Sometimes people ask me what it's like to be a pilot. "Wow, that must be so cool! I bet you're really smart. You must have been good at math in school. Are all pilots as handsome as you?" I've never gotten that last one. I made that up.
When asked about how thrilling it must be I agree that it is both fun and exciting. I like to perpetuate the myth. That's what we do. Spin yarn. Tell tall tales. Back in the day it was called "hangar flying" or something like that.
But the truth is it's never as adventurous as it sounds.
Below is a sample day. Actually, this isn't just a sample. This is every day. EVERY DAY.
The job is standardized and consistent for safety. Every flight begins and ends with the gear going up and then back down again. In that order. Very important. Take note.
On today's sample day I'm on day two of a four day trip. I fly out early and if all goes as planned I will be done by 4:00 pm in Florida. Very important… if all goes as planned. There are lots of in’s and out’s.
We start in a midwest town known for their Vikings and a guy called Prince and are to end in a town down South with lots of wealthy retirees. When we arrive there the jetway will be filled with empty wheelchairs awaiting the flock of snow birds. It will look like the start line of a go-cart track.
My phone alarm goes off exactly 8 hours after I turned the lights out and precisely 45 minutes before I am to catch the hotel van to the airport. Roughly 60 seconds after my phone sounds the hotel alarm clock fires the built in buzzer. I never use the 'wake to radio' setting. I courteously leave it on the station I found it on for the housekeepers. The timing between the two alarms unfortunately is at an imperfect interval since hotel clocks are not set to an atomic standard. Often the two alarms ring seconds from each other. These are the good days. An instant crescendo of alarms. Especially when it’s 4:00 am. As it was this morning.
And don’t get me started on the Aloft hotel chain and their hipster analog clocks. Since the plastic clock face doesn't have built in magnifying glass bubbles like they have on Sea Monkey tanks you never know what time the alarm is set for. I set those alarms by scheduling a 5 minute buffer on either side of the designated alarm time. Undoubtedly, this window expires and the alarm sounds every time I am midshower.
After the orchestra of alarms I have 45 minutes to put my game face on. If you know me, you can imagine it doesn't take much to make this happen (pointing to my face and hair.) I've perfected this morning routine by more than a decade of living out of a suitcase... only the essentials are left unpacked before bed. I'm typically up and on my way with time to enjoy some bad hotel coffee. Sometimes I prep the coffee pot the night before by stuffing the single serving coffee bag into the E. coli tray and filling the brewer with water so all I had to do in the morning was hit go. Saves me 30 seconds and the brew takes on a special flavor if the water gets the chance to sit and saute all night in the bacteria reservoir.
Today's alarms rang at 4:00 am. The crew and I had a 4:45 am van to the airport. We are to be at the airplane 30 minutes before departure so today's flight left at 5:30 am. Yes. You read that correctly. At that time of day the hotel breakfast isn't available so it's gnarly coffee on an empty stomach until we land in a few hours.
Most hotels we stay at have a breakfast offering of some sort. I rank hotels based on their breakfast.
And their shower pressure.
And the speed of their internet.
Some hotels have no free breakfast. These are the expensive hotels. That's the trade off. You get a nice, allegedly clean room with fancy soaps meant either for the face or the body but you don't get a big fluffy burnt lobby waffle that's been cooked in a never cleaned, overused waffle iron - for free. Instead you have to pay for overpriced yogurt. (Pro-Tip. I walk to the nearest cheap hotel and blend in with the unwashed and eat for free. I know, it's cheap of me but it's also a cheap thrill. It makes me feel alive.)
Some hotels have a table of cold round bread items and a toaster. They may have iced down cups of yogurt. They may have packs of oatmeal and some warm water. I called a $25/night hotel a crashpad for a year that had a loaf of bread and a communal tub of butter and jar of jelly for the guests. Butter in the jelly and toast crumbs in both. I gave it a ‘charming’ on TripAdviser. These are the level B breakfast nooks.
The level C hotels have a few mysterious hot items. Omelette shaped yellow patties that we freeloaders eat up like prisoners fresh out of the hole. To build excitement, these treats are served in a catering tray with a rollback top. I choose not to peak in when others are dishing out their gruel. I like to be surprised. Same reason I don't read the yogurt cups. I like to be wowed by the fruit on the bottom. There normally is a 'meat' to go along with the 'eggs'. My personal favorite is the chewy bacon. Imagine a hot, sweaty, bacon flavored fruit roll-up. Delish. To satisfy the sugar and starch food groups of the hotel breakfast pyramid, level C hotel breakfast bazaars offer a selection of knock-off cereal (Apple Loops, Cheery Holes, Crispy Rice) in individual rocketship shaped dispensers. The food chute is so caked with cereal lint that vigorous shaking is required to get the flakes, loops or crisps through the water wheel.
Level D is the same as level C but with fruit and named brand cereals.
Now we get to the level E. These are hard to come by. A restaurant with a full menu that serves breakfast to airline crews... for free. This hotel doesn't exist.
But today… no breakfast. Too early for that. Maybe there will be an old lady on the flight who will offer us some hard candy because we look weak. Maybe.
And then we fly.. blah blah blah. And deviate around life ending storms... blah blah blah. And deliver loved ones to their loved ones... blah blah blah. And maybe deliver a baby - or perform a wedding enroute.
And then we eat!
This is the hardest decision of the day. What to eat. When to eat. How much to eat.
You see friends. Each airport has it's own special offerings. This one may offer fried stuff drizzled with cheese and that one may have baked stuff drizzled with cheese. This one may offer lots of rib sticking carbs that surely will keep you full all day for a high price while that one may not. It may not seem like a tough call but this is the flight crew dilemma. If I don't eat now while the getting is good I may end up in a food desert later with no options but airline snacks and a hotel cookie for dinner.
So… we debate lunch. There is no checklist for this one. No right answer. This truly is the only time of day where were are allowed to think outside the box (literally). So we stew and hem and haw and fear making the wrong decision.
Little known fact… it’s in our manual that we are not to eat the same food from the same place within thirty minutes. Don’t want us both getting sick up there at the same time now do we?
Two empty plates in the cockpit with a fish skeleton on each and a lemon slice. Not good.
After lunch we fly… blah blah blah. And run checklists… blah blah blah. And maybe adeptly handle a life ending mechanical disaster with ease, calm and professionalism… blah blah blah.
And then we get the hotel! And eat!
And if there is a circus in town we do that and maybe go sight seeing and sample local cuisine.
Or more likely… none of that. I go to the hotel and watch bad TV and then set the alarm for forty five minutes before the van ride and turn the lights out 8 hours before that.
And if the hotel is a level A hotel with no free breakfast offerings, I scope out the area for hotels that may for the morning.