Just as a child’s first steps are unforgettable for its parents, there comes a moment in the life of pilots that they are sure to share with their grandchildren one day. These days, a flight to Berlin-Tegel is pretty much routine for me, but the one that took place on a cloudy Monday in October 2010 was a great day in my life. On that occasion I was able to take my first steps as an airline pilot.
That was the day I had been working toward for many years. The day on which I could wear my pilot’s uniform for the first time on a scheduled flight and occupy the right-hand seat of the flight deck. With great anticipation and a certain amount of nervousness, I reported for duty shortly after mid-day. Aspiring pilots of Swiss International Air Lines undergo comprehensive training, which concludes with a three-month phase of route introduction. Upon successful completion of this phase, the rank of First Officer is bestowed on the new aviator. To ensure that the early period of flight duty goes as smoothly as possible, the fledgling pilot benefits from the supportive presence of two experienced colleagues. One holds the rank of Captain and flight instructor; the other is a First Office who has undertaken additional training. At SWISS, they are designated “Ausbildungs-First Officer (AFO)”. In this role they accompany prospective pilots on their first flights. As arranged, I met my AFO and, under his guidance, gathered the required flight documentation.
On that day, everything went very quickly. Together with the captain we worked our way through the numerous flight documents, determined the amount of fuel we would need for the flight to Berlin, and informed the cabin crew about the flight ahead. My crew and I would first fly from Zurich to Berlin-Tegel and back, and then on to Vienna, where we would stay the night. My AFO gave me some important tips and showed me things that would later become routine. The security check and bus transfer to the aircraft passed in a matter of seconds. My thoughts were already in the cockpit and on the task awaiting me. Immediately after I had taken my seat, the first passengers boarded the aircraft. In a few minutes, we would be on our way. Somewhat complicatedly, I went over the checklist and discussed the take-off with my crew.
Right on schedule we guided our «Papa-Tango» toward Runway 28. With the cabin crew ready and the checklist sorted, permission to take-off was given: «Swiss 97Tango, wind 210°/5kts, runway 28, cleared for take-off!» I switched on the stopwatch, my life as an airline pilot had begun!
The captain pushed the thrust lever forward and then handed over control of the flight to me. «My controls», I responded. It was then up to me to get the A319 airborne. Concentrating intensely, I steered the aircraft down the middle of the runway and took off a short time later. Flying in a northerly direction, I retracted the flaps and switched on the autopilot. My palm was moist with perspiration and my hand trembled slightly as I let go of the side-stick. At this moment I realized fully that I was flying! For a brief moment I enjoyed the view, gazing down as we left Lake Constance behind.
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 visible, and the famous television tower would have probably also been identifiable, but I was concentrating too intently to admire the view. I reduced speed, extended the landing flaps and the landing gear, and switched off the autopilot. I was then piloting a machine weighing some 60 tonnes with my right hand. I received a few final tips from my AFO and then the aircraft touched down. I activated the thrust reverser and applied the brakes. The Captain then took control of the aircraft and we taxied to our parking position. On the observation terrace I spotted a balloon decorated with a smiley. However, I was certain that the grin on my own face was considerably bigger.
As I observed the passengers leaving the aircraft I wondered if any of them had realised that on this day they had flown with a rookie pilot.