Meet Captain Bill…
As a frequent flyer, I often get asked “what if” questions about flying. So, I turned to my friend, Captain Bill Berkbigler, a commercial pilot with a major airline, to help me out.
Captain Bill received his initial pilot training at the University of Illinois, completing his Private, Commercial, Instrument and CFI (certified flight instructor), CFII (certified flight instructor instrument) and later flight instructing for the U of I.
As a former United States Air Force T-38 Instructor, and with over 27 years of major airline experience, Captain Bill knows his stuff!
So, let’s ask the pilot!
1. We always hear how skilled pilots are. What kind of training is required for pilots to fly commercial aircraft?
It takes approximately 10 years and thousands of hours of flying experience, and meeting precise requirements, to even apply for a job with a major airline. Once hired there are months of training to learn aircraft systems, procedures, and practicing normal and non-normal (emergencies) in the simulator before you’re qualified to be a co-pilot. The training doesn’t stop there. Both Captains and First Officers (co-pilots) are required recurrent classroom training every year in systems, current trends, risk management, and simulator practice on emergencies, to name a few. It’s an expensive pathway to a career.
- Meet Captain Bill…
- 1. We always hear how skilled pilots are. What kind of training is required for pilots to fly commercial aircraft?
- 2. Many travelers are scared to fly on a plane. One of the most common reasons seems to be worry about crashing. Should passengers be concerned?
- 3. Why are lights dimmed during takeoff and the blinds lowered during landing?
- 4. What are all those strange noises during takeoff and landing?
- 5. What really happens if I don’t turn off my cell phone and change it to airplane mode?
- 6. Do you sleep on the plane when it’s in flight?
- 7. Do you eat the same airline food as passengers or do you get special meals?
- 8. Do you ever worry about something going wrong when flying?
- 9. Do you ever worry about the quality of the aircraft or whether it’s been checked over enough?
- 10. Do you ever think about terrorists taking over the plane?
- 11. Do pilots carry guns? And if so, are you required to take gun training?
- 12. Have you ever had to make an emergency landing?
- 13. Some people are scared to fly because they’ve seen certain movies. How realistic are movies about weird flying situations? i.e. Denzel Washington in “Flight 2012” and Tom Hanks in “Sully?”
- 14. What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you when flying a commercial jet?
- 15. Does the plane really fly itself once you put it on autopilot? Some say the plane is programed to land itself if necessary. Is that true?
- 16. What’s the most dangerous part of a flying a commercial aircraft?
- 17. Do flight attendants ask your advice when weird things happen…like a passenger freaking out, or passengers fighting with each other?
- 18. Do pilots get tested for drug and alcohol use before flying?
- 19. Is being a pilot as glamorous as it sounds? You know…flying to exotic places all the time, globetrotting around the world…
Passengers should be aware. According to statistics, airline travel is the safest form of travel you can take. In fact, your drive to the airport is the most dangerous part of your trip. There are approximately 100,000 airline flights a day. If you include small planes, private jets, and helicopters, the numbers reach approximately 150,000 flights a day globally. According to The Economist, the probability of your plane going down is around one in 5.4 million. Other reports place the odds closer to one in 11 million. To put this into perspective, statistically, you are far more likely to be struck by lightning or attacked by a shark than you are to die in a plane crash. And there are far more common things that kill more frequently than a flying accident, including the flu.
3. Why are lights dimmed during takeoff and the blinds lowered during landing?
Window shades must be up for takeoff and landing so flight attendants can assess any external hazards in the rare event of an evacuation. Dangers could include fire, engine still running, debris, and anything that could interfere with an emergency evacuation or emergency slide deployment. At night the glare from the inside lights would make it virtually impossible to see outside, and it would take time for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. During daylight hours, the lights are bright for eye adjustment and visibility. Also, some emergency floor lighting that leads you to the exits needs to be charged so it will glow and aid you in getting to your emergency exit.
4. What are all those strange noises during takeoff and landing?
There are lots of moving parts on the aircraft and each one makes a distinct sound.
Let’s start at the gate. When we push back from the gate, we start the engines with an APU (Auxiliary Power Unit, a little jet engine in the tail that provides air for air-condition/heating, electrical power, and pneumatic air pressure used to start the engines). On most aircraft we must turn off the air-conditioning/heating to allow the APU to provide enough supply of air for the engine starter.
When we start the engines you may see the interior lights blink as we transfer electrical supply to the aircraft from the APU to the engine generators. Once we’re done with some checks we’ll configure the wing for takeoff by putting out flaps and slats. This reshapes the front and back of the wing to provide more lift for takeoff. The flaps and slats are hydraulically powered and make a can-opener type of sound when they’re moving into their commanded position. This is normal.
Taxi: As we taxi for takeoff, you may hear some squealing from the brakes as we slow the aircraft during taxi. You may also hear this sound after landing. It’s completely normal. If it’s the first flight of the day for that aircraft, you may notice some vibrations as you taxi due to flat spots on the tires since it was sitting at the gate for many hours. The tires will round during taxi as they warm up.
Takeoff: Right before takeoff you’ll hear a ding-dong to alert the Flight Attendants that takeoff is imminent. You may hear the whine of the tires on the rain grooves that are cut into the runway. As we add power to the engines for takeoff and start accelerating down the runway you may hear a bump, bump, bump. These are runway lights marking the center of the runway that are housed in a protective metal case. Kind of like the lane reflectors on a highway.
Once we lift off, you’ll hear the landing gear retract and lock. This will be another bump sound right after takeoff. Typically, at around 1,000 feet above the ground we accelerate the aircraft, and as we do, we reconfigure the wing for flying fast as opposed to its takeoff or landing configuration. You’ll hear the whining sounds as the flaps and slats retract. This may happen several times depending on what flap setting was used for takeoff.
Landing: As we slow the aircraft down, we get to the point that we don’t have the speed for the wings to provide enough lift, so here again we will reshape the wing with flaps and slats. Here again you will hear that whining, can-opener type sound. Then you’ll hear a clunk as the landing gear are extended and then several more flap extensions as we slow to our approach speed.
Once the main wheels touch the runway, we deploy spoilers on the top of the wing. The spoilers pop up like walls to help “kill the lift” and, almost simultaneously, we deploy thrust reversers (doors/sleeves on the back of engine that divert the thrust forward to help the brakes slow the aircraft). If you’re sitting behind the wing, on landing you’ll see the back part of the engine extend and see vanes that divert the thrust as you hear the engines power up. As we slow to taxi speed, the thrust reversers will be stowed. And then, as we exit the runway, you’ll hear that whining, can-opener type sound as we retract the flaps and slats.
5. What really happens if I don’t turn off my cell phone and change it to airplane mode?
The concern is that an active cell phone may disrupt cockpit equipment. Can a cell phone do that? Probably no, but potentially yes. The probability is less now due to the low power digital cell phones emit, compared to the old analog cell phones. A powered cell phone emits bursts of energy that can interfere with a plane’s electronics, especially when there are many cells on at the same time on the same frequency.
The front of the airplane acts like a radar dish facing the cabin and as a result those electronic emissions are focused on the electronics. Even though aircraft are designed with shielded components, there is still a possibility of interference. I’ve called Flight Attendants only once in 26 years due to interference I thought was coming from electronic devices in the cabin.
However, passengers should be paying attention to the Flight Attendant briefings and be situationally aware during takeoffs and landings.
6. Do you sleep on the plane when it’s in flight?
No, it’s against FAR’s (Federal Aviation Regulations) to sleep during flight when the pilots are at the controls.
7. Do you eat the same airline food as passengers or do you get special meals?
Typically, we eat the same food, but experience tells us where and what the better options are and especially what to avoid. Some pilots bring their own food for a trip and most know where the best food options are at the airport.
8. Do you ever worry about something going wrong when flying?
I wouldn’t use the word worry. We are vigilant, prepared and well-trained. If there is something about a flight that concerns me or the First Officer (co-pilot)…like the aircraft, weather, turbulence, fuel reserves, or any number of things, we’ll take care of it, including refusing the aircraft or the plan. The buck stops with me. When people approach and ask me to fly safely, I usually respond, “Of course I will, I’m on this airplane too!”
9. Do you ever worry about the quality of the aircraft or whether it’s been checked over enough?
Again, I wouldn’t use the word worry. We are vigilant. Our mechanics are professional and do a great job. There are many required maintenance procedures performed on a scheduled basis. Each aircraft has its individual log book where maintenance is recorded and reviewed. Each time I fly an aircraft I thoroughly review that logbook to make sure all is okay. The First Officer and I go through many systems checks to confirm systems are a go for that flight. We also walk around the exterior of the aircraft to make sure everything is okay. As mentioned before, I’m on this aircraft too.
10. Do you ever think about terrorists taking over the plane?
Sure. There are currently people out there that want to hurt us, but we stay vigilant. We’re briefed on current trends, trained in many aspects of terrorism and have procedures in place for many levels of threats.
11. Do pilots carry guns? And if so, are you required to take gun training?
Yes, some pilots carry guns. They’re called FFDO’s (Federal Flight Deck Officers). Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, it was directed that the TSA develop the FFDO program. FFDO’s are highly trained and are required to periodically re-qualify. The specifics of FFDO training are classified, but the program is conducted at a special Federal law enforcement training facility by the Federal Air Marshal Service. The officers are trained to high proficiency in handling their government issued firearms, hand-to-hand combat, terrorism and deterrent strategies within the aviation spectrum. Once they graduate, they are sworn in as federal law enforcement officers.
12. Have you ever had to make an emergency landing?
I’ve made several emergency landings for passenger medical conditions, and three emergency landings for aircraft malfunctions. This is what we train for. In the airline profession, we train all the time. Currently we go to a training center once a year for about 5 days, we get online training several times a year, we get checked inside the airplane once a year by a company check airman who rides up front with us, and the FAA checks us randomly anytime, anywhere.
During our training at Headquarters we’re briefed on data trends on what we’re doing right and what we need to work on. It’s all data driven, mostly from safety reports and aircraft data downloads. Pretty much everything we do is recorded or documented. We spend many hours in simulators that cost more than the actual aircraft (very realistic) practicing malfunctions and other flying scenarios.
Simply put the movie “Flight” was pure fiction and the movie “Sully” was non-fiction.
14. What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you when flying a commercial jet?
I could write a book about weird things happening, especially with the traveling public. Just the other day, a passenger walked off the plane in just her underwear.
No, that is perhaps the most aggravating and ill-informed misconception out there.
There is no such thing as an automatic takeoff and there are minimum altitudes below which we are prohibited from using the autopilot.
There are some aircraft that can make an “auto landing,” but the process of setting them up and managing one is not as easy as just pressing a button. In fact they’re probably more work intensive (there is much crew, programming, involvement and supervision) than one flown by hand.
Flying is a very “hands on” operation, with tons of input from the crew. We might not be steering the aircraft directly, but everything the aircraft does is commanded by the pilots. You might be surprised at just how busy the cockpit can get, even on a routine flight. But with that said, there are times of low workload, especially during a long cruise flight.
16. What’s the most dangerous part of a flying a commercial aircraft?
Without question the van ride from the hotel to the airport is the most dangerous part of my job. Other than that, Takeoffs and Landings are our busiest times and when something is most likely to go wrong.
Yes, anything unusual should go through the Captain. We have many procedures and policies that address numerous issues.
18. Do pilots get tested for drug and alcohol use before flying?
We get random drug and alcohol testing, but not before every flight. As crew members, we also look out for any signs of alcohol or drug use by fellow crewmembers (you need them to be able to perform their duties, especially in an emergency situation). If I suspected a fellow crewmember of being impaired and didn’t address it, I would be found as guilty as if I were the one impaired.
It’s a great job. I have an office with the best view in the world, and literally…of the world, and I get to see and experience a great deal of things. But “glamorous”…that’s pretty funny.
Adjusting to different time zones, tracking down decent food, trying to sleep in a noisy hotel, bed bugs, and lavatory smells wafting into the cockpit…not exactly glamorous. I spend 3 or 4 nights away from home, and some overnights are so short there’s barely enough time to get to the hotel, grab a bite, and go to bed. On longer overnights I might squeak out enough time to go to a museum or ball game or get in a good workout.
So, glamorous? Not so much. But the job is interesting…fascinating…exciting at times…and fun. I love flying and wouldn’t want to do anything else.
Thank you, Captain Bill. Your answers are enlightening, and I hope they help ease the minds of those who are scared to fly. Your expertise is much appreciated.