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Day In The Life Of A Pilot

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A day in the life of a pilot....

Day two of a three-day trip: (Three legs) San Diego-Phoenix-New Orleans-Philadelphia Leg One: San Diego (SAN) to Phoenix (PHX) We arrive at the SAN airport to find a brand-new 737-700 waiting for us. The outside is shiny new and the inside reeks of brand new leather. (Don't tell anyone, but I'd fly this one for free!) Upon returning from my walkaround inspection, I tell Bill, my First Officer, "I'll take this plane as my early retirement gift!" The cabins of airliners lead a hard life flying everyday so getting to fly one that is in showroom new condition is a real treat. Even the inside of the engine cowls are clean enough to eat off of. After a slight delay for last-minute passengers, we push five minutes late. The snowball effect takes control, and we find ourselves behind a slow "elephant walk" of jets headed to the runway. The one ahead of us is also going to PHX and Air Traffic Control (ATC) is requesting five minutes in-trail spacing between planes. That means we are stuck in lovely SAN for at least five more minutes after he blasts off. Once airborne, the computer indicates we'll barely make it to PHX on time. I know from talking with passengers that delays at the end of the runway are no fun for some, so I make an announcement explaining why the delay has occurred. Pulled to the side of the hammerhead at the end of the runway so other jets can pass by, another jet pilot comments, "Wow, you guys are in the "penalty box!" as they pass by us. I make a "NEENER-NEENER" face at him as he passes, and he smiles as they take the runway to depart. Finally, it is our turn. Enroute, the ride is great with only a few intermittent bumps. We leave the seatbelt sign off for most of the leg after we level off and determine the ride is satisfactory. Due to the Great Air Battle for Gila Bend, we are unable to make up time en route to PHX. Gila Bend is in the middle of a HUGE military airspace complex, and there is only a small corridor through it. When not in use, ATC will clear you through this airspace. When in use, dogfighting, practice-bombing, and other air support training goes on daily. They don't like it when airliners wander into their airspace. Many of my former military cohorts here at SWA have flown throughout this range complex and know every topographical detail like the backs of their hands. We land in PHX, and as luck would have it, no departure traffic blocks our taxi to the gate. We cross the inside runway without delay and arrive at the gate right on time. Leg two: PHX to New Orleans (MSY) The weather (WX) forecast shows thunderstorms throughout the Louisiana coastal area about the time of our arrival. The WX map shows the bulk of the WX in the US well north in Oklahoma and north Texas. Our flight will cross El Paso direct to Lake Charles, LA right across the middle of Texas –well south of the line of building weather. We have extra gas and Birmingham, AL as a weather alternate should it be needed. Armed with all the weather information we can get, now we just need to "beat feet" to the East and see what the weather looks like up close. As we level off out of PHX, a layer of high Cirrus clouds tops out right at our cruising altitude. The sun's energy bounced off the high reflective cloud layer sometimes makes for a choppy ride. That is the case today. We keep the passengers seated and tell them why. We are too heavy to climb to 41,000 feet and ask ATC if we can climb to 390 (39,000 feet –an altitude for which we are not too heavy). In our case, traffic keeps us in the chop for about 20 minutes; when the traffic eases, we are finally cleared up to 390 where we are out of the clouds and the ride is smooth. We let the passengers up and enjoy a smooth ride all the way across Texas. Approaching the eastern edge of Texas we can see building thunderstorms ahead. The weather radar confirms large building storms from basically the western edge of Louisiana all the way to the edge of the airport. I turn on the fasten seat belt sign and notify all that we'll be picking up the cabin early and seating the Flight Attendants (FAs) before beginning descent through the clouds around the storms. Minutes later we "ding" the FAs, their signal to clean up and be seated. We begin our descent into the clouds as we deviate around a large cell off to our left. As we descend, we break out and have Lake Ponchatrain in sight, and our path will take us right out over the middle of the lake. Now in the clear, we can see lots of lightning activity in the huge cell to our right. We advise the passengers that they'll see plenty of lightning during the descent, but we assure them we are keeping clear all the way to landing. If only they had a front window view like we have. Even the view to the left is of dark clouds and intermittent lightning. Out front it is clear and only sprinkling intermittently. We are satisfied, based on tower reports and pilot reports (PIREPS) from aircraft departing that it is safe to land to the south. The wind lets up for just a moment as we settle in on Runway 19. I brake rather firmly with high reverse as a message to the passengers: This ride is over. As we taxi in our concerns shift to getting out of town before the storm on the western edge of the airport moves in. Leg three: "Nawlins" to Philly (PHL): Escape from New Orleans Arriving at the gate, our hopes for a quick turn are dashed when the Operations Agent advises us we will hold ten minutes for late connecting passengers from another flight. All we can do is get off the gate as quickly as possible. To avoid  taking off into bad weather, we will sweep the skies with our own radar and check with the tower for pilot reports from other departing aircraft. Only with a safe plan will we proceed. Finally, we are loaded with our late connecting passengers, and their final bags are loaded into the cargo hold. We push back and start the engines. Once we arrive at the end of the runway, we are number two for departure to the west. Miraculously, the storm has lessened somewhat, and there is still a five-mile boundary between the edge of it and the airport. The plane departing ahead is going to Houston, essentially back through the way we came. It turns sharply to the north to escape the weather to the west and later turns west over the lake following the reverse of the route we used coming into New Orleans. With no bad reports from his departure, we accept our takeoff clearance and prepare to follow the preceding aircraft's route. Our new 737-700 pays off handsomely now as it is equipped with the newest higher-thrust engines. We brief an adverse weather takeoff profile using max thrust. As we takeoff, climb, and turn, barely over the edge of the airport, we are clear of the storm to the west. Now, we just need to dodge randomly scattered storms enroute to the northeast. We slowly deviate left and right, and twenty minutes after takeoff we find ourselves staring into clear air over Montgomery, AL. We turn off the FASTEN SEAT BELT sign, and for the next hour and a half, our route of flight misses the few isolated storms along the way. As we descend into Philly, there is a line of weather moving in from the west. We easily skirt it to the east and marvel at Mother Nature: Lightning bolts in the distance careen from cloud to cloud and cloud to ground. Not a factor for us as we pass smoothly by. We land in Philly ten minutes early. Neither Bill nor I have ever been to Philadelphia before. The weather is beautiful for our first visit. But by morning, the storms we skirted inbound will dump a light rain on Philly. The next morning I awake to the sound of dripping water leaking through my hotel window. Not to worry; it's day three of three, and today we'll go home.
24 Comments
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To whomever thought up this blog: kudos. The posts are very informative, and it's even more entertaining to hear a pilot write about his trips!
New Arrival
Cpt. Stark, Great story! I bet your view of those storms were amazing. I know airplanes can resist lightning to some degree. Have you (plane) ever been struct by lightning? Does it make you hairs stand up like you just stuck your finger in a light socket? *ouch*.
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Thank you Capt. Stark for posting "Day in the Life of a Pilot". It sheds great insight into the lives of commercial airline pilots and the service you all provide for the flying public. Looking forward to more posts from you. Very well written!
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I really enjoy reading the pilot blogs about thier/your trips. I hope you all leave more! I especially like this one how you all got a take a brand new 737-7 on your second day. I am sure it is like playing with a new toy!
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It is alway great to read stories from the point of view of a pilot. Those things are way more informative for me. I cannot pilot an airplane as I am deaf, we're not allowed to do that. If I was not deaf I would be a pilot. Oh well, thanks for the great blog.
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James, I read your comment & noticed you're deaf. I have a BA in Deaf Services with an Interpreting minor. I put my resumÃ
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Great story Captain Stark, you have a great way with words. Captain Getline ( http://www.usatoday.com/travel/columnist/getline/index.htm ) might have a competitor :-) Please, continue telling your tales - many of us who fly often have a fascination with the pilot workdays.
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Captain Stark, I appreciated your blog on "a day in the life of a pilot". The job that you do for SWA in my opinion is the coolest job in the world. I think it is really cool for you to be able to share your flying experiences with your customers. I find it truely amazing how SWA gives back to the community through little things like this blog. I hope to soon be a part of the SWA team and to contribute to the community like yourself. Thanks again and happy trails.
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Ray, I enjoyed your story. It brought back many memories. Keep the "dirty side" down and give my best regards to all. Ken Dominy 2537 (ret.)
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Captain Stark: I enjoyed sharing this story with my children. As frequent LUV jet flyers, and curious air travelers, they fully appreciated having your perspective. Thanks again for being a great steward for the industry. All the best, Fred
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I just LOVED this post. Let me reiterate -- LOVED it!! I can't wait to see more from this author! You said that you wished your passengers had a front window like you have in the cockpit -- why not post pictures looking at the landscape through that window? It would be a unique perpective for those of us who will probably never get to see it otherwise.
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I really like reading the pilot stories and hope that there will be more posted. It's great to read stuff from people in every department!
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I loved this day you described. I also noticed that it was a pre-Katrina day, I hope that Southwest will soon bring back the trip you did before. I also look forward to seeing a post about how a first-time flying customer (who has a built-in fear of it) should best prepare for it. My wife has never flew before but will in the future. Thankfully her mom lives near a Southwest city (the one with the most daily departures) and short flight could be best. Your thoughts.
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Have you had a chance to read the new FAA guidelines regarding landing distance policies and if so, do you have a reaction?
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Leah, I too have the same degree you hold. It is also my life dream to be one of the great SW flight attendants that are funny and great in our skies each and every day.
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Have you thought of setting up a separate 'day in the life of a pilot' blog. I know a lot of people on my site, http://www.modernpilot.com, would love to read it.
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you think the cabin is nice the bins of a new plane are great...new bin smell lol...i am a ramper in phoenix and i too luv a new bin esp. when its 110 in phx and i`m the first one in a new bin of a 700 nice and cold anyway happybirthday southwest
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I love reading about what pilots and flight attendants workdays are like, and hope more of you folks post your stories here. It may seem routine to you, but you serve several purposes it serves. I never realized how much training a flight attendant went through until I buckled down and studied career books, read other airline employee blogs, talked to FA's on every carrier I could and watched Airline and Flight Attendant School. A great thing happened. I realized that safety is really job one for Southwest employees, and I realized I am in excellent hands when I board a Southwest jet. I feel so much safer knowing that the employees are highly trained for their job! I've always wanted to be a flight attendant, and finally got serious about it. Every time I was in an airport, every time I looked up in the sky and saw a jet gleaming in the sun, I thought "I should be on that plane!!!" I researched for quite a while, asking every airline employee who would talk to me, who is the best to work for and why. Continental, Delta, United, Aloha airline employees all said without pause "SOUTHWEST!" Amazing, no? Then I spoke to Southwest employees about how they liked their job, FA's LUV'd it, grounds ops LUV'd it, in fact all of the people I spoke with cited the great way Southwest treats their people, and I was sold that this was who I want to work for. I did some digging in to the history of the company and found the stellar profit record. Reading this blog drives home how much I really wish to work for such an outstanding company, so these blogs will also help drum up more possible future employees for your great company! Another good reason for the FA's and pilots to post here is that it illustrates what the typical challenges are for people in these career fields. Many passengers have no idea how difficult it can be to do these jobs, good FA's and pilots make the job look easy. The idea of posting how your time goes at work is a wonderful way to show how happy employees at Southwest are, and that is good public relations. Something I admire about Southwest is that they are not afraid to put it all out there and show the good and the bad, as on the series Airline. I find the problem solving skills of the employees on the show to be quite inspiring.
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Wow, Jimmy! That's neat that we have the same degree! Have you sent in your resumÃ
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I don't know if this post is really in the right place....seemed ok.... I'm a scaredy cat flier and I'll only fly southwest because I trust you. To me, you pilots are rock stars and everytime I see one of you sitting at the gate I am always dying to ask... 1. Do you get bored flying the same route over and over? It doesn't sound like it...seems like the same trip can offer lots of different experiences, depending when you fly. I just wondered if maybe you feel like you are driving a bus..same routes day after day.... 2. If you are flying with us regular folks and some nervous nellie like me ended up sitting next to you, would you mind if I asked you questions? You have no idea how fascinating pilots and flying are to me (and many others it seems)....but on the other hand, I always wonder if really you just want a peaceful flight. I talk a lot when I get nervous. I'm sure I could think of more goofy stuff to ask. When I exit whatever flight I'm on I always hope I get the chance to thank the pilots. And I really mean it when I say thanks. It's amazing that you get what (to me) is essentially a fricking building and put it in the air and then land it with ease. Rock stars. oh sometimes I wish ya'll would talk more to the pax. I know you kinda have your minds on other important things. but when it gets bumpy and I'm crapping my pants its soooo nice to hear the pilot say "there's nothing to worry about..." Anyway I really appreciate southwest and keep up the good work.
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Regarding the lightning strike, no I haven't been "hit" by lightning but I have had a "static discharge" a few times which is similar but where the voltage jumps off the plane rather than onto the plane. Very loud. No static feelings at all. Blinding flash (as the nose is where the flash is designed to depart)! Some more questions: 1. Do you get bored flying the same route over and over? It doesnÃ
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"... If only they had a front window view like we have." Trust me, that's exactly what I'm thinking every flight...
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These blogs are great im going to college in the fall to become a pilot and enjoy reading a pilots view of what happens, they are very fascinating
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I loved this. Its great to hear a pilots view and to know the joy they get out of their fantastic job. All the best.