Long-haul flights; how does the cockpit crew pass the time?

I’ve flown to Japan several times now; from Detroit, the gate-to-gate time is about thirteen hours. The initial half-hour and the final half-hour of the flight are somewhat engaging as the plane is climbing, descending, and/or turning - but the intervening twelve hours are spent just trying to keep my mind occupied with reading, watching, sleeping, eating, and so on.

So what’s it like for the folks in the cockpit? I gather they’re quite busy until the plane has the roughly the correct speed/heading/altitude to reach its destination, but what do they do after that? No doubt there are occasional adjustments to those parameters, but is it enough to fully occupy their time, or are they struggling to stave off boredom/sleep like the rest of us? Cards Against Humanity? Strip Poker? Rock/Paper/Scissors? Share their worst faux pas with each other? Crank up the tunes?

See “sin bins”.

Nobody works a 15 hour shift.

they make sure they don’t go off course and fly over Russia

On a flight that long you’ll have 3 or occasionally 4 pilots. Even though the aircraft only needs two to fly it at any given time. Hereafter assuming 3 since that’s simpler …

Three pilots will work the first and last hour-ish, but only two will work the middle 12-ish hours for your example flight. During that cruise time they each take a turn flying and a turn sleeping in a rest spot. Which rest spot might be as nice as a real bunk bed in a quiet secluded backstage area, or as crappy as a seat in business class next to the galley with only a cloth curtain to protect the would-be sleeper from the noise & light.

So after they’re established in cruise pilot A will sleep the first 4 of 12 cruise hours, then be in the seat for 8. Pilot B will work 4, sleep 4, then work the last 4. Pilot C will work the first 8 then sleep the last 4.

As you suggest, in transoceanic cruise there’s not much to do. Over land the ATC process keeps you involved at least every few minutes. Over water there’s nothing happening for an hour at a time.

There’s the continuous background task of flying, which is really monitoring everything for unexpected changes and double-checking that you didn’t forget something or goof something the last time you touched something. But it’s far less engaging or real time than driving is. Other than you making an uncaught switch error, it’s pretty hard for something to go wrong without an alarm, a change in noise, or in motion that’d really stand out.

While you’re working reading anything or playing games on your devices are verboten. Folks converse. Tell tall tales. Argue about baseball. Union vs. Company politics is good for a couple hours of adrenaline. You can always read the company manuals. Again. Getting ever more expert on ever finer-grained minutiae.

If it’s night you can turn the lights down and see some incredible stars, aurora, etc. During the day the land and clouds can be pretty, but most of the ocean is just blue from horizon to horizon.

Many folks get good at a Zen-like state of awareness of the task at hand and little else. Becoming One with the flight if not with everything.

It’s not for everyone. Some people just aren’t that comfortable in the silence interrupted by nothing but the deafening roar of their own thoughts. They tend to fly short haul where the flying tasks keep them moderately busy from gate to gate.

The first sentence and the last sentence of this excerpt from your post appear to be contradictory. So is it OK to read company manuals but nothing for fun?

Highly reccomend Skyfaring, by pilot Mark Vanhoenacker. He goes into a lot of detail about such things, but a lot of it is quasi poetic musings on the romance and wonder of flight.

It’s said that flying a jet airliner in 98% abject boredom and 2% sheer terror.

They find ways.

They probably don’t play the license plate game.

Thank you once again for sharing the perspective on your unique and wonderful profession. Much appreciated.

I’ve heard it said that for all the bureaucracy and crap that they have to put up with on the ground, the delight of airline pilots is when the wheels leave the earth and they are in their own domain.

Strictly speaking, even reading company or FAA materials is prohibited unless the topic is directly related to the operation of the moment.

As a cultural matter the places I’ve worked have considered studying the minutiae to be within bounds.

The other day I woke up at 3am in a strange hotel to gobble yesterday’s stale ham sandwich, comb my hair, brush my teeth, yank on my outfit & report to the aircraft at 4am. We were airborne at 5am, in a place where sunrise was about 7:30am. It was dead dark. And stupid cold.

For the next 2 hours eastbound we watched Jupiter, Mars, & Venus in linear conjunction, and a couple thousand stars, plus the Milky Way low on the eastern horizon. At that hour the radios are real quiet. As we roared eastward the planets, stars, & galaxy all wheeled westward overhead at double speed. If you looked carefully you could see the galaxy move. We hoped to see Mercury rise in turn, but there were low clouds at the distant horizon and the morning twilight lit the sky before Mercury cleared the clouds.

It made getting up stupid-early worth it.

I have a friend who quit airline flying about 30 years ago, after 5 years. He cites 2 reasons:
[ul]Didn’t care for the inevitable sleep cycle disruptions[/ul]
[ul]Cockpit conversations rarely strayed far from bitching about airline management[/ul]

This short documentary is very perceptive. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNxz2hhSXuY

The thing I have learned is the conversation is what you make of it. If you refuse to engage in company or union bashing, the other guy/gal will shut up soon enough unless they’re a real True Believer. And that TB personality will rant on about guns or cars or Republicans or Democrats or Jesus or NPR or Fox or his/her ex-spouses or … until you land.

Some companies are rife with those folks. Others are more mellow, where TBs are a minority.

Considering that cockpit conversations are recorded, don’t pilots fear reprisal for comments they make?

In the narrow sliver of overlap between commercial pilots and amateur radio operators, a few are known to make contacts way up there. I’ve personally only ever heard this once and it was a relatively smaller charter aircraft but he was at (memory) 50k ft? I couldn’t work him with the sizable and aggressive pileup but he was somewhere over the Caribbean at the time.

I just wanted to comment that this description sounds very similar to what it’s like in the “Maneuvering” compartment on a submarine, which is where the operators monitor the submarine’s reactor, electrical plant, and main engines. If the submarine is just steaming along, there’s very little to do other than monitor the meters and gauges and shoot the shit.

You’re also not allowed to do anything other than fill out logs or read manuals. Games and unrelated reading are likewise strictly verboten.

As I understand it, cockpit voice recordings can be used only to investigate accidents and problems - they are not a means of snooping on routine cockpit conversation.

Beats me. I get bored on a 2 hour sector and that’s really only an hour of cruise between climb and descent. I understand that some pilots are happy with long haul flying but I don’t think I could do it.

No one ever hears it, unless you crash, but then you probably aren’t around to care anymore.