Airline Pilot FAQ

Through my activity on social media, I often get questions from aspiring pilots and inquisitive passengers. This FAQ page is meant to answer the ones asked most often.

My way into the cockpit

What were your dream professions as a child and what are they now?

Since my first flight in a small airplane at age 12, I wanted to become a pilot! That wish evolved to wanting to be an astronaut by the time I was 14, then the realities of life kicked in. During high school, I thought I might want to become a doctor or engineer. Only after my civil service, my dad reminded me of my childhood dreams and pointed me to the Lufthansa career website. Again, I was hooked! As you know, I managed to become a pilot. Still, there are so many things I have loved and still love doing. I volunteered as a medic during my flight training. I didn’t just train to be a pilot, I also studied to be an engineer. As an avid photographer since childhood, I now have a business as a photographer. And space still beckons! In 2016, British astronaut Tim Peake got me back on track with his Twitter contest to win a patch flown in space. I actually got one of the prizes and I am again the space nerd I was as a teenager!

How long have you been a pilot? Was Lufthansa your first airline?

I had my first training flights from 1995-1997 at the age of 12-14. Thereafter, I started my commercial pilot training in 2003. I have been line pilot on Airbus A320 since the end of 2007. As a student of Lufthansa Flight Training, I signed a contract with Lufthansa and have been working there since the beginning of my career.

Is it hard to become a Lufthansa pilot?

In the assessment center I took part in, ca. 30% of the applicants passed the first round. They were attested a fundamental qualification for the profession as a pilot. Of these, ca. 25% were left after the second round, so of all applicants ca. 7.5%. They were considered as suitable for Lufthansa. Most of these were able to acquire a class 1 medical certificate. They began a two-year education in Bremen (Germany) and Phoenix, AZ (USA) and had excellent chances at passing the challenging course with its many theoretical and practical tests. Even though new applicants are currently not being selected (as of April 2017), Lufthansa still maintains its FAQ concerning application and training.

What was this assessment center like?
Does experience as glider pilot bring advantages in the Lufthansa assessment center?

As far as I know, prior flying experience offers no direct advantages in the Lufthansa assessment center. Lufthansa prided itself in its “ab-initio” training, being able to transform pedestrians to airline pilots of the highest standards in just two years with amazing success. Candidates that had already learned to fly in glider clubs may have actually had less of a chance at passing the qualification and a harder time in the training because they had already learned to fly in a way counter to the Lufthansa standards. Converting undesired habits to favored skills is harder than teaching aspirants who never had any contact with the subject.

What was the flight training like for you?

After my civil service, I applied at Lufthansa and passed the two parts of the assessment center. I chose a dual education and studied aviation systems engineering and management (“ILST”) at Hochschule Bremen. After three semesters of basic studies at the university, I had two semesters with university and flight school in parallel, then a semester of practical flight training in Phoenix, AZ in 2006 and finally a semester of flight theory in Bremen, ATPL theory test and flight training on Piper Cheyenne. After a total of four years, I had a CPL with ATPL theory and moved to Frankfurt for my type rating on Airbus A320. I passed the skill test at the end of 2007 and started my three-month line training in early 2008.

Did it take long to save up your own share of the costs for the Lufthansa pilot training (historically between 40,000 and 60,000 €)?

The pilot’s share of the costs was given as a loan which could be repaid with monthly deductions from the salary once I had a work contract. Depending on the size of the loan and the monthly rate, the costs could be paid after six to 20 years.

My job as airline pilot

When are you told where to fly?

I get my duty roster for an entire month no later than the 27th day of the previous month.

How many days off do you have per week/month? Can you have a family like that?

The collective agreement calls for at least ten days of rest each month, including four successive “OFF” days. The entitlement is reduced approximately by one day for every three days of leave by holiday or part time. Six weeks of holiday are granted, these include weekends and bank holidays. Many pilots and flight attendants have relationships and families. Due to the concentration of work due to computer-assisted “optimization” of duty (longer) and rest times (shorter), many feel so burdened that they file for part time work. In Germany, this is made possible by law. Many pilots and cabin attendants use the extra time for other careers.

How many flights do you have each day? Do you have layovers?

On short and medium range fleets (flights up to ca. 5 hours), most connections are served more than once a day. This makes morning and evening shifts possible, combined to rotations of up to five days. One day consists of up to five flights, the duty time can be up to 13 hours as a matter of principle and up to 15 hours in exceptional cases. The early shift usually begins between 3 and 6am and ends between 11am and 4pm. The late shift begins between 11am and 4pm and ends between 10pm and 2am. When a day does not end at the home base, the crews are put up in hotels. We call overnight stays in the environs of the minimum rest time “nightstop”. They give us about half a day to rest; eating, sleeping, personal hygiene and sports included. Rather rare is the so-called “layover”, for example when a rotation switches from the late to the early shift. That gives us a bit over 24 hours of rest time with the advantage of being able to see a bit of the place we’re staying. The downside is chronobiological: The body very much dislikes having to become active only 24 hours after a time that it went to sleep just a day ago.

Are you always happy with the hotels? What do you think of the fact that accommodations often change due to new hotel contracts?

There are criteria for the selection of hotels, that should be adhered to. They lead to a basically good standard. A good employer tries to change hotels as rarely as possible. Since hotel costs are seen as a great potential for savings, changes of accomodation do occur again and again. This can be irritating for crews, who see the hotel as home away from home. I tend to know where I can get something to eat after the late shift or in what supermarket I can get healthy food for the day before my shift. Every change of hotel means I have to find new go-to spots. A change can also mean an improvement in hotel, infrastructure or location, making me more satisfied.

When do you meet the rest of the crew before the flight?

Briefing with my cockpit colleague is 70 minutes before scheduled time of departure. We plan the flight, then brief the cabin crew.

What is “briefing”?

Aviation is a highly safety-critical area of work and crews almost always consist of people that work together for the first time. To maintain the highest level of safety, work is highly procedural and recurrent training focuses on a high level of standardization. When everyone knows how everything is done, everyone knows how everyone else works. The briefing consists of quickly getting to know each other and reviewing highlights of procedures and standards.

How do you pass the time on a flight when there is nothing to do?

There is never nothing to do! Fuel checks, monitoring aircraft systems and the route progress keeps us busy. In phases of low workload, we eat, talk and take the occasional photo.

How much of the pilot’s work does the autopilot do? How often and under what conditions do the pilots really land an airplane “by hand”?

In short, every takeoff and almost every landing is by hand. The long version: I don’t know of any passenger airplane that can take off with the autopilot. Some pilots turn on the autopilot after five seconds, others wait five minutes. The further we approach cruising level, the more monotonous the pure flying gets. Computers are much better than humans at long-term monitoring of parameters and corrections for slightest deviations. The automation reduces the pilots’ workloads, leaving them mental capacities for abnormal situations. During the approach, some pilots take over manually in 10,000 feet (ten minutes before landing), others at 1,000 feet (about two to three minutes). The decision depends on personal preference, but also on factors like fatigue, traffic density and weather.

Speaking of autopilot, can you release the controls while it is on? Can you go out and grab some coffee or even take a photo?

When the autopilot is engaged, the pilots can let go of the flight controls. The autopilot is controlled via an interface called the “flight control unit” (FCU) on Airbus aircraft. It is located between both pilots just below the glareshield. While the autopilot is engaged and workload is low, it is possible to eat, drink or take a photo because inputs on the FCU are not constantly required. Still, pilots must be seated with seatbelts fastened at all times in order to control the autopilot when necessary and to take over manually in case of a failure. Exceptions to this rule are short breaks to use the bathroom located just outside the cockpit. One pilot at a time may leave his seat while the other pilot stays at his place.

In your view, is the automation and the subsequent transformation of a pilot to a system surveillant positive or negative?

Like many things in life, automation in modern passenger aircraft has its advantages and downsides. As I explained above, automation can greatly reduce pilots’ workloads. We are humans like everyone else and our mental capacity varies according to our biorhythm and external influences (stress). The goal in maximizing safety is never to be at 100% load, but instead to leave room for coping with unexpected events. When system design is faulty or regulations eat up the safety gain with increased duty and decreased rest times, the disadvantages of automation become apparent. Understanding and interacting with airplane systems in a highly automated environment can be challenging when wide awake, but can lead to increased dangers when fatigued after 11-hour night duties.

What is your favorite airport and favorite approach?

I have many airports I like, most are surrounded by beautiful landscapes, such as Naples (NAP), Tbilisi (TBS), Gothenburg (GOT) and Sofia (SOF) in my route network. As for favorite approach, I always liked the visual approach at Lisbon (LIS) and the Saleya Approach into Nice (NCE).

Which airports would you like to fly to one day?

Close by: Keflavik (KEF), Kittilä (KTT), Ivalo (IVL), Tromsø (TOS), Catania (CTA), Jerewan (EVN). Further away: Fairbanks (FAI), Santiago de Chile (SCL), everything in Mongolia and Australia.

When you have 45 minutes “break” between flights, can you get something to eat in the terminal or do you stay in the plane?

When there is time, I try to get something fresh to eat in the terminal (I’m working on a guide on what’s fresh and delicious at which airport). The 45 minute “transit” or “turnaround” between two flights is not nearly enough time for that, though. This time is technically not a break, either. After the plane arrives at the gate, the passengers disembark. Crew members are required to be at their stations until the last passenger has left the plane. As soon as everyone is gone, fueling can begin. The amount of fuel is determined by the pilot and depends on legal minima plus extra fuel for expected delays caused by weather, runway closures, etc. Therefore, before making an educated decision about the fuel amount, we must carefully study the flight documents. With no passengers on board, the aircraft is also cleaned and catered (some no-frills airlines may skip this part). When all of that is finished – and its progress constantly monitored by the cockpit and cabin crew – the passengers for the next flight start boarding. Considering that it takes 25 minutes for everyone to leave an Airbus A321 and just as long to board it, that doesn’t leave much time for fueling, cleaning and catering in a 45 minute turnaround, let alone grabbing something to eat. Leaving the plane for some food in the terminal becomes possible in transits upwards of 60 minutes, if everything runs smoothly.

Do pilots have scheduled breaks then?

On short and medium range networks, pilots and flight attendants don’t have breaks at all. Our flight schedule dictates what we have to do and when. If we are delayed inbound, we have to hurry up even more to meet our schedule. Even when we work 13 hour shifts (up to 15 hours are possible in exceptional cases), lawmakers and airlines have not stipulated break times for airline crews. On very long flights with three pilots (intercontinental flights), one pilot at a time is granted a break for one third of the duration of the flight.

Do you want to fly another plane like an A350 in the future?

The A320 is an extremely flexible airplane and with its smaller and bigger brothers A319 and A321 offers a hundred destinations in Lufthansa’s route network. As some destinations go, new ones are added and life as a pilot stays varied and interesting. Still, the challenges and merits of long-range flights make me want to experience this side of aviation. I am in the lucky position that I can choose from what my employer has to offer. In my case, it means staying at my home base in Frankfurt (FRA), where we currently have A330/A340, B747, A380 and perhaps in the future B777 as long-range aircraft. My preference is the A380 and when my seniority allows, I will start flying it.

Do you get scared in bad turbulence?

Fortunately, I don’t experience any fear of flying. Fear is a natural response that occurs when we lack knowledge or skills. The best way to conquer fear is to learn everything about what you are doing and train actions and responses to possible dangers to proficiency. Severe turbulence is not comfortable and in fact dangerous if your seatbelts are not fastened. Knowing that airplanes can fly through turbulence many times stronger than ever experienced without sustaining critical damage keeps me calm in order to maintain the plane under control and fly out of the turbulence area.

What was the most difficult situation you had handle so far apart from simulator checks?

The most challenging situation I had in my career was a gusty crosswind landing. The wind blew almost exactly from the left with a speed of 28 knots (52 km/h) and gusted to 38 knots (70 km/h). Half of the landing planes were discontinuing their approach at this time. We landed safely, but may well have flown a go-around, too.

Have you had any emergency landings?

Emergencies are extremely rare and even the event tested in every simulator check – the engine failure – never happens to most pilots in their entire careers. I have had no emergencies so far (knock on wood!).

What was the best moment you experienced as a pilot?

There are many of those: my first solo flight, being checked out as FO on Airbus A320, northern lights that filled the cockpit windows, the above-mentioned landing with crosswind of 28 knots gusting to 38 knots.

Do you get cheap passenger flights? Are family members really allowed to fly for free once a year?

Airlines offer different discount rates depending on job tenure and occupation. Most of these are standby rates, meaning that while they are less expensive than a full-fare ticket, they are on a short-notice space-available basis. If the flight is full, I don’t fly. My family members can not fly for free.

Is there any way to fly in the cockpit as a passenger?

This may differ from one airline to the other. To the best of my knowledge, only flight crews, flight instructors, student pilots and aviation authority inspectors have access to the flight decks.

Airbus A320

Do you notice differences flying aircraft of the A320 family as a pilot?
Is there a weight limitation for the cockpit tray table?

Photography in the cockpit

When sitting in the cockpit, what can you see? Do you still see the ground from the windows?

You can imagine the field of view like sitting in a car. If you move close to the window, you can almost see what is right below you. A cockpit also has columns between the windshield and side windows, otherwise it permits a view from one wingtip to the other. The left pilot sees more on the left side, the right pilot more on the right side. The sky above us is obscured as well but visible if you move close to the windshield.

Which camera do you use?

I use a Nikon D750, my standard lens is the Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8G ED. I can’t use the Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 FL ED VR that I love for wedding photography, because the cockpit windows distort the image too much at these focal lengths. From time to time, I also use the Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8G ED. When I want to travel lightly and for my night photography, I have the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark ii with four lenses in my bag. For daytime shots, I have an Olympus M.Zuiko 12-40 mm f/2.8 PRO zoom lens. For low light photography, I use Olympus M.Zuiko 12 mm f/2.0, Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25 mm f/1.4 and Olympus 45 mm f/1.8 lenses.

Becoming a pilot

What were your majors in high school?

From 11th to 13th grade, I majored in Math and English, my natural scientific minor was physics.

Can you become a pilot without good knowledge of math and physics?

That is principally possible. You don’t need to be a math or physics major to become a pilot. If you don’t understand calculus, you don’t need to give up on the dream of learning to fly. When it comes to math and physics – and many other areas – firm knowledge of the basics is essential. Pilots must be able to add and multiply in their heads and be good at estimating magnitudes of calculations. They need to understand basic physical concepts such as forces and energy.

Would you recommend becoming a pilot these days?

I honestly would not recommend becoming a pilot at the time. In Europe, beginners’ chances on the job market are nearly hopeless, according to Germany’s pilots association “Vereinigung Cockpit”. Even graduates of airlines’ internal flight schools have been waiting for jobs for years. It seems (and I know this only from hearsay) that the job market in the United States is currently rather good and the forecast growth of the aviation sector is taking place primarily in Asia (China and India) and the Gulf states.

What is the best way to become an airline pilot?

If offered in your country, the fastest and most effective way to become an airline pilot is to complete the ATPL (airline transport pilot license) training at a stretch. Realistically, this takes about two years. To find a flight school that offer airline pilot training, check the list maintained by the German aviation authority LBA. In other countries, also check with the aviation authority to see if they have similar lists.

What does it cost to become an airline pilot?

Depending on the flight school, the costs will vary between 60,000 and 120,000 €. Some airlines will require that you pay for your type rating, which costs another 30,000 €. A few employers will even make you pay for “hour building”, charging you up to 60,000 € while you work for them transporting paying passengers.

What physical requirements do pilots need to meet?

In Europe, the physical requirements for a medical certificate are laid down Acceptable Means of Compliance and Guidance Material to Part-MED of the Commission Regulation (EU) No. 1178/2011. For airline pilots requiring a class 1 medical certificate, there are requirements for cardiovascular system, respiratory system, digestive system, metabolic and endocrine systems, haematology, genitourinary system, infections disease, obstetrics and gynaecology, musculoskeletal system, psychiatry, psychology, neurology, visual system, color vision, otorhino-laryngology, dermatology and oncology.

Is there a size requirement to become a pilot?

The above mentioned document does not limit the physical size of a pilot. However, common sense dictates that you need to fit into the cockpit and be able to reach all necessary controls without leaving your seat. For this reason, Lufthansa required a minimum height of 1,65 m and a maximum height of 1,98 m when they last accepted pilot candidates. Other airlines may have similar or deviating restrictions.

How many hours does it take you to get an upgrade as captain?

To be commander (captain) of an airplane requiring two pilots, a minimum of 1500 hours is required. Some airlines have higher standards. For example, Lufthansa requires at least 3000 hours.

Around the airport

How do I survive the crazy world of airplanes and airports?

This is what I do: get there early. Don’t choose a connecting flight where you have only 45 minutes to rush from one place to another. Always look up, there are signs that point to everywhere: gates, baggage claim, toilets. You will have a great time if you take your time.