Working As An Airline Pilot
Ian Pullin (Retired British Airways Pilot) gives expert video advice on: How much can a successful airline pilot earn?; Do you sleep on a very long flight?; What happens if a passenger becomes seriously ill in mid air? and more...
Do you work at a particular base as an airline pilot?
Generally, yes. British Airways had bases at Gatwick and Heathrow, and pilots were expected to work from both bases if they were long haul pilots. If they were short haul pilots, they stayed operating purely at Gatwick or purely at Heathrow. From a long haul perspective, if you flew Jumbos or triple sevens, then you were expected to report either to Heathrow or to Gatwick as required. People like Easyjet have small bases all round the country, so that they don't have accommodation costs overnight for putting pilots up, and stewardesses up. People are operating from a home environment, which is obviously more relaxing than working from an external base in many ways. It suits the company and I think it suits the pilots.
Do you regularly work with the same crew?
Very infrequently, but I'm only speaking from British Airways perspective. Only one month in thirty-four years did I work with the same copilot for the whole time. You would say that you didn't ever want to do that on a regular basis. The Air Force flies crews that have the captain, the same navigator, the same engineer, and the same copilot. In airline flying, I don't think any airline does that.
Why do crews not work together regularly?
They become stale. For the amount of flying that we do in three days, flying in short, you could do ten landings and then do another two days. You could do fourteen landings in five days, and then you have a couple of days off. You might do six days and have a couple of days off, so you're talking of fourteen landings, eighteen landings repeated through 28 days. It's a lot of very intense flying and you could become stale, whereas the air force don't do that number of sorties with their crew type aircraft.
Did you train with some of the people you now work with?
The people we trained with, we very rarely flew with, because we were in the same position in the aircraft as you were. They were the third officer to start with, or the second officer, who is effectively the third in command. All your friends that you trained with were all second officers, so they all were in different aircraft. The next time I saw them was when we were close to retirement, flying on the Jumbo, because if you did a very long sector, then you had two captains, two co-pilots, and the better the chances of the two captains both being of the same vintage. It could well be a friend of yours from the day you trained.
Do you train how to use different types of plane?
I only flew Boeings, and every Boeing requires a type of different course. You go into our training school and do a ground course, which gets you up to scratch on the knowledge of the aircraft. You then do a simulator flying, which gets you up to the flying skill. These days, your first sector-in-command or out of the training school, you could be using a proper aircraft with passenger on board. The simulators are so good these days.
Do airline pilots get paid per flight?
No. You get odd allowances. If you don't go flying, then you don't get a meal allowance or anything.
How much can a successful airline pilot earn?
It would be over 100,000 pounds.
Do airline pilots get overtime?
Not really. There are incidental allowances when you might accrue more money. I don't know what the current situation with flying and pay is. Some airlines had agreements that if you did more than 720 flying hours during the year, they would pay you a pro-rata rate. That was never a British Airways way of doing things, and British Airways tended never to work up to the maximum. Economic requirements these days mean people do more flying than I ever did. We flew the amount we were required to.
Do airline pilots get subsidised accommodation?
When you arrive in New York, there is a hotel room waiting for you. You would pay the few dollars to feed yourself.
Do airline pilots get their food provided for free?
You are paid an allowance to provide yourself with food.
What hours do airline pilots work in a typical day when they are flying?
There's no such thing as a typical day. You either start early, or you start late, and you work until you get to the other end, but there's no routine.
What uniform do you have to wear?
We got short-sleeved shirts, which made life a lot more bearable. Other than that, it was a fairly standard uniform, as you would see on a police uniform, but it's much lighter. Our uniform had to be worn in the tropics, or it had to be worn in the winter in America, so we had cold-weather coats, and liners for inside the coats. however, your basic uniform is fairly light-weight.
What hours do airline pilots work?
There are, but I am not current on what the current regulations are. If you think you could work 12 hours in a day, I suppose it was something like 30 hours in four days. Then, you would have to have a day off. Those rules changed, and by the time I left, we were doing six days on, two days off. You weren't doing such long days. You were doing London-Glascow-Glascow-London-London-Edinborough-nightstop, so it wasn't taking you anything like 12 hours. By the time that you're done at six days in, you felt you've done your days work, or your week's work.
Do airline pilots work weekends?
You work whenever. Your weekends have no part in a pilot's life - you work, and you get leave. The middle of the working period is irrelevant.
Can airline pilots move countries?
Skills are transferable, but you would have to get a license that was valid for the country that you wanted to go and work in. When I was young, it was never a really viable option. If you were qualified as a pilot with British Airways, then most people were content to work for British Airways for the rest of their career. I am sure that most American airlines are the same. Once you get into a major airline, then you're not going to give it up.
Do airline pilots have to speak English?
It's the universal language of air traffic control, and the relationship between pilots and air-traffic controllers. A lot of pilots in France speak French to their controllers, and the controllers speak French back to them, which we think is bad because you don't know exactly what is going on.
Do pilots fly the same route regularly?
You fly the routes that your aircraft operates, and you do every route that the aircraft does. If you have an aircraft that only does shorter routes, you will only visit shorter destinations, and if you have a jumbo, then you tend to visit further afield.
Do pilots fly the same plane regularly?
No. There are 56 - there used to be fifty six 400-series jumbos in the British Airways fleet, and you could fly any one of them.
Do you get to choose your route?
We did, yes. Your choice becomes better the more senior you are.
How long does each shift or flight last for?
On the very longest sectors, you have two full crews. You could do basically half of the flight each, but the person who takes the aircraft off, whether it be the co-pilot or the captain, will be expected to land it. On other sectors, you just have three crew, and on the very shorter sectors like New York, you have two crew. There's no time for breaks on that. With three crew, you get a period away from the controls - about three hours.
Do you sleep on a very long flight?
Do you always go on the flight with another airline pilot?
What do pilots do to pass the time on long flights?
I never found it a trouble passing my time on an aircraft. I always enjoyed the environment, as well as the radio to listen to. What I always did, was once you got up into the cruise, for example, half hour on, half hour off. When it's my half hour on, then I'll do the radio, I'll get the weather, I'll do everything that we have to do. When it's your half hour on, you get everything you have to do. That way, it gives you time to relax your brain, relax your ears, and you're fresh then, and it's good.
What happens if a passenger becomes seriously ill in mid air?
You're looking. Where could I take a passenger? Where am I? Some places in the world you have an option, and other places in the world you have no option. I can remember one guy up north in Siberia and they said, Well, there's no way we can get on the ground here that will improve his chances of living so we'll just carry on. Whereas, if you're close to a major city, then the chances are it's probably worthwhile getting on the ground and seeing if they can do something.
Has anyone ever died on board one of your flights?
We only had one passenger who died on a long haul flight, and we were on a rest period at that time. It was very traumatic for the crew because he was a huge guy. There was a little cabin service director who was a trained nurse, and she dealt with it all brilliantly, but unfortunately he died at no fault of the crew. I think he was something like an 18 stone, and she was a 10 stone lady. Five foot four tall, but she dragged him into the aisle and dragged him down the aisle all by herself - the adrenaline was pumping. They got into the galley and did all the defibrilation procedures they could. unfortunately he didn't survive.