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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 crew-swap on the way back home from Southeast Asia. Tomorrow, they will ride on an airline from Oslo to Osaka. Many logistically-heavy legs lie between today in Norway, and a week from now in Japan.

The fueler knocks on the side of the airplane to get our attention, reluctant to come on board uninvited, as is a normal hesitance with corporate aircraft. I go to the bottom of the stairs to review the liters uplifted and sign the four copies he requests. Another simple button push and the stairs fold in half and transform into a closed door. With the clock running, we get a Departure Clearance, brief the departure, check each FMS waypoint’s bearing and mileage, and call Air Traffic Ground Control for clearance to start engines. We are airborne just 50 minutes after landing and are immediately cleared to FL410 as we cross into Sweden.

Settled in cruise, we’re sprinting along with a true airspeed of 530 knots as I update the FMS for our estimated arrival time in Mumbai. It shows we’ll be landing 5 minutes behind schedule, 10 minutes within slot tolerance. Perfect. The hours enroute go by quickly, with a constant watch for countries that required a call-ahead, and I keep our many overflight permit numbers quickly accessible as we approach Turkey. Coasting in from the Mediterranean, we see Alexandria, Cairo, and the Great Pyramids of Egypt, making a large inefficient left turn over the Luxor VOR. At Mach .90, we’re only minutes from the beautiful Red Sea and Saudi Arabia. We’re now light enough for a climb and level at FL450 just to the north of Mecca, which I watch go by out my right window, 8.5 miles below. Our service ceiling is 51,000 feet, but we’ll be too heavy for 47,000 feet or higher today.

45,000 feet over the Red Sea meeting Saudi Arabia.

Approaching Oman, the flight attendant texts that the passengers are awake and dinner is being prepared. I use the opportunity to go back into the cabin and discuss with the lead passenger a problem four days from now — our requested Bangkok slot times were not granted, and the best we could secure is 60 minutes off our planned schedule. Thankfully, he has the flexibility to accept the new timeline. Constantly managing and planning logistics is the most consuming part of a corporate pilot’s role. We’re involved with almost all of it.

We watch a spectacularly colorful sunset over the sands of Oman, as the orange and red dunes meet the Arabian Sea at low light. Things get busy as we approach Mumbai, and it’s not long before we’re getting delayed routing. 9 hours 52 minutes after leaving Norway, we touch down at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai, two hours after sunset.

G650 chasing the sunset.

Our handler awaits us at our parking stand, again on the opposite side of the airport and far removed from where 95 percent of traffic taxis. As soon as the door opens, the last step begins – getting the passengers and luggage through customs and into their secure transport as quickly as possible. We’ve delivered them halfway around the world, 12.5-hour time zone difference, within 10 minutes of their schedule. They now begin a busy and tight timeframe on their end.

We spend the next hour cleaning the airplane and replenishing onboard potable water from large water bottles we have transported from home so we can guarantee water quality on board. I close and lock the aircraft, arm the aircraft’s internal security system, and place security tape on all the major doors and panels. I email our dispatcher and company security that we’ve arrived in Mumbai and are about to start our travel to the hotel, beginning our exposure outside of the confines of the secure airport. Only 45 minutes of Mumbai evening traffic lies between me and sleep. It’s been 16 hours since I awoke in Oslo, and I’m looking forward to the next two days “off” in Mumbai. But, as a corporate pilot, being off doesn’t always translate into down-time; I have a lot of remaining trip logistics to review for the days ahead. Plus, I’m already getting emails regarding my next trip: Hong Kong. Better start planning.

Layover safari in the African nation of Botswana.

N. Jacob Libby currently flies Gulfstream G550s and G650ERs as an International Captain for a West Coast-based Fortune 500 company. The son of an airline pilot, he’s been an active Flight Instructor since high school and is currently 34 years old with 12,000 hours. He is 1 of 3 pilots who holds ratings in 5 different categories of aircraft: Airplane, Rotorcraft, Glider, Lighter-Than-Air, Powered Parachute and Sport Privileges in a 6th category: Weight-Shift-Control. He’s flown for Part 121 airlines and holds 9 Type Ratings including the Ford Trimotor (FO-5), DC-3, and B25 Mitchell. His favorite flying is in the family airplane, flying with his wife and two young daughters.

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