From Boeing 737 to tactical freighter: commercial pilot turns military aviator
Mindaugas Zidonis’s love of flying began in early adolescence when he was living in Vilnius, Lithuania. Then, after he graduated school and began to consider his further career path, his passion for planes grew even stronger.
Initially, Mindaugas started his Bachelor's degree in aeronautical and mechanical engineering at a university in Vilnius. But after his first year of studies, when he became acquainted with the subtleties of the aviation industry, the student changed his mind, preferring to focus on being in the air rather than working in aircraft maintenance.
With the encouragement of his grandparents, he transferred to piloting studies at the same university and says that he has never regretted the decision. While studying, Mindaugas also joined the Lithuanian National Defence Volunteer Forces (KASP) as an active-reserve soldier.
“When I was a student, I had enough free time to take up military training and various courses, so I actively participated in the activities of the unit. The decision to join the National Defence Volunteer Forces has helped me in life a lot.“
From a job at the airport to the Operations Control Center
Being a curious and active personality, the student secured his first aviation-related job at an aircraft ground handling company based at Vilnius International Airport (VNO) and, prior to graduation, he received an attractive offer to join the Operations Control Center (OCC) as a flight operations assistant at one of the Lithuanian ACMI and aircraft leasing operators.
While gaining new professional experience at the company, Mindaugas graduated from university and took a serious step forward in his dream to become a pilot. Although his daily agenda was tough, the aviator started preparing for the Airlines Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL). But combining all of his activities was not as easy as he initially thought.
“I expected that I would be able to work full-time at the OCC while studying for my ATPL exams. Meanwhile, I was still quite actively taking part in the military. But I was wrong and my plan to match all the activities failed due to a heavy workload at the company at the time.”
“I realized that without an ATPL, my path to the flight deck would be ceased. But I could not let myself lose my dream and this was the main reason why I decided to leave the job at the OCC and seriously took up my license. Simultaneously, one of the Company Officers encouraged my to apply for a Platoon Commander Course (PCC) at General Jonas Zemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania to get a military officer rank as he anticipated that it might be useful for me if wanted to join the Air Force as a pilot later. I'm very grateful for his advice because this decision had a significant role in my pilot career."
A green light to a career in commercial aviation
Aviator life for Mindaugas began when he finally received an eagerly awaited ATPL license. In 2018, the freshly minted pilot joined another Vilnius-based airline where he finished the type rating for the Boeing 737 Classic. As First Officer, he says he loved being in control of the airplane and the freedom that came with it.
“It is a classic aircraft with full control in the pilot’s hands. It’s a pilot’s aircraft and aviators will get what I’m talking about,” says Zidonis with a smile.
Being able to effectively combine different professional activities, the pilot managed to merge an aviator’s carrier with additional responsibilities in the airline as well as various activities in the active reserve service. He admits that his professional life was pretty intense.
While not on flight duty, Zidonis had been contributing to the airline as a Documentation Officer. Meanwhile, having inexhaustible stamina and being devoted to the homeland, Mindaugas had been constantly attending military activities and expanding competencies in the defense field.
“When I started flying for a commercial airline, I was also promoted to an officer rank in the military. It was a challenging experience since I was sacrificing my personal life for the career. I used to spend all my free time serving the military. But I always loved the job in aviation as much as serving the National Defence Volunteer Forces.”
Challenges of combining the duties of a pilot and a soldier
When the COVID-19 virus hit, his employer airline temporarily cut operations on the Boeing 737 fleet, meaning that the pilot lost his main income for an indefinite time. Then, in spring 2020, the First Officer received a letter informing him that, due to extenuating circumstances, the company had decided to reduce costs by cutting base salaries for the flight crew leaving only a Per Block Hour (PBH) payment.
“[The base salary cuts] meant that those pilots who had been flying Boeing 737 jets were left without revenue as there were almost no flights left. I felt stuck between the ground and the sky, but I remained working for the company as we all expected this health crisis to take no longer than up to a few months.”
Meanwhile, the Government of Mindaugas's home country started considering border closures, and the National Defence Volunteer Forces were activated for peacetime duties at Vilnius International Airport. The Forces were supporting the National Center for Public Health (NVSC) and Mindaugas was assigned to join the coordinators' team which had been regulating passenger flows at the airport, as well as checking passenger temperature and helping travelers to fill in the necessary documents.
“Since I was experienced in aviation and was actively attending military activities, I was placed in the front line together with other commanding and coordinating personnel. At the same time the airline I was working for started repatriation flights and I was sent to take our citizen travelers back home from Egypt before our borders were closed.”
“I was sent for a repatriation flight to Egypt while my colleagues/soldiers had been on duty at the airport. I remember when I came back to the airport after the flight, I changed my pilot uniform to military uniform in premises for airport staff and continued my military duties.“
“Although I was grounded as an airline pilot, I have been actively serving the military and participating in peacetime missions at the border points as well as the NVSC call center. I also have been attending various military courses and all these activities helped me a lot both emotionally and financially.”
From a First Officer to a military pilot
With his background in the National Defence Volunteer Forces, in early spring 2021 the pilot received a First Lieutenant rank and, after three years spent in commercial aviation, left the airline. Mindaugas says that a new rank has opened up new career options in the military aviation field, and he hopes this will mean a return to the skies soon.
“Aviation has always attracted my interest, but the Volunteer Forces have been fascinating me for nearly 13 years in a row. Although I was interested in military aviation since adolescence, I had been always linking my professional path with civil aviation. However, the pandemic changed my plans and I had to think about what steps I should take to save my career as an aviator.
“The experience and the knowledge which I gained thanks to the National Defence Volunteer Forces helped me a lot to continue building my future career as a pilot amid the pandemic. I applied for full-time service at Lithuanian Armed Forces and was offered to join them as an Air Force Pilot. And now I’m actively training to be able to fly the C-27J Spartan tactical transport aircraft.“
Mindaugas adds: “I'm proud of having an opportunity to serve my country, and I'm also happy that despite all the ongoing challenges my links to aviation are not cut.“
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