The conclusion…

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So, why am I writing this blog?

Because, when I walk through the busy terminals of Chek Lap Kok, JFK, Cape Town International, LAX, and other amazing places that my work takes me, so many people ask me on the same question day after day: “How did you do this? Are you some sort of semi-god or a super-human? How can I get to where you are – I love aviation.I want to be a pilot. I would do anything to do what you do – i just don’t know where to begin.”

As you can imagine, it’s impossible to go through all of this, my entire story, in just a few seconds that I have to talk to such people, then go about my busy day of being an airline pilot. But, i do know how these guys feel – I felt exactly the same way only a few years ago, when I saw a fully uniformed airline pilot pass me by: I was amazed that such people existed, I was inspired, I was craving the answer – can I be Him?

So, what I can do, is to tell these people to google my blog, and read about my story themselves. I am proud of it, yes. I am proud to be an airline pilot and to realize my dream. It will take you a lot of hard work, a lot of determination and belief in yourself, but you will get there!

Go on, do it! I believe in you!

With love,

Daniel Van Vareen

 

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Flying the “Heavy Metal”!..

10411054_10153649038999745_8179554994993823875_nWell, here came the bad news and the good news: Jeff got a positive response from AHK and he was going to start training with them in less then a month. These were the bad news because if I didn’t get selected by Cathay, I was going to jump off a cliff or hang myself. The good news came when, 2 weeks later, I got an email from Cathay’s HR department, congratulating me on being selected. I thought I was going to jump off a cliff anyways – only this time because of joy!

Their program is structured in a rather weird way: they hire so many pilots from so many backgrounds, like HK, US, UK, Australia, France, India, South Africa and so on, that they simply do not know to what standard pilots were trained and how well would they fly. So, to solve this issue, they send everyone to this aviation “boot camp” in Adelaide, which is located in South Australia, get everyone standardized and make them take a few theoretical and practical tests to convert their ICAO licenses to Hong Kong ATP. So, off I went. With a few of my classmates, we got on a Cathay flight from HK to Adelaide. Lots of theory on daily basis, some flying on brand new Diamond DA-42 aircraft. Long story – short: I got it all done in exactly 4 months. Then they shipped up back to HK and we started out type-rating training. Cathay has it’s own B777 sims, so, since my type designation was Boeing 777, I was getting a type rating on this aircraft. Another particular thing that Cathay does: they want you to start flying as a Second Officer, rather then First. I suppose that makes sense: they don’t want some inexperienced twat to break their brand spanking new multi-million dollar aircraft. Second officers serve as cruise relief pilots: they are fully-rated on the type (in fact, they are “more rated” then the FOs and CAs put together, since they are getting simulator training on emergency procedures every month!), but are not allowed to take off and land. Their can only take over First Officer’s duties in the right seat of the aircraft, when FO goes for a rest, toilet, lunch, or whatever he wishes to do this afternoon, and when the aircraft is in cruise flight, above 25000 feet. Second Officers (SOs) have to wear two stripes and do this for 3-4 years, until they get an upgrade to FO. Then work as FO for 3-5 years, until they get na upgrade to Captain. It’s a long process, but hey, I didn’t mind – they pay was excellent and I got to fly Boeing triple-seven! What else could a true-loving-aviation pilot want?!…

A little about Jeff: Jeff stayed in HK for his standardization training, and eventually got type-rated on Airbus 300. He wasn’t particularly clay about this airplane, but the company just acquired a bunch of B747-400 with cargo conversion, and he was going to bid for upgrade into one of these in two years. Also, on a more positive side – he didn’t need to do the whole Second Officer program – he got in as a First Officer right away. So, by the time I was shipping off to Australia for my initial standardization, Jeff was already starting his training in HK and flying the jets two months later, when I was still in Adelaide. Those two companies, AHK and Cathay, actually belong to the same conglomerate – the Swire Group. It’s a old family run business based in leaden, that started in the area as a real estate and goods merchant and grew into this multi-million dollar, multi-national corporation which owns half of Hong Kong. So, anyone who worked in any of it’s daughter companies has preferential hiring across other companies. AHK and Cathay worked cross-hiring worked the same way: you could work for AHK for a couple of years, then move to Cathay. And visa-versa (of course, no one in their same mind would do the opposite, but hey, people get bored…)

Jeff and I are still best friends: we live in Hong Kong now, we rent an apartment together in an upscale expat neighborhood of Victoria Harbour, we make a daily good salary and are going to make even more, the longer we stay in these amazing companies. Yes, Hong Kong is my new home now and my fellow aviator colleagues – my new family!

[continued to conclusion]

The interviews…

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As I said, time was flying, I was flying, my flight time was growing. But of course, my goal has always been flying big commercial jets for airlines: more respect, more money, more everything. There is nothing like flying with a proper crew: Captain, flight attendants, overnights in Paris, Brussels, New York, Rio, Bombay… This was the life I wanted and this was the life I was going to achieve my betting into leading airlines.

Back home I applied for Air Zimbabwe and some other local operators, but I never really wonted to work here. Just like me, Jeff was nearing 2000 hours and was determined to get a job flying jets. So, we were both sending out our applications and pilot resumes like crazy  – every day we would send one or two applications to every single company in the world. Hey, it does not hurt to try, hey?… I knew, that some companies out there were hiring pilots like me. They didn’t care if we were not citizens of their country, they didn’t care if we didn’t have experience flying jets. People have to start somewhere, right?.. Aerocadet put me in touch with their consulting company, Raich Aerospace, which, in turn, started sending me emails with the information about the airlines that were hiring guys with my flight time. One of the main company profiles they sent me were: Cathay Pacific, Air Hong Kong (that’s a cargo operator owned by Cathay), Air Macau (they hired anyone who had type rating, even with no actual time on type). Obviously, I applied for all of them. Jeff got an email first. It was from AHK. They invited him to screening in HK. Lucky bastard! His interview was a two-day process, consisting on a technical interview with the board of recruitment captains, followed by B747-200 simulator check-ride. I could not really understand, how the heck they expected him to fly a 747 simulator, if he never actually flew one in the past and had zero experience on ay jet of any type. Never the less, Jeff got an email from Raich with information how to prepare: here, read this book “Handling Heavy Jets” and “How to Ace Technical Interview” and they explained him what would be on the check ride. They also recommended that Jeff gets 2-4 hours in a B747-200 or 300 sim to get acquainted with the cockpit and handling. Jeff had about a month to prepare and, on advise of guys from Raich Aerospace, flew out to Miami to get the required B747 experience. They set him up with the sim center, called “PanAM” (a remnant of the Great Pan American Airlines, I suppose) and he flew 4 hours with an instructor in a sim. That was pricey – cost him $3000. But, Jeff was happy.

While Jeff was playing a “fifteen million dollar computer game” in Miami, I, myself, got an email from Cathay’s recruitment department, stating that they would like to invite me for their initial interview in Hong Kong. Not AHK, their cargo alter-ego, but the actual CATHAY! Could not believe my luck! Cathay was one of my dream jobs, the ultimate airline to work for, the “creme-de-la-creme” of commercial aviation. Yes, I was excited and could not sleep for a couple of days. That aside, I also knew that their candidate selection process was brutal: they wanted applicants to go through several interview stages, and selected only the best. I had one shot at this, and I was freaked out. So, I immediately emailed my Aerocadet support team and got a reply with the intel on the upcoming tests. Somehow they knew what was going to happen. Stage one: initial technical interview, IQ Raven tests; then stage two: secondary technical interview, math tests, CRM (crew resource management, for hose of you who do not know all the stupid  and endless aviation terminology) tests; stage three: board interview and more tests. “Study this, look through that, go through Cathay’s history and corporate portfolio, memorize their fleet statistics, look through Chek Lap Kok’s airport diagram. Ah, read the same books as Jeff did, train for the Raven tests – you will be fine!” Thanks God for that – they saved me ass. I had no idea that the interview was so involved.

The first interview and test was in Singapore, to some reason. I guess they just invite you to the nearest available location. I bought a ticket and flew to get interviewed there at a local Cathay office, in some sky-scraper downtown. They gave me three different Raven tests right away, they are sort technical IQ tests that check your reasoning quality and speed. Then I waited for 30 mins. Then one of their captains and HR lady interviewed me in a small room. Since i read the book Raich Aerospace recommended me, I knew pretty much everything they asked me. It’s almost like they used these books to create their questions. I swear, I would have failed the interview and the IQ tests if i was not preparing for a month and a half before attending it. So, that was it. They would let me know. I went back to Zimbabwe.

A week later, I get an email “Pleased to confirm that you have passed stage one and invited to stage two”. This time the email was a lot more involved: airline reservation details, hotel and Cathay City (they actually have a full-sizes city in there) orientation and further interview instructions. This time thy got me confirmed biz class tickets to Hong Kong, and I was flying like a celebrity: my own bed 10 kilometers up in the air!

While this was going on with me, Jeff was already in HK (his interview was less involved: one stage, consisting of technical interview, some sort of CRM role-play and B747sim, which they left for last). Also, he had to pay for his own ticket. Never the less, thanks to the help from his support advisors, Jeff aced the interviews and CRM test, then, thanks to 4 hours spent in the 747 sim – he aced the sim check. Of course they didn’t tell him this right away – airlines like to keep people in the dark. Jeff had to come back to Zimbabwe and wait in agony for 10 sleepless nights, before he got an email that he was going to start his training in a month. By the way, he called me and told me about the B747 check ride: just like Raich Aerospace guys told him, it was a 30 minute affair consisting of normal takeoff, departure on a heading some some basic air work (steep turns, close flight, that kind of thing) then he had to do an ILS approach (all raw data – no autopilot of flight director), then go-around, then complete a go-around procedure, then he had an outboard engine fire, then he had to do the whole thing again – shoot an ILS with three engines and a full left rudder. Later, Jeff told me that he would have never done it right, unless he followed Raich’s advise and practiced in a sim. His sim instructor was also well-informed of the AHK sim check and practiced the maneuvers with him for 4 hours. How did they expect people to do this without any practice – I have no idea! I guess, it’s a test to commitment more then pilot’s skill: if you are committed enough, you will travel abroad and spend 3k on preparation. If not – you don’t belong here.

So, now back to me. I aced day one of stage two: a technical interview, a psychometric test (it’s an annoying computer program that asks you the same question an a hundred different ways and sees how you answer it. Even more annoying was that it took like two hours). Day three was math test (no, it was not integrals or differential equations, it was just simply mental math: 185/14=….. 34/95=… they time you and want you to answer as close to the actual number as possible). Then we did a CRM team work exercise, which was actually kind of fun. They gave us a flight planning problem and we had so solve it as a team: discussion, proposals, solution. We aced it too. The guys is my group were from different backgrounds, but most had less then 200o0 hours and no experience on jets. That was comforting.

They told me that they would notify me of results a week later. In a meantime, i went back home. Great! more sleepless nights. Perhaps I could commiserate with Jeff on our career choices!..

Ferry pilot intern…

 

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I got back home October 2014. My parents thought that it was somewhat amusing that I started speaking with an American accent. I had no idea I was – never thought I could. But, hey, apparently I’ve acquired a Floridian twang now and somehow managed to move any subject of any conversation to aviation. I guess, it became somewhat annoying to everyone around me and I think they probably could not wait to get me out of the house and back on the road again. Fortunately, this was not an issue: my new employer, Global Air (good company, check them out here: http://www.air-ferry.com), send me a letter which i had to bring to the US consulate, petitioning for a business visa. This visa was going to allow me to enter the US as a contract pilot, as many times as i needed over the next 5 years, with an internet to ferry a US registered aircraft out of the US, citing delivery destination in Europe. So, I just got my business visa from the consulate and was ready to start working.

Now, crazy story about bestie, Jeff: that little rascal, somehow managed to get a job a couple of months before me right after completing his internship. He got a flight instructor position in…. wait for it…. China! Yes, China. Whaaaat? I don’t know how he got it, apparently one of his Chinese students really liked him and hooked it up with his uncle. There was only one place available for a foreigner, so I could not get in. But, purportedly, the money was good for a newbie: guaranteed monthly salary of $3500 and free accommodation, food. I was a bit jealous. What I was not jealous about, was that Jeff would have to fly single engine Diamond 40s for a year, and only then move on to twin Diamond. But hey, as i said in my previous post – if the opportunity is there – take it! That’s what Jeff did. I think I would have done exactly the same thing…

Anyways, back to my job now, if you don’t mind. Global Air did let me decompress for about six weeks, before I was asked via email to take a new C-208 Caravan from Wichita, KS (where it was manufactured) to a corporate buyer in Uganda. Some African safari operator. From what I understood, Global Air had pilots working “from home” if you like, and would normally be called to deliver aircraft from some location in the US, normally east coast, to some location in the region of their domicile. So, since I was based in Zimbabwe, they put me on the US-Uganda project. (For those of you who snoozed through their geography classes – both of these countries are located in Africa). Their coordinator, Gene, emailed me the aircraft specs, some insane flight route (I actually thought he was kidding when i saw it) and crew names. I was going to do this flight with another, more experienced ferry pilot, with thousands of hours and quite a few trans-Atlantic crossing behind his back. The aircraft and its commander were going to fly under IFR, so they could log IFR flight time. However, they needed a safety and a relief pilot for that. After all, it was a 50 hour flight. So, I was going to fly as co-pilot/safety pilot under VFR and log the time on this type as well. Now, C-208 is a turboprop plane. That’s a turbine time, just like jet: turbine category. Very valuable experience in the eyes of all airlines and charter operations. Plus, I was getting paid $40 per flight hour, all expenses paid. So, it was around $40x50h=2k. Hey, 2 thousand bucks for three days of work, plus an opportunity to fly this awesome beats of a machine – what’s wrong with that, I ask you?…

Global got me a pane ticket back to the US, to JFK this time. From there I flew to Wichita. Day one: La Quinta hotel. There I met up with my captain – Paul. We decided to go for a drink, immediately, and discuss how we both need up doing this – flying light acrobat across Atlantic. Paul’s story was different form mine. He was American, but could not obtain a full Class 1 medical due to the fact that he was colorblind. He could only fly during the day as a commercial pilot, under a special FAA medical waiver, but during night operations he needed a safety pilot. Yes, only in the US they would allow this sort of thing, but I do appreciate that the FAA is so open-minded. Some guys are just not lucky enough to have all he mineral to pass the medical, but the love for aviation does not die just because you cant see the right colors. Anyways, Paul was not destined for an airline job, considered flight instructing to be too boring and underpaid, so he was a professional ferry pilot, undertaking Global’s most Caravan repositioning. In a word, he was a pro in what he did. A truly committed individual. And I…. I was coming on for a ride!

We started early next day. Test flight first, then careful flight route re-planning, then checking all the fuel calculations, weight and balance, weather, winds aloft, frequencies, you name it. Each one of us had an additional hand held aviation radio, a special exposure suite made of rubber and an inch think foam to provide buoyancy and insulation in case we had to ditch in the middle of North Atlantic while flying our first leg from Goose Bay, Canada to Tasillak, Greenland, about 420 NM and two and a half hours long. We also had an ELT each! It was completely unnecessary, I thought – Caravan was extremely reliable. But, the main enemy over there would have been icing conditions. These could bring you down any time. So, it was good to have all this stuff on us – better safe then sorry, hey!

Guys and gals, I am not going to walk you through how we did this. It was and is a trade secret of my old employer, and I am not at liberty to talk about it in detail. Let’s just say that I visited many cool countries during this trip, bagged around 50 hours of turbine time. Ah, and made a couple of grand as well. This was going to be my life for the next year. And What a Life!..

 

Flight instructor intern…

12540889_784891901656267_439339494934376667_nSo, just over a year since i started my program with Aerocadet, I was flying my ass off every day, building the precious fight time. Yes, Sir! I had five students assigned to me: two from India, one from Israel, one from Vietnam and one from Saudi. Well, I am not going to get political here, but some were a bit difficult to work with. But, some very pretty great guys, we got alone well. The point is: this job was where you had to be completely professional, completely neutral, where you had to leave all your interracial and political prejudice behind and just be an Aviator. Nothing more, nothing less. Be a knight of the skies. Keep up the tradition that guys like us started in 1903. And, amazingly, most of us managed to do exactly that: Israelies were flying with Saudis, Vietnamese with Chinese, Indians with Pakistanis and so on and so forth. No drama.

And it helped. The F-1 visa terms allowed me to fly up to 80 hours per month. And I did just that: I did about an hour of flight with each of my five students. That’s about 5 hours per day, plus briefings and debriefings. I am not going to tell you what my months salary was – it’s just not ethnical, but let’s just say i had enough to pay for my share of the apartment and entertainment. Ah, forgot to mention: after 6 months of living on campus, academy allowed us to move out of our dorms and rent an apartment with the classmates. So, if you get alone with a few guys in your class, you can rent a place together. Of course, I pulled in with Jeff and two guys from UK. Jeff bought a 1993 Camaro for like $800 bucks. I got myself a scooter to run around in, from a student who was graduating and had to sell it cheap. Cheap it was – 150 bucks. It wasn’t much, but i cold get to around 75 km/h it it, it did like 30 km to a liter and, since Florida law did not required bike riders to have an insurance, I didn’t spend any money on that either. The apartment was $800 per month. 3 bedrooms. Fully furnished. utilities were another $200. So, $1000 total. We each paid $350 monthly. That was around a fourth of my salary. The rest, I’m not sad to say, went towards eating fast food and clubbing at Vero Beach’s finest. Hey, when you work hard – you play hard!

Time flew fast. I flew slow (the slower you fly – the faster you build flight time!). My hours were getting where I wanted them: by the time I finished my internship, I had around 1550 hours of total flight time, of which around 230 hours multi-engine BE76, 600 cross-country, the rest were in a PA28 and C172, flying around the airport.

It was time for the next stage of my life. It was time to “run with the big dogs” and “swim with the big sharks”. it was time to start ferrying aircraft across the Atlantic!

Becoming a pilot…

12494869_789188477893276_870069353650157424_nWell, first of all, let me bore you with some tedious details about how the flight training in the US is organized. You see, there are two way to get your pilot licenses in the US: the so called “Part 61” and the so called “Part 141”. Part 61 is something that any independent certified flight instructor can follow with any student: instructors have an ability to train students according to any program that they can possibly fathom (this is limited by their imagination and teaching abilities), then the instructor signs off a student to take a check ride with the FAA DRE (designated regional examiner), who is normally a gentlemen of declining years, a ex airline pilot of some sort, who was designated by the regional FAA office to be a private citizen examiner (I don’t know how else to call it) and decide whether a certain individual can or can not pass a certain flight test, called a “check-ride”. You, see, the DRE does not work for the FAA directly, he is an independent entity too, just like an instructor and s student, flying and teaching and learning under this amazing “Part 61” clause. Sounds pretty sweet, hey? Well, yes, it does. But we, the foreigners, just can not use it. Foreign students can only study in special flight academies that have an approved by the FAA curriculum, and, in turn, they get approved by the US Department of State to send visa support paperwork for either M-1 or F-1 visas (non-academic pilot training and academic pilot training. I know this is also confusing, but I’ll get back to that later). So, now, since we do need a visa to train in the US, we can only train with the big flight schools and colleges. But, they utilize a different system: “Part 141”. So, what the heck is the difference, you might ask? Here it is: Part 141 is a structured and integrated program, where flight instructors are teaching according to a specifically approved curriculum. No deviations from such curriculum are allowed. There are stage-checks, cross-checks then pre check-ride checks and, finally, check-rides. The benefits of this 141 option are as following: students can become certified pilots faster, flying less time then Part 61 students (for example, a full CPL takes only 200 hours under part 141, instead of 250 under part 61); each 141 academy has it’s own designated FAA examiner – this could help with passing check-rides more efficiently; airlines prefer candidates who underwent integrated and FAA approved curriculum, rather then drew a “wild card” and flew with some independent instructor, who may or may not be completely mad. (Being fair, there are lots of very good and highly experienced independent instructors out there, I really wish we had an option of just coming to the US on a tourist visa and doing part 61. But! It’s not allowed.)

So, I don’t know if any of that made any sense to you. If not, look through the Wiki entries about flight training in the US, you might figure it out, eventually. Fear not – it took me months to grasp the concept of this messy system. I would not blame you if it took you just as long!

The point is, I started flight training under part 141. My instructor was from Texas. Big Al, everyone called him. Nice guy, very big, very patient, I think we hit it off quote well. Funny thing: he spent 4 years studying aviation in one of Florida’s most expensive aeronautical universities in Daytona Beach (not going to mention it’s name) and was over 170k in debt! Crazy, hey?.. He did not forget to mention on daily basis, that he wished he did his training at the same place as I am doing mine now – it would have been the same, but three times cheaper. Frankly, I don’t know why Americans do this: go to these big private schools, spend hundreds of thousands there, then get a piece of paper that no one care about. What was the last time you saw “Must have an aviation degree” in the airline job posts? I did a lot of research, and never seen such a thing. I know that my Dad would rather cut his right hand off and beat himself silly with it, then let me spent 170k on flight training, that should cost around 65k. Hey, life is full of contrasts!

Anyways, first flight: AWESOME! Took about an hour. Piper PA28 warrior. Almost new. We both took off. Al let me hold my hand on controls while he was was doing the takeoff roll and rotated, then just gave me controls at 1000 feet, talking me through how to manipulate the yoke, rudder, trim and throttle. We flew around a bit at 3000 feet, showed the airport area, the beach (ah, forgot to mention – the school is located about 2 miles from the beach) and all the hotties that were sunbathing on it. I think we buzzed them at around 1500 feet and flew back for landing. I was over the top – could not believe how much fun it was to fly these plucky little planes. I had controls most of the time, even during the landing. Well, I didn’t land the plane myself, obviously, but Al let me hold the controls on landing, letting me feel how he moved them. A good learning experience!

And so it went on. My daily schedule was as follows: I attended aviation theory classes 3-4 hours per day. Then I flew 1-2 hours per day, depending on type of flight. Each flight sortie takes about 30-40 minutes to brief in the classroom and then another 30 minutes to debrief. Then I had to go back to my room, digest the information, memorize the memory items, and regurgitate it all back up the next morning in the class. Flying started early – at 6 am. It was good that way – less heat. Then classes in the afternoon in, thanks God, air conditioned classrooms. The lunch, then more classes. Then group study at the library. Then a pool session with 50 laps to keep my tone up. Then another self-guided study sessions. Then a couple of beers with Jeff and my dorm mates. Then sleep. Then get up and repeat. Really builds your character!..

Three months into my being at the academy, I had my PPL. Two months later – Instrument Rating. Two more months – I got CPL. By the 11th month I finished my CFI license and started working as flight instructor.

[continued]

 

Arriving in Florida…

12548977_789187297893394_928750912951199402_nF-1 visa is a US student visa, which is issued to all academic students who come to the US. Since Aerocadet has placed me with a real aeronautical college to do my flight training, I was technically allowed to work on their premises, as soon as I was enrolled full time in the academic studies. I guess, according to the US immigration law, such students as I were also allowed to work for up to 18 months after the completion of my program.

Anyhow, to begin my studies, I arrived in Florida’s Orlando International airport (code: MCO), went through the immigration and customs (just a few questions, like “How long are you planning to study here?” and, again; “So, why do you want to be a pilot?” It’s either they were checking that I spoke some English, which I did, since it’s my native tongue! – or they simply could not fathom, why would anyone want to be a pilot!) and called the academy directly. They knew that I was coming over, and had a van awaiting for me on the lower level, Ground Transportation. Driver had my name on his iPad – I said “hello” and off we went. About an hour and a half later, I was brought to the reception building and quickly shown around by the receptionist. She was clearly busy with the other stuff,  so a Spanish-speaking housekeeper took me to my room at the campus dorm. The campus dorms are basically small apartment buildings that have several rooms in them, two or three, and there are two pilots living in each room. Fairly basic, really spartan, but also quite standard for the American colleges. I did some research – most flight schools, colleges and even national level universities house students in the similar campus accommodation. So, surprised I was not. It was fairly nice: a TV set, a few couches and chairs, table for studies, a full kitchen, fridge, etc. Air con was on and breezy. Not bad!

The next day, one of the administrators took me and a bunch of my classmates to get my finger prints for the AFSP security clearance (we went to a local police station to get this done, took about an hour). Then she took us to a local flight medical office. Now, that was funny! Doc gave me a short form to fill out, where they ask about disqualifying conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, etc. I don’t have any – so I marked them all “no”. Then he asked me to piss into a cup and place it on the table. His assistant stuck a paper indicator in it – showed up okay. Then I got my eyesight tested. I, actually, wear contacts. My contacts were in, and i told him – he didn’t care. Corrected to 20/20, glass, contacts, laser – did not matter. Then he listened to my hart and lungs, told me to open my mouth and say “aaaah”. Then he told me that I passed and to stay safe and to fly good and to not suck bad. There! From the point this exam was started, to the point it was finished – it took exactly 13 minutes. Amazing!

A was hanging out for a couple of days with Jeff (he arrived there two months before me) – finding my bearings and getting acquainted with the fellow students. Jeff already started flying and was very close to his solo. They kept him busy – apparently, the flight students end up studying all the time. A lot of information to understand and memorize, this took 5-6 hours daily. Then, they spent 2-4 hours on the flight line. So, my old bud Jeff was not much of a help… Anyways, I could totally understand this – I would be in the same boat in just a couple of days.

Everyone, all the students, were wearing different epaulettes. Some had one, some two, some three and some four bars. I later was told that they stood for PPL students, CPL students, flight instructor students and the actual flight instructors. White pilot shirts, silver wings, black pants – everyone who was attending classes or flying were uniformed. I understood that during those hot summer Florida days (for a guy who spent his life in Zimbabwe – it was not an issue, but some guys there came from Russia and Norway and Denmark – they probably suffered like hell in a 33C heat!) a tie was, thanks God, optional!

The next day i had orientation. Basically, got to meet everyone in my class, around 25 guys and a couple of girls. They showed us around the campus, administrative offices, amenities, like the swimming pool and cafeteria. I even got my personal mail box set up. I was all ready to go, get up there, get up there and fly!

Getting in…

visa_resizedGetting in was surprisingly easy.

Honestly, I was not exactly a straight A student in my grammar school, so i was nervous when Aerocadet guys asked me to send them my certificate of secondary education. I just finished my O-levels and the results were a bit… shite… Anyways, I did what they asked me to: sent them my transcripts and passport. The next morning, the good news waltzed in: my stuff was good enough! I could not believe my eyes – I was accepted. I was going to Florida, with my bestie – Jeff, i was going to be a pilot, I was going to conquer the skies and be all I would be! Yes!

Formalities followed. The Aerocadet guys wanted me to sign a contract first, which contained information about my training and internship options. They sent me a five page document via email, I printed it out and gave it to my parents. The conditions called for a 5% deposit (the program was around 55k, so deposit was around $2500) and then an administrative fee of $500. Then, the advanced internship with Global Air was another $1750, if i wanted a guaranteed slot. Frankly, I was a little concerned: I didn’t know much about this company. I asked them for the proof of registration and legal status, they sent me a link to Florida corporate registry. Aerocadet, apparentyl, was their trademark name. The actual name was Raich Aerospace Group LLC. They used Aerocadet to market their programs and for the ease of use. I get it.Raich Aerospace Group isn’t exactly easy to remmeber! So, they had a good record. Well, not good, but not bad either- just a record that they were a real business entity. Then I emailed Aviator College (the flight training provider) and Global Air (the internship provider) to verify that Aerocadet was affiliated with them. Both came back positive. I even checked out their Facebook page (I went to their main website http://www.aerocadet.com and just followed social media links) – they had around ten thousand members! All good reviews. Having been satisfied with as much research as one could have possibly done, and knowing that Jeff already got his visa from using the same guys as I am about to, I signed the contract and my Dad paid the deposit. I was on the way…

A day later I got an email from Aerocadet, stating that my documents were sent for verification by another company, called J.Silny & Co. Apparently, colleges in the US were flooded with a lot of bullshit enrollment applications and transcripts. They all needed to be verified to ensure authenticity. Verification took about 2 weeks. I think they contacted my school and asked to confirm that i studies there. They did. All came back positive and Aviator emailed me  notification that I was going to get my special visa support form, called “I-20” via FedEx.

A week later I got it. The form was basically a single piece of paper where flight training provider acknowledged me as their student and stated that I has sufficient knowledge of English, and would need to demonstrate to the consulate that I had enough money to pay for the training, as well as living expenses. The amount was around $65k. Good news – my Dad had it. I called the US consulate in Harare to make an appointment. Flew there the next week. Waited in line for two hours. Interviewed for five minutes. Simple questions: “Why do you want to be a pilot? Who is paying for your training? What are you planing to do after you finish? Where do you want to work?” I showed the officer lady proof of my funds, a contract from Aerocadet, which guaranteed employment with Global Air based in South Africa, then airline placement program in Asia. I think these guys just wanted to see that I, as a foreign subject, would be out of their hair once I was done – no desire for illegal work in the US, and a good intent to leave. Thankfully, the contract demonstrated all of the above: why would I stay in the US, if I already had a job lined up abroad already?..

A week later I had my F-1 US student visa!..

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The program…

12494825_789350041210453_3079574792900809285_nWell, after back and forth with Aerocadet, and nice guys (and, fair dues to be given – very patient with me, answering about a million stupid questions I asked them) that were consulting me on what to do and how to do it (among them, Rob, Russell, Jessica – all active commercial pilots and flight instructors) I started to see things a little clearer: the program they were offering me was comprised of four parts.

Part one: commercial flight training. The system was as follows: you came to Florida, you started training hard, then continued training hard, then finished… training hard! The whole thing was supposed to take me eight to ten months, then I would be a commercial pilot, certified under the FAA.

Part two: flight instructor training. This was supposed to take me from CPL to CFI – certified flight instructor license in a couple of months. Then, I would be able to teach others how to fly. Incredible, no? From not knowing how to fly at all, to a commercial pilot in just 8 months, then to the actual instructor qualification just a couple of months later. Was that even possible?! Apparently, Yes. And most pilots did exactly that.

Part three: flight instructor internship. How did this work: the flight training academy I was supposed to be getting my license at, needed instructors. So, to save time and money on the recruitment process, they were simply hiring their own graduates to work as CFIs and teach the new guys how to fly. They would offer me position to be a CFI and fly up to 1500 hours. Crazy! But, an opportunity is an opportunity. In my experience, when an opportunity is staring in your face – grab it and don’t let it go!

Part four: commercial pilot internship. This was another cool way to continue building my flight time and experience – work as a ferry pilot for another company Aerocadet had connection with – Global Air. These guys basically had contracts with several airplane brokers in the US who were selling planes to private and corporate customers in Europe, Asia, etc. The sold planes needed to be delivered to customers and pilots had to do the deliveries. Planes ranged from small piston singles to two engine turboprops. This was a great way for me to get some serious international cross-country flying, apparently a much required pilots time from one airport to another, and get experience flying multi-engine and turbine airplanes.

Part five: airline employment placement. Ah, finally! I liked part five more then all the other parts. I would finally fly up there, in the stratosphere, the “heavy metal” birds like Boeings and Airbuses. Uff, what a dream! Anyways, back to Earth. This part work as following: Aerocadet was going to place me in a “pilot pool” and send me information about relevant to my resume employment opportunities with various airlines. Africa, Asia, Middle East – they had some sort of connections with many. I always wanted to work for either South African airlines or Cathay Pacific or Emirates. Passage of the interviews was up to me, they could not help me with that. But they were going to provide the necessary study materials for each interview, great reference letters from the employers (Aviator – the flight training base, and Global Air – the ferry pilot internship company) and get me whatever support I needed to have higher chances of getting in, then the other applicants. Sounds fair.

The next week I was asking for money from my Dad. The progam cost was outlined to be around 55 thousand US dollars. Then some other fees for the FAA, TSA, AFSP, bla bla bla – there are a million government organizations in the US that want your money for the pleasure of coming there. On one hand – it’s outrageous, because, all together, they add a hefty 5k to your basic training cost. On another hand, I kind of understand it: immigration fees are low, but most goes towards FAA flight examiners, who charge like $500 per exam, TSA/FBI security clearances, which are required for all international pilots who fly in the US, and they cost around $150 per airplane type. So, all and all – examiners’s wages and national security. That’s where my “government fees” money was going to go to. I figured, well, again, fair dues. It would become not just “their” security, but mine as all for the time being. I was packing for the US for two-and-something years…

 

 

How it all began…

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I am from Rhodisia, originally.

Well, in March 2012, my best friend Jeff came up and said “Listen, Danny, I am leaving this place and going to Florida to get my pilot license. So, I would love for you to come with me, it would be fun flying together, doing this thing as a team. But, whatever you decide – I AM doing this. Believe me – I am going to do this!”

Hey, Jeff and I wanted to be pilots since we were 6, growing up together in Beitbridge, the newly established republic of Zimbabwe. Jeff, in his early twenties, having done every single farm hand job possible, decided that enough was enough – he wasn’t getting any younger and the dream of ruling the skies at forty thousand feet – it was not getting any less intense. “You must do it. You must do it”, the dream kept nagging. Jeff surrendered. Understandably!

I have to say, I felt a little betrayed. Jeff was way too secretive about his preparations to go to the US, a lot more secretive then a close friend should be. “Wait, what?!” I said, “You are going when?!?”  I could not believe it! We were supposed to be planning this together, researching the options, taking notes, debating on pros and cons, talking to our parents about financing this crazy dream. And now, he already did all that behind my back?! What a great friend, hey. Jeff, however, did not see it my way. Apparently, he asked me a few times before if I seriously wanted to look at our flight training options, told me that he was researching his, but I just kept on deferring the time we could get together and do this. With time, apparently, he simply grew tired of my breezy attitude toward our joint dream of becoming aviators and decided that I simply wasn’t serious. So, he did his own research (probably, very much like you are doing right now, my fellow reader!) secured the “Big Yes” from his Dad and got his US student visa through last week. He didn’t want to tell me what he was planning until he finally got his visa – he didn’t want to” jinx it”! What a nut job. Unbelievable! Now, he was committed to start in June 2012. Just a little more then two months from the time the whole drama took place. My mind was blown away. I needed to get off my ass and do the same!

So, I pressed. And, as a good friend would – Jeff spilled the beans. He signed a contract with some aviation career development agency in Florida, called “Aerocadet”. This company was providing initial consulting, flight training and internship services to guys like Jeff, who simply didn’t know where to begin and where to start and what the heck to do to get up there and fly. Jeff called them, spoke to some guy who already was an airline pilot of some sort, and got a few solid ideas to ponder. The gist of the conversation was, that pilots needed two things to become, as he put it, “airline employable”: the pilot license and the experience. Commercial pilot license was a legal provision – you needed it to fly legally. Experience was employer’s requirement – no airline captain wanted a brand new and inexperienced pilot in their cockpit. They wanted experienced guys, who knew a thing or two about flying. Not overly experience – being overqualified was not good either. But, some experience was a must. A few hundred hours, perhaps. Maybe a thousand plus. But, where to get them?..

Anyways, the very next day I was on the horn with Aerocadet consultant, some guy called Rob, who said that he was an active duty captain with another outfit in the US called “Global Air” and that he also worked as a consultant for Aerocadet, which was a company owned and run by Raich Aerospace Group. (Why so complicated – I don’t know. But, whatever.) The company dealt with international students who wanted to do flight training and who needed employment right after getting their pilot licenses. Here is the deal, as per Rob: a pilot finishes flight training and gets his CPL license, having flown only 200-250 hours in the US. This is nowhere near enough, if he wants to become an airline pilot. Airline pilots are normally hired with over 1500 flying hours behind their belts and preferably with good references from previous employers. Pilots can “build” their initial flight hours by either working as flight instructors or small charter captains, or even charter first officers. Once a pilot achieves 1500 hours, he can get an ATP license (airline transport pilot) in the US and start applying for airline employment anywhere where they (airlines) were hiring: Africa, Middle East, Asia, Europe, US – wherever. Why 1500 hours? Apparently, United States Federal Aviation Administration (or, simply, the FAA) needs  pilots to have at least 1500 hours in order to become eligible for the ATP. And, only applications from pilots with the ATP  would be taken seriously by the airlines. Of course, many factors depended on my nationality. Being Zimbabwean, but not willing to work in Zimbabwe (reasons I am not going to explore here) my options were: South Africa, Asia and Middle East. I was interested in all of them. Why not. Let’s just see how crazy things are going to get…

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