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A Road Less Travelled - A Day in the Life of an International Corporate Pilot

Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa.

I awake before my alarm to the silent illumination of my company phone in an old Oslo, Norway, hotel room. My alarm still has 30 minutes to go, but as I check the local time, I see it’ll take me the 30 minutes to brief myself from the dozens of emails overnight that were sent specifically to me, the trip’s Pilot in Command (PIC).

I scan the subject lines before opening any to get the overview of what’s come in: Permit for Turkey overflight — Check. Egyptian overflight — Yes. Saudi Arabian overflight — Yes, it’s there, too. Oman overflight — Came in, just in time. Lastly, was our India landing permit and slot, otherwise known as the planned landing time in India, updated with our new departure point of Oslo? Yes, it all looks like the missing logistics for today are finally in. Normally, we would have had most of these details finalized before the trip; but just three days prior to departure, a meeting in UAE cancelled, causing us to re-plan straight to Mumbai from Oslo… taking the “long way” to India.

As I ready myself for the 16 hours ahead, I can’t help but reflect on how different my job is flying corporate aviation compared to my close friends and family who repeatedly fly to some of the same cities for airlines. We fly less, about 350 hours a year, but are involved in almost all the planning ahead of trips. We don’t have a large dispatch or operations center behind us, but only a 20-person team that makes up the entire department for a company of 350,000 employees.

As PIC of this around-the-world trip, planning began weeks ago alongside our department’s dispatcher and our third-party flight planning vendor. And, specific to corporate aviation, the assigned PIC is responsible for not allowing a missed detail to slip by: arrival slots, departure slots, overflight permits, landing permits, overnight parking approvals, aircraft performance parameters, Equal Time Point (ETP) diversion airport selections, flight attendant coordination, crew and passenger security, crew transportation and hotels, etc. All details come from, or go through, the PIC. Flying makes up a minority of our job, and most of our work is on non-flying days. I love this type of flying, as it gives us more time at home when compared to the airlines. It also allows us to experience trips to lesser-traveled countries around the world that are not served by any U.S. air carriers.

Layover in Lisbon, Portugal.
The author in uniform in the Gulfstream G650.

Today’s flight will take us through three continents: A departure from Europe, overflight of Africa, and arrival in Asia. We’ll be doing this in a private Gulfstream G650, all under Part 91. No callsign, just a general aviation N-number through some countries that rarely ever see an American aircraft. Only five days before this trip, all N-registered aircraft were warned to avoid overflight through Iran due to rising tensions in the Strait of Hormuz, resulting in a lot of enroute time added to avoid that region. Three days of work was needed to get new overflight permits that allowed a new route. I try to count all of this trip’s many changes in just the past 72 hours as I dress into my company uniform that, by design, does not give the public the perception we’re flight crew.

I’ve only visited eight countries in my life that do not have a Starbucks. Thankfully, Norway is not one of them; therefore, I walk in the morning twilight to the neighboring store. Once inside our standard secure transportation to the airport, I conduct a trip briefing with the First Officer (FO) and flight attendant. Flying time will be 9 hours 40 minutes, at a cruising speed of Mach .90. Our takeoff weight will be 102,000 lbs., and we’ll try to climb to 45,000 or 47,000 feet through Saudi Arabia and Oman, to add some extra safety. Did you get all of your needed catering items from the hotel refrigerator? Did we verify they’ll have newspapers printed in English and ice standing by at the airport? What hours do you guess the passengers will sleep? The FO and I review which of the many Flight Information Region boundaries require a VHF call-ahead as we approach. And last, one of the most important considerations to us: the enroute turbulence forecast. Quality of the ride for passengers is very important to give them the best working and resting experience possible. Passenger service and experience is critical to every flight.

The three of us brief as a crew in the car today because we will be in a rush at the airport. This is a crew-swap; the aircraft is currently halfway between Iceland and Norway, flying into today’s sunrise at almost 600 knots groundspeed. Our goal is to get the inbound crew off, us on, and the aircraft fueled for departure as quickly and safely as possible. As is typical overseas, we’re on a very isolated ramp at a large airport, and no other general aviation aircraft join us. Across the runway is the passenger terminal we rode into two days prior on Lufthansa, to be in position for this hand-off that is taking place.

Even though it is nearly a 10-hour leg, as a Part 91 operation, we don’t have any legally required crew augmentation or duty day limits. We choose to begin augmenting when flight times are over 10 hours, utilizing the crew bunk room that is immediately behind the cockpit. Even though we’re not operating a “Heavy” airliner, some of our legs are 14 hours and cover over 7,000 nautical miles, nonstop. But today’s city-pairing requires two legs, with the leg to Oslo 8:15, followed by another 9:40 to our destination. Our goal is to add no more than 60 minutes to the passengers’ travel time on the ground and make these events as seamless as possible. Passenger service and experience is critical in business aviation.

My crew and all catering items have cleared through customs out of the Schengen area, and we wait in the FBO lobby, which is not anything like what we picture an FBO to be in the U.S. I watch our aircraft taxi onto the isolated ramp, concluding a 5,400-mile leg that does not yet mark the halfway point of the passengers’ journey.

The crew transforms the aircraft door from a pressure bulkhead into 10 stairs with the push of a button, as it swings out and down into the beautiful and chilly morning. I give a friendly salute to my friends in the cockpit, whom I was with just one week earlier in Beijing. Unlike an airline, we are a very small group of pilots and flight attendants, almost like a family.

I walk the crew bags to the rear of the airplane for loading, then take two handfuls of catering boxes up the aircraft’s built-in airstairs, with the leg’s 90-page flight plan and stamped GenDecs under my arm. Before I brief with the crew, I set the desired fuel load of 46,000 pounds in the cockpit fuel panel for automatic shut-off and give the fueler a thumbs-up to begin fueling without delay. Uplifting 38,000 pounds of fuel will take the longest of any events during this quick-turn, and almost 11 hours from now we have to land in Mumbai within our 15-minute slot tolerance.

The FO takes the left seat as the flying pilot for this leg and begins system tests and readies the cockpit for the next leg. Unique to corporate aviation, the flying pilot always takes the left seat even if it is the FO, resulting in us switching seats every-other leg. Assigning him to configure the cockpit allows me to greet the lead-passenger and quickly brief him on the plan for the next leg. Being an oceanic flight, the cabin is made up in a “sleep configuration” for the passengers, with multiple beds laid out across the aisle from the bucket chairs they belt in for takeoff and landing. With the recent Iran events dominating news headlines, the only question from the passengers today is asking if we’ll be going through Iran. I reassure them we’re taking the long way, avoiding it altogether.

The Gulfstream G650 Cockpit.

After concluding a quick brief with the inbound crew on aircraft status, we assist the two pilots and flight attendant deplaning toward customs. We will see the three of them in one week, in Osaka, for another