Aviation News

A Piece of the Pilot, by Rob Bach

by on Dec.31, 2009, under Articles, Aviation

People often ask me what it is like being an airline pilot.
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I have no adequate answer really…I supposed if I asked a philosopher the same question about her job, I would get about as much an answer as I could understand.
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The problem I have is that my description will begin in a reverent and joyous depiction but fall into a slow spiral through whistful nostalgia, whining discouragement, and a final full-fledged spinning rant into why airline management are greedy vampires.  I end up sounding like one of the petulant priviledged who knows he’s overpaid but not overpaid enough!

Yet, here I am 23 years in and looking ahead to 17 more.  And, yes in fact, I love my job. And no, I don’t think pilots are paid enough.

 So, to avoid bias, what I will do for you now is open a different door. Let’s look not at the big picture of an airline pilot’s life, but of a fraction of a second of a random slice out of a random flight.

 (This thought occurred to me while pre-flighting my Steed: an 80 ton beauty ready to breath fire from her twin underslung turbofans should I ask it of her.

To me, it was -20 degrees outside: cold enough, I thought, to make Time itself slow to a shuffle and warm its hands in a Quantum muffler. To her it was a balmy +5: windchill she does not feel and she spends most of her time in flight where it is a bracing -54C.)

Rob Bach_Turbo Fan_Airliner

 So let’s pick a piece of time out of this next flight and look at it closely through the mind of Me, your Captain for the Moment.

 We sit, mid day, westbound against the wind (100 knots or so),  370 knots over a frozen Iowa landscape and 38,000 feet of cold clear air between my seat and miles of cornfields below. The stubble of the stalks prick up through the thin cover of snow making the entire state look tired and in need of a shave.

 Just behind me to the east, the Mississippi River is a blood-black ribbon:  a scar left over from a glacier 10,000 years gone.  North is Minnesota and its thousands of lakes where thousands more fisherman wait for the freeze to do its magic. They will build entire towns over the water filled with hope and St Pauli Girl beer.

 South is a hard line of snow-free ground, brown and dormant, sleeping and dreaming of wheat and heat and combines and purpose.

 This is a magic chair I sit in. The higher I fly, the further back Time opens itself to me. I see the patterns geologic history has left in the rills and valleys, the steady rise of the land as we head west toward the Continental Divide. I can almost feel the pressures at work shaping it still, see the silent erosion wind and water work on the land.

Rob Bach captures the viewpoint of an Airline Captain

 A few minutes from now, I’ll see the tops of the Rockies rise on the horizon. But that is a future thought. Now I am monitoring the little jet we’re overtaking just below us bound for Denver and the big jet coming up from behind us heading to Maui. There are four other symbols on Screen 4 of six each marking the progress of other fast movers. These six fly in loose formation with us and will slowly diverge over the next hour or so.

 San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City wait to receive them in turn. Each of these cities know how to do that: their histories were built into the modern age by air mail pioneers and fledgling airline companies of the 30’s: Pickwick, West Coast Air Transport,  Maddux, Gilpin all gone. But the cities don’t mind and they wait for us just the same. These towns have been witness to the slow rise of the mind-stumping complexity that is the air traffic control system.

We are heading for Los Angeles still three hours away. A lot of things have to happen in a more or less  orderly fashion for us to arrive there safely, efficiently, comfortably, and timely.

 I have had to learn about all those things since my first solo flight in an old  Aeronca L3 30-some years ago. The complexity of the machine I’m flying demands it, the environment I’m flying through requires it. Years of sitting in various aircraft building experience, a slew of tests, multiple emergencies, hours and hours and hours of schooling.

Boeing 737 from an Airline Captain's Perspective

During this career, I’ve spent a third of my life asleep, another third on the road, and a third at home mostly aware of what’s going on around me. The first day after a trip, I shed my uniform, my duty, my command. It takes a few days to fully re-integrate back into normalcy. If I manage more than four days in a row at home, I start to feel like I’m missing the game above my head. I am benched, beached, out of the game. I am an alien in my own home. It’s very hard on spouses to live with half a person.

I dream of difficulty, of the challenge of the job. I practice emergencies in my head. I study other pilot’s mistakes, run scenarios, what-ifs. The extra practice has come in handy 14 times in the last 15,000 hours.

And, this instant, over the little town of Chariton, Iowa, is the culmination of all that work.

My goal is to use my experience to avoid having to use my skill.

I want to give my passengers a smooth un-eventful flight but know that no matter how perfectly I fly, I will be judged by the landing.

Realize that some of us land this beast only nine times a month. Some of those landings come after four hours of doing essentially nothing but monitoring systems. The first and last 40 minutes of every flight are the busy times. All that cruising is done with an auto-pilot: a fairly essential piece of equipment when you realize we fly a 500 mph see-saw with 400lbs of people and service carts moving forward and aft along the aisles. One second of inattention allows for a 200 foot altitude deviation and a black mark on our records.

That concentration over a four hour flight is tough to muster after a three-day tour around the time zones sleeping in strange beds, using little soaps, eating irregular food at irregular hours, while trying to keep in touch with our families. But, I am whining now.

Keep in mind when you next fly that what you are doing is fairly miraculous. That some very creative people designed a plane for some very talented people to build that other hard working people maintain for some very highly trained people to fly is just this side of amazing.

Landscape from an Airliner_Rob Bach_Friends of Aviation

So what is it like to be an airline pilot?

Take a moment out of your own life and look at the beauty even in the frustration, the boredom buried in potential excitement, the reward you reap from long study, the contentment from knowing you’ve done what you do better than anyone else, and the pride in yourself for never quitting along the path to that which you most wish to do.

Add  to that: daily geography lessons, an uncomfortable chair, a glorious view out your office window, self-doubt in the face of thunderstorms, fatigue, the joy that comes with remembering the names of all the waitresses in every Denny’s between Chicago and Seattle, missing half of your children’s lives, celebrating Christmas on December 16th because you work every holiday for the first half of your career, and knowing  you’ve helped a thousand people get to their families in time for their own celebrations.

Snow Landscape from the perspective of an Airline Captain in a Boeing 737, Rob Bach

There is constant preparation for annual schooling, twice a year physical exams…wait…there: whining.

It sounds like complaint and maybe it’s simply an unavoidable side affect of the task of telling the tale.

We may be on duty 14 hours a day, three or four days in a row…but I’m only paid for those hours spent in actual flight. Today, I got out of bed at 2:30 am and will fly for 7 hours 50 minutes to finish in another time zone by dinner. Total elapsed time from rising to rest: 16 hours.

For this sequence of three days at work, I’ll get paid 18 hours flight time. We are limited by regulation and fatigue.

Remember the last time you flew on the airlines? That tiredness you felt was from stress, dehydration, and airport food. Multiply that times three per day, three per week and you might get the sense of the conditioning required to perform at a high level year after year.

It is a challenging and rewarding career requiring some level of egoism, narcissism, self-confidence…and humility. When an accident happens, every pilot feels it like Obi Wan feels disturbances in the Force.  We have all lost good friends in this business and it’s hard to keep the Dark Side at bay.

Airplanes are amazing things, true, but I think it more incredible that pilots can manage the fluidness of time, space, and the variables of wind and weather and traffic, and birds as well as we do.

Art of Nature_Rob Bach_Friends of Aviation

Back to Now: the point in spacetime I sit stretches out in four dimensions and I am aware of them all. I calculate mass, speed, acceleration, energy, time remaining, weather. I monitor the machine itself, my emotional and physical state of being and that of those I work with.

Having given you a few hints as to what it’s like to be a pilot for hire, you might think it simply isn’t worth it. I mean, it costs a lot to train yourself up to standard and then spend the next 10 years just trying to get a flying job that pays enough to survive!

Why would I recommend this career to anyone else? If you would fly for free, then come fly with me. The money isn’t so good, but I have 700 little bottles of shampoo towards my retirement and for some reason, that makes me feel good.

Why would I recommend this career to anyone else? If you would fly for free, then come fly with me. The money isn�t so good, but I have 700 little bottles of shampoo towards my retirement and for some reason, that makes me feel good.

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10 Comments for this entry

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="li-comment-58">
    Ed Lachendro

    Man can I relate to this, nice job Rob!

    EdLA

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    class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="li-comment-59">
    Jola Godwod

    Nice writing.. Jola

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="li-comment-60">
    Cathy Babis

    Rob,

    I read this to my teenaged daughter (yeah, that 5 lb bundle you met in San Diego at Brown Field!) because of it’s beautiful description of the passion, dedication, and work that a career in aviation takes. I want to be on YOUR airplane when I travel.

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    class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="li-comment-61">
    Ric

    Rob, ol’ buddy, you’ve nailed it. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to explain the hours-or-boredom-moments-of-terror-groundspeed-sucks-with-headwind moments in the cockpit.

    Maybe IA27 THIS year? Meet ya in the Pub… and I’ll buy the first round. 🙂

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    class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="li-comment-63">
    Moriah Dawn

    Thank you for that well-written, informative and entertaining piece. I now have new reality, a load of respect for the commercial airplane pilot, and a desire for excitement.

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    class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="li-comment-64">
    Moriah Dawn

    Also those photographs were really perfect to go along with it. 🙂

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      class="comment even depth-2" id="li-comment-65">
      rob bach

      Thanks, Moriah!

      When there aren’t fields full of airplanes to photograph, I take the camera flying with me and keep my eye in shape shooting what I see at work.

      Each of these blog entries are products of imagination and the photos are reflections of the same light that goes into the words.

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    class="comment odd alt thread-even depth-1" id="li-comment-66">
    Don Carriker

    As an old, now-self-grounded SEL/Private Pilot who finally lived his passion for a relatively few years very late in his life, I can still relate to the beautiful, miraculous joy of sitting in a cockpit that you described so beautifully. High above whatever cares are being lived out in the world below, seeing things few men ever see, the sobering knowledge that I alone, barring things I cannot control, will determine in what condition I will bring myself and my “love” back to earth is a price I’ve gladly paid. I seldom entered the kingdom aloft without looking through the plexiglass and saying a heartfelt “Thank You” to God, and to the men and women who did more to earn for me the privilege of flying than I ever did. And I thank you for putting words together more beautifully and skillfully than I can do to describe a small portion of the privilege given to we pilots.

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    class="comment even thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="li-comment-67">
    Stephen Svanda

    My dear wife with an endearing heart purchased a sign for me that hang’s in my den and reads “A pilot and a normal person live here”. Very often when I’m not flying and my feet are on the ground instead of the rudder pedals, I’ll sit in my den with my thoughts and secretly smile at the words and think how lucky I am not having been born normal.

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    class="comment byuser comment-author-nickrahkonen odd alt thread-even depth-1" id="li-comment-108">
    Nick

    Thank you for the feedback. Always appreciated along with ideas and suggestions you may have!

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