I am a pilot who began his career at the tender age of 18 months. Flying a Finnair DC-9 in my tiny hands, I simulated the sound of the jet engine loud enough to be heard next door.
Today, I work in the cockpit of Finnair’s Airbus 320 and 330 aircraft as a co-pilot on European and long-haul flights.
I have a diverse range of interests in the airline industry. In addition to piloting aircraft, I am active in flight safety matters as part of the Pilots’ Association Safety Committee.
As Jussi Ekman has already covered safety matters in his blog, my writing will be focused more on the other aspects of life as a pilot. Our work is an interesting combination of carefully following guidelines and finding creative solutions for situations as they arise. Performance and planning. Teamwork and hands-on operations. Physics and aesthetics. I am fascinated by the diversity of my work. No two days are the same.
Because a picture is often worth a thousand words, I will also be posting photos on Instagram of what goes on in the daily life of a pilot. My Instagram username is @finnairtomi. Some of the photos will also be posted on this blog. I hope you will enjoy reading my blog!
You always get that extra little buzz when it says ‘AY 005’ on the flight preparation papers. One long-haul flight out of many, but for us it’s the oldest and most traditional one. Finnair’s first long-haul destination was New York, and the route ran via Copenhagen and Amsterdam on a DC-8 aircraft. Pilots, at least, remember Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic 86 years ago as a milepost in aviation history. For the pilot, crossing the Atlantic no longer means bearings twirled with a plotter as messy lines on a route map, or rough navigation with tops and hyperbolae of positions, cigarette stubs in the ashtray next to three weatherworn aviator hats. Nowadays, the route is operated with an Airbus 330, with modern equipment to enable a safe crossing of the ocean with two pilots, without navigators or aviation engineers. However, there still is something special about it from the viewpoint of the pilot.
The route to New York isn’t run of the mill. The flight planners choose the route according to favourable large air currents. Sometimes we fly from the south from above Northern Scotland. This time the route runs from above Iceland and over Greenland. Unlike on the continent, when flying above the ocean we are off the radar and beyond the reach of air traffic control’s monitoring. In addition, there are no radio transmitters in the middle of the ocean so there is no undisturbed, continuous speech connection to air traffic control. The third thing to pay attention to is the shortage of alternate airports. The pilots should always have their eye on the nearest alternate airport along the route that is located no less than two (sometimes three) hours away from the plane. On this flight, the alternate airports are Keflavik and Goose Bay. The Greenland terrain is high and mountainous. When flying above it, the pilots revise the special procedures in case a malfunction is detected in one of the engines or pressurisation and altitude has to be decreased.
The west coast of Greenland is now under the nose.
Even when above the ocean, the navigation is done normally using GPS (i.e. satellite navigation). However, the waypoints are latitude-longitude coordinates, unlike anywhere else, and there are no earth stations or beacons for a backup. Instead of the magnetic north, the direction reference is the fixed geometric location of the North Pole. ‘Finnair five, cleared to New York via 65N000W, 66N010W, 67N020W….’ reads the air traffic controller for us close to the western coast of Norway. As there is no radar monitoring by air traffic control, the spacing out between the aircrafts is based on following the provided route clearances and speeds with pinpoint accuracy. After receiving the clearance, both pilots carefully cross-check the directions and nautical miles, and that they tally with the aircraft’s navigation equipment. After that, it’s ‘Have a good flight!’ Bit by bit, the voice of the air traffic controller fades beyond the reach of the VHF radios. A little bit of Charles Lindbergh in us starts to stir.
Over the Atlantic, there is a text-based messaging system with satellite connection to air traffic control. But the system is quite new and not entirely without its problems. That is why the progress of the planes is still tracked by radio operators using almost one hundred-year-old HF radio technology. The HF signal bounces between the ocean and the layers of the atmosphere far beyond the horizon, and its range is in theory thousands of miles. But at the same time, the connection is prone to the changes in the day and the sunspot rhythm. There are a lot of noise, scratching sounds and breaks in the connection. ‘Iceland radio, Iceland radio, Finnair 5, position 65N030W at 1810, request SELCAL on DM-BF…’
‘Finnair 5, on boundary…ccchhccccssshhhh… Gander on frequency… eight.. cchhcssh.. niner one….’
(You can listen to the HF radio communications live from this link.Can you make out what they’re saying?)
A new continent. The east coast of Canada, Newfoundland and the vast wilderness. The feeling of already reaching your destination when there are still around three hours to go. Moncton, Bangor, Boston. More and
more planes start to circle the skies when approaching New York. We often move in on the John F. Kennedy Airport above the beautiful capes and islands of Long Island. The airport itself is one of the most intense in the whole wide world. As the silhouette of Manhattan looms in the background, the air is swarming with traffic in all directions, at all altitudes. The airport often uses up to three runways simultaneously. There are landings and takeoffs every couple of minutes. Especially during the rush hour, the air traffic controllers read the clearances at the double, with a strong east coast accent. They are tough professionals who expect quality also from the pilots. ‘Finnair five heavy turn right on juliet after landing 757 cross 22R keep rolling join alfa hold short of november charlie monitor groung point niner’, you have to hear and roger your own clearance without delay.
(You can also listen to the radio frequency of the JFK air traffic control from here.You may spot Finnair five at 3.30–4.00 pm New York local time)
Snowfall and exceptional weather is a chapter of its own. The air traffic in New York may be badly disrupted then. You may be in for a long wait in the air. When the weather forecast is poor, the captain needs to prepare for various scenarios already prior departure by reserving enough fuel. Usually the cockpit receives advance information from Finnair’s New York ground personnel on the available runways, weather and congestion a few hours before landing. We know many of that crew already. One known to all was Maucca Leppälä, who was the Manager of Finnair’s New York ground services for 23 years, but recently retired. Now the operations are led by Ulla-Maija Baker. Greetings to all, it’s always nice to see you.
The hotel transportation runs smoothly in a relaxed atmosphere as the crew discusses what happened on the flight. The blocks of Brooklyn, inner city kids playing basketball and the neon signs of garages and diners blink in the windows. This nation of drivers is returning home on four lanes. Over the radio, I can make out Bruce Springsteen’s guitar, or maybe it’s just my imagination. Arrival at the hotel, saying good evening to all other crew members. Hang up the uniform and put it in the closet. The metropolis quietens down into the early evening as the sun slowly floats down and hides behind the silhouette of New Jersey. That’s us, Charles and I. A brief moment when the silver wings on the uniform’s jacket seem to shine a little brighter than usual.
Standards, discipline and routines. Technique and physics. But, at the same time, flying is all about feeling. I recognised that feeling the moment I took off on my first training flight in a Cessna 152. To rise off the surface of the earth, controlling the aircraft with your own two hands. To ascend, to descend and to roll. To carve the edge of a cloud with the tip of the wing. Today’s pilots on their first flights are as enchanted by these sensations as the pioneers of manned flight in the early 20th century. It is love at first touch for those with aviator’s blood coursing through their veins.
The sky and the landscape it illuminates are different every day. It is a marvellous play of colours: vivid crimson and deep blue on some days, tranquil pastel shades on others. My favourite moment has always been when the aircraft I’m flying rises above the thick grey cloud layer, flooding the cockpit and my eyes with brilliant sunlight. When you see the white tops of the clouds rush by, you feel the velocity of 800 kilometres per hour in your every cell. Sensations as the pioneers of manned flight in the early 20th century. It is love at first touch for those with aviator’s blood coursing through their veins.
Nature can be blissful, gorgeous and colourful for a pilot, but there are also days when it shows its harsh and merciless side. As a pilot, you feel a mixture of pride and humility at work. We all fly on nature’s terms. Nature does not negotiate. All you can do is adapt to its framework. This framework can manifest itself as a storm front rising in front of you, or a weather report indicating the destination airport’s runway friction coefficient. When the winds are too strong or the runway is too slippery, the pilot makes changes to the flight plan.
It’s difficult to say whether the feeling you have up there is one of greatness or smallness. In a way, you look at the world through the eyes of an outsider. Landscapes change as you pass countless villages, cities, fields, oceans and mountain ranges. You see things from a broader perspective and allow your thoughts to drift beyond the horizon. All across the earth, there are people living around the little dots of light you see from far above. In that village, and the next, and the next one after that.
The passengers in the cabin behind me are also from some small village, or perhaps a large city. Perhaps I have the privilege of flying them to meet distant friends or relatives. I take people to make important decisions, to sign important deals and agreements. I fly families out to well-deserved vacations. It feels good to represent and be part of the world’s safest mode of transport. You get to contribute to maintaining a high level of safety, day after day. You do this for people who trust in your professionalism.
A pilot also knows his or her aircraft in a physical sense. Rough air, rolling and the force of acceleration. When you disengage the autopilot, the aircraft becomes a part of you through your arms. All of your senses are focused on flying and the rest of the world is closed out. The interplay between your eyes and arms sends signals to the brain on changes in the trajectory. You control the aircraft gently, making small adjustments. A gust of wind pushes the aircraft sideways. With a small movement of your hand, you adjust for the side force. There is a faint sense of rolling, and then the aircraft is back on the beacon course.
Flying is universal. Air traffic controllers speak the same language, whether you are flying to one of the world’s largest hubs or a small airport in Lapland. Work takes the pilot to the edges of the earth. There are bitingly cold stopovers and balmy, hot ones. Different nationalities, languages and cultures flash by at airports, in hotels and on streets. You feel like an observer, always something of an outsider. You rarely have the opportunity to get to know people very well. Your stay in any one destination tends to be short.
The pilot returns home, and the circle is complete. There are hotels everywhere, but only one place you can call home. “Daddy, did you go to Japan or China?” the children ask. They don’t always remember, and why would they? There is no tone of glamour in their question. Over the years, any job becomes routine. Long sleepless nights. Days when nothing seems to go according to plan. It is wonderful to have the opportunity to see the world, but ultimately you must love flying for other reasons. I do. I love the variation, eventfulness and challenges. I love its many different dimensions and how rewarding it is. And, of course, I love having fantastic workmates.
Over the past 10 years, our home airport in Helsinki has grown into an international hub where tens of thousands of passengers catch connecting flights every day. The airport has an excellent location: flying from Asia to Europe, for example, Helsinki is right along the shortest route due to the Earth’s curvature. A convenient connection at a modern, functional and – dare I say – exceptionally stylish airport is a superior choice for many passengers. At Finnair, we work very hard on a daily basis to ensure that we offer the highest quality concept for connecting flights in Europe. This is absolutely essential as, on average, well over half of our passengers catch connecting flights in Helsinki.
Pilots are provided with the first list of our passengers’ official Finnair and oneworld connecting flights and connection times with our flight preparation materials. Combined with information on the flight time and the flying conditions on the day, this list allows us to form a general understanding of the flight’s urgency. If headwind is expected and the situation seems tight to begin with, we can take measures to expedite the flight right from the beginning. There are many ways to do this, but naturally no compromises are made when it comes to flight safety. I’ve discussed the management of flights that are considerably late in a previous blog entry.
The pilot and first officer alone can’t work magic. The real magicians are far from the view of passengers at Finnair’s two operations centres. One of these centres is called the HCC (Hub Control Center). The HCC is a room full of battle-hardened professionals dedicated to monitoring the operations of the Helsinki Hub. This includes monitoring passenger flows from the airport entrance all the way to the aircraft, ensuring the effective movement of transit passengers to their connecting flights, monitoring all outdoor activity around aircraft, security and border control formalities as well as countless other duties. All this involves a great deal of work aimed at ensuring that passengers have a pleasant and smooth travel experience.
I’ll illustrate the process with an example. When the wheels of a Finnair Airbus 330 lift off the tarmac at Incheon Airport in Seoul, real-time information on take-off is automatically transmitted to Finnair’s information systems. As the total flying time is also known, the systems calculate the first estimate of the flight’s arrival time and display it on Finnair’s computer terminals. The pilots then transmit a new, more accurate estimate during the early stages of the flight. New information is also transmitted whenever the estimates change for one reason or another. For example, air traffic control can sometimes direct the aircraft to fly at an altitude that is suboptimal in terms of wind conditions, which may result in total flying time changing by a few minutes. It is also worth mentioning that the estimated arrival time sent from the cockpit is also transmitted to the arrivals column on the Finavia website (www.finavia.fi) and the information screens at Helsinki Airport. This means that those information sources are quite accurate unless something unexpected happens.
There is also a lot of communication from the ground to the aircraft. Well before the flight reaches Helsinki, HCC sends a message to the pilots informing them of their expected arrival gate, updated information on connecting flights and the departure gates of the connecting flights. This often makes a long list. For instance, a flight from Seoul can have transit passengers for 20-30 different connecting flights to various destinations across Europe.
If any connection appears particularly critical, the HCC can send a request through the cockpit to have the passengers in question exit the plane first in Helsinki. This information is forwarded from the cockpit to the passengers via the purser. If a connection is missed in spite of all efforts, rerouting decisions are made in Helsinki as early as possible. The aim is to inform passengers of their new flight routing before arriving in Helsinki. Of course, rerouting is only used as a last resort. Sometimes it is a question of minutes.
Finnair’s flight scheduling is such that afternoons are a very busy time. A number of long-haul flights from Asia and India arrive in the afternoon almost all at the same time. The airline makes a few special arrangements to manage this ”Asian wave” as effectively as possible. If a number of long-haul flights, with hundreds or even thousands of transit passengers, were to park at the gates of Helsinki Airport at the same time, border control and security checks could get congested and baggage handling could be slowed down. Finnair prevents congestion by spacing out the arrivals of the Asian flights in a coordinated manner. This is usually achieved by slight adjustments to airspeed, which can begin several hours before landing.
Our example flight from Seoul would receive a message with information on the planned arrival sequence of the afternoon’s Asian flights, probably when it’s flying over the Chinese highlands. The same message is sent to all aircraft heading from Asia to Helsinki. The message includes target times for each flight’s arrival at the boundary of the Helsinki air control area. Hitting the target time may require maintaining current speed, picking up speed to gain a few minutes, or slowing down slightly to delay arrival by a few minutes. It is generally easy for the pilots to hit the target as long as they receive the information early enough. As a result, the flights arrive in Helsinki in intervals of 6-10 minutes. Congestion at checkpoints and passenger corridors is avoided and baggage is moved swiftly from aircraft to aircraft.
It takes good coordination and teamwork, but that is something we have been practising for years. Of course, there are times when things don’t go according to plan. Occasional surprises are part of the nature of aviation, with the weather being the usual culprit. Many factors outside the influence of Helsinki can also pose challenges to the network’s punctuality. This requires a great deal of competence from the personnel on duty as well as effective coordination by the airline. I mentioned above that we have two operations centres; the other one is responsible for cooperation with our entire global network. Instead of reading about it, you can learn more about the work of that operations centre by watching the new Finnair video below. Have a pleasant and punctual journey!
Flying an aircraft is very visual work. Communicating the events and details of a day in the life of a pilot using only words would be difficult. There are times when you would love to share the view opening up in front of you with the cabin, if that only were possible. A photo is often more descriptive than text. We have tried to think of new ways to bring you more visual material to illustrate our work.
To this end, I have started a small photo blog on Instagram. My username is @finnairtomi. You can also find me by searching for my first and last name. My instagram account will feature photos of beautiful views as well as the smaller details of my days at work and the photos will have short captions in English. Those of you who don’t use Instagram on a mobile device can access the photos at http://instagram.com/finnairtomi. If I have more to say about a photo, I may also post it here on this blog.
Below you will find some examples of the photos I have posted so far. You can also post comments on the photos on Instagram. I will try to respond to comments as often as I can.
“A close-up of my desk. During a flight, we constantly monitor our progress by taking notes on passed waypoints, times, fuel consumption and altimeter readings. This is one way of ensuring that the flight is going according to plan.”
“Captain Aarne Suonsivu approaching Amsterdam Schiphol airport in an Airbus 330. This time in a simulator, though. Nevertheless, the highly detailed graphics and hydraulics-assisted motion give an extremely realistic feeling of flying.”
“Sometimes you just capture the moment, like here at Oslo Gardermoen airport.”
My blogger friend Petra once told about a conversation she had had in the cabin about the line-up of the cockpit. Is it really true that there could be two people sitting there who do not know each other? How on earth can that kind of cooperation even work? After all, we Finns don’t just shoot the breeze with people we don’t know. Except about the weather, of course. And hockey, if we’ve just won the world championships.
Yes, it does work. All throughout my career there have been days when I have had new colleague sitting next to me. It’s incredibly easy. The methods, things to be checked and work flows have been well standardised. I know each one of my colleagues to be a top-quality professional. And none of us is shy. During flight preparation, we greet each other quickly and then take on the flight preparation papers. As a matter of fact, in this case the weather is actually interesting for us. On the way to the plane there might be some time to chat about how we are doing. Once there, one of us inspects the plane from the outside. The other gets the cockpit ready and enters the flight route into the navigator. We go through the briefing on the departure route, weather and taxiing route and calculate the takeoff speeds. Startup. “Flaps one”. “Taxi checklist”. “Briefing and loadsheet – confirmed”.
What kind of person is my pilot colleague? Are they all cut from the same cloth? At the core, yes, but their outer shells are very different indeed. Certain integral features unite us all, such as good cooperation skills and the ability to work under pressure. Unflappability, rationality, the ability to make even difficult decisions and to adapt to changing situations. In addition, a certain “positive assertiveness”, or ability to communicate about flight-related deficiencies actively but positively, is deeply seated within all of us. “Hey, did you forget enter that ILS data?” “You’re right, thanks for telling me”. In the cockpit, we never mock someone else’s mistakes or try to cover up our own. We don’t mope or have hissy fits about things. We are brisk, open and direct.
And what about the differences? Some of us are older, and some are younger, and we look different. Some have bushy pirate beards and some shiny bald heads. One of my colleagues is a two-metre-tall, severe-looking body builder, while others risk being whisked away by strong winds on the ground. There are introverts and motormouths. Some speak the strangest Pori dialect or a sing-song dialect with the pronouns mie (I) and sie (you). You hear it all. One first officer speaks a strong Tampere dialect with a Finland-Swedish accent. And one captain looks exactly like the whacky pilot on the Finnish comedy series Kummeli, the “Inversion Man”. He even flies to Las Palmas like the pilot on the show. Of course, he behaves himself a bit better.
On longer flights, you usually get a chance to get to know one another and chat a bit more. We might exchange views on vacations, work shift schedules, the latest news. You might not have realised how many of us have another degree or background. I am sometimes surprised myself. An orientation towards technology is pretty typical, for example many of us have an engineering degree. I have also flown with a lawyer, a doctor, a political scientist, an economist, a top athlete, a professional musician, a police officer, a fire-fighter, a football manager, a programmer, a pastor, a soldier and a graphic artist, at the very least. We have talked about coaching a floorball team, mountain climbing, world politics, wild boar farming and the efficiency of wind power plants. Different personality types are the spice of the profession. Everyone has interesting thoughts about something. Sometimes, on the other hand, we are silent, alone with our thoughts for a long time. That also works out splendidly and doesn’t bother anyone. Sometimes it’s well-grounded to keep quiet in front of the landscapes.
In addition to strict guidelines, work in the cockpit is also characterised by an unwritten code. Regardless of what you’re talking about, work is always the top priority and we respect the work of our colleagues. No story is important or funny enough that it couldn’t be interrupted by a call from air traffic control, or that a colleague couldn’t programme the navigator, go through the briefing on the upcoming approach or get familiarised with maps of the destination. Everything else comes second. Pride in one’s own professionalism and the desire to do work safely is a strong feature of all of us. Everyone appreciates the others and their work. It is a great joy to work with these sirs, madams and misses.
What else can I say about them? Maybe we wouldn’t say it aloud, but somewhere deep inside most of us lives a small longing for faraway places and a certain sentimentality. I sometimes see a look that tells of this for a fleeting moment in my colleague’s eyes when the sun’s last rays break through the reddening horizon. I’ll admit that I myself am just that kind of sap. But maybe we’ll come back to the romance of flying sometime later, stay tuned.