No big deal, but pilots just hold the lives of hundreds of people in their hands at any given time. It's not surprising that many people want to know the details of their high-stakes job, and one commercial airline pilot based in Europe obliged us with answers to our burning questions. Check out select answers from the Reddit IAmA ahead, and if you're afraid of flying, make sure to read through the pilot's in-depth explanation of why you shouldn't be!
1. Have you ever seen anything strange or unusual while flying at altitude?
"Flying over Portugal at night. Hundreds of flashing white lights, spanning miles and miles. It was like being in a stadium with thousands of camera flashes going off. I was completely transfixed, the other guy was completely not bothered. Turns out Portugal has lots of wind turbines, the tops of which have a flashing white light on them."
2. Regarding post 9/11 security on flights, do you and your co-pilot feel 100 percent safe when flying?
"No one is getting through that door. In terms of airport security . . . the UK is probably a world leader. The Department for Transport take these things incredibly deadly seriously. Could they do more without restricting even more of our liberties? I don't know. It does make me laugh though that I'M FLYING THE AIRCRAFT and have access to the crash axe etc . . . but I can't be trusted to bring a yogurt through security for breakfast."
3. Is it true that the pilot and the co-pilot eat different meals before their flight?
"Can't eat the same meal for food poisoning mitigation."
4. How's the WiFi?
"My airline doesn't have it. A lot of people don't realise that the antennae and stuff that have to be installed on the fuselage to accommodate passenger WiFi and SATCOM phone calls and stuff have an aerodynamic drag penalty. Airliners with on-board WiFi burn more fuel. Drag penalty plus the weight of the equipment installed inside the aircraft."
5. What do you do when you're cruising on a longer flight? Are you allowed to listen to music when the plane's on autopilot?
"Talk to the other pilot. Some guys have a newspaper. No."
6. What's the best airline food you've eaten so far?
"Emirates in economy. Morrocan Tagine chicken or something. Holy sh*t was delicious."
7. How big of a runway do you need to land that sucker? And if you had an emergency (knock on wood), what size runway could you use?
"Absolute minimum, max braking, full reverse thrust, dry runway, is about 1100m. Worst case is dual hydraulic failure onto an icy runway. Greater than 6000m."
8. How do you deal with the feeling of having the lives of so many people in your hands? I would like to be a pilot, but I can't deal with the thought that one screw up and they could die.
"It doesn't bother me because I know how safe and regulated the whole aviation industry is. I know I am a safe and competent and capable pilot who wants to get home safely just as much as the passengers down the back. On the other hand, I recognise my own limitations and shortfalls and know I can never let myself get complacent. I know that it isn't usually one screw up that causes accidents but a sequence of subtle screw ups over time that align in just the right way at the right time to cause trouble. The only time I feel the pressure is landing in gusty wind conditions in poor visibility; it takes a lot of concentration and focus."
9. How much sex is involved in your profession?
"Allegedly a lot. Aviation is a tiny industry and everyone knows each other."
10. I'm deathly afraid of flying. Is there anything you can tell me to ease my fear?
"The assessment of us never stops. The selection, training, aptitude and attitude assessments, psychological and competency tests, the check rides, the recurrent training every six months in a simulator where we get battered with multiple nonrelated failures to see how we cope . . . it all adds up into ensuring professionalism, competency, reliability, and excellence in the men and women who take on the responsibility when they sign the voyage log paperwork before pushing back from the airport gate, of hundreds of lives, and hundreds of tonnes of incredibly complicated engineering worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Their own lives too, they have just as much incentive of getting home safely as you do.
Believe me, the two people up in the flight deck (and depending if it's long haul there could be another two-thirds on board) are the absolute definition of professional. There is nothing to be afraid of control wise, because the pilots, the engineering maintenance system, the aircraft themselves, ATC, procedure design, emergency procedures . . . it's an incredibly regulated, well oiled, high achieving, safe machine.
Aviation is in fact so safe and the training so disciplined that they're actually looking at taking elements of what we call CRM, crew resource management, which is basically a system of managing humans and limiting any human error, and using it in emergency medicine in hospitals, because it has proved so effective in aviation. Communication and decision making and situational awareness are extremely important skills for a pilot to have in an emergency - it's the same thing in the ER when a trauma case comes in. Same skills, different application . . .
Here's what I want you to do. Call up your local airfield and ask for a one-hour introductory flight in a multiengine piston. Have them demonstrate to you 1) engine failure after takeoff 2) Gliding to a forced landing to low level then to a go around 3) Asymmetric go around 4) 10 minutes of the instructor giving you control and allowing you to practice control inputs, changing power, climbing and descending, turns. It will help you, trust me. In the meantime watch this cockpit footage of a genuine emergency and watch how the flight crew interact with each other and note how calm and methodical they are."
11. Do you like your job?
"Whenever we break out through the cloud ceiling and climb away, or conversely when we're in the descent and reach the layer and cloud surf for a bit before dropping through . . . I can't help but grin. Surfing those clouds at 300 knots is so cool."