`This is the captain. You're about to land. I'm already home.'

It might be that unmanned flights are the way forward, with me being the pioneer
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The Independent Culture
Very Unusual Jobs Indeed

No 39 in the series: an airline pilot who works from home!

"I USED to read all those articles about the trend towards working at home, and I used to feel sorry for all those guys. Here was I, an airline pilot, trotting round the globe, seeing exotic places, and there were these people stuck in their houses and never getting out. I never dreamt that one day it would be me. And it's the best thing that ever happened to me."

Digby Stratford is an experienced pilot to whom the worst thing in the world happened. He became afraid of flying.

"It all started when I had a narrow miss coming in to Heathrow - some Canadian plane which flew past about 400ft away.

"If you're driving and you avoid a car by 400ft, it's called being on the far side of a big car park, but if you miss a plane by 400ft, it's called being lucky to be alive.

"I started thinking about accident rates and life expectancy and things, and before I knew where I was, I had acquired a fear of flying and was starting to sweat and twitch and have little black-outs. That's no condition to fly in.

"Well, I was the most experienced pilot the airline had, and they didn't want to lose me. But there was no way I was going to go up in a plane again. I could have gone into training, I suppose, and taken over the pilot-training programme. But before it came to that I suggested, half in joke, half in despair, that instruments were so sophisticated these days, I could always fly a plane from the ground - and the chief computer boffin said it was well within the bounds of possibility!

"And he was right. Most flying these days is done on instrument. The captain doesn't have to do more than a bit of landing, take-off and correction. I have known flights on which the most strenuous thing I have done was make the announcements to the passengers. So it made sense to rig up some controls and instruments at home, and see if it worked. And it does.

"In my study at home I now have a mock-up of a cockpit installed. I have satellite links to the flight I am flying, and I can pick up immediately any alteration to speed, wind speed, temperature, fuel consumption, whatever. I can relay instructions back to the cockpit, without even bothering the others on the flight deck."

So there is someone in the cockpit, is there?

"Oh yes, the other officers are there, ready to do the small tasks which they always did do. But I am in charge. And in a sense, this is more efficient than if I were really in the plane."

How can that be true?

"Well, for a start, because I don't have all the hassle of getting to the airport and arriving tired and going through all the formalities and getting into uniforms that nobody in their right mind would want to wear... I can concentrate on the flying, and the flying alone."

But surely if you are 2,000 miles away from the plane you're flying, you don't have the same kind of involvement?

"You'd think so, wouldn't you? And yet we have unmanned trains and unmanned space rockets, and nobody thinks that odd. Do you think a Nasa scientist would be more involved if he were on board the flight? Or do you perhaps think he might be more detached in Dallas, and more efficient? It might be that unmanned jet passenger planes are the way forward, and that I am an accidental pioneer."

As he speaks, he leans forward and adjusts a couple of knobs. Suddenly, it dawns on us that all the time he has been chatting, he has in fact been flying a plane. But where is it? And where is it going?

"Coming from New York to London. Where the plane is, it's still dark and everyone on board is asleep. That's another advantage of remote pilotage - being wide awake in daylight while the plane you're flying is in the middle of the night. No danger of nodding off here! Oh, thanks, darling."

This to his wife, who has just come in with a cup of coffee. And what does Mrs Stratford think of having a pilot husband at home all the time?

"It's great!" she says. "I used to miss him a lot. It was a strain on both of us. But now that he works at home, it's wonderful.

"Of course, it's a bit odd passing his study and hearing him say, `If you look out of the starboard windows in five minutes, you can see the lights of Paris below you...' And we don't get the free flights any more. Just simulated flights. But as he's now got this fear of flying, that's just as well."

"And don't forget, honey," says Digby Stratford, "that if by a million- to-one chance the plane I am flying is involved in some terrible disaster, and everyone on board is lost - I'll still be alive!"

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