We recently caught up with ex-Flybe Captain, Ian Robinson, to discover more about his journey into the left hand seat, the challenges he has faced along the way, and how he has coped during one of the worst crises the aviation industry has ever experienced.

 

 

How long have you been a pilot? Tell us a little bit about your career so far.

I started my training towards my Frozen ATPL in May 2004 at Flight Training Europe, Jerez. The school was in transition from BAe Flight School. Upon completion of my training in September 2005, I was recommended to BA Citiexpress but was unsuccessful at the interview.

With the job market slow to pick up post 9/11, I trained as a flying instructor at Ravenair in Liverpool. I was fortunate enough to be offered a job with Ravenair in May 2006 at their flying school on the Isle of man – Manx flyers.

After 18 months, Ravenair’s owner, Jeff Nuttall, gave me the opportunity to fly single pilot charter operations under Ravenair’s AOC flying the Partenavia, Aztec and Seneca. The flying was challenging, exhilarating and it gave me the experience – and a good foundation – to build on. The type of flying was varied, from passenger charter, cargo, pipeline surveillance, offshore wind farm surveys, town mapping, Air-on-Ground, medical repatriation and organ transfer.

“The flying was challenging, exhilarating and it gave me the experience – and a good foundation – to build on.”

In 2008, Ravenair added 3 Learjet 40/45s to their operation and I had the privilege of flying the aircraft – albeit for a very short period due to the 2008 economic crash; the Learjet operation ended in early 2009.

I was grateful to Jeff, instead of making me redundant, he brought me back onto the piston fleet as a Training Captain and Flight Safety Officer. I stayed at Ravenair until July 2012 when I was offered a job with Flybe as a First Officer, flying the Dash 8 Q400. I returned to the Isle of Man – only this time, I had my wife and 3 month old daughter in tow!

I loved my time on the Isle of Man, it offered a fantastic lifestyle, but unfortunately due to restructuring, the base closed in March 2014. I feared I would be made redundant, this time with a second child on the way, but again (luckily for me), I was offered a position in Manchester, which was ideal for me as I am from the North West and have family and friends there.

In late 2014, I accepted a secondment to Liverpool and there I was offered my command (I was on the toilet when I was offered the position of Captain, which hurried things along somewhat!)

Liverpool as a base was never meant to be – competing against EasyJet 3 times a day to AMS was never going to work. As it was only ever a secondment, I went back to Manchester, this time as a Captain.

I was extremely happy at Flybe and to be in Manchester. This is probably a cliché but it did feel like a family and I miss the togetherness amongst the crews. Flybe always seemed to be coming out of the other side of the woods, and the announcement in October 2018 (that the company was up for sale and struggling to stay afloat) unsettled everyone. We were all very surprised given what a busy summer we had had.

“This is probably a cliché but it did feel like a family and I miss the togetherness amongst the crews.”

For a little while, the future was bright with the Virgin Connect take over and I had begun my training to become a Line Training Captain. However, on March 5th 2020, the hammer fell and Flybe entered into administration.

The lives of around 2400 people were turned upside down overnight and I was stuck in a Southampton hotel wondering how to get home. Thankfully, the trains offered free travel to passengers and staff affected by Flybe’s administration. Seven hours later, I was home – the irony being that my journey home was a first hand example of why the UK needs a dedicated domestic/regional airline.

The next day, I joined Facebook to say goodbye to people, most of whom I may never see again. Then the full effect of Covid-19 hit us and everybody’s lives changed.

My wife thankfully managed to get a temporary job teaching to give us some breathing space financially. I toiled with career changes, but I always came back to the same career.

I managed to renew my single pilot license thanks to the National Careers Service – and in particular Carol Mullin and Jane Hughes on the RRS team – who went above and beyond to get me funding.

I renewed my license at Ravenair, and it was nice to see some old faces. On the back of renewing my single pilot license I have since been offered (subject to vetting) a job with NPAS as a fixed wing line pilot, a very exciting opportunity and one I am extremely thankful for, given the current job market for pilots. In the meantime, I will continue to sort parcels at the Royal Mail.

 

Did you always want to be a pilot?

I always had an interest in aviation. Both of my Grandfathers were in the RAF during WWII, as a joiner and a driver. My uncle worked at BAE Systems, Warton, and I remember going to a family day and sitting in the cockpit of a Tornado.

My next door neighbour was a draughtsman at BAE Systems, Samlesbury, and we used to go to a lot of airshows.

I never thought that I could be a pilot and I initially followed a career path towards aerospace engineering.

I wanted to join the RAF but was unsuccessful – the thing that convinced me that I could potentially be a pilot was my RAF aptitude test results.

A young Ian sitting in the cockpit of a Tornado.

What was the process of turning that dream into a reality?

I took my first flying lesson through Westair at Blackpool Airport to see if I enjoyed flying or not. I wrote to airlines and people within the industry, and researched flying schools/various paths to becoming a qualified pilot.

The main stumbling block was financing. It was a decision to either train full time and maximise my chances of a long career as a pilot, or train as I earn a living from another career.

HSBC offered me a training loan but the repayments were ridiculous and unrealistic. The cost to train was probably half as much as it is today but it was still an awful lot of money.

My parents intervened, and after many conversations, we decided the best course was to get a loan against the family home. The repayments were more manageable for me as they were stretched over a longer period.

 

Cliff Fletcher, Ian Robinson (Captain) and Liam Sandie (First Officer)

I still have a couple of years left paying the loan back. I will be forever grateful to my parents and the trust they had in me with such a huge undertaking, risk and financial burden. I will be extremely proud when it is fully paid off.

Looking back now, I was very naive as to how difficult it would be to get my first job and furthermore how unstable the industry can be – job security is everything!

“I will be forever grateful to my parents and the trust they had in me with such a huge undertaking, risk and financial burden.”

Where did you find the information you needed to take the first steps towards training to be a pilot?

My mum recently showed me a file of the letters that I wrote and received to/from airlines and training schools about sponsorship schemes, training courses and how to become a pilot etc. – It was pre-internet! The nicest response I received was from the Chief Pilot of British Midland.

It all seemed very complicated at the time, trying to understand the jargon and licensing terminology. I don’t suppose it has gotten any less complicated nowadays. The whole thing seemed like an unattainable dream.

How easy or difficult was it to find the information you needed about how to become a pilot?

It took a lot of time and effort to get a clear picture of what was required, how to go about it and which path would be the best one for me.

It is much easier today with the internet – but then there is probably so much information, you will probably get lost amongst it if you were new to the industry like I was.

 

After gaining your ATPL, how long did it take you to secure employment?

It took 9 months after gaining my frozen ATPL. I was unsuccessful at an interview with BA Citiexpress. I took a flying instructor course at Ravenair and they offered me a job instructing at their flying school on the Isle of Man, Manx Flyers.

What did you do in the early stages of your career to build your flight hours?

I was a flying instructor, then charter pilot flying single pilot and briefly a First Officer on a Learjet, before getting a job as an airline pilot at Flybe.

I had 2,300 hrs when I started at Flybe. Having this experience has certainly helped me gain employment in what is one of the worst crises the aviation industry has ever seen.

 

What was the transition from First Officer to Captain like?

I found the flying side of the role straight forward. The management side of things took a little more time, being ultimately responsible for the crew, passengers and aircraft as the book stops with you. My experience of single pilot flying helped massively.

 

Where did you find your current job?

I am awaiting a start date with NPAS (as my vetting is still going through). A friend and ex-colleague forwarded the job advert to me. He thought the role would be ideal for me, given my previous single pilot experience.

What’s the hardest part about finding a pilot job?

The hardest thing about finding an airline job is the competition for places, especially if you have little experience. (My experience came from flying single pilot commercial operations.)

It is just a matter of time, perseverance and trying not to be put off by setbacks. Eventually your opportunity will come. The pilot job market has always been cyclical; this time around is the worst it has ever been, but it will bounce back.

What’s the most difficult part of a pilot interview? What has been the most interesting / unexpected question you’ve been asked during an interview?

Thinking on your feet! There are always a few unexpected questions which will be thrown at you. My experience of airline interview questions is that they tend to be competency based interview questions, such as “Give an example of….”

“When can you start?” is probably the most unexpected question when I was interviewed for a flying instructor job on the Isle of Man! Being flexible and willing to up sticks and move away was the springboard to my career.

The most recent unexpected question was “can you unmute yourself please Ian?”

The most recent unexpected question was “can you unmute yourself please Ian?”

 

What advice would you give to any pilots about to take an interview?

Smile, have a back up example to give, and have a couple of company related questions – that will throw your interviewer and make them sit up. For me, it shows that you have demonstrated a real interest in the company.

Ask the interviewer at the end of the interview if they have any reservations about you that you can put to bed. For Zoom or team interviews, organise your room so you can stick notes up behind the camera, check your battery life and have a glass of water.

 

How do you tackle aptitude tests?

Research and practice – anybody that thinks you can’t practice these tests and improve is wrong. If nothing else, it will give you confidence that you can pass.

These tests are not the be all and end all, I have had vastly mixed results and experiences of aptitude testing. They only demonstrate trainability and are not an indication as to how you react in the flight deck, or what people are like to work with.

Do you have any tips or techniques to pass on which helped you when learning and retaining technical information?
Highlight buzz words or phrases and then transfer them to revision cards. Don’t go into too much detail, written tests are often multiple choice.

The best tip I was given was that there are a few things that you need to know, a lot that is good to know and the rest is just fluff to make people appear smarter than they are. Knowing where to look for things or reference information is far more important in my opinion.

“Aptitude tests only demonstrate trainability and are not an indication as to how you react in the flight deck.”

 

 

The industry is notoriously volatile and job security isn’t always a given. How do you manage this?

 

I realised the error of my ways during the Covid pandemic. Flybe went into administration on 5th March 2020 and the aviation industry soon fell into crisis – and all my eggs were in one basket.

My degree is in Aeronautical Engineering and my whole career (bar a few warehouse jobs) has been in aviation. I learnt that you should always have a back up plan or something to fall back on!

The Royal Mail has been a lifesaver and given me a purpose again. I knew my time would come again to sit in the flight deck, I am fortunate that it has come a lot sooner than anticipated.

 

“All my eggs were in one basket.”

Image credit: Cliff Fletcher

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