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A day with a trainee pilot

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08.10 a.m. on a cold but sunny February morning at Grenchen airport in the Canton of Solothurn. At the back of the site stands an unassuming white building bearing the name European Flight Academy. On the top floor of the building, the 12 students of Pilotenklasse 4/18 are getting ready for the day’s flying. Today we are accompanying Malva who is in her first stage of flying training.

Two students are just preparing the weather briefing when the flying instructors enter the room. One of them seems to be new. He introduces himself to each of the students in turn, which instantly creates a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. Then the lesson starts.

The two students present today’s weather situation, talking mostly in combinations of number and letters that an outsider would find hard to understand. However, the other students seem to be able to understand everything. They are listening attentively and busily taking notes.

After the presentation, the main instructor speaks. He briefly explains what the day will bring, and then asks if there are any questions – which results in many hands being raised. The atmosphere is not unlike the one you would find at a high school, with the exception that these students are extremely eager to learn. After about 15 minutes, the class moves to a building nearer the hangar. The trainees are now divided into groups of three, with each one sharing an instructor and an aircraft. They will take it in turn to fly, and are now all preparing for the first flight. This is where we meet Malva. Despite being only a mere 21 years old, the young lady from Eastern Switzerland comes across as mature, confident and competent, as if she always knew exactly what to do. She discusses the tasks and conditions for the upcoming flight with her classmates. They all have an iPad, a map and a small folder with check lists and information sheets. For the fuel calculations, they take all sorts of factors into account, including the instructor’s weight and that of their baggage. They work carefully and precisely, yet at the same time the trainee pilots also seem to greatly enjoy their tasks and approach them with tremendous enthusiasm. Next, the teams of three get their small training aircraft type DA40NG out of the hangar. This is done quickly and with ease, with little need for communication. Even though the trainees have only known each other since November, there does seem to be a strong team spirit between them.

Training

We now have the chance to talk to Malva for a few moments. She tells us about daily life at flying school. Pilotenklasse 4/18 is in the first stage of flying training. The course started with seven weeks of theory, which prepared them thoroughly for the actual flying. The flying stage takes place in Grenchen. The accommodation is provided by SWISS, which is why the twelve trainee pilots all live together. “We’re all flatmates in a huge flat,” she says. “And we all take it in turns to cook the evening meal for everybody. In fact, we’ve become even closer since we’ve been here in Grenchen. We spend 24 hours a day in each other’s company and we all have the same goal, which really binds us together.”

Life at the flying school as she describes it sounds not unlike a school camp with adult students. Malva particularly enjoys that they can all be themselves here, and that they are all considerate and friendly towards each other. She is equally enthusiastic about the content of her training. “The training is even better than I thought it would be. I’m happier than I have ever been in my life before. Every day I look forward to what the day will bring. Even while we were still doing the theory I found every subject really absorbing, and it was easy to concentrate.” Everyone is extremely motivated, and the atmosphere is terrific.

“The days are quite full-on during the flying stage. They tend to follow the same pattern, but we practise different things on each flight.” So everyone gets to fly once or twice a day. At the moment, Malva needs three more flights before she can go solo. As she tells me this, she has a big grin on her face, and her eyes are shining. “Going solo will definitely be the highlight for me. I guess it must be the same for everyone.”

Malva’s path to becoming a pilot

One thing is instantly obvious: Malva loves flying, and likewise the pilot training. But how did it come about? “I know this sounds funny, but I actually learnt about being a professional pilot from a magazine article. It was a few years after I started high school. At the time I had no idea what I wanted to do, which was why I decided to do the Matura [general qualification for university].” Malva has always been interested in technology, but couldn’t find a career that she really felt enthusiastic about – until she read about being a pilot. This combines her interest in technology with her passion for travel. “From that moment on, I finally knew what I wanted to do with my life. By the time I had completed SPHAIR [a flying programme for young adults who are interested in flying] after my Matura and had my first flight, I was absolutely convinced that this was the only job for me.”

After studying machine construction in Lausanne, at the age of 20 Malva applied to qualify as a pilot. Although her university course proved to be her strongest link to aircraft, it never really fulfilled her. However, she undoubtedly underwent an important maturing process during that time, and that prepared her for pilot training. “My course even prepared me in a way for the mathematical tasks in the assessment. Having said that, though, I don’t think it’s necessary to go to university in order to pass the various stages in the assessment; you just have to prepare for it.” The only thing it is not possible to prepare for is the group test. This analyses an individual’s behaviour as part of a group. “It’s a good thing that you can’t prepare for this, because it’s mainly about being yourself,” Malva believes. Generally, she doesn’t see any need to worry about the assessment. Anyone who dreams of being a pilot should certainly try it. Even if you fail the first time. “In the beginning, I also tried a different approach,” she says. “I applied to train as a military pilot during my year out, but was turned down. That didn’t put me off, though, and ultimately that experience paid off in the assessment. Not only was I accepted for flying school, but my training was financed by SWISS. I would have gone to flying school even if I had only been accepted without the offer for financing, but I have to say that was irresistible.” Pilot training is sponsored and supported by the federal government and by SWISS. The balance of the training costs, which is deducted monthly once a candidate has successfully completed their training and started a career with SWISS, is also financed in advance by SWISS on the basis of a deferral model. This means that students do not have to finance their training at the beginning.

Strong professions – strong women

Sadly, it’s a fact that it is still highly unusual to find female professional pilots and trainee pilots. But why should that be? Malva can’t see a reason for it. “I’ve no idea why this is. I’ve always been treated exactly the same as all the others, during the assessment, while at flying school, and also in the classroom. I’m always just as involved as everyone else, and I’ve never experienced any advantages or disadvantages.” All she does occasionally hear is that people like seeing a woman training to be a pilot. So a lot of people like to see a gender balance. “My family and friends also only have good things to say about my choice of profession,” says Malva. “In fact, what I would say to any young women who are interested in this profession is to go to an information event, take up the offer of SPHAIR and apply for the assessment. After all, what have you got to lose?”

Finally, Malva tells me about her hopes and dreams. “My aim is to be a captain on long-haul. But I expect there are plenty of other career options in this particular field that I haven’t even considered yet. Still, whatever happens, I know I am going to love being a pilot.”