Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Schedules and time off

I’m often asked “Do you get a lot of time off?” and “How does your schedule work?”

Well these can both be answered with the same explanation. We pilots do get a fair amount of time off of work and it’s a product of how our schedules work.

Most airline pilots will ‘bid’ for a schedule month to month. The process is driven by seniority; i.e. the pilot that’s been at the airline the longest gets first choice and so on down the line to the last guy. This is also relative to the seat position. The Captains all bid for their schedule separately from the First Officers, etc.

Typically at the beginning of the month, a bid package will come out. This contains the available trips for that month. They frequently change as schedules and cities served can change just as often. The trips are anywhere from 1 day to 14 days long depending on what type of flying you are doing. A normal domestic airline trip may be 3-4 days long and some international ‘round the world’ trips can be as long as 15 days.

For simplicity, I’ll use a 4-day domestic trip schedule as an example.

It’s May 1st and the bid package came out. I want to work Monday – Thursday and have 3 day weekends this month. So I’ll look through the available trips and find the ones that I want that not only start on Monday, but go to the cities that I want to fly to and are productive. A productive trip is one that lets us fly as close to the FAA maximums allowed in the time that we are at work.

So I’ve found 5 trips that fit my criteria, and I bid for those. As a backup I’ll bid to fly similar trips that maybe start on Tuesdays instead. Depending on my seniority, I’ll either get the Monday - Thursday schedule or the Tuesday – Friday schedule.

I usually end up with 4 four-day trips. Thus, I work 16 days per month and have the remainder of the month off. The thing to remember is that when at work, a pilot is away from home for days at a time. So, you can’t stop off on the way home at the post office, or to get your oil changed or even cut your lawn after you get home. All of that is usually condensed into 3-4 days while at home. The up side to that is, when we are home, we are home. We aren’t getting called back into the office, or having to work from home to complete a project that has a deadline. It does take some getting used to but once you are used to it, it’s really a great schedule.

Friday, February 8, 2008

East to West, West to East

Hello again,

I have had several questions about why it takes so long to fly to the west coast and it is so short fling from the west coast, eastbound. The simple answer is this: headwind.

That answer usually gets a funny look and an "I know that" response. The mechanics of how the headwind and tailwind actually effect the plane are this. Airplanes all fly based on and in reference to 'Airspeed'. This is how we determine how fast we are going. Air Traffic Control (ATC) will ask: "what's your airspeed?" Airspeed is defined as the relative speed through the air that an airplane is flying. Simple right? Well, yes and no. There's several different kinds of airspeed such as Calibrated, True, Indicated, etc. For this segment, we'll deal in True, which is that speed the plane is moving relative to still air.

Back to the wind. When the wind is on the nose (headwind) of the plane, at say 100, and the plane is going 400 the head wind is subtracted from the true airspeed and you get a ground speed of 300. So in 5 hours, you will fly 1500 miles. Conversely, when you have the same plane turned around the other direction, the wind is now acting as a tailwind and you add the 100 to the 400 and you now have a ground speed of 500. That means the same 1500 miles will be a 3 hour flight.

Hopefully, this answers that question. Again, if you have anything specific, feel free to ask!!

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Winter is fully upon us and it’s time for snow, ice and de-icing. Why de-ice? When ice, frost, snow or anything else is stuck to the wings it will cause the wings to lose lift. Lift makes the airplane fly and if you lose lift, well, you’re going to have a really bad flight! There are many documented cases in recent aviation history where planes either ran off the end of the runway or crashed because of icing. Two notable instances are: Air Florida in Washington DC back in 1982. When the plane could not attain adequate speed to takeoff (because of ice) from a snowy runway and ended up in the Potomac River. Continental Airlines in Denver, CO in 1987 had snow and ice on the wings that prevented the plane from being able to generate the lift required to takeoff. Though the pilots tried to get the plane in the air, it did not happen and crashed off the end of the runway.

Luckily, under today’s rules ALL aircraft must be free of contaminants before taking off. Most airlines operate under the “clean aircraft” concept. This simply means that the aircraft is completely clean of all frost, snow, ice etc.

So, you are sitting in your seat and the Captain announces that “…we will be de-icing today.” Here’s an inside look at what is happening up front. The pilots will determine where the de-icing will take place. Normally, this location is up to the airport as each one has their own rules on how and where to de-ice. At some airports such as Boston, the de-icing will take place at the gate due to minimal space on the airport. If you are in Denver, or Pittsburgh, it will take place at a remote pad designated for de-icing.

When the pilots arrive at the de-ice pad, they will get the airplane configured for the de-icing process. The configuration is specific for the type of aircraft. Typically, the pilots will shut off the air conditioning system causing the plane to get a bit stuffy. This is done because if the fluid got into the A/C intakes outside, it would cause not only a very strong and nasty smell, but likely lots of smoke and we all know that smoke in a plane is a bad thing. So, the stuffy feeling is definitely the better option.

The people in the de-ice truck will drive around and spray an orangish-red colored fluid that knocks off the snow and ice. That fluid is known as ‘Type 1’. It is essentially a heated anti-freeze mixture, much like what you put in your car. Type 1 is heated to around 150 degrees F and that helps to knock off the snow and ice much faster which means a quicker de-ice and less fluid is used. If it’s snowing or there is freezing rain, they will follow with another fluid called ‘Type 4’. Type 4 is a green, thick, fluid that is not heated. This allows for a longer protection time against the snow. Because the fluid is cold, it stays on thick which prevents snow and ice from accumulating on the wings. The amount of time that the fluid protects the plane is called a ‘Hold Over Time’. The amount of hold over time is based upon a combination of temperature, and snow fall intensity. These times, though they vary, are anywhere from 20 minutes to 1 ½ hours. If the plane is still on the ground when the hold over time is exceeded, then the pilots have to go back and get de-iced again. Though it’s not a fun process to repeat, it is imperative for safety.

A few questions come up out of the whole process. First, people want to know if it is safe to fly in the snowy weather. As I explained above, it is if you take the right precautions before take off. Once in the air, the plane has its own ability to remove ice from the wings by way of heat. Second, the burnt sugar smell that almost always accompanies a de-icing. That smell is actually a trace amount of the fluid being sucked into the air conditioning system. By trace amount, I mean a few drops here and there. That’s enough to go through the heater (it is winter, the heater is going to be on) and burn up and give off the smell. The fluid is not actually being pumped into the cabin, just a bit of the smell from the drops burning up.

Hopefully, this answers any questions you had about de-icing. That flight you have coming up or just had, where you saw this entire operation take place will now make a little more sense.

As always, if you have a question, feel free to submit it and I’ll get you an answer.

Happy Holidays!!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Air Pockets

Whoa!! We just hit an air pocket! I have heard that so many times. Or I’ll hear someone tell me about the time that they “dropped 1000 feet” during a flight.

First, let me assure you that there is no such thing as an air pocket. From what I hear from the people who ask about it or describe having hit one, it’s a ‘void’ of air or a place where there wasn’t any air and therefore, they felt a bump. If they did exist in the natural world, they (by that definition) would be vacuums in atmosphere. IF they were to exist at altitude, then they would also have to exist near the ground right? How many times have you been walking down the street, skiing, laying in a hammock or anything else and had a complete momentary loss of air because you were suddenly in a vacuum?

Next, “we dropped 1000 feet”. That statement is a highly inaccurate exaggeration of the sensation that someone had when their flight hit a bump. Let’s all agree that 1000 feet is 1/5 of a mile (a mile being 5280 feet) and that 60 miles/hour is equal to 1 mile/minute.
We can also agree that 3600 miles/hour is 1 mile/second (60x60=3600). If you were to ‘fall’ or ‘drop’ 1000 feet in a second, (which is the time frame I hear in most traveling stories) you would be traveling 1/5 of a mile in a second so therefore you would be going 1/5 of 3600 miles/hour for just a second. That’s an instantaneous drop at 720 mph (1/5 [or .2] x 3600 = 720). If you were to experience that, it would be like hitting a brick wall at over 700 mph and you’d die from the force, not to mention the plane would break apart.

So what’s really happening?

Air is a fluid just like water, only the molecules are farther apart (and of different composition). If you ever look at a river, you’ll notice that the water moves pretty smoothly when going slow and its rougher when moving fast. Also, there are little spots along the river called eddies. Eddies are where the river water swirls along a bank and comes back on itself creating a smooth very slowly rotating reverse current. This gives a good layman’s example of fluid dynamics where fluids will naturally go in different directions.

Take the above example and apply it to air. Rather than the shore, rocks, etc. creating ups and downs, temperature and pressure differentials cause the air to move all around. If the pressure is lower in one part of the country, the higher pressure area will move to equalize it, thus causing wind. The warm air will rise and cool air will fall (remember 7th grade science class? ;-) causing up and down drafts.

So now we go back in the plane and we go bump. What just happened was that we either hit an up or down draft or caught a change in the direction of the wind. This causes everyone to feel the plane shake a bit. How far did we drop? I can say from experience that while watching the altimeter during a really bumpy ride, we may gain or lose 5-20 feet on a normally rough ride. If we were to get in to severe turbulence (the kind where you think or though you were going to die for sure) we’d lose 50-200 feet at a time but not instantaneously. Severe turbulence is rarely encountered and when it is, it’s reported so no other planes fly through that area until it passes.

All in all, that bumpy ride you had last time you flew, or will have the time after next is really nothing to worry about, even though it is no fun.

Here’s a picture of Boeing testing the wing of the 777. All aircraft builders are required to do these tests on their planes to ensure that they meet safety standards.

you would be sitting here….and the wing tip would be out of view out of the window, and the plane is still going to fly.

Auto Landings

I did say in my last post that I'd discuss Auto Landings in another thread so here it is.

Most large modern jets have the ability to 'Auto Land'. A few of these planes are the : Boeing 747, 757, 767, 777, 787 (not yet in service) some 737s; the Airbus 318, 319, 320, 321, 330, 340 and 380. There are others planes that can auto land, but that list covers most of what you'd see as a passenger these days. Another thing to note is that not only does the plane have to be capable, the pilots and the airline have to be signed off to do auto landings.

Auto Landing by definition is the autopilot landing the airplane without pilot intervention. The reason this ability is necessary is to allow a landing in very low visibility at the destination airport, all the way down to zero visibility.

All normal landings are couducted by the pilot and are done visually even in low visibility. I landed in D.C. the other day with low overcast skys and didn't see the runway until 700 feet above the ground.

When the visibility drops below the minimum allowed altitude for that runway, which is usually 2000 feet or as determined by the FAA, a visual landing is no longer deemed safe. This means that we will conduct an auto landing.

How it works:

We first will get a weather report and if the visibility is reported near or below the minimum allowed for a normal visual or a low visibility visual landing, we'll set up an auto landing.

We have to ensure that everything that is required to fly the apporach and land is in working order. That includes, both autopilots, our GPS systems, our glass cockpit displays, radios, instrument landing system indications and a few more items.

If that is all working we proceed with a long briefing about what we are specifically going to do on the approach and landing and what we will do if something breaks or goes wrong. We then fly the apporach to landing. During the arrpoach, we have only our instruments to tell us where we are until we either see the runway lights or we feel the wheels touch down. Because of this, we are extra vigilant about our positiion and altitude. We will each monitor certian items and will 'call out' anything that has failed or doesn't look right.

At 100 feet above the ground, I will call "ALERT" and if everything is still where it should be, we continue and let the plane land itself. The only intervention by the pilot is pulling the thrust back to idle and then to reverse after touchdown, even the brakes are automatic.

Whew! We're down and slowed to about 60 mph on the runway. Now we turn off the auto pilot and drive or taxi the plane toward the gate to let everyone get on their way. If the visibility is really low, we have to follow lights in the ground matched to our charts to see where we are going. In reality, we may fly in, land and park at the gate never seeing any farther than 100 feet ahead.

Hopefully, this answers a few of those questions about what's really going on up front.

Monday, October 29, 2007


A recent question came up about landing a plane. The question was "Why are some landings smooth and others hard?"

Well, first let me say that my landings are always smooth. That's a joke for those who have piloted a plane before. The reality of it is that not all landings can be smooth. While we pilots strive for that each and every time, we don't always get them.


There are several things happening during a landing. First off, the pilot is flying the plane. Many assume the auto pilot is landing the plane (see auto landings in a separate post). The pilot is busy correcting for changing wind conditions, modulating the power to maintain a desired airspeed and then at the last second, he/she will "Flare". A Flare is a maneuver where the pilot slows the descent to allow a smooth touchdown.

Things that can go wrong (for the pilot):

-Wind gust: a wind gust will sometimes add airspeed causing the plane to float like a balloon (known as ballooning) momentarily. This has to be corrected with precise control inputs so as to not fly to far down the runway making it hard to stop after touch down. Also the pilot is trying to prevent the plane from dropping onto the runway (hard landing) after the gust has subsided.

-Visual Illusion: pilots typically fly into airports that have similar sized runways in both length and width. As such, they get used to seeing a certain 'picture' when landing and will unconsciously maneuver the plane to land in that picture. The problem arises when the runway is much longer or shorter than the pilot is used to, or if its much narrower or wider than normal.
This can cause the pilot to flare too high or too low. Too high and the plane will ballon, too low and, well hard landing.

-Wind shear: if the wind were to shift from in front to behind (headwind to tailwind) during the flare, the resulting feeling is that the 'bottom falls out'. This too will result in a hard landing.

There are other things such as airport lighting, visibility and time of day (sunlight) that could affect the landing but a good pilot will always make a safe landing and make it as smooth as possible.


I have created this Blog for all of you who have that 'dumb' question that you want to ask an airline pilot and were always afraid to do so. Also for those who just want to get an insider's view on travel (air travel in particualr).

I hope to help anyone that reads this get a better understanding of air travel from many different prespectives.

Those looking for answers on anything from; What is turbulence? to How do I make a career as a pilot? and anything in between.

Who am I?

My name is Brian. I am a pilot for a major airline based in the northeastern United States. I have over 10 years flying experience in everything from small Cessna and Piper airplanes to Lear Jets, Regional Jets and Large Transport Jets. I currently fly the Airbus 320 which will carry anywhere from 130- 162 passengers depending on the configuration.

Feel free to ask questions that you'd like answered and suggest topics that you'd like to hear more about.

Thanks for visiting!