In the second part of our Kura Aviation success story (find the first part here), we caught up with AirTanker First Officer Jack Roberts, to find out how he got in to flying, how he found the training and what he thinks of his first airline job…
Hello Jack, firstly, tell us a little about yourself…
Hello, I’m Jack Roberts, 33, originally from Oxford. I’ve recently moved to Cheltenham and I am really enjoying discovering a new part of the country. I’ve been working for AirTanker as a First Officer on the Airbus A330 since November last year (2016).
What got you in to flying Jack?
I’m afraid to say I fit the boring cliché rather well. As a child I fell in love with the magic of air travel simply through aeroplane trips to and from family holidays. I loved the excitement of the airport, the smell of the aircraft and the jet fuel as we boarded, feeling the acceleration down the runway, watching the earth drop away beneath us. I even to this day love aeroplane food. Airline pilots seemed like heroes to me. In the same vein as movie stars or racing drivers, it wasn’t the kind of career I ever contemplated would be open to a very ‘normal’ person like me. Coming towards the end of my degree at university, faced with the challenge of deciding what to do with the rest of my life but knowing I didn’t want to be sitting behind a desk for the next 40-odd years it rather suddenly hit me – if anyone else can learn to pilot airliners then why couldn’t I? I began researching the idea seriously and soon realised not only that the job would suit me down to the ground, but also there were indeed routes that I could realistically follow to achieve this goal. I took a trial flying lesson which I will never forget which sealed the deal and I decided this is how I wanted to earn a living.
Good on you! So what age did you start flying and did you have a previous job or career?
I took my first flight during my time at University, I must’ve been around 22. I couldn’t begin my training as soon as I graduated as I’d hoped to, due to a minor heart condition which I needed to have corrected in order to obtain my Class One Medical. The wait for the surgery and subsequent time needed for it to take effect I knew was going to take around three years, so I moved to London with a couple of mates and we started a band – I was the drummer. I found an office job to pay the rent and had a great few years playing shows all over London. Obviously I’m going to tell you we were pretty damn good, but despite some interest from some small record labels, no, we never made it big! I got my Class One Medical in the middle of the infamous ‘Credit Crunch’ and simply couldn’t get the funds together to pursue the integrated training route, so I moved back in with my mum in Oxford, joined the local flying club at Oxford Airport, got a part time job and just set about learning to fly.
You mention your Mum, does anyone else in your family fly?
Not in my immediate family no. I have a rather distant cousin who is an airline pilot, and although we have only met a couple of times, it was useful to have someone to get in touch with when I had questions about the best way to complete my training.
Where did you do your training and how did you find it?
I got my PPL at the flying club at Kidlington called Pilot Flight Training, and also used their fleet of PA28s for my hour building. I studied for my ATPL theory exams with (what was then) Oxford Aviation Academy through their distance learning package – it was a pretty intimidating day when the huge box of books arrived on my doorstep and it hit me I was going to have to arrange my time to somehow learn it all!
I was still playing in the band at this point so was commuting to London two – three times a week for rehearsal, I was hour building whenever the weather was good and working three days a week at my job driving a grocery delivery van. Fitting all this in and somehow finding time to absorb the content of the aforementioned box of books taught me a lot about time management and prioritisation!
Once complete I went to Stapleford Flight Centre in Essex for my Commercial Pilot Licence, Multi-Engine Piston Rating and Instrument Rating. I lived in the accommodation on the airfield and did this full time, it took about six months altogether. This was a really happy time for me as it was the first time since I’d started training some three years earlier that I was surrounded by like-minded people.
How did you find the modular route?
The modular route with all its independence and self-motivation can be a little lonely at times. I made some really good pals who I will always keep in touch with. I got on really well with my instructors too, who were all excellent, and enjoyed being really immersed in flight training without having to split my focus on other things at the same time. At the time I thought the glass-cockpit DA42s we trained in were fantastic pieces of kit – and they were indeed a great training tool – but having subsequently done quite a bit of flying in a Seneca III for a private owner I have to say I prefer the robustness of the old bird compared to the twitchier Twinstar!
On completion of my Instrument Rating I was unable to get any airline opportunities, certainly one of the pitfalls of the modular route is the lack of employment support, so I decided to train as a Flying Instructor to build experience. I ended up teaching people to fly back at Pilot Flight Training at Oxford where I had learnt myself, which had rather a nice circularity to it. Instructing doesn’t pay well unfortunately, and is very dependant on weather and demand, so I returned to the grocery deliveries two days a week – I would rise at 3.45am to get the round completed before arriving at the airport for a full day of instructing. It was hard work but I learned a huge amount about flying and met some really great people. Instructing can be rewarding and frustrating in equal measure I found, but I wouldn’t change my experience of it one bit, the two years and 1000 hours I gained helped equip me with the tools I needed to get to where I am today.
Despite the experience I gained and contacts I made during my two years of instructing, I was still not making any headway at all with my goal of flying airliners. I applied for every job I was eligible for, as well as many I wasn’t, but just couldn’t get a break. It was frustrating seeing people who had done integrated training walk straight into jet jobs. I wanted something to level the playing field, and when I heard about Kura it sounded like that was exactly what they were doing. I knew I needed something to give me leg up, so I looked into Kura’s BESTPILOT course, and another well established training organisation’s comparable course (the CTC ATP course).
I contacted both organisations and frankly I was just far more impressed with the response I received from Kura. They were completely open and honest about their success rate placing cadets, they responded almost immediately to all my queries, there was no pressure, they were almost apologetic about the fact they had to charge for the course. They also were placing lots of cadets in airlines that didn’t charge for the type rating which was really important to me. It didn’t seem morally correct to me to see airlines charge people very significant sums of money upfront in order to be in a position to work for them.
Kura is a smaller company and this really makes a difference when it comes to the level of personal investment you get from the team. They really take the time to get to know you, you can see they actually deeply care about helping their customers achieve their dreams, to the extent that they regularly give up their weekends, their evenings, even get their families involved to help when candidates are preparing for their airline interviews.
It sounds like it was an easy choice, how did you find Kura and what is different about it, how did it help you gain employment?
I honestly felt for the first time that I wasn’t on my own anymore in this (often quite demoralising) fight to reach my goal and get myself into the right-hand seat of an airline jet. It was a relief. The whole team were great, and so positive. From the moment I started I felt like suddenly it was a case of WHEN I get my first job, not IF I ever get it! The first part of the BESTPILOT course, Pilot Fundamentals, was a thoroughly enjoyable week. It covered everything that had never been touched on before in any of my training, from Safety Management Systems to how to conduct an airline-style departure brief to Human Factors to having a go at making a PA to role-playing things like challenging an overly assertive Captain, it was all included and covered in a really interactive way.
If Pilot Fundamentals was the part of the course that taught us what life as a First Officer is really all about, the next phase was where we got to grips with actually flying. I was at Kura before they changed supplier to Virtual Aviation, so I did the simulator part of the course out in the Netherlands with EPST. This seven-week stint was one of the most intense training environments I had been in – as one course-mate nicely put it ‘it was like boot-camp for pilots’. Their expectations were high which meant we all worked extremely hard to make the grade. The course workload and structure was a really great primer for a type-rating. The workload was at least equivalent to that of my subsequent type-rating on the A330. Following this we spent a week with Kura preparing for even the worst interview questions, practising group-exercise assessments, completing aptitude tests and basically polishing up how to actually get across all our strengths during the dreaded airline interview.
What I liked was that not only is there an assessment process to get on to the BESTPILOT course, there is also one to graduate, conducted by current airline recruitment pilots. This means if they don’t assess you as fully ready for an airline interview they will offer further training and guidance until you are, at no extra cost. Passing the course gives you the confidence of knowing you have been assessed and passed by real airline interviewers and have ticked all the boxes. Like most things in life the more effort you put into the BESTPILOT course, the more you get out of it, and the guys at Kura really motivate you to put that effort in.
How did your job with Air Tanker come about?
It was a little bit of ‘right place at the right time’, I saw an opportunity and seized it. One of AirTanker’s recruitment pilots happened to be in the Kura office one of the days I was there on the course. He came to say hello to the group of us in the classroom at the time and briefly chatted about AirTanker and what they do. It sounded like a brilliant job, varied with a great lifestyle so although there was no indication at this time that AirTanker might ever take non-experienced First Officers, I made sure I took one of the business cards he left behind. Fast forward a few months and I’d successfully completed the BESTPILOT course. Kura make it clear that they expect graduates to continue to seek their own opportunities rather than just wait to be offered an interview through Kura. In the spirit of this, I sent my CV off to the email address on the business card I’d kept. I wasn’t expecting to hear anything, but thought it wouldn’t hurt to get my CV on a pile so when the time came in a few years that I might be eligible they could see I’d shown an interest previously.
It must’ve been my lucky day, because it happens it was that very week that AirTanker had decided to give the idea of taking cadets a trial. I had a phone call just two days after I sent the email (which in itself was astonishing; I’d come over the years to learn that the almost certain response to an unsolicited CV was complete radio silence) offering me an interview. The selection process was thorough, involving over two separate days a psychometric test, a group exercise, a competency-based HR interview, a pilot-panel technical interview and a simulator assessment. It was less than a week later I got the phone call I had not long ago started to think might never come – I’d got the job!
How did you find the A330 type-rating?
The type-rating was an excellent experience. As I mentioned, the simulator part of the BESTPILOT course prepared me really well, and the instructors and facilities at the training academy at Brize Norton were second-to-none. It still felt like a huge step up from the light aircraft I was used to flying, but actually compared to the Boeing 737 simulator we’d trained on during the Kura course, the Airbus was a real joy to fly. Like any type-rating the workload is high, and there is so much to cover it all becomes a bit of a blur, but it’s so rewarding when you feel like you’re starting to slowly get your head around it.
How is the company and how is life as an airline pilot?
I’m currently at the beginning of line-training, I’ve had a trip to Las Vegas and two trips to Orlando on the Thomas Cook contract. I’ve got my first Ascension Island trip coming up for the South Atlantic Airbridge, which I’m really looking forward to. I’m also looking forward to some short-haul flying over the summer too, to build some momentum and get more practice at the all important take-offs and landings! The variation of flying at AirTanker is really appealing – I can’t think of many other operators where in one roster period you might see transatlantic and European flying, as well as the chance to visit somewhere as remote and unique as Ascension.
The depth of experience at AirTanker is impressive, I really appreciate flying with captains who have such a vast knowledge and are happy and enthusiastic to share it. So far the atmosphere has been really friendly and welcoming, they people I’ve flown with clearly enjoy working for AirTanker. The aircraft are new, I’m enjoying the lifestyle of long-haul flying and working for a company that has actually invested in my training is a great feeling. It’s a real motivator to work hard and has certainly won my loyalty for many years to come.
What does the future hold for you Jack?
We’re bonded to AirTanker over three years as they fully funded the type-rating. Once this period is over I fully intend to stay at AirTanker (as long as they’ll have me!) to continue flying in the right-hand seat. Of course I’d like to work towards earning my command at the company within the next ten years, but I’m not in a rush – I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I want to learn before I move over to the left-hand seat. In the short term I’m focusing on successfully completing line training and passing my first line-check, soaking up as much knowledge as I can, and, obviously, enjoying every day of this job I’ve worked so hard to get!
Last but not least Jack, what advice would you give to anyone aspiring to follow in your footsteps?
Before you start training: have a plan, have a timeline, and then be prepared for it all to go out of the window.
For the BESTPILOT course and a type rating: over-prepare. Over-prepare for every sim, every test, every interview and of course, every flight.
Generally: be nice to people, be polite, stay positive and remember… You’re working towards being in a pretty enviable profession. If the path was an easy one then everyone would be doing it, so stick at it!
Obviously I can highly recommend Kura – to me they seem to have changed the industry in that you can enjoy the flexibility and reduced cost of modular training, then through the BESTPILOT course find yourself in as good (or better) a position, job-prospect wise, as anyone who has completed an integrated course with a far heftier price tag.
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