Airline pilots are overpaid–or maybe not.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

None of my passengers yesterday had any idea that on landing, they were speeding down the flooded runway with no brakes, which is fine with me.

I mean the part about “nobody had any idea.” I’m a big fan of braking, especially when it comes to a sixty-ton jet on a rain-slicked runway.

They all deplaned a few moments later, none the wiser, which is also fine with me. I wanted to make a phone call and grab a bite between flights and I only had a few minutes to do it.

If you prefer to have “no idea” what goes on in the cockpit, click here.  If you you want to pay attention to the man behind the curtain, here we go.

Twenty-some miles out of Raleigh-Durham Airport at 5,000 feet and about 200mph. The wind is a direct tailwind at 69 knots. The ceiling at the airport is between 300 and 500 feet. That means we won’t break out of the clouds until we get below 300 feet. But the minimum we can descend to without a determination that the landing is safe is 200 feet. That means we’ll have about 5 seconds from when we see the runway to decide if we can land–and make the necessary control inputs to position the jet for a safe landing and oh by the way, the approach lights aren’t working today. With me so far?

The tower reports the surface wind to be a direct crosswind. So we know the wind will shift 90 degrees somewhere between 5,000 and touchdown, plus decrease in velocity by nearly half. Also, the temperature at our altitude is about 50 degrees, but it’s 33 on the ground with freezing drizzle. Besides the fact that the jet, like a galloping horse, wants to point it’s own head and go where it’s pointed–into the crosswind, which isn’t unfortunately the way the runway’s pointed–the shifting airmass we’re riding in is bumpy as a logging trail. I call back and warn the cabin  crew,

“Hang on–she’s gonna buck.” They’re Dallas-based as well. They get it. Lightens the mood–okay my mood–a little to joke around.

My F/O is one of the best. She’s an Air Force Academy grad, and like me, a former Air Force pilot. “Takes 4,000 pounds of fuel to get to Norfolk,” she offers, thinking of our alternate. We have 12,000 pounds at the moment.”If we don’t land, you put clearance on request to Norfolk and we’ll be there in twenty minutes. The winds are lighter there.”

This ain’t my first rodeo, I know how this goes: I’ll have a couple seconds tops between when we break out of the clouds and she calls “minimums,” which means if we’re not in the slot–on airspeed, fully configured, power stable–we’re going to Norfolk. Also, I know that when the jet’s done bucking around, her nose better be pointing down the runway (that’s what rudder’s for, but there’s not always enough throw) and I’ll need to delicately put the upwind wingtip lower, touching down right main gear first, then left, then the nose. Then stop the beast on what I know is a slick runway.

We break out of the clouds but into heavy rain at 300 feet. I take a “one-Mississippi” breath to size up the picture, kick in the correct rudder, lower the wing, and see if my correction will hold. It does–we can land, if nothing else changes.

This is actually my watch. No nerdy-pilot clunker here.

“Minimums,” Nora calls. “Landing,” I announce. I keep a hair-trigger on the go-around throttle toggles, ready till the last few feet to rocket us back into the air if the bronco starts to get the better of me in this wild ride. One deliberate bump from the heel of my throttle hand and the fuel controls 140 feet behind me will dump a torrent of jet fuel into both burner cans, then we’ll stand it on it’s tail riding 50,000 pounds of thrust, getting the hell out of Dodge.

I wrestle the controls; I win. We touch down softer than I meant to, but with the blustery winds, my main goal is to make it a controlled gear-by-gear touchdown without dragging a wingtip.It’s a smart jet. On touchdown, when a computer senses that the main wheels are turning, the spoilers on top of the wing automatically pop up to kill the wing’s lift and thereby put more weight on the wheels and make our braking more effective.

The spoilers didn’t deploy. That’s because the wheels weren’t spinning: we were hydroplaning at about 145 miles per hour.

As I said, this ain’t my first rodeo. I know that hydroplaning occurs most readily at nine times the square root of the tire pressure. Our main tires are at over 200 psi, so the square root is around 15; multiplied by 9 equals 135 or so. After which, we’ll get traction and braking. Lesson of the day: if your car’s tires are at 36 psi, your hydroplane vulnerability is around 50 mph. Don’t panic! Stay with it, decelerate carefully and you WILL regain traction.

My excellent First Officer called out, “No spoilers” and manually deployed them. I kept the nose straight with aerodynamic controls until the brakes became effective, slowing our sixty-ton sled to taxi speed, skidding nonetheless four or five times more over pooled water from the heavy rain.

We warned the Southwest jet on final ten miles behind us. Then taxiied to the gate.

The jet emptied, the passengers went safely on their way, and I stopped at my favorite barbeque place before turning the jet around and launching back into the rainy gloom.

Just another day at the office. I couldn’t do anything without the teamwork of the fantastic first officers we have.  And you couldn’t get where you’re going in one piece without all of us on both sides of the cockpit door.

Nonetheless, we still hear all too often that airline pilots are overpaid. Click on the video below, and think that over.


Meet your congress!

Well, at least one famous member. Here’s the “Larry Craig Toilet” in the Minneapolis Airport:


18 Responses to “Airline pilots are overpaid–or maybe not.”

  1. Another consideration about paying for the skill of flying in mins with a boatload of lives is the need for those looking out the front window to do so without distraction. I don’t want the wizard preoccupied with how he’s going to make his house payment in addition to getting me back to Kansas. If your life is worth $50, then fly the $50 airline.

  2. Thanks for the inside look. You’re right, I don’t really want to know what’s going on up there. But I want it done right so I don’t have to know. Keep us safe, you’ve earned your paycheck and more.

  3. Quit whining. You’re lucky to have a job. Shut up and get back to work.

  4. Loved reading this. I agree with GEA, you get what you pay for!

  5. LOVE IT. This post was so fun to read. I love the insider look, since now they won’t let me see the flight deck anymore (like back when I was a kid). 🙂

  6. Howdy!

    I’m really enjoying the blog, keep it up! And don’t mind that other Ag…his loss!

  7. Hey Captain!
    I often tell friends and family that I walk down the concourse and they throw money at me. Like Ernest K. Gann wrote in Fate is the Hunter ( I know you read that!), most of the time airline pilots are stealing their paycheck, but there comes a time several times a year, when in an instant you would easily give back the whole amount to be sitting in your comfortable chair in the living room like everyone else. I recently had a wild ride into ATL, with a tailwind of over 78 knots shearing to a headwind, then a tailwind again. Like you, I had a very able FO at the controls who deftly planted it in the touchdown zone. Upon deplaning, most of the pax were grateful to be on the ground, except one who said, “You’re 20 minutes late!” I replied, “Thank you for paying my salary!”
    Poor guy has to work in an office. I get to go back up with the winglets and the chicks! The most horrible day of flying is better than a good day of office work anytime. Excellent post. I know the MD80/DC9/717 you fly is a lot more challenging in the wx because of the flight controls than a Boeing. Fly Safe and see you on line!

  8. Hello, nice day.. Your post is incredibly impressive. I never thought that it was probable to do something like that until after I looked over your article. You undeniably offered an incredible insight on exactly how this kind of whole process performs. Ill make sure to visit for more tips. Thanks!

  9. Hey it’s Frank Pasquel. Keep the posts coming.

  10. The pilot pay situation is insane. All of that training, all of that responsibility, all of that professionalism, the giving up of more geographically fixed family and friends and for about the same pay as a bus driver… maybe less.

    I realize you guys/gals love your jobs, I love mine, but I wouldn’t, couldn’t do it for that amount of money. So thanks for hanging in there. I hope something (who knows what it would have to be) will happen to get you back to a reasonable pay rate.

  11. Whether a pilot is overpaid or not might depend also on which country you are in.

    In Australia the airline pilots for Qantas get paid around $100,000 (most poorly paid) to about $530,000 AUD (the highest paid). A few months ago in Australia the union struck, demanding even higher pay.

    I have great respect for pilots, and I did some flying at my local airport back in my teens before medical problems stopped me. That’s another thing pilots have to risk – if medical problems ensue – then they have no job.

    However, this respect should never stop at just pilots.

    There are many jobs such as firefighting that are also dangerous and yet paid (relatively) poorly. And there are the extremely important jobs such as nursing that are just paid rubbish. If you’re living in a country that has a high level of military deployment such as the USA, then there are also the phalanx of foot soldiers being paid less.

    Last but not least there are the engineers (civil, mechanical, software, aeronautical etc), the group which I am part of. Aeronautical engineers are the people who design, build and test the machines in the first place. Pay for engineers range from poor to high, but airline pilots generally get a consistently high level of pay (at least where I live).

    I can understand why pilots receive high pay, but at the same time it is entirely reasonable to question whether half a million a year is overpaid. There is nothing wrong with pilots believing they are special (almost everyone does), but the Qantas strike in late 2011 has really disgusted many people, and IMHO, rightly so.

    • “Half a million a year?” Who exactly among pilots makes $500,000 a year? Or $300,000, which you also imply?

      Cite the facts–who, hourly rate, what airline–and we’ll go from there.

      By the way, airline pilots in the US are limited to a thousand hours a year. That means, according to you, that some airline is paying pilots $500 or more an hour. Please share the airline name so the rest of us working for every other airline in the world can get our applications in. Sounds like a great opportunity, although no airline with those pay rates would stay in business longer than a month or two.

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