Flying came naturally to Thomas Amdal. Growing up next to Geneva Airport with an air traffic control tower-like view on the runway, he watched planes take off and land from his room window on the seventh floor. As a twelve-year-old, he flew remote-controlled planes. As a professional pilot in the late 90s, he whizzed business people and a Formula 1 world champion across Europe in private jets. He also flew many medevac missions. Today, as a seasoned airline pilot, Thomas flies the Airbus A320neo out of Geneva. In this interview, he explains how flying has changed during his career, including the pandemic, and how weather impacts air travel.
Thomas, what does your typical working day look like?
I tend to fly the early rotations out of Geneva, so my working day usually starts at 5 a.m. A typical day can be a two-sector flight, for example, to Egypt and back, or a day with four sectors, for instance, Geneva-London and back and Geneva-Paris and back, all with the same crew. I then finish between 2 and 3 p.m., allowing me to spend time with my family. Every day is different because the destinations, crew composition, and weather change. The many country-specific COVID-19 regulations in Europe can also have an impact. A country might decide on new rules or restrictions late in the evening for the next day. What was going to be a full flight then becomes an only half-full flight overnight, changing the weight and balance of the aircraft.
How else has the pandemic changed your work as a pilot?
The pandemic hit us suddenly and very hard in 2020. We had a complete shutdown for nearly three months, and I could not fly for 107 days. When I got back in the air at the end of June 2020, many sanitary measures were implemented. Because of these new measures, a pilot is even more isolated now on the flight deck. The cabin crew comes into the cockpit less to check in on the captain and first officer during the flight. During the turnaround on the ground, the dispatcher or airport agent, also called the “red cap”, might not always come to the flight deck anymore. The dispatcher usually provided the aircraft’s weight and balance in person and had it signed off by the captain. There are days when my first officer and I see nearly nobody. It is unfortunate and confusing at times. As captain, you need to know what’s going on all around your aircraft, but because of the pandemic, it now takes more effort and energy to be aware of all external parameters during the turnaround. That’s why collaboration and communication tools such as SITA’s Mission Control are a great idea and could be very helpful to break out of silos and the increased isolation. Over the past decades, a lot has been done on the flight deck, such as automatic landings, traffic avoidance, and radar improvements. Now we need better communication and collaboration between all the actors on the ground for higher visibility and an efficient turnaround.
Looking back at your entire career, how else has flying changed?
The first jet I flew in 1997 was a Learjet 35a. I had lots of needles and only one electronic screen in the cockpit. I flew much more by hand. Twenty-four years later, as an airline pilot of the Airbus A320neo, I fly on autopilot 99.9% of the time and rely much more on technology. It doesn’t mean flying is less challenging; it’s different. New technologies have brought more safety but also more complexity into the job. On the one hand, I must stay up to date with the latest software releases. On the other hand, because of all the technology, be it the aircraft’s technology or supporting technology, pilots today have a bigger picture of their flights and more time to spend on strategy.
Strategy is a term not often heard in the context of flying. What do you mean by that?
Everyone dreams of the perfect flight. Before each flight, I therefore ask myself: How do I best get my up to 180 passengers, crew, and 77-ton aircraft from A to B? Safety and security is always the top priority. One of the biggest challenges we face is the weather. Usually 12 hours in advance, I check several sources for the weather related to my next flight. If the forecasts predict beautiful weather, I drop it until I get to the airport. But, more often than not, the weather demands a lot of our attention and thinking – especially at this time of the year in Europe. You frequently have fog in the mornings and at airports with water nearby. You start thinking about the weather already on your way to the airport. You must anticipate the weather’s impact on your entire flight. How will you brief the cabin crew? If you cannot avoid turbulence, the crew might not be able to serve hot drinks, for example. If you expect a thunderstorm at the destination, you must take more fuel because you cannot be sure you will land there. But before you divert to another airport, you would want to hold a little to see if a window of opportunity opens up. A thunderstorm is typically a 90-minute activity from the time it starts forming, builds up, and discharges with rain or hail. On the final approach to a destination with a thunderstorm, I rely on the aircraft’s weather radar, my experience and gut feeling. If there’s a safe way to land the plane, we will do it. Every day and every flight are different.
The weather in Europe this summer was not the best. What was your perception as a pilot?
This year has been more challenging. There was more bad weather and rain than in previous years, and the thunderstorms were massive. In my more than 20 years of flying, weather phenomena have become more dynamic. They develop more quickly and are more intensive than they used to be. The weather forecast might predict a small thunderstorm on the way or at the destination, but it ends up being enormous. I’ve never had significant issues with aircraft technology; it’s reliable. But weather issues have been more challenging and sometimes problematic. I’ve experienced more weather issues this summer than in the last maybe five years.
Can you explain a little more how you use the aircraft’s weather radar?
In the air, the weather radar is my primary source of information for the current weather activity ahead of me for up to 320 miles. It can detect water droplets as rain or hail, say 100 miles in front of me, but not fog. When you get down to around 2,500 feet, the weather radar can also detect wind shear. This capability is vital for the final approach and landing. Wind shear is a rapid change of wind direction and speed. If you have wind shear shortly before landing, get out! It’s an immediate go-around. You cannot continue to land because you never know. You can have a 30-knot headwind and within just two seconds a 30-knot tailwind. That’s a totally different situation. With that kind of tailwind, the aircraft would just sink. The onboard radar helps avoid such extreme and dangerous weather phenomena.
What other decision-making tools do pilots use to avoid significant weather events?
Pilots get all necessary information, including weather forecasts, in their flight plans that they either download to a tablet or print out before the flight. If you have connectivity in the cockpit, you can get constant weather updates directly to your tablet during the flight. I find the time-lapse function of SITA’s application eWAS Pilot highly useful. You can quickly look at the weather at any point along your route and optimize your flight, for example, to avoid turbulence. Even if you don’t have cockpit connectivity, it is still a very nice tool to use during the briefing stage and even flight. You get pretty accurate weather forecasts, including for the landing. Thunderstorm cells are less predictable, as explained. In any case, pilots will primarily rely on the aircraft’s weather radar for real-time decisions, especially for landing. In general, reliable weather information, ideally from different data sources, helps me find the best strategy for any given flight regarding passenger safety and comfort, working environment for the cabin crew, and operational efficiency.
But sometimes, all the instruments and tools cannot help, and you still need to fly through bad weather?
Pilots differentiate between two categories of weather issues: There is weather you must face with the aircraft’s technology. Fog is a good example here, where you can resort to fully automated landings. For this kind of weather, you consider the crew’s qualification and the capabilities of the aircraft and airport. The other weather issues are related to convective clouds. If a convective cloud turns into a thunderstorm, you are in for heavy rain, hail, lightning, and severe air turbulence. In extreme conditions, such severe weather could potentially damage a plane. That is why we have radar on board to avoid and fly around it. But even with less severe weather, I always imagine my wife, who is afraid of flying, sitting in the back of my plane in 16C. Flying through suboptimal weather then seems not a good idea and not the experience I want for her or any of my passengers. I prefer to descend 2,000 feet and get a smooth ride so that everyone can enjoy their hot coffee or tea.