The incredible logistics of flying to New York City from London, according to a pilot
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This week, the USA opened its borders to vaccinated non-Americans for the first time in nearly 600 days. To mark the occasion, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic simultaneously launched two A350s from London Heathrow bound for New York. Whilst the party for the passengers started well before the flight, continuing all the way across the Atlantic to New York, for the pilots in the front, it was just another day in the office.
According to Forbes, in 2018 there were nearly 30 flights a day between the two cities, operated by a dozen airlines and making it a staple part of most long haul pilots route network.
One night in bed, one night out of bed
In days gone by, in the heyday of aviation, pilots would fly across the Atlantic, have 3 or 4 nights in New York before flying back to London for several days off at home. Sadly for the crew, those days are long gone. Due to the brevity of the flight time and the frequency of the services, most crew arriving in New York from London spend just 24 hours in the city. This is colloquially known as a 3-day-trip.
Departing Monday mid-afternoon, the flight will arrive in New York late afternoon the same day. The crew will then spend Monday night in a hotel before flying back to London overnight on Tuesday, landing Wednesday morning. They could then be back flying again on Friday morning.
As a result, careful management of sleep patterns is required to ensure that they remain alert for the critical stages of flight.
Reporting for Duty
Most airlines have their crew report for a long-haul duty around 90 minutes before departure. Swiping in at the briefing centre, we confirm that we are up-to-date with all the latest notices affecting the operation before making our way to the allocated room where we will meet the other pilot and the cabin crew.
With hundreds, if not thousands of other pilots and cabin crew, there’s always a high chance that you will never have met any of them before. Imagine turning up at your office to be confronted with a new set of colleagues every day. Whilst this would have its benefits (I’m sure many readers have that one co-worker they’d love to never work with again), this means that we have to forge new working relationships almost every time we come to work.
Further reading: How pilots predict bad weather and keep your flights smooth
To help this process and ensure that every flight is a safe flight, we have a set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that all pilots on the fleet are trained to perform. This means that from the moment that we report for duty to the time that we leave the aircraft at our destination, every action related to the operation of the aircraft is carried out in a standard way.
This enables the individual to know exactly what is required from them at a particular point during the duty, and, more importantly, what they can expect the other pilot (or pilots on long-range flights) to be doing. It ensures that no safety-related elements are missed and also any deviation from the procedures highlights that the individual may be suffering from an excessive workload or are unwell.
Most flight ‘paperwork’ these days is downloaded onto an iPad or similar device. From this information, between the two of us we discuss the current weather at Heathrow, the forecast weather en route and the forecast for the weather in New York for our arrival time. We are then in a position to make a decision on the fuel.
The flight plan generated by the airline’s operations department will determine the minimum fuel required for the flight. However, if we deem that it would be better to carry more fuel in the interests of flight safety, then we will do so. This could be due to forecast bad weather at the destination or likely delays on departure. Whatever the reason, it is done to buy us time at the far end, reduce the chances of making a bad decision due to the constraints of a low fuel situation.
It’s then time to brief the cabin crew, a key moment of the day. With the flight deck door locked, the flight attendants are our eyes and ears in the cabin. If anything untoward is going on, or they have an issue with a passenger, we need to know.
Therefore, creating an open and welcoming work environment is key to enabling team members to speak up when they feel that they should. The first few moments meeting the crew in the briefing room can set the tone for the whole trip and you’d be surprised how much a big smile can achieve!
Once onboard the aircraft, our focus narrows down to setting up the aircraft ready for departure. The SOPs differ depending on who is carrying out which role. The Pilot Flying (PF) is responsible for the physical flying of the aircraft. The Pilot Monitoring (PM) is responsible for keeping a close eye on the PF, ensuring that they are doing what they should be and also for communication with ATC.
The route to New York will be downloaded from the operations server and loaded into the Flight Management Computer (FMC). Even though we may have done this trip many times, on each occasion we take the time to check this information carefully as there’s always a chance of a computer-generated error.
With the FMC setup complete and the passengers almost all on board, it’s time for the departure briefing. This is a chance for the two of us to discuss and plan for any anomalies that might be affecting the flight that day. We will consider everything from minor technical problems with the aircraft to potentially hazardous weather conditions.
When this is complete, it’s time to head to the runway and get airborne towards New York.
The climb and Cruise
The initial hour or so of a trans-Atlantic flight is quite busy. Once safely in the climb away from London, it’s time to connect with ATC digitally via CPDLC. This allows us to communicate via a form of text messaging system. Not only does this reduce the number of radio calls that have to be made, when we’re flying over the Atlantic it’s also the quickest and most reliable way to stay in touch.
We must then promptly obtain our Oceanic clearance from Shanwick ATC, essentially the instructions for the route, speed and altitude with which we must comply as we cross the Atlantic. As there is limited radar coverage over the water, it is imperative that we strictly adhere to this clearance.
With the clearance confirmed and the crossing underway off the west coast of Ireland, the workload reduces for the next few hours as we cross the pond and over Canada. It’s when we get handed over to Boston Control that the workload starts to build again.
The Approach and Landing
New York airspace is some of the busiest in the world. As a result, clear communication between pilots is key. Unfortunately, there is no CPDLC in the USA, so all communications must be done via radio.
Knowing that things will start to get busy once we’re handed over to Boston, we will normally complete our approach briefing before this point. We will have found out the weather in New York and the runway which we’re most likely to be landing on. From this, we can plan what to expect and discuss any other potential deviations like a last-minute change of runway.
Due to airspace constraints, we will normally start our descent several hundred miles from the destination. This is inefficient from a fuel burn point of view, but if it means keeping a safe separation from other traffic and is what needs to be done to ensure things run smoothly.
As we get closer to the airport, the pace of the ATC transmissions begins to increase, a palpable sense of anticipation can be felt in the flight deck. With the increased workload comes an increased focus on the task at hand. Any sense of tiredness is suddenly quelled by the adrenaline that begins to pump around your body.
This continues throughout the approach, pushing you into alert mode so you’re ready to react to the unexpected. We may get too close to the aircraft ahead, requiring us to break off the approach and be fed back into the sequence of landing traffic. The preceding aircraft may not clear the runway quickly enough, necessitating a go around.
Whatever could happen, we must be prepared for it.
Time for bed
Once safely parked on the gate with the engines shut down, it’s time to relax. The jetty attaches to the aircraft, the door is opened and the passengers are able to disembark into the terminal. They are totally unaware of what has been happening behind the locked flight deck door over the last few hours.
Some flights require more work than others. We don’t seek any special recognition or thanks, it’s just part of the job. It’s what we enjoy most about it.
That said, all flights are an opportunity to learn and improve for next time. With that in mind, we’ll have a short debrief about any events which occurred that might be worthy of discussion. Then, it’s time to pack up our bags, don our caps and make our way through the airport to the (hopefully!) waiting crew bus and our hotel to bed.
Managing our Sleep
One of the hardest elements of being a long-haul pilot is managing our sleep. We must ensure that we are alert and awake during the critical stage of flight, particularly landing and take-off but we must also be tired and drowsy when we need to get some rest. The latter can be quite a challenge which makes the former all the more difficult. As a result, where and how we get our rest is key.
For an overnight flight to London departing at 9 pm, pick up from the hotel will be around 7 pm. However, it may say 7 pm and 9 pm on our watches, but our bodies still think that they are in London, 5 hours ahead. Thinking of it from that perspective, we will be taking off at 2 o’clock in the morning, a time where every part of our body and mind is telling us that we should be asleep.
We must therefore be able to perk ourselves up enough for the safety-critical stages of the departure, and be able to relax a little for the next five or so hours in the cruise and then be alert again for the approach and landing. Managing this successfully depends on what we do in the hours before the flight and what works for one person may not work for another. Over time a long haul pilot learns exactly how their body works and how to best prepare it for a flight.
For me, the best way to ensure that I perform at my best on the flight deck is to get a couple of hours of sleep before pick up but sleeping on demand like this can be difficult. My solution is to wear myself out during the day so that come 4 pm local time, I’m feeling tired and ready for sleep.
This is why the location and facilities of the hotel are key.
Not all hotels are created equal
The best thing about flying west is that you can use the jetlag in your favour. As your body will wake you up early in the morning, it’s the perfect time to get into the gym or go for a run – and being in the heart of such a great city is perfect for this. If the hotel gym isn’t great, there are normally ones nearby that will allow you to pay for a guest pass. If it’s fresh air I’m craving, what better place to go for a run than in Central Park?
After some exercise and a shower, it may still only be 9 am, perfect timing to head out and grab a bagel and a coffee for breakfast before spending the day exploring the city. On a good day, I can easily rack up 25,000 steps before returning to the hotel mid-afternoon, ready for my sleep.
Contrast this with an airport hotel where there is often no outdoor space to exercise or get some fresh air, gym facilities are often limited and there’s very little to do all day except sit in your room. When it comes to getting that preflight nap, more often than not you’re not in the least bit tired.
The quality of the room makes a difference, too. In the middle of summer when we’re trying to sleep, it can be bright sunshine outside and with temperatures over 30°C. A bright, hot room is not conducive to a good nap. As a result, blackout blinds, effective air conditioning and a good set of earplugs are crucial to getting that quality shut-eye.
A few hours later the phone will go, hopefully waking me from a solid sleep. It indicates that it’s time to jump in the shower, don the uniform and head back to the airport to carry 200 people through the night, safely across the Atlantic to London.
A New York trip is a standard of long-haul flying out of London. Some pilots love them for their brevity and a chance to explore a great city for a day. Others are less keen, preferring longer flights which result in more time at the destination and more days off once back home. Like any job, it’s horses for courses.
Whatever the individual preference, no pilot will deny that it feels simply wonderful to be back flying properly again. Whether it’s trips to New York or down to South Africa, there’s a real sense of positivity amongst pilots and cabin crew at the moment and we can’t wait to see you all back on board again soon.
Featured Image – Getty Images
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