A Day in the Life of an Airline Pilot
Having a good understanding of the role that you are applying for is essential prior to attending any interview. You need to know what the day-to-day job entails, the role’s responsibilities and what challenges you will face. With this in mind, we’ve written this Aspire Aviation article primarily for the benefit of those attending selection for Cadet Pilot or Future Pilot Programmes, or those applying to an ATO (Flight School). You may also find our previous article comparing Modular and Integrated flight training helpful.
Pilots may be assigned to a particular flight when their roster is published, or they may be called in from reserve if the originally rostered person is unavailable to operate the flight for any reason. Depending on the length of flight the crew may operate just a single long haul sector or multiple shorter sectors.
Airlines operate around the clock and pilot report times can be at any time of day or night. Long Haul pilots may operate a mix of day and night flights, whereas Short Haul pilots may have early reports, late reports or depending on the airline, night flights. Some airlines allow pilots to express a preference for the type of flight that suits them best, but inevitably most will operate flights with a range or report times. Learning to sleep outside of “normal” hours is a challenge for many people. 5am report times require discipline in heading to bed early to be sufficiently rested when the alarm clock goes off at 3am!
Depending on the airline, and whether the operation is Long Haul or Short Haul, pilots normally report anywhere from 45 to 120 minutes before the scheduled departure time. The pilots typically meet in the airline’s Operations area to review all the details of the planned flights. Some airlines have the pilots brief with the cabin crew whereas others brief separately and meet later on the aircraft.
The pilots will generally print their flight plans, although there is a move in some airlines to provide documentation on tablet devices. The crew will need to check if the aircraft is carrying any technical defects. It is allowable for some elements of aircraft equipment to be unserviceable but, in this safety conscious industry, there are strict regulations in place to ensure that this doesn’t compromise the safety of the operation. Pilots must check that any defects are allowable by the company Minimum Equipment List, or MEL. Allowable items could include, for example, the lights that illuminate the company’s logo on the tail fin of the aircraft.
The crew will review the weather conditions on the day. This review will encompass the surface conditions at the departure airfield, along the planned route, at the destination airfield and alternate airfields.
If the prevailing weather conditions at the departure aerodrome do not allow the flight to return in the event of a problem after take-off, a departure alternate will have to be nominated. Likewise, the regulations require certain minimum weather conditions to allow an airfield to be nominated as a destination alternate, where the aircraft will divert to if unable to land at its planned destination.
The pilots will examine enroute weather charts that depict winds and weather conditions at cruise levels. This would include information on areas where the crew may encounter turbulence or icing conditions. These charts may influence the route or cruising level, here’s an example.
NOtices To AirMen (or NOTAMs for short) are issued to advise of pertinent information relating to facilities available at airports or along the route. For example, you will regularly see NOTAMs advising of work in progress on various taxiways or runways. Certain Navigation Aids may be unavailable or certain approach types may be temporarily suspended. The crew review the NOTAMs to ascertain if any of them will have a bearing on the planned flight. Here’s a link to the Irish Aviation Authority’s daily NOTAMs for Ireland.
Taking into consideration the weather, the NOTAMs and any technical issues with the aircraft, the crew will be in a position to decide on a fuel figure required. The minimum legal fuel required includes fuel to start the engines, taxi out, fly to the planned destination, divert to the alternate and hold for 30 minutes. A contingency of 3% (or sometimes 5%) is added to this figure to give a required fuel load. On top of this figure, the crew may elect to carry extra fuel to cover anticipated holding delays, or perhaps to allow fuel to deviate around enroute weather. A heavier aircraft burns more fuel so there is an economic penalty for carrying extra weight, including extra fuel. For this reason a balance must be found between carrying sufficient fuel for the operation but without carrying unnecessary extra fuel that will actually increase the fuel burn. Other factors may limit the carriage of extra fuel, for example the physical capacity of the fuel tanks or a limit to the weight the aircraft is able to lift off a given runway for given environmental conditions.
Once the flight planning is complete the crew proceed to the aircraft. One crewmember conducts the External Pre Departure Inspection or “Walk Around.” This involves physically walking around the aircraft and examining the fuselage, undercarriage, wings and engines for any sign of damage or defects. The check includes ensuring that there is no contamination on the wing (such as snow or ice) that would degrade the performance of the wing. The walk around is extremely important and is completed prior to every flight. Some airlines prefer that the Captain complete this check whereas others allow either crewmember to conduct it.
Once in the Flight Deck the crew will begin setting up the aircraft for departure. This will include a check of required safety equipment, for example checking the oxygen masks and ensuring the fire extinguisher is serviceable. Switches will have to be set in preparation for flight. This will include starting the Auxiliary Power Unit (or APU) if fitted. The APU is a smaller engine, generally located in the tail of the aircraft, that allows for the generation of electric power and air pressure on the ground, making the aircraft independent of ground equipment. Some aircraft, for example the ATR, actually use one of the main engines for this purpose but decouple the propeller blades when they’re not needed.
For each sector one pilot will fly the aircraft while the other will monitor the flight and handle Air Traffic Control and cabin communications. The Captain on the day will generally decide which sectors to assign to the First Officer and which to fly themself. This decision may be based on prevailing weather conditions on the day, or perhaps company requirements for the Captain to handle the aircraft if flying to a challenging airport. The flying pilot is referred to as the Pilot Flying (PF) and the non-handling pilot may be referred to as the Pilot Monitoring (PM) or Pilot Not Flying (PNF). The aircraft may be flown from either seat and the Captain normally occupies the left hand seat while the First Officer sits in the right hand seat.
The PF will generally programme the Flight Management System with the departure, enroute routing and arrival procedures. The PF completes a briefing where he or she briefs the PNF on the anticipated taxi route and routing when airborne, and which modes of automation they intend to use. The brief allows both crewmembers to have a shared understanding of the planned operation. An important element of the brief is the identification of Threats to the operation on the day, and critically, how the crew will mitigate that threat. Threats may include a departure routing towards high terrain, operation from an unfamiliar airport or complex ATC procedures. This is known as TEM, or Threat and Error Management, and is now an integral part of flight training.
The crew will check the latest weather and operational information at the airfield by monitoring the Automated Terminal Information Service (or ATIS). This is a recording of the relevant information that negates the need for ATC to repeat it to each aircraft individually. Following on from this the crew will get their ATC clearance which will include the type of Standard Instrument Departure (SID) and transponder code, or “squak” code. The ATIS and clearance may be received over the radio, or if fitted through a digital messaging system known as ACARS. If you are interested, you can listen to ATC through the Internet, for example on the LiveATC website.
In wintery weather, de-icing may be required. The pilots complete specific checklists if this is the case to configure the aircraft before and after de-icing. This generally includes turning off the air conditioning systems and closing valves on the exterior of the aircraft to prevent fluid ingress. The de-icing may take place on the parking position, or in some airports, near the departure runway. The purpose of de-icing is to remove any contamination from the wing. Anti icing is generally performed at the same time and will protect the aircraft in the event of falling wintery precipitation.
Once the Pre Start Checklist is complete the crew are ready to request their push back and engine start from Air Traffic Control. The majority of aircraft require a tug to push them back off stand but some turboprops can actually reverse themselves. Either way a ground staff member will be in contact with the flight deck to monitor the engine area and engine start visually.
The pilots monitor the engine indications as the engines are started to ensure that they start correctly. Older aircraft required the pilots to control ignition systems, start valves and fuel, but more modern aircraft have FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) that manages the start up process efficiently.
Once the push back and start are complete the crew will accomplish the after start items, for example extending flaps and completing a flight control check before completing the Post Start Checklist.
Taxiing a large aircraft is challenging. In a widebody aircraft the main wheels of the aircraft are far behind the pilot and he or she must use the “oversteer” technique to ensure the main undercarriage tracks along the taxi centreline during turns. Some widebody aircraft are equipped with cameras to help pilots in this regard. Pilots must be conscious of the wingspan of their aircraft and ensure they only taxi into spaces that allow sufficient spacing from obstacles or other aircraft. A careful lookout is required throughout. Aircraft are taxied using a tiller that is located beside the pilots.
A brake check is normally completed by the PF during the early stages of taxi, followed by a check of the flight instruments. The PNF/ PM will normally check that the cabin crew have secured the cabin for departure by calling them on the interphone system. Once the Pre Take Off check is complete the aircraft is ready to depart. The aircraft will be transferred from the ground controller to the tower controller before departure.
Pilots (and the regulators!) are a pessimistic bunch and each take off is planned on the basis that one of the engines will fail during take off. The aircraft will be able to either abandon the take off and stop safely on the runway, or continue to the take off run on the remaining engine and get safely airborne and climb away. Performance figures are calculated by the pilots prior to take off on every departure.
On Jet aircraft, the thrust is normally set in two stages. Initially the engines are spooled up and allowed to stabilise at an intermediate thrust setting before take off power is set. Full power may be used for take off if the conditions require it, but more often then not a lesser power setting is used to reduce wear on the engines.
As the aircraft accelerates down the runway, the PF keeps on the centreline by using the rudder pedals while the PM/PNF monitors the engine indications. A call of V1 indicates that the crew are committed to getting airborne and at this point the captain removes his hands from the thrust levers. At VR, the call “rotate” indicates to the PF that is time to apply an aft pressure to the control column or stick to pitch the aircraft up and get airborne. This is achieved by using the elevators that are located on the tailplane. A typical rotate speed for a jet aircraft would be between 120 knots and 160 knots. The PM/PNF announces a positive rate of climb and the PF calls for the retraction of the landing gear.
The thrust is reduced, normally at 1,500 feet. At this time, or perhaps at 3,000’ depending on airline / airport requirements, the nose is lowered to accelerate the aircraft and the flaps are retracted. Flaps make the wing bigger and curvier, producing more lift for take off and landing but cause extra drag once safely flying, so are retracted to “clean” the aircraft up.
At some point the PF will engage the Autopilot. The engagement of the autopilot allows the PF to monitor the aircraft closely. It may be prudent to engage the autopilot soon after departure if operating in busy airspace or flying a complex departure, but on a nice day many pilots will continue to hand fly the aircraft for a period.
An after take off check is completed as the aircraft climbs away.
During the flight the PF will continue to fly the aircraft through the autopilot and will update the Flight Management System. The PNF/PM will keep a log of the flight, both in terms of ATC clearances and fuel and time checks as the flight proceeds past various waypoints. Weather will be obtained for enroute airports to allow the pilots to consider the suitability of diversion aerodromes if the need arises. The pilots monitor the various aircraft systems. The crew will liaise with the cabin crew throughout the flight. Normally one of the flight crew will make a Public Announcement (or PA) to update the passengers on the progress of the flight and the expected time of arrival and weather at the destination.
Operational or technical events may occur during the flight, which may need to be managed. Operational events may include sick passengers or the rerouting of the flight by ATC. Occasionally faults may occur with the aircraft enroute. Sometimes these faults will be minor in nature and normally the flight can continue as planned. A more complex issue may require the crew to divert to a suitable airfield for engineering assistance.
Time spent in the cruise depends on the length of the sector. Dublin to the Isle of Man will be extremely quick, whereas Dublin to San Francisco will be so much longer that a relief pilot will need to be carried.
At some point during the cruise the PF will set the FMS up for the arrival and complete an approach brief, similar to the previously mentioned departure brief. The descent is normally started well over 100 nautical miles prior to the destination. An approach check is completed to ensure the aircraft is correctly set up for the approach.
The crew will follow a STandard instrument ARrival (or STAR) which will guide them towards the landing runway. ATC may require the aircraft to slow down early to sequence arrivals, but if not speed is generally reduced to 250 knots as the aircraft descents through 10,000 feet. Further speed reduction occurs, depending on the prevailing conditions, at around 15 to 20 nautical miles before the runway. As the aircraft decelerates the flaps are once again extended to allow the aircraft to fly at a lower approach speed. A typical short haul jet final approach speed would range from 120 knots to 145 knots.
The type of approach flown will depend on the facilities available at the destination airfield as well as the weather conditions on the day. The most basic type of approach is a visual approach where the pilot flies the final approach purely by reference to visual cues. The vast majority of airports have some form of instrument approach that will allow the pilot to make an approach without visual reference to a specified height above the ground.
A non-precision approach will guide the aircraft down to a point on the approach approximately 400 feet above the runway, from which the pilots will have to visually continue to land. On a good day these approaches are useful but with a low cloud base they may not bring the aircraft sufficiently low enough to establish the required visual references. Such approaches include NDB approaches, VOR approaches or RNAV approaches. Below is an example of a Non Precision Approach chart.
The most common type of approach in daily use is the Instrument Landing System, or ILS approach. This type of approach allows the aircraft to follow a localiser, which keeps it on the extended centreline, and a glideslope that guides it down a 3 degree glideslope towards the runway. A typical ILS approach will allow the aircraft to descent to just 200 feet above ground level before needing visual cues to manually continue.
Many airports have equipment that allow aircraft to descend to even lower heights if the onboard equipment allows. Approaches to these lower minima are conducted during Low Visibility Operations (LVOs). These Category II and III ILS approaches allow suitably equipped aircraft to autoland at visibilitys as low as 75 meters. For comparison, the III/II/I signs you see on a motorway are just 100 meters apart, so 75m really is very poor visibility. The highest category of approach is known as CAT IIIB and allows the pilots to land without any visual reference at all! If the crew are planning to conduct a Low Visibility approach this will require additional briefing. Pilots complete special training in the simulator that authorises them to conduct LVOs.
The aircraft approaches the runway on a 3 degree descent gradient, and depending on the speed being flown this will equate to a rate of descent of between 500 and 800 feet per minute. Some airports require steeper approaches, for example if high terrain lies under the approach path. At some point (except in the case of an autoland) the PF will disconnect the autopilot, generally once the runway is in sight. As the aircraft approaches the runway the rate of descent has to be reduced prior to touchdown. This is done by the pilot using the elevators to raise the nose of the aircraft and is known as the “flare.”
After touchdown, the pilot keeps the aircraft on the runway centreline by using the rudder pedals. Some aircraft have an autobrake system that allows the crew to preselect a specific deceleration rate. Reverse thrust is selected as required. Spoilers on the wing deploy (these are the panels on the wing that you see lifting up after landing) and these “spoil” the lift on the wing and put weight on the wheels. These three systems work together to slow the aircraft down. Pilots will generally have briefed which runway exit they plan to take during the approach brief. The aircraft is decelerated to 30 knots or less before being turned off the runway.
Taxiing around an unfamiliar aircraft can be challenging. The pilots will keep a good look out at all times and the PNF / PM will refer to the taxi chart to make sure the aircraft proceeds on the correct taxiway.
In order to save fuel many airlines encourage the pilots to shut down one of the engines as the aircraft taxis in.
Upon reaching the stand the aircraft may be guided to the stop position by either a marshaller or an automatic guidance system.
Once stopped in the correct position the pilots set the parking brake and shut down the engines. The aircraft is then configured for the turnaround – seatbelt signs will be switched off and electric and air bleed systems configured.
Once the parking check is completed the crew fill in the Technical Log with details of flight times, fuel burns, oil levels etc. and record information on any technical faults that may have occurred during the flight.
For long haul pilots, this may be the end of their duty, but short haul pilots will generally operate at least two and potentially up to six sectors per day. Aircraft incur costs when parked so airlines endeavour to turn them around and get them back in the air as soon as possible. Turn around times may be as little as 25 minutes for some operators.
The turnaround will be a busy time for the pilots with many tasks to complete, such as the walk around, setting up the aircraft and Flight Management System and completing a new departure brief. The aircraft will normally require fuel and the pilots often supervise this element of the turnaround too.