A Day in the Life: International Airline Pilot
Updated: Jan 20
TIRED & CONFUSED
So tired. Why is my alarm going off? What time is it? My watch says 5:00 a.m. The nightstand clock says 12:30 p.m. My phone says 6:00 a.m. Oh...right. I’m in Paris again. It’s 12:00 p.m. and the nightstand clock is off by a half hour. I need coffee to clear the cobwebs and jump start my brain for the rest of the day STAT. I pour hot water into the powdered coffee, remembering that it’s strangely delicious with a hint of sugar and creme. Time to clean up and get ready to wander for an hour before meeting the crew for some adventures. It’s hard to imagine that we landed just a short six hours ago.
After an eight hour flight across the Atlantic, we land at Paris Charles De Gaulle International Airport shortly after sunrise. We leave the airplane, clear French customs, and hop on a tour bus which takes us to the hotel. There are three pilots and approximately ten flight attendants. The trek from the airport to the hotel averages two hours depending on traffic. We arrive at the hotel but before heading to our rooms, the pilots make a plan to meet in the hotel lobby in the early afternoon to see the sights, grab some food (which includes an ice cream cone for the Captain), and explore new areas of town. If we’re all lucky, we’ll get two to three hours of sleep before meeting up in the afternoon.
Of all the personalities I get to fly with, my favorite is the Captain or First Officer who has a plan for the afternoon. We have a few hotels that we are assigned to, but this one was near the Eiffel Tower. More often than not, our crew adventures began by walking near the Eiffel Tower to start our journey. Most pilots have their “go-to” places for a good meal and glass of wine. My favorite is Les Saveurs du Maroc which is a Moroccan restaurant. Often we would leave dinner with the Captain leading us to his favorite ice cream shop. After walking three to five miles throughout the city, it was time to call it a night. Tomorrow is a long day….nearly twenty hours from the start of my day until I get home after my commute.
From Paris to Detroit
The alarm goes off at 6:30am, and I’m tired and confused again. Though I slept for almost nine hours, it’s 11:30pm on the body clock, and it reminds me that I should still be sleeping. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, I join my crew on the tour bus back to the airport. A majority of the time, the pilots will remain the same but the flight attendants will be from a different flight that arrived in Paris the day prior. It’s always nice to meet new faces and share experiences from our layover.
Once arriving at the airport, we have to clear French security and customs. This process is very slow, and I’ve clocked it at over an hour to get through the dedicated crew security line. If we have downtime after security, a majority of the crew will check out their favorite shops at the airport in search of extra wine, macarons, mustard, or cheese. Upon arriving at our gate, the aircraft is typically ready for us, and it’s time to preflight and head back home.
A typical First Officer preflight consists of two positions: the pilot sitting right seat, and the pilot acting as Relief Officer who occupies the pilot jumpseat during the climbout and descent phases of flight. The pilot in the right seat has duties specific to his or her role on that flight which is either pilot flying or pilot monitoring. Usually these duties include loading the flight plan, verifying a clearance, checking aircraft systems, etc. The relief pilot is responsible for the exterior examination of the aircraft, inspection of the crew rest facility (more on that later), and verifying the pilot flying and pilot monitoring have completed their duties. All pilots will fill out a food request form for their in-flight meal and deliver the form to the lead flight attendant who handles our meals. Items are usually seasonal first-class cabin meals. I’ve had mouth-wateringly delicious food, and some that I’ve simply refused to eat. It’s always a guessing game.
At our departure time, we are required to call a few different aircraft controllers who handle our flight plan. European countries are slightly different from the United States because they’re very strict on pushback times, taxi times, and enroute spacing. We are supplied with a ten minute window in which we can call for pushback from the gate. If we miss that, we have to coordinate another time which can result in major delays. This time, we get it together and pushback as planned. After an uneventful taxi and takeoff, we are on our way.
After the aircraft is at a safe altitude, the relief pilot will update times on our flight plan to accurately reflect estimated times over certain waypoints. Errors of two minutes or more are considered gross navigational errors and usually result in pilots filing paperwork to explain the error. Luckily this doesn’t happen very often. After the relief pilot completes this and ensures the other two pilots don’t need any assistance with anything else, the relief pilot leaves the flight deck to happily take the first break.
In this specific airplane, the crew rest facility is a first-class, lie-flat seat with a blackout curtain around it to help darken the space. It’s not sound proof, it’s not quite light proof, and we’re usually being banged into by carts, passengers, and people kicking us from the seat behind. Our “naps” are usually ninety minutes on the eastbound flight, and a little over two hours on the return flight. Some people can sleep the entire time and some can’t. Usually I get about an hour of sleep, grab some coffee to wake up, and head back up to the flight deck.
“Crossing the pond” is a great experience. It’s a completely non-radar environment, meaning air traffic controllers don’t have a moving map of aircraft that updates every few seconds. We are required to use HF radios or SatCom (Satellite) to communicate with either Shanwick Radio (Ireland) or Gander Radio (Canada) who control eastern and western portions of the north Atlantic, respectively. With today’s technology, the aircraft automatically reports these waypoints as well as predictions of our time crossing the next waypoint. Air traffic control will then update our position and ensure there is adequate spacing between us and the preceding aircraft. If we start getting too close to another aircraft, they will have us slow down. Usually a North Atlantic ocean crossing takes around five hours. It’s a lot faster than people think.
The inflight meal today is one of my favorites. A six ounce steak, mixed vegetables, salad with vinaigrette dressing, bearnaise sauce, a cup of pumpkin ginger soup with a bread roll, and a mini cheesecake. Usually I eat on the healthy side, but on today’s inflight meal I couldn’t care less. It’s gone in ten minutes flat.
As relief pilot, I’ll fill in for the Captain who took the second break, and the First Officer who took the third break. During that time, I assume their associated duties. The Captain was assigned to fly this leg, so when I filled in for the Captain, I was in charge of flying the aircraft as well as authority of flight duties. If something major was to occur, though, we would interrupt the Captain’s rest and resume a three-person flight crew to solve the problem. As we reach landfall in northeastern Canada, we wake the other First Officer.
Once we reach the Detroit Metroplex, the flight finishes like a normal flight. The only difference is the requirement to clear US customs. Some crewmembers elect to use Global Entry, some use Mobile Passport, and some just simply use the crew line. We claim our items purchased abroad and continue to the exit. At this point, we all go our separate ways to find our way home. For me, this means catching the first commute flight back home.
A lot of international pilots have their “after trip” ritual. Mine is simple: no heavy machinery, no financial decisions, and no motorcycles until I’m rested. The amount of fatigue that builds during this three-day trip is incredible. In three days, we’ve gone from one side of the biological clock, to the other, and back. Sometimes it’s a struggle to get more than three or four hours of sleep on my first night back (hence the ritual).
So why is this position so coveted if we’re constantly worn down? For me it’s the experience. I love new places, great food, and learning about other pilots’ experiences throughout their careers. A three-day trip with two, seven or eight hour legs will definitely give you an opportunity to learn about each other. The fatigue wears off, we recover, and we do it again. With better seniority comes better trips. Layovers tend to get longer which allow our bodies to adjust more easily, and the opportunity to find new and exciting cities becomes more available. Some pilots chase the international flying their entire careers and have a lot of neat stories. For me, I’ll try to find a happy medium of international and domestic flying throughout my career.
Justin Patton-Rynders is a consultant and co-founder at Airline Pilot Careers as well as a First Officer at a legacy airline. Justin has filled many roles in the aviation industry including pilot mentor, ground and flight instructor, pilot recruiter and interviewer, as well as Captain Line Check Airman. He is a graduate of the University of North Dakota, class of 2009.
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