One world

Day in the life of a Future Pilot

Day in the life

No two days are ever the same in the world of aviation.

To give you an insight into the life of a cadet on our Future Pilot Programme and as a pilot with British Airways we’ve asked a few of our pilots to describe a normal working day in their role. 

We hope this will give you an idea of what you can expect on your way and ultimately as a fully-fledged member of the BA team:


JamesSelection for the FPP scheme was one of the toughest processes I have ever been through. To be given a place waas an extremely satisfying feeling and I found out a lot about myself from the experience. However, on day one of ground school I suddenly realised that being selected was only the beginning of what is a hard, sometimes very stressful, but overall extremely rewarding journey to become an airline pilot.


The typical weekday during ground school consists of 7 periods, each of which are 1 hour long. These periods can be lectures or Computer Based Training (CBT). CBT is a fairly new, interactive way of learning where you are taken through a lecture by a computer presentation instead of a lecturer. These lessons make up a proportion of our training, although most is still delivered in face to face lectures with an instructor.


The lecturers are first class and will go out of their way to ensure that you understand all of the relevant material and they always do their best to create a fun and positive learning atmosphere in the classroom. Some days it will be hard to get up in the morning but the lecturers along with your classmates will always manage to make you laugh and get you through the tough times.


The evening is often spent taking a few hours going over what was covered during the day’s lessons. The great thing about CBT sessions is that you can go over any problem areas in your own time provided you have a computer with access to the internet. Oxford also provide a lot of practice questions and most evenings I test my understanding of what has been covered in the day’s lectures. The study rooms that have been provided in the accommodation block have meant that groups of us can study together, ask each other questions and have allowed for a good team atmosphere to exist amongst our course.


I never realised how close I would become to my other coursemates in such a short time. As I mentioned previously, you all pull each other through the tough times, and every one of us on the course has had our bad days. Our BA college liaison pilots have also been a great source of support and will always do their utmost to help out regardless of the problem. This could be a personal issue or simply a question you don’t understand in your textbook.


During the weekend it is important to get a break from the study environment so as a group we often head into Oxford, go out for dinner or go to the cinema. I personally also try and head home every weekend to have a slight change in atmosphere. 


Overall, groundschool is very tough but also very rewarding. It is not so much the complexity of the material that you study, but the volume of the material that you have to get through. The great thing about studying at Oxford is that you get all of the groundschool done during the first 6 months of the course so you can focus almost solely on the flying after that. Time goes by very quickly and you will find yourself in Arizona, learning to fly, before you know it.

DavidMy name is David and I am a First Officer with British Airways based at London Gatwick Airport. In the following paragraphs I will give you a snapshot of a couple of days out of my roster and hopefully provide an insight into life on the Boeing 737-400 fleet. You join me on an early two-day trip consisting of six sectors, starting with flying to Salzburg and back, then to Jersey for a nightstop. Early the following day we will fly back to Gatwick, then to Faro and back to finish the trip off.


 It is only midday and once the last passenger has disembarked we soon follow behind. The crew transport, as always, is waiting for us outside the terminal building. We are driven the short distance to a hotel on the island where we will spend the evening. It is a pleasant nightstop as once the rain has stopped I go for a run around the bay near the hotel, and later that evening the captain, the cabin crew and I meet up for dinner. Pickup the next day is at 0605 and after a quick coffee in reception we make our way to the airport. It is a really nice morning and the flight time back to London is only 40 minutes.


 The captain is close behind and after a quick general chat we sign-in, print our briefing materials and flight plans and start to look at the information for Salzburg and its alternates. Today the wind is coming from the north and favouring a part radio beacon, part visual approach procedure onto Runway 34. As we fly monitored approaches at BA, we decide that the captain should land, as the runway will be visible from my side of the aircraft for the approach.


To finish the trip off we head down to Faro, Portugal, which as usual for Faro is a straight forward flight with an ILS approach onto the westerly facing runway. Thanks to a quick turnaround, a couple of route short-cuts, and a tail wind at cruising level, we get into Gatwick 10 minutes ahead of schedule to end our trip. Gatwick is a great airport to operate from; we have the benefits of a large airport with few of the drawbacks. Also we have a great contrast of routes, which makes the job even more rewarding and exciting. In the near future there is a strong chance I will move onto a long-haul fleet and although this will be new and exciting, I know I will miss flying the 737 at Gatwick.


The 737-400 is ideal for our varied route network at Gatwick. It is as comfortable making the 5-hour journey down to Paphos as it is making the 40 min journey to Jersey. Thanks to all the different departments doing a great job this morning we achieve yet another on time departure, pushing back for Salzburg on time to the minute. On the taxi out there are only two aircraft in front of us and thanks to skilled runway utilization techniques by our Air Traffic Controllers, and fellow Gatwick based pilots, we are airborne within 10 minutes of starting our taxi – again another great feature of Gatwick.


In the cruise we have some breakfast and a general chat before we start to talk about the arrival procedures for Runway 34 at Salzburg. Due to a thorough brief, crystal clear weather and good ATC the approach goes smoothly and problem free. The views around Salzburg are simply stunning, and are quite a way to begin this trip. After landing we taxi to stand and park up, wishing our passengers farewell. We get the full benefit of an efficient turnaround and we are back in the air about 5 minutes ahead of schedule.


Back on the ground at Gatwick, we have time to talk about our next destination, Jersey, and the possible issues we might encounter. The forecast is rain with wind straight across the runway. As Jersey has a relatively short runway in comparison to most that the B737 fleet operates to, our maximum landing weight (and therefore maximum passenger/cargo load) is limited by Jersey weather conditions and any tail wind component that might be present. The captain and I therefore agree that monitoring the wind component on the approach will be vital.


Again after a trouble free turnaround and a queue free hold point we get into the air in almost no time. The Jersey flight time can be as little as thirty minutes so as soon as we reach our cruise level we start to prepare for the approach. A recorded weather report, that we can listen to over the radio, confirms that the runway is indeed wet with a 10kt cross wind that could swing around to a tail wind at any time. The cloud base is around 800 feet above the runway. On this sector, the captain will fly the approach for my landing. I touch down onto the runway in light rain, achieving the right speed and touchdown point.


It is only midday and once the last passenger has disembarked we soon follow behind. The crew transport, as always, is waiting for us outside the terminal building. We are driven the short distance to a hotel on the island where we will spend the evening. It is a pleasant nightstop as once the rain has stopped I go for a run around the bay near the hotel, and later that evening the captain, the cabin crew and I meet up for dinner. Pickup the next day is at 0605 and after a quick coffee in reception we make our way to the airport. It is a really nice morning and the flight time back to London is only 40 minutes.

KathrynMy name is Kathryn and I’m a first officer on the Boeing 777 fleet based out of both London Heathrow and London Gatwick Airports. I joined British Airways seven years ago from Ryanair where I flew the B737-200 for three years based in Dublin. I came to British Airways with just over 2500 flying hours so was sent directly to longhaul and the B777 fleet. Not only was I very excited about the prospect of longhaul flying but it also gave me the opportunity to fly with my father who is a British Airways Captain on the B777 fleet.


Coming from the clockwork and slightly antiquated B737-200 to what is perhaps one of the most modern jets in production was a challenge – as was adapting to a new company and the goliath of an airport that is Heathrow. I also had to get used to flying one long (long) sector at a time as opposed to six short ones in a day. A working day is where you join me – walking across the hotel lobby in Barbados to where I see the crew sitting and enjoying the last of the warm Caribbean breeze before we return home to London Gatwick.


The crew bus pulls up outside the hotel and we all file on – everyone is in good spirits after a fun and relaxing 48 hours in Barbados, but equally looking forward to returning home to family and friends for a few days off. At the airport we all check in our crew bags and then the Captain and I go to the small British Airways Operations room to carry out our brief. We can see our 777 out the window: it landed only an hour a go so is surrounded by cleaners and catering trucks and the refueller is hooked up and ready to pump as soon as we give him the final fuel figure we wish to uplift for the return flight to London.


The weather in Barbados is predictably sunny, with the occasional shower, and the wind is almost always from the same direction so there isn’t much to discuss in the way of expected take off direction or taxi routes. We inevitably take off to the east, straight over the sea, and then spend the next 7 hours over the Atlantic Ocean. We look closely at our route for any thunderstorms or turbulence – especially since it’s a night flight and our customers will undoubtedly want to sleep. Today we are flying past the Azores but apart from that we won’t be passing near any land until the UK – so we have to put a little bit of thought into the nearest diversion airfields on the way. Fortunately the weather forecast for Gatwick in the morning is good and there appears to be no major weather on the way that we would have to deviate round so we decide to take the flight plan recommended fuel figure.


We walk the short distance across the tarmac to our aircraft to find the cabin crew are already on board carrying out their safety checks and they’ve even popped the kettle on. As the Captain flew the aircraft out to Barbados I will be flying it home so I quickly grab a high visibility jacket and go off for a (hot) walkaround to check the external condition of the aircraft, including the wings, tyres and engines. Once back in the flight deck the Captain and I carry out our separate duties of preparing the aircraft for departure – I concentrate on loading the route and winds and setting up the departure whilst the Captain prepares the performance figures and checklists. With about 30 minutes to go we join forces and brief our emergency procedures and any other poignant details that might catch us out today. We then complete the checklist to ensure we haven’t missed anything out. Just as we take a sip of our tea, boarding finalises, the hold doors close and the Cabin Manager let’s us know we have everyone on board. We will comfortably manage an on-time departure and, more importantly, will just about push back ahead of the longhaul aircraft next door. The ramp in Barbados is very small so you don’t want to be second in the queue!


The taxi route is very short in Barbados so the cabin crew do a sterling job of preparing the cabin for take off in a timely manner. On our taxi out Barbados give us our initial routing – which is straight out over the sea for a few miles and then a slow left turn to, basically, head for home. The only thing Air Traffic Control doesn’t want you doing is flying over the island and creating unnecessary noise. We get clearance to line up and take off as we approach the beginning of the runway so with one final confirmation that the approach is clear and the checklists are done… we’re on our way.


Once we’re established in the cruise the Captain plots the route on our chart and we ‘log on’ to the first air traffic control centre – in this case it’s New York. The North Atlantic is divided into different areas with controllers managing large swathes of the oceanic airspace. On the Caribbean routes we tend to enter airspace belonging to New York, Santa Maria and Shanwick (a mix of the words Shannon and Prestwick). Since there is no land on our route we use a clever system on the 777 that allows us to satellite link to the air traffic controllers. This means that, whilst we are out of VHF radio range, if ATC have any requests or if we wish to change flight level/deviate from our routing we can type out a message and get a very quick reply. It also allows the aeroplane to send back regular position reports meaning we don’t have to. Contacting the various stations using an HF radio set can be a slow and delicate process, and it can be very difficult to hear each other.


Travelling east on an evening flight means the sun sets very quickly. Pretty soon it’s dark and we get ready for a hopefully peaceful night over the ocean. There is little traffic on this route (except for a competitor behind us) so we sit with our headsets off and speakers on. Since there is no one to talk to on our VHF radios we tune in an emergency frequency and a ‘chat’ frequency, the latter of which is used by pilots of aircraft crossing the ocean to share turbulence reports or any other information which might help each other out. On the way we quickly lose Antigua as an option to go back to if we have a problem and are then looking at a long diversion to Bermuda or the Azores or perhaps even Gander should anything untoward happen. Once past the Azores we have options in Portugal, Ireland or the UK. While problems in-flight are extremely rare, we always plan just in case they should happen and as such consistently have backup plans in place such as where we will land if someone should become ill, for example, before we reach the UK.


Now that we’re logged on and are cleared to enter the Atlantic and have double and triple checked we’ve completed everything, we have time for some ‘admin’ like choosing what to eat for our dinner (even though it’s midnight at home). Within the pilot community at BA we have an unwritten rule that whoever is flying the sector gets to choose first – something I initially felt guilty about but have learnt to embrace. We have a choice of dinners this evening, and by the time we tuck in it has turned completely dark outside as the sun set behind us in the west some time ago.


The rest of the night is a combination of checking fuel totals, keeping an eye on the weather radar for thunderstorms, dealing with re-clearances and negotiating higher flight levels, ensuring we’re satellite linked, keeping our positional and traffic awareness up and going for physiological breaks in the cabin to have the odd cup of tea. The first star we see is Venus and then the moon keeps us company before the sun rises over Ireland a few hours later. Before we know it we’re only an hour and a half out from Gatwick and I’m starting to think about conducting the approach brief.


Since British Airways have a system of swapping control for the approach, I am briefing the Captain for an approach that he will fly. The Captain takes control just before top of descent and I will resume control in time for my landing. This system works very well and keeps both pilots in the loop and engaged with the descent and approach process. We have both been to Gatwick many times so I try to keep the brief relevant and focus on any major issues we may have. It’s turning into a fine day in Gatwick and we’re due to land so early in the morning that we don’t anticipate any holding – therefore we consider that this might be quite a quick approach and the London Air Traffic Controllers may give us some route short cuts. I bear this in mind for my “40 minutes to landing” PA and make sure I give the cabin crew an extra 5 minutes just in case. Otherwise I just update our customers, who are rousing now to some breakfast, on the latest weather, landing time and the final routing – public announcements onboard are something that I found hard to do initially but you get into your own rhythm and any family members who travel with you on your flights will no doubt one day moan and say “your PA’s all sound the same”.


We do indeed get a short cut and end up being routed directly for a base turn onto finals. This shaves off another few minutes from our flight time, meaning we’ll easily land on time and also save some precious fuel. The Captain flies a beautifully fuel efficient approach and when I take control below 1000’ we are fully visual with the runway and configured for landing with the gear down, flaps out, speed back at our final approach speed and the cabin crew seated for landing. After my immaculate landing (which I’m going to say since you probably weren’t there) we taxi a short distance onto stand, shut down the engines and complete our final checklists and paperwork. The aeroplane only has a few hours on the ground now before returning to Barbados!


It’s home time for the crew though and I have a few days off before packing for my next trip – so enough time to meet my friends for a coffee and respond to the usual question of “where did you get that tan from?” To which I can happily reply “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’ve been in the office all week… in Barbados.”

MarkIt’s 0930GMT and it’s time to report for British Airways flight 283, bound for one of my very favourite destinations: Los Angeles. After checking in my bag I head to the British Airways Crew Report Centre (CRC), situated between the departure and arrival levels at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5, our home base.


I joined the British Airways Cadet Scheme in 2001. After just over five years on the Airbus A320 series aircraft flying to nearly every major city in Europe, I converted to the Boeing 747-400. Today I’ve run into a friend from my original cadet course at the Crew Report Centre. In a company with more than 3,000 pilots and more than 10,000 cabin crew, it’s always a pleasure to see a familiar face. She’s bound for Tokyo today, but we have time for a coffee, a croissant and a chat before we fly off to opposite sides of the world.


Now it’s time to meet my colleagues for today’s flight to Los Angeles: the Captain and due to the length of the sector, a relief First Officer. Together we greet the cabin crew, and the Captain provides them with the most important details of today’s flight: an airborne time of ten hours and twenty minutes; some turbulence forecast over Greenland, and again over the Rocky Mountains; and finally an expected short taxy to departure runway 09R, which means the cabin crew will have little time to spare as they prepare the cabin for a safe departure.


At British Airways, the handling of the aircraft is shared evenly between First Officers and Captains, and today the Captain has asked me to do the flying. As such, it’s my job (and part of my own career development) to lead the briefing for today’s flight. The first task is to pin down the location of the aircraft’s gate at Heathrow- it’s a big airport! We then discuss the weather in London and Los Angeles; at airports in the first part of our route; and at our ‘alternate’ the airport we’ll carry fuel for in case for some reason we cannot land at our destination. We also review the latest notices from the company and regulatory agencies, and any technical issues on today’s particular aircraft.


Ordering fuel is the next task. Fuel prices are one of the key challenges facing every airline today. On the one hand, a diversion due to weather or air traffic delays at our destination is expensive and disruptive. But particularly on longhaul flights, a third or more of any destination holding fuel can be burned simply to carry itself- a very expensive proposition. A combination of flight planning software, historical statistics and weather forecasts and pilot experience is used to decide the right amount. Luckily the weather today in Los Angeles is forecast to be perfect- sunny with a light breeze off the Pacific. Soon 117 tonnes of jet fuel- enough to fill nearly 2,000 cars, and more than twice the weight of an entire shorthaul aircraft- begin to fill the tanks of the 747 waiting for us at gate 533.


Next the flight and cabin crew head out to the aircraft. A galaxy of expensive resources- the loading team, the boarding staff, the pushback crew, the gate itself- have been synchronised around our departure time, and that of hundreds of other flights. So punctuality is a matter of profit as well as a key driver of customer satisfaction and competitive advantage. Just under an hour later, 337 passengers are in their seats and the last cabin door has been closed. As the handling pilot today it’s my responsibility to call Air Traffic Control for permission to start, and just ahead of schedule the brakes are released, a tug crew starts to push the 350 tonne airplane away from the gate- no easy task!- and the Captain starts the engines, two at a time.


A quarter of an hour later the cabin is ready, our flaps are set and our checks are complete, and we’re transferred to Heathrow’s busy Tower controller, who gives us permission to line up on runway 09R after another aircraft departs. Like the gates, Heathrow’s runways need to work like clockwork to make the most of limited capacity, and it’s our role to make sure we’re ready to go as soon as we have takeoff clearance. ‘Speedbird 283, wind 050 at 8 knots, runway 09R, cleared for takeoff,’ says the controller, just as the previous aircraft leaves the ground. I first set the four throttles to an intermediate power setting As the Captain replies ‘engines stable,’ I press the TOGA switches. The autothrottle smoothly sets the power we’ve carefully calculated for today’s runway, weight and weather conditions.


Setting take-off thrust on any airplane is a thrilling experience, but on the 747 it’s particularly humbling. From the cockpit the power of the four enormous engines is something felt more than heard, and very soon all 350 tonnes have accelerated to V1, our decision speed, beyond which a safe stop on the runway is no longer possible. Shortly afterwards we reach our takeoff speed, the Captain calls ‘rotate,’ I raise the nose, and the wheels- all 18 of them- leave the tarmac. Speedbird 283 is on its way.


One of the main differences between shorthaul and longhaul flying is that on many longhaul sectors we will be ‘on our own’ for large portions of the flight: over oceans (often frozen) or inhospitable terrain, in areas without ground-based radar cover and with limited air traffic services. Most critically, we may be an hour or more from the nearest airport that a 747 can safely use. Today’s flight, along a great circle route that’s been extensively modified to minimise headwinds, bears all these features: the Atlantic, then the mountains and glaciers of Greenland, and finally many hours over the nearly uninhabited areas of northern Canada.


By the time we leave the British Isles and enter Icelandic airspace though, we’ve completed most of our preparations for these challenges. The flight plan is plotted on a chart, as are the ‘equal time points’ between major airports (because of strong winds, the halfway point in flying time between airports can be much different than the geographic midpoint). We’ve reviewed the weather and runway conditions (e.g. uncleared snow or ice) at various en-route Arctic airfields; we’ve corrected our minimum safe altitudes (e.g. in case of a decompression and descent) for the effect of cold weather on our altimeters. And now it’s time for lunch. When Greenland’s mountains and ice fields appear on the horizon- perhaps my favourite sight on the entire route network- it’s time for my break. The relief First Officer takes my place at the controls.


Three hours later I’m back in my seat, and the Captain departs for his break. Soon we enter US airspace over North Dakota. An hour later we’re over the Rocky Mountains, and the cabin crew are serving afternoon tea. The forecast turbulence hasn’t appeared, thankfully, and the ski areas of Colorado’s Front Range are glittering in the afternoon sunlight as I review the latest weather reports from Los Angeles.


An hour or so to go before landing, the Captain and I are back together at the controls and it’s time to prepare for me to lead another brief, this time for the arrival. As all pilots in British Airways are trained to know the SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) that apply to every flight, I can focus on those issues that are of particular relevance to Los Angeles. And though I’m conducting the brief as today’s handling pilot, it’s particularly important to pool the knowledge and experience of the entire flight crew. Every airport is different, and with a network as globe-spanning as that of British Airways, a pilot may go months or even years without flying to a given destination.


In Los Angeles, there’s first the terrain to consider: the huge rings of mountains that surround the city to the north and east. Then there’s southern California’s extraordinarily busy airspace, including uncontrolled VFR traffic in startlingly close proximity to the arrival lanes we’ll be using. And with four runways at LAX, some much shorter than others, we discuss the implications of a runway change at a late stage of the approach. Finally, British Airways has strict ‘Stabilised Approach’ criteria that dictate the point on the approach at which every aircraft must have achieved its final speed and configuration. To comfortably meet those strict bottom lines requires us to work back through the approach, setting our own targets for each point of the descent.


At British Airways, pilots reverse roles for the descent and approach, so by the time we’re taking in the views of Las Vegas, the Captain is flying the aircraft and I’ve assumed responsibility for the radio. As we fly over California’s Mojave Desert it’s time for my announcement to the passengers, including the latest weather , the local time on the west coast, and the good news that we’ll be arriving on schedule.


Soon we’re passing over the snowcapped San Bernardino mountains and entering the Los Angeles Basin, home to America’s second-largest city. Radio communications become much busier and the workload in the cockpit rises considerably- many pilots would consider this the busiest phase of any flight. We’re all busy monitoring our proximity to the nearby terrain, and continuously calculating the distance to go to the airport vs. the miles we need to complete our descent and slow down the aircraft. About 20 miles before landing the Captain disengages the autopilot and autothrottle, and begins the complex process of extending the flaps. On the 747, the flaps increase the wing’s area by a fifth, but they nearly double the lift – just what we need to slow an aircraft this big to a safe landing speed.


At about five miles before landing we’ve completed the landing checks and achieved our approach speed of 155 knots. The passengers on the right have a view of the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles and the Hollywood sign in the distance, but up in the flight deck we’ve got the best view of all: the brilliant blue of the Pacific Ocean shining across the horizon, just beyond the runway. I announce ‘I have control,’ the Captain removes his hands from the control column and the throttles. As 245 tonnes of jumbo jet soar just a few hundred feet over the San Diego Freeway, it’s time for me to land. 


After we’ve touched down and carefully crossed the departure runway, the Captain reads the after landing checklist, which includes shutting down two of the four engines for the taxy-in- another important fuel-saving measure. Once we’ve parked and said a formal goodbye to the passengers, it’s time to enjoy a few days off: relaxing by the pool, or skiing, or for our crew on today’s flight, a hike in the Santa Monica mountains that I’ve organised, followed by lunch at the beach. On the flight back I’ll be the relief First Officer, and my colleague will take her turn in the seat next to the Captain, another day at work in the best office in the world.

Mubashir KhanAbout a year after I completed the BA cadet course at Oxford my wife was pregnant with our first child. Naturally I was a little apprehensive with how I was going to balance life with a young family and flying away for long periods of time. As it turned out, it was perfectly manageable. One of the great things about working as a pilot for British Airways is the ability to have some control over the type of work that you do.


The size of most fleets means that, even as a junior pilot, there is enough variety of work on offer to cater for most people’s preferences. There are day trips that get you back home every night and there are also much longer trips that may take you away for several days to far flung places. I mostly bid for day trips but when I was rostered a long trip I sometimes took my wife and young child with me.


The size of the company and the ability to move between a variety of fleets means that you can also construct a career path that suits your circumstances. When my wife went back to work and the kids started growing up I moved from being a Senior First Officer on a long haul fleet to being a Captain on a short haul fleet. 


It can be difficult to organise childcare if both parents are working as the hours can be unusual, plus there is the added factor of having to deal with the occasional delayed flight. On the other hand it can be easier to organise appointments during the normal working week, whether it’s attending a sports day or going to a kitchen showroom! I used to work normal office hours but since I started flying I find it more useful having a variable work pattern every month.