Covidus Interruptus: How has covid affected professional pilots’ careers?
PUBLISHED: 18:29 25 February 2021 | UPDATED: 18:29 25 February 2021
Covid-19 has hit the commercial aviation business exceptionally hard - 9 professional pilots tell their stories...
By nature, pilots like to be in control. Because of this, many have found it difficult to deal with the effects on their careers. Some actually refuse to accept they’ve lost their jobs or will never earn the same salary again. Nevertheless most pilots I know are resourceful and imaginative, so it is interesting to examine some alternative career paths a few of them have taken.
Nils Alegren (37) has been first officer on Brussels Airlines/Eurowings fleet of Airbus 330s and A340s for two years. Having worked his way up through the Fokker 70/100 and A319/320/321, he now has more than 10,000 flying hours. The son of a Lufthansa 737, 707, DC-10, 727, Ju52, A320/340/330 pilot and an Air France Caravelle stewardess, he is a self-confessed ‘aviation fanatic’.
From an early age Nils was fascinated by the French Sud Aviation Caravelle – the world’s first short-haul jet airliner and the type on which his mother was flight attendant. In 2012 he bought the remains of a Caravelle III and over four years and 5,000 hours of labour converted its cockpit into a fully functional flight simulator. This is now in storage while he works on his current project.
After much searching, last year Nils managed to obtain the nose of a much-modified former Royal Australian Air Force Boeing 707, and is laboriously turning it into a simulator using cockpit panels and instruments from ex-Lufthansa 707s, D-ABUD and D-ABUF which, as N88ZL was the USA’s last passenger-carrying 707. In later years in executive trim it carried such artists as the Eagles, Pearl Jam, Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, Depeche Mode and Beyoncé, plus the Presidents of Gabon and Angola.
Today Brussels Airlines/Eurowings has only three of their fourteen aeroplanes in operation and their ACMI ends next year when Lufthansa’s Project Ocean starts and everybody has to re-apply for their jobs with a significant pay cut, so Nils decided to concentrate on finishing his simulator. He is currently seeking technical information on the Pratt & Whitney JT3D parameter changes with variations in altitude, and in particular its spool-down behaviour, to ensure its engines operate exactly as they did in the real world rather than the theoretical performance P&W aimed for. He acknowledges the simulator will probably take him three more years to finish, but don’t dismiss this project as a fantasy: I have every expectation of flying it in Munich when Nils is done. For more information, see his website: 707jet.com
For two years 53year-old West Australian Darren Brady flew Bombardier CRJ900s for Mesa Airlines in Phoenix, Arizona. With 6,000 hours he was well placed for an easy transition to the left seat and had been revising his manuals when in February he noticed work was slowing down and airports were emptying.
President Chump reassured everybody that Covid-19 needn’t be feared, but Darren didn’t believe him. A former colleague warned, ‘Aussie ex-pats flying for Asian carriers are already back here. Don’t come home, there’s no work.’ On his next flight, Darren mused to his captain, “I reckon this is the last time I’ll see Dallas”, but was reassured, “It’s okay, it’s only temporary; I’ve been through these times before”.
Australia had closed its borders, Mesa’s flying was dying and America’s Covid numbers were rising exponentially. Darren asked his chief pilot “What are my options?” The chief’s phone rang every few minutes with calls further cutting back the schedules, so he admitted Darren’s best plan was “Take leave of absence. Come back when it’s over.” So Darren transferred his US dollars to Australia and went home.
He now lives near Serpentine airfield where he’s finishing a VW-powered composite canard Viking Dragonfly project which he bought three years earlier. Since March he has resprayed it, got the engine rebuilt, replaced the old round dials with modern electronic instruments and fitted a comprehensive engine monitor. He rewound the alternator, fitted a refurbished propeller, made a spinner back plate and trained for his tailwheel endorsement, “It’s now ready to fly apart from the paperwork”.
In November Mesa called him back, but he won’t go from the world’s safest place to its most risky, and his US health benefits would only cover half of any Covid-related expenses. Mesa weren’t offering furloughs so he has resigned amicably and got a local job as aircraft engineer plus charter pilot flying a Baron and Cessna 402 for the foreseeable future. He feels that, depending on how domestic life works out, he might go back to America, but like everybody nowadays, he’s staying flexible.
Tom Davies (38) was second officer (relief pilot) on the four-engined long-haul Airbus A380 with Qantas for twelve years and more than 8,500 hours, having previously flown Jetstar A320s and Qatar A330s. When the crisis hit, Qantas was very proactive, so he was not made redundant, but has been stood down without pay; although he retains some benefits including staying on the seniority list.
Ever-adventurous Tom’s been an aerobatic competitor, skydiver, skier and wingsuit flier. For a decade he watched operatives cleaning skyscraper windows while dangling from ropes, musing on whether to try that himself if he lost his medical. Covid-19 was the catalyst, so he quickly completed a ‘high rope access technician’ course, thinking it might see him through the predicted six months of furlough.
Now, eight months later, he’s “Hanging off skyscrapers in Melbourne, cleaning windows, fixing leaks, doing maintenance and having a ball”. It looks risky but just like aviation there are formal risk management, SOPs and international standards.
The job is classed as essential because it includes government-subsidised work replacing flammable composite cladding panels with non-flammable ones. So Tom continued working throughout Melbourne’s three-month lockdown, while doing something for the public good. He says it has been challenging and rewarding to master a new skill in a very different environment.
He works from 0700 to 1500 but it’s weather dependent. His boss determines the day’s jobs and buildings depending on the forecast, a building face’s orientation, height, rope length and the disposition of nearby skyscrapers, but 20kph (ten knots) is a ballpark wind limit. In bad weather they work on lower structures, preferring to be on the leeward side.
Tom will stand back up when it becomes possible. Qantas’s domestic 737 pilots have mostly returned to work but their A380s are being stored ‘for three years’. The airline was about to sign for a dozen A350-1000s for their planned ultra longhaul non-stop routes to Europe and America, but have now deferred that. Their Boeing 747s were retired prematurely so those pilots are being redistributed, with many going to 787s on reduced rosters until normality returns, but no longhaul flying is planned until at least July 2021. Tom says “I’ll be amazed if I’m back by this time next year”. He’s looking forward to future cockpit conversations comparing their temporary alternative careers.
Pilot contributor Bob Davy (59) has 15,000 hours after 32 years, and weathered three previous recessions. He says, “It’s not the end of the world, although it may feel like it”.
Bob started flying with the RAFVR at London University Air Squadron. With 150 hours on Bulldogs at Abingdon he then joined the RAF as a pilot but lost his medical because of short-sightedness. In the mid eighties there were no flying jobs so he worked in an operations department at Gatwick, occasionally flying as pilot assistant on King Airs. Building 700 hours as glider tug and parachute drop pilot, Bob aspired to the left seat of a King Air or Aztec, but with dramatic changes in the industry he joined British Midland, flying the Shorts 360 and then the DC-9 for a decade.
In a colourful career, for the next decade he flew Boeing Business Jets (737s) and private A320s on longhaul operations. After that he returned to short haul on Avro Regional Jets and was contracting for Air France and KLM through CityJet when he stopped working last November, taking three months off but flying five or six days per month to stay in recency until late February, when the Avros were phased out.
I thought Bob would be completing the sequel to his excellent book In Case of War Break Glass, but he says he’s too busy. He spent the March lockdown working on his Nanchang and with that experience has since been detailing and restoring other people’s aeroplanes, admitting “I can now paint anything, although I prefer using acrylic and lacquering to two-pack epoxy which is not nice stuff”.He admits to enjoying the change, although he’s still writing for Pilot, having started in journalism with Flyer in 1990.
Bob has also ferried a Sukhoi and a Navion to Germany and hopes to take an Avro to Africa after it completes a C check, while waiting for his Yak-3 to hurdle French bureaucracy. He will then tidy that up, repaint and detail it… and of course write it up for Pilot. Bob’s final words, “My dad advised me to have two years’ salary in liquid assets, so that’s what I’ve always done”. He would go back to commercial jet operations if the right job came up (but preferably not overseas) and renewed his LPC and OPC on the last RJ simulator at Woodford before it closed.
James Gosling (59) has had a varied career. For twenty years he flew with the RAF, mostly on Jaguars but with a brief stint as Hawk weapons and tactics instructor, retiring as Squadron Leader.
In 2000 he joined Airtours Gatwick’s 757 fleet. By post-tsunami 2004 James found himself on MyTravel’s 767s, and in a pre-redundancy interview it was suggested he fly the Indonesian Haj contract to stay in employment. Somebody senior left, so James converted to the A320/A330, and MyTravel merged with Thomas Cook in 2008.
Then Bristol-based, other aspects of family life had become more important so he changed to part-time working. With 12,500 hours, he was rostered for command course in October 2019, but the company failed in September. He applied for selection with another company to start on 16 March 2020. Their five-on four-off work pattern would have put his career back in the forefront of life and meshed with his stints instructing aerobatics with Goodwood’s Ultimate High. That’s where I originally met him, revising my formation flying skills a couple of years ago.
Sadly one week before James was due to start, that job was ‘delayed’. Not being on the payroll, he got no furlough and no government help. His nephew ran a family organic dairy farm but had lost staff because any sniffle or cold meant they couldn’t work. He texted James for help, so 0800 on Monday 16 March found him rigged in overalls and paper hat, starting twelve hours of physical hard work producing organic kefir – a yoghurt-like health food made from cultured milk, although after two months his role was mechanised.
During May’s lockdown James enjoyed his garden, grew tomatoes, chatted with neighbours and made crumble and cider with his apples. Keeping busy and fit physically and mentally, taking exercise when there was nothing else happening, he says, “There are great on-line resources, like the A320 podcast and the A320 lounge to keep one’s brain in aviation”.
Later in the summer, when restrictions lifted, James flew with Ultimate High, and continues to do so whenever possible, being grateful they keep him airborne, “It’s important psychologically”. He praises their UPRT syllabus, its five hours of preparatory lectures and presentations as “A really good course. I’m looking forward to doing more of it.” Meanwhile, taking advantage of VA Airline Training’s fifty per cent discount to pilots affected by Covid-19, he’s practised for his LPC (at his own expense of course) on their A320 fixed-base simulator.
Today James is ‘back in butter’ spending half-days in the dairy, but would love an airline job again and eventually a command.
Megan Gray (28) had what many would consider the dream job – flying a fleet of float-equipped Twin Otters around a sunny tropical island paradise in the Indian Ocean. Trans Maldivian Airways runs the world’s biggest floatplane operation, with 55 aircraft (all floatplanes, not amphibians) and around 300 pilots (200 of whom are ex-pats, with just five females) ferrying tourists from a three-jetty dock at the edge of Velana International Airport to the eighty or so outlying islands which have hotels and resorts of the 200 or more atolls in the Maldives archipelago. Two of these Twin Otters are in VIP configuration for high net worth individuals because thirty or more executive jets are routinely parked at the international airport, from Boeing Business Jet 757s to dinky Lears, Mustangs and Phenoms.
Megan had previously been a jump pilot with WA Skydiving Academy before joining Chuck McElwee’s innovative Air Australia training operation at Jandakot Airport between 2015 and January 2018. She then operated a Vortex Air Piper Chieftain, night freighting between Melbourne and Tasmania, until moving to single-crew Pilatus PC-12s with the Royal Flying Doctor Service and later King Airs for Goldfields Air. With all these employments in such a short span of years Megan soon gained 2,500 flying hours.
Having started in February 2020, she had only been with Trans Maldivian for six weeks, when “things started to get rocky”. By the end of March an outlying island was locked down. Initially there was little information, but then one Sunday a staff meeting was called. This was subsequently cancelled to a Zoom session, and on the Monday they were all told ‘If your country’s borders are still open, go home’, so she did. The one-way flight on Qatar back to her Perth, Western Australia home cost $4,800.
So Megan returned to become Air Australia’s Head of Operations (newCASA-speak for CFI). She expects to continue in this rôle for a year or more, planning to get her examiner’s rating as soon as possible. In the longer term she’ll maybe go back to the Maldives if things improve, but for now is very happy where she is.
At 23, Western Australian Jacob Roberts is the youngest here. He’s been cruise relief pilot for just over a year on Jetstar’s Boeing 787-8 fleet, his first commercial type, with 900 flying hours on their long-haul routes from Melbourne to Hawaii, China, Thailand and Viet Nam.
Aged eleven Jacob thought being cabin crew was a cool job, but his parents suggested he might be better suited as a pilot. After some research he realised this was his future. He learned of Gwyn Perrett’s and Greg Hateley’s homebuilt 737 and 747 simulators featured in Pilot December 2018 and operated as crew member for the charitable round-the-world simulator adventure, WorldFlight. He’s sure this experience helped in subsequent interviews.
Jacob trained with CAE Oxford at Melbourne, one of twelve candidates eventually employed by Jetstar. Comfortably settled into his new career, Jacob was on leave in Britain in early February when he learned of Covid-19. He returned home, flying for three more weeks before Australia’s state borders were closed and Jetstar cut back their operation. He had two days warning that his next flight to Ho Chi Minh would be his last for a while and positioned back to Melbourne on 24 March, getting his stand-down notice a week later.
Jacob is now a baggage handler at Wodgina Airport in WA’s northern, iron-rich Pilbara ranges. With just seven flights per week, between Tuesdays and Thursdays, he flies up on Mondays, works until Thursday and then flies back to Perth for three days off. His job involves loading and unloading baggage in the mornings and airfield maintenance in the afternoons−cleaning the terminal, doing odd jobs, painting, replacing lightbulbs (including in the PAPIs), clearing cobwebs and sweeping away the ever-encroaching red outback dust−all in stifling forties temperatures. “We’ve only had one day of rain, but we soon expect torrential rain in ‘the wet’. It’s always very windy with repeated dust storms. We’re forever re-attaching the windsock.”
His new company has offered upskilling to become an aerodrome manager, and Jetstar currently estimates he’ll be doing this until at least mid-July 2021.
My old friend and British Airways 747-400 colleague Rich Sims took early retirement to concentrate on running his excellent Goodwood-based flying club, SportAir. In his words, “My last trip was in March to Los Angeles. The Virus was only beginning to kick off, but I had major concerns after seeing Chinese footage of people collapsing in the streets, so realised it was serious. I flew to LAX, enjoying a pleasant evening with my colleagues. The very next day, LA announced ‘shut down’. (Although the bar stayed open for a couple of hours and we were the only folk in there, so that was a bonus.) I realised the return would be my last BA flight, and so it turned out.”
“After speaking with colleagues and reading BA’s information, it became clear that there would be a complete restructuring of airlines worldwide. It was suggested if the old gits like me retired early there was more chance the youngsters would retain their jobs, hence my decision to leave.
“Adjustment to non-commercial flying was amazingly rapid. I could now devote my time to making SportAir more successful and better organised. There are benefits in long-haul flying, but of course many disadvantages. The greatest of these are missing out on family life, being constantly exhausted and jet-lagged. I have thrived since leaving, my home life is vastly improved, catching up with friends and family has been wonderful, and doing at long last what I want to do is priceless. Our Christen Eagle has been somewhat of a leveller though. I discovered that 30,000 hours doesn’t go a long way to mastering this beast. Our younger 100-hour members can fly the thing with ease, but I can’t. Heigh ho!
“My heart goes out to my younger former colleagues, many of whom gave up well-earned commands and around fifty per cent of their salaries to fly the Queen of the Skies with BA, only to have their dreams, and more importantly their lifestyles totally ruined. We mustn’t forget our colleagues throughout the industry, whether they be in engineering, cabin crew, pilots, ground staff or suppliers, who are struggling daily.
“It’s a life changing time for me and my loved ones, in some ways for the better; but we mustn’t lose sight of those who have been hugely challenged by this world-wide crisis.”
Lauren Wilson (33) was one of the first to suffer. For eighteen months she had been operating FlyBe’s de Havilland Canada (formerly Bombardier) DHC-8 400. She had just amassed 1,000 hours when, on 5 March the company abruptly ceased trading. Skiing in Austria at the time, she admits to being shocked, and inevitably found it difficult just to get home, although one of the heartening things to come out of Covid-19’s effect on aviation was the agreement among all British rail networks to transport crews free. She then had to vacate her Aberdeen flat and move back south.
As if that wasn’t enough, Lauren actually succumbed to Covid-19 in late March. Despite her devotion to personal fitness she was seriously debilitated for two full months. After that she determined that ‘Rather than become fat and drunk’ she would become an obsessive road racing cyclist.
Lauren holds qualifications in electronics, but she was determined to continue in aviation. With prior experience as a display pilot, survey pilot and CRI instructor, she threw herself into tailwheel, aerobatic, and STOL coaching. She also undertakes sales and demonstration flying and some ferrying of both Dash 8s and smaller aeroplanes. She has also written articles for several magazines, including of course this one.
Lauren has recently become Head of Flight Safety for Kinectair (a new regional connectivity startup, like an airborne Uber), helping them obtain their AOC. As well as her prospects in the management of Kinectair’s network of PC-12s she recently renewed her Dash 8 LPC at her own expense to stay current and passed her ATPL skills test. It takes more than Covid-19 to keep a good woman down.
Aviation has always been subject to cycles of boom and bust, and travel is the first thing to suffer in a recession. As with species, it’s not the strongest or smartest airlines that survive, but the most adaptable−and that is even truer of pilots. When youngsters seek my counsel about a flying career, I advise, ‘Get another qualification. You’ll need it from time to time’. But pilots are generally pragmatic and determined, and will rarely stand idle after a setback, as these examples demonstrate.