What’s the job really like when you get there?

Published: 04 Oct 2013 By David Learmount

The airline pilot

You will be working – as airline pilots will frequently tell you – in “an office with the best view in the world”. That alone can compensate for many of the downsides.

A description of the basic task makes it sound mundane: flying from A to B on a pre-planned route. Performance of the task is rigorously disciplined, regulated by checklists and standard operating procedures (SOP) for virtually every situation.

As a new pilot out of ab initio training you will find the job – and the SOPs – a steep learning curve when you first join the line, but gradually you’ll learn the routines and settle into them.

You are regularly checked for operating standards and adherence to SOPs during line flying, and you return to the simulator for recurrent training and checking every six months. You can fail your checks and have to do them again. For all pilots – because they are so proud of their skills – this is a considerable psychological challenge.

Some find the frequent checking stressful. It depends a lot on the personality and skills of the individual pilot, and of the instructors and examiners.

Almost all the line flying is done with the autopilot and autothrottle engaged and the flight trajectory managed by the flight management system. This is a matter of airline policy. It may sound boring, but making best possible use of the automatic systems to deliver a combination of perfect 3D (or even 4D) navigational precision, fuel economy, and smooth, comfortable flight is a job that demands skill and systems knowledge. Doing this while remaining in mental charge of the control systems, rather than letting them dictate to you, is a real skill in which you can take satisfaction.

The time when the pilots really earn their pay is when something goes wrong, which doesn’t happen often in modern aircraft. There may be no checklists for the situation, and this is when good airmanship kicks in. Good airmanship is a combination of common sense, knowledge, and a cool head that enables the pilot to see the big picture at all times, and to take account of the scenario’s fine detail without getting mesmerised by aspects of it.

Some pilots, once established as a line pilot, look for instructor or examiner qualifications, or apply for management pilot jobs to extend the scope and variety of what they do, as well as increase their pay.

And of course co-pilots want command as soon as they are judged capable of it. In legacy carriers with a stable pilot workforce, the seniority system makes this a dead man’s shoes waiting game. You are not considered for captaincy until a captain’s position is available. In fast-expanding carriers, the wait can be shorter.

The business aviation pilot

The routines in all except the older jets and turboprops are similar to those of the airlines, but there is likely to be a more variety and unpredictability in destinations, and the pilots have more personal contact with their customers, especially away from base.


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