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the morning diaries: a commercial pilot

Thought your wake-up call was early? As part of our new Sleep Diaries series, we’re probing interesting people on their sleep routines. Here, pilot Alex, fills us in on his early starts and unusual sleep hacks (hairdryer, anyone?) …

Painfully-early starts and fist-sized meals might not sound appetising, but for pilots, it’s just part of the day-job…

3am As soon as my alarm goes off, I’ll knock back some water – I always keep a glass by my bed. As a pilot, I fly short-haul which is similar to shift work – I’ll work ‘earlies’ or ‘lates’. If I’m on a four or five-day continuous trip, that usually gives me a day off in the middle to rest and explore the city I’m in. Each day varies depending on where I am in the schedule – some starts are much earlier than others…

3.05am I always jump in the shower to wake myself up properly. If I’m ‘down-route’, I’ll stay in a hotel the night before (I live on the Isle of Wight and I’m based out of London). If I’m flying at a more reasonable time and slept at home, I’ll always get public transport to work – I’ve experienced that ‘head dropping’ feeling while driving before and want to avoid it. There aren’t any restrictive rules on living close to the airport, if you have eight hours sleep every night (it’s a legal requirement before flying).

3.15am Next, I get dressed and have a coffee immediately, before grabbing a bite to eat. I probably drink around six cups of coffee a day and stop drinking caffeine at around 6pm (I know it should be earlier!).

3.30am If we’re abroad and due to fly, I’ll meet the rest of the crew in the hotel lobby and we all travel to the airport together.

4am At the airport, I’ll do around an hour and a half of pre-flight checks, which involves looking at the weather, the aircraft, airport and talking to the crew – basically anything that could affect the flight. We’ll walk to the aircraft 55 minutes before departure, and complete walk-round inspections while passengers board.

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5:30am The shortest flight I make is 40 minutes and the longest is five hours. If we’re flying over a dinner period, we’re always given food. We don’t get lunch breaks or tea breaks – instead, we’re brought food while operating the plane. The portions are very small – the size of your fist – since small portions help avoid that ‘food coma’ feeling. People often ask if both pilots eat different meals to avoid simultaneously suffering from food poisoning. That used to be the case, but the food at our airline was proven, consistently, to be of such a high standard we don’t have to do that anymore.

6.15am Cabin crew report to flight deck regularly by phone or in person, and we’re usually offered tea, coffee and light snacks – things like biscuits or nuts. A sensible amount of caffeine and light snacking is usually enough to keep hunger at bay, and levels of alertness up. All crew are different though and everyone – within moderation! – can snack as they feel best.

9am Touchdown time obviously depends on where we’re flying to, but once we’ve landed, taxied in, shut the aircraft down, debriefed and handed the aircraft over to the next crew, we make our way to our transport.

9.45am I’ll travel to whichever hotel we’re staying in with the crew. Normally at this point we all check in with our other halves, sort out admin or scroll through social media. It’s a good wind-down time to switch off from work and disengage your brain a little.

12pm What’s great about my job is that I have plenty of free time in interesting places. Sometimes we get just the evening to rest but if we have a ‘stand-over’ it means we’ll be in the same hotel for two nights. That often means a late arrival on the first night, two nights rest, and an early departure the following day. So, if I’m in Lisbon on a day off, for example, I might go kite-surfing.

2.30pm Normally, a day off abroad means I’m due to be up very early the next day, so I’ll be fairly selective about what I do. I don’t drink much and that’s just as well, because the legal restrictions on alcohol are very limiting (and for good reason). If you break them, you’ll get instantly sacked and face time in prison. I’ll sometimes have a small glass of wine a long time before actually going to bed, to relax and unwind. When I’m at home, I’ll have a glass in front of the TV and find it helps me sleep – although books on sleep don’t tend to recommend it!

3pm If I’m by myself in a new city, I might go and explore, listening to a book on Audible. Until I was 32, I’d only read two or three books – I was the most unread person going! Then I got introduced to Audible and read 107 books in my first year! It changed my life, it was phenomenal. I’ll listen to books on double-speed while exercising, commuting or doing jobs at home.

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3.45pm Exercise helps me sleep better later on, and I feel so much better and more energised as a result. If I do a day of DIY at home, I sleep like a log later! Sometimes I’ll go for a run if I have free time in a new city, it’s a good way to familiarise yourself with your surroundings.

5pm Most of the books I’ve read about sleeping recommend getting your body into a routine – doing the same thing every day and night to sleep well. Because I don’t have a routine, I have to trick my body into thinking I do. One book explained that your body goes down by a couple of degrees as you fall asleep, so having a bath can help (when you get out, your body temperature drops). If I’m staying in a hotel, I like using This Works products – there’s a lavender sleep spray that’s really relaxing.

6.15pm If I’m wide awake, I’ll use a more ‘unique’ sleep hack! When I was a child, my mum used to hoover the house and my brother, and I would follow her – we loved the sound and the hot air. The warmth and white noise meant we’d always fall asleep next to the hoover! Nowadays, a hairdryer has the same effect, so if I’m struggling to nod off I’ll turn a hairdryer on (my wife often finds me sleeping with it on!). I know, it’s weird.

6pm I never keep my phone in the bedroom if I’m home – instead, I leave it to charge downstairs. The Apple Watch has been helpful – if it’s an emergency it will call me and disturb me, and the watch will act as a clock and alarm, which is far less intrusive than a phone. I couldn’t recommend that enough as wearable tech.

6.30pm Wherever I am, I hate having hot feet at night – I can’t sleep. Sometimes I’ll do something mindless if I’m in a hotel and need to sleep, like scroll Instagram with the yellow light on instead of the blue backlight. I find that if I hold it low and look at my phone on my chest in bed, it pulls my eyes downwards, half-shutting them. Or reading a book knocks me out, too – I’ll be asleep after three pages!

7pm I don’t like wearing an eye mask as I find it restrictive, but I always make the bedroom as dark as possible before sleeping. When I stay in hotels, they have to be fitted with blackout blinds and have a very high level of noise-proofing. At home, it’s a different story though – I’m much more easily distracted, since there’s always plenty more going on.

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