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Flight deck visits: Love or loathe?

by Nancy Jackson BALPA, Media and Communications Officer

Most people who visited the flight deck as a child remember it very clearly. For me it’s a memory of being ushered forward by a crew member and then being amazed at the world of buttons and lights they revealed behind the cockpit door. I loved meeting the very important people, in their shiny uniforms, who flew the plane.

My dad was a pilot and that, in the days before 9/11, meant I had the pleasure of regularly visiting him during the flight. I would be given a headset to listen to the radio calls and I particularly liked being up there for landing. I got an extra special first glimpse of the destination and was able to watch my dad doing his job. (I must admit I was quite old when I realised that when most people travel on aircraft it is NOT their dad at the controls!)

Of course, nowadays, with all the modern security in place, visits to the cockpit are no longer allowed during flight, even for family. Even so, with the summer holidays in full swing many young children (mine included) will be angling for a visit to the cockpit, before or after their flight. But, despite my fond memories of visiting the cockpit, I must admit to being wary about asking if my family can visit the pilots these days. I have begun to wonder if pilots enjoy being asked to show people around or if they view it as an annoying distraction? That’s why I decided to ask BALPA members for their opinions, and it seems I needn’t have been so worried.

“We love it,” was the response of one pilot. “By all means, get the kids up there,” was another.

Several pilots told me that it was their own visits to the cockpit that inspired their career choice.

“I can still recall the occasion I was fortunate enough to visit the flight deck in the cruise on my way home from JFK, and then be invited back to sit on the jump-seat for landing as an (annoyingly) enthusiastic eight-ish year old. It has a lot to answer for when it comes to why I do this job now and I still have the hand-written postcard from the crew to ‘certify’ my jump-seat ride!” – First Officer Jonathan Smith

“Being shown the flight deck of a BEA Trident, aged about seven, made a big impression on me. It’s also an opportunity to ’sell‘ our profession and dispel the notion of aeroplanes flying themselves.” – Captain Richard Mann

Many of the pilots I spoke to told me they enjoy meeting young people who are enthusiastic about flying. And it’s not just the youthful that have an interest in a peek behind the scenes. A common theme amongst the pilots I spoke to was that it’s often the parents who want to visit the cockpit more than the children!

“I’m always happy to show children round, even when they’re a thinly-disguised cover for an aviation-mad parent, and even when it’s a bit inconvenient.” Captain Richard Mann

“Many times, the kid is the excuse for the parent to visit the cockpit. I’ve lost count of the number of kids below the age of three dragged into the cockpit by their fathers with, ‘I thought I’d show Johnny the cockpit’ on their lips.” Captain Andrew McConnell

Some of the pilots I spoke to said visits to the cockpit are actually encouraged as a good chance to show people what pilots do and inspire a whole new generation of pilots.

Captain Gavin Dobson explains, “Obviously in-flight is still a no-no, but on the ground before flight, workload permitting, and certainly after landing we are encouraged to allow them. Especially if we’re delayed, as it’s a great way to pass the time. One of our skippers managed a visit for every child on the plane that wanted a visit during a three-hour delay.

10 year-old Matthew gives his visit to the cockpit a thumbs up

“If there’s little time, we stand the kids in front of the centre console for a photo, looking back and with us grinning behind them. But if there’s time, I usually let the kids in to the left-hand seat and have them wear my hat and grip the control yoke. Mum and dad then get a happy snappy of their kids ‘flying an aeroplane’. Another photo with a ‘Top Gun’ thumbs-up and they’re happy.

“If the kid is keen, or they’ve waited a long time we let them press the autopilot disconnect button which does nothing on the ground other than make a loud noise. That gets mum panicking and dad laughing.

“Every now and then you get a young person who’s keen on aviation who asks questions, and that really makes it worthwhile, especially if they’re after advice on how to become a pilot. I usually give them the bad news that, despite signs to the contrary (i.e me) they do have to work hard at school, especially in maths. And when it comes to getting a job then look at what cadet schemes are around when they’re finishing school.

“We’ve also had quite a few cockpit visits from parents who also got to come and see us as kids, pre-9/11. They invariably talk about it being the highlight of their holiday, and how they wish we still did them in-flight.”

Louise proves that even adults enjoy a trip to the flight deck.

What questions do pilots get asked most?

It seems there are some questions that come up time and again…

1. Q Do you know what every switch does? A. Yes, we do know what every switch does.

2. Q. It’s a bit small in here isn’t it… A. Yes, it is small in here. That’s because we don’t pay for the seats.

3. Q. Does the plane fly itself? A. No, it doesn’t fly itself, that panel there does help us fly the plane in autopilot but we still have to ensure the computers are flying correctly and we also fly manually a good amount of time…
including lots of take offs and landings.

4. Q. how many engines do you have? A. 4: see those levers numbered 1,2,3,4?

And several pilots also said that every now and then they get set up by a dad in the know when the kid asks you a deeply technical question.

First Officer Jonathan Smith told me his favourite question so far has been “don’t they get in the way a bit?” as the child points at the Boeing control columns!

It seems my fears about my children (and me) annoying the pilots by requesting a visit to the flight deck were unfounded. Next time I’m on a flight I will certainly ask if the pilots would allow my children (and me) to visit and have a look around. Who knows… as well as a nice nostalgic trip for me, it could inspire the next generation of pilots, too.

*cover photo features 5 year old Chris visiting the cockpit