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  • Dyfrig Gibbs

Breaking point

My intention for this post is/was to update you - as promised - on how my 6 monthly sim went, to talk about CDA’s (continuous descent approaches), fuel efficiency; how I contribute to reducing our environmental impact and my hopes for sustainability and aviation. This, I planned, to frame in a piece that broadly expressed everything that I love about flying, in its pure sense, and the aviation sector in a wider sense.

However, it is also my intention to document, as candidly as possible, the reality of the profession for a low hours pilot, with a family, during the worst crisis the industry has faced. The last week or so seems to have thrown such significant challenges the way of us, as a family, that I cannot just sit here and paint over them.

One of the reasons I enjoy writing is that it’s a creative outlet. I work in an industry that leaves very little room for creativity - a dash yes - but not heaps: during day to day flying creativity can really only be expressed during your descent planning. The challenge is to go from 38,000’ to roughly 2,000’ with the engines at or near idle, burning as little fuel as possible and making very little noise. It means hitting a point suspended in 3 dimensions at exactly the right speed. To get there you must interpret and respond to changing weather, winds and ATC clearances. Each time adjusting your plan and managing the energy of a 60 tonne airliner travelling anything between 220-330 knots.

You know the momentum formula? Answer: Mass X Velocity. Momentum is normally in abundance, as is energy, in one form or another.

During training you will find, as I did; as all my colleagues did, that there is a myriad of ways of achieving this feat and almost all pilots - and so by design, trainers - do it differently. Everyone is safe, no one is doing it the wrong way, there are just many ways to skin this cat.

There is one basic formula to guide you: 3 times your altitude (x1000) = miles required to touchdown. For example; an altitude of 30,000’ means 90 nautical miles required to land. Now you can add or subtract a mile required for every 10kts of head or tailwind and also for every 10kts of speed you need to lose, but I try not to get too deep and caught up in specifics and details, I do however always consider my current energy level and how much resistance I have countering it in the form of air distance. There are also, on my aircraft, three different modes to descend in: Managed descent (VNAV in American speak); Open descent (LVL change in yank tanks) and Vertical speed (Ronsil mode). Along side these modes you can use a managed (the computer chooses it) speed or a selected speed (we choose it). Your descent mode will effect the usefulness and prioritisation of your chosen speed mode. Any combination of the above modes are allowed. However, some work better together than others: some go together like strawberry jam and clotted cream, others like meatballs and custard.

So there it is, a pilots palette, the tools which we choose from to paint our 3 degree line from cruising altitude to terra firma. As long as we don’t paint outside the lines defined my the aircrafts manoeuvring speeds and capabilities and those rules of the air defined in our airspace, and in our operations manual, we can do it as we please.

I love this element of my job: I love it when you hit that point in 3 dimensions at exactly the right speed and configuration, using only the kinetic and potential energy of the craft. No chemical energy wasted. It is (in my mind at least) similar to the challenges my Mercury and Apollo heroes faced in their missions to hit re-entry points at the correct speed and angle of attack, achieving it with critical amounts of fuel and highly prescribed usage.

A caveat here that, given a common misconception, probably needs clarification: we never have critical amounts of fuel, and the safe descent and arrival has priority over fuel saving. It is just that if you give two hoots about it; give it some thought, you can save hundreds of kilograms of fuel on each approach. It feels a worthy challenge to me and I take great pleasure in honing this pilot skill; taking ownership of my potential to contribute in a positive way to our carbon burning and emitting problems.

Sometimes that outlet and exercise of skill is enough to satisfy the urge for creativity within me, sometimes I forge time during my brief spell at home to be creative with wood and make something for Bella or the house. Sometimes life, both in work and at home, throws so many bloody challenges at us there is no time or outlets other than this time, when I’m commuting to Vienna, to pour my thoughts into this blog.

At the moment, when people ask what I do, and I respond with ‘I’m a Pilot’, the response is - nine times out ten - one of almost awkward pity. Very little of the old ‘wow that must be so cool’ or ‘oh I’ve always dreamt of doing that - I’m so jealous’ it’s much more the sharp intake of breath through clenched teeth followed by ‘oh, how’s that going at the moment?’

People know, everyone knows, this crisis (viral or hysterical - they are one and the same for me now) has absolutely destroyed the industry. It has booted literally thousands of highly skilled professionals out of work, many will never return to it. The damage to their health, plans, futures and children’s futures is largely unquantifiable but undoubtedly gross in size. I am lucky in that I’ve survived this crisis: I will emerge from it with a job. Airlines have struggled, many have failed, I’m a realist with a pragmatic mind, I can accept the reasons for a justifiable level of austerity. There is a scale of ‘financial impact’ this crisis has had on the pilot community, for some the impact will have been far greater than others, but, as lucky as we are to still be flying, even those of us that didn’t lose our jobs have faced financial struggles since March 2020. Inevitably, every airline used this catastrophe to broker new deals with pilots and unions for a reduced salary. Everyone who treasured their job took the cut - worldwide.

Whilst I have been flying I make a loss against our monthly living costs. I earned enough money during the winter, planting trees, to see us through the loss making busy summer period of flying commercial airliners… I’ll leave you to process that for a second.

Financially it’s a battle, we’ve battled since I left the security of my stable job with Bristol Groundschool in July 2019. As some of you know, shortly after that I was cast adrift from a stable income. Bella and I dug deep and got creative in the ways we earned money - both registering self employed and turning our hand to whatever we could. I drove tractors and made procedure trainers, she made jewellery and supplied meals to farmers. That and help from friends and family saw us through a few months until I started earning a training wage with my airline.

The training wage stayed - thanks to the crisis - for ten months until September 2020. Three months of a newly qualed pilot salary was blown on the expenses of moving back to the UK in October and the additional rental costs In Somerset and Palma. We had enough left to buy a £250 car for me and inherited another from my Dad and his partner. By December I was spared the austerity measures… I took unpaid leave: the outlook for the winter was bleak. Before I knew it I was back planting trees in the Welsh hills.

We are approaching winter again and all over the globe, the conversation in the flight deck is turning towards apprehensive speculation about what the winter has in store for us. I hear plenty are accepting part-time or applications for unpaid leave.

So far, I’m feeling lucky and in a good position. My airline is opening a UK base and (finally thanks to brexit) I’m transferring! This is the exciting news in our household - it means losing so much less of our life together to this ridiculous commute. The UK base looks like it might potentially provide a decent amount of hours of flying. I might just, just break even on our monthly costs, but then again - if we don’t fly max hours - I won’t. In which case I can see me working one day a week on the trees to keep us afloat.

So, with all the above in mind, you can see why, when over the course of two consecutive weekends, both our cars (the free one and the £250 one) biting the dust - booking their place in that big scrapyard in the sky - I am feeling the need to vent: to shout and scream and ask ‘why god, why!?’… I don’t believe in ‘god’ as such, I just like the phrase. Anyway this weekend, particularly, I just wanted to tell you like it is: to communicate the struggle.

I woke my kids at 0630 this morning to hug and kiss them goodbye. I’d promised I’d see them to say buy before they started to get ready for school, but the only lift I could get up to the airport left a tad earlier than they normally wake. I couldn’t break the promise, so woke them. It is not a good way to wake up if you’re five and seven years old. It is not a nice way to start your day if you’re thirty seven years old. We all hugged and cried the sleep from our eyes.

I arrived at a foggy Bristol airport to reflect on two ‘weekends’ so full of drama and emotion that we’ve been left ragged. Bella and I unable to catch a significant moment to just ‘be’ together. To recharge in each other’s presence. To lay together and relax, to feel the weights of our respective challenges in our different roles to lift. Bella is my soulmate for infinite reasons, one of which is that given time together, and peace, side by side, we naturally recharge.

Last weekend, I’m not going to go deep with: I’ll keep the story short. It started with my late night arrival from the airport to a garage near home. I picked up our free car that had catastrophically failed its MOT and drove it home to rest. In the proceeding 48hrs I planned to prepare that for scrap and set about planning the fuel leak repair on the £250 car. One car suffices at the moment. Respite from the car dramas was the kids first swimming lessons since last year. After Snow had screamed the water out of the pool, we milled around in the September sun waiting for Aria and Bears turn. Then a situation began to unfold that scared me and, Bella beyond any level of fear I ever want to experience again. Maybe I’ll write about it in detail another time, right now I don’t want to relive it in detail. Fortunately, nothing serious is amiss with our beautiful eldest daughter, but for an agonising period - that was probably way shorter than it felt - I stared my worst fear straight in the face. Ambulances and doctors and time have helped the trauma of that moment ebb away, but like a can thats been shaken, the bubbles have not totally settled and are still silently, invisibly present. We did not relax together last weekend: we were emotional strung out parents.

This weekend (I call them weekends but they rarely fall on the weekend) I arrived at Brizzle airport at midday, was met by my step-father-in-law and we immediately set about fixing the fuel leak. By the time Bella and the kids had returned from this weeks, - much more successful - swimming session we’d fixed the problem. One car on the road. That felt like winning.

Yesterday, after Bella and I had dropped the kids off at school, we elatedly realised we had some time on our hands. We realised we could take the car for a spin together, get some baby food and drop a few bags of outgrown clothes at the charity shop - maybe even go for a coffee afterwards. Honestly, I was so excited: I was filled with that young love joy at the idea of having some quality time with my super hot wife… even if it was just shopping in ASDA. The feeling of normality was close, we were starting to recharge.

Slap bang in the middle of the day, in the middle of our mission, in the middle of our local town… before we’d found any coffee but starting to relax and enjoy our shared mission… bang, the fuel line repair burst, petrol doused the road and the car lurched to a stop.

A friendly local couple took, Bella, and, Snow home, I waited for two AA recovery vehicles… the last of which condemned the car and towed me home - somehow the fuel dumping event had jumped the timing belt and the car has entirely given up the ghost. I got home just before dark and in time to read the kids a bedtime story.

I guess I’ll spend this week in Vienna searching the net for another ole banger to see us through until we hit a point in time and space where I no longer require the services of old jalopies. I’m sure it’s out there somewhere in the ether waiting for us to spear it.

Being a task focused sorta chap, I’ll round this up just by adding, the SIM went well, I passed, and if you wanna know how it felt, and you haven’t already, I urge you to read

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