The pilot’s job is to make the dream of fast and safe travel around the world an everyday reality, but this can only be achieved by highly trained individuals who are able to react at a moment’s notice and draw on their years of rigorous training. A pilot’s job is in no way routine and demands unconventional hours in a very complex workplace. The following pages will give you an insight into the life of a commercial pilot and the route to becoming one.
A pilot needs to be highly committed and tolerant of unusual working hours. A working day can vary in length a great deal, some lasting for 12 hours and others only 3 or 4, all depending on the company and the route on that particular day. Pilots are expected to work shift patterns, where they could be asked to start work at 5 am one day, or 8 pm on another.
• Short haul airline pilots probably have the most stable and predictable
lifestyle. They generally have a fixed working pattern for several months
ahead. A pilot working for a low cost carrier will finish work back at their home
base, without the need to spend a night in a hotel overseas. But there is no
telling what will happen down route; if the aircraft has a technical fault or the
weather conditions are not suitable they could be stranded a long way from
• Long haul airline pilots will have to spend much greater periods of time away
from home. Their lifestyle can be very tiring because they have to constantly
adjust to different time zones.
• Corporate jet pilots have to be flexible and often don’t have a set roster. They
live their life around the company mobile; when it rings they put on their
uniform and go. They also fly to a much wider variety of destinations and have
to operate to unusual and less equipped airports.
• Cargo pilots generally work during the night when airports are less busy, and
their shifts are often structured in longer blocks of working days. However they
are rewarded by having more time off at the end of their duty pattern.
• Helicopter pilots work in a very unique sector as there are far fewer companies
who operate helicopters. However it offers the opportunity to fly to oil rigs,
work for the police in surveillance roles and many other positions which are not
open to the conventional airline pilot.
Working as a pilot affects your home life a great deal - it can be difficult to lead a normal family life simply because you don’t always know when you will be at home. You have to live close to the airport where you are based, since pilots are often put on standby duty which means being able to get to work at very short notice if the company suddenly needs you. Pilots are expected to do a lot of extra studying too; there are tests to pass every 6 months which are very demanding, and once a year there is an in-depth medical assessment. You need to be flexible and willing to mould your personal life around work. It’s not all hard work though, there are strict limitations on the number of hours you are allowed to work which are set out by the civil aviation authority, and they are designed to prevent pilots from becoming fatigued.
The cockpit of a commercial aircraft doesn’t always provide a quiet, interruption-free environment, and yet it’s essential to work accurately and quickly. The weather, busy airspace and challenging destinations are all factors which are out of the pilot’s control, but directly affect the workload and stress levels on the flight deck. Pilots have to be ready to face all of these challenges whenever they arise, and be able to work around them to ensure safety and efficiency.
Being a pilot requires a combination of several distinctly different skills. You have to be versatile; have a mind for academics and be very practical at the same time. It’s not often that you find these things together. Among the skills required are:
• Understanding technical detail, being able to visualise complex systems and
how they work.
• Remembering a wealth of information from textbooks and applying them in
real life situations.
• Dexterity and co-ordination. An ability to handle the aircraft skillfully.
• The ability to think quickly and make decisions.
• The ability to give clear, confident instructions to crew members and
passengers, remain calm and take charge in an emergency.
People put their lives in the pilots hands when they decide to fly. As professionals, pilots have to be able to draw on many years of experience to handle all their duties. They must never compromise safety but economic factors must be considered when performing their job. Their responsibilities will typically involve the following:
• Carrying out pre-flight checks of aircraft systems and making sure the aircraft
insurance certificates and other legal paperwork is up to date.
• Dealing with emergency situations.
• Working out the best fuel quantity based on weather reports and other
information from air traffic control.
• Briefing the cabin crew, following air traffic control instructions and keeping
passengers informed about progress.
• Monitoring in-flight data and making adjustments to deal with changing
• Commercial factors such as arriving on time whilst knowing the limitations of
• Knowing the legal requirements and the company’s own specific policies in
order to make the right decision.
• Writing flight reports after landing, highlighting any problems with the aircraft
or the flight path.
Airline pilots generally start their career as a “first officer” or “co-pilot” as the media like to call it. The first officer is the second in command, and will fly the aircraft and do the same job as the captain, except that the captain has the overriding authority.
At the beginning of the day the two pilots usually decide who will fly the different portions of the route. The first officer might fly the aircraft to the first destination and the captain could fly to the second. The pilot who isn’t operating the controls is usually responsible for talking to the air traffic controllers and completing the paperwork. There is a lot to do during a flight, and operating the controls is only one part.
A newly qualified first officer will have tight limitations placed on the weather conditions they are allowed to fly in and the types of airports they can operate to. But as their experience level grows these limitations are relaxed and they eventually become a senior first officer. Senior first officers benefit from greater pay and an all important extra stripe on their jacket, going from two bars to three.
Depending on the company there are several options for promotion:
• After a certain level of experience senior first officers are able to apply to
become a captain. Obviously they will have to pass a rigorous training program
and demonstrate that they have the right skills to do the job.
• There may be an option of moving to a larger type of aircraft instead of
becoming a captain, and operating long haul routes.
• Once you have become a captain you could eventually take on the role of
training new pilots and maintaining company standards. This involves a lot of
time spent in the simulator and less time actually flying passengers.
• Some airlines offer their senior pilots management positions in the company,
or a role in the recruitment team.
One of the biggest challenges for airlines today is costs. Fuel prices feature prominently on an airline’s balance sheet, and pilots play an important role in keeping them to a minimum. By carefully assessing the weather conditions and likely delays at the destination, pilots are able to judge the best amount of fuel to take which strikes the right balance between safety and economy.
Environmental concerns also play an important role, reducing the amount of fuel not only saves the company money but also reduces its carbon footprint. Reducing the noise levels at airports has led to different techniques of flying, and with many airports recording the noise along the departure routes, if pilots fail to follow the right procedure they could land their company with a penalty fine.
With the introduction of stricter security measures at airports, pilots have to be constantly aware of the risks of a breach. A situation as innocent as a passenger feeling unwell and wanting to get off the flight now has to be treated as a potential terrorist plot, and the aircraft may have to be searched for hidden packages.
Being Part of BALPA
Being a member of BALPA is not only a good idea for your own employment security, but also because of the role that the union plays in building safe practices within airlines. BALPA works extensively with airline management teams to create the right working conditions which ensure pilots are not given roster patterns which could lead to fatigue. There are many other issues where BALPA representatives play an active role, and independent studies have shown that airlines that have a higher percentage of union members are actually safer. As a result, most airlines actively encourage their pilots to join BALPA.