Degree of difficulty!

I have spent my entire professional career in the field of Aviation in various capacities. I have received a tremendous amount of attention, respect and even adulation along the way. Only recently, I was made to realize that all the responsibility, skill, experience and qualifications amount to almost nothing on paper in the outside world. Surprised? So, was I. Allow me to give you a little backstory on my life as a Captain. I would like to introduce you to those faceless captains in whom you put your trust every time you buy a plane ticket.

I was an early bloomer. Right after my twelfth standard board exams, I was on track to getting my wings. After getting my licence in record time, I, started working as a flight instructor in a flying school. While still in my teens, I was imparting flying lessons to other teens. (Yes! It is possible). Many of my students were older than me. I don’t know how they experienced a young ‘un breathing down that control column watching them bungle up that landing!! πŸ˜† It was an honorary position then, where the school uses your services for free while you gather “experience”. Like an intern! There was no money involved but there was something innately satisfying about teaching itself. It felt like I was helping people like me, realize their dream.


The young ‘un!! Winter of ’98

I made the natural progression to the airline industry. Nothing natural about it , actually. It is only in the Sub-continent that a fresh off the boat, newly minted pilot gets to fly the big jets. (Not alone, of course!😜) I am not complaining. Just stating facts. Airline flying is no monkey business. It makes a “man” out of you.(I am fundamentally opposed to that statement, but that is for another time. Here, I do wear the pants, pun intended!) In all seriousness, as trainee pilots we brought to the table all the knowledge we acquired exclusive to Aviation in a variety of highly technical subjects during the rigorous training process where 70% pass marks are mandated. I wish I had known that earlier!πŸ™„ The highly competitive, airline selection process is an even bigger hurdle as jobs are not easy to come by. To say it is cut throat would be putting it mildly. Let me just say, what we lacked in experience, we had to more than make up for in hard work and perseverance. There are no short-cuts!

As you go through the grind of the grueling training and the odd hours, you acquire many skills along the way. A pilot, basically, is a Cockpit Manager. It is an official term, by the way! We learn to manage time, manuals, documents, licenses, roster time table, calendars, training schedules, cabin crew, engineers, passengers, air traffic controllers while also managing diet, rest, time-zones, family, fitness, people, egos, to name a few. The list is endless. Feel free to add to this list in the comment section below. Let me give you an example to demonstrate the learning curve. If a trainee, on a Bombay – Goa flight (40 mins flying time) after finishing all the paper work, talking to both air traffic controllers, taking the weather, setting up the arrival, checking the procedure, calculating the weight and speeds, addressing the passengers and briefing the crew (phew!), manages to find time to eat breakfast, all while flying the plane and keeping the aircraft clear of clouds, birds and other aircraft, he/she has learnt time management. Howzzat for skill?!

We are trained to perform our best in high pressure situation, take split second decisions, weigh in all possibilities all the while keeping our cool. That is key! We practice discipline, resourcefulness, team-work, delegation, communication and hospitality in our daily outings in uniform. Attributes associated mostly with the “corporate world“. We are taught to trust our intellect, instincts and co-pilot while we negotiate a possibly life-threatening emergency. It is made possible with hours of simulator training and regular checks. Problem solving, decision making, gathering and analyzing information are essential to the job. Traits highly valued in leadership roles in major companies. To act with precision, being meticulous and keeping the BIG PICTURE in mind becomes second nature to a Captain. We do not have the luxury to learn from our own mistakes and there is no room for error.

Office with a view!
Office with a view!

A question I am often asked and struggle to answer is “Why have I been with Air India all my working life?” The truth is, there are not as many airlines as there are banks, hospitals and corporations to switch jobs unlike other professions. The little movement that does happen is lateral. Mostly for higher pay, bigger aircraft or better location. The job profile and progression remains more or less the same. None of those reasons were big enough for me to make the move. Not to say that I have not thought about it, but for very different reasons. πŸ™‚ All I wanted was to fly, no matter where the destination or what the aircraft and Air India let me do that.

Only after reaching almost at the mid-point of my working life, My aspirations started to change. I wanted to do something more. The ‘Corona times’ was the perfect opportunity to up-skill and study. My area of interest was in the field of understanding human behavior. All the courses I looked into for therapy and counselling required a Graduate or a Masters degree, at least. At a time when the Aviation industry is over turned and several pilots with decades of experience are out of a job, they will be ineligible to apply for placements in fields other than Aviation because their ‘skills, qualification or experience‘ do not count as a Degree!! Immigration was on the cards for my family earlier, only to be told that my “education” was insufficient for the points system.

I felt a rush of emotions upon this realization. First I was surprised, then I was in denial, followed by pure anger, rage, indignation!!! (As you can tell, I am learning to recognize feelings!πŸ˜‰) Everything I have ever worked for means so little? Does life experience count for nothing? Once the dust settled, what I felt most was humbled. Back on Earth and back to reality. Acceptance brings you peace. However, the discovery of an anomaly should also brings change. Many countries recognize levels of flying licences and experience as an equivalent of different levels of college education. It is only fair. Maybe someday the rest of the world’s institutions and our own will correct that anomaly. Meanwhile, I urge readers and people in effective positions to see pilots for who they are and what they bring to the table, not the Degree. Even doctors, who are probably the highest regarded, educated and respected with almost God-like stature in society have one life at stake at a time and it is never their own.

I leave you here to think about it. I know it is a lot of information! Next time you fly, do put a face to your captains and a heart too! 🧑

Meanwhile, I should tell you that after swallowing my pride and facing reality, I have enrolled myself into a Bachelors degree program in Aviation. Subjects I am conversant in and have taught trainees for years. A course I can probably teach. Unfortunately, I am not qualified to teach aviation subjects outside of Aviation. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think? – Alanis Morisette

Song references seem to be becoming my thing!😊

Until next time..over and out!@thethinkingcaptain

33 thoughts on “Degree of difficulty!

  1. It’s so beautifully be written.. All due respect and salute to all our pilots who work so hard to keep us safe and secure. It’s a real eye opener. Thank you for such detailed information

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Unimaginable… unless you wrote it out. So proud of you and all other pilots. You definitely deserve a lot more. Keep penning your thoughts…you are changing minds

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi , very well written article, you have managed to cover so many aspects of the journey of a Pilot’s life in such lucid language, honestly I wish you continue your writing and highlighting the issues faced by aviation and aviators! Thank you very much for your efforts.

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  4. Autopilot flies what do u do? What an answer! Absolutely spot on with this one. Out of the park! Brilliand piece of writing.

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    1. Wow, No one must have thought even pilot can write & keep us engage so beautifully… I think you are born writer can pursue you carrer in that too… Good Luck

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    2. Thank you, son! Lifetime of misconceptions can’t go away in a second. We have to make our way and let them see within. Educate and spread awareness.
      Encouragement ke liye shukriya.

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  5. So nicely put.. & apt. We’re still very young in the profession & I remember most of instructors back in training school told us to enroll ourselves in correspondence graduation courses(which was quite common & everyone seemed to be following it) & I would often question in my head “isn’t the training that I’m getting now enough?”.
    Hopefully our numerous hours of slogging & sim checks every 6 months will be given its due credit someday.

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    1. Thank you, my darling! You guys are the gen-next torch bearers. The next big things. We have the extra burden of handling inherent biases. How we look and speak matters more than how we perform. Why? Let’s make the change. Now!!!

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  6. As pilot myself, every word, in this piece, resonates with me. While I was once on top of the world (literally), covid-19 has brought me crashing down to earth and face the harsh reality – that I’m not qualified for anything other that flying an airplane. So much for life experiences!

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  7. Geetanjali,

    At the risk of repeating myself, I have to say that your writing is so refreshing and stimulating.
    It’s hard to imagine that We’ve had such a good writer amongst us for all these years and not known this facet of hers!
    It’s been a delight !
    Keep walking, my friend !

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  8. Everything from the title to the article sticks in my mind having had so many of these conversation with you. Degree of difficult is an aviation term too? I remember it from the diving events in school!!

    So many truths packed in. The irony is really stark and your attempt to reimagine the aviation world is inspiring! Change is coming. Keep writing, keep sharing!

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    1. The question about why AirIndia was with you in mind. No, DoD is coined by me saying having NO degree is DIFFICULT. πŸ˜‰
      Yes, I wanted to show the human side of our profession, sans the glamour and glitz which blinds everything else. Thank you for recognizing that.

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  9. Intriguing piece indeed! Love how if one only reads the part you highlight in ‘bold’, they could draw an inference on what you muse about.

    Also, if graduation and degrees > wisdom garnered through years of rigour and first hand experiences, shouldn’t we ideally have answers to everything that can go wrong (and does go wrong – eg: COVID) on the basis that graduates and the degree’d’ folks are usually the ones on the lookout for solutions to these problems. There is no making up for wisdom acquired the hard way.

    Please keep your writings coming. I already envy you for having set this page up when we grumble about having too much at hand. Great example of the ‘time management’ skill you emphasise on above.

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  10. Ha Ha! I am glad that I edited the original draft. There was more bold than plain words.

    Thank you for echoing my thoughts. I think everyone agrees on that but it needs to change on paper. Maybe the NEP 2020 may allow for that, if it falls on the right ears.

    Thank you for your encouragement. Never thought I will share my personal writings.

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  11. This is one of the best things I have read in a while. Actually, I also went through a few other posts and they seems to be equally amazing and enlightening.

    I now have much more respect in heart for all the captions in the world, all thanks to you.

    It is a privilege to have come across someone like you in my life, you are a source of indefinite inspiration. πŸ™

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  12. That’s the only reason why my father ( you know him very well ) never allowed me to become pilot without a proper degree. It was his farsightedness and commitment that, I have completed Mtech in computer Science and then took flying as my Career. I value this more now at this age and stage in my life. Although Pilot and their education is not recognized as full fledged course, which we should now. It’s high time. This entire course should be considered as a Degree course will completing CPL and ATPL should be considered equivalent to Masters.

    Ma’am very well articulated. Please take it up now on different forum and let’s make it a degree on paper now.

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    1. Yes, I I do know you father and consider myself fortunate to have met him. A proud father of four daughters, beaming with pride and joy is how I remember him.
      It is, indeed, fortunate that you have a solid foundation behind you.
      My endeavour is to spread awareness and catch the attention of the people that can make the change. A change that will benefit the community and the future generations of pilots forever. I have proposed it to FIP election hopefuls. Maybe we can take it up further and push for it.
      Do share in your circles for the butterfly effect.

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  13. Very well articulated…each word said..each statement made is so true… It is not easy to comprehend what someone is going through unless you go through yourself..and it is only a selected few who will understand the life of a ‘ Captain’ . After all a captain is called so for a reason…it’s only he or she who can commandeer that aircraft …even if the PM is in board…the Captain is the boss…
    Sad that the qualities of quick decision ( lacking so much in most world leaders) ..crisis management…human resource management..are not recognised as a qualification to get one a job …
    Regards

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  14. Kudos to you Geetanjali for taking the bull by its horn…So proud of your optimistic outlook to the meandering curves that we more than often encounter in life.

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    1. I am currently reading Viktor Frankl’s Man search for Meaning. He says exactly what you are saying. Indeed, there is a higher purpose behind all the sharing. Thank you for your generosity and kindness. Let us spread the joy.

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