Could I land an A380 in an emergency? Why does no one ever ask if there's a doctor on board? What's the worst airport in the world to land at?
As a total plane nerd, there are plenty of things I've always wondered about the people with the hats and epaulettes sitting up the front of the plane. What are their lives like? How the heck did they get that job?
So when I had the chance to chat to Ian Haines, a pilot and trainer on the Emirates A380s, I jumped at it. (And yes, I could totally land a plane.)
How do you go from never having flown a plane to piloting A380s for Emirates?
The way I did it was by taking what they call a "trial introductory flight", which you can do at most little airports in Australia. That's a half-hour flight with an instructor in a little Cessna, and you go up and just have a play really, flying the aircraft around the sky. The instructor lands the aircraft for you. After that I was hooked. I thought, I like this. I then worked for Australian Airlines for five years, then Swiss Air for 13 years, and then I came to Emirates in 2002.
Do you ever get nervous while you're flying?
No, not at all! As a pilot you understand what's going on, and that's your job. Why would I be scared? I understand flying, I know what's happening, and it's my job to make sure it's a safe operation.
Last year there were a few highly publicised air crashes. How much control do you as a pilot have over where your plane flies?
As the captain, you're responsible for the operation of the flight. We have a flight dispatch team, who have state of the art equipment, and they provide us with a routing for the flight. So Sydney to Dubai, they would optimise the route for the best winds, and avoiding the worst of the weather – for example up over the Bay of Bengal, we would be routed around that. At the time prior to the flight I would look at the weather situation and decide if I'm happy with the routing, and if I have no concerns I accept the flight plan. If that's not the case I contact the flight dispatch people and we come up with a solution.
It happens all the time on movies, but in all the flights I've ever taken, no one has ever asked if there's a doctor on board. Have you had to do that?
You'd be surprised, it's a more common event now – especially with the A380, we've got 550 people on board the aircraft, so you can imagine the chances of having a sick passenger on board are much higher than on an A320 or something like that. And if we have an option of speaking to a doctor on board then that makes our job a lot easier.
Say there's an emergency, and I, a complete novice with no flying experience, end up in the cockpit. Could I land an A380?
If an instructor could talk to you, then yes, you'd be able to do it. The aircraft is capable of autoland – all you need is an airport, and we could talk you down very easily to land the aircraft. It wouldn't be a big drama. It wouldn't be perfect, but it would be safe.
What do you guys actually do in the cockpit for, say, the 14 hours it takes to get from Sydney to Dubai?
We're not at the cockpit for 14 hours. We have two crews, so two captains and two first officers. The crew that takes off also does the landing. So say I'm the commander of the flight, the captain on board. We'd have a briefing before the flight, which is about an hour and 15 before take-off. We then go to the cockpit and set up the cockpit. The other crew will do the walk around the aircraft and check that for me. We then take off, climb up to top of climb, at which point the other crew will go back and rest. They will have about five hours' rest. We will then fly for about five, five-and-a-half hours, then we change control teams. We'll go back and have a sleep for about six hours, and then come back to the cockpit about an hour before descent and prepare the aircraft for arrival.
Is it hard sleeping in the air?
No, I have no problem sleeping. It's a nice bunk, comfortable, the right temperature and everything. You have to manage your sleep, which is part of your job.
How do you deal with jetlag?
You just learn to live with it. It's part of the job. You learn to sleep when you need to. That's one of the downsides of international flying. It never gets easier, you just get used to it.
How long do you get for a stopover?
Generally most stopovers are 24 hours. So some of that time you have to look at managing your sleep, and other times, sure, you get the opportunity to go and see the sights of the city. By the 15th or 20th time you visit a city though, you might be less interested than you were the first time.
Are any airports particularly hard to land at?
Not so much difficult to land at, but it's challenging if you have a lot of air traffic, a lot of other aircraft around. I would say coming into the United States can be very challenging, in terms of traffic, and also the weather, if you get a bad snowstorm. O'Hare, JFK, San Francisco… But it's part of the job.
Have you ever flown a plane? Have you ever heard a call for a doctor on board? Is this a dream job for travellers?