Interview with a pilot: 7 insights from the cockpit
Senior Pilot, Captain Han Hee-seong, 58, has been flying for 33 years, and despite near-death experiences, constant jet lag and rogue combat planes, he still loves what he does.
After a shining career at Korean Air (where he was nominated as a top pilot), Han now resides in Shanghai and flies Boeing 777s to Europe and the United States for China Eastern Airlines.
"When I was young my dream was to be a judge," he says.
"But in high school all this changed. I realized that I wanted to travel and fly around the world."
Based on our interview with him, we think he made the right decision.
He shares seven things we didn't know about life in the cockpit.
1. Jet lag doesn't get easier with practice
The most difficult part of being a pilot, according to Han, is actually something most of us might understand.
"The hardest part is adjusting to different time zones and trying to get enough sleep before flying," says Han. "This problem plagues all of us pilots throughout our career."
He breezes over the technical difficulties.
"Sometimes we come across typhoons, sudden gusts of wind, hailstorms, fog or heavy rain, or there is a problem with one of the engines and we have to turn it off and make a quick landing," he says.
"However, these things are easy to deal with once you have the experience."
2. It's not about the airline, it's about the aircraft
And here we were comparing inflight bibimbap and bento boxes.
"Whether you take a major carrier or a low-budget carrier, the aircraft itself is the same aircraft: a Boeing 737," says Han.
"Maybe a Boeing 777 or an Airbus 330 -- those seem to be popular these days. And the pilots are veteran pilots who have done their time, until about 55 to 60, at large airlines. Flights today are very safe."
Interestingly, he says that the one aircraft that all pilots he has met dislike unanimously is the Airbus 380. "We think it hasn't been tested enough, and that it's simply not as safe."
3. But you have to like the food
When asked if pilots dislike the airplane fare, Han replies, "If they're picky."
Han is not. "I like foods from all over the world -- everything tastes fine to me."
The pilot and the copilot, according to Han, eat different meals. Usually the pilot gets the first class meal and the copilot the business class meal.
"This is just in case one of the meals might cause food poisoning," says Han.
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4. A good airport is like a good wife (or husband)
"A good airport -- such as Incheon International Airport, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, Singapore's Changi Airport, or Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok -- is above all comfortable, with good facilities and good service," says Han. "Like a good spouse."
So which airports are likely to end up dying alone?
"New York's JFK International Airport and Chicago's O'Hare Airport have so much traffic that there's always a 25- to 45-minute line before we can take off, or after we land, park the plane," says Han.
5. 'The seatbelt sign is a lie'
"Keeping the seatbelt sign turned on whenever the aircraft is below 10,000 or 20,000 feet (depending on the airline) is a rule designed to keep the passengers safe," says Han.
Although he can usually cooperate with air traffic control to avoid pockets of turbulence without much fuss, he says he turns on the seatbelt sign anyway just because of the possibility of turbulence.
"Technically, I suppose, then, that seatbelt sign is a lie. Ordering passengers to put on their seatbelt when they might not necessarily need them," says Han.
But we're with him in thinking that it's better to be lied to than laid out on a stretcher.
"We have several cases each year of passengers who did not have their seatbelt on during thunderstorms, hailstorms or particularly violent gusts of wind -- when even the aircraft was actually damaged, and the passengers, obviously, even more injured," says Han.
6. There is (or was) a real reason for regulating mobile phones on flights
"I remember mobile phones disrupting the communication systems -- but then again, it was 15 years ago," says Han.
"Although the more recent aircraft have shielding devices to protect the navigation and communication systems, the aircraft from 10 or 20 years ago don't have such shielding, so mobile phones do disrupt the navigation and communication."
7. It's not just hotel suites and golf, the cons include near-death experiences and health problems
"I've had two dangerously close encounters with combat planes," says Han.
"The first encounter was because the combat plane ignored regulations and infringed on civilian (commercial) air routes, and the second near-collision involved four planes who failed to signal that they were flying above the airport I was trying to lift off from."
The environment isn't the healthiest.
"The air inside an aircraft has 20 percent less oxygen than the air on the ground. We cruise at an altitude about the height of Mount Halla on Jeju Island (1,950 meters), and often suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome because of our irregular sleep schedule."
Many pilots drop out during the training because their health deteriorates, don't pass the final test for their certificate, or don't make it to their retirement because of accidents and incidents.
At least the thrill never dies
"Flying is, simply, fun. That's why I've done it for so long, and, as long as my health allows, why I can keep doing it, until I retire at 65."
And despite what you might have imagined from cockpit photos or watching unrealistic action films, it's a lot more hands-on than you might expect.
According to Han, that's what's so fun about it.
"Kicking off on the runway at 350 kph, lifting off in an aircraft that weighs 350 to 400 tons, flying for over 10 hours -- carrying over 300 passengers, or over 100 tons of cargo -- and then gently landing at your destination -- there's a distinct thrill in the knowledge that I made all of this happen."
Besides the thrill of piloting the flight, there is also the delight of the flight itself, and the magnificent natural sights below.
"I have never, ever felt that my job was boring," says Han.
"Of all the pilots I've met -- they number about 2,000 -- there were less than five pilots who quit simply because they disliked the job."
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