Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Day In The Life

By Mark W. Danielson

People often ask me what it’s like being an international airline pilot. In a nut shell, it’s like being a celebrity. Kids ask for my autograph, women clamor over me, strangers flock to have their picture taken with me . . . Well, maybe that was true for a Pan Am captain during the Golden Age of Aviation, but it doesn’t happen now. Fifty years ago, First Class was exactly that. Passengers dressed up, and no kids were allowed. Attractive stewardesses greeted you, waiting on you as though in a fine restaurant, and pilots flew their airplanes from the cockpit. So much has changed since then.

Nowadays, the cockpit is the flight deck, stewardesses are known as flight attendants and pursers, and pilots are captains and first officers. Sadly, First Class turned into Romper Room, and respect seems to be a thing of the past. So, no—kids don’t ask for my autograph, women don’t fight over me, and I’m the one offering to take pictures so that couples can be photographed together.

I wrote this from Frankfurt after four hours of sleep. I was gone a week and never slept longer than five hours at a time during my entire trip around the world. When I landed in Memphis just before midnight, I had traveled twenty-four time zones in eight days, and then spent the rest of the night jump-seating home to Denver.

Our MD-11s are equipped with the finest navigation systems available. Our “electronic flight bags” display instrument approaches and route maps for any airport in our global data base. FedEx is also installing infra-red heads-up displays so that I can see through the dark and weather, and lower our already near-zero visibility landing requirements to better deliver “The World On Time.” We are well catered in flight, and when we land, our transportation is ready to whisk us off to our world class hotel. To the layman, we seem spoiled.

Flights over eight hours require an extra pilot. Add one more when it exceeds twelve. This allows us to rotate sleep periods because for some reason, the FAA determined it was wise if we are awake for the landing and taxi in. (I’m pretty sure that happens most of the time, but sometimes I’m too dazed to remember.) To accommodate our sleep, we have the finest rest facilities available—a floor mat. (See photo.) Okay, a few airplanes do have a retractable bunk bed that resembles a giant Tylenol capsule when extended, but those are normally reserved for the double-crewed airplanes.

Since we sleep on the floor, we change into grubby clothes once we are leveled off. This is acceptable because our wrinkled, drooled on uniforms wouldn’t enhance our image at the hotel. Of course, sleeping on the floor does offer its perks. The leaks around the door provide plenty of fresh air; so much so that it wouldn’t matter if someone shot a hole in our airplane. So, after plugging the leak with an airline blanket, which more closely resembles an oversized bib, I build my nest with as many blankets as I can find, don my sleep mask, and start counting backwards from one hundred hoping to fall asleep. But getting a turbulence massage is only half the fun. When my time is up, I switch places with another pilot and spend the next twenty minutes waking up, trying to determine where I am and what I’m doing. By that time, I’m sleepy again.

Sometimes washing my face helps, except our airplane’s water level has been minimized to save weight (AKA fuel), so I get splattered when I press the faucet lever. But the fun really starts when I’m flying an animal charter. You see, FedEx flies anything and everything, and animal charters generate big bucks. Unfortunately for the crew, these horses and cattle also generate big smells. In fact, it is so bad that we have to wrap our suitcases in plastic bags before the flight or their stench will permeate its contents. Afterwards, we get a fantastic greeting at the hotel. So much so that other customers step aside just to give us priority service. Heck, we even get our own private elevators! Ah yes—home on the range never smelled so good.

On rare occasions, things don’t always go smoothly. Recently, I stayed at an international hotel where a notice was slid under my door stating that I had overstayed my visit, and they need me out of my room in two hours. Their note said they would be “happy to assist me with storing my belongings.” Never mind that my airplane wouldn’t arrive for another forty hours. Hmmm, do I call the company, or should I stay at the embassy suites—as in U.S. Embassy? Oh, the decisions to be made when I’m bleary eyed. The language issues only complicate matters.

Controlling my hotel room’s temperature is only part of my sleep problem. Actually, temperature control implies that I have the means of doing so, but that isn’t always the case. Opening my door provides cooler air, but then the noise keeps me awake, even with earplugs and my head buried in pillows. Closing the door dampens the noise, but then it’s too hot, so instead of sleeping, I end up reliving Goldilocks episodes, struggling to find an acceptable balance. When my layover is up, I will spend three or more hours getting to the airport, through security, reviewing the weather, loading my flight plan, and finally getting airborne so that I can fly for seven hours.

I know; it’s a hard life. Blah, blah, whine, whine—would I like some cheese with that? But seriously, I love my job. There is no better profession, especially for a writer. What other job gives me so much undistracted free time? And on those rare occasions when I have an extended layover in a great location like Paris, Frankfurt, Sydney, or Honolulu, it almost becomes a paid vacation. Did I say I loved my job? I can't imagine doing anything else. Oh, and those kids who want my autograph? Well, that still only happens in my dreams.


Beth Terrell said...

I would be worthless after that kind of sleep deprivation. Good thing you can function on five hours of sleep.

Your life sounds seriously fascinating.

Mark W. Danielson said...

On my way back from Frankfurt, I showed this article to both of my co-pilots (AKA first officers). My extra pilot was only one of two co-pilots whom I have flown with who can sleep like a dog. You know -- the kind of person who can drop into a dead sleep at a moment's notice. Curiously, he didn't catch the humor in my words. My other co-pilot, who had been on the entire trip with me, nodded as he handed my computer back, saying, "That's the way it is."

My being a light sleeper only contributes to the detriments of time travel. Forget about trying to stay on a sleep schedule. When flying non-stop from Osaka, Japan to Memphis, I actually land an hour before I took off, thanks to crossing the International Date Line.

On long haul trips, time is measured by catering. When you get bored, you eat. When you run out, you're there.

The key to survival is to eat when you're hungry (or bored) and sleep when you're tired. Lying horizontally on a floor mat still beats the heck out of sitting in economy class.

The advantage of flying the plane as opposed to being a passenger is when I arrive at my destination, I have no requirements other than to be prepared to fly the next leg. That's a pretty easy job compared to the passengers who must hit the ground running. As I said, I can't imagine doing anything else.