Ask the pilot

Do big airplanes get the best pilots? And do we really want to know what happens when seven pilots room together?

Published March 14, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

No songs, poems, maudlin personal stories or editorializing this time around. Just meat-and-potatoes Q&A. Yes, you can accuse me of being lazy, but maybe this will inspire a fresh round of reader submissions and questions. You've been quiet lately.

You've written how pilot seniority affects pay, the type of plane he flies, and so on. Therefore, should one extrapolate that larger planes on the longest routes are operated by the safest, most experienced pilots?

Not really. It doesn't always work that way. For one thing, a pilot's experience level, measured by the fatness of his logbook or the grayness of his hair (if not the weight of his wallet), does not invariably equate to a higher level of knowledge or skill. All pilots are trained and held to essentially the same standards.

Moreover, the seniority thing is very complicated, as pilots bid their choices according to schedule, where they wish to live, and so forth, and are not necessarily lured to the biggest airplanes or highest-paying routes. Thus a given captain may in fact be less experienced, in terms of total flight time, and very possibly younger, than his first officer. That might surprise you, but as a safety factor it means little or nothing.

But what about at a discount airline like Southwest or AirTran, where salaries are lower than at Delta or American? Are these companies able to recruit the best pilots, or should we be wary?

Many airlines brag that their pilots are, in some indefinable way, better than everyone else's, but really this is just posturing. While airlines have their specific in-house cultures, it wouldn't be fair, as a general rule, to say a certain caliber of pilot goes to a certain caliber of airline, large or small.

The competition for pilot jobs is ruthless, even during the industry's boom times. There is virtually never a shortage of equally qualified pilots for all of the airlines -- whether American or AirTran -- to pick from. Much of where a given pilot ends up is a function of luck, good or bad.

Seniority lists expand and contract, and periods of growth and expansion at one airline are times of red ink, layoffs and stagnancy at another. Just because a senior pilot at Delta makes more than a senior pilot at JetBlue doesn't mean a given employee, crewmember or otherwise, will make more money or enjoy a better life there during the course of a career.

Are cargo pilots less experienced than those at passenger carriers?

Quite a few people assume cargo pilots exist on some lower echelon of the experience scale, and while this has some merit with respect to second- or third-tier carriers, nothing is further from the truth at the likes of FedEx, UPS, and the other big freight haulers. Pilots do not work at those companies because they lack the pedigree for United or American. Many prefer the anonymity of the cargo world, away from the crowds and hassles of the passenger terminals. Pay scales, work rules and benefits are roughly on par with those of the big people carriers. There's a certain cachet, I suppose, in carrying people versus boxes, but its value varies from pilot to pilot, ego to ego.

How long does training take at a major carrier? And what sort of qualifications are prerequisites?

When a certain Pilot was hired by a certain large airline, he had about 5,000 flight hours to his name, most of it in the cockpits of regional airliners and as a second officer (flight engineer) on a cargo jet. That's a fairly typical résumé, though flyers from the armed forces have, on average, less total experience. Most airlines also ask for a college degree, though it needn't be within (and often is not) a science or technology-related field.

Pilots are not hired for flight experience per se. During the interview process, which can take one or two days, a candidate with 4,000 hours is not always outqualified by somebody with two or even three times that many. The airlines like to consider all candidates to be on an equal footing, and as in most professions, personality and overall impression become the make-or-break factors.

For new hires, airline curricula are very similar, and their duration is about the same for regional carriers and major airlines. Whether the new employee will fly a 50-seat RJ at American Eagle or a 300-seat 777 for American Airlines, the full program might take anywhere from six to 10 weeks. A pilot will sit through two weeks of company indoctrination and regulatory classroom work before moving on to aircraft-specific flight training, which can run several additional weeks and is split among various ground training devices (cockpit mock-ups, etc.) and full-motion simulators.

In addition, recurrent qualification -- usually lasting three or four days and involving both classroom and simulator evaluation -- is a mandatory yearly (sometimes biannual) event.

I sat next to a pilot who told me he flew out of Miami. When I asked how he liked living in southern Florida, he replied, "Oh, I live in New Jersey." Please explain.

Many pilots are based, or domiciled, to use some awful-sounding airline-speak, in cities other than those in which they live. For example, a pilot who lives in Boston might actually work out of Chicago and will commute back and forth to pick up his assignments.

During a career, an airline will routinely reassign crews from city to city -- bases open and close, aircraft assignments change, etc. To avoid the difficulties of relocating every two years, pilots commonly get a part-time residency called a "crash pad," where they'll stay, if needed, during work rotations. (The décor and sanitary standards of a typical crash pad are a topic for another time; I once rented a room with six other pilots that we'd divided up with sheets of dirty plywood.) Others, when it's affordable, simply purchase hotel rooms on a nightly basis as required. A few have been known to sleep in their cars.

Commuting dovetails nicely with most pilots' monthly schedules, which are composed of multi-day assignments lasting anywhere from a single night's layover to a week or more away. Legend has it there was once a captain for Eastern who flew from Atlanta but had a home in Wellington, New Zealand.

On a recent flight we made a terrible landing. We touched down crooked, and thumped onto the pavement with a bang. Why do some pilots land more smoothly than others?

That "terrible landing" was probably a decently executed crosswind touchdown, and/or the effect of some low-level gusts or turbulence. A crosswind landing is a matter of routine -- a little extra input on the controls to allow for the skewed, "sideways" alignment that is, believe it or not, the properly coordinated technique. Passengers, especially nervous ones, put some weighty stock in the moment of arrival, but a firm touchdown is not necessarily a bad one, and the smoothness of a landing is hardly an accurate benchmark of a pilot's skill.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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