This might surprise you, but the autopilot is in operation for over 90% of a flight.
Many pilots prefer long flights, but what exactly do pilots do on long flights if they’re not even manually flying the plane?
The answer is a lot.
Pilots do several things on long flights, including tasks focused on navigation, communication and systems operation.
As pilot fatigue is a real danger, they will take turns sleeping too.
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5 Things Pilots Do On Long Flights
One of the most important parts of an airline pilot’s job is communication.
Pilots will utilize and communicate over multiple radio systems throughout a flight, whether that be during takeoff, cruising or landing – often at the same time too.
For example, while one pilot is talking to air traffic control to divert the plane due to an oncoming thunderstorm, the other pilot might be communicating with other planes on the same flight path.
Related: How Do Pilots Know Where to Fly?
Avoid Bad Weather
On long flights in particular, weather can be a big problem for pilots.
On a single flight, a plane will often pass three or four weather systems alone, with each varying in type and intensity.
Worst yet is that these systems can appear extremely quickly.
While modern airliners have advanced weather mapping technology and pilots will also receive reports from air traffic control, a pilot can never still really just sit back and relax.
Monitor Fuel Levels and Temperature
Pilots are responsible for fuel calculations throughout the flight to make sure that the plane will have enough fuel to land.
This is done because airlines don’t want their planes to carry or land with excess fuel because a plane must burn more fuel to carry more fuel. In other words, it isn’t very economical.
Pilots are also responsible for checking the fuel’s temperature. It can get very cold up there at 35,000 feet, which can cool the fuel tanks down to dangerous levels, which restricts the flow.
Pilots will monitor the fuel temperature gauges and when required will move cold fuel into inner tanks that are warmer.
Related: Where is Fuel Stored in a Plane?
Being a pilot is more exciting than most other careers, but pilots aren’t exempt from paperwork. In fact, pilots will often have to do much more paperwork than the average person.
This is because pilots are responsible for writing down any changes to the original flight plan that they are given before departures as part of the airline’s operations.
The notes that pilots write are very detailed, too. So much so that it should be possible to recreate the plane’s exact curved flight path based on the paperwork alone.
A major part of long-haul flying isn’t flying the plane, but is actually managing tiredness.
Pilot fatigue is a serious issue and has been responsible for 4-7% of civil aviation incidents and accidents, so its importance can’t be understated.
In fact, one study, a study published by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, found that on their most recent flight, 60% of long-haul pilots had experienced moderate to severe fatigue.
Pilots will take turns sleeping, though will leave the cockpit and go to a more comfortable resting cabin area where they can get some quality shuteye with a bed, nice bedding, lighting control, and perhaps even temperature control.
Related: What is a Red Eye Flight?
Pilots Extensively Rely on Autopilot on Long Flights
As mentioned, the autopilot is in operation for over 90% of a flight.
So you might wonder just how important pilots are considering that autopilot seemingly does most of the work.
The answer is that pilots are still extremely important, and it would be impossible to safely fly a plane without them.
This is because pilots are responsible for the most challenging parts of flying a plane: takeoffs and landings.
How Pilots Go to the Bathroom on Long Flights
During long flights, it’s inevitably that pilots will at some point have to go to the bathroom.
But how does this work?
As there are no toilets installed in the cockpit, pilots have to use the bathroom nearest the cockpit during long flights.
In some countries, due to the crash of Germanwings flight 9525 where one pilot was locked out of the cockpit by the other pilot when he was in the bathroom, so he could intentionally the plane, new regulations were put in place.
The regulations required two authorized personnel (including at least one pilot) to be present in the cockpit at any one time to ensure that a pilot would not be left alone.
However, this was only temporary and has now been dropped.
Also See: How Do Fighter Pilots Pee and Poop?
Pilots Won’t Watch Movies Like Passengers on Long Flights
You might think that when the plane is set to autopilot and the plane is just cruising along, a pilot would be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy a movie or two like any other passenger.
Unfortunately, for pilots, this is not how it works.
Pilots do not have any sort of in-flight entertainment like passengers do. Watching a movie would also be a huge distraction on the flight deck.
While the use of personal laptops by pilots will vary by airline, a laptop should usually only be used for any activity that is directly related to the flight or for studying and training purposes.
During non-critical phases of flight, a pilot for an airline may find other words to entertain themselves, including reading the newspaper or a book, or doing crossword puzzles.
When a pilot is resting, though, and is therefore not on duty, they may choose to spend their time how they please, whether that be watching a movie or not on a laptop they brought onto the plane.
Sleeping would definitely be the better choice, though, considering how pilot fatigue is a very real danger.
Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.
Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.
Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).