What do pilots actually do during a flight, everything is done by autopilot right? And yes, most of a commercial flight is flown by autopilot, in fact, it’s a requirement to have autopilots when flying in RVSM airspace, RVSM is Flight Level 290 to FL410 inclusive.
Yesterday I asked on my Instagram account @pilotmaria if you had any questions for me ´What do we do during a flight´. I loved all the feedback and questions that you sent me, but I have limited it to the subject of this blog ´What do we do during a flight´all the other questions regarding flight training, costs etc I´ve screenshot and saved for future blog post inspiration, you can also read last weeks blog post ´Becoming an airline pilot 2.0´here: link where I talked about my struggles, and the route that I took.
Even if 99 % of a flight is flown by autopilot there are still duties that have to be done. The company that I fly for have one of the pilots as ´Pilot Flying´ and the other one will act as ´Pilot Monitoring´ we decide who will be who during our morning briefing, the general rule is that the first officer (aka me) will be pilot flying on the first and fourth sector and pilot monitoring on the middle two, in case of a two ‘leg’ sector day it’s normally the first officer that kicks off and the captain who flies the last sector.
During cruise pilot monitoring is kept busier than the pilot flying, she or he make all lateral changes in the FMC, select new waypoints when given by ATC, cross-check overflown or abeam waypoints against our flight plans and make fuel and time calculations. The pilot monitoring is also responsible for all radio communication, that is probably what takes up the most time, especially flying over busy European airspace where there is a constant transmission and you’ll need to listen out for your callsign. They call it ‘cocktail effect’ imagine yourself in on a cocktail party, music and people talking loud all the time, somehow you’re still able to hear your name even if said across the room, same goes for radio transmission, even if it´s a constant chit chat you’ll still hear your callsign when called. The pilot flying makes the changes on the MCP (mode control panel) which is where we tell the autopilot ´how to fly´ Even if the autopilot is a precise pilot, it would have no idea what to do unless we told, programmed it. Pilot flying is also responsible to set up and plan for our descent and landing, something that is still flown with the autopilot engaged, but again, the autopilot has no idea what to do, when to decent, what speed to fly etc unless we first program it.
But what do we actually do when all of the above is done? When there’s no radio communication and all programming is done? Well, to be honest, it´s not that much to do, the autopilot is flying and we are monitoring the systems. Depending who you fly with you can some days drink coffee and talk to each other all day, some days, especially on longer flight maybe you bring a magazine or newspaper to read. I like to read ´Wired´I also like mind games such as my Rubiks Cube. Oh, and I eat, I eat a lot, not any huge meals, I don´t like the feeling of being overfull when flying, but I bring a lot of snacks and I eat at least something every leg….not on my leg but sector, you know what I mean…..
How much do we actually fly?
The take off is always done manually and we have the option to fly manually up to RVSM airspace, I sometimes fly the departure, but rarely fly manually above 10.000 feet. Why 10.000 feet, or in Europe that altitude would be a flight level, I know that works differently in the US and Canada where you fly on local QNH until 18.000 feet. So why fly manually until flight level 100? After FL100, to be honest, it’s kind of boring, we have passed all our acceleration levels, normally cleared all the way to our cruise flight level and have a direct waypoint 100 of miles away, that’s why, if I fly manually I engage the autopilot after passing FL100. Most of the times however it is engaged already at 1000 feet, that is the earliest according to the procedures that we engage. The landings are most of the times flown manually. It can be flown fully automated, dual channel, and disconnected after landing (CAT III operations) but normally we disconnect the autopilot sometime between 10 miles on final and 500 feet above landing threshold.
To answer some more of your questions: @vivek_navneet11 asked: Do you listen to music and chill or are you extremely professional? (a lot of you asked this question so I hope it answers to all of you). Answer: During the cruise, it is pretty chill, we don´t listen to music and we are always professional, although when time allows we can read the newspaper and drink a coffee. @mihika_810_ asked: Do you make jokes? Answer: I try....I have a pretty sarcastic and open sense of humor so sometimes I can see the Captain that I fly with thinking....did she really make that joke? @umar143 asked: Do you sleep during long haul flights? Answer: I don´t fly long haul our flights are normally between 2-5 hours so there is no need to sleep. @zaczakir aksed: Flirt with the cute ones? Answer: ha ha ha Nah I keep flirting outside of my workplace lol @i_am_nandianirban Asked: Laughing? Answer: oh yes, so much! @skycowboy asked: (Hi btw I know you´ve been here a long time and I appreciate it :)) How much do you actually fly the plane? Answer: I would say....90 % maximum the rest is flown by the autopilot. @natalie.s.verhoog asked: Do you fly the approaches or brief them. Or does it change each flight? Answer: Yes, it changes each flight, the one who briefs the approach flies it. @oreo.milk_shake asked: Singing? Like we do in the car? Answer: I have tried this, but since we fly headset on all the time that ended with the Captain switching the intercom off, since then I've never done it again. @nathanielflores (Hi 👋 heard you left lovely north?) asked: Take Selfie? Answer: lol surprisingly not, haha most my photos are taken during ground operations. @travelearth365 asked: How do you pass time? Answer: Eat, read look out the windows, never get tired of the view. But eat is my main entertainment. @francesco.gentile_ asked: Do you open the windows? Answer: Nope, it is not possible during flight (would cause a radpid decompression) due to the low pressure at cruising altitude, the air is not ´thick´enough to breath up there, it´s also freezing ( -58 celcius on avarage). @tommy.the.tool.man asked: Do you successfully keep your approach briefings under 10 minutes? Answer: We dont have a time limit on our briefings, we brief as long as needed and follow a structure to make sure that we don´t miss anything, ´home briefing normally talkes a couple of minutes but if flying to a more complex and new place it would probably take between 10-20 minutes. @irsa_ashraf_ asked: What is your salary? Answer: A Swede never say what their salary is haha but don't become a pilot if you want to be rich...lol (do it for the passion) @harriette_ asked: What's your go-to flight snack? Answer: Fruits and bars, I love all kind of bars. @lifeasalarsen asked: Can you hear the passengers? Answer: I fly with a noise-canceling headset from Bose that cancels out the engine noise so I can hear screaming babies from the back but wouldn't be able to make out a conversation.