April 11, 2013

A Day in the Life: Pilots

Welcome to A Day in the Life, where we take you behind the scenes at JetBlue to learn more about the important jobs that work in concert together to run a major airline. This time, we visit with Captain Mike and Captain Brian, two of our pilots, otherwise known as the guys and gals that literally help JetBlue fly.

You may do it every time you board a flight: look to the left before heading down the aisle to find your seat. It’s always the same view: two pilots inside a cockpit pressing lots of buttons. The view is intriguing, but what is it they’re doing in there? 

Captain Brian often starts his day in a familiar place, Starbucks. As we walked the airport halls towards the crew lounge, coffee in tow, I noticed Captain Brian nod to other JetBlue pilots, a sign of camaraderie among the Flight Operations group.

As an E190 Check Airman, Brian helps continue the training of pilots who are fresh off the flight simulators at JetBlue University in Orlando. Before flying independently, these trainees (and all new pilots to JetBlue, too) must complete Initial Operating Experience (IOE), or a minimum of 25 hours of flight time and at least five landings. Those who are moving positions on the same aircraft (i.e. First Officer to Captain), require 15 hours. It’s Brian’s job to be there alongside the trainees as they fly, and get them up-to-speed on our airline’s policies and procedures.

On this particular day, Brian would be completing the training of Captain Mike, who was upgrading from Airbus First Officer to an E190 Captain. While I couldn’t fly in the cockpit with them from MCO-BUF—due to FAA regulations—the plan was to shadow them leading up to departure.

Riding the elevator down to the crew lounge felt like a secret trip to the “crew cave” deep within Orlando International Airport. Was there all sorts of pilot gadgets and hear pilots talk in code about flights? Not so much. Instead, everything was pretty relaxed. There were cozy lounge chairs and TVs mounted on the wall—a parking spot for inflight crewmembers and pilots to rest before working a flight.

Pilots tend to arrive one or two hours in advance of their flights and the crew lounge is where they generally hang out before heading to the gate. They can check email or print a dispatch release, which contains information like number of bags checked; cargo weight; altitude; and weather conditions from the National Weather Service. Dispatch uses this information to create a flight plan for the pilot. In a nutshell, a flight plan is finalized prior to departure and includes key information like fuel planning, the route, weather, alternative airports in case of bad weather, among other notations.

When Mike arrived, I instantly noticed a banter between the two—joking at each other’s expense is something all pilots do.

About 40 minutes before taking off, Brian and Mike headed onto the plane and introduced themselves to the inflight crewmembers. The Captain’s seat contains a flight-control yoke, also called the ram’s horn on the E190—the control column is called a ram’s horn because that’s what it resembles (these don’t exist on the A320, which instead, come with a side-stick control).

Part of a pilot’s pre-flight routine involves looking at the aircraft log-book, a place for maintenance to log issues with the aircraft and sign off when a fixer job was complete.

Everything was in working order, so Brian stepped outside to greet our customers, while Mike prepared the cockpit. He turned on various controls and instruments to make sure everything was operable. He received a printed report of the final numbers from an Airport Operations crewmember: how many bags were checked; customer count and seated location; and cargo weight. Then, Mike began punching away at a mini onboard computer.

Through a new technology called Aerodata, Pilots can request from the cockpit weights and speeds needed for precise takeoff and landing. The data is returned through a built-in printer, sort of how a cash register spits out a receipt. If a pilot sees any balance issues, they may elect to remove some weight like bags or shift customers around the cabin. It’s not uncommon for the pilot to make many last-minute adjustments to the initial flight plan provided by dispatch based on the latest numbers.

When preparations are complete and all of the customers boarded, it’s time to head out. Mike and Brian wait for clearance to push back to taxiway and runway and flight.

Check out part II, the next best thing to flying in the cockpit, our flight simulator.

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