"Do you really know what all those buttons do?"
Call me simple, but that's the question I've always wanted to ask an airline pilot. That and, how hard is it to land one of these things? And when is it time for passengers to start panicking? Recently, I had the chance to ask these very questions of Brett Manders, a former naval officer turned commercial pilot for Jetstar, who flies Boeing 787 Dreamliners across the world. Here's what he had to say.
Why did you get into commercial flying?
I remember going out to Tullamarine airport as a kid, when they had a viewing platform there, and I was just gobsmacked at the planes. Just the sense of adventure, that you could go anywhere in the world on these things. From that day on I always wanted to be a pilot.
How much training did you have to go through?
It was a solid 12 months of study to get a commercial license. Then it was another several years before I got into an airline, when I joined Jetstar in 2009. I've since flown several different aircraft, and at the moment I'm training the next generation of pilots on the Dreamliner.
What do you think would surprise people about your job?
People probably think it's a lot more glamorous than it is. Certainly going to Hawaii in the depths of a Melbourne winter is fantastic, but we fly all night, you get there, you sleep for a little bit, you get up, go out for dinner, try to go to the beach, sleep and fly back. You're only there for enough time to get jet-lagged and then come home.
What's your day-to-day schedule like?
My monthly roster is a mix of training new pilots, and I get a couple of flights a month to some of the more desirable destinations: Hawaii, Bali, Singapore, Bangkok, Phuket, Japan.
Do you have a favourite plane to fly?
Every pilot's favourite aeroplane is the one they're flying at the moment, but the Dreamliner is fantastic. It's super high-tech and modern, the cockpit looks really space-aged. It's a beautiful machine.
Do you really know what every button in the cockpit does?
Absolutely! They're all grouped into similar areas – all the electrics are in one area, all the fuel stuff is in one area… When you do your training you do several weeks of computer-based modules to learn about all the buttons, and then there's another month and a half of training in the simulator before you even get to the aeroplane. When you're doing it every day it becomes second nature.
How much of a part does autopilot play?
Autopilot is a great tool, but it's always under our control, we're always telling it what to do. You know with cruise control in a car, you'd always have your foot ready on the brake just in case? That's what we're doing. Autopilot can do something like fly straight and level a lot better than a human can, because it's not prone to fatigue, it's a lot quicker at doing calculations, but it's all what we tell it to do. We do practise doing automatic landings, so when the weather is bad we do practise it. That's dependent upon the airline, the airport and the regulator. But every take-off is done manually, there's no such thing as an auto take-off.
Could I land a plane in an emergency?
The first thing you would need to do is work out how to use the radios. Given enough time, and depending on how technically minded you were – say if you're an iPhone user and you could jump across to a Samsung – it's possible. You could be talked down. But you'd need to be able to do an automatic landing, and not every airport can do that. A manual landing could be done, but there would be an immense amount of pressure … It's more a Hollywood script than a possibility.
Have you ever been scared on a flight?
Have you ever eaten airline food? I wouldn't say I've ever been scared in a commercial airliner. When I was doing training in light aircraft, I did some aerobatic training, and my stomach wasn't so keen on that. I also had to stop an engine in-flight and start it again. In a light aircraft you scare yourself a bit, but that's part of the training.
When is it time for passengers to start panicking?
The only time passengers need to panic is before the flight if they're running late, and afterwards at the baggage carousel if their bags don't come out. On the flight, I always try to reiterate, we're all highly trained, and we've got skin in the game, we've all got family and friends we want to get home to. The best thing you can do if you're afraid of flying is let the crew know you're nervous when you get on board, and they'll keep an eye on you.
Do you have a favourite airport?
Honolulu is pretty cool on take-off. It's a beautiful, smooth runway, and you do an early turn and fly over the beach at Waikiki, which is pretty nice. You're disappointed to be leaving, but it's a pretty spectacular departure.
How about a least favourite airport?
Probably any airport where air traffic control tell you they're going to give you a delay straight after you've told the passengers what time they're going to arrive. It makes it look like we don't know what we're doing. But it's the nature of the industry with such busy air routes, it doesn't take much to slow things down.
Any time a flight is delayed, you always hear the captain say they're "just finishing off the paperwork". What is all this paperwork?
We have a phrase: the bigger the aeroplane, the bigger the paperwork. There are three main parts to the paperwork. The first is the fuel. We have to make sure we have the right fuel. We might plan the fuel load we need in tonnes, but the airport refueller might refuel in US gallons, and they might bill us in pounds. So you obviously want to make sure that's right. The next one is the passengers and freight, we have to make sure we have the correct amount of passengers on board, and we also need to know where the passengers and the freight is distributed throughout the plane. The final item is the tech log. You know when you have your car serviced, the service rep will fill out the log book? It's pretty much the exact same thing, except that gets filled out before every flight.
What's the strangest that's happened on one of your flights?
This isn't so much strange as funny. You know when you have a flight that isn't very full, the cabin crew makes an announcement that you have to stay in your allotted seat until the seatbelt sign has gone off? We had this one guy, when the light went off he hopped up and walked down to business class and put himself up there. I thought that was pretty funny. They've since changed the PA announcement.
Brett Manders' new book, Behind the Flight Deck Door, is available now through Amazon, and at behindtheflightdeckdoor.com.au
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