Backstage Travel: No. 4 - The pilot

Behind the scenes in the cockpit

Our lives are in their hands. But behind the locked cockpit door the commercial airline pilot is in his or her own world. "You don't forget the customer, but the door shuts and it's just the two of you in there and it is quite easy to disconnect," says Nick Johnson of Virgin Atlantic. He is a first officer, in other words, a junior pilot.

David Asgeirsson, a captain with easyJet, agrees. "Although you are interacting with passengers through the door, you don't have to deal with them face to face."

Both became pilots because of a childhood fascination with flying. With cadets bearing training debts of £80,000 upwards, it certainly has to be a passion.

The profession offers two very different lifestyles. As a short-haul pilot, Iceland-born Asgeirsson, 29, works 12-13 hour shifts out of Gatwick on European routes and may do several flights a day for five days before time off. Rather than staying abroad, he comes home each evening.

It's a routine that suits him and his young family, but it differs hugely from Johnson's lifestyle. Flying to the Americas and the Caribbean, the 31-year-old rarely pilots more than one flight in a duty and stays in the destination until the return trip, which could be several days ahead. As take-off and landing are the most stressful parts of the job, "long-haul flying is much less tiring", says Johnson.

It is still overwhelmingly a man's world: at Virgin Atlantic, male captains outnumber their female counterparts by an astonishing 60 to one.

On the flight deck, overall responsibility lies with the captain, but duties are interchangeable between the two pilots. One flies the plane while the other checks navigation, talks to air traffic control and monitors the aircraft's numerous instruments.

Once in the air, the pressure's off, and on longer flights there's often little to do, says Asgeirsson. "The autopilot is on and your job is just monitoring." Johnson agrees: "It's fair to say, the middle bit is less involved." Plus, flights over nine hours require a third pilot, so each can have a sleep in the cockpit's bunk bed.

Variables such as storms and passenger sickness provide challenges, and both pilots have experienced engine trouble after a bird strike. But serious emergencies are rare. Pilots receive simulator training every six months plus annual health checks, while everything possible is done to prevent disaster – the captain and first officer must choose different meal options, in case of food poisoning.

Even constant plane food can't dent the joy of flying for Johnson. "It's the ultimate little boy's dream."