A Day in the life of an Airline Pilot: A First Officer for a major UK airline, takes us through a standard day at ‘the office’.

Step 1: Waking up!

Depending on what report time is I set my alarm accordingly, for example on early morning flights I tend to set it about 2 hours 15 minutes before report! If on a late however approximately 3 hours 30 minutes before as I have more traffic to deal with on the temperamental M25. It’s important to eat something before you leave too, even if it’s just a banana.

I tend to hang my ID with my tie, so I put them both on simultaneously, as I have forgotten it before! Without it, you, unfortunately, cannot fly.

My flight bag (I will cover in another post) and uniform are usually prepared the night before to help me save time, just in case I snooze too long!

As I live near Heathrow, when I wake up I tend to check the traffic, as it has caught me off guard sometimes, if there is more than expect I leave as soon as possible.

Step 2: Crew Room

Coming into Gatwick is fairly straightforward M4 – M25 – M23 and then the Gatwick exit. I park in the X car park in Gatwick which is about a 10-15 minute bus journey to the crew room, and usually, in the morning it’s rammed.

A quick stop at the Costa coffee, (double espresso definitely helps wake me up) and upstairs to the crew room!

You usually encounter other pilots and cabin crew in and around. Once you’ve checked in you start printing off paperwork and downloading the relevant information on your iPad.

Your next step is to look at the information we’ve just converted to iPad as the EFB (electronic flight bag) so we have a look at all of this on there:

  • Weather (most important – en route, destination, departure etc.)
  • NOTAMs
  • Flight Plan (routing, flight levels, alternates etc.)
  • Aircraft Status
  • Miscellaneous (holding, congestion, taxi time etc.)
  • Performance considerations
  • Commercial pressures
  • Who is flying outbound/inbound

Which then all lead the next question of how much fuel? Once this is decided the fuelling and dispatchers are called giving them the figures required for the load sheet information and so the fuel can be put into the aircraft.

Step 3: To the Aircraft and Preflight!

Pilots, like passengers, have the tedious task of going through airport security every morning, however, safety is always of utmost priority for anyone who works in the aviation industry. Following security, we proceed to get a bus to the aircraft.

Usually, on early morning flights the flight deck is ‘cold and dark’, so the Pilot Monitoring (PM) does the cockpit preliminary checks, to get some power to the aircraft. Safety checks follow, looking for anything out of the ordinary and ensuring all emergency equipment is in its place!

The Pilot Flying (PF) and PM have duties that each must complete, as well as duties that are the Captain’s responsibility, for example, the tech log, welcome PA and checking the load sheet.

PF DutiesPM Duties
Cockpit preparationFMGC set upTalking to ground handlersBriefingLoadsheetATISClearances with ATCChecking the aircraft setupPaper checklistsFuelling monitoringPre-flight inspection

The FMGC (flight management and guidance computer) is where all the information from the flight plan is entered.

The load sheet is where all the aircraft weights are from take off to zero fuel weight, and everything on board the aircraft.

Briefing is one of the most important and vital things pre-flight as it helps cover and any threats as well as provides a mutual understanding within the flight deck.

Pre-flight inspection and fuel monitoring is also very important, as you are checking the aircraft is serviceable for flight.

All the above will be covered separately later on so stay tuned.

Step 4: Time to get airborne!

Time to call up for Pushback and Start-up, but first we establish communications with the ground crew to make sure all of their external checks are completed, and that we have a tug. That always helps!

Time for some checks next! Then we call up fully ready and request push and start on ground frequency (this varies at every airport).

Being based at Gatwick we tend to start only one engine, as it helps save fuel, and if we’re not too sure we just ask how busy it is at the holding point. Taxiing is done by the PF and the checks are done by the PM, as that way someone is always looking at where we’re going. Once both engines are running, the takeoff checks are completed, and we’ve got the cabin secure from the cabin crew… we are now ready for departure!

Take-off is definitely my favourite part, as you’re leaving everything behind on the ground, the adrenaline kicks in as you set take-off thrust and the moment you rotate to get airborne!

Climb-out and cruise!

Below Flight Level 100 the communication within the flight deck is kept to a bare minimum as it is considered as a critical phase of flight. As we continue the climb out we do our checks at appropriate times, e.g 10000ft checks and the 20000ft checks.

Once established in the cruise, it’s time for paperwork and some food! The paperwork mainly consists of some general entries into the tech log, fuel checks and time checks on the flight plan, and giving the passengers an announcement of what is going on!

Transitioning between one airspace to another we’re constantly updating ourselves with the weather of airports en-route using VOLMETs or ACARs in the event something was to occur, we know or have a rough idea of where to go. As pilots we are constantly aware of the possibility that at any given time anything could happen, so we are always vigilant and subconsciously monitoring the aircraft even whilst engaged in conversation with the other pilot or cabin crew.

For most of it, it is time to enjoy, sit back and enjoy the best view in the world!

Approach and Landing!

Fast approaching is the TOD (Top of Descent) arrow where its is time to go back down and think about what were going to do. Getting the FMGC set up and inputting the correct arrival or the one you are predicting it potentially may be from the flight plan or the weather.

Some airfields obtaining the ATIS occurs sooner so you get more of an idea whats going on, and how to prepare, but most of this is covered in the brief before you depart.

Once you’re ready and everything is set up to the way you require, it’s time to brief! I manage my time so I am able to brief about 100 or so miles before the TOD arrow (as mentioned before I will be doing a more detailed post about briefing as it’s a very important phase of flight), however, in general, this is the point the other pilot would discuss possible threats, how they would like to fly the approach and as well as the general set up.

We usually give a call up to the handing agent with our estimated arrival time, along with any passengers that may require assistance on arrival.

Similar to the climb-out, below FL100 it is a sterile cockpit. A general rule of thumb we use to help manage our descent profiles and make sure we’re not too high or low is the 3 x Altitude (8000ft = 8) as well incorporating distance to slow down.

This is important as sometimes ATC gives you restrictions, keep you high and fast so it’s so variable, it is important to keep ahead and manage your descent to the best of your ability. This may require you to take the gear down early or keep your speed up to get down faster and slow down with speed brakes, the possibilities are endless!

Landing is actually fairly straight forward, a good approach tends to lead to a good landing, so they say! Coming into a major airfield like Gatwick your speed altitudes are all controlled by ATC, which makes life easier, as well as 90% of the time you will fly and ILS, approach too. The landing is usually what all the passengers will judge you for or remember about the flight, sometimes at a short airfield like Gibraltar you just want to get the aircraft on the ground safely!

Arrival, Turnaround and Home!

Once we’ve vacated the runway and established our taxiway routing, the PF does his after landing flow which triggers the PM to do his. Most airports in Europe tend to have a follow-me vehicle which takes us to our stand. If time permits we try to shut down one of the engines to save fuel. Over time single-engine taxiing can save millions!

The Captain always taxi’s onto stand. On stand, we shut down the aircraft first and then once the doors are disarmed and seat belts signs turned off its time to disembark the passengers.

We do our shutdown checklist and begin to set up the aircraft for the return leg! Similar to before we set up the aircraft, however, the only difference is, we’ve now swapped roles.

Depending on how long we have for turnaround (usually 50 minutes) we may have time to catch some sun, or if you’re in Gibraltar get some duty-free! On the other hand, some turnarounds tend to be busier than others so you have no time for anything.

One we’ve got the passengers on it is time for the return leg. It is more or less the same as the outbound. Coming back to Gatwick, we get a crew bus back to our crew room, there is only some minor paperwork to be done as most of it has been done during the cruise or on arrival as the passengers disembark. Now you’re just waiting for your next adventure!