The story goes that Picasso was sitting in a Paris café when an admirer asked if he would do a quick sketch on a paper napkin. The artist politely agreed, quickly made a sketch and handed back the napkin adding that it would cost a rather significant amount of money. The admirer was shocked, asking how it could cost that much: “It only took you a minute to draw this!”
“No,” Picasso replied, “It took me forty years.”
It is the type of answer I am often looking for when faced with comments about my occupation as a pilot – the problem is that you only think of it afterwards!
You’ve heard these assertions before: “Does it not get boring? Surely you should know it all by now – why all the constant recurrent training? You’re paid too much for just reading newspapers, after all the autopilot does the flying! Glorified bus drivers…”
Just as any other older aviator would attest, the answer is that it has taken me almost forty years to hone my skill to its current level.
That smooth flight did not happen by chance – we checked the forecasts, decided on flight levels based on these and myriads of other parameters, drawing on experience. Then we adjusted en-route, flying around convective weather and climbing or descending just to keep our passengers’ coffee from spilling.
That smooth landing was also no fluke, it took planning and concentration and a large dose of experience to achieve a touchdown in the demarcated zone, at the correct speed (adjusted for weight, wind and surface conditions) staying on the centre-line and turning off the short runway without any uncomfortable, white-knuckle braking.
That experience did not arrive via the internet. It was achieved through the traditionally accepted years of hard work and dedication, endless training, and doing a variety of flying jobs to eventually land a seat in an airliner.
But now it would appear that the long-predicted pilot shortage is starting to bite. ICAO and the major aircraft manufacturers have warned about the predicted shortage of pilots and technicians for many years now, here is an ICAO position paper from 2105 which highlights the major contributing factors and the associated safety concerns.
Until such time as AI (artificial intelligence) can safely fly passengers around in airliners, a high demand for human pilots will persist, as the huge salaries now offered by (in particular) Chinese airlines prove.
My inbox is inundated daily with job offers from all over the world, where qualified B738 Captains are currently being offered salaries of US$40 000+ per month. For an expat pilot this would (taking into account the tax free benefit) immediately mean earning your current annual salary in just a couple of months. Any wonder that we are experiencing a drain of pilots from South Africa to these lucrative positions?
The situation is exacerbated further as entry requirements to international airlines are lowered to allow younger and less experienced pilots onto flight decks – so the traditional “stepping stone” regional airlines are now missing these pilots. No longer do you find pilots with contract experience in turbines or jets clamouring to get into the local airlines – they’re being snapped up directly by the international majors.
With no viable local cadet programmes currently in place, it may well be only a matter of time before local airlines have to park aircraft due to a shortage of pilots. Perhaps it is almost too late for airlines to consider recruiting kids from school to train from ab-initio to ALTP. Flying is no longer considered a glamorous occupation and the long hours and time away from home puts paid to the idea that its a desirable lifestyle. So the recruiters may have to look much deeper into their companies’ budgets to attract new candidates.
On the other hand, should a young aspiring pilot currently have access to funding of around R 1 million for an accelerated course, an airline position is virtually guaranteed.
So, next time you fly behind an older, more experienced Captain – be reminded of Picasso: They’re not being paid for that one flight, but for all the years of honing their skills.