In Richard Champion de Crespigny’s bedroom cupboard is a small aluminium case. His navigation bag. He used to carry it into the cockpit with him. When he opens the cupboard, he is reminded of the life he’s left behind. “I think about what I’ve lost,” he says. “I loved my job. I wanted to keep doing it.”
De Crespigny was a Qantas pilot for 35 years. For the last dozen of them, he was captain of an Airbus A380, the largest passenger airliner in the world. In 2010, he made headlines when he successfully landed his “super jumbo” after a catastrophic engine explosion. The blast tore through the aircraft’s left wing. Shrapnel sprayed the fuselage and ripped into its belly. Twenty-one of the plane’s 22 operating systems were affected. The skill with which de Crespigny averted a tragedy, bringing the broken behemoth safely to rest at Singapore’s Changi Airport, turned him into something of a celebrity. He wrote a couple of books. He gave keynote speeches at conferences. He was Australia’s answer to Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the American airline captain feted in 2009 for gliding his A320 onto the Hudson River in New York City after striking a flock of geese and losing engine power.
De Crespigny was forced into early retirement last year, joining tens of thousands of pilots around the globe thrown out of work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey released in January indicated that the drastic reduction in air traffic due to border closures and travel restrictions had grounded more than half the world’s airline pilots. Murray Butt, president of the Australian and International Pilots Association, estimates that more than 80 per cent of Australian airline pilots have been temporarily or permanently sidelined in the past 18 months. Of course, pilots aren’t the only members of the aviation industry to have lost their livelihoods. And aviation isn’t the only devastated industry. “There are so many people in so many industries suffering,” de Crespigny says.
What makes the plight of pilots interesting is the intensity of their attachment to their profession. In The Psychological Bonds between “Airline Pilots and their Work: From Passion to Reason”, published last year, French academics Dominique Peyrat-Guillard and Gwenaelle Grefe analysed the results of several studies of pilots’ attitudes to their careers. The studies found that, while you and I might regard our occupation as part of who we are, the uniformed men and women in the cockpits of airliners define themselves by their work to an unusual degree. Their jobs tend to be inextricably tied up with their sense of self. As de Crespigny puts it, “Flying really becomes our meaning, our purpose in life.”
What happens when that purpose is taken away? “Some people might have trouble getting out of bed in the morning,” says de Crespigny, who in the past has known friends to sink into depression even after leaving an airline at the time of their choosing.
As a group, though, pilots are good in a crisis. At flight school they’re taught to be clear-headed and methodical. Staying cool in emergencies is kind of their specialty. If your plane’s engine blows up, damaging everything from the fuel tanks to the brakes, as happened to de Crespigny in 2010, you use every trick in the book to get it back onto the ground and stop it from careening off the end of the runway. If COVID smashes a huge hole in the airline business, you work out a survival plan. “Pilots are trained to keep calm and be practical and logical when things go wrong,” says de Crespigny. “The skills we have are skills of resilience.”
Australian pilots have found many ways to fill their days and pay their bills while they wait out the pandemic. They’ve driven farm machinery, studied for law degrees, joined contact-tracing teams and stacked supermarket shelves. Their old life was one of constant movement: a pilot flying long-haul international routes might travel 750,000 kilometres a year, a distance almost 20 times the circumference of Earth. In their new life, they have had to adjust to going nowhere.
“This is the longest I’ve been in one spot for 33 years,” Qantas A380 captain Rod Anderson says with a wry laugh. Keeping still, to the surprise of some, has had its advantages. For a start, it has given Anderson and his colleagues a chance to contemplate the nature of a pilot’s existence. They have thought about why they loved it. What they miss about it. What they don’t miss. They have asked themselves whether they want to go back to it. And they have remembered what it was that drew them to it in the first place.
When I was a child, I sometimes dreamt of flying. From a standing start, I’d float upwards and bob gently around the ceiling, like a helium balloon left over from a birthday party. Pilots will tell you that as kids they were fascinated by flight, but their dreams didn’t reflect some vague yearning to defy gravity. On the contrary, they saw themselves taking the controls of a powerful machine and roaring through the wide blue sky.
Anderson, 58, fell in love with planes when, as a small boy, he went with his family to Bali on a Boeing 707 – “which was a big deal in those days,” he says. “This was 1969.” He and his father visited the flight deck – a practice prohibited in our security-conscious era but quite commonplace then.
Anderson took in the bank of instruments and the view from the cockpit. He was entranced: “At five years of age I went, ‘Jeez, this is what I want to do. This is good stuff.’ Twenty years later, in 1989, I landed a 747 at Denpasar in Bali.”
Anna Wakelin was a Tigerair A320 captain until the pandemic. Now working for the Victorian government’s hotel quarantine program – managing a team that meets passengers arriving at Melbourne Airport from overseas – she says she was just four when she decided she would fly planes when she grew up. Wakelin, 42, adds that she quickly learnt girls weren’t expected to aim to be pilots.
“I often got asked, ‘Do you mean you want to be a flight attendant?’ I’d say, ‘No. Nothing wrong with being a flight attendant but it’s not what I want to do. I want to drive the thing.’ ” (The gender imbalance in the cockpit hasn’t improved much, says Louise Pole, president of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots: “Worldwide, only around five per cent of airline pilots are women”.)
US airline pilot Patrick Smith writes in his book Cockpit Confidential that aviators’ attraction to aircraft “almost always goes back to early childhood – to some ineffable, hard-wired affinity. Mine certainly did. My earliest crayon drawings were of planes, and I took flying lessons before I could drive.”
Former Virgin Australia A330 check-captain Richard Haynes can beat that. He gave flying lessons before he could drive. Haynes tells me he got his flight instructor’s licence when he was 18, then made $35 an hour taking learner-pilots up in a single-engine Cessna. “My mum used to have to drive me to the airport and drop me off,” he says. Haynes, now 53, felt predestined to spend his life flying – and not just because he came from a family of pilots. “For the majority of us, it’s a vocation.”
Aviation has long been a volatile industry. In “Dreaming of Flying when Grounded”, an article published in the Journal of Management Studies in 2014, authors Amy L. Fraher and Yiannis Gabriel reported on the emotional impact on American pilots of mass lay-offs by airlines in the 10 years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. (In that decade, they noted, nearly every US airline declared bankruptcy and more than 14,000 pilots found themselves unemployed.) Fraher and Gabriel concluded that dismay at being furloughed is intensified for pilots by their belief that their job is the one they were born to do. Along with orchestra musicians, zookeepers and members of elite military units, “they are among those people who view themselves as lucky … to have realised their calling”.
Some make false starts. Nicola MacPhail, 43, worked as an accountant before she recognised that flying was the career for her. She got her licence at the age of 30, then flew freight planes in west Africa, plying between Ivory Coast and Senegal with bananas and mining equipment in the cargo hold. The deliveries were mostly made at night. “I loved night flying,” she says. “It was generally clear and calm. The air space was quiet.” Eventually MacPhail joined Virgin Australia where, as a Boeing 777 second officer, she shuttled back and forth to Los Angeles. In April 2020, the pandemic tipped the airline into voluntary administration. Bain Capital, a US private equity group, bought and revived Virgin (while shutting down its subsidiary, budget carrier Tigerair), but thousands of jobs, including MacPhail’s, were axed.
She has found work with a consultancy firm that advises companies on operating drones for commercial purposes, and is enjoying the new challenge. Nevertheless, she says, “I miss getting airborne.” In MacPhail’s first years as a pilot, her least favourite part of the job was the flurry of activity that preceded flights. “Filing your paperwork and organising the aircraft – all that’s such a mountain to climb. But the minute the wheels left the tarmac, it was all forgotten. Everything was good again.”
Pilots talk about “V1” – the point at which, as a plane barrels down a runway, it reaches a speed where discontinuing the take-off is no longer an option. That speed is determined by a range of factors, including the weight of the aircraft, the length of the runway and the wind direction. Seconds after passing the point of no return, the pilot raises the plane’s nose. With its back wheels still on the ground, it continues to accelerate until it reaches lift-off speed and parts company with the earth.
In MacPhail’s experience, those in the cockpit feel a mix of exhilaration and relief at that moment. They are busy – monitoring airspeed, checking the climb rate, talking to air traffic control – but there’s a sense of having left behind the cares of the world. “It’s kind of like when you have a headache,” she says, “and you take a tablet and it goes away.”
Rod Anderson has wasted no time during the pandemic. He and a fellow pilot have started a charter business, Golf Air, that takes people to out-of-the-way golf courses around the country. A couple of days a week, Anderson volunteers as a Beechcraft Baron pilot for Little Wings, a non-profit organisation that transports seriously ill children from rural and regional NSW to medical appointments in the city. As satisfying as this has been, he can’t wait to return to being a Qantas captain – a job he always felt extraordinarily fortunate to have. “They give you the keys to an A380,” he says, a note of incredulity in his voice. “They say, ‘Go to London. See you in nine days. Don’t scratch the paint.’ ”
Anderson got a kick out of flying the busy skies over Europe. “I loved landing the A380 into London in the early morning,” he says. “You’re up there with all the other airliners coming in from everywhere. It was great.” Landing the super jumbo anywhere was a treat, truth be told. “I never lost that sense of achievement. You walk off and you look back at it, that beautiful machine.”
An A380 carries about 550 passengers and weighs 560 tonnes. Its wingspan is longer than a 20-storey building is high. Qantas has 12 of these $US445 million ($606 million) giants of the sky, and all have been grounded by COVID. Ten are parked in the Mojave Desert in California, where the low humidity makes for safe storage. “They’re doing maintenance on them,” says Anderson. “Keeping them alive.” Last month, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce announced plans to bring five of the A380s back into service from mid-2022, and possibly another five by early 2024.
While the planes hibernate, their pilots attend occasional Zoom meetings and online refresher courses. Anderson is delighted to catch up with his colleagues: he misses the camaraderie of working for the airline. Also, it’s fun to see the changes in persona that can result when people who normally spend half their lives checking in and out of hotels are instead pottering around at home. Guys last seen in crisp Qantas uniforms, with short-back-and-sides haircuts under their pilots’ caps, appear on screen with Ned Kelly beards and cats on their laps.
Anderson and his partner, a flight attendant on A380s, were both stood down in March last year. He says the uninterrupted stint under one roof has for them been the bright side of the pandemic. When both were darting around the globe, there were weeks at a stretch when they barely crossed paths. Anderson is aware, though, that being stuck at home base has put a strain on some pilots’ relationships. Couples accustomed to having breaks from each other can find constant togetherness difficult. “I don’t think it’s any secret that a good few marriages have split up,” he says.
On the part of the passenger, travelling by airliner is an act of faith. As the Irish novelist John Banville has written, “That sky, that band of air between the earth’s skin and the edge of space, is for most of us an alien environment, where clouds boil and roil, where headwinds howl, and where the outside temperature, as our pilot jauntily informs us, is low enough to freeze the blood in our veins.” Even if the flight is smooth and the in-flight entertainment distracting, we might at odd moments in our journey find ourselves wondering about the wisdom of hurtling through the stratosphere at, say, 1000 kilometres an hour.
The people in the cockpit have no such doubts. They are utterly at home above the clouds. This is their realm. Pilots are, in a way, citizens of another world – one that’s governed by its own set of rules and conventions. In the air, there is only one time zone, known as UTC (Universal Time Co-ordinated). Flying schedules are written in it, and aircraft computers display it. Speed is mostly measured in knots, altitude in feet and distances in nautical miles. The language of aviation is English, and it’s spoken by everyone from Chinese first officers to Turkish air traffic controllers. (Planes speak English too. As Richard de Crespigny fought to control his crippled A380 on its nightmarish final descent to Changi, the words of warning blaring through the cockpit were “Speed! Speed!“, and just before touch-down, “Stall! Stall!” )
The sky maps that pilots use are dotted with “waypoints”: geographic positions, specified by longitudinal and latitudinal co-ordinates, which when strung together form notional air routes. The waypoints are given pronounceable, sometimes whimsical, five-letter names. British Airways pilot Mark Vanhoenacker notes in his lovely book, Skyfaring, a paean to the romance and adventure of flight, that between Australia and New Zealand there are waypoints called WALTZ, INGMA and TILDA. Over the Indian Ocean off the coast of Western Australia are WONSA, JOLLY, SWAGY and CAMPS, BUIYA, BYLLA, BONGS.
Vanhoenacker says he has come to measure countries in “jet time” – how long it takes to fly over them. “France, at the angles I most often cross it, is a land of around one hour,” he writes, “as are the states of Texas and Montana.” Belgium, with a healthy tailwind, takes just 15 minutes to traverse. Australia is impressive by comparison. “You fly for five hours and you’re still in the same country,” says former Virgin Australia first officer Dave Everingham. When Everingham flew regularly from the east coast to Perth, he would watch with awe as the continent unfurled beneath him. Plains, forests, rivers, ranges, deserts … “Just the vastness of everything. It is beautiful.”
Pilots are no-nonsense people with heads for maths and physics but they wax lyrical about the natural wonders they’ve observed from the cockpit. The ice sheets of Antarctica. The mountains of the Hindu Kush. The dazzling atmospheric displays known as aurora australis and borealis. “And the sunsets!” says de Crespigny. “If you’re heading west, they go on forever because you’re chasing the sun.” For him, the thrill of flying never wore off.
“Following the lines of clouds and weaving between them – that’s a wonderful thing. Flying beside thunderstorms. Flying above cyclones. One day we looked straight down into the eye of a cyclone.”
“And the sunsets! If you’re heading west, they go on forever because you’re chasing the sun.”
Being earthbound has made Everingham aware that at least one aspect of the pilot’s life took a toll on him. Before the pandemic, his usual route was Sydney to Hong Kong, a flight of just over nine hours. On the return leg, the Airbus A330 left Hong Kong in the evening. “We’d fly all night and get back to Sydney at about 7am,” he says. Back-of-the-clock flying, as it’s known in the trade, plays havoc with circadian rhythms. “When the body wants to be asleep, you’re forcing it to stay awake.” Only when Everingham reverted to a more normal sleeping pattern did he remember how it felt to be properly rested. “I didn’t realise that I was so tired until I wasn’t so tired, if that makes sense.”
After his job at Virgin evaporated, Everingham opened a cafe in the village of Comboyne, on the NSW Mid North Coast. He says the Coffee Hangar was doing well until the latest long lockdown: he employed six people part-time. Because he was a pilot and believed in leaving nothing to chance, he issued the staff with check-lists for every procedure, from mixing milkshakes to making burgers.
Everingham is genuinely enthusiastic about the cafe and confident of its future. But whenever he looks skyward, he knows where he’d rather be.
“I just love flying,” he says.
Pilots don’t expect sympathy. Within their industry, they have a reputation for arrogance: perhaps a sense of superiority is the unavoidable result of spending your working life looking down on the world from a god-like remove. “There are a few captains who believe they are god,” Rod Anderson says ruefully. Dave Everingham argues that much of the disparagement of the profession is undeserved. “People think pilots are overpaid and underworked,” he says. “On a nice, clear, blue-sky day when everything runs well, yeah, sure. It’s that dark stormy night when things start to fail, that’s when you really earn your money.”
It was actually a bright, clear morning when disaster struck Richard de Crespigny’s QF 32 just four minutes after take-off from Singapore. On board were 440 passengers and 29 crew: in aviation parlance, 469 “souls”. During the drama that unfolded over the next four hours, de Crespigny was acutely aware that he was responsible for everyone’s welfare. When it was over, he gathered the passengers together in the airport terminal and apologised for what had happened. He spoke to them at length, carefully answered their
questions and gave them his mobile phone number in case they thought of anything else they wanted to ask, or needed his help. De Crespigny suffered for months afterwards from post-traumatic stress, but on the day he handled everything with such aplomb that the explosion didn’t tarnish Qantas’s reputation – in fact, its share price rose.
The Australian and International Pilots Association’s Murray Butt says the most senior A380 captains make about $400,000 a year. Though a very good salary, it pales in comparison to the $23.9 million reportedly paid to Alan Joyce in 2018, the year he took the prize for Australia’s most handsomely compensated chief executive. Butt, who himself is a Qantas captain – and during the pandemic, a bus driver – points out that junior airline pilots earn only about a fifth as much as those at the top of the tree: a first officer with the regional carrier QantasLink might start on $82,000 a year.
That first officer is likely to be paying off a hefty bank loan. According to the Australian Federation of Air Pilots’ Louise Pole, the flight training required to
obtain a commercial licence can cost $100,000 or more. Most pilots then spend years flying small planes in the bush for little more than the minimum wage. “It’s only after logging hundreds of hours’ flying experience that a pilot can hope to get an entry-level job at a passenger airline,” Pole says.
When they get there, they cannot afford to relax. Pilots are subjected to constant testing of their knowledge and skills, including being put through their paces in flight simulators four or more times a year. Rod Anderson reckons it’s so tough getting and keeping a flying job with an Australian airline that the only people who do it are true aviation tragics – the kind of people who have aeronautics magazines in their hand luggage.
Anderson spent three years in the 1990s working for Singapore Airlines, and says some international pilots he encountered had a more matter-of-fact approach to the job. “They did it because the money was okay,” he tells me. “I’ve always said the difference between a Qantas crew and some overseas airlines crews is that if you were walking across the tarmac with a Qantas crew and a 1945 Lancaster bomber flew over the airfield, everyone would look up and go, ‘My god, look at that thing.’ If you walked across the tarmac with some other crews and it flew over, they wouldn’t look up. They wouldn’t even notice it.”
Once a pilot, always a pilot. Nick Allen knows that. “I don’t expect to ever be rid of the bug,” he says. But the pandemic has prompted Allen, 35, to decisively change course. When the airline industry all but collapsed last year, he was a Boeing 767 captain with Japan’s largest carrier, ANA. He was told to expect no more work until 2023 – a brutal lesson in the realities of the aviation business.
“As soon as something changes – there’s a downturn in the economy, or a terrorist attack, or global unrest, or like we’ve now seen, a pandemic – you are useless overnight.”
“You’re very much needed until you’re not,” he says. “Flying is one of the best jobs in the world when the world is in good shape. But as soon as something changes – there’s a downturn in the economy, or a terrorist attack, or global unrest, or like we’ve now seen, a pandemic – you are useless overnight.”
Allen urgently needed a new source of income. “I’d always had a pipe-dream of having a pizzeria in my retirement,” he says. Hitting on the idea of producing pizza kits – bases and toppings people could assemble themselves – he returned home to Sydney with his partner and their infant son, Henry, nicknamed Hank, and set up a business he called Hank’s Hot Box.
He likes working for himself. After years of skipping between time zones and living out of a suitcase, he is relishing going to bed in the same place every night. “You forget what it’s like to have a routine, to have your body in a natural rhythm,” he says. “I think it’s not until you’re forced to have your feet on the ground for a while that you think, ‘Hang on, maybe I actually prefer this.’ ”
Richard Haynes knows what Allen means. Haynes and his wife, Tracey, also a Virgin Australia pilot, were both laid off by the airline last year. When after a few months Tracey was rehired to fly domestic routes, Haynes quit his job in the hotel quarantine program so he could look after their three children at home in Daylesford, north-west of Melbourne. Being with the kids all the time has felt like a gift, he says. He was particularly chuffed to sign up as manager of his older son’s footy team, confident that he would be able to make it to every match and training session. “I could never have done anything like that before.”
“You forget what it’s like to have a routine, to have your body in a natural rhythm.”
Haynes has since been recalled to Virgin, albeit in a more junior position than he previously held. He is philosophical about these things, having lost his job on two previous occasions through no fault of his own – first, during the ill-fated pilots’ industrial dispute of 1989, and second when Australia’s then second-largest airline, Ansett, went under in 2001. He has been assuring younger colleagues that, before too long, pilots will be back in high demand. The aviation business will bounce back, as it always does, this time fuelled by huge pent-up demand for travel. “I say to guys, ‘You’ve just got to be able to hold your breath long enough, until the industry picks up’.”
Richard de Crespigny’s aviation career is definitely over. “I’m one of the 250 pilots who left Qantas in 2020,” he says. Most of those pilots were offered voluntary redundancy packages, but 55 of them – including the then 63-year-old de Crespigny – were denied the packages because they were too close to 65, the mandatory retirement age for international pilots. The older pilots were instead offered early retirement packages, which were about one-third the size of the other packages. How do they feel about it? “Cheated and rejected,” de Crespigny says mildly. (Qantas has settled a case brought against it by one of the pilots, Andrew Hewitt, the son of former Qantas chairman, Sir Lenox Hewitt, who alleged he was the victim of age discrimination.)
As de Crespigny sees it, there is much to miss about being an airline pilot. “I loved walking around the aircraft and talking to people,” he says. “Because everyone who’s travelling has a story. They’re going to a funeral, a wedding, a conference, on a holiday. I’ve met the most extraordinary people in the cabin of an aircraft.”
What astonishes him about passengers is how blasé about flying most of us are. As planes soar through the heavens we sit glued to our books or movies, rarely bothering to glance out the window. This was brought home to de Crespigny that eventful day in Singapore. “After the flight, a guy came up to me and said, ‘When the engine exploded, I thought that was a bump on the runway. I didn’t even know we’d taken off.’ ”
A navigation bag, also known as a pilot’s bag, contains the tools of an aviator’s trade along with a few personal effects. De Crespigny hasn’t unpacked his yet. “It still has all the equipment in it that I would normally carry on to an aircraft,” he says. Notes, charts, pilot’s licence, medical certificate, passport, a rotary slide rule for making complex calculations, and a camera – “to capture the wonders of flight”. He says he fully intends to empty the bag. “It’s not that I’m preserving this forever.” He just hasn’t got around to it yet.
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