Adelle Roberts: Airline Pilot

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Adelle Roberts, 35, is a first officer for Virgin Atlantic. She lives in a village near Windsor with her husband, Pete, a manager for British Airways

My brother, a former RAF pilot, inspired me to enter the airline industry, so after working as cabin crew for a year, at 21 I trained to become a pilot. It costs a fortune to train in the UK – it’s currently about £100,000 – so I trained in Australia, where it’s cheaper, for 13 months. I’m now a long haul and ultra-long haul pilot so I only work four times a month but I am away between two and nine days at a time, flying everywhere from New York to Shanghai.

My longest trip is from London to Sydney via Hong Kong and back again. It’s a night departure from Heathrow so I get up at 8am, have a bowl of cereal and a black coffee and go to the gym. It’s important to be well rested, so after eating some homemade soup for lunch, I sleep for three hours at home. I’m a really good napper so I don’t need an eye mask – I just switch off, plus doing yoga at the gym helps me relax.

I get dressed into my uniform of trousers, white shirt with epaulets, cravat, fitted jacket and court shoes – we take our jackets off in the flight deck so it’s actually really comfortable. Travelling as often as I do, I’ve become an expert at packing – I fold rather than roll my clothes and always check the weather so if it’s hot I’m prepared. I never unpack my toiletry bag as I don’t want to risk forgetting anything. My skin gets dry but I don’t like taking liquids through security so I will slather on Estée Lauder Resilience Lift moisturiser before I fly.

At the airport I pass through the same security checks as the passengers with my carry-on – a pilot’s nav-bag containing my iPad, passport and pilot and medical licences. Although we get a discount at duty free, I don’t buy anything in England as I love beauty store Sephora in the US. The crew meet in the crew room and walk through theterminal together to the aircraft. We get lots of attention. It’s a bit like BBC2’s Pan Am – one of my favourite shows.

I remember feeling a huge responsibility for the passengers but I've learned to block that out

The plane I fly – the Airbus A340 – carries 307 passengers. During my first flight I felt a huge responsibility for the passengers but over time I’ve learned to block that feeling out so I can focus on the task at hand. Either the captain or I do the take-off before we engage the auto-pilot. While we cruise our job is to monitor the systems and keep track of airfields in case we need to divert. On one flight a passenger had a heart attack – my training kicked in and it was only after that the reality hit that diverting to Boston helped to save his life.

Our meals are similar to the passengers’ and we get a choice of four options – it’s not great for the waistline to eat them all the time though. The Civil Aviation Authority sets maximum flight duty periods, so we need to rest to complete the flight. After four hours we go to the bunk area to sleep for six hours while the other two pilots take over, before returning to the cockpit for the final three-hour cruise.

In Hong Kong we stay at The Langham hotel – some people think of my job as a holiday and while it’s great to visit beautiful destinations such as my favourite city Chicago, it’s with people you wouldn’t necessarily choose to go away with – though I have made some great friends and lots of crew end up marrying other crew.

After two nights in Hong Kong we fly the eight-hour journey to Sydney where we spend one night, before repeating the whole process again in the other direction. When I first started I found the jetlag at the end of a trip really tough but I’ve learned to deal with it – if my body feels tired, I just go to bed regardless of the time.

After being away for nine days I have five days off, which gives me the chance to catch up with friends, help with Riding for the Disabled and do chores. When the Icelandic volcano erupted in 2010, I was stuck in Japan for 10 days and my husband updated his Facebook status to say “I hope my wife comes home soon as I have run out of clean pants.” I soon let him know that he could do his own washing!


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