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More than just a plane driver

by Captain Brendan O'Neal BALPA Chairman

It’s something pilots hear all the time: “Pilots are just bus drivers in the sky” or even “being a pilot is easy… I’ve done it on my computer flight simulator loads of times.” 

But these simplistic views of the job of a pilot, that are held by many members of the public, have huge failings. Firstly, pilots undergo extensive training to be able to operate aircraft safely and this training continues throughout a career. Secondly, there is more to the job than simply flying the plane. So, let me elaborate a little more about what being a pilot actually means. 

On one hand a pilot is a person who operates the flying controls of an aircraft. But a pilot is more than just a ‘plane driver’. The job encompasses numerous roles from planning the flight, engaging with staff and passengers through to filling in reams of paperwork. So, the job of a pilot is more than the simple definition implies.

So, what should the real definition of a pilot be? Perhaps a job description should look a bit like this: 

Over the years we’ve seen the number of aircrew in the cockpit reduce. Flights pre-1970 often needed a navigator and flight engineer as well as the pilots. But improved technology has removed the need for so many people at the controls and the pilot has taken responsibility for those roles. 

Pilot Navigator:

As sophisticated electronic flight management systems were developed, the navigator's position was discontinued. The role was assumed first by dual-licensed pilot-navigators, and later by the flight's primary pilots (captain and first officer). Most civilian air navigators were retired or made redundant by the early 1980s.

Nowadays every pilot needs to be able to be able to get the aircraft from A to B. That means planning the route (or having it planned for you by your company), checking the weather en-route, knowing which diversions are available and how to get to them. You must also be able to program and monitor the aircraft’s onboard navigation systems and have a working understanding of how to navigate should these fail.

Pilot Engineer:

Like the role of navigator this job has also been incorporated in to that of the pilot. Starting in the 1980s, the development of powerful and small integrated circuits and other advances in computers and digital technology eliminated the need for flight engineers on airliners and many modern military aircraft. On two-pilot flight deck airplanes, sensors and computers monitor and adjust systems automatically. There is no on-board technical expert and third pair of eyes.

In modern airliners if a malfunction, abnormality or emergency occurs, it is displayed on an electronic display panel and action must be taken to rectify the abnormal condition. However, despite the automation, pilots still need a comprehensive knowledge of aircraft systems to be able to deal with problems that may occur and on occasions to be able to ’think outside the box’.

Pilot Computer Technician: 

Modern aviation is all about computers. Fewer people in the cockpit means more technology on board. But all this technology needs to be programmed and monitored and that’s where the human comes in. Like the well-known saying suggests, ’put rubbish in, get rubbish out!’. Pilots today must understand a variety of computer systems that help fly the plane, navigate and communicate. When flying through the autopilot you never want to hear the phrase “What’s it doing now”! You need to be ahead of the aircraft and the automation at all times.

Met Officer: 

Do you know what haboobs is? Or how to identify a cumulonimbus cloud? Your pilot will. (FYI: haboobs is a violent and oppressive wind blowing in summer in Sudan and elsewhere, bringing sand from the desert and a cumulonimbus cloud is a dense towering vertical cloud associated with thunderstorms and atmospheric instability.) Weather has a big impact on flights. We need to know if we need to de-ice the aircraft before take-off, take extra fuel to allow for diversions around thunderstorms or if we can expect turbulence on a sector. Part of our training involves understanding meteorology and it’s a skill we use all the time to keep flights safe. 

Communications Officer: 

It is often something that aspiring pilots overlook, but it’s a vital part of the job. On a typical day, I deal with so many people: other aircrew, ground crew, cabin crew, air traffic control and passengers to name a few. A pilot must be able to communicate well, not only in aviation terms (for example using the radio to speak to ATC,) but also on an interpersonal level. 

For a start, we fly with so many different crews that a pilot must be able to establish a rapport with other flight and cabin crew easily. We must be able to exchange information clearly with people we have never met before. A pilot also must communicate information to passengers. And that’s where the next part of the job spec comes in

Customer Services Manager:

A pilot’s primary concern is always the safety of the flight. But pilots take pride in ensuring their passengers receive the best possible service. Explaining a technical problem that’s caused a delay, letting them know the weather at their destination or pointing out the opportunity to see a famous landmark as we fly past can all add to a passenger’s experience of a flight.

This sort of interaction is vital, particularly as we now operate behind a locked flight deck door which has made interaction with our customers more difficult. I used to encourage flight deck visits during the cruise which was very popular and also gave us some variety, particularly on long sectors. Alas this is a thing of the past so we need to find other ways to interact.

Problem solver:

As well as being responsible for our passengers a captain has the ultimate responsibility for all the crew on board. Understanding their needs, flight time limitations, rest requirements, industrial agreements and supporting them in their dealings with passengers is a vital part of the job. We can be away from home for extended periods and on occasions people need supporting on a personal level.

Not forgetting we can suddenly find ourselves very close to terrorist attacks, military coups and natural disasters! Together with our senior cabin crew members this is another part of our role in the management and care of all the crew. 

Admin officer: 

The masses and masses of paper that we used to have to deal with is diminishing rapidly with the introduction of electronic flight bags and iPads. However, the same information and requirements are there just more in an electronic form. We must ensure that we have all the correct and relevant flight documentation and that any reports required from the flight are written correctly and filed in a timely manner. If they are not you can guarantee a call from your employer asking where they are!

Overall, being a pilot is a wonderful job but one thing a pilot most definitely is not is ‘just a driver’.