A Day in the Life of a Regional Airline Pilot

Jeremy Ridout is a captain with ExpressJet Airlines. He attended the Airline Career Pilot Program with ATP as well as the Regional Jet Standards Certification program. Jeremy is based in Ontario (ONT) for ExpressJet. They also have bases in Houston (IAH), Newark (EWR), Cleveland (CLE), San Antonio (SAT), and Los Angeles (LAX).

Inspired by one of our aspiring pilots on ATP’s Pilot Career Coach forums on BeAnAirlinePilot.com, I am writing about a single trip that I flew October 23-24, 2007. It was a two-day trip, atypical for me, but perfect for an in-depth article about what I do at work.

Before the First Push

While I typically do four day trips, my schedule this month included a two day. Unfortunately, this particular two day wasn’t commutable on the front end (an 8:40am show time), meaning that I wouldn’t be able to wake up at home on day one of the trip and get to work in timeÑthere just aren’t any flights that early (the earliest show that I can make is noon). I live in Dallas and am based in Ontario, California (ONT). So, I had to go to work the day before and stay in a hotel the night before the trip began the next day.

The Commute

I knew that I had most of the day at home so I didn’t even look at flight times (or start to pack) until late morning. There were several non-stop flights that afternoon on American that I could take. I chose to take the 7:45pm flight. This enabled me to stay at home until 6:00pm. That would leave me with a 9:45pm flight as a backup, just in case I couldn’t get on the first one. Additionally, I looked up the UPS flight schedule and there was a 3:30am flight from DFW that I could use as a last resort, if neither AA flight worked out.

I made the 7:45 fight, but I had to ride in the cockpit jumpseat for the 3 hour flight to ONT. That was O.K. with me. I almost prefer the jumpseat to a tight middle seat. Plus, the conversation with the pilots, who are usually interested in what’s going on at my airline, and being able to monitor the flight’s progress make it feel like a shorter ride. This particular night was the second night of the big SoCal fires and the view from up front was tremendous with so many hills glowing orange. There was a stiff wind at the runway and strong gust just before we touched down made the MD-88 float almost halfway down the runway.

After we landed, at about 9:15p local, I called ExpressJet to see if I could get a hotel room. Every night, they reserve block of rooms at a local hotel for crews in case there are unscheduled layovers and since that tends to be a rarity, they will usually give them away to commuters at the end of the day. In the past, I’ve always stayed at a different hotel, on my own nickel (well, my own $63.81), but this evening I put all my eggs into the company basket. I was fortunate to get one this night—it turns out that because of the fires, all of the hotels were sold out. Had I not gotten a room from the company, I would have been sleeping in the terminal.

I was up early the next morning. I try to stay on Central time when I’m on a trip. It makes those early California departures a piece of cake and when we are on the east coast with 5am wake up calls, it’s not nearly as bad for me as it is for those west coasters. I thought about going to work out, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. Instead I laid in bed and watched the fire coverage.

The hotel van took me to the airport, and I got there at about 8:35am. My badge and uniform mean that I am exempt from the latest security rules about liquids, and I can leave my shoes on, but I still have to go through the metal detectors. I can usually get through security very quickly.

The Crewroom

With only an hour until we push from the gate, I didn’t have much time to dilly-dally in the crew room. The crew room in ONT is really just a few offices underneath the passenger terminal. It serves as the nerve center for the operation where they coordinate with the gate, airplanes, maintenance, catering, fuel, ground crews, etc. It has offices for the chief pilot, the base administrator, the flight attendant supervisor and the operations manager. There is a break room that has vending machines, restrooms, lockers for the ground crew and a computer with internet access. The actual crew room is a small office, about 10×10 with 4 recliners and two more computers. There is also a bag room (more like a closet) where pilots can leave their flight cases.

When I arrived at the airport, I went down to the crew room to get my flight bag. My first officer for this trip was already there and introduced himself (I found out later that he was also an ATP alum from the Chicago training center and had been at ExpressJet for just over a year). The flight attendant found me as well. I had never flown with either of them before.

The Paperwork

I got the flight paperwork from the operations people and reviewed it. As the captain, I am responsible for the safe and legal operation of the flight. When I review the paperwork, among other things, I am concerned primarily with three basic thingsÉ fuel, weather and maintenance. Do we have enough fuel to get to the destination, plus any alternates, plus reserves? Is the weather at the destination a concern? How about the weather enroute? Are there any deferred maintenance issues with the aircraft that need to be considered? Any one of these things can affect the other and must be considered before we takeoff. On this flight, from ONT to SAT, the only concern was that there is a takeoff alternate of Las Vegas. This was added by dispatch because of the fires. Apparently, there was a concern that air traffic control (ATC) facilities might be affected by the fires and if radar service was interrupted, we could go there in an emergency.

The Briefing

About 35 minutes before go time, we all headed out to the airplane. Once our bags are stowed, we got to work. I turned on the airplane and started initializing the aircraft systems. Meanwhile, the first officer did a pre-flight walk-around and the flight attendant did her thing. When the first officer got back, I led a crew briefing. We discussed the weather and a planned bumpy ride as we climbed out of the LA area, the time enroute, security issues when opening the cockpit door in flight, and what we might do if we have an emergency. The first officer and I further discussed my expectations of him and any little peccadilloes that I have—such as using good checklist etiquette, when to run flows, and to keep an eye outside during taxiing. We also discussed who would fly which legs. This trip, we chose to fly every other leg.

PreFlight

There are a number of checks that each pilot is responsible for when you get to a new airplane. Typically, the captain will enter the flight plan and performance data (planned altitudes, speeds, winds, etc.) into the FMS. The first officer will work on the weight and balance to determine our maximum takeoff weight given the runway we’ll be taking off on, the winds and the temperatures. We both are responsible for separate aircraft systems. The captain typically checks the electrical, fuel, fire detection, powerplant, pressurization, and stall protection systems. The first officer typically checks the ice protection and hydraulics systems. We both check the autopilot and trim systems.

About 15 minutes before go time, our set up and systems checks were complete so I called for the ÒReceiving ChecklistÓ. The first officer reads the checklist and whichever one of us actually checked that item will announce its status (e.g., On, Auto, Off, Checked, etc.). Once that was done, the first officer was busy double checking my work on the flight plan while I reviewed the paperwork, the fuel on board, the aircraft logbook, the local weather and our clearance. I then gave the first officer a takeoff briefing that typically includes our taxi route to the runway, how we’ll handle an emergency before and after we get airborne, and a review of the published departure procedure that we’ll be flying to exit the LA area.

At 5 minutes to go, most passengers were on board and the bags were loaded. I made my first passenger announcement to introduce myself and my crew to the customers, to tell them about the flight time and path and the weather we would expect to find when we got there. By this time, the first officer was entering the passenger and baggage loads into the computer to ensure we are below maximum takeoff weight and that we are balanced properly. I gave the flight attendant the O.K. to shut the main cabin door and we ran the ÒBefore Start ChecklistÓ. We called Ontario Ground for pushback clearance, and off we went, 4 minutes early.

Engine Start and Taxi

The first officer (FO) started engine number two during the pushback. We then ran an After Start Checklist and got permission to taxi to the runway. We then started engine number one after we started taxiing towards the runway. This wasn’t the first flight of the day for the aircraft so the engines only needed 2 minutes of warm up before takeoff. As we taxied, we had two more checklists to run, the ÒTaxi ChecklistÓ and the ÒBefore Takeoff ChecklistÓ. The FO ran those while I concentrated on taxiing. As we got to the end of the runway, we were cleared for takeoff.

Takeoff

We accelerated down the runway. There was a strong crosswind from the left and I turned the yoke into the wind. As I did this, my hand grip wasn’t good so I repositioned my hand. Unfortunately, as I reset my fingers, I accidentally caught the edge of the steering disengagement trigger. Ding! A steering inop message appeared on the EICAS. I could see out of the corner of my eye that my FO looked at me. ÒContinue,Ó I said, knowing full well why the message came up and that it didn’t matter at this point anyway. Ò80 knots,Ó he said. We continued down the runway. ÒV-One. Rotate,Ó he said. I pulled back and we were airborne.

As we climb, a number of things happen. When we have a positive rate of climb, we can raise the landing gear. Then we pass an altitude, Òacceleration height,Ó that, if an engine had failed, is the safe altitude to momentarily level off and accelerate before climbing again. After this altitude, we can start retracting flaps and back the thrust off slightly to climb the calculated thrust setting. The non-flying pilot also must configure the air conditioning system and ensure that the aircraft is pressurizing properly. Then he runs the ÒAfter Takeoff ChecklistÓ. During all of this, the Ontario tower tells us to contact the regional ATC facility. We had initially been cleared to 7,000 feet and we were soon cleared to 11,000 and told to contact Los Angeles Center, who sent us on course and climbed us up to our cruising altitude. We were barely past Palm Springs when we were cleared direct to El Paso (a point on our planned route of flight).

I was flying and did not turn on the autopilot until we were near 11,000 feet. Sometimes I’ll fly more, sometimes, less. It mostly just depends on my mood, but can also vary depending on my workload. If my first officer is getting overloaded as we navigate, talk to ATC, look for other traffic, and run checklists, I’ll usually go ahead and turn on the autopilot so I can reduce my workload to help out the first officer and monitor the flight. My first officer was very good and well ahead of the airplane (what can I say, he was an ATP guy) so I felt comfortable hand-flying for a while.

The fires created a lot of smoke around the LA basin, but didn’t really make the ride that rough. The first officer and I were both amazed at one of the fires south of ONT. The flames were huge and the smoke glowed orange—even in the morning light. I soon called the flight attendant and told her it was safe to get up since during our briefing I told her to stay seated until I called her.

Enroute

 

The rest of the flight to SAT was uneventful. We flew at 37,000 in relatively clear, smooth air. During the flight, since I was the flying pilot, I was responsible to control and monitor the autopilot. The first officer, as the non-flying pilot, was responsible for talking to ATC and to back me up in monitoring the autopilot. As the captain, I am also concerned with our fuel usage and our arrival time. On this flight, the Flight Management System (FMS) showed us arriving a few minutes early with close the planned amount of fuel.

While we were at cruise, the FO and I mostly made small talk. Family? Kids? Where are you from? Where’d you do your flight training? It was here that I discovered that the first officer too was a former ATP instructor. We chatted about ATP, both agreed that it is THE best place for flight training, and talked about some experiences we had when we instructed there. An hour into the flight, the flight attendant brought me some coffee and a bagel. I don’t remember what the FO had. We continued our conversations.

I made a few PA’s during the flight. Most pilots at my airline don’t seem to like talking to the passengers. Usually, the non-flying pilot will talk to the passengers once or twice during a flight. Personally, I prefer doing the talking, and I’ll usually give updates when we get to cruise altitude and then every 45-60 minutes after that until we get close, then one last goodbye with the latest weather. I’ll also pop in real quick if we’re flying over something interesting. Some of my favorites to point out are the Grand Canyon (duh), Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, Glen Canyon National Recreational Area and Lake Powell, Monument Valley in Arizona, the Very Large Array near Socorro New Mexico (look it up), and my house (just kidding). I think some pilots forget that they do this every day, but a large number of their passengers don’t. I’m reminded of this when I commute and sit next to a first time flier! It’s actually happened twice. And no, they weren’t 3 years old.

Arrival and Landing

 

As we descended toward SAT, we began to set up for the arrival. I gave a briefing of the approach. This time it was a visual to runway 30L. The winds were gusty and it got quite turbulent as we came through about 6000 feet into SAT. We were following a Southwest jet and we picked him up as he was turning final. We called him in sight and we were told to follow him to the runway.

It’s personal preference when you turn off the autopilot. I don’t hand fly very much as we come in to an airport. Some pilots will turn off the autopilot as they descend from 18,000. Others will do it at 10,000. As for me, if we’re straight in, I’ll wait until we’re a few miles outside of the outer marker (which is about 5 miles away). If we’re on a downwind, I’ll usually turn it off as we enter the downwind. Trying to tell the autopilot how to fly a pattern is just too much work. It’s much easier to just hand-fly it. I did the same in SAT. As soon as we saw the Southwest jet, I flew the plane to the ground.

I seem to be having a good landings month. They’ve all been very smooth and squeaky recently. I remember August for me was a different story. I couldn’t do a smooth landing all month long. Just like baseball; you get on these streaks.

Sitting around in Airports

 

We had a two hour sit in San Antonio before our next flight to Tulsa, so the crew and I went over to a Mexican restaurant and had burritos. After that, we still had more than an hour so we wandered back to the gate to hang out. I chatted with an FO who lives in Dallas and is considering upgrading, so we talked about how he could prepare for it. I then bumped into my check airmen for my upgrade. He was super cool and we chatted about my new job, that it’s already been 6 months and how I have a checkride next month.

Maintenance

 

We had less than 10 passengers for the 4:15pm flight to TUL so we waited until 30 minutes to go time to go down to the airplane. Unfortunately, the FO found a missing static wick during his walk-around. This means that in addition to what I normally have to do to get ready to fly, I have to call maintenance and write up the problem in the logbook. I also have to talk to dispatch to get the dispatch paperwork to match up. We pushed from the gate right on time, instead of the 10 minutes early that I usually shoot for. There was another plane waiting for our gate, and we pushed back so they could get in. We then got going quickly because we were blocking a Southwest Airlines gate and they were also waiting for us.

Long Approach

 

This was the FO’s leg so our roles in the sky were reversed. It was interesting as we got to Tulsa. We got on with Tulsa Approach and we heard, ÒJetlink 505 (that was us), you are 32 miles from the outer marker. Fly heading 015 and intercept the localizer. Maintain 4000 until established. Cleared ILS three-six right approach.Ó You don’t usually hear clearances like that, 32 miles away! We were just passing 12,000 at the time and we could see the airport. So I told them, ÒAirport in sight.Ó Again, ÒJetlink 505, maintain 4000 until the marker, cleared visual approach three-six right.Ó Cool.

Well, the FO did a nice job on the approach and made a nice landing. I taxied us to the gate and what passengers we had got off the plane in Tulsa.

Quick Turn

 

We had 30 minutes on the ground in TUL. We got the plane turned around and pushed 10 early. We’re allowed to leave 10 minutes early if all the passengers are on board. We can’t go any sooner without approval from dispatch and they won’t approve it without a really good reason. I always tell the gate agents, Ó10 earlyÓ as soon as we get there. My thinking is that it gives me a 10 minute buffer for when things go wrong to still get out on time. Then, when we arrive at the next station a little early, we have more time and can still be early. The gate agents are usually thrilled because it gets the passengers out of their hair sooner. Sometimes I believe that they think that their job would be great if it wasn’t for all those passengers.

Enroute to San Diego

 

It was my leg again as we took for San Diego at 6:15pm local time. When we hit our cruising altitude, flight level 360 and barely over Oklahoma City, my FO asked for a shortcut. I was telling him that we’d never get anything past Corona (near Albuquerque). We’ll foot in my mouth, ÓJetlink 410 (that’s us again), cleared direct Imperial.Ó Imperial is in California, right next door to El Centro. That’s the winter base for the Blue Angels in case you were wondering. It’s also the first fix on the arrival into San Diego. It was a 956 mile direct. Wow! Suddenly we’re going to be 35 minutes early. So, I pulled the power back and cruised at Mach 0.69 all the way (we were planned at Mach 0.76). It saved lots of gas. We were still going to get there 15-20 minutes early.

Midway through, the flight attendant brought us dinner—turkey sandwiches, carrot sticks and an Oreo cookie. They were small. I had two. Again, my FO and I chatted about this and that. Turns out, he was a category 2 bike racer, and so was I. We had lots to talk about on this trip. We also worked on updating our Jepp’s. These are the company issued IFR charts that we use to make departures, arrivals and approaches at every airport we go to. These include the navigation frequencies, headings and altitudes to fly, and airport diagrams. I have 3, two-inch binders full of charts and updates come roughly every 2 weeks. This last one was big. It took us each nearly half the flight to finish it.

Landing in San Diego

 

We arrived in San Diego at night. We could see the glow of the fires all the way up to LA. We flew right over what I think was the Witch Fire. It was huge and put lots of smoke in the air. We were only 6000 feet as we went by. It smelled of smoke in the cockpit. As we dropped into the San Diego area, we could see the airport and made a visual approach. We were a little late in slowing down and the tower asked us to slow to our final approach speed so they could let another jet takeoff ahead of us. We were only 4 miles out when that other plane got their clearance. That was a little close and I was going through the go-around procedures in my head as we watched for them to lift off. They did, and I landed. Well, it wasn’t that close, but you get my point.

After we taxied in and deplaned, I saw that we brought 10 Red Cross workers out with us. I never even saw the passengers get on, but it was cool to see these volunteers here. This was our last leg of the day. Maintenance met us at the airplane to do their routine thing on it and we walked out to the front of the terminal to wait for the van to the hotel. Ten minutes later we were at the hotel. It was 7:45pm or so. It had been an 11 hour duty day that included 7 hours and 30 minutes of flying, a long day for sure.

Done for the Day

 

This hotel is a very nice hotel. But, like all very nice hotels, nothing is free. No free in-room Internet (I didn’t even bother to bring my computer with me), no free coffee in the morning, and no free breakfast. I just went up to my room and watched TV. An hour or so later, I went downstairs to use their computer to plan my commute home. It was then back upstairs for some more TV and bed. It would be a 5:30am wakeup call.

An Early Start

 

Five-thirty a.m. in San Diego came early. I’ve found that an early wake up gets harder and harder to do by the end of a west coast trip, and this one was particularly hard. What I usually do is I usually set my wakeup call 45 minutes before the van time. When that phone rings, the first thing I do is turn on the lamp. I’ll use my mobile phone alarm for snoozing. It too goes off 45 minutes before van and I’ll use the snooze function for an extra 10-15 minutes. That gives me at least 30 minutes to get up, shower, dress, brush (hair and teeth), shave, pack and get downstairs before the van leaves. I have a great fear of missing the van and that paranoia makes it easier to get up on those early mornings.

The trick to these early mornings (or any overnight, for that matter) is to be consistent with your routine. This has been learned from experience… When I get to the hotel, my wallet, belt, tie, watch, phone and anything else in my pockets all go on the desk. The shirt and pants immediately get hung up in the closet (I only take two uniform shirts and a single pair of pants on a four day trip). The suitcase goes on the luggage rack, and the shoes go under the suitcase. The phone and laptop get plugged in on the desk. The toiletry bag goes into the bathroom. I do this every time I get to a new hotel room, as soon as I get to a new hotel room. Nothing gets separated from the herd—if it did, it would be in danger of being left behind the next morning. Before I go to bed, I lay out socks and undergarments for the next day, fold up anything that I got out that evening and iron my uniform shirt. In the morning, the very first thing I do when I get up is to pack away the charger for the computer and the mobile phone (those things are expensive to replace).

This morning, I was the first one downstairs. As the rest of the crew showed up, we exchanged good mornings and got on the very full van for the short ride across the street to the airport. We got to the airport, went through security, and I got a latte at the little airport cafŽ. It was fine, but not Starbucks. At the gate, I got the paperwork, quickly looked it over and handed it to the FO. I like to give the paperwork to my first officers’ on their leg. I expect them to look it over and make their own decisions about fuel, weather, alternates, etc. Of course, I supervise, but they’ll never learn if they don’t get to practice. We got to the plane and went through our regular routine. This time, however, there was a problemÉ

Maintenance

 

The fueler had been waiting for us to arrive. He got the fuel load from the operations folks before we got there, but the digital control panel that he uses to pressure fuel the airplane had a ÒfailÓ message. I had just powered up the airplane when he popped his head in to report the problem. There is no set procedure in my manuals to deal with this so I turned the airplane off and back on again. Many times, simply rebooting the airplane fixes these kinds of weird problems. Not this time, however, as the message appeared again when he reopened the service panel. The only thing left to do is to call maintenance. They gave me a series of circuit breakers to pull and reset. It didn’t fix the problem. Hmm. They suggested turning the airplane off and back on again, and again, of course, it still didn’t work. At this point, the only thing left to do is to fuel the airplane the old fashioned way: overwing. I gave the fueler the amount for each side and he got to work. We chose not to write it up in the aircraft logbook, hoping that this refueling panel would Òwake upÓ later on in the day. We were also only going to Boise and then to our hub in Ontario, so if it still didn’t work in Boise, we could have maintenance deal with it back at the base.

A Silly Little Problem

 

While all this was happening, our flight attendant was doing her pre-flight checks and found a problem of her own. She didn’t have the bracket that the oxygen mask is supposed to fall from for her emergency demonstration. Unfortunately, I am well aware that this is a required, no-go item (ExpressJet Bob had the same thing happen to him, also in San Diego, when he was an FO). It is a silly little plastic piece that is fixed to the overhead panel and holds the oxygen mask. If there is a depressurization, the door opens and the mask falls. Our standard emergency briefing, however, says, ÒPull the oxygen mask from the bracket. This will start the flow of oxygen.Ó Well, that little phrase makes the bracket a required item. There were no other airplanes there for us to borrow a bracket, and I remembered that when Bob had this problem, it took hours for them to get a new bracket. I asked the flight attendant what she wanted to do about it and she said that her book says that all discrepancies are up to the captain as to how to proceed.

Suddenly, I’m faced with a dilemma. Do we go? Or delay the flight and wait for maintenance? A number of thoughts pass through my mind: ÒIt’s the last day, and I have a plane to catch.Ó ÒIt’s a no go item.Ó ÒYeah, but it’s a silly little bracket for the FA demo.Ó ÒIt’s the last day, and I have a plane to catch.Ó After batting it around in my head for a few seconds, I decided to call maintenance. Maybe they could release us without it. The conversation made it clear that they didn’t want to delay the flight for it, but there wasn’t much to do about it. Luckily, the maintenance guy who was in San Diego last night, was still in the area. San Diego is not a maintenance base, but since we do so many flights from there, they have been sending trucks down there occasionally. What we decided to do was to delay the flight while they got the maintenance guy out of bed at the hotel and down to the airport. If there was one on the truck, then we’d be good to go. If not, they’d remove the bracket from seat 1A, thus rendering that seat unusable. But at least the flight attendant could do her demonstration.

It turned out that there was a spare bracket on the truck. We ended up delaying the flight by 25 minutes, but we ended up arriving in Boise only 7 minutes late. Hindsight being what it is, I should not have allowed my commute to cloud my judgment. That silly little bracket is a no go item, and I knew that. If we had gone without it and showed up in Ontario without it, the flight attendant could have gotten in trouble. Look at what happenedÉ the flight attendant who brought the plane in to San Diego the night before now gets in trouble for not having a required item on board that caused a delay the next day. It just doesn’t pay to break the rules.

Boise

 

So, we flew out to Boise. It was an uneventful flight, and as I said, we landed 7 minutes late. The fuel panel never woke up and we had to overwing refuel it again. However, one of our FMS’s started acting up as we landed in Boise. This happens occasionally and a quick phone call to maintenance, a few reset circuit breakers, and the problem is usually solved. Not this time. It never came back. Again, no big deal, we just fly with one instead of two. It’s a little inconvenient, but not something that will cause any problems—unless the other one dies. Still, with all this mucking around with maintenance, we blocked out 10 minutes early.

California Burning

 

Another uneventful flight and we were back in Ontario. The only thing out of the ordinary was a fire that had popped up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Another airliner spotted it and told ATC who then called us, since we were closer, and asked us for a report. Yep, there was a fire on a ridge in the middle of nowhere at our 11 o’clock and about 15 miles. It looked like it was relatively new. We didn’t see it earlier that morning on the way to Boise. When this happens, ATC will then call the local authorities with the latitude and longitude.

We landed in Ontario, and I had 2 hours until my commute home. I called maintenance on the radio who met us at the airplane. We told them about the Fuel panel and the FMS. The airplane was due to sit in Ontario for 4 hours before flying again—plenty of time for them to work on it. I said goodbyes and nice flying with you to the crew, and we went our separate ways.

To Get Home

 

I put my flight case back in the storage closet in the crew room, made a last check of my file for any communiquŽs from the company, and headed off to catch my flight home. I got a window seat with no one in the middle seat on the way home. The captain tried to get me a first class seat, but it was full. No problem, I just want a seat on this airplane. The American Airlines flight attendant gave me a free sandwich and some chips to eat. Very nice. On the flight I started writing this article and also read the newspaper. We landed in Dallas at 8:15pm. As I got off the airplane, I gave the Captain a quick thank you for the ride. Twenty minutes and an employee bus ride later, I was at my car. Twenty-five minutes after that, I was home.

Quote: I hope you enjoyed the series. My goal was to provide an insightful look at to what I do when I go to work. This one was just a two day trip.