In part 2 of our Back to the Skies Q&A series, we speak with a pilot of a commercial airline, to see if and how his experience of the pandemic differed to that of our private turned cargo jet pilot.
The pandemic had a huge impact on my job.
I work for a leisure airline so as soon as they announced that the borders had been closed, the crew and aircraft were grounded effective immediately.
Unlike other international long-haul carriers, the airline I work for does not have cargo operations (which would have at least supplemented some flying hours), so as soon as the borders closed and we were effectively in lock down, we were on the ground.
When it first came on the news my initial reaction was – this isn’t good, and I felt a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen. It was only when the airline started to cancel holidays and we were flying out aircraft empty to destinations to bring back passengers early from their holidays, that the severity of the situation really started to sink in.
Returning back on the last operating flight definitely filled me with some dread and I felt quite uneasy – I wasn’t sure when I was likely to fly an aircraft again, if at all.
Initially, my mental health took a hit naturally. Going onto the furlough scheme, taking further pay cuts, and then the purchase of a property falling through, it all hit me hard – but I was able to offset my mental health by improving my physical health.
I took up home exercises and actually managed to lose a fair amount of weight. As we came out the other side of the first lockdown, my mental health improved as there appeared to be light at the end of the tunnel again in respect of getting back to the job I love…although it didn’t quite pan out that way.
As we headed into a second lockdown I managed to get a job assisting a friend who is a builder, which managed to keep my physical health in check and my mental health strong as it kept my mind active, learning new things and improving myself as a person.
The positives from not flying was the ability to spend a lot more time with my son who was just under one year old when the pandemic first started. I was able to spend his first birthday with him, I was there when he took his first steps and generally, I got to see him grow and develop which is a rare guarantee in my profession.
As mentioned previously, I was also able to learn new skills and build connections outside of the industry so that if something like this was to happen again (which of course, I hope it doesn’t), it might not feel as bad as it did this time.
My first day back was a mixture of emotions – mainly nervousness and excitement.
I had undergone my 3- day SIM check and other necessary additional training before conducting my first flight post pandemic, so felt ready to go back to work – I was in a good place – there were some nerves for getting back in an aircraft environment but excitement at being able to fly a plane again, for sure.
Flying can be quite an overwhelming environment at the best of times but after a couple of days it felt like I had never been out of the flight deck.
The first few days I felt a little rusty, especially with my panel flow scans and admittedly it took a few days for me to get back into the swing of things fully, but for a pilot, flying is like driving a car in some ways.
I just took my time. The company were really supportive of us flying the aircraft conservatively and told us to tell air traffic control no if we were unhappy with anything, and that’s exactly what we did.
The pandemic has taught me that the aviation industry is quite a volatile sector to work in.
Aviation was the first to get chopped and the last to be reinstated. Given the nature of the industry, unfortunately new variants of the virus were able to find their way into countries that still had their borders still open, which ultimately came down to passengers and air travel.
That said, the industry plays an integral role in the ability for the UK and international economies to grow, thrive and survive.
It has to be getting back into the swing of work.
I’ve gone from a fairly sedate lifestyle in regards to not setting an alarm and going to bed when I like, to being back in a routine of early shifts, late shifts, getting home at 3am and getting up at 3am for work – that’s been the biggest challenge.
The flight deck can be quite a hostile environment with the cabin altitude being a lot higher than it is on the ground with the demands of less oxygen, less dense air on the body and the 24-hour timings. Some days are very long and I can be away from home for around 15-16 hours, especially when we operate a turnaround flight to Cyprus.
So definitely, the biggest challenge for me has been getting back into the swing of things and getting used to the long days and flight times here, there and everywhere.
Passengers’ reactions have been extremely positive to be honest.
The overall customer reaction was ok when we first hit the skies again and it continues to get better as restrictions continue to ease and the testing requirements lessen – the vibe on board is definitely more happy and positive.
They are no longer being patrolled by cabin crew to ensure they are wearing a mask or having to find loopholes so that they don’t have to wear one. With more relaxed requirements onboard, they too are able to relax… but frankly, they are just glad to be able to go on holiday once again.
There are many good things about being a pilot. Number one, the views! For example, when you’re flying over the Alps on a sunny day – the scenery is just spectacular. I love the views when you’re flying down the Aegean to the southern Greek islands in the day time too, the views are phenomenal. The colour of the blue Mediterranean water, coastlines and beaches are simply stunning.
Furthermore, the people that I work with are fantastic as well – we always have a good day – always laughing and always smiling (when appropriate of course).
I have also enjoyed some amazing trips and charter opportunities with football teams and celebrities that have chartered one of our aircraft for weddings or team events.
So, there are definitely some good perks to being a pilot.
To take nothing for granted.
When you get your first pilot job, you think “that’s me set up for life”, when in reality you’re not. You should always have a back-up plan as anything can happen in this industry – Covid has demonstrated just that.
It also taught me about financial management. I guess you could say you should always have a bit of spare money or savings because you just never know what’s around the corner.