When I reflect back on my first few years as a First Officer, they were times filled with a mixture of excitement, joy, frustration, stress and sometimes total bewilderment. Although fun, they were very challenging. Flight schools tend to miss out most of the below challenges from their marketing campaigns (funny that), so I’m here to share the most challenging parts you won’t hear about in flight school, along with any words of advice that could help a trainee about to step into the right hand seat, or a budding pilot looking to get more insight before investing in the career.
1) Work Hours
Quite a few points to touch on here, but overall, unless you’re used to shift work and airlines in general, this one will likely be the biggest shock to your system. When was the last time you set your alarm before 4am? How did you feel? Now think about doing that for 5 days on the trot….
It will not only be a big hit on your body, but on your social life too; You’ll be facing long working hours (up to 14 hour days), unpredictable and antisocial hours. You likely won’t know your working days or hours, for the next month, until the middle of the month before. As such, you’ll be unable to make advanced plans, and often unable to commit to plans on working days due to schedule changes and delays. I can guarantee you’ll forget what a weekend is and constantly be forgetting which day of the week you’re on as in this game there isn’t much routine.
You’ll end up having to say no to plans that you really, really want to be there for (birthdays, anniversaries etc) and people outside the flying industry will often take this personally as it’s hard for people in a normal 9-5 to comprehend that you can’t just ‘take the day off’. It may even get to the point where ‘less understanding’ people stop inviting you to things after you’ve missed the last 5 things they invited you for ‘work’. Sounds harsh but I can see where they’re coming from.
You’ll have to bid for your holiday days over a year in advance, and if you’re new, you’re unlikely to get what you bid for.
Your life will revolve around your job for the first few years, there’s no getting around it.
The above may sound overly negative, but I want to make sure I’m giving you a very accurate picture, one that the flight schools likely won’t have painted for you. See our blog post here to give an idea of what a day in the life of an easyJet First Officer can be like. We also have another interesting blog post here written by a Captain about the impact of the hours/roster instability.
There are benefits that come with the above…. amongst others, you’ll get days off in the week (if that’s your thing) & you’ll rarely find yourself sat in the morning rush hour!
2) You’ll have to be a chameleon (& put up with some d*ckhead Captains!)
SOP’s do a great job of reducing the need to be a chameleon, however you’ll still definitely feel it. One day you’ll be told by your Captain you should be doing something a certain way. You then take that advice for your next flight, with another Captain, who’ll then criticize for doing it ‘that way’ and give you the way they think you should be doing it. When flying at a large base with thousands of Captains, this can get really tiresome.
Lots of the time you’re second guessing what you think the Captain wants you to do, rather than what you want to do.
“How much fuel do you want?” when directed to the FO in the first year tends to mean “How much fuel do you think the Captain wants?”. You’ll come up with a figure but know full well the Captain will likely talk you into sticking on the exact amount they had in their head before asking you.
A good Captain will ask for your opinion on things and value it, however you know deep down you’re not really the one making any of these decisions and often Captains will just want things their way.
Whilst as a whole, 99% of the Captains I flew with were great, you did occasionally have a rough day out, caused entirely by the person’s attitude or personality beside you. You’ll often know ahead of time, as the biggest culprits will have developed a reputation within your base, but unfortunately the time will come when it’s your turn to be sat in a locked box with them for 12 hours.
You’ll get Captains that ‘fly through’ you…i.e it’s your sector and you’re pilot flying, but really they don’t have any trust in you and will be telling you what to do with the trajectory of the aircraft before you’ve had a chance to do it yourself. Either that, or they’ll want it flown ‘their’ way which could be totally different to your way of flying it. This can be very, very frustrating!
You’ll get Captains who’ll talk at you for 12 hours about themselves and their lives, the DIY they’re doing in their bathroom, and make you painstakingly look through every single photo from their last holiday.
You’ll get Captains who will get overly stressed at anything, and others on a power trip. I’ve had Captains on many occasions throw the sliding cockpit window back, lean out and shout at the top of their lungs at the ground crew for being 1 minute late to push the aircraft…way to set a nice calm tone in the flightdeck 😊
You’ll also just get some damn right weirdos!
All of the above culminated to me struggling to feel like ‘myself’ in the workplace. I felt like the full me was being left in the car park and I had to put on a mask and suppress myself whilst at work. Lots of my FO friends resonated with this feeling at the time and when I discuss the topic with FO’s I fly with now, they do feel the same.
Unfortunately for much of the above (with a few exceptions & boundaries in ‘advice’ below), you do just have to grin and bear it. Take it all onboard, make notes on what you do & don’t like, and use it to make sure you’ll be the type of Captain you want to be to your future crews.
I now use my experience of bad days out to try and create the best possible atmosphere in the flightdeck from the get-go. I include that aim in my briefing. I let the FO know their sector is their sector, and they have fully autonomy to operate how they want, I’ll only interject if I feel something is unsafe or may make suggestions only if I think it’ll be really helpful. I may then give advice after the flight if there’s a much more efficient way of doing something. I encourage them to ‘be themselves’ and take off the mask I found myself wearing, through asking them about their lives and listening with genuine interest.
“Pilot shortage”, “Highest paying job”, “Salaries through the roof” are terms I’m sure you’ve seen in your flight schools marketing material. Unfortunately, the brutal reality is that when you first join an airline, you could be earning more money stacking shelves in a supermarket. On top of this, you’ll likely be leaving flight school with a £100,000 debt to repay.
Most new FO’s have jobs on the side – bar work, call centers, teaching of some kind, In order to pay the bills and cover flight school repayments. You’re unlikely to get sector pay for a while so the whole thing can feel demoralizing. You’ll be looking at your friends in ‘normal’ jobs earning more than you, never working weekends or getting up for work in the middle of the night and sometimes question your career decision. Just know if you stick with it, the money does and will rapidly improve. A part time Captain at a good short haul airline can earn over double the average wage, for working 9 days per month 😊.
Check out my blog post here on what’s it’s like to be an airline Captain for when you make it there!
1. Don’t let the job or company walk over you too much – Learn all the tools available to you
Life’s short, you live once. Don’t let the job drive you into the ground. If you’re sick, take a sick day. If you’re tired, go fatigued. Do not be scared of these tools, they are there to be used.
Read & understand your companies people handbook, along with your airline rostering union agreements. Dull reading I know, but it will make your life much easier. Learn what ‘compassionate’ days are, learn about ‘dependency’ days. You’ll be entitled to these. Learn what crewing can and cannot make you do legally – trust me they’ll push their luck if you allow them to! If you’re sick….call sick. See our post here on what can happen if you fly whilst you have an infection.
2. Don’t let Captains walk over you too much
Whilst you absolutely should be showing your Captains respect….you need to ensure you uphold your personal boundaries. I once had a Captain snatch a sudoku I was enjoying working on away from me, complete it, and hand it back to me in silence. That to me is crossing a personal boundary and a life regret of mine not saying anything as a brand-new cadet!
If someone’s flying through you, rather than genuinely trying to help you and teach you, explain how you feel about what’s happening, maybe even politely ask them if they’d rather just fly the plane themselves and genuinely offer to hand over control….
Obviously, it goes without saying that anything to do with safety, you are there for a reason, If you don’t agree with what the Captain is doing and it’s safety critical, put your training into action.
3. Don’t let your Cabin Crew walk over you too much
They’ll try! Some Cabin Managers will be on a slight power trip too. Again, uphold your personal boundaries. Also be aware you are second in command, not them.
4. Finances – have a long term game plan in mind.
Be aware airlines that offer lower starting salaries for FO’s tend to have a shorter time to Command, where the pay can suddenly double. Higher starting salaries for FO’s often come with longer time to Command and not as bigger pay jump.
5. Enjoy it!
The above is overly negative but this piece is about challenges so it’s going to be. It’s a fun job, you’ll see some cool stuff and hopefully learn a lot about yourself & other people in the process.
Still interested in becoming a First Officer? Check out How To Become An Airline Pilot In 2023 for the best ways to do it 🙂
Also check out our insight into How Pilot Schedules Work here.
Also see How many hours to become an airline pilot in 2023 here.