There are certain moments during a pilot’s career that they will share years later with their grandchildren. These days, a flight to Berlin-Tegel is routine, yet still as thrilling as ever. The one that took place on a dull Monday in October 2010 marked a great day in my life, as this was my first flight as an airline pilot.
Having previously completed an apprenticeship as an auto mechanic, in 2008 I enrolled at Swiss Aviation Training and began the comprehensive process of becoming a pilot. As though it were only yesterday, I can recall my first day as a pilot, a position I had worked hard to achieve over a period of many years.
On that particular morning I put on my pilot’s uniform for the first time for a flight and looked forward to at last occupying the right-side seat in the cockpit. Shortly after mid-day I reported for duty at the Operations Center counter at Zurich Airport. Full of anticipation and a little bit nervous at the same time, I began the process for what would be my first official flight assignment.
Aspiring pilots at Swiss International Air Lines undergo thorough and rigorous training that concludes with a three-month period of practical route introduction. Upon successful completion of this phase, they earn the rank of First Officer. To ensure that the first few days of route flying go as smoothly as possible, the rookie pilot is joined by two experienced colleague, one a captain and the other a flight instructor, plus a First Officer who has completed additional training. The latter is called a SWISS “Ausbildungs-First-Officer”, or AFO, and accompanies fledgling pilots on their first assignments.
As arranged earlier, I met my AFO and under his guidance I gathered the necessary flight documentation and went through this paperwork with the captain on the flight. We worked out the amount of fuel required for the flight to Berlin and briefed the cabin crew on the day ahead – to Berlin-Tegel and back and then to Vienna, with an overnight stop.
From time to time, my AFO gave me valuable tips. The security check and bus journey to the aircraft passed in a matter of seconds. My thoughts were already in the cockpit and on the duties ahead. I had barely taken my seat when the first passengers boarded. In a few minutes the flight would be under way. Somewhat awkwardly I went through the checklist and discussed take-off with the crew.
Away we go!
We punctually set our “Papa-Tango” (a SWISS Airbus A319 with registration HB-IPT) in motion toward Runway 28. The cabin was ready, the checklists reviewed, and we then received clearance from the air traffic control tower: “Swiss 97 Tango, wind 210°/5 knots, Runway 28, cleared for take-off!” I switched on the stop-clock. My career as an airline pilot had begun!
The captain pushed the thrust lever forward and then handed over flight operation to me. “My controls” – now it was up to me to get the A319 off the ground. Concentrating intensely, I guided the aircraft down the middle of the runway and then took off. We set a northerly course, retracted the flaps and switched on the auto-pilot. My hand was clammy and shaking slightly when I let go of the control stick. At that moment I realized – I’m flying! I briefly enjoyed the moment and looked down as Lake Constance disappeared from view. My initial nervousness gradually faded.
Runway 26R, you are cleared to land
A mere 50 minutes later we were making our approach toward Runway 26R at Berlin-Tegel. The city was clearly recognizable, even the famous TV tower would have been perceptible, but I was concentrating too intently to enjoy the view. I reduced speed, gave the command to lower the flaps and the landing gear, and then switched off the auto-pilot. I then guided the 60-tonne aircraft with my right hand, received a final tip from my trainer, and soon afterward we touched down. I activated the thrust reverser and taxied to our parking position. I spotted a balloon with a “Smiley” image on the observation terrace. But I’m pretty sure that at that moment the grin on my own face was even bigger.
I observed my first passengers as the disembarked and wondered if any of them were aware that their flight had been operated by a first-time pilot?
If you’ve got the flying bug, you can find out more here about how to become a pilot on our website and by attending one of our regular career information events.