High flyer: How to become a pilot

EasyJet pilot Andrew Mitchell tells how he made his high flying dreams a reality.

Andrew Mitchell, 29, is a captain with easyJet, who got his job with the commercial airline based on his excellent education. He won the JN Somers scholarship from the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators (Gapan) in 2001 and has been flying the skies over Europe ever since. Working closely with Gapan, Andrew hopes to encourage young people into a career in flying and create opportunities for them to receive the training they need. We spoke to him about his career.

How did you get started?

I was in the air cadets for four years while doing GCSEs and A-levels. I got an RAF flying scholarship when I was 17, and that was my first taste of flying. I completed about 20 hours of flying up in Scotland – it was really exciting stuff. From there, I continued down the RAF route. I took an aeronautics and astronautics engineering degree at the University of Southampton, and then I was sponsored by the RAF on a university bursary scholarship to be a pilot. After that, I did three years with the air squadron, also in Southampton. I did about 100 hours on the bulldog aircraft. Unfortunately, at the end of my time at university I developed an eye problem and that became a bit of problem, especially in the airforce. I was 21 at that point, and my eyesight went outside of the limits they allow so I couldn’t carry on in the airforce – that’s when I started looking into the civilian world.


So, you were determined to continue flying?

I was offered other careers in the airforce, but by then my mind was made up – I had done a lot flying prior to that and enjoyed it. I finished university in 2000 and then I saw the advert for the Gapan JN Somers scholarship and applied. JN Somers was a test pilot and a very well-known one within Gapan, and when he died he left a trust fund of money to be used for scholarships. His wife has taken over and continues to sponsor them – it’s absolutely fantastic.


Do a lot of people apply for scholarship?

It does get a lot of applicants but not as many as it deserves. Maybe because people think it’s unobtainable. It’s amazing because they are so good and people don’t think they are available any more.


What did the scholarship allow you to do?

It paid for my Airline Transport Pilot’s Licence (ATPL) course in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. It lasted four months and is a residential, integrated course where everything is included – accommodation, food, ground school, social facilities – and you live on base. The airport runway is just next to your room!


How many people where doing the course?

The school has a capacity of 100 to 120 people but when I was there it was probably about 80 to 90. My course was about 12 people, and there were just two girls. It is still a very male-dominated industry, but it’s not uncommon to see a female flight deck and the most recent winner of the JN Somers Scholarship was female, so there are encouraging signs that things are changing.


What are you taught on the course?

There are two parts to it. There is the ground school which is made up of 14 different subjects, including meteorology, aircraft technical performance, navigation and all the basic information you need to be able to fly an aircraft commercially. The first five months are purely ground school, followed by exams and then onto the flying. For the rest of the course you spend half your time flying and the other half studying the rest of the ground-school subjects.


So, what it is like being a commercial pilot?

One thing about flying as a career is that you have to get used to doing tests. You never seem to stop doing tests! Even now I am being tested twice a year in a simulator and have to take two medical tests every year as well. You have to be quite thick-skinned at times, and you also have to be good at taking criticism and learning from it, not taking it in a negative way.


Where do you fly now?

I started with GB Airways (which has now been taken over by easyJet) after finishing in Jerez. I do shorthaul European destinations to place such as Spain and Portugal. The furthest we go is to the Canary Islands and Morocco in Africa, and we also go to Greece and Cyprus, and down through Egypt as well.


What is your favourite aircraft?

Probably the ones I am on now: the Airbus A321, part of the A320 family.


What do you think of the double decker A380?

I just think that it’s an amazing piece of engineering. For my degree, we tried designing aircraft and I discovered that making aircraft that big is not an easy job! What’s interesting with Airbus is that the flight deck on the A380 is almost identical to the flight deck I fly on. There are actually only minimal differences across the entire Airbus family.


What is your favourite airport?

We get to go to some quite challenging and interesting places. Innsbruck in the Swiss Alps, Gilbraltar in Spain and Funchal in Madeira are the most rewarding – there are amazing views out the window!


Do you have any tips for potential pilots?

Academically, science and maths are important, and I would also suggest getting involved with the Air Training Corps and the University Air Squadron. Get in touch with Gapan, who can offer some fantastic advice. Anything that adds to your CV, gets you experienced in teamwork and building up leadership skills is helpful. Look for scholarships and keep trying, because even if you are unsuccessful it’s great experience and shows dedication. People can be impressed if you come back for a second interview because it shows that you are committed.

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