Let me be honest with you: the days when a pilot would turn up to work and begin planning his flight (and pilots would have been almost exclusively male, in those days), plotting his route, calculating the fuel burn, choosing flight levels, filling out and filing a flight plan, are well and truly over (I feel fatigued just writing it, and don’t mention fatigue to an airline pilot).

Perhaps, in the crazy world of corporate aviation, a biz-jet jockey may well have to work like a one person airline, but for the rest of us, life is far cosier.

Your standard issue airline pilot arrives around one hour before departure – up to two hours for long haul flights – and attempts to persuade a cumbersome, cheap computer system to recognise his or her (for things have moved on) presence in the crew room. It’s a brain blowing task that only the spiritually content could cope with long-term without nose diving towards an early grave.

Sadly, pilots aren’t generally spiritually content, so accessing the company’s IT system on a daily basis often results in clenched fists, barely concealed curses, and indeed a few early graves.

Half a dozen angry clicks of the mouse later, he or she gives up and tries to bring the next computer to life. This could go on for several minutes, eating into the minimum report time rostered for our weary pilot. But occasionally, with one deity or another smiling on its wayward child, this simple process can take as little as just a few minutes.

Sooner or later, pilot and computer do become one, and ‘The System’ allows the plucky pilot to check in.

Now, a clever system would indicate whether or not the other pilot has checked in, and whether they have already printed off the rainforest worth of paperwork associated with the intention of transporting passengers around the skies. A cheaper system wouldn’t.

And so it is, that in a large crew room bustling with bewildered aviators, it is highly likely that when both pilots eventually meet, they will each be clutching an identical set of paperwork. Of course, this assumes that the captain is of the modern type.

Not that long ago many captains would refuse to collate the paper work for their flight, believing that it was the co-pilot’s responsibility to do so. You can imagine that such an attitude has been shown to save a whole rainforest over the lifetime of an individual captain, and so shouldn’t necessarily be frowned upon like some other habits from the bad old days. After all, there’s only so far you can take this touchy-feely modern approach, and I for one have always preferred to do my touchy-feely stuff on the nightstop. Before Mrs Reilly was around, that is.

 

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Before I was married I regularly nightstopped in various exotic, and unexotic destinations. Once, some years ago, I was in a bar with a great bunch of people including a young French crew member who was making it clear just how good she was in bed. Not solely for my benefit, you understand, but anyone who cared to be listening (though I was the only bloke there). The little minx was 'a giver', she appealed; 'unselfish', she lured; 'wild as a devil', she enticed. After a whole evening of these clear-as-a-see-through-negligee clues from the little French fire lighter, I obviously wasn't seeing the wide open door in front of my face. In fact, this door was so wide open, even a Red Arrows display pilot could fit his head through it without damaging the paintwork! (Look, don't immediately presume I'm a failed RAF pilot who is jealous of the greatest display pilots in the world. Their heads are necessarily big so they can fit all that confidence in; it's just physics.)

Anyway, back to the bar – actually, we'd moved on to the beach, but no matter – where little Mademoiselle Feu was unconsciously drawing lewd images in the sand with her finger, whilst lamenting that she hadn't had a good man pour longtemps. I was the only man, good or bad, within combustible distance of Mme Feu, so I started to wonder if she really was pointing her flame thrower at me.

Not used to dealing with thickos, the poor girl was forced to become a little more direct. Now, a lesson in the language of love which may serve you well one day. Un baiser is a masculine French noun meaning 'a kiss'. Baiser – without the article – is a verb meaning to fornicate like a rabbit on Viagra. But it's easy to get the two mixed up when your French is a bit dodgy.

Fortunately for me the English version followed swiftly, and when a French girl says, "I want a fuck" – I'm sorry but I'm  quoting here – then you can safely assume she doesn't want a peck on the cheek. But it's always polite to start with one.

 

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At this point, it’s worth clarifying the use of the terms ‘co-pilot’ and ‘first officer’. They are one and the same, of course. Co-pilots were always called co-pilots until someone decided that first officer sounded grander, and could be differentiated from second officer which sounded less grand, but grander than junior co-pilot. It is a rank which also suits the modern function of the second pilot.

You see, in the bad old days of ‘The Right Stuff’ (when most pilots were Second World War veterans) the captain would fly the plane and the co-pilot would merely assist. But in these modern times both pilots take turns to have a go at taking off, flying and landing the plane. And there are some people, notably the cabin crew at the back of the plane, who would undoubtedly welcome a return to those halcyon days of aviation since aircraft geometry ensures that hard landings are most keenly felt by those seated rearwards of the wheels.

The modern approach, however, is best. It provides for some variety, helps to stave off monotony, develops the skills of the first officer, and allows the captain to fall asleep shortly after take-off.

Hopefully, the daily routine of reporting for duty usually results in two pilots – one of each (though some are both) – arriving at the briefing table with all the paperwork, pens, coffee and doughnuts appropriate for the duty ahead. And if they could achieve that within 5 minutes or so, it would be considered an outstanding success.

Note I didn’t include newspapers in that little list. This is because we rely on passenger donation for much of our in-flight reading material; it would be jolly decent if passengers were to leave a selection of newspapers and magazines behind for our enjoyment when they eventually bid Au revoir to our dedicated cabin crew.

Where were we? Oh yes, pooling our resources at the briefing table. To assist us in our time-critical task, airlines employ armies of operations staff to plan flights and file flight plans on our behalf. It saves time, money, time which is money, time which money can’t buy, and money that we haven’t got time to make. So all in all, it’s a better system than forcing pilots to do it themselves; which we couldn’t anyway since we all forgot the basics of flight planning just seconds after handing the exam paper to the CAA invigilator all those years ago.

So what do we get from our operations department? Well, a flight plan for starters. This official document normally contains the following essential information:

 

The aircraft type (in case you don’t know what type of aircraft you’re qualified to fly).

The aircraft registration (so you don’t take the wrong plane).

The commercial flight number and ATC call sign (sometimes different to confuse the cabin crew).

The date and time (so you know it’s not a day off).

The city pair (departure and arrival points) and filed route (this hasn’t always stopped pilots landing at the wrong airport).

A breakdown of how an office oik with a degree in computers has attempted to work out your fuel requirements.

With some airlines the fuel usage information is a concoction of statistics, forecasted weather conditions, flight levels proposed, and payload predicted (you and your bags, dear reader – but don’t try getting on with plural bags – that’s forbidden!)

Fuel calculations can be reassuringly accurate, but they can also be woefully wrong. How do we deal with that? Well, we’re not completely slaves to the system so we just take the fuel we think we need despite the stunning work done by a nerd with a calculator back at HQ.

The filed route (the one which operations has told air traffic control we’re going to fly) is worked out based on cost. Yes, we pay to use the motorway in the sky; it’s a bit like a toll road.

Some motorways (okay, they’re called airways) cost more than others, and it all depends on popularity and which bit of the earth it happens to sit over.

The busiest airways in Europe are over and between London and Paris. But it could still be cheaper to fly through this popular airspace despite the higher charges levied. Weather, longer routings, and slot delays all have an impact on the overall cost of the flight.

Generally speaking, it’s a complex process working out exactly which route to fly on any particular day, and one which is far beyond the interest levels of your average pilot. Suffice to say, we just tell the flight management systems on board the aircraft which route someone else has told us to fly, and then let the aircraft follow its own sat nav. But that’s another story.

The operations staff also very kindly compile all the appropriate weather information for our flight. These include some familiar weather pictures (though without the little white cloud, sun and rain symbols you may have seen on television) but the report itself is in coded format. Fortunately, since we all went to pilot school and studied meteorology, we can read this special language – even if some of us can’t tell if it’s going to be cold outside by looking through the window.

An aerodrome weather report is called a METAR, METeorological Actual Report and a typical example might look like this:

EGKK 020950Z 27008KT 4500 BR OVC002 9/9 Q998

This decodes as follows:

EGKK

The four letter International Civil Aviation Organisation code for the airport. One eventually learns all these ICAO codes, but until then the novice pilot must hope the captain recognises the appropriate airports from among these codes and gleans the correct weather conditions for his day out. EGKK represents London Gatwick; I know because I’ve looked it up.

020950Z

This is the date-time group stating at which time the weather conditions were observed. It is the 2nd of the month (it’s assumed you at least know what month it is) at 9.50 am. The Z represents ZULU which is a military way of expressing GMT. The RAF uses letters of the alphabet to label each time zone, and the Greenwich Meridian is located in the zone represented by Z. Obviously we’re not the RAF but we use Zulu because we’re not supposed to say GMT anymore but can’t bring ourselves to say UTC. So what is UTC? Well, despite GMT being chosen in 1884 (almost unanimously – the French abstained) by an international conference to be the basis of calculating world time, and regardless of the revolutionary clock making skills of Yorkshireman John Harrison which allowed accurate time keeping, not to mention the pioneering work on international maritime navigation by the scientists at the Royal Observatory – IN GREENWICH – the official term for GMT is now UTC. It stands for Universel Temps Coordonné, and yes, it’s French! I’m not sure what their contribution has been in this field, but someone has decreed that we have to use a French abbreviation for expressing Greenwich Mean Time. Que faire?

27008KT

The wind speed in knots (nautical miles per hour). The wind in this case is blowing from the direction of 270°, in other words from the west towards the east, at a speed of 8 knots. The Knot comes from a method of calculating the speed of a ship through water by dangling a knotted rope over board. Obviously we can’t do that at 39000 feet so I’m unsure why we continue to use a unit of speed which has no relevance to modern jet airlines. But what can you do?

9/9

The temperature is 9 degrees Celsius and the dew point is also 9 degrees. The dew point is an indication of humidity, and can be used to calculate the height at which clouds will form. Alternatively we can just read the cloud base information from the METAR.

Q998

The atmospheric pressure at the airfield. This is used as a reference for the altimeters on board the aircraft, which then measure atmospheric pressure differences from this reference level and convert the reading into an altitude. We generally work on height above sea level (which is called altitude) rather than height above the ground (which is called height!). Since we obviously only ever land on, well, land, this makes perfect sense. Obviously.

Other codes used include:

CAVOK – Ceiling And Visibility OK. Basically, it’s a nice day. We don’t see that very often in the UK.

FG – Fog

BR – Mist (from those ‘great pioneers’ of aviation, the French, Brume = mist) All right, I accept I’m being unfair on the French. They gave us the Montgolfier ballooning brothers, and Louis Bleriot – the first person to fly across La Manche – but that was only because the Brits preferred the ferry with its cheap booze.

RA – Rain (we see this a lot)

+RA – Heavy rain (we see this a lot, too)

DZ – Drizzle (ditto, but mostly in Bristol and Manchester)

TS – Thunderstorm

GR – Hail (again, from the French grêle – hail)

CB – Cumulonimbus – the vindaloo of clouds

In addition to these actual weather conditions we also get weather forecasts. The TAF, Terminal Aerodrome Forecast, codes look similar to the METAR, but, by their nature, introduce an element of uncertainty.

We are also presented with snow reports, runway state information (if affected by snow or ice) and lots of pretty pictures. These pictures feature weather patterns, turbulence, icing conditions, and volcanic activity – oops!

Finally, our diligent colleagues in ‘ops’ list all the notices which may affect our day out. We call these NOTAMs – NOTice to AirMen (so not for women, it seems) and they include information such as airport closures or restrictions, fuel availability, industrial action (we see this a lot for French destinations), navigation issues, or construction work at airports (we see this lot for Spanish destinations). Basically, it’s the job of the flight operations department to provide us with any information deemed relevant to our task of conveying unwary passenger to faraway places.