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  • Dyfrig Gibbs

The Right stuff

I’ve just been reading back on a few old pieces of writing from when I started the blog. It’s lovely to look back on, and discover how far we’ve travelled and grown as a family and individuals. I guess in some ways we’ve changed significantly, but, I think, the differences are probably only obvious to those that have missed the intervening five years. Otherwise, reading the blog, I feel like I’m looking into a portal through time and seeing a family facing similar challenges then to those we are now. I can empathise with them and am encouraged that in another 5 years we’ll no doubt of achieved a tonne of stuff and yet still be throwing everything at this journey that is life.

I’m heading back to work after having had eleven days at home. During the time off we tracked across England to my mothers land, Norfolk, to celebrate her impending birthday with the extended maternal family. Whilst there, we worked out that I’d not seen many of them for nearly five years… A long time, but fortunately we were all still recognisable to each other. Again it gave an opportunity to reflect on the changes that have happened in the lost years, but also to discover a comfort that we - as a family and individually - are still very much the same, just doing different jobs and living in different houses. Essentially though, our motivators and sources of joy are continuous and consistent. Nice also that after such an alien era and antisocial 18months we are still able to pitch tents, light fires, play music, eat food and be merry together like we’ve never stopped doing it. Unlike flying, Partying is not a perishable skill.

In the blog posts I was looking back on, we had a six month old Bear cub who required milk at a rate and quantity matched only by a cheese factory, Aria was being the family boss, Bella was working hard to establish her own business, and I was pouring energy into learning to fly and writing about it all. Now, we have a six month old, Snowball, who requires milk at a rate matched only by her brother 5 years ago, Aria and Bear are being President and Vice President of the family, Bella’s working hard to establish her business and I’m pouring energy into progressing as a pilot and writing about it.

So, we’ve moved houses (four times), started businesses, started schools, added babies, got a few more wrinkles (mainly from smiling) a tiny bit less hair (from pulling it out) and changed jobs, but, essentially, life feels kinda the same: we’re always battling, planning, making decisions, sometimes we’re winning; sometimes we’re not. Name me an epic test match in which the balance of winning and losing didn’t ebb and flow. The key is to keep working when the losses feel sharp and take full advantage of the wins when they eventually come.

This trait - the ability to do the above well - has a name that is unfortunately trending in the aviation industry. Unfortunately, because it’s been required in spades by thousands of crew members over the last year and a half. I’ve become a bit ‘over it’ as a word due to it becoming a buzzword used by countless pilots on Social media, all clamouring to display how much they possess of this godly trait. It used to be that a pilots key attribute was to have ‘The Right Stuff’ as, Tom Wolfe, wrote about Chuck Yeager and the experimental test pilots of the 50’s who became the ‘Mercury Seven’: The first ever NASA astronauts. In those days pilots silently displayed how they possessed an abundance of the ‘Right Stuff’ without saying ‘I’ve got the Right Stuff’ - which was absolutely not done: If you’re blessed with a long schlong you don’t walk around saying ‘Hey guys, did you know, I’m hung like a horse’, no, you just wear short snug shorts on the reg and swing it around nonchalantly in the changing rooms. Nowadays, such deft social decorum is lost and most pilots are shouting from rooftops about how ‘Resilient’ they are. Yes, Resilience is the new ‘Right Stuff’.

Now, in actual fact, I totally agree - as I alluded to at the beginning of the last paragraph - Resilience is a fundamentally key personality trait for pilots… I just don’t like that there are hordes of aircrew blowing their resilience trumpets from the ramparts of Twitter. Odd, I guess, not to approve of shameless self promotion when you write a blog though so I’ll pipe down a bit and explain why resilience is the right stuff of todays pilots.

Resilience. Def. The ability to recognise, absorb and adapt to disruption.

Personal resilience is cited as being the ability to maintain composure and performance under pressure. Including being able to deal with unexpected setbacks and events effectively.

Resilient people are said to demonstrate greater flexibility, higher energy and better mental agility.

It’s not often framed this way but I believe that flying big jets commercially has striking similarities to high performance sport or surgery: In so many aspects it is about delivering an accurate performance that requires clear cognitive processing alongside executing a physical motor skill incredibly accurately. In day-to-day operations the minimum standard is to do everything safely - in an inherently unsafe environment - under constant time pressure and commercial pressure. On top of that every six months we are put in a position where our licence and career progression is at stake and depends on us performing well under the scrutiny of an examiner.

I believe that to maintain a standard that satisfies the requirements above you have to work on your physical and mental fitness so that you are sharp in mind and have strong coping mechanisms for when stuff isn’t going to plan... which will happen.

A sim check is always a highly (and unrealistically) concentrated version of a normal day: a lot of things are going to happen in not enough time and most will be things you wouldn’t ever want to happen in reality. To cope with this situation you absolutely must be prepared and have a bank of knowledge and procedures primed and in your quiver to respond well as each scenario unfolds. As the ‘events’ build up and the pressure mounts, you will inevitably do something or execute a skill not quite as you hoped you might or are capable of. In these all too common moments it is imperative that you maintain composure, breath, focus and move on instantly, not let it for a second eat at you. Each moments thought dwelling on a moment passed reduces your thinking, planning, communicating, executing capacity for the moment NOW in which more shit is unravelling and your job is to ravel it in. You’ve gotta be thick skinned but pliable with a growth mindset: able to absorb all the learning that is happening in these condensed seconds, but not let the failure taunt you.

I enjoy the pressure that these tests bring, the build up forces you into good habits, into learning and living a healthy lifestyle. Delivering a performance under pressure requires a ‘pre game’ routine that is often individual, and serves to meditate the mind into an optimum state. This is displayed by the greatest spot kick takers rugby has ever seen, and by countless world class batsmen. I can’t for the life of me work out why footballers don’t emulate the likes of Owen Farrel, Dan Bigger, Jenks & Jonny Wilkinson when they are deemed to be ‘Penalty takers’. My pre sim preparation requires a couple of weeks study to the point where I’m confident I’m armed with relevant knowledge that’ll be tested. This study has to be completed a day or two before the sim, so I’ve time the day before to go for a long run to clear my mind, and any pent up anxiety or tension. In the evening, if it’s an early sim, I’ll do 30 minutes of Yoga or stretching and mediative breathing to help my mind and body relax. It’s essential that it’s uncluttered. Research tells us that ‘Thinking clearly under pressure’ or ‘TCUP’, as Sir Clive Woodward called it, has less to do with the ability to deal with multiple alarms and events in the thought process and more to do with prioritising the important alarms: successfully disregarding irrelevant stimulus.

On the morning of the sim (and this element of my routine applies to every day flying) I’ll wake early enough to have an ice cold shower, eat a healthy breakfast, travel to work in good time to allow a back up transport solution should there be a problem with the first. The route and times will be pre-planned. Drink coffee in position to start the duty. No sweat broken. Mind a calm mill pond. Exteriorly the peace within me is evident. It won’t last... throughout the course of every single sim session and most normal line flights people and machines are going to throw stone after stone into that mill pond, the ripples are going to come and they’ll over lap and over lap and clash into each other. The challenge is keeping your mind from becoming a frothing boiling pond. All of those things you’ve controlled are there just to give you the best chance of staving off the boiling pot of uncontrollable events that are inevitable once you enter the arena: the flight deck.

I enjoy this process and I’m motivated by the knowledge that it feels good to do well in these tests and by the simultaneous knowledge that it feels momentarily awful when it goes wrong and how challenging it is to move on instantly.

When you don’t have the luxury of slowing time or pausing, moving on instantly, in the heat of the moment is the right action. The reflection and learning has to come later.

Throughout the vast majority of my flight training I was focussed on a job with Europe’s favourite airline, on the lifestyle that job would provide us, and was extremely excited about flying the popular American made narrow body twin engine passenger jet. The job, the lifestyle and income it would provide, was one Bella and I had signed up for; mentally prepared for and planned for. I knew what tests I would face to secure it. I went through the preparation process I just described and passed them all. I got the job.

Four days before I started that dream job; having served my notice with my employer, in that brief moment drifting in limbo - in financial insecurity - the tether was cut. I got an unforgettable call from the head office informing me my course, my start date, and any near future possibility of it, was gone. Cancelled. Reasons out of my control. I was struck dumb with disbelief, sadness, anger, anxiety and sorrow. Still dizzy with disappointment and frustration, I collected my thoughts and assessed my options. Within two hours my application to another airline and holiday company was submitted. It was the very last application they received and I was one of a few that passed all of the assessments. You’d think there’s the happy story and the evidence that decision making and action when the chips are down and pressure’s on always pays off wouldn’t you? Well, that airline went bust before I started my training. Regardless, the lesson was a positive one even if it wasn’t a fairy tale ending. Happily my current airline called in the same week the other one went under.

Happily, I’m yet to - and hopefully never will - face that level of shock, emotion, frustration and disappointment whilst operating on the line, but the requirement to be flexible, change your plan, focus again and execute a new plan safely and efficiently is tested daily to some degree.

My first day of my previous block was an early Athens and back. Check in time was 0645 which means catching the 0545 train which requires getting up at 0500. I had arrived back at the flat after my three days off exactly five hours prior. By the time I’d prepared my uniform and flight bag there was four hours sleep available which I probably got most of. The eight hours required sleep you read about during ATPL’s is a Unicorn. I’m not sure I’ve ever got it and lord knows I’ve tried! The sleep wasn’t a majorly concerning issue for me. The lack of packed lunch supplies was. But, I figured it’s only two sectors and I’d be back by midday so I’d survive on the bowl of yogurt and granola I did have in the flat.

The outbound trip went well; the captain was great and I was energised by an espresso in the terminal and the breakfast I’d eaten. I flew back, which also went well, but by the top of descent into Vienna the 5 hours of brain strain had burnt my calories and I was getting hungry. Always have enough food with you when you fly, especially in the early days when your brain is in overdrive, it burns so many calories. Anyway, I absolutely nailed the CDA (Continuous Descent Approach), saved loads of fuel, landed smoothly and single engine taxied to stand on time. Due to the nature and pressure of the job, when you complete the parking checklist at the end of your scheduled day, a wave of relief rolls over you. You relax and tune into your bodies needs. Normally in my case, and particularly on this day, my pressing needs were: toilet; food; sleep. As we secured the aircraft the captain noticed flight plans and briefing packages for another two sectors had appeared on our iPads. We would be pushing back for a flight to Milan Malpensa in 35 minutes. The passengers were in the boarding gate and ready for us to take them.

In this situation there is no time to question, to ring anyone, complain, protest, eat or whatever else you fancy doing. You’ve just got to switch back into gear, focus, fall into your operating mode and carefully, diligently, professionally check the weather, notams, route, airfield brief, decide how much fuel you want, set it all up, brief it and go... and it’s best if you can do it with a smile: embracing the challenge and responsibility you’ve been given.

Milan Malpensa is 1 hour flight time from Vienna. That’s about 20mins up, 20 mins across and 20 minutes down. 25 frantic minutes on the ground and the same in reverse. It doesn’t leave time to duck out of the flight deck for a leak let alone eat anything if I had it. With the taxy time both ends, by the time we had actually shut down at the end of our day it was 1600. All that had passed my lips was 2 litres of water and about 400 clearance readbacks. I was destroyed but proud of the days work and our conduct and performance during it.

That evening I bought most of the food in Aldi and slept well. 3 more operating days that week included a Stansted trip, which I love most because the CDA pressure is really on. I’ll talk about CDA’s and why I love that we have adopted Airbus’s Green Operating Procedures in the next blog. I think we are on track to being the most efficient operator of the Airbus and every contribution I can make to reducing our fuel burn feels worthy.

After the Stansted trip I had a Paphos with last minute runway changes and non precision approaches all of which required fleet thinking and crew coordination. Then there was another 4 sectors - Stansted and Corfu - which is pretty close to max duty time. The last sector of the last day was uneventful bar a tech issue which grounded the plane back in Vienna. The waiting incoming crew would have to change their plans.

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