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A day in the life: short-haul pilot part 1

by Paul Naylor BALPA Vice Chairman

Paul Naylor is an A320 Captain at a regional base on a fixed pattern roster. He gave us a glimpse of what a typical shift looks like for him.

  • DAY 1: Earlies
  • Report time 0600. Finish 1630 local

The night before: Planning sleep for earlies is a dark art and requires a lot of thought to make sure you maximise your sleep opportunity. I’m not an earlies person so the next five days are more of an existence than anything else. I live for lates!

0415: Wake up

The first day of an early block is usually the longest as that’s the way EASA designed their FTL scheme. An 0600 report enables airlines to roster a much longer day than if starting at say 0500. It’s also the shift we tend to get the least sleep for as it takes the body time to get used to going to bed earlier than usual.

0500: Leave home

Journey time to airport – 45mins. This is one of the few advantages of starting early – no traffic to worry about. The summer mornings are bright too making it easy to forget what time it is.

0550: Arrive at airport

I park the car and then it is time to join the queue at security. It’s not too bad today. The process takes about five minutes.

0600: Report time

The crew room is busy with about five crews checking in, printing paperwork and starting to brief. Time to find the First Officer! Today it’s one of the new guys, not long out of line training. He’s keen and has been in here for a while. The paperwork is printed and he’s found a space for us to brief. We exchange pleasantries and chat about the day – including items such as the weather, aircraft state, NOTAMs and crew notices. The first two sectors are short with no weather issues but Manchester is busy around our arrival time with oceanic inbounds so we agree to take an extra 10 minutes holding fuel. Having told the dispatch staff the fuel figure, we cross the room to meet our cabin crew for the day. All are fit to fly and nobody has been called from standby (so no effect on FTL). As part of their brief they discussed procedures in the event of a cabin fire. We have nothing to add to that today. They take note of the flight times and that there is the possibility of some light clear air turbulence on the third sector. Most importantly they note that both of us are drinking tea today (white, no sugar) – the fuel of champions!

0615: Walk to aircraft

It takes about 10 minutes to reach the aircraft. On arrival, we switch the ground power on to provide electrics. The cabin crew go about their checks, as do we. We then discuss the aircraft state with the senior crew member. It is common to have a number of minor cabin defects but today we are also down to one air conditioning pack. This has operational consequences for heating/cooling and restricts the maximum flight level we can fly at. The paperwork concerning this defect is checked and in order.

0625: The fueler arrives

We receive the fuel receipt which allows me to complete the tech log script. Meanwhile, the FO has been busy completing the pre-flight checks and entering the flight plan paperwork. This seems like a good time for me to complete the aircraft walk-around (a visual exterior inspection checking all is in order, in the right place, hatches closed and locked where necessary, engine blades in good shape and no fluid leaks such as oil or hydraulics.)

0635: Passengers begin to board

This is co-incident with the arrival of cup of tea number one. The sector is too short (40 minutes) for in-flight drinks so this will do us until Manchester.


0645 We receive ATC clearance:

This is pretty standard, a left turn out towards ‘PEPOD’ waypoint climbing to 5000’. The First Officer briefs for this sector. The Dispatcher arrives. There are changes to the loading paperwork. There are some ‘no-shows’ so we’re going to be a few hundred kg lighter than planned. The Dispatcher leaves, closing the flight deck door behind them. The cargo doors are still open. Time for a full briefing on the departure. This is completed by the handling pilot and includes aircraft status, threats, emergency procedures and how the departure will be flown.

0657: We are ready to push back

Naturally, so is everyone else but we’re in luck and are first to get moving. Two uneventful engine starts later and we’re heading for the holding point on the westerly runway. It normally takes about 10 minutes from push back to get airborne at our base. Today is no exception. This process includes a variety of pre-take off checks, reviewing the initial briefing and ensuring the cabin is ‘secure’ for take-off.

As we turn south east on our departure in relatively clear skies, we are reminded of the time by the appearance of the sun rising rapidly to the east. This sector is straight into sun so it’s sunglasses on for the duration.

Before long we’re at 27,000ft (FL270) which is more than adequate for this short hop. Most of the passengers are asleep as we dart across the Irish Sea toward the initial hold for Manchester (MIRSI). The cruise portion of this sector is barely 10 minutes – just enough time to brief the arrival which today is onto the westerly right-hand runway.

0730: Start descent

We are told to expect five to 10 minutes holding. As we approach the holding fix (which incidentally is over the top of Anfield in Liverpool) we slow to holding speed. There are a few aircraft below us, but before long it is our turn to vector towards approach. Air Traffic Control (ATC) steers us on headings and use speed control to keep us in sequence with the other traffic. The cabin crew inform us the ‘cabin is secure for landing’ as we turn onto a long final at around 12 miles. We’re out of the sun now heading west with two other aircraft ahead of us. As is the norm at larger airports, we are asked to fly a set speed until four miles from landing –160kts in this case. This ensures a good flow rate of aircraft and maintains separation.

0750: Landing

The First Officer completes an uneventful landing – one of his better ones and pretty good considering his relative experience. That’s the standard set for the day then (no pressure!)

To be continued…

You can read the second part of the day in the life of a short haul pilot later this week