Priority boarding... to the flight deck

by Erik Schmitz on Jan 07 2019
As a young, impressionable fan of travelling, it didn’t take much for me to become dead set on a pilot’s career. After all, aviation is quite literally about going places. While most would shudder at the thought of starting the day at 3 am, young me knew I was about to embark on another journey.

So it was that, after years of wandering through glossy airport terminals and spotting those smartly-dressed pilots that oozed a calm confidence, I made the decision to put down the toy steering wheel I carried on all flights (I now know that a joystick or yoke would have been more appropriate) and go for the real thing. Fast-forward to age 14 when I first took control of an aircraft at my local flying club and I caught the bug. The hunt was on for a viable route onto the flight deck…

My journey with L3Harris (then CTC Aviation) began in February 2017. After passing Whitetail selection a few weeks earlier in January, a race began that saw me driving from my home to Southampton, Peterborough, Heathrow and finally Southampton again in order to gather all the documents needed to start. The very capable selection team would call me to offer support, helped me book my medical exam and see how I was getting on until I arrived, ready for ground school on my induction day. Before enrolling, I had attended the previous two open days and spoken to scores of pilots in various stages of training before L3Harris passing my personal vetting. Once I was stood centre-stage in the events hall, watching the A320 simulator sway back and forth and being welcomed into the CP I instantly felt a sense of belonging. The next time we stood up there together would be as a hardened CP at the end of ground school.

Ground school was an intense six months of essentially completing a micro-degree in 14 different aviation subjects, such as human performance and limitations or air law. I met friends for life while we progressed through the classroom lessons, led by some of the most qualified and interesting people I have ever met in the industry, ranging from ex-military to airline pilots. They were so personally invested in our success, that I felt confident we’d make it through from the beginning. They always kept us engaged and did their best to keep us motivated, even after months of giving 100%. Thank you all, you know who you are! I began developing non-technical skills at this stage, helping others in subjects I was stronger in and asking for help from others when needed. I’m a firm believer of taking responsibility of one’s own path and ground school is rife with self-led learning and opportunities to see what works best for you, as long as you can apply it to the exams. Something I thought was great to see was that a group of international strangers, educations ranging from A-Level to PHDs, was melded into a strong team with one common interest. I can’t imagine not knowing any of these people now, it was certainly worth the effort! The subjects I enjoyed the most were aircraft general knowledge and operational procedures. These got into the intricate details of for example, how hydraulics systems on an aircraft work or how checklists and procedures are implemented to keep us all safe - things I never knew even after years of privately researching the career.

Whilst preparing for the last set of exams, those of us not already affiliated with an airline were told by the graduate placement team that British Airways was looking to interview cadets with a ground school average above a certain percentage. Not that we needed an extra incentive since a good ground school average demonstrates to the airlines that you have the solid understanding of aviation essential for an airline pilot, but for me personally this strengthened my resolve. After half a year of unrelenting work, on a pleasant day in September, the final set of exams were complete and the 3am finishes were worth it as I'd made the cut on paper. Having completed the online application I found out in an airport terminal (quite fittingly) that our flag carrier wanted to interview me at their headquarters, Waterside. I left the big, beautiful building (which features an aircraft landing gear in the lobby!) after a full day of interviewing and later found out I had been given a conditional offer of employment with British Airways. The relief and sense of achievement this gave was fantastic, after such a commitment without having a set contract at the end I could now focus solely on the training because if we both hold up our ends of the offer, there’s a job waiting for me with the airline I have looked up to since I was a child. I cannot wait to join an airline with such a rich, British involvement in aviation which pioneered trans-Atlantic jetliners and, of course, the Concorde.

Next, in September 2017, I hopped on the largest passenger aircraft in the world and crossed 12 time zones to New Zealand to begin my flight training. All in a days (or three) work. Needless to say, this was very exciting and some of my fondest memories were made in that very blue sky. The most memorable moments in the air are my first solo, the cross-country qualifier and flying IFR routes in the twin star in all sorts of weird and wonderful weather. The foundation flying in New Zealand was all about building the core flying and non-technical skills with an instructor in a light aircraft before taking command of an aircraft solo to build experience. The well-structured training program takes you from potentially zero hours. You learn the absolute basics of straight and level flying, basic maneuvers, flying in a circuit traffic pattern around aerodromes and emergency procedures with an instructor. Then you take these skills and go up by yourself. Whilst I felt completely prepared thanks to my instructor, it was a sobering thought to look over to the right seat mid-flight and find it empty. It was truly up to me and it felt great to prove myself in the skies. A terrifyingly-fun 6 minutes (1 circuit).

Then, after some time in a dedicated simulator, we learned how to operate under Instrument Flying Rules. Flying without visual reference outside the cockpit. The bread and butter of airline flying, using radio signals transmitted into the cockpit and displayed on screens such as our Garmin G1000 equipment. First in the Cessna 172 then on the mighty Diamond Twin Star. This lead up to the Commercial Pilot’s License Skills Test, where I earned my license proving that I could handle a single pilot flight in the Twin Star, being accountable for all non-technical planning aspects as well as fly a route, divert to another aerodrome and deal with a simulated emergency.

After completing the CPL and going back home to the U.K. in July, the Instrument Rating phase began in Bournemouth. This was all about applying the flying and theoretical knowledge to UK IFR conditions. We went through orientation in simulators, taking full responsibility for flights as a single pilot in command. This begins with assessing the weather to be legally suitable and safe, checking the aircraft, calculating mass & balance and performance and constructing the route considering possible diversions and courses of action if something doesn’t go to plan. This took the foundations built in New Zealand and added more captaincy and decision making with a bit of early multi-crew exposure being partnered up with a fellow cadet. This culminated into a pass on the Instrument Rating Test, which is added to the CPL. With a CPL MEIR, I could be the single pilot in command of a Twin Star in a commercial operation within Class A airspace, where the jetliners live. A long way from the first solo and a strong platform to go into the Airline Qualification Course with.

Looking ahead to AQC and the New Year I have just been told that my license has arrived from the CAA and is on its way home. I have been working towards it for six years, so it will be exceptionally rewarding to hold that piece of paper in my hands. Next up is the Airline Qualification Course which begins shortly. This is designed to provide you with a strong foundation upon which to commence a jet conversion course and subsequent line training at an airline. It’s going to take a lot of discipline, self-awareness and non-technical skills specifically working as a two-person crew. Additionally, my partner and I will be learning in practice how a jet behaves differently from the aircraft I am now used to. Whilst an undoubtedly intense three weeks, having just been confirmed a place on the A320 simulator I used to watch swaying in the hall 18 months ago this is the final step with L3 and the “real deal”!

If I were asked to give any advice to aspiring pilots or cadets at the beginning of their training, it would be this: take control of your learning curve and self-development.

If you are applying young such as myself, it’s not about your age, that’s beyond your control, it’s about how you have used your time. You like aviation, what have you done? A trial flight, simulator software, cadet programs etc. How can you show that you possess the qualities the airlines are looking for?

Learn about the industry and specific airlines you are targeting. Should you be beginning your training, it will be challenging and intense. When things don’t go according to plan for whatever reason don’t panic. Think logically and make use of the experience of your fellow cadets and instructors. With the correct attitude and perseverance, it is certainly possible to get through the course.

We are fortunate to live in a time where these routes exist on to the flight deck, all that is left to do is to go forth and earn those wings. Here’s looking forward to a great 2019 for aviation.

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