-specific. Each will have minimum regulatory requirements that have been agreed upon by the regulator and the company. We do our regulatory proficiency checks in the simulator twice a year. There are annual checks with a training captain on one of our flights to ensure our normal line flying operation is up to standard. Emergency training day is conducted once a year which involves refreshing our knowledge of things such as emergency exits, equipment and a few small exams.

On top of all the regulatory requirements, we also do additional training events, usually every few months. These are simulator sessions that are tailored to provide training and exposure to emergency and current events that have been identified as high risk. The checking and training process is constant and is what keeps us proficient and up to speed.

Is there one common misconception to being a pilot you would like to clear up?

Automation! I cannot tell you how many times a friend or family member has told me ‘Isn’t your job just pressing a few buttons.’

I must admit the level of automation on every flight is quite significant. This has reduced the workload significantly as aircraft have become more advanced. The automation allows us to have more spare mental capacity to monitor and be more situationally aware. Automation, however, is only as good as the way in which it is managed. If it is not understood and more importantly monitored correctly then it will become a hazard. As the saying goes ‘shit in gives shit out’ and this has never been truer with regards to Automation. So yes, the actual amount of buttons pressed may have reduced but the level of monitoring and understanding has increased.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your job?

Unfortunately, everything outside of the cockpit has dramatically changed. Flying to any country has now become a logistical nightmare for every company. The ever-evolving restrictions and requirements have placed a downer on the enjoyable aspects of the job.

It started over a year ago with not being able to leave the hotel on layovers. We are now at a point where we are doing turnaround flights that can last up to 30 hours with double crew. Oh and don’t forget the covid testing after each flight which may last up to 3 hours.

Unfortunately, this is the new normal for the foreseeable future and we are all doing our best to keep the show going. At my company, most pilots have been vaccinated. We hope in the near future we can provide you with amazing travelling memories that I’m sure you all miss so much!

P.S please get vaccinated, we are all in this together!