Skyscanner Australia has interviewed an anonymous female airline pilot who has been flying the skies on large passenger aircraft on domestic flights and international flights for nine years. Here are her insights on life as a pilot.
So you’ve booked your cheap flights and the best hotels for your budget and you are ready for your holiday. But what about the people in the nose of the plane? What’s life like for them?
How do people become pilots?
Typically there are two ways. You either go through a military-style training route, with the army or air force, and then transfer those skills to the civilian world, or you do it privately. Some people complete an instructor rating course and stay on in a flying school to get their flying hours up and get exposure to different aircraft. Alternatively, they get out to rural areas like the Northern Territory and work their way up from light aircraft with a single propeller to twin-engine planes.
How many hours of flying do you need to join a major airline?
The minimum requirement is 1,000 hours, with 500 hours of that as a pilot in command in a multi-engine plane. But some airlines also offer staggered training where they can bring you up to the minimum hours they need.
What are the pros and cons of being a pilot?
For me, a huge thing is the people I work with, the cabin crew and other pilots. Shift work has its ups and downs. It’s nice to have three or four days off in a row, but sometimes you might get up at four am, or you finish at one am. We do get staff travel rates or industry rates on flights, hotels, car hire and at some theme parks too.
What about ongoing training?
On the 737 fleet within Australia, we have two training sessions a year in a simulator. If you fly long haul you have to do fewer takeoffs and landings, so we have an extra two training sessions a year practising taking off and landing and other manoeuvres.
We also have an Annual Line Check, where an examiner flies with us and makes sure we are good at what we do. There’s safety and emergency procedure training too, which is all about things like life rafts and safety equipment.
We have other types of training every two years, where we refresh our knowledge about things like dangerous goods, team management, stress management, and how to deal with unruly or dangerous passengers.
How many pilots are there on a commercial flight?
There needs to be a minimum of two pilots on the flight deck. The Captain and the First Officer have a discussion about who is flying and who is monitoring. Typically they share tasks 50-50. One is in charge of the controls and maintains the flight path and the other does the radio calls, the paperwork and offers general support.
How much of a flight does the pilot physically fly the plane?
It depends on the flying conditions, how rough the weather is, or how tired you are, but typically we fly it for three or four minutes from take off to 5,000 or 10,000 feet and then we engage the autopilot. It’s similar for landing. Modern planes can land themselves but most pilots prefer to do it. We generally disengage the autopilot at around 2,000 feet and fly the plane for around two minutes.
What do you eat onboard?
Sometimes we don’t eat the same as the passengers. We get special crew meals, and there are snacks too. On long-haul flights, you might get similar food to the passengers though. Sometimes these are Economy Class meals and sometimes Business Class meals. The Captain and First Officer always eat different meals to reduce the risk of food poisoning.
Around half the pilots I know bring their own meals onboard. Airline food can be monotonous. You can get the same meals every day for one or two months. On long-haul flights, you are restricted to what you can get through security screening. I heard of a Captain who got his Tabasco sauce confiscated because it was more than 100 millilitres.
Do pilots nod off on the flight deck?
On domestic flights, we have rules around controlled rest. On a flight over three hours, we can arrange with the pilot in command to have a 20-minute nap on the flight deck, but the cabin crew are monitoring us to make sure the other pilot doesn’t fall asleep. On long-haul flights, there will be three or four pilots and you can sleep on bunks, in a separate cabin on the 777 for example.
I’ve never heard of a pilot falling asleep on a long haul flight. The planes have automatic wake up alarms that go off if instruments haven’t be touched after 20 minutes, which is unlikely because there are always things to do. A cabin crew member has to call the flight deck every 30 minutes too.
Have you ever had a really tricky landing?
With strong winds, things can be more challenging, particularly with really strong crosswinds, but you just use different techniques to land. Most runways in Australia are long and wide so there are not many opportunities to have a problem. We are trained and practice for different scenarios though, so it’s just another day in the office really.
What power does a pilot have onboard?
The Captain is in command of the aircraft and everyone onboard. He or she can order someone to be arrested and they can have people removed. They can redirect an aircraft if someone is posing a threat or is sick, or the weather is bad. On the other hand, in some cases, if a passenger pulls over a flight attendant and says ‘I want to get off’, even if the doors are closed, the Captain could be charged with false imprisonment if the passenger isn’t allowed to disembark.
Do you sometimes have to deal with unruly passengers?
I’ve had someone arrested. That person got upset over the cost of a sandwich and was issuing threats and being violent. I heard a story of someone banging their head so hard on a window on purpose that they cracked the inner layer of glass. They were met by police.
Does alcohol cause a problem?
The effect of alcohol is heightened in the air. You are in a mild state of hypoxia because of the altitude, which is about the same as being at 6,000 to 8,000 feet on the ground. Alcohol can also dehydrate you and a lot of people take drugs to calm them down too. All this means some people can get very erratic. People lock themselves into bathrooms. I heard of a guy that was so out of it that he was walking around the plane in his underwear. People can be highly emotional on flights. They start arguments with people sitting behind them or in front of them, or with someone just for sharing the armrest.
Do you tell passengers if there is a problem with the plane?
It depends on what the problem is. We don’t want to scare people. You can’t hide it if you have an engine fire, but that’s a very rare occurrence. We are trained to deal with all sorts of situations, so we try to keep people calm. We once had a huge bird strike and there was blood all over the wings but nobody seemed to notice. We didn’t tell them. We don’t want to get people upset. A slight sense that something’s wrong can send people into hyper-drive.
What happens if the plane is struck by lightning?
I’ve never experienced it myself. Some pilots will tell passengers the facts, and some won’t announce anything. A pilot will check all the instruments to see if they are working. There shouldn’t be a problem because there are levels of redundancy, so if one circuit is damaged there will be others that can do the job. A lightning strike can singe the aircraft’s skin, but it’s not immediately dangerous.
Do you get scared by turbulence?
It’s a part of life. We have weather radars that tell us where turbulence is likely and we get weather reports and information from other pilots. Clear air turbulence, which comes out of the blue in beautiful clear skies can startle you for a moment, but we can ascend or descend or change our track. Turbulence is just as uncomfortable for us as passengers, so we try to avoid it.
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What about severe turbulence?
It’s very rare. I’ve experienced it in the Intertropical Convergence Zone around the equator, on the way to America. I wasn’t nervous. I just got out of there. It usually comes out of nowhere and it’s over very quickly.
Do mobile phones cause problems with your instruments?
They can do, but I haven’t seen it myself. It’s very hard to prove they affect navigation, but they can make a loud tapping noise over our radio, so it can interfere with our communication.
Are you told about dangerous goods in the hold?
Yes. We are told about things like chemicals, valuable items, animals, biological substances, organs for transplant, radioactive things, human remains, and dry ice, which is used to preserve things like seafood. We need to know what’s on board in case there’s a fire, or if we need to tell air traffic control what the hazard is. Dry ice can be mistaken for a fire. It can’t be in the same cabin as pets either because it can suck all the oxygen out.
Do you ever get Jetlag?
I don’t tend to get jet lagged. We receive training about what causes it and how to deal with it. Everyone is different though, and some find it more of an issue than others. The most important thing is to make the most of rest and sleep opportunities, get some exercise, eat healthy foods and hydrate.
This article was originally published on Skyscanner.