Author Alan Nguyen is a Sporty’s Academy flight instructor and first officer at a regional air carrier on the Bombardier Regional Jet series of aircraft. Please enjoy this latest installment of this multi-part series taking you inside the life of an airline pilot. Ed.
It’s time to go to “work”!
Not just any work. It’s the start of a 4-day trip and I’m the first officer aboard our regional jet. Preparation begins the night before. From making sure I am packed for the trip, to ensuring my airline-issued EFB is up-to-date with the latest apps and navigation data, there’s plenty to consider the day before a trip. I also take some time to review the airplane minimum equipment list (MEL) items ahead of time. The morning of my trip, I double check for any last minute navigation database or app updates. I also make note of the gate I am expected to meet my airplane at and, of course, the general weather conditions in the areas I’ll be flying. Prior to heading out the door – you can’t forget the one of the more important items and the airline pilot’s best friend – coffee!
Many people have asked me, “do airline crews get to skip security?” The answer is no, but we do have our own expedited screening process. Most airlines are enrolled in the “Known Crewmember” program, which allows the Transportation Security Administration to identify and confirm air carrier crewmembers and expedite the screening process – making it much less of a hassle than the standard security protocol followed for passengers.
Upon arriving at the gate, the gate agent verifies my identification on the flight release and I head down the jet bridge to greet the crew – the captain and two flight attendants. After introducing ourselves, we always begin with a crew briefing. The briefing gets everyone on the same page and it includes items such as weather, the airplane, emergency and security related procedures. Everyone has different roles and responsibilites during the preflight phase. The captain is usually ensuring the aircraft and flight is legal for dispatch as well as checking the aircraft systems and functions. The flight attendants are completing their cabin checks and ensuring the aircraft is legal inside the cabin. They are also responsible for the boarding process. As the first officer, my tasks consist of completing a preflight walk-around inspection (yes, this important task continues in the airline world), obtaining the weather (ATIS) and clearance. Following these tasks, I’ll program the airplane flight management system, radios, and flight control panel.
We run our flight deck flows and checklists, review our flight release, aircraft logbook, complete our departure briefing, receive our final passenger and bag count, and send the data to our Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) to obtain our takeoff data. The boarding door is closed and it’s time to go fly!
The en route phase is pretty straight forward and similar to flying a cross country in a Cessna 172, only a lot faster, higher, and more Standard Instrument Departures (SIDs) and Standard Terminal Arrival Procedures (STARs). The workload is divided with one pilot flying and the other pilot is monitoring and this is decided on the ground prior to departure. The pilot monitoring is responsible for the radios, communicating with the flight attendants, and obtaining the weather and landing data at the destination and we’ll reverse roles on the flight deck for subsequent legs.
In a jet, you are capable of flying above most weather, but there are days where you have to work diligently to get to your destination safely. On the ground, the captain and I review the weather and coordinate with our dispatcher to get a new route ahead of time if able. Otherwise, we try to coordinate with ATC in the air and find routes that other airliners that have flown ahead for the best possible route. We also utilize our on-board weather radar to safely navigate thunderstorms. Every day is different which is one of the many elements I love about my job, just like my days during primary training. Some days it’s clear and calm while other days bring the challenges of heavy precipitation, gusting winds or turbulence and sometimes all three.
Upon landing, we taxi in and park at our assigned gate. I perform a postflight walk-around – just as important as the preflight so that you can identify items that may need attention when it’s most convenient to have them addressed. This is similar, in process, to the preflight, and this time I am making sure the aircraft wasn’t damaged during the en route or taxi phase as we arrive. Sometimes we have a sit (or rest), which means we stay at the airport for an hour or two awaiting the arrival of the next inbound airplane. During this time, the crew will usually go find something to eat and discuss ideas on what to do on the overnight to pass time.
Once the next airplane arrives, we repeat the process, but this time we are headed off to our overnight city, Fort Walton Beach, Florida! If the overnight stay is long enough, we usually find local attractions or new restaurants to experience. Arriving at Fort Walton Beach, we hand off the airplane to the outbound crew and inform them of weather en route and any information about the airplane regarding its behavior and tendencies, or if there’s any maintenance items required. After boarding the hotel shuttle, we’re off to unwind and anxiously await the next day’s adventure!