You may also like these photo galleries
They're the men, and increasingly the women, right at the pointy end of planes who have our lives in our hands, and who we hear through the intercom, but rarely – if ever – actually see.
And so the mystique, charisma and romantic legend of the airline captain piloting our fates endures and grows as the number of air passengers continues to rise year on year.
But who are these enigmatic figures, and what do they really think about their jobs, their passengers and the awe with which they're routinely regarded?
What would the ultimate airline experience look like?
An airline with the best food, service and seats in the world? Traveller.com.au's writers name what their dream plane would feature.
Traveller asks pilots from some of the world's top airlines what they love, and loathe, about flying, which are their favourite destinations, which do they dread, and what are their most closely-guarded secrets for beating jet lag.
And we discover that the one thing that most irritates them is the erroneous belief that they don't actually fly the plane; a computer does.
"One of my biggest pet peeves is the public's widely held belief that jetliners essentially fly themselves," says US pilot Patrick Smith.
"Travellers have come to have a vastly exaggerated sense of the capabilities of present-day cockpit technology, and they greatly misunderstand how pilots interface with that technology."
Cathay Pacific's Captain Caroline Williams agrees. "The autopilot doesn't fly the plane for us!" she says. "Much like your computer at work, there are systems to help you achieve what you need to achieve – but you still need to program the computer and make decisions."
So sit back and strap in for the ultimate low-down from up on high, and hear the surprise truth about some of our greatest myths about airline captains, and learn what they do while we sit blissfully unaware down the back.
SENIOR CAPTAIN CAROLINE WILLIAMS, 41, is an Australian based in Hong Kong, total 20 years flying.
ROUTES I fly predominantly long-haul routes from Hong Kong. In any one month, I could fly to London or Milan and New York, with a trip to Melbourne – my home town – in between. I try to do at least one trip home each month.
THE AIRCRAFT I MOST OFTEN FLY IS ... the B777 which I've flown exclusively for the past 12 years. At Cathay we have B777-200, 300, and 300ERs. Cathay also has Airbus 350s, 330s and Boeing 747s but it takes a few months to train on a different aircraft type, so we don't switch around much.
THE BEST AIRCRAFT TO FLY IS ... the B777 of course! It's like an old friend after flying it for so long, you become so comfortable with it and with what it can do. I'm also excited for the B777-9 which has folding wing-tips and Heads-up-display (HUD); the first simulator comes on line this month.
MY FAVOURITE DESTINATION TO FLY TO IS ... I have two; Milan for shopping, and Melbourne to catch up with family and friends (and eat good food).
THE DESTINATION I'D LOVE TO FLY TO BUT HAVEN'T IS ... St Petersburg – but only in the summer. I have always wanted to visit, but haven't got there yet.
THE TRICKIEST AIRPORTS FOR TAKE-OFFS AND LANDINGS ARE ... New York (JFK) was pretty tricky up until recently when our airline was approved to fly GPS approaches. Beforehand, we flew a VOR approach – using short-range radio signals transmitted by ground beacons – with a visual turn onto final approach.
THE GREATEST MYTH ABOUT AIRLINE CAPTAINS IS ... that we are all men.
MY FAVOURITE OFF-DUTY HOLIDAY DESTINATION is anywhere with my husband and two children.
THE ONE LITTLE KNOWN FACT ABOUT BEING AN AIRLINE PILOT IS ... the autopilot doesn't fly the plane for us. Much like your computer at work, there are systems to help you achieve what you need to achieve – but you still need to program the computer and make decisions.
MY MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT ON A PLANE WAS ... recently having the pleasure of flying the entire Juventus football team from Melbourne to Hong Kong. It was a special charter on the B777-300ER and my husband was extremely jealous.
CAPTAIN COLIN SUTHERS, 45, an Australian based in Doha, 27 years flying, 16,000 flying hours.
ROUTES Perth, London Heathrow, New York JFK, Washington Dulles.
THE AIRCRAFT I MOST OFTEN FLY IS ... Boeing 777-300ER, with a maximum take-off weight of 351 tonnes and powered by 2 GE90-115 engines (the most powerful civilian engine in production) with an endurance of 17 hours.
MY FAVOURITE DESTINATION TO FLY TO IS... New York. This vibrant and diverse city has something for everyone; it really is the city that never sleeps.
THE DESTINATION I'D LOVE TO FLY TO BUT HAVEN'T IS ... Kathmandu, Nepal.
THE TRICKIEST AIRPORTS FOR TAKE-OFFS AND LANDINGS ARE ... Some airports have been classified by Qatar Airways as requiring additional training. We take no shortcuts in this respect and all of our pilots receive comprehensive training.
THE GREATEST MYTH ABOUT AIRLINE CAPTAINS IS... that it is a one-man show. While the aircraft captain has the overall legal responsibility for the safe conduct of the flight, it takes a team effort to get an aircraft in the air.
MY FAVOURITE OFF-DUTY HOLIDAY DESTINATION IS ... With great food, a beautiful climate and lovely people Phuket, Thailand, is my favourite place to holiday.
THE ONE LITTLE KNOWN FACT ABOUT BEING AN AIRLINE PILOT IS... airline pilots do not spend a lot of time at destinations once they arrive. Typically, they'll stay 12 to 48 hours depending on regulatory rest requirements before they fly their next scheduled flight.
MY MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT ON A PLANE WAS ... my first solo flight, when I was learning to fly. All initial training was conducted in small two-seat training aircraft, with a certified flight training instructor seated beside you guiding and teaching. Once the instructor is satisfied that you can perform safely they will release you for solo flights.
AIR NEW ZEALAND
FIRST OFFICER LYNDA PRIOR, 45, is a New Zealander based in Auckland, flying for 30 years.
ROUTES I fly on the airline's trans-Tasman, North and South America, London, Asia, and Pacific Island routes.
THE AIRCRAFT I MOST OFTEN FLY IS ... the Boeing 777-200 and the Boeing 777-300. I love these aircraft – they are a dream to fly.
THE BEST AIRCRAFT TO FLY IS ... any aircraft. Flying is my passion and I consider myself very fortunate that my career is also my hobby and that every day I get to do what I love. During the course of my career I have flown everything from passenger jets to ski planes, float planes, helicopters and aerobatic stunt planes – I love them all.
MY FAVOURITE DESTINATION TO FLY TO IS ... Vancouver for its outdoor pursuits and my family and friends who live there, Rarotonga for its sheer natural beauty and people, London for its history and sights and proximity to the rest of Europe, Hong Kong for its food and nightlife, Buenos Aires for the Latin American culture … it's impossible to pick just one favourite.
THE DESTINATION I'D LOVE TO FLY TO BUT HAVEN'T IS ... anywhere I've not flown to before as I love meeting people and exploring new places.
THE GREATEST MYTH ABOUT AIRLINE CAPTAINS IS ... that they are all men. Air New Zealand has a number of female captains and many more women currently flying. At the end of the day the aircraft doesn't know what gender you are – all that matters is that you have the qualifications and are passionate about flying.
MY FAVOURITE OFF-DUTY HOLIDAY DESTINATION ... is somewhere off the beaten track that I've not been to before. Recently I've travelled to Russia, Iceland, Greenland and Alaska.
THE ONE LITTLE KNOWN FACT ABOUT BEING AN AIRLINE PILOT IS ... throughout our entire career we are continually tested and examined on a regular basis. There are six-monthly simulator flights and exams, annual route checks in an aircraft, aircraft-specific refresher courses and emergency procedure modules and exams.
MY MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT ON A PLANE WAS ... my first solo flight – no pilot ever forgets that. And I will also never forget my first landing in a float plane on a Canadian lake and in a ski plane on an Alaskan glacier.
CAPTAIN TAN JEOK CHEE, 55, based in Singapore, is a Singaporean with 29 years of flying and more than 15,000 flying hours.
Singapore Airlines pilot Tan Jeok Chee.
THE AIRCRAFT I MOST OFTEN FLY IS ... I have had a total of five wide body passenger airplane ratings. Boeing: 747-400, 777-200/300, Airbus: A310, A330, A380. They are all great aircraft, each with their own beauty and unique design.
THE BEST AIRCRAFT TO FLY IS ... I love flying and it does not matter what aircraft type I am in. I always feel excited when I am in the cockpit and enjoy every moment.
MY FAVOURITE DESTINATION TO FLY TO IS … European cities because I like their rich culture and history; London, Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Amsterdam. Also, Anchorage, Alaska where I used to fly the B747 freighter plane to. It was very challenging during the harsh winter months with the very low temperatures but it was certainly a memorable experience.
THE DESTINATION I'D LOVE TO FLY TO BUT HAVEN'T IS ... Sao Paolo, Brazil. I've heard so much about the colourful Brazilian culture. However, when SIA started to fly the 777 to Sao Paolo, I was no longer on the 777 fleet. I plan to go there on my own holiday one day.
THE TRICKIEST AIRPORTS FOR TAKE-OFFS AND LANDINGS IS ... Kathmandu when I operated the A310 aircraft there many years back. Takeoff and landing were extremely challenging because the city is surrounded by high mountains. But it was very satisfying and exciting every time and I could really feel the adrenaline rush whenever I flew there.
THE GREATEST MYTH ABOUT AIRLINE CAPTAINS IS ... that we have many girlfriends at every port of visit. That's not true! We are just ordinary people.
MY FAVOURITE OFF-DUTY HOLIDAY DESTINATION Nowadays I like to spend time with my family on a short holiday to Hokkaido, Japan, because we all like Japanese food and Hokkaido is a great place all year around.
THE ONE LITTLE KNOWN FACT ABOUT BEING AN AIRLINE PILOT IS ... the air transport industry is so highly regulated. We need to pass our flying test with emergency handlings every six months, as well as stringent medical tests every year just to keep our licence.
MY MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT ON A PLANE WAS ... before 9/11, when airlines used to allow passengers to visit the cockpit in flight, and on a flight to Rome, 15 pairs of newlywed couples on-board took turns to come into the cockpit and take photos with us. Other than flying the aircraft, we are always proud to be part of our customers' fond memories.
CAPTAIN BRADLEY FISHER, 57, an Australian based in Sydney, has had 30 years with Qantas, and approximately 18,000 flying hours.
Qantas pilot Bradley Fisher.
ROUTES I fly to Santiago, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, San Francisco, and any other worldwide destination Qantas would like to send the Boeing 747.
THE AIRCRAFT I MOST OFTEN FLY IS … we only fly one type at any time, I am currently flying the Boeing 747-400 series. I have only ever flown Boeings, including the 767 and 747-100, 200, 300 and now 400 series.
THE BEST AIRCRAFT TO FLY IS …The 747 ER version when it is heavy, at close to 400 tonnes on the long-haul routes. The controls are actually lighter and easier to use and very stable, and it rides through turbulence with comfort. It is also technically a very pilot-friendly aircraft.
A Qantas 747 takes off.
MY FAVOURITE DESTINATION TO FLY TO IS ... Santiago, Chile. The views of Antarctica and New Zealand en route can be stunning and along the west coast of South America the close proximity of the snow-covered Andes reaching up to 20,000 feet surrounding Santiago is a view not to be missed.
THE DESTINATION I'D LOVE TO FLY TO BUT HAVEN'T IS.... Havana in Cuba. Fortunately, we have a Qantas 747 private charter for Constellation Journeys going there in April as part of an around-the-world trip, just in time for me to finally tick that box!
THE TRICKIEST AIRPORTS FOR TAKE-OFFS AND LANDINGS ARE ... Any airport on any given day can be tricky depending on the weather, but New York can be very demanding with a high workload demanded by air traffic control and so many aircraft.
THE GREATEST MYTH ABOUT AIRLINE CAPTAINS IS ... the glamour. It's not like going on a holiday. After a long, tiring flight, sleep becomes more important than being a tourist or having fun. That's not to say once in a while you aren't with a terrific crew and have a terrific time, in a terrific town.
MY FAVOURITE OFF-DUTY HOLIDAY DESTINATION IS ... a surfing trip to the North Coast beaches of New South Wales.
THE ONE LITTLE KNOWN FACT ABOUT BEING AN AIRLINE PILOT IS ... we are constantly tested in simulators, are attending courses and have to pass exams, and we are judged by our peers in the flight deck, on every sector we fly. And we are usually our own worst critics, and are constantly striving to complete a perfect flight.
MY MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT ON A PLANE WAS ... the first time I flew a plane into the air on my own, going solo, back in 1979.
HOW AIRLINE CAPTAINS DEAL WITH JET LAG
SENIOR CAPTAIN CAROLINE WILLIAMS, CATHAY PACIFIC
Eating/sleeping on local time the moment I touch down to adjust as soon as possible. If I land in the morning, I have a 1-2 hour sleep early (before lunch) and power through the rest of the day. If I land after lunch, or can't get a sleep until after lunch, I try to stay up as long as possible, to fall asleep on local night-time. Afternoon naps are a mistake! I also go out in the sun, or go for a walk to let my body realise its daytime, and read a book, listen to music when it's time to relax.
CAPTAIN COLIN SUTHERS, QATAR AIRWAYS
Getting plenty of exercise, sleep and eating healthy.
FIRST OFFICER LYNDA PRIOR, AIR NEW ZEALAND
By accepting it. For the first few years of my airline career I would stress about it, but now I sleep when I'm tired, exercise when I'm able – preferably outdoors, drink lots of water and maintain a healthy diet (most of the time…).
CAPTAIN TAN JEOK CHEE, SINGAPORE AIRLINES
Trying not to think about it and resting as much as I can when I feel tired. Exercising regularly also helps my body to adjust quickly to the time zone. I am quite lucky in this aspect as I normally have no problem adjusting.
CAPTAIN BRADLEY FISHER, QANTAS
You won't like my advice, if you are a tourist. When I do trips away from home with less than 48 hours in port, I often stay on the Sydney time zone. Which means that in places like Santiago, or London, one sleeps all day and has mostly long boring nights. For longer trips, I like to sleep whenever I feel tired, at any time of the day. Our aim is to be rested for our next flight, not to be an adventurous tourist.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE AN AIRLINE CAPTAIN?
1.Ground training and passes in CASA pilot exams and, ideally, a Bachelor's degree in an area such as aircraft operations, aviation, aeronautical engineering, or a related field.
2. More than 1500 hours of flight experience which must include a minimum of 40 hours of instrument flying experience in-air and through simulation that can reproduce low visibility conditions.
3. An Air Transport Pilot Licence (which includes an Instrument Rating so you can fly safely at night and in cloud) demonstrating the ability to operate aircraft computer and navigation systems.
4. Being able to meet a "Class 1 Aviation Medical" standard, which includes good general health, decent vision (with or without glasses) and adequate hearing.
5. Strong communication skills and problem-solving ability as well as observation skills, good depth perception and fast reaction time.
Source: Civil Aviation Safety Authority
See also: How much airline pilots get paid
CAPTAIN CONFIDENTIAL: 10 MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT PILOTS AIRED
US airline pilot Patrick Smith, 51, who has a internationally read, long-running website and blog askthepilot.com, and is the author of the book Cockpit Confidential, agrees to answer 10 of Traveller's questions.
DO PILOTS EVER HAVE A FEAR OF FLYING?
Everyone is afraid of flying. It's always there. It's a part of our job to be afraid. A pilot's work is based on contingency; you're hard-wired to think, What can go wrong? It's not some kind of panicky, jumpy fear of flying but it's something we all share, whether frequent flyers or first-time passengers.
DO PILOTS LOVE WHAT THEY DO OR IS IT JUST A JOB?
I can't imagine anyone being in this line of work if they don't enjoy it. Lots of different aspects appeal to different people but for me, it's the grand theatre of air travel; the drama of getting from here to there. I grew up studying route maps and airline timetables.
DO PILOTS RECEIVE ANY VOICE TRAINING FOR THOSE ANNOUNCEMENTS?
Airlines give you guidance in manuals about what to say – and what not to say – to passengers, but it does come down to individuals and their communication skills.
DO PILOTS GET SICK OF AIRLINE FOOD DELIVERED TO THE COCKPIT?
We're fortunate that on the longer flights, we're treated to first or business-class meals – without the wine.
DOES PILOTS' STATUS INFLATE THEIR EGOS?
That can happen in aviation just as it can happen in any profession: certain individuals let it get to their egos more than it should. But it comes down to personality, and I hope it doesn't happen with me.
HOW DO PILOTS REGARD THE PASSENGERS – AS A NECESSARY EVIL OR NUISANCE?
No! If it weren't for them, we wouldn't have jobs. But the demographic of passengers has certainly changed over the year. Low-cost airlines mean a lot more people are flying, and they're often in a high-stress environment in cramped conditions, in crowded planes and airports, with access to lots of alcohol. I'm surprised we see so few examples of air rage.
WHAT'S YOUR FAVOURITE MOMENT ON A PLANE?
When I'm actually a passenger in first or business class on a long-haul flight and settling into a reclining seat watching a movie with a glass of wine.
WHAT'S BEEN YOUR WORST MOMENT?
When I was a private pilot, at 19, and I was involved in a mid-range near-miss with another small plane through a combination of things. Experiences like that you carry with you and make you a better, and safer, pilot.
DOES THE MILE-HIGH CLUB STILL EXIST?
More and more people are flying, but the average size of aircraft are getting smaller, so while I think membership isn't common, it does still happen. You're most likely to hear it from the passenger who got away with it – there's no point in doing it if you don't tell people.
AND ARE YOU A MEMBER?
I'm not answering that.