View from the sky; Day in the life of an airline pilot

“A lot of the time, you’re not there for all the important events. The pilots all try our best to help out each other, to make switches, give up an off-day if needed, but it’s not always possible. You may have a Christmas or birthday or something; you might be flying in after the party or leaving early. … But this is the job we signed up for…”

Wired868 highlights the day-to-day lives of everyday people in Trinidad and Tobago in our ongoing series, ‘A day in the life …’ Today, we talk to John Toolsee, a father and pilot at Caribbean Airlines who candidly describes his love for flying.

Photo: Pilots flying an airplane.

Was being a pilot your dream job?


What did you do before becoming a pilot?

I actually did a degree in HR and marketing. I bounced around a few office jobs, and after that, well ironically, I was climbing towers just before I got into flying.

Climbing Towers?

Yes [smiles] I was working for Green Dot, fixing satellite dishes and working in radio frequencies and so on.

So, it’s safe to assume that you have no fear of heights or flying?

No, no. Always wanted to fly since I was three years old.

Where did the desire to be a pilot come from?

I think it was just something I was born with. No one in my family is in the same field or anything like that. But I remember we had a ‘what you would like to be’ dress-up day in pre-school, and I remember at the age of 2 or 3 years old dressing up in full pilot uniform.

Embed from Getty Images

Where are you from?

Well from two places really. I grew up in San Fernando for 3-5 years, and then I moved up to the east, where I still live.

What were some of the steps you took to become a pilot?

A lot of people believe you have to do subjects like geography and physics and so on—that’s a question people always ask—but you don’t. You just have to have you private [pilot] license, your instrument rating and your commercial pilot license—all of which I did in the US.

A lot of guys do their private license in Trinidad first and then finish in Florida, but I did everything in Florida. The course entails things like your flying skills and so on, but you do a lot of theory. You cover things such as theory of flight, weather and a bit of mechanical things with regards to the aircraft. That’s just a general gist, but weather is very important.

How did you afford flight school?

Well, I got some help and I saved. I bounced around numerous jobs and saved up the rest of it. I was fortunate enough to get some help from my grandfather, Papi.

How does he feel about you flying now?

Oh, proud, as any parent or family member would and should be. I mean, not just flying, but getting a job within the airline. A lot of people have their license, but it’s tough. The industry is tough to get into the flight deck of a good company like Caribbean Airlines.

Photo: View from airplane cockpit (by William Topa on Unsplash)

Would you describe flight school as challenging, not just in terms of studies, but in being away from your family?

It wasn’t that long for me; I took nine months. I mean, nine months from home in the real world is no big thing. I think the world has gotten so small due to technology and things like WhatsApp video calls, and back then it was Skype and so on. You see your family all the time. My time away was nine months, but I would return for a week here and two weeks there.

Were there other Trinis like you at flight school?

In my school, there were three or four others. My roommate then, Allan, is my colleague with the airline now. We actually got in around the same time in Caribbean Airlines.

Besides the flight school I attended, Aviator College of Aeronautical Science and Technology, there were other more popular flight schools for our Trinidadian and Caribbean people, and it was just a stone’s throw away. So, a lot of the time we would link up in different places in Miami or Palm Beach and have some fun.

Does this job require physical strength?

Not really, no. You might have to give the yoke [a double handle that controls the elevators] a good pull or push, but for the most part, no real physical strength.

What are some of the joys of flying?

Well, the most fun part about a flight, most pilots would tell you, is going to be the takeoff and the landing. We all like that handling aspect when the autopilot is off, and you are actually in control and manually flying the aircraft.

Photo: Airfield runway (by Terje Sollie from Pexels)

Sometimes we would want to start descending to make our descent path nice and comfortable, but sometimes ATC (Air Traffic Control) might keep you up high, so then you have to plan and manage and calculate your whole descent. And of course, we have to take into consideration different factors like wind and so on. It’s always nice to keep the mind active and plan a descent into an approach, into a landing. I think that’s the fun part, for me at least.

What’s a typical workday for you?

If departure time—meaning the time we are supposed to leave the gate is 10am, our check-in would be one hour before, which is 9am. I would tend to get up an hour before that, 8am, get ready, have breakfast and make my way to the airport.

By the time I get to the [airport] carpark, I would have spoken to the operations department to get an idea of the weather or any changes, mechanical issues, or any potential delays and so on. We also get something via email called a flight package, it briefs us, so we have an idea of what’s going on. For me, it’s important so I have an idea of the weather, the routing etc.

At the carport, I’m already in work mode to head across to the terminal. A big part has become security and security checks, which is kind of annoying at times, but I understand that safety is necessary. I think that is the first challenging part of the day—going through security [checkpoints].

Afterwards, we prep the plane to ensure that everything is operable in the flight deck as well as outside of the aircraft. We have a lot of checks and checklists to go through. Additionally, CRM is a crucial part of our operation—basically, it’s how the entire crew communicates with each other, making sure everyone is on the same page. An uneventful day is what we look forward to—safe and on time.

There are a lot of factors involved in our operations that passengers may not consider, such as on-time performance. There are things that are sometimes beyond our control, things that tend to slow down the departure process, or even the en-route process. Sometimes we may have to divert a few miles around weather, not only for to the safety of passengers but also the comfort of the passengers.

Rest also plays a role. Very often, especially when we’re flying through the night, passengers may be sleeping, but we are up in the front working. Sometimes while flying, you may get indications of things we have to pay attention to such as temperature. We have a lot of gauges that we constantly monitor.

What do you do to stay up on a red-eye [a commercial flight between two distant points that departs late at night and arrives early in the morning]?

We have to plan our rest properly. What’s typical might be the crew being picked up at 10pm to get to the airport at 11pm, to depart at 12 midnight to fly through the night for 5 hours. Therefore, you need to plan your eating and rest accordingly.

For me, I need at least three hours good sleep before pickup. It’s not always possible and practical, we’re not robots, we can’t just rest our head on a pillow and immediately knock out all the time. I, fortunately, don’t have a big problem in falling asleep, but sometimes it’s just not possible. When rest is not 100% possible, I guess coffee and good nutrition usually helps. Keeping active and fit is a big part of it for me.

How has becoming a pilot changed your family life?

The first thing that comes to mind is my daughter. I have a five-year-old daughter, her name is Ella-Skai; [chuckles] that was intentional, kind of corny, I guess. A lot of the time, you’re not there for all the important events. The pilots all try our best to help out each other, to make switches, give up an off-day if needed, but it’s not always possible. You may have a Christmas or birthday or something; you might be flying in after the party or leaving early.

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She’s only five, but she’s getting accustomed to it. If I have a rough week, or a rough couple of weeks, I could feel a little clinginess on her part when I do get back, where she doesn’t really want to leave my side. I think it’s really that thought in her head that I’m going again just now. Sometimes, if I’m unpacking my bag, she might say: “Daddy, you going again?”

It could be tough at times, but she seems to be getting accustomed to it. Of course, when I come back, she always wants to know what I have in the suitcase for her [smiles widely]. But this is the job we signed up for; you are away from home for most of the time. So, it’s good to have the necessary support systems in place.

If you weren’t a pilot, what would you be?

To be honest, after I got my [pilot] license, I waited three and a half years before I got in the airline. I was doing a few odds and ends in terms of office jobs, which I didn’t like at all, and I decided I was going to go into the military. So, my goal was either air guard or coast guard.

What advice would you give to passengers who fear of flying?

I think being in the sky, you’re so safe. I think air transport is a very safe means of transport. There are contingencies for almost every single aspect of the aircraft from an engineering perspective. So, let’s just say you have one fuel pump in a car, a plane might have four. If something goes wrong with one system, there is always a back-up system and a standby system. A lot of contingencies.

Additionally, pilots are very well trained. From flight school, they focus on all the necessary areas and at Caribbean Airlines, the training department does a very good job. Every six months we undergo something called Sim (Simulator), where we do different emergency procedures. Almost every and anything is covered, be it engine failure, two engine failure … we are trained to handle all emergencies.

Photo: Dream job (by Kora Xian on Unsplash)

What advice do you have for aspiring pilots?

It’s an excellent field, but have a lot of patience. For instance, from the time you get your license, it could be a waiting game to get into an airline. Your patience is tested from there.

Keep current, in that, don’t have your license and you are not practising. every couple of months, rent a plane and go do some flying, or you have a flight sim, download a flight sim. Keep practising your flying, practising your approaches and your landings. Keep current, because you don’t know when that call is going to come.

Keep building your knowledge base, keep reading, whether it’s things to do with theory of flight or things to do with weather. If there is an airline that you are interested in, keep current with the affairs of the airline. These things are important and may be asked in the interview. The airline industry is ever-changing and evolving, so you never know when your call is going to come, so you want to be current.

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