Erich is a Commercial pilot and Certified Flying Instructor with a myriad of aviation experience. Erich has worked in multiple roles within the aviation industry as well as in several different aircrew member positions, giving him a unique insight and experience to this exciting industry.
“Like most of the people that would read this, my fascination with Aviation started when I was still a little boy”Erich
My road to becoming a commercial pilot and eventually a Grade III (comparable to FAA CFI) Flight Instructor, has taken about 5 years from deciding so seriously pursue a career as a pilot.
Like most of the people that would read this, my fascination with anything to day started when I was still a little boy. I dabbled into other interests, but aviation would always win out. With my father having been a helicopter flight engineer in the air force, and my step-uncle an airline pilot for a major US carrier, there has never been a lack of aviation experiences I could relate to.
My first job
In 2008 I was chosen as a pilot in the South African Air Force (SAAF), but due to some paperwork errors and a lot of politics, I was streamed to become a navigator instead. I took the opportunity, thinking that it would be easier to fight the fight from the inside.
My navigator wings course took place in 2010 at AFB Ysterplaat, Cape Town. I finished first in my course (well, not that big a prestation since all the others dropped out of the course), and for a while I seriously considered becoming a Weapons System Operator on the Rooivalk Combat Support Helicopter. However, by that stage the squadron wasn’t operational yet, so I chose C-130’s (or did it choose me?)
While the type conversion to the mighty Hercules was a big step-up from the Caravan, Pilatus Pc-7 and C-47TP I used fly, my lifelong interest in mechanical things did pay off. It is a complex machine with a lot failure modes, but it challenged me to understand how everything works. (more on this topic in a future article).
During that time, I started flying gliders for a hobby. As the premise was still that I would become a SAAF pilot, I didn’t invest serious money into power flying. Stand by for another topic we could develop in the future – flying in its purest form.
As the years progressed, and I gained experience as a squadron member and became qualified as an operational navigator (cargo and personnel drops, Search & Rescue, tactical flying etc), I also became restless. As good as the life was, being a (relatively) senior cockpit member, there was always this itch that I wasn’t cut out for being just a navigator. The glory days were gone, GPS and tactics regarding the use of GPS took over, and being a navigator meant becoming consigned to flying a desk to gain promotion.
Instead of delving into politics, let’s just say that becoming a pilot in the air force was not in the cards. There was always that one more hurdle to pass, but as age was starting to count against me, I had to look at other options.
Due to having a glider license, which was ‘upgraded’ to recreational motor-glider license, then upgraded to a full recreational license, I have also obtained my Private License by virtue of the previous experience together with an additional 15 hours of training and an Air Law examination.
A leap of faith – taking a different route
By that time (middle 2016), the lack of flying in the air force signalled the time to leave, so I applied to become an L-382G (civilian Hercules) loadmaster for a company flying for the UN, amongst other clients.
To really understand this leap, you need to understand a bit of the military mindset. Being a navigator means an officer job, cushy pay, a bit of respect, and a loadmaster in the SAAF is traditionally a ‘stepping-stone’ job. Meant for National Service conscripts, the loadmaster is expected to perform like a farm animal on turn-arounds, and make coffee in the air. The step from officer to NCO was a bit of change, and certainly did flutter some eyelids from my colleagues.
But what is a bit of hard work if it stands in the way of your dream, right?
The new job paid about half my SAAF salary, but going on month-long tours to exotic places like South Sudan, Mogadishu and Mali did pay pretty good per-diem, enabling me to build hours and work towards my commercial license.
Gaining my Commercial Licence
In 2018 I was ready to finish the test for my commercial license. I did my ME VFR CPL test on a real ‘rust-bucket’ Twin Commanche and was supposed to get the license.
However, our CAA had other ideas about due process, previous experience as a navigator etc, so in the end I had to write all the exams again, and reflew the (now IF included) test. Luckily, this time the paperwork all worked out, and I was a newly minted commercial pilot. Albeit without a flight job.
That rest of the year I spend studying for the ‘frozen ATP’ subjects, and then got working on instructor rating. That took a bit of a back seat due to contract work and other stuff, but when South Africa had the COVID lock-down start in April 2020, I had no choice but to sit down and work out the lesson plans. Once we were allowed out again, the flying went by quickly and the skills test was enjoyable: the designated flight examiner had the same C-130 background as I did, so we spent the time telling ‘when-we’ stories, broken up by phases of ‘do this, demonstrate this’. So 3 weeks later I was issued with my brand new Grade III instructor papers, equivalent to the FAA CFI.
This leads to one point I’d like to encourage young pilots on: be friends with your instructor, by all means. But also know your place. In the cockpit, you are working, and do not be upset if he changes attitude. What he teaches might save your life. This aspect is also crucial for your career: Know where you fit in: one day you might a be a captain at a regional, but be ready to become a first officer again when you upgrade. Life will be a repeated cycle of changing seats, and how you do it will make a big difference in the way the captain will treat you. Believe me, there is nothing worse than an FO thinking he should be in the captain’s seat instead.
So, a lot of ramble, but I leave you with two thoughts:
1. Never give up if it is your passion. It will be hard, but also see it as a sifting process to weed out those that shouldn’t be there.
2. Learn as much as you can about your aircraft, systems and procedures. It might save you one day, and it will also gain you the respect of your peers or seniors if it is apparent that you know what you are talking about.