TV & Movies

What It’s Really Like to Be a Commercial Pilot

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what a day in their work lives entails. This week, Air Canada pilot June Hughes gives us a glimpse into her high-flying daily grind

What it's really like to be a commercial pilot

First office June Hughes

Age: 36

Length of time at current gig: 11 years

Education: There’s a few different routes you can take to get your pilot training: the military, a local flight school or going to college or university. I went to the University of the Fraser Valley, where in addition to getting my bachelor of business administration in aviation, I also came out with my commercial pilot’s license. I also have an MBA from Niagara University.

How many hours have you flown to date? Around 6,000.

What drew you into this line of work? When I was younger, a lot of people at were in sports and I wasn’t. The local flight school had an ad for private pilot ground training so I started that, but it wasn’t something I aspired to do [as a career], it was more like a hobby. After high school, I didn’t have much direction as to what field I wanted to go into. It was actually my parents who suggested I pursue flying. I took their recommendation, enrolled in a program, and basically didn’t look back.

What surprised you about training? A lot of people say that they wanted to be a pilot but they thought they couldn’t because they weren’t good at math, or physics, or didn’t have 20/20 vision. Those are misconceptions from the past. You can definitely wear glasses as long as your eyesight can be corrected to 20/20. There isn’t so much of a focus on math and physics anymore, although you do learn the basics, but with technology like GPS, there isn’t such a huge reliance on it. It’s definitely a viable career option for a lot of people.

What is your work schedule like? It’s a 24-hour operation. I could be departing at 5:15 a.m. or as late as midnight for overseas and red-eye flights. My schedule used to be somewhat varied, but a year and a half ago I joined management and that was partly to get more stability because I have a young family at home. It means more time in the office on weekdays for me, but it also lets me be home every night and weekends and lead more of a normal life. Even so, I still fly a couple times a month in order to keep my licenses.

What it's really like to be a commercial pilot

In the cockpit with Captain Denise Walters

Do you have a specific route you fly? Once you’re trained on any given airplane at Air Canada, you stay with that aircraft. I’m trained on the Airbus A320—which flies within North America, inner and outer Caribbean and some of Mexico—so I can fly any of the routes that it does.

What’s your favourite destination? Vancouver, because flying over Canada lets you see how beautiful this country is. The view from the cockpit is breathtaking and words can’t describe some of the things you see, especially when the sun is coming up or you see weather at a distance. Having a layover in Vancouver is also great because it’s easier to deal with the time zone change—as opposed to travelling east when you’re losing sleep.

How do you get in the zone before a big flight? I always want to ensure I show up to work without a lot of stuff on my mind. Our policy is to advise pilots not to come to work if they’re dealing with a lot of stress at home, which can be a challenge. You really have to self assess and make sure your mind is clear and level-headed. It’s a bit tough when you have a family, like I do, but you just learn to separate your home from work. A lot of it starts with getting prepared the night before. For me, it helps to have everything I’ll need for the next day laid out: uniform, a flight bag packed with a charged iPad (loaded with current charts and bulletins), licenses, my passport, my Transport Canada restricted area pass, and of course food!  Air Canada no longer provides catered crew meals on domestic or trans border flights. I also pack a suitcase even when I’m not scheduled to layover—last minute schedule changes are just a part of the business. Having all of this ready means I’m not starting my day rushed.

What are some misconceptions about what it takes to fly a plane? A lot of people think that you get in there and turn the auto-pilot on and away it goes, but there’s a lot more going on. It’s a busy time on the ground in the hour before takeoff—you need to review the flight plan, weather and aircraft status along with programming the route and aircraft performance into the flight computer. There are discussions with dispatch, crew briefings between the flight crew and cabin crew as well as an exterior walk-around. And even when the autopilot is on, you’re always monitoring, because it does make mistakes so you’re constantly watching, even though you might not be hand flying.

With the increased security surrounding flying, how has your job changed? When I was in university, I was working as a customer service agent for an airline and I remember flight crews not having to go through any security whatsoever. But security has evolved from a pilot’s perspective the same way it has for passengers. With the restrictions for liquids, gels and aerosols, it changed what crews can take through and we also get random screening at airports. Passengers should realize that a lot of the nuisances they deal with, crews go through as well.

Have there been changes to training as well? We go through yearly training where we talk about bomb threats and those types of situations and what the procedure is.

What’s the vibe like in the cockpit? It’s professional. A big part of our job is sticking to standard operating procedures (SOPs). No matter what airplane you fly, everything from the time you get into the flight deck to the time you leave is very scripted and your job requires that you follow the set-out procedure so you know what each person is doing and when. It’s important because Air Canada employs about 3,300 pilots, so I might work with someone one time and not see them again for years.

What it's really like to be a commercial pilot

Doing a pre-flight walk around

So it’s not like road-tripping with a buddy? No, everything is scripted from what we say to when we can take our hat and our tie off—which happens when we’re not in public view.

What’s been your most memorable moment during a flight? Earlier this year, I was asked to participate in an all-female flight for International Women’s Day. I’ve had all female pilots and flight attendants in the past, but what was different with this one was that even the ground crew—everyone who touched the airplane—were women.

How has your experience been given that this field is traditionally fairly male-dominated? I’ve had a positive experience overall. From the time I got into aviation, working on my private pilot license, my parents—especially my mom—really encouraged me, so I always had that support. Fortunately when I went to flight school, there were one or two other women so I wasn’t the only one.

Do you ever encounter misperceptions because you’re a female pilot? I do, for sure. I’ve been with Air Canada for almost 11 years and it doesn’t happen as much anymore, but some people assume I’m a flight attendant. When I’m checking in at a hotel for an overnight, they usually have a separate registration sheet for flight crew and in-flight crew [a.k.a. flight attendants], and in the past I would often get the in-flight binder handed to me. Once I was deadheading—that’s just travelling as a passenger and being positioned for another flight—and I was in uniform walking down the aisle. A passenger was trying to get my attention, so I thought they wanted to say something to me, but they asked me for a pillow.

What attributes does a pilot need? I think they need to be very disciplined because of the nature of following SOPs. They need to be able to take criticisms, especially to get through flight training because you really need to hear what your instructors are telling you in terms of your technique or flying ability. You need to work well with other people because you’re not always flying with or working with one particular colleague. You could be working with a different person everyday. And you need to be flexible, that’s just part of the job and the environment that we work in.

Who is someone in this field that you admire? Judy Cameron. She was Air Canada’s first female pilot and she just retired last year. She’s been an inspiration because without her, it’s hard to say where women would be in aviation. She paved the road for all of us.

 After a long flight, how do you unwind? I do a lot of running, so if I’m not home too late I try and go for a run. Otherwise I just try and give myself 30 to 60 minutes of mindless TV, like House of Cards.

More Real Women 9-5:
What It’s Really Like to Be a First Nations Chief Councillor
What It’s Really Like to Be a YouTube Star
What It’s Really Like to Run a Music Festival
What It’s Really Like to Be a Proposal Planner
What It’s Really Like to Be a Storm Chaser
What It’s Really Like to be a Hit Songwriter
What It’s Really Like to Be a Firefighter in Fort McMurray
What It’s Really Like to be a Fertility Matchmaker
What It’s Really Like to be a Tattoo Artist
What It’s Really Like to be an Octopus Wrangler