Airline Pilot: A Day in the Life
You’re going to fly the big jet today, right? Well, they won’t pay you if you don’t, so better get ready. Let’s start with Task One: closet chaos.
Whatever you pull out of there you’re only going to wear for a couple hours because you have to drag on the polyester uniform and go to work shortly. Worth breaking out a pressed shirt for such a short time? No, but you don’t want to look like a scrounge in the only free part of the day before heading for the airport, right?
Speaking of “pressed,” what about uniform shirts? Gulp–another trip to the cleaners in uniform pants and an undershirt to pick up the uniform shirts you blot out of your mind on days off? Damn, one more thing you should have done yesterday.
That’s the typical “days off” syndrome in the flying career field: once you’re home, you get to ram-dump all work considerations till “Go to Work Day” sneaks up on you again. Bet you’re going to discover on your layover a bunch of junk is missing from your suitcase that you wish you had, and which you meant to replace, but like the dry cleaned uniform polyester hell–out of sight, out of mind.
Anyway, since you have a few hours before flying and a few things you planned to do–okay, sort of said you would but now don’t feel like it but somebody’s expecting you to do it–what’s the plan?
Want to listen? Did this in four tracks. Too much fun.
Screwing off in The Man Cave seems much more important than chipping away at The Drudgery List. Hey, you’re going to be at work for the next 48 hours, right? You deserve a little time with the toys. That income tax return isn’t going anywhere and it’s not even April yet.
You’re going to look and sound great at the next gig this month, right? Anyway, don’t lose track of time:
Too bad you spent so much time screwing around. Oh well. Throw the change of clothes for two days into the suitcase–everything else is still in there and never leaves the smelly bag, along with coffee packets, receipts you don’t want floating around so maids can steal your identity, free stuff you don’t need like “Crest” toothpaste in Spanish from Mexico City and a delivery menu from Ming Wok in Queens–and drag on the polyester uniform. Toss the suitcase and the kitbag into the trunk–look, there’s your hat! It lives in the trunk–and head for the employee lot.
The freeway’s a transition zone, both to and from the airport. Starched shirt too tight going in, your mind on the weather halfway across the country, at the home drome–you don’t really care how bad, just that your inbound jet isn’t late–plans for the weekend, but first you have to get through this trip. You pay attention to the sky on the way in: which direction is the prevailing wind? That’ll determine our take-off direction. Taking off south, but going north means a longer day. You wonder if anyone else pays much attention to the sky when they drive to work, other than noting if it’s blue or cloudy or whatever. The scalloped cloud bottoms look bumpy; you make a note to tell the flight attendants to stay seated after take-off.
From the employee lot to the terminal wastes a ton of time on the lumbering bus. Time, like the hour before pushback, you don’t get paid for but have to be there. Add that to your 12-hour work day, which will seem endless after midnight body-time when you’re still a couple hours from landing.
Now that’s a welcome sight: tons of aluminum, fueled and ready, waiting for you to kick the tires and light the fires–let’s go fly jets. Pull a bunch of paper out of the computer, including the flight plan, the special notices, technical stuff, aircraft speeds for take-off, a bunch more stuff you really don’t care about but the lawyers want to be able to say “we told you so.”
Great. Fold this junk, which is the fine art of Airigami (derived from the word “Origami,” like “Oregano,” which is the Italian art of pizza folding) and stow it out of the way on the flight deck (picture coming up later).
Head for the office:
Time to preflight the aircraft. The First Officer goes outside to check the exterior. You make sure the departure and route of flight is set up in the navigation system. That’s the thing that’ll get you off course and in trouble if the points and route are not correct.
Now you’re surrounded by a beehive: passengers boarding, catering trucks arriving and pulling old food carts off, shoving new ones on; the ground crew throwing bags on and readying the plane for pushback, the agent exhorting the passengers to sit down on the P.A., the flight attendants orchestrating the boarding melee, directing bag-stowage and seating and–here’s your job right now as captain:
Actually, you’re ready. You’ve done the checklist and all of your preflight items. Passengers?
It’s the herd mentality, at least as far as the gate agent goes. “Get along, lil’ doggies . . . we gotta slam the door to show the D.O.T. that we’re an efficient airline–whether you’re on board or not.”
But you’re strapped in up front, let’s shoot the juice to the moose and turn it loose. Pushback, taxi, join the line waiting for take-off.
Land, taxi in and the gate chaos recurs: passengers deplaning, catering, ground crew cleaning the airplane, passengers boarding; your task?
It’s the Sonic Chili Cheese Dog! The indigestion alone will keep you awake going to the west coast. That’s not all bad.
That ought to keep you going for a while. And this.
That’s a long sunset, isn’t it? Anyway, racing south to do the turn-around dance again with 140 more passengers waiting to go to the west coast. Same deal for you: the copilot’s outside walking around the jet, making sure all the pieces are still there. You’re in the terminal, checking the weather on the coast, your planned arrival fuel, the route of flight, the weather enroute and the actual flight plan route. Looks good? Sign it electronically, get back to your cubicle:
And the last bank of flights is now pushing back. Join join the aluminum conga line to the west side of the airport, waiting your turn to launch. A steady stream of wingtip strobe lights arc off to the west like fireflies. You start your clock, add full power, barrel down the runway then lift off and join the stream of winking lights headed west.
Leveled off at your initial cruise altitude, at this hour with less air traffic, Fort Worth Center is giving big-ass shortcuts: you’re cleared all the way to northern Utah, direct. Fuel’s flowing correctly, engines motoring, cabin pressure holding, both electrical generators keeping our little island in the sky warm and lighted and on course.
Now the challenge? Stay alert. When Darling Bride used to fly with you, she’d come up front and marvel at what a warm, cozy little cocoon the cockpit is: the red glow of instrumentation, the purr of instrument cooling air and the view out front–looking straight ahead, it’s as if you aren’t even moving, but rather just afloat 7 miles up over the pin lights of cities below.
This is not easy: you have to be alert and sharp for the descent and landing–18 hours after you’ve awakened, 9 hours since reporting for duty. Never mind “tired”–you’re moving across the ground at nearly 500 miles per hour. Get out the arrival procedure and get the waypoints and crossing restrictions set in your mind:
Actually, as arrivals go, this one isn’t too complicated, fortunately. Brief up the approach and get ready for runway roulette with Seattle Approach: they won’t tell you which of the five approaches you’re flying until about two minutes before you’re expected to do it. And never mind the radar monitor in Approach Control or Seattle Tower ready to nail you (big, festive fine and/or license action) for any deviation from course, altitude, speed or heading, or the 140 critics waking up in back–you are your biggest challnege: YOU want it done perfectly. Every single time in the past 17,000 flying hours, and those ahead.
Nothing to see outside anyway, because the ceiling is only about a hundred feet off of the runway. Gives you a good two to five seconds at about 160 miles per hour to make sure you’re lined up properly for landing . No problem.
“That’s a wrap,” you say, as the last passengers trail up the jetbridge and the crew gathers for the trek to the hotel. You’re the last one off the jet, by design. You lock the flight deck door, call the layover hotel for crew pick-up.
The clock’s started: in twelve hours, it all begins again; this time, to the other coast: New York City. Safely, and as smoothly as it is possible for you to make it. No problem–that’s just what you do.
Stay tuned: coming soon–Day 2.
My Investigative Report: Omaha’s silent tragedy.