September 11th 2001 - The Day That Changed My Life
People who succeed in the industry are the ones who know they are going to make it. They don’t mind setbacks. They don’t give up when every avenue is exhausted. They just regroup, recharge and launch off again.
30 Jun 2017
Written by Carl Rackman
How can I be so confident? Isn’t this just a load of positive thinking? Let me tell you my story.
Most people who fly for a living swear it’s in their blood. As children, we pestered our parents to take us to air shows, not theme parks. The sound of a jet engine would make us look up, whether it was in a boring maths lesson or on a playing field in the middle of a game. Our favourite video games were flight simulators, and our favourite movie was Top Gun.
No matter how silly it sounded, however unrealistic it may have been, our hopes were set on becoming pilots. Our aspirations were for the skies, and nothing else would do.
I was no different. I tried every avenue I could to become a pilot.
First I tried the Air Force – “Sorry, son. You’re short sighted in one eye.”
I tried the airline sponsored programmes – “You made it through the selection process, but we’re sorry to tell you that you haven’t made the final cut.”
Then it was the self-sponsored route – “Sorry son. You have no money.”
Surprisingly, I wasn’t deterred. You don’t need the ‘right’ background, a degree in aeronautical engineering, perfect teeth or shedloads of cash. The only thing you need to succeed in the aviation world is an illogical, unfounded and borderline insane belief that one day you will make it. That’s it.
I eventually embarked on a professional pilot’s training course after selling my house to raise the funds. I committed to the training, knowing it was probably my last chance. I completed the initial training, built up my hours and twelve months later, only the CAA Instrument Rating Test stood between me and a career in aviation.
I flew a good test and passed first time. I landed back at the test centre and picked up my coveted IR Pass certificate. When I returned, rejoicing to the flying school, the mood was sombre. My celebrations quickly evaporated due to another event that morning.
The date was September 11th, 2001.
I watched my career hopes crumble as surely as the Twin Towers did. The industry had gone from open door to closed shop in a day. Nobody was hiring, especially newly-minted pilots. The temptation was strong to give up. But somewhere, that seed of insane belief kicked in, and six months later I took off on my first flight as a Junior First Officer in a Boeing 737.
I had a few thousand pounds left over from my house sale. My dilemma was whether to get an instructor rating and try to make a living from club flying, or to try something different. As I fruitlessly applied for Pilot Jobs in the lean aftermath of 9/11, I worked in the sorting office of my local post office to bring in the money.
In October 2001, I decided to do a qualification course for an airline training partnership scheme. The sponsoring company would train me for a type rating, and if there was a vacancy at the end, I could apply for it with the sponsor airline. Only after I’d paid, and I arrived for the type rating training did I realise I was up in competition with experienced airline pilots who had been made redundant after September 11th.
Once again, I felt life had dealt me a bum hand.
One thing every professional pilot must face is uncertainty. The industry is surprisingly fragile; periods of unemployment and job insecurity are part of the deal. It stalks our careers at every step.
In Ernest K Gann’s masterpiece of civil aviation, ‘Fate is the Hunter’, he describes how the seniority progression system works against him, frustrating his career by virtue of his joining date and the prevailing circumstances.
Bad weather, air traffic problems, maintenance issues, even plain old bad timing, all conspire to bring about success or failure in the pilot’s professional and personal life.
The trick is always to look for the benefit. Frustration can erode that little nugget of self-belief that is going to carry you over the line. Being on a qualifying course with a bunch of seasoned professionals made me think I would be left behind; An also-ran in the race for one of the scarce jobs after 9/11. In fact, it was the making of me.
Drawing on their considerable experience, which was freely and generously shared at every turn, I could keep up with the training and pass the type rating.
When I was invited to interview with a leading low-cost airline, I was assured there were enough vacancies for everyone. If I made the grade, I would start immediately. My belief was back!
In March 2002 I was offered a position as Junior First Officer on the Boeing 737 fleet at Liverpool John Lennon airport. Four years later I landed a job in the right-hand seat on the Boeing 777 fleet flying out of London Heathrow.
The illogical, unfounded and insane belief paid off!
About the author: Carl Rackman is a retired airline pilot and full-time author. He flew with EasyJet at John Lennon Airport until 2005, when he moved to British Airways and flew the B777 and B787 Dreamliner until a health issue forced his early retirement.
He still believes!