Senior First Officer Joanne Jordan, also known in the aviation industry as JoJo, refers to COVID-19 in Air Traffic Control (ATC) terms as an “indefinite delay”.
This phrase is commonly found in ATC Pilot communications were ATC operators signal pilots to hold their position for an indefinite amount of time in the wake of conditions or surroundings that may potentially increase the risk of an accident or harm to the flight. A rather apt choice of phrase, then.
Joanne explains: “COVID-19 was a surgical strike that provided little to no closure. When you retire or resign to fly elsewhere as a pilot, you have the opportunity to move on, have your last flights and prepare for where you’re moving to, which gives you some sort of closure.”
Instead, Joanne describes the pandemic as a “gut wrenching” event, which raised an immeasurable amount of career uncertainty for many pilots.
Joanne’s childhood dream was not to become a pilot. In fact, when she was 14 years old, it was her younger brother who coveted a career in aviation and Joanne wanted to work in hotel management. However, the siblings would regularly visit air shows and on one occasion, Joanne, alongside her family, boarded an introduction flight. This experience changed the trajectory of her life.
She says: “I sat at the back of the cockpit and the instructor suggested I take the controls. We swapped seats during the flight, and he said, ‘why don’t you play with the control column and see what this is all about?’.”
Joanne was hooked. “I loved it,” she recalls. “When we landed, I ran to my mom and, with a massive shout, said: ‘mummy this is what I want to do’.”
At the age of 14, Joanne began working towards her private pilot license, with the ambition of entering South African Airway’s pilot cadet scheme program. However, the wait time for each pilot round is extensive and so, in the interim, Joanne became a customer service agent at Swissport in February 2005. This is where she obtained the nickname ‘JoJo’.
She explains: “On my first day at Swissport, they asked me for my name. When I told them that my name is Joanne Jordan, they all beckoned with disbelief and pointed me to look on the roster board.”
On the board were the names of seven other people who all shared the name Joanne, making Joanne the eighth person named Joanne on the team. The team decided to refer to her as ‘JoJo’ and the nickname stuck for the duration of her career.
After Swissport, Joanne became a customer services agent for Singapore Airlines (SIA1) (SINGY). Then, in October 2005, and alongside 6500 other applicants, she competed in a cadet program for South African Airways and become one of the 13 cadets selected to become a cadet pilot.
She says: “It was quite a steep and grueling three-month-long selection process packed with hurdles, tests and examinations. After the first three months, we were sent back in for another three months where the remaining candidates were weaned off through intense training classes and simulator tests. 11 of us got through and we were sent to 43 Air School in South Africa, where we obtained our frozen ATPL pilot license after a 14-month pilot training program.”
After completing her training, Joanne completed her internship with Airlink, an airline based in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she became a Captain during her four-year term. During this period, Joanne became a part-time flight instructor at the Springbok Air Academy from April 2007 to August 2008. She was also the first person to attain an instructors rating at the academy.
In February 2010, Joanne became a First Officer at South African Airways where she flew for 11 years and six months, operating the Airbus A319 and A320 and the Boeing B738.
She says: “Becoming an SAA pilot is a coveted career position for many pilots to fly for our legacy carrier. For South Africans, it’s like wanting to become a Springbok athlete and the ultimate point in your career is to become a Flying Springbok.”
Over the course of her career, Joanne recalls many memorable moments, including flying over Mount Kilimanjaro in Nairobi, Kenya, which is the only dormant volcano where blue crystals are visible from the cabin. Joanne also flew Cyril Ramaphosa, the President of South Africa, on a few occasions.
She adds: “The last step in my career path at SAA was to become a captain. I’d been there for 11 years, and it takes about 20 years to become a captain at SAA, so I had a few more years to go.”
Unfortunately, COVID-19 disrupted her plans. But, even during a period of high stress and uncertainty, Joanne’s pilot instincts kicked in and after being grounded, she sought new opportunities.
She says: “We’re very resilient as pilots, we’re trained that way. If something happens or you get an emergency, you are already thinking about solutions, you start going through all your options and then you execute. This thinking became the same when COVID-19 started. This meant exploring all the available options and nothing was off the table. I looked at everything from becoming an electrician, a plumber or an estate agent.”
Despite the initial pressure of searching for new opportunities and navigating a global crisis, Joanne believes that, if we look at the situation from a different perspective, positives can also be found.
She explains: “Living out of a suitcase for the past 15 years is quite tough, so being home and being able to wake up in your own bed with your own mug has been incredible and it’s such a blessing to be with family.”
For Joanne, one of the greatest opportunities was being able to further her qualifications by pursuing an MBA and creating a dissertation and research paper that explores the customer care challenges faced by people with reduced mobility (PRMs) in South African air travel.
She says: “I’m very excited to present my research paper and to get it published because it’s going to be a game changer for people that require assistance while traveling. That could be anyone travelling by air from an elderly person to a person with minor, moderate, severe and even hidden disabilities. Even if someone has broken their leg, or they’ve had a medical procedure. The aim is to improve the training and the standardization of these regulations in South Africa to best cater for the needs of PRMs.”
During the pandemic, Joanne was also able to further her own business plan, a prototype design called Capram Pty Ltd, which is a mobile foldable travel stroller intended to be user-friendly when navigating airport environments.
While preparing to return to flying, Joanne has a few words of wisdom for industry professionals and encourages her contemporaries to explore all available options, stay current and utilize the benefits of networking.
She says: “In the beginning, just consider everything. Research everything that you can possibly attempt to do and that is realistic for you. Obviously, not everyone can start their own businesses, it’s unrealistic, but put your name out there. Be ready. Have two CVs ready, one general CV, which you can use outside aviation work and your aviation-related CV.
“Keep your logbook up-to-date, keep your license current, keep healthy and network. I didn’t realize how important it was to network because your next opportunity might just come from that channel. Create, build relationships, be attentive, listen to people, help where you can and, in the process of doing that, you will see opportunities come.”