A day in the life of a commercial pilot — part 1

What is a day in the life of a commercial pilot like?

So often I’m asked, what is a day in the life of a commercial pilot like? In this post, I’m going to go through a typical day in the airlines. From checking in at the airport, briefing, taking off and everything in between until cruise. We’ll cover cruise to checkout in another post. Now the thing to bare in mind while reading this is that every airline is slightly different. I‘m going to write what I experience on a daily basis but, for example, in the private aviation world, things can be a bit different.

Check in

A day in the life of a pilot - checking in

The first challenge of the day is crawling out of bed. Once I’ve done that and made it to the airport, it’s time to check in. Check in is the time that the crew have to be at the crew room, ready to start the day. I have worked for a few different airlines before, and check in times differ. Currently, I have to check in an hour before departure time.

At the crew room, I find the desk that’s assigned to my flight. I print off the flight plans and a briefing sheet for the day’s flights. The first officer and I will go through the flight plans. This includes checking the weather at our destination, alternates and en-route airports. We then have a skim through the NOTAM’s (Notice to Airmen), which gives us any information regarding possible issues at the airports that apply to us. 

Once all has been checked and we’re happy with everything, we discuss fuel. Now each airline has their guidelines when it comes to fuel. Since it is such an immense expense as a business, we are encouraged to stick to the guidelines. But at the end of the day, the final decision for fuel stands with the captain — and there is no backlash for taking extra.

Briefing

Now it’s time to brief the cabin crew. For this, we will go through the details of the day. Weather, aircraft defects, turbulence, flight time limitations and other things are discussed in the briefing. It’s extremely important to be open and welcoming to the crew, as these are the people who will be your team for the day. If the crew feel like you’re not approachable and easy to talk to, they may find it difficult to let you know when something may be wrong. This means that I always smile when I brief them. I also ensure that they are aware that they can talk to me if they need to.

Pre-flight preparation

A day in the life of a commercial pilot - briefing
Image courtesy of www.aerosociety.com

So the crew have all been briefed, the fuel has been ordered and we know where in the airport the aircraft is parked. Once we get to the plane, the first officer and I discuss which of us will do what sectors. Generally speaking, one sector will be flown by me, while the first officer does monitoring and radio. The other sector will be flown vice versa. This can also be discussed in the briefing.

One thing to know is that, in many airlines, first officers are restricted when it comes to certain types of weather. A popular restriction is when the wind is blowing strongly across the runway (strong cross winds). When this is the case, the captain has to fly.

After stepping into the plane, I’ll take a look in the technical log. This is to see if there’s any other defects that have been added the night before. Whoever is flying first will then power up the plane. The non-flying pilot, or “pilot monitoring”, will go and do an external check to make sure all is well.

Performance data is passed on to us by the dispatcher. We use this data to calculate the mass and balance of the aircraft. We also use this information to work out the take-off speeds, which need to be accurate. When we’ve done all this, we whip out our checklists and go through them to cross check that all the required preparations have been completed. With the last passenger on board, it’s time to get going!

Push back, Taxi and Takeoff

Image courtesy of flickr.com/eisenbahner

Before we go anywhere, we have to be cleared by the airport’s radio controllers. We contact a “Delivery” frequency to get our flight plan clearance. We then contact “Ground” to get push back and permission to start our engines. 

When we reach the runway, we finally need to contact the “Tower” frequency and request clearance to take-off. Before we enter the runway, a few final important checks need to be made. These include things like checking the flaps are in the correct position, cabin is secure, aircraft is in balance, and a few other bits. 

We line up on the runway threshold next. We spool up the engines and, as in ”Room on the Broom” (a popular kids book by Julia Donaldson), whoosh we are gone!

Climb

Climbing out of busy airspace is quite full on, especially during peak times. One thing that we always need to be wary of are initial speed restrictions and climb restrictions. These are particularly important because they keep us separated from other aircraft. If we fly too fast, for example, we may overshoot a turn. If we fly too high without clearance, we may be flying into the path of other traffic. 

During initial climb, aircraft follow what are known as SID’s (Standard Instrument Departures). These routes are drawn up to ensure that departing aircraft don’t interfere with arriving aircraft, among other things. Quite often in busy airspace, air traffic control will give us headings to fly. These are called “radar vectors”. These vectors keep us clear of other planes while we climb, and one thing I must say… air traffic control do an incredible job!

Ryanair taking off from London Stansted Airport

Once we pass 10000 feet, our initial climb is over. We then release the passengers (turbulence permitting) and watch out for any weather that could affect our flight path. This is done by using a very advanced weather radar system built into the nose of the plane. The climb usually takes about 20 or so minutes, depending on our final cruising level. This part of the flight is generally quite calm and relaxed. We monitor the systems to ensure all is going as planned, and liaise with air traffic control. Once we reach our final cruising level, the next stage begins. 

What happens in the cruise?

Now if I went through every stage of the day, this would be a long post! So with this in mind, I will be writing another blog post very soon to cover the stages of:

  • Cruise
  • Descent
  • Final approach
  • Landing
  • Shut down
  • Check out

Stay tuned for A Day in the Life of a Commercial Pilot – Part 2. In the meantime, do check out my Instagram and follow me there!

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch via the contact page or my social media. 

Happy contrails

The Humble Pilot