Friday's Fabulous Flyer!
"My beginnings in aviation are probably no different to most of you reading this post. As a child, I was fascinated by aeroplanes. A noise overhead had me looking skyward, (it still does, sad isn’t it?)
Birthdays were an exciting time as I would be less than subtle about my gift wish list. A plastic model aeroplane kit was all I wanted. But enough is never enough and I needed to send something into the air. A control line model was the next step up. Hours of building painting, running in my new little engine and soon the big day arrived. Off I went to the flying field. And within a few short seconds, I was on my way home with a pile of balsa fragments, some larger hardwood pieces and bits of broken metal, not to mention, a broken heart.
So, back to the drawing board. Mark II was bigger, stronger and, just like The Titanic, crash proof. I had many happy hours of going round and round in circles following an airborne buzzbomb.
The next step was not far away. All the earnings from my weekend job ended up donated to the local hobby shop, and in return they gave me my ticket to aviation freedom. I was no longer attached to my pocket rocket by braided wire, and aviation entered the third dimension with my shiny new radio controlled model.
That was in the mid-1970’s, the same time as the advent of CB radios, the “Breaker, Breaker, this is the rubber duck,” kind of 2 way radio. In Australia, they were illegal, and unfortunately were operated on the same frequency band as our little airborne fireflies. This was my introduction to electromagnetic interference and automation surprise. It was like carrying a knife into a gunfight. No contest really; a slight crackling on the radio, versus a little aircraft with a catastrophic loss of control, and another episode of “Balsa meets earth.”
The end of High School was nigh, and career choice time. Unlike the US, Australia doesn’t have a College system, we go straight to University. Here’s where I take a 90 degree turn. I was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to have two things that interested me greatly. Aviation and veterinary medicine. My problem was, at decision time, aviation was in one of its slumps. I knew no one in the industry to help guide my decision and tell me that by the time I was qualified, they would probably be looking for pilots once more. So Plan B became plan A. (All the pilots reading this, never underestimate your ability to mentor future colleagues, it’s invaluable.)
I didn’t achieve the scores required for veterinary science, but I managed to squeak into a general science degree. Fortunately, towards the end of my course, I had learnt the not so subtle art of placing butt on seat and I completed my degree in human pathology (the study of disease,) and pharmacology (the study of drugs, the good ones, that is,) at the pointy end of the results list and into veterinary school I went. Another 5 years of assuming the position and I was the proud holder of a veterinary degree, about to be unleashed onto a blissfully unaware animal population.
I started working in a mixed large and small animal practice on the edge of Melbourne. Just up the road was a small country airfield and plenty of opportunities to look up. I was now working fulltime with money burning a hole in my pocket, so it was time to convert looking up at flying machines, to looking down from them.
At that time, airlines had strict age cut off limits, so I didn’t believe I was destined for an airline career, but I needed to fly nonetheless. An ancient Cessna 150 was my springboard to the heavens (well, a couple of thousand feet anyway.) The first magic moment of solo flight was not far away. I don’t think it matters how long you’ve been flying, that first solo flight is NEVER forgotten. A Private Pilot Licence then followed and the battle to make new friends had begun, not because I wanted to break Facebook (I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg was even born then,) but because everyone was a potential cost sharer to feed my need for speed, (well, 105 knots, anyway.)
Then came a chance meeting with one of my old university lecturers. He had owned his own aircraft for many years and possessed a Commercial Pilot Licence. Over a cold glass of beer, he convinced me I should study for my Commercial Licence. (Convince is too strong a word, he had to hold me back and stop me from running to the nearest theory school and signing up before we’d even finished our drink.)
With the world’s newest Commercial Pilot License in my pocket, I needed to make a decision and see where I could go with my flying, and the adventure began.
1989 saw a bitter domestic pilots’ dispute in Australia and the pilots from the 2 major domestic airlines resigned. I had resigned from my full time Veterinary job a month before it began. Work was difficult to come by. Fortunately, the flying school where I had trained had a maintenance division and I became involved in the restoration of an ex-Air Force DC3. The company also had a contract with the local power line authority carrying out low level power line inspections, looking for trees that were too close to lines and potentially sparking bushfires. Risky tree were identified from the air and ground crews went out and pruned them. 300 flying hours at 200ft above the ground and I was on my way.
Some 4 years later, I bumped into an old client from my first veterinary practice. I knew he had several aeroplanes and he offered me a job in Broome, in far north Western Australia. A Cessna 180 and 185 (tail draggers,) and a Piper Aztec and Navajo were at my disposal, TWIN ENGINE TIME!!!! There is extraordinary countryside in that part of the world, well worth a visit. A 6 month stint there, and with a deep suntan I returned to Melbourne.
Quiet times and back to veterinary work, but I had a target. Given the distances between major centres in Australia, one of the aviation opportunities for pilots is flying “bank runs.” No money, just cheques, contracts and also priority mail and parcels to be delivered by a whole gaggle of couriers. It took me 6 months to convince the powers that be to give me a job. They have a fleet of Aero Commanders, one of which was used by the late great Bob Hoover to perform his incredible aerobatic routine. (If you don’t know who he is, the YouTube clip of him pouring a glass of iced tea whilst performing a barrel roll is something to behold!)
18 months later, I was in a position to apply for regional airlines and I scored a job with the regional branch of the now defunct Ansett Airlines. I flew Metro 23’s. No autopilot as the then boss of the company said that if there had to be 2 pilots on a single pilot aircraft (a requirement for carriage of passengers,) he wasn’t going to waste money on an autopilot. I spent 8 months as a First Officer then was promoted to captain.
During all this time, something had changed. Equal Opportunity legislation meant that it was illegal to discriminate on age. Airlines started opening up their recruiting to all. I think it didn’t take long for them to realise that having a broad base of life experience in their ranks was actually a good thing.
After a wait that seemed like an eternity, I was offered to opportunity to undertake the selection process with Qantas, and I WAS ACCEPTED! I couldn’t believe it. My first fleet was the Classic Boeing 747. We Had -200’s, -300’s and even 2 B747-SP’s. We all join as second officers, and not only was I qualified to sit in either the captain’s and first officer’s seats, but I also earned a flight engineer’s licence and occupied the sideways seat when they were on a break. The world was mine.
I spent 3 years seeing the world and the opportunity came up to become a first officer on the Boeing 737 fleet. We had -300’s and -400’s, eventually replaced with -800’s. GFC’s came and went and eventually I was offered a command on the 737, which I have been commanding for the last 4 years. I’m happy as a pig in whatever pigs are happy in.
Along the journey I also completed a graduate certificate of management, as well as a graduate certificate of aviation human factors. I have become a passionate advocate of human factors principles as countless lives have been saved since we have started working “together.” And I have been fortunate to take some of the lessons we have learned back to other professions. I have started speaking at both medical and veterinary conferences and I hope to plant a few seeds amongst these good doctors and hopefully we will see improvements in patient safety, for all creatures.
Qantas also has a Pilot Assistance Network, or PAN. We have been trained as peer supporters and provide a sympathetic ear for our colleagues to discuss any issues, be they work or non-work related. We have psychologists available to offer further assistance if we feel there is more that can be done for those who have sought our help. If your company has something similar, I urge you to get involved. If not, try to get one going. The mental health of our colleagues is of paramount importance.
I now facilitate our Fearless Flyers courses as well. It’s a great thrill to use some of the lessons I have learnt over the journey to help people overcome their fear.
And my tonsils are being exercised over the airwaves once more with irregular spots as the talkback radio vet, a four legged Frasier Crane.
My story is perhaps a bit different to many, but if there’s any message I can pass on to you, it is that anything is possible. Thomas Edison said that genius (and I would add that it applies equally to success) was 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Dream your dreams and put in the effort to turn them from “I wish” to “I did.”
Thank you for sharing your story Nathan!
Enjoy the Journey
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