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?

Be diligent? Be productive before the rest of the day is eaten up with flying and work stuff? Nah!

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:

Your flight leaves at 4:10pm, so you need to be there at 3:10, with medium traffic you need an hour and ten and add another fifteen for construction on 35 and . . .

. . .  YOU’RE LATE!

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.

Am I the only one running late?

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.”

When the length of the flight plan paper equals the length of the aircraft, you're set to go.

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:

Meet your happy First Officer–you’re going to be locked into the aerial broom closet together for a few days, so you want everything to go smoothly. Does he look happy?

Well that’s not a bad sign, really. Anyway, let’s get on with the preflight. Stash your suitcase in back, your kitbag in the sidewell next to your seat and sit your fat ass down.

See? Everyone does it.

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.

Well, Mr. President, look what your example has done to the youth of America.

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:

Just let me know when it's time to start engines.

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.”

So, how's your trip going so far?

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.

Heading north. Looks like an hour and a half enroute; smooth so far, turn off the seatbelt sign. Watch the sun arc low in the western sky.

Thunderstorms out west, chopping up the sunset.

Land, taxi in and the gate chaos recurs: passengers deplaning, catering, ground crew cleaning the airplane, passengers boarding; your task?

Gut bomb!

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.

Now back to work. The jet’s just about boarded and ready. More paperwork.

Okay, let’s get this beast back into the air and head for DFW. Still have to make it to the west coast tonight. Another preflight checklist litany; pushback, taxi out, takeoff.

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.

You can’t help wondering what’s going on down there, in the homes; the trail of headlights on the freeway, the arteries that spider to all points of the compass. The time goes slowly.

There’s the clock you started when you added take-off power. The bottom number is the elapsed time; another hour and a half to go.

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.

There’s what matters: folks getting off the plane. Safely. Happy. They have no idea–nor should they. You do your work, fly right; it’s what you do.

“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.



44 Responses to “Airline Pilot: A Day in the Life”

  1. Love it. You write so well, Chris. It’s so fun to be able to see this side of things.

  2. Danielle Doherty Says:

    Thanks for the nod to ZFW! You are not the only one that looks at the weather on your way to work. We do too. ‘Rain in OKC’ Great! It’s going to be a long night. Meanwhile, sunny and clear in the good ole DFDub!

    Oh, Thanks for the video. I will never eat a chili dog again! Instant junk food craving cure!

    • Always glad to send kudos to Fort Worth “home-drome” center. Will be passing that way today, DFW-BUR-DFW.

      I figured there are plenty of “look at me I’m a cool airline pilot” blogs on the web. I wanted to do a more realistic “oh sh!t I forgot my dry cleaning” type account.

  3. Chris Paterson Says:

    Great post, as always! Just a quick question from a very early PPL, with ceilings that low in Seattle would you have to perform a CAT II/III approach?

    • Yup–at least Cat II. Seattle has some terrain anomalies landing south that make Cat III a challenge, since much of it is based on the radio altimeter.

  4. Deb Cheney Says:

    nicely crafted piece on the day in the life of. Vivid images of the cockpit – not moving, just floating above it all…. your little island in the sky. Also, 1st laugh of the day – you shoving a Sonicdog into your mouth.

  5. Keeping it real! Thanks and keep up the great work!

  6. Theresa Harper Says:

    I love these…is all this coming out of your brain, Chris? You should have been a writer…or maybe you are….

  7. Sadly, yes on all counts. And if you can imagine, I’m teaching writing to a couple dozen undergrads as well in both Tech Writing and Composition.

  8. Dennis Magnusson Says:

    Great! The integration of photos with the narrative really moves it along. Looking forward to Day 2. BTW, I hope you weren’t in uniform during your “Omahair” investigative.

  9. Undercover 100%, and on my way to my favorite Chinese restaurant downtown.

  10. […] Day One of this saga? If so, here it is if you'd like to catch […]

  11. Patrick Widener Says:

    Please keep it up! I love this stuff….

  12. This is real nice work sir….loved every word!

  13. Tony Garcia Says:

    Love your writing Chris!!! I am 25, thinking about leaving my boring career in Finance/Banking to do something more exciting. I always wanted to travel the world and I am thinking about going to Flight School and aspiring to become a pilot.

    Do you still love flying/traveling and would you recommend this career path?

  14. ChangChaang Says:

    Love your blog – I think pilots don’t get enough credit sometimes. How often do you fly in a week? How many days do you usually get off? What do you do to avoid boredom in the cockpit?

    • Usually 3 to 4 days per week. It varies though–I’m on a trip right now that started on Saturday, today is Monday; get home tomorrow night but am out again Wednesday, home Thursday. Then a bunch of days off. Boredom? Check out the picture gallery on the blog–

  15. Funny stuff! I like your style! My buddy told me about your blog…I will be following you in and out of the AIR!

  16. This is the perfect information that I needed.. Can somebody tell me where can I fing a webpage that tells me everything I need to be an airline pilot??? I wanna be one when I grow up…

  17. nice blog! I really liked the rapping flight attendant. I am thinking of becoming a pilot one day.

  18. nice blog!!
    I really enjoy it so far, i’m a brand new follower haha
    my dream is to be an airline pilot
    Your landing in Seattle with this low ceilling was a Cat II or Cat III?
    thanks for your post!
    Have a good one!

  19. Chris,
    Thanks for writing your blog. I have a friend thats a senior Captain for one of the major airlines. He feels strongly that he may be able to get me into the industry. I am 44 yrs old and have a wife and 6 yr old daughter. I have always dreamed of becoming a pilot. Do you think I am too old? Is this career a huge strain on a marrage and fatherhood?


    • Honestly, this is what advice I’d give to anyone I really cared about, like my own son: this business is awful. If you want to fly, find an extremely high paying job and buy some type of private plane (I’d favor a sail plane: real flying, less expense, very safe).

      You don’t mention if you have any flight hours or ratings. If you don’t, a commercial multi ticket is going to cost big bucks, plus you’ll be an indentured servant for shoestring flying operations as you build time.

      Then if you’re lucky, you’ll get hired by a regional at wages below that of a mainline flight attendant with awful work rules that will keep you away from your family too many days and nights a month. That’s for an indefinite number of years, especially now because there is a bow wave of guys who’ve already gone down that path getting furloughed by the regional airlines: we just cancelled all pilot recalls at American, leaving nearly 1,000 mainline pilots out of work and our regional affiliate just cancelled newbies classes and sent out furlough notices.

      Add to the mix the constant stream of USAF, USN, USMC, USCG and Army pilots ready to hit the market when an opportunity develops and the odds of landing a job at a major airline get even worse: trust me, I will have a major say in who we hire and as always, the ex-military will be first in line no matter what commuter or corporate pilot applies and when.

      I’m fortunate to be a captain for 20+ years now out of the 26+ years I’ve been an American Airlines pilot. But I fly with a lot of 20 year F/Os who are not happy about the fact that they’ll never make captain. The extension of the mandatory retirement age for pilots to 65 just set everyone, including me, back 5 years.

      That’s my honest answer. I wouldn’t wish this career path on anyone in their 30s much less their 40s. As I mentioned, if you want real honest to God finesse flying go master gliders, enjoy that in your free time and find a career field with less heartbreak and mayhem:we at AA are now awaiting the chainsaw that is bankruptcy on our pay, benefits and retirement. There are ways to enjoy flight without sacrificing your future–that’s the better course!

  20. John Crosby Says:

    Wow that is hard to believe that a pilots career is as bad as you have stated. I am 35 and wanted a career in flying and was going to research what the schooling and job intake. I always thought that a pilots job is one of the best as all the flying all over the U.S. and abroad to see the different cultures and explore all the cities. I also thought that a pilot had plenty of time off to be rested and ready to go in a few days. Are you currently a pilot? I want to thank you for your input and can you tell me as you point out all the down side of being a pilot and there has got to be some good points of a pilots life. Is that true that pilots make crap for money. Once again I thought that they got paid VERY good. Now i am not sure i would follow my dream as like many i thought this career was a cushy job. May i ask , are you currently a pilot for a major airline. If so, then why do you, if your a pilot now,stay with this career? I always fly American Airlines and funny how your pics show American planes. Is this all the airlines that are like you descried ? Or is this just American Airlines. Thanks for the blog. Looking forward to your reply

    • This is exactly the problem with public perception of the airline pilot career: there is no “typical pilot,” or typical paycheck for that matter. For example, yesterday I flew my usual DC turn. That’s a deluxe schedule, one leg out at noon, turn around and come back, home in the evening. That’s *my* schedule, one of about 5 on the 737. The other 100 trips have a lot of dogs: 4 days, weekends, all-nighters, buttcrack of dawn departures, midnight get-homes, cruddy cities (welcome to Cleveland!) and multiple legs. Schedules are all based on seniority and I have over 26 years as a pilot with American, 20+ as captain, which puts me in the top 10% of the seniority list. That’s why *I* stay.

      By contrast, my First Officer last night was a reserve pilot from another base: no schedule, on stand-by, based at LAX but assigned (not volunteered) to sit reserve at DFW for the entire month, will fly a 4-day leaving today and returning to DFW late on Christmas Day–too late to get back to LAX. He’s been here 12 years, and that is nonetheless the story of his month to month at the major airline after having spent another 12 climbing the ranks of various poverty-wage commuters and freighters. Will he stay? No, he’ll probably be furloughed with 400 others next month.

      That’s the reality of the airline biz: it’s all seniority-based, and it’s brutal. Plus this public myth that the “average airline pilot” makes $200K a year is a joke. There may be the top 5 pilots at an airline making that but the average? laughable. And civilian guys normally carry an average of $80k in debt for their ratings.

      I’ve had plenty of good fortune here American and am grateful to fly a jet I really like on a great schedule after many years in the trenches myself, flying all-nighters, holidays, sent TDY like my F/O last night, missing Christmases and birthdays and anniversaries. Goes with the territory and nowadays, due to the extension of the retirement age, the stagnation is even worse. But I have no doubt we’ll go into the future leaner and meaner as an airline and I will continue to fly while the opportunity is there.

      I can’t speak for other airlines, and I don’t speak for American Airlines–this is solely my opinion.

  21. Justin in Ireland Says:

    Hey, thanks for your honesty in this blog. For the last few months I was seriously considering a career in flying, after pumping myself up after reading numerous website regarding flight training and so on I managed to come across your blog. After reading it,it made me realise the lows of the job, I didnt realise the schedule of pilots and reading your reply to the guy that was in his forties considering a career change made me realise that i dont think I would like to be leaving my girl like that for periods of time, im in my twenties. I’m not a home bird but I dont think it would be fair on her, am I right in saying this, do you feel like that sometimes? Although, the key to a lenghty relationship is to spent as much time apart as possible…..right? 🙂 I didnt know that f/o got paid that low, 20 and 30k annually for the first few years and like you said about that f/o that was on reserve after being there 10 years or so…, thats disheartning to get paid that low for a job that requires so much skill and responsiblity. I admire the effort and commitment you guys make daily and from now on instead of smiling at both the captain and f/o when Im leaving through the door of the plane I am going to thank them for their efforts.
    please keep this blog coming, it really gives us an insight to what goes on beyond closed doors.. Is there any websites that I could check out, just for interests sake, websites that the normal person wouldn know nor hear of for pilots?

    • Actually, I don’t miss my significant others any more thanks to seniority, which decides who gets what schedule: after nearly 27 years as a pilot, 22 as captain, I only choose to fly “turn-arounds,” usually to one coast or the other, but home every night. And in the ultimate of laziness, I never fly before 10am, usually home by 9pm.

      But starting out and depending on industry stagnation, you could end up with a chaotic schedule and way too much time away from home unless you are in the top 10% of the seniority range. There are some pilots with 20+ years of seniority flying dog trips and gone a lot more than I’d like to be gone from home. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

      Beyond that, I have to mention that being a pilot, particularly an airline pilot, is not as simple as deciding to do it. There’s a significant aspect of being able to do it, and do it–it being flying–well enough not only to get hired, but as importantly, to pass all of the tests, evaluations and screening along the way. Most don’t survive the process.

  22. Samuel Nelson Says:

    Have you ever heard of a pilot service? I just came across it in my research of career piloting, and I wanted to know if an experienced pilot might offer a more accurate portrayal of what these service pilots do. Thanks for the tips as well on what the schedules are for pilots. It really helps to hear from an experienced pilot what the real situation is with flying.

  23. Tim Perkins Says:

    I’d love to hear your take on flying the 737 vis a vis the 757 or 767 in terms of “pilot friendly”, power, and comfort.

  24. Asiama Doreen Ampofo Says:

    Thank you for your update and i wish to become a pilot too

  25. V Francis Says:

    Hey all, I am currently training to be a commercial like many of you guys already are. Great insight to the actual life of a pilot, heard a few “horror” stories myself from seniors who already have gotten into an airline.

    I’m from Singapore, getting my ATPL; just completing ground school before heading to Australia to start the flying phase. I was wondering on if anyone knew of any airlines taking in fresh cadets? So far I’ve come across Cathay Pacific and SIA.

  26. Rachané Bryan-Henderson Says:

    Love this. Make it seem like it’s not some boring account but something really fun!….at times 🙂

  27. Hi Chris! Enjoyed reading the blog as well as the comments and replies. I am new to the “day in the life of an airline pilot” I am recently dating a gentleman who is a captain for a regional airline service. While I am learning not to hold my breath every time he’s in flight, juggle if we can actually make our very new relationship work as flights get cancelled, delayed, first dates end up post poned. We live for FaceTime, texting, long phone conversations as he bounces all over the place days at a time. I want to be supportive, and I also want to stay out of his way. Any advice for me as I play the supporting cast role?

    • Not really, having never been in that role myself. You don’t mention specifically if you’re an airline person yourself, but I assume not. One of the biggest hassles I ever found about a relationship with a non-airline person was that they have a Monday to Friday work schedule, then weekends were their (understandably) sacred recreation time. In the flightcrew world it’s often the opposite: we prefer to be at work when eveything’s crowded–like the weekends–and be off during the week, at least before kids come into the picture.

      I gave up dating non-airline people because of that–couldn’t always get weekends off, plus they can’t just grab 3-4 days in the middle of a week and jump on a plane somewhere. I found it much easier to date a flight attendant (we’ve been married for 17 years now) because we were of the same mindset on all that. But some folks make it work very well just the same.

      Guess it all depends on your tolerance for widely varying schedules, plus in the commuter pilot ranks, lots of days away from home and really low pay.

      Good luck!

  28. Matthew Gregerson Says:

    Hello Capt. Manno! I recently posted a comment in your “About” section, and am loving your work. Absolutely outstanding! I was wondering out of curiosity, what are your absolute favorite airports to fly into and why? Do you every come to Indianapolis International (IND)? I live in Indianapolis and just wondered if you ever come here. God bless!

  29. Mads Olsen Says:

    Dear Captain Manno, great blog! I’m a private pilot on a Gulfstream, after that hopefully B767 after working my way up. I get the feeling from your blog that you’re mainly pointing many down-sides of the job as being a pilot. I’m comparing your job and blog contents as being a pilot at Ryanair here in Europe (long days, stressful, bad salary, many days away from home). I don’t think this is the case at every airliner and I think there is a big difference between flying regional or International (by means of salary, days away from home etc.). I get to fly both, but after a long trip from my hometown in Europe to for example the States I get 6 days off. I agree with you that not every pilot deserves tons of money, but again this also depends on the economic situation and aircraft/area you’re flying (and being CPT or F/O). I do think you like your job, else you wouldn’t write your blog, but I do get the feeling you’re not recommending the job and that you’re more likely to point out the negatives rather than the positives. Would you still become a pilot if you’re 27 years back after knowing where you are at now? What are your ambitions for the future?
    Thanks in advance, and many thanks for your blog.
    Happy flights.

    • You have a unique viewpoint and a good niche, as you describe it, and more power to ya! I’m speaking from my perspective here and looking back at over 27 years of doing it: there’s a tough reality shared by most airlines and among those who’ve been caught in the last ten years that many of us refer to as “the lost decade:” there are F/Os who will never upgrade to captain, captains who were displaced who will never get back into the left seat–and that’s just among the survivors, never mind those not yet even hired.

      With that in mind, what would I do if I were 27 years back? The same, for me, as I hit the seniority just right–but that’s a very small window: I’ve never been furloughed, been a captain since year 6. That’s an even smaller niche among the 8,000 here and one that is 100% luck. But that’s the exception rather than the rule.

      I would not recommend the profession to a 27 year old now, with retirements obliterated, work rules destroyed, and pay scales lower than ever.

      For the future? I’ll keep flying my Boeing 737 high time turns, max days off, no hotels. I don’t plan to go to the 777 because I wouldn’t make more, but would be gone more. I’m fortunate, but only about 10% of the seniority list is: there are pilots my age on reserve, right seat, constantly bottom-feeding on the flying, working their asses off with little say on their schedules, base or days off. You should ask one of them what they think of the airline biz.

  30. I am most likely going to the Naval Academy next year, and I have always dreamed of becoming a pilot. What is it like entering the airlines with a background flying in the military?

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