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A Day in the Life of an Airline Pilot

Have you ever wondered what the life of an airline transport pilot (ATP) is like – when their morning starts, what they do on their break, and what they spend their time doing on the job?


The day-to-day life of an airline pilot is that of prestige and excitement. If you fly for one of any of the major US airlines, like Delta, American Airlines, or Southwest, you’ll be exploring a career that many only dream of occupying.


As a commercial airline pilot, there’s always another adventure around the corner. If you’re dreaming of chartering passengers in jumbo jets, let’s take a glimpse into a day in the life of an ATP to see if it’s the lifestyle for you.


Pre-flight: Start of Your Shift

The start of your shift can vary widely, depending upon your seniority within the company. A pilot who has been with the company for many years and has established sound credibility generally has more flexibility with their schedule, while a junior pilot will have less wiggle room when it comes to requesting popular days off, like weekends, holidays or family events.


Arriving at the Briefing Room

Regardless of what time you start, an airline pilot will need to be in the briefing room at their designated airport to meet with the crew an hour to an hour and a half before takeoff. This meeting is intended to let pilots and crew members discuss pre-flight plans. Additionally, because of the massive amounts of pilots and flight attendants employer under the major airlines, you likely won’t know the people you’re flying with – this a provides a good opportunity to get acquainted with one another.  


Ensuring the Plane is Safe for Flight

After you receive the appropriate paperwork from the flight service station and air traffic control, review the maintenance status of your plane. This will help you understand potential problems that could arise and potentially ground the plane. Safety is your top priority as an ATP captain, you need to ensure that all of the essential components are in working order.


Additionally, go over the aircraft maintenance history to understand which parts have been recently repaired or have had issues in the past. This is important to get a holistic view of the aircraft, and can be crucial in helping crew members identify and troubleshoot problems, should an emergency arise mid-flight.


Monitoring Weather Radars and Reports

Airline transport pilots are the best in the business, and must be capable of safely navigating a plane under the pressure of inclimate weather. It becomes second nature for pilots to monitor and track the weather from the airport they take off from to the one they land at. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires jets flying into specific types of weather to add enough fuel to reach an alternate airport should they be unable to land at their intended destination.


Reviewing the Flight Plan

The flight plan is one of the most crucial parts of the pre-flight process, providing information such as routes, passenger load, potential high-turbulence areas, weather patterns and fuel requirements. It’s a snapshot that provides key information to the airplane staff and the crew on the ground.


After you’ve reviewed the flight plan and approved of the maintenance and weather reports, you’ll sign off the flight plan. The crew and pilots then approve it with the dispatcher and board the plane.


Pre-Flight Routine

Once aboard the airplane, pilots and crew members begin their pre-flight routine. This involves tasks such as safety checks, emergency systems tests and more. The crew ensures that all of the proper safety equipment is in the right places and that the cockpit door is secure.  


As the passengers board and get comfortable in their seats, the pilot is working on programming the flight management system (FMS). This computer system automates a number of in-flight tasks, which helps reduce the workload on the flight crew. When the system receives the flight plan and the aircraft’s position, the FMS calculates your flight path. The pilot can follow this course manually or the set the autopilot to follow the course.


The programming of the FMC is the most labor-intensive part of pre-flight prep and requires the highest degree of accuracy. The FMC, in conjunction with the auto-flight and navigation systems, calculates the most efficient altitudes and airspeeds to fly and allows the aircraft to precisely fly along the filed route.


Once the crew wraps up their pre-flight routine, you will run through the pre-flight list one more time and confirm that the plane is ready for flight. If you’re thinking of becoming a pilot, you should be detail-oriented – the number of steps that are required for takeoff can reach hundreds for most commercial flights.


Time for Takeoff!

After the flight attendants have completed their pre-flight routine, you turn on the fasten seat belt sign and lineup on the runway. At last, you’ve been cleared for takeoff. You push on the thrusters as you accelerate to 160 MPH. A rush of adrenaline hits you as your Boeing 737 parts ways with the ground below. The elements of the landscape ahead become smaller and smaller, until you’ve finished your ascent, reaching a steady cruising altitude of 45,000 feet.


Once the plane takes flight, the busy work is done, and the real job begins. As you activate auto-pilot and an attendant brings you your coffee, you gaze out at the curvature of the earth and reflect on why you love your job.


Mid-Flight Duties

No matter how long your flight is, which could be anywhere from a short one-hour trip to a marathon 15-hour flight, you’ll have a series of mid-flight duties to complete. The most important task is to monitor instruments and ensure you’re flying the correct path, fuel levels are appropriate, engines are running smoothly, and that the cabin pressure and temperature are at comfortable levels. You’ll also be providing regular updates and communication to air traffic control. Even during the downtimes, in the middle of the night, the flight deck can be especially active. There are radio and satellite reports to draw up, navigational elements to program and various other route procedures to actively monitor.


Additionally, you’ll be giving flight updates to your passengers over the loudspeaker. You need to inform them of arrival time, high-turbulence areas and other in-flight happenings. It’s your job to create a welcoming environment on behalf of your crew and airline.


When a pilot needs a bathroom break he is welcome to take one. If he needs to stretch his legs and get his blood flowing, he stands up and walks around the cabin. On long-haul flights, additional pilots are available who can take over for the main crew, letting them to grab some sleep or otherwise relax. Many commercial planes contain crew bunks for both pilots and flight attendants, while others have specific cabin seats for use to rest.


But that’s not the only thing pilot’s get to do while they’re on the job. While sometimes reading or sleeping is appropriate on long flights, to kill time, oftentimes, pilots will chat about life, make jokes and  get to know each other, just like normal co-workers in other professions do. They also get to enjoy some of the most beautiful sunsets, moonrises and other natural marvels from the best seat in the world.  


Prepare for Landing

As you’re cleared for your initial descent, you steer the plane downwards toward the landing strip at your destination. You adjust the airspeed and landing gear as you approach the runway. You may slow the aircraft by reducing thrust, creating drag with the plane’s flaps, or employ the use of speed brakes. After the wheels have touched down, you engage the reverse thrusters to help slow the giant aircraft.


When you reach taxiing speed, welcome your passengers to the city and tell them to remain seated until the plane has come to a complete stop and the seatbelt sign has been turned off. As you pull up to the gate, another safe, successful flight has been completed. You thank your passengers for choosing your airline as they file off the plane.


Post-Flight Procedures

Once the plane has been emptied of its passengers, post-flight procedures can take place. Shut the engines down and flip the master switch, and head to the briefing room for a flight and maintenance review. These post-flight briefings are imperative to ensuring the performance of the entire team. After your piloting duties are officially over for the day, you’re on a layover until your return trip to base in the morning.


A Night in a New City

One of the many advantages becoming an airline pilot can afford you includes the chance to experience unique and entertaining cities all around the world.  Airline companies book hotel rooms and sometimes suites for their pilots – you’ll often spend nights, days or even weeks at a time in cities you’ve never dreamed of seeing. There’s a legal limit on the number of hours a pilot can fly before they have to get a legally required amount of rest.


Oftentimes, it’s the people with a keen sense of adventure and wanderlust who become airline pilots.


Ready to Take-off in Your New Career?

Does the lifestyle of an airline pilot sound appealing to you? If so, look to Inflight Pilot Training for all of your pilot training needs. If you’re searching for more information on an Airline Transportation License, contact Inflight today via our contact page or call us at (952) 698-3000 to see what our instructors can do for you.