What an Airline Pilot Thinks About at 30,000 Feet

These are the words of an anonymous airline captain who’s been piloting planes for a major European carrier for 20 years. The pilot, who requested anonymity, talked with FareCompare in a wide-ranging interview that took place in May and June.

See his thoughts on flying, plus reassuring words about the people who pilot our planes, as well as a couple of scary stories and the obligatory “drunks-on-a-plane” tale.

On Colleagues – “Easygoing but Disciplined”:

Pilots – “They’re easygoing, but disciplined individuals, who put the passenger first in all they do. Safety and caution is simply in their blood. At the same time, most of them are fun and interesting to spend time with…”

Cabin Crews – “Some are in it hoping to see the world in 12 months of jet-setting, but many have been in it for a long career, and do a fantastic job.”

“Then there are those who’ve seen it all before, are determined to hang on in for the pension, and who may even have given up on passengers and colleagues generally. These are the ones that passengers remember the easiest!”

On Flight Attendant Accusations that “Pilots Hide in the Cockpit”:

“Sometimes we thank our lucky stars for that locked flight-deck door!”

“I know some pilots have worked as flight attendants before, and they tell me they wouldn’t want to swap jobs for any amount of money. All I can say is we’re happy to avoid the drama.”

On Soccer Fans and U.S. Presidents:

“I’ve carried a planeload of English soccer fans back from a game in Europe, and it was a challenge to keep everyone in line. Then again, I’ve carried former President George Bush Sr. and his entourage back from a conference in Geneva, and he was a lot easier to handle!”

“I like passengers to enjoy their time onboard as much as possible, but I also like them to remember we’re all crammed into a tiny space moving at close to the speed of sound, five miles high.”

It’s Not Too Late to Find a Cheap Flight for Summer Vacation

On Drunks on Planes:

“A few years ago when I was a First Officer, there was this one guy who was enormous, verbally abusing other passengers and already pretty drunk.”

“I had enlisted the potential support of other crew and passengers [if needed], and then chose to invite him to the galley at the very back of the airplane and engage with him to try and calm him down. He started off being really rude to me, demanded to see the Captain instead of some ‘junior jet-jockey’.”

But our pilot stayed, and listened. And that’s all it took.

“Once he realized he just couldn’t get a fight started easily, and saw that I was genuinely listening to him, he let me know he was on prescription drugs, grieving the recent death of his best friend, and just felt totally isolated. Once we had built that tiny strand of trust, he seemed to settle down a bit, agreed to sit back in his seat, and I waved off the back-up team who had feared the worst.”

“The effects of alcohol can be magnified in the rarefied atmosphere onboard at high altitude, and it’s important any early signs of inebriation be pointed out to cabin crew before the situation deteriorates – for everybody’s sake.”

When the alcohol wears off…

“It’s hugely embarrassing for the passenger involved when they land and realize the trouble they’ve caused everyone else. They usually find this out as they’re sobering up in the descent!”

Find the Cheapest Available Flights to Europe (and maybe meet this pilot)

On Freak Accidents in Mid-Flight:

“I remember it was the dead of night, and all was quiet on the flight deck. The first sign that something was wrong was a faint burning smell. Then suddenly, there was a large sheet of flame shooting across my windshield from right to left!”

“The heating element that keeps the glass from breaking up at such low atmospheric temperatures had momentarily failed and short-circuited. Then ‘BANG!’ as the glass layer fractured into a crazy pattern in front of my staring eyes!”

The plane landed safely, but the co-pilot had to take over at the very end – since our pilot couldn’t see out of his side of the windshield.

On Scary Turbulence:

“I once was flying to an airport in Germany in the height of summer, and the cabin crew asked me if a particularly nervous passenger could visit us in the flight deck before take-off to gain some reassurance. I told him calmly the weather forecast was really rather nice, and to expect a smooth flight. How wrong I was that day!”

The weather began to deteriorate – quickly.

“Before I could even turn the aircraft around we were hit by severe turbulence which lasted for what seemed like ages. The passengers were screaming, some were being physically sick, and even I thought we might not make it out of there.”

And once the plane landed?

“I walked back to see bags and belongings strewn across the floor, and the passengers as white as ghosts. The nervous flyer from before had to be almost carried off the airplane that day he was so ill.”

On Passengers – “Like Cattle Amidst the Chaos”:

“Airports and airspace, never mind the airlines, can barely cope, and customers sometimes end up feeling like cattle amidst the chaos. Charging extra for baggage and fuel surcharges have left many feeling bewildered and offended. So while flying is more common, it’s often more stressful than in the past.”

“Nowadays, when I greet my passengers at the door, or say goodbye, sometimes they barely choose to make eye-contact. It’s a less friendly place to be, onboard a jet.”

On Pilots – “Flying Feels Less Glamorous”:

“We’ve been asked year after year for pay freezes or even pay-cuts. As a result, almost all pilots I talk to feel their job status has been slowly but irrevocably downgraded. Flying feels less glamorous now than at any time since I started.”

“Don’t get me wrong, there’s still not many of us leaving the profession, but less and less pilots I know are recommending the career to their sons and daughters – which says a lot about morale generally.”

On the Joy of Flying:

“Yes, there are many days when you’re truly grateful to be doing a job you know you love. It’s always a joy to get above the clouds and see the sun, after all.”

“Probably the best thing about my job is the absolute requirement on a daily basis, to place yourself IN the moment, particularly when landing the airplane.”

“The satisfaction of having to safely take-off, fly to your destination, and carefully, lovingly even, land that airplane at the end, is what keeps all of us on our toes, and full of enthusiasm for the job.”

Want to Hear Even Better Pilot Stories? Here’s How:

“When you’re out and about, buy any pilot you meet a drink; then, sit back, and enjoy the results!”

Our pilot hastens to add that the above applies only to pilots who won’t be flying the next day.



Published: July 1, 2010