Airline careers necessitate long hours of crushing boredom punctuated by short periods of intensity. The unique demands placed on airline pilots, crewmembers and mechanics can be met with lifestyle and attitude adjustments.
Aviation distinguishes itself from other industries as one that eschews the traditional “nine to five”, “clock in, clock out” work schedule. The unique nature of air travel refuses to play nice with normal concepts of schedules, routines, or habits. In order to accept a career with the airlines, one must have an understanding of the real demands of airline careers.
The penultimate goal of aviation is to ferry passengers and cargo from one location to another in a manner both safe and efficient. Achieving this goal takes superhuman effort from a broad range of people involved in the successful launch of an aircraft. Let us take a snapshot of the demands placed upon people in three rungs of the aviation ladder: maintenance, dispatch, and carriage.
Airline mechanics must keep aircraft safe for flight. Strict regulations require extensive documentation and procedure control, lengthening the time mechanics must spend on each maintenance operation. Unfortunately, an aircraft grounded due to maintenance earns no money, requiring mechanics to work quickly. These two aspects come together forcefully, causing mechanics to work long hours, under stress from airline owners. Additionally, mechanics have no room to make mistakes, as one mistake in maintenance can quickly snowball into the loss of hundreds of lives.
One small omission of a sheet metal repair once caused the death of 520 souls. When Japan Airlines Flight 123 encountered a tail strike incident in 1977, the damage was repaired by installing a new piece of metal over the affected area and the plane was declared airworthy. In 1984, that same section of the tail cone underwent explosive decompression, destroying a piece of the tail, and sending the aircraft into an uncontrollable state. It crashed into the ground, killing 520 people of the 524 on board. This is the deadliest single-aircraft accident in aviation history and the second deadliest behind the Tenerife disaster.
The root cause was a single small step being omitted in the repair process. One person missed one thing, and 520 people died. This kind of stress is placed on mechanics daily: extensive paperwork documentation required by the FAA attempts to counter these incidents. At the end of the day, however, mechanics must maintain strict vigilance, operating one-hundred percent perfectly under the stress of timetables. Joining an aviation career as a mechanic is a daunting step and not to be taken lightly.
Aircraft must not just be airworthy, but also, be flight ready. This falls under the authority of aircraft dispatchers. In terms of airline careers, dispatchers are responsible for organizing and planning flights for an airline. They must keep track of thousands of different things: aircraft maintenance status, patterns of weather, availability of food and fuel, assignment of personnel, and management of aircraft flight times. These people form the backbone of organization for an airline, keeping planes on schedule and ensuring that the carriage of people and cargo is both safe and efficient.
Dispatchers also suffer from the pressure of financial accountability: they solely are responsible for aircraft arriving and departing from airports at specific times, thus, they control the revenue stream for airlines on the ground. Without dispatchers, no airlines would able to maintain a set schedule with fully stocked aircraft and up-to-date maintenance.
Offices for flight dispatchers are hectic environments. American Airlines employs over 1,600 dispatchers at their Forth Worth control center, all working in the same huge room. People scurry about, constantly busy, ensuring that all the stars align for successful aircraft launches. Tickers and charts dot the walls, like a scene from the New York Stock Exchange.
Like the exchange, things can change at the drop of a hat. A plane might suddenly develop a maintenance issue, or an airline servicing cart might be running late. Dispatchers must be able to find a way to solve this problem, without even having minutes to spare: customers will often be sitting in the plane, on the tarmac, impatiently waiting for takeoff. Their enjoyment of the entire process – and thus their opinion of the airline – could change right at this moment. Dispatchers do not have the luxury of time on their side, thus, they must develop a sense of urgency in their job.
However, dispatchers must also not make mistakes. Like the mechanics, a simple error can lead to a major catastrophe. UPS Flight 1354 into Birmingham, Alabama, flew into the ground in 2013, impacting terrain short of the runway, destroying the airplane. The plane was perfectly airworthy, the pilots were fit for duty, and there was no inclement weather. The issue? Dispatchers sent the airplane to the airport for an instrument flight rules landing, even though the instrument landing system at the airport was inoperative. Effectively, this required the pilots to hand-fly the airplane in for a landing, something they had not planned for due to the mistake made way back at the dispatcher’s office.
This little break in the normal chain of an aircraft landing was enough to push the pilots outside of their comfort and ability zone, causing a further breakdown of situational control, and ultimately leading to the loss of both pilots’ lives and the airframe. All this due to the simple error of one person missing a line in the airport status information panel halfway across the country. The slightest little mistake could quickly snowball out of control, bringing down an airplane and – worse – its load of passengers. This is one of the hardest adjustments to make when pursuing a career in aviation: adopting the mindset required to take the grave responsibility of ferrying people through the air.
Lastly, the pilots. Pilots are the ultimate end-all be-all of safe flight. They are the ones in command of the aircraft from when the wheels leave the tarmac until the inevitable return to ground. Pilots form the “last line” of defense against human mistakes and mechanical errors. This puts them in the most important position of an airline, in terms of having the ultimate responsibility for the safe carriage of passengers. Airline careers as a pilot are a solemn undertaking not for the faint hearted.
Everything a pilot does is regimented to the final letter. Every procedure has a physical checklist called out for it, describing the process required and spelling out each step individually. The presence of both a captain and a first officer ensures that a “call and response” style of completing checklists is accomplished on the flight deck. The first officer will call a requirement, such as “Flaps to fifteen degrees”, to which the captain will comply with, then respond with “Flaps, fifteen”. This process ensures that each checklist operation is completed without any possible errors, and has proven its track record: flying through the air is the safest form of travel today.
This small glimpse into the pilots’ routine in the cockpit highlights the importance of each decision the pilot makes. Moving the incorrect switch in the cockpit could put a plane into a situation that requires an emergency landing or becomes unrecoverable. The famous Air France Flight 447 accident over the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 puts this in perspective: the airspeed indication devices of the aircraft became filled with debris, giving the pilots no indication of the speed of the aircraft. This caused the autopilot – responsible for maintaining level flight – to disengage, causing the aircraft to roll right. The pilot, noticing this, grabbed the control stick and wrenched it left in an effort to bring the aircraft level. However, this control input was actually an over-control input, which dragged the aircraft too far into a left roll, causing an aerodynamic stall and the subsequent loss of life and the airframe.
Effectively, the pilot panicked.
This quality is exactly why airlines put such a strict regulation into flight deck management. Pilot training is a 3,000 hour ordeal of managing the flight deck of an airplane. A large portion of this is spent learning how to make decisions. With the control stick in the left hand, the throttle in the right, and 100 souls on board, a pilot’s decision in flight is something that is not taken lightly.
Learning how to fly a plane is a deceptively simple task. Any person can consistently hit the 1000-foot marker on the runway during an instrument landing in a deadly crosswind. All that requires is skill, and skill can be learned. Spending 3,000 hours flying commercial aircraft will give a pilot that skill. The difficult part about piloting is the part that can only be learned and cannot be taught: being a decisive person. The decisions made on the flight deck of an aircraft are the penultimate example of swift thought and swift action.
Captain Sully’s actions during the famous Miracle on the Hudson are a prime example of the character demanded of pilots. US Airways flight 1549 impacted a fleet of birds shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia airport. Both engines of the aircraft immediately lost power. The first officer grabbed the emergency checklist for engine restart – the proper decision – while Captain Sully immediately grabbed the controls, ready to input commands. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the New York City layout, a suitable diversion was unavailable, due to the low altitude of the aircraft. Realizing this, Sully announced to the air traffic controllers that he would attempt to land on the Hudson river. Landing an aircraft successfully on water was considered practically impossible, making Captain Sully’s decision seem poor.
However, Sully had made his decision. He could have attempted to divert to a possible airport, or attempted to land on a highway, but he had already laid his cards on the table. All of this decision-making occurred over a period less than two minutes. Sully’s approach to the river was cleverly placed: he avoided the cross-river bridges and brought the aircraft down near ferry terminals. The aircraft impacted the water with the aft fuselage – not the engines – resulting in a hard but safe landing. Recovery was successful, with no loss of lives. The NTSB praised Sully, calling it the most successful ditching in airline history.
Captain Sully had a remarkable level of skill at piloting aircraft, being professionally glider trained. More importantly, however, he displayed exceptional decision-making ability. Several alternatives presented themselves. He could not turn around to LaGuardia, he was too slow to make the turn. He could not continue on to New Jersey, he was too low in the sky. He could not land on the highway, it was too far away. His only option was the river, but it was a bad option. Nonetheless, his decisive action brought him to follow-through with his less than optimal decision, saving the lives of hundreds of people.
Incidents like that highlight the necessity of decision making. This alone will be the hardest step in accepting airline careers. Mechanics, dispatchers, and pilots all face decisions daily that could have disastrous results if performed poorly. However, strict training and attention to detail, combined with the proper attitude of responsibility, will ensure that people depart and arrive safe and on time. This attitude takes time to develop and comes with experience. In the end, the feelings of successfully delivering people is well worth the effort.
Featured Image: Enrique