What do the Pilots do?

Q: What do pilots do up there for eight or ten hours at a time? Or twelve? Or fifteen?

Pilots often ask the same of passengers. Equipped with big windows, adjustable chairs and armrests that don’t require property deeds, it’s much less claustrophobic than sitting in coach. And when you think about it, sitting in a cockpit for 8 or 10 hours isn’t much different from sitting at a desk and computer screen for the same length of time. As added bonuses, you get free food and a nice view.

Unnecessary conversation is banned below 10,000 feet, but as you’d expect most of the flight’s more leisurely stretches are taken up by conversation with your fellow crewmember(s). Pilots aren’t always best friends, but often a little ideological clashing — say, oh I don’t know, an old punk rocker from Boston paired with a Promise Keeper from Kansas for six Atlantic crossings — is the perfect repose.

Even during straight-and-level segments in the middle of the night, however, the flight deck can be surprisingly bustling. There are reports to make via radio or satellite link, navigational waypoints to program, check, and double-check, systems to monitor, and various enroute (and later arrival) procedures to pre-program and verify.

When a pilot needs a lav break he takes one. If he wants to stretch, he gets up and does so. On long-haul flights there are supplemental pilots who will relieve the original crew, allowing them to sleep or otherwise relax. Many larger aircraft are equipped with crew bunks both for pilots and flight attendants, while others have designated cabin seats for use during rest periods.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.