This has been a summer of note, here in South Africa. We have had more rainfall and weather related diversions than I can remember for quite some time. I have worked harder the last 14 months in the aircraft and in the simulator than I have ever in my flying career.
I am reflecting on this as I am flying an evening sector from Johannesburg to Capetown, in a brand spanking new Airbus 320. It had been a busy day, flying each approach pretty much to minimas, although it had mercifully lacked the convective complications of thunderstorms.
On the climb-out towards the fairest Cape, we popped out of the clag at around thirty thousand feet, and found ourselves between layers of cloud, with the sun ahead of us in an advanced stage of crimson retreat. The effect was spectacular.
Not only had the bumps of the climb-out suddenly ceased, our visual picture from the flight deck changed abruptly from wispy grey to a sudden fabulous display of orange and red, reflected from the cloud above and below us. It was truly spectacular, and something one would never see and feel if we were mere earth bound mortals.
We continued for around twenty minutes or so in complete silence, reveling in our personal piece of aerial paradise. Then I had to let the ground people in with a position report and frequency change, allow another earthling in to the conversation, and then we were alone again.
The nature of the recent flying that we have been required to do has certainly kept most of us on our toes. The times available to slow down and smell the flowers along the way had been few and far between and an unexpected moment of sunset between the clouds brought some perspective to the last few months.
I have a family relation who, whenever we see each other, always asks me the same questions.
“Are you still flying?”
“Do you still enjoy it?”
“When are you going to do something else?”
“When I retire, auntie”
“No I mean for a job”
“Flying is a job”
I would humour her, as she still holds the notion that I am out playing while the wife is left to run our flight school and bring up the kids. It is as apparent now during my mid-career point as it was when I was a wet-behind-the-ears com pilot looking for that first job. It does, however, bring it back to me that not everyone thinks flying is the ultimate career.
What is it about this profession that tends to blind us to the realities of the negatives of the career, while finding a pretty sunset to be a fabulous perk?
I suppose one has to look at the half-full glass before considering the half-empty one.
So, in no particular order, the advantages of airline flying for a living are as follows…
• I get (very well) paid to fly
• My employer entrusts me with new, R 700 million Rand aircraft
• I get to train new pilots in those R 700 million Rand aircraft
• I haven’t yet bent one of the aforesaid expensive aircraft
• Our travel perks are excellent – I’m off to Phuket next week
• We get pretty good discounts at hotels and on car hire
• With careful planning, I get enough time off to play with light aircraft
• I get to see the world and get paid USD for that chore
• I have flown into the worlds best and worst airports
• I have favorite pubs all around the country and in a lot of places around the world
• I am constantly exposed to some of the most knowledgeable and intelligent people in the industry
• My skills are in demand in many places around the world, and I am sitting with a few potential offers, that I am not particularly interested in pursuing at present
• I could choose to live pretty much anywhere in the country, and commute on the jump seat to work – we have some pilots living in Perth
• Thanks to active union representation, my job security and pension benefits are reasonably assured
• There are more airliners being built than pilots being trained, so someone somewhere will be chasing experienced pilots, which is a solid Plan B
And the half-empty stuff…
• It is not a ‘normal’ job – weekends, holidays, birthdays and Christmases are open game for the rostering staff
• Time away from home is a given
• Time at home may not be quality time – back home late at night and leaving early before the family is awake
• My health can derail my career at any time
• I have to constantly prove my proficiency for the rest of my career, which can also derail things if any one of the myriad of checks go badly
• I am legally responsible for other human beings’ lives, and will be called to account for anything that endangers them
• Every time I commence a flight, I have a finite time for its safe conclusion – the clock is constantly ticking and the pause button doesn’t work
• The idiocy of ‘security’ measures are a constant irritation
• The amount of paperwork required to keep one’s licence valid has increase hugely over the years
• The responsibilities of the Captain are ever increasing and the respect from various industry players is likewise decreasing
• CAA and some of the individuals ‘regulating’ the industry are not fostering and forwarding aviation in any manner
• Thunderstorms are not my friends
• Fatigue is also not my friend, but we know each other well
From the above, it would appear that the negative may outweigh the positive, but that’s where the rose-tinted glasses, coloured by being smitten by the aviation bug, come in.
To mis-quote Gary Player – the harder I try, the luckier I get. I have been ‘lucky’ to land a job with the region’s major carrier, and I still maintain that if I can do it, so can anyone else suitably motivated. I am pleased to see that we are currently hiring, and those that want it badly enough will get their shot at it in this country.
Similarly, those commencing their training and paying for type ratings on CPL licences with only a few hundred hours of total flight time are also launching their careers overseas with relative success. One young man who used to work for me at Lanseria is now in the right hand seat of an A320 at Easyjet, with less than 300 hours. He is in the right place to launch that airline career, and get himself on the ‘wanted’ list by many airlines in the future.
Without a doubt, there has been a huge shift towards treating aviation and piloting in particular, simply as a job. That brings in the element of an air of entitlement to the trappings of earth-bound employment – time off for the kids on weekends, rosters that fit around one’s domestic life, holidays and flexibility.
Maybe the airline industry has been relying on the unquestioning devotion of its employees for too long, and more ‘reasonable’ demands need to be placed on the pilot group to ensure it attracts the requisite numbers in twenty to thirty years time. As it stands, the positivity does not exactly leap out to the schoolboy at his careers day, and the above-mentioned glasses are required.
Certainly for me, and the majority of my contemporaries, this career definitely beats working for a living, and I am most certainly a better person for it. The old joke in the airline still holds true for me – if the company knew how much fun the actual flying is, they would try to pay us less for doing it.
Don’t let them know…