By Jennifer Cairns 13 Jan 2023 7 min read

Breaking down barriers on the journey to your wings

Thanks Jen and the team at Aviation Job Search for inviting me to write this article on my journey to the flightdeck. I hope you will find it useful in planning your own journey, or at least just find it an interesting read!

 


Where did the dream start for you?

My parents emigrated from Jamaica and Guyana, and I enjoyed a modest upbringing in North London, dad in newspaper printing and mum a nurse. On our first family holiday overseas to see family in the USA I was invited to visit the flightdeck, which shows you how long ago this was! I was 8 years old, and it was there and then I decided I was going to be an airline pilot when I grew up. I was hooked.

 

What were your first steps into the industry?

We didn’t have any friends or family that worked in aviation in any capacity so it was a bit of a mission back then to gather together the information I needed to plan my future. Thankfully, things are different now for those looking to get into the career today. Neither did I have access to the financial resources that would be necessary to embark on the journey to my wings.

Looking back though, the one thing I did have access to was a wealth of resilience and dedication, combined with the unending support of my parents.

My research showed me that I would need work hard at school to ensure I had a good understanding of Maths and Physics, and by coincidence it turned out that my Physics teacher was also a part-time flying instructor! He recommended some trial lessons at the local airfield and once I had had my taste of being above the clouds it further cemented my decision from almost 10 years earlier.

I was able to take enough initial lessons to fly solo at 17 years old and then take a radiotelephony exam that allowed me to work in the airfield tower after school to earn my flight time, before I was gently “encouraged” to shift my attention back to my A-level revision!

 

Breaking down barriers 

It was around this time that I applied for the only fully sponsored airline cadet programme available at the time as this appeared to be the only way I was ever likely to achieve my dream. Interestingly enough, I was successful at every stage of the stringent assessment process but was not offered a coveted place on the scheme having not quite made the cut that year.

This was a devastating blow for a highly driven 17-year old with a bold dream, and it would have been very easy to end the story there. But looking to the positive, I recognized that I was able to pass one of the most stringent pilot assessment centres the industry had to offer, which cemented in my head that I was certainly capable. I just needed the right opportunity. 

My parents suggested I head into further education in order to have back up options in case I was unable to pursue my dream, so after some lengthy research I selected a 4-year sandwich degree in International Marketing Management by the beach in Bournemouth including 18 months overseas studying and working in France.

Not only did I manage to scrape through an Honours Degree, but more importantly developed enormously as a person, and made friends for life. I even managed to secure a work placement at an airline, and pester enough people to get me on the first ever Airbus A330 commercial flight as well as some time in the simulators in the small hours of the morning!

As a proud graduate I applied once more for the same sponsorship scheme only to be rejected at the application stage, before the scheme was subsequently disbanded. This once again could very easily have been the end of the story. The only option available to me now was to self-fund my training, so I had to focus on building a well-paid career.

My first job after graduation was as a Passenger Handling Agent at Heathrow Airport allowing me to keep the industry of my dreams within touching distance while I assessed my options – airline marketing would have been an ideal path, but initial research suggested that this was not going to deliver the financial benefits I needed quickly enough.

However, at the time there was an IT boom with huge salary potential, so IT sales and marketing became my target. I spent almost 8 years in the end building valuable skills and experience in IT sales marketing project management and consultancy. The last 4 years of this I spent within the travel industry earning enough to finally finance an intensive private pilot course in the USA.

You will all have heard or read about the horrific attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on Sept 11 th 2001 or “9/11” as it became known. Aside from the devastating effects on the family and friends of the thousands that lost their lives, the event had devastating effects on the world economy and changed the aviation industry for good. But, as is becoming customary for the industry, the recovery was not far behind and by being directly involved through my job I was able to witness first-hand as investment returned. It was at that point a key player in the reinvigorated market, easyJet, made a landmark order with Airbus for over 100 A319 aircraft. I thought they would need pilots to fly them, so why not me?!

So with savings, a career development loan and a number of credit cards I worked out that NOW I could finally afford to start my training. It was now or never. I was 30 years old.

 

What was your training like?

I chose the modular training route since I already had a PPL and solo flying experience, at a provider with a proven track record of supplying graduates directly into partner airlines. This wasn’t the cheapest option available, but it was in my opinion the one that suited my own circumstances the best, particularly given I was embarking on my second career at such a late stage, and I needed to give myself the best chance of securing a role with a salary that would allow me to begin repaying my borrowing at the earliest opportunity.

Having completed my training I was fortunate enough to be offered 2 positions, one of which being from the company that started it all, and who 16 years on I am still proud to work for. 

 

What is your advice for aviation professionals?

There are many choices available today from traditional ATPL courses, through to all-inclusive MPL cadet courses such as the recently launched Generation easyJet program in conjunction with CAE where the company intends to recruit 1000 cadets over the course of the coming 5 years. You can even now do a University degree that includes commercial flight training!

Whichever option you choose, you can expect a minimum of 18 months full-time, or longer if your choice is to work alongside your training. The key point is that there is no single simple way of achieving your dream - the key is to choose the route that suits you and your personal circumstances best, and to recognize that the path may not be easy or immediate.

But with the right attitude, hard work and resilience, you can turn the dream into a reality. Today, I have had the opportunity to progress from Airbus A320 First Officer to Captain and now Line Training Captain, Type Rating Instructor and Examiner and am glad I took the decision to change careers. As the old saying goes, if you love what you do then you never work a day in your life. I’m loving my life!

 

Apply for Pilot roles acorss the world today! 

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