Joe La Fontaine, 59, lives the high life, as in the really really high life, flying at 40,000 ft, captaining the world’s largest commercial aircraft.
We have a thing for aircrews, especially the pilots. The uniforms, the lifestyle, the panache. It is a work-life in the very fast lane at 600 mph. Not many of us get to see the things they see, and travel to places they do. It seems rather amazing that one could have a job like that.
Flying a plane like this is certainly glamorous, but it is not without its lifestyle issues. How does one take care of oneself flying that many miles? What insider secrets should we know from someone who has been flying for four decades?
The Best of Both Worlds
Hi, Joe. How old are you?
I am counting the days to my 60th birthday. Currently, I am 59 and will be celebrating my 60th birthday in another 9 months.
Most people are embarrassed about their age. I have realized that as long as I continue to work, look after my health and adopt a positive approach to life I can continue to live a youthful existence combined with the wisdom and confidence that comes with age.
We don’t slow down because we grow old, we grow old because we slow down.
Australia to the Middle East
Your life is essentially nomadic, where do you live?
My nationality is Australian but for the last 18 years I have had the privilege of living and working in the Middle East. My first two years abroad were spent living in the Kingdom of Bahrain and my last 16 years I have spent in the dynamic city of Dubai.
Flying Since the Age of 15
How long have you been flying? How long have you been a commercial pilot?
As far as back as I can recall I have always wanted to be a pilot. In Australia, you need to be a minimum of 18 years of age before you can obtain a Private Pilot’s License on powered aircraft. I did not have the patience to wait till I turned 18. I realized I could hold a gliders license at the age of 15. I started my first gliding lesson as a member of the Royal Australian Air Force Cadets on the day that I turned 15.
I was issued a Commercial Pilot’s License at the ripe old age of 21. Most people don’t realize that a Commercial License simply means that you can receive payment and/or charge passengers for your services. Unless you are fortunate enough to join an airline with a cadet program. Most newly-acquired commercial pilots will spend several years building flying hours and aviation experience in the general aviation industry (charter, aerial work, flight instructing). After accumulating several thousand flying hours in the general aviation industry a percentage of pilots will transition to the airline industry. My first commercial flying job was delivering aircraft.
“The biggest and most comfortable aircraft ever built”
What is the aircraft that you fly now?
I am currently employed as a Captain on the Airbus Super Jumbo A-380. I have been flying the Super Jumbo in the capacity of Instructor Captain and Line Captain for little over 6 years.
How do you like it? Anything special about this plane?
The A-380 is a marvelous machine to fly. It has a maximum take-off weight of 575 tons which equates to an equivalent weight of over 400 vehicles. My aircraft is as long as two blue whales and as tall as five giraffes. This aircraft has two separate passenger decks and, depending on its configuration, can carry up to 853 passengers. I am continuously amazed that an aircraft of this size can be flown effortlessly using nothing more than fingertip control.
It is kind of a buzz to know that every time I go to work I get to fly the biggest and most comfortable commercial aircraft ever built.
You seem to do a lot of long haul flights. What are your jet lag tips?
The A-380 was designed for long haul/ultra long haul flights. This is where the aircraft becomes the most economical. About 75% of my flights per month fall under the category “long haul” (6 – 12 hours). The remainder of my flights for the month come under the category of “ultra long haul” (12 hours and above).
I rarely suffer from jet lag. Most of my destinations/layovers are only for a 24-hour period. I tend to keep my internal body clock (circadian rhythm) on Dubai time. Sometimes this means going to bed at 1 pm in the afternoon at destination local time. This strategy does not always work but I try to stick to it as best as I can. I also try to hydrate myself as much as possible and hit the gym once I have been well rested.
Jet Lag in the City That Never Sleeps
What is your favorite airport?
For me, airports worldwide are all the same but if you are referring to destinations (cities) I would have to go with New York City. My airline accommodates me in a very nice hotel on the corner of 7th Avenue and 53rd street. This location is a stone’s throw away from Broadway and a short stroll to Central Park.
If I suddenly spring out of bed at 2am in the morning there is always something that I can find to do. Time is my biggest problem. There never seems to be enough time to do all the things that I have planned.
What is your least favorite airport?
I don’t believe I have a destination that I would classify as “least favorite.” I find all destinations around the A-380 network interesting in some way. You just need to do a little research and get on your feet.
90 Flight Hours Per Month
How often do you fly vs having days off?
The Civil Aviation Authority of most countries will limit the number of flying hours for airline pilots to 900 hours a year. When you take into account leave/vacation, the average productive airline pilot will fly 90 flight hours a month. As an example, on a return trip to LAX, I will normally accumulate about 30 flying hours for a four-day trip. So, if I could be on the roster for three LAX trips a month, I would accumulate 90 flight hours for 12 days of work. This would therefore leave me a total of 18 days off for the month. In reality this is not what happens. I do a combination of short, medium, long-haul and ultra-long-haul flights. This generally leaves me with 12 days off each month.
Staying Healthy on the Plane
What should passengers know about being on a plane that you think they don’t but should?
Jet aircraft travel is not the most healthy environment to be exposed to. This is an admission coming from an airline pilot with over 26,000 flight hours.
Aircraft manufacturers have now designed passenger aircraft that can fly for over 18 hours. This is great for minimizing airline cost, but it comes at a cost to passenger health. Commercial jet aircraft are pressurized, but the aircraft are not pressurized to that of ground-level pressure. Most modern commercial jet aircraft are pressurized (depending on the cruising altitude of the aircraft) to an altitude as high as 7,000 feet. This means that passengers are breathing air of the same density as what you would find on a 7,000-foot mountain. This rarefied air can be detrimental to passengers of ill health and the elderly. Pressurized air from the engines is also extremely dry and can become contaminated by fine particles of engine lubricants and hydraulic fluids.
Sitting in the same position for hours on end can result in conditions such as deep-vein thrombosis, nausea, as well as back pain. Solar radiation can also be a risk factor to human health. This will depend on aircraft altitude and latitude flown.
My advice is to minimize one’s exposure to the aircraft cabin environment. If you need to travel, limit the time you spend in the air and, when possible, break up your flight with an intermediate stopover. Drink plenty of water, avoid alcohol and get out of your seat when possible.
Your dog Russell is a star of some of your videos. How does he handle you being away?
“Russell” is my second Jack Russell. I just have an affiliation with this breed of dog. Super energetic and also super intelligent. I don’t believe he worries too much when I leave him to go on a trip. My son Cameron and his girlfriend are always around to spoil him.
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I got called out at the last moment to operate a flight to Seoul, South Korea departing at 3:30 am. As my body clock is all out of wack I sprung out of bed at 2:00am the following morning. So what better way to start the new day than an early workout. Working on my arms today. Biceps curls.
You seem to be very fit. How often do you work out?
I try to work out every day. Sometimes it is impossible, especially if I am on a long flight. But when I can I hit the gym every day. I try to alter my exercise regime every six to twelve months. At present, my gym routine involves a two km run as a warm-up. I try to complete the two km run under 11 minutes. I follow this with some dynamic stretches before beginning my weight lifting program. Each day I target a particular muscle group. I have six groups (legs, arms, chest, abs, back, shoulders). I end my workout with some overall body stretches.
If you have ever wondered what it looks like to land a massive plane as seen from the pilot’s viewpoint, you have got to check out the mesmerizing videos shot from his cockpit. They are some of those behind-the-curtain views that make one feel as if they shouldn’t be watching. Is this even legal? It is, even if it feels illicit.