Are you a pilot?
If a passenger wants to chat during a deadhead, that will always be the opening line. I’ve come to realize the question is simply an ice breaker. Most people recognize the uniform.
Some of my pilot friends dread speaking with passengers about our profession. When traveling in plain clothes, they will even lie to get out of answering questions. When asked what he did for a living, one friend would proudly answer “rocket scientist.” That worked really well until a seatmate replied “wow, me too” and proceeded to ask too many questions. Last I heard, he became a sheep farmer.
Since I’m writing a blog about the business, I can never be accused of shying away from the topic. Television and movies fall enormously short, so I enjoy educating people about our lifestyle. The real issue is the predictability of the discussion. Most questions are always the same. Years ago, the new-hire manager at United offered some advice: “you may have heard the question a hundred times, but it is the first time that person has asked it.” From that perspective, it makes it much easier to continue the discussion. They ask the questions for the first time, and I answer as if it’s the first time I’ve ever heard them.
But, I have heard them. Over, and over, and over. Perhaps you’ve wondered the same things?
What’s your route?
Airline pilots are not mailmen. We are not assigned a route to fly repeatedly. We are either on reserve or receive a monthly schedule called a “line.” With a few exceptions, we are qualified to fly anywhere the airline operates that aircraft.
I’ve written a lot about reserve in this blog. But, to re-iterate: the phone rings and I’m assigned a trip. That certainly differs from the misconception of us flying the same route.
Once off reserve, pilots bid monthly lines. All the trips are placed in one big pot and picked in seniority order. That’s one of the many reasons seniority is so important. The most senior captain and first officer get to pick their trips. The second most senior gets what he/she wants, unless the most senior pilot wanted it. The computer chugs and churns until the most junior “line holder” gets the leftover trips nobody else wanted. The most senior pilots could choose to have a normal “route,” but it certainly isn’t the norm.
Pilots of corporate jets, particularly in the “fractional” business model, are assigned trips to the thousands of smaller airports with very short notice. These men and women have the skills to quickly research and digest large amounts of information about each airport. When I did that job, it amazed me how many new places I flew every week. Arriving at an unfamiliar, non-towered airport, at night, in poor weather, with limited instrument approaches can be a humbling experience.
The routes are limited to the capabilities of the aircraft. Narrow body (single aisle) planes generally do not fly to Europe from the United States.
What’s the worse thing that ever happened to you?
“Besides getting furloughed twice?” I always wonder to myself.
Nobody wants to be part of an emergency, but everyone is looking for that great Captain Sully story. I’ve been very fortunate in my career. There have been a lot of minor abnormalities, but certainly nothing catastrophic. But, if I had to pick something, it would be an over-pressurization situation on approach to Cancun down in Mexico. Pressurized air was coming into the corporate jet, but it was not exiting the the “outflow” valves. For some odd reason, both valves were stuck closed. The cabin was rapidly being pressurized to altitudes below sea level. Attempts to manually open the valves failed and the safety valves weren’t doing their job. We simply turned off the pressurized air coming into the cabin. With the air source stopped, the cabin slowly started to rise back up towards sea level. Really not a big deal… but, it adequately answers the question.
You might think events leading to the following two photos might answer the question. But, we didn’t even realize it until we arrived at the gate:
Where do you stay on a layover?
Over time, I realized what people really want to know is who pays for the hotel when I’m on a trip.
I think there’s a lot of confusion since many pilots commute to work. When I’m in San Francisco, I am responsible for all my living expenses. If I lived here, that would seem normal. Since I commute, I must pay for a hotel or a crash-pad. A crash-pad is an apartment that ten to fifteen pilots pay a monthly price to stay during days they are stuck in town. It works since not all commuters are in town at the same time. Some pilots can tolerate the unique odor and people coming/going at all hours. I am not one of those people.
Once on a trip, the company pays the expenses. We stay in nice hotels. Either the hotel or the company provides transportation to/from the airport. Meals are covered by an hourly per-diem.
Are cell-phones and electronics really dangerous?
Honestly, I have no idea. The FAA mandated years ago that portable electronic devices cannot be used during takeoff and landing. When cell-phones came along, the FCC mandated they couldn’t be used in flight. The FAA honored the FCC mandate.
I’m not sure if anyone really knows if these electronics have any effect on anything. There’s lots of conflicting information. However, it is the current rule, so we honor it.
What’s your favorite airport?
Before I answer, I always think “the one where my truck is parked.”
If the question is limited to domestic airliner airports, I usually answer San Diego. I enjoy the approach over the sloping terrain and flying over the parking garage at the end of the runway. Once there, I think San Diego is one of the best cities to layover.
Speaking of layovers, Jackson Hole also ranks high on my domestic list. Remember I said most pilots are qualified to fly anywhere the airline flies? At United, only Denver-based pilots were given the extra training to operate the A320 in and out of the mountain airports (Jackson Hole, Eagle/Vail, Gunnison). Some months, I would layover in Jackson Hole every week. On one long layover, I spent the day skiing. There are also many great restaurants in the quaint, Old West style town. In my opinion, Jackson Hole’s Virginian Inn has the best breakfast in the United States.
I dug out some old cell-phone photos of Jackson Hole:
If we broaden the topic a bit, I usually mention Princess Juliana International Airport in St. Maarten. The airport is right next to the beach. I won’t go into too many details… if you Google it or search YouTube, you’ll find plenty of great media taken by tourists on the beach. They may look fake, but chances are they’re not altered. The runway is that close.
For smaller corporate jets, there are just too many really interesting airports to pick.
What’s your least favorite airport?
Corporate Jet: Teterboro
How fast are we going when we take-off?
The take-off, or “rotation (Vr)” speed varies with weight and flap setting. A plane loaded with passengers and bags for a long flight lifts off at a higher speed than a half-filled short hop. On the A320, it ranges from 121-152 kts (139-175 mph).*
How fast are we going on landing?
The landing, or “reference (Vref)” speed also varies greatly with weight and flap setting. Under normal circumstances, the speed varies from 113-135 kts (130-155 mph).*
* Speeds are from generic A320 speed tables to give others a basic idea of takeoff and landing speed. Please don’t load a bunch of numbers into Performance Pro and email me with different answers!
Do you ever get scared?
Yes. All the time… on the van rides to and from the hotels.
Those are the most common questions. If you have any questions, feel free to email or comment below. I promise I’ll treat it like the first time I’ve ever heard it.
On a side note, I’ve received several emails lately from readers. I have responded to each one. If you have not received a reply, please check your spam folder. Once I determine an email is legitimate, I reply from a slightly different email address. The email address displayed on the blog is used only for initial contact.