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Diary of a Closed Loop

What’s life like inside the Closed Loop system? One pilot shares his diary of his experiences

Theo Murison is a Senior First Officer on Cathay Pacific’s Airbus fleet, and he’s been with the airline for 14 years. He recently completed his third Closed Loop cycle, spending five weeks flying in a self-contained bubble – and apart from his wife Amrin and toddler Zaden. He shares his reflections on time spent in the Loop.

Week 1: Preparation and farewells
Packing for the Loop takes careful planning and consideration, as I’ll be away for five weeks. But thanks to my previous Loop experience, plus advice from friends and the company, I’m much better prepared this time round. I’ve got just one week’s worth of clothes that I can wash (not the two huge bags of clothes I packed the first time!) The biggest consideration is to make sure I have things that will keep me occupied and entertained in the time off between flights and during quarantine. For me, that’s my laptop, Apple TV and Netflix subscriptions, and some accessories for a computer flight simulator.

On 6 January I leave home in the evening to start the Loop, with my first flight to London Heathrow. Saying goodbye to everyone at home is one of the hardest parts. It’s a very lonely taxi ride to Cathay City.

I meet the rest of the crew at Flight Dispatch: they are all on either their third or fourth Loop as well. Overall, morale is pretty good: we’ve all volunteered to do this, and we know what to expect. Plus, we get to fly, which is something that we love.

Week 2: Friends and tests
I’m looking forward to my Sydney flight this week. Flying is definitely the best thing about the Loop, as we get to fly almost a “normal” roster; in most of the Loops I fly close to 100 hours in 30 days, which is great.

It’s also been nice to fly with some of the same crew for a few flights. Normally that doesn’t happen in a big airline like Cathay Pacific – you might see one person every two years. But in a Loop you start to get to know the other cabin crew and pilots also in the Loop – either on the same flight, or you see them around the terminal during the test, so that helps to build some camaraderie.

It’s hard not being able to explore a foreign city on layovers like we used to. But I at least try to enjoy the bus rides and soak up the scenery on the way to the hotel. I also try to order the local cuisines and eat something particular to that city. And some of the hotels have nice views, which helps!

Of course, the Loop also comes with plenty of tests. After two years, it sort of feels normal now. After every flight we have a test and a two-hour wait for the results: we use that time to do some post-flight admin. The most annoying part is the strict testing schedule back at the hotel: always between 10am-11am, which can interfere with resting patterns, like last week when I was coming back from the UK. But to be honest, it’s better than taking tests outside the Loop. I’m much more nervous then, because it would have a big impact on my family and close contacts if I tested positive. At least in the Loop I don’t have to worry about that.

Week 3: Busy times and bored times
Lots of flights to keep me busy this week: two cargo-only flights to Taipei and a flight to New York JFK on 23 January.

Between flights I cope with the boredom of isolation by flying a military flight simulator (Digital Combat Simulator) on my laptop with special thrust lever and joystick accessories. Since the level of simulation is very realistic and complex, it is easy to lose a few hours flying a mission or dogfight with other players online. On every Loop I try to master a different aircraft type: my favourite is the F-16 “Viper”. It takes a long time to become proficient on one aircraft so it helps to eat up a lot of free time and gives you a sense of accomplishment.

I’ve also decided to rewatch the entire Star Wars collection – it explains a few things watching it in the right order! – plus some aviation channels on Youtube and studying for upcoming flights.

Exercising in the hotel rooms is challenging, since my favourite exercise is running outdoors and playing with Zaden. I tried running in my room but quickly lost interest in that, but I do follow a Hong Kong fitness instructor online and do some of the programmes.

Otherwise, I try to follow the same routine as my family at home: waking up at the same time, eating meals at the same time. Video calls in the morning and dinner time with my two champions at home, Amrin and little Zaden, are the highlights of my day. Their support and encouragement during the Loop has been immense. When I am away, Amrin must run the household with a very active Zaden, while still working her normal job. The spouses and partners of crew in the Loop are really the unsung heroes. It is a big decision and a big sacrifice for the whole family to be apart for so long.

Week 4: Missing home
This is the toughest week of quarantine so far. Even though I’ve got lots of flights this week, I’m really missing my family – and there’s still two whole weeks to go before I can see them again.

I really look forward to the occasional visits when Amrin and Zaden come to wave at me from outside the Headland Hotel. Some crew dislike having rooms on lower floors, but for me it gives me the best view of my beloved visitors. Being so close to them and not being able to meet them face-to-face is really hard, but their visit helps me to recharge for the upcoming week. They also bring me some delicious home-cooked food, which is a nice break from the hotel food or delivery that I’ve been living on for four weeks.

Week 5: Final stretch
My last flight to Sydney is complete, and I’ve moved into the Four Points by Sheraton Tung Chung to complete my week’s hotel quarantine. I am glad about the amount of flying I did in the loop. It’s been great to keep myself current with my skills. Coming from an Air Force background, I’ve always tried to do things to the best of my ability, and it’s rewarding to know that by doing a Loop I’ve been able to help support Cathay and Hong Kong.

But now that the Loop is almost over, the whole family is getting very excited about me coming home. Zaden keeps telling me about all the things we will do together when I get back. I can’t wait to see him and Amrin and settle back into normal life.

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