What’s life as a pilot really like? The things you always wanted to ask a pilot
It’s easy to mythologise pilots; the job seems so glamorous. So unlike anything else. The uniform, the travel, the (dare I say it) power, the years of training, the feeling of having hundreds of lives depending on you to get them safely from A to B.
If you’ve always wanted to ask a pilot what the reality of the job is like – the hidden hardships, the benefits, the things the average passenger won’t see – we’ve gone above and beyond, and done just that.
George* is a commercial pilot with decades of experience – and here are his answers to all the questions you’ve always wanted to ask.
Are you afraid of heights?
No, not in the slightest! I do have some pilot friends who aren’t great with heights though – they’re fine in the air but they’re really uncomfortable if they have hotel rooms above the third floor.
Image credit: Flickr/Mark Pegrum
If you weren’t a pilot, what would you have been?
I’d have loved to have been a rock and blues guitarist. Or an architect. I went to art college and I love design, engineering and drawing. I can imagine things very clearly in 3D. I suppose I’d have loved to have dreamed up stadiums and big buildings.
Are you good at maths?
Sort of yes, sort of no. There are maths elements in the job – the people who have clawed their way up through the ranks aren’t great at maths. However, if you start off in a sponsored cadet scheme you have to be good at it. Flying is a maths-based job, but you don’t have to be a master of difficult equations. It’s more about knowing your times tables, algebra – all the simple stuff.
What’s the hardest part of training to be a pilot?
The whole thing is challenging. It’s cumulative – you have to be able to take on a huge amount of knowledge, retain it, and then deliver the goods. There’s a lot of pressure and there’s a lot of hard work which seems unrelenting at the time.
Can you choose who you fly with?
I don’t choose the other pilots who I work with, but I can choose the work that I do – so if there was a particular pilot who I wanted to fly with, we could potentially swap shifts so we were on the same flight together. Ninety nine times out of a hundred I’ll turn up and I won’t know the other pilot. Cabin crew is a totally different department, so I’ll never be able to choose the stewards.
Do you ever worry you’re in danger in the air?
It never crosses my mind. I’ll be honest – I’ve never even thought about it. I feel very safe when I’m flying, as a pilot or a passenger.
Image credit: Flickr/Jeroen Stroes Aviation Photography
Do you warn people about turbulence?
Generally, no. I won’t tell people if there’s some bumpy air up ahead. I don’t want to upset nervous fliers, and a lot of people sleep through turbulence, so I tend to just put the seatbelt sign on.
If the weather maps show that there’s rough air, I’ll brief the crew and we’ll slightly tweak the food and drink service so people won’t be eating their meal when we’re flying though the bumpy patch.
Why don’t pilots come on the PA and reassure people after turbulence?
I tend not to – however if I hear there’s a nervous passenger on board I will say something to reassure everyone that everything’s OK. A lot of people have asked me if I ever feel sick during turbulence. I don’t, but I have every sympathy for people who do.
Image credit: Flickr/Paul Sullivan
How do pilots take care of their uniform?
The airlines don’t launder it for us – it’s our responsibility to keep it clean. The hotels we stay in all have dry cleaners and when I’m at home, I’ll drop my jacket and shirt into the dry cleaners. My trousers can be cleaned on a wool wash.
Can passengers come into the cockpit to say hello?
You can – just not when we’re in the air! I’ve always found the recent rules about passengers visiting pilots in the cockpit very frustrating – I’m the captain, I should get to decide who visits me, even during a flight. Once the plane is landed you can pop in say hello – I love it when people come in to see me.
Image credit: Flickr/Paul Whitehouse
Do you ever get lonely on transatlantic flights?
No, not at all. There’s always another pilot in the cabin, so there’s another person to chat to. We don’t slink off to separate pods to sleep – we have a thing called ‘controlled rest’ which is basically where one person takes control of the plane, and the other naps in their seat. I just shut my eyes and try to snooze.
What are the parts of the job you secretly really enjoy?
Every pilot has their own ‘job loves’ – mine is transatlantic flights. I spend my time going back and forth across the Atlantic or the Middle East. The jet lag isn’t as bad as flights to places like Australia and I even enjoy going to places like Saudi Arabia – I don’t drink while I’m working, so the booze-free culture doesn’t bother me.
Do other pilots ever leave the cockpit covered in crumbs?
Yes! Most are pretty tidy, but it’s not unusual to find discarded paperwork, sweet wrappers or coffee stains in the flight deck. Mucky pups!
Do you ever start a flight and have to ‘make your mark’ on the cockpit – adjust the seats, or sort out the controls so they’re to your liking?
Every time. It’s just like getting into a car. The seats are fully adjustable, as are the rudder pedals, so I’ll normally fiddle with them until they feel comfortable. The control column (the steering wheel) is fixed in place though.
Do you have any essentials which you take on flights, such as mints, aftershave or snacks?
Most of the things I need are provided by the airline – sadly not the aftershave though! Some people bring glucose tables to add to bottled water to give them a bit of extra energy.
Do you take your own packed lunch?
Some of our more health conscious crew bring their own food, such as sushi or salad, but the airline provides a wide choice of pretty good meals. I tend to eat what’s on board.
How do you feel before takeoff? Do you ever feel nervous just before you’re leaving the ground?
I don’t feel nervous – I still get excited though… taking off towards the Manhattan skyline, launching over a clear blue sea or tropical forest. If the weather is not so good pilots may be in what is termed ‘a heightened state of arousal’ – but no, I never get nervous.
Image credit: Flickr/Edgar Jiménez
How do you focus on days when you might have a lot going on emotionally, or you might be tired?
The simple answer is – we don’t. If things are bad at home or in your private life, you don’t go to work. We have an excellent support network for such things. Similarly, if you are tired – the term we use is ‘fatigued’ – there are procedures in place to help us manage that too.
Do pilots have the authority to marry or baptise people? What’s the extent of your ‘powers in the air’?
We can’t perform ceremonies like that, but in the air, we pretty much outrank everyone and our powers are many and varied. They’re mostly to do with the safety of the aircraft, passengers and crew.
Do air marshals exist in the UK?
I’ve never seen anyone with a white stetson and horse…yet.
What’s the one thing people always misunderstand about your job?
People think the auto plot does all the work for us. It most certainly does not!
What’s the hardest thing about being a pilot?
Different people find various parts of the job harder than others. Some don’t like nights away from home, so they fly short haul rather than long haul. It all depends on your personal circumstances. For me? It’s got to be finding a space in the airport car park.
Image credit: Flickr/Travis Wise