Captain Ken Pascoe is one of V-Australia’s most senior pilots. With more than two decades of experience captaining a range of aircraft, including the huge Boeing 777 wide-body jet, there is little he doesn’t know about the sharp end of flying. Captain Pascoe let science writer PETER SPINKS have a crack at flying a state-of-the-art 777 simulator, and then filled him in on the prospects for prospective pilots.
That was great. I can hardly wait to get my hands on the joystick again. Let’s talk first about you, Ken. Does aviation fly, so to speak, in the family?
My father was a pilot when I was growing up, as well as a fireman and army reservist commando. He worked for IPEC, the freight company, and ran a flying school at Essendon Airport. Many of my earliest memories were of sitting in light aircraft watching him teach others to fly. We would jump in an aircraft early on a Saturday morning at Essendon, head out to Coldstream Airport – on a farm – and he would instruct all day. Sometimes, I’d sit in the back, sometimes chase cows on the farm. We’d sleep in a tent on Saturday night and he’d instruct all day Sunday before returning the aircraft to Essendon for the week. I grew up with that life, as well as hanging around the flying school he and my mother ran at Essendon Airport. So my earliest ambitions revolved around flying.
Once you were set on becoming a pilot – which didn’t seem to require much deciding – what training did you complete?
I gained my student licence at 16 and completed my private licence part-time over about a year. I was in year 11/12 at the time, and flying took second place to my studies. I was also very interested in computers, and elected to go to RMIT to study computer science. During university, I completed my commercial and senior commercial (airline) theory courses. Then I went full-time to complete my commercial pilot’s licence, instrument rating, instructor rating, multi-engine instructor training approval, instrument rating instructor training approval, target towing approval, target towing training approval, as well as a range of multi-engine aircraft endorsements.
What sorts of skills did you acquire while studying for the private licence?
Your private licence is in two parts. The first teaches you the basics of flight: straight and level, turning, climbing and descending, and so on, working up to circuits, with take-off, circling, landing, touch and go, as well as steep turns, stalling. You go solo pretty quickly – usually after about 10 hours – and have a restricted private licence by about 30 hours. Your full private licence comes when you add navigation skills, as well as the skills associated with going to new airports, and about another 30 hours flying. A commercial licence adds retractable landing gear, constant speed propeller -rather than a fixed-angle propeller – basic instrument and other skills, and comes at about 200 hours of flight experience. An instrument rating teaches you more advanced instrument skills where you cannot see the ground from just after take-off until just before landing. It includes instrument approaches, and takes about 50 hours of flight training. An instructor rating brings learning theory and practical teaching skills, and takes about 50 hours of flight training.
And what about an airline licence?
An airline licence essentially comes with sufficient flight experience – about 1800 hours – as well as an instrument rating on a larger aircraft. Each additional light aircraft endorsement can take from two to five hours, depending on the complexity, and you need 10 hours on the aircraft before you can fly it as a professional for hire and reward. Larger aircraft take longer.
What about a 777?
If you have sufficient jet experience, a 777 endorsement is about two weeks of ground-school training, 60 hours of simulator training, 50 to 100 hours of actual flight to become qualified.
What did you do after training as a commercial pilot?
I flew single-engine aircraft for the Victorian Lands department. It involved flying all over Victoria taking pictures for the Government. Then I graduated to twin-engine aircraft, taking more photos from a Cessna 320, working for the Navy doing aerial radar tracking in a Beechcraft Duchess and towing targets in a Piper Navajo. I did charter work all over Victoria and south-eastern Australia. At various times, I’ve flown Kylie Minogue, Mark Mitchel, as Con the fruiterer, Joan Kirner and Jeff Kennett – as well as several MPs and opposition members – to numerous small airfields and mown paddocks all over Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania. I completed an instructor rating and started teaching others to fly, then added instrument and multi-engine training skills to my instructor rating. At that stage of your aviation career, you find whatever work you can to increase your flight hours in order to make yourself attractive to your first major airline. This is where you career break comes.
At what stage did you begin to fly?
My father taught me when I was six or so. At that time, I could take-off, land, climb, descend and turn – all the basic skills. As I recall, I was not so fond of steep turns or stalling at that point … I completed my private licence when I was 17, commercial at 19, airline licence at 21.
Did you need the theory before you got the green light to push back and start up?
You can begin your flying without any theory. However, the private licence used to include four theory subjects, the biggest of which used to be called basic aeronautical knowledge. This subject needed to be completed before you could go solo. The other three were required for a private licence.
What sort of aircraft did you fly at first?
I learned to fly in Cessna 172s. They have four seats, a single engine, fixed landing gear and propeller. The aircraft I went solo in was VH-MKQ (pictured below).
Was your first time at the controls a nerve-wracking experience?
There’s a lot of physical sensation to get used to. Human beings are, at best, designed to move in one direction at a time under their own steam at about 4 to 8 km/h. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution are all aimed at this basic aspect of our nature. So movement in three dimensions doesn’t come naturally. Still, we are nothing if not adaptable, and you pretty quickly gain a “stomach” for flight – or stop doing it. Nervous, yes; frightened, a little. Learning from your father has some inherent advantages. There’s a big trust component there. Learning young has some advantages as well. I would encourage anyone to head down to an airport and pay to have a very basic initial flight lesson in a light aircraft. Even if you never learn to fly, it’s an experience worth having in its own right.
What does your job entail now?
After 15 years’ overseas flying for two major airlines, I’m now a Boeing 777-300ER check and training captain for V-Australia. I commenced with the company in May 2008, about eight months before we took on our first aircraft. I spent those months with several other check captains, overseeing the flight training of many pilots, establishing the standard operating procedures of the training and flying – and generally helping to work through the challenges of starting a new airline. Now that I’m a check and training captain, I teach and test in both the simulator and the aircraft. In the simulator, this means sitting in the instructor’s chair watching two pilots at the controls, introducing failures and circumstances that allow them to learn the aircraft and the operation through experience. The safety net is that mistakes in the simulator are very much learning opportunities that can be allowed to develop to any conclusion. In the aircraft proper, learning opportunities are more proscribed; the pilots are qualified and they learn from the normal operation of the aircraft, rather than the non-normal. I still develop training material for the instructors and pilots as the need arises. There are often questions that arise where my input as someone experienced on the 777 in international operations can be useful. I answer a lot of emails. I also co-run a website (www.virginetics.com), which we’ve developed as a social networking facility for V pilots and cabin crew. It includes discussion forums where I answer questions relating to the aircraft and the operation. Being one of the first pilots in the airline, I had the honour of picking up the aircraft from Boeing Field in Seattle, flying it to Los Angeles, and then on to Sydney. I was also the captain of the four pilots and 14-strong cabin crew on the airline’s first inaugural flight for the Sydney-Los Angeles service (pictured taking off below).
What skills does it take to fly an aircraft?
Basic hand-eye co-ordination and motor skills are important. A few people don’t have these skills to become good pilots. There’s a certain lack of timidity required as well. If you’re nervous when you first learn to fly – no problemo, any smart human being should be nervous when they first get an aeroplane! But if that continues, you need to take a look and decide if flying is for you. You don’t necessarily need high intellectual ability – but a certain interest in self-improvement is important in a good pilot. In the end, the best pilots are the ones who really want to be pilots – those who bring genuine desire to the job. For the most part, learning to fly, gaining your hours, and working your way up through an airline is a hard slog and not particularly financially rewarding. If you don’t enjoy the ride, the destination won’t make up for it. To really stick with it, a good pilot needs the desire to make the life journey.
Does a student wanting to become a pilot need to be especially good at subjects such as mathematics and physics?
The better your pre-knowledge of maths and physics, the easier you will find the study. But more important is having the ability – and the desire – to learn new things. When I was learning to fly, the suggested requirement was for year-12 maths and physics. When times are tight, and many are looking for jobs, airlines have the luxury of choosing pilots with tertiary qualifications. But in the end, the most important aspect of being a good pilot is the desire to improve.
How does a commercial pilot usually progress?
Once you have your commercial licence, you have about 200 hours and are perhaps 1000-2000 hours from an airline job. You’re looking for work, which usually means either spending more on an instructor rating, so you can teach others, or searching Australia for work as a commercial pilot – involving charter, freight and other kinds of paid aerial work. Salaries are low, hours are long, but the flying is usually fun.
It sounds like fun. And I certainly enjoyed my simulator session: taxiing, taking off, cruising and landing, the last time without any assistance from an instrument landing system. But what about seasoned pilots – do they regularly undergo training, even after flying for years?
As an airline pilot, I re-enter the simulator every six months for one training session, and one test session. I’m also evaluated at least yearly during a line flight by a check captain sitting behind the two pilot seats. As a first officer, I would be working my way towards a captain’s position. An upgrade to captain is perhaps the most challenging training experience any pilot undertakes. Months of preparation and years of experience are either rewarded or lost during the three months of command training.
Having just flown in your new B777-300ER simulator, I can vouch for its high-fidelity. I know what it’s like sitting up front on the flight deck of a real Boeing 747-400, which a few pilots have let me do in the past. And it felt pretty much like this. Is this simulator as good as it gets?
Millions of dollars have been spent to produce a flight deck that simulates the real aircraft as closely as possible. Apart from looking out of real windows, and hearing realistic sounds, the simulator moves and fools the human vestibular system into believing you really are 10,000 metres above the ground, instead of just 10 metres. As you did just now, you can taxi around the airport and “feel” the nose-wheel bump over the lights on the taxi way. Warning lights and sounds are all completely authentic and the simulator instructor has a suite of failure scenarios that can be thrown at the two pilots – one at a time or all at once. It’s the next best thing to flying the real aircraft – in fact better, because there are many failures we train in the simulator that you couldn’t do safely in the aircraft.
What salary might a pilot expect to earn?
A new pilot doing very basic charter work somewhere in outback Australia would be earning in the low tens of thousands. Several years later, that same pilot might be training other pilots in small airlines – such as those operated by REX Regional Express or Qantas Link – and as a senior pilot could be earning up to $150,000. Years later, those same pilots could be in a 747 jumbo jet or working for a large airline as what V-Australia calls a cruise relief pilot, earning something like $50,000. Then, after a year or two, promotion to first officer would bring a salary of something like $120,000. Years later, when successfully completing a command, the salary will be in the region of $180,000. Different airlines pay differing amounts. Overseas airlines that use foreign pilots – such as Emirates, Singapore or Cathay Pacific – tend to pay significantly more and offer better all round packages, including housing, education and medical benefits, because they recognise that a premium is required to entice pilots away from their home countries.
Is there a set retirement age for pilots?
Some airlines mandate a 55-year retirement age but, until recently, for most airlines it was 60. However, the authorities have recognised that, while some pilots at 60 are at the end of their careers, some are well able to operate into their 60s. This brought about a move to a retirement age of 65. To go past 60, there are restrictions on the age of the pilot that you can fly with, and more stringent medicals are involved.
Having been your student for the last hour or so, it seems you really enjoy the business of teaching take-offs, landings – the whole caboodle. Do you feel that even you, sometimes, learn from students?
As an instructor, the day I stop learning from my students in the simulator is the day I give up training.
Below is the audio interview taken from inside the 777 simulator.