Pilots don’t always get much of a chance to interact with passengers, but when we do there’s a good chance I can anticipate some of the questions they’ll ask. Among the more popular queries are: “How long have you been flying?” “Where did you learn?” and, my personal favorite, “What’s the furthest you’ve flown?” The first two are easy to answer: 20 years and Southern California. That last one, however, is – if you’ll pardon the pun – a much longer story.
If you stuff the tanks full, the Gulfstream IV will run out of fuel after nearly ten hours aloft. While we never push the fuel burn to the point where we’re “running on fumes”, it has proven to be a very convenient metric because charter regulations dictate that a pilot may not fly more than ten hours per day. So when my trusty steed needs to come down to Earth, so do my copilot and I.
Today’s large-cabin variants can stay airborne for more than 14 hours, and that tends to complicate matters. If the pilot can only fly 10 hours but the leg is longer, what do you do? The answer depends on the kind of flight. If it’s a charter, they’ll carry an extra pilot and rotate them so that nobody is at the controls for longer than is legally allowed.
If it’s a non-commercial flight (typically that means carrying the aircraft’s owner) then there are no legal limits to how long the crew can fly. Smart operators use the same limits regardless of who’s on board, because let’s face it, fatigue doesn’t discriminate based on the vagaries of the passenger manifest. Having said that, I know a crew who flies a G650 from Japan to Savannah, Georgia every now and then. That’s nearly 7,100 miles. The seats are more comfortable on the new planes; the cockpit is larger, the cabin pressurized to a lower altitude.
It still takes a tremendous toll on the body. Humans were not made to sit still for that long. Then there’s the circadian rhythms and time zone changes, which throw your system out of whack to a degree which is difficult to quantify if you’ve never experienced it. The longer I fly, the more convinced I am that managing fatigue is one of the most important skills a long haul pilot can develop.
You’ll notice that I usually speak of how far a plane can fly in terms of time rather than distance. That has never sounded abnormal to me… but then, I’m from Los Angeles. Ask an Angelino how far it is from Hollywood to Long Beach and they’ll reply, “About an hour”. Time is what really matters, and nothing highlights that more than living amid one of the most gridlocked freeway systems in the world.
In aviation, we reference aircraft range in terms of time because it’s safer. More than one pilot has vastly overestimated their aircraft’s range by thinking in terms of distance when Mother Nature had other ideas. You see, the time we can stay aloft is fairly consistent, but the distance we might travel in that time varies widely because of wind. It’s not uncommon to see 100 mph winds at our cruise altitudes. I’ve seen nearly 200 mph at times, especially in the winter when the jet stream bends southward.
Now if you’re headed eastbound, that’s great. Nobody would look askance at a 650 mph ground speed. Going westbound, however, you’d be poking along at a relatively slow 350 mph. Yet endurance is unchanged: ten hours. But those ten can take you 3,500 miles or 6,500 miles. It’s like an aerial version of an urban rush hour; your speed will depend on whether you’re headed into, or out of, town.
My longest flight? As a private pilot I once flew a four-seat single-engine Cessna from Ohio to Los Angeles. According to my logbook, it was 15.7 hours of flying and included crossing the Rockies in rough weather, plus a night landing on the west coast. In retrospect, not a very smart thing to do. I learned a lot about fatigue from that flight.
As a professional pilot, it was New York to Athens. That’s pushing 10 hours and 4,700 miles. On paper, it’s actually beyond the range of the airplane, but like I said, if the winds are right, you can go a lot further since your ground speed is higher. Going westbound there’s no way the airplane could have made it — we’d have run out of fuel over the North Atlantic.
On that particular day, we went to Athens, dropped off passengers, and then repositioned empty to London after a two hour ground delay. Again, not terribly smart, owing to the 18 hour duty day. But legal? Sure – the leg to London was without passengers and therefore free of any regulatory restriction on our duty or flight times.
My IQ’s gone up a bit since then. I’d flatly refuse the second leg if it was planned today.