A description of a typical day’s flight from Montreal to Vancouver and return - as a backdrop for a detailed, non-technical description of what an airline pilot does. (check left hand column for series index).
Time: CYUL arrival minus …
Pilots are bright-minded action-oriented people. They need to keep busy with meaningful work. But the en-route phase of flight has become so highly automated and the computerized flight plans have become so efficient and the ATC systems so programmed that pilots are reduced to system monitors. Which becomes problematic because research tells us that human beings are good at problem solving, but we suck at monitoring.
Our computer manages speed, altitude and headings more precisely than any human could - nothing to do there. Ask for a direct routing to some downline point? This may take the aircraft away from the best winds. Change altitude for better fuel consumption? Only if the flight plan demands it and traffic permits.
So in an effort to combat en-route boredom here are some strategies I've seen pilots employ:
Getting up frequently and moving around or exercising. Unfortunately, this is harder since our flight deck doors have been welded shut. Also, medium to short range aircraft cockpits are notoriously small. Pilots (or so it seems judging by the evidence) are an expensive necessity that designers would prefer to automate entirely out of the aircraft.
Conversation. But not all pilots are great conversationalists and the chemistry just doesn’t click. Besides, after three days, you've run out of smalltalk anyway. Again, the locked doors limit the frequency of visits by flight attendants. Many pilots once enjoyed giving mini-tours of the flight deck to interested passengers. This was fun but it is no longer an option.
Busy work. I've seen pilots read through the entire logbook history of the aircraft or review work-related flight manuals and complete as much job-related paperwork as possible. But this only lasts so long. And worse, it has a sleep-inducing quality all its own.
More busy work. Some pilots will call up continual streams of weather reports from the data-link system just to have something to read... "So, what's the weather like around the world today?”
Eating! In ‘the day’ we may have had excellent onboard meals to not only energize us but help pass some time. Now as often as not we subsist on "turkey snacks" (i.e. squat 'n gobble) from the airport sandwich shop while running from one flight to the next. Personally, I’ve found nibbling on sunflower seeds keeps the mind active, but this can be messy.
Even more busy work. I've seen pilots create superfluous navigation waypoints just for something to do - to "fine-tune" the flight path. I've seen this taken to a fault such as by one pilot who insisted on building a programmed routing for Laguardia's visual procedure to runway 31. Note - it’s called a “visual procedure” for a reason!
Treasure hunting. That’s the best way I can describe this constant probing for secret information. I've seen pilots delve into obscure and mostly pointless details about aircraft systems. Again I've seen this to a fault. One example: "If we select the flap lever half-way down to the next slot then back to the one we want, we get a different setting on the leading edge flaps and the aircraft then maintains a better attitude during radar vectors..."
Yikes! I'm reminded of a B727 accident many years ago where the crew apparently had developed a "special" procedure to disable the leading edge flaps in cruise then use the alternate flap system to tweak the trailing edge flaps down just a degree or two to get the airplane on the step. Which went disastrously wrong when the flight engineer inadvertently reset a circuit breaker, triggering the sudden deployment of the leading edge flaps in cruise at altitude.
Games. I've seen pilots tap endlessly through the navigation data-base to find the furthest waypoint from the current spot. I've seen pilots enter made-up waypoints to draw geometric shapes like stars on the screens. With the addition of data-link printers I've seen pilots engage in long "conversations" with other stations or flights. I've even seen pilots resort to solving crossword puzzles to keep mentally active without losing situational awareness.
Perhaps the strangest was the captain who preferred to fly at night. He turned down all the flight deck lighting to the bare minimum and sat with his face right up in the window. He was determined that before he retired he would see a UFO. I'm serious! And so was he.
But usually we have plenty of things to keep us busy.
Some days we are nervously dodging through seas of thunderstorms. Or searching for smoother air at different flight levels and working out the implications on our fuel load and our chances of reaching the destination before the tanks run dry.
System glitches pop up and invoke unfamiliar alternate procedures and reams of paper work and communications with dispatchers and maintenance departments.
And some dark nights the weather systems around us are rapidly shifting and swirling keeping us thinking about alternate plans and strategies. Like tonight.
The data-link printer comes awake and starts pumping out an arm’s length message from our dispatcher. F/O Paula rips the banner into page-sized segments and compiles them into order for our reading pleasure.
Time: CYUL arrival minus 2H00