8 myths about being a pilot, debunked

Nov 7, 2020

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Even after 15 years in the job, it still amazes me the number of myths that still seem to circulate around being a pilot and how aircraft work in general. According to some of the stories, we all get free flights, have perfect vision and don’t suffer from jet lag as badly as passengers.

Some of these are true, others less so. Here are eight of the most common myths about being a pilot, explained.

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1. Both pilots can’t eat the same meal

Don’t eat the fish! Ever since that famous scene in the movie “Airplane!”, it has been a widely accepted fact that pilots are not allowed to eat the same meal. The thinking being that should a certain meal be contaminated, it will stop both (or all three or four) pilots from being incapacitated, and it makes total sense.

However, these days, airline food is made in purpose-built facilities that churn out thousands of meals a day. Such large commercial kitchens are subject to rigorous health inspections to ensure that food is being stored and prepared in a hygienic manner. As a result, the chances of food poisoning are incredibly small.

As most food poisoning takes around six hours to show symptoms, most airlines accept that a crew is more likely to get ill from something that they ate before the flight than the onboard catering. As a result, they allow pilots to eat the same meal.

2. We need to have perfect vision

“I always wanted to become a pilot but I wear glasses,” is something I often hear from people who once harboured a dream of becoming a pilot. Sadly, they were misinformed. You can wear glasses (or contacts) and still be an airline pilot.

As part of our flying licence, all airline pilots must also hold a valid medical certificate. In the U.K., this is known as a class 1 medical. Once a year (twice a year if you’re over 60), we visit an Aeromedical Examiner who conducts a number of tests, one of them being an eye test.

If the tests show that the individual does not meet the uncorrected limits as set out by the CAA, they must wear corrective lenses, which brings the vision back within limits.

Of interest, the use of polarised sunglasses is discouraged. This is because they can cause distortion patterns on laminated windshields and, depending on the screen type, make some flight deck instruments difficult to read. Not ideal!

Read more: How pilots keep track of aircraft defects

3. We get free flights

Most jobs have perks for employees and one of the biggest benefits of working for an airline is access to discounted travel. I use the word “discounted” as there is very rarely such thing as a “free” ticket.

Airline employees, not just pilots, are able to buy a ticket known as an “ID90” — which normally equates to 90% off the normal fare. Staff are able to buy as many ID90s as they like in a year. However, there is a drawback. This is a standby ticket, meaning that you will only get on the flight if there is a seat available.

When you buy an ID90, you are given a priority code, which determines who goes ahead of you in the list to get a seat. For example, staff travelling on their own airline will get a higher priority than staff from another airline.

(Photo by Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images)

Once check-in has closed, the Flight Management Department look at how many seats are remaining and allocate them to staff in priority order. This is why staff often refer to this as “standby roulette”.

As a result, these tickets are best used when travelling on your own to a destination and at a time where the flights are not busy. Relying on an ID90 to get a family of four on a flight just before Christmas is not a great idea.

In addition to ID90s, most airlines will give staff a limited annual allowance of “free” tickets (they still have to pay airport and government taxes), which give them access to better seats on board. How these schemes work varies massively from airline to airline.

For the most part, these are limited to one or two tickets a year (for the staff member and their immediate family) and depending on the employee’s job position, this ticket could entitle them to business or first class.

However, once again, this depends on these seats being available when check-in closes. Staff will never get a premium seat at the expense of a fare-paying passenger.

4. The autopilot does all the work

Ah, my favourite one. As a group, pilots are fairly self-deprecating. We’re happy to accept the jokes and jibes from passengers and cabin crew alike, so long as it gives everyone peace of mind. The reality, though, is quite different.

Let me put it to you like this. Do you use a laptop or computer for work? If so, when you’re sat at your desk for hours on end, who is doing the work? You or the laptop? If your boss came out and tried to tell you that you won’t be getting a bonus this year because your computer did all your work for you, how would you feel? It’s the same with aircraft.

Read more: How pilots and controllers communicate digitally

The autopilot is only as good as the instructions the pilots give it. (Image courtesy of Collins Aerospace)

The autopilot is merely a computer that we use to lower workload, enabling us to work on other tasks at the same time. It is only as good as the information which we give it. If we tell the autopilot to fly a heading of north at 3,000 feet, it will do it perfectly… until it flies into a mountain.

Numerous accidents have occurred because the pilots were too reliant on the automatics. Even with highly advanced modern flight decks, the original principles still apply. Feed rubbish into a computer and you’ll get rubbish out.

5. We always fly the same route

As part of our pilot’s licence, we are rated to fly a particular type of aircraft. This is known as a type rating. Some aircraft types are very similar and the rating allows us to fly two types, for example, the 787 rating is in fact a 777/787 rating, allowing me to fly both if my airline had both types.

As a result, this means that I can fly the 787 to any destination to which my airline decides to operate it. In theory, the airline could limit us to just one destination but it would make manpower planning unnecessarily complicated. Imagine needing a pilot at the last minute for a New York flight when you only had Johannesburg pilots available. Not particularly efficient.

Each month, we are issued with our roster. How we are given this depends very much on the airline and is a big part of our terms and conditions. When we spend such a vast amount of time away from home, being able to have some control over our rosters is essential to ensure a decent work/life balance.

As part of this, some people prioritise when they have days off at home, others which destination they would prefer to fly to or, more often than not, where they would like to avoid going to.

6. We aren’t affected as badly by jet lag

Oh, believe me, we are — sometimes worse than passengers. Any time you rapidly cross multiple timezones, as you do on a long-haul flight, you’re likely to feel the effects of jet lag. This is made even worse when your sleep patterns are disrupted, for example by having to be awake all night when flying an aircraft.

Jet lag is caused by a mismatch between what the actual time is and what time your body thinks it is. Our circadian rhythm is a powerful clock, affecting a whole range of bodily functions such as hormone release, temperature regulation and eating habits. As a result, if you don’t take positive action to control it, jet lag can affect you for up to a week after a flight. This is why having enough time off to rest between flights is crucial for flight safety.

Read more: How a flying cadet graduates to a fully qualified pilot

The joys of jetlag affect pilots and passengers alike. (Photo by  Morsa Images/Getty Images)

Pilots and cabin crew never get used to it, but we do find out our own ways in which we best deal with it. The key to this is getting onto your destination time as soon as possible. When coming back from a trip, I have a “midday rule.” If I’m home before midday, I’ll sleep for a couple of hours and then make sure I get up. If I’m home after midday, I’ll stay up. The key is making yourself tired for a normal bedtime in your timezone.

7. Pilots breathe different air from the passengers

This is an interesting one and it very much depends on the aircraft type and how the air-conditioning system works. On the A320 family, hot air is taken out of the engines, conditioned, filtered and then sent into the cabin. Every few minutes, not only is this air filtered by operating theatre grade filters, but it is also dumped overboard and replaced by fresh air.

In the 787 Dreamliner which I fly now, the system is even better. Instead of taking air from the engines, the air that is pumped into the cabin (after being conditioned) comes directly from the outside. This means that there is no chance of contamination from the engines. In addition, like on the A320, the air is filtered and dumped overboard every couple of minutes.

However, the air supply to the flight deck is slightly different. To minimise the chance of contaminated air being fed into the compartment, there is a separate supply of air from the air-conditioning system. This ensures that should there be smoke or fumes in the cabin, the pilots remain protected, allowing us to land the aircraft safely.

8. Pilots are paid really well

Tough one. Back in the day, pilots did get paid relatively well. Some of the pilots now approaching the end of their careers can earn salaries into the six figures. However, these are a significant minority and, like with all things, time has changed everything.

Firstly, very few airlines pay for the training to become a pilot. Most students have to take out large loans to finance the course with no guarantee of a job at the end. It’s not uncommon for new pilots to have debts of well over £100,000.

After this, they must find a job. However, with the competition amongst airlines to offer the lowest fares whilst delivering high profits to shareholders, something has to give. Staff salaries are an obvious target to go for. With that in mind, some airlines in Europe now offer starting salaries of around £18,000 a year. A tough gig when you have such a big loan to repay as well as normal living costs.

Bottom line

Thanks to strict hygiene rules, you’re more likely to get ill from food consumed before a flight than from anything you eat on board. As a result, most airlines allow pilots to eat the same meal. Eyesight is important, however, we are allowed to wear glasses so long as we then meet the requirements set out by the relative governing agency.

Jet lag certainly affects us, however, most pilots develop their own system to enable them to deal with it. Fortunately, flying different routes gives us some variety and the autopilot definitely does not just fly the aircraft on its own.

Featured photo by Charlie Page/TPG

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