Friday, April 24, 2009

Dozing for Dollars (Cruise/Relief Pilot)

“Three stripes in the left seat”

Dozing for Dollars

Here's an article I sent to Wings magazine but it never did get published.

Your first airline job may entail starting as a cruise pilot a.k.a. relief pilot. Companies like Air Canada, Cathay Pacific and some European carriers incorporate this unique pilot position for long and ultra long haul flights. The cruise pilot position is jokingly referred to as “dozing for dollars,” or “yawning for yen” (many routes are to Japan) but as one supervisor once told me, “It’s a great way to see the world and take lots of pictures, just like you see in National Geographic.” He pegged it.

It’s also an excellent way to learn an airline’s culture and it’s how I learned the ropes starting as a cruise pilot at Air Canada some twelve years ago. Going from a Dash 8 bouncing around in the weather laden Maritimes to flying an ultra modern airliner around the world, which included saying “heavy” on the radios, proved exciting. I cruised to neat spots such as Osaka, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, New Delhi, and London from Vancouver and Calgary. Learning the duties of each pilot, including the captain’s tasks of starting engines and taxiing, plus the Airbus way of thinking during my initial simulator course equated to “drinking water from a fire hose.”

Transport Canada approved this new concept in the mid nineties, authorizing a cruise pilot to occupy either seat - captain or first officer - during the cruise phase of flight, but not permitting them to perform takeoffs or landings. This arrangement allows the other pilot to rest in dedicated crew-rest facilities therefore helping to ensure a safe flight. From the airline’s perspective, it saved on wages.

This position is not only relegated to new hires. Many pilots bid the position for quality of life as it usually guarantees lots of days off and not a bad salary. (That is, if you don’t fall into the petty wages of a new hire or into Air Canada’s unique group exempt from formula pay). Some ‘cruisers’ kid they get checked out on executive class etiquette, sampling business class meals and building up quite a repertoire of movies watched. It’s one of few jobs where you are half expected to show up for work a little tired because it’s inevitable you’ll be taking the first break the majority of the time. On several occasions during layovers the captain informed me I would be taking first break and to adjust my rest accordingly. Having said that, I’ve showed up where the captain or first officer wanted to be first in the bunk. The cruise pilot position can be a tad lonely as you only augment long flights meaning the crew you just flew with may be off to a shorter destination. I likened it the loneliness of the “Maytag repair man” seen on T.V commercials.

Crew rest facilities vary according to aircraft type. For the A340, two bunks are directly behind the flight deck and abut the galley. A common complaint is noise from the galley or the flight deck door slamming. For those who feel the bunk is a little cramped a dedicated J class seat is also available. One now retired captain demanded the flight attendants put blankets on the galley floor and wear soft sole shoes to alleviate noise around the crew rest area. Needless to say, he wasn’t on many Christmas card lists.

The A330 uses a tent velcroed around two executive seats, which the B767 also implements. (One duty of the cruise pilot is to set up this concoction in flight because of their honorary first shift). Air Canada’s new kid on the block the B777, will have crew rest facilities located above the flight deck and from initial reports, it’s top notch.

At first this new pilot position came with some reservation from a few seasoned pilots. Some crusty captains were uncomfortable leaving the helm to a young new hire. I had one captain stand behind me during his entire break, although most embraced the position and couldn’t get out of their seat fast enough. Before 911 and prior to the heavy bullet proof Kevlar door remaining shut at all times, I witnessed one captain rig a headset from the flight deck into the crew rest bunk so he could listen to BBC on HF.

Don’t think this position’s toughest duty is to ensure the bunk is supplied with enough pillows and blankets. Some cons do come with this position. One beef many ‘dozers’ have is “staying on the ball” and that includes when it comes to simulator rides every six months. They do have the option of recruiting a simulator on days off - if they want. Many new hire cruise pilots come with tons of experience – I was hired with 8,000 hours- so watching someone else enjoy the thrill of take off and landing takes a little getting used to.

I always appreciated when the captain or first officer offered me to do the ramp checks and programming to keep my in the loop - it’s what I now offer to cruise pilots I fly with. It may not seem like much, but for modern airliners typing is a prerequisite. A Toronto to Hong Kong flight racks up over thirty hours in three days involving only two legs so getting hands on experience during an 80-hour month is sometimes a challenge. Having said that, I’m amazed how sharp and competent cruise pilots are. I hope it’s what fellow pilots said about me when I dozed for dollars.


Jason said...

What are the requirements for an aircraft to be considered a "heavy"?

From the Flight Deck said...

Jason. "Heavy" is deemed anything over 300,000 pounds. We must say "heavy" in Canada, U.S, Great Britain and Germany.

Good question.

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