A Kiwi pilot during Covid-19: A Journey from Take-off to Stand DownPosted on 11/05/2021 by Hayley Clark
At ITC, we pride ourselves on our industry contacts. It’s one of the many reasons why ITC and Study From Home graduates are so well regarded amongst the New Zealand travel, tourism, and aviation sectors.
We keep in regular contact with these industry professionals, and we were recently fortunate to hear from a Kiwi pilot working for one of the major airlines. While we cannot reveal their name or their company, we can share their story about exactly what it was like for an accomplished pilot as New Zealand went into lockdown and travel ground to a halt.
From disregarding the virus as media hype, to facing reality, finding low-skilled work, and positivity through it all, this is an incredible story of Kiwi resilience and an industry that’s once again on the rise.
A pilot’s story
In August of 2019, after fifteen years in aviation spent between New Zealand and Australia and in a variety of different jobs as a pilot – I finally reached what I considered to be the apex of my career. I was awarded my command flying jets for a major international carrier. The road to Captain is tough & challenging but most of all rewarding. It saw me teaching the pilots of tomorrow. I spent time in management and leadership roles. I even flew around in the middle of the night on my own carrying freight up and down the East Coast of Australia. All of these experiences were opportunities for personal & professional growth and along the way there were successes and of course; failures. Find me an airline pilot that can’t say the same and I’ll give you the wings off my chest!
Becoming Captain doesn’t automatically make you Tom Cruise in Top Gun. When you get the four bars on each shoulder you are highly competent to do the job (you legally must be – after all, it’s safety first) but you still have a new trade to master. Suddenly you are flying with a bunch of pilots you’ve never flown with because up until you were promoted, you were a First Officer just like them. You must hone and refine what your Command looks like and how you intend to ‘wear it’. As the latter part of 2019 drew close, I had settled into what I wanted my Command to look like and it’s safe to say – I was on cloud nine (pun intended).
In January of 2020, the media started talking about a virus in China they were calling a ‘Novel Coronavirus’. I remember thinking to myself; nothing novel about it! At the time I dismissed it. I mean, we’ve seen these before, right? We’ve had Bird Flu, SARS, Swine Flu, EBOLA… and all in a fairly short timeframe as far as viral outbreaks go. The media was being noisy about this so called ‘Coronavirus’ but then, that’s what sells advertising, so I dismissed it as nothing more than media hype and carried on – as I’m sure many of us did. I’m not prone to taking the alarmist position on anything (a quality fairly common in pilots) so I figured, why borrow tomorrow’s problems when they may not become problems at all.
February 2020 rolled by and the virus (now dubbed COVID-19) was more rampant outside China than within China. Kiwis were being evacuated home. Daily infection rates were exploding, and it was no longer the media making noise – governments all over the world were poised to go to war with this microscopic enemy. It was around this time that I realised that my optimism was beginning to look more like ignorance, and I started to entertain the possibility of a future with less flying. What I got what something far more severe.
My last landing was on 20th March 2020. The longest I had been without flying up until that time was four weeks and as at writing this article, I have been without flying for a little over fifty-seven weeks. That fifty-seven weeks, despite the enormous hurdles it has thrown up, has also been a massive and life changing learning curve.
As we entered the initial lock down, all our pilots were stood down on ‘leave without pay’ meaning; “We can’t give you any flying and we can’t pay you, but we will retain you.” From the outset there was no threat of or talk of redundancies for our pilots. Instead, there appeared to be a clear intention to retain us with the recovery from the pandemic in mind. This growth mindset and look to better times was greatly supportive and one of the things that allowed my partner and I to remain focussed on a brighter future, whenever that may come. Don’t get me wrong, every time I moved the goal post further and further down the calendar it dampened my positivity but the airline’s firm commitment to retain us was enough to keep me pushing ahead. It was enough to fuel my drive to survive.
When we were first stood down, I was certain we would be back to work in a few months – six at most. I had some annual leave I could use to help us financially and we had some savings. Surely it couldn’t go on any longer than that… could it? As time dragged on and the virus stood its ground, I began to realise that my return to flying may not be so expeditious – in fact, it may not even be before Christmas. The harsh financial reality of going from a six-figure salary to nothing overnight now meant looking for work (any work) so that the debt collectors were held at bay. Initially this was tough. I was applying for customer service roles with an airline pilots resume. No one would consider me because, quite simply, I would not fit in. “Why would an airline captain want to work here!?” I would hear them thinking. Never mind I was in customer service and banking for seven years before becoming a pilot. Never mind that many of the skills I needed to do my job were transferable outside of aviation.
I did a couple of temporary jobs here and there. All were unfulfilling, poorly trained, and low paid. I now remembered what it was like to have to drag yourself out of bed to go to a job you didn’t enjoy making barely enough money to refuel the car and pay the rent. After more than six months I was taken on by a large multinational employer in the hardware and construction industry and I managed to extract some more enjoyment out of my day but I still struggled to feel that sense of belonging I had been so blessed with as a pilot.
It’s been tough but we’ve managed. We’ve survived. In many ways – we’ve thrived. I mean, financially we aren’t moving forward but with some reality checks and a bit of belt tightening we are doing OK. I’ve learnt to appreciate how hard it can be to live in a city like Auckland making twenty something dollars an hour. I’ve also learnt how fortunate we were to be making enough money not to worry about paying rent, buying food or keeping up with the car payments. I use the word fortunate quite purposefully. We (airline pilots) aren’t lucky, because the word ‘luck’ implies that we reached that position by pure chance, which is simply not the case. I worked hard for many years, fighting off endless opportunities for failure and in many cases at great personal sacrifice to get to the Captain’s seat. Nonetheless, I was still fortunate that my life’s passion happened to attract a comfortable income.
So, what of the future? If COVID has taught me anything it’s that we can’t take anything for granted and that no matter how clear you think your crystal ball is – you never know what lurks around the corner. We have a bubble with Australia and for the most part (albeit early days) that seems to be playing out well for both countries. Vaccine uptake seems to be good and countries such as the UK and Israel have demonstrated success. Our success as a nomadic species is largely owing to our ability and desire to ‘move and migrate’. The world needs to travel. We need to explore. We need to see and feel new things. Overall – the world needs tourism and tourism needs aviation. It feels like the beginnings of a brighter future for travel & tourism (and the world as a whole) and whilst my optimism was challenged at the outset of this pandemic, I’m confident that it is better placed as we move out of the grasp of COVID.
To anyone reconsidering a career in the industry because of COVID I have but one thing to say; If you are passionate about an endeavour, you simply must pursue it. To do anything else would be to defy yourself.
Overall, I think I will emerge from this experience a more thankful and humble person. I am thankful for my health and that of my family and friends. I am thankful to live in New Zealand where the pandemic has been well controlled, albeit at the expense of the industry I know and love. I am thankful to have found the resourcefulness and drive to survive. I am thankful for the skills I have acquired (in some cases reacquired) during my time in secondary employment. I give thanks for the time it has given me with my loved ones – time I would normally have spent in a hotel room in another country. I’m incredibly thankful to have retained my job as Captain despite the tremendous pressures on the airline and the industry.
I think one can choose to come out of a situation like this in one of two ways. You can choose to emerge foul, disgruntled, and disenchanted OR you can choose to leave the pain behind and carry the good that can be extracted. I choose the latter.
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