The pandemic rollercoaster: from cabin crew to COVID-19 nurse to pilot
“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
This quote by Leonardo da Vinci perfectly describes how aviation enthusiast Silke Anckaert feels about flying. And not even a global pandemic has dented her love for the skies.
From a nurse to a cabin crew member
Having received her degree in nursing and gained some experience in the field, in 2015 Silke went on a nine-month-long vacation in Asia. During her time there she flew with different airlines and was served by different cabin crews. And so she became fascinated with flight attendant duties. That holiday later played a crucial role in her professional life, sowing the seeds of pursuing a career as a flight attendant some day.
Not long after returning from the trip to her home country, Belgium, and encouraged by a friend who was a pilot, Silke applied for a cabin crew position in the Brussels-based charter air carrier, TUI fly Belgium. Prior to discovering the world of aviation, Silke had already been studying nursing studies but that career path did not satisfy her enough.
The 26-year-old recalls that in her second year of nursing, she was considering the flight attendant role as a temporary summer job, affording her the opportunity to travel the world and see new places. She says that since she joined the TUI team as a cabin crew member in 2017, she fell in love with flying, and a career in nursing, that she had already forged, became a lower priority.
“Since I tried to work as a cabin crew member in 2017, I fell in love with aviation...It was so impressive to take off to the skies and fly around while meeting various passengers on board, and I loved it so much that a bit later I decided to pilot the aircraft,” she says.
Hello, flight deck
While Silke was well aware that flying an aircraft was a male-dominated field, her passion for aviation and endless curiosity helped her to overcome initial doubts over her suitability for the profession.
“I had been visiting the flight deck quite often since I was [and I still am] a cabin crew member, and once one of the pilots encouraged me just to give myself a try and apply for a flight school. So, I did it.
“The United States-based school contacted me and I started preparing for exams for the selection procedure. And I got accepted. This was my first step to the pilot career.”
The training process in the US went well and Silke earned a license which allowed her to pilot a single-engine aircraft. Excited about the next stage of her professional life, Silke had little idea of the even more challenging steps ahead.
“When I did my CPL training [Commercial Pilot Licence, which permits the holder to act as a pilot of an aircraft and be paid for the work], the global pandemic began. I was nearing the end of my course, but due to the pandemic I was not able to finish it since we could not fly, it felt horrible.” she says.
Since her training was put on hold, Silke returned to Belgium and spent four months there until she was cleared to continue the training. Although these four months were stressful, she didn’t waste her time.
The urgent call of return: pilot turns to the COVID-19 nurse
Due to the urgent need for nurses for COVID testing in Belgium, a nursing school offered Silke a job in the Leuven-based COVID-19 testing facility. Not surprisingly, this was a slightly odd experience given Silke’s heart was set on becoming a pilot rather than returning to nursing.
“But on the other side, I wanted to help people and went for the offered duties, so the virus could go away faster, and I could return to flying again,” she says. “They were desperately looking for the COVID-19 nurses, so I joined the testing facility and spent three months there as a nurse before I was able to finish my [pilot] training.”
Silke says that the experience she gained in the testing facility was beneficial both to her and to the people since she was helping the society to understand how the virus spreads and how to protect against infection: “It was something special.”
She adds: “Even if they didn‘t pay me, I would have done it because I was eager to help people and I wanted to contribute to the improvement of the epidemiological situation in the country...I was a person doing the testing so my workload was not as consuming as the medical workers’ workload on the frontlines. However, it was hard to see how easily the virus spreads and how challenging it is to control it.”
As the months wore on, the impact of the virus on both people and on industries like aviation became clear.
“When I started flight school, there was a big lack of pilots in the market, so I was really happy to start the course. And then, suddenly the pandemic hit and nobody needed flight crew anymore. It was really sad because flying is the most amazing activity on this planet for me. So, the pandemic was a really painful and heartbreaking experience. I knew that aviation would recover, but I was afraid that it would take a long time.
“To become a pilot is very expensive so I had to take a loan, which I already had to start paying back. But I couldn‘t do it because I had not finished flight school yet. So, without the comprehensive support from my family and grandparents, I would have more problematic issues to resolve.”
After three months working at the COVID-19 testing site had passed, Silke received promising news regarding her career as a pilot.
Multitasking at its finest
After months of nurturing hopes of returning to her pilot training, the flight school gave the green light. And so Silke finally received her long-awaited Commercial Pilot Licence.
She explains what happened next: “I continued the flight school and, in the meantime, I was still doing my daily tasks at the COVID-19 testing center. When I completed my training I rejoined the TUI team as a flight attendant. So, now I‘m an active cabin crew member who has a frozen Airline Transport Pilot Licence [the highest level of aircraft pilot license]. It means that I can start applying for jobs in the air carriers.”
In addition to her active professional life in the skies, Silke also works at the COVID testing site once in a while as she waits for the aviation industry to fully recover. Asked about her future plans, Silke says that since business aviation has suffered less in comparison to the commercial aviation sector, she is currently considering whether to try for jobs controlling commercial planes or private jets.
“I would love to start my career on a little business jet, and it is purely because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she admits. “Now the only jobs that you can find are for pilots of business jets. But the Boeing 737 commercial passenger aircraft or Airbus A350 wide-body also sound like really attractive opportunities for me.”
All in all, Silke says that, due to the pandemic, she believes that people have learned to appreciate the “little things” in life.
“I believe that after the pandemic, more and more people will highly appreciate all those little daily things, like a simple gathering together of close friends in the garden and an opportunity to see them healthy and happy. An appreciation and gratitude for the little things in life – that is what the pandemic made me learn.”
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