Producing future business leader
31st January 2017
Education has always been close to my heart
13th February 2017

What it takes to become an airline pilot

Despite some challenges, flying is a rewarding experience that offers financial benefits and a chance to travel the world

Captain Jimmy Conroy

Flying can be divided into two: domestic or regional and long-range flying.

Domestic or regional flying
When signing on for duty for a domestic or regional flight, one usually signs on for an eleven-hour day. In winter, one is faced with signing on at 5am in freezing conditions and in summer, dealing with afternoon thunderstorms when signing out.
Having signed on, the crew check the latest briefing notices, the technical status of the aircraft they are going to fly, the weather forecasts at the destination, alternate airfields and the flight plan.  They then make a decision on how much fuel to take and proceed to the aircraft.
After arriving at the aircraft, the pilots introduce themselves to the cabin crew and the captain briefs them on what to expect regarding flying time, weather conditions and any other pertinent information.
The captain and co-pilot decide who will be the flying pilot for the first sector.  The pilot who is going to fly the first sector prepares the flight deck and programmes the flight management computers.  The non-flying pilot completes the pre-flight inspection.
Once the aircraft weight is known, the crew individually calculate the take-off thrust and the take-off speeds.  The next step is to speak to Air Traffic Control (ATC) to obtain a departure clearance and discuss pertinent matters such as weather conditions, obstacle heights and fuel requirements.
Once the doors are closed and checklists read, the aircraft is pushed back, started up, taxied out to the runway and configured for take-off. Take-off is one of the more hazardous parts of the flight because of the possibility of the failure of a critical part (for example an engine) at high speed, requiring the crew to bring the aircraft to a stop at the brake energy limits, resulting in extremely hot brakes and deflated tyres.  An engine failure after the critical speed (what we refer to as V1) is reached requires continuation of the take-off, even if an engine has failed.  This is an exercise that is regularly practised in flight simulators.
After take-off, the landing gear and flaps are retracted and communications with ATC established. After the flight is completed, descent usually starts at about 120 miles (approximately 200km) from the landing field. The aircraft is landed, taxied in and shut down.  Total time from start-up to shutdown is usually one to two hours for domestic routes and about four to five hours for regional flights. Time on the ground is usually in the region of 50 minutes, then you are off again with up to four or five sectors for the day.
Summer afternoons and evenings are high workload periods with thunderstorms affecting operations due to the possibility of turbulence, icing, lightning strikes and hail.  Storms around airfields increase the possibility of wind shears. If flights are diverted, your day can become a lot longer than originally planned.

Long-range flying
Long-range flying differs from short-range flying in a number of aspects. The aircraft being operated are significantly larger and heavier than those on the short-range, and have far more momentum and energy. Obviously, the flight durations are longer and are mostly conducted during the night, resulting in fatigue.  Coupled to this, flights cross multiple time zones, resulting in jet jag.
Weather conditions in the northern hemisphere differ significantly from the southern hemisphere, meaning that one may depart Johannesburg on a hot summer afternoon and arrive in Munich 10 hours later to freezing fog with temperatures of -10C or less. Ultra-Long Range flights (ULR) typically take 15 hours plus, cross six or seven time zones, and, depending on the time of year, you may arrive to a snow-covered airfield, with minimal fuel.
A typical long-range flight begins with the same procedures described above for short-range operations.  Pre-flight preparation is more intense due to the number of potential en route diversion fields that need to be considered.  Take-off calculations are performed as for short-range flying, but take-offs are far more critical on heavy aircraft (70 tonnes for a short-range aircraft vs 365 tonnes for a long-range aircraft). Take-off, climb and cruise are the same as for short-range flights.  Once out of radar coverage, monitoring and use of radios becomes critical to maintain a mental picture of other traffic. Accents may make communication difficult to understand, for example those of South America and China.
To summarise, long-range flying is more physically and mentally challenging than short-range flying, while short-range flying is a more intense go, go, go operation with little time to relax. Regardless of whether you choose to be a domestic, regional or long-range pilot, flying will always have benefits including job satisfaction, financial reward and the opportunity to travel and see the world.

Conroy is chairman of the South African Airways Pilot Association

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *