In this post, I share a typical day in the life of an airline pilot.
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What does a day in the life of a pilot look like?
My company has a fixed roster pattern meaning that we work 5 days on earlies (report time of between 5 am and 9:30 am), finishing anywhere between midday and 5 pm. This is followed by 4 days off and then the pattern repeats itself starting again with 5 days of late shifts.
Today I am on an early flight to Tenerife. The departure time is scheduled for 07:00 local in the UK. Early shifts can be a challenge getting a good night sleep as you have to get to be at an unnaturally early time and equally get up very early. Today my alarm is set for 4 am.
I am to leave the house 2 hours before departure (30min drive, followed by 30mins to park up to get through security) aiming to arrive ready to report around 1hour before work.
In my company, the report time is 45mins before but it is always best to leave a few minutes earlier than necessary in case of a queue at security or traffic on the way etc.
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Airline Pilot Life – how I get ready
Before I go to bed the night before, I’ll generally check the weather for the following day to give me an idea of what to expect. The weather looks good the night before bar some freezing temperatures in the North of England so I take a note that the roads into work may be icy and I may need a bit more time to go through the flight details for the day.
The alarm goes off at 4:10am. I’ll get my electronic flight bag and download the flight plans, check the weather, read the NOTAMS (important warnings and information relating to the flight that may affect us). It is not a requirement to read this before reporting for duty, but I find it works out much better to have a good picture of what the day will look like beforehand.
It takes me about 15-20 mins to go through everything. Although I am a first officer I like to get a rough idea of the amount of fuel we’ll need to uplift.
Today’s flight plan has us on an oceanic routing (keeping us quite westerly) from Manchester to Tenerife, and oceanic flights require additional paperwork. If the captain has not already done so, I’ll need to phone the engineers to ask for the additional paperwork.
We have some turbulence forecast on route today, so for a smoother ride, we may elect to fly at a lower level which will need more fuel.
I decide we’ll need around 30mins extra fuel on top of what is planned. Although the captain has the final decision on fuel uplift, it is good to have an idea of a sensible amount going into discussions as a gross error check.
My routine is then to have a shower, iron my shirt for the day (I am too lazy to do it the night before) then head downstairs to pack my bag and lunch for the day.
I like to bring my own food from home and on today’s menu – I have porridge in the morning and some leftovers for lunch! Plenty of snacks make the day go much better.
Bags packed, I leave the house just after 5 am.
It has frozen overnight so it takes a little bit longer to get going. I’ll be at the airport in 30mins so on track. On the way in, I enjoy just having the drive to ponder and enjoy some tune!
I find a parking space at the airport and off to the terminal I go ready.
Day in the life of a pilot – airport security
Staff security has long queues – it is the holiday season but great to see air travel recovering. I am a little behind with my Christmas shopping so I pop into duty-free to pick up a few last-minute items.
Once at the gate, I head to the aircraft and the temperature is hovering close to freezing and there is a bit of rain which guarantees we will have to deice. I meet the crew. The captain and I decide that I’ll do the first sector as pilot flying and Chris will be pilot monitoring.
Briefing & Setup
It is normal practice for us to ‘take turns’ to fly each leg. Ultimately the captain has the final say on who does what, but the decision is typically based around conditions or any specific destinations we may be visiting. Some destinations have pilot only landing restrictions so if we are going to one of those, it would make more sense for the captain to fly that leg.
Once we meet up and decide who is doing what, we brief the crew. Chris is pilot monitoring for the first leg, so he heads outside to give the fueller the final fuel figure and complete the walk around. The captain has the final say on the fuel we uplift. We have an oceanic routing that is taking us quite west of France and Spain. We decide we’ll take some extra fuel in case we have to fly slightly lower than expected during the oceanic routing at the request of air traffic control.
At this time of day early morning, much of the traffic inbound that has come through the night from the US will be crossing our track as we head south, so for aircraft separation reasons, there is a good chance that we will be level capped and have to fly lower than may be optimal.
Whilst Chris is out doing the walkaround, I set up and prepare the flight deck ready for our departure. This includes various checks of a number of systems, inputting our route into the flight management computer, getting the latest weather and most importantly making a cup of tea!
Chris is now back from his walk around so we brief the start of the flight. During the briefing, normally cover some of the problems we may expect and how we’ll deal with those. We’ll also go through our taxi routing and initial departure routing. Once our briefing is complete we finalise our checks and get our ATC clearance for our departure.
We now have roughly 10mins until our scheduled off blocks time, and the dispatcher is right on time to confirm boarding has been completed and gives us the final passenger figures, loads and lets us know about any special cargo we are carrying.
We finalise the paperwork including completing our take-off performance figures and completing the checks. The cabin crew let us know that everyone is seated and the cabin is secure, so a couple of minutes ahead of schedule we request to push back and start our engines.
A couple of minutes early we push back. We managed to get out just ahead of about 4 aircraft which means we are at the front of the queue for departures and save a few minutes by being able to go straight away.
With the engines started and the ground crew away from the aircraft we check the flight controls and set our flaps to complete our before taxi checklist and we are taxiing towards the runway. The cabin advises us they are ready and we check in with the tower to let them know we are ready for our departure.
Onto the runway, we go, and before long I rotate the aircraft off the ground, and we are on our way. Today’s climb is slightly busier as we have to negotiate our oceanic clearance because of our routing.
Chris finalises the after take-off checks (essentially checking the aircraft is working as it should and we are ready to transit into high-speed flight at the higher altitudes). Chris is pilot monitoring but whist he communicates with Shawick (the sector that provides oceanic clearances), I keep flying keeping in contact with our controller which in this instance is London Control.
Airline Pilot Life – the cruise
We get our oceanic clearance, agree on the level and the speed (Mach Number), we are good to go. As we get above 30000’, we’ve completed most of our admin for the oceanic crossing and for the first time we can relax a bit.
The cruise phase of the flight is fairly relaxed, but we have to remain alert. We spend our time monitoring the flight (the autopilot is flying) perform regular fuel checks and communicate with air traffic control.
I prefer to have my breakfast slightly later in the morning, so it is coming up to 9 am local time and the cabin calls letting me know my breakfast is ready. Nothing fancy – I tend to bring porridge to heat during the flight.
The rest of the flight is uneventful. We find ourselves now sitting about 100miles off the coast of Morroco and it is time for me to set up and brief our arrival.
The arrival briefing is very similar to the departure in that the pilot flying is trying to share how they plan to fly the approach and also highlight any risks associated with the arrival and how those issues will be dealt with.
I go through the arrival route we can expect. Most major international airports have designated Standard Arrival Route (STARs).
These keep arriving traffic separate from departing traffic along with making sure the aircraft remains clear of terrain. I have flown this arrival several times so I go over the notes and see if there are any changes and remind myself of some of the intricacies of Tenerife airport.
We have high terrain to the north of the islands and Tenerife can be quite windy at times. Although completely safe, we have to be ready for any eventuality and wind shear is definitely one of those concerns. I rehearse our wind shear escape manoeuvre as part of the briefing.
Winds can also shift, and it is not uncommon to start the approach with a tailwind and then for it to shift towards the end of the approach into quite a strong headwind.
All this means is we have to slow the aircraft down a lot earlier and get configured at our landing speed much sooner so we don’t struggle to slow the aircraft down in the latter stages of the approach.
I get the weather, complete my landing performance and then ive got everything ready to brief. We go through the weather, the arrival route, the approach we will fly. We also cover eventualities (wind shear), time available if we need to hold attempt another approach or divert. Finally we go through the anticipated taxi route for when we land. Tenerife is straight forward having only one runway and a very logical apron.
With the briefing complete, I have one last chat with the passengers, updating them with our time of arrival, latest weather and I also thank them for choosing to fly with us.
Day in the life of a pilot – the descent and landing
With the briefing complete, we are just coming up to the top of the descent point, so I take controls back, we complete the descent checklist and with that, we get our initial descent clearance and start the descent.
Once in the descent, it is all about following air traffic control instructions but also keeping a mental picture of what else is going on. Are we in a queue? do we need to slow down? are we high? are we low – all the while trying to fly as efficient approach as possible to minimise fuel burn and time.
It is fairly quiet into Tenerife and with around 15mins to go, we recycle fasten belt signs and with that, the cabin crew are securing the cabin. Before long we are lined up to the runway and lowering the landing gear for our final approach into Tenerife.
The winds are uncharacteristically light which makes the approach slightly simpler. We touch down and are on the stand.
Airline Pilot Life – The turnaround
Engines shut down and checklists complete we are straight into the turnaround to get set up and prepare for our return back to Manchester.
We look at the weather and the routing for the way back and we decide on a fuel figure for the way home.
The roles are reversed, so for this sector, I become pilot monitoring and Chis is now pilot flying. I head outside to supervise refuelling and complete the walk around.
Chris completes his briefing as the passengers are boarding and before long, we are ready for push back. We leave 5 mins ahead of schedule and are on our way home.
Heading back home
Once into the cruise, it is time for some lunch, and then soon after, we then start preparing for our oceanic clearance and crossing once again.
We transit the oceanic airspace without incident and find ourselves coasting in over the Irish sea. We start our descent over southern Wales for Manchester. It is wintertime, and we left this morning in the dark and sure enough, it is becoming dark again late afternoon.
Chris flies a beautiful approach and gets us back on stand a couple of minutes ahead of schedule. As we arrive on the stand, we can see the next crew waiting ready to take the aircraft for its next flight.
We try and clear up as promptly as we can once all the passengers have disembarked, so we can hand over to the incoming crew as soon as is practical. After a brief chat with the next crew, it is time to head home.
We have to present ourselves to immigration and after that, we are in the arrival hall. I thank the crew for a lovely day out and we go our separate ways!
My next duty the following day is a standby day, so once home, I recharge and update my company iPad, then it is a case of dinner, relaxation and a relatively early night as my standby start is at 5 am.
How many days off do pilots get?
The number of days you get off as an airline pilot varies depending on your company, the type of flying you do and whether it is a short-haul or long haul operation. Pilots are restricted to 100hours of flight time per month and certain flight time limitations apply and which dictates the number of days off pilots have.
Short-haul pilots either work on a fixed roster pattern or random roster pattern. A fixed roster pattern may consist of 5 days on followed by 4 days off or 5 days on followed by 3 days off. A random roster pattern may have you working a number of days followed by a few days off to suit the requirements of your given company.
Long haul pilots typically go away on 2-4 day trips return home to have a few days off before their next trip. On average, a pilot can expect to have around 8-11 days off per month.
Do pilots go home everyday?
Whether on not a pilot gets to go home every day depends on the type of operation and company they work for. A flying instructor or aerial survey pilot may get to go home every day whereas a long haul pilot may only go home at the end of their trip that lasts a few days.
Certain low-cost operators offer their pilots roster patterns that allow them to be home every day with the exception of there being any unplanned disruption.
Do pilots make a good living?
Becoming a pilot is expensive and typically during the earlier years of their career, earnings are barely enough to sustain a living particularly when flight school loans and debt is considered.
Once pilots have gained a reasonable amount of experience, fly for a reasonably sized company, they are able to earn a living. A captain on a short-haul operation can earn more than £120,000 per year but it can take up to 10+ years to become a captain depending on airline and seniority lists.
Can a pilot become a millionaire?
A pilot can become a millionaire, but this is unlikely to happen just from their salary alone. For a pilot to become a millionaire, they would have to save and invest and a significant amount of their income into other activities, such as property, a business venture, stock market etc. Hopefully, these investments do well and their wealth grows to allow them to be a millionaire.
How many hours do airline pilots fly a day?
This is anywhere from around 6-10hours a day. EASA flight time limitations mean that the maximum number of hours a pilot can work is 12 hours from check in to checkout. This figure is based on a number and factors and can be increased or reduced depending on a number of factors
- Report time: Depending on the time of the day, the maximum flight duty period can be reduced depending on the window of circadian low (WOCL)
- Previous duty length and rest periods
- Number of sectors being flown (increasing the number of sectors may also have an effect on the hours an airline pilot can fly a day
- The number of crew: If there are additional crew members able to augment the crew to allow crew members to have rest away from the flight deck, the number of hours an airline pilot can fly a day may be increased
- Airline schedule
- Unforeseen disruption: If there is unplanned or unforeseen delays the numbers of hours an airline pilot can fly may be able to be increased. This is called discretion. There limits on the amount of discretion that can be applied and certain conditions have to be met e.g. all crew members agree and feel fit to continue, are within flight time limits as specified by the authorities.
Is it stressful being a pilot?
It can be stressful being a pilot but largely, the training is excellent provides a framework for making safe, efficient and timely decisions even when under intense stress. There are factors that can affect the stress of the pilot both on and off the flight deck. These may include
- Personal problems (family, relationship etc)
- Work induced e.g. difficult roster
Pilots have to under 6 monthly simulator checks and annual medicals. The pass/ fail nature of these medicals in respect to potentially having your job or careers at risk can cause stress.
Kudzi Chikohora is a B737 captain with over 3,000 hours of flying in Europe. He holds a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, is a chartered engineer, and is a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Kudzi completed his pilot training via the self-funded modular pilot training route and created kcthepilot.com to share pilot training and aviation content.