A day in the life of an airline pilot

As part of the SAA Pilots Association’s (SAAPA) drive to entice school leavers to consider a career in flying, Captain Jimmy Conroy (SAAPA Chairman) shares what a typical day in a pilot’s life entails.

Airline flying may be separated into two areas, domestic / regional flying and international or long range flying.

Domestic / Regional Flying

When signing on for duty for a domestic / regional flight, one usually signs on for an eleven-hour day.

In winter, one is faced with signing on at 5am in freezing conditions and in summer, dealing with afternoon thunderstorms.

Having signed on, the crew check the latest briefing notices, the technical status of the aircraft they are going to fly, the weather forecasts at the destination and alternate airfields and the flight plan.  They take a decision on how much fuel to take and proceed to the aircraft.

After arriving at the aircraft, the pilots introduce themselves to the cabin crew and the captain briefs them on what to expect regarding flying time, weather conditions and any other pertinent information.

The captain and co-pilot decide who will be the flying pilot for the first sector.  The pilot who is going to fly the first sector prepares the flight-deck and programmes the Flight Management Computers.  The non-flying pilot completes the pre-flight inspection.

Once the aircraft weight is known, the crew individually calculate the take-off thrust and the take-off speeds.  They then compare the results of their calculations and load the data into the Flight Management Computers.  The rejected take-off briefing is completed by the captain and the flying pilot briefs on the engine inoperative flight path that will be followed in the event of an engine failure after V1 speed.

The next step is to speak to Air Traffic Control (ATC) and obtain a departure clearance.  The departure is loaded into the FMC’s. The departure is briefed and pertinent matters such as weather conditions, obstacle heights and fuel requirements are discussed.

Once the doors are closed and checklists read, the aircraft is pushed back, started up, taxied out to the runway and configured for take-off.

Take-off is one of the more hazardous parts of the flight because of the possibility of the failure of a critical part (for example an engine) at high speed, requiring the crew to bring the aircraft to a stop at the brake energy limits, resulting in extremely hot brakes and deflated tyres.  An engine failure after the critical speed (V1), requires continuation of the take-off even if an engine has failed.  This is an exercise that is regularly practiced in simulators.

After take-off, the landing gear and flaps are retracted and communications with ATC established.  ATC instructions are complied with (usually in the form of climb restrictions), other traffic is monitored as are engine parameters, aircraft pressurisation, fuel consumption and the weather (avoidance of storms or use of anti-ice equipment).

The latest weather conditions at destination field are obtained and landing calculations completed.

The arrival and landing runway are loaded into the FMC and a briefing on the arrival, approach and missed approach procedure is completed.  If the weather is poor, a more detailed briefing for a Cat 2 approach (visual range between 300m and 550m) or a Cat 3 autoland approach (visual range 200m to 300m) or a CAT 3b approach where you can land with 75m visibility is conducted and diversion options discussed.  The Company office is contacted and special requests passed on (for example the number of wheelchairs) and a parking bay obtained.  The fuel requirements for the next sector are also obtained and a decision is made and relayed to the company.

Remain in constant communication with ATC and switch to new controllers at the prescribed points.  The flight progress is monitored at all times.  Descent usually starts at about 120 miles (approximately 200km) from the landing field.  The target is to reduce thrust to idle at top of descent and arrive at 1 000’, on final approach configured for landing in a stable approach with thrust and speed stable.

The aircraft is landed, taxied in and shut down.  Total time from start-up to shut-down is usually 1-2 hours for domestic routes or up to 4- 5hrs for regional flights.

Once passengers have disembarked, the aircraft is prepared for the next sector with the pilots switching duties.  Time on the ground is usually in the region of 50 minutes, then you’re off again with up to 4 or 5 sectors for the day.

Summer afternoons and evenings are high workload periods with thunderstorms affecting operations with the possibility of turbulence, icing, lightning strikes and hail associated with the thunderstorms.  Storms around the airfields increase the possibility of wind shears. If flights are diverted, your day can become a lot longer than orignally planned. Unshceduled night stops due to reaching your limit on flight and duty can happen but are not that common.

At the end of the day, you go home (or to your hotel), get some sleep and do it all again tomorrow.

Crew will typically fly 4 or 5 days per week.

Long-Range Flying

Long-range flying differs from short-range flying in a number of aspects.

The aircraft being operated are significantly larger and heavier than those on the short-range, carrying more momentum and energy.

Obviously, the flight durations are longer and are mostly conducted during the night, resulting in fatigue.  Coupled to this, flights cross multiple time zones, resulting in jet jag.  Fatigue is a constant factor in a long-range pilot’s life.

Weather conditions in the northern hemisphere differ significantly from the southern hemisphere, meaning that one may depart Johannesburg on a hot summers afternoon and arrive in Munich ten hours later to freezing fog with temperatures of -10C or less.

Ultra-Long Range flights (ULR) flights typically take 15 hours plus, cross 6 or 7 time zones, depending on the time of year, and arrive to a snow covered airfield in winter, with minimal fuel.

A typical long-range flight begins with the same procedures described above for short-range operations.  Pre-flight preparation is more intense due to the number of potential en route diversion fields that need to be considered.  The weather and the available facilities at those fields need to be assessed.

Take-off calculations are performed as for short-range flying, but take-offs are far more critical on heavy aircraft (70 tons for a short-range aircraft vs 365 tons for a long-range aircraft).

Take-off, climb and cruise are the same as for short-range flights.  Once out of radar coverage, monitoring and use of radios becomes critical to maintain a mental picture of other traffic.

As previously mentioned, most of the flying takes place at night.  Weather is monitored using weather radar and thunderstorms are avoided.

Communications are established with ATC at prescribed points.  Accents may make communication difficult to understand for example South America and China.

Preparation for landing is the same as for short-range operations.  There are some differences in that weather at some destinations such as Munich, Frankfurt and London is often worse than weather encountered in South Africa with Cat 3B landings (75m visual range where the first time the crew sees a runway light is after touch down as the nose is lowered) sometimes required.  ATC requirements are also more stringent with reduced separation between aircraft which requires strict compliance with required speeds.

To summarise, long-range flying is more physically and mentally challenging than short-range flying, while short-range flying is a more intense go, go, go operation with little time to relax.

It is regardless whether you choose to be a domestic, regional or long range pilot, your passion for flying will almost trump the benefits of the job including, job satisfaction, financial reward and the opportunity to see the world.

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