Lecturer, Earth Scientist
Job Title: First Officer, Pilot
Company: Express Freighters Australia (Qantas Freight)
Pronouns: She / Her / Hers / Herself
Quiz Results: Regulating, Providing a Service (Researching, Educating, Developing Policy)
I knew that I wanted to go straight into the air force once I finished high school. I studied a bachelor of technology in aeronautical engineering at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA), and then went on to train as a pilot. I worked as a pilot in the air force for about six years or so. When I had my children, I went back and did some training as an instrument flight procedure designer (which was more of a 9-5 job) and spent roughly five years doing that while they grew up. I've since gone back to flying, but this time in a commercial airline.
In high school, I absolutely loved maths, with physics a close second. I found them pretty easy, but when you get into the hard stuff-it's always hard. University was more challenging, engineering was a really heavy workload. It was more enjoyable and got a bit easier as the years went on. The first year of engineering felt like year 12 on steroids. It was a lot of work, with no real reward, in the sense that we weren't talking about aeroplanes yet. It was a lot of hardcore maths, metallurgy, mechanics of solids, fluid dynamics, but no aeroplanes yet. I think when I first started my degree, I thought that we would start getting into the nuts and bolts of how aeroplanes work straight away. But you don't actually get to that until around third or fourth year, when you've got the basics covered. Once I started applying that theory to the application of aeroplanes at the tail end of the degree, it got much easier to maintain my interest and drive. Studying aeronautical engineering is definitely not the path that you need to take to become a pilot, but it has served me well. At certain times early on in my flying training, I had in the back of my head that if everything fell through with learning to fly, I had a useful degree backing me up.
Growing up, I think I was highly influenced by my dad. He's a very motivational person and he studied engineering early on in his career. We used to talk about how things worked all the time at home. Both my parents are pilots, but it was my dad who first taught me to fly. He sent me up for my first ever solo flight in one of his aeroplanes. I remember being afraid, not so much about my own safety, I was more worried about stuffing up and breaking his aeroplane! Because it is dynamic, flying can push your limits a little bit and make you go: ‘Oh that was a bit uncomfortable, I might do that differently next time.' There are moments of stress, certainly, and a heightened awareness of your surroundings. But I've always done my best work under pressure, it's a good sense of achievement.
My spare time is a little bit minimal now with two small children and a job where I work night shifts and travel. Outside of work, I'm very active-I like to exercise. I like running and water skiing. At the same time, I do just enjoy getting together with friends, having nice food and a nice glass of wine. And I'm certainly capable of sitting down and bingeing on a Netflix series from time to time.
I was a pilot on a P-3 Orion aircraft, which does maritime patrol. The P-3 Orion aircraft is a four-engine turboprop, similar in size to a Boeing 737. It can carry weapons, but also did different jobs such as search and rescue assistance. It required a crew of at least two pilots, and since it was quite an old aircraft, the systems were human monitored. They were originally born out of the cold war era and designed to hunt submarines. We were trained to do this, but we also had other roles during maritime patrol for border security purposes. We also did some reconnaissance and intelligence gathering in the Middle East. There was a bit of travel in the air force. I got to go to Guam, South Korea, and Christmas Island. In the air force, you don't necessarily go to amazing tourist destinations. But you do get to go to unique places that you might otherwise not have.
Are there many differences between flying in the military versus flying commercially?
There are a lot of differences, a lot of it can be broken down to the type of aeroplane that I flew in the air force. That craft was getting towards the end of its life, it used much older technology and there was a lot more physical flying with your hands and feet. Given that it didn't have computers, there was also a lot more monitoring of things in the most basic sense. We had to do calculations of things like figuring out when we needed to descend. So, how many miles above the ground do I need to start my descent? How much fuel do I need? The type of flying we were doing was much more dynamic. As a commercial pilot, I just fly from A to B. Compared to what I was flying in the air force, the plane I fly now is very automated. I don't have to do as much mental math as I'm flying anymore, so it's different in how demanding it is in that sense.
The new challenge for me is learning how the automated systems work. There are lots and lots of different modes of automatics in your aeroplanes. And the challenge is getting your head around what each mode can do for you and how to use it best to get the aeroplane to do exactly what you need it to do. In the air force, I just had to physically fly the plane, there wasn't much thinking about that sort of thing. They're both different challenges, that's why I like this type of work because you're never perfect at it. You're always learning, you're always improving, there is always something you can learn to do better.
As a pilot, our responsibilities start before we've boarded the plane. Every time you fly, one of the pilots will walk around the outside of the aircraft and do a basic check. We're looking for obvious things: checking that everything on the surface looks fine, the craft hasn't been hit by something that nobody knew about. Nothing has come loose that hasn't been noticed and the tires are in good condition. We can go and check certain systems like the hydraulics, that there's enough fluid. So we do a basic check, the engineers also do their own checks between each flight. We do this every turnaround (every time an aircraft lands and then departs again). Before we get to the aeroplane, we also check things like the weather to ensure we have a complete understanding of everything that we're getting into. In an airline, our operations centre will give us an idea of how much fuel we need, but it's our responsibility and our call to make the final decision on how much fuel we want to take for a trip. Because when it comes down to it, it's us that have to manage that fuel and make sure that we have enough for any weather conditions that may arise. When we get inside, there's a number of systems that we check. We check (and test) that the fire warning systems are all operational. We re-align our inertial reference system that helps us with navigation, then we set up everything for the flight!
During the flight
We always have a captain who's officially in charge of the flight. In certain aeroplanes, the captain always sits in the left seat. Other times, we just switch roles in every sector we fly. I fly a Boeing aeroplane now, so the person in the left seat always does certain jobs and the person in the right seat always does other jobs, but we always swap who is the one flying. Whoever's flying that sector has the freedom to choose how they do it, but the captain is able to override decisions if they believe that it is needed or it is safer.
At the moment I fly domestically, within Australia. This works for me because I have young children, so I spend less time away from them. I travel around Australia a fair bit: up to Cairns, across to Perth, down to Hobart. Right now, it's very unglamorous because we're locked in our hotel rooms everywhere we go. But usually you get to spend an overnight in those places and you would get enough downtime that you could see something of the area. Now that I'm in the airlines, the opportunity to travel internationally is certainly a possibility. Qantas really encourages their pilots to move between aeroplanes, between different parts of the company (domestic and international) to get that wealth of experience.
At night-time, or in very bad weather, pilots use instrument flight procedures to find their way down to the runway. Years ago, they would use radio beacons on the ground at airports to guide themselves down to the point where you could see the runway. Now we use GPS to track set waypoints. Those set tracks, to get to the runway, are designed by instrument flight procedure designers, which I spent 5 years doing. It's an internationally recognized qualification where you learn how to design the protection areas around these tracks so that you can get an aeroplane to an airport when they can't see where they are going. It involves a lot of math and some form of CAD (computer aided drawing) programs. We look at the terrain around the area and any obstacles such as tall buildings and phone towers. We have to take into account anything that an aeroplane could hit, and give them a really big area in case they're not exactly where they should be. Then we find them a space between all those obstacles to get down to the runway safely.
This information is given to pilots in what we call ‘approach plates.' They used to be on pieces of paper but now they are often electronic, on iPads. It is basically a diagram that shows you where you're going to fly, both a plan and profile view. This allows us to see how we descend and the minimum safe altitude that we can go to. Then there is a written description that gives the pilot all the information they might need depending on what sort of navigation system they're using to get down. If it's GPS, then there's not too much to know. But if it's a radio beacon on the ground, then it gives them the frequency of that radio beacon. Those procedures will sit there for pilots to use, for every airport around the world, until they need to be re-assessed. That might be for something like magnetic variation around the world, because this slowly changes over time. Or if the airports are near cities, they need regular updating to make sure they've taken into account any new buildings or towers.
Pros and cons of designing flight procedures versus flying.
Pros: it's nine to five, Monday to Friday. I'm a bit of a nerd and I do love just sitting and doing a bit of maths. There's something kind of satisfying about just working out an equation. Cons: for the most part, it's office bound. And it's highly computer-based these days. As much as I'm a math nerd, I'm not a massive computer person. Picking up AutoCAD was a slow process for me. I did just miss getting out and about, there's something very exciting about being in an aeroplane where nothing's ever the same each day. But designing procedures was a very enjoyable job. It works your brain, it's challenging, it's different. And it gives you something tangible.