Old dog, new tricks

by Victoria Bryan on Jun 03 2019
Jet lagged and weary, I scoured Auckland airport looking for likely L3 cadets. You know, white, male, British, about 18-20 years old. A “remove before flight” key ring dangling from a backpack gave away one such usual suspect and off I went to introduce myself.

I don’t exactly match that description. I took the decision to try to become a pilot at the grand old age of 36, after spending 12 years working as a journalist, the most recent of those in Germany covering aviation. Having grown up with bad eyesight and with the assumption that you needed 20:20 vision, being a pilot never entered my mind until laser surgery opened up new possibilities to me. So I set about weighing up my chances of starting my first pilot job at the wrong end of my thirties.

One airline school I spoke to in Germany immediately set me back slightly, telling me that airlines preferred younger cadets and that some had age limits for first time pilots. As a good journalist you never rely on one source so I asked other schools and airlines and pilots. They were more encouraging, especially British ones. Pilots also told me that airlines value the life experience that older cadets have accrued. These days the job of a commercial airline pilot is also about teamwork, decision making, prioritizing and delegating. These were certainly all skills that I needed during my previous career working in a busy newsroom. In addition, I have had more time than most to understand the ups and downs (couldn’t resist!) of the airline industry and the economics that drive it, which I believe future employers will find useful.

I am not the only one to have come up with this grand idea later in life. The financial cost of training is forcing more potential pilots to work first to save money and then start training. easyJet’s press office told me they had former doctors and dentists on their roster. So far at L3’s Centre in Hamilton, I have come across former linguists, lawyers, engineers, cabin crew and even an Olympic rower! The average age of cadets currently undergoing training on a similar training route to myself with L3 is 24. Of those approx. 520 cadets, 68 are over the age of 30. Two of that 68 were in my CP so it was nice not to be the only oldie. I recently asked Kevin who looks after L3’s placement whether age was an issue in his discussions with airlines and he said it had never come up.

So far, I have no regrets. It has not been without its challenges though, especially as I decided to do ground school on the other side of the world, in New Zealand.

For me as an older student, returning to GCSE level maths and physics after many years was hard and for the first couple of weeks I felt really behind the rest of my class. As someone who has never really tinkered with cars or engines, aircraft general knowledge was also a real struggle at first. Together with the culture shock of being away from my home in Germany and my family in the UK, I found myself needing a hug.

My life certainly changed dramatically from what I was used to. Along with a return to house sharing, after years of living on my own, I found myself with a routine for the first time since becoming a reporter over a decade ago. Alarm at 7, shower, breakfast, drive to school, lessons, lunch, home, gym, study, dinner, more studying until about 9 or 10pm, then bed. Weekends were also often sacrificed to study. I became excellent at attaching post-it notes to my walls. Although I have tried to see a bit of New Zealand along the way, I felt that getting all first time passes was more important for the short but intense ground school phase.

So here I am, having just completed all 14 ATPL exams with a healthy average and first time passes. Sadly I am now having to undergo the first of three stand down periods while L3 works through an instructor shortage. This does worry me given my age. I would like to be done sooner rather than later, which was why I opted to give up work entirely and go for a full time course. But for now I am trying to look on the bright side and enjoy the extended break to see friends and family. It’s a chance I won’t be getting once I start work again, that’s for sure, plus without the stress of exams, finally I can go exploring!

In sum, I would say, don’t think that you are too old for this. It’s a thrill and a welcome challenge to learn a new career. Yes, you will need to dust off some old school knowledge (I found the BBC GCSE revision guides useful), and brace for a shock to your lifestyle if you are used to earning money.  Some go part time with a modular course but there’s no way I could have done that with my previous job. I don’t know where I will end up but so far I am loving the journey.

“If I can create the minimum of my plans and desires, there shall be no regrets,” Bessie Coleman, American Aviatrix

- Victoria