Here’s a quick sketch of how an airline pilot’s day begins at our imaginary airline, GooseAir:
Departure Time: -03H:15M
The alarm clock sounds… As I stumble to the bathroom, my few functional brain cells discover that I already know what city I’m in — without having to read the cover on the phone book. Home. Montreal. Despite the early morning darkness, I sense, and avoid, that toe-cracking table leg, enter the bathroom. I revel in the knowledge of where to reach for the light switch. Avoiding table legs and finding light switches. That’s why I love turn-around flights where I get to sleep every night in my own home.
Departure Time: -02H:15M
In the early days of my career, the terminals were small enough that I could park in the employee lot and take a mind-clearing, five-minute stroll to the flight planning center. Now, the continuing growth of airports has seen employee parking pushed out to the surrounding industrial no man’s land where walking would be life-threatening. So, I park the car and then huddle in the Lexan shelter, collar turned up against the morning chill, and scramble aboard the crew bus with the other denizens of the morning shift.
A weak morning sun struggles to lighten the eastern horizon through grimy bus windows, while I cling to the grab-bar against sudden bus-lurches. This experience makes me grin inwardly — somewhat cynically. In the earlier days of my career, for our flights to depart on schedule, we would occasionally start the pushback procedure, extra slowly and carefully, while the last few passengers were still standing in the aisles. But not anymore. Now, the regulations stipulate that absolutely, without exception, in every situation, we can’t budge the aircraft until all the luggage is stowed and all the passengers are seated, strapped in, and counted, and then, and only then, may we depart. But when we arrive at our destination, our passengers disgorge into various modes of transport such as busses or underground subways that leave them hanging by their fingernails to straps and grab-bars, lurching and bouncing along at 30 or 40 kph. Our pushback restrictions seem laughably over-cautious by comparison. But, we must err on the side of safety. I suspect that minimizing lawsuits also is essential.
Departure Time: -01H:15M
I find F/O Paula standing at one of the planning kiosks, already working. We exchange greetings. As expected, she’s already printed a copy of our flight plan from the dispatch computer as well as the updates to the aircraft technical bulletins. I log into the weather terminal for our official preflight review. For a half a second, I pause to wonder at the fact that I’m viewing actual snapshots of the earth. They were taken just a few minutes ago — from outer space! The incredible has become routine.
An old aviation maxim says: “We don’t fly until the weight of the paper equals the weight of the pilot.” And, just like my waistline, the paperwork has increased over the years. Once on board, the datalink will start spitting out paper like… well, like it grows on trees. Because of this appetite for paper and the fact that the first Airbus accident involved a spectacular encounter with a forest, there are plenty of one-liners floating around about how Airbus hates trees. Paula hoists about an elm-and-a-half off of the counter, and we make our way back over to the luggage rack.
As we trundle off toward our gate, I recall briefly how, after the events of 9/11, airport security procedures suddenly required flight attendants and pilots to join the semi-disrobing parade of passengers through the screening process. Overnight, our crew ID photo tags, and fingerprinting, and police background checks, and the grueling training we’d endured to become crew-members were deemed worthless.
Suddenly, the intrusiveness of airport security screening escalated. We understood the necessity of extra vigilance, but still, it felt wrong. It’s as if the bond of trust required for any society to function was now presumed to be missing. Having lived our lives in a justice system that deems everyone “innocent until proven guilty,” we were disoriented by the realization that the premise had reversed. The fact that crew-members are especially conspicuous in our spiffy uniforms accentuated that feeling. It’s as if the special bond of trust for our passengers’ welfare had also been violated.
So, each time I had to undress, then laboriously reassemble myself, slip my shoes back on, refasten my belt, pull on my jacket, re-adjust my hat and re-close my flight bag, I felt I should be asking: “But, do you still respect me?” It was a relief when it was over. I always scurried out of the security screening process eager to get on with less stressful things — like flying airplanes through thunderstorms.
I have long suspected that aircraft designers consider pilots to be a nuisance taking up valuable interior space that could be better used to carry an income-producing payload. Nothing supports my suspicions more than seeing how crowded our flight deck is and how little space is available for getting in and out of our chairs.
Departure Time: -00H:15M
Like a mother hen building her nest and settling carefully onto her eggs, I begin adjusting my chair and rudder pedals and armrests and headrest and lumbar support. This ritual is about more than just comfort, although comfort’s essential too. It’s actually about safety. We not only have to be sure we can reach all the critical controls with hands and feet, but we also need to obtain the best viewing angle by setting up our correct eyeball location. Small pointers, specially mounted on the center window post, show me when my eyes are at the exact position to give me the best chance to see the approach lights and runway environment when landing in poor visibility. If I sit too high or too low, my visual references will be compromised. I tweak my electric seat controls up and forward a little at a time until the indicators are in line.
Along with the advantages of our new, highly-automated, aircraft come certain disadvantages. They are more demanding in how they need to be programmed before each flight, so the guidance computers can accurately calculate things like fuel consumption or the all-important takeoff and climb-out speeds. The more straightforward departure preparations of our steam-driven cockpits were sometimes referred to by ex-air force colleagues as “Kick the tires, light the fires, and blast off.” Such expediency could never be tolerated by the new technology. Now, failing to load the required information accurately triggers a considerable mess for pilots. Our pre-flight programming ritual informs a host of invisible, on-board creatures of automation about our plans and hopes to win their approval so we will be allowed to depart in peace.
I hear the sounds of galley doors and storage units slamming shut behind me. I glimpse someone in the jetway swinging the main cabin door closed. It must be time to go.
Departure Time: -00H:00M
It’s no longer possible to visit the front office of an airliner en route, but if you’d like to strap yourself into the jump seat and join first officer Paula and me for the rest of our day’s work, you can find “Airline Pilot: A Day in the Life” at Amazon.ca, in Kindle format or paperback.
I hope you enjoyed this quick glimpse into the life of a “line pilot.”