Flying the Line, From a Pilot’s Perspective (Guest Post)

Cranky is on a much-needed vacation and won’t be responding to emails this week. Fortunately, before I started drinking too heavily, I put some posts live. Today, we’re looking at the view from the pointy-end of the plane.

As an airline pilot for a major US carrier, I’m often asked many questions by, as I refer to them, “Earth people”, or people who don’t work for the airlines. I’m always happy to answer questions from people and remember, there are no stupid questions – but I have run into a few “inquisitive types.”

One of the most commonly-asked questions is “What route do you fly?” The majority of airline pilots don’t fly any one particular route. It’s only the most senior pilots on the biggest equipment whose schedule usually brings them to one or two destinations. Pilots who fly mostly domestic routes will often fly between two and five legs a day for three or four days straight. So when you ask them what their route is, don’t take offense if they laugh, as they probably can’t remember where they were in the morning, much less in the last four days.

Final Approach From Cockpit

The routes an international pilot flies, however, are usually more defined. As a quick side note, when I say international, I mean transoceanic, and when I say domestic, I’m referring to those who stay within North and Central America. Pilots who fly mostly international trips, usually have a smaller selection of cities to pick from. While pilots of the bigger airplanes such as the A340, B777, and B747 might only get to pick from four or five cities, pilots of medium-sized airplanes like the B757 and B767 have a bigger selection to choose from, and the smaller airplanes like a B737 or A320 have even more to choose from than that.

The airline I fly for serves over 160 cities throughout Europe, North, Central and South America, the Pacific, and Asia. So for one pilot to specialize in only one city, would be quite rare. Most pilots have cities they prefer to layover in, however, when it comes to bidding our monthly schedule, we usually bid for important things like being home for school plays, family trips, and for those of us married to an “Earth person”, weekends off.

Another question I’m frequently asked is, “What is your schedule like?” Well, as my grandfather used to say, “Some days peanuts, some days shells.” The best way to describe it is “consistently inconsistent.” I typically do three-day Europe trips, sometimes they are back-to-back, meaning I might work six or nine days in a row, followed by a stretch of four to seven days off. Other times, I may just work one three-day trip followed by two or three days off. Every once in a while, I’ll do a three-day Europe trip, and the next day fly to Florida and back. Usually I’m home between twelve and sixteen days each month. Because I commute from Minneapolis to New York, I bid trips that start late and finish early. That way I can fly into work the day I start, and fly home the day I finish, thereby avoiding an extra night in a hotel.

If you’re wondering what a typical European trip is like from a crew member perspective, allow me to walk you through it. I usually wake up in Minneapolis around 6:00 AM in order to catch a 10:00 AM flight to New York. Depending on how the weather looks and how many open seats there are, I may take an earlier flight to ensure that I get to work on time. If everything went as planned, I’ll have arrived in New York between three and six hours before my report time. During that time, I’ll catch up on e-mails, grab a bite to eat, and take a nap in the crew lounge.

We usually report to the weather and flight planning room about one and one half hours before departure time. During that time, we’ll plot our route across the ocean. As an interesting side note, the routes across the North Atlantic change on a daily basis, however the routes across the Pacific are permanent airways and never change. After we taxi-out and take-off, there’s a little bit of secretarial paperwork to take care of and eventually we will request our oceanic clearance.

Once we’re out over the ocean, obviously there’s no radar control that far from land, so we make position reports to the air traffic controllers. A position report consists of our call sign, current position, altitude, a time estimate to the next position, and the position after that. The air traffic controllers use this information to separate airplanes. Because of the great area of non-radar control, they separate airplanes by ten minutes (which is equal to about eighty miles), whereas air traffic controllers in the US separate airplanes by five miles when they’re in radar contact. Depending on what kind of equipment the airplane has, we make the position reports either over a high-frequency (HF) radio, or via a computer (think of it like a text message).

If the flight is scheduled for over eight hours, we’ll have a relief pilot. So, if you ever see a pilot come out of the cockpit on a transoceanic flight and take a seat in first class, you can be rest assured that there are still two pilots up in the cockpit. The short flights, “short” being eight hours or less, don’t have relief pilots. Because most of the oceanic crossings are done at night, you can probably imagine, after waking up at 6:00 AM, by the time the sun is coming up for the second time and burning a hole in your retina, you’re about ready to be there.

Redeye from the Cockpit

After the descent and landing, we’ll make our way through customs and out to the hotel van. This is when the day starts to get long. Some rides to hotels are upwards of an hour, and as you can imagine, after being awake all night long, those van rides are usually pretty quiet. When we get to the hotel, sometimes our rooms are ready, but because the hotels often “recycle” the crew rooms. Sometimes we might have to wait a half hour for them to be cleaned. This is usually the time when people are deciding what to do with the day.

Occasionally, if you’re in a city you’ve never been to before or won’t get to visit very often because of your juniority, you may jump in the shower and head right out to explore the sights. Those are usually pretty long days because by the time you get back to the hotel at the end of the day, you’ve probably been awake for 30 hours or more. Most layovers start with a nap, usually about four hours of sleep is enough to recover but still be tired later that night. After my nap, I usually try to fit in a workout, then head off to dinner with the crew. When you go to bed at night, getting to sleep isn’t usually difficult, but staying asleep is. I’ve sometimes found myself wide awake at 3:00 AM, which can make for a long flight home.

So after what was hopefully a restful layover, and if it wasn’t restful, hopefully it was fun, it’s time to head back home. Back to the airport, back through security, back across the ocean, and back to New York. This is when being a commuter is hard. If you’ve ever seen those signs on apartment buildings that read, “If you lived here, you’d be home now,” that’s about how I feel when I get back to New York. Because I choose to live in Minneapolis, I have to run back through security, and try to catch the next flight to Minneapolis. Hopefully on that flight, I’ll have a real seat in the back (as opposed to the cockpit jump seat), that way I can take a snooze on the way home.

That brings me to the last question I’m often asked, “What’s your favorite place to go?” That’s always a hard one for me to answer. I’ve been all over this great world of ours; I’ve toured the Grand Canyon, rode motorcycles in the Los Angeles canyons, partied in Times Square, drank wine under the Eiffel Tower, stared up at the Sistine Chapel, walked around Stonehenge, explored the Acropolis, and drank 40 year old scotch in Scotland. So what’s my favorite place to go? Home.

Paul has been flying since the young age of 13, he has worked in the airline industry for the past 9 years and is currently a 757/767 first officer for a major US carrier based in New York. You can read his blog at

Photos were taken by the author

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