What’s going on in the front of the plane? Nothing

Over the years, I’ve passed along posts from “Sam,” a fully-unnamed regional airline pilot out of Minneapolis who writes the “Blogging at FL250” blog about his life as an airline pilot.

I didn’t know his last name until today, when Flying Magazine published Sam Weigel’s article, “A Day in the Life of an RJ Pilot.”

What do we learn from the article? That’s there’s not much for pilots to do when flying an airliner.

The Embraer 175 is a wonderfully modern, pilot-friendly airplane with a clean, simple cockpit. Flight information is neatly presented on five large, crisp LCD displays. Flawless navigation is simple with twin flight management systems that feature GPS and INS inputs. Aircraft systems are mostly automated — with lots of dusty switches to be left in the auto position — and computer-monitored, with any malfunctions immediately displayed on the engine instrument and crew alerting system and synoptic displays. The autopilot and autothrottles keep the airplane right on course, flying more smoothly than I am able.

The one thing the Embraer does not do well is keep its pilots awake and engaged, least of all in cruise flight. There’s simply precious little to be done. Navigational cross checks, ETA and fuel calculations, maintenance notations, weather updates — all the housekeeping duties of years past are automated and available at the push of a button. So you have to find ways to pass the time, especially on long flights like our three-hour cruise from Dallas to New York. Noncompany reading material has long been banished from the flight deck, as have personal electronics in the wake of the Northwest 188 debacle. I suppose one could read the flight operations manual — but did I mention that the object is to stay awake?

  • UPupandaway

    So, if the Pilot’s are really not doing that much up there why am I paying more then ever for air travel?

    • Fuel, mostly.

      You know in a few years we’ll be on the doorstep of pilotless planes and people will be saying, “Are you kidding? You want me to fly in a plane run by a computer?” We already are.

  • joetron2030

    So, they basically handle take-offs and landings assuming nothing else goes amiss during the rest of the flight?

    BTW, Bob, I really like the pieces you post about pilots, flying, etc. I don’t know why. But, I find reading many of those pieces fascinating.

    • A Northwest pal — well former Northwest pilot — told me they switch to autopilot when they’re 100 feet off the ground on takeoff. He said they’d let the autopilot land the things except that they put the plane down at EXACTLY the same spot on the runway and MAC would have to spend too much time scraping rubber off the runway. I think he might’ve been kidding about that last part, though.

      • joetron2030

        100 feet?! Wow. That’s a lot earlier than I would have ever guessed.

  • Sam Weigel

    Hey Bob, thanks for the link, but I’m a little alarmed to see the takeaway from my article is that we don’t do anything! It’s true that during cruise flight in good weather with everything working, there’s precious little to do in the newest, most automated aircraft like the E175, and that’s where we have to find things to keep us engaged…I would say the automation is almost a hindrance in doing everything for us and therefore making it way too easy to get out the loop. But while cruise flight takes up 80% of the flight time, it only accounts for perhaps 10% of the actual work I do on any given flight, and uses about 2% of the knowledge, skill, and judgement we’re paid for. If good-weather cruise were all there was to it, robot airplanes would already be here. When the weather turns sour, or when things break, or when there’s a challenging approach like the Expressway Visual mentioned in the article, that’s when your pilot really earns his keep. Ironically, during one of the most important parts of any flight, the part that really relies on my judgement – preflight preparation – I’m not even getting paid!

    One last thing – the computer messes up more than you’d suppose. Just today, if I had relied on the computer without backing up our descent profile with mental math, I would have missed a crossing restriction going into Washington’s Dulles Airport – and there was crossing traffic over that restriction. The technology is pretty good, but it’s certainly not perfect, even in the newest planes.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    I saw this when I was on a King Air plane once doing a media fly-around. I looked up into the cockpit and one pilot had his arms crossed and appeared to be taking a nap.