Reaching your dreams: Our journey to becoming Pilots
October 23, 2020
We love hearing about incredible people reaching their dreams here at Explore. This October, we have a whole host of workshops, activities, and more to help us discover and celebrate Black History. This includes speaking to some fantastic black role models within our community.
To kick us off, we chatted with Michelle and Aaron who told us all about their journey of reaching their dreams and becoming commercial pilots ahead of their exciting members’ live lesson ‘A Day in the Life of a Pilot’.
When it comes to reaching your dreams, we wanted to know how they did it. So, we asked them all about how they got to where they are now as well as the challenges they’ve faced along the way. Here’s what they said!
Let’s start with a bit about you. Tell us about yourself Aaron.
Aaron: My background is mainly in the sporting field. I grew up in a small village in Suffolk. I played a lot of sports growing up but I excelled at basketball. After high school, I managed to obtain a scholarship to a basketball academy in Northampton. I studied Sports and Exercise Science. After graduating college I was lucky enough to obtain another basketball scholarship to study Sport and Exercise Science at London South Bank University. Following my university graduation, I played semi-pro basketball for various teams. I also DJ’d at a nightclub on weekends, and coached basketball for a college and a University team. Early 2015 I was offered 2 professional basketball contracts abroad. In the same month was offered a place on a training programme to become a pilot. You may be able to guess which option I took.
Amazing! What’s your background Michelle?
Michelle: My mother is from Kenya and my father is from The Netherlands. I was born in Kenya but moved to the U.K. when I was one with my parents and my sister. I grew up close to Stansted Airport and have always been very academic. As soon as I had finished my GCSE’s, I knew I wanted to be a pilot, however, I was also determined to get a degree. I studied Chemistry at Sheffield University and whilst at university I played for the tennis and netball teams. Once I graduated, I applied for flying school straight away and spent the following year working at a bar and temping as an admin assistant whilst waiting for my course to start. I started flying in 2008 and became a commercial pilot in 2010.
So when did you first have the idea that you wanted to fly a plane?
Michelle: I’ve always been fascinated by aeroplanes. Getting on an aeroplane and catching a glimpse of the pilots was the best part of my holiday. We travelled quite a lot when I was younger, as I have family in Kenya, and I would always fight my sister for the window seat just so I could look out of the window & take in all the sights. I was 15 years old when I thought becoming a pilot was a real option for me. I remember going to a careers evening at school and the job matches that I got never interested me, and even though I’d hardly seen any female pilots, there was something about flying that always caught my attention and the idea of being a pilot was super exciting.
What first steps did you take in order to reach your dreams?
Aaron: Once I decided I wanted to pursue becoming a pilot, I started by reading some books on becoming a pilot and reading about the industry. I was also lucky enough to have a few hours of flying lessons as birthday gifts from my family which helped keep up my enthusiasm to pursue flying. I then applied for a few pilot training programmes at various flight schools. At the time there were sponsored schemes, and I applied for and attended interviews and skills tests for commercial airlines. I ended up being accepted onto a sponsored course and started the course in 2015.
What would you say has helped shape you as the pilot you are today?
Michelle: I think the beauty of becoming a pilot is that it can be a job for so many people regardless of their backgrounds. Throughout my life I have been involved in and led team sports, I have been a tennis coach, worked in a bar and worked as an admin assistant. Within all these roles I have learnt and developed skills that have enabled me to be the pilot I am today. I would like to think I have a calm and relaxed style, however, I am not afraid to be assertive and make difficult decisions when that is required.
Would you say leadership skills are important if you want to become a pilot?
Aaron: Yes. Leadership is a key part of the everyday role of being a pilot and something I learnt through sports as a captain for multiple basketball teams as well as coaching.
The Captain and First officer have a team of cabin crew that they are responsible for, and they will look to you as the leader throughout the day. Each member of that team will have their own responsibilities. As the Captain (or sometimes the First Officer), you are responsible for everything that happens on the plane. There is a skill in being a good leader. It’s much more than making decisions and telling people what to do. It is much more about working in a way that can bring out the best in everybody on the team and being able to work together to obtain the end goal.
What about being a team player?
Michelle: I’d say being a team player is one of the most important skills when it comes to being a pilot. We must be able to work effectively in a team from our very first flight to our very last flight. Once onboard, everyone we come into contact with or speak to is part of our team. They all play their own very important part in ensuring we depart and arrive safely. Being a team player means helping others, appreciating and respecting other points of view and looking out for one another.
Why would you say communication is important in the aviation world?
Aaron: Communication is a key role in the aviation world. There has to be a clear understanding of multiple people at all times during each flight. Flying a passenger jet aeroplane is a 2 pilot operation. The pilots have to be able to communicate effectively so that they are able to fly the plane as planned and so there is no confusion. As pilots, we are also always communicating with Air Traffic Control (ATC). They are in stations around the world controlling the routes that the planes fly. Also during our flights, we speak to the passengers over the PA system to introduce ourselves and to give them information about the flight.
What’s your favourite memory from your career so far?
Michelle: One of my favourite moments so far was when I flew my Mum and my nephew to Amsterdam. I didn’t tell my nephew that I would be flying him, so he was really surprised to see me when he got on board. It was so lovely to show them the flight deck. My Mum even brought me a packed lunch for the flight!
Have you ever had one of those ‘I can’t believe I’m finally here’ moments?
Aaron: The very first time that I got to fly an actual plane was definitely one of those moments. After finishing all of our training hours on small planes and in simulators, and before we fly with passengers on board, we take an empty plane with some training captains and a group of new pilots to do some landing practice. That is the first time we get to fly a passenger jet plane and it was an amazing experience, and the fact I got to share it with a group of friends that had gone through our 2 years of training together it was something that I will never forget.
What’s the biggest challenge you faced along your journey to becoming a pilot?
Michelle: One of the biggest challenges for me was adjusting to the shift patterns and managing a healthy lifestyle outside of work. There is a significant amount of training once you first start in an airline. As pilots, we usually have high expectations of ourselves. It was a bit of a shock waking up at 4 am on some days, and going to bed at 4 am on others. I had to be really disciplined in managing my new work schedule and studying on my days off. It is was just as important to me, to make sure I got enough rest, did some exercise and ate healthily. At first it was a struggle, but now I am very conscious of maintaining a work-life balance that works for me.
How often do you have to make decisions or problem solve?
Aaron: Decision making, every day. Problem-solving, mainly when things don’t go to plan. 99% of the time when we fly, most things go smoothly. However, we do a great deal of training each year so that we are able to deal with the days where things don’t go as planned. Anytime we have an issue we problem solve in a specific way. First, we would confirm the issue so both pilots have the same mental model as to what the issue is. Next, we would think what options we have available to us. Then, we would make a decision on what we are going to do. We would finally review everything we have done, to make sure we made a good decision and to make sure we didn’t miss anything.
What would you say to anyone who has ambition but doesn’t know how to reach their dreams?
Michelle: Something that I often tell myself, is ‘face your fears, and then do it anyway’. We all have moments where we feel nervous. Or we may feel under-qualified or feel like we’ll never be able to achieve what we really want. Being aware of what might be holding you back is so important. Once you’ve identified it, you can come up with ways to overcome these hurdles. If you really want something, you will find a way to achieve it. It might be a different path to those around you and it might take you a little bit longer. Taking the first step is often the hardest and you will feel proud of yourself for trying.
Lastly, looking back, if you had to give your younger self advice, what would it be?
Aaron: I would tell my younger self to get some information on managing your money and your finances. Unless your parents are quite money conscious, a lot of people go through schooling years not knowing much about money management. This would have made life for me a bit easier going into adulthood.
Feeling inspired to start reaching your dreams? We certainly are! A huge thank you to Michelle and Aaron for their advice!
Member exclusive: join us this half term to learn about and celebrate Black History. Discover free activity sheets and workshops on your Member’s Area.
Have you ever dreamed about being a pilot? Make sure you join Michelle and Aaron for their live lesson and Q&A – ‘A Day in the Life of a Pilot’ on Wednesday 28th October at 4pm.
It’s a great opportunity for you to practice some of the skills you need to become a pilot and for you to ask them questions about their journey so far!
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