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pilot diary

Aviation

The life of a 747 cargo pilot – April 2019

Behind the scenes of @Flywitheva

Via the posts and stories on my Instagram account I share bits of my life, my travels and my work. But: how much do I really work? How many trips a month? How long do I get to stay at destinations and what do I do on layovers? How about all those roster changes and how do I cope with sleeping at weird times? What do I do when I’m off? You followers are a curious bunch! But I am all for showing ‘reality’, the unfiltered truth, both the good and the bad! Let me take you on a detailed journey, but heads up: it’s not an article about the operational procedures. It’s rather an overview of the trips and an insight on work versus time off. As I do not have a stable roster and every month is completely different, I will start with last month: April 2019. If you guys like it, I will make it a monthly article on my blog.

Every 15th of the month I get my schedule for the following month. So on the 15th of March, I receive my schedule for the month of April. I am really pleased when it comes out: so far I was not so lucky with our ‘flight request system’, but now I got the two trips I requested. I will have my first trip to Amsterdam and Frankfurt, and my first trip to Dubai! I also have 6 days of standby* rostered, a ground course day, and I finish the month with ‘joker days’ *(see terminology list at the end of this article). Let’s start now with the journey of April 🙂

Week 1

I am off on the first and second of April. My first trip is a PX trip* from Hong Kong to Amsterdam, in the night of 3 to 4 April. I try to reschedule my PX flight to an earlier day, as to have more time in my home country. But as my roster might still change due to some disruptions on the 747 fleet, I don’t get approval. I have not been back in The Netherlands since November last year, so I am excited to fly ‘home’. On the third of April I meet with the crew at dispatch* for the start of my first trip: with the A350 to Amsterdam. It’s a 14 hour trip through the night: perfect to be a passenger now! I manage to sleep a few hours and we land in Amsterdam at 7 in the morning, where my mum is eagerly waiting for me at arrivals. I have a 28 hour layover in Amsterdam, my trip continues tomorrow late morning. Normally I would now go to the crew hotel, but since this is ‘home’ I go to my parents place in Haarlem first. I spend the day catching up with my mum, and in the evening I go for dinner with a close friend, whom I did not see for ages. So fun to have this as part of my work trip! I should request Amsterdam as often as possible! After dinner my parents bring me to the crew hotel at the airport, I pick up my allowance* and stay the night in the hotel, as tomorrow I fly to Frankfurt.

My report is at 11:00 in the morning. I sleep in, skip breakfast, and prepare* the flight via our company iPad. The captain emailed me that I need to meet him at the gate, as he just flew in himself and is not in the hotel at the moment. While I find my way to the gate I bump into a good friend of mine, he is a captain at KLM. He is amazed to meet me here, as normally I am at the other side of the world, and suddenly the world feels so small again. I love operating for the very first time out of Amsterdam airport, I feel so happy! It turns out a lot of the Schiphol ground crew follow me on Instagram, and it’s great to meet them. After chatting a bit and taking pictures with them, it’s time to close the doors and get on with the show 😉 The flight from Amsterdam to Frankfurt is a super short one (one hour flight). On arrival the captain has a different schedule, and I am the only one going to the crew hotel in Mainz. I get picked up with our crew transport. My layover is 28 hours, and after this short flight I am not tired at all. I meet up with a ramp controller of Frankfurt Airport. We have been in touch via Instagram for quite some time now, and he is the most amazing person showing me all around Mainz. We walk all afternoon through the city, go for dinner in a typical German restaurant (schnitzel!) and only by the end of the night my jetlag starts to creep up on me. However I still let my new friend convince me to join him to a party right next to our crew hotel. It’s an 80s/90s party, good fun, but I stick to lemonade as tomorrow I am working again. Finally I call it a night and collapse into bed. It’s early morning now for my body clock, but as I pulled through all ‘night’ I have no issues to fall asleep.

Normally I never take hotel breakfast buffet (never very hungry in the morning) but my colleagues told me the Frankfurt breakfast is absolutely worth it. So I drag myself out of bed, and still half asleep proceed to the breakfast, which is indeed a feast. I bump into some colleagues and share breakfast with a colleague who is on my crew later today. Then I still have some hours to kill and it is glorious sunny weather, so I go for a run next to the Rhine river. Oh how I love being back in Europe! I feel full of energy again. Soon it’s time to prepare the flight on my iPad. Report with the Captain and Second Officer is at 17:45 (night for the body clock though) , and now we have a long duty of almost 16 hours: we fly from Frankfurt to Amsterdam, then from Amsterdam to Hong Kong. The captain lets me choose the sector I want to fly. So I pick the first sector, as I want to land in Amsterdam.

 

In Amsterdam a 4th crew member joins us, as we have the very long duty, so we divide operating and resting. Some hours after departure to Hong Kong it is my time to rest. I anticipate about 3 hours of sleep in the bunk, and fall asleep immediately. It turns out I have the best colleagues: they let me sleep 6,5 hours non stop, and we are just before descending into Hong Kong airspace when I wake up. I almost want to hug the second officer for taking all the hours in cruise flight, but he was happy to do it, and I am now super rested. I am pilot monitoring for approach and when we land it’s 16:00 on Sunday afternoon. This trip was so much fun! I catch up with my boyfriend Brian, and have 3 days off now.

Week 2

I spend the days off with Brian and friends in Hong Kong. We go to ‘our’ Monday pub quiz, and ‘our’ Tuesday Bootcamp class, and on Wednesday organise a big dinner at our place in Wan Chai. We try to have some routine in both our ever changing schedules. Brian is also a lot in and out of Hong Kong, as he works regularly abroad as a travel guide. My next duty is a flight to Dubai on Thursday 11 April. I have never been in Dubai and look forward to have a layover there, even if it’s just 23 hours. I know the captain, he loves motor bike riding. When I see his name on the flight to Dubai I jokingly text him if we should go sand biking. He loves the idea: in the end he finds a company where we can both learn to ride bikes in the sand dunes, me without a motor bike license as well! I am now even more excited for the layover! But then – insert sad music – I wake up on Thursday with a very high fever. Everything hurts. I am in no state to work, and am absolutely bummed to miss out on the trip. I call in sick, and fall asleep for about 24 hours. The next morning I feel worse, I have a bad cough and my fever is even higher, so I visit a doctor in Hong Kong. He prescribes rest and medication, and gives me a note I am unfit for 3 days. So far week 2, and no this did not make it to Instagram 😉

Week 3

On Tuesday I am still really ill, and drag myself to the doctor for the second time. He confirms I am still in no state to work, and sends me to stay home for another 3 days. Basically all I do is sleep. On Thursday, one week after waking up sick, I finally start to be back on my feet again. I am annoyed it took so long. We had guests (friends of Brian from Singapore) over in our place as well, but I have not been able to spend any time with them! My next duty is a standby on Friday, from 0600-1200. I don’t get called out! On Saturday another standby: I get a call at 06:01 to report as soon as I can for a Shanghai flight. We have 2 hours and 15 minutes to report at Dispatch after a standby callout. My commute takes about one hour, to one hour 15 minutes. I rush for a shower, coffee, change into my uniform, and am quickly out of the door, as is my boyfriend who flies to Seoul this morning, for a trip with a friend. The Shanghai return is supposed to be a quick one. I am pilot flying to Shanghai, the captain takes it back to Hong Kong. When we are fully ready to go, after a 2 hour turnaround, we get a 3 hour slot (this means we can’t depart but have to wait at the stand in Shanghai)! It’s really bad weather in Hong Kong this afternoon, so the slot makes sure we don’t arrive in the middle of the storm. Not a bad thing: many go arounds and diversions in Hong Kong today. We finally land in Hong Kong at 20:00, after holding for quite some time. After the flight I call to see my duty for tomorrow, Sunday: standby from 10:00 to 16:00.

 

Will I have to work again today? Yep! I wake up without alarm at 09:00, and get a call at 10:45. My duty is to operate to Narita late tonight, report time 23:30, and then PX back on a company A330. Uff it looks like it’s going to be a long night. I take it easy today, study a bit for my upcoming ground course. I am very bad at having an evening nap before a night duty, so I pull through. I go to a ‘hot yoga’ class (which is like yoga and a sauna in one), then get ready and prepare the flight, and make the journey to dispatch. It turns out the flight is delayed a couple of hours and I need to wait 3 hours now at dispatch! I go to the ‘quiet room’, which is a new facility in the company, with dimmed light and lounge chairs, to rest in case of delays. I curl up into one of the chairs, but am unable to sleep. Finally, it’s time for our flight to Narita. We depart at 04:20, I am pilot flying as the captain gave me the choice. I feel surprisingly awake still, and chat with the captain all the way to Japan, to avoid getting sleepy. The flight is smooth and we watch a beautiful sunrise. In Narita the captain has a layover, and I need to proceed through customs and then to the gate, as I PX on the A330 straight back to Hong Kong.

Week 4

We depart Narita at 10:45. I am awake now since yesterday morning 09:00 and I am ready to collapse in my business class seat. After departure I tell the cabin crew to not wake me up for breakfast, then fall asleep till we start the descend into Hong Kong. I feel really tired still when I get home, after a duty of almost 18 hours. My boyfriend is not there, as he is still traveling in Korea. A friend invites me for wine and dinner, but I miss it, as I decide to take another ‘little nap’ but the nap lasts 9 hours as I fall asleep from 17:00 till 02:00. I then manage to fall asleep again for another 6 hours! I realise I write a lot about my sleeping patterns here, as it is one of the things that can be quite challenging to manage for pilots. After the recovery of my sleep debt, my sleep is back to normal. I study for my ground course tomorrow, and go to the Tuesday bootcamp class.

Wednesday I have a ground course all day at the head office. I am in a First Officer program, where I will write more about another time. (No it’s no Command course ;)! This step will take plenty more years in my current airline.) After the course my days off start, 7 in total! In the evening Brian comes back from his trip! We meet in central Hong Kong, where we celebrate a friends birthday. The next day we try to fly to Amsterdam on staff travel, as I now have my requested joker days off and Brians parents celebrate their combined birthdays this weekend in The Netherlands. It turns out the flight is completely overbooked! We try to figure out all options, different flights. In the end, I manage to get the jump seat to Amsterdam, and my boyfriend travels via Milan. The jump seat on the A350 is a non-reclinable seat in front of the crew bunks, in a small windowless room behind the flight deck. I’ve had more glamorous trips, but am simply happy I got on the flight! I spend the weekend celebrating the Dutch Kings Day and the celebration of Brians parents’ birthdays. After 2,5 days I fly back to Hong Kong already on Monday. Luckily there is plenty of space on this flight, and I booked myself a business class seat. I say goodbye to Brian, who flies to Bordeaux later and stays in Europe for 2,5 weeks, guiding tours in France and Spain. I land back in Hong Kong on Tuesday morning. l have the rest of the day off in Hong Kong (as margin and also to recover from all the flights again) before my next trip tomorrow, which is one for May :)!

So that was in quite some detail my month. It is difficult giving proper insight if I would leave out too much detail. Cargo flying comes with a lot of duty shifts (not so much this month actually), and lots of PX’ing as well, it’s not usually a matter of operating to a destination, layover, operating back. 

Summary:

Scheduled trips: 2; Amsterdam/Frankfurt and Dubai
Actual trips: 3; Amsterdam/Frankfurt, Dubai missed due unfit, but called out of standby for Shanghai and Narita.
Number of days off: 14 (including 5 joker days, and 3 ‘O’ days*)
Number of duty days: 10
Number of days unfit: 6

Some terminology:

Allowance – The money crew gets on layovers to cover expenses, usually in the local currency.

Dispatch – the place where the crew meets. It’s at my companies headquarters, next to Hong Kong airport. Here we prepare the flight, and clear crew security, before taking a crew bus to the airplane.

Flight preparation – My company makes use of an ‘EFB’; Electronic Flight Bag. We all have a personal company iPad, with charts, electronic manuals and several apps for flight preparation. Some time for the flight, we are able to download the operational flight plan, and prepare. We take note of the weather, the specifications for the route, notices for the different airfields, the required fuel, the airplane status, expected approach etcetera. So when we meet the rest of the crew at report, we all have a good idea of the duty ahead and we discuss shortly the things that stood out. 

Joker days – Every 4 months I can request 5 blocked ‘joker’ days off (for example for a wedding/birthday/something important). Well in advance I receive confirmation if this request is approved. Joker days are days off on top of normal days off and of leave days.

O-days – company days scheduled usually after a trip or simulator session. After your trip or simulator duty you need to call the company. Now your O-day can be changed into any duty, but if there is nothing planned for you now you get to be off.

Pilot Flying – The pilot who does the set-up, the take-off and landing on a flight and is responsible for the navigation.

Pilot Monitoring – The pilot who monitors the actions of the pilot flying, and is responsible for the walk around (external inspection of the plane), the communication and checklist reading. 

PX – Duty travel. The company needs the pilot to be at a certain airport for further duties, but this is not an operating sector. The pilot travels as a passenger, either on a company airplane, or with another company. The pilot travels in uniform, but normally changes on board (right after boarding and back before landing). Normally PX trips are in business class.

Standby day – a day (usually 6 hours) where the pilot has to be contactable by phone as the company can call the pilot for any duty. Report time is 2 hours and 15 minutes from call to report. It is also possible to be called out for a flight that starts much later.