This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
Air travel used to be a glamorous business, but since passengers started boarding flights in pyjamas and airlines began threatening to charge for toilet usage, its shine has faded somewhat.
Still, it's an expensive business: flights aren't cheap, and while there's no guarantee of a job at the end of it, training to be a pilot can be as expensive as buying a house. Manuel, from Germany, wasn't able to find work as a pilot for a few years after his training – but his luck eventually turned when he moved to the UK, and he now flies holidaymakers across Europe.
He was willing to answer all the questions I've always wanted to ask a pilot, but he didn't want his last name or the airline he works for mentioned in the interview. He did want to stress, however, that he thinks being a pilot is the greatest job in the world.
VICE: Is flying an airplane actual work, or do you just activate autopilot and that's it?
Manuel: I use autopilot from shortly after take-off to just before landing – so almost the entire flight. The airline I work for requires it, to minimise the risk that their pilots start acting like cowboys in the sky. They've had to deal with that kind of thing in the past – with pilots accelerating when approaching the airport, for instance. That's very dangerous and uses up a lot of fuel, because it often means that the plane needs to build up altitude again for another attempt at landing.
But when you're at high altitudes and all you have to do is stay on course and monitor the speed, you start to go a bit loopy. That's another reason why it's good to use the autopilot – which only does what I tell it to do, anyway. I need to set all the adjustments to the altitude, route and speed manually. During the long flights when nothing much happens, I read newspapers and books, or I look at the stars. We also have an iPad with all the manuals and information on airports on it – it's a 20,000 page PDF. That keeps you busy.
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How much do you make?
I make between €8,000 [£7,260] and €10,000 [£9,000] a month before tax. But the cliche that pilots earn loads of money isn't true anymore. There are many pilots whose wages are just enough to live on. Some only earn € 1,200 a month during the first years, and on that salary, they're expected to pay off the debt they're in thanks to their very expensive training.
If you want to become a pilot, you have to be able and willing to take on an enormous financial burden. I had to take a loan for my training – it cost me over €115,000. I couldn't get credit in my own name, but thankfully my parents were able to help out. After training, I couldn't find a job at an airline for three years. Many people who paid all that money to be trained are never hired as a pilot.
Is it true that many pilots are alcoholics?
I don't think there are more alcoholics among pilots than among other professionals. But I have heard a lot of stories about pilots flying under the influence of alcohol, yeah. There's an AA programme for pilots in Germany, so it's recognised. And there's alcohol testing before and after flights – generally, the inspections are pretty strict.
Can you smuggle drugs on your flights?
I've never been asked to do it, and it wouldn't be easy. The crew are checked even more thoroughly than passengers. We are screened separately so we can skip the queues, but the procedure is the same and sometimes even stricter. For example, passengers are allowed to bring up to €430 worth of goods with them, while crew members are only allowed up to €70 worth.
Have you ever come close to crashing a plane?
A few small things have happened to me; a generator broke down once for instance. Another time, the autopilot stopped working. The greatest scare I ever got was during a landing in Bristol, when I was flying as a co-pilot. The runway in Bristol is short and there's a steep slope at the end of it. It was windy and raining that day, and the captain missed the right moment to land. We just kept floating over the runway. Since the plane wouldn't have been able to stop in time and would probably have fallen down the slope and crashed, I had to take over from the captain and try landing again.
The captain was petrified – he couldn't move. I had to move his hand off the stick. After landing he apologised to me profusely, so I didn't make a big deal out of it. And the passengers had no idea how close to crashing we had come.
How many cabin crew have you slept with?
I haven't slept with any stewardesses and have never had sex on a plane. But generally the cliche about pilots and stewardesses is true. Every day, I hear from colleagues about who they slept with last night or the day before. On long distance flights, there's a cabin for the crew to sleep in – people have sex in there all the time. I've also heard stories about captains getting it on with co-pilots in the cockpit.
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Does the uniform help pick up women?
Well, I always try to keep my uniform very neat – I make sure my trousers, shirt and tie are ironed. But after work I get out of the outfit as quickly as possible so I don't attract too much attention. Everybody looks at you when you're wearing that suit – at the airport and outside of it. Women tend to ignore me in clubs and bars, but when I'm on my way to the airport in my uniform they always notice me.
How bad is it really if I don't switch on airplane mode during a flight?
If just one passenger leaves his mobile phone on, it's not likely anything would happen. But if more people would do the same near the cockpit, we'll hear feedback in our headsets. That noise is louder than the radio messages and it can disrupt our navigation devices. Not the GPS itself, but the devices that are there to replace the GPS if anything happens.
When German co-pilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally crashed a Germanwings plane in March of 2015, did that change anything for pilots?
I don't work for a German airline, but I am German. Some of my colleagues have made a few stupid jokes. Once, while we were sat in the cockpit together, a stewardess asked me if I was about to commit suicide too. It might have been a joke on her part, but I tend take these things very seriously.
I think that [Germanwings' parent airline] Lufthansa should have faced more serious consequences after Lubitz's crash. They were very much aware of his mental issues. When you go through a selection procedure for a job at any airline, there's always a psychological screening that counts for more than anything else. He was hired, although he already had problems back then – he had been absent from training for a few months to treat his depression. The airline never apologised for what happened, and I think they should have.
How does it feel to be responsible for so many lives?
It's a big responsibility for sure. It's also awesome that you have the authority to order people around to ensure everybody's safety. The cabin crew and the ground crew have to follow your word to the letter. And at the end of the day, it can feel great to know that so many things could have gone wrong, but you brought hundreds of people home safely.