What Pilots Do: A realistic look at the job of a Commercial Pilot

rear view of pilots inside cockpit

Have you ever wondered what pilots do when they are up in the air, flying hundreds of passengers across the globe?

Do they just sit back and let the autopilot do all the work, or are they constantly busy with complex tasks and procedures? How do they keep the plane safe and deal with unexpected situations? How do they cope with the challenges of changing time zones, irregular schedules, and fatigue?

In this article, we will take a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a commercial pilot, and reveal some of the realities of their profession.

Training and Certification

As it probably won’t come as a surprise to many, becoming a commercial pilot is not easy. It takes a lot of time, money, and dedication to achieve the required qualifications and experience. Pilots have to undergo rigorous training, both theoretical and practical, to learn how to fly different types of aircraft, from small planes to large jets. They also have to pass various exams, both written and oral, to demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

One of the most important aspects of pilot training is the type rating. This is a special certification that allows pilots to fly a specific model of aircraft or a group of similar models.

For example, a pilot who has a type rating for the Airbus A320 series can fly any of the variants of this aircraft, such as the A318, A319, A320, or A321. However, they cannot fly other models of Airbus, such as the A330 or the A350, unless they have a common type rating for them.

Similarly, a pilot who has a type rating for the Boeing 777 cannot fly the Boeing 787, unless they have a common type rating for them. Some countries have different regulations regarding the commonality of type ratings, so pilots have to be aware of the differences and requirements.

control panel inside plane's cockpit
Control panel inside plane’s cockpit

Type rating training is very intensive and specific. It involves learning everything about the aircraft, from its design and performance to its systems and components and to its normal and emergency operations. Pilots have to memorize thousands of details, such as the functions and meanings of every button, switch, light, and indicator on the flight deck.

The pilots also have to practice various scenarios and procedures in a full-motion simulator, which replicates the realistic conditions and sensations of flying. They have to be able to handle all kinds of situations, such as bad weather, engine failures, fires, depressurization, and more. They also have to pass a two-hour oral examination, where they are asked to explain and demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

Recurrent Training and Checks

Pilot training does not end once they get their type rating. They have to maintain their proficiency and currency by undergoing recurrent training and checks every year, or every six months, depending on the company. This involves reviewing the theory and practice of flying their aircraft, as well as learning new updates and changes.

Co pilot checking the nosewheel on an McDonnell Douglas MD 80
The co-pilot checking the nosewheel on an MD-80 before flight. (Photo by Kent Wien | Flickr)

They also have to repeat the simulator sessions and the oral exams, to ensure they are still competent and confident. They also have to do online training modules throughout the year, to refresh their memory and test their knowledge.

full flight simulator 1
Photo by SuperJet International | Flickr

Pilots also have to undergo regular medical examinations, to ensure they are fit and healthy to fly. They have to meet certain standards of vision, hearing, blood pressure, heart rate, and more. They also have to avoid alcohol, drugs, and certain medications that could impair their performance or judgment. They have to report any illness or injury that could affect their ability to fly and seek clearance from a doctor before resuming their duties.

Daily Operations and Procedures

Pilots have to follow a strict set of rules and procedures when they are on duty. They have to adhere to the company policies, the flight regulations, and the air traffic control instructions. They also have to coordinate with the cabin crew, the ground staff, and the maintenance personnel, to ensure the safety and comfort of the passengers and the aircraft.

Boeing 757 cockpit
Aircraft’s cockpit systems (Photo by Kent Wien | Flickr)

Before each flight, pilots have to do a pre-flight check, which involves inspecting the aircraft, reviewing the weather, planning the route, calculating the fuel, loading the cargo, and briefing the crew. They also have to check the flight deck, the instruments, the systems, and the controls, to make sure everything is working properly. They also have to communicate with the air traffic control, the tower, and the other pilots, to get clearance and information.

During the flight, pilots have to monitor the flight parameters, the navigation, the weather, the traffic, and the systems. They also have to adjust the speed, the altitude, the course, and the fuel, as needed. They also have to communicate with the air traffic control, the cabin crew, and the passengers, to provide updates and announcements. They also have to handle any abnormal or emergency situations, such as turbulence, diversions, or failures, by following the standard procedures and using the appropriate checklists.

After the flight, pilots have to do a post-flight check, which involves securing the aircraft, logging the flight data, reporting any issues or incidents, and debriefing the crew. They also have to prepare for the next flight or rest and recover, depending on their schedule.

Automation and Technology

One of the most common misconceptions about pilots is that they do very little up there and that the autopilot does all the work. This is not true. While modern aircraft are equipped with sophisticated automation and technology, pilots are still essential and responsible for the safe operation of the flight. Automation and technology are tools that assist pilots, not replace them.

cockpit navigation systems
Aircraft’s cockpit

Automation and technology help pilots to reduce their workload, enhance their performance, and increase their situational awareness. For example, the autopilot can maintain the speed, the altitude, and the course of the aircraft, while the pilot can monitor the flight parameters, the navigation, and the systems. The flight management system can calculate the optimal route, the fuel, and the performance of the aircraft, while the pilot can verify the data, make adjustments, and input commands. The electronic flight instrument system can display all the relevant information on the screens, while the pilot can interpret the information, identify any anomalies, and take action.

However, automation and technology are not perfect. They can malfunction, fail, or mislead. They can also create complacency, confusion, or overreliance. Pilots have to be able to detect and correct any errors or discrepancies, and to take over the manual control when necessary. They also have to be able to cope with the transition from automated to manual mode, and vice versa. They have to maintain their manual flying skills, their decision-making skills, and their situational awareness skills, regardless of the level of automation and technology.

Sleeping and Fatigue

One of the biggest challenges that pilots face is the management of their sleep and fatigue. Pilots have to deal with irregular schedules, long hours, changing time zones, and jet lag. These factors can disrupt their circadian rhythm, and their natural sleep-wake cycle, and affect their quality and quantity of sleep. Lack of sleep can impair their physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and compromise their performance and safety.

Pilots have to follow certain rules and guidelines to ensure they get enough rest and sleep before and after each flight. They have to comply with the duty time limitations, the flight time limitations, and the rest time requirements, as specified by the company and the regulations. They also have to adopt good sleep hygiene habits, such as avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and electronics before bed, keeping the bedroom dark and quiet, and wearing comfortable clothes. They can also make use of light therapy, melatonin, and sleep banking, to help them adjust to the new time zone and reduce the effects of jet lag.

crew sleeping area on an aircraft
Rest area for a crew on a Boeing 787

During long-haul flights, pilots are allowed to take turns to rest, in what is known as controlled rest. This involves sleeping in a designated area, such as a bunk bed (in special private quarters if the plane has one) or a passenger seat, for a limited period of time. Depending on the journey this could be for several hours. This can help them to restore their alertness and energy and to prevent fatigue during landing procedures. However, they have to follow certain procedures and precautions, such as wearing a seat belt, using an alarm clock, and informing the other pilot and the cabin crew. They also have to avoid sleeping during critical phases of flight, such as takeoff and landing, and during periods of high workload, such as bad weather or air traffic.

The bottom line

Being a commercial pilot is a rewarding and exciting profession, but also a demanding and challenging one. Pilots have to undergo extensive and continuous training, follow strict and complex procedures, use advanced and reliable automation and technology, and manage their sleep and fatigue. They have to be able to handle all kinds of situations, from routine and normal, to abnormal and emergency. They have to be able to work as a team, communicate effectively, and make sound judgments. They have to be passionate, professional, and responsible and ready for anything.


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