Friday, March 14, 2008

Night Flights

I've recently found the web service Yahoo Answers and the section that deals with aircraft questions. I've been answering a few questions there. One question I recently answered was:

On an overnight (Red Eye flight) what do you do to keep awake?
Are you able to get coffee from the cabin?
Is it true that when you start with an airline, it is more likely that you will have to do overnights?

The reason i am asking these questions is because i am currently studying to get my commercial license and airline transport permit with Transport Canada.

Here is my answer:
Overnight flights can be one of the most challenging aspects of being a pilot. Although I am not an airline pilot, I used to fly Air Ambulance flights, many of which were overnight, and found them to be very tough on the body.

There are a number of ways that pilots and airlines deal with this situation.

As a pilot, most (but not all) of the time, you’ll know in advance when you’re going to be doing an overnight flight. As a result, you’re able to adjust your sleep schedule accordingly. Having a nap in the afternoon prior to your flight and/or making sure you stay up late the night before. Eating healthy and not smoking also helps a little bit, but these are more general lifestyle factors than specific mechanisms to help you stay awake.

During the flight itself, pilots stay awake by chatting, reading, eating, drinking coffee and listening to different radio frequencies. Although cockpit doors are now locked, pilots have a flight attendant ‘call’ button and the flight attendants are able to access the cockpit to bring coffee, food or just chat. (And also deal with important inflight information).

Airlines deal with the situation with different policies. On the longer flights, there will be one or two Cruise Relief Pilots assigned to the flight. “Creeps” are usually junior pilots who sit in the flight deck during the cruise portion of the flight. The original Captain and First Officer do the Take-Off and Landings and then take turns relaxing in the crew rest area. On some aircraft, there are a couple of seats in first class that are reserved for the crew. On other aircraft, like the newer Boeing 777s, there are private crew rest areas on top of the main cabin.

Other airlines have implemented official monitored or planned cockpit rest procedures where only one pilot at a time can have a nap. The big problem is when both pilots fall asleep! This is somewhat controversial as some airlines want both pilots awake the whole time they’re in the cockpit, whereas others recognize that giving the pilots the opportunity for short naps will allow them to be more awake for the challenging approach and landing phase of flight.

Depending on the airline you work for, you may end up doing more night flights when you first start out. Seniority is a big factor for airline scheduling. The pilots that have been at an airline longer get first choice at choosing their flights. Sometimes, overnight flights may be less desirable and the more junior pilots get stuck with flying them.

The issue is slightly more complicated however. At most airlines, pilots get paid more the larger the plane they fly. The larger planes typically fly more long haul routes. Therefore, it is usually the higher seniority pilots (those who have been there the longest) that fly the biggest planes. There will likely be the requirement to fly more long overnight flights on the bigger planes than on the smaller planes. Therefore, higher seniority pilots might fly at night more.

One of the best pieces of advice given to me when I was training was to “Guard your Sleep”. Going to a flight, either at night or during the day if you’re not well rested can be a safety concern. It requires planning ahead, but it can be done.

The great thing about flying at night though is that you get to see some amazing Northern Lights!

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