Have you ever wonder how a day in the life of an airline pilot is? Today your dream to be a professional pilot become true.

This post put you in the cockpit of a Boeing 777 to fly between Brussels and New York. The Boeing 777 is one of the most famous long haul multi-engine aircraft. Its only real competitor is the new Airbus 350.

Picture of a captain. To illustrate a day in the life of an airline pilot.

Today, you’re the Captain.

The report time, the dead line in the life of an airline pilot

Pilot watch on the arm of a pilot, to illustrate the importance of the report time in the life of a pilot.

You start your day at Brussels airport in the crew room of your airline, your departure time is 8 am. In the aviation industry, it’s common for the flight crew to have to report 1h15 before the departure time. It means that it’s the latest time to show up and report to work; if you don’t sign-in on time, the operations will call a standby pilot to operate the flight.

The Crew room, the starting point of the airline pilot journey

When you reach the crew room, you meet your first officer. Usually, he’ll have already printed all the documents for the flight. However, nowadays, in most major airlines, the tendency is to computerize the paperwork.

Humouristic drawing done by Kelly Kincaid.

The first thing you do is to cross-check the documents of your co-pilot; passport, pilot license, and medical certificate. At the same time, he’ll check yours.

Pilots working together in the crew room. Part of the life of an airline pilot.

When done, you both go through the flight documentation. You start with the OFP (Operational Flight Plan). This document shows you all the information regarding routing, flight time, and flight altitudes. Today the flight time is 7h; the route will include crossing the Atlantic via the airspaces known as Shanwick, Gander, and New York. Furthermore, our flight is planned at flight level 340 (34000 feet). Gradually increasing to 360 and 380 as the airplane is becoming lighter with fuel consumption.

Weather and NOTAM’s

The next thing you need to check is the meteorology information. The weather of the departure and arrival airports need to be above some minima in terms of ceiling and visibility. Also, you need to select some airports as alternates along the route and at the destination. To check the weather, you use forecasts commonly known as METAR (Meteorological Terminal Air Report) and TAF (Terminal Aerodrome Forecast). Those reports give an accurate prediction for 6, 12, and up to 24 hours.

Clouds an airplane to illustrate meteorology.

After checking the weather, you must verify that there are no restrictions at the airports or along the route. To this effect, you check the NOTAM‘s (Notice to Airman). Runways or taxiways closure, airport time of operation are some examples of NOTAM.

Pilot checking the NOTAMS.

If you’ve any concerns regarding the flight planning, you can consult with your aircraft dispatcher who’s available in the room or by phone.

Cabin Crew briefing

After the flight planning phase, it’s an excellent time to proceed to the cabin crew meeting room to give your crew a briefing. On the 777, the minimum number of cabin crews required is ten. Still, it’s common practice in the airline industry to increase this number up to 16. It facilitates better customer service and aviation safety.

Crews smiling, to illustrate a crew briefing. Also a big part in the life of an airline pilot.

The briefing usually starts with every crew member introducing them-self. Then, you give them the flight details and any relevant information like weather and turbulence. You conclude by asking the cabin manager if there’s any supplementary information.

Preflight

A truck fueling the aircraft, to illustrate making the final fuel decision.

In most airlines, you’ve to be on board the aircraft at least 45 minutes before departure. When you arrive in the flight deck, you meet with the “red cap” responsible for all matters related to loading and boarding. He gives you the latest expected “zero fuel weight,” which is essential information regarding the load weight of your aircraft. With it, you can decide the final fuel you need for the flight. In your final fuel decision, you also use all the information you got previously regarding the flight, like en-route weather or aerodrome restrictions.

Who is flying?

Another crucial decision is to decide who will be the pilot flying, the pilot who will maneuver the flight. And who will be the pilot monitoring in charge of radio communications with air traffic control. On the subject of the pilot in command, there’s a general misconception. It’s not always the Captain who is the pilot flying; the co-pilot is also a trained commercial pilot with the same prerequisites as the Captain. The only differences between the 2 are the flying experience and the seniority in the company, but the pilot licenses are the same.

Hand of a pilot on the thrust levers. To illustrate the life of an airline pilot.

During the pre-flight preparation, the pilot flying will set up the instruments and the aircraft’s avionics. The pilot non-flying takes care of the security checks in the cockpit and does what’s called the walk-around to check the aircraft’s external status. Also, the commander checks the aircraft’s technical logbook for any defects or anything affecting the aircraft’s airworthiness. Once the fuel is on board, both the Captain and the flight engineer sign it.

Performances calculation

Once you both finished your preparations, you work together to prepare the aircraft for the departure. You start by cross-checking the performance calculation, which will determine the different speeds used during the takeoff. The calculation takes into account many variants like the weight of the aircraft, the actual wind, the weather, the atmospheric pressure, to name a few. The ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) gives the actual meteorological conditions via radio or computer.

A pilot using the EFB to calculate the performances.

Afterward, you request the first checklist of the flight, the pre-flight checklist. Checklists are one of the essential elements in the life of an airline pilot; each phase of the flight is resumed in one list to ensure that the aircraft is in the desired configuration. You also use non-normal checklists for troubleshooting failures, like engine failure, loss of hydraulics system, fuel leak, and so on.

Meanwhile, you prepare the flight deck. The cabin crews are in charge of welcoming the passengers on board. Habitually, the pilots are not involved in the process and are just informed when the boarding is starting and when it’s complete. On some occasions, you have to be involved. For example, when there’s a question regarding the fitness to fly of a customer.

The Takeoff briefing

The last part of the flight preparation is the request of the IFR (Instrument Flying Rules) clearance to the air traffic control, which is the authorization for the flight and the flight instruction for the departure and the route. It also includes a four-digit code that enables the aircraft’s identification on the controller radars. Once the clearance is received, the pilot flying gives a takeoff briefing, resuming the essential elements of the departure to ensure that both pilots are on the same page. A crucial part of the briefing is the emergency. Before each departure, each pilot repeats the actions he would do, for example, in case of rejected takeoff or an engine failure during the lift-off.

The flight simulator, the box in the life of an airline pilot.

On the subject of emergencies, an airline transport pilot has to do flight simulator sessions with a flight instructor every six months to keep his pilot licence. During the simulator, emergencies and failures are simulated to train the pilots’ airmanship and make them ready for anything. Failures and emergency training is part of the life of an airline pilot.

Humouristic drawing done by Kelly Kincaid.

Now that everyone is on board, you just have to do a welcome message on the public address system (PA), and you’re ready for the push back from the gate. One last thing, don’t forget to turn the seat belts sign-on.

Taxi

You’re at gate 237. An airplane can’t go backward; that’s why a tow truck pushes the aircraft in a position where it can taxi. Once all the doors are closed, the FO request the clearance for push and start to the ATC controller.

Tow truck to move the aircraft.

During the push-back, the Cabin crews armed the doors, run the safety demonstration and prepare the cabin for the departure. On your side of the cockpit door, you start both engines, one at a time starting with the right one. Once the aircraft is in the taxi position, you set the parking brake and clear the truck to disconnect.

Before requesting the clearance to taxi on the ground frequency, you need to do the before taxi checklist. An essential item is the configuration of the flaps for the take-off. The flaps are small high lift devices at the trailing edge of the wings. They’re extended for the takeoff and landing to change the wings’ aerodynamic configuration and enable the aircraft to fly at low speed.

Once you’re clear for taxi, the pilot flying drives the aircraft to the runway following the taxiway clearance. To control the plane, you can use the rudder pedal or use a tiller situated on your left under the side window.

The take off the most critical phase in a day of an airline pilot

Boeing 777 taking off.

Today you’re taking off using runway 25R. The runway identification is the two first digit of the runway orientation to the magnetic north, 25 mean its orientation is 250°. When parallel runways exist, a letter (R, C, L) specify the right one, the center one, or the left one.

During the taxi, you’ve done a quick takeoff review and perform the before takeoff checklist. At the same time, you’ve switched to the tower frequency, and you’re now clear to line up and take off from runway 25R.

Once at the take-off position, you have a quick peek at the weather radar. When sure that the takeoff path is clear, you set the throttles to the take-off position and push the TOGA switch (Takeoff and Go Around). This switch set automatically the thrust for taking off.

TOGA switch.

During take-off, three different speeds are significant. V1, VR, and V2. V1 is the indicated speed under which you can abort the take-off safely; once above it, you have to continue the take-off. This speed depends on the runway length, the weather, and the weight of the aircraft. VR is the rotation speed, and V2 is the minimum speed for the climb out.

The autopilot

In general, you engaged the autopilot in the climb and keep it connected until the short final. A common misconception is that the autopilot does all the takeoffs and all the landings. First of all, a full automatic takeoff is not yet possible. Secondly, you still fly most of the landings manually. Furthermore, it’s only mandatory to use the autopilot for landings in low visibility conditions.

Climb and cruise

During the climb phase and up to 20000 feet, you use a sterile flight deck concept. In other words, there can be only essential communications related to the flight. The cabin crews can only call the pilots in case of emergencies.

The essential communications are mostly the ones with the air traffic controllers for instructions regarding routing, climb, and frequency changes. You usually switch to another frequency when you enter new airspace. Today during the climb, you will enter Brussels, Maastricht, and London airspace.

Above 20000 feet, it becomes more relaxed. If condition permits, you set the seat belts sign to off. You call the cabin crew responsible for the flight deck to let know that it’s the end of the sterile cockpit procedure. Also, it’s a good time to order a coffee, the real kerosene in the life of an airline pilot.

Coffee for the Captain!

Relax

The cruise is usually the peaceful part of the flight. Although, as the 777 is an aircraft that flies at a lower altitude than other aircraft, you might more often encounter weather or turbulence along your route. Today on your flight to New York, you’re crossing the Atlantic for most of the way. The procedure for the crossing is straight forward and smooth when done correctly. You need to request an oceanic clearance with your route, speed, and altitude. Once received, you have to check thoroughly that the flight computer information is correct that you can relax and let the aircraft fly.

Picture of a boy play with an aircraft to illustrate the cruise phase.

The radio communications during the crossing are less than in busy airspaces. In this case, from the coast of Ireland until the coast of Canada, the only connections are on long-range frequencies HF, only used to verify the radios’ serviceability. Nowadays in those airspaces computers are used to communicate with air traffic control.

It’s mandatory to have at all times one pilot at the control monitoring the aircraft. Still, it’s allowed for the crew to have a meal, enjoy a friendly chat, or leave the cockpit for physiological needs. Something that not a lot of persons know about the life of an airline pilot, is that it’s allowed to nap in your seat during the cruise. However, to rest more than 40 minutes is not recommended to avoid falling in a deep sleep.

Sleepy pilot.

The descent

Six hours into the flight, and you’re now approaching the top of descent. Depending on your flight level, the start of the descent can be up to 120 Nautical Miles before the destination. Ideally, for fuel-saving and environmental purposes, traffic control tries to give clearance for a continuous descent. In other words, from top of descent until the landing, you don’t level off the aircraft.

Thirty minutes before landing, you deliver to the passengers a message on the PA with the information regarding the arrival, like weather, time, and so one. The PA message is a clue for the crew to prepare the cabin for the landing. A few minutes later, you set the seat belts sign to on.

During the descent, the pilot flying checks the destination weather, set up the avionics, and give an approach briefing. Nowadays, in most international airports, each runway has a precision approach system called ILS (Instrument Landing System). It’s becoming rare worldwide to have a non-precision approach system or even no approach system at all. Consequently, pilots fly less and less visual approaches without guidance. Alternatively to the ILS, more and more aviation authorities design approaches base on navigation systems like GPS.

Approach in Hong Kong.

The approach

Today in New York Kennedy airport, you will land using the ILS runway 31L. Before you start the final approach, you have to make sure to have received the “cabin ready” signal from the purser. Passing 10000ft, you configure the lights for the landing. In general, 25 NM from the airport, you start setting the flaps to reduce the airspeed; ideally, you want to be 10 NM from the runway threshold at 3000 feet and 180 knots. 10 NM is also the distance where you will intercept the ILS vertical and horizontal guidance. The glideslope and the localizer.

When established on the short final, you configure the aircraft for landing by lowering the gear and selecting the final flaps. Once set, don’t forget the landing checklist. On the subject of the final configuration, every major airline has to establish a minimum threshold altitude at which the aircraft need to be stable and fully configured. Usually, the threshold is somewhere between 1500 and 500 feet. If not establish at the defined altitude, you need to do a go around and come again for a new approach.

The landing

Boeing 777 landing.

Most pilots routinely disengage the autopilot once stabilized for a manual landing. The aircraft computer calls the altitudes during the landing 500, 300, 100, 50… at the 50 feet call, you check the yoke, and at 30 feet, you start to flare by pulling gently on the yoke. Once the main gears touch the ground, the speed breaks, also called spoilers, fully deployed on the wings. You’ve to activate the thrust reverses by pulling a handle on the throttles. The aircraft uses automatic braking to slow down. At 60 kts, you disconnect the automatic brakes, and you stow the thrust reverses and the speed brakes. At the same speed or lower, you’re allowed to vacate the runway via a rapid exit taxiway. Today you exit to the right, as briefed, via the taxiway MD.

The passengers are applauding you for your smooth landing. Congratulations.

Taxi in and disembarkation

Today your parking position is at the international terminal 4, gate 36. After vacating the runway, ground control gives you the taxi instruction to the ramp, where ramp control will provide you with the final directions to the gate. For fuel conservation, it’s common to shut down one engine during taxi. You can easily taxi the aircraft on a single-engine. In the cabin, the crew delivers the welcome PA to the passenger giving them all the information for a smooth transit or arrival.

Marshaller guiding an aircraft.

The final turn to the gate is facilitated by an electronic guidance system or by a man called marshaller who guide you to your parking position by hand signals. Once stopped on the correct spot, you set the parking brake, shut down the remaining engine, and set the seatbelt sign off. For electricity and air conditioning, the aircraft uses a small turbine engine situated in the tail called APU (Auxilliary Power Unit).

During the customer’s disembarkation, you need to take care of finalizing the paperwork. Most importantly, you need to report the technical status of the aeroplane in the techlog. As there are no problems today, you just note “NIL DEFECTS,” and you sign it. Once done, you hand over the aircraft to the technician before leaving the plane.

It’s a good practice to do a flight review with your copilot, you never know, you might have missed something.

A day in the life of an airline pilot is coming to an end

Welcome to New York. When the crews finish their final checks in the cabin. You proceed to immigration, collect your overnight luggage, and board the bus, which will drive you to your layover hotel. You’re lucky the hotel is in the center of Manhattan.

Manhattan.

Some years ago, socializing was a big perk in the life of an airline pilot. It was common practice that the whole crew meets in the evening for dinner and drinks. Still, nowadays, the flight time limitations are so stringent that the crew uses this time to sleep.

Humouristic drawing done by Kelly Kincaid.

But today it’s okay as you’ve two days off. Please, enjoy your layover.

Did you enjoy your day in the life of an airline pilot?

Qumulonimbus

The comics are from Kelly Kincaid – jetlagged comic


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