We’ve come along way from the aeronautic engineering feats and test flights of the past century that made air travel a routine and safe part of life, and yet pilots maintain a certain mystique. We still feel like it might be Chuck Yeager up front, adjusting his shades as he ascends into the clouds.
Image adapted from Andresr (Shutterstock)
The responsibilities of an airline pilot, of course, lie far from the experimental crafts of the space age; ferrying millions of travellers through the skies requires meticulous standards that make air travel by far the safest mode of transportation. The tedious unseen work that goes into maintaining those standards comprise much of an airline pilot’s work, as we learned from an experienced captain with over 35 years in the air. And, in his free time, he’s also a cartoonist and professor.
Tell us a little about yourself and your experience.
I am Chris Manno, an American Airlines pilot since 1985 and a captain since 1991. Before that, I was a USAF pilot and officer for seven years. I also have a doctorate in English and teach as an adjunct professor at a local college. And there are the airline cartoons you will find on Amazon and at @Chris_Manno on Twitter. Plus my airline blog.
What drove you to choose your career path?
My parents claim I announced at age three that I’d become a pilot. I can’t remember any time growing up when that wasn’t my singular life goal.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
I aimed for a college and degree that would get me into USAF Flight School. Two hundred qualified candidates at my college competed, four of us went to USAF Flight School. One washed out, one died in a plane crash; the other guy and I became Air Force pilots, did our military obligation, then were hired by major airlines. He lost his medical certificate several years ago, so I’m the only one still flying jets, or “pushing the metal”, as we call it.
Did you need any licenses or certifications?
Many. My 2000 USAF pilot hours were accepted by the FAA for a multi-engine jet rating. Then I took the civilian courses for FAA certification as a commercial and Airline Transport Pilot. When I was hired by American Airlines, they put me through their Flight Engineer courses for the B-727 and DC-10. I earned both ratings and flew as Flight Engineer (or “plumber” as we call it) for two years. Then I upgraded to MD-80 copilot, then DC-10 copilot, then to MD-80 captain, all in my first six years as an airline pilot. I also added a Fokker-100 captain type rating and flew that jet for two years, then back to the MD-80 captain’s seat. Since 2011, I’ve been a Boeing 737-800 captain.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what the average person sees?
Most of what an airline captain does is unseen, either in Flight Operations, a restricted area of the airport, or behind a locked cockpit door. Most of that is involved in planning the flight, regarding aircraft performance, which includes technical issues of weight, speed and power, plus enroute consideration, which includes altitudes and routes. Of course, everything to do with the jet as far as maintenance, configuration, and status underlies everything else we plan. In the cockpit, it’s mostly ensuring all of the many, complex procedures for operation and navigation are executed to the letter.
What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
I’d say planning, which doesn’t end when you leave the ground. My job includes having backup plans to backup plans as far as fuel, duration, route, and even destination goes. I stay three steps ahead of the aircraft and flight at all times. In flight, it’s navigation, weather and traffic avoidance, fuel management, and of course flying the manoeuvres like takeoff, climb, descent, approach and landing. With weather, short runways, crowded airspace, and complex approaches down to 50 foot minimums, there’s a lot to handle.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
People think it’s easy, it’s glamorous, fun. It is fun — or I wouldn’t do it. It’s a satisfying challenge to fly 160+ folks a few thousand miles at .78 Mach and at 40,000 feet. But the days are long — often 12 or more hours — but regardless, everything must be done perfectly every time. And there are endless exams, inspections, checkrides, training, physicals and evaluations on a recurring basis. That’s good, and largely why the US air travel system has such an excellent safety record. But the endless requirements are a constant hassle. And hotels plus time away from home is just drudgery.
What are your average work hours?
I’m on the senior end of the pilot world after nearly thirty years with my airline, so I fly turn-arounds — meaning I go to the airport, fly from DFW to Seattle and back (or Boston, NYC, Miami. LAX, SFO) then go home. Because those are high time turn-arounds, I can fly my monthly hours in 11-12 days. That also allows me to teach college two days a week. The middle of the pack pilot flies 14-16 days with overnights in some city other than the home base city.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
That’s ironic: the whole point is, there are no shortcuts, ever, in the flying biz. Nor are their any shortcuts to get into the field: it takes years and thousands of flight hours to land a decent pilot job at a major airline.
What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
Definitely the constant scrutiny, testing, evaluations, and requalifications that recur over and over through an airline pilot’s career. But that’s what makes our profession safe and excellent; from Day One as a pilot, you work your butt off, study constantly, know your stuff, and use your head.
What is your least favourite airport to land at? Is there a most favourite?
Least favourite? Mexico City: typically poor visibility, busy, frequently bad weather, not well-maintained infrastructure, and at 7,000 feet and high temperatures, at the performance limit of the jet. Favourite: I don’t really have one, except maybe DFW because it means I’m home.
I know many pilots cite DCA, SNA, LGA and San Diego as their least favourite because those airports have a reputation in urban legend as “dangerous”. I have no problem with any of those places; I simply do the job exactly as it’s supposed to be done and that’s both safe and acceptable to me.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?
Starting salaries vary, but at a major airline, within five years you can make between $US70k and $US90k. First Officers with more years of seniority can top $100K, and new captains around $150K. Senior captains are around $200K, depending on what they fly and how much they fly. Again, just general figures.
How do you move up in your field?
Pilots live and die by seniority, because that’s how you advance. I was fortunate to have been hired at a time when major retirements occurred across the pilot ranks, so I moved up to captain in just six years. More typical today is 20 plus years as copilot before being able to claim a captain position.
What do your passengers under/over value?
I think passengers undervalue the rigid standards and constant testing. Most see only results, and often they don’t like it: you’re late, you divert, whatever. But those results are the consequences of rigid adherence to standards and procedures — no one wants to get home more than we do, but my job is to be sure that’s done properly, safely, and exactly by the book. Most of the time flights go as planned. But when they don’t, rest assured you’re getting exactly what you paid for: a safe, exactly by-the-book flight.
Have you ever had any real scares while flying?
Not really. I have to say, after 35 years piloting jets, I just don’t scare. There are problems, stress, and solutions, but I just don’t get scared — simply work through problems.
On a long flight, do you have time to play iPad games, browse the web, etc.?
Absolutely not. Wi-Fi access and use is prohibited by FAA regulation and no pilot with half a brain is going to screw with that: after any flight incident, that aircraft’s Wi-Fi record is going to get you fired and your licence revoked. So, no web access, any Wi-Fi is not ever happening in the cockpit.
Flights over nine hours require an augmented crew, meaning three instead of two pilots; each pilot gets a few hours break in the cabin during the flight. Ultra-longhaul (18-ish hours) usually has four pilots.
What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
For me, just plain old stick and rudder, hands-on flying. Bad weather? Whatever — the bigger the challenge, the more rewarding it is. And it’s always satisfying to see 160 passengers file off the jet safely, with no idea of all the work it took for that result to come about. That’s as it should be, and my payoff besides the salary is getting to fly the jet, to bring it all together and make it happen. Never gets old.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
Honestly? I’d say “don’t”. It’s a brutal business with a roller-coaster of boom and bust that rules the airline industry. Even as a senior pilot, I’ve endured the pay-cuts, the slashed retirement, airline bankruptcy and economic downturns. Junior pilots ended up bumped back in position and thus earnings, and thousands end up furloughed, meaning on the street for two to ten years. That’s hell on a family, as is career stagnation for those who don’t get furloughed.
So honestly, my answer is find a career field where you can attain financial security and be home with your family, and that’s exactly what I told my own son. Nonetheless, he’s a USAF Captain, instructor pilot and building the required hours to get hired by a major airline. So WTFDIK?
Ultimately, if flying is in your blood — and my son is a third generation aviator — you’re going to do what you have to to fly. Otherwise, I’d recommend dental school, get an orthodontic practice going; half day Wednesday, Fridays off, home every night. You can buy a decent plane then if you want to.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about — from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.