Cover Photo: Dominic Hall - a member of Bristol Airport's spotting community.
Around a year ago a group of fresh-faced newly-qualified airline pilots turned up to easyJet's training academy for their induction to the company and I can safely say the time between then and now has passed by in the blink of an eye. I spent six-months up in Liverpool as it happened to be the only base available, and have since transferred down to Bristol at my request. Am I confident I made the right choice in career despite the relentless early alarms? Yes. I'm happy to say I did.
Many people ask me the same questions over and over about the job in terms of the physical numbers, so I produce some here for you. These are over the period from my first flight in early March until now (Feb 2020).
|Total Sectors (Flights)||339|
|Most Flown A/C Type:||
|Most Flown Aircraft||
|Shortest Flight (distance)||Bristol - Stansted|
|Longest Flight (distance)||Liverpool - Larnaca|
|Shortest Flight (duration)||Liverpool - Isle of Man (33 mins)|
|Longest Flight (duration)||Liverpool - Larnaca (5:47 hrs)|
|Favourite Destination (Summer)||Nice (stunning approach)|
|Favourite Destination (Winter)||Grenoble & Vienna (stunning mountain views)|
|Earliest Report Time||04:50|
|Latest Report Time||17:20|
|Earliest Finish Time||09:30 (Bristol - Belfast and back)|
|Latest Finish Time||03:30 (Slot delayed return flight from Majorca)|
|Furthest North||Reykjavik - Iceland|
|Furthest West||Reykjavik - Iceland|
|Furthest Easy||Larnaca - Cyprus|
|Most Visited Country||Spain, then France.|
|Most Visited International Destination||Paris, then Amsterdam.|
|Most Visited Domestic Destination||Belfast, then Edinburgh.|
That's certainly a lot of stats.. i'm sure there are more but I can't really come up with them. Feel free to ask me and I'll add them if I can. If you're wondering how I came up with them then I used the various reporting features of the electronic log book, LogTen Pro.
In my opinion there's several. In fact it is the very combination of several different items which make this job what is is and I'll mention a few of these here. Like any job there are also several negatives too which I go into more into a bit later in this blog post. Additionally, many of these positives / negatives can also be flipped around to be the opposite too! For example, shift work has pros and cons. I'll expand on both where I can.
Working at a base of twenty or so aircraft during summer peak brings with it quite the varied list of destinations. On a Monday I could be flying to Belfast, whereas on the Tuesday I could be flying to Vienna across the Alps. The pure beauty of our planets natural landscapes never fail to disappoint. In fact, the sheer scale of Mont Blanc on a cloudless day is pretty impressive. Flying in Europe affords such diversity across individual countries, let alone the whole landmass. On a single flight traversing France you'll see densely populated cities, picturesque rising mountain rages and last but no means least a stunning southern coastline home to what is perhaps my favourite approach, the city of Nice. Long flights on cloudy days brings disappointment thanks to the continuous crows-feet inducing squint upon my face as, despite sun glasses and cockpit sun-visors, the sun atop a sky of clouds is pretty darn bright! Of course, the view can also be a bad thing if you're flying over nothing but Ocean such as on flights to the Canary Islands but in the grand scheme of things I'm yet to tire of the sights out of the flight deck windows.
Waking up every morning and knowing you're being paid to turn up and fly an aircraft in excess of 60 tonnes is, quite simply, pretty cool! Now a year into the job I still have to pinch myself from time to time. The Airbus is a dream to fly and is a true marvel of European engineering. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to have a go at flying something bigger (A350 or B787) but then I'm not sure if the lifestyle would be for me as I get pretty bored on long flights flights as it is, let alone every single flight I ever do being in excess of five hours!
This can be quite a big negative to some, including me at times, but one benefit to shift work means you're often off work when everyone else is working the nine to five. This means a number of things really, least not that the amount of traffic is significantly reduced for your commute to / from work, but also the fact you can get life's boring stuff done more easily. Gym? - Often a lot quieter and least not cheaper should you opt for off-peak. Supermarket? - They're empty as no one tends to shop in the middle of the work day. Daylight? - You've plenty of it left when you've finished work by 12pm. You get the idea. I'll go into the drawbacks of this one further into this post.
From the objective standpoint, airline pilots are paid very well. However, if we take the viewpoint that life happiness is relative to disposable income then how a pilot views this one will depend very much on their quality of life and of course outgoings. I'm happy with the pay I receive but compared with the area of the country I have opted to live in and the amount of training debts I have to repay, my disposable income is significantly lower than it would have been had I opted to remain in Liverpool. Starting salaries are in the region of £45k at my airline, but after all my outgoings I've not a great deal left to spend on disposable stuff (pub, any hobbies, etc). However, shorter term pay for longer term gain when a Captain can expect to earn well into the six figures.
Early Alarms / Late Bedtimes
During a five-day working week (which of course can include weekends for us shift-workers) it is not uncommon for me to have five days of waking up just gone 4am. Contractually we are allowed to live within 90 minutes of our place of work with that timer starting the moment we leave the house to the point we turn up at airport security. To be sufficiently rested a pilot has to be incredibly disciplined with the time they go to bed. If you're a Netflix binger (like me at times) you need discipline to know when to turn the TV off and hit the hay. That said, you might well get 8 hours sleep if you're lucky but that 4.30am everyday will never be welcomed. The views out of the window during the sunrise however, might... just might... make up for it. As will a cup of strong coffee no doubt.
To run operations in the way they do, airlines operate what is known as standby. It effectively means you're on call and can be phoned at any time to go and operate a flight on that given day - in case of staff absence or sickness or delays etc. You will know when your standby days are well in advance because they're published alongside your roster but if the standby is worked from home, as opposed to being sat in the crew room, then you're somewhat tied to your house for the length of your standby duty. It could be from 4am til 10am for example, or 6am til 2pm or if you're a later worker then something like 12pm - 7pm. While on one hand it's great to be at home, sadly you can't plan to do much even if it's chores like washing your car or going to do the food shop. Why, you ask? Well you tempt fate that's why. I know from experience the moment you do something is the moment you're called. Having to then race home from the supermarket / gym etc., get changed and be out to the airport within 90 minutes isn't ideal. You tend to survive a lot more standbys during the quieter winter months, but in the summer months I can pretty much guarantee I'll be called out for something.
Successive Long Days
An item which perhaps doesn't wash very well with my other half when I complain of tiredness - given I have so much time off in winter, but the fact is the peak flying season can be incredibly tiring. Successive longer days certainly make you pine for those days off come the end of your working week. Here's an example of my most memorable week of summer 2019, at the start of August:
During that one week I spent the grand total of 22 hours and 40 minutes in the air and 37 hours and 20 minutes on duty when you account for our one hour pre-flight briefing period and 30 minutes post flight checkout period. That's a long time, right? In fact, throughout the whole of August I spent just shy of 90 hours airborne - almost 4 full days. Expressed as duty time then that's approximately 156 hours. Here's where the debate comes in... 156 hours is just about a full-time working week in your average 9 til 5 job so how can a pilot possibly be any more tired?!
It's a simple one really: try working your typical 9 til 5pm job at the equivalent altitude of 8,000ft with your working environment being in excess of 100dB thanks to two loud jet engines, air conditioning and avionics system cooling. Oh, and don't forget to keep a constant listening watch out for your callsign on the radio through thick European-English accents and/or mixed between local dialects such as French / Spanish.
If you've read the blog post to this point you must be wondering why on earth I do this job? --- It's honestly one of the best jobs in the world and I sure am lucky to sit in the right hand seat of a jet on a daily basis.. but like any job it has it's negatives. The noisy environment is perhaps one of the worst items about it. I've even bought a noise-cancelling headset to counter it!
The long-days also bring with them the following:
This perhaps highlights the importance of general wellbeing when away from the flight deck. Eating well, exercising more, etc all contributes to positive health in what can otherwise be considered as one of the most sedentary jobs in the world!
Slots / Strikes / Environment
Ever been on a flight when the pilots tell you that you've a slot when all you want to do is get home? Yep - We share in that feeling too. Whether it be caused by striking, weather or simply how busy airspace gets in the summer, it's never nice to be delayed from a slot. Even more frustrating when it's on your last sector of the day. The longer you're stuck down route the later you end up getting back to your own home. For you as a passenger you might only experience a slot once in a blue moon when you're off on your holidays but for us flight crews they're a part of our jobs.
Life stories on repeat...
This can be a positive as well as a negative depending on how you look at it, but your typical airline has between two to three sets of crew per aircraft in order to operate their full schedule. Of those crew some of them may well be part-time and as such you could well consider one of those crew member slots filled by three other people, i.e. (Jane working on Mon-Wed, Tina working Thur-Friday and Simon working Sat & Sunday). What does this mean then? Well... there's a heck of a lot of people to meet and work alongside in your day-to-day role.
On the positive side you get to meet lots of people of different backgrounds with their own life stories to tell. I enjoy that aspect. The harder part of course, is remembering everything they told you until the next time you fly together such that you're not having to, rather embarrassingly, ask them the same questions over again. That's happened to me a few times in the past before the penny drops and I realise I've flown with them before! (Whoops!).
You might think that working alongside people you've never met in such a safety critical job function may well pose a challenge. You'd be forgiven for thinking it, but fortunately aviation has learned the errors of its' ways over the last few decades, and all crew members now work to very strict standard operating procedures. This means that we can theoretically turn-up to work, discuss the weather and fuel, get out to the aircraft, board, push-back, get airborne and have some coffee before we've started any of the niceties. Fortunately it doesn't always play out like that, but it can and does happen. The very presence of standard procedures make things incredibly safe.
I suppose I should get to the point of this item really. The small talk. Hi, How are you?, Where do you live?, Got any kids?, What are your hobbies?, Where did you train?, How long've you been at easyJet, then George? The list goes on... We have to have that same conversation with every single new person we meet and after a while it becomes so scripted it no longer feels like a conversation. As I said, it's tough to remember it all anyway! It's got to the point where I make a mental note of it and then jot it down next to the crew member in my logbook app. This allows me to have a quick glance before my next flight with that person -- which might well be months away -- in order to catch myself up on that persons life.
Having such a large team is a drawback for me. I've always considered myself quite outgoing but this job has brought - or rather.. developed - a set of introverted characteristics in me. I actually crave the constant that was an office-based team you could go to the pub or cinema with etc. I have found that crew members commute from such a far radius that when it comes to having any sort of social life it's a bit more challenging. A larger base such as that I now work in also contributes to this challenge more so than one like Liverpool where you can get to know people really quickly. I do go and meet crew from time-to-time but with clashing schedules etc it's not always possible to get to every event plus, you tend to always talk about flying which can get boring. It's important to find some hobbies I feel. I'm looking forward to some warmer weather so I can get into some outdoorsy activities.
No need to preach to the choir on this one. The job was very costly to attain. Excluding living costs I spent £123,800 on training and thankfully I only borrowed £100,000 of that because if I had taken more I do wonder how I'd have been able to afford to live, despite the high salary of a pilot. To put this into perspective, I re-pay £748 a month at the moment during the reduced repayment period afforded to me by the banks. From December 2020 that will rise to around £1,000 a month! That is well above the cost of your average domestic mortgage for a similar amount of money.
In turning 26 in a few weeks several of my friends are now at the point where they're starting to save for a house, or have purchased one -- the lucky people. Yet, here's me sat repaying a huge debt to simply fly a jet around the sky. Do I regret spending the money? No, not really. But life tends to be one of comparisons. Going back to psychology and Maslow's hierarchy of needs, I have a great job but don't feel fulfilled when I'm paying through the nose to rent a flat that I don't own. I've no doubt I'll have myself a place of my own eventually - but with higher outgoings the amount available for saving is reduced. It's just the harsh realities of being flight crew.
Fortunately I don't live in the South East where prices are even more prohibitive for property.
I would say I am now at the point of experience in the jet where I am beginning to feel comfortable. It is now very much a case that I can go to work, fly the jet, go home and relax knowing that the job was left back at the airport. When I first started I would ensure to spend an hour every evening reading up on the charts / plates for the airport(s) I was to visit the following day. However, as time goes on and you visit these places several times a month you begin to feel more comfortable in knowing what to expect. You become better at finding the information you need at the time you need it and from the specific location in the manual(s) such that you can grab that during the cruise portion of flight. It certainly makes the job more enjoyable and allows more time to chat to your colleagues, forge relationships and learn information not-relevant to the operation of the jet.
I was told back in the type-rating by instructors the first few months feel like rabbit in headlight moments, the months after that you become "one" with the aircraft in that you begin to truly appreciate it's capabilities and that before long you feel relaxed in the job. Caution was thrown that we should ensure to never become complacent and should always read up on those procedures and keep the procedures etc fresh in our minds.. but beyond that, we were told to enjoy ourselves. I would say, hand on heart, I very much enjoy this job. It is certainly the career for me - despite the negatives. I can't put into words enough how gorgeous our planet is from above. I am very lucky to see that on the daily.
Of course, with an annual legal cap of 900 hours I expect the airline to work me very hard in the up and coming summer. Least not because this will be my first full summer based in Bristol where last-year i joined the base at the tail end of it. The next milestone for me is only around the corner... 1000 hours and then not too long after that it'll be the all important 1,500 hours. Whether I reach the latter within the next 12 months remains to be seen, but I could well do. 1,500 hours of course being the threshold at which a commercial pilot can "unfreeze" their licence and be eligible for their command, on paper. There are of course several other airline-specific criteria which must met before I can take up that switch to the left-hand seat and, if truth be told, I am in no rush to get there at this point. I've still a wealth to learn - and I'm absorbing it like a sponge.
Hopefully you have enjoyed this blog post update! - I appreciate things have gone a little quiet on the blog front of late. I've been a bit busy with some other committments but do want to try to post non-career related things where I can. Be those about what turbulence is, or how air-conditioning works on the Airbus etc.. or something else. We'll see. Any ideas for content, just let me know.
Until next time,