Pilot case history: Ciaran on training, finance and coping with Covid

Ciaran MorrisonCiaran completed the Ryanair Mentored APS MCC at VA in October 2020. He and his fellow Ryanair Mentored Programme graduates will be prioritised for final assessment with Ryanair when recruitment recommences.

When did you decide you wanted to become a pilot?

I had always been fascinated by commercial aircraft from a young age. Many of my earliest memories are centred around flying abroad on holiday with My Travel from Manchester Airport. One flight really stuck with me, flying onboard a Britannia Airways Boeing 767 from Manchester to Larnaca and this was the point in which I began to dream of flying a commercial aircraft.

At the age of around 12 I committed to it and then decided to start working towards it, joining my local Air Cadet Squadron at 14 years of age. Unfortunately, the Grob Tutor fleet was grounded during my early years as a cadet. My first taste of flight at the controls was at the age of 16. I loved it. I was definitely ‘bit by the bug’. My desire to become a commercial pilot at this point became my all.

Why did you choose to read towards an aviation-based degree?

Varying factors and personal circumstances lead me towards reading towards an aviation-based degree. During sixth form college, I participated in a University of Leeds widening-engagement scheme and came across an opportunity named ‘Reach for the Skies’. I didn’t even think about it, I just applied for a position on the scheme. It sounded absolutely amazing.

It was a two-day course that allowed me to meet a British Airways Pilot, tour the Thomas Cook Hangar at Manchester and learn more about the Aviation Technology with Pilot Studies Degree at the University of Leeds. Prior to this course I hadn’t really considered it possible to study aviation at University.

On reflection I was under the illusion that somehow, I could afford to go to CTC to become a Pilot. This wasn’t the case. I soon realised this after being massively attracted to the Aviation Technology Degree. I could live at home, use my maintenance loan to attain my PPL, start hour building and complete my ATPLs.

Somehow, going to University would provide two things. It would make my aspiration somewhat financially viable given my circumstances. Secondly it would allow me to endeavour a genuine interest and provide me with a fall-back in the event of any un-employment or grounding further down the line.

Most importantly, the degree included PPL studies, 10 hours of flight training and some ATPL theory as part of the degree whilst being linked to a flight training school. Therefore, it provided a structure and means to achieve my goal.

What did you do before starting your training?

Primarily, I begged my Mum and Dad to take me to London to visit a FLYER Flight Training Exhibition (now Pilot Careers Live), pestered my cousin who was in his own flight training phase down in Spain, and joined the Air Cadets. The Professional Flight Training Exhibition was one of the most important things I ever did, even if the first one left me feeling downbeat and deflated regarding finances. I returned year on year, later as a part of an exhibitor team, learning something new each time. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to make the judgements I made throughout my flight training.

Joining the Air Cadets was one of the best things I did in preparing me for my training. It allowed me to develop as an individual and socialise with like-minded people. Crucially, it gave me an exposure to the world of aviation and began to teach me about the history of UK aviation and the principles of flight. It also enabled me to attain flight experience and a scholarship that would begin my training towards a PPL.

Following these actions, I began reading towards my aviation degree. Flight training would follow soon after I began my degree, however, starting my degree essentially set me on the road to becoming a pilot and allowed me to develop the knowledge and skills to become an aviation professional.

Which training route did you follow and how did you fund this?

Initially I dreamt of becoming a CTC cadet and flying to New Zealand. Financially this wasn’t possible. If I were to become a commercial pilot, I had to fund it myself.

The degree I studied was linked to a modular flight training school, providing a structure and cost basis that I found attractive and viable. For this reason, I opted to train via the modular route. At the time, there weren’t many opportunities for a modular pilot, but I and my peers could begin to see this change. Consequently, we were prepared and excited to take advantage of this.

I’m very fortunate that most of my PPL was funded via scholarships from both the Air Cadets and Air League of which I’m very thankful. The remaining funding for my PPL came from the 10 hours as part of my degree and university maintenance loan. My maintenance loan also funded most of my ATPLs and hour building. In second year of my degree, myself and my peers all bought into a Cessna 150 and this significantly reduced the cost of our hour building to around £75 per hour wet which is largely unmatched in the UK.

After completing my hour-building and ATPLs, I began looking at commercial training. I realised it was going to be tough to fund this part of the training. I’d been working part time throughout my A-Levels and Degree and I had saved some money but nowhere near enough. Eventually I decided I must build a credit score to apply for a personal loan. It would have a hideous interest rate, but I had no choice. It would allow me to fulfil my aspiration. This, coupled with undertaking my CPL MEIR in Poland where flight training is significantly cheaper, allowed me to complete my training and attain a Commercial Pilots Licence.

Ciaran Morrison Tecnam

What challenges did you face before and/or during training?

Myself and my close friends from my degree who have undertaken flight training always joke about Ant and Dec walking in with a camera to explain that our elements of our flight training have all been a stitch-up for the general public’s entertainment. It sounds dramatic but at times it felt probable. As is sometimes the case in aviation, ‘Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong’. Likening the situation to the above also massively helped us stay positive and laugh through the harder challenging phases.

The biggest challenge I have faced relates to my Initial Class One Medical. It took eight months from my medical examination to receiving the certificate and felt impossible at times. It was a terrible time. Despite this, close family, friends and aviation professionals I knew helped me through it alongside the CAA and medical professionals, who provided me with the guidance and information to attain a Class One.

I consider my degree as part of my training and this in itself was a massive challenge at times. Working part-time alongside studying towards the ATPLs and reading towards my degree seemed impossible at times. Especially during ATPL examination phases.

I particularly struggled with Flight Planning & Performance and General Navigation but found the support at Bristol Groundschool exceptional in helping me understand and succeed in the examinations. Other than this, finance proved a huge challenge towards the end of my training. I remember applying for a personal loan with optimism, only to find that my credit score wouldn’t allow this, thus delaying my training and testing my patience. However, it was worth it and I overcame them. I’m a strong believer that your finances should merely be a challenge and not a brick wall. Especially when related to flight training.

Technically, I now have a ‘Frozen’ ATPL, however this does not mean my training is over. I’m going to be training until I attain a position as a First Officer in an airline and beyond. Therefore Covid-19 is certainly a challenge.

From day dot of my experiences in aviation I’ve been taught that there will come a time when you find yourself in an aviation industry that’s stagnant or in decline. I never thought this would coincide with me attaining my CPL. It’s a brutal time for many and more than anything, the challenge is remaining positive and using the time wisely. We will all get through this rough period of time together, coming out stronger at the other end. It just means staying positive and spreading some form of positivity.

One of the biggest things that I’ve found strength and positivity in these past few weeks, have been some of the events created to help aspiring pilots, un-employed pilots and newly qualified pilots alike. We’re very fortunate to be in an industry full of forward-thinking and thoughtful people. This is evident across the aviation industry to date and is definitely helping me and others stay positive. A massive thanks to all involved in such projects and initiatives.

What were the highlights of your time in training and why?

One could argue that flight training starts the minute you begin preparing yourself for it. For that reason, my first highlight has to be the first time I visited Heathrow for the Professional Flight Training Exhibition, the magic of Heathrow encouraged my love of aviation massively.

The biggest highlight of my training was the Ryanair Mentored APS MCC here at VA Airline Training. The minute I first advanced the throttle to 40% N1 on my first simulator exercise, I definitely had a grin ear to ear. The professional friendly environment, the study, the atmosphere, all make you feel like you are so close to your dream career. You are nearly there, nearly living that life of a commercial pilot you’ve always aspired towards. Waking up early some mornings and late others in order to fly some passengers (albeit fake) from Stansted to Edinburgh. It all starts to click, and you complete the course feeling slightly disappointed that training is over. This was baffling because for so long all I wanted to do was complete flight training!

I can’t forget my first solo at Dundee Airport on the 13 September 2016. The moment I looked across to see an empty cockpit is still one of the best sensations I’ve ever felt in my life. So much so that another highlight is returning to Dundee during my hour-building on a perfect June day.

Finally, one of the other great highlights that sticks to mind is the first time I entered ‘the muck’ flying via Instrument Flight Rules during my IR in Poland. It was somewhat chilling to enter cloud but also really rewarding and exciting. This combination of feelings makes it one of the many highlights.

What are you doing during this period whilst you await your first airline job offer?

Ever since graduating from the University of Leeds, I’ve returned to teach the second-year students a module based upon Airline Transport Pilot Theory. I thoroughly enjoy teaching the second-year students this module, trying to convey my advice, thoughts and vital information to help them not only succeed with the ATPL examinations, but also their flight training and their degree. Having studied the same degree really helps in this sense and I can really identify with the students and their thoughts.

Other than this I continue to work in the private healthcare sector in a legal and investigative role. Although not directly linked to Aviation, it’s my hope that the investigative skills learnt can one day be transferred and utilised in an airline setting within CRM for example.

It’s also the perfect time to refine my CV and develop skills and knowledge necessary to that of an aviation professional. For this reason, I’ve been speaking to those in the industry and keeping an ear to the ground to ascertain the state of the industry. Although it’s considered pretty stagnant at the minute, things are always changing day-by-day. Just this week, I was pleasantly surprised by the news of a UK airline opening a new base. Ultimately, I’m trying to remain positive and use the time constructively.

Throughout my training, I’ve been writing a blog detailing my journey to the flight deck. This was initially to detail the modular route to those aspiring to be pilots as there seemed a lack of modular pilots blogging about their training. However, as I’ve progressed through training it’s become a flight training journey and platform to help those in training, those considering training and those who wish for help and advice. I’m always keen to help those who want to endeavour their own interest in aviation and hope that the blog helps achieve this.

What advice would you give others considering training, in training and those in a similar position awaiting their first employment opportunity?

My biggest piece of advice would be to think of flight training like an Olympic Sprint. It requires perseverance, endurance and determination. It may be cluttered with hurdles. But these can be jumped over. They require extra effort and some forward thinking, but they are merely small hurdles. They are not brick walls in your path. Do not think of your financial situation as a brick wall. If you feel you cannot afford flight training at present, look at means of making it viable. Look at other countries, look at loans, save up whilst you are working in other employment. This will require sacrifices here and there but will make it viable in the end.

For those in a similar position, it can currently be so easy to become negative, down-heartened and disappointed that after all your hard work, you are no closer to the flight deck due to Covid-19. This can easily be made worse by publicity and opinion. Do not fear, I’d encourage you to reach out to those in a similar boat, start discussions, help each other prepare for interviews and applications, motivate one another and remind each other of how far you’ve come. It may not sound like much, but it will serve greatly in boosting your morale during this difficult time. Don’t take your foot off the gas now. We can’t fly at present but there is nothing stopping us prepare ourselves for the day that we can!

Finally, as I was told early on in my aspiration, keep the dream alive.