Pilot’s story: from flying high to digging deep

Since I can remember I had always wanted to be a pilot. Throughout my life travel has always been a prominent aspect of my yearly rituals. Having grown up as an expat in the Middle East, my family and I were constantly on the move, be it flying home for Xmas into London Heathrow or jetting off to Hong Kong’s Kai Tak for trips around SE Asia, I would often find myself in an airliner somewhere. And it was from those experiences that I found my initial love for aviation and all things flying.

As with many involved in aviation, my colleagues and myself tossed and turned over the threat of possible redundancies due to the pandemic throughout 2020. The devastating impact on the airlines and the aviation industry as a whole has been something that no one could have truly predicted. For around 5000 of us, October 2020 is when it came to a head. I, along with my colleagues, was made redundant from my airline, Cathay Dragon (Dragonair), in Hong Kong where I was operating as a Senior First Officer.

As an airline based in Hong Kong, we were acutely affected early on by the spread of the virus. Cathay Dragon, which predominantly operated to China, quickly began to feel the effects of the shutting down of borders across the region. By around the beginning of April, the entire airline had essentially ground to a halt except for a few largely cargo flights operated by one of our two fleets, the Airbus 330. My fleet, Airbus 320/321 was completely grounded with aircraft parked up across Hong Kong International Airport, many of which were eventually flown to the desert in Australia where they are to remain until being scrapped, never to return to the skies.

Myself, my last flight was on the 25th  of January 2020. I actually operated the final flight into Wuhan, China, on the 23rd of January 2020. This was to be the last flight in and out of the city. Once we achieved liftoff on departure the entire city was shut down and sent into quarantine for several weeks, no one in, no one out. Fast forward 9 months however and after several near misses and months of reduced pay, employees woke to the news that Cathay Pacific, our parent company, had decided to cease operations of Cathay Dragon. 

To many, it was inevitable, to some a shock, but to all, it was a moment of real sadness.

It is hard to describe the thoughts and feelings you go through when you are initially made redundant. I think due to the nature and long build-up to the eventual decision, personally, there was almost a relief in getting a final answer. It allowed me to start planning for the future rather than spending days scanning news articles, forums and listening to rumor and whispers. The sleepless nights through most of the year. Sitting around waiting for something to happen, be it good or bad, is indeed exhausting, so in a way, it was quite freeing being told it was all over.

However, I can only say these were my reactions and I am sure everyone has their own story. 

For the next few weeks after the redundancy, my mind was focused and days were filled with working out how I was going to position myself to repatriate to the UK. Organizing a shipment of the contents of your life coupled with working out the travel details to repatriate two dogs and a wife across a virus ravaged travel system which is constantly in a state of flux and all the while working hard to get your redundancy package (your life preserver) indeed can fill your life such that you have no real-time to think about what you have just lost in a career and vocation.

There does come an inevitable time however when all those tasks are complete, and it is at those times that life can become the hardest. Once you have repatriated. Once you are home. Sat in the living room with no real focus on your day. No real goals or time demands placed upon you. No purpose. That is when it begins to dawn on you that you really are no longer employed. No paycheck will be coming at the end of the month. An industry and world that once demanded and respected your skillset do in fact no longer require you as a pilot.

For us, as pilots, we are so used to a routine. It is just a way of life. You know you have to follow a roster set out by the company. You know how to operate an aircraft following the exact prescribed set of SOPs. That every 6 months, you are to be assessed. It is all set out for you, essentially there is a path to follow. All the way from flight school where the path follows from license to license. Into that first aviation job. That first airline. That extra bar on your shoulder. Your first command. In to a training position and so on. It’s a clearly defined path that one sets out on. However once that path no longer exists, how do you exactly find the new one.

For many including myself, it is difficult initially to see a way through. A thousand questions flash through your mind: How do my skills relate to anything other than being a pilot? Where will I find a new career path after years of being engaged in such a specific job role? Do I need to study again? All the while needing to deal with the financial and family aspects of being made redundant.

For myself, there are also concerns about your own aviation career and the focus on getting back into the flight deck. Concerns of which many outside the profession do not truly understand. How do I remain current? Will my knowledge remain? Will I suffer from skills fade? Will I still be employable if I don’t fly? Will the industry recover? Will I fly again?

It is true that we as pilots are trained to remain resilient, positive, and focused even under the most demanding of pressures. However, with so much lost when losing your career and vocation how can one remain so? And how can one find purpose again? 

For myself, the way I moved through the process to where I am today was to compartmentalize my life initially. I thought about the good things I had in my life. A great family, my health, a solid foundation on which to build upon. I then had to find a ‘why?’. Why do you need to keep going? Why do you need to put yourself out there? Why do you need to go that extra mile? Once you have your why then that can be your driving force to reinvent yourself.

It was from this point that I decided to find something in my life that I had become interested in and would remain passionate about. And something that whilst operating as a pilot I had potentially stopped myself from doing. For me, I have become very concerned about the natural world and the environments in which we find ourselves. I wanted to make a real difference and would quite often find myself being conflicted about the career choice I had made as a pilot and the impact the industry has on the planet (This is one positive reason I hold for not continuing in the role I lost).

From there I considered how I would use my skill set and know-how to try and monetize my passion. After all, one cannot survive without a regular income. On the subject of income, it was important for me to develop something at this time outside of the flight deck that I could potentially continue if indeed I do go back to flying. Something that will protect me financially in the future in case I do once again lose my flying job. The aviation industry is one where the threat of redundancy is always going to be there. When I joined Cathay Dragon I thought it was a job for life. How wrong can one be! I wanted to ensure the effort I put into a venture would continue to be worth something long into the future and not just a stop-gap until such time as I maybe got the opportunity to fly again. Who knows how long this pandemic will affect the industry? Will it ever truly recover? So I needed the time and energy to be worth it.

Thinking of the above I have therefore set up a gardening and landscaping business with my brother in the East Lothian/Edinburgh region of the UK. Named after my brother, Nick’s Garden Care, our focus will be on using organic methods to once again bring back the flora and fauna once lost in our local areas. It’s a passion of both of ours and one which we feel will bring great benefit to others and the natural environments in which we find ourselves. From rebuilding hedgerows to developing a love for wildlife gardening and teaching people to grow their own vegetables, our emphasis is to help drive people’s passion for the natural world of plants. We are starting small but hope to grow. We will make mistakes but make great strides. I won’t know the answers but will be sure to learn. And in the end, we know we will succeed.

I recognize that this career change, even if it is just temporary, is one which won’t be as lucrative as flying. Indeed it’s a hell of a lot more work on a daily basis and of course, I do get a lot more wet and muddy than I once did. But it’s something I feel is rewarding. Something I enjoy and something I can throw myself in to and not miss the flight deck. Something to keep me engaged and overall keep me happy.

To my fellow aviation professionals, I say stay positive. Find your why. Find your passion. Something worthwhile. Set out a plan, and work towards a goal. There is life outside the cockpit, and life doesn’t have to just revolve around flying

If you think back to your last proficiency check. How did it go? When in a failure scenario did you find a way out of a difficult situation? Did you land the aircraft successfully and safely? I’m sure the answer to these questions is yes. Now was it a textbook solution? Did it all go perfectly and how you imagined it would when revising at home? Likely the answer is no. But it was successful and everyone was kept safe. You learned from it and grew from it.

This is likely what will happen with your next venture. But keep going and use that resilience and positivity you learned from your flight training. If you give up and give in to the negativity, the outcome will only be a failure. But if you keep going and keep learning in the end likely you’ll achieve a safe landing. And one day I am sure we will fly again.

(I apologize for only talking from a pilot point of view, it is the only one I know! However, I hope there is something for all the aviation professionals affected by this pandemic).

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