Helping us to keep our eyes on the prize we have an Interview with Joel Garabedian A320 First Officer at British Airways. Some of you might remember seeing Joel in A Very British Airline that aired on the BBC last year. We took some time to catch up with him and find out what he is up to now, and if he has any advice for budding aviators.
1. What made you want to become a pilot?
When I was little I was fascinated by aeroplanes. I collected all of the parts of a magazine called “Take Off”, and when we got our first PC I spent ages playing on a very early version of Microsoft Flight Simulator. This was in the 1990s, so we didn’t have the Internet, and because I didn’t know anyone who was a pilot, there was no way of finding out about flying as a profession. I decided to become a musician, and after my GCSEs attended music college. I had to pick some A-Levels to go with the music course, and being quite technically minded, I chose Maths and Computing. I found I really enjoyed computer programming, and decided to pursue that as a career, keeping music as a hobby. This led to a degree in Software Engineering, and a job as a programmer in the video game industry. I moved to Horsham to work for Sega in 2008, and got back in touch with an old friend from secondary school who was an airline pilot. We’d meet regularly, and my interest in flying started again. My parents bought me a trial flying lesson for Christmas in 2008, and as soon as I took off for the first time, I was hooked and knew I wanted to fly.
2. You had your PPL for a while before you got on the FPP, did you always have plans of going commercial?
I became a PPL holder in December 2009. Soon after that I’d visited all the airfields I could afford to fly to, and I wanted to develop my flying skills further. Someone put me in touch with a British Airways FO who ran a flying club at Shoreham, operating (among other types) a Bulldog and a Super Decathlon, and after my first aerobatic flight I did all my flying there. I was exposed to aerobatics, tailwheel, formation and farm strip flying, in an environment that mixed professional pilots and PPLs in perfect harmony. I was completely addicted and found I was wishing my way through each week at work to go flying at the weekends.
But it was just after the big financial crash of 2008. I’ve always been quite risk averse, and in my late 20’s, with a job I enjoyed, I decided I wasn’t prepared to risk it all to become a professional pilot. The first wave of the FPP was announced in 2011, and I decided I’d have one shot at it. I’d always loved British Airways, and decided that the FPP was the lowest risk way into a career as a professional pilot. My plan was that if I didn’t make it in, it wasn’t meant to be, and I’d stick to flying for fun.
3. How did you find the transition to integrated training?
Both integrated and modular training are extremely hard work! I’d been out of full time education for eight years, so effectively going back to school with no income was a big shock! It’s talked about a lot, but the issue with the groundschool isn’t that it’s difficult, it’s that there’s so much of it. It’s a knowledge retention and recall exercise. I made notes each day which I typed up in the evenings. It was time consuming but I found it helped me to remember the content. When it came to revision I just needed a quick flick through my notes. It’s very tempting to just train yourself to pass the exams, but the knowledge you gain in groundschool can be very useful, particularly in subjects like Meteorology and Principles Of Flight.
The flying training was strange at first – I had around 150 hours at the time, but had to go back to lessons like “Effects Of Controls”. I loved it – I just endeavoured to do everything to the absolute best of my ability. I think previous flying is both a blessing and a curse – in some ways it helps, but there will be subtle differences you’ll have to unlearn. Being used to flying in and out of short grass strips my instinct was to aim for the threshold. You obviously don’t do that in commercial operations, but conditioning myself to aim for the touchdown zone was harder than I thought it would be.
4. Tell us a bit more about your type rating and line training.
After the CPL ME/IR myself and my coursemates stayed on at FTE to do a Jet Orientation Course designed by British Airways, which aimed to get us up to speed for our Type Rating. This involved 44 hours in a 737 simulator. BA deliberately chose the 737 over the Airbus so we’d concentrate on the crew aspects of the JOC and not the technical details. We then had some time off before the Type Rating started at British Airways. The Type Rating comprises two weeks of groundschool, then 13 simulator sessions. The groundschool focuses on the technical aspects of the aircraft – how the systems and the flight control laws work. We also had a fixed base simulator, where we were able to practice setting the aircraft up, and ECAM handling. There are a number of progress tests, and then an exam at the end of the groundschool phase. The simulator phase is very challenging – each session is four hours long, and there are specific goals that have to be achieved. The first session involves general handling, take-offs and landings, then it’s straight into non-normals for the remainder. Managing failures, engine failure after take-off (EFATO), rejected take-off (RTO), low visibility operations (LVO), and a huge list of other skills you need to gain to operate a commercial jet safely. The 12th sim is a Skill Test, where you’re required to demonstrate everyhing you’ve learned. The 13th sim is a practice for Base Training, where you fly circuits in the Airbus.
Base Training itself is an amazing experience. It’s the first time you’ve handled the real aircraft, and even taxying such a big machine is amazing! Many people say that Base Training is the most fun they’ve had flying a jet, although if I’m honest, I was so nervous at the time that I’m not sure I enjoyed it on the day! Like all other aspects of flying training, you’re required to perform to a very high level, and that adds a lot of pressure. Looking back I enjoyed it though, and now I have over 2000 hours on the Airbus, I’d quite like to have another go!
Line training was fantastic. The trainers at British Airways are superb, and the course is very well designed. There’s a large number of discussion items you cover with the trainers during line training, covering topics like fuel policy, terrain awareness and other areas. I still remember a Rome nightstop near Christmas during my Line Training, sitting outside the Pantheon and discussing diversions, then flying back to Heathrow and onto Munich for the night where we went to a Christmas market. That’s when it really started to sink in that I’d become a professional pilot!
5. You have now been flying the line for a while, what have you learned
You learn something every day you come to work. It’s hard to explain exactly what you learn, but over time you notice that your capacity starts to increase. When you first start, you’re very much caught up in the here and now of flying the aeroplane. As you start to build experience, you’re able to think ahead much better, and when something out of the ordinary happens, you’re in a better position to deal with it. Flight school only teaches you how to fly an aeroplane, and being a commercial pilot is only partly about flying. The only way you can build experience in other aspects of the job is by exposing yourself to as many aspects of the operation as you can.
6. Do you still fly light aircraft?
I do! As soon as I was back in the UK after completing the course at FTE I returned to my flying club. The CFI there is a British Airways pilot, and it was him who suggested I apply for the FPP back in 2011. It was a really special place, with some beautiful and rare aircraft. I hold an EASA Aerobatic Rating and last summer I realised another goal when I became a Class Rating Instructor and started teaching. Sadly the club closed its doors recently, but I still see the other members regularly, and we’re looking to set up a group with one of the aircraft. I absolutely love my job, but flying light aircraft is the purest form of flying. I’d urge anyone who wants to become an airline pilot to keep flying light aircraft if they can.
7. What are your future goals? Do you plan to change type?
I love flying the aeroplane, so for the time being I’m very happy on short haul, which involves far more handling of the aircraft. Ultimately it would be fantastic to achieve a short haul command, but that’s a long way off, and I’m very happy in the right hand seat. One of the great things about British Airways is that we can bid to change seat and fleet each year, so if my aspirations change, I can bid accordingly.
8. What advice do you have for us aspiring pilots?
I meet a lot of aspiring pilots at recruitment shows, and they’re often extremely focused on their goal, but sometimes I’m not sure they’ve really thought about what flying passengers is all about. Remember that the job is only partly about flying – you’ll need very strong interpersonal skills too, as you’ll be communicating with Ground Staff, Engineers, Cabin Crew, the Captain, ATC, and many others! Any experience you have which gives you evidence of communication skills will be of benefit, whether it’s a DofE award or a job serving customers.
When applying for cadet schemes, make sure you read the application questions very carefully, and have a good think about your answers before you press submit. Imagine who will read your application, and if they read 500 others at the same time, will yours stand out? Lastly, don’t try to second guess what the airline is looking for in an applicant. Just be yourself!