Last week we introduced you to one of our best-loved pilots, Captain Geoff Andreasen, who is retiring from Virgin Atlantic after 23 years. In part one of our interview we looked at Geoff's early flying career and the golden moments he'll always remember, including flying in formation with the Red Arrows.
In part two we take a look at some of the other things our pilots get involved with behind the scenes, and find out exactly what it takes to fly a plane.
All in a day's work
There can often be more to a pilot's role than safely delivering our passengers from A to B. Our most senior pilots are sometimes required to operate all kinds of test flights and acceptance flights, and Geoff – as a management pilot – has been no exception to this. So what does it all involve and what exactly happens during these kind of flights?
"It really involves my role as both a training captain as well as a management captain," says Geoff. "And as such I've had a lot to do with the manufacturers of the aircraft, as well as the regulators – the Civil Aviation Authority and the Federal Aviation Authority. When we've collected new aeroplanes from the factories – new 747s in my particular case – they all have to be test flown and receive customer acceptance flights."
"We have to fly completely non-standard manoeuvres; the sort of thing you'd never do with passengers on board – shutting engines down and seeing how they perform with three out of the four engines, or sometimes two out of the four engines, that kind of thing. There's only ever a test crew on board, that's all that's permitted. Being able to do these sorts of flights has been a tremendous add-on to my career."
As part of our commitment to finding a sustainable alternative to traditional jet fuel, in 2008 we became the first airline in the world to operate a commercial airliner on a blend of biofuel, derived from a mixture of coconuts and Brazilian babassu nuts. And it was Captain Andreasen who operated the flight, taking a Boeing 747 from London to Amsterdam using a 20% biofuel / 80% kerosene mix in one of its four engines. "The biofuel flight was something we set up to demonstrate how there were green alternatives in the future to normal jet paraffin aviation fuel," says Geoff. "And it took some arranging – not by myself particularly – but by the engineering department, to persuade the authorities to allow us to use this vegetable fuel in one of the tanks. It was a simple, short flight but nevertheless it was interesting to think that your one engine and one tank were pretty much full of cooking oil!"
So what exactly does it take to become a pilot today? Geoff appreciates how much things have changed since the early days of his flying career, but remains enthusiastic about piloting as a vocation.
"Piloting's still a great profession. It's still a very popular profession, and actually as aircraft fleets increase worldwide, there are more and more opportunities for young pilots. But getting in isn't easy. You've got to be in the fortunate position of being able to afford to put yourself through a full residential course at a flying school, which is very expensive – you can get loans, people mortgage their houses, parents mortgage their houses to do it for their kids and so on. So this is probably the quickest and most efficient way, but it's also the most expensive way.
"The other way might be to persuade an airline to sponsor you – I was lucky enough to go down that route, but that's few and far between now. It's very, very difficult in this day and age.
"The alternative ways – there are two, really – are to either do it very gradually, and just take several years to build up your hours requirements bit by bit, or to join the military. With the latter you would have a military career to get through first, then at the end of it get your civil licences, and then start the long slog of trying to get a job in an airline. It's not an easy route. But once you're successful it's very, very rewarding."
But aside from the months and years of intensive training and dedication, a potential candidate's personal qualities and people skills play a hugely significant role in the day to day life of a succesful pilot. "First and foremost – and I appreciate this is a hackneyed phrase – but you do really need to be a team player," says Geoff. "You've got to be able to get on with the rest of your crew: that means on the flight deck and also in the cabin. And to have flexibility and an understanding of your fellow humans is terribly, terribly important, especially when you're leading the team as a captain.
"On a more general note, I think if you're a fairly fit person, if you're active, if you have an agile mind, and a great interest in the outside world and what you're doing down-route as well as on the aeroplane – that's most important. But more than anything, you should derive a huge sense of satisfaction from what you're doing. Because if you're bored by the job, it's not worth starting. Passengers do say to us 'You've been sitting up there for ten hours, don't you get bored?' And the answer is you don't get bored, but it does become routine – and you've just got to keep your wits about you because routine can lead to complacency and you can never afford to be complacent.
"A pilot's mind may wander, for sure, but really there's so much to do on board, even when you're sitting there for all those hours. There are flight logs to write, radio calls to make and so on, so you're really kept active the whole time. If your mind does start wandering it's probably a good thing – it would be awful if you had to focus on exactly what you were doing for 12 hours; in fact it would be impossible really.
"But most pilots, if not all pilots, really enjoy their jobs and look forward to going to work and as a result they work well. At the end of a flight, it's very nice to land in a city like San Francisco and look back at a map and think 'I've managed to get this plane – this aluminium tube of 400 people – safely from one side of the world to the other', and as a pilot you should be able to draw an enormous amount of satisfaction from that; it's really the best thing about the job."
Over but not out
But just like every Virgin Atlantic flight, all good things must come to an end. Though we're sad to be saying farewell to Geoff, we're grateful for his decades of service and happy to hear that future generations of pilots may be reaping the rewards of his wisdom for a little while longer yet.
"I completed my final commercial flight, which was a wonderful four-night trip to Cancun," says Geoff. "The company laid on a wonderful dinner party for myself and the crew and our various hangers-on; wives, husbands, partners and family and so on – all great fun. Although I was apprehensive about it being my last flight, I was pleased to get it over with because I can now say in a lifetime of flying I've never once scratched an aeroplane!
"Since then I've been working in the office handing over to my successor, and when I've left the company I'll possibly continue to keep my hand in with a little simulator training because I still have an abiding interest in aviation, and in training. And I'll start to do some light aircraft club flying, because I do just really enjoy it still."
Good luck Geoff! We will all miss you.
Have you got what it takes to fly for us? We are now recruiting Boeing 747-400 rated pilots – visit our dedicated careers portal for more information or simply find out more about life at Virgin Atlantic.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.