They have our lives in their hands. So we asked an airline pilot how she takes care of herself.
Erin Jackson has a lot going on. The 40-year-old commercial airline pilot flies 737s for American Airlines out of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, and lives in a suburb of the city with her five kids (ages 12 to 19) and husband, also an airline pilot, who has two grown kids of his own. But "I have a great support system," she said. She and her husband try to fly opposite schedules so that someone can always be home; her ex-husband lives close by and is very involved with the kids; and her father helps out, too.
When she's not flying four-day routes across the country, Jackson also volunteers on the board of the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, which supports and recruits female pilots; women make up only 6 percent of the worldwide pilot population, according to Women in Aviation International.
Jackson has flown for 21 years and worked as a flight instructor and regional pilot before joining American two years ago. "People are entrusting their lives to us," she said. "As they walk onto my airplane, they're trusting that I got enough sleep, that I'm healthy and eating right, and I have the mental acuity and I've done the preparation to safely get them from point A to point B so they can relax and watch a movie."
Here's how she does that. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: What do wellness and self-care mean to you?
A: For me, it's a preferred lifestyle. It's not just a diet, an exercise set that I'm into right now. It's all-encompassing, everything from what I'm putting into my body to what I'm spending my time doing when I'm on the road.
Q: Take me through your routine on days when you're flying, and not.
A: My routine before I fly starts the day before, because I do meal prep. When you're gone for three or four days in a row, it's hard to eat healthy if you don't plan it out. The bag that I bring with me is half-tote and half-cooler. In the tote part is where I keep all the things that I need for flying, like my flight manuals, my work iPad, a safety vest. ... In the cooler part is where I'll put my meals.
I generally try to avoid eating meat; I'm not a strict vegetarian, but it's actually a little bit easier to travel knowing that I don't have to keep anything really cold. I have a really amazing bean and corn salad that I make with a cilantro dressing. I make a tofu pad thai peanut meal that I eat with rice. I also keep a bag of raw almonds in my tote. It's a fantastic snack and a great way to get some energy.
Usually I'm up by about 6:15 a.m. If I have to work a late flight that night, I'll get the kids on the bus and come back and take a nap.
The hard thing about being a pilot is there's not always structure, so day-to-day, it's going to be different. There's variety, and you've got to have flexibility while still finding time to make sure that you know you're staying healthy. I made a commitment to myself that every day I'm home, I'll find time to work out. I usually try to make a 9:30 class at the gym, and then I run my errands. After my errands, I come home, and I'm here for when the kids get off the bus. There's something just about every night, between baseball and basketball. All of my kids are musicians, too. We try to eat dinner together, and usually we make it work.
Q: What do you do to relax when you're on the road?
A: I do yoga in my room. I usually just lay the hotel towel on the floor and find a routine on YouTube. It's tempting to just get out of my uniform and veg the whole rest of the night, but just getting in a little bit of movement helps me feel better and brings things down for the day. The interesting thing about being a pilot is that you're using your brain a lot to fly an airplane. I've found that if I don't find a way to physically exert some energy, I'm tired from my day, but I'm not physically tired. Sometimes I'll FaceTime my family depending on what time of day it is, or my husband if he's in another city.
And I get caught up on emails — I do this when I'm lying on the floor and I'm doing leg lifts. When you are a parent and in aviation, sometimes it's like trying to conduct an orchestra from a thousand miles away. I'm on the floor trying to get some physical exertion, and I'm emailing a teacher back or one of my board members back. The nice thing about my husband being a pilot is sometimes I call him to unwind about my day, and he understands what I'm saying. It goes back to having a support system. I chat with my best friends almost every day over text messages, or we send each other funny memes.
Q: Do you get lonely when you're traveling? What do you do to combat that?
A: It can be lonely to be traveling on the road for so many days in a row by yourself, away from your family. We (airline employees) all have that same understanding. We have this phrase, "the four-day family." We'll say, hey, let's meet downstairs at the hotel restaurant for dinner at 6. It's a nice little camaraderie type of thing.
Q: What does your sleep schedule look like when you're on the road?
A: I have different work schedules based on what time of day I'm operating the aircraft. I always try to get a workout in. Having physical activity is imperative to getting a good night's sleep.
When I go to sleep, I always try to keep the temperature about the same as it is at home. I keep a water bottle next to me. Typically, I move the hotel air conditioning system's fan to the "on" position, so there's a little bit of white noise in the room. If I get a hotel whose air system doesn't do that, I have a white-noise app.
Q: How do you recover from jet lag and prevent getting sick?
A: Even though I don't travel across a lot of time zones, I try to make sure that I'm avoiding coffee late at night and staying hydrated so that I can go to sleep when I need to, to get my full eight hours before I fly the next day.
Not getting sick is a concerted effort. I take a multivitamin every day. I avoid drinking a lot of pop. I'm a firm believer of, if you put good things in your body and you take care of yourself, then you'll generally be a healthy person.
Q: How do you keep your mind sharp?
A: I think it all goes back to what I'm putting in my body for overall health. Vitamin B really helps with mental acuity, so that's in the vitamin I take. I really try to stay healthy and balanced and get plenty of rest.
I like to read when I'm on my off time, and I play Words with Friends with a couple of friends on my phone. I actually just got a book called "Nerves of Steel," by Tammie Jo Shults (the captain who landed the severely damaged Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 last year). I review my manuals every so often, too. Exercising your mind and doing those things helps keep your mind sharp. It's about using it just like any other muscle.
Q: What muscles are you working when you pilot a plane, and do you target those when you work out?
A: It's probably mostly my arm muscles, and some core and my legs. Takeoff and landing are the most physical parts of flying the plane. Obviously you need arm muscles to rotate and pull back on the controls when you're taking off. When you're coming in to land, you're using your arm muscles, too. I have one hand on the thrust levers and the other hand on the yoke, and my feet are controlling the rudder to stay aligned with the runway if there's a crosswind. I still do an overall-body workout. The class I go to at home uses weights, so I'm getting toning. I think keeping tone is important.
Q: What does a really good day look like to you?
A: The reason I got into the field I'm in is because I love to fly airplanes — the exhilaration of being in the air and being in control of this magnificent, beautiful machinery and dealing with the airspace and the weather. A great day for me is being able to pass on my love of aviation to somebody in some way.