Once when I was travelling on a flight back to South Africa, a passenger seated in the row behind me caught my attention.
'I see you're reading a pilot textbook'. He said. 'Are you busy with your pilot training? I know that textbook very well.'
'Yes, I am.' I replied. 'I'm actually about to finish my CPL soon. Then I'm most likely going to train in Europe. You're a pilot too?' I tentatively asked the stranger.
'Yeah I fly. I'm actually on my way back home now from completing my EASA license conversion in Europe.' He said.
I couldn't believe my luck. I had finally found someone who had just finished walking the path I was on.
'I'm Keanu.' He said as he saw the large grin across my face.
Now, 2 years down the line, we've had the chance to see each other's careers grow. At the young age of 22 he has completed 2 sets of Frozen Airline Transport License (ATPL) exams (in South Africa and Europe), is flying a Boeing 737 for a European carrier and moved to the beautiful Palma de Mallorca.
Since he gave me mature advice during my training I knew that interviewing him would be valuable to other aspiring pilots. Especially to South African pilot's interested in converting their licenses to launch a career in Europe.
Keanu's pilot career was launched immediately after high school when he enrolled for an integrated Frozen ATPL course at South Africa's most prestigious flight training school- 43 Air School, in Port Alfred.
1) 43 Air School in South Africa is very prestigious and famous world wide. Why did you decide to study at the most renowned flying school in South Africa?
I started my flying career in the beginning of 2015. Originally from Johannesburg, moving all the way to Port Alfred seemed very unlikely especially because there are a host of schools in the Gauteng area. I was particularly interested in the flying schools at Rand Airport because they came at a cheaper cost than 43 (although they didn't include the food and accommodation cost that 43 did).
I think the decision to move to 43 ultimately came as a result of much deliberating and I guess very good marketing on their side. I had spoken to airline pilots working for Emirates, Ryanair and Cathay Pacific (all South African) and they all had heard of, and recommended, 43.
One of the key points that I enjoyed was a very intense course where you'd be flying as often as possible. They have a huge fleet of planes and I was told that flying in the Johannesburg area could involve a lot of time (15-20 minutes) flying to general aviation flying areas, whereas with 43 you were about 5 minutes flight time away.
My experience was extremely positive with the school. Could I have received the same elsewhere? Possibly. Good instructors can be teaching anywhere. However you might be hard pressed to find a place where you can do 3 flights a day to your maximum hours each month (not that I'd recommend that either). The environment at 43 was great because you're in a school with 250 other pilots. My intake had 30 pilots or so, if I recall correctly, so you never quite felt like you were doing this completely alone. There was always another student that was at the same stage as you and that was good for studying purposes.
I guess the whole other beauty about flying at 43 was just how amazing the area you live in is. Port Alfred is a diamond in rough! I'm truly happy to have called that place my home for a small portion of my life. You could be very focused on flying too because it's quite a serene place most of the year. You could go to the beach after a long day of flying... Sign me up!
I'd say the accommodation offered by the school wasn't of a good standard. I found a very good deal at the Royal Port Alfred Marina instead and essentially lived in a dream house for the same price that the school was offering.
2) What advice would you give to people who want to start their pilot career?
I think it's important to know what you want from flying. Do you see yourself as a business jet pilot? A bush pilot? Maybe the type of pilot that wears slip slops and a t-shirt and lands planes on water in the Caribbean? If you don't have a vision of the end goal, it's very difficult to start building yourself towards it. Introductory flights in my mind are essential to see if this really is for you.
There is a lot of glamour and status for being a pilot, and sometimes I think that has too much of an influence on up and coming pilots. What you learn about flying in your first couple of hours is that it's not as straight forward as you think. There's all these rules and procedures and it can be unnerving. I knew during my first flight this is what I wanted to do because I loved the sensation, I thought it was just amazing and my smile was touching my ears.
Career progression in different parts of the world varies immensely. In South Africa the market is more like America/Australia. The typical progression takes you from a complete newbie to a licensed pilot (CPL) in about 18 months. Thereafter many people would become flight instructors (on small planes like Cessnas) for about 2-3 years. Afterwards you might find yourself on a turboprop (think B1900D). And after a couple years on the turboprop you could find yourself in an airline job.
There are many ways to skin a cat though, and if you're really trying to get into an airline you might be able to expedite that process significantly by doing cadetships for certain companies. I couldn't possibly know them all so I shall leave that up to you to research.
3) Where did you first learn about the pilot opportunities in Europe?
I knew about the opportunities in Europe before I even took my introductory course. I had a contact with a Training Captain at Ryanair and he had told me about the requirements I needed to start my airline career there. Essentially I knew the steps needed from the very beginning.
4) What do you regard as the biggest obstacle for the EASA conversion process?
By far the 14 exams were the most challenging part about the conversion. I had already completed the subjects in South Africa so that helped but I still think it's an immense amount of work to cover in a 5-6 month period like I did. Doing the distance learning was especially difficult because I flew up from South Africa to the UK for my theory exams and that involved a lot of travelling for the days leading up to the exams.
5) Was it a difficult decision to leave your family behind?
I'm a family orientated person and yes it's definitely been difficult to move away from family. The truth is that I've known about my move since 2015 already. It's always been on the table that eventually I'd move away so I've had a couple of years to come to grips with that reality.
I phone my close family (mother, brother and father) almost daily so I'd say this age of technology doesn't make it too unbearable if you're willing to commit to a couple minutes a day on a phone call.
6) Would you ever consider flying internationally?
I definitely want to make a move to China one day, and thereafter to the Middle East and possibly finally return back to South Africa for a flying job (possibly in the next 25 years?)
I would like to give long haul a chance for maybe 5 years but I do enjoy the stable roster my current airline gives me.
7) How does it feel to be so young and having so much responsibility by flying hundreds of people every day?
I'm currently 22 years old. To be honest I don't think about the responsibility too much. I get this question a lot and the truth is I've been training for the last half of a decade to fly airplanes. You learn how to land a plane with only one engine operating during flight school, and during the airline training you'll be put in the simulator doing a bunch of ridiculous events that simulate anything from the landing gear not working to the airplane being on fire. When you're finished training, you're fairly confident that so long as there isn't a catastrophic event you'll be able to handle it. Most Captains I fly with have many years of experience and that also keeps me calm and collected.
8) Do your friends treat you differently now that you're flying a Boeing?
With regards to how I get treated when people know I'm a pilot... Depends who's asking I guess. I have many friends that are pilots, so to them it's no big deal. There are some people who are confused about my age and my profession but once they get to know me they can see I take it very seriously and that age really is just a number. Your age doesn't relate to your competence.
9) Some people argue that it's better not to go straight to an airline after training because you miss out on the chance to fly smaller aircraft. How do you feel about the above statement?
I can see how the argument can be made about it being better to work your way up to a big airline plane from smaller planes. I'd also say there's no relation between flying a small plane and flying a big one. On my type rating course that involved pilots from all over the world (some with experience, some without), it was incredible to see a guy that has 2500 hours on a PC-12 struggling just as much as I was to learn the B737. He told me that it's just completely different.
Having said this I'm the type of person that just enjoys flying for the sake of flying. The more ratings I can get the better. So even though I've got an airline job now, I'd really enjoy trying to do some aerobatics, bush flying and even get into some warbirds.
10) What are your aviation goals and how did completing your EASA conversion contribute towards achieving this?
As mentioned above, it's a top priority for me to get into competition aerobatics. I think that possibly doing flight instruction on a Cessna while I do my airline job is also on the table. Eventually I'll transition into long haul and then maybe retire with ski-planes on some tropical island. Just wishful thinking at this point though!
The EASA conversion has made my first dream of being an airline pilot possible. Hopefully this job will sponsor the completion of many more dreams.
The views presented in this article are solely the author's based on available information at the time of writing. The purpose of this blog is to inform readers, not to provide professional advice. Readers are advised to research further and consult relevant professionals, such as flight training schools. Readers are cautioned when acting on information provided and assume all risk from such actions.