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How is your work life balance?

by Martin Chalk Log Board Member

All over the UK families are preparing for a weekend together as the May bank holiday approaches. But for pilots the bank holidays are just ordinary working days. It means many pilots will spend the time away from loved ones. As a long-haul pilot for one of the UK’s network airlines, I asked my family what they thought of my work, and the impact it has on their lives – and us as a family.

“He’s a pilot!” is the most common reaction from new friends, closely followed by “is it really dangerous?” or “I bet you get to fly everywhere for free!” This from my youngest, who is always quick to jump to my defence and explain that it is one of the safest jobs because of our professionalism, and that the ‘free’ flights are neither free, nor without their downsides.

My spouse pointed out that, although the benefits of being able to travel widely and sometimes for just 48 hours are enormous, the fear of the question as to who would travel if there were fewer available seats than the four we needed as a family, was also strong. You see, those cheaper seats are, quite rightly, only available if a ‘real’ passenger hasn’t bought them. Sitting with family widely dispersed around the aircraft also comes with its challenges. I love my job, but there is one day that sticks in my mind, which brought it all into question.

My then-young children had just learned that I was off to work again that evening, and they wouldn’t see me for a number of days. Each had a routine event, which to them was very important, and which I was going to miss. They protested, and so I patiently explained that it was the work that paid for the house, their activities, their toys and Christmas presents. If I didn’t go to work, we would not be able to afford all that we had. They went off together, disappointed, to return a few minutes later with a heart-wrenching proposal: would I go to work less often if they asked not to have toys and Christmas presents?

“But that means you’ll miss another football tournament!” My eldest remembers with sadness the days I missed his sporting or cultural events. However, this is quickly followed by the recollection of the two of us flying around the world in five days, when he was just 10, to see the 2003 Rugby World Cup final – yes, the one we won!

My youngest recalled the trips with me to far-flung places where we swam with dolphins or rode horses up mountains, or visited game parks to meet tame cheetahs. This is some compensation for the times when I am completely uncontactable, in the days before free internet messaging and calling apps, or even now when I am airborne.

“I have always underestimated the effect jet lag has on you.” Sometimes, when I am physically at home, I may be less than useful in solving a problem. Or “grumpy” – said light-heartedly, but always with a shred of truth.

When my son was physically assaulted near our home, I felt a very long way away, having to be as supportive as I could over a laggy internet phone call. My spouse believes long haul is worse, because no matter how contactable you are, if there was an over-riding need you physically cannot be back by their side to help, for a hug, or to provide support, often for at least 24 hours.

“But our holidays are great, aren’t they?” I always thought our more spontaneous, less structured trips were much more fun than everyone else’s package holidays. According to my eldest: “On the one hand, you sometimes justify the more exotic destination with ‘my dad’s a pilot’, while other times you are jealous of the long lead times friends have to look forward to their resort holidays.”

Of course, package holidays are an option for us, just like everyone else, but the psychology sometimes says ‘why would you’, when the option to go somewhere less obvious, more exotic is available. My eldest also says that because we travel so much, it is inhibiting on holidays as a topic of conversation, because you don’t want to make others feel you are boasting.

“Isn’t it a risk, taking them to an AIDS orphanage?” Our most unusual trip was to visit a home for children orphaned by AIDS and living with HIV, a virus that has been passed on to them. This was over new year and, although we were visiting because we had been involved in a charitable effort to support the home, I was surprised at the number of friends who questioned our sanity. It was enormously educational for the whole family, really driving home our luck in having been born in a rich country; both my (now adult) children are more open-minded and less selfish following that trip, and it provided hours of discussion about our place in the world.

“So when will you be home?” The effects of standby or reserve on the ability of the family to plan anything is obviously challenging, along with those unexpected extensions to trips. When one engine of the aircraft failed to start and needed changing, which caused me to be 72 hours late back from a five-day trip, I spent those extra three days enjoying the southern hemisphere summer.

My wife explains: “It is the worst news. When you have been holding the family fort, being mum and dad for lively, demanding children, dealing with all issues thrown up by family life, and focused on that hour when you can once again share the load – to hear that they have been delayed is soul destroying.”

“How do you know that you are talking to a pilot? Don’t worry, they will tell you!” was one of my eldest’s favourite jokes, along with “what does a pilot say 20 minutes into a conversation? Well that’s enough about me, let’s talk about flying!” I didn’t realise just how much of a burden listening to my fascinating anecdotes could be! Of course, that they have heard them all before could have something to do with it. Even I notice that our profession carries something of a fascination for many people, and I remember my sister once asking: “When you meet distant family or friends we haven’t seen in a while, is their first question normally: ‘How is your sister, what has she been getting up to?’”

When I hesitantly confirm it is not – she said: “That’s funny, because everyone always asks after you and your job!” A female colleague, who is married to another pilot, admits she rarely lets on – leaving her partner to take the attention. Paradoxically, as she is a woman, she feels it is even more fascinating, and therefore even more difficult to move away from. Most people work during the week and go home every day. There is good and bad to being away for a period of time; not least that you are then home for a period of time.

My wife explains that it may be the case from my perspective, but the carefully crafted rhythm of the ‘single-parent household’ can be badly disrupted by my arrival. She notes that consequently, I was always seen as fun, because the family would do more exciting things when I was around – and she was seen as ‘routine’ or even ‘boring’.

I do not believe our job as pilots can be successfully combined with raising a family unless you have a fantastically capable, supportive and understanding spouse. I’ll conclude with some thought as to the three worst questions for me as a long-haul pilot, from my family: “When are you coming home?” And worse: “When are you going to work again?”

And, from my wife, as I climb into bed late at night, weary from a long flight home: “Who are you?”