Ask An Airline Pilot: What Really Goes On In The Cockpit?

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Airplanes are the magic machines that allow us to travel around the world and pilots the magicians who fly them. Despite taking over 40 flights a year, I know little details about how those experts keep 400,000 kilos of aluminum (and all of us passengers) in the sky and landed safely at out destinations. A fear of control can foster many of our flying anxieties, so today you can ask my live chat guest what it’s really like to fly, and the lifestyle of an international airline pilot.

Alejandro flew for a US based airline for 4 years before being offered to fly the Boeing 747 internationally for Eva Airways. Now based in Taiwan, he jets around the world delivering passengers and cargo to various destinations. Flying is his passion, but being a pilot isn’t as glamorous as it seems.

The chat is open today, April 16th from 3:00pm-4:00pm US EST (7pm-8pm GMT; 12pm-1pm Los Angeles). Scroll down or click here to join the chat below!

In addition to jet-setting, Alejandro and his wife Zeina recently launched the Habby Travels, a trip organization service. You may be curious whether or not planes come close to crashing without our knowledge (am I the only one who wonders that?), how “close” pilots and stewardesses really are, or want to get into piloting yourself. Alejandro is all yours to discuss the life and job of a pilot for the next hour in the comments.

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  1. Hey Alejandro and Anil,

    I won’t be there for the live chat so I’ll post my question now, I’ll read the answers tomorrow hopefully!

    So my first question is one that everyone always wonders about, flights and cell phones. Does it actually matter? Do you actually feel it if one of the people didn’t switch it off?

    My second question is about your scariest flight. What happened and what were the reasons for it?

    Thanks and I’ll see your answers tomorrow!

    (2)
    • Alejandro S. says:

      Hi there, Good questions… I’ll say that the Cellphone question is one that I hear all the time. And here is what you should know:

      Yes they can interfere with instrumentation relating to navigation and communication. Will it bring the plane crashing down… No way. But think about how fast new cellphone, tablet, pda-device technology advances.. just a few years ago, there was no such thing as a tablet. The FAA would need to have every single device tested in thousands of ways with thousands of aircraft and thousands of individual components to see which ones do affect them negatively and which do not… it would be impossible considering how fast technology in personal devices changes.

      Also, Now you see that most airlines are providing Wi-Fi service so that you can use your devices when above what we call a “critical phase” of flight. (above 10,000 feet) So what’s the big deal about having them? Well its for your safety. Below 10,000feet, there will be very little time to prepare the cabin and passengers in the event of an emergency landing, crash landing or more specifically, an emergency evacuation. This is the main reason why the FAA, and Airline Crewmembers want you to have them off. So that we can have your attention when we give you instructions so you can evacuate the aircraft quickly and safely

      (2)
  2. Latoya says:

    I have a sudden interest in learning to become a helicopter pilot. I only want to fly a helicopter for my personal pleasure, not for commercial usage. How realistic is this for someone who has never had an interest in the topic before? What was/is the hardest part about the education of learning to become a good pilot?

    (2)
    • Alejandro S. says:

      It’s very possible for you do learn to fly a helicopter or an airplane if you really want to. Dont be discouraged at all.

      If you have no prior knowledge of flying, they will teach you everything you need to know during your flight training. Small airplanes and small helicopters are fun and easy to fly. If you are really interested go to a local small airport, and talk to a flight instructor or flight school. Im sure you can find one by searching the internet for one near your area.

      The hardest part of the education is becoming familiar with the Federal Aviation Regulations that will pertain to the kind of flying you will be doing. For a non-commercial pilot, its not as many as for me, so dont be scared

      (1)
      • Latoya says:

        I’m really excited about the thought of me flying a helicopter. I’m currently in Thailand and have already begun the search for flight schools.

        (0)
  3. Anil P. says:

    My question to indulge my fascination with plane crashes (I guess it comes with flying over 50 times a year) but how close do planes ever come to real danger in the air in your experience?

    (1)
    • Alejandro S. says:

      Planes don’t usually come close to real danger often… You can relax. Haha. The aircraft that we fly these days are very advanced, have a lot of safety built into the design of the systems such as multiple redundant systems, and we as pilots go through continual training and proficiency checks.

      Often times, more often than you think, we do have problems in the Flight Deck with the aircraft systems, and you wont ever know. Because we handle it, troubleshoot it, fix it, and go on Safely.

      (1)
      • Anil P. says:

        I’m curious, any examples?

        (0)
        • Alejandro S. says:

          Problems with non-essential flight systems like standby electrical power unit called the APU Auxiliary Power Unit

          problems with lights

          inoperative coffee makers… actually i dont like to fly with this issue

          (1)
    • Anil P. says:

      Oh, and how many hours of flight do you log annually?

      (0)
      • Alejandro S. says:

        I log between 800 and 900 hours of actual flight time a year. The FAA maximum is 1000 hours for an airline commercial pilot

        (0)
  4. Izzy Bella says:

    have you ever kicked a passenger off a plane? if so, why?
    also, if there is a passenger complication/threat, how do you contact the police/medics from the air? I sometimes see them waiting at the plane door upon landing

    (2)
    • Alejandro S. says:

      I have not kicked a passenger off myself before. But I have threatened a passenger that if their behavior does not change, they will be met by police and authorities upon landing. They were harassing a female Flight Attendant and not complying with instructions.

      If there is a passenger threat or complication, We can contact authorities via our radio communications with ATC. They can relay our needs for Medical Assistance or Law enforcement to the airport and they will meet us.

      (1)
  5. Anil P. says:

    A shy reader has just emailed me their question: they want to know what your weekly schedule is like?

    (1)
    • Alejandro S. says:

      My schedule is not common to every US domestic airline Pilot. But usually this is a week in my schedule…

      Day 1: Long haul flight 8-10 hours
      Day 2: Layover for rest. Minimum 18-24 hours layover
      Day 3: Long haul flight 6-7 hours
      Day 4: Layover for rest. Minimum 18-24 hours layover
      Day 5: Short flight, 4-5 hours total flying this day.
      Day 6: Day off
      Day 7: Day off

      (1)
  6. Deniz says:

    Hello! I was wondering: what is the best meal you’ve had on an airplane? :)) Simple question, I know… But I figure you’ve probably had your fair share of airplane food!

    (1)
    • Alejandro S. says:

      Hmm… i have to think about this one…. Air France has very good food. The airline I currently work for has also very good catering. I would say that the more the airline pays for food catering, the better the meals of course. Which will then relate to how much you spend on a ticket (sometimes). The major airlines of Europe seem to have the best catering. Lufthansa, British Airways, Air France, Swiss, Turkish…. also just my opinion though

      (1)
  7. Carlos says:

    How do you pack your suitcase?

    (1)
    • Alejandro S. says:

      I have my own personal technique, hahaha, my wife laughs at me because I am meticulous in how I pack. I fit a lot of things in a carry-on because of practice haha. I pack heavy things at the bottom and things i need to have quicker access to more on top. Aslo i recommend packing shirts that you dont want to wrinkle too much lastly on top of everything else

      (1)
  8. Anil P. says:

    Two movie questions:

    1. Could Denzel have really saved that plane in Flight by flying upside down and…

    2. I recall a movie where something happened to the pilots and the control tower talked a passenger into landing the plane. Absurd I know, but how plausible is that – under ideal conditions with proper instruction, what are the chances someone lands that plane (safely)?

    (1)
    • Alejandro S. says:

      1. A commercial passenger aircraft is not designed to fly upside down for any extended period of time. So in that movie, since they flew for some time upside down for some time… I have to announce its BS.

      2. If the passenger has at least a novice pilot license or knowledge… perhaps it is possible considering the automation of today’s aircraft. Many aircraft now have an Autoland capability where the autopilot can be programmed to land. It takes a lot of programming to input into the Flight Management Computers and Autopilot systems, but if instructed carefully, an ordinary person can make those programming inputs..

      But under real life conditions, without an Autoland able aircraft, I dont an ordinary person with zero knowledge would not really be able to manually land an airplane safely.

      (1)
  9. Claudia says:

    I know we mentioned electronics with wifi on airplanes, but I am wondering about the ones without wifi like iPods or portable DVD players. Can they actually effect the flight?

    (1)
    • Alejandro S. says:

      Claudia, no they will not. But the reason you need to have them off. Is so that you will not be using them during a critical phase of flight. Basically during takeoff and landing, when your attention may need to be quickly directed to the instructions of a crewmember in the event of an emergency.

      Can you imagine if the guy next to you or the girl sitting right on the emergency exit is texting away or jamming away to music and doesnt open the emergency door in the event of an evacuation?

      Its usually no more than 5 to 10 minutes at most before you will be allowed to use the devices again. I always tell people, no matter what you think about the rule… its not an airline rule, its a Federal Regulation… people can argue with a Federal Judge if they don’t want to comply.

      (0)
  10. Izzy Bella says:

    How often do you get to see your wife? What’s the best airline out there? Are you happy with Eva or looking to move around?

    (0)
    • Alejandro S. says:

      With my current job assignment, I see my wife about every week and half to two weeks. Its not ideal, but its a much better job than flying at the small commuter jets or props in the US domestically. I have more days off and I have a much higher salary. Hopefully things will change for the better.

      I am happy with some aspects of my company and not too fond of others, like most people with their jobs I suppose. This airline I work for now, is much more financially stable and responsible than any US airline. It is growing very much and there is good opportunities in it. Nevertheless, I am away from my wife and thats not something I want to do forever. I think that perhaps we will move together to a place where I can work for an airline where I have a good long-term career outlook and where my wife and I can have a happy family life together with kids in the near future.

      Best airline in the world? In terms of Passenger Service I hear that Qatar Airways has been winning awards for the last 5-7 years.

      (1)
  11. Anil P. says:

    Most beautiful landing that people sitting on this side of the plane should remember to look out the window for…

    (0)
    • Alejandro S. says:

      Rio de Janeiro is supposed to be beautiful. But I think it was to the old airport where they used to approach right by the city and you could see the statue of the Corcovado Christ with his arms open…. I heard from colleagues who used to fly there many years ago.

      DC has a beautiful approach over the Potomac River where you can see the National Mall, and downtown Washington from the left side of the airplanes. This is my personal favorite

      (1)
  12. Zeina says:

    Hi! Can we please keep the comments/questions/answers PG? I’m projecting this for my 4th grade class to see :)

    (0)
    • Anil P. says:

      Absolutely, any questions from the class?

      (0)
      • Zeina says:

        Does he stay awake flying the airplane or does he sleep? (student insert, “I think there is an automatic”)

        (1)
        • Alejandro S. says:

          Very good question kiddos! The airplanes do have an AutoPilot function. But this is not used all the time. We have to manually fly the airplane for Takeoff and Landing. While we cruise for hours on those long long flights, the airplane is on AutoPilot. If the flights are very long, then we travel with extra crewmembers and we can take rests while the airplane is cruising safely at high altitude. This way, we can all be fresh and wide awake during the takeoffs and landings when we need to pay very careful attention for everyone’s safety.

          (0)
  13. Anil P. says:

    Alejandro, I know we’re running very short on time as you’re probably trying to get to the comments above. I wanted to ask if you’ve got anything to add before we end the chat in a few minutes?

    (0)
    • Alejandro S. says:

      I was happy to participate Anil. Very good questions from everyone. I would only add that it would be nice if passengers nowadays be more courteous to airline employees. They all work hard and a passenger with a good attitude will be met with a good attitude right back.

      Many domestic flight crews do not make a lot of money, specially flight attendants. Yet they still will provide great service. People nowadays cant pay peanuts for flights cross country and expect private jet service… a smile goes a long way

      (1)
  14. Anil P. says:

    Thank you very, very much Alejandro for squeezing this live chat into your hectic schedule and spending some time with all of us. I appreciate your time and thoughts.

    For everyone stalking reading this thread, I want to be sure to mention Alejandro and his wife Zeina’s travel services site Habby Travels.

    If you need any help planning, booking, or organizing your next vacation be sure to check them out!

    Thank you again Alejandro and everyone who participated and followed along!
    -Anil

    (0)
  15. Anil P. says:

    Is piloting commercially a career one has to be enter young? Do the opportunities diminish as you get older; in other words would it be difficult to become a pilot in your 30s? (Not that I’m considering it ;)

    (0)
  16. Anil P. says:

    Any advice for very frequent flyers?

    (0)
  17. Anil P. says:

    I’ll add that my Internet connection is getting crappy…

    (0)
  18. Izzy Bella says:

    do you prefer Boeing or Airbus and why?

    (0)
    • Alejandro S. says:

      Boeing. If it’s not Boeing…. I aint going

      (0)
    • Alejandro S. says:

      Actually, Ill be more specific. I like Boeing more because of their design philosophy in the Flight Deck. I prefer the way the aircraft systems are designed to work with the Pilots. But Airbus is a great aircraft manufacturer

      (0)
  19. Anil P. says:

    Hello everyone, Alejandro will be joining us at 3pm US EST today and is looking forward to taking your questions.

    (0)