On September 7th, 2017 I stood at the beginning of a new and very promising chapter of my life. It was the start of my career as a pilot. Allow me to take you on yet another adventure, but this time it won't be as a student pilot, but as First Officer!
Have you ever wondered what a day in the life of a cargopilot looks like? Today I'll take you along on one of my flights and I will tell you all about a typical day in my life as First Officer. Ready for departure?
Tonight we'll be flying to Lisbon in Portugal. An interesting flight with a short stop in Toulouse, France and a beautiful destination in Southern Europe. But let's start at the very beginning.
The preparations already start in the afternoon before the flight. Depending on where I go I pack my suitcase, prepare my flight case, check our routing and the airports we'll be going to. This way I already have a general idea of what to expect from the flight.
As a cargopilot I usually fly at night which makes it essential for me to plan my sleep accordingly. I usually try to go to bed somewhere after dinner. Just to give you an idea: I sleep roughly 4 to 5 hours before each flight, allowing me to get through the night safely.
A little after one at night my alarm starts ringing. It might sound extremely early, but it has become a routine for me so I don't really mind. In any case: time for breakfast.
Once I have eaten I take a shower, put on my uniform and do a last check to make sure I didn't forget anything. Suitcase: check - Flight case: check - Smile on my face: doublecheck. Let's go!
Since I depart to the airport in the middle of the night I don't have to worry about traffic jams and after one hour I arrive in Liège, my base. Now I just need to pass through security, put my suitcase together with all the others and off to the crew room! I try to arrive half an hour before the regular check-in time in order to review all the paperwork without any stress or time pressure.
In the crew room we find all the paperwork required for our flight. I take the folder for our flight to Lisbon and meet my colleague not long after. The paperwork consists of the flightplan, weather forecast, NOTAMS and plenty of other interesting and important matters.
Together with the Captain I check all the documents. We make a few notes on the flightplan and the same goes for the weather charts. Besides all this I also check the technical status of the aircraft, the expected cargo load and the aircraft's parking position.
At 4 in the morning we go to the airplane. The Captain will be doing the first flight which means I get to do the external inspection, better known as the walk-around. Once that's done I go back into the cockpit where quite a few other tasks are waiting for me. In any case the airplane looks fantastic!
Our airplane with her twin sister and the moon in the background!
In the cockpit all tasks are managed through the use of SOP's (Standard Operating Procedures). By using these standard procedures we can keep a good overview of everything that's going on and work together in a safe and efficient way.
We follow a few checklists, do the necessary calculations for our take-off performance and I ask the ATC clearance. In this clearance we receive all the information concerning the departure routing we have to follow, what altitude to climb to, the transpondercode and other details if required.
While the Captain and I prepare the cockpit for departure the airplane is being loaded with cargo. No passengers for us, but big containers filled with many different things! Once the loading is finished I close the doors and ask permission to start the engines.
Off we go!
The engines are running, the last checklists have been completed and slowly but surely we taxi to the runway at 5 o' clock in the morning. Once we've been cleared by the tower we enter the runway. In front of us lies over three kilometers of asphalt and at the horizon the rising sun is turning night into day. It's one of the many views of which I simply can't get enough...
“Quality 646C, runway 04R, cleared for take-off.”
The Captain sets the thrust, the speed starts to build up and off we go! Not long after take-off I contact Brussels Control:“Brussel goedemorgen, Quality, 646C, passing 2500 feet, climbing flightlevel 50 on the CIV 3R departure.”
We have permission to fly direct to KOVIN, one of the waypoints further along our route. Shortcuts are given from time to time, allowing us to arrive at destination earlier than expected.
Once we passed 10.000 feet (roughly 3 kilometers) I start filling in the flightplan. I note down all the timings and calculate the estimated arrival time and fuel for each point along our route. By doing this we can easily keep track of our time schedule and the fuel consumption.
Throughout the flight I also regularly check the weather at surrounding airports. If it would then be necessary for us to divert we already have a few options in mind and we can easily make a decision without wasting more time. “Always expect the unexpected”.
But of course there's also some time to enjoy the sunrise!
The first stop
When we approach Toulouse, the Captain (since he's flying) starts to prepare the aircraft for landing. Once that's done he gives me a briefing. In this briefing we check the routing, altitudes, radio set-up, possible limitations, what to do in case of a missed approach and so on. All the important matters are discussed and questionned if required.
Not much later we start to descend to our first stop. It's a calm Thursday morning in Toulouse and after a smooth touchdown on runway 32L we're back at the gate around 06:45
Our ''little" Boeing 737 meets the huge Antonov 124.
We "reset" the aircraft and now the whole circus just starts all over again. The airplane is being off-loaded and loaded again and I start preparing the flight to Lisbon. Now it's my turn!
I check the weather, copy the routing into the FMC (Flight Management Computer), prepare the departure and brief the Captain. Only 45 minutes after landing in Toulouse we're already back on the runway. Ready for departure! It's always fun to efficiently work together with the ground personnel. Thanks guys!
Off to Lisbon!
When we take off from Toulouse, a beautiful landscape lies ahead of us. The rising sun shines onto the Pyrenees which for some reason always makes me smile!
I am now flying and navigating with the aircraft while checking all parameters. And while we are crossing the Spanish airspace, my colleague is doing all the paperwork. It's a typical summer day and after a routine flight we approach our final destination around 9 o' clock.
We expect to land on runway 03 which offers us a cool approach overhead the bay of Lisbon. Besides this we arrive during the morning rush hour so the ATC expects us to fly in a bit faster than usual. They try to arrange a smooth traffic flow and we do our very best to adapt to their wishes. Anyway, time for a briefing and then we can start descending!
Once we arrive at the gate we shut down the engines. A few more checklist items, I open all the doors and the airplane is being emptied. After that's done we can fully close the aircraft and we are brought to the airport terminal with a crew bus.
After going through the security check we walk outside where we find our taxi. After just ten minutes we arrive at the hotel. Now it's time for a well-deserved breakfast with a breathtaking view!
It's 11 o' clock in the morning when I'm finally in bed. The dark room, great bed and exhaustion from the flight quickly put me in a deep sleep. Goodnight (or day if you prefer)!
Tourist in Portugal
I wake up around 4 in the afternoon and decide to go for a walk. Since we always get the chance to stay at destination for a day or more I like to take the opportunity to explore the region. Wanting to explore the world was one of the reasons I became a pilot so here we are!
There is however one place in particular which I always visit when in Lisbon: the bakery! It has become tradition to buy the delicious Pasteis De Nata and bring them home for my family. And of course I take one extra for my walk back to the hotel.
Besides going to the bakery I also try to make time for some sports. I usually go to the gym or jump into the swimming pool at the hotel. By doing sports you sleep better and on top of that you'll have more energy when you're awake. There's really no reason not to do it!
A little before 6 I meet my colleague to go out for dinner. There are plenty of restaurants near the hotel, giving us the opportunity to try out the local specialties. After dinner we have roughly one hour left before the pick-up, allowing us to get dressed at ease and prepare the flight. We check out at 7:30 and when we go outside the taxi is already waiting for us.
We arrive at the airport, go through the security checks and are brought to the aircraft. This time we fly to Porto before returning back to base in Belgium.
The evening shift
When we want to depart in Lisbon a heavy wind causes some issues. A few aircraft need to abort their landing and delays start to build up. Luckily we were able to leave with just 15 minutes of delay and at 9 in the evening we're back in the air!
After take-off we get a great view once again. On our left the sun is setting and on the right we can see the moon rise. The sunrays slowly start to fade away and plenty of starts become visible. A magical moment!
Back to base
After a quick stop in Porto it's time to head back to Belgium. I'm at the controls again and after a (for us cargopilots) quite long flight we switch to the Liège Approach frequency just after midnight. Whenever we arrive in the evening it's almost as if we're bees going back to the hive. The airport surely is a busy place at that time!
“Cleared to land, runway 22 left, Quality 647B.”
Not much later I put the aircraft on the ground on runway 22L in Liège. The end of my day, or close to it at least.
After the aircraft is fully secured we return to the crew room. I make sure all the paperwork is signed and enter all our flight times in the computer. I then put the so-called flight envelope with all our paperwork in a big box together with all the others. Now it's time to go home.
It probably doesn't come to mind immediately, but driving home is probably the most dangerous part of my day. Even though I slept well before the flight and in the hotel, the exhaustion quickly takes its toll when driving on the highway. I've found plenty of ways to keep myself awake, but from time to time it's better to just stop and take a nap. Safety first!
When I arrive at home at 3 o' clock my working day is finished. Now it's time for a good (and long) sleep while waiting for my next duty to begin.
And that's a day in the life of a cargopilot! If you have any question feel free to comment or send me a message on Instagram!