"It'll be years before I find another flying job! COVID-19 has ruined my career. I'm going to have a gap in my CV and nothing meaningful to do for the next few years..." If you're a qualified pilot (or about to graduate from flight school) you've probably had troubling thoughts like these since the outbreak of COVID-19. Don't worry - you're not alone. But, don’t give up hope…
Phillip was a retired airline pilot with a few tufts of white hair framing his bald spot. He was wide in the middle and had a kind nature that immediately put everyone at ease. Phillip's job was to teach us how to fly jets, but three weeks later I walked away with far more than the technical knowledge expected of me. An African proverb says that "the youth can walk faster, but the elder knows the road." Phillip's professional advice was testimony to this: "As a pilot, you'll be made redundant several times in your career. Just remember to stay in the aviation industry during these trying times, in whichever way you can so you continue learning."
While none of us expected to utilize his wisdom so soon (we had all signed permanent contracts and were about to launch our airline careers), COVID-19 flung us into an ever-increasing pool of unemployed pilots during a time when new flying jobs are non-existent. For us low-hour pilots, the situation seems dire.
Sticking to Phillip’s advice, I considered ways in which to continue with professional development in the aviation industry during these grim and unprecedented times. I realized that, with a bit of flexibility, the next few years can be an opportunity to develop additional skills that allow for further career progression and protection.
Learning about the aviation industry through university degrees and short courses keeps one's mind actively involved in the industry and proves passion and dedication to long term success. Courses with distance learning programmes are ideal since they offer flexibility and don't serve as barriers when flying jobs present themselves.
While aviation management degrees are an obvious choice, I'd recommend taking the time to explore all your options to follow your passions. There are numerous universities around the world that offer distance learning aviation degrees - in management, human factors, sustainability, aeronautics etc.
If you're like me and already hold an undergraduate degree, exploring postgraduate options could prove rewarding. So far, I have my eyes set on a Masters degree at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in the USA (although, they do offer undergraduate degrees too) and an Honors degree at Buckinghamshire New University in the UK. However, there are a range of other aviation universities you should consider.
If a commitment to several years of studying is daunting, enrolling in a series of short courses can help to open doors, expand one's knowledge, and maintain ties to the industry. IATA, for example, offers a range of courses on its website - during the lockdown, I completed one focused on gender diversity and inclusion in the industry so I highly recommend them.
Fortunately, combining distance learning tertiary education with pilot training is common so, existing student pilots should also use this crisis to their advantage. When next will we be able to focus on education with so few distractions in life?
Are you in a position to continue financing hour-building packages to increase your total flight time? Reaching the 500 hours total time milestone will make your CV more competitive when jobs become available after COVID-19.
Why not continue developing new skills with challenges along the way? Learning to fly an aircraft with a glass cockpit or completing a tail dragger rating are fantastic methods to grow as a pilot. I did my initial single-engine training on a Cessna C172 but decided to learn how to fly an aircraft with a glass cockpit and sidestick by getting a Cirrus SR20 rating (at Cirrus flight school at Lanseria Airport) before heading to Europe - let me tell you, it's a big adjustment but, it's one of the best decisions I've made. Without it, I believe transitioning onto the Airbus would have been far tougher.
Theoretical Knowledge Instructor
"Those who can't do, teach." While I usually dislike this phrase, I find it oddly fitting to all grounded pilots during this pandemic. Teaching is arguably the best way to keep theoretical knowledge up-to-date and is a paid opportunity to revise material not used daily. Perhaps it is the best way to prepare for upcoming pilot technical exams when flying positions open after COVID-19.
In Europe (and possibly elsewhere in the world), this option seems more viable than in South Africa - From my brief search since being back in the Southern Hemisphere, most local flying schools either outsource their ground school or request their existing instructors to present courses.
If you feel competent at certain subjects, why not offer students private tutoring? Personally, I love teaching so I've made myself available for private tutoring jobs, especially at ATPL level (I'm qualified in South Africa and Europe) - yes, I do truly love the ATPL flight planning graphs. (So, if you're looking for help, feel free to contact me).
Informal Learning Platforms
Learning that occurs outside classrooms is equally as important as concepts addressed in formal course work. Unaccredited online short courses, YouTube videos, blogs, community platforms, aviation magazines and conversations with others interested in, and knowledgeable about, the industry are great tools to remain up to date with changes in aviation - especially if finances are limited. Unfortunately, these platforms can't be used to embellish one's CV but, the knowledge gained and networking opportunities are valuable.
The aviation industry will never be the same after COVID-19. While it is tough to speculate the future of the industry, it is in every pilot's best interest to use this time as preparation for the uncertain future.
Instead of viewing this pandemic as career-ending, following Phillip's advice to focus on professional development might pave the path to a more fruitful career - one that you might not have thought yourself capable of when launching your aviation journey. Perhaps it's time to up your confidence by raising the bar and achieving new goals.
So, as you progress into a new chapter of your journey while reinventing yourself, remember the words of Paulo Coehlo: "You are what you believe yourself to be." And maybe you are meant to be something that you hadn't considered before, like a major airline's next CEO for example.
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.