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  • Writer's pictureRobin Gilmore

Behind the Cockpit Door

We've chatted with a flight attendant, we've heard from a cruise ship worker, and now it's time to hear from one of the people who sits behind the cockpit door.

Whether we love flying or we're scared of every little bump in the air, it's safe to say if we had a chance to chat with a pilot we would have tons of questions. Thankfully, we were able to chat with a super friendly pilot who was kind enough to answer our (large) handful of questions. Here's some of what he had to say...

Q: How long have you been a pilot?

A: 9 years. I've been an airline pilot since 2015, but I started flight training in 2010.

Q: Why did you want to become a pilot?

A: I've always loved airplanes and I've wanted to be a pilot since I was a kid. In Africa you only see planes in the air, not really on the ground. But my dad was an engineer and flew all over Africa, so I was fortunate to be able to fly to see him.

Q: How many airlines have you worked for? Are they basically the same or very different, and how?

A: I've worked for 3 airlines. I started with Envoy Air in 2015 then I worked with CommutAir, and now I'm a United Airlines pilot.

The work is the same, but the company identity is different, so are the routes and the airplanes flown. It's like being a doctor but working in different hospitals. The culture and crews are different and so are things like the way you report, whether or not you go out with your crew, how the company treats you, and how the company treats people. Envoy is a big company with more than 2,500 pilots. CommutAir only had 350 pilots so it was more of a family. At Envoy there were people I only flew with once in my whole career there, but at CommutAir I'd fly with the same captains over and over. United has a family feel also, but there are 12,500 pilots.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a commercial airline pilot?

A: Hang in there. Becoming a pilot isn't an easy task at all. It can be challenging and demanding. We have to study a lot and there's also a practical side because we have to use what we learned, just like lawyers and doctors. We have to be book smart and street smart. Some people are book smart, but can't fly.

Being an airline pilot is difficult initially, but it really does get better.

Q: What’s the best way to get an upgrade as a pilot?

A: I left Envoy and went to CommutAir for my upgrade to United. Upgrades are coming down even in the mainline (aka legacy carriers - United, Delta, and American). United upgrade is 3 years, which is pretty good. When it comes to equipment upgrades, the upgrade on some equipment like the 777 is still about 17-20+ years, but for the most part upgrades are coming down.

[Some smaller airlines, like CommutAir, have a specific program in place to put pilots on a direct path to flying with a major airline like United.]

Q: What’s your favorite part about being a pilot?

A: The job is different. I couldn't do an office job. I don't even think I could do any other job. I go to different places every day so the job is never the same. Even if I fly the same route things are different. The people are different, the weather is different, etc. I love the things we get to see from the cockpit. Sometimes we see things that just make your jaw drop in the cockpit, like the wonders of the world.

Q: What’s something you wish you could tell passengers?

A: I think many people easily get upset and I'd suggest they calm down and keep smiling. Without them I wouldn't have a job and couldn't put food on my table, so I'd definitely thank them and tell them to fly with us again. Also, to feel free to ask to visit the cockpit. On the airplane I fly, the 757 / 767, we carry about 290 people, but so many people walk on the plane and don't even look in the cockpit.

Q: Is there anything you wish you could change about your job or the industry?

A: I’m gone a lot. I’m home by myself. You have more friends at work, but less friends at home. You’re almost more alone at home than at work, but I enjoy being home on the couch watching movies, and I also love traveling. The industry is set up so we have one family at home and one on the go. That's the only one downside I see about being a pilot is being gone so much, and that works better for some people more than others.

Q: What’s your favorite story / experience you’ve had as a pilot?

A: My favorite part is teaching. I was an instructor at CommutAir. I loved picking up students on day 1 being super scared, but by the time we finished on day 4 they're absolutely calm and it feels like they've been there forever.

I also love seeing the smile on passengers faces when they arrive safely and get to hug their family and friends. Unlike most other jobs, we get to change people's lives every single day.

Q: What would you say to someone who’s afraid to fly?

A: Honestly I'd say if you’re not scared of water, you shouldn’t be scared of the air, but most people are scared of water too. I'd let them know that airplanes are designed to handle so many things. It’s the safest means of transportation. The accident rate has gone down to almost nothing compared to what it was a couple years ago. Flying is something you get used to. You'd be surprised to know there are so many pilots who are afraid of heights, but it's a calculated risk. Whenever you see multi-engine airplanes, know that one engine can produce enough power to fly the plane. So I don’t think it’s something to be afraid of.

Q: What do pilots talk about in the cockpit?

A: Pilots talk about a lot in the cockpit. We have CVRs (cockpit voice recorder) in the cockpit that record everything we say, but it can't be used against us, it's only for investigations. We talk about personal things. I've had a pilot cry to me in the cockpit before. The thing is once you get in the cockpit with another person you're trusting them with your life. It's a very intimate relationship. It's a bond that you build for the duration of the flight. Pilots and crew (flight attendants) are the best at creating trusted relationships. You may be with the same crew for 4 days then you may not see them again for 4 years. United has 12,500 pilots. What are the odds I'd fly with that many people every year? Very slim. In the cockpit we create bonds with each other and you can tell that person your whole life. Pilots talk about anything and everything. We talk about life, children, divorce, feelings, pain, grief, career, dogs, etc.

Q: Do pilots ever get bored in the cockpit? If so, what do you do to pass the time?

A: Yes, we do sometimes. Pilots are usually talking people and we typically only get bored if we’re flying with someone we don’t like or don’t talk to. To kill time we'll read, watch Netflix, listen to music, keep quiet, or just look out the window. Pilots think a lot and have deep thoughts so we may just be looking out the window thinking.

Q: Should passengers be concerned about the cleanliness of airplanes?

A: No, I don’t think so. We (crew members) are because we’re superstitious. We tend not to think we are, but we are. It is a toxic environment though. United flew 156 million people last year (almost half of the US population) and everyone touches everything. It's like going to a restaurant. Everyone touches menus in restaurants. Airplanes are clean in terms of air, but they don’t wipe down every chair after every flight. I'd recommend you bring your own wipes. There shouldn't be a 3-second rule in an airplane.

It's so easy for us to travel on these amazing trips and forget about the talented and generous people who have such a huge part is getting us to and from our destinations. It was such a privilege to chat with such a kind-hearted pilot who loves what he does.

Typically, in order to encounter a pilot you have to have a trip planned :) If you don't, we'd be happy to sit down with you to plan your next great escape. Please feel free to call, email, or stop by any time!

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