If you’ve ever taken a long flight, you know how boring plane travel can be. Passengers love complaining about the brain-numbing monotony of being stuck on an aircraft for six hours or more. But if you think it’s bad for you, just imagine what your pilot has to endure. Sure, they’ve got more responsibilities than you—hopefully they have more to keep their brain occupied then flipping through a USA Today—but not every moment requires complete concentration.
“There are often long stretches where pretty much nothing is happening,” says Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and author of the memoir Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel. “You are always watching, monitoring, and managing the flight’s progress, as well as keeping an eye on the airplane’s various systems, but yes, it can get boring up there.”
What exactly are pilots doing up there at 36,000 feet, when the boredom sets in and they think nobody is paying attention? We decided to find out. We talked to pilots, searched platforms like Quora and Reddit, and even dug into their private and public online forums—where they get to talk anonymously about the things they’d never share publicly—for clues on what commercial airline pilots do for fun when they’re not focused on keeping the rest of us alive. So read on, and be surprised. And for more ways to optimize your flying experience, don’t miss the 30 Airport Secrets Only Insiders Know.
Numerous pilots say they love mental challenges like crosswords or Sudoku puzzles during their in-air down time. It may sound treacherous, but these puzzle-loving pilots insist that it’s less distracting than reading a book or watching a movie. “A puzzle won’t pull you in for long durations,” they claim.
Study for school.
If you feel a little guilty about wasting all that plane time watching Adam Sandler movies or flipping through grocery-store magazines, this isn’t going to make you feel any better. Many pilots claim that they use long flights to get studying done.
One pilot insisted that a colleague actually learned quantum physics during several transatlantic flights between the United Kingdom and South America. And for more amazing in-air advice, see The 34 Best Airports in America.
When pilots talk to the media, they almost always claim there’s no reading happening in the cockpit. “You can’t read a novel… you can’t read a newspaper… that’s strictly prohibited,” they’ve claimed. But it’s a different story in the forums, where pilots brag about reading just about everything during flights.
“I usually don’t have the patience to sit down with a book and read whilst I’m on the ground,” one pilot admitted. “But when I’m by myself up in the air, I sure love reading a good book.”
Learn a foreign language.
If a pilot is bilingual, there’s a good chance he learned that second language in the cockpit. Pilots on online forums have claimed they learned how to speak Mandarin and even Hindu while on oppressively long flights. Talk about multi-tasking! If you want to pick up another tongue on your own, just master The Secret Trick For Learning A New Language Quickly.
Some of the practical jokes that pilots pull on their crew and others can be of questionable taste, like the time a pilot used his WX radar to “try to pick up ships on the surface, and then act like [we’re] bombing them.” Or when two co-pilots decided to play a prank on their flight attendants, pretending that one of them had died. As the perpetrator claims he told the head attendant, “You cannot tell any of the other flight attendants about this, and obviously none of the passengers, but Captain Bob had a massive heart attack a few minutes ago, died instantly, and we covered him up.” That’s just mean!
Every plane is different, but some larger aircrafts are equipped with secret sleeping quarters that are located directly over the first class cabin. These nooks can only be accessed by climbing a hidden ladder, and the private bedrooms have their own bathroom and, occasionally, a TV. Not every airline offers these luxuries, of course, but some offer more perks to their pilots than even the passengers in first class receive. Singapore Airlines, for instance, purportedly provides satin pillows for pilots on Airbus A380 planes.
Listen to the radio.
The automatic direction finding (or ADF) is supposed to be used only as an aid to navigation. But bored pilots have been known to use it to “pick up everything from local news to St. Louis Blues hockey to Radio Disney,” one pilot confessed in an online forum. “It comes in handy on long night flights, especially [when you have] no one to talk to.”
Nerd out over an atlas
You know how your dad insists on taking his Rand McNally atlas on road trips, even though GPS has made them mostly obsolete? Well, pilots share this passion for road atlases, even though they’re nowhere near (hopefully) a road.
“Sometimes to kill time, we carry binoculars and a Rand McNally road atlas in the cockpit,” a pilot admitted on a forum. “I use the binoculars and the atlas to see what highway and city we’re flying over.” If that doesn’t sound dangerous, imagine the driver of a car using binoculars to look up at the sky. Think about that the next time you’re on the flight. Happy travels!
Karaoke (kind of).
As a passenger, you can listen to tunes on your headphones, but you probably shouldn’t be singing out loud. There’s a little more privacy in the cockpit. “If you’re alone then it doesn’t matter how badly you sing along,” one pilot admitted. “Just make sure you don’t have a stuck mic and broadcast your debut to the world.” And for what these pilots are singing, check out the 50 Cover Songs Way Better Than the Original.
Check their tablets.
Nowadays, iPads have become a requirement for most pilots. But the devices aren’t meant for checking email or playing games. These iPads come loaded with all the tools a pilot will need for a successful flight, like weather apps, operational alerts, and fuel estimates. They can even “pull up a photo for each crew member,” according to one pilot—ostensibly for security reasons, and not because they’re using it as their personal in-flight Tinder. And for more amazing flight hacks, learn the 20 Secrets Your Flight Attendant Won’t Tell You.
Pilots dine on the same grub that the passengers get, but not necessarily the same quality. Because the airline can’t risk both pilots getting food poisoning, and airline food has a reputation for questionable quality—insert lame stand-up comedy joke here—they make sure to eat different meals. The pilot usually gets the first class meal, and the copilot the business class meal.
Think about all the things that can go wrong.
Hey, they’re just like you! If you’ve ever gotten on a flight and worried about all the ways the plane could crash, you’re not alone. Your pilot is likely thinking the same thing. Even when everything is going normal, a pilot’s mind will wander to the worse case scenarios. If there’s an engine failure, or a fire on board, or depressurization, they have to be acutely aware of the nearest alternative airports for a quick and easy landing.
It’s technically against FAA regulations, but pilot selfies still happen with an alarming regularity. It even resulted in a fatal plane crash in 2014, which, according to an official report, was caused by the pilots “taking self-photographs with their cell phones.” But don’t be too concerned; in most cases, if you notice a pilot posting mid-air selfies to his Instagram page, he’s likely just using Photoshop.
Gaze out the window.
As a passenger, we’ve all reached that point of boredom on a long flight when even flipping through Sky Mall is too boring, so we just stare out the windows at the clouds. As it turns out, pilots do the same thing, but with a little more purpose.
“Mostly I’m looking for other airplanes and watching what I can see of the weather ahead,” a pilot explained online. While you’re just enjoying the terrain (or horizon), the pilot is on the lookout for “tall cumulus clouds which tend to be bumpy and can be dangerous.”
Just like any work colleagues, pilots like to gossip with each other—mostly about their employers. “We talk about whether our airline is going to get bought, who’s merging with whom,” says Scott, a commercial pilot for a large U.S. carrier (he declined to name which). “We discuss what management has planned for the future, and all the rumors. Aviation is full of rumors. You know, some guy knows the CEO of Morgan Stanley, and they are setting up the financing for another airline to buy our airline. Stupid stuff like that. Ninety percent of the rumors never materialize, but we talk about them anyway.”
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