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Challenging the ‘plane driver’ myth

by Joji Waites Head of Flight Safety, BALPA

It’s an experience all pilots will be familiar with, a statement heard time and again:

“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.” 

With the rise of autonomous vehicles, with innovation in the cockpit and companies looking for ways to reduce costs and potentially reduce the number of pilots in the cockpit, it is increasingly important to challenge these over simplistic perceptions of what a pilot is and what the job involves. BALPA is already working in this area with Flight Safety, Industrial and Public Affairs experts all collaborating to ensure the voice of pilots is heard on this issue.

A pilot is much more than just a driver. The pilot is an intrinsic part of a complex safety system that has led to the enviable safety record of the aviation industry. That system has been built with pilots at its heart. They are there to operate the aircraft, manage the systems and procedures, deal with problems that arise and to cross check with each other to ensure risks are mitigated.

Pilots undergo extensive training to be able to operate aircrafts safely and this training continues throughout a career. Regular simulator and line checks mean skills are maintained and updated where required.

The job is far more than just flying the plane. 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?

Over the years we’ve seen the number of aircrew in the cockpit reduce. Flights pre-1980 often needed a navigator and a 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 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 a navigator, this job has also been incorporated into 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 aircrafts. On two-pilot flight deck airplanes, sensors and computers monitors adjust systems automatically. There is no on-board technical expert and third pair of eyes.

In modern airliners if a malfunction, abnormality or an 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 are? Or how to identify a cumulonimbus cloud? Your pilot will. (FYI: Haboobs are violent and oppressive winds blowing in summer in Sudan and elsewhere, bringing sand from the desert and a cumulonimbus cloud. This is a dense towering vertical cloud associated with thunderstorms and atmospheric instability.) Weather has a big impact on flights. Pilots need to know if they need to de-ice the aircraft before take-off, take extra fuel to allow for diversions around thunderstorms or if they can expect turbulence on a sector. Part of the extensive training involves understanding meteorology and it’s a skill pilots 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, pilots 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, pilots fly with so many different crews that they must be able to establish a rapport with other flight and cabin crew easily. They must be able to exchange information clearly with people they 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 operations take place behind a locked flight deck door, which has made interaction with customers more difficult. Many pilots used to encourage flight deck visits during the cruise, which was very popular and also gave pilots some variety, particularly on long sectors. Alas, this is a thing of the past, so new ways to interact have to be found.

Problem solver:

As well as being responsible for their 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. Pilots can be away from home for extended periods and on occasions, people need supporting on a personal level.

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

Admin officer:

The masses and masses of paper that pilots used 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. Pilots must ensure they 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 job BALPA members find interesting and varied. The skilled pilot is part of an intricate safety system that mitigates risks and keeps passengers safe. Pilots are much more than just plane drivers – they are the skilled professionals who are part of a vital safety system that works to ensure passengers, crew and cargo arrive safely at their destinations. As pressure increases from some parts of the industry for operations with a further reduction in crew numbers – maybe eventually leading to fully autonomous operations – the recognition of these skills and the safety added value of a multi-crew cockpit is more important than ever.