The jet set in training
From Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, to Tom Hanks’ Hudson River hero Sully, and countless more in between, airplane pilots have an enduring fascination and appeal for moviemakers and true travelers alike. However far from or close to the truth such depictions may be, the fact is that not many of us really know what it takes to become a pilot. So Scandinavian Traveler decided to find out, with a visit to the Scandinavian Aviation Academy (SAA) in Västerås, Sweden, where the next generation of fliers is currently going through its paces.
“It’s an incredible feeling the first time you take control of a plane on your own, one you never forget,” says Staffan Eriksson, who is standing in front of the small Cessna aircraft that plays a pivotal role in the education of the next generation of pilots.
Eriksson, age 20, is one of the students at the center hoping to earn their wings. Like many starry-eyed youngsters, he harbored dreams of flying from an early age and was piloting gliders before he could even drive a car. For him, the major appeal of the job is more than just man and machine.
“I like the teamwork,” he says. “The way the group works together towards the same goal. I think being the pilot, the leader who ensures everyone works in a good way, is a really rewarding job.”
The ability to cooperate in teams and work under pressure are just two of the many vital prerequisites for today’s flight crew. “Here we focus on the core competences of a pilot,” says Stein Mjåtveit, Director of Marketing at the academy and an instructor since 2010.
“They need to be good communicators, problem solvers and decision makers. They learn leadership and teamwork, as well as how to handle an aircraft through manual control and autopilot programming and supervision. And of course they need to have good situational awareness – they need to know what’s going on around them and see the big picture at all times.”
As one of the largest flight schools in Europe, Scandinavian Aviation Academy has has provided professional flight training for airlines and individuals since 1963. It also runs parallel flight and theory courses in San Diego, where Mjåtveit also spent 2.5 years working as an instructor and team leader. Around 70 new students start each year in Västerås, which means that there are up to 140 students in training at any given time.
If you’re wondering whether it could be a career for you, age is one consideration. Even though there are no official limits, the average age here is early to mid 20s, with 34 at the top end. Female trainees make up 10–20% of the intake, higher than many traditionally male-dominated professions, although not as high as Mjåtveit would like.
Ida Lundkvist is in the instrument part of her training, where the focus is on flying without visual reference outside. She hopes that she can encourage more females to follow her example.
“I didn’t feel like it was going to be a problem to be a female student at a flight school, even though it is a male-dominated profession,” the 26-year-old says. “Since I have former experience from the military I’m used to that kind of environment, but of course, it’s always fun when new girls start training at SAA. It would be cool if there could be even more of us here.” Lundkvist spent six years in the military before deciding to change tack.
“Challenging” is the first word she uses to describe the course, which aims principally to provide several European commercial airlines with professional pilots. “I remember the first time I was up in the air on my own,” Lundkvist continues. “I really felt safe because the training had been so good, but at the same time you realize, too, that there is so much to learn.”
The first hurdle for any aspiring pilot is to pass the pilot aptitude tests.
“Even before the students can apply, they need to pass the pilot aptitude tests, which cover everything from spatial orientation, logical thinking and stress tolerance to task management. They’re also put through a stress evaluation by flight psychologists,” Mjåtveit says. “No one ever manages to get through these tests perfectly, nor is that the point. But pilots need to keep working during stressful situations, they simply cannot become blocked or give up. We want to make sure that they will perform well under pressure,” he adds.
Once a student has been accepted in the course, theory and flight training start immediately, with the first flight usually taken within two weeks. The first actual plane they fly is a Cessna, a small aircraft that gives the students not just their first taste of air time, but also a feel for the kind of demands that will be placed upon them in larger aircraft. From these first steps they progressively learn to handle the aircraft using more advanced maneuvers and fly farther away from the base in Västerås.
Perhaps, surprisingly, they only begin intensive work in the simulator after flying a real aircraft. The simulator is adapted for the requirements of a Boeing 737, a probable starting point for many new pilots once they are qualified.
“The simulator is perfect for the industry and even though our pilots may go on to fly other types of jets, it’s a really good experience for them,” Mjåtveit says. “Managing energy is key to flying, as is adaptability, so they get used to being further ahead mentally and this is a great environment for them to learn in.”
With the theoretical work complete, the students then have a five months intenrship at an airline. Several companies are involved in the executive committee of SAA, which means that future employers get a good look at pilots coming through, and the academy can keep up with any changing procedures and new requirements the airlines may have. This ensures a valuable link between the course and the job market outside.
Once qualified, new pilots going on to commercial airlines will act as first officers for at least five years. Meanwhile, many, like Mjåtveit, go on to become instructors themselves, combining flying with desk jobs on the ground.
One rather clichéd view of the job of a pilot is that with computer technology increasing all the time, as soon as we’re all comfortably up in the air, the autopilot kicks in and the crew in the cockpit can just sit back and relax. Mjåtveit is quick to dispel that notion.
“That’s just a myth,” he smiles. “Even though the autopilot is engaged, the pilot has to constantly monitor it to ensure it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”
But with self-drive cars already at a prototype stage, will it ever be possible for a computer to fly a plane on its own?
“We are asked this a lot. My answer is always the same – it is theoretically possible now, but I can’t see it happening in my generation. And just because you know it can be done, would you be comfortable buying a ticket?”
It’s a fair point, and interesting for anyone who has seen the movie Sully, based on the pilot who landed an airliner on the Hudson River in New York, saving 155 lives. The film, which, incidentally, the trainees all watched together, dispels the myth that a computer can always be more trustworthy than a human pilot. From a pilot’s perspective, the movie is pretty realistic, according to Mjåtveit.
Once they have passed the course, the future looks bright for these aspiring pilots. Aircraft manufacturer Boeing produces an annual industry outlook report, predicting how the aviation sector will develop. Its latest report suggests a need for over 600,000 pilots, with the biggest demand coming from Asia, especially China. “They have an expanding middle class and the first thing people want to spend money on is vacations,” Mjåtveit explains.
Europe and the US markets are more saturated, but even those markets are predicted by Boeing to require over 100,000 pilots for Europe and another 100,000 for North America in the next 20 years, and air travel is, after all, doubling every 15 years. With SAS having a considerable proportion of its pilots going into retirement over the next 13 years, things look rosy on a local scale too.
This is all good news for the likes of Ida Lundkvist and Staffan Eriksson, as well as for the academy itself. With airlines needing more pilots, but being less willing to train them themselves, the potential is clear for the business to grow in the coming years – the sky, in fact, is the limit.
Text: Geoff Mortimore