Inside the Cockpit: What's It Really Like to Be a Pilot

Apr 18, 2015

Travelzoo sat down with a first officer for a major regional airline and found out the answers to everything we’ve always wanted to ask a pilot -- from their biggest annoyances to whether turning off your cell phone is really that important.

First off, what was the process like to become an airline pilot?

I started college and flight training in the summer of 2001 and received my bachelor’s in aviation sciences in 2005. After getting in $80,000 of debt for flight training and a bachelor’s degree, I started my first professional flying job flight instructing for a salary of $18,000 a year. After a year and a half of living off ramen noodles, I upgraded to peanuts as an airline first officer making $25,000 my first year. As of today, I’ve been a first officer for over six years at a large regional airline. I fly a 50-seat regional jet all over North America sometimes referred to as the Barbie Jet or Pencil Jet. If you know what jet I’m referring to then congratulations, you are a real Travelzoo pro!

What’s your favorite thing about your job?

One reason most pilots stay in this profession is because we love what we do. We love to fly.

What’s your least favorite thing?

The time away from home. Traveling around North America may sound glamorous, but the inside of a hotel is usually all we may see of a town. We work long days and arrive to the hotel exhausted with sometimes less than eight hours to shower, sleep and get ready to do it all over in the morning. Free breakfast and a comfortable bed have sadly become highlights of the trip.

What’s your biggest annoyance when it comes to passengers?

Passengers who think the world revolves around them and who take out their frustrations on the employees. I understand that traveling is stressful and sometimes downright torturous, but please do not take it out on the poor flight attendant or gate agent. The likelihood is very low that they’re to blame for a level five thunderstorm ransacking the Houston area, or that they broke the air turbine starter valve preventing the engine from starting. Luckily, I sit behind an armored metal door and do not have to directly deal with this small but “special” group of customers.

The next time you think that directing your tantrum to a flight attendant will get you there faster, please keep in mind that if you were born only 150 years earlier, you would be in a hide-covered wagon on the Oregon Trail, out of food and clean water, and slowly dying of typhoid fever. If that thought isn't enough to quell an angry outburst, please erupt into your tantrum before we depart the gate so it will be easier to remove you from the flight.

Should passengers be worried during turbulence?

Generally, passengers should not be the slightest bit worried during turbulence. The most important thing a passenger can do is securely attach your seatbelt, and try not to spill your drink on yourself or neighbor. Modern airliners are built to withstand an amazing amount of punishment, and the fact that we do not have airplanes falling out of the sky on extremely turbulent days is a testament to that fact. Even so, airliners should not be flown into a thunderstorm under any circumstances. Some signs that your pilot has driven you into a thunderstorm would be: heavy rain, extreme turbulence, hail, thunder and lightning, and the look of pure terror on your flight attendant’s face.

How often is the pilot actively flying the plane versus using autopilot?

It really depends on what aircraft you're on, what airline you're flying on, and whether or not your pilot feels like flying that particular flight. Generally, the bigger the airplane, the more automation available to the pilot. Most new, large airliners can autoland with minimal input from the pilots. Whereas some puddle-jumper (19-seat) airliners have no autopilot, so the pilot must hand fly the entire flight, and the first officer (copilot) splits duty as the flight attendant.

Another factor is the culture of the airline. Some airlines, like mine, are taught and mentored from day one to hand fly the airplane up to 10,000 feet before turning on the autopilot, while others are taught to rely more on the autopilot. We generally also hand fly the approach to landing.

We sometimes fly up to six flights a day and are on duty for upwards of 15 hours, so fatigue can really become a problem. Automation can help conserve our mental resources.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about your job?

One of the most frequent questions I get is “What route do you fly?” If I can educate just one person so some pilot somewhere doesn't have to answer this annoyingly common misconception, I feel I have done a great thing.

Airlines rely on computers to generate the complex schedules produced from complying with FAA regulations and the enormity of daily flights and destinations. Excluding a few super senior pilots who fly overseas, the vast majority of us do not fly a specific route. We fly to hundreds of destinations, and our trips are randomly generated by a massive computer named Dave.

Which airports are your favorite, and which do you hate?

I’ll start with the airports I hate. Atlanta (ATL) is number one, closely followed by Washington Dulles (IAD) and Chicago O’Hare (ORD).  On fair weather days, operations in and out of these airports are relatively painless. But when Mother Nature decides to unleash her anger, these airports quickly turn into chaotic, delay-ridden cesspools.

Airports I love are mostly associated with what food and amenities are available, and how easy it is to operate out of. At Austin (AUS), try the Salt Lick barbecue and listen to live music. In Albuquerque (ABQ), enjoy the local and spicy green chili soup. While on a layover in Denver (DEN), search out Heidi’s Deli for some of the best and biggest sandwiches you will find at any airport. If you see a line of crew members at an airport eatery, it’s a very good indicator that the food is tasty.

Besides the essentials, what do you always take with you in the cockpit?

A magazine, crossword puzzle or some other light reading material. I know some readers may be disturbed by this revelation, but the next time you fly for eight hours in a day, try to look out the window for the entire flight and study the clouds, maybe play the “I spy” game with your partner, or do whatever you can think of to stay awake. You will quickly lose this game, because it is incredibly boring. At cruising altitude on fair weather days, our workload drops dramatically and this light reading helps keep our minds active, but not so much where we can’t actively monitor the status of the flight. Before we start the arrival phase of the flight, they are replaced by a careful and detailed look at our destination arrival and approach charts.

Is jet lag a problem for your job? Any tips on how to deal with it?

Yes, jet lag is a real problem. Anytime you mess with your circadian rhythm, there will be consequences to your health. Airline pilots generally go on four day trips, and can travel through multiple time zones during the trip. Sometimes we wake up at 3 a.m. at our local time, or go to sleep after our local midnight. After four days of this, we return home to families that want to talk a lot and have plenty of “honey dos” for us to immediately accomplish. Pretty much every pilot I have ever talked to needs about a day to recover, to regain a feeling of normalcy. The day after a trip usually consists of a good amount of couch time and maybe a cold beverage.

Dealing with jet lag depends on your situation. If you travel overseas, try to adjust to the new time zone as quickly as possible by only sleeping at the destination’s normal sleeping time. For North American travel, try to keep as close to your normal sleep schedule as possible to minimize jet lag.

One last question. Turning off our electronic devices: How necessary is it, really?

Flight attendants everywhere will hate me for this, but … having your electronic device on below 10,000 feet is not an immediate danger to the flight. How do I know? Pilots are the worst offenders of this rule. Not on purpose, of course, but when we’re flying all day, sometimes we forget to turn our phones off.  I’ve received a phone call everywhere from the takeoff roll to 18,000 feet over the Rockies and the airplane has never had an adverse reaction.

That said, it’s still important for you to listen to the flight attendants and follow their instructions to turn off your electrical devices. It is their job to enforce the rules, no matter how dumb they are. If you want to give someone an attitude or an earful, please direct your worst to the hypocritical politicians who do not comply with the rule while on their private jets.

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