Many members of the general public share a common view of an airline pilot’s workday. This stereotype often involves a pair of pilots relaxing in the cockpit, sipping coffee, and occasionally monitoring the flight instruments while the autopilot does the rest. The average layperson might believe pilots enjoy this relaxing environment for 2-3 hours at a time before arriving at their destination. While this might be true in some instances, for many pilots such a description varies greatly from reality. For countless commuter pilots, the opportunity to relax in cruise is nothing more than a distant dream.
For many regional airline pilots, those who fly the “puddle jumper” routes, the cruise leg of a given flight is often not much longer than most other phases of flight. As regional airlines often operate to smaller cities surrounding their carrier’s hub, flight legs can be as short as 100 miles, sometimes even less. As a result, cruise legs sometimes last no longer than a few minutes. During this time, as well as all other phases of flight, pilots remain busy attending to a multitude of tasks. More often than not, these duties involve some form of paperwork.
All pilots, regardless of experience level or the type of aircraft they operate, refer to checklists for EVERY phase of flight. Checklists begin with the pilots’ preflight inspection(s) and cover each segment of their operational duties until the aircraft is secured at its destination. For each phase, the pilots refer to the appropriate checklist and jointly verify that every requisite task has been completed. The shorter the flight, the more quickly the pilots must cover each checklist. The more legs a pilot flies in a given day, the more times (s)he’s required to run checklists. For many regional pilots, “flying” the plane is a continuous exercise in completing checklists.
Weight & Balance
All aircraft are certified to operate within specific weight and center of gravity (c.g.) parameters. For every flight leg, the pilots must determine that the plane is operated within the appropriate weight and balance limitations. This means calculating the effects of fuel, passenger weights, baggage & cargo, and the aircraft’s weight itself for EVERY single flight leg. In addition, weight limitations can be further restricted due to certain runway, atmospheric, and operational limitations. At times, pilots will need to offload weight or rearrange passengers/cargo in order to obtain a satisfactory weight/c.g. combination. For commuter pilots, math skills are a must.
Takeoff & Landing Distances
Like weight & balance, takeoff & landing distances must be calculated for every single takeoff and landing. These distances are affected by aircraft weight, temperature, atmospheric pressure, runway length, runway slope, and terrain/obstacles near the airport. With so many variables to consider, the same runway might be perfectly fine for one takeoff/landing but unsuitable for the next. Additionally, snow/ice/rain on the runway affect performance and must be carefully considered. In extreme instances, flight crews must delay takeoff and/or reduce aircraft weight in order to takeoff/land at a particular airport.
Speeds & Power Settings
Like other performance data, power settings and target airspeeds (commonly referred to as V-speeds) vary with weight and temperature/pressure. Though many modern aircraft computer systems can calculate several of these numbers, crews of older aircraft must manually determine the appropriate settings to use. In some instances, particularly on hot days and/or at high elevation airports, the aircraft engines can be incapable of producing the necessary speed/power required for takeoff. When this happens, pilots must reduce weight and/or wait for cooler temperatures in order to depart. Regardless of airplane type, all pilots must verify the speed & power requirements to determine whether a given flight is feasible.
For commuter pilots, every flight leg requires near-constant attention to numerous sources of paperwork. Besides the requisite data listed above, pilots must consult weather reports/forecasts, navigational charts, airport diagrams, and company manuals. On short flights, getting through the sheer volume of necessary documents can be a daunting task. In addition, pilots must fly their aircraft and ensure the safety of their passengers. For regional pilots, a day at the office can be anything but a carefree experience.