A Day in the Life of an RJ Pilot
By the time we began a VNAV descent into the bustling Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Rob and I were thoroughly caught up on each other’s lives. We pulled into the gate a few minutes before scheduled arrival time, enabling a quick run into the terminal to pick up a barbecue dinner before returning to the cockpit to prepare for our flight to LaGuardia. Passenger boarding went quickly, we closed up and pushed back a bit early, and a few minutes later lifted off into a cobalt-clear Texas sky. Leveling off at Flight Level 350, we pushed back our seats and launched into a discussion about the impending demise of Comair. Wholly owned by the same major airline with whom our regional airline contracts, Comair had once been considered among the very best regionals to work for but has since suffered a long decline in an industry in which costs trump all other considerations. Hundreds of experienced pilots, many with 20 years or more at the company, are suddenly without a job.
Both Rob and I know quite a few ex-Comair pilots now at our airline. Many were furloughed; others saw the writing on the wall and jumped ship early on. The majority of first officers I fly with have been furloughed from at least one airline; several, like Rob, have found themselves out of work two times or more. Our pilots hail from no fewer than 25 different regional, national and even major airlines; together we make up what I describe as an airline refugee camp. I myself was very lucky to come from my last airline by choice, in the early stages of my current employer’s existence. We also have pilots who were fortunate to come directly from flight instructing or a Part 135 job. The wide variety of backgrounds allows for more interesting conversation, and makes one realize that pilots are the same the world over. The rivalry thought to exist between pilots of competing lines is pure silliness.
After the sober talk about Comair, Rob and I fell silent, lost in our thoughts. I got out the atlas, and our refreshingly cheerful flight attendants brought Rob his crew meal. Now the sun was well below the horizon even at altitude, the western sky faded to deep violet. The terrain was dark and featureless, save for countless pinpricks of light as far as the eye could see, an electric universe that outshined the early evening stars. We turned north over Gordonsville, and Washington, D.C., appeared on the left, identifiable by the encircling headlights of the Beltway, the streetlamps of its jauntily angled boulevards and the dark rectangular void of the National Mall. Washington blended into Baltimore, and from there we followed a nearly continuous ribbon of light along I-95 through Wilmington, Philadelphia and beyond. The Minnesota of my childhood was rural and the West of my youth was wild, and I had little comprehension of just how crowded the Northeast is until I started flying over it at night.
As if to underscore the point, there was a steady stream of air traffic above and below us, and a constant patter on the radio as we were handed off to a new controller every five or 10 minutes. The East Coast is a busy place to be a pilot, especially when you throw in a little weather, and that’s before you land at a place like LaGuardia or Philly or JFK. Unlike out west, direct routing is rare, and delays are common. I remember reading, as a kid, Dick Collins writing about the massive reroutes he got while flying his Centurion IFR around the Northeast. I can’t imagine doing it single-pilot in a light aircraft today, especially without an autopilot. It would have been easy once, back when I was a single-pilot “freight dog,” but I’ve since become comfortably ensconced by advanced technology, airline-friendly airspace and a competent first officer. Even with all these advantages, I dislike the added hassle of East Coast flying, and bid trips that go west when possible.
That night, though, the weather was perfect, and the ride silky smooth. There were no delays going into LaGuardia. The entire day had gone very nicely, actually. I had an unusually late 12:19 report time, allowing for a leisurely morning spent packing for four days on the road. The 30-minute drive to work was blissfully traffic-free. At the airport, I stopped in at the crew room to retrieve a Jeppesen revision (yes, we still do those — no iPads for us just yet) and was greeted by several good friends I hadn’t seen in a while. Our airplane for the day had no write-ups and only one minor deferral.