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  • Dyfrig Gibbs

Nomadic winter

The path to achieving the goal of becoming an airline pilot is often referred to as 'the journey'. I think that this term - in this instance - is deemed, by many, as dramatic. They're wrong.

The greatest journey tales have a beginning and an intended destination. Sometimes the destination is reached, sometimes it isn't, but in almost all great adventures, the route to point B takes the adventurer to points they did not plan, foresee or ever deem possible.

For us, as a family, what seemed impossible a while ago is edging its way into the realms of possible. I can see the ethereal shimmer of a promised land edging its way into my blurred and possibly delusional vision of the horizon. What's more, the point from which I'm viewing this destination is, to say the least, unlikely...

I've not written in too long, because, with every great shake up of our lives - and you get many as a new airline pilot - I lose my flow, my energy and capacity to write and reflect. With every change we need time to adjust, time to organise our priorities and sort out the task sharing. My number one priority is always, how can I make this easier on Bella and more fulfilling for the kids, whilst I cling on to the job. During training, I wrote and preached extensively about balance - I thought it was a hard juggling act - striking a fair balance is always difficult, but it seems to me that it is most difficult to strike now: as a low hour FO. Undertaking Modular flight training, you have a degree of autonomy, as an employee with low experience you have very little. You simply have to do your time, earn your stripes, earn your right to find a role that provides room for balance. For a few months now, we have been bedding in to our latest way of life and redressing the balance.

In November I transferred to my airlines newest base, in the UK. Definitely this felt like a huge step in the right direction. Commuting to and from the UK to mainland Europe on a 5/3 roster with a pandemic effected air traffic schedule was, frankly, untenable. For me it was exhausting, for, Bella it was torturous and unrelenting, for the kids it was just downright unsatisfactory. My new base is three hours from home so the commute is far easier and I have complete control over when I leave for home/work - rather than it being dictated by the Low Cost European schedule... but it is still a commute. I'm still working away for 5 days.

The 'unlikely' position that I'm in right now, the situation I didn't ever foresee being a part of 'airline pilot life' is...

I'm on Standby today. My duty started at 0200 and lasts until 1400. Calls from this standby normally happen early: a crew member reports sick when they wake up for a first wave flight. If you've got to 0900 without being called, it's not likely to happen at all. So, with that in mind, I've parked my campervan pretty close to the airport, in a secluded public car park near a marina on the river Stort. I pulled up here about 2100 last night. There was a single fluorescent floodlight dousing the car park in cold industrial light, which bounced off the many thousand ice crystals forming on every surface. It's not a cosy wintery British scene. It's harsh and unwelcoming.

This morning the T5 is being buffeted by strong winds, I wake and check Aeroweather to see how close it is to the limit and assess the likelihood of a call off standby. It's within limits and the operation seems to be unaffected. I have time to write and share the last few months with you before heading off to the shops to replenish my pasta supplies and then to the gym and pool to stretch out the aches from being cooped up in my Transporter.

This winter seems to be holding a frequent and unrelenting pattern of sliding from Storm to bitterly cold. Those who've just completed their Met exam will be surely rolling their eyes and saying 'that's exactly what the book says it'll do here in the UK'. Sure, that's what the theory says, but we've never reached the letter E, in the storm naming era, so early in the year. This cycle has meant we, as crews, have really had to be on our game with regards to winter ops. I personally have grown, learnt and developed as an airline pilot more in the last 3 months than in the previous 2 years.

During ATPL's I remember the subjects of Flight planning and Ops Procedures being ones that many dreaded and saw as tedious/pointless. In reality I think these two subjects contain more relevant material than all the rest put together. When flying in countrywide storm force gales, freezing fog, rain, snow and low vis procedures you really have to know your dispatch and planning requirements. Before each flight careful analysis of your capabilities, airport facilities, and the forecast weather must be made to ensure you satisfy the legal dispatch requirements... let alone have thinking time to make sound, safe and commercially responsible decisions. At my airline, this responsibility is placed on the crews. In many other airlines around the world the planning team will check all these details and plan suitable alternates and load applicable fuel. In my opinion there are pros and cons to the two strategies. The positive of the way we do it here is that it gives you really good situational awareness of conditions along your route, at all your alternates and helps you pre-load options for your decision making model. From an FO point of view it really helps you re-learn and be quick to spot flaws in the 'Plan'. One day the legal responsibility for the condition of dispatch will rest on your shoulders... I, personally, want to have the confidence in my own knowledge and understanding of the operation and the governing rules of the air to take this responsibility on and not fall foul of delegating it to an ops team and missing a mistake. Doing it this way is great training. I have been forced to re-read many passages of our OPS A manual and dig deeper into the layers of FCOM and FCTM.

What is interesting is I'm not alone on this steep curve of learning, I'm flying with captains who have mainly operated in Asia or the Middle East, and they too are finding the nature of our operation and the British winter is posing new challenges and opportunity for growth. It is the truest thing to say an Airline Pilot never stops learning.

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