A behind-the-scenes look at a typical day in the life of Qantas pilot Ankur Singh
HOW THE DAY BEGINS
It is 3:30 am in the morning, another typical day in the life of First Officer Ankur Singh who flies domestic routes for Qantas, the flag carrier of Australia and its largest airline by fleet size, international flights and international destinations. Singh wears his crisp white shirt, cap and blue coat. It’s a uniform he dons with pride as he gets ready to drive to the airport to start work. By any measure, it’s an early start to a long day.
Once Singh reaches the airport car park by about 4:30 am, he takes the shuttle bus to the terminal. Inside the bus, he checks all the flight plans emailed to him on his iPad. The flight plan includes updates on route, weather, number of passengers, arrival departure timings among other things. The first flight of the day takes off at 6 am and Singh is expected to reach an hour before departure to fulfil all the obligations that comes before every departure.
He heads straight to the Operation department where he meets his co-pilot, the captain. The two pilots sit down for a review meeting. “We look at all aspects of the flight including critical information for departure, whether the airport has a certain runaway that may be closed due to maintenance or navigation aids that are unserviceable, chances of en-route turbulence, etc.. In all of this we are looking at the safety of the cabin crew and the passengers,” says Singh.
Next comes the other important part of checking and ordering the fuel. Several factors are taken into account when doing this – such as weather conditions en-route and at destination and traffic delays that may call for carry extra fuel. “The company will have a minimum fuel worked out that we can depart with. Carrying fuel costs money so the heavier you are, the more fuel you are burning. We always have some extra fuel for any unexpected situation.”
After taking into consideration all the factors, the pilots submit the fuel order via their iPad to the Operation department. The department uses that figure and add it to the passenger weight, bags and cargo to work out the take-off weight.
THE MIND IS AHEAD OF THE AEROPLANE
You would think that must be all until the aeroplane takes off. But there lay far more challenges on the ground as there are once up in the air. “After the fuel order, we walk towards the gate where the aircraft is parked and there is a lot happening there,” says Singh, whose dream of becoming a pilot stemmed from childhood. “By the time we get there, engineers have done their safety checks to get the aircraft ready for departure. We also meet the cabin crew on the aircraft who are busy conducting their safety checks.” It’s a team work at play. The fuel truck comes to fill up, the caterers are loading all meals and other amenities; someone is servicing the water and wastes.
Singh and the captain take turns between flying and support duties. “The captain will generally look at notes from the engineering department about the status of the aircraft, brief the cabin manager about flight time, expected turbulence, weather at destination and any other pertinent information relating to the flight. They will then proceed outside and check the aeroplane externally for any issues. Meanwhile I am checking the inside of the aeroplane to see if the fire system, hydraulics, entry door, safety locks etc. are working. I have a set procedure to follow. I then program the computer on the aeroplane which has the route we are flying today.”
In the meantime, the boarding has started and the two pilots become the centre point as they help manage the whole team. There is constant communication with the cabin manager. “The focus is always on safety, it is the number one priority in every flight,” says Singh.
Getting through the administrative work is the job, flying is the profession. The flight Singh will do today is the Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane-Melbourne. Melbourne to Sydney is the first leg of the journey which takes an hour and 10 minutes. “It is such a short sector that you are only cruising 20 minutes before you prepare to descend,” says Singh. So whilst they are climbing up, they are already thinking about their destination, checking what the weather is like in Sydney, whether there are any bumpy conditions at any levels, what runways are being used, whether there are any delays or if there is any need to plan for contingencies.
“We have network available via satellite so we get update on the weather. While the cabin crew are doing their stuff, we are checking the systems. Is the aeroplane performing OK? Are the engine parameters good? Are we leaking fuel anywhere? Are we getting there on time? Do we need to go fast or slow (if we depart late)? We are constantly assessing. We are even thinking about what time we depart for our next sector to Brisbane. We are prepared if anything goes wrong such as a passenger getting sick or any unexpected situation. Our mind is constantly staying ahead of the aeroplane.”
Landing can be more of a challenge and a good landing in windy conditions is a very satisfying for any pilot. “Melbourne during a 40-degree day experiences cool change coming through and the wind direction is changing all the time. That makes it challenging. But while we enjoy the challenge of making a smooth landing, we also have to conduct a safe flight,” says Singh adding, “Aircrafts have special equipment on board to help land in poor weather conditions. We can land in low visibility but we need to see some part of the runway. There are various instruments that help us do that, but we have to prepare for any weather changes – that’s why our calculations are constantly going. It’s not like a car that you can park on the side and wait. An aeroplane flying is always burning fuel so we have to make sure that we have enough fuel to go somewhere else. We are constantly updating those plans as we go along.”
After a stopover in Sydney and following similar drills conducted at the start of the journey, Singh is ready to take off to Brisbane and all the way back. There are no lunch breaks and it is when they are at the cruising level that they have their food or toilet breaks. “We don’t get any official breaks.” Interestingly, he and the captain never eat the same meal for safety reasons and to ensure they both don’t fall ill.
Finally, it’s time to close the door once again and complete the last leg of the journey back to Melbourne. “For us, a lot of the tasks are very monotonous so it’s about doing the same task over and over again but doing it very accurately and consistently,” says Singh. But the fact that all pilots are taught to complete each step the same way every time is what allows two pilots to operate the flight safely and efficiently on hundreds of commercial flights every day.
That is the summation of a day, a 24-hour operation. Singh admits that by the time he reaches home he is mentally tired as his mind is constantly working while flying. But then every job has its challenges, he admits, adding, “My four- year old daughter finds it difficult to understand why I am away from home two-three days sometimes.”
But the consolation is that pilots don’t go to work every day. “We have a limitation on the number of hours we can work in a day/week/month/year. They take into account fatigue and rest is very important before our duty. You also can’t consume any alcohol at least eight hours before you fly,” says Singh.
The other perks of the job is a good salary and six weeks of annual leave and more sick leave as compared to other professions. “We can’t fly if we have a cold or flu. We have to manage our rest. You try and remain fit and healthy. If it’s an all-night flight I will try and get some rest during the day, if its early morning then I will try to get to bed early so that I can perform at the peak level and concentrate when I am at work.”
The roster is usually fixed with set days off, so one can plan in advance. Singh, who earlier flew international flights, now does the domestic sector as he finds it more suitable to spend time with his young family life. “You are not away from home as often. There is no typical roster; you work on average 3-4 days a week with few days off afterwards. Also my roster will contain few days that I’m on standby for any duty. It will be a block of time during the day where if I get a call out I need to be ready and leave home on short notice.”
Singh flies Boeing 737, an experience he loves. “I enjoy every aspect of flying. Every day is different. You could do Melbourne-Sydney every day and each flight could be different because of the weather conditions, the air traffic control challenges, passenger issues. It’s such a dynamic working environment.”
SKY IS THE LIMIT
Singh, who joined Qantas in 2008 as second officer flying international routes, is looking forward to becoming a captain. “I chose the domestic factor to spend some time with my young family and would like to fly international again, later at some stage. I enjoy both. I am lucky to be doing what I am doing. Work does not seem like work, I really love the challenges of it.”
Few job titles get such immediate respect and awe. Singh admits he gets to see some amazing views, beautiful sunset and sunrise flying a 100-million dollar aircraft. But, more importantly, he says it is the joy of bringing families and loved ones together safely at the arrival hall that is most rewarding.
The journey of an enthusiastic youngster whose love for aviation has seen him become a pilot has taken years of dedication, perseverance and diverse experiences. But there are still a few more air miles to log before Singh steps into the captain’s role, and when seniority allows. For now, the sky is the limit.
(As told to Indira Laisram)