Every day millions of people queue at airport check-ins, hand over their luggage and stream through security. Just a short wait at the gate before you board, and then you’ve done all you need to do until arrival. You can recline in your seat and just travel from point A to point B. But what is going on, meanwhile, in the front part of the aircraft? How demanding is this kind of rotation on a long haul, and how do pilots combine their working schedule with leisure hours and family? We accompanied SWISS Boeing 777 First Officer Judith Niedmers on her rotation to San Francisco, and had a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes of a pilot’s life.
Judith’s day starts at 11.00 am at Zurich airport‘s Operation Centre. Here she meets the Captain and the second First Officer of her flight for a joint briefing. Prior to this, they have all made their own individual preparations for the working day. The three pilots discuss weather conditions, the number of passengers, the weight of the aircraft, the best route to take and the amount of kerosene that will be needed. Countless factors are taken into consideration, and various scenarios thought through. They then go on to a briefing with the cabin crew. Although they are probably seeing most of them for the first time, there is an easy and relaxed atmosphere at once. Finally the pilots sit down once again as a threesome and discuss the different phases of the flight, before going through crew security checks and boarding the plane. There’s a lot of radio communication back and forth before they reach the right position on the runway, and are ready for takeoff. All three pilots are now in the cockpit. This is known as the ‘sterile cockpit phase’, during which the pilots get ready for the start of the flight. Only when they have reached an altitude of 10,000 feet can they discuss other matters. These include the ‘fatigue risk management’ aspect, for instance. To avoid exhaustion while flying, each of the three cockpit crew members takes a turn in sleeping while the other two remain in charge. Judith is assigned the first break. In the upper part of the 777 there is a sleeping berth with beds, where the pilots can take turns relaxing. Each has a rest period amounting to one third of the flight, so it is all worked out who will be sitting in the cockpit during each phase of the journey. The division of labour between the currently active pilots is also strictly regulated at all times. Each of them has a clearly defined set of tasks, depending on the function assigned to them. The profession of pilot is one that focuses on process, in which loads of data must be continuously compared and controlled. So the myth that once the autopilot is switched, on the pilots have nothing to do is misleading.
In spite of continuous monitoring and calculations, there is still time for some conversation in the cockpit. Judith tells us how she came to choose this career path. When she was 16 years old, she made a school exchange to Canada. The uncle in her host family was a pilot, and let her fly with him for the first time in a small plane. This immediately kindled her enthusiasm. For her eighteenth birthday her mother gave her a course of flying lessons, as a result of which she finally decided that flying was her dream profession. ‘That was my plan A; there wasn’t any plan B.’ When her first job application with an airline was unsuccessful, she decided to take private training as a pilot. ‘Financially speaking that was certainly a risk – more than I was aware of at the time,’ Judith admits. But in her case the investment paid off. After completing her training she was soon taken on by SWISS, and within two years became a pilot of what was then its Avro RJ fleet.
‘Pilots are lucky in that you don’t have any defined career path, but all the same you are always getting new challenges thrown at you. So you go on developing all the time.’ You start as First Officer on short flights, then graduate to the long haul, then you go back to short flights as a captain and then, as the final accolade, you are allowed to captain long haul flights. Training with a flight simulator varies the routine, as does the fact that on every flight you are working with a different crew. If that isn’t varied enough for you, there are still many other options for making life more interesting – as a flight instructor, for example, by going into fleet management or by doing some other kind of office work for part of the time.
‘Back then when I started my training, I didn’t actually have any clear idea what the daily life of a pilot was like in concrete terms – apart from the fact that you’re often going to be travelling with a suitcase. And I certainly wasn’t wrong about that.’ Generally speaking, she goes on, the daily life of a pilot has plenty of benefits – starting from quite little things, like doing the laundry: something you don’t have to do as frequently as people with an office job, since the cleaning of uniforms is all organised for you. Judith also sees advantages in the time off: ‘Working long haul, I have about 14 days free every month. I need some just to catch up on my sleep. But it’s useful that free days tend to include ordinary working days, so it’s not a problem getting tradespeople to do things for you.’ The only thing that can be challenging is that you have to plan your life ahead. ‘You need to be able to count on your friends’ flexibility,’ the young pilot explains – ‘and in my case it works out pretty well.’ Apart from friends, Judith also has enough free time for a wide range of leisure activities. She’s with the SWISS Singers, and she’s also a captain of the SWISS sailing team. ‘The good thing about these internal SWISS clubs is that your colleagues know about the odd working hours, and understand if you aren’t able to make it to a rehearsal.’ She doesn’t think planning a family should be difficult to balance with a pilot’s life, either. She says she knows plenty of flyers with children, and they don’t have a problem.
We go on to discuss why female pilots are so much in the minority. ‘It could be because the job has somewhat male connotations, and there are fewer female role models in the profession. Gender-specific upbringing could also have something to do with it. It’s probably still the case today that girls are less likely to be given a plane to play with than boys. So they are less likely even to think of the idea of becoming a pilot.’ It is important that people understand that there are no gender preferences in the selection of pilots. And the more women become pilots, the more female role models girls will have. ‘My male colleagues too would like to see more women in the cockpit.’ The First Officer and the Captain – both men – express unanimous agreement.
By this time, after eleven hours flying time, we are getting ready for the approach to landing. Here Judith needs to be really focused, as she is responsible for the landing today. Again there is a lot of radio communication, calculation and discussion with a view to planning the ideal approach. She stays very calm through all this, even though the landing process is very demanding and calls for a lot of adaptability. Once we emerge from the clouds, we get into a breathtaking approach flight over the water to land directly on the runway of San Francisco’s airport.
During the stopover time in San Francisco, Judith can do what she likes. ‘Actually you always have the chance of doing something together with another crew member – but you can also do your own thing, if that’s what you prefer. So anybody can plan their stopover in whatever way they want. Just now, when I’m still relatively new to Boeing 777s and so am always discovering new destinations, I often set off to explore the town. Crew members who already know the place may have different plans. At some destinations many already have friends and acquaintances, and can meet up with them when stopping over.’
Finally Judith tells us about the highlights of her pilot’s career. Perhaps the most moving thing she experienced goes back to her time in training. ‘I had a flying instructor in the school who had come to Germany from Turkey, and worked for years as a taxi driver. This was his way of saving money to finance his pilot’s training. He had always dreamed of becoming a pilot. After completing school he worked as an instructor, and I often flew with him. We always had a lot of fun. Then some years later I was on an international flight when suddenly I heard his voice coming out of the radio. In the intervening time he had gone on to qualify as a pilot. It was such a beautiful thing, after all that had led up to it.’
In the middle of the night, by Swiss time, we start the return flight. That shows you once again how demanding a pilot’s life is, and how pilots need to be adaptable. But the effort is rewarded on a daily basis with new impressions and adventures.