We recently caught up with First Officer, Dr John Kenning, to discover more about his flying career, the process of turning the dream of being a pilot into a reality, and he also shares advice on how to tackle the airline interview process.
How long have you been a pilot? Tell us a little bit about your career so far.
I started flying at the age of 13 with the Air Training Corps, before moving onto gliders, where I flew at an airfield close to home.
Whilst at University, I started PPL flying alongside my hospital job. I ran the two careers in parallel – instructing part time, whilst working full time in the NHS.
After completing training for a frozen ATPL in Spain, I was lucky enough to be offered a job with Flybe on the Dash 8 Q400. I moved to the Embraer jet (beautiful aircraft) after this before finally moving to a large holiday airline on the Boeing 737.
Did you always want to be a pilot?
I wanted to be a pilot right from the start (well – that, and a tractor driver!) My first flight with 9AEF at RAF Finningley marked the start of my career – and simply confirmed what I had always wanted to do!
I had the goal from an early age, and whilst my initial career took me in different (and interesting) directions, I never took my eyes off the final prize.
What was the process of turning that dream into a reality?
It was a long road for me – I came from a solid working class background, and it’s safe to say that there was no spare money! The only way to do it was to fund the training myself. I came within a whisker of a scholarship, and I passed all of the RAF aptitude tests – but no offer was forthcoming.
So… I had to find the money, and the only way to do that was to build a career in parallel with flying. The difficult and uncomfortable truth of flight training is that it is expensive – there is no way around that.
The difference between those who make it, and those who don’t, is often the ability to just keep writing the cheques – even when you don’t really know where the money is coming from!
“The difficult and uncomfortable truth of flight training is that it is expensive – there is no way around that.”
Where did you find the information you needed to take the first steps towards training to be a pilot?
When I first started flying, the internet was a very new thing – and so much of my information came from aviation publications. But, places like PPRUNE were a good place to discuss different options.
It is important to bear in mind that many people who offer advice on “the airlines” have never actually worked there themselves – and having been on both sides, it is possible to look back and see that quite a lot of the advice given was not always based on fact.
The first day on the job as an airline pilot.
How easy or difficult was it to find the information you needed about how to become a pilot?
Finding information is relatively easy – there is a wealth of information on the internet, and there are always plenty of people around the flying club/training environment that can offer advice.
However – it is important to take a critical look at all of the information given. Training providers always have their own agenda (that being money), and each trainee will potentially bring large pots of cash.
Advice often proffered with the best of intentions is not always based upon reality – especially when it comes from people who haven’t worked in the airline industry. You have to gather all of that information and then make an informed choice.
Some of the best information I was given came from friends who were ahead of me in their training – they had already found the cheapest providers and worked out who was giving value – and who wasn’t!
“Some of the best information I was given came from friends who were ahead of me in their training.”
After gaining your ATPL, how long did it take you to secure employment?
I was lucky to gain employment within a few months of completing all of the required elements – and most of my friends were equally lucky. It really depends upon the current environment; I hit the industry just as the recent boom started.
Where did you find your previous/current jobs?
I had watched a flight deck DVD from an online company and decided that I really quite liked Flybe – and so I actively searched their vacancies whilst also viewing other opportunities. I made quite a few phone calls, and filled out a number of applications.
My current employer turned me down at first – so I popped that on the back burner, gained experience, and then tried again successfully.
Doing the Instrument rating in Malaga, Spain.
What’s the hardest part about finding a pilot job?
There are a range of issues when looking for employment. Finding vacancies for “low hour pilots”, or those who do not have an appropriate type rating for the aircraft.
Assuming you can find vacancies, you then have to look at the location – as a family man, my choice was limited as I didn’t wish to uproot the entire family.
What’s the most difficult part of a pilot interview? What has been the most interesting / unexpected question you’ve been asked during an interview?
Nerves. I absolutely wrecked my first airline interview (with British Airways) because, for me, it was such a big moment.
I was so nervous that they actually asked me “do you really want to be a pilot?” It was all I had ever wanted, and the moment was just too big for a young 21 year old.
I have since found that the best way to treat interviews is to view them as a friendly conversation between interested parties – in this case, pilots.
I can honestly say that my experiences have been very positive. You have to prepare for the “tell me about a time when” type questions – and the inevitable “on final approach, low fuel, with sudden flap failure – what do you do?” type questions.
Otherwise, it is just a relaxed and friendly conversation. I can’t say that I’ve been asked anything odd – though I’ve heard plenty of apocryphal stories!
What advice would you give to any pilots about to take an interview?
Prepare and relax. Know the company, know where they are going, and know where they have come from. Understand their business model, with the good bits and the bad.
Appreciate the risks to the business, and be able to articulate that. Be open, friendly, and positive. When asked about negative points (such as “what was the worse bit of your previous job”), try to turn them into positives.
But mainly – relax. Good preparation will help this, and a friendly, open, demeanour will carry the day.
Doing the CPL on a Grumman GA7.
How do you tackle aptitude tests?
For me, I think this is the worst bit. Some people spend lots of money on preparation software but I never did. Most aptitude tests will give you some practice before the actual test so you do have an opportunity to become familiar with it.
It may seem silly, but I would add, subtract and multiply car number plates for weeks before the test – just to gain fluency in simple maths. And play on computer games!
Do you have any tips or techniques to pass on which helped you when learning and retaining technical information?
I think that different learning styles require different approaches. Having spent many years in education, I have refined my own way of studying (I do short 20 minute bursts with a 30 minute break) – it often looks as if I’m not doing much work at all!
Mnemonics, rhymes, association with known objects… whatever works – its a very individual thing. Understanding what is important, and what isn’t is tricky at first. I have come across people who do whole courses without taking a single note, and others who write reams of paper.
Doncaster in the Embraer 175.
The industry is notoriously volatile and job security isn’t always a given. How do you manage this?
Flybe, unfortunately, was always sitting on the edge – and it never really felt safe for the long term. The people there were amazing, and they didn’t deserve the sad outcome that they have had to endure.
I arrived in the industry with a clear idea of its volatility and consequently never gave up my NHS career. I have continued to keep up my skills and knowledge, and do some shifts in the background where time allowed – giving me a solid second option should it all go wrong.
It is vitally important to have a plan B if you work in the airlines – most people that you meet will have been made redundant at some stage during their career – some many times over.
You have to keep your finger very much on the pulse, and be prepared to act wherever you can (I paid a large bond in order to move companies – it turned out to be money very well spent).
That being said, it can also just be about being lucky – there are people who have simply been the victims of bad timing, despite their best efforts. If I had stayed at my previous airline any longer, then I would have been caught up in its demise. It’s a fine balance.
“You have to keep your finger very much on the pulse.”
A Beechcraft Dutchess of Aerodynamics, Malaga.
Aerial photo of Chamberry in the Alps.