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Onboard Interview: a pilot talks about cabin life and fear of flying

Onboard Interview: a pilot talks about cabin life and fear of flying

As a follow up to a piece I wrote a while back, I spoke to “Jay”, a Captain with a major commercial airline, to get his perspective about his passengers’ fears of flying and if there are things they can do about it. I also wanted to discover a bit more about what you need to do to become a pilot in the first place. Lots of training seemed to be the answer…

Q. What academic qualifications do pilots have?
Jay: A few pilots have an aeronautical degree and most have a science or engineering degree, but a university degree is not required; there’s a Captain flying about with just 4 CSE passes.

Q. You fly with a highly respected international airline – how much initial training did you do?
Jay: It takes thirteen months to get your Commercial Pilot’s Licence (CPL) and this is the flying licence that allows you to be a First Officer. Then you have to complete a one month course on how to be part of a multi-crew environment (how to be and act as a First Officer) and a further three months to train on the type of plane that you’ll finally fly.

Q. Isn’t that quite a short training period given the responsibility pilots have?
Jay: It sounds a short time, but it’s compressed. There are no university-style holidays or early finishes. During my thirteen month stint at flight school, I managed 4 days off (which was over Christmas) and I was expected to fly on many weekends. Overall it was a total of 18 months during which time I took 46 ground exams and 14 flying tests.

Q. How many hours would you log before being allowed to fly a commercial 747 for example?
Jay: Generally, when you come out of training with around 200 logged hours, you would fly a ‘narrowbody’ aircraft: something like a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320. Once you have enough flying hours, you can then apply for a Captain’s licence which takes about 2 years and 1500 logged hours. Then, if you wish, you can move on to a long-haul aircraft as a First Officer – but that move would normally take 4 to 5 years.

Q. In what is a hugely responsible job, what is the toughest part of being an airline captain?
Jay: The hardest thing is pulling things together to enable the aircraft to depart on time: this routinely involves issues surrounding passengers, engineering, loading and the crew – all of which always happen minutes before departure.

The other fun bit is when a really tough call has to be made – a decision that centres on legality or practicality and safety pops its ugly head out and everyone just turns and looks at me. When it’s one of those, you have to do the right thing and follow the safe path which isn’t necessarily the same direction as the company’s operations department would want me to go.

When the chips are down, I look after my passengers, my crew and my plane, preferring to be late at destination rather than being early into a risky situation.

Q. You are highly trained and work in most closely regulated and monitored sector of the transport industry, why are people scared of flying?
Jay: The media as well as friends and family have, I believe, a sense of responsibility even before Mr Never-Flown-Before steps foot on an aeroplane. ‘Mega-jet in near death crash’ on the front page of a tabloid, ‘Air crash investigation’ on Discovery and his friend Arthur down the road who recalls his one bad flight in five thousand – all this relish of crashes, near misses and so on just perpetuates the unnecessary angst.

Q. What kind of percentage of people are scared of flying do you think?
Jay: I’m not entirely sure, but during a delay in Croatia one day I spent a long time talking to our passengers. I took a straw poll and of the 77 we had on board, 12 were nervous! Think of those 16% the next time that you look at your fellow passengers in the departure lounge.

Q. Any thoughts on what people can do?
Jay: From meeting passengers quite regularly who have, shall we say, ‘issues’ with flying I have found that most of it comes from a basic fear of the unknown. I believe that understanding what is happening is the key.

The best example that I can point to is before 9/11, we used to allow passengers visit us in the flight deck. That sparked an interest and a lucky few may have been allowed to stay on the flight deck to see the landing. I used to take some time talking to these people, explaining what was about to happen and why. They then had some understanding and the breakthrough was when they saw it all come together.

Watching them shortly before landing, their anxiety levels would always be sky high; afterwards there would always be a relaxed and happy passenger knowing that flying is safe, controlled and well thought through.

Q. This isn’t an option any longer I suppose…?
Unfortunately not. In this modern day and age post 9/11, passengers can’t be allowed access to the flight deck any more. If I allow someone in (without extremely good reason), I lose my job, and face going to court so I am afraid that in-flight therapy is no longer available.

Q. Any other bright ideas as to what the fearful flyer might do?
If you’re nervous then there are two other ideas that you may want to try. Firstly, go and fly in a small aircraft. No, forget that, go and actually fly the small aircraft. This is the way it works: all flying clubs all over the UK offer ‘trial lessons’ so pick up your yellow pages and look one up.

Book a trial lesson and explain to the flying instructor that you are afraid of flying and want to use the lesson to gain some understanding of aeroplanes and flying. It really will help. And before you ask, your little Cessna/Piper flies exactly the same way as my Boeing – just a bit slower. The cost is about £100 for around 40 mins though prices can vary.

The second plan is to book a ‘fear of flying’ course. Professional people run these and they’re excellent since they help you understand what goes on through plain and simple explanations. Cost is about £2-300 depending on who you book through.

You may also like to read:
Fear of Flying: how to beat the jetset jitters