What is a day in the life of a commercial pilot like? – Part 2
So in part one of this two part series, I asked the question, ‘What is a day in the life of a commercial pilot like?’ In part one, I covered what happens in the day in the life of a pilot, from check-in, all the way through to take-off and climbing up to our cruise altitude. In this post, I will cover everything from cruise, through to landing, shutdown and check-out.
The cruise is the more relaxed part of the flight in a day in the life of a commercial pilot, which is good because it’s often also the longest. One of the most important things that needs to be done in cruise, are fuel checks. Certain companies do differ in how often fuel checks need to be done, but generally ranging between every twenty minutes to every hour.
Another thing that we check once we are in the cruise is the wind charts. A lot of modern aircraft have a system on board called ACARS. This stands for Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. Simply put, it’s a posh fax machine that is linked to multiple data sources. ACARS allows the aircraft to receive different forms of data, one being the latest winds at cruise level. If our wind data is accurate, then our fuel burn should be accurate. If the headwind is stronger, our fuel burn will suffer.
What about those long flights?
There is another popular question I get asked, other than, ‘What is a day in the life of a pilot like?’ Sometimes, I get asked, ‘What do you do in cruise during very long flights?’ To be blunt, there’s not much at all to do. The view can be amazing, depending on where you’re flying, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, when flying to the Canary Islands from the UK, you have to fly what’s known as the ‘Tango Routes’. These airways take us north and south over the east Atlantic Ocean. As you can imagine, flying for a few hours with nothing to see but ocean, can be a bit meh.
But to answer the question, during long flights, we tend to do what others do when there’s nothing to do (a lot of do’s in that sentence). We read a newspaper, a book or a magazine. At certain times of the year, we have to do technical exams to refresh our aircraft knowledge. These can also be completed on the longer flights. General aviation and aircraft knowledge can also be kept up to date by putting our noses in the books, which especially useful if we have our recurrent simulator exercises coming up.
Now, about 100-150 miles before our top of descent, the pilot who is flying the aircraft for that sector will begin to set up the computer for the approach into our destination. The pilot monitoring the flight for that sector will then have a look through everything to make sure they are happy with ‘what’s in the box’ as we call it. Things that are checked for accuracy are as follows, but not limited to:
- Tracks and distances between waypoints
- The correct arrival procedure
- The correct runway in use
- Navigation aid radio frequencies
- Minimum decision altitudes (we must see the runway by this altitude, or go around)
- Performance figures
- And other things, but these are the main, pertinent points.
Once both pilots are happy that they have independently checked everything, the pilot flying will brief the pilot monitoring about the descent and approach. This is usually done as an ‘interactive chat’. The pilot flying will tell the pilot monitoring what they are planning to do. This must include the very important points of how they are planning to do it.
What do you mean by an “interactive chat”?
By making the brief interactive and asking the pilot monitoring questions such as, ‘What do you think the decision altitude is for this approach’, it removes something called ‘confirmation bias’. This basically means that, just because I put something in and the first officer sees it, they don’t automatically think it’s right. By them having to look at their own charts to see what the decision altitude is, means that they are visually confirming, but by using their own data source. If you have any questions about this, please don’t hesitate to ask by leaving it in the comments section below.
Once the brief is complete, then let the descent begin.
Not too much happens in the descent to be honest. We often get a few frequency changes, especially when descending through different air traffic control zones. We also monitor the descent speed and any altitude restrictions that are published in the approach charts. If we feel that we might not be able to make an altitude restriction we can increase our speed. This has the effect of making the aircraft pitch down more. This in turn increases our rate of descent. The downside to this is that it is not as economical as if we were to descend at a slower speed, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.
Another thing that often happens in the descent that passengers wonder about, is the use of speed brakes. These are the flaps that you see on the upper side of the wing that rise upwards. They can sometimes cause the plane to vibrate just a little, but they are very useful, especially at higher speeds. If we need to get down faster, the speed brakes can help us do this. Also if we need to slow down quickly, the speed brakes help us also.
Once we reach the first waypoint of our arrival section, we have to make sure that the specified arrival has been confirmed by air traffic control. This would be an example of that clearance:
ATC – “Airplane 611, radar control service. Descend to flight level two-two-zero. MILIT1K arrival, Runway 25.”
This confirms that the arrival (MILIT1K), is correct and that Runway 25 is being used at our destination.
Arrival and approach
This section in a day in the life of a commercial pilot can be the most challenging. Airports have specific arrivals which are laid out in our charts. These arrivals are called STAR’s. STAR is an acronym which stands for Standard Terminal Arrival Route. The beginning of the arrival is the first waypoint shown on the STAR, and it’s very important that all the speed and altitude restrictions are adhered to. Quite often, if it’s not busy and there are no other aircraft around, air traffic control will give radar vectors instead. This means that they see where we are on their radar screens and give us headings and tracks that will often shorten the approach. Sometimes though, radar vectors are used to extend the approach, especially if it’s very busy.
Eventually we get to a point which marks the end of the STAR and the beginning of the final approach. The final approach can be flown using different navigation aids. The most widely used landing aid is called the ILS (Instrument Landing System). This is very accurate and can even be used to land an aircraft completely automatically with no input from the pilots. This only happens in very poor visibility when the pilots are unable to see the runway. We will discuss these autolands in another blog post.
The final approach
Once we are on final approach, we begin to extend our flaps. These flaps change the shape of the wing, giving a greater surface area. This allows us to fly the plane at much lower speeds. At about 5 miles, the landing gear (wheels) are extended. The final checks are then done to ensure that everything is set for a safe landing. One of the most important things to be sure of is that all passengers and crew are seated with their belts fastened. If this isn’t the case, then we have to do a go-around.
Once we have completed the final checks and we are both happy that the aircraft can land safely, we have to land!
Landing a flying piece of metal that can weigh several hundred tonnes, can be a challenge. Generally speaking, if the weather is nice, not too windy and visibility is good, the autopilot can be disconnected anytime. This means the plane is then flown manually with the yoke or stick.
Sometimes, when the weather is bad, the autopilot is left in a little longer. We do this because the aircraft’s computers are able to notice and adapt to the smallest fluctuations in the plane’s flight path much quicker than a human. We tend to trust the aircraft to an extent. If though, for whatever reason, the autopilot is not responding as expected, we just disconnect and fly manually.
This is the best part of a day in the life of a commercial pilot
Personally, when the weather is bad, I prefer to hand fly the plane below 1000 feet. There is one main reason for this. The autopilot is so accurate that it’s changes can sometimes be a tad harsh. By flying manually, I can see the changes in the flight path, but do smaller, slower corrections to get the plane back where it needs to be. This way of doing it can be a lot more comfortable than keeping the autopilot engaged.
During the last stage of landing, at about 20-30 feet, we return the thrust levers to idle thrust and pitch up ever so slightly. This is to make sure the big main wheels under the belly of the plane touch the concrete first. Then we slowly bring the nose wheel onto the runway, apply reverse thrust and let the automatic brakes do their thing. On touchdown, the spoiler on the upper side of the wings deploy automatically. If you are ever sat in a window seat behind the wing, have a look at it on landing. It’s amazing how many inner components you can see with the flaps extended and the spoilers deployed.
Once we have slowed down enough, we turn off the runway and onto the taxiways.
Shutdown and checkout
A day in the life of a commercial pilot is almost at an end. Once we have taxied the aircraft to the gate, we shut the engines down and turn the seatbelt signs off. This lets the passengers know that it is now safe to unfasten their seatbelts. We also let the cabin crew know that it is ok to get up and disarm the slide on the doors of the aircraft. This is done via a PA system.
We let the passengers disembark, then we all do a final check of the plane to see if any of the passengers have left anything behind.
The shutdown procedure is all done via a checklist. This ensures that we don’t miss anything out and that everything is safe and secure.
Finally, when everything is shut down and the security checks have been completed, we leave the plane. Most airlines have a designated checkout area where money can be cashed, debriefings can be completed and any relevant paperwork can be filed or securely disposed of.
The final part of the day is taking a nice leisurely stroll back to the car park, ready for the drive home.
And that’s a wrap!
That’s it everyone! What is a day in the life of a commercial pilot like? Well over the last two blog posts, I have gone through it. I’ve tried not to go into too much in-depth detail, but if you do have any questions then please don’t hesitate to ask. You can either leave a comment below or send your question here.
More posts will be coming soon, so stay tuned! Don’t forget to subscribe to the blog on the right hand side of the page if you find these posts interesting. Just pop in your email address and you will be informed when a new post is ready to read.
See you in the next one!
The Humble Pilot