Career goals: Pilot

Rosanna shares the highs and lows of being a commercial pilot, her route to qualifying, plus some words of encouragement for young girls who want to reach for the sky.

Meet Rosanna

Graduated in: geography at Durham University
A-levels studied: maths, chemistry, physics, and geography

What inspired you to become a pilot?

When I was a child I was on a flight and got to visit the pilots, mid-flight. Seeing this view for the first time as a young girl got me hooked. 

You could never get bored of the view from the flight deck and I've had the opportunity to see the most stunning scenery: sunsets and sunrises, endless numbers of stars at night and my absolute favourite, the northern lights.

What’s it like to travel on a flight you’re not flying? Can you ‘switch off’?

To be honest, I'm a bad passenger. I have long legs that don't fit into the legroom properly, so I get very uncomfortable and bored very quickly! 

Most of my family are nervous flyers so when I travel with them, I get asked a lot of questions about what's going on. But I like to be able to help them and explain what's happening to make them feel more relaxed, and (hopefully) make their journey less stressful.

You studied geography at university. Why did you choose this? 

It was the subject I was most interested in at school, so it was an obvious choice.  

I knew I didn't need a degree to go on to do pilot training. But I wanted to get one anyway as it does give you great life skills and would be a good back-up if the aviation career didn't go to plan.  

What came next after graduating?

After university, I applied to Oxford Aviation Academy and went through their assessment process, which tests your aptitude to get through the training (and ultimately obtain a commercial flying job).  

Training was a lot of hard work, but once I completed all the exams, it was on to the fun bit: the flying! I did this out in Phoenix, Arizona, where I had a great time learning how to fly, enjoying the hot weather and experiencing the local culture. I came home very proud of my cowboy boots!

With my licence in hand, I then had to compete against thousands of other applicants for one of the very few commercial pilot jobs going at the time, post-recession.

What are the requirements to get into flight school?

Generally you only need a basic level of maths and physics. These are tested by the schools along with other skills, such as hand-eye coordination, multitasking, and so on.

What kind of work experience can an aspiring pilot get under the belt?

Getting experience working in other areas of aviation is always a big help as it shows your commitment to the job. It also gives you a good idea of how aviation works and what you’re getting yourself into.

Taking opportunities to join the cadets or your university’s air squadron will also give you an insight into flying, even if it's in a military context.

What key skills do you need to be a pilot? 

Academically, the training process isn't that tough. It’s more the volume of information you need to learn that requires hard work and commitment.  

Other skills required are an aptitude for multitasking, staying calm under pressure, hand-eye coordination, teamwork and problem-solving.

Are there any skills people wouldn’t expect of a pilot?

I can't say enough about the importance of problem-solving and thinking outside-the-box. Everyday is different in aviation and you never know what’s going to be thrown at you. You have to be ready to solve whatever comes your way, to keep the operation running smoothly. 

Is there a lot of retraining?

Yes, every six months your skills are tested in a simulator to make sure you are up to standard and to keep your licence up to date. We also do recurrent training annually to keep us up to date on our technical, emergency, and first aid skills. 

Plus, we are constantly updated with new, important information by the airline, and trained on any new procedures as they are introduced. 

As a pilot, you never stop learning. Even the most experienced pilots need to learn and develop.

As well as becoming a commercial pilot, what other career paths are there for qualified pilots?

Within an airline, there are opportunities to progress into other areas of the business such as training, managerial roles and – something I’ve done recently – recruitment, which has involved interviewing new pilots.

I hope to get involved in training once I've gained a bit more experience.

Find out more in our Aircraft Pilots and Flight Engineers job profile

Do pilots tend to stick with one airline, or do they move around in their career?

This business has sadly changed very dramatically over the past two decades with the rise of low-cost airlines. Traditionally, pilots would stay in one company, often for their entire career. However these days it doesn't happen as much.

Any funny stories you can share from your time as a pilot?

Despite having a geography degree, on a flight from Rome to Newcastle I announced to the passengers that we had passed Naples and Pompeii as we travelled north from Rome. Afterwards, to my embarrassment, I realised that Naples is in fact south of Rome, and so there was no way we had actually passed it.

Luckily none of the passengers noticed (and if they did, didn't say anything). The crew, however, never let me forget it.

Are there any myths about pilots or the profession that aren’t correct?

Everyone thinks that being a pilot must be a breeze, and that we just press the 'autopilot button' and off we go. 

Although we do use the autopilot function for a large chunk of the flight, it definitely doesn't mean we get to sit there and relax like the passengers. There are always lots of things happening and things we have to do and monitor throughout the flight.

Time must work a bit differently for a pilot, compared to most 9-5 jobs. Do you have any sort of set working pattern?

There isn't really an average day, week, or month in this job. That can make things fun and interesting, or quite difficult trying to juggle work and home life. But it's something you have to get used to with this job.

We get issued a working roster once a month, which tells us what we’re doing for the next month. We are legally allowed to work up to seven days a week, and up to 14 hours on any given day. So the schedule is not for the faint-hearted!

Do pilots get jet lag? 

Yes of course! Long-haul pilots experience jetlag on a regular basis as they are constantly changing time zones as they travel east/west. The worst flights are ones we call the ‘red eyes’, where we’re travelling eastbound; the jet lag is always the worst. The more time zones you cross, the worse the jet lag.

The pilot profession has traditionally been a male-dominated field. Is that still the case?

Only 5% of commercial pilots are female, and as far as I am aware the percentage hasn't increased that much in recent years. However a lot of airlines are actively trying to encourage more girls into the job. 

Juggling long working hours with home life is tough, no matter your gender. However, it’s completely worth it as I go to work with a smile on my face. I can't quite believe someone pays me to fly planes!

What advice would you give to young girls considering the pilot profession?

Don't be put off by the lack of females in the role, just go for it. I have never come across any negative attitudes from people I work alongside, even if it is a male-centric profession. 

In fact, the only time I get negative comments is from passengers. If I got a pound for every time I get a cheeky remark from a passenger about female drivers then I'd be a millionaire! I choose to ignore these, putting it down to naivety and ignorance. 

And finally, for the nervous flyers out there, how does a plane stay in the air?

The science behind it is very simple. The wings keep us in the air due to air flow travelling faster over the top of the wing compared to below the wing, which creates an upward force. Using that basic idea to get us moving upwards, we use the forward thrust of the engines to propel us forward. 

Next time you’re in the passenger seat of a moving car, stick your hand out of the window horizontally (but be careful!). Slightly curve your hand so it is curved on the top of your hand. You should feel your hand naturally lift up. This is exactly how a plane wing creates lift.