Training to fly a desk

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In July this year, having just completed his commercial pilot licence course, Mark Farquhar was sitting in the passenger cabin of an Emirates Airbus A380 en route from New Zealand to the UK. He had, he says, "plenty of time to think about the way forward in my aviation career".

Farquhar was feeling good about having done well on his course with UK-based flight training organisation CTC, and had just completed the last of his airborne training and handling tests at CTC's flying school in Hamilton, New Zealand. At that precise moment his feelgood factor was being considerably boosted by the glass of champagne in his hand, courtesy of an upgrade to business class, a reward for having flown three return trips with Emirates between the UK and Auckland within the past 18 months.

mark farquhar
 

But he was worried: "I did not expect the job market to be as dire as it is. Research and a pragmatic analysis of the industry didn't prepare me for the current situation. There were few jobs for experienced pilots, let alone newly qualified ones. A mere two years ago when I joined up, at the end of their courses CTC graduates were talking about which airline and base they'd like, not which employment centre they were going to next Monday."

During the turnaround at Sydney, Farquhar visited the A380 flightdeck and spoke to the captain, who was Mexican. "He, too, had emerged from the training system at the 'wrong time' and spent three years selling soft-drinks. It felt positive to see someone who had been in a similar situation flying the flagship aircraft for his airline - a living, breathing light at the end of the tunnel."

Farquhar ponders the risk he took by investing £65,000 ($106,000) to qualify for an air transport pilot licence. An ATPL qualifies him to do the job, but it does not guarantee him employment. He is philosophical about this: "Most people have to fund themselves through university and there are many newly graduated law students, accountants and even school teachers who have invested in their futures to find the same, so we are not alone in our predicament.

"Many of my friends from university have also joined the 'boomerang' generation and returned to live at home, settling for jobs unconnected with their planned careers."

With no pilot jobs out there, Farquhar realised it was important to work out what the intrinsic value of a professional pilot's skills are, and how transferable they might be to other professions.

He argues many of the skills are highly transferable: "Our training teaches us discipline; to learn quickly; to be independent thinkers. Our crew resource management training arms us with communication and team-working skills, decision making, and cognitive and behavioural skills to tackle wide ranging situations. These could apply in the flightdeck, office or any workplace." He adds confidently: "They are marketable, transferable non-technical skills."

So what did these skills win for Farquhar's fellow trainees? "Many of my colleagues have turned their hand to new trades, ranging from financial jobs in the City [of London] to selling ice-cream in parks. The variety is reflective of what has been available in their geographical areas, combined with previous experience and a bit of luck."

POINTLESS EXERCISE

According to Farquhar, it became clear that approaching a major UK airline was "a pointless exercise in the current climate". He points out that CTC markets its successful graduates to the airlines, but at a time like this they join the queue for flightcrew jobs along with more experienced redundant pilots.

So what to do? "I decided to target more likely opportunities in Asian airlines and some smaller operators in Europe. I compiled a list and called target airlines, then followed up with a CV. A few wrote back, and although no positive results developed it was good to get some feedback, some advice and a degree of sympathy. People in the industry do care."

Farquhar decided it was important simultaneously to look for an alternative "ground" career in his home area around Aberdeen, Scotland. He remarks: "I was surprised, given the economic situation, to find three interesting unrelated opportunities in the first week of looking. One in the helicopter industry in the north-east of Scotland particularly caught my attention."

Aberdeen is the UK's offshore oil industry capital. High oil prices may kill airlines, but they do not do oil companies any harm. He got results: "Three interviews were followed up with three jobs offers, and without a second thought I was arranging a start date with one of the world's largest helicopter operators."

AVIATION KNOWLEDGE

Helicopter operator Bristow European took him on, probably - he believes - attracted by his combination of aviation knowledge and business studies degree.

"I initially have a one-year contract, developing a department by training logistic and operations staff. Bristow wanted a fresh approach. So although I am not flying straight out of training, I'm working in the industry in a role I wouldn't have got without my flying training - and earning more money than I would have done as a year-one first officer with many airlines."

mark farquhar desk
 

Farquhar observes that he is "lucky to work for an innovative manager who encourages me to spend time in different locations and departments". He rides the jump-seat of the company's helicopters whenever possible, and says: "The Eurocopter EC225 has many similar systems to the Airbus A319, and line pilots are usually happy to show me around the cockpit and demonstrate what it can do."

But what of his theories about the applicability of his "soft skills"? He says: "My flying knowledge has allowed me to pick up the reins. I incorporate the CRM skills I learned into the training I deliver. My role involves close work with chief pilots, senior management, operational and commercial departments. The exposure has been phenomenal and I get a kick out of working with highly experienced people who share their knowledge. Although I took this as a stopgap role that suits my circumstances, the experience has opened my eyes and set them on airline management in the long term, a split role between flying a jet and a desk."

EXCEPTIONAL EXPERIENCES

Farquhar reflects on his pilot training: "It was the best year and a half of my life. I'd go back and do it all again today; the people I met and the experiences I had were exceptional."

Meanwhile, industry reports predict a recovery starting in 2010 or 2011 and continued growth for air transport in the long term. The fact that airlines have an ageing pilot population makes Farquhar confident: "The positive outcome is that I feel I can say becoming an airline pilot is a matter of when, not if."

In Farquhar's opinion, choosing a quality flight training organisation is "a must have". He is complimentary about CTC. Meanwhile, during time off from his Bristow desk job he tries to get airborne when he can "to keep my flying skills alive". He says: "I fly a 1946 Auster 5J4. It's a bit different from the glass-panel Diamond Twin Star and the Boeing 737 simulator - no flaps and heel brakes to name but a couple of points."

He observes: "If a job doesn't come before instrument rating renewal, that will have to be dealt with too. Fortunately our flying training organisation has a package we can use to renew the instrument rating at a much lower cost than a regular flying club. Meanwhile a local gliding club has given me the opportunity to train to fly a Chipmunk at weekends for glider towing duties."

HANDS-OFF ATTITUDE

Farquhar is obviously disappointed with the airlines' totally hands-off attitude: "I'd like to see more airlines consider employing newly graduated pilots in other roles during the downturn. In the long term it's an opportunity to transfer a greater appreciation of other team member roles into the flightdeck of the future, promoting a synergistic workplace through greater appreciation of each others roles.

"This can only be a good opportunity for the industry as a whole, while offering some degree of support to those who clearly want to work in the industry and have invested their time and money to do so."

He is politely echoing the more trenchantly expressed views of the training chief at Oxford Aviation Academy, Anthony Petteford, who is evangelistic about the need for airlines to recognise the fact that many of them are withdrawing totally from responsibility for the provision of skilled pilots in the future. As a result, he says, they are fishing in a pond that contains only those who are wealthy themselves or come from wealthy families, and he warns that this will not sustain a growing industry.

Finally Farquhar, fresh from the experience of rejection by the carriers, provides his advice to wannabes: "Have a back-up plan. Flying training is expensive - prepare for the worst-case scenario. I'd feel a lot more pressured right now if I had a secured loan or had been unable to get a job: my degree and work experience were my plan B, and I have had to use it. If you are passionate about flying, the training experience is amazing and you'll meet great people, but getting a job at the end is a matter of timing and luck."

Farquhar adds: "I'd also recommend selling your non-technical flightdeck skills when approaching employers during the downturn - they are valued."

AFTER GRADUATION AS A PILOT, WHAT'S NEXT?

A group of young aspiring airline pilots first met up at their flight training organisation's course "meet-and-greet" in December 2007, at its Bournemouth airport base near the English south coast.

Over the next year and a half they successfully completed their air transport pilot licence courses at their chosen flight training organisation, CTC, one of Europe's most respected training schools. But because of the present economic climate none of the students from this course could find an airline job. CTC says it is confident they soon will, but at this point they have not succeeded. As well as winning a commercial pilot licence and instrument rating, they had completed multi-crew cooperation training and an airline qualification course, including 40h in a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 simulator, but there were just no jobs at the airlines.

They graduated in August and are now in a mix of ground jobs, non-airline flying, or are looking for employment. As a joined-up example of what it has been like to train for a job that turned out to be a mirage, the main story tracks one of the trainees, Mark Farquhar, but others passed the same course. Here are some of the individual experiences and opinions of four of Farquhar's fellow student pilots:

  • James Ashworth
    james ashworth
  • Age: 25
  • Unmarried
  • Education: BSc (Hons), Digital Art and Technology, Plymouth University
  • Qualifications: Frozen ATPL
  • Previous work: Pizza delivery, retail, TAG Aviation Customer Service, Farnborough, UK
  • Other experience: UK PPL

Where are you working now? Acting first officer in privately owned Cessna Citation 525

"I am currently working as an acting FO on a privately owned Cessna Citation 525 (CJ1). Due to the aircraft being a single crew operation I am able to help out without having a type rating. My job ranges from helping out in catering organisation to radio operations and keeping the flight logs. I got the job through my work at TAG Aviation before I started at CTC. The aircraft is owned by people both of whom fly regularly around Europe. This gives me the chance to experience varied approaches and get a more comprehensive understanding of the behind-the-scenes work needed to run a small jet operation, from flight and fuel planning to catering.

"Although I am currently 25 years old, living with my Dad, and nearly £75,000 in debt - not including my university loan or overdraft - I know I have chosen the right career for me and would do it again instantly. I knew I would be taking on a massive debt, but I have always thought of it as a investment. The flying I have been doing on the small business jet has given me a taste for what is yet to come and confirmed that the last 18 months has been worth it.

"We have known for a while now that we would be faced with entering the industry at a time when jobs are very hard to come by, so it is not a surprise we are having to wait. CTC is a leading company in airline training and I would not have chosen them if I didn't think they were one of, if not the best organisation to help us find a job."

  • Mark Boyle
    mark boyle 
  • Age: 24
  • Unmarried
  • Education: MEng (Hons), Avionics and Aerospace Engineering, Manchester University
  • Qualifications: Frozen ATPL
  • Previous work: Glider towing, retail, Brookhouse Composites, Hilton Timeshare
  • Other experience: Gliding licence

Where are you working now? Glider towing, Deesside Gliding Club, Scotland

"The way the airline job market was going I knew I would have to find a job until things pick up. I live only 10 miles [16km] from the gliding club where I first learnt to fly, in gliders. They were looking for a tug pilot for the season (May-October). I had to get a tailwheel conversion and SEP rating myself, but after this I was cleared to fly the tug. I get expenses only, but some clubs don't even offer that. It gives me free hours-building and great handling experience. Also, as I love gliding, I get a kick out of finding lift for the glider pilots and also have fun flying on the way back down for an ever-challenging tailwheel landing at Aboyne's narrow runways (3-4m wide).

"Most of my [non-aviation] friends enter graduate schemes where they get paid to train up in the different areas of the business until they find something they would like to work on. In some cases the government subsidises their training, whereas I have had to pay a huge amount of money for a qualification with no guaranteed job and no government concessions of any kind. Sometimes I think I wouldn't do it again and should just have got a 9-5 job to pay for recreational flying. But when I finally get the job and am blessed with the best view that anyone can have from their office, I think I will change my tune."

  • Jake Snelgrove
    jack snelgrove
  • Age: 21
  • Unmarried
  • Education: New Zealand NCEA Level 3 and university entrance
  • Qualifications: Frozen ATPL
  • Previous work: Bar work, diesel mechanic
  • Other experience: Instructor rating

Where are you working now? Flying instructor, CTC Aviation New Zealand

Snelgrove is a New Zealander, and his course took place entirely in that country with CTC New Zealand. He met with the others in the group while they were at CTC's Hamilton base for their airborne training. Now he has become an instructor there.

"Instructing was not something I dreamt about doing, but it is certainly a challenging job and each day is different. The hours and experience gained instructing over the next few years should give me the qualifications to apply for an airline.

"I wouldn't like to be doing anything else and wouldn't be as happy as I am now if I was. Other friends I was in high school with are all still at university, so I believe I am in a good position, doing what I love and earning money from it."

  • Catherine Winter
    catherine winter 
  • Age: 28
  • Unmarried
  • Education: BA (Hons) Graphic Design, Leeds University; Foundation Course, Art and Design, Central St Martins, London
  • Qualifications/achievement: Frozen ATPL, Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award
  • Previous work: Cabair Flight Training and Engineering; Redhill aerodrome operations; McCann Erikson branding and design; Wolff-Olins branding and design; waitressing; childcare; Camp America; retail

Winter is qualified as an artist and designer, and decided a little later than the others that flying was where she wanted to go. Her father is a retired pilot and airline chief executive, her mother formerly cabin crew.

"I am currently unemployed. I have applied for various jobs over the last few months ranging from cabin crew to receptionist. I am fortunate in that my parents allowed me to move back home and enjoy having me around. I seem to be one of the 'boomerang generation', moving back home in my late twenties. I finished training at the beginning of July and have spent the summer catching up with my family and friends. I took a brief holiday, and in September I began the serious job-hunt. If I could find something relevant to flying that would be great, but otherwise I'd consider any new experiences to be of value.

"At the moment I'm watching my friends buying their first properties, settling down with their partners and feeling established in their jobs. I'm envious. I don't know anyone who has the debts that I do. But I know that once I do get started I'll have all of that and my dream job too. Flying is challenging, but I'm 100% motivated towards my career now, which is a great feeling."